Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin


A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Published: Random House Publishing Group, 2011
Awards Nominated: Hugo and British Fantasy Society Awards
Awards Won: Locus Fantasy Award

If you haven’t read the first 4 books of the series, stop here because there will almost definitely be spoilers.  I will not give away plot points of A Dance With Dragons, but I am going to mention the viewpoint characters and make general comments about the content. 

The Book:

“In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance—beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. As they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.

Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way to Daenerys. But his newest allies in this quest are not the rag-tag band they seem, and at their heart lies one who could undo Daenerys’s claim to Westeros forever.

Meanwhile, to the north lies the mammoth Wall of ice and stone—a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, will face his greatest challenge. For he has powerful foes not only within the Watch but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice.

From all corners, bitter conflicts reignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all.” ~barnesandnoble.com

I’ve been reading this series for roughly a decade, so I’d been looking forward to this next installment for many years.  I’ve read pretty much all of Martin’s published long fiction, so I would consider myself familiar with his style.  I enjoyed reading A Dance With Dragons, but I do think it left some things to be desired.

My Thoughts:

As all of you who have read the books know, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were originally intended to be one book.   When it grew out of control, it was split into two parallel novels, each telling the whole story from half of the viewpoint characters.  While A Feast  for Crows mostly focused on southern Westeros, A Dance With Dragons focuses mostly on northern Westeros and the Free Cities (kind of an ironic name, since they contain the world’s major hub for the slave trade).  However, as Martin explains in a foreword, A Dance With Dragons, is not just a parallel novel.  About 2/3 of the way through, it actually catches up to the end of A Feast for Crows and rejoins some of that novels viewpoint characters. 

As a result, the number of viewpoint characters explodes in this book.  Including the one-off prologue and epilogue characters, there are 18 different viewpoints represented in A Dance With Dragons. While many of them were the characters I’ve known and followed for a decade, Martin also adds some new characters into the mix.  The novel runs the risk of feeling like Martin has let his story diverge too much, but I think that this is the widest point of the narrative.  I fully expect that viewpoint characters will start dropping like flies in The Winds of Winter, as the story begins to focus towards the final resolution.

The chapters are not evenly distributed among the 18 viewpoints, and I’ve separated them into main characters (>=10 chapters), secondary characters (4-7 chapters) and minor characters (<= 3 chapters) for ease of discussion. While some of the characters occasionally overlap in the narrative, each viewpoint character essentially has their own plot.  Since many of the things I want to address are specific to certain viewpoints, I’m breaking the book up into the different viewpoints before giving my overall impressions of the work.

The main characters, which make up the largest part of the story of A Dance With Dragons, are Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.  Each of them had something climactic happen at the end of A Storm of Swords, and we get to see them deal with the aftermath here.  Daenerys and Jon are faced with the difficulty of ruling the realms they’ve effectively conquered (Meereen and the Wall), and Tyrion finds that the world is even less kind to dwarves when they don’t have rich and powerful fathers.  These were actually three of the most interesting characters, in my opinion, so I really enjoyed the attention they receive in this novel.  

Of the secondary characters, I think my favorite was the addition of Ser Barristan Selmy, an elderly knight-in-exile. I enjoyed reading about his memories almost as much as I appreciated his quiet competence in the face of all the youthful mistakes that have been made throughout the series.  Davos Seaworth makes another appearance here, though I was never particularly interested in his story.  Another new character is a Dornish prince, whose story seemed a little unnecessary, though entertaining.  The last secondary character is known as “Reek” and I found his viewpoint particularly disturbing. Martin has always included a lot of sex and violence in his fantasy series, but the level of physical and sexual degradation and torture crossed the line for me here.  I would recommend not reading these chapters while eating.  The only thing that really made it bearable was the fact that he never describes the acts themselves, only refers to them before or after.  Honestly, if this had been a larger part of the story, or described in more detail, I would probably have stopped reading the book.

As for the minor characters, a few of them were viewpoints from A Feast for Crows,  which joined A Dance With Dragons in the last third of the novel.  Others are surprise chapters from the viewpoint of characters that had been in the background up until now.  There’s a handful of Greyjoys, which I was not too thrilled about.  I’ve never really enjoyed reading about the Greyjoy family.  They’re a little too arrogant, self-absorbed, and pointlessly macho for me.  Also of note are the brief appearances of the Lannister twins, and of the two Stark children, Bran and Arya.  I was never really into Bran’s story, but it takes an interesting direction here.  Arya, well, I love Arya, so I was excited to see her show up again, even if only briefly.

