Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee


The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee
Published: Orbit, 2010
Series: First of a trilogy

The Book:

“A recently established civilization, which has immigrated from from a foreign land, is facing war on two sides.  On one hand, they face the hostile aboriginal peoples of their new home.  On the other, they face the powerful civilization of their former homeland, Sairland.    
The aboriginal Aniw people of the far north have no interest in these wars, but the arrival of soldiers with guns make it clear that they have no choice. After an ill-fated act of violence, an Aniw spiritwalker, Sjennonirk, is taken into custody by these soldiers and imprisoned far from her home.

Sjennonirk’s story may have ended there, if a certain general had not been highly interested in the military potential of her powerful spiritwalker magic.  Now, her only possible path to freedom lies in teaching the general’s reluctant son, a soldier named Jarett Fawle, dangerous skills that will change both of their lives forever.” ~Allie

This is the December selection for the now-finished “2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club”, and the first of Lowachee’s novels that I’ve read.  It’s definitely the first novel of a series, though the rest of the series may or may not be forthcoming.  The personal character arcs of the two viewpoint characters do reach some resolution at the end of the novel, but it seems that the overall story is still only beginning.  

My Thoughts:

The world of Gaslight Dogs is fictional, but it reminds me strongly of dynamics between civilizations during the early movement of Europeans to the United States and Canada.  I enjoyed the fact that the novel did not show either the natives or the newcomers as purely good or evil. With Sjenn providing the viewpoint of Aniw culture and Jarret providing insight into the ‘invaders’, it was clear that both sides had their share of difficulties to face. I thought it was very interesting to see how their different cultural backgrounds shaped their interactions.  A lot of the book revolves around the relationship between Sjenn and Jarret, but it is more an uncertain alliance of necessity than anything approaching romance.  It was kind of refreshing to read a story about a man and a woman who do not fall in love.

One major aspect of the aboriginal cultures is their ‘spiritwalker’ magic, which is also the main fantasy element of the story.  Essentially, certain people have a ‘little spirit’ that lives within them.  This little spirit is a kind of ancestral god, and it can come out of the host human’s body in the form of a powerful ‘Dog’.  These Dogs are incredibly dangerous, and different aboriginal tribes have different techniques designed to keep them under control.  I thought it was a neat idea, but the frequent ritualistic calling and sending away of Dogs verged on feeling a little repetitive at times.  Jarret’s people’s former civilization, Sairland, also seemed to have some kind of magic, and there are hints that disagreements over it tie in to complicated religious politics.  This is delved into very little in Gaslight Dogs, but enough is shown to make me feel fairly certain that Jarret’s society’s religion and magic will play a larger role later in the trilogy. 

The writing in Gaslight Dogs was very effective at communicating physical sensation.  It was easy to imagine the winter cold, the summer heat, the grime of the frontier, and Sjenn’s hunger and physical discomfort.  However, I occasionally felt like there was some overuse of adjectives, which sometimes made the writing feel a little clunky.  The pacing also seemed a little uneven.  There wasn’t much action in the story, since most of the novel was focused on Sjenn and Jarret’s slowly developing partnership. The climactic scenes of the novel occurred with little buildup, making them seem a little abrupt and rushed next to the slow pace of the rest of the novel. 

Gaslight Dogs got off to a slow start, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters of Sjenn and Jarret.  The novel ended in a way I didn’t expect, but I can see in hindsight how much sense it makes in terms of the characters.  As a single novel, Gaslight Dogs did not feel dissatisfying.  There is a definite ending point, which concludes the character’s personal arcs, but it is obvious that there is a much larger story that is only beginning.  I believe it is still uncertain whether the second two novels will be written, but I think this is a story that certainly deserves continuation.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Gaslight Dogs is an interesting story of ancient magic and a clash of cultures that seems similar to the clash between European immigrants and Native Americans.  Instead of showing either side as the ‘bad guys’, the novel provides a main character viewpoint from each side of the conflict.  I enjoyed watching the (very) slowly developing bond between spiritwalker Sjenn and soldier Jarret, possibly in part because they did not fall into any typical romantic patterns.  I had some complaint about construction, notably with the overuse of adjectives and the uneven pacing, but I thought Lowachee’s description of physical sensations was remarkably effective.  Overall, I think this is a story worth continuing, and I hope that Lowachee ends up publishing the rest of the trilogy!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Feiwel and Friends, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Fairyland
Awards Won: Andre Norton Award, Locus YA Award

The Book:

“Twelve-year-old September is an ordinary girl who lives what seems to her a quiet, constricting life.  Her father is gone to war and her mother works, leaving September mostly to herself in their home.  One day, the Green Wind arrives, offering to take her away for adventures in Fairyland.

