Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Declare by Tim Powers


Declare by Tim Powers
Published: Subterranean Press/William Morrow & Company/HarperCollins (2001), Corvus (2010)
Awards: World Fantasy Award, International Horror Guild Award
Nominated: Locus Fantasy and Nebula Awards
Currently Shortlisted: Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
“As a young double agent infiltrating the Soviet spy network in Nazi-occupied Paris, Andrew Hale finds himself caught up in a secret, even more ruthless war. Two decades later, in 1963, he will be forced to confront again the nightmare that has haunted his adult life: a lethal unfinished operation code-named Declare.

From the corridors of Whitehall to the Arabian desert, from post-war Berlin to the streets of Cold War Moscow, Hale's desperate quest draws him into international politics and gritty espionage tradecraft -- and inexorably drives Hale, the fiery and beautiful Communist agent Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, and Kim Philby, mysterious traitor to the British cause, to a deadly confrontation on the high glaciers of Mount Ararat, in the very shadow of the fabulous and perilous Ark.”
~From Publisher

This is yet another Clarke Award shortlisted bookDeclare is kind of an interesting choice for the shortlist, not because it isn’t fantastic, but because it was published in 2001.  It was published in the UK only recently, which is why it’s up for awards again this year.  This is the first book I’ve read by Tim Powers, and I am left both amazed and feeling a little intimidated.
My Thoughts:
Declare is both a spy novel about WWII and the Cold War and a dark fantasy.  The two elements seemed to intertwine remarkably well.  The British, French, and Soviet secret services have agents, double agents, and agents under such deep cover that their own organizations don’t even know which category they fall under.  The plot is intricate and filled with careful manipulation, violence, shifting loyalties, and even romance. 
Underneath all the espionage, there are the supernatural elements.  I love the physicality of the magic.  It was not flashy or frivolous, but dangerous, poorly understood, and incredibly eerie. The djinn, also referred to as fallen angels, are at the heart of a secret Cold War, fought through the schemes and many-layered betrayals of the British, French and Soviet spies.  These creatures are deadly destructive, terrifying, and so inhuman that any communication with them is all but impossible.  Rather than casting spells, magic comes in the form of actions, such as beating trance rhythms or carrying ankh-shaped ‘anchors’. 
This story of djinn and spies follows the life of Andrew Hale, but in two different time periods.  One plotline follows his life from his childhood to the first disastrous attempt at Mt. Ararat in 1948.  The second follows his mysterious reactivation over a decade later, where he is asked to end operation Declare once and for all.  There are very rare instances where others briefly become the viewpoint characters, but Andrew Hale is clearly the hero of the story.
While Andrew Hale is a fictional creation, many of the events and people in Declare come from actual historical records. Tim Powers described his method of creating the story as looking for ‘perturbations’ in history, odd events that might suggest some unseen cause.  In his novel, he required that all recorded historical events happen just as they have in reality.  Then, he looked at all of the things in reality that seemed strange, and came up with an elaborate behind-the-scenes story that would account for them.  This strict rule of maintaining observed history applies as equally to momentous events in WWII as it does to recorded details of the lives of real people, such as the real British traitor Kim Philby.  I think that the result is a story that seems incredibly grounded in reality, despite its supernatural leanings. 
Of course, it definitely helps the sense of reality that Powers has clearly done a momentous amount of research on topics ranging from mountaineering, to the Bedouin, to mid-20th century daily life in Britain, France, Russia, and the Middle East.  There’s an incredible amount of detail and description throughout the entire book, bringing the environment alive as much as the characters. 
One possible downside of Powers highly researched, painstakingly described 20th century world is that he expects a lot of his readers.  If you don’t have a lot of knowledge beforehand of European 20th century history, the undercover work of the Soviets against Nazi Germany, the life of Kim Philby, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the life of T.E. Lawrence, Arabic folklore, and various other topics, it might be a good idea to brush up a little with Wikipedia before digging into the novel.  I don’t think that all of this knowledge is absolutely necessary to reading Declare, since most things directly important to the plot are well explained within the novel.  However, if you want to appreciate all the hints and allusions, a wide base of knowledge is a must.  I feel like I actually learned a lot from this novel, and it inspired me to learn more about the events of that period in history.
My Rating: 5/5
I found Declare to be almost overwhelmingly entertaining.  It sounded more or less like a political thriller from the description, but it ended up being so much more complex.  The level of period detail and meticulous scenery is amazing, and the djinn magic was deeply unsettling.  I feel like it’s obvious that a tremendous amount of work went into the creation of this novel, and I think it definitely paid off in the end.  It’s not exactly light reading, but I think that this richly imagined historical fantasy is well worth the time and effort.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter


Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter
Published: Tor Books, 2009

The Book:

Imagine a world where all manner of magical creatures exist just beyond the notice of society, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an account of a true story.  Long after the events of Shakespeare’s play, the sorcerer Prospero and his children continue to protect humanity from the whims of the supernatural. 

