Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Series: Book 2 (Final Book) of the Parable Series
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
Amid the collapse of modern American society, Lauren Olamina soon had to face the smaller destruction of her parents gated community.  She set out on her own, armed with little more than her newborn ‘Earthseed’ religion and her determination to survive.  In Parable of the Talents, Lauren has formed her first peaceful Earthseed settlement, Acorn, and she is slowly becoming a respected religious leader. In addition to her religious responsibilities, Lauren has become both a wife and a mother.
People are beginning to rebuild the infrastructure of the United States, but things can never return to the way they were before. Tragedy has given rise to a new wave of conservative religious fundamentalism, exemplified by the charismatic sect known as “Christian America”. As religious fervor begins to combine with secular power, Acorn’s future looks anything but secure.  Soon Lauren will be struggling to protect both of her children—her baby daughter Larkin and her budding religion.” ~Allie
Parable of the Talents is a sequel to Parable of the Sower. I think Talents could be read without first reading Sower, but it would be best appreciated after having read the first novel. Sower provides a lot of background into Lauren’s character and to the origin of the Earthseed religion.
My Thoughts:
While Sower was told through the diary of teenage Lauren Olamina, Talents incorporates several viewpoint characters.  There were also numerous non-viewpoint characters, many of which were described almost solely in terms of the trauma they’d experienced and their methods of coping.  I think this was done to show how the current events affected many different people, but I think I would have preferred the story to focus more deeply on a smaller group of characters.
The characters one comes to know most deeply, of course, are the primary narrators. The main narration is through Lauren’s diary as an adult, and the other most notable viewpoint belongs to her estranged daughter.  I think having two very different narrators effectively added depth to the story.  I think it would be easy to see Lauren as simply a courageous figure, but the bitter outsider’s view provided by her daughter highlighted the costs Lauren’s choices exacted from the people around her.
I appreciated the way in which the novel managed to examine the role of religion without feeling as though it were adhering to an agenda.  Christianity takes a lot of criticism throughout the story, but it seems like the specific content of the religion is less relevant than its relationship with power and social structure.  The two religions observed, both with highly charismatic founders, are Earthseed and a new sect called Christian America. Earthseed deals from a position of weakness, while Christian America wields significant political and societal power. 
In such a difficult time, people have turned towards both religions for comfort, hope, and the assurance that their lives have a purpose. In order to attract followers, Lauren had to deliberately cater to those needs.  Some people also used religion to establish hierarchical structure and to justify their own horrific actions.  A large, powerful religion like Christian America was able to do much to improve the state of society and to rebuild the infrastructure that had crumbled.  However, the movement also ended up providing shelter and forgiveness to people who misused its doctrine to support their own illegal and immoral acts. While Earthseed was currently too small and weak to be used in this fashion, Lauren was all too aware that her religion would also begin to change the moment she was gone.  I think Butler wanted to show how religion can be both a powerful productive and destructive force, and how vitally important it is for believers not to turn a blind eye to corruption within their own ranks.
I have to say that Parable of the Talents is a much more depressing story than Parable of the Sower. Lauren’s life is full of personal tragedy, such as the fate of Acorn and her relationships with her only living relatives.  Some of Lauren’s experiences were pretty disturbing, and very difficult to read. The first novel was incredibly bleak, but it had a thread of hope—that Lauren would be able to form her community out in the country and become a force that would help rebuild the United States.  Talents still has a small thread of hope, but I felt like the story was somehow even more brutally realistic.  Such a devastating societal collapse is not something that can be easily fixed or reversed in a single lifetime.  Perhaps Lauren can make a difference, but it may only be for a future she will never see.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Parable of the Talents is a worthy sequel to Parable of the Sower.  The personal stories of Lauren and her daughter fit together wonderfully to show two very different views of the same society.  While parts of the story were painful to read, and it was a pretty depressing story altogether, it was not a story completely devoid of hope.  I enjoyed Talents also as an examination of the role of organized religion in society.  I’ve heard that Butler had planned a third novel in the “Parable” series, but, sadly, she passed away in 2006.  I think her series feels complete with Talents, but I would have loved to see what the final volume would have contained.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Published: Gollancz (2010), Tor (2011)
Series: Planned as the first book in a trilogy

The Book:

Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first. Just another day in the Dilemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is a currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night. Meanwhile, investigator Isidore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur....

Indeed, in his many lives, the entity called Jean le Flambeur has been a thief, a confidence artist, a posthuman mind-burgler, and more. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his deeds are known throughout the Heterarchy, from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. In his last exploit, he managed the supreme feat of hiding the truth about himself from the one person in the solar system hardest to hide from: himself. Now he has the chance to regain himself in all his power—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.”

The Quantum Thief  is Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, and it is slated to be the first of a trilogy. I read on Wikipedia that Rajaniemi has said that he had “come up with an outline that had every single idea I could cram into it, because I wanted to be worthy of what had happened," and that outline became the trilogy that opens with The Quantum Thief.  I don’t think he was exaggerating—there are so many creative ideas crammed into just this first novel that they threaten to overwhelm the book.