Without a backward glance, September takes him up on his offer. However, for all its wonders, Fairyland is a tricky, dangerous place.  September makes new friends as she travels, including a ‘Wyverary’ named A-Through-L and a Marid boy named Saturday. She also finds new enemies, such as the cruel Marquess who has taken over Fairyland after the disappearance of the good Queen Mallow.

Though her journey started as a whim, it is going to take every ounce of resourcefulness, courage, strength and compassion September can muster to see her way to the end of it!” ~Allie

Here is my very late review for the final selection of the Calico Reaction blog’s 2011 book club.  This is my first foray into Valente’s work, though I’ve heard a lot of praise for her novels.  The Girl Who… was originally a fictional children’s book referenced in Valente’s novel Palimpset. The novel feels complete in itself, though I can certainly see where there are many more stories to tell in this universe.  So far, Valente has published a prequel (The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While), and I imagine we’re likely to see more young adult novels set in this world in the future.

My Thoughts:

The basic story of The Girl Who… is pretty familiar—a child is whisked away to a magical land that is plagued by a cruel ruler.  In very general terms, it has a lot in common with other children’s classics, such as The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland. It also features a technique commonly found in old children’s fiction, where the narrator constantly inserts comments and asides into the flow of the story. The novel, though, seems conscious of the nods it’s making towards previous work, and manages to keep its own spark of originality. For me, the vibrant writing, profusion of imaginative creatures and societies, and unexpectedly serious turns of the plot helped The Girl Who… to stand as a wonderful new example of this familiar kind of story.

In the beginning, the writing was playfully descriptive and more than a little silly (intentionally so—that is not an insult).  The writing occasionally felt a little too self-consciously clever and whimsical, but it was not long before I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t mind.  The Girl Who… progressed with an impressive forward momentum that packed a lot of story and subtext into a pretty short novel.  September was constantly moving through new situations and problems, and meeting all sorts of new supernatural creatures.  These creatures included a wish-granting Marid, a ‘wyverary’ (half-wyvern, half-library), 100+-year-old sentient household objects, a golem made of soap, and many others.  I loved the constantly changing setting and never-ending introductions of new beings.

While the vividly described supernatural elements gave the story a fun and exciting sense of place, it was the characters that really captured my attention.  Like most tales of this kind, The Girl Who… combines a fantastical adventure with a story of maturation.  In the beginning, September is described as “Somewhat Heartless”, as all children are, though she’s a well-meaning, pleasant heroine.  Through her harrowing journey, September is forced to a deeper understanding of herself and the effects of her actions on others.  I especially liked how she was confronted with difficult decisions that had no clear ‘right’ response.  Like most of us humans, she simply had to move on, carrying nothing but an uneasy and never-confirmed hope that she’d done the right thing. Altogether, September is a fallible, dynamic heroine, and I loved following her story.

Of course, the wonderful characterization doesn’t end with September.  Her closest companions—A -Through-L and Saturday—were also fully formed characters, and I could easily see them starring in their own adventures.  In fact, it seemed that everyone and everything in the novel had a strong, memorable personality, all the way down to September’s helpful coat.  Even the villain, the Marquess, is far from the cardboard character one might assume her to be at her first entrance into the story.  Fairyland is so wide and varied, and filled with such interesting characters, that I am sure Valente can find many different stories to tell there in the future.  