In the present day, Prospero is retired, and his children are scattered.  Miranda has been left in charge of their corporation, Prospero, Inc, which now controls magical creatures through negotiated contracts and the labor of indentured Aerie spirits. One day, Prospero vanishes, leaving Miranda a cryptic message to warn her siblings about the “Three Shadowed Ones”.  Miranda and her detective Mab, an Aerie spirit bound in human form, are off on an adventure to warn her siblings, find her father, and solve any other mysteries that arise along the way!
I read this novel as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club.  It is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t really stand alone as a novel.  This book is basically the introduction to the series, so be aware that it is more of a first act than a complete story in itself.

My Thoughts:

On the positive side, I did enjoy reading about Lamplighter’s world and many of the characters within it.  I loved how magic was so reliable (though dangerous) and treated as just an ordinary facet of life.  My favorite characters were Mab the detective and Mephisto, Miranda’s insane little brother.  Mab, as an enslaved Aerie spirit, is in the contradictory state of cherishing both his free will and the human form his owners forced him to take. Mephisto provides a lot of the comic relief, and his cheerful, easygoing attitude is a great counterpoint to the prim Miranda.  In general, all of the Prospero siblings have such forceful personalities that the stories of their history together was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Though I enjoyed the characters and the world, I had some frustration with the structure of the story. I was really not prepared for just how little resolution Prospero Lost would offer.  It seemed to me like this entire novel was exposition for the story to come.  The many characters were introduced and then fleshed out through recounting stories from their long lives.  Their stories also introduced us to many important aspects of the magical world.  While there was some action and excitement, there was no suspense building up to a climax.  The pacing was very slow and steady, and it sometimes felt more like a sequence of events than a story. Many intriguing mysteries were presented, but almost none of them were solved.   While I left the book wanting to know more, I also left it irritated at apparently learning nothing.    

As for the voice of the novel, the story is a first person narrative from the point-of-view of Miranda Prospero.  I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the first person viewpoint is very hit-or-miss for me.  If I dislike the protagonist, then it grates on me all the way through the book.  I did not like Miranda Prospero. Miranda is self-involved, arrogant, and doesn’t even take much of an interest in her own family.  Despite being about 500 years old, she has the emotional maturity of a repressed sixteen-year-old girl. I found her status as a virgin handmaiden to Lady Eurynome interesting, but I disliked how it allowed her to avoid problem solving.  She’s blindly obedient to both her father and Eurynome, and Eurynome simply tells her what to do anytime she gets into real trouble.

This would have been easier to handle if Miranda had become more aware of her shortcomings and 
exhibited some kind of personal growth. I understand that she’s being displayed full of character flaws, which she will presumably overcome in the next two installments of this trilogy.  But when I consider the rest of the cast, I realize that none of them were really changed by the events of the book.  There was a lot of external conflict in the story, and there was a lot of set-up for character-growth-inducing internal conflict.  However, it was largely left unrealized within the confines of this book.

My Rating: 3/5

Giving this book a rating feels premature, as I’m guessing my sense of it would change if I read the rest of the series. Prospero Lost seemed more like an introduction for the world and the characters than a complete story.  While it was still entertaining, I really would have preferred for some of the plot lines to be resolved and for some of the characters to be changed by the events of the story.  I do want to know what happens next, but I’m not sure if I’ll seek out the second book (Prospero in Hell). 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Generosity by Richard Powers


Generosity by Richard Powers
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011
Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book: 

Russell Stone, a failed writer, picked up a night job teaching a creative non-fiction class for an art college in Chicago.  At that small class he first met Thassadit Amzwar, a Kabyle Algerian refugee who seemed to radiate joy.   Stone was concerned that she shouldn’t be so happy after all of the terror she must have experienced in Algeria.  After consulting with a counselor who looked strikingly like his lost love, Candace Weld, Stone accidentally let his concerns about Thassa’s condition leak into the media.

