Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: Tor, 2018
Series: Book 1 of the Lady Astronaut series
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.

One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.” ~MaryRobinetteKowal.com
I decided to read this one because it won a Hugo Award (among other awards), but also because I’ve enjoyed Kowal’s work in the past.  Back when I was reviewing short fiction (which I will totally do again someday, just not for a while yet), I featured some of her work on this blog that was set in this universe.  In my opinion, she and Marie Brennan have a similar style, so I’d expect fans of one would like the other.
My Thoughts:

The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that imagines a very different Space Race in the 1950s.  Instead of competing for political capital, the countries of the world are pushed into space research by a climate disaster that may make the Earth uninhabitable.  The desire to colonize other planets or moons, rather than to simply plant flags, provides the motivation for men in power to seriously consider a women’s astronaut training program.  After all, a colony with no women can’t sustain itself independently of Earth. The story begins with an intense first-hand experience of the meteorite strike, and continues through the development and progress of the fledgling space program.  The latter part of the story involves much more political and social maneuvering than action. 

The person doing most of this maneuvering is the heroine, Elma York.  With the character of Elma, Kowal has embraced the familiar “you have to be twice as good to be thought half as able” adage, by which I mean to say that Elma is amazing.  She’s a brilliant mathematician, cool under pressure, and a highly skilled jet pilot. The difficulties she faces are primarily external, with the exception of a debilitating anxiety associated with public speaking.  Her anxiety makes the necessary public performances required for changing hearts and minds challenging for her, even though it doesn’t impact her capability as a scientist or astronaut. I appreciated how this part of the story showed the stigma associated with asking for help, as well as the fact that taking medication for a mental health condition does not make a person any less than they were.  Overall, I liked Elma, and I wanted for her to make her dreams come true.

In addition, I enjoyed seeing Elma’s relationships with others.  She’s a scientist and a pilot, but she is also happily married. She and her husband are a very affectionate couple, and this doesn’t impact either of them being taken seriously as a scientist. I liked seeing that their marriage is a source of strength for both of them, and not a source of stress.  Stable and supportive relationships don’t seem to be very common in fiction, so this was a nice change. Elma also counts many female pilots from diverse backgrounds among her friends, and we see through them the additional barriers that are often faced by women of color. I appreciated the way Elma’s solidarity with others demonstrated that she was part of a larger movement, and that her push to make “Lady Astronauts” a reality was not going to end with her.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Calculating Stars is an interesting alternate history that imagines a different Space Race spurred into action by a meteorite-related climate disaster.  Within the frame of this story, we follow the exceptionally skilled and intelligent Elma York, who is determined to become an astronaut.  Elma has to fight against the conventions of the day, but her intense anxiety associated with public speaking makes this a challenge. I appreciated that Elma was able to be a scientist, a pilot, and a loving wife, and that she cultivated many friendships with other highly skilled women.  With the conclusion of this book, I feel confident that she is blazing a trail for many and not just for herself. The second half of this duology, The Fated Sky, is already out, and it is definitely on my list of books to read.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

