Monday, 29 December 2014

"The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Gilman


Hugo and Nebula nominated? Really? Because this isn't a bad story, but it's got a very weak ending, and it's certainly not a great one. Great short science fiction stories can hit you like a punch in the gut, but this one changes themes at the end, and all these plot threads are left dangling. I'm not one to argue for everything needing to be neat and tidy, but some kind of pay-off, please.

The writing is fine. It wasn't intrusive, it wasn't clumsy. The main character, Thorn, is a well-drawn young woman who gets dragged from planet to planet by her mother. This is not well developed enough at the start of the story for where it ends up. 

She is on a world that appears to be fairly Puritan in nature, although there's not really time to do more than sketch that in a short story. Somewhere else in the universe, there was a racially-based massacre. It's hard to know if it's really racial, or cultural - i.e., are there different alien races, or are we talking about disparate groups of humans here?

So, on the completely other planet Thorn lives on now, there are people who hunt for war criminals from that genocide. It's a very thinly veiled version of Nazi hunters. However, despite the thriving business hunting down ex-Gminta/Nazis, it doesn't seem like the actual world where the Gminta massacred the Vind has had a change in government. The main character has to go through a genetic test to get in, to make sure she isn't Vind. So where is the authority to hunt these people down coming from? Plus, if you were safe on your homeworld but subject to arrest and execution anywhere else, why would enough people have left to make NaziGminta hunting a viable life's pursuit?


The problem is that this is obviously the core of the story, what takes up most of the time, and then...nothing is done with it. Nothing. It's thrown out the window in order to make this a story about mothers and daughters, which the previous part of the story does nothing, really, to support. You want to tell a story about Nazi hunters in space, do that.  You want to tell a story about feckless mothers and fed-up daughters, do that. Just pick one. The fake-out doesn't work. It leaves me feeling like my time was wasted, when the author couldn't even be bothered to follow the plotlines she had laid out.

The Ice Owl of the title is sort of a misfire too. The fate of the owl signals where the story shifts gears, but it's sloppy. Again, we need more set-up about the mother to make that make sense, and instead, the story before this has been about guilt and hunting down the guilty. About collaboration and repentance. It could be good. But then it fizzles.

In part, it feels like this is supposed to be a longer story, possibly even a book. But if you're taking a chapter from a book in progress, make sure it's self-contained. Make sure the storylines you put in place are important and relevant and aren't just tossed aside because you have writerly distractions. If these things were followed up on in a larger work, that would be one thing. But for a short story? It's very strange. And it's frustrating, because the writing, while not stellar, is quite good.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round One, Part Eleven

The Habitation of the Blessed vs. The King's Speech

Winner: The Habitation of the Blessed

Not a difficult choice. The King's Speech was bland, while The Habitation of the Blessed was perhaps not my very favourite Catherynne Valente book, but it was still a marvellous medieval folktale. She took the myths of Prester John and made something all her own, with things to say about conviction and the desire for universality. So good.

Kushiel's Chosen vs. Diplomatic Immunity 

Winner: Diplomatic Immunity

I liked Kushiel's Chosen, but it meandered, compared to the first book. So many Bujold books are getting through, however, that I feel a little bad advancing Diplomatic Immunity to the next round as well. But for sheer enjoyment, there's no question that it was Miles over Phedre. Both were good, but Diplomatic Immunity was better.

The Malice of Fortune vs. The Forever War 

Winner: The Forever War

The Malice of Fortune was an entertaining historical mystery, but it can't really even aspire to knock off Haldeman's seminal science fiction anti-war book, in which the battles go on for centuries, and the soldiers are more and more isolated from the societies that sent them there. Not to mention the sketchy rationales for war in the first place. There's a reason it's a sci-fi classic.

The Broken Kingdoms  vs. Hammered

Winner: The Broken Kingdoms

This is a very tough choice! One fantasy, one science fiction, both books and authors I like a lot. Both books have amazingly good main characters. Jenny Casey and Oree are both, interesting, main characters with significant physical disabilities, and yet, that's not what most of the story is about. It's difficult to choose, but the pacing of Hammered was just a bit slow enough that this time, I'm going to go with N.K. Jemisin.

Dawn vs. Alif the Unseen

Winner: Dawn

I'm having some good match-ups, and read some very good books, in the last month of the year. Still, this isn't that difficult. I liked Alif the Unseen, but I perhaps didn't love it. And Octavia Butler's writing takes my breath away. She's tackling difficult issues here, and doing it with grace and a mean punch to the gut when needed. It's quite spectacular.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson






There is an uncertainty I feel about some books, a desire to go out and see how they were otherwise received, because I don't trust my own judgement. On one hand, sometimes I think that I should shoot from the hip, as I mostly do, and record my own reactions. But on the other hand, sometimes I think that's a healthy recognition that while my own reaction is valid, it may be a topic, or a culture, or an issue I don't know enough about, and me saying "Yup, sounds like the Middle East to me!" may be more indicative of cultural arrogance than self-confidence.

And these are the types of situations in which it arises - when there are books about groups I do not know enough about, and know that my own reaction about whether or not it "rings true" may say more about my own biases and stereotypes than it does about the book, or the author's depiction. In these cases, I do go looking for "in-group" reactions, to compare my own reaction to them. This is one of these cases.

What I found in this case was interesting. Wilson is white, and American, but also Muslim, and has spent a fair amount of time in Cairo. That's promising, but in and of itself is not a guarantee that this book will be culturally sensitive - it's certainly possible to live in a culture and yet still carry the kind of creeping orientalism that continues to shape perception. So I went looking further, and had trouble finding Muslim reaction to Alif the Unseen, except for one article by a Muslim man who is upfront about also being a good friend of the author. Still, he heralds the book as a good example of modern fantasy emerging from the Middle East, and in the absence of other voices (and the fact of that absence weighs on me), it's all I have to go on. I didn't find any diatribes.

