Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summary: 2011 World Fantasy Award Nominees

The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel has been awarded to authors who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in the field of fantasy since 1975. The awards are considered among the most prestigious in the speculative fiction genre. World Fantasy Award winners are chosen by a panel of judges, which differs every year. 

I’ve read all of the nominees for this year’s award and I’m going to predict which book I think most deserves the award, and the two others which I think are the stiffest competition.   I’ll update the post when the actual winner is announced!

I was really impressed by the freshness and variety represented by this year’s nominees, and I’m happy to see that the fantasy genre is very much alive and well these days.  There are a few interesting things to note about the nominees for the World Fantasy Award this year. 
First of all, the majority of them are from relatively new authors:  Zoo City is Beuke’s second speculative fiction novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Jemisin’s debut, Redemption in Indigo is Lord’s first in the genre, and Who Fears Death is Okorafor’s first adult fantasy novel.  I think the presence of many impressive new voices in fantasy is a good sign for the hopes of many interesting novels to come. 
Another thing I noticed was how many of the nominees were not based in American/Western European culture, which I had thought tended to dominate stories in the fantasy genre.  Kay’s Under Heaven is based on Tang Dynasty China, Zoo City is set in modern-day(ish) South Africa, Redemption in Indigo is Caribbean, and Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa.  I loved the huge differences between each nominee, in culture, style, and tone.  And now to the nominees! 
Between Zoo City and her dystopian Moxyland, Beukes has quickly become one of my favorite new writers in speculative fiction.  I loved the idea of the ‘animalled’ in Zoo City  (people who commit crimes are marked by the shaming appearance of an animal companion), and the way it was used to explore guilt and how past actions never disappear.  I loved the main character, Zinzi, a woman with significant personal flaws, who was just trying to get by.  The writing was vibrant and descriptive, and it was easy to become immersed in the gritty lower community of Johannesburg.  Zoo City has already won the Arthur C. Clarke award, and I think it is the strongest candidate for the World Fantasy Award, as well.
Redemption in Indigo is a charming story told in the style of a folk tale.  It incorporates an actual Senegalese folk tale early in the story, and the narrator is a storyteller relating the tale to an audience.  It does have some more serious parts, but there’s a lot of humor and lightheartedness throughout.  I thought it did a fantastic job of reflecting the style of the folk tales I often read as a child, while weaving a tale at an adult level of complexity and maturity.
Who Fears Death was very unlike any fantasy I’ve read lately.  It was set in post-apocalyptic Africa, and it was full of wildly flashy and powerful magic.  While I had some complaints about the pacing, and the prophecy-structure of the adventure, I enjoyed the enthusiastic style of writing, the original setting, and the realistic portrayal of relationships among the main characters.  However, I think this book requires a trigger warning for its depictions of physical and sexual violence.  The story features a violent conflict between two races, where one (the Nuru) is determined to completely wipe out the other (the Okeke).  They often use rape as a weapon against Okeke women, and the main character, the sorceress Onyesonwu, is a product of that.  The sexual violence is not eroticized; I believe Okorafor intended the reader to feel intense revulsion towards the perpetrators and sorrow for the victims.
Other Nominees
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is a sprawling tale set in a fictionalized version of 8th century China.  While I appreciated the grandeur of the story, I was a little frustrated by some storytelling decisions and the general passivity of the main characters, who seemed to mostly serve as observers to the action of the story. Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land had an interesting, though over-used, central idea, but I didn’t feel like it had anything new to offer.  The characters were fairly generic, and the plot seemed stretched out, even for so short a book.  N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms seems more like a ‘traditional’ fantasy story, featuring the return to the capital city of an exiled possible heir to the leader of all the kingdoms.  Jemisin’s world had a complex and interesting mythology, and I enjoyed her world’s view of gods/humans, stability/change, and life/death.  The sequel to this one is already out (The Broken Kingdoms) and I intend to read it at some point. Sadly, I read The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms before starting this review blog. 
In general, I think this was a pretty good year for interesting, innovative, and unusual fantasy.  What do you think about this year’s World Fantasy Award nominees?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published: Penguin Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award, World Fantasy Award
The Book:
“In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor. Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already... “ ~WWend.com

