Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Published: Eos(2000), Gollancz(2000)
Awards Won: BSFA Award
Awards Nominated: Campbell, Clarke, and Locus Fantasy

The Book:

“If history could be changed, how would we know? 

Historian Pierce Ratcliff has plans to publish a new translation of historical documents detailing the life of a 15th century female mercenary commander, known as Ash.  What starts out as a simple contemporary translation becomes increasingly strange, as unexplainable discrepancies from established history come to light within his supposedly genuine latin manuscripts. Is this a case of simple scholarly error, or is something far more extraordinary happening?

Within his translation, Ash is a woman of legend in continental Europe—a kind of mercenary Jeanne d’Arc, who is credited with hearing voices that help lead her to victory. She and her company, the Lion Azure, are inexorably drawn into the machinations of a (mysteriously undocumented) Visigothic civilization in northern Africa, which seems inexplicably driven to wipe the wealthy duchy of Burgundy completely off the face of the Earth.” ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Mary Gentle, and my fourth entry in WWEnd’s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  To help no one else to fall into the same trap I did, I want to explain some publication details. Ash: A Secret History was published as a single book in the UK, and it has a sequel called Ilario.  However, in the US, Ash: A Secret History is published as a series of four books.  The first US book, which corresponds to roughly the first quarter of the novel, is titled A Secret History: Book 1 of Ash. This last is the book I initially bought secondhand in a US bookstore, believing that “Book 1” was a reference to the existence of Ilario.  As I approached the end the book, it became abundantly clear that it was a piece of a larger novel. I ordered the full book, and so this review is of the entirety of Ash: A Secret History. 

My Thoughts:

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started reading Ash: A Secret History, and I kept that feeling through most of the book.  I absolutely adore fiction that defies my expectations, and my inability to tell where the story was going kept me glued to the book.  I’ve been reading Ash since January, but that isn’t evidence of any reluctance to read on my part—it’s just that long of a book.  From the beginning, I had a really hard time telling what kind of a story it would be; Ash’s backstory made me think of standard medieval European fantasy, and then a plot twist made me suspect it would be a romance (it isn’t, really).  I think the official genre is science fantasy, and I would agree with that classification.  Despite its setting, I think it is much closer to science fiction than fantasy, as everything that could be considered ‘magic’ does have a scientific-style explanation. I’m going to try very hard not to spoil any of the many twists or revelations that made experiencing this novel so enjoyable. 

The world of Ash, for the most part, seemed like a surprisingly realistic take on medieval life.  I’ve read that Gentle earned a War Studies MA during the writing of the novel, and it shows in the detail with which the life of Ash’s mercenary company is portrayed.  Ash’s world is one where armor needs to be constantly cleaned of rust, and battles involve a lot of confusion and death (and no epic single combats between heroes).  The violence is not sugar-coated, and neither are the psychological effects of making your living out of brutally killing people for money.  I am no historian, but the accounts of battles, mercenary politics, and daily life seemed much more believable than I am accustomed to in fantasy.  I think this meticulous description of the mundane made it a bit more difficult to swallow the more outlandish fictional elements (such as certain combinations of quantum physics concepts and religion), but the story was definitely worth choosing to suspend my disbelief.

The framing story, while interesting in its own right, also serves several very important purposes with respect to the alternate historical account.  Since Ash’s story is presented as a translation, ‘Dr. Ratcliff’ was free to write it in modern English, so that it would be more accessible to his readers.  I think this was probably the best possible decision for language, since attempting to write in the languages of the time period would be either stilted and pseudo-medieval or just nearly impossible to read.  The framing also gave a perfect in for Ratcliff to write in footnotes to explain archaic words, historical references, and at which points the story diverges from actual history.  The character of Ash is naturally fictional, but a lot of the events and some characters are actually historical, and I would have little chance of telling them apart without the help of Dr. Ratcliff.  Even my fiancĂ©, who has lived in France for most of his life, was a pretty hazy on the details of 15th century Burgundian dukes, so I think the explanations would be useful for most readers.  As a result, I feel like I’ve actually learned a bit about late medieval period history through reading this novel.

