A Natural History of Dragons

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Natural History of Dragons
Marie Brennan, 2013

Premise: Being the first part of the memoirs of Lady Trent, natural philosopher and biologist, notable dragon researcher.

This book is obviously up my alley from the premise. It's written in the style of a classic memoir from the 1800s. It's set in a fantasy world; the characters are from an analogue of England (empire, aristocracy, etc.)

The main character Isabella is wealthy and high-class, which means that as she grows up, her interest in science and exploration is squelched by a family who wants her to marry well. However, her parents aren't just stereotypes. Instead, her father quietly encourages her to find a husband who would appreciate her intelligence.

Her romance with Jacob is complicated and understated. I liked that the author was able to find the balance with Isabella being an extraordinary person with extraordinary drive and dreams without making her unaffected by her upbringing and culture. Eventually they both join an expedition to study dragons in another part of the world and get embroiled both in scientific study and local politics.

For me, the weakest part of this book was as it became clear that it was the first small piece of a five-book series. It's not a bad book, but I wished it had gone further into her life instead of only being about one adventure as a very young woman. I really wanted to know more about the older, wiser version of the character who serves as the narrator.

One of the strongest parts is that Isabella's interest in study shows through in her narration. There is an adventure plotline with action and suspense, but the largest concern of the characters is almost always studying the dragons and figuring out how they work.

Overall I liked this book, but I'm not sure whether I want to get into a series right now.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Of Fire and Stars

Monday, January 22, 2018

Of Fire and Stars
Audrey Coulthurst, 2016

Premise: Princess Denna has always been preparing for her arranged marriage to the prince of the neighboring kingdom. She was reconciled to a boring life and relationship, until she met her fiancĂ©’s sister.

I intended to read a little of this book as a palate cleanser when I didn’t feel like anything serious, but I ended up finishing it quickly - it was difficult to put down.

It’s a fluffy and delightful fantasy romance-adventure. Denna and Mare (both shortened forms of long flowery names) are enjoyable protagonists, and their growing affection toward each other, first as friendship, then as more, is compelling.

On the other hand, I found characters' behavior and the politics of the fantasy kingdoms (and the failures of various politicians which justified the main characters’ actions) too predictable in most cases. It’s not bad, it’s just a little by the numbers. Modern numbers, that is. It runs against plenty of older fantasy tropes, but subverting tropes is itself a trope by this point.

That said, it was a solid use of these character types and plot twists. I enjoyed reading it, even though it felt mostly ephemeral.

The world seems to be one where bisexuality is the norm. This means that the girls’ love isn’t forbidden because they’re both female; it’s forbidden because Denna is engaged. So, points for a world that doesn’t reflect modern biases, but one side effect of this is that some of the conflict feels a little forced.

The magic was mostly well-described, although underdeveloped and underexplained.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love the idea of this book, and I really enjoyed reading most of it. However, it didn’t stay with me strongly.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Indexing: Reflections

Monday, January 15, 2018

Indexing: Reflections
Seanan McGuire, 2016

Premise: Sequel to Indexing. Picking up where we left off, with a wanna-be controller of stories in custody and a Snow White barely hanging on to reality.

I enjoyed this follow-up just as much as the first one, maybe more.

It has some of the same flaws - some plot threads left unraveled, some concepts reintroduced too often (a product of being released as a serial). The characters are more complicated and interesting, though, because it can build on what’s already there.

After only one point-of-view section in the first book, Sloane takes more of a starring role in this one, and we also get to learn more about her past. She’s awesome in so many ways, and both she and Henry go through some deep internal questioning of their relationships with their stories and their choices in how they deal with it.

I liked the new minor characters who were introduced in this one, and some other examples of ways stories are held in stasis or how the aftermath affects people’s lives.

There’s not a lot to say here - If you liked the first one, you’ll like this. If you missed the first one but Once Upon a Time crossed with Men in Black sounds better than either of those things by itself, then you have two books to add to your reading list.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy book 1)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy book 1)
Kim Stanley Robinson, 1993

Premise: Humanity’s first colony on Mars imports many of Earth’s problems, despite the colonists’ efforts.

This book was not a Hugo winner, but both its sequels were. It tells the story of the first Martian colony, following members of the “first hundred” from the journey through years of growth and into a major crisis.

I had some trouble getting into this book at the beginning. I actually started it three times before I got past the first section. It starts in the middle of the story, and even though that section was exciting in terms of what happened, I didn’t know any of the characters yet, and I didn’t connect with what was going on.

After that, it jumped back to the beginning of the mission and introduced all the characters. Each section was from a different perspective. I especially liked Nadia the practical mechanic-minded person, and I really liked Anne the ecologist’s section near the end. By the end I liked everyone to some degree. I’m even glad to have the slightly twisted perspective of the guy who seemed like a villain at the beginning.

The plot didn’t completely hang together; it’s more a series of vignettes around a theme than a story. It slowly built the picture of the changes and opportunities, as well as the problems, on Mars.

It sounds as though I didn’t like it. I did like it quite a bit, but it was a very unusual book in structure and tone.

One thing that was particularly interesting upon reflection: there would be a way to tell a more direct story of the founding and change in the colony over time, one that would have focused on action and decision. That would be the story with heroes and villains - the version of the story that might be in a history book. But that wouldn’t be the true story. The true story is many little decisions. Personal antipathy that grows for no real reason over time. Alliances and unspoken positions. Economic forces you can’t predict. And humans, trying their best, putting one foot in front of the other.

That’s the story, and it’s why this was a rewarding read.

4 Stars - A Good Book