Holiday Leftovers: His Majesty's Dragon, The Ruby in the Smoke, By the Mountain Bound

Monday, December 28, 2009

Due to constraints on time and inspiration, Faithful Readers (all 6 of you),  in place of a long article on one book, here are some brief thoughts on other books I've read recently, that don't quite have enough to get their own article.  Plus, my camera is broken.

Naomi Novik, 2006

Sometimes I see a book that seems to say, "I was written just for you!"  This is one of those books. 

In sketchiest outline, the plot is a little bit like Eragon, (person imprints on dragon, life changes), if Eragon were any good.  And set in the Napoleonic Wars.  And starred a Naval captain.  The author is, like me, a great fan of both JRR Tolkien and Patrick O'Brian, and it comes through in the writing.

The protagonist, Captain Laurence, is a proud, hot-tempered man who clings to duty and responsibility when his life is turned upside-down.  His unexpected bond with Temeraire, a rare Chinese Dragon captured from a French ship, means that he must be transferred from the Navy to the more free-and-easy Aviator Corps.  Most of the book is about their transition: Laurence letting go of some of his assumptions, while refusing to budge on his principles, and the influence of Temeraire's growing practicality, curiosity and intelligence on both his handler and the other dragons.  Nothing too mind-blowing so far, but entertaining and well-written.

Now the super-cool part: Novik has taken ideas I've seen before and blended them in an awesome new way.  The handler has a special bond with the dragon, but in her world, to fight from dragonback on a large breed looks less like a knight on their noble steed, and more like a cross between the upper rigging of a ship and a heavily crewed biplane.  Someone is helping the dragon see the shape of the battle and understand what is best to do next, some people are shooting rifles at the closest enemy, some dropping bombs, some packing a bandage around an injury, one watching for signals, all strapped to the same dragon.  I love team-style warfare, whether ships, starships or dragons, and I think it's brilliant.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Philip Pullman, 1985

This book, on the other hand, looked as if it were written for me, but was disappointing.  16 year old Sally Lockhart is investigating the murder of her father in Victorian London, which sounds thrilling, but...isn't.  And yes, it's YA, but I've read plenty of good YA.

Aspects of this book were good, but it never felt all that exciting, even when characters' lives were in danger.  Sally's proficiency with math and business and no-nonsense style is fun, but not groundbreaking, the villain is underwhelming, and she sadly gets very little accomplished on her own as far as solving the mystery.  It was short, and not compelling, but may be okay as an intro to the time period for much younger readers.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Elizabeth Bear, 2009

This book was just... odd.  It's a prequel to a book I haven't read, (which apparently stars a character I really wanted to like, but just couldn't), it's a weird spin-off on Norse Mythology, and it kinda reads like a too-dramatic anime/manga might.  In other words, it was too long (despite being short), with enough endless angst and dragging of emotional feet to cause any tension to deflate into boredom.

It has the dubious distinction of containing the "safest" homosexual sex scene I've read, because apparently demi-gods' sexual energy is all magic and shiny and bound up in kissing, in which you transfer soul-stuff or something.  Uh...yeah.

It reminded me a little of Mists of Avalon, mostly for it's "inventive" spelling.  I had to check online to get reassurance that 'waelcyrge' = 'valkyrie'.  Not that it seems to matter.  There were a bunch of depressed immortals spatting/sparring/loving each other, possibly after the end of the world, but there are still human settlements, and they sort of protect them, or something, and then this super powerful chick arrives, and everybody's all freaked out, but it's kinda dumb, and then there's a really boring battle, and everyone dies.  Now you don't have to read it.  You're welcome.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Chronicles of Narnia

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis, 1954

(FYI, this is my goodreads review reposted for those of you who may have read it last year)
Fair Warning:
I am reading (in some cases, rereading) this as an adult, one who is most decidedly Not Christian, and somewhat against religious children's books. If that doesn't describe you, your mileage will obviously vary. The following is very long, as I sum up each book. Spoilers aplenty.

After seeing the new Prince Caspian movie last summer, I decided that, as a fan of both classic children’s literature and fantasy literature, I should really take another look at The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, I read what I considered to be “the good ones” of this series (Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Caspian, Dawn Treader, Silver Chair) although the little I remember is mostly from the BBC TV specials.

Overall opinion: Any book with the default plot of “kids fall into fantasy world, proceed to defeat evil” is going to have at least some fans in the legions of kids who wish they could do just that. I enjoyed the ones I read as a child. Reading as an adult, the writing is weak, the characters thin, the plots thinner.

The more of these I read, the more I couldn’t stand the writing style. Sometimes speaking directly to the reader works, but most of the time here, I just find it hugely patronizing and distracting. The first time Lewis reminds his readers that it is "foolish" to shut oneself into a wardrobe, it's cute. The 5th? Less so.

Now, I’m going to sum up what I liked and didn’t like in each book. (Also note, these books are really short! Around 110 pgs each in the collected edition.)

The Magician’s Nephew:

Had some very pretty parts. The beginning was interesting, but this book seemed to do its level best to demystify the later adventures, and make all the magic more like science. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it felt out of tone with the books which were written earlier, but come chronologically later.

Best: The descriptions of the wood between the worlds, and Aslan sings the world into being.
Worst: Shoehorned in references to Lion/Witch/etc, making that book less cool.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Actually not awful, despite the whole creating out of the void and all.
Score: 2 stars out of 5

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Classic. When I read this as a child, I completely missed the whole “Jesus” thing. What surprised me on rereading was that they spend, pretty much, one single day in Narnia before they fix everything. That’s kinda silly in my book.

Best: Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, Edmund and the White Queen. Santa brings them weapons.
Worst: And then, we won the battle... Lewis starts a grand tradition for him of all major action taking place ‘offstage’.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: You know what? After reading some of the later ones, I’m behind Jesus-the-Lion on this one.
Score: 3 stars

The Horse and His Boy:

And now, suddenly, we’re in the Arabian Knights. But no one who lives in Arabian Nights world is nice and kind and good like the people of Narnia... Eesh. I’m also confused, at this point, why there are huge human countries just off the borders of Narnia. I never got that implication that they were there before...Even the Telmarines in Prince Caspian are given a special explanation for how there happen to be Humans in Narnia. Note that this one was written fifth, after Lion, Caspian, Dawn Treader, and Silver Chair.

Best: Shasta and company sneaking into/around the big city is pretty well done.
Worst: Not only is the person who doesn’t treat you well not your father, you’re a prince! Yay! Not a surprise, and not interesting.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Throughout, Aslan "secretly" helps them escape to Narnia by scaring them, appearing as a friendly cat, etc. A pretty wussy power set, overall. This is the Son of the Emperor-etc-whatever? What, do your powers only work in Narnia, all of a sudden? Ironically, this is almost more annoying than his super mega powers in other books.
Score: 1 star

Prince Caspian:
Okay, first off, all the cool scenes in the movie? Not here. Most of the lame scenes in the movie? Also not here. Clearly it was adapted in the loosest sense. Caspian spends his time joyously capering with the good folk of Narnia, and then they get in trouble, and call some kids. Kids bring Aslan, he fixes it. Huh.