My Thoughts:
First of all, The Quantum Thief is most certainly not an entry-level science fiction novel.  Rajaniemi fills it will many interesting new ideas, but he also leans on many familiar science fiction concepts (such as mind-uploading).  There’s little description of the more common concepts, but Rajaniemi eventually includes explanations for many of the more original ideas.  The wealth of ideas and creativity was fascinating, but it could also be a little overwhelming at times.  In the beginning of the novel, especially, I felt a little lost by the many unfamiliar terms that were being tossed around.  Unlike many novels with their own vocabulary, the words in The Quantum Thief also often had no quickly recognizable (to an English speaker) linguistic roots to give hints to their meaning (What is gevulot?  What is a gogol?  What is a tzadik?).  Most important terms are eventually explained, but waiting for everything to make sense does require some patience.
Of all the interesting concepts presented in the novel, my favorite parts concerned the society of the Oubliette and the zoku.  The Oubliette had a really original take on functional immortality, mimicking cycles of life by alternating periods of consciousness as a human and as a robot servant of the community.  Oubliette society also has an obsession with levels of privacy, to the extent that the residents actually have a ‘privacy sense’.  The implementation of their privacy measures seems kind of like an extreme extrapolation of social network privacy settings applied to actual consciousness, memories and physical experience.  The zoku clans are based explicitly on gaming communities that survived the period of mind uploading.  From the vocabulary, game mechanics and general structure, I would say it is based explicitly on the MMORPG subculture.  It was fun to see something so familiar in the story, but I highly doubt that this specific kind of MMORPG subculture will last that long. 
Portraying the world of The Quantum Thief seems to be the main focus of the novel, and the plot and characters seemed a little less developed. I spent a lot of time figuring out what exactly was going on, and that’s also a pretty accurate, though simplified, description of the plot.  The story is told through three viewpoint characters, Jean le Flambeur, Isidore Beautrelet, and Mieli.  Flambeur, a first-person narrator, is trying to figure out who he is, and what Mieli and her mysterious backer want from him. Isidore, a third-person narrator, is trying to figure out what Flambeur has planned. Mieli, the Oortian woman who broke Flambeur out of prison, spends most of her time trying to keep up with Flambeur.   I liked the characters, but I think that a lack of information about their personal lives and motivations left me feeling a little detached from them.  Even so, the story, world, and characters were more than exciting enough to keep me interested, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Rajaniemi will go from here.
My Rating: 4/5
The Quantum Thief works well as a standalone novel, but there is still clearly plenty of story and information left for the rest of the trilogy to cover.  In terms of cool concepts and ideas, this is one of the more creative science fiction novels I’ve read in a while.  However, the sheer amount of new information thrown at the reader, along with my sense of detachment from the three narrators, resulted in an occasional feeling of incoherence.  I think that The Quantum Thief is a novel best approached with at least some familiarity with a variety of concepts familiar in science fiction, and a willingness to read through confusing sections in trust that explanations will eventually be forthcoming.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Published:  Quirk Publishing, 2011
Series: Book 1 of its series
Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award

The Book:

“Jacob has always been a loner, but he shares a special bond with his grandfather.  When he was very small, his grandfather told him fantastical stories about a home for children with supernatural abilities.  He also described the terrifying creatures that hunted these children.  Jacob’s grandfather illustrated these stories with strange vintage photographs (included in the novel). 

By the time Jacob was a teenager, he’d learned not to believe in the stories.  Instead, he assumed the monsters were an allusion to the horrors his Jewish grandfather had faced during the Holocaust, and the magic children came from his rosy memories of the Welsh refugee home where he spent part of his childhood.
When tragedy strikes, Jacob is forced to reconsider everything.  Could his grandfather's stories be literally true? The only way to find out will be to make his way to the children’s home of his grandfather's youth.” ~Allie

 I read this novel as a part of Calico Reaction Blog’s Alphabet Soup Challenge.  I have to admit, I had expected this to be a stand-alone novel.  However, it is very clearly the start of a series.  In fact, it is almost a novel of exposition—it is mainly concerned with introducing the premise of the series and setting the stage for future adventures. While the ending concludes a character arc for the protagonist, it is more of a ‘good stopping-place’ than an ending of the central story.

My Thoughts:

The premise of the story is interesting, if not original.  The story, featuring persecuted magical children hunted by soulless hollows and wights, seems to take some influences from various other franchises, such as X-men and the anime BleachMiss Peregrine’s does throw in a few unexpected twists, though, most notably in its use of time travel.  I enjoyed the atmosphere of the beginning of the story, which depicted Jacob’s life with his wealthy family in Florida and his journey to Wales. 
My interest waned a bit as the mysteries were revealed.  I felt that it lost much of its eerie atmosphere, and essentially became a ‘Good vs. Evil’ teenage adventure story.

The photographs scattered throughout the text were a creative touch.  Apparently, these are actual vintage ‘found’ photographs, and some of them are rather bizarre.  The photos represent physical objects Jacob comes across throughout the story, which is an intriguing change from conventional illustration.  However, in a weird streak of redundancy, each picture is also carefully described in the text.  Though I appreciate the creativity of the approach, the photos did not really work for me.  It often felt like the story was forced into odd asides, simply to incorporate the pictures into the text. I wish the pictures had felt more as if they fit into the natural flow of the story.

The story is told from the first-person viewpoint of 16-year-old Jacob.  I found him to be something of a self-absorbed brat with a sense of entitlement. He has a pretty cushy life, but he spends most of his time whining about it*. Despite my annoyance with Jacob, I like that he has a lot of room for personal growth throughout this series.   However, I have some overall issues with the depth and consistency of characterization in this novel.  Jacob and his father both feel fairly well developed, but this does not extend to the rest of the large cast.  The peculiar children are fairly one-note, and no one else is present long enough to make much of an impression. Some characters seem extraneous, though I assume they will become important later in the series. In terms of consistency, the characters’ actions sometimes seemed designed to move the plot along, even at the cost of discarding previously established character traits.

