Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan

Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan
Published: Harper & Row, 2009
Awards Won: Stoker Award

The Book:

Built on the Upper West Side, the elegant Breviary claims a regal history. But despite 14B's astonishingly low rental price, the recent tragedy within its walls has frightened away all potential tenants . . . except for Audrey Lucas.

No stranger to tragedy at thirty-two-a survivor of a fatherless childhood and a mother's hopeless dementia, Audrey is obsessively determined to make her own way in a city that often strangles the weak. But is it something otherworldly or Audrey's own increasing instability that's to blame for the dark visions that haunt her . . . and for the voice that demands that she build a door? A door it would be true madness to open . . .”

It’s October again, and that means I’m branching out, once again, to horror!  Audrey’s Door is the October reading selection for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park book club, so it seemed like a good choice for a Halloween-themed review.

My Thoughts:

Audrey’s Door was a fairly standard haunted house story.  Audrey was lured into moving into a home that she thought was too good to be true, and she soon found that she was right.  I don’t think that this story aspired to be especially new or different, but rather to be an entertaining new addition to the rich tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing style was rather plain and casual, and I felt like exclamation points and capital emphasis were employed a little too often.  Throughout the story, Langan included fictional historical documents, such as newspaper articles, which slowly built up the history of the Breviary, the haunted house of the story.  Though some of these historical snippets were pretty predictable (suicides, eerie occurrences, etc.), I was very interested in the details of the building and its architecture.

The source of the evil within the building was grounded in the idea of a cult and architectural style known as Chaotic Naturalism.  The style, which avoided straight lines and tended towards ‘chaotic’ structures, kind of reminded me of the design of Kunst Haus Wien. Chaotic Naturalism was suggested to tap into the primitive, evil side of humanity, whereas Kunst Haus Wien had more of a positive, back-to-nature vibe.  I thought it was kind of interesting that both the fictional and actual architecture seem to be about reaching into the natural state of humanity, though the Kunst Haus saw this as psychologically healthy.  In the end, I was skeptical of the dark influences of Chaotic Naturalism, but I really enjoyed all of the fictional documentation Langan had of the movement’s development. I think, in a haunted house story, the house itself is essentially a main character, and I enjoyed how Langan developed the ‘character’ of the Breviary.

The other, human characters also had quite interesting histories and personalities, though I did not find them altogether likable.    Even though I didn’t really like the characters, I don’t think it affected my enjoyment of the novel.  I have a certain detachment from mainstream horror characters, probably because I expect them to suffer and/or die pretty horribly.  Rather than really sympathizing with the characters, I tend to simply observe them.  This worked well for Audrey and her boyfriend, Saraub.  Audrey’s personality problems could be traced back to many things, such as her mental health problems and her upbringing by a nomadic woman suffering from debilitating mental illness.  However, she was still an enormous jerk to pretty much everyone she met.  Saraub was not nearly as unfriendly as Audrey, but he had his moments. I appreciated that Langan took the time to add in some development for side characters, but their subplots often seemed completely irrelevant to the main thrust of the story. Even though I didn’t feel emotionally invested in the characters, and some of the subplots didn’t seem to lead anywhere, I was still interested to see what would happen next.    

While I enjoyed the story, and it certainly kept my interest, I’m not sure that I could say it worked for me as a horror story.  From me, this is not exactly a criticism, since I don’t especially like being frightened (That’s one reason I rarely read horror!).  I tried to analyze why I didn’t find the story scary, and I think it comes down to the handling of the supernatural elements.  In the kinds of horror movies that have left me terrified of entering my own bathroom (This is totally normal.  Don’t tell me otherwise.), the supernatural elements tend to be woven in and escalated very gradually.  In that way, a sense of realism is established before anything especially outlandish happens.  I think that this connection of the horror to that initial sense of realism, which is tenuously maintained, is actually what leaves me in terror.  In Audrey’s Door, there was very little time spent establishing normality before the haunting began, and Audrey started having full-sensory visions almost immediately thereafter.  I think the historical documents were intended to establish the sense of realism necessary for fear, but that didn’t really work for me.  Of course, other people’s reactions may be entirely different than mine, but Audrey’s Door was more of a somewhat interesting story to me than a spine-tingling one.

