Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Published: Simon & Schuster UK/Touchstone, 1995
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Nominations: British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award


The Book:


"In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.  Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other's ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians' craft can command--the highest misdirection and the darkest science.  Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations...to descendants who must, for their sanity's sake, untangle the puzzle left to them" ~barnesandnoble.com


I enjoyed the movie adaptation of The Prestige, so I thought I should check out the source material, the novel by Christopher Priest.  While the film did depart in some significant ways from the plot of the novel, I liked them both.  I think that each form of the story drew from the strengths of their respective mediums.  It was also interesting to approach the novel while knowing the secret plot twist, which I will avoid mentioning here, just in case.

My Thoughts:


In the novel version of The Prestige, the story of the rival magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier is framed in a 'modern' story about their great-grandchildren.  The Borden descendant, Andrew Westley, is an adopted child who has always had the unexplainable feeling that he has a twin brother.  The Angier descendant, Kate, is living in a wing of her family home, haunted by a scene she witnessed as a child.  The mystery of Kate and Andrew shows how the magician's feud has affected both of their families for generations, but it only takes up a small portion of the book.  It mostly serves to introduce the two fictional documents that make up the bulk of the story, Alfred Borden's semi-private memoirs and Rupert Angier's diary.

Instead of switching back and forth between the two magicians, as was done in the movie, the first part of the novel follows Borden's story from beginning to end.  After that, the point of view switches to Angier and we learn his complete life story.  Priest succeeded in giving each of the men a distinct voice, and the two documents even differed markedly in style.  Borden's memoirs were vaguely intended to be read by others, so he wrote very guardedly about his professional and personal life.  Due to this sense of having an audience,  his life story was kept very focused and entertainingly structured.  On the other hand, Angier's diary was, in this fictional world, never actually intended to be read.  As a result, it was much more fragmentary and disorganized, and the pacing was inconsistent.  I personally preferred Borden's memoir over Angier's diary, mostly due to the more concise and focused style.

One interesting result of telling the story through two private 'documents' is how it clearly showed each man as the hero of his own life story, with the opposing man as the villain.  Borden was a working-class boy who had the talent and intense desire to learn stage magic.  Angier was an aristocratic gentleman who left his family to perform as a magician alongside his lower-class girlfriend.  Angier, unlike Borden, had no natural talent for devising tricks, but he was just as obssessed with the field. All it took was one incident of youthful arrogance on Borden's part to kick off the feud that would shape their personal and professional lives. 

Neither of the magicians seemed like a particularly reliable narrator, due both to their individual identity crises and the natural tendency of a storyteller to cast themselves in a positive light.  Even when they were recounting the same scene, the tone, intentions, and often even actions or dialogue, differed in a realistic way. I felt that this helped to lend a sense of reality to both of the magicians. I can't deny that they both had significant personal flaws, most notably their obsession with stage magic over the people they supposedly loved.  However, even though they often made decisions that left me infuriated, I typically found it easy to sympathize with them.  I suppose I respect people that are so deeply motivated, even if that drive pushes them towards painful consequences for themselves and others.

Perhaps due to the nature of the story, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier are really the only characters who feel like fully realized people.  The descendants take up only a small portion of the book, and, of course, the reader is only introduced to any other characters through the filters of Angier and Borden.  However, it was curious to me that Borden and Angier seemed to be the most important people in each others' lives, and the most often mentioned in their respective journals. Borden almost never mentioned his wife and children. Angier abandoned his wife and children for years to run around with another woman, and when he finally came back to them, they simply forgave him.  The most notable non-viewpoint character is Olive, an American dancer and stage assistant who is the mistress of both magicians at different times.  Even she is kind of a stereotype, the sexually-liberated American temptress who lured the men from their wives.  I know the story is fundamentally about Borden, Angier and their magic, so I understand why little time was devoted to their wives, families, and friends.  I just feel as though it would have been interesting to get a better picture of how they interacted with the people that were important in their lives.

I was also a little disappointed with the final scene of the story.  It didn't really answer some of the major questions of the magicians' story, or provide much closure for the descendants' story.  Since the descendants' story took up so little of the book, it ran the risk of feeling unnecessary when it was not made clear how it either reflected or enhanced the main story. I'm not opposed to leaving some things open-ended, but I would have liked for there to have been a little more to tie the old and new stories together thematically. 