The characters take shape slowly throughout the story.  Pierce and his editor we get to know only through their email correspondence, but their personalities came through quite clearly in the informal writing.  Many of the people in Ash’s company were little more than names (there are hundreds in her company, after all), but the people closest to her are gradually fleshed out.  Some of the most important characters are women: Ash, the Carthaginian general, and a close female friend of Ash who is living as a man. I appreciated that Ash and other prominent female characters did not feel like 21st century women dropped into history, but more like products of their time.  For instance, Ash doesn’t have an enlightened understanding of gender, she just thinks of herself more as a soldier than as a woman.  She’s mostly interested in her gender in terms of the complications it throws into maintaining her authority over her company.  As usual for my reviews, I especially enjoyed Ash and her companions because they were flawed and fallible, and capable of failing in truly devastating ways.  At the same time, Ash was an exceptionally intelligent and driven young woman, which made her story a particularly compelling one.

My Rating: 5/5

Ash: A Secret History was a surprise to me, and a very good one! As an alternate history story set in 15th century continental Europe, It exists on the crossroads between science fiction and fantasy (though further on the science fiction side from my perspective). Gentle seems very knowledgeable about 15th century war, history and life, through the details she includes of the life of Ash’s mercenary company. The framing story, which involves the historian translating the “Ash” manuscripts, allows an easy way to include explanatory notes when necessary, without bogging down the story.  Many characters, including the three primary female characters, had their own character arcs, and I loved how they were slowly built up through the course of the story.  Finally, this was a tale with many unexpected twists and turns, and I loved that I could rarely tell exactly where it was going next.  I thoroughly enjoyed Ash: A Secret History, and I’m happy that I was prompted to read it by the WoGF reading challenge!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
Published: 2004, Doubleday
Series: Discworld, Book 2 of the Tiffany Aching series
Awards Won: Locus YA award

The Book:
Something is coming after Tiffany ...

Tiffany Aching is ready to begin her apprenticeship in magic. She expects spells and magic -- not chores and ill-tempered nanny goats! Surely there must be more to witchcraft than this!

What Tiffany doesn't know is that an insidious, disembodied creature is pursuing her. This time, neither Mistress Weatherwax (the greatest witch in the world) nor the fierce, six-inch-high Wee Free Men can protect her. In the end, it will take all of Tiffany's inner strength to save herself ... if it can be done at all.” ~WWEnd.com

This is the second of Pratchett’s YA series featuring Tiffany Aching, which has been the subject of a read-along hosted by Little RedReviewer and Dab of Darkness. I’m also counting this as my first fantasy novel for Stainless Steel Dropping’s Once Upon a Time VII.  While this novel clearly follows from The Wee Free Men, I think it could also stand alone fairly well as an independent novel.

My Thoughts:

A Hat Full of Sky picks up a few years after the events of The Wee Free Men, as Tifffany prepares to leave her home on the Chalk to take up an apprenticeship with a witch named Miss Level.  The novel makes a point to re-introduce the relevant events and characters from the previous book, so the sequel is still accessible to new readers.  Having just read the first book, I was at times impatient about the recapping, though I did appreciate that the events of the previous novel continued to affect the characters.  Tiffany is still an excellent heroine, though she appears to be growing out of the confidence of childhood and into the uncertainty of adolescence.

Tiffany is now eleven, and in a mundane sense, she encounters problems that are likely to be especially relevant to readers of her age.  For instance, Tiffany and others in the novel struggle with homesickness, loneliness, and being mocked by their peers. Tiffany had to cope with her new surroundings, as well as the presence of other young witches, and another part of the book focused on the difficiulties the new kelda of the Chalk’s clan of Wee Free Men has adjusting to her position.  Though the details are fantasy, I think some of the basic difficulties both Tiffany and the new kelda face would be easily recognizable for any kid who ends up having to move to a new home.