So I guess we're back where we started, back to me and my white pagan Canadian reactions, but at least I've done some homework, and if there is a dialogue to get in on, I'd love to be included. Even if, and perhaps especially if, just to listen.

So out of this mishmash of influences, we have Alif the Unseen, which takes place in an unnamed city, except that we know that there is a ruling royal family, and also that it's got a large Indian population, in addition to the Arabic population. In that city, Alif is a hacker, running security for whoever needs to get past government restrictions, anywhere in the world. He has lingering affection but a lot of condescension for his next door neighbour, Dina, a young woman who has adopted extensive veiling, despite her parents' protests.

He is in love, however, with a rich young woman, and that relationship comes to a predictable end, and in reaction, he creates a piece of software that the government will do just about anything to get its hands on. As he and Dina go on the run, however, they find help from someone who may or may not be a vampire. Or, you know, a djinn. They are increasingly pulled into a world where creatures from Islamic folklore and religion still exist, side by side with the "real" world, which is side by side the "virtual" world, and these barriers become fuzzier the longer we go. Dina has less trouble accepting these characters than Alif does, while she chides him for reading fantasy without being willing to accept the fantastical when it's Islamic and right in front of him.

There is a book, One Thousand and One Days, (instead of Nights,) written by the djinn, that the head of computer security wants, and Alif has. It has insights that apparently can be used for programming, and this seemed to stretch credulity a bit on my part, but it works as a metaphor.

This is a fantasy book about, essentially, the Arab Spring, in all its messiness, and with a hefty dose of cultural commentary. It's hard not to feel like the author has written herself in, with the character of the convert, an American woman who converted to Islam and moved to the City. She's never given a name, and the discussions between she and Alif are fascinating by the assumptions both make about each other. (The fact that the author's acknowledgements thank her mother for being there as she had her baby, and that the convert is pregnant doesn't lessen that feeling.) It's often dangerous to say a character is there to represent the author, but it feels like it in this case.

This isn't a perfect book. The edges are a little messy, and there were parts that lagged a bit. Despite that, however, I enjoyed it quite a lot. I'm always on the lookout for new voices in fantasy, and I'll be interested to see what she does when she gets back to writing fiction.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Dawn by Octavia Butler

This is the book that finally convinced me to get off my ass and find pictures of book covers for each post. There's a reason.

This is Octavia Butler:






This is the cover of Dawn as I got it out from the library:




Now, there's no reason why Octavia Butler might not have written a book with a white main character, but still, it made me do a double-take. Particularly when I thought I'd seen a more recent cover for the book with a Black woman on the cover. Oh wait, there it is:


I tried to reserve judgment, but paid particular attention to the main character, Lilith, and how she was described. It's not mentioned often, and it's subtle, but she's Black. Yeah, the cover from 1987 shows her as white. That's unmistakeably a scene from the book, sexed up a bit, but there Lilith is, white as white can be. At least she has dark hair.

*sigh*

Oh, science fiction. Stop freaking out about having to have icky women or scary non-white people or god forbid, sexualities and gender identities other than straight and cisgendered in your playground. This is fucking science fiction, people. The literature of fucking possibilities.

I'd like to think we'd gotten better than this, but the blow-ups in the science fiction world of the last couple of years make me want to weep. And keep reading those authors who actually push the boundaries instead of manning the fences to keep science fiction their own private preserve.

This cover made me depressed, but it's not like it isn't something that's still going on.

Okay, enough about my issues with the cover. What about the book within? It's a challenging one, in the very best way. It's only my second venture into Octavia Butler's canon, and I'm delighted to be back, after The Parable of the Sower knocked me off my ass a few years ago. And I should be reading all three in this particular trilogy in fairly short order, as they were books my science fiction group picked as the first read in our Women Science Fiction Authors Group Reads. I'm a bit behind, as we've now moved on to Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy.

The world has ended. Probably in nuclear fire. A few survivors are still around, far from the epicenters. Although most of them, or at least the ones Lilith chooses to awaken, seem to have been from the First World, and Westerners, who were caught vacationing or teaching or something far from the prime targets.

Lilith awakens in a blank room, to blank-sounding questions. Eventually, she finds out she's on a spaceship - or at least, that's what she's told, and this will be more or less difficult for her and the other Awakenees to accept. The Oankali are a race of gene traders. For most races in their death throes, the Oankali would leave them to their suicide, but they decide humans might be salvageable. For a price. That price being, their genes, to mix with the Oankali and make something new and different. This is something the Oankali do everywhere, but humans are given no real choice in the matter, so it's not really trading in this instance.

They'll return humans to Earth, where they will bear children that are part human and part Oankali. Some Oankali will stay with them. Some humans will be sent with the Oankali who leave.

And the Oankali have three sexes. Procreation, and indeed, sexual pleasure, only happen through the intermediary sex, the ooloi, who control their genes on a very high level, where male and female Oankali do not. The society Butler creates is fascinating, and it's even more fascinating because we're seeing it from the perspective of humans who have no real reason to believe the Oankali. It does seem a bit hinky, and the ooloi version of consent is troubling. It's supposed to be.

By the end of the first book, I both am intrigued by the Oankali, and worried about their motives. We'll see how it plays out over future books. One quibble is that there are no human characters who accept the Oankali proposal. Every single one is planning on doing a runner when they reach Earth. In fact, the Oankali know this - that's why the ooloi have made them sterile without ooloi intervention. Humans have no control left over their own bodies, but I still think there would be at least one collaborator.

It's not a mistake that it's the men that have the most trouble accepting this lack of control over their own procreation - the women don't like it, but there's definitely a hint of resignation. Is it really that much different from what they've experienced? It's a level of control more, but it's not like they aren't used to their bodies being used as pawns in the battle over who gives birth when and how.

The other humans around Lilith, when they're Awoken (she is awoken first, and then given the job of being the human intermediary), form a predictable playground hierarchy. It's that hierarchy that the Oankali say is their racial flaw to begin with, and one that the ooloi will breed out. It's that hierarchy that led to nuclear war. It's that hierarchy that leads to attempted rape, and successful murder. It's hard to argue that it's a good thing.

