River of Stars

Monday, April 21, 2014

River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay, 2014

Premise: Sequel to Under Heaven. It is a different time for Kitai. The balance between the court and the army is finally tilted to the court’s satisfaction, but what will that mean when Altai riders from the steppe pour over the border? Into this time are born a few people who may affect the course of history. Or they may not. It is not given for mortal men to know.

It is hard to describe a book like this. I can describe the characters: subtle, passionate, vengeful, honorable, wise, foolish. I can describe the prose: meditative, textured, delicate. I can describe the themes: the place of men in history, the role of narrative in destiny, the secret small reasons behind the sweep of ages.

But somehow, all of this together is more than the parts. Kay's style of historically-inspired fantasy isn't for everyone, but I usually find it satisfying.

River of Stars is a book about an invasion and a war. It is also a book about extraordinary people and how they both shape the time and react to the time that is thrust upon them. It is also a book about a romance.

I need to speak a bit of Lin Shan here, Shan of the sharp mind and the careful words. On the surface, if I were to tell you all the things that make her special, you might think that she is a too-perfect character, an unrealistic attempt to cover the fact that women had very little public life in a time like this. However, she is perfectly balanced by the male lead, whose skills are near mythic.

And even if she didn't read as wonderfully grounded as she does, she is based (loosely) on a real person. A real person, who really lived, the greatest female poet of her age.

This isn't the kind of book I always enjoy. Much of it is almost a series of vignettes,many of the active scenes happen off-screen and you have to piece it together later.

But if you're in the mood for a rich, delicate visit to an ancient China that never was, then follow Ren Daiyan, Lin Shan and all the ministers, warriors and poets, and relish the journey.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker, Book 1)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker, Book 1)
Kate Elliott, 2010

Premise: Catherine Barahal was brought up by her aunt and uncle after her parents’ death. She plans to go to school. She plans to help in the family business. She would never plan to get swept up in the politics of nations, revolution and magic, but once events are set in motion, she’ll do whatever she must to survive and discover the truth of her past.

After I loved Jaran, I decided to pick up one of the author's more recent books. Despite being different in almost every other way, the books share a cross genre appeal and a compelling heroine. Cold magic is... fantasy steam punk adventure alternate history with a thread of romance. The magic is fascinating. The characters are complicated and varied. I was completely thrown by a sharp left turn in the plot, but was eager to discover where it was headed.

I loved how historical figures were different, but recognizable. The story swings from the concerns of young girls to the concerns of nations in a way that actually seems quite reasonable for the situation.

Cat's world is delicately balanced between industry and magic, between spirit and steel. She is trapped by her past, by the actions of others, by treachery and circumstance. It's the way she is determined to turn these very things to her advantage that has me marking the sequel on my to read list.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, April 7, 2014

Frederick Pohl, 1976

Hugo winner - 1978

Premise: Ever since humanity found ships left behind by the mysterious Heechee, people have been taking them out for the chance at a fortune, despite a much larger chance of death. Robbie Broadhead tries to be one of those prospectors, but he doesn't get what he expects.

I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. The ending was actually pretty effective. Getting there, however, was somewhat of a slog. I found the first third or so incredibly slow.

The story flips back and forth between Broadhead's experiences as a prospector and his sessions with an artificial therapist years later. It's supposed to be a mystery how he became rich and so screwed up, but the character is rather unlikable, and I wasn't able to muster much interest in his story.

However, I do think that there is some really interesting writing in this regarding unreliable narration and self delusion. The ending, as I said, is emotionally effective. It might be really interesting on a re-read.
But I just kept putting the book down and not wanting to pick it back up. Not a style that gripped me, I guess I might say.

Overall it clearly has merits, but I personally can't recommend it.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

List of Hugo Winners

The Price of the Stars

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Price of the Stars
Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald, 1992

Premise: Beka Rosselin-Metadi has no interest in being part of her famous family. She’s a brilliant spaceship pilot, and she’s happy working the trading lanes. But when her politician mother is assassinated, she’ll have to get interested in the politics of the galaxy. It’s the only way to stay alive, and bring her mother’s killers to justice.

I wanted some solid space action, and I got it! This book started a little slow for me, but it picked up. For one thing, apparently I didn’t read the back closely enough and it threw me that it’s sci-fi with magic. Once it gets going, though, the authors handle both the spaceships and the magic well, ending up with something akin to a more hard-edged Star Wars-type world.

I picked up this book for the cover. Look at the cover! Isn’t it awesome? Beka is great fun. Tough and prickly with only occasional sentimentality, she’s interested in getting the job done. She spends a good deal of time in male disguise, and occasionally it seems to be a safety valve for her. ‘Beka’ can’t shoot people in cold blood and fly uncaring into danger, but her alter ego can.

The story is also carried by a slew of other characters: Beka’s brothers, a mysterious helper called The Professor, a young mage, a medic, her father the general’s assistant who is investigating her ‘apparent death’, the multitude of people out to help or hinder them all…

It’s not super-brilliant writing: few of the characters are fully fleshed out and a lot of the world building seems to come out of nowhere suddenly whenever it becomes necessary, but the adventure is enjoyable, and I enjoyed it more and more as the book went on.

3 Stars - A Good Book


Monday, March 24, 2014

Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008

Premise: Lia has a problem. She thinks it's that her father and mother hate each other or that her stepmother is always on her case. Or that her best friend is dead. The way Lia looks at food and sees numbers, the way she gets around adults plans for her, that makes her strong, right?

This isn't the type of book I generally read. If you'd told me that I would be swept away utterly by a book which portrays the mental state of someone suffering from anorexia, I might not have believed you. But this book is amazing.