My Rating: 4/5


The Prestige
is an exciting story about two feuding rival magicians and how their obsession with their craft shaped their personal and professional lives.  I enjoyed the novel, even though I already knew a lot of the plot twists from the film adaptation.  A modern story, which felt slightly extraneous, frames the main plot, which is told through fictional documents authored by the magicians Borden and Angier.  I liked the way these documents were used to give each magician a unique voice, and how their unreliability as narrators enhanced the sense of realism.  I favored Borden's narrative, since I found Angier's to sometimes drag or seem unfocused.  While the two magicians made for intriguing protagonists, I wished Priest would have chosen to show more of their relationships with their families or friends. I think that The Prestige is worth reading, even if you've already seen the movie.  The story and style are different enough that I was never bored, even though I already knew the general plot.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson


Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson
Published: Ballantine Books, 2006
Nominations: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“In the near future, when medical nanotechnology has made it possible to map a model of the living human brain, radical psychologist Natalie Armstrong sees her work suddenly become crucial to a cutting-edge military project for creating comprehensive mind-control. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Jude Westhorpe, FBI specialist, is tracking a cold war defector long involved in everything from gene sequencing to mind-mapping. But his investigation has begun to affect matters of national security--throwing Jude and Natalie together as partners in trouble, deep trouble, from every direction.

This fascinating novel explores the nature of humanity in the near future, when the power and potential of developing technologies demand that we adapt ourselves to their existence--whatever the price.” ~barnesandnoble.com

I read this novel as a part of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club.  This is the first book I’ve read by Justina Robson.

My Thoughts:

Mappa Mundi was essentially a hard SF thriller.  The story had a heavy focus on the details and uses of mind-affecting technology, but it also spent a lot of time on the political maneuvering and espionage carried out by the many characters.  The technology and its implications were discussed extensively, but the exact method of its working was only given to the reader in fragments. 
In general, it seemed that the technology could be used to destroy, recreate, or alter someone’s mind in almost any way.  From my understanding of it, it seemed that a mental operating system, called NervePath, must first be installed in a person’s mind.  Then, ‘MappaWare’, a type of software, could be run on their mind to change even their deepest held beliefs.   The psychologist Natalie was also working on a program called ‘SelfWare’, which was intended to enhance human consciousness.  I found this kind of mental programming intriguing, and I couldn’t help wondering what buggy MappaWare code would do to someone’s mind.  For the most part, though, the story focused on software that functioned exactly as intended.

I enjoyed the discussions of the possible uses and abuses of the MappaWare, and what it would do to the concept of the self and freedom.  MappaWare could be used to cure mental illness, but it could also be used to control the minds of all humanity.  Its near-limitless power made it a kind of mental doomsday device for the various political factions to fight over.  The MappaWare technology and the complicated schemes of many groups to possess and use it are the driving force of the story.

The format of the novel is map-themed, and it contains ‘Legends’, vignettes that set up the identities of the key players, a ‘Compass Rose’ section that shows the event that brings them together, a ‘Map’ section for the main story, and an epilogue called an ‘Update’ at the end.  It was a neat way to organize things, but it kind of emphasizes the fact that this is a very plot- and structure-driven book.  While the characters were superficially interesting, I never felt much of an emotional connection to them. They were more like set pieces in the plot, and so they had very distinct but static personalities.  I felt like none of them grew much past my first impression.

I think this is a matter of personal preference, but I also had a hard time with Robson’s writing style.  It seems that my brain and hers just don’t operate on the same wavelength, and mine just kept snagging on little details. Specifically, there were many situations where her word choices or phrasing seemed unnecessarily confusing or contradictory to me.  For example, at one point Natalie notes a companion’s surprising codeine intake with the thought:

“That was more codeine than would kill a cat.” (p. 386)

The structure of the sentence implies that it was a large dose of codeine, but the chosen comparison seems to imply the opposite.  Cats are very small animals, and they typically can’t take nearly as much medicine as a human. According to my sources, codeine can be safely given to cats only in very small quantities.  I imagine that a dose capable of killing a cat could still be a pretty small dose for a human.  So now, I have no idea what that sentence was meant to imply about the amount of codeine consumed. A few chapters later, it is clarified that the dose of codeine was, in fact, large.  It seemed like I was constantly getting sidetracked into puzzling over those kinds of minor points. 

My Rating: 3/5

I enjoyed Mappa Mundi as a hard SF thriller, and as a discussion of the possible influence the existence of mind-altering technology might have on human society. The story itself was very interesting on an intellectual level, though I had very little emotional attachment to the characters.  I enjoyed the discussions about what constitutes a person’s ‘self’, and how MappaWare should be used, if at all, to improve the world.  There were many conflicting sides trying to pursue what they thought was right, mostly through the use of manipulation and deceit.  However, the complexities of the plot seemed to overshadow the development of the many major characters.  Also, I was a little disappointed with the conclusion, which seemed almost to render the entire story pointless. On the one hand, I enjoyed the technology and the political-machination-filled plot, but on the other, I was bothered by my lack of emotional connection and the unsatisfying conclusion.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 2010
Series: Book 14 of the Vorkosigan Saga
Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“Miles Vorkosigan is back!

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove--he’s been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini cryocorp--an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future--attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran Empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning, “Don’t mess with the secretary”. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping--something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn’t due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle--of trouble!” –barnesandnoble.com

I read Cryoburn as a part of my plan to read all of the 2011 Hugo Award nominees.  I had not yet read any of the “Vorkosigan Saga” novels, but I decided to go ahead with this one. Since it was nominated for the Hugo & Locus SF Awards based on its merits as a single novel, I figured that it would not be unreasonable to review it out of its place in the series.