In the meantime, famous geneticist Thomas Kurton was working on a monumental study to link an elevated base mood with certain fragments of DNA. After Russell inadvertently ‘outed’ Thassa for being too happy, Kurton invited her to participate in his study.  The results of the study will throw Thassa into the center of a media frenzy.  To her horror, her very happiness will begin to destroy her own life as well as the lives of the people she loves.

I’m reading this as a part of my effort to read the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees.  I was a bit put off initially by the idea of a “happiness gene”, but the novel thankfully focused more on the effects such a discovery would have on the world.

My Thoughts:

The narrator of Generosity was the author.  I don’t mean to say that it was Richard Powers exactly, but it was a fictional author persona that was constructing the novel.  The narrator talked constantly about the structure of the story, as if determined to make sure the reader always remembered that it was just a construct. The narrator’s musings, combined with the fairly simple plot of the book itself, sometimes left me with the odd feeling that I was reading a tutorial novel.

The narrator also frequently went off on short tangents about topics such as science, evolutionary psychology, the nature of happiness, and even the use of fiction.  A lot of these were pretty interesting, though I’ve never much cared for evolutionary psychology.  The narrator’s stance on fiction seemed rather odd to me. He accused people who read fiction of escapism, of being too cowardly to accept the fact of their eventual demise, or of not being active in society.  It almost felt like the novel was criticizing me for reading it.

Within the story, there were a number of interesting societal conflicts.  The first conflict that came to my attention was between C.P. Snow’s two cultures of science and the humanities. Another was between pure science, R&D, and popular science, which are illustrated through Kurton, his corporation, and Tonia Schiff.  There was also an undercurrent of the clash between youth and age.  For instance, Stone, though only in his 30s, continually showed bafflement and distaste at the behaviors of the younger characters.  In general, I think that all of these opposing forces tied into the tension between the old and the new, and between stability and progress.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected.  The novel is very idea-centric, rather than plot- or character- centric.  The plot is very straightforward and slow-moving, and most of the characters felt like caricatures of certain types of people. I get the feeling that this book is meant to be read at a leisurely pace, and I think it would be fun to discuss the ideas and arguments it raises.  I don’t think I was ever really enthralled by the characters or the story, but the novel was continually interesting and thought-provoking.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson


The Diamond Age (or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) by Neal Stephenson
Published: Bantam Spectra, 1995
Awards: Hugo Award, Locus SF
Nominated: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award
Sub-genres: Nanotechnology, Cyberpunk
The Book:
In a future where nanotechnology is so commonplace that it literally fills the air, even the poorest levels of society have access to basic food and clothing via “matter compilers”.  Rather than nations, ideological phyles are the most important distinctions between groups of people.  One of the richest of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, embrace the strict etiquette and manners of dress of the British Victorian era.
The Neo-Victorian nano-engineer John Percival Hackworth finds himself assigned the high-profile job of creating an educational book for a Victorian nobleman’s granddaughter.  This “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” is an interactive book that is intended to educate and entertain. More importantly, it is also intended to instill a certain subversive attitude that will help a young girl become the kind of risk-taker that is capable of shaping the future of society.
Hackworth makes an additional, illegal copy to give to his own daughter. Through an unforeseen sequence of events, the Primer finds its way to Nell, a lower-class little girl who lives with her neglectful mother, protective brother, and a string of her mother’s abusive boyfriends.  The primer becomes Nell’s invaluable companion as she struggles to make her way through this highly complicated world.
I bought this book at a used book sale, since I had heard a lot of positive opinions of Neal Stephenson’s work.  This is the first novel I’ve read by Neal Stephenson, and it was really entertaining.
My Thoughts:
There were a lot of narrative threads in this book.  For the most part, they were tied in some way to the central stories of Nell and John Percival Hackworth.  For instance, the story often jumped from Nell to a seemingly unrelated subplot that might have some future influence on her life.  These subplot threads almost seemed to be picked up and discarded at random.  There could be a series of chapters talking about a really interesting minor character, and then that character was never mentioned again, or their story was never resolved.  Among others, these interesting minor characters include Carl Hollywood, Constable Moore, Judge Fang, Dr. X, Fiona, Lord Finkle-McGraw, and the Dramatis Personae.  The lack of closure on many subplots at the end of the book was a little jarring, but I enjoyed reading it so much that it didn’t bother me as badly as it might have otherwise.
Of the two ‘main’ storylines, I was really interested in Nell, and kind of bored with Hackworth.  I found it really intriguing how Nell’s life story was told partially in reality, and partially through the interactive stories from the Primer.   Nell came from a terrible home life, and she had tremendous odds stacked against her very survival.  I appreciated that Nell was not secretly the daughter of some major player in the world.  I enjoy stories about people who succeed due to their own determination, not due to their pedigree and born privilege. Hackworth, on the other hand, was an engineer who got into a fair bit of trouble when he made the illegal copy of the Primer.  He had plenty of trials and tribulations, but I didn’t really care all that much about whether he made it through.  His story was interesting enough, but I felt that it lacked the emotional depth of Nell’s story. 
 As for the writing itself, The Diamond Age was incredibly information dense. Often physical descriptions verged into short digressions about history, politics, or science.   I liked reading these asides, as it was primarily through them that the reader learns about the world and how it works.  Sometimes there were even descriptions of things common to current-day life described in an amusingly fresh way (such as sex-based advertising or KFC).  Beyond the deliberately out-of-date Victorian etiquette, I don’t think this book really felt dated.  I don’t think any of the changes in society since 1995 have rendered The Diamond Age’s fictional future obsolete.
My Rating: 4/5
I enjoyed reading The Diamond Age.  The world was interesting, and the prose was quirky and densely packed with information.  There were a lot of unresolved subplots, and the ending was very abrupt, but I had so much fun reading the book that I was mostly disappointed that it had ended at all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2010

Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, World Fantasy Award

The Book:

All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin in a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they knew goes right out the window.” ~Zoo City

That event publicly marked the change that has shaped the world of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Those who commit crimes have suddenly found themselves bound to an animal companion, and they face the deadly Undertow if they fail to protect it.  These aposymbiotes, also derogatively called zoos and the animalled, are now treated as the ultimate untouchable caste all over the world.  In some places they are imprisoned or killed outright.  In Johannesburg, South Africa, they have a hard time finding jobs or places to live, and are generally shunned from polite society. The only silver lining in being animalled is the minor supernatural ability that tends to come with it.

Zinzi December, a journalist with a serious drug habit, lost everything on the night she gained her own animal, a Sloth, and a gift for finding things. Zinzi and her Sloth moved to a zoo slum, where she began writing stories for an e-mail scam company and finding people’s lost trinkets to make ends meet. After a client’s death leaves her more broke than usual, Zinzi agrees to take on her least favorite kind of assignment – finding a missing person.  If she can find the vanished Songweza, a teenage girl who forms half of an afropop twin act, she’ll have the resources to start getting her life back together.  Of course, nothing is as simple as it first appears, and soon Zinzi is drawn into a part of Johannesburg even more dangerous than the zoo slums…

This is the first book I’ve read of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award nomineesZoo City is Lauren Beukes second novel, and I regret to say that I have not yet read her first, Moxyland. After thoroughly enjoying Zoo City, I’m certainly planning to read Moxyland as well as any future novels by Lauren Beukes.

My Thoughts:

The story is narrated in first person, from the perspective of Zinzi December. I am not typically a fan of first person narratives, but I think it works well in this case.  It worked for me primarily because Zinzi is such a fascinating protagonist.  She’s funny, intelligent, relentlessly active, and her perception of the world around her is vividly descriptive. 

I don’t want you to have the idea that Zinzi is some typical urban fantasy heroine, though.  Zinzi has no particularly impressive physical skills, and any situation that ends in violence typically goes badly for her. On top of that, she’s often dishonest and doesn’t always make the best decisions.  However, Zinzi is constantly forced to acknowledge her own mistakes, and, as a result, she doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the narcissism that tends to cling to first-person protagonists.  Overall, I enjoyed seeing this world through the filter of Zinzi’s mind.

Another thing I enjoyed about the novel was how realistic the environment felt.  I’ve never been to Johannesburg, or South Africa at all, so I can’t compare Zoo City’s Johannesburg to the reality.  From Zoo City's descriptions, though, I still have a clear image in my mind of most of the places Zinzi visited. Beukes painted a striking picture of this fictional Johannesburg throughout the story, from the bars and decrepit apartment complexes down to the sewers. 

The social situations and interactions between various classes of society also seemed very natural and human.  Some non-english words were used throughout the dialogue, but they were always given enough context not to confuse the reader.  Zinzi’s constant pop culture references strengthened the sense of the nearness of this world to our own.  While the pop culture added a layer of realism to Zinzi’s narration, it made me wonder how the novel will come across to readers ten or twenty years from now.