That's just it. There are no good guys in this. There are sympathetic individuals, but there is so much of people trying to control other people. The Oankali say they don't have hierarchies, yet they have complete control over the reproduction of others, and wield it ruthlessly. Humans fall into predictable patterns. It's not a hopeful book.

We'll see where she goes from here. I hope the other covers aren't as annoying, but what's within them is fascinating.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round One, Part Ten

The Star Beast vs. Komarr

Winner: Komarr

Wow, The Star Beast is not one of Heinlein's best. It's not terrible, but not as compulsively readable as some of his other books.  I read Komarr all out of order with the rest of the series, and that put an unusual spin on the story I quite enjoyed. Having already met Ekaterina myself, it was interesting to see Miles meet her. Bujold is taking a lot of these book contests. I am not surprised.

The Company of the Dead vs. Reamde

Winner: Reamde

Not an easy decision here. An ambitious first novel that sort of fails vs. a very good established author with a serious case of excessive details. The Company of the Dead is strangely paced, but has a good premise. Reamde is interesting, but about 300 pages too long. I don't really care about each muscle movement each character makes at each moment. But in the long run, I think Reamde as a whole was more entertaining.

An Astronaut's Guide To Life on Earth vs. The Sirens of Titan

Winner: Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

That's a weird match-up. A memoir/self-help book by an astronaut vs. science fiction by Kurt Vonnegut. Straightforward vs. surreal. Oh goodness. It's only because I don't think The Sirens of Titan is one of Vonnegut's best that Hadfield takes this one. Also, I am fascinated by space, so I'm sure this decision surprises no one.

In The Garden of Beasts vs. Broken Homes 

Winner: Broken Homes

An easy decision. I liked but wasn't enthralled by either of the Eric Larson books I read this year. And this one is up against one of my favourite urban fantasy series, and better yet, a great return to form in the fourth book, after a third book that didn't quite live up to my expectations. Plus, it has a wrenching ending that makes me want to hyperventilate until I get my hands on the fifth book. That came out sounding weirder than I wanted. Still, Peter Grant, Peter Grant, Peter Grant.

The Inconvenient Indian vs. Downbelow Station 

Winner: The Inconvenient Indian

I liked Downbelow Station, don't get me wrong. It's just that it felt a little distant from its material for my personal tastes. Even though sections of it, and the ideas permeating it, were both excellent. It's stacked up against a somewhat weary but very eloquent outlining of the history of the way Europeans have viewed Indians in North America, with an amazingly good digression into the divisions between Live Indians, Dead Indians, and Legal Indians.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear



*Spoilers Below*

It's funny. I got a fair ways into this book, and had a moment where I realized that Jenny Casey is very much like a character a friend has been playing in a game I've been running, about revolution on Mars. Said friend has never read Elizabeth Bear, to the best of my knowledge, but the synchronicity was startling. I've told her now she should read this. I think she'd get even more out of it than I did.

Which isn't to say I didn't get a lot out of it. I tend to love Elizabeth Bear's work. Compared to some of her other books, the structure of this one is a bit odd, and the ending a bit well, not even anticlimactic, (although there's a climax right near the end - yes, I went there,) but more just a break before the action will pick up in the next book.

This is where I have to confess that I've been reading this series in my occasional ass-backwards manner. Somehow, I picked up the third book in the series years ago while on a visit to Toronto. Why I picked it up I have no idea - was I at a used bookstore? Was this the only one of the series that the dearly departed World's Biggest Bookstore had in? At any rate, I read that one first, and so I know that by the end of the second book, shit is going to hit the fan. The rather tension-free ending of the first will not carry into the second.

And that makes it easier. I think if I was coming into this series cold, I'd be a little confused by the ending, and if it were my first Bear book, perhaps a bit put-off. Because I do know she's building to world-shattering events, I'm good. But the ending has no real rise and fall of action. I'm trying not to say exactly why for fear of spoilers, but it doesn't.

However, the book is well written, and thoroughly enjoyable, and I think Bear is trying something here I've rarely seen. There are three main figures from her past that Jenny identifies as villains. One is her sister. One is a man from her past. The third is a military commander, large as life, and present, trying to draft her back into the Canadian military. (As a Canadian, it's probably obligatory to mention how much I enjoyed that the book was at least half set in Canada, featuring a great number of Canadian characters. We're easily pleased, we Canadians.)

This book, however, does not build to a showdown with each nemesis. In fact, one is killed by outside forces during the book, and Jenny discovers another of her bugbears died decades ago. She's been carrying around the presence like a shadow, but the actual figure has long since departed the scene. In that way, it's a meditation on damage and hurt, and how the way we carry these things around may have little to do with the world as it is.

Jenny is a damaged character, both physically and mentally, from years in the Canadian military, serving as a peacekeeper in dangerous parts of the world, including where she lives at the start of the book: Hartford, Connecticut. That should give you an idea of the world as it has come to be here. She lives on her own, avoiding people she knows care about her, suffering increasing pain from her cybernetic arm and eye. She's a great character. It's done without an ounce of self-pity, just strong determination, even when she's entirely wrong.

A bad batch of drugs shows up in Hartford, and local gang leader turns to Jenny for help. A narcotics officer was also killed. Jenny's sister comes to town. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Jenny's old army buddy Gabe is employed by one of Jenny's three nemeses. His two children are along for the ride, but one of them is making an interesting friend online. Elspeth is released from the jail she's been held in for decades because she wouldn't turn over a working AI intelligence to the military, based on Richard Feynman. Richard's still out there. And they're all interested in the real reasons behind the military pouring money into the new pilot program. That's all the plot I'm giving you.

