Friday, November 8, 2019

Read-Along: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Part 1

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a read-along, but now it’s time to get back into the habit!  I’ve joined a read-along of Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few for this November, together with Lisa of Dear Geek Place and a few others.  The schedule is as follows, in case you’d like to join in discussion in future weeks:

Week 1: Friday 8th November, discussing Prologue & Part 1
Week 2: Friday 15th November, discussing Parts 2, 3 & 4
Week 3: Friday 22nd November, discussing Parts 5, 6 & 7

I’ve read and reviewed both The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, and have been looking forward to learning about the Exodus Fleet in Record of a Spaceborn Few. Today, I’m going to answer the Week 1 discussion questions, so beware of spoilers from here on out through Part 1!  To be honest, it took me longer to get into this one, because the point-of-view kept bouncing around between unrelated (or only slightly related) characters.  I’m still enjoying it, though!

1. As with the previous Wayfarer books, this one is driven more by characters and ideas than by high-energy/high-action plot, despite that prologue. If you're new to the series, is this approach one that surprised you, and what do you think of it so far? If you have read the books before, is it something you appreciate?

It didn’t surprise me, since I’m not new to the series.  It did seem a little more meandering than I remember from previous books, though.  In the first, we had the challenging wormhole-making job, and the second had a clear character arc driving the action.  So far, in this one, we’re just following the daily life of a handful of people in the Fleet, and any kind of overarching plot has yet to emerge.  Their daily lives are interesting, I am just hoping for a little bit more to the plot.

2. Sticking with first impressions a bit longer - what do you think of Exodan life (and all that history), and of the way Becky Chambers presents it to the reader, ie. specifically through the lenses of these characters?

I like the idea of the Fleet as a kind of human homeworld. I didn’t feel like I was being info-dumped on as we learned through the eyes of various characters.  It’s a little sad that the young people see it as a dead-end place, I think, because that implies that the Fleet is in decline from which it may not ultimately recover.

3. In addition to the personal perspective on Exodan life, we do get some perspective from 'outside' sources, namely Sawyer and, to a lesser extent, Ghuh'loloan. How do you feel about their particular perspectives on the Exodan Fleet, and do you think these views in particular are important ones to share? If so, why? (Or why not?)

I think it was important to show at least one outsider view, simply so that we as the readers could get a better description of the society through their experiences. Ghuh’loloan shows that some people do care about learning about humanity, which is nice.  Sawyer… I felt kind of bad for him about that fishy pickle sandwich. He has this idealized picture of what the Fleet is, and maybe he needs to calm down for a while. I think it was nice to show the true outsider view (the alien) and the outsider-with-a-connection view (a human who has never been there before).  It’s kind of like showing, for instance, the culture of a Chinese town simultaneously through the eyes of a white American vs. an American of Chinese descent.

4. Politics, technology, gender identity... As before, this is a book that's all about relationships. How they begin, how they stand now, and how they might progress. There's a lot of today's unfurling potential in how Chambers writes her stories and builds her world(s), but notably without a lot of our conflict. Do you think this is a world we can build, or does it feel too good to be true?  

I don’t know if “too good to be true” is exactly how I’d put it.  I mean, the Earth was destroyed and our species is a minor addition to the wider galactic society.  However, I like that the people in her books, generally, are kind. I sometimes feel like there is a lack of kindness in the world today, but I don’t need that lack to be reflected in the stories I read. I hope we can build a world someday where people care about others, where “no one goes hungry, and everyone has a home”.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books 2012
Series: Book 2 of the Books of the Raksura

The Book:

Moon, once a solitary wanderer, has become consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. Together, they travel with their people on a pair of flying ships in hopes of finding a new home for their colony. Moon finally feels like he’s found a tribe where he belongs.

But when the travelers reach the ancestral home of Indigo Cloud, shrouded within the trunk of a mountain-sized tree, they discover a blight infecting its core. Nearby they find the remains of the invaders who may be responsible, as well as evidence of a devastating theft. This discovery sends Moon and the hunters of Indigo Cloud on a quest for the heartstone of the tree—a quest that will lead them far away, across the Serpent Sea. . . .” ~Night Shade Books
Here continues my reviews of the Books of the Raksura.  I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I plan to at some point!

My Thoughts:

The Serpent Sea picks up where The Cloud Roads left off and continues directly into a new adventure.  There is a bit of recap at the beginning to orient the reader, but I would strongly recommend reading the series in order. If you have already read The Cloud Roads, then you basically know what kind of book you’ll be getting withThe Serpent Sea. Moon is still trying to fit into his new community, Indigo Cloud court still has internal problems, and a new external problem requires adventuring and combat.  This new problem comes in the form of a lost treasure, the heartstone of the tree, which our characters must journey to recover. I had been hoping for more focus on problems internal to the court, so I was a little disappointed when I realized this was the direction the story would take. I intend that as a compliment towards Wells’s world-building with the Raksuran court, not as a slight of this book.