The main story of Cryoburn does stand on its own, but I don’t think I would recommend reading this without reading the rest of the series.  The novel was full of references to places I’d never been introduced to, and there were many cameos or mentions of characters I didn’t know.  These were all explained well enough to follow, but I feel like I was lacking the expected emotional connection to this universe and the Vorkosigan family. 

My Thoughts:

While the book does contain a fair amount of action and humor, Cryoburn is mostly a mystery involving politics and economics.  In Kibou-daini, many people choose cryogenic preservation over death, hoping to awake to a future that has discovered the cure for aging.  They leave their political power as citizens in the hands of their chosen cryocorp, giving these massive corporations power over huge blocks of votes. Miles begins his investigation into the cryocorps of Kibou-daini through an official cryogenics conference, but, thanks to the lovable pseudo-orphan boy Jin, he quickly finds his way to part of the planet’s disenfranchised segment of society.  As he learns more about the motivations and history of the powerful cryogenics corporations, he begins to piece together the truth of their elaborate cover-ups and chilling future plans. I enjoyed the story as an exploration of how easy access to cryogenics might change the balance of power in a society, and of what forms of corruption would suddenly become possible and profitable.

Fear of mortality is a major theme explored in Cryoburn, mostly through examination of the Kibou-daini cryogenics program. At what point is a person ready, if ever, to die?  While some citizens might turn to the technology as a last resort, many people on Kibou-daini simply count it as a part of their life plan.  They opt for an earlier, possibly impermanent, death, instead of accepting their own aging and eventual decline. Bujold also discusses the plight of the ones who have been revived, only to find themselves still aging in a society that has become foreign to them.  We may not have the same medical options as the people of Kibou-daini, but the transience of life is something everyone has to face. Bujold’s portrayal of the many ways people react to the inevitable fact of death felt very genuine to me, and relevant to both the events of the novel and to all of us mortals.

Aside from the plot and the discussions of mortality, I also rather enjoyed the characters. Miles, the Imperial Auditor, is a thoroughly entertaining and sympathetic protagonist. I liked that he was not truly disrespectful of anyone around him, whether they were high government officials or street kids.  He sometimes operates ‘outside the rules’, but not in the irresponsible, shortsighted method of most action heroes.  For Miles, I got the feeling that he was simply much more interested in accomplishing things than he was in observing etiquette or maintaining appearances.  His energy and enthusiasm made the book even more engaging for me.

The local Kibou-daini main character was Jin Sato. Jin is a kid who was essentially orphaned when his mother was frozen under mysterious circumstances.  Having run away from his aunt and uncle, he lives in a kind-of-illegal community with other discarded people of Kibou-daini.  He has an essentially nurturing nature, and he cares for a large menagerie of animals.  Jin provides Miles with a link into the parts of Kibou-daini society that the government would prefer for him not to see.  Jin was an endearing character, if a little too much of a ‘cute kid’, but he sometimes seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  The many other characters, such as Jin’s little sister, Miles’ armsman Roic, Vorlynken of the Barrayan consulate, and Raven Durona, weren’t very deeply characterized, but they were certainly interesting enough to add to my enjoyment of the novel.

My Rating: 3.5/5

I think that Cryoburn is a novel that will work best in the context of the rest of the series. It’s certainly enjoyable on its own, but there are parts of the book that won’t be emotionally effective unless the reader is already familiar with the universe and the Vorkosigan family. The story of the corrupt Kibou-daini crycorps is interesting enough to carry the book, though, and the society of Kibou-daini is an interesting exploration of how the impermanent death of freezing would affect the balance of power in the society.  I enjoyed Miles as a protagonist, and Jin was an interesting character, if a little overly adorable and convenient.  I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for the series (my mistake), but it was fairly interesting as a mystery and as a discussion of mortality.  I’m going to start reading the “Vorkosigan Saga” from the beginning starting sometime in the next few weeks!  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
Published: Ace Books, 1987
Awards: Locus Award for Best First Novel

The Book:

“Eddi McCandry has just left her boyfriend and their band when she finds herself running through the Minneapolis night, pursued by a sinister man and a huge, terrifying dog. The two creatures are one and the same: a phouka, a faerie being who has chosen Eddi to be a mortal pawn in the age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Eddi isn't interested--but she doesn't have a choice. Now she struggles to build a new life and new band when she might not even survive till the first rehearsal.” ~goodreads.com

I’m reading War for the Oaks as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club.  I’ve never read any of Emma Bull’s work before, but this, her debut novel, does seem like a good place to start.