Overall, I was surprised how little presence the Stark family had in this novel.  Things have really changed since A Game of Thrones.  I was also surprised how many minor characters were included, which really slowed down the flow of the narrative.  The main focal points were around King Stannis, at the Wall, and Daenerys, the Dragon Queen.   While I do think the overarching plot moved forward, large segments of the novel were devoted to travelogue-like sequences or the everyday details leaders have to handle.  I think a lot of the travelogue-ing was useful, though, since Martin had not really fleshed out the geography, cultures and history of the Free Cities much before nowI also noticed how much more into the forefront the supernatural elements of the story are moving.  As winter approaches, it seems that many creatures that were legends in A Game of Thrones are starting to emerge and wreak havoc. 

My major criticism of A Dance With Dragons would be that, despite the fact that the plot does move forward, it still feels like something of a transition and setup book.  It doesn’t really have a particularly satisfying narrative arc in itself, and many of the viewpoint characters’ stories end on awful cliffhangers.  I realize that I am already deeply invested in the adventures of these characters, so this weakness may be more forgivable to me than it would be to others. However, I think that The Winds of Winter is set up to be a really dramatic book, in the vein of Storm of Swords, and I’m looking forward to reading it… in another 5 years or so, I guess!

My Rating: 4/5

A Dance With Dragons continues Martin’s impressive saga, focusing on the difficult paths of Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys Targaryen, Dragon Queen, and Tyrion Lannister, the grief-stricken fugitive.  In addition to these three viewpoints, it contains 15 more viewpoint characters, resulting in a somewhat slow and diverging story.  The main focus is on the north of Westoros and the Free Cities.  Martin picks up the task of describing the geography, cultures, and history of the Free Cities in a prodigious amount of travelogue-like sequences.  While A Dance With Dragons sometimes feels a little too sprawling, and a little too much like a transitional book, it still delivers many interesting characters and exciting stories.  Furthermore, the supernatural elements are beginning to come more into the forefront as the world creeps closer to the deadly winter.  I expect the story to narrow as main characters die in The Winds of Winter, when the great winter finally arrives.       

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reveiw: The Silent Land by Graham Joyce


The Silent Land by Graham Joyce
Published: Gollancz, 2010
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society Award, World Fantasy Award

The Book:

“In the French Pyrenees, a young married couple is buried under a flash avalanche while skiing. Miraculously, Jake and Zoe dig their way out from under the snow-only to discover the world they knew has been overtaken by an eerie and absolute silence. Their hotel is devoid of another living soul. Cell phones and land lines are cut off. An evacuation as sudden and thorough as this leaves Jake and Zoe to face a terrifying situation alone.

They are trapped by the storm, completely isolated, with another catastrophic avalanche threatening to bury them alive . . . again. And as the couple begin to witness unset­tling events neither one can ignore, they are forced to con­front a frightening truth about the silent land they now inhabit.” ~WWend.com

I had never read any Graham Joyce before, though I have heard his name come up from time to time.   When I saw that The Silent Land was up for two awards this year, I decided to read it.  I’m don’t know whether The Silent Land is a particularly good example of Joyce’s body of work or not.

My Thoughts:

I found the idea of the novel interesting, if a little bit familiar.  I felt like there were many directions it could have been taken, but the plot ended up moving along the most well-worn path.  About halfway through the book, it was fairly obvious how everything was going to pan out, and there were not really any more surprises along the way.  There’s a lot of discussion about materialism, living a worthwhile life, and valuing relationships, but I didn’t feel like it ever went anywhere beyond the usual platitudes.  I think it would be entertaining for anyone in the mood for a predictable, sentimental story. 

The main (and just about only) characters, the young upper-middle-class couple Jake and Zoe, seemed very blank to me.  They both had incredibly generic personalities, possibly a deliberate choice to help many readers see themselves in the characters.  I felt like Jake and Zoe would best be described by the majority opinions from a poll of fairly young (late 20s/early 30s) upper-middle-class, childless, western couples on their opinions and relationship problems.  However, what interests me in characters aren’t the opinions they have in common with the majority of their demographic, it's the things, bad or good, that set them apart. 

Information about Jake and Zoe is given through explicit statements or stories, but even these facts don’t always seem to have any affect on their personality or behavior. For instance, Jake states that he’s a veterinarian.  Past his initial statement, this fact is almost never referenced again.  I have a friend who is studying veterinary medicine, and I can think of a handful of quirks he has that are a result (or cause) of his chosen specialty.  Here, the fact that Jake is a vet seems completely irrelevant, as it has no impact on his general characterization.  Most of the book is focused around Jake, Zoe, and their relationship, so my disappointment with their characterization seriously affected how much interest I had in the story.