The characters in this one are great, and that makes up for the strange narrative structure. And trust me, big things are coming in the next book. Or at least, huge things have happened by the time the third book opens, so I presume they take place in the next book. It all comes down to Jenny. And she's an amazing character.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round One, Part Nine

Daughter of Smoke and Bone vs. The Maze Runner

Winner: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

No contest, oh, dear lord, no contest. Two young adult books. One I really enjoyed. I thought it was complex, interesting, and the central tension exquisitely heartbreaking. The other was a steaming pile of ridiculousness. Ridiculous traps of mazes and scientific experiments vs. a moody Budapest with angels and demons and a main character who is difficult and wonderful, and a love relationship that is truly painful. Young adults deserve works like Daughter of Smoke and Bone. They do not deserve The Maze Runner.

Grass  vs. Magician: Apprentice

Winner: Grass

I liked Grass more than I have some of the other Sheri Tepper books I've read in the past. In this case, the disease-ravaged universe run by the Mormon church hits first contact head-on, and it's an intriguing read. On the other hand, everyone tells me Magician: Apprentice was revolutionary when it came out, but the fact is that by the time I read it, it was all old hat to me. Sorry, Raymond Feist. It's all when you encounter it, I guess.

Memory vs. The Wise Man's Fear

Winner: Memory

This is a difficult choice. I liked both books quite a lot. I have read a lot of Bujold this year, and Wise Man's Fear was, at the time I read it, one of only two Rothfuss books in captivity. It meandered, though. The writing and characters are still marvelous, but it meandered. On the other hand, Memory was an amazingly good entry into the Miles canon, with meditations on responsibility, honour, and disability. That puts it over the top in this match-up.

Supernatural Noir vs. Vitals 

Winner: Supernatural Noir

I am starting to write this paragraph without knowing which book won this battle, because honestly, I have no idea. There were some really great stories in Supernatural Noir. There were so not-so-great ones. It was an anthology. It's what I expect. On the other hand, Vitals was a thoroughly unthrilling thriller. The writing was fine, but the ideas were lacking. I don't know. Weirdly, I think it's going to go to Supernatural Noir because of those really excellent stories scattered in there. 

The Devil in the White City vs. The Orenda

Winner: The Orenda

This is another difficult one, of the "two books I didn't love" variety. I liked both. I thought both had problems. Which had fewer problems? Or which, despite the problems, did I enjoy more?  The Devil in the White City has two stories that never really intertwine, but one of the two is fascinating. The other is about a serial killer. The Orenda has characters that are a little thin, but great research and pretty good writing on clashes between natives and Europeans, and different Native groups in New France. I'm giving it to The Orenda. Just because.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin



I am continuing to love this series. It's fantasy with its own voice and world, and a focus that's  unlike anything I've read so far. I love that. So much fantasy is so much the same, and I get so bored. This was never boring, not even for a second. I'd like to thank N.K. Jemisin from the bottom of my heart for writing so damn well. Even if I spent a good portion of the first book wondering if it was really science fiction.

In this second book in the series, we are now in the city below the Tree that we spent all our time in in the first book. If the first book was about the aristocracy, their relationship with their gods (a messed-up one, to be sure), and the power they wielded, the second book is about those who live in their shadows, eking out a living close to the line. About the powerless and what power they might wield. About how they might be used by those with access or proximity to power and what that might do.

It's also a damn good fantasy. The world had been torn open at the end of the last book. Where once there was one god, and one god only, god of light and order, now there are three. Plus all their children. Those who had power as the clergy of Itempas, god of order and light, now have to try to accommodate new powers into their mental universes. Some reject that idea utterly, and plot to bring down the new and powerful presences in their world.

Into this comes Oree, a blind artist who has moved to the city from her homeland after her father died in the aftermath of the changes that occurred when the one became three. She sells trinkets in the market, clumsy pieces of art, and hides her real work, beautiful paintings that are more than paintings. She can see magic. But magic is tightly controlled by the scriveners. Unless you're a godling. Then a godling shows up dead in an alleyway.

This concerns Oree particularly both because her former lover is a godling, and because she is the one to find the body, thus attracting unwanted attention from the powers that be. Which include forces both mortal and immortal, as the new gods are pissed that someone is killing their children.

I haven't even mentioned Oree's houseguest, a man who seemingly, cannot die. Or rather, he can, and messily. But he doesn't stay dead. Most of the time, he is relatively opaque to her, but occasionally flares with magic she can see.

This is a complex one, folks. It's hard to sum up. It is perceptive and biting about power and how it is wielded. About obsession and compassion. About how some crimes are so monstrous that justice cannot simply be about rehabilitation. The wounds left behind by loving. How order can itself be a king of madness, making any deviation a betrayal. Few books have the ability to pack this much in, much less do so seamlessly, without ever feeling cramped or preachy. It feels like a smaller story than the first one, and yet within it is contained so much.

If you want complex fantasy that is still compulsively readable, check this series out. It's something very special.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

*Some Spoilers Below*

 

The cover blurb on the copy I was reading referred to it as the science fiction Catch-22. While The Forever War has some of the same attitudes as Catch-22, what kept popping up in my head was how much this was a post-Vietnam response to Starship Troopers. On doing the barest of research, it appears Haldeman was wounded in combat in Vietnam, and that perspective is definitely in this science fiction book. In particular, what happens when you come home.

Like Starship Troopers, combat in space takes place using exosuits. In The Forever War, however, there is much more emphasis placed on how quickly and arbitrarily your suit could kill you. While I think it's acknowledged in Starship Troopers, (it's been a long time since I've read it), there is a good portion of this book dedicated to soldiers dying in training, senselessly, in order to get them ready for further senseless deaths out there. It's not as absurd as in Catch-22. In fact, it rings scarily realistic.

There is no heroic narrative here. And absolutely no sense that anyone survives due to their skill as a soldier. It doesn't matter. War doesn't care. You can do things right and die, and you could do things wrong and get through. Or still get killed. It's brutal and short, and one of the times the main character goes into combat, he's cut down in the first thirty seconds, before he can do a single damned thing. There was nothing he could have done that would have changed that, nothing he did wrong. Nothing he did right. War doesn't care, it doesn't conform to narrative expectations, and the likeable are not  killed to make a point and light a fire under a main character's ass. They're just dead.