With Under Heaven, I’ve actually finished reading all of this year’s nominees for the World Fantasy Award (all but one are reviewed on this blog).  I didn’t previously state my intention to do this, simply because I wasn’t sure if I’d have time before the winner was announced.  I’ll put up a post with a prediction of the winner and thoughts on the nominees soon!
My Thoughts:
The setting of Under Heaven is a fictional country called ‘Kitai’, which is based on the society and events of China during the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  It’s pretty clear that Kay has done a lot of research on his chosen historical period, and his depiction of Kitai is intricate and atmospheric.  Beyond geography and general social structure, I enjoyed the inclusion of poetry and superstition.  I don’t have the expertise to judge English poems written to echo Tang Dynasty styles, but I think their inclusion throughout the story strengthened the sense of place.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of supernatural elements.  Some things were written as ‘mere superstition’, but others, like the dead spirits at Kuala Nor and the rites of the barbarian shamans in the north, were undeniably real.  I loved the reverence with which the characters treated the supernatural, and how none of it was ever completely explained.  Kitai is a vivid, magical place to set an adventure.
The story hops around from character to character, with the third-person omniscient voice giving a general detached feeling to the narration.  The three main storylines would be those of Shen Tai, who is gifted with 250 Sardian horses, his sister Li Mei, who travels into the north, and his ex-lover Spring Rain, a courtesan.  They're certainly likable enough characters, but they don’t seem to have much agency.  The three of them feel like they are essentially observer characters.  Kay has set up his story just before huge nation-wide climactic events, and their personal plotlines seem to exist mostly to maneuver them into a position where they can watch these things happen.

Aside from the three major characters, there are occasional brief segments from the point of view of minor characters, which are sometimes never mentioned again.  I think the point of these segments was to show the far-reaching effects of the story.  However, the inclusion of additional observer characters, and ones that I didn’t know or care about at all, seemed a little superfluous.  Though I didn’t dislike Tai, Rain, or Li Mei, I feel like I might have enjoyed the story more if it were about more active, pivotal characters (Such as Prince Shinzu, General An Li, First Minister Wen Zhou, Precious Consort Wen Jian, etc.).
Perhaps because these characters are primarily observers, the story seems to move along rather slowly. Most of the narrative seems to describe the three main characters moving from place to place.  Often, the traveling serves as an opportunity for them to flash back to earlier events in their life.  It is on one such journey that we learn a huge portion of Shen Tai’s life story.  I enjoyed hearing about his eventful history, but I was a little irritated when he did finally reach his destination.  Upon his arrival, he realized that he had no idea what he was going to do.  His explanation was that he had traveled too quickly to think about these things.  I admit that I laughed out loud when I realized that he’d had time to ponder his life story in detail during this journey, but he hadn’t bothered to take a little time from past-introspection to think about his current deadly situation.
His odd lack of foresight ties into some other minor issues I had with certain storytelling decisions.  Shen Tai spends a lot of time considering how he is not prepared to enter deadly court politics, and how he is in such a precarious situation that one wrong move could get him killed.  However, when he is actually at court, I lost count of the number of times I read some variation of the sentence, “He hadn’t known he was going to say/do that.”  I would think, if the slightest misstep could get one killed, one might make the effort to be aware of what one’s tongue and body were doing.  Another minor issue I had was with Kay’s habit of artificially withholding information from the reader.  Often, when a character received some crucial information, the reader would just be informed of the receipt, instead of being told the information itself.  Information was not generally withheld from the reader for very long, but it felt like it was jarring me out of the story every time it happened. 
For all my complaints, I did like the story of Under Heaven. Curiously, though, I enjoyed the story much more in retrospect than I did while reading it.  Taken as a whole, it is an elegant story about the lives of various people navigating through a deadly and tumultuous time period.  The novel shows how they intersect with each other and the great waves of history.  However, taken as individual parts in progress, it was very slow-paced, featured characters that had a frustrating lack of agency, and repeatedly used some narrative devices that I don’t really enjoy.  I think there is a lot to appreciate in this novel, even though I also found a lot to complain about.
My Rating: 3/5
Under Heaven is a sprawling tale, set in a fictional representation of the 8th century Tang Dynasty China.  The place and society are very meticulously and vividly described.  The atmosphere of the novel benefitted from the inclusion of poetry and the reverent attitude towards the occasional supernatural elements, which were (to my delight) never fully explained.  The major characters, Shen Tai, his sister Li Mei, and his ex-lover Spring Rain, are fairly likeable, though they do not have much power to shape their own stories.  I was a little frustrated by the slow pace, by how the main characters seemed to be limited to observing major events, and by several repeated phrases or situations.  While I appreciated the overall story after completing the novel, I did not always enjoy the process of reading it.  I think Under Heaven is a book that is easier to appreciate when viewed as a forest, rather than as a sum of its individual trees.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
Published: Simon & Schuster, 1996
Awards Nominated: Hugo

