Monday, April 29, 2013

Larry Niven, 1970

Hugo Winner - 1971

Premise: Louis Wu is bored on his 200th birthday. He's seen and done a lot in his long life. Now, however, he's bored, so when an alien named Nessus from the reclusive species known as puppeteers asks him to come on an expedition past the edge of known space, he quickly decides to go. Louis, Nessus, a Kzin called Speaker and a girl who Louis met at his party will comprise the team to explore the anomaly spotted on long range scans, the anomaly called the Ringworld.

Ringworld is not really about the Ringworld. I mean, yes, about half of it takes place there, and it is the iconic idea that lasted in the sci-fi consciousness and made the book famous. However, the book is really about the four main characters and how they reflect 'futuristic' and/or alien ideas about life, love, sex, destiny and humanity. You can find out nearly everything you need to know about the Ringworld by reading the back of the book, though.

The descriptions of the Ringworld are great, and some of the adventures that the characters have getting there and on the Ringworld are interesting. On the other hand, I have somewhat mixed feelings about some of the characters. The conflicts are interesting, and following Louis as he pieces together Nessus and Speaker's secrets was enjoyable.

Teela is brought on the expedition because Nessus believes that she is lucky. She is a frustrating character, because her apparent incompetence and naivete is necessary for her plot arc. It all makes a certain amount of sense by the end, her resolution is either the most satisfying or the most frustrating, and getting there is annoying.

Between her and Prill (the only other major supporting female character) I am left with the sense that in the world of this book women are as much an alien species as kzinti or puppeteers, if not more so. As a female-type person, I find that frustrating unless it's extremely well handled. It's not enough to make me wholly dislike the book, but it was a repeated annoyance. There is one piece of extremely problematic narration that caught me off guard late in the book that I found actually quite offensive, though.

Still, there were a lot of intriguing moments here, and I enjoyed the setting overall.

3 Stars - A Good Book, with some issues.

List of Hugo Winners

Terrier (Beka Cooper, Book 1)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tamora Pierce, 2006

Premise: Young Beka Cooper wants nothing so much as to be part of the Dogs, aka the City Guards. When she finally starts her on-the-job ‘Puppy’ training with a pair of the best guards in the Lower City, she’s both thrilled and nervous. Her tenacity and her own small powers could help her become a great Dog, if she can first survive training.

The design of Terrier really risks being cutesy, but I liked it. The book is Beka’s diary, plus some supplementary documents in the front, and that occasionally means an entry about being sick and unable to write more, or an inkspill on the page. Because it’s written in her words, we’re thrown immediately into the dialect of the city, but you’ll have no trouble keeping up.

Beka is a great YA heroine. She’s brave and friendly, but afraid of speaking up sometimes. Her small paranormal abilities (not too exceptionally rare in a fantasy kingdom) sometimes feel like more trouble than they’re worth, but she uses them to enhance her police training.

The Dogs are like a more realistic medieval relation of the Discworld Night Watch, so of course I loved that aspect of this book. (Fantasy cops is definitely a sub-genre I’m soft on.) Police work is in its infancy here, so bribes are occasionally the order of the day, but the Guardsmen and women care about their city and protecting the people in it. I really liked the range of characters: Dogs and Puppys and various citizens and criminals.

The magic in the world was interesting and subtle, and the politics running under the surface intriguing. The two large cases that take up most of the plot of the book were well-structured, both interesting and sadly believable.

I think you probably already know whether you enjoy fantasy-adventure YA with a strong heroine and a good story, and if you do, Terrier is a good book to try out. It’s not great literature, but it’s solidly fun.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book (especially for YA)

Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon
Matt Fraction, David Aja, Javier Pulido, et. al., 2013

Premise: Collects Hawkeye #1-5 and Young Avengers Presents #6. I’m just going to quote from the beginning of the first issue. “Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, became the greatest sharpshooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.”

What a fun series. Apparently when Clint isn’t busy with the Avengers he’s mixing it up with low-level gangsters, getting involved in the lives of his neighbors, and running the odd secret mission for SHIELD. Also training/hanging around with/getting trash-talked by Kate Bishop, also known as Hawkeye. (That’s sort of explained in the Young Avengers Issue in the back. They have the same code-name, just roll with it.)

The dialogue is snappy and clever, the action exciting and tense. The art perfectly enhances the tone of the book; it’s stylized and gritty on one level, but also full of humorous touches and clever layouts. Plus you have to love a book in which 4 of the 5 first issues start with the line: “Okay...This looks bad.”

There’s one twist which annoyed me because a very similar thing happened in Fraction’s Iron Man run, and it probably wouldn’t have bothered me if I had read them 3 years apart (as they were published) instead of 4 months.

The Young Avengers issue is pretty cute, and gives some nice backstory on Kate and Clint’s friendship, although it predates the Hawkeye run by four years, so both characters did some changing in the meantime.