Best: Peter’s hysterically funny letter to Miraz. Seriously. And mice who kill soldiers. They’re cool.
Worst (Sort of): Downright weirdest part is that when the Earth kids finally get to Caspian, where he’s fighting off armies and such, the boys get to go help fight. Not that it makes a huge difference, since Aslan sends the trees to scare the Telmarines away "almost before the Old Narnians had really warmed to their work". The girls, on the other hand, get to take a nap, and then dance with Aslan and Bacchus and his Maenads (Wha-Huh?!?) all over Narnia, freeing people to be happy, and turning nasty little boys into pigs and nasty men into trees and such. I kid you not. One little girl is brave enough not to run away and "The Maenads…whirled her around in a merry dance, and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing." I could not make this up.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Subtext of the Lucy/Aslan scene is basically the same as the movie: If you really trusted/believed, you wouldn’t care what your family thinks, you’d trust me... Creepy...
Score: 3 stars

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

I have fond memories of this one, but it was awful. Like Gulliver’s travels, but with Jesus. They go to an island and get into trouble due to a magical thingy. Aslan bails them out. Rinse. Repeat. Oh, and then they sail to the end of the world.

Best: Lucy and the Magician’s book. A pretty decent scene, if somewhat overly moralizing.
Worst: Whole thing deadly dull. No Plot.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: All of them.
Score: 1 star

The Silver Chair:
Lovely after the dreck that was the Dawn Treader. Aslan gives two kids a quest, they mess up some, but mostly get out of it on their own, overall a good solid adventure story.

Best: Adventure in the Giant’s House is predictable, but good. Scene with the ensorcelled Prince. Jill and Eustace terrorize their school bullies with swords.
Worst: Almost anytime Aslan butts in. He’s out of tone in this one. Happily, he’s barely in it.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: See above.
Score: 3 stars

The Last Battle:
This was just... odd. I already had heard the plot, but it was just weird. An Ape sets up a false Idol Aslan to make himself rich and important, the Arabian folks we last saw in Horse and His Boy show up to conquer Narnia with the Ape’s help, the King totally fails to stop them, and then Aslan shows up to end the world. It was just... that. Also King Tirian has a very special relationship with a unicorn, and as a side note, all the characters are dead and in joint Earth/Narnia Heaven. Whatever.

Best: King Tirian and Eustace and Jill sneaking around the countryside.
Worst: The number of things in this book described as indescribable was pretty annoying. Also, Susan can’t go to joint Earth/Narnia Heaven because she grew up and likes boys. I can understand that with Neverland, but really, now.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Aslan has a heart to heart with an Arabian, I mean Calormene, and is told that all the good stuff he (and anyone) ever did in the name of his Calormene god was actually done for Aslan, and all the bad stuff for his god. Oh dear.
Score: 1 star (Not actively bad, just dull)

Even trying to put aside the heavy handed preachifying, I probably wouldn’t read these again, or give them to my hypothetical future kids. Okay, maybe The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Only, however, along with books I prefer, like The Wind in the Willows (better talking animals), Peter Pan (better plot, characters, and themes) and 
The Just So Stories (better use of narration).

Overall: 2 Stars - An Okay Book 

By Heresies Distressed

Monday, December 14, 2009

By Heresies Distressed
David Weber, 2009
Vaguely Spoiler-y for the trend of the series and events of the book.

Impossibly likable protagonists, creepy fanatical killers, six-legged lizards and a history lesson.  It could only be the latest from David Weber...

This is the third one in the “Safehold” series, which I've previously described as Arthurian legend meets Protestant Reformation plus alternate Industrial Revolution...IN SPACE.  (Even though the IN SPACE part is mostly theoretical, more like IN THE FUTURE ON A DISTANT WORLD.)

The third volume is better than the second, but still prone to brain-twisting naming conventions.  Conventions arrived at by (I presume) postulating what modern Earth names might look like after being wrung through the generations during 800 years of medieval society.  It turns out he's gone so far on that continuum, that he's come out the other end at fantasy names with too many Y's.  (Byrtrym?  Really?  Just call the man Bertram and be done with it.)

More action than the last one, dealing with larger problems, but still ramping up for actual conflict.  I can't decide whether I'd rather Weber come up with something to actually challenge Merlin (main protagonist), or whether I'm happy with the current (slight) limitations on his/her power.  Weber's very good at writing villains who make me feel ill, and the psychotically hypocritical, fanatically blinded, rabid, power-mad Grand Inquisitor is par for the course.  I'm often happy to give protagonists who counter these guys any advantage they require, and hang balanced story-telling.  I did end up feeling uneasy at the end of this book.  Weber pulls off some scary scenes, but nothing devastating, and having read plenty of his other work, I know that he is fully capable of devastating.  I'm left with the sense that the protagonists have to have a huge set-back in the next one, and that looming danger makes me unhappy.  The “good guys” have too many advantages, and that can't last.

I like that he highlighted again the dichotomy between Merlin's body and the mind inside, played to good comedic effect in Book One.

This volume may have focused on fewer characters, or possibly just didn't introduce any new ones, which helped the narrative feel more manageable.  There were some early on chapters where I had no idea what was going on, but I came back up to speed pretty quick.

I don't inherently object to a list of characters in the back, but these books would be much better off with a recap prologue, or, actually really useful would be a list of characters that INCLUDES their allegiances (at least as of the start of the book). 

For example:
Meaningless Collection of Letters: Bishop of City: not useful. 
MCoL: Bishop of City, secretly agent of X, worked with Y and Z, previously had A and B killed: useful.

Also the index needs a cross-reference, so when I start a chapter with Lord NameofProvince and his friend Lord NameofCity, and later there's dialogue between Mike and Jim (Or Myke and Jyym), I'll be able to remember that these are the same people.

But overall an enjoyable read nonetheless.  I had been skeptical after Book Two, but now I'll definitely keep reading to see what happens next.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Animal Society: Just the Stats, Ma'am

Monday, December 7, 2009

As you probably noticed, I like books. I also like lists.  So, for your reading amusement (and not just because I'm super-busy this week), I'm wrapping up the Animal Society Theme with a quick statistical-ish comparison of the six books I read.

Reviews, in case you missed 'em:

Wind in the Willows
The Rescuers
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Mouse Guard
Watership Down

Stats Away!

Continuum of Anthropomorphism:

Extremely human-like society
Wind in the Willows
The Rescuers
Mouse Guard
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Watership Down 
Slightly human-like

Positions on various species:

Weasels are jerks, along with all their kin
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Mouse Guard

Cats are bastards
The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down

Rats are evil
Redwall, Watership Down

Rats are great!
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Wind in the Willows

Birds?  They're okay
Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down, Wind in the Willows

Nope.  Birds are bastards too
Mouse Guard

Primary Protagonists are 90% mammalian

100% mammalian?
Mouse Guard, The Rescuers

100% mammalian or avian?
Mouse Guard, The Rescuers, Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down

So Toad stands alone, huh?
Pretty much


Animals are British:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Watership Down, Mouse Guard?  (Rabbits have British accents)

Other European?
The Rescuers

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

To be fair, does that exactly match the nationalities of the authors?
Well, yes, except that Margery Sharp is British but very vague as to where her books take place...

Homo Sapiens:

Animals understand humans:
Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Animals talk to, understood by, humans:
Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers

Narrator relates human speech, even though characters don't understand it:
Watership Down

What's a hu-man?
Redwall, Mouse Guard


Animals brandish artificial weaponry:
Redwall, Mouse Guard, Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers (sort of)

Animals wear clothes:
Same list.  Huh.