That's the moral universe we're operating in, and rings as hollow in fiction as it does in real life. No wonder we paper it over so often with stories of heroic survival and righteous combat.

The other main theme of the book is how the world goes on without you, and the culture shock of returning. This is heightened by relativity, in The Forever War, as the main character goes through ten years of war that span over a one thousand years on Earth. When he gets back after his first hitch, the world is irrevocably changed. It is more crowded, resources more strained, mass unemployment, and mechanization.

Sexuality has also changed, and that's an interesting section of the book. Haldeman's book theorizes that sexuality is largely the result of cultural conditioning, but no less strong for that. The main character, who enters the army when heterosexuality is the norm, is somewhat startled to find 500 years in, that due to population pressures on Earth and regulations on having children, homosexuality is now almost universal.  It's the main character who is the freak, as all his new recruits regard him with some distaste.

In true post-Vietnam style, at the end of the book, we find out what started the war. And it's a kick in the gut. Haldeman does a really remarkable job in this book of the absurdities of war, but even more is focused on the petty and large cruelties, a world where the military doesn't qualify you for citizenship. Instead, it comes up with stupid ways to handle problems, disregards people, and sends them to be killed.  As a rebuttal to Starship Trooper, it's quite brilliant.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round One, Part Eight

Embassytown vs. Myths of Origin

Winner: Myths of Origin

This is a weirdly difficult one. Two books by authors of whom I am a huge fangirl. Neither was my favourite among their works, although I enjoyed both. Embassytown just didn't have that sweep of giddy-but-grim imagination that I've come to expect from Mieville, although the meditations on language, signifiers and signified, was fascinating. Myths of Origin is obviously an early work, and while the seeds of the style I love are there, they're as not fully developed as they will come to be. Maybe it's the mythology that is swaying this one in Catherynne Valente's favour. I am a sucker for a good myth.

Mirror Dance vs. Reckless Eyeballing

Winner: Mirror Dance

Easy. Science fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed vs. literary fiction that I barely understood. Not a difficult choice. I was baffled by the point of Reckless Eyeballing, while Mirror Dance was a much more accessible book about family, duty, and screwing up. Also, it had one of the best eavesdropping scenes of all time. Not the most dramatic, but I would argue, demonstrably the best.

The Shadow at the Gate vs. Maus

Winner: Maus

Another easy one. The Shadow at the Gate was merely passable young adult fantasy, hampered by the fact that its adult characters are far more interesting than the two children characters. People keep arguing with me about this one, saying it's "just" young adult, don't be so critical, but I'd argue that there's nothing "just" about young adult. Kids and teenagers deserve the best written books they can get, and so it does not get a pass. At any rate. While Bunn's book wasn't terrible, Maus is a classic of graphic noveldom, and has the heft of the holocaust behind it. This isn't a difficult choice. That may come in future rounds.

The Cuckoo's Calling vs. Nausea

Winner: The Cuckoo's Calling

Screw you, Sartre. I'm going J.K. Rowling.

Moscow But Dreaming  vs. Black Swan Green

Winner: Black Swan Green

Not a difficult choice, although saying that may make Moscow But Dreaming sound less worthwhile that it was. It's a very good collection of stories, with some that truly blew my mind. That they were accompanied by a few that were not great is neither here nor there. The decision, however, is not difficult, because I deeply enjoyed Black Swan Green. In this one, Mitchell has a way of writing about young adulthood that is not trite or forced, and the stories that make up this wheel of the year are difficult and mundane, in the very best ways.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. So for a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list from which to pick, of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.



When I started reading this, my first reaction was that this seemed to be a more literate Da Vinci Code. In a historical setting rather than the present, and with da Vinci as an actual character rather than the architect of the puzzle. Still, people being killed in a theatrical manner and left in patterns for the pursuers to solve? It does sound a bit familiar, does it not?

Luckily, it is more literate and somewhat deeper, overcoming most of my early worries. I can't say that this is one I'm running out to recommend to people, but I am glad someone recommended it to me. I doubt I would have run across it otherwise, and it was an interesting read.

Ennis has obviously done a lot of thinking about the Borgias. I mean, a lot. Also about modern theories of sociopaths, and not a little about serial killers. All of these get pulled together to create the setting of Malice of Fortune, where Damiata, a courtesan who was a lover of the elder Borgia's younger son, and mother of his son, is sent to find out who killed her former lover. Otherwise, she herself will be presumed guilty. Her son is held hostage to enforce compliance.

This book presumes all the most lurid stories about the Borgias barely do them justice. I know nothing of the scholarly debate on the issue, as this is definitely not my period or continent of specialty. I do think there's a debate, though, on how many of those stories are true, and how many are gossip and invention designed to discredit them. But for the purposes of this book, every orgy, every murder, every blasphemy that can be committed in the Vatican probably is.

The first third of the book is told through letters from Damiata to her son. The rest comes from the man she meets while searching for the truth. You may have heard of him. No, not da Vinci. Well, also him. But mostly Machiavelli. I am puzzling over what this change in narrators adds. It adds something to the comfort of Machiavelli and the reader, I guess, knowing Damiata's true feelings and motivations. It makes her a more understandable character. However, the book might have been more tense by making her a bit more opaque. Be that as it may.

While searching, Damiata and Machiavelli keep coming across bits of women, scattered in patterns that make particular sense to da Vinci. I am not the fondest of serial killer books, so I will pass over this lightly. It wasn't done with extreme detail, but still, more dismembered women? Not my favourite topic.

Remember how, last week, I was saying there was a post about colonialism and contact and science fiction percolating but not quite ready to come out? There's another one here, about using courtesans and well-off prostitutes as main female characters in historical fiction/fantasy. Similarly, that idea is composting. At some point (as in, after I get this last chapter of my dissertation finished), I will hopefully have some time to sit down and think about them and write down my ideas.