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is, in my opinion, a children’s novel that has enough depth to be enjoyed by adults.  The imagery is amazing, and the characters are memorable and very easy to love.  September is a wonderfully tenacious, imperfect heroine, and even the villainess is the hero of her own story.  While it has a lot in common with other child-whisked-away-to-magic-world stories, I think this novel’s individual strengths are its lovely writing, creative supernatural world, and the unexpected places Valente takes the story.  This novel does feel complete, but it is clear that there are many more stories to be told in Valente’s Fairyland! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published: Houghton Mifflin/McClelland & Stewart, 1985
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula & Locus SF Awards
The Book:
In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words, because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....” ~from WWEnd.com

The Handmaid’s Tale was the November selection for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club.  My autumn ended up being pretty busy, and I didn’t get some of the novels read in time.  With this, I’ve finished reading and reviewing all of the Book Club’s 2011 selections.  Reviews of the last two novels from the Women in Fantasy Book Club, and the last novel of Calico Reaction Alphabet Soup Challenge are coming up later this January.
My Thoughts:
The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the perspective of the nameless Handmaid Offred (as in ‘Of Fred’, the man she serves).  Offred is an unreliable narrator who tells a disjointed story. While the narrative does follow one chronological chain of events, Offred constantly jumps back to tell stories from different parts of her past.  Sometimes she abandons telling these stories partway through, or even fabricates tales of her past that never really happened. She’s a very passive protagonist, and she mostly just tries to keep her head down and survive.  As a result, she doesn’t really have much to tell us about the overall organization or purpose of her society.  In some ways, she is a very effective narrator, but seeing the world through her passive, blinkered eyes could sometimes be very frustrating.
I think that Offred’s namelessness and non-heroic nature are meant to make it easy for readers to imagine themselves in her place, and to force us to imagine what it would really be like to live in such an oppressive society.  Instead focusing on the large-scale structure of the society, The Handmaid’s Tale features a very small-scale story of a single household.  Instead of dramatic rebellion, we see Offred’s daily life and the little mental tricks she uses to try to keep from despairing.  The writing itself is very plain, terse, and given to a clumsy kind of poetic rambling that one could easily attribute to a person of Offred’s position.  The whole story is told as a reconstruction of events from the mind of Offred, so she also inserts many introspective comments about herself and other characters along the way.  Overall, it felt like reading someone’s diary, and that’s exactly what I believe the narrative is meant to resemble.
The dystopia itself was highly detailed, even though we mostly see just Offred’s small corner.  Men and women were strictly separated by their defined functions, and sexuality was strictly controlled.  All the details of the society were carefully defined, from public and private social rituals, to punishments for deviation, to the role-defining color-coded clothing each person wore. There were comments about how ‘the details were still being worked out’, but they were typically said with respect to fairly trivial matters.  The dystopia is explicitly connected to the novel’s contemporary society, and I had a hard time believing that such a thorough set of changes could be forcibly implemented in only a few short years.
While I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it is definitely a product of its time. For the more trivial 80’s connections, there were a number of pop culture or slang references that lost most of their resonance with me. In more serious territory, I’m guessing this was written with the recent shocking Iranian revolution (in 1979?) in mind, carrying the implication that something similar could happen in the US. While things probably felt different in the 1980s, I don’t think that the current US is in danger of this particular kind of pseudo-Christian revolution.   As a result, the tale felt less like a warning and more like a compelling depiction of a fictional society that is truly horrific—not just for women, but for everyone.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting take on an oppressive, theocratic dystopia.  The narrator Offred is a very small, passive person in the midst of a huge societal change, and she mostly just tries not to attract attention to herself.  As a result, she does not have an awful lot of insight on the workings of the society beyond the house where she lives.  However, the story is more about the state of mind of ordinary people who are caught up in this kind of a situation.  Rather than rebellions, gunfights, or protests, Offred demonstrates the ways, both beneficial and not, that people might try to manage their own minds, to keep themselves sane and alive for a better future that may never come.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: City of Pearl by Karen Traviss


City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
Published: HarperCollins/Eos 2004
Series: Book 1 of the Wess’Har Series
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick Award, John W. Campbell Award

The Book:

“Three separate alien societies have claims on Cavanagh's Star. But the new arrivals — the gethes from Earth — now threaten the tenuous balance of a coveted world.

Environmental Hazard Enforcement officer Shan Frankland agreed to lead a mission to Cavanagh's Star, knowing that 150 years would elapse before she could finally return home. But her landing, with a small group of scientists and Marines, has not gone unnoticed by Aras, the planet's designated guardian. An eternally evolving world himself, this sad, powerful being has already obliterated millions of alien interlopers and their great cities to protect the fragile native population.