Lastly, I was not altogether convinced of the internal consistency of the novel’s world. As I mentioned, there is time travel involved.  I think time travel is actually really difficult to do well in a novel, and it is crucial to spell out the rules of time travel in your particular fictional world and then to stick to them. In some stories, for instance, history is robust and can’t be changed, in some the tiniest alteration can wildly affect the future, and in others every decision splits off a parallel universe. In Miss Peregrine’s, the different hints we get about the working of time travel do not seem to be consistent with one another.  Of course, this may well be explained in more detail in later installments. 

My Rating: 3/5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has some similarities to popular stories, like X-men, but it has enough of its own quirks to set it apart.  It’s important to note that this is the first novel in what is intended to be a series, and so it mostly sets the stage for future adventures.  The use of photographs as illustrations was interesting, but I too often felt that the story was being contorted to fit the photos.  Jacob is not an altogether sympathetic character, but I think he has plenty of room to grow and mature throughout the series.  I was somewhat bothered by inconsistency in characterization and apparent inconsistencies in the world-building, but these may well be explained away in the sequel.  Overall, it’s an interesting debut novel, but I’m not sure that this will be a series for me.

*Spoiler, example of Jacob’s personality (highlight to read): One example of his general personality is given in the first chapter, at his part-time job in a store his family owns.  He doesn’t want to work there, but he knows his ‘boss’ can’t fire him.  Therefore, he acts as though it is a game to make his coworkers’ lives miserable.  I’m sure many people who’ve worked in retail can vividly imagine this kind of behavior.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Seeker by Jack McDevitt

Seeker by Jack McDevitt
Published: Ace Books, 2005
Series: Book 3 of the Alex Benedict Series
Awards Won: Nebula
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award

The Book:

"Thousands of years after an entire colony mysteriously disappears, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict comes into possession of a cup that seems to be from the Seeker, one of the colony's ships. Investigating the provenance of the cup, Alex and his assistant Chase follow a deadly trail to the Seeker-strangely adrift in a system barren of habitable worlds. But their discovery raises more questions than it answers, drawing Alex and Chase into the very heart of danger."

Seeker is the third Alex Benedict novel, but I get the sense that this series is mostly episodic.  I haven't read anything by McDevitt before, but I don't believe that any prior reading is required to enjoy Seeker.

My Thoughts:

Seeker is a treasure-hunt detective story set in a star-spanning far-future human civilization.  The two main characters--the brilliant detective Alex Benedict and the narrator, his assistant Chase Kolpath--seemed like sci-fi versions of traditional 'Sherlock' and 'Watson' characters.  The book focused mostly on Chase and her legwork in the hunt for the lost colony, but Alex also turned up fairly often.   I enjoyed following Chase, as she interviewed disparate people and traveled to exotic locations.  However, while the characters Chase came into contact with had very clearly defined personalities, I didn't feel like they had much depth or three-dimensionality.  Overall, Seeker is driven much more by the plot concerning the central mystery than by character motivations.

The story felt very formulaic, but that's not to say it wasn't entertaining.  I was intrigued by the mystery of the Seeker and the search for what became of the lost colony.  The uncovering of the mystery was leisurely-paced and somewhat predictable, but I enjoyed reading about Chase's gradual accumulation of information and her and Alex's developing hypotheses.  The major subplot of the novel concerned a mysterious force that seemed determined to stop--or eliminate-- Alex and Chase.  I thought this storyline felt a bit forced, as if it were added after the fact to generate more physical conflict.  The final resolution of the subplot was underwhelming, and seemed like something I might have expected from a generic thriller or action film.

Given that it was set about 10,000 years in the future, I was also bothered by the similarity of Seeker's human culture to modern America.  From slang, to daily habits, to food and drink, to general social and political attitudes, to socio-economic classes, to character archetypes, it all felt a little too familiar.  It seems like there would be some major shifts in attitudes and societal structure in that much time.  However, I don't mean to imply that the world-building has nothing to offer.  There are a few interesting technological developments and an interesting alien race, the Mutes, that briefly intersect the story.  All the same, the characters seemed like they would feel at home in the U.S. of 2011, which was a little jarring for such a far-future, deep-space society.

My Rating: 3/5

Seeker doesn't break any molds, but it's still an entertaining novel.  The leisurely-paced, intriguing mystery of the lost colony is woven together with a clich├ęd, thriller-like action subplot.  The characters were serviceable for the story, but they weren't ultimately memorable outside of their roles in the investigation.  It was sometimes difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief, since McDevitt's millennia-old space culture was strikingly similar to early 2000s United States.  Even with these complaints, I did enjoy Seeker.  It may not be groundbreaking, but I think reading a book like Seeker is a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
Published: Simon Pulse, 2011
Series: Book 3 of the Leviathan Trilogy

Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award
**Spoiler Alert: I've tried to keep clear of spoiling plot points.  However, given that this novel has only been out for a couple of months (and that it is the final novel of a trilogy), it might be a good idea to stop here if you don't want to be spoiled.
The Book:
“Alek and Deryn may have helped resolve the situation with the Ottoman Empire, but World War I is still escalating.  Alek is determined that it is his destiny to end the war, since it was his parents’ deaths started it. However, he’s stuck aboard the Leviathan, which is heading further and further from the heart of the conflict, for reasons no one seems inclined to explain to him.
Deryn’s secret—that she is a woman—is getting harder to keep, particularly now that she has fallen in love with her best friend Alek.  She feels certain they could never be together, since he’s the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and she’s a cross-dressing soldier.  What she doesn’t know is how Alek will react if he ever learns the truth.
As the course of the Leviathan is diverted through Siberia, Japan, Mexico, and finally to New York City, Deryn and Alek will encounter new dangers, new people, and new hopes for an end to the war!” ~Allie  
This is my final review for WWend’s Month of YA GenreFiction.  Once again, Goliath picks up right where Behemoth left off, and the first two novels are necessary reading before picking this one up.  In most series, I can pick out the stronger and weaker installments, but the novels in the Leviathan trilogy are of remarkably consistent quality.  Westerfeld has crafted an even, continuously exciting trilogy that has now come to a very satisfying conclusion.
My Thoughts:
As in the case of the previous two volumes, Goliath is packed with many of Keith Thompson’s wonderful illustrations.  These are particularly good for showing off the many creative steam-powered machines and fabricated animals that Deryn and Alek encounter on their travels.  This time around, the Leviathan airship journeys through many exotic locations, though none of them are nearly as fleshed out as Westerfeld’s Istanbul.  While there’s still plenty of action, this is more of a character-oriented book than the previous two. It feels as though it is more focused on Alek and Deryn’s personal stories, though they are still caught up in dramatic historical events.  
 Aside from the continuing cast aboard the Leviathan, a handful of characters from earlier in the story also make appearances in Goliath.  The ‘perspicacious lorises’ from Behemoth are still around, and I feel like I can comment on their role in the story now.  While the lorises are quite adorable, in pictures and in actions, they seem to exist solely to point out important clues to the characters (and readers).  Considering they were Dr. Barlow’s life work, I had hoped that there would be something more to them.  The size of the novel’s cast also swells from the addition of many new characters, some of which are based on historical figures. Though it’s neat to see fictional representations of well-known people from history, I was a little concerned by the strong negative characterization of a certain famously eccentric scientist.  I hope that younger readers will understand that while these characters are based on real people, a fair amount of artistic liberty is taken in their portrayal. 
I think Goliath handles the budding romance between Deryn and Alek much more skillfully than the previous volume.  The original ‘falling in love’ of Deryn seemed abrupt, but the development of their relationship seemed much more natural in Goliath. Deryn’s constant angsting about her and Alek’s relative social status got a little old, but I can’t claim that her obsessing isn’t realistic for someone caught in the grips of first love.  I think the story involving Deryn’s secret gender stretched credulity a bit, but I was mostly willing to just go along with the ride.  While their romance took a much larger role in this novel, there’s still quite a bit more to the story.  Throughout their adventures, I enjoyed watching Alek and Deryn try to make sense of the chaotic world and their places in it.
I’m not aware of any way of connecting Thomas Hobbes to the title Goliath, so I’m going a little further back in time with this title.  The obvious reference is to the biblical story of David and Goliath.  However, I think Goliath has more to say than the usual statements about a small hero defeating a giant enemy through faith and intelligence.  I think Goliath was intended to provoke discussions about morality of the David/Goliath situation.  If it will end a war, is it moral to kill someone, as David did Goliath?  If by violence, or threat of violence, you can protect the people you love and bring about peace, does that make your actions acceptable?  Westerfeld does not provide a simple answer, but these are interesting questions to discuss against the events of Goliath.
My Rating: 4/5
Goliath is consistent with the high level of quality I have come to expect from Scott Westerfeld’s young adult novels.  Deryn and Alek continue their adventures on the Leviathan, traveling to new and exciting locations. Many characters, new and old, show up along the way, and some of them are based on actual people.  Goliath deals both with the small-scale story of Deryn and Alek’s personal troubles and secrets, and the large-scale story of attempting to end World War I.  I was pleased that Westerfeld did not choose, in the end, to give his readers an unrealistically happy ending.  Overall, I think this was a highly satisfying conclusion to the Leviathan trilogy. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

News: There Are No Heroes (Film)

There Are No Heroes: A Science Fiction Film of Cape Town, South Africa

Though I typically blog about novels, I'd like to help draw attention to this dystopian cyberpunk drama.  There Are No Heroes was brought to my attention by Kyle Stevenson, the director, co-writer, and co-producer, and it looks like a promising independent film. 

There Are No Heroes has a somewhat roundabout connection to a novel I read and loved, Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland. Two years ago, Beukes’ publisher, Angry Robot, held a competition for short stories inspired by Moxyland. One of the top three stories of this competition was “Land of the Blind”, by Charlie Human.  There Are No Heroes is a 48-minute independent student production of this short story, made by Donald Leitch and Kyle Stevenson, of the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance.
Here’s the description of the plot, taken from the There Are No Heroes facebook:
“It has been several years since a nuclear power plant in Cape Town had a meltdown. The film follows Drew, a young single-mother and factory worker, who must fight to survive in a dystopian future Cape Town, ruled by a sinister pharmaceutical company called DARCORP.”
There Are No Heroes premiered at the AFDA film festival in Cape Town, South Africa, on November 19th. I pretty much loved Moxyland, so I am hoping that this Cape Town science fiction film, set in the same universe, will be able to make its way into many international festivals. For instance, I personally would love to have a chance to see There Are No Heroes somewhere local, like at Geneva’s annual Movie Festival.

Below is the official trailer!

