Monday, October 31, 2011

2011 WFA Winner (Novel)

Congratulations to Nnedi Okorafor on winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel!

My original predictions on the WFA novel nominees are here, and my full review of Who Fears Death is here.

I did not successfully predict the winning novel, but I did think Who Fears Death ranked in the top half of this year's nominees.  I think it's great to see such creative and original work being rewarded!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: Phantom by Thomas Tessier


Phantom by Thomas Tessier
Published: Atheneum, 1982
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award
The Book:
“Ned has known about phantoms since he was very young.  You have to hide from them, under your bed covers.  You can’t peek, because then you’ll see that they’re real.  Then there’s no taking it back.
When Ned is almost ten, his parents move him from the city to a small town called Lynnhaven.  Lynnhaven has its own ghosts—stories of people long gone and a ruined, abandoned spa that still remains.  Ned seems to adapt well, befriending several local old-timers and spending his days fishing and playing.  However, he slowly becomes aware that there is something dark waiting for him, and he associates it with the decrepit spa.  He knows that sooner or later he will have to face his phantom…”    ~Allie
Phantom, a novel on the Horror Writer’s Association Reading List,  is my second review for WWEnd’s Month of HorrorsPhantom, which represents a very different style of horror than Conjure Wife, is a quieter, slower-paced story that focuses more on the kinds of fear that are probably familiar to everyone.  
My Thoughts:
One of the strengths of Phantom as a horror story was the way it was built upon a foundation of realistic fear.  First, it featured the (possibly) baseless terror children often experience while alone at night.   I remember being an overly imaginative child, spending nights where every little sound or shifting shadow filled me with an irrational sense of doom. The actual events of Phantom moved well beyond usual childhood fright, but its basis in this kind of common fear made Ned’s situation much more relatable.  The other, more serious, kinds of fear at the heart of the story were of the rational adult variety—fear of death or of losing someone you love.  While childish fear certainly drove some of the creepier scenes, the mature fears were the ones that truly lent the story weight and made it memorable.
Despite the fact that the story involved both terror and phantoms, it was incredibly slow-paced.  Most of the story involved Ned and his family getting settled in Lynnhaven.  His mother and father both tried to help Ned adjust, in their own ways. For his part, Ned coped with the move by forging a friendship with two elderly men, Peeler and Cloudy.  The relationship between Ned and the two men was absolutely adorable. Peeler and Cloudy took him along to fish or catch bait, and Ned eagerly listened to their old stories about former Lynnhaven residents.  The development of Peeler and Cloudy’s peaceful friendship with Ned, or ‘Mr. Tadpole’ as they called him, and Ned’s relationships with his parents filled a large part of the novel.     
I enjoyed the focus on the characters and their relationships, but I was surprised at how much more emphasis was placed on everyday life than on frightening deviations from it.  If you’re reading the story solely for thrills, I think it might become frustrating.  The breaks between the more disturbing events are filled with pages of parental worries and conversations with Peeler and Cloudy. I don’t mean to say that exciting, creepy things don’t happen—Ned’s experiences with the spa are one example—but the thrills definitely take a back seat to character study and contemplative scenes of daily life.
The writing itself was concise and effective, but I was a little put off by the style of narration.  The story is told from a third person omniscient point of view, and the thoughts and feelings of each person are generally described in every scene.  The narration would hop from the mind of one person to the next between paragraphs, a style that I find personally jarring.  It was never unclear whose thoughts were being related, but I felt that constantly moving from one person’s mind to another disturbed the flow of the story. 
My Rating: 3.5/5
Phantom seems very much what I would expect from traditional horror, except for its slow, contemplative pace.  It has a lot to say on the subject of fear, both the kinds of fears that plague small children and the inevitable fear of mortality with which I think most people eventually struggle.  Rather than focusing on supernatural interference, the story focused more on the roots of a person’s fear and how it affects their lives.  The thrilling, spine-tingling scenes were few and far between, but the bulk of the novel studied the relationships between Ned, his parents, and the elderly townsfolk Peeler and Cloudy.  While it may not be packed full with action and suspense, the story of Ned and his phantom portrays many varieties of fear that will resonate with its readers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear


Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
Published: Orbit, 2010
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
A starship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination - unknown. Its purpose - a mystery.
Now, one man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home - a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms - he finds himself wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters, but trusting other survivors he meets might be the greater danger.