My Rating: 5/5

I had no idea what to expect going into Zoo City, but I came away deeply impressed.  The prose was fast, clever, and rich in detail.  Zinzi December was a fascinating protagonist, and her personality alone would have kept me turning the pages.  The story took twists and turns that I didn’t predict, and I never would have guessed the ending.  Lauren Beukes is an incredible storyteller, and I hope she writes many more novels in the future!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Other Things

Here is a gathering of posts that are not book reviews, since they are not covered in "Book Reviews By Author".

Read-Alongs:

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
Part 5

Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The Kingdom of Gods, by NK. Jemisin
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

Guest Post from Thoraiya Dyer: My Favorite Sphinxes

Award Discussions:

2014 Hugo Award (Short Fiction / Best Novels / Loncon 3)
2012 Hugo Award (Before / After)
2011 World Fantasy Award (Before / After)

Best of:

Review: Darkship Thieves by Sarah A. Hoyt


Darkship Thieves by Sarah A. Hoyt
Published: Baen, 2010
Sub-genres: Adventure, Space Opera

The Book:

The conservative, patriarchal Earth has long rid itself of its genetically engineered, superhuman tyrants, called the Mules, and their bio-engineered servants.  Now, it is ruled by a council of ‘Good Men’, and biological modification is considered a crime.  However, there are rumors that the Mules and their followers have survived.  They are said to return secretly in their ‘Darkships’ to steal pods from the space-growing Powertrees, leftover tech from the Mules era that serve as an important energy source.

Athena Hera Sinistra is the spoiled, rebellious, only child of one of the ultra-rich Good Men of Earth. When she wakes up on her daddy’s cruiser one night to an ominous situation, she smashes her way to an escape pod and flees into the Powertrees.  To her amazement, she runs into an honest-to-god Darkship, crewed by a cat-eyed pilot, Christopher ‘Kit’ Klaavil.  The adventure that will change her life forever has just begun!
I’m reading Darkship Thieves as a part of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book ClubDarkship Thieves is the only book listed under the “Darkship Series” on Sarah Hoyt’s webpage, so I believe there may be more books to come in this universe.

My Thoughts:

I feel like this book is the literary equivalent of a Sci-Fi Action flick.  The story is fast-paced and exciting, with just enough humor and romance thrown into the mix.  It’s pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, and the bystanders only exist to become collateral damage.  The science is pretty soft, but the science is more scenery than center-stage in the story.  It’s a fast read and, for the most part, I enjoyed it.

The story is told in first-person, from the point of view of Athena Hera Sinistra (nicknamed Thena).  The writing felt very informal and conversational.  It was an entertaining style, despite the occasional awkwardness of phrasing.  My main complaint with this approach was my aversion to hearing the entire story filtered through the mind of a protagonist who, for the most part, I found unsympathetic.
The heroine, Thena, is a violent, attractive, highly privileged heiress, who is always either dismissive or contemptuous of the people around her.  She has a fairly extensive skill-set for a 19-year-old, ranging from ballet to martial arts (she’s the best fighter she’s ever met—till her love interest comes along).  In addition, she has superhuman spatial skills and a natural knack with all things mechanical. She has a fondness for heavy weaponry and kicking men in the balls, and an intense aversion to rational thought.  She also finds the time to lounge around in a futuristic biker gang with the other spoiled, rich kids.  She does mature a little bit throughout the story, mostly due to her love interest, but she was a little hard for me to take as a heroine in the beginning.

I enjoyed reading about the differences in society between the highly patriarchal and hierarchical Earth and the ordered anarchy of Eden (home of the Darkship Thieves).  I think the flaws of society on Earth were made pretty apparent throughout the narrative, but I wish we’d seen a little more of the drawbacks of Eden’s society.  For example, in Eden there are no laws, but if you kill someone you have to pay a large fine to their family.  Therefore, if someone has no family, there is no penalty for killing them.  I imagine there would be a problem with unruly teenage gangs murdering the homeless and orphans for fun.  Maybe Hoyt will expand on the darker side of Eden in future installments in the Darkship series.