The Book:

“For forty years, Colony 3245.12 has been Ofelia’s home. On this planet far away in space and time from the world of her youth, she has lived and loved, weathered the death of her husband, raised her one surviving child, lovingly tended her garden, and grown placidly old. And it is here that she fully expects to finish out her days–until the shifting corporate fortunes of the Sims Bancorp Company dictates that Colony 3245.12 is to be disbanded, its residents shipped off, deep in cryo-sleep, to somewhere new and strange and not of their choosing. 

But while her fellow colonists grudgingly anticipate a difficult readjustment on some distant world, Ofelia savors the promise of a golden opportunity. Not starting over in the hurly-burly of a new community . . . but closing out her life in blissful solitude, in the place she has no intention of leaving. A population of one.

With everything she needs to sustain her, and her independent spirit to buoy her, Ofelia actually does start life over–for the first time on her own terms: free of the demands, the judgments, and the petty tyrannies of others. But when a reconnaissance ship returns to her idyllic domain, and its crew is mysteriously slaughtered, Ofelia realizes she is not the sole inhabitant of her paradise after all. And, when the inevitable time of first contact finally arrives, she will find her life changed yet again–in ways she could never have imagined. . . .” ~barnesandnoble.com

I read Remnant Population for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club, hosted by Calico Reaction.  And with this, I am finally caught up, since this is the September pick!  I’d never read any of Elizabeth Moon’s work before, but this was a pretty entertaining novel.

My Thoughts:

The heroine of Remnant Population, Ofelia Falfurrias, is a surprising protagonist. It’s not often you find a science fiction novel that features an elderly woman, particularly one who spends a large portion of the story alone.   In this case, I felt that Ofelia’s strong voice and personality carried the story, even when it was simply chronicling her solitary life on the planet.  Part of the reason I enjoyed Ofelia’s character might be because certain aspects of her personality reminded me of my own grandmother, who was an amazing woman.  Ofelia’s hearing loss, her drive to spend each day doing something useful, her fondness for gardening, and the quiet, sarcastic edge she develops when someone irritates her all remind me of my grandmother.  Ofelia has not had the best deal in life, and for her, the departure of her community finally gave her the freedom to live as she saw fit.  For me,
Ofelia was a character that was easy to like, and easy to care about. 

As it states in the description, her simple life is disrupted by first contact with an apparently hostile indigenous species.  These aliens, while they have interesting differences in social structure and language, struck me as a little too similar to humans.  Biologically, the differences between the two species seemed to be mostly cosmetic.  Their thoughts, perhaps because of the similarity of biology, also seemed far too close to human for me to truly consider alien.  I still enjoyed reading about the first contact and the aliens themselves, but I felt like there was not much that significantly set them apart from humanity.

Aside from the aliens (or, I should call them indigenes), the remaining characters in the book are other humans.  Most of these characters seemed very close to caricatures.  They often seem deliberately disrespectful and dismissive of everyone, and willfully ignorant.  This is mostly a factor near the end of the novel, which had some of the weaker writing, in my opinion.  It seemed like these characters existed more to make a point than to enrich the story, so I was frustrated both by their flat personalities and the roles they filled.

