Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Strange Toys by Patricia Geary

Strange Toys by Patricia Geary
Published: Bantam Spectra, 1987
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award

Tbe Book:

Pet is the youngest daughter in an unusual family.  Her parents—known to her as Stan and Linwood—take a non-traditional approach to childrearing, but their sophisticated home is turned upside down by Pet’s oldest sister, Deane.  Deane, the ‘bad child’, became interested in voodoo and unsavory company, leading to her eventual arrest. When Stan and Linwood go on the run with their other two daughters, Pet begins to realize that she also has some natural talent for the occult.

Pet will have three chances to confront the supernatural, to either use its power or allow it to use her.  First, when she is a confused child, trying to protect the people she loves.  Second, when she is an irresponsible teen, desperate to find some kind of truth.  Third, when she is an adult bodybuilder, dedicated to becoming a powerful woman. Pet must find the strength to understand both Deane and herself.” ~Allie

This is my first review for WWEnd’s Women of GenreFiction.  Therefore, this is my first Patricia Geary novel, and I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore.  This is the second of her four novels, preceded by Living in Ether (1982) and followed by The Other Canyon (2002) and Guru Cigarettes (2005).

My Thoughts:

Strange Toys was separated into three parts, the three periods of Pet’s life when she encountered the supernatural.  Pet was a very different person at each point of the journey, and I thought the distinction between child, teenage, and adult voice was very well done.  Since the supernatural part of the story involved voodoo, the stories tended to revolve more around New Orleans than Pet’s childhood home of southern California.  Each story built to a climactic event, but the first two ended before actually reaching it.  I found it a little irritating to only see the conclusion through flashbacks.  However, this story is really about Pet and her development, so I can appreciate that it is more important to see how she incorporates events into her identity after the fact.  Since the story is broken into three parts, I’m going to address each stage of Pet’s life separately.

In terms of both story and character, I felt that the section featuring Pet as a child was the strongest part of the novel. It seemed to me that Geary captured the perspective of a child remarkably well. Pet’s information and understanding was limited, and her stable world was as small as her immediate family. Many of her experiences left me feeling nostalgic for my own childhood,such as the long car trips, the engrossing games she and her sister June played with their toys, and the affectionate/bullying relationship they shared. Since she was a child, she approached the supernatural in a very matter-of-fact way, with little doubt of the reality of her experiences.  Pet didn’t really understand what had happened with Deane, but she knew that her family was in danger.  It was her desire to protect her family that pushed Pet towards the occult, and pushed the story forward.  The tension in the situation always left me wanting to read more, and I found Pet to be a very sympathetic child protagonist.

I was less engaged with Pet’s teenage incarnation, though I enjoyed how different she was from child Pet. It seemed that Pet was portrayed as the popular idea of a typical teenager—preoccupied with makeup, sex, and partying, and possessing almost no ability to make sensible decisions.  I enjoyed learning more about voodoo in this section, though I wasn’t completely thrilled with how the information was imparted. Most of it was given through conversations with the extremely stereotyped Alonso, a much older Native American man with whom she had a brief sexual relationship. The plot seemed mostly driven by Pet making a series of remarkably bad decisions, which left me feeling more exasperated by her character than drawn in by the story. 

As an adult, Pet was much more in control of herself and aware of what she wanted out of life.  In several ways, I could see how different aspects of her past shaped her adult identity. She lived a strict healthy bodybuilding lifestyle, and, in a very literal sense, she had made herself very powerful.  However, her disdain for less fit people was a little grating to read. In terms of story, this section seemed mostly about Pet achieving a sense of closure, so it lacked some of the momentum and tension of the earlier stages of her life.

Though I favored the story of Pet’s childhood, I enjoyed the treatment of the supernatural through all three stories. It was always in the background, and never completely understood. Most of the things that were affected by magic could also be explained through overactive imagination, drugs, or simply coincidence.  As one of the strictures of the novel’s voodoo claimed, “Coincidence is the perfect texture.” The story seemed to stress that there would always be a large element of unknown in the supernatural, and this was also shown to be true in more mundane life.  For instance, though Deane was a major force in Pet’s life, Pet and the reader only ever know very little about her. This emphasis of the unknown is also seen the in conclusion of the novel—the significance of the final events is left open to interpretation.  Most questions were not explicitly answered, which I think it was a fitting end to this kind of story. 