My Thoughts:

The three main elements of The War for the Oaks are music, romance, and fairies.  The musical plot focuses on guitarist/vocalist Eddi McCandry’s effort to form a successful band.  Eddi’s just left her boyfriend and his disastrous cover band “InKline Plain”, and she hopes that her new group will be able to hit it big with their own material.  Emma Bull puts a lot of thought into the technical details of the band, Eddi’s audition process, how the members sound together, and even how playing makes them feel.  The popular songs they play are explicitly mentioned, and Bull even wrote lyrics for the band’s original material.  It made me wonder if getting a soundtrack of the existing songs would enhance the atmosphere of the book. My personal background in music may influence my attitude here, but I really enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on Eddi’s band.

For me, the romantic elements of the book were much less engaging.  The love story was pretty standard and predictable.  Eddi was kind of an unintentional magnet for gorgeous, magical guys.  Despite the fact that Eddi’s love interests were ancient, powerful creatures, they seemed very much like her peers in terms of emotional maturity and life experience.  Early in the book, there was some talk about the insurmountable differences between humans and the fey, but this was more or less abandoned once Eddi started falling in love.  It seemed that only the superficial differences between fey and human, such as the fey’s stilted speech patterns, were maintained consistently throughout the book.

This is only slightly related to the book’s romantic leanings, but I noticed that the writing seemed to dwell on physical appearance.  Almost every character’s appearance was extensively described at least once, and attractive characters were re-described fairly often.  All of the characters’ clothes were treated to the same scrutiny, and it seemed that each scene contained at least one detailed outfit description.  I found this intense focus on clothing and pretty people to be a little distracting from the main story.

I was interested in the fairies’ Seelie and Unseelie Courts, but I was a little frustrated by how little the reader was shown of their conflict or their societies.  The Unseelie Court was left a near-complete mystery.  The only Unseelie characters that actually interacted with Eddi were their Queen and random fairy thugs.  Through the Phouka, Eddi’s shape-changing bodyguard, slightly more was explained about the workings of the Seelie Court. There are tantalizing mentions of a class struggle in the Seelie Court, between the sidhe and the ‘lower’ fey, but the topic was never really explored in detail. 

The current conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts provided the reason for Eddi’s involvement. Eddi was chosen by the Seelie Court to bind her own mortality to Faerie, enabling the fey to be killed in battle.  The fairies were fighting over who got to rule Minneapolis, and the fight seemed more like a tradition than a result of any actual grievance. If the Seelie won, Minneapolis would stay a great place for living things.  If the Unseelie won, it would wither and die.  Therefore, once Eddi got over being recruited without her permission, the story was pretty much a basic struggle of Good vs. Evil.  As a result, the plot was kind of generic, and it led to a very predictable finale.

My Rating: 3/5

War for the Oaks is a quick book to read, and I enjoyed the descriptions of Eddi’s efforts to form a successful band.  I would have liked for the Faerie story to be a little more involved, and to see more of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts.  In specific, it would have been great to see more about the clash between the Sidhe and lower fey, and I would have loved to see more of the Unseelie besides the Queen and a few random murderous thugs.  I’m not really a romance fan in general, and the romance in this story seemed a little forced and unrealistic to me. All in all, War for the Oaks might be a good choice if you’re in the mood for a light, simple story about the power of music and love, with some supernatural flair.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke


The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Gollancz/Harcout Brace Jovanovich (1979)
Awards Won: Nebula, Hugo
Nominations: British SF Association Award, Locus SF Award
The Book:
Vannemar Morgan's dream is to link Earth to the stars with the greatest engineering feat of all time;a 24,000-mile-high space elevator. But first he must solve a million technical, political, and economic problems while allaying the wrath of God. For the only possible site on the planet for Morgan's Orbital Tower is the monastery atop the Sacred Mountain of Sri Kanda. And for two thousand years, the monks have protected Sri Kanda from all mortal quests for glory. Kings and princes who have sought to conquer the Sacred Mountain have all died.Now Vannemar Morgan may be next.” ~from WWend.com
I was intending to post this review soon after the announcement of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, but I ended up being a little delayed.  Anyway, I decided to read his account of building a space elevator, The Fountains of Paradise, in honor of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
My Thoughts:
The Fountains of Paradise is very much a hard science fiction novel. The star of the novel seemed to be the space elevator (or Orbital Tower) itself.  The main technological advance that makes the Tower possible is an extremely thin, incredibly strong, carbon-based cable.  Clarke spends copious amounts of time describing the Tower, detailing its construction, and exploring the social and political impact of the project.  Most of the suspense of the story comes from the setbacks and disasters along the way.  For instance, the construction was opposed by an order of monks, who were furious at the idea of an Orbital Tower on their Sacred Mountain.  The project also has to deal with dubious popular scientists and the brutal, but rule-abiding, opponent that is the natural world.
This all might sound a little dry, but I feel that Clarke tells his story with a sense of beauty and wonder.  The site of the Orbital Tower, the fictional island of Taprobane, is a slightly altered version of Clarke’s adopted home of Sri Lanka.  I felt as though his reverence and affection for the island---its culture, natural beauty, and history—shined through in the narrative.  The elegance and precision of Clarke’s prose always kept my attention from flagging, even through his many technical explanations.
The main human character of the story is the head engineer, Vannevar Morgan.  The Orbital Tower is his dream, and we see how much of his personal life he is willing to sacrifice to achieve it.  There is a scattering of other characters, but none of them, possibly including Morgan, are ever very deeply developed.  Despite this, the characters seemed to be believable representations of human beings, just ones that the reader never ended up knowing very intimately.
There were also two side plots interspersed with the story of the Tower.  The strongest of these two, in my opinion, was the story of the historical ruler of Taprobane, King Kalidasa.  His story resonates with Morgan’s, as he builds amazing engineering feats for his time on the nearby mountain of Yakkagala.  While Kalidasa is dead in the present time, his construction on Yakkagala, including his ‘Fountains of Paradise’, lives on. Both Kalidasa and Morgan are deeply driven to see their projects to completion, and there is a sense of challenging God in both Kalidasa’s paradisiacal gardens and in Morgan’s Babel-like Tower. 
The weaker of the two side plots involves an alien robot, Starglider, making first contact with humanity and establishing communication. I think, from events at the very end, that I understand the thematic purpose of this side plot, but it felt very irrelevant for most of the book.  This first contact story only took up a very small portion of the book.
My Rating: 4/5
The Fountains of Paradise is a tale of people driven to accomplish great things.   Both the long-dead King Kalidasa and the current engineer Vannevar Morgan intend to do whatever it takes to complete their great work, leaving behind a legacy that will long outlast their own lives.  The story seems focused on the details the projects themselves, rather than the characters, but Clarke’s graceful style of writing evokes a sense of wonder even in the driest of explanations.  The side plot concerning humanity’s first contact with a robotic alien spaceship seemed a bit unnecessary, but it was only present in a small part of the overall novel.  Overall, Clarke’s depiction of the construction of a space elevator was compelling, beautiful, and well worth reading.
P.S.:  The Tacoma Narrows Bridge is mentioned in The Fountains of Paradise.  If you’ve never seen footage of it before, here’s a youtube video.  Nature really is a formidable opponent!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: Moxyland by Lauren Beukes


Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2009

The Book:

A frighteningly persuasive, high-tech fable, this novel follows the lives of four narrators living in an alternative futuristic Cape Town, South Africa.  An art-school dropout, and AIDS baby, a tech-activist and an RPG-obsessed blogger live in a world where your online identity is at least as important as your physical one. Getting disconnected is a punishment worse than imprisonment, but someone's got to stand up to Government Inc. - whatever the cost. 

Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, this tale paints anything but a forecasted utopia, satirically undermining the reified idea of progress as society's white knight.” ~from barnesandnoble.com

I’ve previously read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I thought was spectacular.  Moxyland, her first novel, is also a pretty terrific book, and it cements my decision to read any further fiction she publishes. 

My Thoughts:

Moxyland weaves together the stories of four different narrators in a horrific near-future dystopian Cape Town, South Africa.  There were some elements of the society, such as the ID-cellphones that police could activate as tasers, that still happily only exist in the realms of fiction.  Other elements, such as people farming digital items in online games for real money, or people selling their bodies to companies as advertising space, are all too real.  Moxyland’s society is a place that is designed to use its people as a disposable and renewable resource.  In this world, who you are matters much less than who you know, and who you can influence.  Carefully controlled PR and advertising manipulate the crowds to keep the powerful in charge. 

A major factor in how much a reader might enjoy this book is how strongly they feel about the four narrators.  These main characters are the heart of the novel, and they each display a strong, realistic personality.  They are all deeply flawed characters, and I think that the reader’s sympathy for them (or lack of it) will be defined by their specific emotional reaction to each of these distinct types of people.  Moxyland is very character-centric, so it would be difficult to enjoy if you aren’t invested in the wellbeing of the four narrators.

I found the tragically self-destructive characters to be the most compelling.  My favorite narrator was passive, powerless Kendra, the ‘art-school dropout’, who is fixated on the obsolete art of old-style photography.  As an ironic attempt to take control of her own destiny, she accepts an offer to be ‘branded’ by a soda company.  She’s injected with nanotech that improves her physical and mental state, at the cost of an addiction to the company’s brand of soda, called Ghost.  Watching Kendra’s desperate, confused struggle for autonomy was heartbreaking.  Tendeka, the blindly passionate would-be revolutionary ‘tech-activist’, was also a very sympathetic narrator to me.  He wants so desperately to help the disenfranchised that he would give almost anything of himself.  Unfortunately, his passion and his trust in his comrades make him an easy person to twist toward more extreme measures. 

