Anticipation is All

Friday, July 30, 2010

Once upon a time, in late 1995, I was in a bookstore.  Probably a Borders.

And I saw a book.  Not just any book, THE book I had heard about, waited for, anticipated. 

I ran over, seized a copy off the shelf, and crushed it to my chest, proceeding to do a rather ridiculous happy dance there in the store.

As it turned out, that book was not worth my eager enthusiasm, as the quality was somewhat mixed, shall we say.  (Shame on you, Weis and Hickman, for toying with my affections!)

But the memory of that feeling remains.  Even today, now that I get my new hardcovers from the library, and only buy books that I've read at least once, the first time I see a book I've been anticipating is a thrill.

Yes, even when I don't read it right away.  I occasionally check in at Barnes and Noble to look longingly at the new editions that I'll read when they appear at the library.

When the book I'm on the lookout for appears on the New Releases shelf, I feel an echo of that early glee.  Like this past week, when I realized I hadn't checked to see if The God of the Hive was available recently, checked the website, and ran down to the local branch to snatch their copy.  And yes, briefly hugged it (discreetly, because it's a library book).

Getting my hands on an anticipated volume is exciting, even when, as is often the case, such a book does not hold up to my expectations.

I don't really blame the various authors, much.  It's hard to write a consistent series, and it's easier to disappoint out-sized hopes than to live up to them.  As a reader, I'm often better off with lower expectations that can be happily exceeded.  In some cases it's just more fun to be surprised by a book (or movie, etc.) that I'm not sure about than to read something that I'm fairly sure I'll love.  The sense of discovery adds an extra thrill.

So I ...wait.  A Mighty Fortress has been out for how many months?  Why didn't I know this?  Does the library have it yet?  Excuse me, I, uh, have some things to do.

Vatta's War 1-4

Monday, July 26, 2010

Vatta's War Series, Books 1-4
Elizabeth Moon, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007

I've read the first four books in Moon's sci-fi series now, and they're each quite short, almost bite-size, but enjoyable.  The premise is fairly straightforward: Kylara Vatta, daughter of a major trading family and military student, is thrown into leadership when her family is attacked and interstellar communication disrupted by unknown forces.

Trading in Danger/Marque and Reprisal: 4 Stars and 3 Stars, Respectively

I noticed that in the first book, the main character is barely described.  What she's wearing is mentioned, as far as if it's a uniform or casual, but not what she looks like.  And it doesn't hurt the book in the least.  I only noticed because she thinks at one point, that another character is obviously (racially) from the same part of her world as she is.  Much as I like Honor Harrington, (I've read the whole series and re-read On Basilisk Station a few months before reading these) Honor gets plenty of mentions of other characters noticing how striking she is, while she 'accepts that she's not beautiful', or something.  Gag me.  Honor looks downright whiny after following Kylara's struggle to pick herself up, and make a new life beyond what she had planned.

It also reminds me somewhat superficially, of The Warrior's Apprentice, by LMB.  The main character gets denied their dream to serve in their planet's military, and proceeds to build themselves a military style life out of thin air.  Moon's writing is much less fun than Bujold's, the tone is darker and more true sci-fi, no flirting with space opera here.  The side effect of that style is that it does to some degree fall into the military fiction trap which considers all non military characters to be utterly useless and cowardly.  Star Trek's constant problems with meddling bureaucrats is a good example of this trope.

Engaging the Enemy
: 2 Stars

To be fair, it's been seven months since I read the first two books, but this book could have used a little more recap at the beginning.  There are just a couple too many characters for me to naturally remember them all in context.  Also it looks like Moon took a break before writing the third-fifth books, so the change in tone might not be in my faulty recollection.  I feel like this book has less weight, emotionally, than the previous books. Also the ending is weak, the whole last act felt tacked on so they could have a battle.

Command Decision: 2 Stars

We finally get confirmation in this book of what I had suspected.  Despite the appearance of the woman depicted on the cover of the book, Ky has "dusky" skin.  It only comes up when they visit a station settled by a fringe racist group.  While I find it more likely that should we venture into space, we'll bring our problems with us, it was nice to plausibly present racism as something completely unthinkable to society at large.