All he has are questions -- Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to Hull 03?

All will be answered, if he can survive the ship. “~barnesandnoble.com

I’ve never actually gotten around to reading any Greg Bear, despite his popularity as an author.  When I saw Hull Zero Three was nominated for the Campbell Award this year, I thought it would be a good time to check out his work.  While I don’t think Hull Zero Three is for everyone, I did rather enjoy it. 

My Thoughts:
I think this is the kind of book that some people are going to love, and others are going to hate. I can see where the narrative style and the structure of the story might be intriguing to some readers but alienating to others. It seemed, to me, like a combination of a Big Dumb Object story, a sci-fi horror story, a cinematic thriller, and an adventure RPG.  While none of these elements seem particularly original, I felt that they melded together to make an entertaining story.
Hull Zero Three is narrated in first person and in present tense, from the mind of the confused, disoriented protagonist called ‘Teacher’.  He doesn’t really know what’s going on when he wakes up, and what few memories he has are jumbled up and disconnected.  The present tense helped to give the situation a sense of immediacy, and the near-blank-slate main character allows the reader to explore and learn alongside the narrator.  Though Teacher is not an incredibly deep character, Bear managed to keep him from seeming too generic or bland. Seeing the story through Teachers mind, as he collected clues, met allies and enemies, and fought or fled from monstrous creatures, felt very much like experiencing a story-based adventure game.
The downside for this type of adventure is that neither the characterization nor the plot has a whole lot of depth. While Teacher and several other characters do have distinct basic personalities, they know almost nothing about themselves and their purpose in the ship.  As a result, it seemed like almost all of the conflict and activity in the story was external and physical.  Even the characters’ personal journeys of self-discovery were externalized, as they gathered clues about their identities and roles in the current desperate situation.
As a result, a lot of the story consists of the characters’ reactions to physical obstacles and dangers.  The writing style is rather plain and terse, and it focuses on the physical and visual aspects of the story—descriptions of the environment, the deadly creatures, and the actions of the characters.  The story moves along quickly, though I felt it lacked the character connection that might have come from a more introspective approach. I think that this style of story would be very suited to a film adaptation.  (Actually, I’ve heard it has similarities to a certain film, Pandorum. I haven’t seen it, though, so I can’t really comment.)
I found myself liking the book more the further I read through it.  I didn’t find the beginning of the story to be very compelling. Since Teacher had no idea what was happening around him, some of the difficulties he struggled through seemed to be random and illogical. Information about Teacher, his companions, and their purpose is given only very gradually, and the story was much more interesting when the larger picture started to come together.  I felt that this started to happen a little too late in the story, though, as there was then little time to explore the ideas about morality and identity that were being raised.  I think I would have preferred to see more time spent on the end of the story than the beginning, though I did appreciate the eventual explanations for Teacher’s journey.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Hull Zero Three seems to be highly influenced by previous science fiction, movies, and video games.  The reader slowly learns about the situation and the characters through the mind and narration of a near-blank-slate protagonist called Teacher, who has just awakened with very little knowledge or memories.  Most of the novel focuses on the physical environment and actions of the characters as they struggle to survive.  The story eventually draws together to an interesting conclusion, but I felt that the explanations came a little too late in the novel.  Altogether, I thought this was an entertaining, but not groundbreaking, novel.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber


This is my first post for WWEnd’s Month of Horrors, which is welcoming the addition of the horror genre to the site!  Conjure Wife is a selection from the Horror Writer’s Reading Association list, and it tells a story that is both creepy and full of suspense.  This horror classic has been an inspiration for film multiple times over the decades (Weird Woman in 1944, Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn! in 1962, and Witches Brew/Which Witch is Which? in 1988), and I think it well deserves its lasting fame.
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Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
Published: Berkley Publishing Group, 1952 (originally in “Unknown Worlds”, 1943)
The Book:
“Life is going pretty well for Norman Saylor, Professor of Ethnology at the small College of Hempnell.  His career is on the rise, and he knows that a large part of his success is due to the faithful, loving support of his wife, Tansy.  One day, when he innocently pokes his nose into Tansy’s dressing room, he learns that she’s been using much more than her secretarial skills to make his life run more smoothly—she’s been using witchcraft.  
Norman believes his studies of cultural superstitions have given rise to her ‘little witchcraft complex’, and he convinces her to stop it completely.  However, after burning her protective charms, things begin to go wrong.  Old and new enemies crop up, and his daily life begins to be plagued by many trivial—and some serious—difficulties.  Is it all coincidence, or are there other magical forces at work, much more malevolent than Tansy’s protective charms?  Will Norman continue to cling to his rational world, or will he be able to bring himself to trust in his wife before it is too late?”  -- Allie
My Thoughts:
Some elements of the society of Conjure Wife are firmly set in the 1940s, but the story itself is one that would work well in any era.  In fact, with its juxtaposition of magic and mysticism with modern university life, it could be seen as a precursor to modern dark urban fantasy. The manipulation of tension in the story is masterful, and there were times when it was almost impossible to put the book down.   
The magical and realistic elements of the story were woven together in a way that was suitably disturbing while rarely moving towards the absurd.  Rather than going for Bewitched-style magic, the witchcraft of Conjure Wife seemed to be based more on actual practices, specifically the Hoodoo folk magic of the southern United States.  Tansy’s main form of magic is the protective charms, which she calls ‘hands’, various objects ritually wrapped in flannel. The physicality of the magic and the references to (I assume) actual traditional practices lend weight and mystery to scenes featuring witchcraft.
While some of the dated elements of the story, such as the Norman’s references to psychoanalysis, were amusing, I was initially afraid that I would be turned off by the treatment of women and African Americans in the novel.  Women’s rights, as well as the rights of African Americans, were not doing quite as well in the 1940s as they are today, and Conjure Wife is a product of its time. African Americans are only mentioned in reference to Hoodoo practices, which, I think, kind of plays into a popular fictional stereotype.  The story also often discusses the fact that men are ‘naturally rational’, while women are ‘naturally intuitional’, and thus more likely to fall prey to superstition.  However, when taken in the context of the society and the events of the story, these elements did not really come across as offensive. One interesting similarity to modern day is the contemporary attitudes toward universities.  Norman notes that many people see large universities as “hotbeds of Communism and free love”.  If you update the vocabulary (to left-wing politics and casual sex), then I imagine it would be quite easy to find a lot of people who would still make that claim.
Incidentally, Norman and Tansy Saylor want nothing more than to get back to one of those hotbeds.  They are not nearly the respectable, staid couple that their career would seem to imply, though they are putting on a good show of it for the small, conservative college of Hempnell.  They’re more accustomed to raucous drinking parties with their theatrical friends, but they’re currently resigned to playing bridge with the other faculty couples.  Norman can’t quite give up some of his controversial ideas, such as his thoughts on premarital sex, despite how much it scandalizes the trustees. 
For her part, Tansy is an intelligent and capable character, and a very powerful witch.  She only practices protective magic, and she is remarkably selfless. Even when she’s in need of rescuing, she never completely loses her agency.  The antagonists, on the other hand, are only very lightly developed as characters.  Their motivations are clear and reasonable, but none of them have much depth.  In general, I didn’t mind the weaker characterization of the antagonists, since I felt that the heart of this story was Norman, Tansy, and their relationship.     
My Rating: 4.5/5
I was delighted with how well Conjure Wife still worked as a smoothly entertaining story, despite being written over half a century ago.  Some aspects of social attitudes and setting were very clearly out of date, but others were still surprisingly relevant.  I think the deciding factors in my enjoyment of the story were the characters of Norman and Tansy and the strength of the portrayal of their relationship.  There’s clearly a reason that Conjure Wife has had such lasting fame, and I would fully recommend it to anyone looking for a suspenseful, magic-filled tale this Halloween season! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Firebird by Mercedes Lackey


