Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Published : Tor, 1992
Awards Nominated : Nebula, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards

The Book :

”The fairy tale Briar Rose held a special significance to Becca’s grandmother, Gemma.  She told it constantly to her grandchildren, and it became clear that she considered herself the princess in the story. Though her telling differed in some respects to the commonly accepted version, Rebecca always preferred to hear the story from her grandmother.

When Gemma died, Becca and her family realized that they knew very little about her. Her life before she arrived in the United States during WWII was shrouded in mystery, to the point where her family didn’t even know her original name.  Rebecca has few clues to work with, but she’s determined to uncover the mystery of her grandmother’s past.” ~Allie

I am kind of surprised that this book appears to be classified as fantasy, since I would probably have called it mainstream YA fiction.  I think it will still count as genre fiction, though, since it has won several fantasy awards. Therefore, this is my May novel for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge at WWEnd, and also a review for the Once Upon a Time Challenge (fairy tale category).

My Thoughts:

While Briar Rose does contain a retelling of the fairy tale, it is primarily the story of a young woman learning about her grandmother’s experiences during the Holocaust. Becca and the personal history she uncovers are fictional, but her grandmother’s life story is set amidst the actual events of that era.  More information about the particular location featured in the story can be found here.  The story seems to be written for a young adult audience, though some of the details of Gemma’s past are quite graphic (due to the subject matter).  While there are plenty of books based on authors’ experiences from this period of history (Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, and others), I appreciate that fiction can also be used to bring the past to life for readers.  Like most people, I believe that learning about and trying to understand the darker parts of human history is very important, so that these kinds of atrocities might never be repeated.

Unfortunately, I was not very impressed with Briar Rose as a novel, mostly because the characters seemed rather flat to me.  While all of the characters were adults, many of them seemed to behave as though they were in their early teen years.  This was especially noticeable with Becca and her two older sisters.  Becca’s older sisters were described as personally and professionally successful adult women, but they didn’t seem to have matured past their behavior in childhood flashbacks. Becca was in her early twenties, and she lived with her parents while working for an alternative newspaper.  She seemed very sheltered and inexperienced, and her “crush” subplot seemed strangely juvenile for an adult woman.  To me, none of the characters really seemed to grow or change much, or even to be further developed beyond their initial introduction.

The story can be broken down into three parts: the fairy tale, the modern story, and Gemma’s story.  The fairy tale is told through a series of flashbacks to Becca’s childhood.  There was generally roughly a line or two of the fairy tale per flashback, before Becca or her sisters interrupted their grandmother. I had hoped there would be a point where the story was told from start to finish, perhaps after hearing the true story of Gemma’s life.  Gemma’s story could have been haunting, but her words were constantly drowned out by children bickering.

The modern story was the tale of Becca searching for her grandmother’s past.  I suppose there wasn’t much room for false leads, given the length of the novel, but the course of the investigation seemed a little too coincidentally easy.  It was never really in doubt that she would track down her grandmother’s story, and there weren’t any major obstacles in her way.  As a result, Becca’s story never felt especially compelling in its own right, and seemed to be just an overly long set-up for the eventual reveal of her grandmother’s story.

The story of the past that Becca eventually tracks down makes up the third section of the book.  Despite knowing roughly how everything would turn out, I found this to be the most narratively interesting portion of the book.  The person who related the story to Becca was also the most engaging character, probably because of the insight into his life that the story provided.  In broad strokes, it was quite easy to tell what kind of story Becca was going to uncover, and there weren’t any major twists along the way. While it was interesting to see the details cleared up, it didn’t seem to me like Becca gained much understanding of who her grandmother was as a person. 

My Rating: 2.5/5

As a novel, Briar Rose was something of a disappointment. I felt that the characters lacked depth, and did not seem to grow much through the events of the story.  The plot was also extremely straightforward and predictable, so that Becca's success seemed like a foregone conclusion.  Therefore, the part of the story featuring Becca's search seemed to drag.  I think it was an interesting idea to incorporate the fairy tale of Briar Rose into a story about the Holocaust, but it didn’t seem to mesh as well as I had hoped.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published : Bantam Spectra (1996), HarperCollins/Voyager(1996)
Series : Book 3 of the Mars Trilogy
Awards Won : Hugo and Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated : Clarke, Campbell,  and BSFA Awards

The Book :

”The red planet is red no longer, as Mars has become a perfectly inhabitable world. But while Mars flourishes, Earth is threatened by overpopulation and ecological disaster. Soon people look to Mars as a refuge, initiating a possible interplanetary conflict, as well as political strife between the Reds, who wish to preserve the planet in its desert state, and the Green "terraformers". The ultimate fate of Earth, as well as the possibility of new explorations into the solar system, stand in the balance.”