The one-dimensionality of the other humans in the story highlights another problem—this is not a subtle story.  The moral and social points it chooses to make are very blunt.   Some of them I agree with, such as the value of the experiences of the elderly and the fact that they should be treated with respect.  I don’t mind the depiction of the heartless Company that exploits its workers, though it would have been nice to see a little more complexity there.  Other points, such as the value of native intelligence and experience over education, were a little more irritating to read.  I certainly accept that native intelligence and experience are valuable, but I disliked that the book chose to emphasize this by making all highly educated ‘experts’ incompetent.  The novel also uses the alien culture to highlight flaws in human society.  This approach can be interesting when done well, but here it seemed a little over-emphasized and clumsy.

With all that being said, though, I found Remnant Population to be a very entertaining book.  I thought the main character was interesting and likable, and I enjoyed the story of survival on an alien planet, not to mention the interactions with the aliens and their culture.  It’s a pretty light story, altogether, and I had fun during the hours I spent reading it.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Remnant Population is an interesting story of first contact, featuring a non-traditional heroine.  The elderly Ofelia, who stayed behind after the departure of her entire community, has a strong voice and a personality that is believable and sympathetic.  The indigenous race was too similar to human for my personal tastes, but I enjoyed reading about their language and culture.  For me, the biggest weakness of the novel was the heavy-handedness with which it made its points, particularly in the latter part of the book.  Aside from that, I found Remnant Population to be a fairly light, entertaining story and well worth reading.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
Published: Tor, 1992
Awards Won: Locus Award for Best First Novel, Lambda Literary Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo
The Book:
'I am Zhang, alone with my light, and in that light I think for a moment that I am free.' 

Imagine a world: a sinocentric world where Chinese Marxism has vanquished the values of capitalism and Lenin is the prophet of choice. A cybernetic world where the new charioteers are flyers, human-powered kites dancing in the skies over New York in a brief grab at glory. A world where the opulence of Beijing marks a new cultural imperialism, as wealthy urbanites flirt with interactive death in illegal speakeasies, and where Arctic research stations and communes on Mars are haunted by their own fragile dangers.

A world of fear and hope, of global disaster and slow healing, where progress can only be found in the cracks of a crumbling hegemony. The world of Zhang. An anti-hero who's still finding his way, treading a path through a totalitarian order - a path that just might make a difference.” ~WWend.com

I am finally catching up with the Women of Science Fiction Book Club’s selections! China Mountain Zhang is the selection for August.  This is apparently Maureen McHugh’s first novel, and I think that it is a really impressive first novel (or novel in general).  I think I might have to try to find her other three books.

My Thoughts:

The plot of China Mountain Zhang has a very unusual structure.  The chapters alternate between chronological stories of the life of the main character, Zhang, and stories of various people he briefly encounters throughout his life.  Though the events are in chronological order, it is more of a slice-of-life novel.  In fact, most of the chapters feel like they could almost stand alone as short stories.  Each chapter displays different aspects of McHugh’s future world and provides a new perspective, shaped by the lives and experiences of each viewpoint character.  The stories show significant events in the lives of the main characters, but the significance is typically more internal, marking a shift in the viewpoint character’s perception of the world.  There are not really any dramatic fight scenes or rebellions, but simply the personal moments that change the way a person thinks about themselves and the world.  Though at first glance the chapters are only loosely connected, I felt like they fit together through their portrayal of the ways people are isolated, but still driven by their need for a sense of community.

The main character, Zhang, has a complicated name and history, and is one of the few gay male protagonists I’ve come across in science fiction.  Zhang is saddled with the embarrassingly pompous name Zhong Shan (a.k.a. Sun Yat-Sen), which can be translated as ‘China Mountain’. He’s actually half-Chinese, in a society where the Chinese are the privileged race, and he also carries a ‘secret’ Latino name, Rafael Luis.  I thought McHugh’s inclusion of Mandarin and Spanish throughout the text added to the sense of reality of the world, though I can’t speak to the accuracy of the usage.  On the surface, Zhang might be considered passive or apathetic, but his personality runs much deeper than that.  His world is very unfriendly both to the non-Chinese and particularly to homosexuals—gay rights appear to have regressed in McHugh’s imagined future.  While Zhang wants to reach for the things that will help him build a better life, he feels like he can only live safely if he keeps from attracting attention to himself. I was fascinated by the way he struggled to define his path throughout the events of his life.    