*Information and promotional materials are taken from the There Are No Heroes Facebook group.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Published : Simon Pulse, 2010
Series : Leviathan Trilogy, Book 2
Awards Nominated: Locus Young Adult Award
The Book :
"It is near the beginning of World War I, and the situation in Europe is spiraling out of control.  After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, battle lines have been drawn between ‘Clanker’ powers—whose technology involves mostly heavy machinery—and the ‘Darwinists’—who rely on fabricated animals.  A wild card in this scenario is the Ottoman Empire, which is currently maintaining fragile neutrality.  After Churchill ‘borrows’ a warship bought by the Ottomans, diplomatic relations between the Ottomans and the Darwinists begin to worsen.
It is into this situation that the Darwinist Leviathan airship soars, carrying with it the adventurous midshipman ‘Dylan’ Sharp and the fugitive Clanker aristocrat Aleksandar.  Dylan and Alek have forged a close friendship, though they both hold secrets. Alek may be the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ‘Dylan’ is actually Deryn, a young woman who has joined the military in disguise.  They’re going to have to work together to navigate the dangerous cultural and political tangle of the Ottoman capital of Istanbul!”  ~Allie
This is the second of my reviews for WWEnd’s Month of YAGenre fiction. Behemoth picks up right where Leviathan left off, so it's absolutely necessary to read the series in order. Thus far, I have been happy with the way each novel concludes its individual arc, while still continuing the overarching story of the series.
On a side note, Westerfeld takes some slightly more subtle liberties with established history in Behemoth. I could see some readers being concerned that the trilogy’s alternate history may obscure actual history for younger readers.  I don’t think this will be a problem, however, as Westerfeld helpfully includes an afterword in each novel that explicitly states which parts of his story are fact and which fiction.
My Thoughts :
Behemoth continues the adventure of Leviathan, and it is brought to life by many more of Keith Thompson’s amazing illustrations. While the story felt as exciting and action-packed as in Leviathan, it moves in a slightly different direction. Rather than traipsing around Europe in an organic airship, this installment focuses primarily on the situation in Istanbul, where Deryn and Alek spend a lot of time undercover. I enjoyed reading about the multicultural city of Istanbul, and the mixture of Clanker and Darwinist influences in their society. While much of the Ottoman technology could be considered Clanker, their machines tend to emulate animals or mythological beings from many cultures.  Westerfeld’s Istanbul expands his vision of this world, and the city has plenty of mystery and conflict to maintain the tension and excitement of the story.  
Deryn and Alek are still incredibly active and resourceful protagonists, and they continue to find themselves in very dangerous and interesting situations.  However, I was a little less than thrilled with the way their inevitable romantic subplot is handled.  There’s very little build-up, so it ended up feeling a little tacked on to the central story.  Though Deryn’s hidden gender mixed things up a bit, it still leaned a little too heavily on common young adult romance plot devices for my taste.  While it wasn’t a major focus in Behemoth, I feel fairly certain that the romance angle will continue into the third book, where I hope it will be more smoothly integrated and thoroughly developed.
In addition to Deryn and Alek, there are many notable minor characters.  Two repeating characters—Alek’s fencing master, Count Volger, and the Darwinist scientist, Dr. Barlow—get a bit more development in this installment.  They are the schemers on Alek’s and Deryn’s sides, respectively, and I enjoyed learning more about their plans. A new addition to the cast is the mysterious creature Dr. Barlow carried through Leviathan.  The critter is certainly adorable, but I’m not altogether fond of its role in the narrative thus far.   Another notable new addition is the American reporter, Eddie Malone. I was glad Westerfeld did not go the easy adventure-story route and portray him as a simple annoyance to Deryn and Alek.  These and other characters are beginning to widen the world that Leviathan introduced. 
The title of the novel, Behemoth, once again has several meanings.  Leviathan was a reference to gigantic whale-like airbeast, but I believe it was also a reference to Thomas Hobbes’ work of the same name.  The Behemoth is the companion beast to the Darwinist warship Churchill held back from the Ottomans, and it is also the name of another work by Hobbes.  In Leviathan, Hobbes described an ideal government, and in Behemoth, he described the causes and effects of revolution. Hobbes believed that no good could come from rebellion, but Alek and Deryn’s adventures don’t altogether support that final conclusion. I think the story of Behemoth provides an opportunity to discuss what circumstances, if any, justify carrying out a violent revolution.
My Rating : 4/5
Behemoth lives up to the standard set by Leviathan.  Alek and Deryn’s adventures are more stationary, and more politically based, but no less exciting.  Behemoth introduces several new and interesting characters, and shows the unique culture of fictional Istanbul.  I did not think the typical YA romance was integrated particularly well into the story, though I hope the romantic subplot will be developed more deftly in the third novel.  Like its predecessor, Behemoth brings up some interesting topics for discussion, and it contains more depth than just the surface adventure story.  Behemoth answers many of the questions left from Leviathan, but, of course, the final conclusion of the story is yet to come, in the final volume, Goliath! 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Yarn by Jon Armstrong

Yarn by Jon Armstrong
Published : Night Shade Books, 2010
Awards Nominated : Philip K. Dick Award, John W. Campbell Award
The Book :
” From the neo-feudalistic slubs, the corn-filled world of Tane's youth, to his apprenticeship among the deadly saleswarriors of Seattlehama--the sex-and-shopping capital of the world--to the horrors of a polluted Antarctica, Yarn tells a stylish tale of love, deceit, and memory.