Live in holes in the ground:
Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Live in hidden places that are well appointed inside:
Mouse Guard, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Rescuers, Wind in the Willows

Live in explicitly human-type dwellings:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, The Rescuers (Miss Bianca and her Porcelain Pagoda)

Animal-Animal Relations:

Animals think nothing of making friends outside their own species:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall

Animals think twice about making friends outside their own species, but it does happen:
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down, The Rescuers

Animals try to keep to themselves:
Mouse Guard

Is it Cannibalism if...?

Fish are not mammals, therefore they do not speak and we can eat them!
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (although it seems less weird in the latter)

Ultimate Goal of Society (More or Less):

Wind in the Willows: Good Food, True Friends, Messing around in Boats.
The Rescuers: … Rescuing people?  Well run meetings, Duty to the 'Greater Good'(TM).
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Survive, thrive, keep superpowers firmly under wraps...for now...
Redwall: Defend nice people.  Only stab bad guys, but don't worry, they'll identify themselves.
Mouse Guard: Crush your enemies, See them driven before you...
Watership Down: Live in (relative) safety, Help one another.  Tell Stories, Make baby rabbits.

Regular Book Write-ups return next week, or earlier if circumstances allow.

Watership Down

Monday, November 30, 2009

Watership Down
Richard Adams, 1972

I first read Watership Down in tenth grade, I think.  We had to read one extra book per term that had some scholarly merit, and everyone seemed surprised that I was jumping at the chance to lug around the giant hard cover edition of this book.  At the time, it was one of the longer books I'd read (hadn't started in on Tad Williams at the time).

It has some of the most wonderful world-building I've ever read.  As a society of non-humans, it is clear and complete.  The adventures of Hazel and the others seem plausible, their behavior not too out of line for real rabbits.  Both the greatness, and the weaknesses, come from how rooted in reality the story feels.

The trouble I had on this read-through was with occasional bits of the narrative voice.  Adams presents his book as if it were translated from the rabbit language, and so, especially at the beginning, there are needless asides explaining this and that from a human perspective.  It depends on my mood how distracting or charming I find this, but I always cringe when he compares their instincts to “primitive people”.  Dated, check.
Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality.  In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started.  Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point that they all know that they are ready to begin.  Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires,....has seen at work the current that fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will...
Many of the asides do serve to ground the work firmly in rabbit behavior, as observed in Lockely's The Private Life of the Rabbit, which Adams used as his primary research and inspiration.

I understand some of the feminist criticism of the work, many of the does are shallow characters, and the whole second half of the book concerns solving the problem of a lack of females.  Also it's short-sighted at best to impose human assumptions regarding relative strength and societal gender roles on other species.  Again, some aspects are dated.  This didn't bother me while reading, though.  In defense of the book, the bucks complain when asked to dig (primarily a female activity for rabbits), and several does we see more of are courageous and clever.

Furthermore, it never bothered me that the bucks' primary concern when it comes to does is the future of the warren.  They're rabbits.  They enjoy the company of and bond emotionally with the does, but the final truth is that without children, their community will soon die out.  I actually respect it for being so biologically honest, not giving me some sentimental human reasoning for why they need to bring does to the warren.

It's a grand adventure story at heart, a riff on Exodus and The Odyssey.  The rabbit society is so fully realized, with traditions, proverbs, myths, all bound up with the truth that it's a dangerous and frightening world for rabbits, even among their own kind.  It's one of those books that I think everyone should read, a great story, a group of varied heroes, fearsome villains, and the simple goal of a new home.

First night out for eleven rabbits:
Pipkin sat trembling under a fern, his ears drooping on either side of his head.  He held one paw forward in an awkward, unnatural way and kept licking it miserably.  Fiver was little better off.  He sill looked cheerful, but very weary.  Hazel realized that until they were rested they would all be safer where they were than stumbling along in the open...But if they lay brooding, unable to feed or go underground, all their troubles would come crowding into their hearts...He had an idea. 
“Yes, all right, we'll rest here,” he said.  “Let's go in among this fern.  Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story.  I know you're handy that way.  Pipkin here can't wait to hear it.” 
Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realized what it was Hazel was asking him to do.  Choking back his own fear...he began.
5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall: Species-specific society
Rabbits keep to themselves, although they befriend specific members of other species.

Size: Real Size

Law and Order:  Each community polices its area differently
Each warren has its own governing rabbit(s), and organization.  The Sandleford Warren, which the characters set out from at the beginning, is presented as average.  It has a strong hierarchy based on size, family connections and physical strength, but the rabbits do look out for each other.  The other warrens they run across in the course of the tale are different in various ways, due to their situation and/or leadership.  The eventual home warren of the group is established to be more egalitarian than any of them, someplace where different talents are all valued, while pulling useful techniques and ideas from the various warrens they've seen.

Own language:  Yes
Adams calls the rabbits' language Lapine, and presents the dialogue as partially translated.  Some words are left untranslated, some switch back and forth, and some are given with translation notes.  For example, in the first chapter, Fiver's name is only 'Fiver' in English, as explained in a footnote:
Rabbits can count up to four.  Any number above four is hrair - “a lot” or “a thousand”....There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means “Little Thousand”-i.e., the little one of a lot or... “the runt.”
There is a dictionary in the back.  The rabbits can also speak to and be more or less understood by some other species, using a sort of common pidgin.

Own religion:
Yes, Yes, this book is why I put this category in, Yes.
The rabbits acknowledge the sun as a creator-god, and have an elaborate series of stories (reminiscent of Just So Stories or Brer Rabbit) of when the world was young.  They have a mythic hero who features in most of these stories as the first prince of all rabbitkind.  This hero is implied to be immortal, and somewhat present as a protector of rabbits.  Early on it's mentioned that some believe he controls the weather, “because the wind, the damp and the dew are friends and instruments to rabbits against their enemies.”  There is a dark mythic figure associated with the moon who is death to rabbits, but also said to be death to any predators who take rabbits before their appointed time. 

Some rabbits have a limited gift of clairvoyance, but this is not Redwall, where you have explicit instructions from obviously real ghosts.  A lot of what is great about the book is the creation of their culture, their stories and beliefs, which don't necessarily impact on the plot at hand. 

Other Notes:
One warren that the main characters run across has more “civilized” rabbits, they sing, make art, make up rituals for themselves.  It is revealed that they are like this because they do not have to live like normal rabbits, and these odd behaviors are a symptom of a deeper problem with their situation.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very Low
Really the big leap Adams asks of the reader is that of language, and the corollary, logical thought.  I know, that's a very big leap, but they don't have belongings, or clothes, or human concerns for the most part.  The rabbits in Watership Down have adventures that seem perfectly possible for wild rabbits.  And if they had language and a simple oral history, how would we know?

Mouse Guard

Monday, November 23, 2009

(Spoilers for events of the first issue.)

If you were ever a fan of Redwall, you owe it to yourself to check out Mouse Guard.  Petersen's comic tale of mice with swords doesn't always have inspired text, (the poetry in particular is weak), but so what?  The illustrations are what you're here for.  You have to pay attention to keep up, because with only 6 issues of 20-24pgs to tell a story arc, there is very little wasted space.

Now, these are swordsmice.  Trained, disciplined, ruthless in the defense of their fellows.  The Guardsmice are an organization charged to uphold peace and the common good, but during the time we follow them the tiny swords are often bloodied.   The first arc describes a betrayal of the organization, the second, the aftermath.  There is a lot of mouse vs. mouse internal strife, but the really striking images are the tiny mice going up against foes many times their size. 