Another important theme of the book is the difference between what things (and people) appear to be as opposed to what they are.  A giant horse carving in the Chalk serves as a metaphor for this.  Though it doesn’t look much like a proper horse, it represents the essence of the actions that make a horse—or as Tiffany’s Granny Aching put it, “T’aint what a horse looks like. It’s what a horse be.” This distinction between appearance and works plays out in various situations in the witch community, and Tiffany finds that public image often has very little to do with a person’s worth. 

With all of this, the story is still humorous, fast-paced, and easy to read.  The Wee Free Men appear again, along with all their usual kinds of ridiculous hijinks, in addition to a number of new characters. While I felt like there was more use of magic in this novel than the first, the job of being a witch is clearly not defined solely by magic.  In her apprenticeship to Miss Level, Tiffany mostly learns about implicit rules of community and ideas of social responsibility. While magic is important to the final conflict of the story, its importance is secondary to the practitioners’ wisdom and strength of will.

My Rating: 4/5

A Hat Full of Sky is an entertaining sequel to The Wee Free Men, featuring Tiffany Aching as an 11-year-old apprentice witch.  It’s another exciting, humorous story targeted towards a younger audience, which also addresses some issues relevant to the age group.  There’s a lot of consideration of interpersonal relationships, and of the difference between image and actions.  Tiffany is still a great heroine to read about, and I’m enjoying watching as she slowly grows up through these novels.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Introduction Post: I've Joined Once Upon a Time VII

I know I haven’t been quite as active online in the first half of 2013 as I have in the past, but I want to clarify that this is not at all because I’m losing interest in blogging.  The truth is, I’m trying to get a doctorate in physics, and it seems like the work increases exponentially as I draw closer to the finish line!  I’m going to escape from this particular bound state in a couple of months, an event which will hopefully be marked by an increase in blogging activity and the sudden appearance of “Dr.” before my name everywhere.

After that point, I will hopefully not post my Women of Genre Fiction reviews on the very last day of each month, and I will have more than one entry in the blog series about new writers that I was trying to start.  In the meantime, what better way to not stress myself out than participate in another reading challenge? Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but I think that this challenge is going to be fun and stress-free!

Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings has a history of hosting really fun-looking events to encourage people share reviews in specific genres, and I’m excited to finally get involved. The current challenge, in which I plan to participate, is Once Upon a Time VII.  The time span of the challenge is March 21 - June 21, and the point is to encourage bloggers to share reviews of fantasy, mythology, fairy tales, and folk tales.  While I may be starting late, I am certain I will meet the minimum requirement for involvement, which is reviewing a single work of fantasy.  I even hope to pass Quest the First, which is to review at least 5 works of fantasy before June 21st!

As for what I’m planning on reading for this springtime challenge, let me share my plans.  I was originally thinking Ash: A Secret History would be one of my first fantasy reviews for Once Upon a Time VII, but I’ve since decided that it’s science fiction that just happens to be set in medieval Europe.  It is an excellent book, though, and my review of it is coming soon. So anyway, my fantasy reviews will be as follows (though not necessarily in this order):

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett: I read this one alongside LittleRedReviewer, OvertheEffingRainbow, Lynnsbooks, Dab of Darkness, and SueCCCP.  Pratchettt’s books always bring a smile to my face, and this review will be coming probably this weekend or early next week.

Six Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher:  This one is
a wild card.  It’s the author’s debut novel, so I have no idea yet about his style.  However, the whole idea of a Lovecraftian, mythological, steampunkish western caught my interest.

The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin: The Killing Moon was my favorite of the two books I’ve read by Jemisin, and I am eager to see the conclusion of that story in this sequel.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed: I honestly don’t really know what to expect from this one, but I’ve heard some good reviews of it. Also, it got a Hugo nomination!

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen: This is, I think, a WWII retelling of the fairy tale, so this is the only one that I’m assuming from the beginning fits into a category other than general fantasy.  This is going to be my airplane takeoff/landing book, because I actually own a physical copy (not just an e-book).