Tane Cedar is the master tailor, the supreme outfitter of the wealthy, the beautiful, and the powerful. When an ex-lover, on the run from the authorities, asks him to create a garment from the dangerous and illegal Xi yarn--a psychedelic opiate--to ease her final hours, Tane's world is torn apart.

Armed with just his yarn pulls, scissors, Mini-Air-Juki handheld sewing machine, and his wits, Tane journeys through the shadowy underworld where he must untangle the deadly mysteries and machinations of decades of deceit.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Jon Armstrong.  From what I’ve heard, Yarn is actually a prequel, based on a minor character from Armstrong’s debut novel, Grey. I didn’t actually know this until after I’d read Yarn, but I don’t think that it’s necessary to read Grey first.  I believe that the two novels are independent stories set in the same world.
My Thoughts :
The parts of Yarn that most impressed me were Armstrong’s world-building and the enthusiasm he maintains while portraying his imagined society. The world of Yarn is bizarre, leaning toward absurd.  It’s a world where fashion dictates almost everything—even sex and violence are bound up in its rules and vocabulary.  Drugs, such as the illegal Xi yarn, are also presented through clothing and fabrics. Seattlehama, the sex-and-shopping capital, is surrounded by the ‘slubs’.  In these agricultural districts, men are brainwashed members of a crop-worshipping cult, and they’re kept docile by hormone-infested work shirts.  It might be a little difficult to get into this world at first, since it is full of specialized jargon, discussions of various threads and fabrics, and very few instances where anyone stops to explain.  However, the zest and attitude that infuses the text made it very easy to become engrossed in the story.
For anyone who’s ever read the Hunger Games trilogy, Seattlehama is a bit like the Capitol, taken to more of an extreme.  I think that both settings were designed to highlight the horrific absurdities of consumer culture by extrapolating wildly from current societal tendencies.  We can see some of the aspects of Seattlehama today—service industry personnel that are desperate to keep their customers happy and reward programs for brand fidelity.  However, I don’t think there’s any serious danger of our world becoming like Seattlehama and the slubs, so I see Yarn as more of a caricature than a warning.
Yarn switches between a story of the present and of the past.  In the present, the successful tailor Tane Cedar attempts to complete a dangerous last request for his ex-lover Vada. In the past, the novel tells the tale of Tane’s humble beginnings, and his tumultuous rise to fashionable power.  For me, the past story was much more compelling.  I think ‘farm boy goes out to seek his fortune’ is a pretty commonly appreciated plot, and, along the way, Tane’s past also slowly reveals the foundation and emotional context for his present. The cast of both stories was vibrant and memorable, from major characters—like the revolutionary Vada or the violent knitter Kira—to the very minor—like the anxious fast-food worker or the high-class saleswoman working under a death threat.
While the world and the cast are fantastic, I think Yarn suffers a bit in the plot department.  In general, the basic plots of both past and present stories are surprisingly normal and common for such an unusual setting. I find myself wondering if Armstrong was intending to offset the quirkiness of his world with a familiar plot formula, in order to help readers relate to the novel more easily.  The energy and vibrancy of the setting mostly make up for the predictability of the fundamental plots, but I was still a little disappointed with the ending revelations.  Some of the secrets revealed seemed unnecessary and unlikely, causing the story to lean a little further from chic and closer to silly for me.  The ending left me feeling a little dissatisfied, but I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading Yarn.
My Rating : 4/5
Above all, Yarn is an intensely stylish tale.  What the general plot may lack in originality, Armstrong makes up for with his consistent, vivid, and thorough depiction of a world where the consumer culture has gone wildly out of control.  From the agricultural slubs to the highest department store, Yarn takes its readers on a wild ride through all the echelons of power in this absurd yet compelling society.  The characters are vividly portrayed, from the protagonist down through those who only graced a few pages.  While I found the ending something of a letdown, Yarn’s unique ‘fashionpunk’ world with its relentlessly enthusiastic portrayal left me highly impressed with Armstrong’s skill as an author.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Published : Simon Pulse, 2009
Series : Book 1 of the Leviathan Series
Awards Won : Locus Young Adult Award
The Book :
”It is the cusp of World War I. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ genetically fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.
Aleksandar Ferdinand, a Clanker, and Deryn Sharp, a Darwinist, are on opposite sides of the war. But their paths cross in the most unexpected way, taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure….One that will change both their lives forever. “

Scott Westerfeld is a well-known name in young adult fiction, though up until now I’d never read any of his work.  In honor of WWEnd’s “Young Adult Genre Fiction” month, I’m reviewing his most recent series, which starts with Leviathan.  Leviathan had a satisfying ending, to my mind, but it is clearly the first part of a larger story. The final volume of this series, Goliath, came out this past September, so I’m looking forward to being able to read the complete trilogy, uninterrupted!