The other two narrators, the disloyal, irresponsible, blogger Toby and the backstabbing, corporate-ladder-climbing AIDs baby Lerato, garnered much less sympathy from my corner.  Toby’s slang-filled, drugged-out narrative segments were often amusing, but I couldn’t stand him as a person.  Lerato’s competence, intelligence, and material success made her stand out from the others, but I found her ever-present contempt for others grating.  However, all of the narrators made necessary contributions to the overall effect of the story.  I felt that the lives of the four protagonists balanced each other beautifully, and each viewpoint highlighted elements of the others.

One minor complaint I have for Moxyland is that it sometimes seemed a bit claustrophobic.  The story is very intensely focused on the four major characters, their thoughts and their perceptions.  None of the other characters are really fleshed out at all, and the locations seem very minimally described.  The first person present narration made it feel kind of like reading four very well written streaming blogs.  Also, since the four protagonists are quite familiar with their community, they never take time out to explain things explicitly to the reader.  As a result, it took me a little while to get used to their society and jargon.  I liked this approach, but I can see where it might make the book hard to get into at first.           

My Rating: 4.5/5

I really enjoyed reading Moxyland, though I think that some elements of Beuke’s dystopian future are frighteningly plausible in today’s world. The novel is very focused on the four protagonists and their thoughts, with little time for development of side characters or scenery.  The four main characters, Kendra, Toby, Tendeka, and Lerato, were very well-developed, and they each had believably flawed personalities.  I found their interwoven stories tragic and moving, but I can see where it might fall flat for readers who don't find themselves sympathetic towards any of the main characters.  It’s a pretty short novel, and the first-person-present narration makes for a quick read.  Lauren Beukes is definitely an author whose career I plan to follow!


Note on Rating:  I’m becoming aware that my 5-point rating system does not quite have the level of finesse I would prefer for labeling books.  I thought of using a 10-point system, but I’m afraid that I would just end up using 6-10 as scores instead of 1-5.  My new plan is to include half-points in my current rating system.  Since my blog has only been around for a few months, I’m pretty sure I still remember all my initial reactions to the books I’ve reviewed. Therefore, I’m going to go through and tweak the previous ratings by a half-point where necessary.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
Published: Spectra, 2010
Award Nominations: Nebula Award

The Book:

The year is 1876. In the small Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine, the town witch, Emily Edwards, is being run out of business by an influx of mail-order patent magics. Attempting to solve her problem with a love spell, Emily only makes things worse. But before she can undo the damage, an enchanted artifact falls into her possession—and suddenly Emily must flee for her life, pursued by evil warlocks who want the object for themselves.

Dreadnought Stanton, a warlock from New York City whose personality is as pompous and abrasive as his name, has been exiled to Lost Pine for mysterious reasons. Now he finds himself involuntarily allied with Emily in a race against time—and across the United States by horse, train, and biomechanical flying machine—in quest of the great Professor Mirabilis, who alone can unlock the secret of the coveted artifact. But along the way, Emily and Stanton will be forced to contend with the most powerful and unpredictable magic of all—the magic of the human heart.” ~from barnesandnoble.com

I read The Native Star thanks to a dare from the Calico Reaction blog.  This is Hobson’s first novel, and she has described the style as “bustlepunk”.  A sequel, The Hidden Goddess, has recently been published.  The Native Star is definitely a complete novel, but a number of interesting subjects not fully explored in this first book have left me eager to read the sequel.

 The Book:

The Native Star is an exciting mix of alternate history, action-adventure, fantasy, mystery, and romance.  The setting is late 19th century United States, but in this fantastical version of history, society is being largely shaped by magic instead of industry. Hobson’s magical world is richly developed, from the rural family-taught practitioners to uptight University warlocks.  It’s a world where people can transfer their souls to objects by magic and monstrous jackrabbit “Aberrancies” threaten unwary travelers.  The three specific schools of magic are Animancy, related to spirits and living things, Credomancy, based on the power of belief, and Sangrimancy, a dark and powerful art fueled by blood. There were interesting quirks in the system, such as the fact that anti-magic religious fanatics unwittingly use a kind of Credomancy against magic users through the force of their belief. 

I was a little thrown off by the prevalence of sexism, racism and classism, particularly in the highly educated warlock circles, but these attitudes were definitely portrayed in a negative light.  There was a witch’s rights association, at least, to combat a bit of the sexism.  I think these flaws in Hobson’s society served to make it feel even more plausible as an alternate magical history.   

Many of the characters in the story, even beyond the protagonists, were interestingly multi-layered.  It seemed that everyone had secrets, or were more (or less) than they appeared. Emily and Stanton both had their flaws, but I still found them to be very sympathetic leads.  In my opinion, they both had very abrasive personalities, but they were also both shaped by their share of troubles.  The side characters, such as the gambling witch in San Francisco, the overly gabby train passenger Rose Hibble, and even Professor Mirabilis, all had their own stories and their own secrets to keep.