My Rating: 3/5

Audrey’s Door seems to be a pretty standard addition to the tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing is pretty plain, and some tics distracted my attention, like the overuse of exclamation points.  I enjoyed the creative and entertaining history of the haunted house, known as the Breviary, as it is uncovered through fictional historical documents.  I was especially intrigued by the cult and architectural style of Chaotic Naturalism.  The main characters, Audrey and her boyfriend Saraub, are not especially likable, but they have interesting personalities and life experiences.  I didn’t find the story to be especially frightening, possibly due to the heavy hand with which the supernatural elements are applied to the story.  Overall, I thought it was a fairly entertaining novel that would probably be enjoyed by readers in the mood for haunted houses.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1990
Series: Book 5 of the Vorkosigan Saga (by internal chronology)
Awards Nominated: Locus SF award
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

I will avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, but there will be references to Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Miles Vorkosigan has just graduated from the Barrayaran Military Academy, where he has done well despite physical handicaps and Barrayaran prejudice.  Like most of the other graduates, he has high hopes of being assigned to ship duty.  When his orders arrive, he is shocked and confused to be sent to work as a meteorologist at a remote arctic training camp.

The posting is a test, and Miles wants very much to pass. According to his superiors, he has a tendency towards insubordination, and he needs to prove he has that under control.  As his adventures carry him from the isolated camp back into space and the tricky political and military situation of the Hegen Hub, Miles tries to do what’s in the best interest of Barrayar and its people, regardless of his orders.”  ~Alli

I’m moving right along through the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’ve actually already finished reading Cetaganda (I am way too far ahead in my reading right now)I don’t think this novel is my favorite of the saga, but it was still entertaining.  Having now read five books in the series, I think I can definitely still say that I prefer reading by internal chronology, and that I think Shards of Honor/Barrayar is the best place for new readers to start.

My Thoughts:

Where The Warrior’s Apprentice concerned Miles’s desperation to prove his worth, The Vor Game seemed to revolve around his difficulty with taking orders.  Miles has the confidence, quick thinking and acting ability to be a skillful strategist, conman, and leader, but he is a truly terrible follower.  I think an army of soldiers like Miles might make a general feel like a cat herder—in some situations, there is such a thing as too much curiosity and initiative.  Due in large part to the prestige of Miles’s family, the government of Barrayar is willing to make an effort to find Miles a role that will allow him to use his strengths to benefit their empire.  I think that this particular kind of conflict is very well-worn ground in military science fiction, since even I’ve seen it play out countless times without actually seeking out military SF.  However, I think that Miles was much more sympathetic than the typical young insubordinate main character, probably because his actions seemed driven by good intentions rather than arrogance.

The novel almost seems to consist of two stories stitched together.  The first half follows Miles attempting to cope with his post to an arctic training camp, and the second half follows him through a complicated political situation in a region of space known as the Hegen Hub.  The difference in tone and pace between these two halves makes me wonder if they were originally planned as separate stories. Personally, I thought that the slower-paced first section was the stronger half, due mostly to the plot’s focus on character motivations. I enjoyed how we got to see the interplay of social class, ableist prejudice, and military rank, as Miles tried to navigate a difficult posting without questioning his superiors or getting killed. I think that I tend to feel more engaged with that kind of small-scale, character-based conflict than the kind involving planetary governments and mercenary fleets.  The second half moved quickly, and was full of the kind of wacky adventures I’m beginning to associate with Miles.  The bad guys were not very nuanced, and Miles successes sometimes seem a little superhuman, but there’s plenty of action and humor to keep the story hopping along nicely.

I’ve touched on this in past Vorkosigan reviews, but I still enjoy Bujold’s approach to writing this series.  Every installment so far has had a plot that works as a standalone novel, but a continuity of character development that rewards those who follow the series.  In this way, it seems every novel will be accessible to new readers, while each installment makes the world and characters feel richer for those who want to read it as a series. For instance, in The Warrior’s Apprentice, Elena had a pretty important character arc based on events from Shards of Honor/Barrayar, and it was nice to see how she was doing in this novel, even though she was not a major character.  In The Vor Game, Miles’s childhood friend Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar, gets some much needed character development, which is also based on events from previous novels. While enough information is given in The Vor Game for any new readers to know what’s happening, I think many of the character-based plot points are made much more effective by already having experienced the backstory in previous novels.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Vor Game was an entertaining story that is more rewarding when read after Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice.  The exciting plot of The Vor Game stands alone, but the history of the universe and its characters lends more emotional depth to the story.  The novel seems to be split into two sections, one at a remote arctic training camp and the other following a tricky situation in space at the Hegen Hub. I actually enjoyed the earlier section of the story, featuring Miles and other characters in a relatively closed environment, to the later sections of more star-spanning politics and adventure.  The villains tended to be a bit one dimensional, but I enjoyed hearing about the lives of Ivan and Elena, and seeing Miles and Gregor develop more as characters.  Overall, it was fun, but not a contender for my favorite Vorkosigan novel.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson

Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson
Published: Tor, 2001
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

“There is a chance, however remote, that an asteroid might collide catastrophically with the Earth and destroy humanity.  With that in mind, Calvin DeFort planned a moon base to preserve the genetic material of Earth against future disasters.  He couldn’t know how soon that base would be needed.