Malice of Fortune is pretty good, despite my serial killer reservations. I couldn't speak to the history, but the story moves along, and the denouement is satisfying. Thanks, Cinz, for recommending this one!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round One, Part Seven

Before They Are Hanged vs. Fall of Giants

Winner: Fall of Giants

This was a hard one, because neither of these books that I really loved. I would normally lean towards the fantasy of the two, but Before They Are Hanged was just such a slog to read. While I had issues with the brick that is Fall of Giants, at least it was more fun at times. So Ken Follett gets it, in a close match-up.


Sabriel vs. Camera Obscura 

Winner: Camera Obscura

These were both interesting and entertaining fantasies set in worlds that are a little different from the traditional high fantasy world - one is on the other side of a Wall in England, threatened by necromancers. The other is set in a Victorian England where the Queen is a lizard, and characters from Victorian novels stalk the streets. It's the second in the series, and while I didn't love the first one, the second one felt much more assured, and in this case, it gets the win over Sabriel.

The Circle vs.  Cyteen

Winner: Cyteen

Disappointing pre-dystopia vs. opaque science fiction? It's not an easy choice. In the end, although Eggers has some good points, it's a bit too histrionic about social media for me. While Cherryh is often distant from her material, and doesn't let the reader too close to her creation, there's also so much good stuff here, in this world where artificially-raised people are only separated from human-raised people by programming, and a young woman lives twice.

The Imposter Bride vs. Behemoth

Winner: The Imposter Bride

Easy match-up here. Behemoth continues Scott Westerfeld's fun young adult steampunk romp through war...maybe that sentence explains why something about the books rubs me a bit the wrong way. Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride is a much quieter look at the long-term effects of war, and does so slowly and beautifully. It was a book that took me entirely by surprise, in a good way.


Cold Comfort Farm vs. The Robber Bride 

Winner: The Robber Bride

I really enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm's snark about gothic doings on the moors. It's entertaining, and I can see why it's a classic. However, The Robber Bride blew me away. The prose, the female characters, it was just beautiful to read, if difficult. The male characters are a little slim, and pretty much all idiots, but the sheer pleasure of reading this book made it worth it. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles is about to be a father? Huh. That fills me with nearly as much trepidation and delight as it does Miles himself. So naturally, there are lots of hidden strains of what being a parent means, and being able to have children, scattered through this book. They're subtle, as Bujold is great at not hitting you over the head with her themes, but they're definitely there.

Of course, while the babies brew in the uterine replicator back home, Miles and Ekaterin are finishing off a belated honeymoon. (Bujold is very clear in all these books how great a technology she thinks uterine replicators would be, and she makes a persuasive argument. Not that I wouldn't try it the other way if I had the opportunity, but still....) And of course a call comes in from Gregor for his Imperial Auditor to go check out a little squabble at a space station involving Barrayarans. And he has to finish the whole matter up before the babies are due to be decanted.

That's the sort of dilemma that could get a parent in a lot of trouble. There are still stories about how my father went to get a grilled cheese sandwich, and then labour was so quick from start to finish that my sister was born before he got back.

It's a station run by quaddies, who were the centre of a previous book, a genetic engineering experiment for people who would live in freefall all their lives, with four arms instead of two arms and two legs. It's lovely to see them back. Of course, given the way that some Barrayaran's haven't moved past mutant = bad, this was a situation ripe for trouble. And that's part of it, sure.

But, of course, there's more going on beneath the surface. Isn't there always? Miles is reunited with Bel Thorne, his former officer in the Dendarii, who has moved onto the station and shacked up with a quaddie musician named Nicol whom we've previously met. That gives Miles an additional personal stake in the matter as someone starts taking potshots. But are they meant for Miles? Bel? Or someone else entirely? Loyalties, especially those hidden or long dormant, and the reciprocal nature of loyalty, which Miles has always understood to a fault, are in the central spotlight here.

There are also some interesting bits here about clashes in culture. We're so used to Miles in space that it's easy to forget how hidebound Barrayar still is. Miles may be half-Betan, but his fellow Barrayarans still harbour prejudice that flares, in an ugly fashion, to kick off this diplomatic incident. Thus driving a good man out of the service, although Miles tries to argue him out of it, that if those who are more progressive give up the fight because the other side is ugly, nothing will ever change.

This one is mostly a murder mystery, one of those without a corpse, and uncertainty whether or not a murder has taken place at all. The Barrayarans presume the quaddies are guilty, the quaddies are aghast at the suggestion, and shit starts to hit the fan, while Miles tries to hold everything together.

Did I mention that there are troubling reports coming in from the Cetagandan Empire? While Miles is off at this minor diplomatic kerfluffle, a major one is brewing. Are they related? Is Bujold a good storyteller?

But hey, I'm not going to tell you anything more. I just want to say again how much I've loved this series, and I'm sorry to be catching up entirely. I won't have many more to look forward to until more are published. Thanks again to Nele for the wonderful care package that has brought me so much reading joy this year!

Friday, 5 December 2014

Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey

When I wrote my first review, I wondered for a while if this was really fantasy - or rather, said that up until one particular thing happened, there was nothing that made this particularly fantasy in terms of magic. I'm not sure what genre non-magical but certainly not Earth-based historical fiction would fall under.

The question stands, sort of. The fantasy element in this series is used so sparingly it is barely there. The gods are around, and they have power. They're not intrusive to the story, or even really characters in it, but they are real. That's pretty much the only magic. It reminds me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay and his reasoning for why he writes the way he does - to give weight to the beliefs of people, rather than having to explain why those folk beliefs are there.

At any rate, we return to Phedre, courtesan extraordinaire, and now, peer of the realm. But the escape at the end of the last book of a major conspirator against her Queen, Ysandre, leaves that throne in decidedly shaky straits. So she embarks on a perilous journey to track down her greatest enemy. Not without conflicted emotions.