The writing itself was also not particularly to my taste.  It was very spare in some places, but it tended towards fanciful comparisons in descriptions. As an example, Zoe describes the moon:

“It seemed supernaturally large; like an inflated berry of mistletoe, or a pearly bauble hanging on a Christmas tree.  She gasped. Its light looked milky, liquid, sticky even.  She could easily see the crater shadows on the moon.  It was almost like an unblinking eye, gazing in at her from the clear night sky, remote yet interested.” (p. 111, e-book version)

The number of different comparisons in such a short description makes it seem a little overwrought, to me.  There was a lot of dialogue between Jake and Zoe, but I often felt that their words were very stilted and awkward.  As an example of what I mean, at one point they have the following exchange:

Zoe: “I didn’t hear anything.”
Jake: “I wasn’t imagining it.”
Zoe: “I‘m not saying you did.”
Jake: “I know you’re not saying I did. When I say I’m not imagining things, I’m talking to myself.” (p. 72, e-book version)

That’s pretty representative of the usual way they interact.  It reminded me of how I speak when I’m learning a foreign language, repeating phrases unnecessarily.  I also felt like there was a lot of telling over showing, particularly where Zoe’s and Jake’s emotions were concerned.  The novel was very short, but it still felt a little stretched out to me. I feel like the content of the story might have been better fitted to a shorter fiction format.  

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Silent Land has an interesting premise, but the story ends up following a very well-worn path.  The lead characters, Jake and Zoe, seem such a generic representation of their demographic that it was hard for me to care about them as individuals.   I felt like there was a lot more telling than showing going on in the narrative, and the frequent dialogue between Jake and Zoe seemed strangely stilted.  Overall, I think The Silent Land is a story fitted to specific tastes that just happen to not be mine.  If you feel like reading a bittersweet, sentimental story that offers all of the usual commonplaces about love, relationships, and what really matters in life, then you might find this book to be exactly what you’re looking for.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith


Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Published: Grafton, 1993
Awards Won: James Tiptree Jr Award, Lambda Award
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep–and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives.

In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing–and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction. . . .” ~barnesandnoble.com

Ammonite is the August book for the Alphabet Soup Challenge at the Calico Reaction blog.  This is the first book I’ve read by Nicola Griffith, and it is her first novel.  I assumed, from the description and the awards it had won, that Ammonite would explore gender and LGBT themes.  It certainly does that, through the all-female planet of Jeep.  The goal of Ammonite on this count seemed to be to portray women as individuals, and lesbian relationships as simply relationships.

My Thoughts:

I was first impressed with the setting of Ammonite, Grenchstom’s Planet (a.k.a. GP, Jeep). Jeep is a fully realized alien world, though most of its current sentient inhabitants are human.  Griffith’s descriptions of the sights and smells of Jeep, the alien weather, and the strange creatures are so vivid that you can almost close your eyes and imagine yourself there. Aside from the alien setting, the main science fiction elements involved with the story are extreme biofeedback (controlling one’s body on a cellular level) and genetic memory.  I thought it was kind of interesting to see a story based around these concepts, since they don't seem to be particularly popular in fiction these days. Biofeedback abilities and genetic memory are also tied into the Jeep virus, though the science behind the virus comes off as pretty mystical.  Altogether, I found the Jeep “virus” a little frustrating from a hard science point of view, but I eventually just accepted the mysticism and went along for the ride.

The human communities on Jeep are portrayed with just as much attention to detail.  The idea of an all-female society is not a new one to science fiction, but the usual representations of these societies lean heavily on stereotypical ideas of female behavior. In an essay at the end of the novel, Griffith states that she intended to show that an all-female society would still be a society formed of people who cover ‘the entire spectrum of human behavior’.  Jeep has its violent, insular, culture-bound raiding tribes, but it also has peaceful societies based around herding, farming, and/or trade.  The many characters, from the violently delusional Uaithne, to the peaceful traveler Thenike, to the hunter Leifin, show a broad variety of personalities and behavior.

Out of all of the many characters, it struck me as a little odd that there was no discussion of the absence of men. I can accept that the colonists of Jeep would, at this point, not really be able to even conceptualize any discontent with the situation.  After all, there have been no men on Jeep for hundreds of years—they have no idea what men even are, at this point.  However, the abandoned Company representatives, Hannah Danner and her soldiers, were only expecting to be on Jeep for several years.  Being faced with the possibility of spending the rest of their life on Jeep, I would imagine that at least some of the young women would be positively devastated.  The absence of any distress on this count, from anyone, struck me as a little unrealistic.

While I enjoyed reading about many of the characters, I felt like the protagonist, anthropologist Marghe, had a rather bland personality. She didn’t really seem to have any strong convictions or motivations, and seemed to pick up whatever motivation was convenient for the scene at hand.  Since a great deal of the plot concerned Marghe’s journey of self-discovery on Jeep, my lack of a sense of her fundamental character lowered my level of interest in much of the plot.  I preferred reading the brief segments about Danner, the abandoned Company leader who was trying to cope with the possibility of never leaving Jeep.  However, the simplicity of Danner's faceless Company grated on me a little bit.  We’ve all seen this ‘Company’ before, in movies like Fern Gully or Avatar.  Its one principle is profit, and it will predictably follow the path to the most money, even if that path includes genocide. Even with the simplistic dynamics between Company and their abandoned personnel, I found Danner's difficult situation to be much more compelling than Marghe's wanderings.

