Parable of the Talents

Monday, April 23, 2018

Parable of the Talents
Octavia Butler, 1998

Read Harder 2018 Challenge: A sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author

Premise: Sequel to Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina tries to protect her growing family, her community, and the movement she hopes to foster, but the rest of the world isn't ready to leave them in peace.

Oof. This was a hard read. I had to take a break several times. All of the content warnings on this one: rape, murder, and torture, including violence targeting women, LGBTQ people, and racial and religious minorities. Government-sanctioned religious extremism. A politician rising to power on xenophobia, sexism, racism, and a false nostalgia for the past. If it had been written today, people would say the parody was too on-the-nose and over the top.

However, what troubled me the most wasn't any of that. The text of the novel is mostly drawn from the main character's diaries, but there's a framing device where each chapter is introduced by her daughter, a fair amount of time after the events. Her daughter's animosity toward the Earthseed movement was hard to read. Once I got through enough of the book, however, I began to think it was a brilliant addition.

Her perspective is not just giving a voice to those who doubt the destiny that the main character sees so clearly. It's also a second story about how truly devoting yourself to something, no matter how worthy, affects every relationship in your life. Now, Olamina's poor relationship with her daughter is mostly not her fault - horrifying things are done to them by outside forces. But the observation holds.

I felt the ending of this one was a bit rushed, there's a sudden time jump that startled me. So I didn't leave this with quite the same impact as the first.

Still, it's a powerful, amazing read in many ways, and I am sad that Ms. Butler passed away before finding the plot for the third book. The hints we have continue to fascinate. 

5 Stars - An Amazing Book

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)
Rachel Aaron, 2018

Premise: Sequel to A Dragon of a Different Color. The endgame has begun. Bob, seer of the Heartstrikers, faces the culmination of his final plan. In order to save the world from a Nameless End, Julius Heartstriker and Marci Novalli must rally all the dragon clans and the forces of human magic, but that might not be enough.

This final book brings the series to a fairly satisfying conclusion. It’s maybe a tad too happy of an ending to have much weight, but it is still a lot of fun.

The characters are as charming as they have been all along. All the factions we’ve met (along with some random red herrings) are here for the big finale, and everyone has a part to play.

The only other criticism I have is that giving all of these characters their respective emotional arcs takes a lot of pages. A pretty significant chunk of the book is tense conversation in which everyone hashes out their various issues, rivalries, plots, histories, etc., while there is literally a world-ending timebomb progressing in the background. A character even lampshades this at one point. It’s all interesting and satisfying conversation, but there is an awful lot of it. I find that this structure (an extreme focus on character moments at the expense of plot/action) is more common in independently published fiction and fan fiction. This author is enough of a pro that I kept reading. I always wanted to know what would happen, but it did drag now and then.

I loved the beginning, establishing Bob’s plans, and his role in this volume was very satisfying, as was Marci fulfilling her partnership with Ghost. Julius’s part had less impact; everything he did continued to grow naturally out of him accepting and embracing his unique strengths.

Despite the weak points, I enjoyed this series a lot. It has a great world and fantastic characters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Three-Body Problem

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu, 2007, English translation Ken Liu, 2014

Hugo Winner - 2015

Read Harder Challenge - A book of genre fiction in translation

Premise: Do you like trippy philosophy, complex morality, and lots of science in your sci-fi? Are you comfortable with that slight feeling of disconnection that can come with reading a translated work (even a really well-translated work)? Read it.

I just found out that there's a lot given away in the standard descriptions of this book. I'm personally really glad that I knew nothing going in.

That's not always my taste, often it's better for me to know roughly what to expect. (For example: if I'm in the mood for a light fantasy adventure, I'll be disappointed in a gritty medieval war story, but if I'm expecting a gritty medieval war story, I might be bored by a fairy tale retelling.) Sometimes a great author can get around your expectations, but I hardly ever have the patience for a book that reveals itself this slowly.

This book? This book, I never wanted to put down. I was just so curious. What's going on? How do these characters connect? What does this game have to do with anything else? What motivations are at play?

I've never read a science fiction book set in modern China, and it's a fascinating place to explore questions of society and humanity. Liu was a child during the Cultural Revolution, and the direct effects of this event on the characters are crucial to the plot.

I've read in other reviews that many people couldn't connect to the characters or found them flat. I found them subtle and complex.

The balance between aching emotion and intellectual fervor, the blend of rage, hope, and conviction, the growing layers of mystery... Reading this book felt like listening to a suspended chord on a growing crescendo, driven inescapably toward resolution.

It's brilliant. I loved it.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1)

Monday, April 2, 2018

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1)
Martha Wells, 2017

Premise: All Murderbot wants is to be left alone to watch tv. Unfortunately, if it doesn't want its free will to be discovered, it still has a job to do, and someone's trying to kill the people it's supposed to protect.

This was an absolute delight. Going in, I thought was that this was a novella from the point of view of a killbot. What I found was a snarky sci-fi adventure with a protagonist whose general misanthropy is not entirely genuine, but this never falters into pathos.

The humans call it Security Unit, or SecUnit, but a murderbot is what it calls itself. The reason why is a mix of black humor and cynicism.

Murderbot is not only hiding its sense of humor but also its free will from both the humans it's assigned to and the shadowy Company that owns it and financed the scientific mission they're on. A SecUnit has consciousness, but it isn't supposed to be able to choose for itself, and Murderbot has to balance appearing compliant with making the right choices when everything falls apart.

Naturally, there's some exploration of consciousness and free will here. What does consciousness mean when it could be corrupted or rewritten? Early on, the humans are surprised to see the organic parts of Murderbot, and it's unclear whether we would think of it more as a cyborg or an android. These questions never overwhelm the action-oriented plot, and the narrative voice is thoroughly winning and perfect throughout.

One other interesting point - I've been careful in this review to describe Murderbot as "it" as the text does, although in my brain it was always "she." I blame/thank the Ancillary Justice series for that one, although Murderbot would be very offended to be given a gender.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book