Attentive readers of Lady Trent's earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world's premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.
Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.
The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell... where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.” ~WWend.com
Here continues my review of the Memoirs of Lady Trent!  I haven’t read the third book yet, but I definitely intend to finish out the series. My reading time is limited lately, so I can’t promise a when, but it will happen. Beware of allusions to a *major spoiler* from Book 1 below!
My Thoughts:
Each book in Isabella’s memoirs tells a complete story, but I would strongly advise against reading them out of order.  They occur chronologically, and I think you really need to know what the returning characters have been through. In Isabella’s case, she has now established herself in her field, and her new position affords her more social flexibility to pursue her interests than she had as a young woman or a wife.  It also gives her the freedom to take a like-minded young woman under her wing, and to give her the opportunities that Isabella didn’t have in her youth. All in all, then, while Isabella’s homeland is not less sexist in this book, the sexism is less relevant to her life. Outside of Scirland, when she is on expedition, sexism that she encounters is treated more as an annoyance than as a serious threat to her career.
The one complication of her new role in society is that she is also a mother of a very young son.  I feel like the way she engages with this responsibility is somewhat similar to what you would expect from a Victorian man whose wife died in childbirth.  She doesn’t not love her son, but she also finds his similarity to his father a source of pain rather than comfort.  There’s a lack of maternal instinct and a distance that I have rarely seen in the depiction of mother characters.  I don’t think motherhood comes naturally to everyone, so it was nice to see this in Isabella. I would say that she is not a bad mother, but the way she balances her career goals with providing for his care is definitely not the norm for women in her culture.  (As a side note, the toddler in question is in no physical danger during this part of the memoir.)
I’ve talked a lot about societal issues, so let’s get to the dragons! I don’t want to say too much, because dragon biology is one of the major sources of mystery in these books. I can say that Isabella has not learned all there is to know about all dragons from her time in Vystrana, and there are some interesting biological quirks to discover about the dragon species in Eriga.  The political machinations are a sideshow to her expedition, but they serve as one major source of tension. To get permission to enter the Green Hell, she has to make a deal that she soon realizes might not be looked kindly upon by the jungle’s inhabitants (on whom she depends for survival). Within the jungle, I enjoyed seeing Isabella’s curiosity, intelligence, and practical (but reckless) problem-solving skills come to the foreground.  I am eager to see where she will go next and what she will discover!  
My Rating: 4 /5
I liked the first book of this series, and in my opinion The Tropic of Serpents is even better. There’s still a fair amount of sexism for Isabella to deal with, but it feels like less of a major obstacle to her goals than it did in the first book.  Isabella’s difficulty with performing motherhood is another arc in the book, and I found it refreshing to read about someone to whom the role did not come naturally. On the supernatural side, the dragons remain as interesting as ever, and the Green Hell is an exciting and dangerous setting for her journey. Isabella’s curiosity and resourcefulness make her a very compelling heroine, and I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the rest of her life will hold!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award, Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart - no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments - even at the risk of one's life - is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.” ~WWEnd.com
This series had been on my radar for years, and I finally decided to give it a shot after it became a Hugo finalist for best series.  This is the first (but not the last) book I’ve read by Marie Brennan.
My Thoughts:

A Natural History of Dragons is set in a fantasy world, but within a nation that is a clear analogue of Victorian England, complete with severe restrictions on the lives and interests of women.  I’m not a big fan of Victorian stories, and I often find fictional sexism exhausting to read--particularly the kind of sexism that bars women from success in a male-dominated fields (physicist here, this is not new to me).  However, this is ameliorated by the fact that the story is told by the future, highly successful naturalist Lady Trent. Thus, we know from the beginning that she eventually wins, and society does change. When we see the barriers that are placed in front of her solely because of her gender, we can at least know for sure that she is going to overcome them.

Though the setting may not have won me over, the emphasis on science certainly did.  If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed that I love stories about fictional scientific research.  In this novel, I somewhat predictably loved Isabella’s constant drive to learn about and study dragons. The study of live dragons only got underway fairly late in the novel, but her early life also involves the investigation of small dragon-like creatures called “sparklings”, among other things.  The status of the dragon subfield felt well thought-out, with some known facts, some misconceptions, and a wide area of unknowns. This novel covers only Isabella’s first expedition, so I’m sure there’s still plenty to learn about these creatures in the rest of the series.

Since this is a fictional memoir, it also has a strong focus on the personal details of Isabella’s life.  The story begins with her childhood, and we follow her as she grows into a young woman, struggling to find a way to follow her passion for science. I thought she was an excellent heroine. I enjoyed her intelligence and curiosity, and could empathize with her (sometimes reckless) enthusiasm for her field of study.  Her narration was smooth to read, and I liked her sense of humor. In general, I would have said that the tone of the book was light, and that there was a sense that everything would come out okay in the end. However, there is at least one serious sad twist, which caught me off guard. In any case, I have enjoyed this introduction to the life of Isabella, dragon naturalist.  
  
My Rating: 3.5/5

A Natural History of Dragons kicks off a five-book fictional memoir series about the life of Isabella, who will become the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist.  This book includes her childhood through her first dragon expedition, and describes the difficulties she has in following her interest in science in a restrictive Victorian-like society.  I am not a big fan of Victorian-style fiction and the frustrating sexism that entails, but I liked Isabella and I strongly identified with her curiosity and drive. I’ve already read the second book in the series (review coming soon), and I am definitely planning to read the rest!