My Rating: 3/5

Ammonite contains an incredibly detailed alien world described in vivid detail.  The wide varieties of all-female communities on the planet Jeep are complex and mostly believable, though I was a little surprised that no problems arising from the absence of men were addressed.  The future science elements – biofeedback and genetic memory—are not really treated in a scientifically rigorous way, and the reader is expected to accept quite a lot of mysticism.  Though many of the characters were quite compelling, I thought that the main character, Marghe, seemed rather bland and wishy-washy.  Since much of the book focused on her self-discovery, this did seriously affect my enjoyment of the novel.  I was most intrigued by the plight of the abandoned Company personnel, headed by Danner, but a frustratingly small amount of time was spent featuring these characters.  Overall, if you’re willing to accept the premises, Ammonite delivers an interesting story.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Review: Indigo Springs by A.M. Dellamonica


Indigo Springs by A.M. Dellamonica
Published: Tor, 2009

The Book:

Indigo Springs is a sleepy town where things seem pretty normal . . . until Astrid’s father dies and she moves into his house. She discovers that for many years her father had been accessing the magic that flowed, literally, in a blue stream beneath the earth, leaking into his house. When she starts to use the liquid "vitagua" to enchant everyday items, the results seem innocent enough: a “’chanted” watch becomes a charm that means you're always in the right place at the right time; a “’chanted” pendant enables the wearer to convince anyone of anything . . .

But as events in Indigo Springs unfold and the true potential of vitagua is revealed, Astrid and her friends unwittingly embark on a journey fraught with power, change, and a future too devastating to contemplate. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends as Astrid discovers secrets from her shrouded childhood that will lead her to a destiny stranger than she could have imagined . . . “ ~barnesandnoble.com

I read Indigo Springs both because it is the August novel for the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club and ‘Calico’s Dare’ from the review blog Calico Reaction. This is A.M. Dellamonica’s first novel, and it definitely made me look forward to getting a chance to read more of her work.  It appears that she is working on a sequel to Indigo Springs, titled Blue Magic, planned for release in 2012.

My Thoughts:

Indigo Springs impressed me with its creative magic system, interestingly flawed characters, and its non-linear approach to storytelling, relating the story in two major interwoven narrative threads. The story opens with the first-person present-tense point of view of criminal interrogator Will Forest, as he tries to extract information from the mentally unstable prison inmate Astrid.  At this point, some catastrophe has clearly occurred, but the details are unclear. Will’s story serves initially as a frame for the second narrative thread, a past-tense account of events starting from the day Astrid and her friends first moved into her late father’s house.  I enjoyed the use of both ‘past’ and ‘present’ stories, though I did feel that the events in the gap between the two timelines ended up a little too rushed over for my taste. Otherwise, the two storylines balance each other well, both building in energy as they approach the climax of the book.

A third, minor narrative thread, consisting of flashback memories of Astrid’s childhood, serves to introduce the reader and characters to the detailed vitagua lore. Though I appreciated the flashbacks as an effective way of dispensing vitagua lore in manageable chunks, I felt that their existence, and the story they told, seemed a little bit contrived.  When the origin of the flashback sequences were eventually revealed, I felt like the explanation was a little abrupt and slightly off my sense of Astrid’s character. 

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the content revealed by these memories.  The powerful, dangerous, ‘vitagua’ was a very interesting take on magic, and the lore behind it was delightfully complex.  The ‘chantments’ were flashier than most magic I’ve seen in novels lately, but they were balanced by their consequences and limitations.  I particularly liked the idea of alchemical contamination.  Among other things, the contamination would exaggerate parts of the victim’s personality, turning what might be a slightly dysfunctional personality quirk into a major problem.  I felt like this kind of lore put more focus on the characters, and how they reacted to the magic, than on the magic tricks themselves.

Speaking of characters in Indigo Springs, I loved how strongly their personalities shone through in the story.  The novel tended to lean on dialogue over description, so I think that it would not have been nearly as successful if the characters hadn’t had such strong voices.  The three main characters are Astrid, her stepbrother Jacks, and her recently-dumped friend Sahara. Astrid is a compulsive peacemaker who fears being abandoned, Jacks is rebelling against his father’s plan for his life, and Sahara is accustomed to getting whatever she wants.  The three of them feel like complete people, with their own goals, dreams, and very realistic personality flaws and blind spots. Much of the story revolved around the flawed relationships between these three friends and the other colorful inhabitants of their small town.