The alternate chapter characters were interesting in their own rights, and they each show different parts of this future world.  For instance, in the kite flyer’s story, we see the technology of the kites—essentially hang-gliders with physical and neurological connections to the pilots—and the culture that has sprung up around the kite races. A few chapters focus on Martine and Alexi, two adult citizens with very different status in the Mars colony that is their home.  Another chapter focuses on San-Xiang a young Chinese woman living in America, who has been socially isolated due to a severe facial deformity.  All of these characters were complex and realistic characters, and it was easy to believe in their conflicting desires and fears.  I feel like these side stories added a great deal to the overall strength of the book, despite their tenuous physical connection to Zhang.

I think the characters are a major strong point of the book, but the society they inhabit is pretty interesting as well.   I enjoyed her descriptions of the communities, such as bureaucratic NYC, the elitist universities of China, scientific outposts, and the Mars commune.  Some of the technology—like the kites, wi-fi that connects directly to your brain, and pressball—were neat to imagine as well.  It’s kind of eerie that McHugh predicted, in 1992, that there would be an economic crash in the early 21st century and China would rise in power.  I don’t think the US is on the edge of a communist revolution, but some of the similarities are still pretty interesting.  I wouldn’t say McHugh’s future society is particularly unique, as I can see influences from at least a handful of older science fiction works.  However, her world stands out due to its feel of solidity, and the sense of history that the characters carried with them.  McHugh’s imagined world fits well with the tone of her story and her characters, and it was very easy for me to feel immersed in the world of China Mountain Zhang.

My Rating: 5/5

China Mountain Zhang is a study of a few characters in a future society, and so it carries very little external conflict, but quite a lot of internal.  Most of the stories portray events that are of personal significance to the characters experiencing them.  The chapters alternate between the lead character Zhang and others that he encounters throughout his daily life, and each chapter could probably stand alone as a short story.  Zhang is an intriguing character, mentally isolated by his racial heritage and sexuality and conflicted by his desire for a better life and his desire to hide in the cracks of society.  The other characters are fascinating as well, and their stories echo some of the themes of explored in the stories from Zhang’s life.  The political and social structure of the world—with colonies on Mars and the ascendancy of China—are not unique in science fiction, though they are portrayed very convincingly.  The technology was also interesting, and the technological advances seemed to fit naturally in the imagined communities.  Overall, China Mountain Zhang was a very impressive book, both as a first novel and as a novel in general.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Spellcast by Barbara Ashford

Spellcast by Barbara Ashford
Published: Penguin Group, 2011
The Book:
Maggie Graham is having a very bad day. First, she loses her job. Then the bathroom ceiling in her Brooklyn apartment collapses. That’s when Maggie decides she needs to get out of town. A weekend in Vermont seems like the perfect getaway.

When she stumbles on the Crossroads Theatre, reviving her acting career is the last thing on her mind, but a week later, she’s back in summer stock at a theatre unlike any she’s ever known.

Director Rowan Mackenzie is even odder than the collection of misfits that comprise the cast. What kind of director casts people in the roles they need? And never leaves the grounds of the theatre? And possesses the power to transform a train wreck of a show into a magical experience for cast and audience alike?

There’s a secret at the Crossroads, and Maggie is determined to uncover it before summer’s end – if she can prevent her mother from discovering her whereabouts, deal with the staff’s efforts to thwart her, and avoid falling prey to Rowan Mackenzie’s charm. She never imagines that she will uncover secrets about her past that will change her life – and Rowan’s – forever.” ~barbara-ashford.com