The group of Raksuran characters interact with several new societies in the process of the search, and I enjoyed seeing a bit more of this vast world.  It was interesting to see them interact with another Raksuran court, and the floating city on the sea where much of the action took place was creative, though fragile-seeming.  Their interactions with groundling species drive home the fact that, while they aren’t the Fell, the Raksura are pretty terrifying and dangerous as well. I’m looking forward to seeing if there is more cooperation between the Raksura and certain groundling societies in the future books.  Whether that happens or not, I get the sense that there’s still plenty of room in this world to explore in the rest of the series.

The writing style is similar to the first book, concise with a focus on actions and dialogue.  There are again many named minor characters to keep straight, but the story is fast-paced and suspenseful.  I also enjoyed the way this book focuses on Moon’s experiences as a solitary. One of my favorite parts involves him using his skills at blending into groundling societies to infiltrate a magister’s tower.  We also get to see part of the basis for the prejudice against solitaries in Raksuran society. The ending is exciting, and my only complaint would be about a random combat scene that happens in the denouement.  It felt strangely jarring, since it happens after the main conflicts have been resolved. I suspect it might be intended to foreshadow conflicts that will arise in the next book. I guess I’ll see sooner or later!

My Rating: 4/5

The Serpent Sea is a fitting continuation of the story that begins in The Cloud Roads, and I expect fans of the first will also like the second. Most of the long-running conflicts in the Indigo Cloud court are still present, but the theft of their colony tree’s heartstone presents the immediate problem that must be solved in the arc of this novel.  I enjoyed seeing more of the world, and getting the chance to see Moon’s particular skills benefit his new community. I’m hoping for more focus on the court itself in the next book, The Siren Depths, which I am definitely planning to read!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Books of the Raksura
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

“Moon has spent his life hiding what he is: a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as he is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself—someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into the shape-shifter community.

What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power, that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival, and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself . . . and his newfound kin.  ~ Night Shade Books
Completely independently, I happened to come across the Raksura series and the Murderbot Diaries at roughly the same time.  They seem very different to have come from the same person! I’ve read the first two books of the Raksura series so far, so I bumped up the review of the second book to be for next week. 
My Thoughts:
I see The Cloud Roads as the kind of book that has crossover appeal for Adult and YA target demographics, though it is marketed as an adult fantasy novel.  At the center of the novel is a self-realization arc for the main character, Moon. Though he is already biologically an adult, his personal growth feels in many ways like a coming-of-age story. Moon knows virtually nothing about himself, his species, and his origins, and we follow him as he slowly learns, opens up, and comes into his own in Raksuran society. In addition, the writing style is concise and direct, with lots of action and dialogue.  The story moves very quickly, and the prose is easy to read.
I got the sense that the world of The Cloud Roads was enormous, and that only a tiny fraction of it was involved in this first novel.  This seems to leave plenty of room for new places and new people to come into the story later in the series.  In this first book, most of the emphasis is on the Raksura, though we also get some information about the villain species, the Fell.  I’m not typically a big fan of stories with entirely evil species, but in this case I appreciate that it allows for a relatively simple external conflict to pair with Moon’s more complicated internal struggles.  As for the Raksura, I really enjoyed reading about their biology and culture. Members of different castes have different available shape-shifting forms, and I thought the attention to how their bodies influenced their mannerisms and activities gave the characters a good sense of physical presence as non-humans. There was a lot of information and many named minor characters to keep straight, but I feel like this will get easier as I continue in the series.
One thing that I especially liked about Raksuran culture was the partial inversion of common human gender roles and stereotypes. A person of Moon’s caste (a consort) is valuable primarily for his fertility, and is expected to be moody, delicate, flighty and emotional. While Moon is indeed kind of moody and emotional, which I think is understandable given his background, he doesn’t fit with some of the other expectations.  For instance, having grown up alone, he is accustomed to hunting and fighting, and he is not exactly delicate. If he were a woman in a society with “traditional gender roles”, I think he’d be considered an awkward tomboy. I found it interesting to see a society that not only inverts some of our world’s stereotypes, but also then challenges them within its own framework. At the end of The Cloud Roads, I was eager to see more about how Moon’s new community would continue and how they would address internal issues that still need to be resolved.    
My rating: 4/5 
The Cloud Roads is the entertaining first book of a series about shape-shifting Raksura, and the difficulties their people encounter in a fantasy world.  This book follows Moon, a young shape-shifter who grew up in ignorance of his heritage, and who is welcomed back into a troubled Raksuran community.  I enjoyed the level of detail with which Raksuran biology and society are imagined, and I sympathized with Moon as he tried to learn to fit into their culture. I especially liked the partial inversion of human gender stereotypes with respect to Moon’s caste and character.  This was a fast-moving book, and it left me eager to learn more about this world in the rest of the series!