Firebird by Mercedes Lackey
Published: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC, 2008
Series: Book 1 of the Fairy Tale Series
The Book:
“Ilya, son of a Russian tsar, is largely ignored by his father and tormented by his brothers. His only friends are three old people: a priest, a magician, and a woman who toils in the palace dairy. From them Ilya learns faith, a smattering of magic, and the power of love--all of which he will need desperately, for his life is about to be turned upside-down.

The prince's magnificent cherry orchard is visited at midnight by the legendary Firebird, whose wings appear to be made of flame. Ilya's brothers' attempts to capture the magical creature fail. When Ilya tries to catch the Firebird, he sees her as a beautiful woman and earns a magical gift: the speech of animals.

Leaving his home behind, the young man journeys through a fantastical Russia full of magical mazes, enchanted creatures, and untold dangers. As happens in the best fairy tales, Ilya falls in love with an enchanted princess, but to win her freedom will be no easy task. “ ~barnesandnoble.com (with some minor alterations by Allie, bolded)

I read this novel as the September selection in the 2011 Women of Fantasy Book Club, which sadly appears to have been abandoned.  I’d read a little bit of Lackey’s work when I was an adolescent, but this is the first I’ve read in a long time.  I felt like Firebird was targeted towards a young adult audience.  The only thing that would make me hesitate to recommend this to younger readers is the troubling attitude towards sex.  There is nothing particularly graphic in the story, but I was bothered by casual mentions of both rape and of sex as a means to promotion. In terms of plot, I think this story is one that would be appreciated by young adult readers.

My Thoughts:
Firebird is based on Russian folk/fairy tales (and the ballet of the same name, I believe).  I’m not a scholar of Russian folk tales, but many of the novel’s fairy tale elements were commonly found in the tales I read as a child.  I can’t really go into detail without describing the entire plot of the novel, but I think that many readers will find these elements pleasantly nostalgic. Though the content feels very much like a fairy tale, the writing doesn’t have any of the stylistic quirks I associate with that style of storytelling.  It may be due to my reading so much heavily stylistic fiction lately, but the prose seemed very ordinary. The story started out at a very slow pace, and only really picked up speed at the very end.  I actually rather liked the leisurely pacing, but I can see where it might be frustrating.
I don’t have much experience with Russian feudal agrarian communities, but Lackey thoroughly describes the small world of Ilya’s family and their serfs.  I enjoyed the attention to detail on topics ranging from the rules that govern work and relationships, to the unstable balance of power within the tsar’s family, to the uneasy coexistence of Christianity, Paganism, and the non-religious.   Lackey also included a variety of mythical Russian creatures, such as the bathhouse spirit, a Bannik, the cruel water spirits, Rusalka, and the house spirit, a Domovoi.  The animals (once Ilya could speak with them) added yet another facet to the complexity of the community.  The fantastic things Ilya found on his journeys were described with equivalent wealth of detail.
Ilya was a fairly likable main character, though I was initially a little irritated by his initial portrayal as superior to everyone in his community. I was initially confused as to how he ended up as the ‘most despised son’ in the tsar’s family.  At first, I assumed he was the usual bookish boy in a violent family, but then we learn that Ilya is actually smarter and better at fighting than any of his brothers.  It would then make sense for his brothers to hate him out of jealousy, except that Ilya does not enjoy the favor of their father, either.  Given his brother’s constant beatings and his apparent inability to ever get back at them, it doesn’t really seem like he’s in a position inspire jealousy.  I finally just decided that he was the most despised son because that’s just how these kinds of stories work. 
After I got over my initial irritation at Ilya’s superiority and his unlikely position in the family, I realized that he was just a generally good-hearted character with flaws that seem realistic for a teenage boy.  Ilya has a tendency to judge people based on appearances, and he is frequently unable to understand situations from others’ (specifically women’s) viewpoints. He also does not bother to try to understand people he doesn’t like, so much of the characterization of the novel is spent on his few friends and allies.  As a result, pretty much all the female characters and antagonistic characters end up fairly flat.  However, some of his friends—the priest, the shaman, and the various animals that help him along his way—were a delight to read about. 
My Rating: 3.5/5
Firebird is a very slow-paced, but entertaining, story based on the Russian folk tales.  The protagonist, Ilya, is the most intelligent, most capable, most kind, and most despised son of a Russian tsar.  His character was a little hard to take at times, but he had a number of realistic personality flaws (mostly involving his perceptions of others) that made him seem more of a three-dimensional representation of a teenage boy.  The carefully described communities Ilya spends time in, and the specific Russian spirits he encounter, create a vivid atmosphere for the story.  I don’t know that this is a novel for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a leisurely-paced, straightforward fairy tale, it’s worth a look.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress


Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Published:  Morrow AvoNova, 1993
Series: Book 1 of The Sleepless
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell, Locus SF (The novella version won the Hugo and Nebula awards.)

The Book:

“Wouldn’t it be a great if human beings didn’t have to spend a third of their life asleep?  That’s exactly the advantage the “Sleepless” have, along with a number of others, such as eternal youth, perfect health, genius-level intelligence and, in some cases, wealth and beauty.  The Sleepless began as an experiment, and they have become an incredibly powerful minority within mere decades.

However, as the Sleepless develop a collective social and intellectual identity, the tensions between them and ordinary ‘Sleepers’ continue to rise.   Sleepers fear and envy the wealth, success, and general physical and intellectual superiority of the Sleepless, and this envy occasionally bubbles over into sheer hatred.  For their part, the Sleepless are supremely confident that their lives have more inherent worth than those of Sleepers.  Rather than dealing with the Sleepers, whom they refer to as “Beggars”, many of them want to secede from the world altogether. “  ~Allie

Beggars in Spain is the September selection for the Calico Reaction Blog’s Alphabet Soup Challenge.  I’d never read any novels by Nancy Kress before, but I have vague memories of enjoying some of her short fiction.

My Thoughts:

To my mind, Beggars in Spain felt very much like two books joined together.  The first part of the novel featured the creation of the Sleepless, how their existence altered society, and the clashes between Sleepless and Sleeper humans. The second part of the novel was, in some ways, an iteration of the plot of the first half of the book, with different initial conditions.  Despite the feeling of déjà vu, I actually enjoyed the second half of the novel a little more than the first.

The novel covers quite a lot of time—several generations of Sleepers—and has a correspondingly large number of characters.  Unfortunately, few of them are ever really developed past a single defining characteristic.  The characterizations of antagonists were especially flat and exaggerated.  Antagonists were typically portrayed as representatives of a specific philosophy, and they followed their chosen tenets to the letter, regardless of logic, rationality, morality, or even their own goals and motivations. Of all of the characters, I was most interested in two that were introduced in the second part of the book, Miri and Drew.  I felt that those two characters had the most depth of character. They were capable of some change and growth, and their flaws and disadvantages significantly impacted their lives. Their existence is a major part of why I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first.