I chose to read Spellcast mostly as the result of a positive review over at the Calico Reaction blog.  The premise made me feel a little nostalgic about my own experiences participating in musical theatre, and it seemed very different from many of the novels I’ve been reading lately.  I was a little nervous about it being a paranormal romance, but there is a lot to like in this novel.
My Thoughts:
The three major topics of the novel Spellcast are musical theatre, journeys of self-discovery, and paranormal romance.  If you’re a person who enjoys at least two of those three things, then I think the novel would be a good fit.  I like well-written stories about people trying to find their own paths, and I have something of a history with working in amateur musical theatre (as tech, not an actress).  I was worried that the paranormal romance angle might overwhelm the book, but I don’t feel like that was the case.  The central romance and certain expected romantic clich├ęs were present from early on, but they seemed to fit in well with other elements of the story.  The paranormal aspects were fairly subtle until rather far into the book, and I think that, for the most part, they added to the impact of the story.
The summer season of the Crossroads Theatre was the driving force behind the story. I loved Ashford’s portrayal of the camaraderie between cast and crew, and the emotional highs and lows associated with putting on a show. Ashford also used the musicals’ material and the actors’ performances to examine the fears and motivations of different characters, and to push them towards a deeper understanding of themselves.  This might be more effective if you’re really familiar with Brigadoon and Carousel.  However, I didn’t really know much about the plays beyond a vague idea of the general plots, and I don’t feel like the novel left me behind.  I was really impressed that Ashford managed to keep the daily rehearsals and multiple performances of each show from feeling repetitive.  They were all incorporated into the personal growth of various characters, as they immersed themselves in their roles and simultaneously faced difficult truths about themselves. 
The story was narrated by Maggie, the only experienced actress of the cast, which added a sense of nostalgia and familiarity to her descriptions of the workings of the theatre.  Maggie’s also a pretty funny narrator.  She’s the sort of person who reflexively uses humor to deflect attention, and so her dialogue and thoughts are full of humorous statements or quirky little pop culture references.  Early on in the narrative, though, the pop culture references seemed particularly thick.  Sometimes she would simply reference a person’s (celebrity’s) name to invoke a description, which didn’t work particularly well in the few cases where I didn’t recognize the reference.  She also tended to assign objects or events joking pop culture nicknames, and use them throughout the rest of the story.  For example, in the small town with the Crossroads Theatre, there was a mansion on a hill that she constantly referred to as the “Bates Mansion” (as in Psycho).  Sometimes this worked, but sometimes it just felt like she was repeating herself.  Even with those few minor complaints, I really enjoyed experiencing the story framed by Maggie’s perceptions.
Though various cast members do grow and change throughout the theatre season, the main focus is on the development of Maggie and Rowan.  They’re very similar in a lot of ways.  For one thing, they both tend to focus on helping others, rather than looking after their own personal problems.  While the romance elements of the novel did occasionally seem very typical, I liked how well the non-lusty aspects of their relationship were explored.  Rowan and Maggie are both dynamic, well-rounded characters, and their interaction drives a lot of their personal growth.  As they get to know each other better, they push each other to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and to become more than they were before.  Spellcast manages to sidestep much of the predictability I associate with romances, and it pulls together into a conclusion that is both unexpected and completely fitting for the story.  
My Rating: 4/5
Spellcast was a delightful story of love, self-discovery and theatre.  The lead characters, Maggie and Rowan, were both imperfect characters with realistic depth, making their personal journeys easy to want to follow.  As the narrator, Maggie’s sense of humor and strong personality really brought the story to life.  I loved how Ashford used musicals as a lens through which to view the struggles of her characters, and I loved her portrayal of the season at the mysterious Crossroads Theatre.  The supernatural aspects built up gradually throughout the story, and fit in well with the other elements of the novel.  Some parts of the romance did seem a little typical, but the overall plot held plenty of surprises.  I hear there will be a sequel, but I think that the conclusion of Spellcast ties the story together in a remarkably satisfying way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1991
Series: Book 3 (by internal chronology) of the Vorkosigan Saga
Awards Won:  Hugo Award, Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

“Cordelia Naismith left her home in egalitarian, scientifically-advanced Beta Colony to marry the retired military Barrayaran Aral Vorkosigan.  Unfortunately, their peaceful honeymoon period is short-lived. When the dying Emperor appoints Aral as the Imperial Regent over the Child-Emperor Gregor, they are plunged back into the deadly center of Barrayaran politics.