My Rating: 4/5

Indigo Springs is an entertaining debut novel, with a richly imagined magical world and strong, imperfect characters.  It was fast-paced and exciting, and the interweaving of the storylines from before and after the Alchemical disaster kept the tension rising throughout.   The magic blue water ‘vitagua’ was a creative new take on magic, and I’m looking forward to seeing how vitagua will affect the world in Dellamonica’s sequel, Blue Magic.  Though I enjoyed the detailed vitagua lore, I thought that the series of flashbacks dispensing it seemed a little contrived.  Also, while the conclusion was exciting, it felt as though the central Alchemical disaster of the book was a little rushed.  Overall, it was a thoroughly fun book, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s in the mood for some fresh, imaginative contemporary fantasy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu


This review also appears as a guest post on WorldsWithoutEnd.com. Worlds Without End (WWEnd) is a wonderful interactive site for fans of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a treasure trove of information about science fiction and fantasy novels, old and new.    

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Published: Pantheon Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Campbell Award

The Book:

Every day in Minor Universe 31 people get into time machines and try to change the past. That's where Charles Yu, time travel technician, steps in. He helps save people from themselves.  Literally. When he's not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. The key to locating his father may be found in a book. It's called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and somewhere inside it is information that will help him. It may even save his life.” ~barnesandnoble.com

I first noticed How to Live Safely when it was long-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I thought it seemed neat and quirky.  When it showed up again in the nominations for the Campbell Award, I decided to go ahead and give it a read.   While it was not exactly what I expected, it was certainly an interesting book. 

My Thoughts:

First off, I want to clarify that How to Live Safely has very little in common with Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I’ve seen the comparison made in a number of blurbs, and I think it’s very misleading. While How to Live Safely does have some funny moments, it’s much more tragic than comic.  Also, the story is intensely focused on the inside workings of the mind of the protagonist, rather than on wacky adventures.  I thought this was worth pointing out, since a mismatch between expectations and reality can often leave readers with an unnecessary feeling of disappointment.   

In terms of style, How to Live Safely is definitely out of the ordinary. The story is told through the thoughts of lowly time machine mechanic Charles Yu.  It took me a while to warm up to the rambling style of his narration, which was full of digressions and excessively extended sentences.  Luckily, his stream of consciousness was typically fairly easy to follow, and it often took surprisingly emotionally evocative turns. Protagonist Yu’s narration is also interspersed with occasional diagrams, photographs, and amusing pseudo-scientific segments (from How to Live Safely… a book of complicated origin) describing aspects Minor Universe 31 (MU-31) and time travel.  The story sometimes seemed to lean a little heavily on pseudo-techno-babble, but there were enough allusions to actual scientific principles to keep things feeling quirky, rather than tedious.

Most of these pseudo-scientific segments, however, existed more to point out some uncomfortable truth about life than to define the fictional world or technology.  I never felt like I had any kind of complete and coherent picture of MU-31 or of exactly what rules ‘fictional science’ was governed by.  All the same, I don’t think the vagueness of the setting seriously hampered my appreciation of the human story at the heart of the novel.  Rather than establishing a definite, internally consistent world, Yu used the trappings of the sci-fi genre and pseudo-scientific discussions of time travel as a framework to tell a very emotional, personal story.

In a physical sense, it might seem that very little happens in the course of the story.  In fact, the basic action of the plot is not particularly surprising or complicated.  The real focus of the story is its psychological and emotional side. At the outset, Yu has unhealthily sequestered himself from the flow of the present, and his only companions are his nonexistent dog Ed and his time machine’s operating system, Tammy, who suffers from low self-esteem. Yu is fixated on his troubled relationship with his parents, particularly his father, and how their history together has shaped (and continues to shape) their lives. His relationships are gradually built up, with painful honesty, throughout the novel, as he struggles to make sense of his life, himself, and how he treats the people he loves.

My Rating: 4/5

I have to admit that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was nothing like what I expected, but I was delighted with what I found.  I expected a light-hearted science fictional jaunt, but instead I found myself reading a thoughtful exploration of a man’s life and the relationships that have shaped it, framed within the construct of time travel. I get the sense that this is a story that will resonate strongly with many people in their late 20’s or 30’s, as we struggle with the idea of mortality and with the limitations and possibilities of a single lifetime.  How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe makes use of common science fiction conventions to explore familial relationships, loss, ambition, failure, understanding, and the complicated intersection of time and life.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Deadline by Mira Grant


Deadline by Mira Grant
Published: Orbit, 2011
Series: Book 2 of the Newsflesh Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award and Philip K. Dick Award

Spoiler Warning: This review will contain serious spoilers of the first book in the series, Feed. I would recommend not reading this review if you haven’t read Mira Grant’s Feed.