In contrast, the main character, Leisha Camden, felt like too much of a Mary Sue character to me. Leisha was a Sleepless baby who was born into a fabulously wealthy family, and who was genetically gifted with exquisite beauty and world-class intelligence.  As a side effect of her Sleeplessness, she has perfect health and will never physically age past the appearance of roughly thirty years.  Her parents doted on her, making sure she grew up believing that she was more important than other people.  She went to Harvard and then moved into a highly successful career.  However, she spends most of the book whining about how all the jealous people are oppressing her. In general, Leisha is pretty representative of the Sleepless, though they do not all initially come from such great wealth.  Her major difference from most of the other Sleepless is her opposition to the idea of creating an isolated Sleepless community, and her desire to improve relations with Sleepers. 

In general, I was never really able to buy the idea that the Sleepless were being oppressed. The readers are told over and over that the Sleepless are being persecuted, though few details of any persecution are shown.  In contrast, we are also repeatedly shown that the Sleepless are the privileged class.  The Sleepless may not hold political power, but they have a vast economic and technological edge on the rest of civilization. Crimes are committed against both Sleepers and Sleepless, but only the Sleepless have the power and resources to protect their own. In the latter half of the book, a new persecuted subgroup, the “Supers” are created.  Their plight seemed much more believable to me, due in part to the obvious vulnerability of their group.  I also found myself more sympathetic to their situation, possibly as a result of their general lack of the extreme level of arrogance that characterized the Sleepless.

On a related note, I found the contrast drawn between Sleepless and Sleepers to be incredibly unrealistic.  Naturally, Sleepless would be more productive, as they have more time to work.  Since they also seem to come with intelligence enhancements, it makes sense that they would be more successful as well. However, it seemed like the mere existence of the Sleepless caused all Sleepers to instantly regress to a culture of non-productivity and entitlement.  Despite the fact that non-modified humans built the world the Sleepless were born into, they are suddenly almost entirely incapable of contributing anything of worth to that same world.  For this reason, most of the Sleepless take to referring to non-modified humans as ‘Beggars’, and Leisha and her entourage refer to them as ‘Livers’ (since all they do is live).  I think it would have felt a lot more realistic if the novel had stuck to addressing the problems arising from the differing levels of natural aptitude, rather than causing non-modified humanity to suddenly become Eloi.

Lastly, I was a little bothered by the intense focus on the U.S., at the exclusion of all else.  The creation of the Sleepless, and the existence of genetically modified humans in general, would have caused dramatic changes in societies all around the world.  However, the rest of the world barely gets a nod at any point in the novel.  The characters focus very heavily on quotes and ideas from American history, to the point of constantly quoting Abraham Lincoln and men from the American Revolution.  There’s a lot of talk about the American mindset that did not seem particularly accurate to me.  Granted, I was nine in 1993 and I haven’t lived in the U.S. for a few years, so my opinion on ‘the American mindset’ might not be entirely accurate.  I suppose I was a little disappointed that a novel titled Beggars in Spain, did not, in fact, involve Spain at all.

My Rating: 2/5

Beggars in Spain brings up a lot of interesting questions about what effects designer super-babies would have on society. The plot stretches over a large amount of time, so there are many characters introduced.  Unfortunately, the characters seemed mostly flat and unconvincing, and the antagonists were particularly over the top.  The properties of the Sleepless made them seem like an exercise in wish fulfillment (they have immortality, eternal youth, beauty, intelligence, money, health…), and the main character, Leisha Camden, felt especially like a Mary Sue.  Given their extreme level of privilege, it was very hard to credit the Sleepless claims of being terribly oppressed.  While I felt that the second half of the story was an improvement over the first, my ultimate impression of the novel was one of disappointment.      