I feel like the books are wandering at this point, and I don't think I'll read the fifth book.  I liked the first two, but they seem to be losing steam instead of building it.  The more plot lines get fleshed out, the less time she has to spend on each.  The result is more main characters but not enough time with any of them.  The characters are sympathetic, but aren't quite gripping enough, the plots fine, but not quite intriguing enough.

I don't know whether I will change my mind and read the last one, but I still have plans to try Moon's fantasy at some point, as it comes highly recommended.

Next Week: The God of the Hive, Laurie R. King

Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds and Sensei and Student

Monday, July 19, 2010

Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds, Birds of Prey: Sensei and Student
Gail Simone, Ed Benes, et. al.  2003-2004, 2004

For the past couple weeks, more than anything else, I've been reading comic books. All kinds of comic books: back issues, new issues, specials, one-shots, and graphic novels.  These two graphic novels collect the beginning of Gail Simone's initial run with Birds of Prey (she recently returned to the relaunched book, but I'm not sold on the new run quite yet.)  Birds of Prey, of course, gets special love just for being an all-female superhero team (most of the time), but also I really like each of the main characters.

(Character FYI for non-comic readers:

Oracle: Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl.  Now paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, she maintains her connections with the superhero community and her vast computer network to become an information broker and coordinates the team.

Black Canary: Dinah Lance, daughter of the original Black Canary, she is a master of martial arts and has a voice-based sonic superpower.

Helena Bertenelli, sole surviving member of a Gotham crime family, grew up to become a ruthless fighter and formidable vigilante. )

I hadn't gotten to these books before, which is ridiculous considering how good this series is. 

One of my only complaints was I felt that the characters spent a bit too much time just getting themselves and each other out of trouble, just reacting instead of acting. I hope that further into the run the personal drama will be balanced with more outwardly focused missions.  I mean, what do you think this is, Marvel?

I liked that the characters were allowed to be lighthearted and affectionate with each other.  They were even occasionally allowed to be stereotypically female, which I actually appreciate.  I like the feeling that we've come far enough that Simone didn't think the only way to establish them as strong heroes was to keep them unremittingly serious.  The end of the second book contains a coda that is almost sickeningly cute, but I loved it.

Some of the art annoyed me, mostly with way-too-thin waists and an odd habit of not drawing pupils on characters seen in profile.  Only twice did I really wince at a clothing choice, and one of those is a cover illustration.  The other was a truly ludicrous casual top worn by Dinah in the second book, and she comments that a passerby "thought [she] was Power Girl".

I enjoyed how embedded it is in the DCU, with brief cameos by character after character.  This may present a problem for readers not familiar with the larger DCU, but being intertwined with the superhero world is part of what gives meaning to the team.  Oracle has contacts everywhere, that is basically her power.  Besides which, if they aren't being contrasted with Batman, compared with the Justice League, then what makes this group different is less clear.

There is a fantastic five pages of Wonder Woman in the second book.  Those just made me happy through and through, not just because it showed Diana being utterly and unmistakeably Wonder Woman in t-shirt and jeans (and tiara). 

By the second issue, it was clear to me that Simone understands what could make BoP special.  Superheroines are different than superheroes.  Their problems are different, their advantages and disadvantages are different.  Without ever whanging you over the head with it, there is a sense of sisterhood to the series, even when the characters are fighting each other.  There is a quiet recognition of the fact that sometimes women and children need women to help them, that there is a need for superheroines.

4 Stars - Really Good Books

Purchase Of Like Minds, Sensei and Student at

The Appeal of the Concrete

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Second in a series.  Read the first post here.

I love it when books include small concrete details, such that I learn something independent of the story.  This is more prevalent, and more universally enjoyed, in children's literature, but for me occurs elsewhere as well.  Extra points if the activity or knowledge is useful in either historical recreation, or otherwise comes up in real life.

Some examples:

I only vaguely remember the book Five Children and It, but I remember that the kids had a trick to make themselves wake up at any particular time they chose.  I couldn't get this to work for me as a kid, but it ensured that I never forgot the book.

Similarly, I don't recall being able to make maple candy as described in Little House in the Big Woods, but I may have ruined some maple syrup trying.

A YA historical fiction novel called Quest for a Maid I mostly remember for the main character using whole cloves for toothache.

Another YA book I loved as a young teen, A Rumor of Otters, taught me that you can make yourself breathe more quietly by imagining you're drawing the breath in from a long way away.