The Book:

“Shaun Mason is a man without a mission. Not even running the news organization he built with his sister has the same urgency as it used to. Playing with dead things just doesn't seem as fun when you've lost as much as he has.

But when a CDC researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with a ravenous pack of zombies in tow, Shaun has a newfound interest in life. Because she brings news-he may have put down the monster who attacked them, but the conspiracy is far from dead.

Now, Shaun hits the road to find what truth can be found at the end of a shotgun.” ~from barnesandnoble.com

Deadline is the sequel to Feed, a Hugo-nominated novel that I’ve read and reviewed on this blog.  I loved Feed and was eager to read the rest of the series.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Deadline lived up to the expectations I had after finishing the first novel of the trilogy.

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed Grant’s thorough world building in Feed, and I continued to enjoy her attention to many aspects of post-Rising life and society in Deadline.  The second book provides even more information about the Kellis-Amberlee “zombie” virus and how it interacts with human and animal bodies.  We also get to hear a little about how people outside the US have been coping with the post-Rising world, a topic I hope is expanded upon in the final book. In addition, there are some more interesting digressions about how some mundane experiences, such as grocery shopping and air travel, have changed.  I actually read a good portion of this novel while traveling, so I had a fun time comparing post- and pre-Rising airport security protocols.  The zombies themselves, though, seem less present than in Feed. They often show up as a threat to be avoided, but there’s very little zombie-fighting action featured in the novel.   All in all, I remain impressed with Grant’s imaginative, highly regulated, post-zombie America.

One Last Spoiler Warning! If you didn’t listen to me above, and you haven’t read Feed, stop reading now!  I really don’t want to ruin Feed for you!  As you know, the cast went through a major shift by the end of Feed.  Of the three main characters from the first novel, the only survivor, Shaun, is the viewpoint character of the second book.  George is still present, in a sense, but only as a hallucination in Shaun’s head.  Even the major secondary characters from the first book, such as the former Senator Ryman and the former blogger Rick, are no longer present.  Instead, a few bloggers from the previous book step up into the limelight.  The new central team includes Maggie, the pharmaceutical heiress and new head of the Fictionals, Becks, the ex-debutante Newsie-turned-Irwin, Alaric, a quiet Newsie, and Mahir, an Indian staff member living in the UK.  They’re all interesting and quirky characters, but I felt that they weren’t as fully developed as the team in Feed. Part of that could be due to the fact that, as a narrator, George paid a lot of attention to the people around her, while Shaun was mostly just focused on himself.

That brings me to my first major complaint about the novel.  I liked Shaun as a character in Feed, and even as a viewpoint character near the end of the book. In Deadline, which I believe occurs roughly a year after the events of Feed, Shaun is really hard for me to care about. He’s incredibly absorbed in his own inner world of anguish, and has become a textbook-case physical abuser towards his employees.  Given his behavior, I found it hard to believe that he would still have both employees and ownership of the blog site. He also tends to talk constantly about his ‘craziness’, which mostly involves him having imaginary conversations with his dead sister.  For the most part, he seems to use his alleged ‘craziness’ as an excuse to not even attempt to cope with his grief or consider how his actions affect others.  For me, all of this combined to make reading the story through his mental filter an incredibly frustrating experience.   

Once the conspiracy hunting gets underway, Shaun’s voice becomes a little less grating.  However, I ended up having some serious issues with the structure and content of the plot. Shaun and his team’s actions often seem more random than purposeful, and almost all of their successes are literally handed to them by characters that conveniently show up just to dispense chunks of information.  There were also some major plot twists near the end that didn’t really feel connected to the bulk of the story. Some of them felt like they cheapened the impact of events in Feed.
In terms of content, I was disappointed that Deadline did not seem to correct Feed’s problem of clich├ęd, over-the-top villainy. If anything, the villains in Deadline seem even more stereotypical and mustache-twirling.  I was on board with the idea of corruption within corporations who operate with no checks on their power, but most of what is implied about the grand mysterious conspiracy seems, at this point, somewhat unrealistic and slightly ridiculous.  I’m getting the impression that some of these problems arise from Deadline being a transitional book (between Feed and next year’s finale).  From that perspective, I don’t think I can really say how I feel about many of these issues until I see how it all eventually ties together in the final volume.