When I first picked these up, it was because cute mice with swords are awesome.  I cannot tell you enough how beautiful the illustrations are.  See for yourself.  Then in the first issue, the patrol finds a clutch of snake eggs, and shows no mercy.  After that, I was hooked.  (Incidentally, you can see that sequence on the website: Click on Issue One: Belly of the Beast)

The simplicity of the text does allow for a certain gravitas.  This is about as far from Cinderella's comic relief crew as anthropomorphic mice can go.

The biggest down side to collecting Mouse Guard is that due to distribution/time required/unknown issues, they don't come out very regularly. 

What I find most fascinating on a story level is that only a couple species, mice and weasels, seem to have weapons.  These are also the only two species we've seen build buildings, to have civilization.  I like the idea that at some point in the past, a mouse discovered the forging of blades, and this technology is what allows the mice, smallest of prey animals, to carve out a civilization at all.

5 Stars - Awesome Books

Anthropomorphic Society Rundown:
(I know there is a role playing game with more world info, but I'm just going off the comic.)

Overall: Species Specific Civilization
The mice have little dealings with most other animals, because most other animals are out to eat them.  At least one other species (weasels) has a civilization as well, but they are separate from, and at war with, the mice.

Size: Normal Size
This is a case of being very clear just how badass a mouse has to be to take on creatures many times its size.  In the first issue, Lieam kills a snake, by jumping into it's mouth (avoiding a fang), and stabbing up into its brain.  Wow.
Later seen are some animals who are allied with mice, a beetle (the relative size of a dog to a human), bees (relative size of large falcons), and hares, who give them rides in return for protection and food.  The hares are big compared to their riders; bigger than elephants are to humans.  No confusion here about relative size, it's a constant reminder of the danger most other animals represent.

Law and Order: Order maintained by loose alliance of cities, Guards
The Guardsmice patrol the routes between the cities, and the cities themselves seem to have their own councils/internal police.  In Winter, Gwendolyn (leader of the Guards) is putting together a summit of the various leaders to evaluate their mutual defense.

Own language: Unclear, some animals understand each other.
The mice don't seem to have much interest in speaking to other animals, but can understand, and be understood by, bats and hares at least, and can learn to speak other animals' language.

Own religion: Probably, not fully explored
Seem to believe in an afterlife where brave souls go, but it's not gone into in detail.

Other Notes:
I like that the mouse cities (like the rats' dwellings in NIMH) are pointedly underground, hidden, carved out of trees, or into cliffs.  The mice do have doors, tables, cups, and clothing up to a point.  The Guards wear colored cloaks, sometimes armor pieces, high status mice have more clothing/jewelry.  A certain level of science is clearly available as well, they have herbal medicine, spectacles, lanterns, specialists like map-makers and researchers, and, of course, well-forged blades.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Middling/Growing
They are fairly anthropomorphic, they are organized, and have a relatively good amount of technology, analogous to the late middle ages.  They seem to be only lately removed from their wild roots.

New Week, saving the best for last; rabbits...


Monday, November 16, 2009

Brian Jacques, 1986

I loved the Redwall books when I read them, mostly in middle school and early high school as I recall.  This one doesn't hold up quite as well as I may have hoped.  There are definitely things to enjoy here; the story clips along at a good pace, the characters are amusing and often adorable.

The thing I expected to criticize, the stereotyping of species, didn't bother me as much as I anticipated.  In this world, rats, stoats, ferrets, etc. are bad, untrustworthy creatures.  Mice, badgers, squirrels, rabbits, etc. are good, kind, etc.  It's a little odd, especially given how anthropomorphic they are.  They are fully sentient, society based creatures, and it's not just predator animals vs. prey animals, although that seems to underlie much of it.  (I know that Jacques changes it up a bit in some of the later books, but I'm only looking at the first today.)  Add to that that many of the species are typed by broad regional English accents, and it could stray easily into odd animal-based classism/racism.  In this case, I feel you just have to go with it (or not) just as you would standard fantasy-world species stereotyping.  Like how goblins are bastards, and dwarves are drunken Scotsmen, here hares are adventurous sporting British gentlemen, and foxes are treacherous.

Oh goodness, the wikipedia List of Redwall Species is even divided into Good and Evil Species.  In case you thought it was just me.

What did bother me on this read through was how boring the book was, much of the time.  The good characters are wise, they make good decisions, and even when they make bad decisions, they come to good ends.  The ghost of Martin the Warrior watches over the hero and torments the villain.  Matthias  naturally becomes a great tactician and swordsmouse.  There never really was a chance for the bad guys, not really.

Everyone who isn't explicitly evil helps Matthias out of a sense that it's the right thing to do.  Even the neutral (read barbarian warrior-race) sparrows quickly befriend the mice once their mad king is taken out of the picture.  Good characters do die, but generally not before making their contribution toward a happy ending.  The good characters never stubbornly hold to a position when a friend makes a valid counter-point, they spend very little time solving the riddles that make up much of the plot, and the book is peppered with description like the following:
The meeting continued....Methuselah also attended to act as mediator and counselor, approving some ideas while discouraging others, calming the hothead and encouraging the timid.  Much good sense was talked and the tone of the meeting was that of creatures who were determined to win at all costs.
And in the next chapter, regarding the villians:
Cluny lay back and smirked.  Everything was going according to plan.  He had lost Redtooth, but what the devil?  Redtooth had been an ambitious rat.  Cluny only admired ambition in one rodent – himself.
The book is still fun, adventurous, sweet.  The sense that good can win, just because it's good, (through the grace of spirit warrior mice) can be very comforting.  There may be a straight through-line in my book habits from the rousing warcry of rabbits in the Redwall books in middle school through various fantasy battle scenes right to the military sci-fi I tend to favor today.  Just don't go looking for extreme nuance in the cute, fuzzy, badass characters. 

3 Stars - A Good Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall:  Alternative World Society
The animals in Redwall make very few concessions to being animals.  For the most part, they act as  stand-ins for humans.  There appear to be no humans in the world.  Most animals are sentient, except possibly insects?  One corollary to that is most “good” animals are mostly vegetarians.

Size: Unclear
The mice are smaller than most animals, but don't seem as much smaller as they should be.  On Earth a mouse: average size 3-4 inches nose to end of tail.  Badger average size: 29 inches nose to tail.  How these two animals climb the same staircase or sit at the same table is beyond my math.  I've always assumed that you have to average out the scale a bit.  Mice are smaller in proportion, badgers larger, but more like a range between a human who's 3' and one who's 6', not one 3' and one 30'.  Similar to Wind in the Willows.

Law and Order: Rule of Good and Might
No stated ruler higher than local rulers/warlords, feudal-type society.  Redwall animals are given passage many places as healers and generally nice folk. Local authority at Redwall rests with the Abbott or those who he sees fit to appoint.  They hold power through both fortification and being all-around good guys.  Follows the trope that good guys fight better because bad guys are constantly backstabbing each other.

Own language:
Accents vary
Sparrows, for one, are described as having their own language, but it's just fast, broken English.  Other species, notably hares, moles, are assigned their own dialects.  Considering the source, it's safe to say that all characters speak accented British English.

Own religion: …?
For a book set in an abbey, there wasn't much of anything in the way of religion. Martin is a patron ghost, there is a bit of a mystical sense there, they say a fairly secular grace over their food, and no deities to be seen.  Words like devil and hell are used, also there's a place called the Church of St. Ninians, which is apparently explained away in a later book.
Quoth the author, from
There is no religion in my stories and no hidden meanings. What you see is what you get. The Abbey is just a place of peace and comradeship, where creatures choose to live together.