The story itself is very fast-paced and energetic, but a bit standard in scope.  After Emily inadvertently comes into possession of a priceless magical artifact, she and Stanton find themselves on the run from the many dangerous factions that want to claim it.  All the while, they’re trying to figure out what exactly that artifact is, and what should be done about it. While the fast pace, interesting surroundings, and engaging characters made the story work for me, the basics of the plot seem almost like a usual action-adventure movie. 

The romantic side of the book consisted of a fairly predictable love triangle.  On the one hand, Emily has cast a love spell on the local wealthy lumberman of Lost Pine, a truly decent guy she’s known all her life.  On the other hand, she can’t stand Dreadnought Stanton!  Their personalities grate on each other, he’s sophisticated and arrogant, and he has a mysterious past.  Can you guess who she’ll pick?  I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite romantic tropes, but I feel that the novel focused much more on magic and adventure than on love. In the end, I felt that the world-building and the vibrant characters more than made up for the somewhat simple fundamental plot.            

My Rating: 4/5

The Native Star was a real pleasure to read, which is, I would hope, the goal of most fiction.  The exciting “bustlepunk” magical 19th century America, with its evil sangrimancers, raging aberrancies, priggish warlocks and ‘skycladdische’ witches, is an endlessly exciting place for adventure.  The characters, from Emily and Stanton to the people they meet along the way, are just as intriguing and complicated as the world they inhabit.  The plot, Emily and Stanton fleeing evil or unscrupulous warlocks with an unwanted powerful magical artifact, is pretty standard, but still a fun romp.  The romantic subplot is also fairly predictable, but it does not take up a huge portion of the overall story.  I found The Native Star to be a very quick and enjoyable read, with a world and characters that I look forward to visiting again in The Hidden Goddess.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1966)
Awards won: Hugo Award
Nominations: Nebula Award

The Book:
“[This] is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth. It is the tale of the disparate people—a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic—who become the rebel movement's leaders. And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution's ultimate success.” ~from barnesandnoble.com
I’m reading this as a part of the Alphabet Soup Challenge over at Calico Reaction.  I’ve read a few Heinlein novels and short stories, as I suspect most science fiction fans have, but I have never been particularly amazed by his work.  I respect the influence he’s had on the genre, though, and I typically find his stories entertaining.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is pretty representative of what I expect when I hear the words ‘Heinlein novel’.
My Thoughts:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an exciting story of the fight for independence of a Lunar penal colony.  The Lunar revolution can be traced back to four characters.  While there are a number of side characters, the bulk of the story is focused on this ‘inner circle’. The ‘computer technician’ mentioned in the blurb is actually the narrator of the story, an apolitical Luna-born man named Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, who has a prosthetic arm.  He has an interesting style of speech that seems designed to be a kind of future Russian accent. It’s a little hard to get used to, but it provides an interesting rhythm to the narration.
The ‘elderly academic’, rational anarchist Professor Bernardo de la Paz, is the group’s philosophical heart.  He gives many lectures on how to properly run a revolution and what an ideal post-revolutionary society ought to be like. The ‘vigorous young female agitator’, pretty Wyoming Knott, brings her passion to the group.  The fourth member of the group, and arguably the most significant character, is Mike, an endearingly na├»ve, near-omniscient and near-omnipotent sentient supercomputer.
The AI, Mike, was my favorite character.  His personality is an interesting mix of social incompetence and technical brilliance, and it was fun to watch him develop into more of a ‘person’ throughout the story.  Despite my interest in his personality, I found his functional role in the story a little irritating.  He joins the revolution out of loyalty to his best friend, Manuel, and he uses his superior knowledge to completely plan the entire struggle for independence. Whenever they run into a problem with their scheme, it seems like the solution is almost always ‘Have Mike Fix It’.  It seemed that the Lunar revolution would never have gotten off the ground without a genius supercomputer to make nearly all the plans and solve nearly all the problems. 
Partially as a result of the convenient existence of Mike, it seemed that the revolution went unrealistically smoothly. While they certainly hit a number of minor setbacks, there aren't really any major unexpected disasters. It seemed that the deck was stacked in favor of our heroes, and not only through having Mike as an ally.  For instance, most of the major revolutionaries are polite, intelligent, and possess infallible powers of logic.  On the other hand, their enemies tend to be incompetent and unintelligent.  For instance, some of their early subversive activity could be pretty clearly traced back to the main Lunar computer.  Even the heroes seemed surprised that their opponents never made this fairly simple connection. I would have found the revolution more interesting if the two sides were more evenly matched in cleverness, and the Lunar revolutionaries faced more unexpected responses from those in power.
As for the gender and societal structure of the penal colony, I found it both interesting and unrealistic. The society is sort of a matriarchy, which Heinlein describes as rising from a low ratio of females to males.  Since there is a very low supply of heterosexual sex for men, they treat women with a lot of deference.  They also developed various polygamous marriage structures, in order to maximize male access to females.  For instance, a marriage with two men and one woman is one of the most common structures.
This respectful and highly logical response to the situation seems somewhat unlikely to me.  Human beings en masse rarely tend to act in a peaceful and logical manner when they are all trying to obtain the same limited resource.  Given human history, I would have expected for Luna to go in the other direction, with men killing each other and hoarding as many women as possible.  I find it curious that Heinlein seems to think human beings are naturally rational and nonviolent.
I referred to their society as ‘sort of a matriarchy’, because all female power in this society seems to derive from their ability to provide men with sex.  While women are highly respected for their feminine charms, they don't seem to actually hold many positions of power.  Most women are either housewives or work at traditionally female support occupations.  A few women contribute to fighting in the revolution, but they do so in special women-only squadrons.  Wyoming has the least traditional female role in the story, but even she has a whole subplot tied up with how her (possible) inability to bear children affects her worth as a woman.  I feel like the Lunar society was intended to be an example of a society of empowered women, but it seems to me that it missed its mark.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an entertaining story of revolution that also provides many discussions about the art of revolution and the ideal structure of a society.  I may not have agreed with the views espoused, but I still found the discussions interesting. While it seemed that Heinlein was trying to create a Lunar society where women were empowered, he ended up creating a society where women derive power from their ability to provide sex to men. I was also a bit disappointed by the way the deck was stacked in favor of our heroes, through the near-unstoppable abilities of Mike and the incompetent opposition to the revolutionaries.   It’s certainly an exciting story, but I would have liked to see our heroes overcome a few more of the obstacles to freedom through their own human ingenuity.     