Details like these will sometimes keep a book present in my mind for years after reading.  I mean, I didn't look up any of those examples.  The effect is strongest when it connects the character or the story with a simple physical activity that seemed useful when I first read the book.

A couple of non-children's examples: Since the first time I read Guilty Pleasures, I sometimes think of it when I pull my keys out when coming home late.  I don't have the problem of warning people lurking in my apartment, but I think of the book when I consciously prevent my keys from jingling as I walk up the street.  And when I spoon coffee grounds, sometimes I think about Touchstone by Laurie R King, because there's a scene about how British soldiers made coffee during WWI.

This is mostly a characteristic of children's and YA literature, and it's probably a combination of personal taste and young life experience that determines which details of which books stay with us.  As someone who did a lot more reading than anything else as a kid, anything I could learn from books was  seized upon as a special knowledge.  But I've asked around, and most people seem to have at least one book that stays in the mind not so much because of the character or story, but more hinged on the (seemingly) practical information hidden in the pages.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
Robert E Howard
(Compilation published 2002, stories written 1932-1933)

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing. - "The Tower of the Elephant"

Fantastic.  I'm so delighted I got around to reading these, and I'm actually glad I didn't do it sooner.  There are certain styles, especially dated styles, that I've grown to enjoy over time.  This book contains the first thirteen Conan stories, in the order they were (probably) written.  I don't know that I would have been able to understand or appreciate the prose and the undercurrents of these stories if I were hung up on the scantily-clad females.

There are plenty of such women, but I find it actually honest, on a certain level.  Howard has created a complicated war-torn world, in which plenty of its fairer denizens are used as pawns by the men around them.  Many of them are happy to stay with Conan in return for protection, and that seems reasonable in the circumstances.  Let me put it this way: it was less sexist than I was anticipating.  I got tired of the more than occasional mention of the weakness of “girlish strength”, but there were clever women and vicious women, silly women and brave women scattered throughout.  None of them wore very much, but Conan usually didn't wear much either.

It is a product of its time.  The stories are unthinkingly racist here and there, until I came upon one story in particular so over-the-top in revolting description and behavior that I felt embarrassed just reading it.  Even that story [The Vale of Lost Women], though, in the last third, had beautiful moments and amazing description.  Reading the appendix, I found that Howard scholars believe that this story was a botched attempt to blend Howard's interest in Westerns into Conan's world, with the black-skinned Kushites standing in for “Indians”.  I'll let you guess how horribly awkward that gets.  It was not even accepted for publication until the 60's.

There are lots of other amusing bits that date the writing, for example a decidedly odd understanding of evolutionary theory is scattered into Conan's speculations on the origins of some of his supernatural foes.

Overall, I was struck by the beauty and dark humor of the writing.  I really enjoyed the poetry in some of the pieces, and the fantastic descriptions (despite spotting a few 'favorite' phrases used over and over).

Before midnight they crossed the Ophirean border and at dawn the spires of Khorshemish stood up gleaming and rose-tinted on the south-eastern horizon, the slim towers overawed by the grim scarlet citadel that at a distance was like a splash of bright blood in the sky.
 - "The Scarlet Citadel"

The writing is extremely visceral.  Not just the violence of battle, but the constant sensuality of all the characters, men, women, things from beyond space, was surprising to me.  I can understand both why these were popular from the time they were written and inspired an entire sub-genre of fiction.

In my current experience, though, that aspect of it, the sense of vibrant life, has departed from much of modern fantasy, even sword-and-sorcery itself.  Part of this is the decline of using female characters as sexual objects, and that I certainly can't complain about.  I found it amazing, though, that in tone some of the stories almost have more in common with modern romance or erotica than with modern fantasy. 