Other Notes:
Exceptions to the general scale/relationship between animals seem to be confined to Matthias' travels through the forest, in which he is almost eaten by a cat, an owl and a snake.  Only the snake is actually an 'evil' character, the cat is an accident and the owl makes friends, but all three are clearly bigger than the mouse by quite a bit.  Animals who live in the woods seem to be less civilized in general, although it's not a hard rule.

Level of Anthropomorphism:
Very High
Almost all characters wear clothes, walk on their hind legs, cook food, use weapons, live in buildings, etc.  This is a case of a fully non-human world, where most species are civilized.  Very little would change in this book if the characters were all human (or more humanoid), except that the simplicity of the story might be harder to swallow.  And it's a great mental image, the heroic swordsmouse.

Next week, swordsmice go darker and way more badass.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O'Brien, 1971

A few months back I re-watched the animated movie adapted from this book, and it lead to a strong desire to reread the book.  The movie, Secret of NIMH, is fine for what it is, but the book is far more subtle.
And there's no magic.
And the plot is much less melodramatic.

The things I found most striking re-reading this book was how even-handed it was.  The scientists who turn the rats into super-rats are perhaps unthinking, but well-meaning, and they care for their lab animals.  The farmers only want to drive out the rats because they steal.  The owl makes Mrs. Frisby understandably nervous, but is generally courteous to her.  The only openly cruel character is Dragon the cat.

Mrs. Frisby is a widowed mouse caring alone for her kids.  She is naturally timid, as a mouse is, but when needed becomes brave and strong, running risks that go against her instincts, for the sake of her family.  (The rats only help her because of their prior relationship with her husband, but they do have their own worries.)
“You forget,” Mrs. Frisby said, “I'm Timothy's mother.  If you, and Arthur, and others in your group can take risks to save him, surely I can, too.”
Ah, the story of the rats of NIMH.  The Frisby family is the main plot, but  the history of the rats is half the book.  I love their journey from wild, to lab rats, to escapees, to slowly exploring their new potential.  Altered by science, they are intelligent and long-lived, and they decide they can do better than living on the fringe of human society.  At the end they are on their way, hopefully to build a city of intelligent rats, somewhere where humans almost never go.  It's not mentioned explicitly, but implied that Nicodemus is smart enough to realize that eventually the rats could be found out, and if that happens, they need to be both independent from human society (not thieves), and able to prove by example that they deserve to continue to exist.  Willingly giving up living off human food, building their own structures, and hoping to be left in peace long enough to develop a true civilization of rats are an admirable and ambitious set of goals. 
“There could be room enough for a thousand of us”
“There aren't a thousand of us.”
“There might be, someday”
“But why?  Why move?....We've got all the food we want.  We've got electricity, and lights, and running water....”
“Because everything we have is stolen.”
“That's silly.  Is it stealing when farmers take milk from cows, or eggs from chickens?  They're just smarter than the cows and chickens, that's all.  Well, people are our cows.  If we're smart enough, why shouldn't we get food from them?”
“It's not the same.  Farmers feed the cows and take care of them.... Besides, if we keep it up, we're sure to be found out.” -Nicodemus and Jenner
The end of the book was rather sudden, and not all questions are answered, but not in a bad way.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall: Separate 'nature'-based animal society
The 'normal' animals have a loose association where they may help each other out, but keep mostly to themselves.  The Rats, on the other hand, are consciously building a fair, communal society.

Size: Real, with extenuating circumstances
Mrs. F, the birds, shrews, etc are all normal size animals, the Rats are larger than normal rats.

Law and Order: unclear/democratic
The Rats govern themselves in a vaguely democratic way, they vote on major issues, the group that disagrees with the larger body exiles themselves.  The other animals don't seem to have an overall system beyond an understanding of the seasons, the food chain, etc.  Each keeps to its own.  Most animals see no problem with stealing from humans, taking left over food where it appears.

Own language: Yes, cannot speak to humans.
Animals can speak across species boundaries.  The cat is the only animal who does not speak to the others.  The animals on the farm can understand human speech.  The Rats (and Mr. Ages, Mr. Frisby, and the Frisby kids) learn to read human language, but are only rodents, they cannot speak it.

Own religion: None Stated
Aside from a moral quoted more than once: “We all help one another against the cat.”

Other Notes: Rats fond of stuff, but not clothing.
The Rats build themselves quite a base, complete with lighting, an elevator, furniture, rat-sized books (I have no idea how they did that), ventilation, they have designed and built rat-sized plows...Their supplies are stolen and items built with a high level of sophistication.  The Frisby family is described to have blankets and a simple table made of a bit of discarded wood, but their home is makeshift and furnished with found natural items.  Nicodemus is described as having an eyepatch, but none of the other animals are said to wear any clothing.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Aspiring
The rats are consciously attempting to build their own society, pulling what they like from human technology and history (and attempting to learn from what they dislike).  The climactic trip to Thorn Valley is the first big step toward their final goal of being self-sufficient, to stop stealing from humans.  The other animals are basically just living their lives.

Side Note:  Of course, rats are in truth quite smart, and I have a certain affection for them.  I also highly recommend the nonfiction book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.  My first pet rat was named Isabella, after a young rat Mrs. Frisby meets studying in the library.

The Rescuers

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rescuers
Margery Sharp, 1959

I reread the first four books in this series, though I'll mainly talk about the first one (The Rescuers itself) here.

They are adorable.  Garth Williams' illustrations in my edition only make them even more adorable.

I love Margery Sharp's writing.  She has a way with gently ironic turns of phrase, or bits of description which completely capture the whimsy of her world of mice. 
pg 6- “There is nothing like breeding to give one confidence: [Madam Chairwoman] was descended in direct line from the senior of the Three Blind Mice.”
It's interesting to me that it was clearly not intended to be a series when the first one was written.   The Rescuers sums up each character's probable future at the end.  There is no explanation at the top of book two as to why they're all back together.  Also between books one and two the relationship between Bernard and Bianca changes from open flirtation with the strong possibility of something more to a standard friendship with undercurrents of unresolvable romantic interest.

Sharp is gently mocking both of aristocrats like Bianca and the humans around her, as well as middle and lower class characters, both among humans and mice. 
pg 27- “The singing and shouting almost deafened her ears, there wasn't a moment of repose. (Miss Bianca had frequently assisted, from the Boy's pocket, at diplomatic soirees.  There, always, a moment of repose; in fact, sometimes the moments ran into each other and made hours of repose.)”
I love Miss Bianca; while early on subject to fainting, she spends the first book quickly and consciously shedding prejudices and preconceptions to struggle alongside her new friends.  She's never very physically strong - always feminine and delicate - but uses her charm, cleverness, diplomacy and knowledge to great effect, even against cats. 
pg 99 - “always, at the last moment, by some exquisite trick or clever piece of flattery, she held Mamelouk's paw suspended – and then skimmed like a hummingbird to safety.
4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Anthropomorphic Society Rundown:

Overall: Separate/parallel animal society
The mouse society exists alongside humans, without their knowledge.  They do parody/pick up some human conventions.

Size: Real size
The mice are mouse-sized, and the other animals they encounter likewise are their actual size.