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: Count Zero by William Gibson


Count Zero by William Gibson
Published: Gollancz, 1986
Series: Book 2 of the Sprawl Trilogy
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Hugo, Nebula. Locus Science Fiction
The Book:
“Three unconnected strangers are each ripped out of their daily life by a job that turns out to hold much more complexity than meets the eye. 
The mercenary Turner, who specializes in helping important people defect from one multinational corporation to another, has just finished recovering from the reconstruction of his severely damaged body.  He finds himself pulled back into what looks like just another defection security job. 
The disgraced, out-of-work art dealer Marly Krushkova is mysteriously selected by the incredibly wealthy Josef Virek to hunt down the artist behind the creation of a series of Joseph Cornell style boxes.  
The inexperienced hacker Bobby Newmark, also known as “Count Zero Interrupt” eagerly takes what he’s told will be an easy job for an amateur hacker—only to find himself nearly killed. 
Their three stories slowly converge, as each of their seemingly straightforward tasks catapults them into situations that are more complicated and dangerous than they could ever have expected.” ~Allie
Count Zero follows the highly regarded novel Neuromancer.  While it takes place in the same universe, there is little continuity in plot or characters.  I think it would be best to read Neuromancer first (I did so, years ago), but Count Zero stands on its own as a novel.   
My Thoughts:
William Gibson definitely has a very distinctive style, and I enjoyed the grungy, high-tech future he describes.  Gibson’s style of writing evokes the state of mind of his characters at any given point, despite the fact that their stories are written from a 3rd person perspective.   Gibson’s descriptions of locations in orbit and North America were filled with a sense of decay and disorder, though his descriptions of Europe (specifically Paris) did not really feel very fundamentally different from modern-day Paris to me.  He also combines mysticism (in this case Haitian voodoo deities) with high technology (AIs and hackers) to interesting effect.  Some aspects of his future do seem a bit dated, but, considering that this was written in 1986, I think that is to be expected.
The characters did not interest me quite as much as the ideas and the setting.  For one thing, two of main characters, Turner and Marly, kind of felt like stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, respectively.  For instance, Turner is introduced with explosions, casual violence, and loads of justified paranoia and posturing.  Marly, on the other hand, is introduced amid shopping trips, chatting with her female friend, and dealing with emotional fallout from her treacherous, poisonous ex-boyfriend.  I’m sure that there are perfectly decent people who fit parts of these stereotypes, but Turner and Marly didn’t seem to have all that much depth past their initial characterization.  For me, it made it really difficult to relate to either of them.     
Bobby Newmark, the “Count Zero” of the title, was the most interesting character to me.  Unlike the other two, he is not really an expert in anything, and he is in way over his head.  I was impressed with his resiliency, and with the way he constantly tried to make sense of and fit in with the bizarre new culture he’d been thrust into.  He seems aware that people often see him as an idiot or a screw-up, but he doesn’t let that get him down.  Out of the three main characters, I was most interested in the journey of Bobby Newmark.      
Gibson initially presents these three main characters separately, each with their own seemingly unrelated plot.  As is usually the case when an author introduces multiple plotlines, the stories eventually come together, more or less.  However, I didn’t get much of a sense of how the three stories might fit together until about midway through the book, so the three narratives seemed to move very slowly during the first half. The actual merging of the stories only really got under way much later, though the pace seemed to pick up dramatically as it happened. Though some of the events that led to the combining of the three stories felt a little contrived, I was pretty satisfied with how everything fit together in the end.  
My Rating: 3.5/5
While it might not be the game changer of Neuromancer, Count Zero delivers an entertaining cyberpunk story.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the grungy, ruined future communities, and Gibson’s style of prose is very expressive of the states of mind of his main characters.  The story follows three characters with their own plotlines, which slowly come together toward the end.  The characters were something of a weak point, in my opinion, and Marly and Turner in particular felt almost like stereotypical representations of gender. I was much more interested in Bobby Newmark (“Count Zero”), mostly because I enjoyed his persistence and self-conscious cockiness in the face of a situation he didn’t understand.  The merging of the three stories came a little too late in the novel for me, and some of the plot points that drove that merging seemed a little artificial.  Altogether, though, I thought the conclusion was coherent and satisfying.