 My Rating: 3.5/5

Strange Toys tells the story of the three times Pet encounters the supernatural: once as a child, once as a teenager, and once as an adult.  Her voice and character are dramatically different in each segment, but I was most impressed by the portrayal of Pet as a child.  I felt like the first section of the story was also the most interesting narrative, with clear stakes and constant underlying tension.  I found it difficult to care about Pet as a teenager, as she continued to make one extremely bad decision after another, and the final section seemed very mild in comparison with the others. Overall, though, I liked how the supernatural parts were never fully explained, and how so much of the meaning of the story was left to the reader’s interpretation.  The ending may be too open for some readers’ tastes, but I think that the conclusion fit the style of Pet’s story very well.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This post marks the beginning of my review series focused on newer writers, which I am writing for the blog.  Worlds Without End has a number of great review series to read, including "Forays Into Fantasy", "SF Manga 101" and the many reviews from the 2013 Women in Genre Fiction Reading Challenge! The first section below is an introduction to the ideas behind my series, and the second is a review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians.  

I’ve been drawn to science fiction and fantasy since I learned to read. As I imagine is the case with most speculative fiction fans, at the core of my continuing fascination is the insatiable desire to read stories that are, in some way, unlike what I have read before. Sometimes I find very familiar stories told in new ways, such as Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Sometimes I find stories that are entirely unfamiliar to me, such as in Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Sometimes I’m amazed by the creative mind of the author, as in Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, or by the extrapolation of current trends to bizarre future societies, as in Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. Speculative fiction is such a wide field and the stories to be told are limited only by the imagination and skill of their creators.

Of course, the only way to continue to enjoy these new kinds of stories is to constantly stretch one’s horizons as a reader. WWEnd’s convenient awards rankings, theme book lists, and now yearly challengeshave helped me to continue to expand my experience of genre fiction. As a continuation of this, I am going to make a special effort to read and review the debut novels of relatively new authors in the field. The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer will guide my selections, but I will necessarily branch out to other new authors that catch my interest. Through this series, I hope to discover many new and upcoming authors, and to possibly bring them to the attention of others.
I’m beginning with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, for which he won the 2011 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer*. I know this book is far from unknown, but I think it is a good place to begin my study of new authors in science fiction and fantasy.

*The 2012 winner was E. Lily Yu, for a short story located here, free of charge. I would feel silly writing a review of it, when anyone could read the actual story just as quickly!

The Magicians
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Published: Viking UK and William Heinemann (2009)
Series: Fillory: Book 1

I will try to steer clear of most spoilers, but I will describe the plot in general terms. Read at your own risk!

As is common these days, Grossman has a website and blog where one can find information about his publications, authorial activities, and more. In actuality, The Magicians is not Grossman’s first novel, since it is predated by the thriller,Codex (2004),and a novel of aimless post-graduate trekkie life, titled Warp (1997). The Magicians is his debut in the fantasy genre, though I wonder if some parts of the depiction of ‘aimless post-wizard-school life’ are informed by his work writing Warp. In terms of age suitability, The Magicians contains a lot of substance abuse, sexual content, and some violence.

The Magicians has been popularly described as “Harry Potter for adults”, a phrase that I’m afraid will soon become too common to be a useful descriptor. At least in one way, it is literally true here—the novel tells the story of a group of 18-year-olds who are unexpectedly invited to attend a hidden college of magic, called Brakebills. The main character is Quentin Coldwater, a perpetually dissatisfied teenager and academic overachiever who is obsessed with a series of British books about a fantasy world called Fillory. The first part of the story follows his years at Brakebills, where he and the other academically driven students live in an abnormally strict prep-school-style community. Quentin eventually develops a close-knit group of friends who study together, reluctantly play strange competitive magical sports, fall in love and/or lust, and drink lots of wine. After graduation, Quentin and his friends flounder until they find a new purpose—going to Fillory, a world that may be not so fictional after all.