My Rating: 2.5/5

I started reading Deadline with high expectations, but I don’t think that it ultimately lived up to the standard set by Feed, the initial book of the Newsflesh Trilogy.  Grant’s post-Rising world was still fascinating, and I enjoyed learning more about both the zombie virus and other aspects of society.  However, the new cast of characters didn’t seem to be as fully realized, and I found Shaun to be a much less sympathetic narrator.  I had some issues with both structure and content of the plot, which seem to arise from a bad case of ‘middle book syndrome’.  Certain plot twists do not seem to relate significantly to the rest of the story, and too many characters seem to show up solely for info-dump purposes.  Deadline also seems to continue Feed’s problem of one-dimensional, stereotypical villains, with all the absurd plots and schemes that typically entails.  With all that said, I’m still looking forward to reading the final installment, Blackout, next year. I still want to know how the story ends, and I remain hopeful that everything will eventually tie together satisfactorily.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke


Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Ballantine Books, 1953

The Book:

No one knew what to expect when the spaceships of the mysterious alien ‘Overlords’ first appeared above all the major cities of Earth.  While these seemingly omnipotent and omniscient aliens did take ultimate control of the planet from the hands of humanity, they used their power for our benefit.

Soon humans enter a Golden Age, as the Overlords directly or indirectly abolish crime, poverty, racism, and even cruelty against animals.  The near-utopia takes its toll on science and the arts, but at least every human being can live a secure life of comfort.  No one knows, though, why the Overlords came to Earth in the first place.  What is the final goal of all of their apparent altruism, and why do they refuse to tell humanity?” -Allie

This is the second Arthur C. Clarke novel I’ve reviewed on my blog.  The first was Fountains of Paradise, a very dry but entertaining book about building a space elevator.  Childhood’s End is one of those classic books that seem to come up often in discussions of science fiction, and I decided that it was a shame I’d never gotten around to reading it. 

My Thoughts:

Childhood’s End is definitely a classic in science fiction, and I think that it first introduced a number of common elements of alien contact stories.  The most obvious to me was the first contact scene, where the alien ships appeared in the sky and hovered ominously over all the major cities of the world.  While not much felt ‘fresh’ or ‘original’ to me, I recognize that this is probably due to how much so many stories have borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke’s vision over the years.

I felt like the real point of the novel was showing, in wide view, the development of human society under the Overlords, and the development of humans themselves.  On these points, Clarke is very thorough.  He patiently goes through all aspects of society, describing how they are shaped in humanity’s Golden Age and after.  Some of his points predict our actual future remarkably well, despite the fact that we have yet to be invaded by aliens.  For instance, he predicted the sharp rise of passive media, and he was fairly accurate about how access to dependable birth control might affect romantic relationships. 

Though he discusses many societal changes at length, Clarke is less descriptive about how this Golden Age is brought about.  The years where the Overlords are abolishing crime, poverty, nationalism, and all strife felt a little glossed over.  Even with near-infinite power, I could not really buy the Overlords achieving these goals without a huge cost in human deaths.  Clarke seems to assume here that human beings are, all things being equal, completely rational creatures.  Perhaps I’m just crazily pessimistic, but I really don’t think that’s even close to true.

While I really enjoyed Childhood’s End as a description of an imagined human society arising from alien guidance, it did not really work for me as a narrative.  The overall story structure is very simple, though it is told in meticulous detail.  There are a handful of observer characters, but they have very little depth beyond the basic human views they represent.  I think what bothers me the most is the passivity of humanity.  This is the story of things that are done to humanity.  Nothing any human does ever significantly alters the course of events. I associate the end of childhood with the moment when someone takes control and responsibility for their own life.  Similarly, I hoped to see humanity to step up and take charge of its own destiny.  Instead, the end of humanity’s childhood seems to correspond with the moment the aliens finish shaping us into what it has been decided that we should become.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Childhood’s End is undoubtedly and deservedly a classic novel of science fiction.  Despite having been written over half a century ago, some of Clarke’s predictions of the future are surprisingly accurate. Though he does tend to assume humans are much more rational than I believe, he is incredibly thorough in describing his vision of a Golden Age society and the sociological changes that might arise from the presence of benefactor aliens.  I think that this wealth of detail is the main strength of the book.  I thought that the handful of characters lacked depth, and I was irritated by the inability of humanity to play an active role in its own story.  Overall, I think Childhood’s End is still worth reading today for anyone interested in science fiction literature.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear


All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
Published: Tor, 2008
Series: Book 1 of Edda of Burdens

The Book:

It all began with Ragnarok, with the Children of the Light and the Tarnished ones battling to the death in the ice and the dark. At the end of the long battle, one Valkyrie survived, wounded, and one valraven – the steeds of the valkyrie.

Because they lived, Valdyrgard was not wholly destroyed. Because the valraven was transformed in the last miracle offered to a Child of the Light, Valdyrgard was changed to a world where magic and technology worked hand in hand.