Left alone...she realized how much the protection of the Cimmerian had meant to her.  There intruded vaguely a wonderment at the mad pranks of Fate, that could make the daughter of a king the companion of a red-handed barbarian.  With is came a revulsion toward her own kind.  Her father, and [her captor], they were civilized men.  And from them she had had only suffering.  She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there were an ulterior motive behind his actions.  Conan had shielded her, protected her, and – so far – demanded nothing in return.
 - "Iron Shadows in the Moon"

She was no longer a princess, but only a terrified girl.... In her frantic fear she had come to him who seemed strongest.  The ruthless power that had repelled her, drew her now.
For answer he drew off his scarlet cloak and wrapped it about her, roughly, as if tenderness of any kind were impossible to him.  His iron hand rested for an instant on her slender shoulder, and she shivered again, but not with fear.  Like an electric show a surge of animal vitality swept over her at his mere touch, as if some of his superabundant strength had been imparted to her.  - "Black Colosuss"

The unabashed sexuality, while hardly ever moving into something openly sexual, was kind of great.  These belong to a very masculine tradition of adventure that unapologetically embraces battle for the sake of combat, sexuality for the sake of lust, and death as a constant threat.  It's not what I want to read every day, but it's a powerful experience to explore these lands for a while.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Love in (Teen) Literature

Thursday, July 8, 2010

This is the first in a trial series of pieces from a more personal point of view, each focusing on a subject related to reading or books, but not necessarily on one specific work.  Comments are encouraged!

I've been thinking recently about the controversy surrounding the Twilight novels.  You can slam them for being badly written, or for warping the archetype of the vampire, but some of the more interesting commentaries I read were from people worried about the message absorbed by young girls.  Bella is a doormat, and apparently the later books are even more troubling in their messages about love:
Simmons, an educator who specializes in raising girls' self-esteem, lays out what parents and teachers are up against. "Among the cringe-worthy morals of this story: When you're in love, the only thing that matters in life is your man. If you get dumped, your life is over, so feel free to act suicidal to get him back. Even if he tells you he never wants to see you again, manipulation and game-playing are effective ways to get his attention. Your friends are only ornaments; just kick them to the curb when he comes back."  -
Now, I think the books are dreck, but I mostly trust teenagers to not model their lives directly on fictional characters.  Every generation has the 'oh no pop culture is ruining our children' concerns.  At least it's a book, I suppose (although the above commentary was inspired by the movie.)

All that is really just a preface, to say that I have been thinking about the messages about relationships I picked up as a kid/teen from all the reading I was doing at the time.  

On the more YA side I read a lot of Lloyd Alexander, which is maybe where I picked up those silly notions of people developing their own personalities before committing to a relationship.  See: Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The Westmark Trilogy.  On the other hand, Redwall has a lot of sweetheart romance, where the characters are smitten with each other from the start and get together at the end.

Now, lets also remember that YA wasn't quite the genre it is now, so I was reading mostly “adult” novels as a teenager.

I read a lot of Pern books.  There's some pretty weird stuff in there about relationships.  Remember how the dragonriders have to mate with whoever is bound to their dragon's mate?  That was creepy, but happily only a small part of the plot.

Relationships play a larger role in Dragonlance, (which I read a LOT of).  The morals seem to boil down to: love/lust makes you stupid, it's entirely possible to love someone who doesn't love you back, but it is not good for your long-term health, and relationships are hard.  Not too bad for a series of D&D books.

In some ways the strongest parallel with the Twilight series would have to be with the many novels of dubious literary quality I devoured by Mercedes Lackey.

Lackey's highly romantic fantasy novels are probably where I acquired a taste for the stories where the two main characters are each crazy about the other, but they don't realize it, and if they would just TALK TO EACH OTHER, they would be together and happy and... 

Not the point.

Lackey also deserves credit, I suspect, for instilling in a generation of teenage girls a highly sympathetic, if potentially overly protective, attitude toward gay couples.  Because of this, I also blame her for most writers of slash fanfiction.

She also spilled much ink over a phenomenon she termed 'lifebonding'.  In the Valdemar books, a person who finds (and, as I recall, sleeps with) their fated partner enjoys a deep soul-bonding that includes some level of telepathic connection with their lover.  This figures greatly in her tragic romances, naturally.  Not every happy couple was lifebonded, but it was like a magical blessing for the chosen.

Several trilogies later, though, perhaps the author had second thoughts.  In one storyline, the downsides of lifebonding are clearly spelled out.  A main character who has spent much of the book moping about finding his fated partner actually gets to have an honest conversation with a character who is bonded, and it isn't all sunshine and roses.  Apparently being that deeply bonded means you can't fight with each other, no matter how much you want to.  It's pointed out that most of the people who find lifebonds are powerful mages who are severely mentally unbalanced; so it might be the universe/deity's way of forcefully grounding the personalities of people who could literally level cities if they have a bad day.  The character in question comes out of the session with a new appreciation for a 'normal' relationship.  Maybe I'm reaching, but perhaps Ms. Lackey saw the potential for trouble if fans took this idea too seriously.  That's actually pretty clever on her part.