Law and Order:  Ignore Human Law
The mice have their own regulations governing their behavior, but openly flout human law.  In The Rescuers, there is exactly zero thought given to why the prisoner in question (a Norwegian poet) is in prison when they decide to get him out.  All jailers/guards are described as immoral, usually gluttonous and cruel.

Own language: Yes, but mutilingual
Mice have their own language and speak the local human language.  In the Rescuers, they recruit a Norwegian mouse to translate for the Norwegian prisoner.  They sometimes speak to other animals as well, primarily Bianca, who over the four books, negotiates/talks with a cat, two bloodhounds, a bunch of doves, a racehorse, and a colony of bats.  Being educated, she speaks, “with a much better accent than most... in a foreign tongue.” 
It seems to be uncommon to talk to humans, Bianca doesn't speak to the Boy who looks after her, but they do speak to those they rescue, and expect them to be surprised that mice can talk.

Own religion: None Stated
Although the Prisoner's Aid Society is a charitable organization.

Other Notes:
The amount of clothing/accessories they wear seems to change as needed by the plot.  They don't seem to wear clothing as a matter of course.  Most clothing described is accessories, for example boots for rain, a coat for cold, hats, jewelry, suitcases/bags, military-style honors.  (Side note, the Tybalt Star is awarded for gallantry in the face of cats.)

Level of Anthropomorphism: Middling
The mice have a fairly human-like society, including mouse-sized furniture and buildings, (the meeting hall for the Society is made of an empty wine cask).  They still eat like mice, food made of bits found here and there, and are aware of their danger around most humans and large animals.  Do have a human like sense of class, although the only aristocratic mouse described is Bianca, and she is exceptional because she is a pet mouse.

Next week: more mice, and rats as well!

The Wind in the Willows

Monday, October 26, 2009

1908, Kenneth Grahame

The above is what people often remember from The Wind in the Willows.  I blame Disney. 

For a book that everyone seems to vaguely remember, there's very little in the way of plot.  Toad's story is a plot, misadventure piling on misadventure, thrown in jail, escape, battle, the final defeat of vanity.  The other chapters, which I find much more interesting, are almost a series of sketches exploring the significance of place: Dwelling Places, Wild Places, Play Places, Holy Places, Exotic Places.

The lyrical descriptions leave no doubt in my mind of the affection Grahame held for the countryside where he lived.  In the first chapter, Mole meets the River:

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. - Chapter 1: "The River Bank"

The use of animal characters, in this case, allows them to be closer to the land they live on, and in, and with.  Although it's not an action-packed book to read, it is a beautiful one.

Personally I have a soft spot for the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation, even though the voice acting is far superior to the animation, and the voice acting is just okay.  Mostly I loved it growing up because unlike the Disney animated version, the Rankin Bass spends time with two of my favorite chapters: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Wayfarers All, although it awkwardly combines them into one section.  At some point I need to find time to watch some of the British film and TV versions for comparison.

Both chapters in question are highly mystical in nature.  Me being me, an adventure in which the main characters meet Pan won my interest from a young age, and in Wayfarers All, Rat is possessed somewhat literally by the spirit of wanderlust.

A quick search of the Project Gutenberg text confirms a suspicion of mine:  Of five uses of the word “willow”, four are in the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and similarly almost all references to wind in the reeds.  (The actual title phrase is not in the text.)  So I think it isn't unreasonable to think that Grahame considered it the heart of the book.  Especially given the cover of the first edition.

I like the chapter.  I like that it's just there, not foreshadowed, doesn't come up again, just standing alone.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

To clarify the differences between the books in this cycle, I'm going to run through some of the characteristics of the anthropomorphic society in each book. 
Here we go.

Overall: Unclear relationship toward humans.
Animals probably wear clothes and do talk to humans.  (Not all animals, though.  Stray dog and barge horse seem to be mute, some animals are pets) 

Size: Unclear.
The characters can drive cars, and may be mistaken for human.  On the other hand, the Sea Rat seems to easily stow away on ships, which implies a certain smallness.  Most film adaptations seem to split the difference, and make the characters equivalent to rather short humans.  The pictures in an early edition imply normal animal size.  So... yeah.

Law and Order: Partially subject to human law.  Maybe.
Toad is sentenced to prison time by humans, but does not fear recapture after he gets back into animal territory...
No stated repercussions for either the Weasels squatting in Toad Hall, or when the main group attacks them (with staffs and pistols) and drives them away.

Own language: Not implied.
Can communicate across species, and with humans.

Own religion: Yes.
Pan is presented as the protector and secret champion of animalkind.  He is worshiped by them, albeit semi-unconsciously.

Other Notes:
Human class structure.  The main characters are British gentlemen, appear to be upper-class, have plenty of leisure and money.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very High
Clothing, furniture, pistols, pipes, cars, letters, etc.  Does not seem like a put-on to pretend to be human.  I get the feeling the characters would feel naked without clothing, but it may be the influence of the illustrations of the edition I had and the animated version I watched.

This is the first time I've read this book in a while.  It's not quite as brilliant throughout as I wanted it to be, but there's a lot of pleasure to be had.

"And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. You can easily overtake me on the road, for you are young, and I am ageing and go softly. I will linger, and look back; and at last I will surely see you coming, eager and light-hearted, with all the South in your face!" - The Sea Rat, Chapter 9: "Wayfarers All"

New Theme: Anthropomorphic Animal Societies

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In searching through Children's sections on the hunt for Girl's Books, I discovered another genre I'd been meaning to re-read a bunch of.

For each of these books I plan to chat both about the book itself and the structure of the animal society.

Planned Subjects:


Monday, October 19, 2009

Dan Simmons, 1989

There are lots of reasons to like Hyperion.  The form is intriguing, the characters complicated, the plot mysterious, and the prose lovely.  But aside from all that, I'm glad I read Hyperion because it gives me more ammunition in my long-standing fight to prove that The Time Traveler's Wife is a pointless book.

One of the main conceits in Hyperion is "time-debt".  Time-debt is what happens to people who travel via FTL drive (somewhat adorably called Hawking Drive), as they enter a kind of stasis and age slower than people who stay on planets or travel via a kind of tele-portals.  So if your friend travels to a distant world and back, you will end up many years older than the traveler.  In several of the novellas which make up the backbone of the novel, this disconnect between those who go and those who stay behind is explored beautifully.  This is a good, emotionally effective use of time "travel", even though it's only one way.  The final novella is a far better romantic time-problem story than that previously named piece of feather-weight lit.  (Okay, I have a grudge.  And TTTW was way way overrated.)

I had read a few pieces by Simmons previously.  I liked Ilium and Olympos, they were very weird, but intriguing.  So I thought I'd pick up what seems to be his most acclaimed book (and a Hugo winner.)

I got 25 pages in and went, "Oh, I get it, it's The Canterbury Tales, IN SPACE."  That is not intended as a derogatory remark.  The frame story works well, and since each character's tale is intended as the answer to the question 'why are you on the pilgrimage?' (which is usually fatal), each one builds on the previous to create a progressively clearer view of their world, and its potential turning point. 

It's not all drama and SF ideas (and literary references, obscure and less so, and religious and moral philosophizing).  The Soldier's Tale, in particular, takes a sudden left turn into highly visceral descriptions of sex and violence, which mostly startled me because I was reading on the subway at the time.  Now, I read romance and such on the subway, but I like to have a little warning.  I read a criticism of this novel that it's sexist, and I will say that there are not a ton of good female characters, and while the tough lady cop who's one of the tale-tellers is cool, her tale is, well, it has ups and downs, and the technobabble (and explanation-babble) within I found the least interesting. 