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Plan: 2011 Hugo Award Nominees

The nominees for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel were announced last Sunday, April 24th.  The winner will be announced Saturday, August 20th, 2011, during the Hugo Awards Ceremony at "Renovation" in Reno, Nevada.  As I did previously for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, I intend to read each of them before the winner is announced.  I'll provide a review of each, and then see if I can accurately predict which one will be chosen as the winner!  The amount of reading required this time will be a little less than for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, since I've already read two of the nominees.  Here they are, in the order that I have read, or intend to read, them:

1) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

"Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history.

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably together." ~from goodreads.com


I unfortunately read this one before I began my blog, and I don't think it's fresh enough in my mind to give a full review.  Instead, I'll just give my general impressions here.  I found it to be a very entertaining novel, and I particularly enjoyed the mythology of Jemisin's world.  Don't go into it expecting an intricate political power struggle, or you'll be disappointed.  The emphasis is much more on Yeine searching for the secrets of her mother's past, and the story of the gods.  Oh, and there's a fair bit of romance, too.
2) The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

I've already read and reviewed this one, and it is a terrific novel.  Click the title for the summary and review.

3) Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold


"Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. All well and good, so long as they kept to themselves. But now the Kibou-daini are attempting to franchise out their Fountain of Youth wares to the rest of the galaxy and the Barrayar Galactic Empire is none too pleased with the implications.
Cue Miles Vorkosigan, malformed royal troublemaker—but also heir and savior of empire. On Kibou-daini, Miles unearths a war of generations as the oldsters in charge refuse to die and their descendants threaten outright patricide, matricide and maybe even genocide—the prize being a big fat slice of the immortality pie. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping–something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and Miles is up to his neck in trouble and adventure once more."  ~from barnesandnoble.com


This is the 14th book of the Vorkosigan Saga.  I've not read any of them yet.  I've been meaning to get around to the saga someday, since I've enjoyed Bujold's fantasy Chalion Series.  Ideally, I would read the first 13 novels before this one, but, the more I think on it, the more I'm not sure if that's the best idea.  I feel pretty confident that I'm going to like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I would hate to dampen that enjoyment by trying to zoom through them as fast as possible.  Also, it is my understanding that, while the saga does have a chronology, the novels mostly stand alone.  Taking all this into account, my current plan is to go ahead and read Cryoburn first, and then jump back to the rest of the series. Vorkosigan Saga fans, is this a good idea or am I ruining the saga for myself?

4) Feed by Mira Grant


"The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beat the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED.

NOW, twenty years after the Rising, Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives-the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will out, even if it kills them." ~from barnesandnoble.com


Sounds like zombies to me!  I'm excited.  I know this is not very high-brow of me, but zombies stories are so much fun.  The only one I've ever read that I might consider award-worthy literature is World War Z (which I definitely recommend). Perhaps Feed will raise that number to two!

5) Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis


Oh, come on.  That's not a novel, that's two novels!  So, anyway... Blackout:

"Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past." ~from barnesandnoble.com


And now, All Clear:

"Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong.
Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own—to find three missing needles in the haystack of history." ~barneandnoble.com


I'm saving these for the last, since I just read one of Willis' time travel novels, the tragic Doomsday Book.  It looks like this one is going to have a few more parallel storylines, and a few recurring characters.

So, what do you think about this year's Hugo Award nominees?  Have you read them all?  Which do you think is most deserving of the honor?