2500 years later, Muire is in the last city on the dying planet, where the Technomancer rules what’s left of humanity. She's caught sight of someone she has not seen since the Last Battle: Mingan the Wolf is hunting in her city. “ ~from barnesandnoble.com

I’m reading this as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club hosted by “Jawas Read, Too!”.  The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Bear is Dust, which was published a year before All the Windwracked Stars. Though the two books share a fair bit in terms of style, imagery, and story, I preferred the characters and setting of All the Windwracked Stars.

My Thoughts:

The setting of All the Windwracked Stars was the first thing that hooked me into the story.  Most of the narrative occurs in the last human city of Eiledon.  Descriptions of this last city, with its floating-island university town, shadowed slums beneath, and techno-magical barrier against the pollution of the dying earth, painted amazing images in my mind.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape outside of Eiledon and other dead worlds (from Norse mythology).  The characters were also thoroughly described in a very physical, visual way that managed not to feel gratuitous to me.  I particularly liked the detailed focus on the moreaux, animals transformed by the Technomancer to be nearly human.  In terms of visuals, I think All the Windwracked Stars could be made into a really lovely high-budget film.

The scenery was very different than her generation-ship science fiction novel Dust, but I was struck by how much specific elements and imagery the two stories had in common. I’m not sure if these are just common things that Bear enjoys including in her writing, or if it was just a spillover of ideas between two books written around the same time period.  Either way, the repetition of ideas sometimes made All the Windwracked Stars feel very familiar.  Among other things, both novels include the idea of power transferred through kissing, broken organic wings repaired by inorganic matter, the ability to consume the consciousness, knowledge and memories of a dead person, a dying world, and a race of immortals that look completely human. There were also some similarities between the overall shape of the plot and the style of writing between the two books.  Even though the two books had a lot in common, I still thought that the characters and the apocalyptic Norse world of All the Windwracked Stars formed a compelling story.

In a style that is beginning to seem characteristic of Bear, the reader is tossed into the middle of the story, with no explanations.  In this case, a great deal has happened before the opening of the novel, making it feel almost like a sequel.  The back-story is never explicitly explained, but the reader can figure most of the basics out through the interactions and thoughts of the characters.  I thought it was an interesting way to present the story, but I felt that it did present some problems.  For one thing, I felt that some moments between characters in the earlier parts of the story were robbed of emotional impact by the lack of context.  Also, the lack of explanations made keeping all the Norse terms and names straight a little challenging.  There are terms for creatures, such as waelcyrge, einherjar, sdadown and valraven, and some of the minor characters’ names are equally unfamiliar, like Strifbjorn or Herfjotur.  I think this no-exposition approach makes getting through the beginning of this novel a challenge, but things do begin to make sense if you keep reading.

Even after I became interested in the story and eager to see how things would turn out, I was frustrated by the relentlessly depressing mood of the story. The main character, Muire, has already survived Ragnarok, thanks to her own cowardice.  The main story is set during a later, much more human apocalypse—the world is poisoned and dying, and the last city of humanity is in its last days.  Every major character has a tragic past, a bleak present, and a mostly hopeless future.  Multiple characters consider or attempt suicide.  It seems like any time some hope arises, it is promptly crushed.  After a while, I got tired of listening to the characters talk about how they wished they were dead/deserved to be dead/wished the world would finally end/etc.     

Lastly, I had a few technical issues with the novel.  Most of the novel was in past tense, but a few scenes were written in present tense.  I think this may have been used to denote Mingan’s point of view, but I’m not sure.  The story was written in third-person limited, where the point of view character shifted between Mingan, Muire, the valraven Kasimir, the cat moreau Selene, and the male prostitute and fighter Cathoair.  Sometimes, when multiple characters were physically present, I seemed a little unclear whose point of view the story was being told through.  There were also some errors that could have been caught by a thorough copy-editing. For example, at one point, a character asks:

“How did you come to know [character name]?” –p.181
and the response is:
“Not long. Perhaps fifteen years? He was not old by human standards.” - p.181

I’m guessing the question was intended to be “How long have you known [character name]?”. I’m not sure if that was just a problem with my version, so I’ll specify that I was reading the e-book version sold by Barnes & Noble.  In general, the writing was the choppy, fragment-filled style that seems to have become popular lately.  I’m not much of a fan of the style, but I think it did help to give a sense of the despair that filled the hearts of all of the characters.

My Rating: 3/5

All the Windwracked Stars is an interesting combination of a far-future apocalyptic world and Norse mythology.  The world itself and the characters that inhabit it form an impressive mental image.  Bear throws the readers into the story with no info-dumps. The lack of explanation made it a little challenging to pick up the extensive unexplained back-story common to several characters, the Norse terminology, and the unfamiliar Norse names.  I did not much care for the choppy style and the continually depressing tone of the story, and there were some areas with technical errors.  Despite all of these gripes, I do think that the story was ultimately worth reading.