My Rating: 3/5

Darkship Thieves is a solid sci-fi action story.  It has plenty of violence, and plenty of exciting little plot twists.  My general lack of sympathy for the heroine made it a little difficult initially to get into the story, but the fast-paced story always kept me turning the pages.  I don’t know that it’s the kind of book that will stick in my mind for years, but it was certainly fun to read.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm


Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Published: Harper & Row, 1976
Awards Won: Hugo, Locus Science Fiction
Nominated: Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial
Sub-genres:Post-Apocalyptic,Human Development,Hard SF
The Book:
The end of the world comes in chaos, diseases, famine, and mass sterility.  A large, rich, highly educated family cloisters themselves in order to wait out the catastrophe, using cloning techniques to keep the crops and livestock they need to feed themselves.  As no new live human babies are born, it becomes clear that there will be no weathering this disaster.  In desperation, they turn to human cloning in order to preserve the human race.  But what have they unwittingly unleashed?  Can a society of clones really be considered human at all?

My Thoughts:
I was interested by the premise of this novel.  I wondered how a society formed primarily of clones would differ from one filled with genetically distinct individuals.  I think that Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang also raises some interesting questions about the value of creativity and individuality as opposed to cooperation and dependability.  Unfortunately, I found myself more interested in the ideas of this novel than in its execution. 
The book consists of three parts, with one section focusing on each progressive generation.  While the three parts are thematically linked, they are only loosely linked in the narrative.  I would have liked for the protagonists of each section to continue to play more of a role in the developing story.   Overall, the characters often felt more like avatars of ideas than humans.
The style of writing was very dry and detached.  It seemed, at times, almost like a scientific logbook or a travelogue.  This style led to a general feeling of being distanced from events and characters.  Most of the action of the story seemed to occur off-page.  The reader mostly got to hear people reporting about what had happened between scenes, or discussing the implications of the off-page events.  While hearing the discussions was interesting, I would have preferred to also be shown more of these dramatic events. This sense of detachment became less of a problem later in the book, and I found the second and third parts to be a little more engaging emotionally.
Scientifically, I had a lot of problems suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy this story.  First of all, the apocalypse is only vaguely described.  I had a hard time accepting that an apocalypse so devastating as to render sterile all crops, livestock and human beings would then leave the natural environment mostly undamaged.  Concerning the cloning technology, I wondered why this one family was the only group to turn to cloning, and why they were trying to repopulate the Earth with only a few closely related people.  My credulity was also strained by the unexplained development of the clones’ telepathic group mind. It bothered me that this group mind and other properties were attributed solely to the clones being ‘born’ as clones.  In general, it seemed like every time I paused to think about the science, I found something else that didn’t quite add up.
I’m aware that this is an older book, and I’m not sure how much was really known about the idea of cloning in the 70s.  It is possible the science of this book is a product of the time in which it was published.  All the same, it pulled me out of the narrative far too often for me to immerse myself in the world of the story.
My Rating: 2.5/5
I was honestly intrigued by the premise, and I feel like Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang presented a lot of interesting questions about individuality and social harmony.  Sadly, the dry and detached writing style and questionable science kept this book from being a satisfying read for me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Plan: Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

The shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced last Friday, and the winner of the award will be announced on April 27th.  I've decided that it would be fun to attempt to read all six of these novels before the winner is chosen. I'll write a review featuring each nominee, and see if I can accurately predict which book will come away with the prize!  Here are the books that make up the shortlist, along with a short synopsis and my initial reaction to each one:


1) Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

 "Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit – and a talent for finding lost things. But when her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last pay check, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons
An astonishing second novel from the author of the highly-acclaimed Moxyland."
~Taken from barnesandnoble.com

I can't give an honest first impression of this one, since I've actually just about finished reading it.  It's pretty spectacular so far.

2) The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

"It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone it seems is after a piece of Turkey. But the shockwaves from this random act of 21st century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square...
...The Dervish House is seven days, six characters, three interconnected story strands, one central common core—the eponymous dervish house, a character in itself—that pins all these players together in a weave of intrigue, conflict, drama and a ticking clock of a thriller.
"
~Taken from barnesandnoble.com

I have to admit that I have only the most basic knowledge of the country of Turkey.  It definitely sounds exciting, and I'm looking forward to the possibility of learning more about Turkish society.


3) Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

"Three armies march on New Prentisstown, each one intent on destroying the others. Todd and Viola are caught in the middle, with no chance of escape. As the battles commence, how can they hope to stop the fighting? How can there be peace when they’re so hopelessly outnumbered? And if war makes monsters of men, what terrible choices await? But then a third voice breaks into the battle, one bent on revenge…
The electrifying finale to the award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy. Publishing May 2010 in the UK, Ireland and Australia, and September 2010 in the United States and Canada."
~Taken from barnesandnoble.com

Part 3? I don't think I'd fully appreciate the finale to a series I haven't read.  I'm going to try to read books 1 and 2, as well.  It's labeled as 'young adult' anyway, so maybe I can burn through them pretty quickly.  Feel free to mock my optimism.

4) Generosity by Richard Powers

"A playful and provocative novel about the discovery of the happiness gene."
~Taken from barnesandnoble.com

This one is going to be a hard sell to me, I think.  I'm afraid that it's going to be pseudo-scientific and preachy.  I'm willing to be proven wrong!

5) Declare by Tim Powers

"A coded message draws Professor Andrew Hale back into Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1963. Elements from his past are gathering in Beirut, including ex-British counter-espionage chief and Soviet mole Kim Philby and a beautiful former Spanish Civil War soldier-turned-intelligence operative, Elena Ceniza-Bendiga.  Rushing toward a deadly confrontation on Mt Ararat—where a covert Soviet expedition is closing in on the biblical Ark—Hale suddenly finds himself a major player in an extraordinary game of global destiny. It is a contest that will sweep form London to the Arabian desert, from post-war Berlin to Cold-War Moscow. Pitting brother against brother—and bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain."
~Taken from barnesandnoble.com

This sounds like a thriller.  I has already won the WFA award, though, and was nominated for the Locus Fantasy award and the Nebula.  I'm curious to see how this will play out.

6) Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

"Lightborn, better known as 'shine', is a mind-altering technology that has revolutionised the modern world. It is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meet the asking price. But in the city of Los Sombres, renegade shine has attacked the adult population, resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty. The only solution has been to turn off the Field and isolate the city.
Trapped within the quarantine perimeter, fourteen-year-old Xavier just wants to find the drug that can keep his own physical maturity at bay until the army shuts down the shine. That's how he meets Roksana, mysteriously impervious to shine and devoted to helping the stricken. As the military invades street by street, Xavier and Roksana discover that there could be hope for Los Sombres - but only if Xavier will allow a lightborn cure to enter his mind. What he doesn't know is that the shine in question has a mind of its own ..."
~Taken from worldswithoutend.com

This one sounds interesting, though the premise sounds very young-adult focused.  It is also proving pretty difficult to acquire.  I read most of my books in ebook format, and I'm having trouble finding this one.  Does anyone know of an online store that sells Lightborn as an epub?  Otherwise, I think I'm going to have to buy an imported physical copy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: Gateway, by Frederik Pohl


Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, Galaxy Science Fiction 1977
Book 1 of the Heechee Saga
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF
Sub-genres: Space Exploration, Hard SF
The Book:
I have known the name of Frederik Pohl, as a well-loved Science Fiction author, for most of my life. It is only when I picked up this book that I realized I’d somehow never gotten around to reading any of his books.  I’m glad I started with Gateway,  an SF classic, showered with awards, and the first novel in his Heechee saga.  Despite kicking off a series, Gateway is a self-contained story that is very effective as a stand alone novel.
The eponymous Gateway is a hollowed-out asteroid that had been used as a base by the long-vanished alien species called the Heechee.  When humans discovered this asteroid, all that was left within it were a number of one, three and five-man spaceships that could travel faster than light.  Humans have no real understanding of the Heechee vessels, but are able to manipulate the controls well enough to send them on allez-retour trips to predetermined destinations. 
The only problem is that there is no way to determine what these destinations will be, or how long it will take to get to them.  A corporation offers large rewards to successful “prospectors”, those who discover useful artifacts, technology, or locations.   Though the potential rewards are huge, so are the risks. Many of the prospectors never return, or return only as mangled corpses.
Robinette Broadhead buys a one-way ticket out to Gateway to seek his fortune.  At Gateway, which ends up being something like a small university town, Bob makes friends, attends parties, and learns survival skills to help him on his eventual risky journeys.  He also meets a woman he grows to love, Gelle-Klara Moynlin.
A second narrative thread weaves through the first, the post-Gateway therapy sessions of Bob Broadhead with the robot psychologist he dubs Sigfrid von Shrink.  In these sessions, we see a traumatized Bob attempting to come to terms with what he has experienced.  He attends the therapy sessions willingly, but can’t help struggling against the psychiatrist as he is inexorably led back towards his central trauma.
My Thoughts:
I enjoyed this book immensely.  The alien asteroid and the space-exploration were interesting, but the human story was what really hooked me.  The characters in this book weren’t your general cardboard cutout action stars.  They were people who cowered in an asteroid, terrified to take the space flight that had a greater than 50% chance of killing them.  They were people who sometimes loved each other, and sometimes hurt each other.   Even on their space voyages, it described how they gradually grew sick of each other and sought refuge in their hobbies.  While the story focused on Robinette Broadhead, and to a lesser extent Klara and Sigfrid von Shrink, there was a full cast of interesting minor characters living their lives in the background.
While Robinette was a deeply flawed protagonist, I became very emotionally invested in his life story.  One reason Bob was such a fascinating character to me was that no one ever excused his actions or thoughts.  When his personal flaws manifested in speech or action, it was not explained away by the author, the other characters, or society.  I do not feel like Bob was a bad person.   He was just very human, and he had to eventually come to terms with himself. 
As for the plot, this is technically a Big Dumb Object story.  I’m aware that this is a well-worn trope, and that alone might make the book seem rather dated to some people.  I guess I haven’t read too many BDO stories, so it didn’t bother me.  I have also heard some criticism that the corporate management of Gateway felt rather out-of-touch with modern day.  I guess one would expect more business competition, political maneuvering, involvement of governments and so forth.  I didn’t think this detracted from the story, since it was more focused on the daily lives of lowly prospectors than on politics or economics.
I appreciated the treatment of gender and sexuality in the book, as well.  Robinette was mildly homophobic and sexist, but his personal attitudes were never supported by the story.  Men and women seemed to be pretty equal on Gateway, and there were many competent female prospectors.  Though the story focused on a heterosexual couple, other sexualities were common and generally treated as nothing out of the ordinary. Through interactions, Bob was kind of forced to accept that sexuality was just one small part of an individual’s personality. 

My Rating: 5/5
I admit that parts of this book felt a little bit dated, but I felt that the story more than made up for this.  Robinette Broadhead was the kind of unlikeable protagonist that I really enjoy! The story of Gateway feels complete, but I still look forward to reading more of Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rating System


Rating System
My ratings can be roughly described as the ratio of what I enjoyed about a book to what I did not enjoy.   I can’t pretend to be an objective reviewer, but I will always try to give an honest account of my reactions to each book and the reasons for those reactions.  In general, the reviews probably give a better sense of my opinion than the ratings-- one book may get a 3 for a very different reason that another book gets a 3, for instance, and the two books are not necessarily comparable.

5 – A book that is very close to my idea of a perfect reading experience. I don’t necessarily believe that it is a perfect book, as I don’t believe that perfection is an obtainable goal.  I usually believe the book contains a richly imagined world, interesting characters, a compelling, believable plot, and some quality that will linger in my mind for years to come. I don’t typically re-read books, but this would be on my ‘Would Read if Struck with Amnesia’ list. 
4.5 – This book is very similar to a 5.  There is something that kept me from giving it a top score.  I still think this book is at the top of the pile, when it comes to quality. 
4 – An excellent book. I really enjoyed and appreciated this book. I would definitely recommend it to others with similar tastes.
3.5 – A good book.  I enjoyed and/or appreciated this book.  I may have found it entertaining, even if there were some weaknesses. I may have found it interesting and well-written, but it didn't really captivate me.  On the other hand, it might just be a pretty good book, and one that I would probably recommend to others with similar tastes.
3 – I’m ambivalent about this book.  I had a hard time deciding whether I liked the book overall or not.  There may be some aspects of the novel that I greatly enjoyed, but some aspects that annoyed me to pieces. Alternatively, it could mean that I didn't really have strong feelings about it either way.
2.5 – I didn’t really like this book.  I didn’t hate it, but it left me feeling disappointed.  It was not without its redeemable factors, but they were not strong enough to leave me feeling positive about the reading experience.  Getting through the novel probably felt more like a chore than a pleasure.  It’s possible that there is just a huge mismatch between the novel’s target audience and me.
2 – I strongly disliked this book. Something about the book rubbed me the wrong way. I can often see how it could be an enjoyable book for someone approaching it from a different perspective than I am. 
1.5 – Mostly drivel. There might be a kernel of something interesting in there, but its bogged down by clich├ęs, ridiculous plotting, simply bad writing, and/or other insurmountable problems.
1 – I can’t believe this was published.