We also get more of a tour of the world Carey has created, and it continues to be loosely based on European geography and medieval cultures, with some spin thrown in. And a sect that seems to be part Christian and part Jewish - by which I mean that their theology seems to be vaguely Christian, but their position in society that of Jews in medieval Europe.

I found that this one moved slowly, at first, and I felt for a while like we were going around in circles. Much of what happened was Phedre not being able to make one step closer to her goals, and there was a bit much of that. I don't mind it as part of the book, but George R.R. Martin has spoiled long journeys that don't get you where you're trying to go for me. He did it too much, and now I'm oversensitized to it. 

Still, the cultures she runs into on the way are interesting, even if those sections don't really seem to advance the plot. It seems like they're more there to throw another interesting incident on the fire, which might work in a meandering plot, but in one where there is real urgency, it does something strange to the tension.

But there is a lot to like here. The ordeal in the cavern, for instance. Many of the characters. The ending was satisfying. The journey to get there was interesting, but felt at times that the author was trying to cram one more incident in that had no bearing on the main story. Those need to be judiciously used.

In summary, I still liked this quite a lot, but nowhere near as much as I enjoyed the first book, when this was all heady and new. However, I certainly enjoyed it enough to go on to the next eventually.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014 - Round One, Part Six

Whispers Underground vs. Steve Jobs

Winner: Whispers Underground

Whispers Underground is probably my least favourite Peter Grant book so far, but it was still a lot of fun. Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was interesting, and I'm glad I read it, but it isn't a book that I would ever retain affection for after reading. Peter, ah, Peter, even when you're not at your best and the back cover mentions a subplot that never materializes, you're still too much fun to pass up in these early rounds.


Range of Ghosts vs. The Osiris Ritual 

Winner: Range of Ghosts

As I said in the review, about the only thing I didn't like about Range of Ghosts was the title, which I have forgotten more times this year than I can possibly count. But while the title is forgettable, the great characters, the setting, the writing, everything else made this a greatly enjoyable book to read. Set in a version of the Steppes, this is fantasy as I've never quite seen it. And there are more wonderful and interesting female characters than you can shake a stick at. If you'd want to. In comparison, while I liked The Osiris Ritual more than the first in the series, the steampunk London just can't stack up to Bear's world.


How The Light Gets In vs. Dandelion Wine 

Winner: How The Light Gets In

This choice is ripping my heart out. They shouldn't be this difficult this early on, and against other books, I'd expect to see both far into this arbitrary competition I set up my own self, and am now being punished by. Bradbury's book made me taste summer, but Louise Penny broke my heart and then put it back together again. I sobbed for a good portion of the end of this book. And it all centers around a duck. Because it is the superlatively good culmination of a mystery that has been building for books and books, and does it while staying true to the material while giving some truly shocking surprises. And because it hurt so much. Louise Penny. Sorry, Ray Bradbury.


Worth Dying For vs. Packing For Mars 

Winner: Packing for Mars

Really? Dandelion Wine would have won in a heartbeat against either of these, but I will stay true to my own rules. At any rate, of the two, while I like Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, they tend to be solid instead of stunning. And Mary Roach's shtick is always amusing. It wins because this one's about space, and that definitely gives it the edge. Also, where else are you going to find a book that ferrets out whether or not the first chimpanzees in space masturbated up there?

Republic of Thieves vs. Brothers in Arms

Winner: Republic of Thieves

This may not be fair, but I've just read so many Bujold books this year that the individual ones are probably at a disadvantage. They're all great books, and Brothers in Arms is no exception. But it wasn't one of the real standouts among the Miles books I plowed through at high speed. On the other hand, Republic of Thieves was probably my least favourite of the Locke Lamora books so far. That's not really saying much, as I have loved all three. But of the two in this battle, it has to go to Locke and the appearance, at long last, of Sabetha.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The King's Speech by Mark Logue

Have you seen the movie with Colin Firth? Okay then. Well, that's that review done!

Okay, I'm mostly kidding. And actually, the book is a bit different from the movie, but for reasons that I can entirely understand. However, in the series of incidents, they are very close, although Geoffrey Rush certainly came off as more eccentric in the movie than Lionel Logue does in the book.

I shouldn't have to recap the book, because if you haven't run into at least a trailer for the movie, I'm not sure you'd be that interested anyway. However. This is about the speech therapist who helped Queen Elizabeth II's father overcome his stutter, starting when he was a Prince, and certainly after the surprise abdication of his brother thrust him onto the throne.

Where this differs is the urgency of the timeline. The movie makes it seem like this all happens over a fairly short period of time, perhaps without ever precisely saying so. Obviously to keep up the tension - what happens if he still stutters when he takes the coronation oath? I'm not entirely sure this "saved the monarchy," as the British monarchy had certainly survived any number of rulers with more severe issues than stuttering, but still, in an age of radio, it wouldn't have helped.

But the book makes it apparent that years and years pass between when the Prince starts going to Lionel, and when he assumes the throne. That by that point, although he still went over speeches with Lionel, he was finally fairly comfortable with public speaking. It might not have been the joy of his life, but was no longer the bane. Whereas in the movie, it's tenterhooks as to whether he'll get the oath out, or whether he'll make that fateful speech about England going to war without losing it.

I get why the movie does it, it's just interesting to get the full scope of the time period that we're actually talking about.

As for the sources, well, it's interesting. There's a great deal of taking words written on paper at absolute face value, and that is very likely because this is being written by a non-historian and family member. While I'm not saying things are being misrepresented, some look at context, and why people might phrase things in specific ways in specific documents, when you know how they may be used, by whom, and why, would be helpful. Just because it's written doesn't make it without nuance or context. Or even guarantee that it's true!