I may read more fantasy books than these, but given my current life stressors, I can make no promises.  In any case, I’m looking forward to participating, and looking forward to sneaking a tiny bit of leisure time into my life, so I can enjoy all the reviews from other participants!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1986
Series: Vorkosigan Saga (order is debateable)

The Book:
“Ethan Urquhart is a head reproductive scientist on the planet of Athos, in a colony that was founded on strong religious and ideological principles.  Due to advanced technology, they’ve been able to create an all-male society, and they believe that women are dangerous and demonic. However, when their new batch of ovarian cultures come in completely sabotaged, Ethan is sent on a dangerous journey to Kline Station, to secure his world’s reproductive future. 

Almost as soon as he arrives, Ethan finds himself in deep trouble, for no reason he can fathom!  Apparently, the sabotaged ovarian cultures were just a hint of the deeper game being played.  Ethan soon finds himself in way over his head, with the beautiful female mercenary Elli Quinn (of the Dendarii mercenaries) as his partner in crime.” ~Allie

I’m in the long-running process of reading the Vorkosigan Saga, but this one is a bit of an oddity. It doesn’t feature any of the central cast of the storyline (though Elli Quinn is a minor character), and it appears to be a one-shot story. However, it was short, humorous, and fun, and it was nice to get a story from another area in the Vorkosigan universe. As a note, I still recommend Shards of Honor/Barrayar (also sold together as Cordelia’s Honor) as a good starting point for the series.

The Book:

Ethan of Athos felt mostly like a side story in the Vorkosigan universe, but it was a light, entertaining read.  Miles never made an appearance, but the story was packed with the same kind of humor, adventure, intrigue and likeable characters that I associate with the series.  The story plays into some common tropes, but always seems to either take them a bit tongue-in-cheek or subvert them entirely.  The main plot is basically a spy thriller, with Elli Quinn as the one experienced in espionage and Ethan as the ordinary guy reluctantly dragged into the mess. I don’t think Ethan of Athos is the most memorable or profound installment I’ve read of the series, but I enjoyed taking a bit of time to read a fun and undemanding adventure.

While many of the minor characters were forgettable, Elli and Ethan were very pleasant characters to follow.  Ethan in particular was a very lovable guy—responsible (ordinarily), nurturing, compassionate, and extremely clueless about international plots and espionage.  Elli, on the other hand, was skilled and resourceful, and newly beautiful as a result of some post-injury reconstructive surgery.  It would have been easy for this novel to feature Ethan realizing women were hot and falling for Elli, and I really appreciate that it didn’t.  He did come to realize that women were not the demons he’d been taught, and he and Elli worked really well together as a team.  However, he never stopped loving his home planet of Athos, and his love interests in the story were never women.

As is probably obvious from the description, some topics addressed through the story were perceptions of gender and culturally imposed gender roles.  This is not new to the series, as previous novels have introduced the extremely patriarchal Barrayar, gender relations in the aristocracy of Cetaganda, and the equalitarian Beta Colony.  In this case, the treatment is similarly unsubtle, but manages not to seem too overbearing or preachy. While the set-up appears quite simple, Bujold doesn’t portray any society as wholly good or bad.  Athos has its problems with misogyny and Kline Station has issues with homophobia, but both societies still seem to produce many perfectly decent and some not-so-decent people.  Ethan needs to come to terms with his bizarre view of women, but the outside world also needs to come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the all-male structure of Athosian society.  Overall, I really enjoyed seeing the clash of the characters’ different perspectives, as they made their way from one crisis to another.