My Thoughts:
Leviathan is a non-stop adventure that spans several European countries.  While it takes place during the start of World War I, many aspects of Westerfeld’s world differ from reality.  The most notable difference, of course, is the presence of fantastical technology.  The Clankers have powerful, steam-powered walkers, and the Darwinists have amazing animals fabricated from the ‘life strings’ of many different species.  These animals range from messenger lizards, to jellyfish-based airbeasts, to complicated floating ecosystems like the Leviathan airship of the book’s title.  Westerfeld spends a lot of time describing his imaginative creations, and they are also brought to life by Keith Thompson’s many beautiful illustrations (some of which can be seen on his website). 
While the technology is a major selling point of the story, Leviathan also features two engaging protagonists.  Alek Ferdinand (yes, that Ferdinand) is an aristocratic Clanker fugitive with a huge secret.  His parents made sure he was trained in mechaniks, swordfighting, and many languages, but he still has no idea how to deal with the world outside his family’s estate.  Deryn Sharp has a pretty major secret of her own—she’s joined the British military as a midshipman, posing as a boy.   Deryn mostly manages to keep everyone convinced of her gender through force of personality.  Her never-ending exuberance and boyish swagger make it seem like her life has always been a jump from one adventure to the next.  Deryn and Alek are opposites in many ways, though they are both fallible teenagers in the middle of very dangerous situations.
Though Deryn and Alek are exciting characters to follow, they seem to be written a little younger than their supposed age.  If the book had not specified that they were fifteen, I would have estimated an age of twelve or thirteen.  Even in the many illustrations, they appear to be shown as pre-teens, not teens.  In general, I would say that is in line with the targeted demographic, which I would guess to be middle schoolers (about 12-14 years old). This guess is based on the reading level, the portrayal of the protagonists, and the amount of questionable content (very little, save a few not-very-graphic battle scenes).  I don’t mean to say that someone older couldn’t enjoy it—I’m over a decade past that age group, and I still thought Leviathan was a lot of fun.
Aside from the constant thrills of the story, Leviathan is also concerned with portraying the interconnectedness of living systems.  One example of this can be seen in the Leviathan airship itself. In addition to the hydrogen-filled whale-like creature that makes up its main body, the Leviathan’s life and health rely on an ecosystem made up of birds, bats, bees, bacteria, curious hydrogen-sniffing animals, and many others.  If any one of the pieces of this system is missing, it will have disastrous effects on the whole. 
The Leviathan airship is also controlled by Captain Hobbes, which makes it a fairly clear reference to Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of the same name.  Hobbes’s work is an early example of social contract theory, and it describes an ideal government as a kind of enormous, complex creature composed of its living members. The themes of interdependence and cooperation are also repeated in various ways through the political discussions and actions of the novel.  While Leviathan is entertaining as an adventure story, there’s also plenty of discussion material for those who want to look beneath the surface.
My Rating : 4/5
Leviathan is an exciting, action-packed steampunk re-imagining of World War I, with fantastic technology that is brought to life through Keith Thompson’s frequent illustrations.  Though the protagonists, Alek and Deryn, seem younger than their fifteen years, they are engagingly intelligent and resourceful protagonists.  Leviathan also contains a subtext about the interdependence of living systems and the necessity of cooperation, making it a book worth discussion.  I’m starting Behemoth now, and I can’t wait to see what happens next! 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Graveminder by Melissa Marr

Graveminder by Melissa Marr
Published: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011
The Book:
“Three sips to mind the dead . . .

Rebekkah Barrow never forgot the attention her grandmother Maylene bestowed upon the dead of Claysville, the small town where Bek spent her adolescence. There wasn't a funeral that Maylene didn't attend, and at each one Rebekkah watched as Maylene performed the same unusual ritual: She took three sips from a silver flask and spoke the words "Sleep well, and stay where I put you."

Now Maylene is dead, and Bek must go back to the place she left a decade earlier. She soon discovers that Claysville is not just the sleepy town she remembers, and that Maylene had good reason for her odd traditions. It turns out that in Claysville the worlds of the living and the dead are dangerously connected; beneath the town lies a shadowy, lawless land ruled by the enigmatic Charles, aka Mr. D. If the dead are not properly cared for, they will come back to satiate themselves with food, drink, and stories from the land of the living. Only the Graveminder, by tradition a Barrow woman, and her Undertaker—in this case Byron Montgomery, with whom Bek shares a complicated past—can set things right once the dead begin to walk.

Although she is still grieving for Maylene, Rebekkah will soon find that she has more than a funeral to attend to in Claysville, and that what awaits her may be far worse: dark secrets, a centuries-old bargain, a romance that still haunts her, and a frightening new responsibility—to stop a monster and put the dead to rest where they belong.”