At any rate, this book is fine. It's not that exciting, it comes off as a little family-aggrandizing, but it's not a difficult read, and it does nicely explore some aspects of expat life in England at the time period, as well as some glimpses into the royal family that may or may not be entirely accurate, depending on your opinion of the sources and what they say and how they're interpreted. Again, not saying they're being used entirely wrongly, but when there were quotes, I was often struck by the wording in such a way that made me itch to get my hands on the primary sources myself.

If I were at all interested in royal history. Which I'm not. But still, for those who are, I'm sure you've already read this. If you haven't, it's pretty good. It's not going to rock anyone's world, but it's an interesting look at physical flaws and positions of power.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014 - Round One, Part Five

He, She, and It vs. Raising Stony Mayhall

Winner: Raising Stony Mayhall

I liked He, She, and It quite a bit, when the protagonist wasn't being frustratingly obtuse. There are interesting things here about community, capitalism, and parenthood. But they don't come close to the ideas that fly through every page of Raising Stony Mayhall. I don't want to like zombie books! But I do like this one. Daryl Gregory is quickly rising to the top of my list for the way he takes an idea and then keeps pushing it one step further, without ever losing sight of his plot or characters. So the metaphysical implications of zombies melds perfectly with a son trying to save his family while not getting himself killed. Again.


A Civil Campaign vs. Dark Places 

Winner: A Civil Campaign

I think Dark Places is a better book than the one Gillian Flynn got all the attention for, Gone Girl. It's creepy, the characters are unlikeable, and it's largely about how those facts shouldn't mean that people who make us uncomfortable shouldn't get justice. However. However. It is set beside Miles Vorkosigan at his most manic. I am a sucker for Miles all the time, and discovering this series has been one of the great joys of the last couple of years. But when he's manic and panicking? Sign me up a million times. Miles falls in love and it is delightful.

The Clearing vs. Throne of Jade

Winner: The Clearing

These two books were both a little slow-paced, one because of a long sea voyage with dragons, the other because it's a quiet examination of trauma and justice in a logging town deep in the swamps. This time, the dragons don't win out. I liked Throne of Jade, but The Clearing was a deeper, more interesting book. The effects of war, of killing, and the slow erosion of the soul for the win this time.

The Night Circus  vs. Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Winner: Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

The outcome of this one surprises even me. I enjoyed The Night Circus like a fine confection while I was reading it, but have spared barely a thought for it since. In opposition, Stars in my Pocket was a frustrating book, and in many ways, not even a very good one, but it has stuck with me, and from the remove of six months, I am more and more struck by what Delany was trying to do here, even if it didn't entirely succeed as an engrossing piece of fiction. It made me think, and so few books even try. It captured something about foreignness, and gender, and sexuality, and therefore, it wins.

The Hidden Goddess vs. Long Walk to Freedom

Winner: Long Walk To Freedom

This is one of those battles where the importance and necessity of a book faces off against how much I sheerly enjoyed it.  In the end, this tournament tends to be about the latter, so I'm not sure how far Long Walk to Freedom will make it in the competition, but in this particular match-up, it wasn't a difficult choice. The Hidden Goddess is passable frontier fantasy, but not a lot more. Nelson Mandela's autobiography? A lot more.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

"That is the purpose of stories, that no matter where we walk in the world, we walk twice." 
 - Catherynne Valente

There are very few authors who inspire me to note quotes while I'm reading. Catherynne Valente is one of them. And this is the one that made me stop, write it down, then continue, because it speaks so strongly to my experience as a reader, and to how my life has been formed and enriched by books. 

In this case, I can't say that I will ever walk into the world and run into people without heads, whose faces are on their bellies. Or those with huge jaws. Or huge ears that wrap around small butterfly-like bodies. Or gryphons. And where everything, once planted, grows into a tree. People become trees. Trees bear odd fruits. However, if I ever encounter these things, I will now be walking there twice.

I have always enjoyed the way Valente plays with ways of telling stories, and that's here as well. While it took me a while to figure out the purpose, as the stories started to mesh, it made the trip we'd taken to get there very powerful, and filled me with a keen sense of dread for the other book in this set. 

This book is a riff on the medieval legends of Prester John, the purported monk-king of a kingdom in the East populated by strange races and the Fountain of Youth. A delegation of monks to the East stumble into a strange land hundreds of years after Prester John, and find a book-tree from which one plucks three books that all, in their way, concern Prester John and his kingdom. But the books start to rot as soon as they're picked, and so it's a race against time for the monk to transcribe them each, taking an hour at a time on each one, desperate to stop. It gives the author the chance to use interesting ellipses in the middle of stories. 

Prester John himself came in search of St. Thomas, the Doubting Thomas of legend, who turns up in a way I would not dare to spoil, so delightful is it. Of the three books, one is by Prester John concerning his arrival in the country on a sea of sands, and his adventures there, and his struggles to turn a land of oddities into Christians, and the lengths to which he would rather do that than change his own fundamental view of the world.

The second book is written by the woman who will become his wife, who is herself a blemmyae, one of those with no heads, a mouth in her navel, and eyes where her nipples would be. This could only work in a warm climate. It is through her that we learn how a kingdom of strange immortal people deals with immortality without going stagnant. We get a sense of the system Prester John will change, while the monks read in the wreckage of it. 

The third book predates the system that Prester John changes, and concerns one of the beings with huge ears, who, instead of listening this time, is enlisted by the Queen to tell her children stories in hopes of making them better people. This one tells us how the system came to be. 

And by the end, they all weave together, even as the bookfruits rot, the stories join, and the world we are learning about similarly starts to spoil, and we know why, and what, but not exactly how. That must be the companion book.

I long ago crossed the threshold where I would read anything Catherynne Valente writes. Some enchant me forever. Some are merely just very, very good. This one is hovering between the two. We'll see in a few months how it has stayed with me. She takes such interesting looks at stories, legends, myths, and folklore and weaves them into fantasies that are unlike anything else out there. Her prose is beautiful, and there are few authors about whom you can say that these days. So much is fine, but more serviceable that pleasurable for its own sake.