The characters in The Magicians are believable, but a little difficult to like. Quentin and his friends mostly view the world with bored cynicism and contempt, despite the magical wonders around them. Quentin is particularly irritating, with his insistence on being miserable in all situations. He was one of those people who are convinced that ‘real’ happiness occurs only when the universe forces it on you. Therefore, he just wanders through life aimlessly, whining constantly that the world isn’t making him happy. I felt most sympathetic towards Quentin during his time at Brakebills, where he found unexpected joy in the camaraderie of his small group of friends. I could appreciate Quentin’s quiet desperation to preserve that transient sense of belonging.

In the same way, I was most affected by the portrayal of the college and post-graduate lives of Quentin and his friends. Despite the magic, some of the highlights of their college experience are not all that dissimilar (in theme) to real life. I can appreciate the friendships that arise through studying and relaxing together day after day, and the cold dread when you realize that the group will likely disperse after only a few years. Similarly, I recognize the lack of purpose that can descend after spending seventeen years in a highly regulated school environment, only to find that you aren’t sure what to do with all that accumulated knowledge. It can be hard to switch from measuring yourself by academic achievement to setting and achieving your own personal goals. Quentin and his friends don’t deal with any of these situations particularly well, but I suppose that is also quite realistic.

The Magicians
Concerning the more fantastical side of the story, it’s very clear that The Magicians has strong influences from existing works in the genre. Grossman even highlights this fact with explicit references to Harry Potter,Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and probably others that I didn’t catch. The one influence that affects the story most heavily, though, is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The Fillory and Further novels, by fictional author Christopher Plover, are clearly modeled after Lewis’s work. Though the connection between the two is obvious, there are differences between Fillory and Narnia—Fillory does not appear to be a Christian allegory, and it plays a different kind of role in Quentin’s story. However, I couldn’t quite figure out if Fillory was intended as a darker, more cynical homage to Narnia or a mockery. Specifically, there were certain personal insults leveled at Plover that did not sit well with me, considering that he is a reference to an actual deceased person. Aside from this, most of the references were fun to pick out, and I liked how it emphasized that the characters of The Magicians were familiar with these enduringly popular classics of fantasy.

While the heavy influence of other fantasy works is undeniable, Grossman puts his own twist on some things. I most enjoyed how magic was treated as a legitimately difficult discipline. As in other disciplines, such as music or physics, one can only become more skilled through constant, intense study. Even after graduation, the magicians can’t just re-order reality on a whim. Some of them are capable of remarkable feats of magic, but only when given time for study and preparation. I really loved seeing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the practice of magic, as Quentin and his friends studied at Brakebills.

In the end, there were many things that I felt The Magicians did well, though there were some things that bothered me. I enjoyed the portrayal of college and post-graduate haze, though I was less interested in the stories of Fillory. The characters were deeply flawed, possibly to the extent of being unlikeable for some readers. There were plenty of allusions to previous works in fantasy, but the grimly realistic tone and interesting take on the study of magic set this novel apart. The Magicians was an interesting introduction to Grossman’s work, and I will probably try more of his novels in the future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

News: A Quick Note

Due to an abnormally high number of transatlantic flights in my recent past, I've gotten a little too far ahead in my reading.  Unfortunately, my reviewing has not kept pace.  I've been thinking about how to deal with this, because I don't want to keep reviewing all my books on a long delay. My current solution is as follows:

  • I've created two lists on the right "Upcoming Reviews" and "Currently Reading".
  • ...At this point, I've already read all the books on the "Upcoming Reviews" list.
  • Whenever I finish reading a book on the "Currently Reading" list, it will immediately hop up to the top of the to-review list.
  • That way, books I finish now will be reviewed shortly afterwards, and the ones I've let get away from me will still be reviewed, eventually.

Having a plan is half the battle!  Now I just need to get to work on the reflecting and writing. Anyhow, I'm currently working on reviews for both The Magicians and This Immortal, and hopefully I'll also have Strange Toys up before the end of January.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 2011, Tor
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:
Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist domoviye, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.”

Deathless is the second novel I’ve read by Valente, and the first I’ve read of her adult-targeted novels.  This was a challenging novel for me, so I’m planning on reading some translations of Aleksandr Afanasiev’s collected fairy tales to gain a little more retroactive insight.  In the meantime, I will review the novel as best I can!