The base is unfinished when the collision occurs, and few make it off of the Earth in those last hours.  Those eight survivors are fated to spend the rest of their life in the moon base, within sight of their dead home planet.  Thousands of years and many cloned generations of the original survivors will pass before the Earth is once again habitable.  Raised by robots, and indoctrinated into the roles of their forebears, each new clone generation carries the responsibility of the future of the human race.” ~Allie

This is my 10th novel for WWend’s Grand Master Reading Challenge.  Jack Williamson was the second author awarded the Grand Master title (after Heinlein), but this is the first of his work that I’ve ever read. He wrote many novels and short stories in his long career, which spanned from 1928 to just before his death in 2006.  Serialized in “Analog” and “Science Fiction Age”, and published in 2001, Terraforming Earth is one of his later works. 

My Thoughts:

Terraforming Earth begins after the destruction of the Earth and follows the lives of the many generations of clones. The story moved swiftly from one generation to the next, especially early in the story. Their quiet, repetitive moon base lives were punctuated by trips to see the changing Earth, where they encounter ecosystems that seem wholly alien.  This might sound like hard SF, but I felt that the story was much closer to being fantastical and dream-like than scientific.  All in all, the creatures and societies the clones encountered reminded me more of the style of early 20th century stories than of modern science fiction.  This throwback to an older style of science fiction seems like it can only be deliberate, but it made the novel feel strangely dated rather than ‘retro’.

When a story spans such a long period of time, many authors find ways to keep the human element relatively constant, whether that’s through immortality, reincarnation, or, in this case, cloning. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like this particular story had adequate characterization to support its milennia-spanning tale. There was very little development beyond the characters’ physical appearances and most basic personality traits, and they often felt more like caricatures than characters.  The narrator, Dunk, was a historian, which fit with his habit of recording everything that the team observed.  However, despite the fact that most of the other survivors were selected for their scientific expertise, their training seemed to have little effect on their actions and personalities.  They didn’t seem to do very much, other than observe the Earth. 

While the characters weren’t very complex, I did appreciate how the psychological effects of their situation were occasionally addressed.  Each generation was raised together, and they were given extensive documentation of the lives of the previous generations.  Their robot ‘parents’ made an effort to socialize them into the roles of the original humans from which they were cloned.  In some generations, the clones insisted that they were individuals. In others, they had a strange sense of being only the latest of many ‘selves’.  As a result of their sense of continuation of self, they were often very casual about death, even going so far as saying “See you next time,” when facing inevitable demise.  I found this kind of speculation very interesting, and I would have liked to see more exploration of these ideas.

On the other hand, the repeating clone generations could get tiring sometimes.  There was a lot of repetition in the story, as each generation had to learn the same information as the one before.  The social relationships between the clones also varied very little from generation to generation.  I felt like I really did not need to read a recap of the same abbreviated relationship drama each time.  After the first, I already knew who would sleep with who, and the relative size of the breasts and libido of each girl. A lot of the repetition could have been due to the fact that this was originally a serialized story, which was only later published as a novel.  However, if the story was originally planned to end up as a novel, it seems like the pieces should have been edited together more seamlessly.  

My Rating: 3/5

The story of Terraforming Earth felt almost dreamlike, with its surreal landscapes, ephemeral repeating clone generations, and rapidly passing centuries.  The cultures and ecosystems that sprang up after the end of the human race reminded me of the science fiction of the earlier 20th century.  While I liked how the effects of the clones upbringing was somewhat addressed, I did not think that the small group of survivors made a very compelling human canvas for the story.  There was also a lot of repetition in the story, which might be a result of having been serialized before it was published as a novel.  I am curious to read some of Williamson’s older work, to see how it compares to Terraforming Earth in style.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Eon by Alison Goodman

Eon by Alison Goodman
Published: Firebird Distributing, 2010
Series: Book 1 of the Empire of Celestial Dragons Duology

The Book:

In the Empire of Celestial Dragons, the twelve Dragoneyes stand below only the Imperial Family in power and prestige.  A Dragoneyes sacrifices his own life energy, “Hua”, in a bond with one of the twelve energy dragons of the zodiac. In return, he gains great power to protect the realm, which is increased further in the year that his dragon is ascendant.  Currently, there are only eleven Dragoneyes, since the Dragon-Dragon (known as the Mirror Dragon) has been missing for hundreds of years.  This year, a fresh crop of potential apprentices will present themselves to the ascendant Rat Dragon.