Clint’s maybe slightly more hapless and less badass sometimes here than he should be, but I think it works. I had heard nothing but good things about this title, and I have to agree that it’s pretty fantastic.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Here's a little sample of Issue #1! http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=preview&id=13108


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Edited by Rich Horton, 2013

New Release - I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: A new anthology of fiction based around the title theme.

From other reviews of this book, I expected to like it a bit more than I did, but I did still enjoy it. Like most anthologies, this was a mixed bag. The first few, especially, I thought were just fine, nothing too exciting. The last one I found long, meandering, annoying and pointless.

In general, I think the target market for this book are people with a casual knowledge of superheroes, but who aren't really hardcore comic fans. For example, I enjoyed The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, which followed the average citizens of a country ruled by a supervillain, and Tonight We Fly, about an aging hero, but these aren't any more inventive or interesting than stories that have already been told with Dr Doom or in Astro City. Not necessarily less interesting either, but I didn’t feel like new ground was being broken.

There were some stories I really liked, though. Wild Cards, about a Federal Unit investigating a criminal with a superpower was pretty great, and Dirae, by Peter S. Beagle, was tremendously evocative and had lovely prose. Also Dr. Death vs. the Vampire and Super Family were both pretty solid superhero stories. The Biggest had a great retro style.

I overall enjoyed this collection, but it suffered, for me, from comparison with some of the great comic writing I've read over the years. Also, I found the foreword highly pretentious and it lowered my expectations for the whole enterprise.

Still, some strong stories, some weak, and the majority good but not great.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Spark (Extrahumans, Book 3)

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Spark (Extrahumans, Book 3)
Sarah Jane Bigelow, 2012

Premise: Sequel to Broken and Fly Into Fire. Dee has grown older, but still feels lost inside. She can’t control her powers or her life. The little settlement of former heroes on the planet Valen may have finally gotten the government’s attention, and soon no one will have a safe refuge.

In short, I don’t think this is a bad book, and big chunks of it were great, but overall I was left unsatisfied. Bit too much angst, bit too much dystopia in this one for me. Some great character stuff, but the very end pissed me off. For more details, read on, but Some Mild Spoilers Ahead.

It wasn’t that I wanted the characters to solve all the problems of their dystopian future. At the end of the first book I got the feeling that the author wasn’t interested in telling that story. But I wanted something. I wanted one relationship to not fall apart or one character to not betray/fight/hate the others.

I wanted some personal resolution that had nothing to do with the foretellers from the past. I really sympathized with the characters in this volume who started to be frustrated with being given clues from the past about the future with no rationale or explanation. I was so sick of the freaking Valen folks and it infuriated me that they essentially got off with ‘well, it’s very hard for them, and they try.’ Bleck. The fact that Dee, Penny, etc. ultimately couldn’t really choose to get out of the loop was really frustrating to me as a reader.

That said, a lot of the character development with Dee that took up most of the first half of the book and big chunks of the last section was pretty great. I loved the ways she tried to deal with her pyrokinesis and her ‘luck’.

The reappearance of Torres was well played, and some of the flavor of the city in turmoil was really well done.

End of Spoilers---

There’s some indication that there will eventually be a fourth book, so some of my issues could yet be resolved. However, The Spark still sits at the middle of the road with

3 Stars - A Good Book.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969

Hugo Winner - 1970

Premise: Genly Ai is an ambassador, of a sort. He is sent to an inhabited planet on behalf of the larger confederation of space, simply to make contact and try to establish friendly communication. He thinks he’s making progress, but the politics and undercurrents of the societies on Gethen are difficult to grasp. Almost as difficult as the people.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Le Guin’s prose is really lovely, even when it’s spare and simple. I had some trouble adjusting to the style and the euphemisms at first, and the book surprised me when it switched (rather late, as these things go) from just a first-person account with supporting information to two alternating first-person accounts.

The Left Hand of Darkness seems, at first to just be a story about an envoy from galactic civilization trying to communicate and survive among people who have a hard time believing that anyone could come from the stars. This is complicated heavily by the fact that the people of Gethen have a different biology than literally every other human planet. They are ambi-sexual. Not hermaphroditic, but in a cycle where each person regularly swings from entirely non-sexual to briefly either male or female. Yet they are human. It’s mentioned off-hand in one place that they may have been planted on this planet as a genetic experiment by a long-dead ancestor civilization, since it seems nigh-impossible that such an arrangement could come to pass via evolution. The story isn’t interested in how it happened, though, just how people react when this is their reality.

I may not always agree with various characters’ thoughts about how this makes these people different/better/worse off than the rest of the galaxy, but it is a fascinating question. More interesting, though, is just riding along with Genly as he struggles with his own assumptions and tries to complete his mission against all odds with the help of local politician Estrahaven. And this is the real story of the book, the potential friendship between Genly, a man of the stars, and Estrahaven, a person of Gethen. It’s really lovely and sad and hopeful all at once.

It’s not a page-turner, but it was gripping and really intriguing. Worthy of its awards and accolades, I think.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Winners