My Thoughts:

Even though I had only ever read her young adult fiction, Valente’s descriptive, poetic writing was instantly recognizable in Deathless. She evokes the feeling of fairy tales very strongly, most clearly in the use of some familiar structures.  For instance, many things in the story happen in threes, and the three instances are sometimes described with identical phrasing. Valente’s writing can veer rapidly from humorous to profound, and there were many quotes throughout the story that were especially memorable. For instance, here is one paragraph describing ration cards during the blockade of Leningrad:

A ration card says, This much life we have allotted you. It says, This much death we can keep from your door.  But no more.  It says, In Leningrad there is only so much life to go around.  It says, The only thing not rationed in Leningrad is death.” p. 523

Valente’s knowledge of Russian culture, history, and folklore is apparent throughout the novel. I feel like Deathless gave me a better understanding of Russian diminutives, as well as teaching various Russian words through naming wordplay (though I did have to look up the meanings). I also learned more about many mythological creatures rarely featured in most fiction I’ve read—like leshy, domoviye, rusalki, and others—as well as learning more about early 20th century Russia.  Valente does not exactly hold your hand through all of this, so I think it could be a little intimidating for those of us who are picking it up as we go. 

Despite the fairy-tale style and structure, the mature content (concerning war, death, and adult relationships) makes it clear that this is a story for adults.  Valente entwines Russian folklore with the events that took place in the country in the first half of the 20th century. Marya ends up involved in Koschei’s (the Tsar of Life) never-ending war with Viy (the Tsar of Death). The war between the living and the dead is balanced by historical events—the Revolution, the administrations of Lenin and Stalin, and World War 2. Marya is torn between the real and the unreal, drawn both to the fantastic country of Buyan and the increasingly deadly, constantly changing city of St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad.  Through Marya’s life in both worlds, we see how the common stories of a group of people affect and are affected by the reality they experience.

At the center of the story is the romance between Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless. I am not entirely sure I correctly read the meaning behind the portrayal of their romance.  I think it might have been that relationships change drastically over time, and that the same people can mean very different things to one another through the course of a life.  Marya and Koschei’s relationship is certainly constantly changing—between monogamous and open, vanilla and BDSM, abusive and loving, faithful and unfaithful. Through all of this, Valente explored the power dynamics of love, asserting that the primary question in a romantic relationship is, “Who is to rule?”  I don’t think I especially agree with that, but I enjoyed the complexity of Mary and Koschei’s ideas of love.

As you can probably tell, this was a very dense novel for me.  There was so much information, so many references, and so many worthwhile ideas to explore about mythology/ideology and theory of romance. The writing was beautiful, and at times incredibly emotionally moving. However, the direction and pacing sometimes felt a little haphazard.  It was sometimes hard to pick out a clear narrative arc from all the content, and the story seemed to constantly jump off in unexpected directions.  I often like unusually structured stories, but I felt like I didn’t understand the relevance or importance of some of the plot turns. For instance, I’m certain that a lot of the significance of the Yaichka section went over my head, and I’m still not sure I really understood the ending.  In any case, this was a remarkable novel, and one that I will probably be trying to figure out for some time to come.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Deathless is a creative novel that is notable for the stylistic, poetic flair of the prose, the entwining of myth and history, and the commentary on relationships, power, and other topics. It was a daunting novel to read, due to the knowledge it assumes in its readers and the many levels of meaning in each small part of the story. The plot sometimes seems a little directionless, and it gets progressively more difficult to understand towards the end. However, all of those challenges also combine to make it into a fascinating story.  I think at least a passing familiarity with Russian language, history and folklore would be useful for appreciating the novel to the fullest. Regardless, I very much enjoyed my first foray into Valente’s adult fiction!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best of 2012

The Best of 2012

This New Year’s Eve marks the close of the second calendar year of Tethyan Books, and it's time to go through some of this year’s highlights.  I’ve reviewed 47 books this year, which is a bit lower than 2011.  I think that’s because this year has been a little busier, mostly due to the approaching the end of my graduate school years.  2013 is going to be a pretty busy year as well, what with defending my thesis, job searching, and probably moving somewhere.  2013 is going to be a challenging year, but I'm ready to give it my best!   

Most Highly Recommended New Books

These are my most highly recommended books that were published in 2011-2012.  I’ve mostly read books that were nominated for awards this year, but there were a few that I chose on a whim or due to the recommendations of other blogs.

1) Among Others by Jo Walton: A fantasy story of a young SF fan finding her niche and coping with family problems, which resonated strongly with many long-time readers of science fiction.

2) Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey: A space opera with elements of noir and horror, this collaborative novel kicks off an impressive new series.

3) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairlyand in a Ship of HerOwn Making by Catherynne M. Valente: The first of Valente’s series of young adult Fairyland novels, the prose is beautiful and the content is surprisingly dark.

4) God’s War by Kameron Hurley: The story of a bounty hunter named Nyxnissa, who lives on a disease-ridden colonized planet that is the site of a perpetual holy war.

5) The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin: In an Egypt-inspired fantasy world, two priests who practice dangerous dream magic investigate the circumstances that led to the existence of a murderous rogue priest.

Most Highly Recommended Old Books

These are books that were published before 2011, but which I read during this past year.  I’m sure most of these have been read and enjoyed by many already, but its never to late to draw attention to a good book!

1) The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell: In this story of faith and suffering, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz gives an account of a tragically failed first contact mission.

2) The Uplift War by David Brin: In this well-told classic science fiction story, Earth species and their allies resist the occupation of their colony planet, Garth, by a militarily superior avian alien species.

3) Perdido Street Station by China Miéville: A story set in the amazingly creative and complex city of New Crobuzon, following primarily the experimental scientist Isaak and the monster he unwittingly unleashes.

4) The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch: The first Gentleman Bastard novel, following an audacious group of conmen in the brutal and deadly city-state of Camorr.

5) Blindness by José Saramago: A disturbing story of the collapse of civilization following a universal outbreak of an inexplicable blindness disease.

Reading Challenges

In 2012, my two main reading challenges were the Grand Master's Reading Challenge at WWEnd and Calico Reaction's Theme Park Challenge.  I successfully completed the GMRC, which was to read a book by twelve different Grand Masters during 2012.  I didn't keep up with all of the Theme Park challenges, but I read most of them!

This year, I'm planning to participate in two challenges from the same places! The first is the Worlds WithoutEnd website’s Women in Genre Fiction challenge.  This challenge is to read twelve female authors I’ve never read before, over the course of twelve months.  The second is Calico Reaction blog’s Ladies First dare series. She'll dare everyone to read a specific book by a female author each month. I was surprised that both sources picked a similar theme, but I think the two reading challenges will complement each other nicely. 

Books that I Absolutely Plan to Read in 2013

There are a number of books I intended to read this year, but then didn’t get around to for various reasons.  Some of it was due to limited time, some of it was due to me being easily distracted and simply forgetting about them.  For this reason, I’m going to write these books down in a list, so that I will not forget them for another year!  I guess this can be considered my New Year’s resolution.
  • ·            Grey, Jon Armstrong : I read and enjoyed Yarn, but then somehow never got around to Grey.
  • ·            The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak : I read One For Sorrow, and then was interested in reading this one.
  • ·            Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold: I think I’ve made decent progress with the saga this year.  I just finished Ethan of Athos, and will be picking back up in 2013 with Brothers in Arms. I may not finish the series in the coming year, but there will be progress!
  • ·            The Expanse, James S.A. Corey: I haven’t yet read book 2, Caliban’s War, which was released in June 2012.
  • ·            Eona, Alison Goodman: This is the second half of a duology I intend to finish, which began with Eon.
  • ·            The Bel Dame Apocrypha, Kameron Hurley: God’s War was mentioned in the list books above, and I’m in the middle of Infidel at the moment. Rapture will be read sometime in 2013
  • ·            The Rest of N.K. Jemisin’s Novels: I’ve read the first of the Inheritance Trilogy and the first of the Dreamblood duology.  I would like to finish both series.
  • ·            The Fractal Prince, Hannu Rajaniemi: I’m not sure how I missed this one coming out, but it’s the sequel to The Quantum Thief. I had meant to grab this one when it was published.
  • ·            Small Change Trilogy, Jo Walton: I’ve read a few of her novels now, and pretty much loved them all.  It’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t gotten around to finishing the Small Change Trilogy, and I hope to correct that soon.
  • ·            Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson: This one is right on schedule.  I read 1 KSR novel a year, and this January’s will be Blue Mars.
  • ·            Children of God, Mary Doria Russell: I’m a little nervous about reading a sequel to such a wonderful book, but I hope it will live up to my expectations!