I'll admit, unless your book is really really fascinating, I'm not going to do outside research which seems to be applicable to the plot (I might seek out additional information if I'm interested enough in the original subject, for example I went to the South Street Seaport Museum when I was into naval history, reading the Aubrey-Maturin series).  But it felt like I was missing something in this book, despite what seemed like adequate explanation.  If you can't give me enough infodump to understand the plot, I'm a little disappointed.  I'm not going to research romantic poetry for background to read a sci-fi novel.  Even a really "literary" sci-fi novel.

Now it's entirely possible that I wasn't missing anything, but I didn't, by the end, completely understand the relevance of the planet Hyperion.  On the other hand, I didn't think this was an obstacle to enjoying the novel.  I read what various characters hypothesized, and in the end there was a certain amount of faith involved that the planet - and the creature - that the characters are moving toward is important.  It's unfathomable, and I can get into that.  The characters themselves don't understand it, but they're hoping to.  Whatever happens (in Book Two), they might affect the course of the future, or even of the past (given all the time stuff.)  I found the ending suitable.  It could be argued it's a bit of a cliff-hanger for the next book, but I found it satisfying in itself, mystical, funny and dark, both bleak and hopeful.  The whole book is kind of like that.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book


Monday, October 12, 2009

C. J. Cherryh, 1994

I enjoy thinking about the link between language and cognition, and this work manages to delve into this subject on a deeper level than the back-of-the-book-copy would have you believe.  " human's fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?"  I'm glad I didn't actually read that before picking up the book.  In fact, Foreigner does a nice job not playing into that "Eskimos have x number of words for snow" silliness, instead subtly exploring the fundamental differences between two sentient races, reflected in their language.

The aliens, called atevi, aren't less moral, or less good, or less or more anything than humans, but they are irrevocably different.  It's actually refreshing for a sci-fi piece not to go with the easy out of 'we are all the same at the core'.  It's a completely separate sentient species, developed on a different world, and all bets are off.

Foreigner is also a nice exploration of a diplomatic (non-action-guy!) protagonist, who does his best to sympathize and understand the atevi, but has to always watch his human instincts, and always has to think of his own people.  In the most moving passages, Bren constantly realizes anew he can't really understand or be understood by even his closest atevi companions.  It's almost like playing ambassador to dolphins or gorillas, once you fall back from communicating on their terms and ascribe human motivations to their behavior, you'll never really understand what's going on.  And even if you don't, maybe you actually can't understand.

Okay, so that's all well and good, but the first thing that struck me about this book was the beginning.

Foreigner is divided into three books.
Book one is pages 9-23, book two is 27-61, and book three pages 65-423.

You don't meet the main protagonist until book three.

The first two sections set up the situation of the humans on this world.  The first is how the ship ends up in that system, the second the first contact between the species.  Not knowing what I was getting into, I was a bit surprised when, 20 pgs in, getting intrigued by the characters, the storyline jumped several generations.  I was growing very interested in the second story, when again, 200 years skipped ahead.  I didn't fully trust that Cherryh was going to stay put in her final time until a few chapters had gone by.

So, my opinion is complicated here.  Showing the story this way saves Cherryh from many awkward exposition possibilities, the dreaded "he remembered when he had learned how humans landed..." style info-dump, the interaction with a supernumerary whose purpose is to be explained to, or many other cringe-worthy strategies. I know it's often a struggle for science fiction and fantasy authors to present their world with style.

I'm conflicted about this approach.  It certainly gave me as a reader a clearer and more personal feel for the history which backs up the main story to see it through the people who were there.  Also there's some opportunity for subtle humor with later characters misunderstanding the same events.  However, I did feel slightly disappointed once it became clear that I would never get the full story about the protagonists in Part 1 or 2.  (Of course, at this point, she's written a ton of books in this series, maybe some of them fill in the gaps.)  I'm not categorically stating I need every detail of every character for a book to be good, just that in this case it was jarring to be flung forward in the timeline.  So, is the bait and switch justified in the name of clearer exposition?  I'm undecided. 

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

The Deep Beyond

Monday, October 5, 2009

C. J. Cherryh, 2005

It's two books in one!  Two... completely unconnected books.  According to Wikipedia, they take place in the same universe, but I didn't get that from reading them.

Cuckoo's Egg (1985)
Intriguing premise that never really goes anywhere, more of an extended character background than a novel in it's own right.  The identity of the main character is interesting, but not surprising the way the book seems to imply it should be.  The politics are slightly too muddled, the plot fuzzy.  The last little bit has all the plot, and then it ends.  It does bring up some intriguing ideas, and the society of Space-Cat-Samurai is fairly original, but I'd prefer if those ideas were attached to more of a plot. 

Serpent's Reach (1980)
Very cool world, interesting, if confusing, plot.  Again I could have wished for a bit more resolution (Of the situation outside of the planet the plot ends on), but this one's much better.  Probably the best space-bug society I've ever seen.  I like the idea of the Kontrin, (long-lived humans who have a hereditary ability to communicate with the bugs) and why the castes of humans were necessary/came about.  In describing this book to Erin, he pointed out that the human castes are like an insect society.  I feel silly for not adding two and two myself.  Cherryh's world building is solid and original enough that I'll definitely look for more of her work.  Even though apparently her last name is really Cherry, but she changed it because it was too feminine to sell sci-fi.  Sigh. 

3 Stars - A Good Book

On Basilisk Station

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Basilisk Station
David Weber, 1993
(Free at the Baen Free Library)

Just reread On Basilisk Station, first of the Honor Harrington series.  I have to say that I respect Weber's extremely prolific career.  I also must say that while I have enjoyed most of what I've read by him, I've read so MANY pieces, that I have become somewhat sensitive to his personal favorite narrative crutches.  (For example, six legged aliens, evil zealots along with guys on the other side just doing their jobs, letting the reader in on at least some of the antagonist's plan way before the protagonists know, stupid bureaucrats getting in the way of honest military folk, many characters with complicated naming structures.)

As one of his earlier works, this book is good, but not great.  It takes a while to get going, and the exposition is crammed in awkwardly.   There are some things he's setting up quite far in advance, characters and things he has to then reintroduce in later books.  I can't decide whether it's better to be thinking that far ahead or better to leave out the excessive detail until it's needed.  I don't think I remembered any of this setup when the characters reappeared the first time I read through the series.

Overall, I still thought it was plenty of fun, but I liked it less well this time around than I did a few years back.

The fact that the first few pages of chapter one mostly introduce the main character's empathic space-cat is not a point in the book's favor.  Once we get into the day-to-day of Honor and her crew, it picks up in interest. There isn't a big space battle until the end.  I like Weber's style on spaceship battles, though.  He treats spaceships like a cross between submarines and a ship-of-the-line.  Ships (ideally) maneuver together to get into a position to target the enemy's weakest point.  There is an awful lot of geometry involved, and long chases while ships try to outmaneuver each other, while still out of range.  The battle in this book ends up being based more on attrition and clashing technologies, but I enjoy the theory overall.  As fun as it is to see ships pummel each other close up or flash by in a hurry, I overall prefer the tactical approach to space battle.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Side Note: Awesome space battle:

The Balance of Terror

Historical Girls: Quote-tastic!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

As I'm coming to the end of this cycle of books, I'd like to leave with a (lengthy) selection of quotes I found interesting and entertaining.