I read Graveminder for the Alphabet Soup Challenge at the Calico Reaction blog.  I’d never read any Melissa Marr before picking up Graveminder.
My Thoughts:
The world of Graveminder had some creative elements to enjoy.  I liked the idea of the ‘Hungry Dead’, which were kind of a combination of a zombie and a ghost.   The contract connecting the worlds of the living and the dead and the mysterious Mr. D raised a lot of tantalizing questions.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like the world-building was thorough enough.  There were all sorts of things that were either left unexplained, or which never made much sense.  I got the impression that this might have been intended to kick off a new series, and that many things were left very vague so that they could be explored in later installments.  In general, the idea of Claysville was intriguing, but I didn’t feel like the novel adequately explored the causes and effects of the situation.
 The characters, also, never really felt sufficiently developed to me.  There were way too many characters, alive and dead, with too little to distinguish them from one another beyond their names and employment. Many of these minor characters seemed to be entirely irrelevant to the main story of the novel.  I can think of several characters who were introduced with a few paragraphs of exposition, existed for a few pages of conversation, and then were never mentioned again.  I wished the novel would have either worked with a tighter cast, or developed the minor characters enough that they did not feel like a list of names.
Marr also constantly switched the narrative point-of-view among these minor characters, often for no obvious purpose.  It was sometimes difficult to tell which character was the viewpoint character, as the voice did not change significantly. Of course, the glut of extraneous characters could make sense if this was intended to be the first novel of a series.  Then it could be seen as introducing people who would matter in later installments, making this something of an exposition novel.  All the same, the shallow characterization and the constant head-hopping really damaged my ability to care about any of the residents of Claysville.
While the novel’s description might sound like a horror story, Graveminder is really more of a paranormal romance.  I’m rarely a fan of romance, and I found this one a little difficult to take.  Byron is your typical unconditionally-loving man, who has never wanted a relationship with anyone but the heroine, Rebekkah.  Rebekkah, though, is dreadfully emotionally immature, and insists on treating Byron poorly while she constantly denies her obvious love for him.  It never felt like the end result of the romance was in question, so I grew tired of their constant angsting about it.  I was more interested in the ‘Hungry Dead’ plotline, and I wish that would have been given more attention than the romance.
Some of the predictability of the romance came from supernatural interference, and that interference also affected many other aspects of the story. I disliked the way in which the setting of the story constrained the townspeople, Byron, and Rebekkah to act in unnatural ways. I think that the use of supernatural force to control characters’ thoughts and actions could be used as an interesting source of conflict.  However, in Graveminder it serves as more of a way to artificially resolve natural sources of conflict.  For instance, none of the residents of Claysville questioned any of the odd goings-on—because they literally couldn’t.  Anyone who tried would be plagued by migraines until they forgot all about it.  I found it really frustrating how easily all the characters just accepted the supernatural control of their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
My Rating: 2/5
Graveminder had a neat premise, but it did not follow through.  The world-building was interesting, as far as it went, but it was not thorough enough to really support my suspension of disbelief.  There were too many characters, many which seemed irrelevant to the plot, and none of them were particularly complex.  The romance between Byron and Rebekkah was fairly obvious, and took far too long to resolve. I got the impression that it was intended to be the first novel of a series, but I still don’t think it stands well enough on its own merits.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton
Published: Tor, 2006
Series:  Book 1 of the Small Change Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus SF, Nebula, John W. Campbell Award
The Book:
One summer weekend in 1949--but not our 1949--the well-connected "Farthing set", a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before.

Despite her parents' evident disapproval, Lucy is married--happily--to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to the retreat. It's even more startling when, on the retreat's first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic.

It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. But whoever's behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn't reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts…and looking beyond the obvious.

As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out--a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.”

I read Jo Walton’s Farthing as the October selection for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, hosted byCalicoReaction.  I’m a little behind again, but oh well!  I’d never read any of Walton’s work before, but I am planning to pick up Tooth and Claw in the near future.  At some point, I think I’d like to read the rest of the Small Change trilogy as well, though Farthing definitely stands on its own without sequels.    

My Thoughts:
Farthing is a fascinating combination of a country manor murder mystery and a WWII era alternate history.  The story begins with the mystery, and only slowly reveals a world that is not quite like our own.  The murder mystery is less concerned with Holmes-esque feats of logic than it is with a more ordinary type of investigating.  Carmichael’s work mostly involves paperwork, politics, and interviews with often-dishonest suspects. The stakes of the story were raised as more and more of the alternate history setting started to intrude on the situation at the country manor. I enjoyed both aspects of the story and was impressed with how well they worked together to create an atmosphere of increasing tension from leisurely beginnings. 
While I appreciated the story itself, the novel was really brought to life by the two main characters.  The narration alternated between the first person viewpoint of Lucy Kahn and the third person viewpoint of Inspector Carmichael.  It took a while to get used to the switching between first and third person, but I was really impressed with the huge difference in style between the viewpoint characters.  I would never have read a sentence of Lucy’s narration and mistaken it for anyone else.  
To be honest, Lucy really irritated me at the beginning.  She seemed like the usual representation of a ditzy, coddled, aristocratic woman-child—not one of my favorite character types.  However, later on in the story, I began to feel guilty about my initial dismissive attitude towards her character.  While she definitely was a little silly and sheltered, she was also a person of loyalty, courage, and integrity.   On the other end of the spectrum, Inspector Carmichael started as a very business-like, professional narrator.  Throughout the story, though, various aspects of his personal life and principles were slowly revealed.  I preferred Carmichael’s chapters at the outset, but, by the end, I was equally engrossed in the stories of both narrators. Many of the minor characters were fairly simple, but Lucy and Inspector Carmichael were engaging, complex, and dynamic characters.
Aside from being an absorbing story with active, likable main characters, Farthing also had a lot to say about human nature.  While some of the themes seemed a little heavy-handed, Walton’s writing never felt preachy to me.  Much of the novel seemed to be about examining the dangerous relationship between prejudice and power. Farthing also showed how easy it is for otherwise good people to allow or commit terrible acts, and how difficult it can be to maintain one’s personal integrity.  While the story is very smoothly readable and entertaining, it also carries a punch that kept it in my mind long after I’d finished the last page.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Farthing is a very impressive novel that skillfully weaves together a murder mystery and an alternate WWII history.  It switches between the first person viewpoint of aristocrat Lucy Kahn, who married a Jewish man in defiance of her family and society, and the third person viewpoint of Inspector Carmichael, who is tasked with solving a murder at Lucy’s aristocratic family’s country retreat.  Both viewpoints are vivid and engaging, and both characters are complex and well worth following.  While the story is highly entertaining, it also has a lot to say about power, prejudice and human nature.  I’m glad I ended up picking up this novel of Jo Walton’s, and I can’t wait to check out more of her work!