Cordelia, pregnant with their first child, will have to learn to cope with the ‘barbaric’ and complicated high society of Barrayar.  She and Aral must deal with political and physical threats, both from possible foreign opportunists and even more dangerous local enemies, who are not pleased with Aral’s use of his power as Regent.  Aral, Cordelia, and their loyal friends will have their hands full just trying to keep the violent society of Barrayar from eating them all alive.” ~Allie

This is my 4th Vorkosigan novel, 3rd in the internal chronology.  Barrayar follows right after the events of Shards of Honor, so I would recommend reading Shards of Honor first.  I still think Cordelia’s story (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, now also published as an omnibus called Cordelia’s Honor) is a good place to start reading the saga.  I’m looking forward to reading the first novel to feature the famous Miles Vorkosigan, The Warrior’s Apprentice.  

This is also the second half of the July selection for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club (now hosted by Calico Reaction).  I’m a little ridiculously behind on that, but I’m planning to catch up with the August and September books this month.

My Thoughts:

Barrayar is a very different kind of story than Shards of Honor.  Instead of space battles, the focus is on Cordelia’s culture shock, various personal relationships, and Barrayaran politics.  It starts out a little slow, dealing mostly with Cordelia’s interactions with the lords and ladies of Barrayar, Aral’s struggle to be a good Regent, and the personal and social issues of minor characters.  In this daily-life section of the book, I enjoyed learning more about Barrayaran society and the many minor characters, some of who were also present in Shards of Honor.  

Though the story may drag a little bit in the beginning, it definitely picks up a lot of speed by the end.  Barrayaran politics are volatile and violent and they cause plenty of action and excitement in the latter part of the book. Even with this slowly building pace, the story in Barrayar seemed much more focused than Shards of Honor.  Rather than skipping from one situation to another, everything that happens in Barrayar ties in to the overarching plot of the novel.  While it seemed a little meandering in the beginning, everything really came together for a breathtaking finale.

There were a couple of specific things in Barrayar that bothered me a little.  The novel opens with Cordelia staring into a mirror and describing herself.  She then proceeds to physically describe the other major characters in relation to herself.  I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with including physical descriptions in a novel, but I feel like the mirror trick is typically associated with inexperienced authors.  It started the novel on a contrived note, but Bujold’s writing definitely rises far above that point. 

The other main problem I had, which I touched very briefly on in the review for Shards of Honor, is Cordelia’s infallibility.  It sometimes seemed like the universe would bend over backward to make her every decision become the correct one.  Also, no matter how much trauma she went through, I don’t think she’d ever reach a point where she lost her ability to handle the situation.  I’m not saying she’s an annoyingly perfect character, as she does have a fairly well-rounded personality.  I think it’s just because she’s an action hero(ine), and those types of characters have a tendency to succeed no matter the odds and endure through any hardship.  It definitely makes for a fun adventure, but it causes the resolution of some situations to feel pretty unrealistic.  

One of my favorite parts of the novel was the focus on the development of minor charactersThere’s a subplot involving female bodyguard Droushnakovi and the male secretary Koudelka, crippled in Shards of Honor.  I enjoyed learning more about Sergeant Bothari, a conflicted character also featured in the previous book.  We also meet a large cast of powerful Barrayarans, who will probably be important characters in the books to come.  I thought it was a little odd, however, that there seemed to be very little focus on the relationship between Cordelia and Aral.  Concerning the speed with which they rushed to marriage in the previous novel, I expected to see them coming out of the ‘honeymoon phase’ in Barrayar.  However, their relationship seems to be taken as given, and they spend a large part of the novel apart.  Altogether, though, the cast of characters is shaping up to be one whose adventures I will happily follow through the rest of the series!