I present the following for your consideration and amusement, without commentary.

I'm off to wash my brain out with something containing spaceships and explosions.  Enjoy!

On Dress:

Anne of Green Gables:
"Pretty!" Marilla sniffed. "I didn't trouble my head about getting pretty dresses for you. I don't believe in pampering vanity, Anne, I'll tell you that right off. Those dresses are good, sensible, serviceable dresses, without any frills or furbelows about them, and they're all you'll get this summer. The brown gingham and the blue print will do you for school when you begin to go. The sateen is for church and Sunday school. I'll expect you to keep them neat and clean and not to tear them. I should think you'd be grateful to get most anything after those skimpy wincey things you've been wearing."

"Oh, I AM grateful," protested Anne. "But I'd be ever so much gratefuller if—if you'd made just one of them with puffed sleeves. Puffed sleeves are so fashionable now. It would give me such a thrill, Marilla, just to wear a dress with puffed sleeves."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
Sissy went shopping with Francie and helped her buy a grown-up dress and her first pair of high-heeled pumps. When she tried on her new outfit, mama and Sissy swore that she looked sixteen except for her hair. Her braids made her look very kiddish.
"Mama, please let me get it bobbed," begged Francie.
"It took you fourteen years to grow that hair," said mama, "and I'll not let you have it cut off."
"Gee, Mama, you're way behind the time."
"Why do you want short hair like a boy?"
"It would be easier to care for."
"Taking care of her hair should be a woman's pleasure.....A woman's hair is her mystery. Daytimes, it's pinned up. But at night, alone with her man, the pins come out and it hangs loose like a shining cape."

Little Women:  
Amy suffered deeply at having to wear a red instead of a blue bonnet, unbecoming gowns, and fussy aprons that did not fit. Everything was good, well made, and little worn, but Amy's artistic eyes were much afflicted, especially this winter, when her school dress was a dull purple with yellow dots and no trimming.

On the Banks of Plum Creek: First day of school, the girls
"...put on their Sunday dresses. Mary's was a blue-sprigged calico, and Laura's was red-sprigged. Ma braided their hair very tightly and bound the ends with thread. They could not wear their Sunday hair ribbons because they might lose them. .... Laura wanted to sink down and hide her legs. Her dress was too short, it was much shorter than the town girls' dresses. So was Mary's. Before they came to Plum Creek, Ma had said they were outgrowing those dresses."
 [Side Note: Only one girl in town, whose family is wealthy, is described as wearing shoes]

Island of the Blue Dolphins:
During the time that I was taming the birds, I made another skirt. This one I also made of yucca fibers softened in water and braided into twine. I made it just like the others, with folds running lengthwise. It was open on both sides and fell to my knees. The belt I made of sealskin, which could be tied in a knot. I also made a pair of sandals from sealskin for walking over the duns when the sun was hot, or just to be dressed up when I wore my new skirt of yucca twine.

On Church:

On the Banks of Plum Creek: Sunday School begins:
"Now I'm going to tell you a story!" Laura was very pleased. But Mrs. Tower began, "It is all about a little baby, born long ago in Egypt. His name was Moses." So Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bullrushes. Even Carrie knew that...

After that everyone stood up. They all opened their mouths and tried to sing "Jerusalem, the Golden." Not many of them knew the words or the tune. Miserable squiggles went up Laura's backbone and the insides of her ears crinkled. She was glad when they all sat down again.

Anne of Green Gables:
"I went into the church, with a lot of other little girls, and I sat in the corner of a pew by the window while the opening exercises went on. Mr. Bell made an awfully long prayer. I would have been dreadfully tired before he got through if I hadn't been sitting by that window. But it looked right out on the Lake of Shining Waters, so I just gazed at that and imagined all sorts of splendid things."

"You shouldn't have done anything of the sort. You should have listened to Mr. Bell."

"But he wasn't talking to me," protested Anne. "He was talking to God and he didn't seem to be very much interested in it, either. I think he thought God was too far off though. "

Caddie Woodlawn: On the traveling minister:
Weddings and christenings were put off until his arrival, and sometimes he found new-made graves awaiting his benediction. The settlers always opened their homes to him, and it was a great occasion when they could entertain the circuit rider. Everyone stood in awe of him. He was not only a man of God who could wrestle in spiritual battle with angels and spirits of evil, but it was said that there was not a man on his circuit who could show a strength of muscle equal to his. When, in his deep voice, he spoke of punishment for sinners, the little schoolhouse seemed to be filled with the crackling roar of the fires of hell.

On Enemies:

On the Banks of Plum Creek:
"Don't you touch her!" Nellie screeched.  You keep your hands off my doll, Laura Ingalls!"
She snatched the doll against her and turned her back so Laura could not see her putting her back in the box.  Laura's face burned hot and the other girls did not know what to do...

When they were out of the store, Christy said to Laura, "I wish you'd slapped that mean Nellie Oleson."
"Oh no! I couldn't" Laura said.  "But I'm going to get even with her. Sh! Don't let Mary know I said that."

Anne of Green Gables:
As for Gilbert Blythe, she would not even look at him. She would NEVER look at him again! She would never speak to him!!

When school was dismissed Anne marched out with her red head held high. Gilbert Blythe tried to intercept her at the porch door.

"I'm awfully sorry I made fun of your hair, Anne," he whispered contritely. "Honest I am. Don't be mad for keeps, now."

Anne swept by disdainfully, without look or sign of hearing.

Little Women:
Jenny Snow, a satirical young lady, who had basely twitted Amy upon her limeless state, promptly buried the hatchet and offered to furnish answers to certain appalling sums. But Amy had not forgotten Miss Snow's cutting remarks about 'some persons whose noses were not too flat to smell other people's limes, and stuck-up people who were not too proud to ask for them', and she instantly crushed 'that Snow girl's' hopes by the withering telegram, "You needn't be so polite all of a sudden, for you won't get any."

On Heroism:

On the Banks of Plum Creek:
"We've got to bring in wood before the storm gets here," Laura told her. "Hurry!"
... The wind was colder than icicles. Laura ran to the woodpile, piled up a big armful of wood, and ran back...She could not open the door while she held the wood. Mary opened it for her. Then they did not know what to do. The cloud was coming swiftly, and they must bring in wood before the storm got there....Laura and Mary hurried fast, bringing in wood. Carrie opened the door when they came to it, and shut it behind them..."

Anne of Green Gables:
"Minnie May has croup all right; she's pretty bad, but I've seen them worse. First we must have lots of hot water. I declare, Diana, there isn't more than a cupful in the kettle! There, I've filled it up, and, Mary Joe, you may put some wood in the stove. I don't want to hurt your feelings but it seems to me you might have thought of this before if you'd any imagination. Now, I'll undress Minnie May and put her to bed and you try to find some soft flannel cloths, Diana. I'm going to give her a dose of ipecac first of all."

Caddie Woodlawn: Caddie overhears:
"Wipe the Indians out, is what I say. Don't wait for them to come and scalp us. Are you with me?"
White and trembling, Caddie slipped past the barn and into the stalls....Caddie slipped a bridle over Betsy's head. She was trembling all over. There was something she must do now, and she was afraid. She must warn John and his Indians.

I enjoyed this blast from the past, but I'm done with girl's books for a while.

Expect a few short pieces on sci-fi novels soon, followed by my next thematic group: Anthropomorphic Animals.

Thanks for reading!