Sixteen-year-old Eon is one of those candidates.  Eon’s master, a former Dragoneye, has gambled the last of his fortune to put forth Eon as a candidate.  If Eon is selected, it could return the former Dragoneye to a wealthy and powerful position. He hopes that Eon’s incredibly rare spirit sight might serve to attract the dragon.  However, Eon has two marks against her from the beginning—she has a crippled leg and she is truly a woman named Eona.  While the first condition is viewed disfavorably, the second is entirely unacceptable.  If anyone discovers Eon’s true gender, she knows she will probably be killed.” 

I read this novel for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park Reading Challenge.  Eon, which is written by Alison Goodman from Melbourne, Australia, was picked for the theme “Aussie YA”.  Eon is the first half of a duology, the second book of which is titled Eona. Eon, which ends on a cliffhanger, is clearly the first half of a larger story, but it also has its own arc that does come to a satisfactory close, in my opinion.  The first book has also been released as The Two Pearls of Wisdom, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye, but I will refer to it simply as Eon throughout the review.

My Thoughts:

As far as plot goes, Eon is a pretty predictable YA fantasy.  It features a female main character who is forced to hide her gender in order to succeed. While there is almost no romance to speak of in this novel, the groundwork appears to be laid for love to blossom in the second.  The good guys are good, the bad guys are very bad, and there is very little in the way of moral ambiguity. In general, the plot points were pretty easy to see coming, and heavy foreshadowing gave away anything that was not immediately obvious. Just because there is nothing unexpected, though, doesn’t mean the story wasn’t entertaining.  I thought it was well-paced, with a good ratio of description and world-building to plot, and reading the novel was usually a pleasant part of my day.    

In addition to the predictable plot, the main character, Eon, came very close to being too clichéd for me to appreciate.  She has convenient amnesia concerning parts of her early life, and she is gifted with exceptional spirit sight, as well as several other things throughout the story. The predictability of the novel also had an unfortunate effect on the portrayal of Eon.  The solution to the central mystery is fairly clear to the reader from near the beginning, but it takes Eon much, much longer to figure it out.  Even considering that her ingrained prejudices may have clouded her thinking, this seemed to paint her as more than a little unintelligent.  Even though Eon grated on me sometimes, though, I still appreciated some things Goodman did with her character.

 One of the more interesting points of the novel was the way the characters were used to discuss gender identity.  The most notable in this regard were Eon and Lady Dela, both characters who presented a gender that did not match their biological sex.  Eon honestly believed that women were inferior to men, and so she desperately tried to suppress everything about herself that was feminine.  Even aside from the threat of execution, I think that Eon wanted to believe she had a ‘male’ spirit, so that she could be worth more in her own eyes.  Contrasted with this unhealthy attitude of gender was the transsexual Lady Dela, a force to be reckoned with in the imperial court.  She encountered many hardships by living as a woman, but she insisted that was the only way she could live and be true to herself. Through her acquaintance with Lady Dela and others, Eon is forced to engage with her own problematic ideas about sex and gender.

Another strength of the novel was its setting.  Rather than the usual pseudo-medieval European influences, Goodman’s fantasy empire took influences from several Asian cultures, mostly Chinese and Japanese.   The Empire of Celestial Dragons was obviously not a representation of any actual culture, but Goodman used many details from reality to construct a fantasy culture that felt pretty well thought out and respectful.  The story was mostly set in a small area, the imperial palace complex, and the descriptions throughout the story build it up to a delightfully detailed picture.   

My Rating: 3.5/5

Eon is a predictable YA fantasy that covers very familiar ground, but it is fairly well-constructed and entertaining.  I particularly liked the culture of the fantasy Empire, which draws influence from Asian cultures.  The story was told in the relatively small stage, mostly the imperial palace complex, and that area was very vividly described.  Though the main character, Eon, seemed at times to be annoyingly dense, I liked the gender issues that were explored through her character. I was occasionally bothered by clichés and the predictability of the plot, but I still enjoyed Eon and am planning on reading the second half of the story.