My Rating: 3.5/5

 Ethan of Athos is a fun side story to the Vorkosigan saga, one which I don’t think needs to be read at any particular point in the series.  While it may not be the most impressive installment in the Vorkosigan saga, it still had plenty of adventure and humor, and a few really likeable characters.  Most of the story followed the unlikely partnership of the mercenary Elli and a reproductive doctor of an all-male society, Ethan, as he tripped into a heap of trouble while trying to secure an ovarian culture delivery.  The interplay between various characters’ views on gender and gender roles added another interesting aspect to the story. Altogether, it was a light, entertaining novel, and reading it was a fun way to pass a few hours. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Read-Along: Part 4 of A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

This is, sadly, the final post for the read-along of Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky.  I have heard that the read-alongs may continue this fall for the second two novels of the Tiffany Aching series, so I'm planning to pick up reading the rest of the series then!  Thank you Dab of Darkness and Little Red Reviewer for organizing this and putting together the discussion questions. I have enjoyed reading everyone's responses, and I hope to see you all in read-alongs in the future! 

This post contains spoilers through the end of A Hat Full of Sky.  A usual review of the novel will appear relatively soon (after Ethan of Athos).

1) Mistress Weatherwax has a philosophy of her job is to make sure everyone today can get to tomorrow - such as letting people believe in water sprites and goblins if it lets them lead a better life. Do you see yourself somewhere in this philosophy?

Expediency over accuracy, provided it gives the same results. I have to admit I do fall into that sometimes in interpersonal interactions.  I'm more of a supporter of Miss Level's strategy, though.  I like to think that I would explain the tiny invisible bugs every time, rather than supporting baseless superstition.  Mistress Weatherwax had a plan for that, too, though.  She was going to send up the wandering teachers, so that they could get a little accuracy in the long run.

2) Do you think Mr. Weavall will be successful with the Widow Tussy? Do you think Tiffany got off light concerning Mr. Weavall's stash?

Realistically, I think he and Widow Tussy will learn that it's very hard to adjust to someone else's habits after living with your own for ~90 years.  The gold can't hurt, though.  I suppose Tiffany got off easy, but I think it will actually stick with her longer.  If Mr. Weavall had yelled at her, she would have felt punished and then probably felt relieved afterward.  As it is, with Tiffany's personality, I think she's going to punish herself with guilt for much longer.  

3) What was your favorite part of Mistress Weatherwax's and Tiffany's bonding time in the mountains with the little picnic and the owls and such? 

Possibly the whole thing where Mistress Weatherwax refused to believe she snored.  I mean, seriously, she was inside the owl, she had to be able to hear it!

4) Petulia Gristle heard Tiffany was going to face something nasty and went out to see if she could use some help. Have you ever had an awkward situation like that? 

This is slightly off the topic of the question, but I really loved how Petulia grew in this last section of the book.  It was great that she was the one who put Annagramma in her place, not Tiffany. Tiffany is still more or less an outsider, after all (she went to one young witch's meeting).  Petulia has probably been putting up with Annagramma's crap for ages. 

As for someone offering you help when you don't actually need (or want) it, I always try to make up something quick and easy for them to do.  People like to feel they're helping, sometimes especially when there's nothing they can do.  The important thing is that they feel useful!

5) Tiffany has her first and last conversation with the Hiver/Arthur. Did you see Tiffany's answer to the Hiver dilemma coming or were you taken by surprise? 

I did not suspect that the hiver wanted to die.  I was taken by surprise.  Also, on a very pleasant surprise, I did not expect to see Death in this book!  Why is Death always a really great character in fantasy stories?  I don't much like it in reality.

6) The Witch Trials are almost like a county fair, a happy outing for the entire family, or so Granny Weatherwax was grumbling about. What about the affair caught your attention?

It seemed kind of like a rural fair.  I liked that half the stuff there wasn't even magic.  They were sharing first aid tips and recipes and such.  Also, Petulia and the pig trick… but with a sausage!  I loved her newfound confidence.

7) In the final chapter, we learn the meaning of the title of the book. Did you feel this was a good wrap up to the novel?

Yes, I think so.  Tiffany ends back at her home, remembering where she'd come from.  In a novel about travel, reputation, and self-worth, I think it was good that she ended up back in her safe place, but with a better understanding of herself.  Also, I assumed the hat full of sky was the invisible hat she'd gotten from Mistress Weatherwax.  I suppose her new hat, the sky, is not too much different!