Now Shan and her party — plus the small colony of fundamentalist humans who preceded them — could face a similar annihilation . . . or a fate far worse. Because Aras possesses a secret of the blood that would be disastrous if it fell into human hands — if the gethes survive the impending war their coming has inadvertently hastened.” ~from barnesandnoble.com

City of Pearl is Karen Traviss’s debut novel, and the first of a six book series (though it does stand well on its own).  I chose to read it based on its selection as the December book for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, and its selection as the December ‘Dare’ from the Calico Reaction blog.
My Thoughts:
City of Pearl addressed many social and moral topics that are relevant to today’s society, through the lenses of several distinct alien cultures and their conflicts with each other and humanity.  The alien cultures included the expansionist Isenj, the environmentalist Wess’Har, and the aquatic Bezeri.  Humanity presented less of a unified cultural front than these species, since the fundamentalist colony, various factions within Shan’s group, and the galactic human civilization all embraced very different ideologies. I enjoyed how the conflicts between the alien cultures and factions of humanity slowly built in severity throughout the story. 
The leader of the human expedition, Shan Frankland, and the human’s Wess’Har guardian, Aras, were the main characters of the novel. Shan was a no-nonsense cop, but she was also an environmentalist, a Vegan, and she carried a pretty deep distaste for her own species. Her personal philosophy was conveniently similar to many aspects of Wess’Har cultural beliefs. As a physical if not ideological outsider to his own species, Aras seemed a little like the alien counterpart to Shan’s role in the story.  I enjoyed their interactions, but the pattern of their relationship felt a little too predictable to me.  On her own, I thought Shan was an unusual and interesting heroine, but she was also a terrible expedition leader. Much of the conflict in the story was a result of her keeping her underlings deliberately uninformed and isolated.  Unnecessary withholding of information was fairly common throughout the story, from Shan’s treatment of her human colleagues to her own ‘Suppressed Briefing’.  I appreciated that Shan was a flawed character, but the particular flaw of poor communication became a little tiresome.
With the exception of Shan and Aras, I felt that much more effort was given to portraying populations of characters than individuals.  The cultures of the Isenj, the Bezeri, the Wess’Har, and the human religious settlement were distinct, but none of the individuals from these cultures made much of an impression.  Shan’s group had a little bit more characterization, but it was still essentially made up of two groups—the marines and the scientists.  The scientists were constantly referred to as ‘the payload’, and they were portrayed almost without exception as greedy, self-absorbed, unreasonable, bratty children. Given that these are scientists who gave up their lives and homes for a chance to explore an alien planet, I highly doubt that they would all be so petty, profit-driven, callous, and immature.  In contrast, the marines are shown as reasonable, trustworthy, and necessary to keep the ill-behaving scientists in line.  I found this simplistic good/bad representation of groups of people, which can also be seen in the portrayal of the alien cultures, to be pretty grating.  
In a similar way, I felt that the important issues raised within the story were handled in a frustratingly blunt, black-and-white manner. The message of the novel was mostly of an extreme environmentalist nature, and was centered on protecting the environment and the balance of nature, at whatever the cost.  There were certainly some valid issues raised, but I disliked the way the novel’s judgments were handed down to the reader.  There wasn’t much in the way of debate or discussion, just statements that were accepted without any significant opposition.   I know this is the start of a six book series, so it is entirely possible that these views will be examined in more detail throughout the following novels.   
My Rating: 2.5/5
I enjoyed some aspects of the story and characters of City of Pearl.  In particular, I enjoyed following the constantly worsening political situation between the three distinct alien races and humanity. However, I disliked the way the book’s potentially persuasive message was handed down with little debate or examination.  I was also frustrated with how often a deliberate withholding of information played into the plot.  I also felt that there much more focus on developing the ideologies of populations than of fleshing out individuals’ personalities and views. As a result, though the main characters—Shan and Aras—were interesting to follow, few members of the supporting cast were memorable to me.   Overall, I don’ t think this is a series that I am going to continue.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best of 2011


The Best of 2011
I hope everyone’s having a happy holiday season! As you might have guessed from the less frequent posts, mine’s been a little busy.  The first calendar year of Tethyan Books has come to a close, and I’d like to do a quick recap of some of my favorite novels and authors I encountered in my reading this year.  I didn’t really have an explicit goal for my blog this year, but I am very happy with how everything has developed.  I’ve read over 70 novels since the creation of this blog, and I’ve experienced the works of many excellent authors. I’ve had a lot of fun working on Tethyan Books, and I’m looking forward to another year full of speculative fiction!
Most Highly Recommended New Books
These are my most highly recommended books published in 2010-2011, read in the 2011 Calendar year.  I tried, moderately successfully, to keep up with most of the major science fiction and fantasy awards of 2011, and all of these are novels I read as a part of that effort.