The style is evocative and appropriately chilling. Lia is completely sympathetic and her feelings are comprehensible, even while the reader despairs of her decisions. She lives in a world more and more unconnected from reality.

And then she starts to see things.

Maybe. Maybe not.

In Cassie's words: “You’re not dead, but you’re not alive, either. You’re a wintergirl…”

Lia eventually has to decide whether to save herself, there’s no way for anyone else to do it for her.

This is a beautiful story: sad and lovely. It is also upsetting, visceral and haunting. If you can take it, I highly recommend it.

4 stars - A Very Good Book

Orphans of Chaos

Monday, March 17, 2014

Orphans of Chaos
John C. Wright, 2005

Premise: Amelia and her friends go to an unusual school. The hardly ever leave and it seem like they’ve been there an awfully long time. Will they ever discover what their true backgrounds are? Do I care?

Warning up front: there will be spoilers of a sort for this book. I wish I'd known more going in, or known enough not to go in. Don’t read it. Just. Don’t.

I came close to not even finishing this book. I just... it’s terrible. It’s boring and unpleasant and I hated it. But here, let me explain a couple of the specific subjects I took issue with.

1) Women.

I believe and have experience that corroborates the fact that men can write perfectly believable and sympathetic female characters, but I did not find that to be the case here.

The main character, Amelia, starts out as a fairly stereotypical tomboy. She has little use for the only other girl of her age, who is more stereotypically female (her name is even Vanity). She has a few out-of-nowhere comments about suddenly understanding the purposes of makeup and high heels, and they’re all super-submissive and male-gazey and ugh. Amelia says that she wants nothing more than to be an explorer, but we never see that. Her personality is mostly told, not shown.

With one exception:

Conveniently, Amelia is put into situation after situation where she is confronted with her own arousal at being restrained. She seems mildly disturbed by this, but eventually seems okay about it, even after it’s revealed that she was altered by another character to like that. Now, age is unclear, but since she presents as around 14, all I can say about this is that it made me feel kind of scummy to read.

I am so glad I couldn't have read this as a teenager. I think I could have swallowed Amelia’s thin perspective hook line and sinker, and ended up even more self-loathing of myself for being female than I was at the time. Hence: why I have no patience with it now.

2) Gods.

So it's eventually revealed, through a lot of tedious narration, that the kids are the descendants of the Titans, and they're being held hostage by other factions among the Greek gods to keep the peace. Which, okay, that could be cool. Even though it makes the title of the book somewhat depressingly literal. The kids each have vastly different and incompatible power sets, and we learns very little about any of them except Amelia’s. It should be cool that she can see into/interact with other dimensions, but it just felt so clinical to me.

My biggest problem is that except for a lot of obscure references that are probably very satisfying for scholars of greek myth, and arguably one scene with Aphrodite, it didn't feel mythic at all. It felt pedantic. It felt like a badly designed game, where fire beats water and water beats earth, so to win you.... The kids might as well have been space aliens. It might have been more interesting if they were. Their relationship to the actual myths was only sketchily outlined, although i may have been skimming by then.

Also, why the Hades was Grendel in a book about greek myth, but not any figures from other myths? Why, if the gods are so powerful and so present is earth more or less the same?

Finally, the ending is completely unsatisfying. I’d like to close with something I really wanted to happen to all of the characters in this book, courtesy of a more interesting character who is better at magic than they could hope to be.

1 Star - Didn’t much like it

Important PS: when I was about 3/4 of the way through, I got so bored that I got curious about other peoples reactions to the book. I found that Wright has distanced himself from this book, not for any particularly good reason, but because he is now a “Christian” super-raging unhinged bigot. FUN TIMES. Yup, going to stay far far away from anything else by this one.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Sarah Waters, 2002

Premise: Susan Trinder was raised a thief, in a family of thieves. An older male friend convinces her to go in on a scheme to swindle a young gentlewoman out of her fortune, by posing as a maid. Think you know how this story goes? You’re wrong.

“When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin.” - Susan, page 117

Fingersmith is a maze of lies, tangled history, pornography, madhouses, jails, thieves, murderers, and passion. Susan tells her story in the first person, but doesn’t give away much of what’s to come, just enough to darken her story with a great deal of foreboding. It’s an uncomfortable story in many ways, full of unhappy people acting out their unhappiness in desperate acts and hurting everyone around them. It’s completely compelling from first to last, though.

Sue and Maud (the aforementioned young lady) are the main characters. They are completely different in temperament and history, but are consistently drawn together.

Sue is determined to live up to (or down to) her mother: a burglar hung as a murderess. Maud has a complicated relationship with hers, a woman who died young, but visits her grave often. Sue has a substitute mother in Mrs. Sucksby, a woman who consorts with thieves and fosters and sells infants, who raised Sue from a child. Maud is raised by her uncle, an off-putting eccentric, obsessed with his books and studies.

Gentleman, a man of many names, is the catalyst for the story, but the women are always the heart of it. Sue is simple in ways, but good-hearted, clever and determined. Maud is emotionally cold, but brilliant, strong and focused. Neither of them are characters I might want to know personally, but both are characters I wanted to see happy, despite them often being at odds.

This book takes turns being a slow-burning mystery, a thriller, a drama, and a passionate romance. I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that I don’t want to tell you much about, and this is another. The first person account means that secrets and plots are revealed only slowly over the story. However, I will tell you what sold me on reading this one was knowing that it is a (small spoiler:) lesbian romance-thriller, plus it just sounded amazing.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book