My Rating: 4/5

Barrayar is my favorite Vorkosigan novel to date, though I would recommend reading Shards of Honor first.  Barrayar is a planet-bound story, instead of a space-faring one, and the early focus is on politics, culture shock, and personal troubles instead of galactic war.  While it starts out with a seemingly aimless, everyday life quality, it builds to a very fast-paced, action-packed finish. I enjoyed the amount of character building packed in this novel, particularly for the many minor characters.  My main complaints have to do with the characters of Aral and Cordelia.  I was surprised at the lack of any conflict within their relationship, and I was a little irritated by the unstoppable action hero aspect of Cordelia’s character. Overall, I feel like the cast of the Vorkosigan Saga is starting to really come together, and I’m looking forward to reading The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first novel (by internal chronology) to feature Miles!    

Monday, September 5, 2011

Review: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Published: Small Beer Press, 2010
Awards Won: Mythopoeic Award, Crawford Award, Frank Collymore Award
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.” ~smallbeerpress.com

I had no idea what to expect coming into Redemption in Indigo, as this is Karen Lord’s debut novel and I have no knowledge of Caribbean literature.  I'm really glad I ended up reading it, and I'm looking forward to reading Lord's first science fiction novel (The Best of All Possible Worlds) when it's published in 2013!

My Thoughts:

I used to read tons of folk tales and fairy tales as a child, so the style of Redemption in Indigo was pleasantly nostalgic for me.  It was written as a story in an oral tradition, with a first person narrator telling the tale to, I assume, a crowded courtyard.  It was an interesting style, which lent itself to some explicit explanation of the nature of the characters, and also allowed natural digressions and hopping around in the story, as the teller slowly built the tale up for his/her listeners.  I thought the oral storytelling approach to the novel was charming.

Apparently Redemption in Indigo actually borrows from a Senegalese folk tale, but just for a few of the early chapters that chronicle Paama’s difficulty with Ansige.  I was not familiar with the folk tale itself, but I think its inclusion did help to set the tone of the world and the story.  The major folkloric, fantastical element of the story is the undying ones, the djombi.  These creatures can be benefactors of mankind, malefactors, or tricksters, and they can take the shape of animals or people.  Once Paama receives the Chaos Stick, an almost science-fictional element also enters the story.  The Chaos Stick has power to affect probability, or as a djombi says, it acts as “a type of focus or control for the quantum fluctuations that determine whether a situation is Go or No Go”[p.98 e-book]. All of these elements are woven together in a way that makes the story feel fresh and original, while still seeming traditional.

The cast of characters that make up the story are introduced individually by the storyteller.  Their personalities are often a little exaggerated, but that seems to fit with the kind of story that’s being told.  The main characters, Paama and the indigo djombi, seem the most complex and realistic.  They are set up as the heroine and the villain, though neither is completely defined by their assigned role.  The supporting cast is memorable and often amusing, from the lovestruck poet Alton to the Paama’s ridiculous husband Ansige.  The human and djombi characters, and the conflicts between them, drive the story.

The actual flow of the plot sometimes felt a little jumpy.  The storyteller would sometimes move forward or backward in time, or skip laterally over to another story. The story began a little awkwardly, as the storyteller set the scene and introduced the characters. The storyteller actually acknowledged and explained this awkwardness in the introduction, which somehow made it less of an irritant.  The whole novel was, for the most part, pretty humorous, but the early slapstick comedy of Paama and Ansige felt almost like a prologue to the actual story. I also did not really feel like the epilogue was particularly necessary.  I thought that the end of the novel tied everything together sufficiently, and the things left open-ended did not detract from the strength of the conclusion.  The epilogue seemed unnecessarily blatant, as if it existed to make absolutely sure the readers didn’t miss anything.  Even with my minor complaints about the structure, the story was a very effective tale of redemption and the strength and value of ordinary people.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Redemption in Indigo was a charming story that managed to echo the feel of folktales I’d read as a child while weaving a story complex enough to keep an adult entertained.  While Paama and the indigo djombi were the most developed characters, the side characters, with their exaggerated personality quirks, were definitely memorable.  I thought the plot sometimes seemed a little jumpy or fragmented, but I didn’t feel like it significantly weakened the strength of the story.  The story itself was occasionally sad, but it was more often funny and uplifting.  Though it does deal with redemption, as you may guess from the title, it also features the worth of ordinary human beings.  I think Redemption in Indigo is a very impressive first novel, and I hope to read more speculative fiction from Karen Lord in the future!