1)   Zoo City by Lauren Beukes: A creative dark South African fantasy, set in a world where the guilt of criminals manifests as companion animals.
2)   Feed by Mira Grant: A refreshing take on a post-zombie-apocalypse world, with much attention to the epidemiology of the disease and the effects of the continuing existence of zombies on society.
3)   The Dervish House by Ian McDonald: A beautifully written, complex story set in near-future Istanbul, where ancient myths and traditions coexist with developing nanotechnology.
4)   Blackout by Connie Willis: The first half of Willis’ WWII time travel novel, focusing on the efforts of British civilians during the war.
5)   Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord: A story modeled after folk tales, telling a story of redemption, human worth, and a Chaos Stick.

Most Highly Recommended Old Books
These are novels that I read for the first time in the previous year, though they were published before 2010.  There’s so much wonderful speculative fiction that’s been written over the years, I don’t think there’s any way a person could ever truly catch up!
      1)   Gateway by Frederik Pohl: A well-known science fiction classic, which combines a story of massive structures and alien technology with the human story of a deeply flawed protagonist.
      2)   Declare by Tim Powers: A mix of a spy novel and a dark fantasy, set in a vividly described 20th century Europe.  It follows existing historical events, but contains an elaborate supernatural behind-the-scenes story to explain oddities in recorded history.  
      3)   Doomsday Book by Connie Willis: Willis’ time travel novel featuring England in the 1300s.  To my mind, it’s the strongest of her time travel series, and it features effective parallel stories in both the past and the future.
      4)   China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: A novel that focuses on character over plot, exploring the life of a gay, half-Chinese man—and the lives of other people he encounters—in an oppressive Communist Chinese-dominated future.
      5)   Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson: A how-to book for colonizing Mars. Or, more seriously, Red Mars is an incredibly thorough fictional account of Earth’s colonization effort of Mars, with attention paid to almost every aspect of the venture (social, political, financial, ecological, scientific…).

Authors Discovered in 2011
On top of my most highly recommended novels, I wanted to mention a few other authors whose work I’ve become familiar with in the past year.  These are specifically authors who haven’t been mentioned yet in this post.
1)   Octavia E. Butler: I’ve read a lot of Butler’s work this year, both her alien ‘invasion’ trilogy Lilith’s Brood and Parable series.  Her stories tend to explore various social issues relating to religion, gender, race, or class.  I was saddened to find that Butler died 5 years ago, but she has left behind work that will surely be appreciated by the world for many years to come.
2)   Jo Walton: The two novels I read by Walton this year, the alternate history murder mystery, Farthing, and the charming story of Victorian dragons, Tooth and Claw, were both incredibly entertaining and startlingly dissimilar in both style and content.  Walton seems to be a particularly versatile author, and I’m looking forward to checking out the rest of her work in the years to come.
3)   Jon Armstrong: I only read Yarn, Armstrong’s second novel, but I was really impressed with the creative world building and the seemingly endless energy of the prose.  I’m planning on picking up his debut novel, Grey, sometime in the near future.
4)   Hannu Rajaniemi: His debut novel, The Quantum Thief, was sometimes confusing, but was full of many creative ideas.  I’m looking forward to seeing how Rajaniemi will continue the story he began in his debut.

There’s necessarily a lot I’ve left out of this post.  For instance, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading cyberpunk by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, though they didn’t get a mention here.  Lois McMaster Bujold has also been a fairly frequent presence in my reviews, and I pretty much always enjoy her novels.  There are also some newer authors, like Charles Yu, Nnedi Okorafor, and Christopher Barzak, whose work I definitely intend to follow.  Overall, I think there are a lot of amazing writers working in speculative fiction today, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with next!