This is the third and final book of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, so there will be spoilers of the series ahead!

That is a fairly vague introduction for such a massive book, but I think that most people who have read Red Mars and Green Mars know the kind of book they’re getting into with Blue Mars.  I do have to say that I would strongly recommend against reading this novel without having read the first two books in the series.  Altogether, I expect this trilogy to remain a classic in stories of Mars for a long time to come.

My Thoughts:

I’ve spaced my reading of the Mars Trilogy over the past three years, so now I can look back on the earlier events of the series with a feeling of nostalgia.  This series started with the journey to and colonization of Mars, and then moved on to terraforming, creating a new society, and navigating the social, economic, and political ties to Earth.  These characters have been through several revolutions, and have lived through many human-driven—but still chaotic—changes of geology, atmosphere, environment, government and culture that have fundamentally changed the face of Mars and its people.  Blue Mars is a fitting conclusion to this story.

Though many of the First Hundred have died at this point, many familiar characters are still alive as part of the “superelderly” (living 200+ years as a result of gerontological treatments) generation.  The story focuses even more than Green Mars on the psychological effects of such a long life. While I felt like the longevity treatment was not especially well integrated in Red Mars, it seems much more incorporated here.  This may be in part because it has grown to play such a large role in both the story and structure of these future societies. Seeing the major characters from Red Mars reaching the (possible) end of their massive life span, and watching them reflect on all that came before gave the story a feeling of natural completeness.

After so many pages, I have come to appreciate the personalities of most of the viewpoint characters. I enjoyed seeing more of Nadia, even though she was not especially central to the novel this time.  Nirgal, as well, feels much less like a wonderkid, and much more like a well-rounded character.  His successes here feel balanced by his failures, and I especially enjoyed reading about his slow process of building his ex-revolutionary life.  Another young native Martian is added to cast, showing more of the new wave of culture.  Her sections were markedly different from any of the other characters, which was refreshing.  I think her chapters were just short enough to keep me from becoming bored with her one-track hedonistic mind.   

Back to the old guard, I was especially happy to see more of Maya and Michel, the unstable pair (or choleric and melancholic pair, Michel might say).  Michel is still dealing with his homesickness for a place that no longer exists, while Maya’s mental problems steadily worsen as her mind is pushed beyond its natural lifetime. Through Maya we see the difficulty of continually trying to renew yourself, and to keep up with the events of a world that is always threatening to leave you behind. Lastly, Ann and Sax seemed to be a central focus of this last novel. They represent the two sides of the old debate, Red vs. Green, though the whole debate is becoming obsolete in the terraformed society of Mars.  Ann must deal with her grief for Mars, and see if she can find a way to adapt to the present. Sax is eager to help, but knows no way to adequately communicate to her the wonder and beauty that he sees in this new man-altered Mars.

Blue Mars seemed to be a quieter book than the first two, with more description and contemplation than tension. It also widened the lens to show colonization elsewhere in the solar system, as well as the “hyper-Malthusian” situation on Earth. All of this served to paint a satisfying picture of where humanity was, how far it had come, and what hopes remained for the future.  While this did round out the series in a satisfying way, the novel did not have as much of a focus or narrative drive as either of the first two novels. Despite this, Blue Mars works quite wonderfully to give a sense of resolution to the personal journeys of many characters, as well as to the fate of humanity and their many worlds.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Blue Mars is a successful conclusion for the impressive work of imagination and research that is the Mars Trilogy.  Though some artistic liberties were taken with science, Robinson has brought Mars to life in a way that feels plausible, and seems to have the complexity of reality.  Slowly, interspersed with many tours of painstakingly described Martin landscape, the handful of First Hundred who head the story have grown into characters that will linger in my mind indefinitely. The story of Blue Mars is both quieter and less focused than in the first two novels, but it still gives a satisfying and hopeful conclusion for the lives of these fascinating characters and the world they inhabit.

P.S.  For an overall series rating, I would give Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy a 5/5.