So: Valdemar: love is sometimes destined and perfect.  But you really don't want that kind.  Trust me.

Okay, this is over to you, my small but mighty cadre of loyal readers.  Were there any novels you read as a teenager that gave you especially bad, or good, ideas about relationships?


Monday, July 5, 2010

Hope Mirrlees, 1926

(Some spoilerish things included today.)

I don't know quite what I expected when I opened this book, but it was surely not what I got.

I picked up this one for a dual reason: it was reprinted and lauded in the Fantasy Masterworks series, and it was written by a woman in 1926.  Worth looking into, I figured.

The synopsis of the premise said that “the law-abiding inhabitants of Lud-in-the-Mist... must contend with the influx of fairy fruit from the bordering Land of Faerie.”   So I thought maybe there would be politics, diplomacy, smuggling, etc. I was reading quickly at the time, and I thought maybe they might treat Faerie as a peculiar neighboring country.

No such luck.  What I got was a truly strange novel that seems to be about the inadvisability of legislating hallucinogens.  Which, whatever you think about the subject, was not quite what I was expecting.  It's not badly written, for the most part, although it's front-heavy with tedious exposition.  I found it basically unsatisfying.

Part of this is taste: I find the equation of Faerie with the land of the dead less interesting than almost any other literary use of Faerie.  And all the interesting characters are not the ones the narration is following, but the main characters are rather generically bluff, pompous, clueless British gentlemen.

It's rather like telling, say, 'Bye Bye Birdie' from solely the parents' perspective.  (I'm stuck on this metaphor because about halfway through reading it, I couldn't stop humming "What's the matter with kids these days... " under my breath.)  They're adorably clueless about what's going on under their noses, but their day-to-day doings are not the interesting part.

The story centers on the leaders of the town of Lud, capital of a country that borders Faerie, and they have decided, through a complicated legal fiction, that Faerie doesn't exist.  Over the course of the story, agents of Faerie are apparently intent on returning the countries to a previous mutual relationship, or possibly just on creating havoc.  They lure children away by plying them with said magic hallucinogenic fruit, and generally make trouble.  Their motivations are left obscure.

Some of the metaphors are nice, fairly cute.  Some of the writing is pleasant and amusing.  It just didn't work for me as a whole piece.

And the sun would set, and then our riders could watch the actual process of colour fading from the world.  Was that tree still really green, or was it only that they were remembering how a few seconds ago it had been green? 
And the nymph whom all travelers pursue and none has ever yet caught – the white high-road, glimmered and beckoned to them through the dusk.

The copy I have is from what seems to be a small press printing, distributed by a larger publisher.  It is riddled with severe copyediting problems, and this impaired my enjoyment of the story as well.

I get crotchety when I finish a book with the feeling like I should “get” something about it, but don't.  There are multiple possible interpretations of the story.  In poking about the internet I found that it's a metaphor for dealing with death, for art, for the danger of delusion, for the futility of war, of prohibition, of the denial of fantasy, of the embrace of fantasy...but none of these really work for me. 

The naming of the townspeople as 'Ludites' makes me suspect that the rejection of Fairies should be equivalent to a rejection of technology, but that seems very odd to me.  It's almost an inversion of the term; the townspeople are rejecting the “old ways” of communication and commerce with Faerie, and embracing their new ways of human law.  Or maybe the name is meant to foreshadow the plot, with the townspeople gradually returning to admiration and respect for the old traditions.

On the other hand, the ending of the book makes me think that the entire thing could be a round about way of equating middle-class bourgeois society with Hell, but Mirrlees spends too much time on how adorable her bumbling merchants are to have that be convincing.

If I have to decode the obscure theme in order to just enjoy the book, that's a problem for me.  I like obscure themes, but only on top of an interesting story and characters.  The characters here are cute, but shallow, almost ciphers.  A satisfying ending could have pulled this together, but all the interesting bits make no sense or happen off-stage.  Oh well.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Next Week:  The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard