Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
Published: Night Shade Books 2011
Series: Book 1 of the Fey and the Fallen

The Book:

“Liam is a child born out of wedlock, whose mother never spoke of his biological father’s identity.  Even aside from the mysteries of his parentage, he has plenty to deal with as a boy growing up in Northern Ireland during the period of The Troubles.  As he grows into a man, he senses something strange deep inside himself—something dark and dangerous. 

What he doesn’t know is that his father is one of the fey, and that his people are locked in a long war that is raging in Ireland alongside the religious and political strife.  The enemies of the fey are also the enemies of a secret branch of the Catholic Church, but that does not necessarily make them allies. Liam’s life and loved ones are endangered by both the natural and the supernatural turmoil that fills his world. ~Allie

Of Blood and Honey, which is up for the Campbell Best New Writer award this year, is my 6th review of the WoGF challenge at World’s Without End (I missed a month. I’ll catch up!).  It’s Stina Leicht’s debut novel, an urban fantasy that takes on the difficult setting of 1970s Northern Ireland.

My Thoughts:

Since Of Blood and Honey features a very recent historical period, it seems especially important that the setting be portrayed respectfully and accurately.  For the most part, I feel like Leicht intended to be respectful of the time period she portrayed, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to comment on the accuracy. A description by Stina Leicht of the research that went into building the setting of Of Blood and Honey can be found here, as well as a discussion of the subjectivity of personal experiences and how that affects historical accounts, here. A response to the book from the perspective of one Irish man can be found here (beware of series spoilers). 

In terms of the story, Of Blood and Honey moved quickly and was very engaging. Liam’s life seemed to have little breathing space, as it bounced from one catastrophe to the next.  I enjoyed the combination of religious supernatural evil (“the fallen”) and the traditional supernatural elements (the fey) in the story. I enjoyed how Liam’s his fey heritage was incorporated in his character, and how it played a part in shaping who he grew to become. Of course, the non-fey violence of the time also played a large role in his life, and I should warn that this is a book with a fair amount of physical and sexual violence, though I did not think the prose was especially graphic.   

While the story was entertaining, there were a few plot devices that irked me along the way.  For instance, the plot was complicated by the insistence of many characters on not communicating with one another.  As one example, Liam would have had much less pent up anger and confusion if anyone he knew had bothered to let him in on the secret of his heritage.  The aversion to communicating also crept into other situations, such as Liam’s relationship problems with Mary Kate, and Liam’s father’s decision not to keep his family in the loop about potential supernatural dangers. I think the story could have worked just as well without all of this unnecessary evasiveness, and it would have been a sight less frustrating from my point of view as a reader.

Most of the other devices come late in the novel, as the plot begins to verge more towards a traditional kind of superhero story.  Dramatic changes in Liam’s story are motivated by the death and suffering of women he loves, and there is the usual kind of talk about justice and vengeance.  The main villain is not very clearly or convincingly developed, and is seems to be just meant to be “crazy” and evil.  The villain even takes time out to monologue near the end.  I was a little disappointed that a novel with such an interesting premise and beginning moved towards such a familiar conclusion. 

My Rating: 3/5

Of Blood and Honey is an urban fantasy that incorporates supernatural elements of religious evil and the traditional fey in the period of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The story is fast-paced and exciting, and Liam and the other characters are engaging.  I felt like the story was more out of the ordinary in the beginning, and I was a bit disappointed that it moved more towards a traditional hero vs. villain story towards the end. The story was still entertaining through the end, even if that end was not as innovative as I might have hoped.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Published : Ace Books, 1967
Awards Won : Nebula Award
Awards Nominated : Hugo Award

The Book :

There are an infinite number of true things in the world with no way of ascertaining their truth.” p.111-112

“Humanity is gone, but they have left the ruins of their civilization behind them.  The new tenants of the Earth are an alien species, one with great respect for those that had come before.  They try to mold their bodies to be human, as they also try to shape their souls to fit our leftover mythology.  In both cases, the fit is not perfect, leading to confusion and suffering.

Lo Lobey is a herder who frequently plays music on his machete.  One day, the girl he loves, Friza, is mysteriously killed.  In an echo of Orpheus saving his Euridice, Lobey is determined to go on a journey to recover his Friza.  With no direction toward the underworld, however, there is no telling where Lobey’s journey will take him.” ~Allie  

I’d never read anything by Delany before, but I’d heard he wrote very weird books.  There were things about The Einstein Intersection that were very interesting, but I think that the story was just not to my taste.

My Thoughts:

The Einstein Intersection is both a very familiar story and a very confusing one.  The basic structure, a young man from a small town going on an epic journey after his lover gets murdered, is reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  This type of story is basically a cliché now, but that is likely the reason it features in the novel.  The story is bound together by mythology; the old Greek/Roman variety, the more modern variety (at least as current as the sixties), and the jumble they make together.  For instance, early on in the story, someone recounts the 'legend of the Beatles':

You remember the Beatle Ringo left his love Maureen even though she treated him tender.  He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest parts of the legend go.  After a hard day’s night, he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll.” ~p. 11

That is the sort of delirious hodgepodge of allusions to pop culture and legend that seems characteristic of the novel.  I’m certain I missed some 60’s references, but that excerpt, at least, was one I was able to parse. 

Lo Lobey may be acting out a very familiar story, but what is within that story, both in his world and in himself, does not fit the familiar mold.  His world is obsessed with normality and functionality, and has kages full of ‘non-functional’ children.  It also has dragon-herders, computer ‘labyrinths’, and more. Despite his vague but strong desire to rescue Friza from death, Lobey does not have all that much direction.  He often seems to float with the story, allowing circumstance to choose his path.  

The story seems fairly straightforward at first, but it becomes more and more opaque as it continues, and as more avatars trapped by their mythologies make their entrance.  As Delany wrote in one of the excerpts from his Writer’s Journals, which head chapters alongside various quotes, “Endings to be useful must be inconclusive (p.120). I think the ending lives up this ideal, and I can’t claim that I fully understood the significance of the conclusion.  In the end, it remains a very enigmatic book, but maybe not one I will tackle again anytime soon.

My Rating: 3/5

The Einstein Intersection is a very strange and intricate novel, but it is not one that ultimately engaged me.  It definitely requires an active reader, one who is willing to re-read pages and tease meaning out of mixed allusions and references.  Lobey is a sort of Orpheus, but also not, just as he is almost, but not quite, human. While the surface story is pretty simple, I felt like the sense and meaning of it was pretty hard to follow.  Things become increasingly confusing as the story progresses, and the ending is difficult to puzzle out.  I think I can see why this is a book that is remembered, but it is also not really one I enjoyed. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight by Peter Watts
Published : Tor, 2006
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book :

“It’s been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us.

Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet? Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood.

Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Peter Watts, and I read it mostly while on transatlantic flights.  One thing I enjoy about those flights is the opportunity to get something like 8 to 9 hours of uninterrupted reading time! 

My Thoughts :

Blindsight was an interesting take on first contact with an alien species.  I appreciated that the aliens were deeply inhuman, but managed to still somehow not be completely incomprehensible.  There were plenty of surprising things to learn about the aliens, but the logic behind their behavior was consistent. In other words, while I failed to anticipate a number of revelations about their form of life and intelligence, the events of the story made sense in retrospect. Their dissimilarity to humanity did preclude the possibility of much interaction, but I suppose that is what one would expect when encountering a fundamentally different kind of life form.

However, without much meaningful interaction between the alien or human characters, I felt that there was not much forward momentum in the plot. The crew mostly spent their time studying the alien structure and creatures, speculating about them, and wondering if the captain and their leader knew more about everything than they did.  I enjoyed the speculation, as well as the creepy atmosphere of the spaceship and the alien structure, but I sometimes wished the story could be more active or character-driven.

Watts commented in the acknowledgements that his characters were not “less cuddlesome than usual”, which was a challenge in generating reader investment.  From my point of view, the characters were much more intriguing as ideas than they were as people. The main character and narrator, Siri Keeton, is a synthesist, who manipulates information without understanding it (coincidence, Apple?).  He basically sees himself as an empty, emotionless conduit through which information passes without the interference of interpretation and comprehension.  While this is very thematically relevant, is does not make it easy to become invested in his character. His character is explored through flashbacks with his childhood friend, quirky girlfriend, and parents, who all seem much more human and approachable than Siri himself.

I think the other members of the crew were intended to show different kinds of intelligence—there was the man with most of his mind in his machine extensions, the woman with many “selfs” that were constantly thinking in parallel, and the soldier who clung to the edge of relevance through her machine interfaces.  While they were very interesting in theory, the different characters tended to blend together a bit for me in the story. The scientific explanation for the predator race of vampires seemed far-fetched to me, and I could see where this would be a sticking point for some readers. However, I felt that the vampire was one of the most unique and enigmatic characters in the story, despite the fact that he rarely interacted with others (or perhaps because of it).

Besides the aliens themselves, one of the most entertaining aspects of the novel was its exploration of ideas about sentience, intelligence, and communication. The main characters themselves were a commentary on these topics, through their physical and mental makeup, as were the aliens and their structure.  Siri’s growth throughout the story did not seem wholly convincing to me, but I appreciated the significance of his character growth in terms of these ideas.  The ending may seem to say some quite depressing things about human ideas of intelligence, but the conclusion is not completely one-sided, and it is ambiguous enough (to me, at least) to afford our species a little hope.

My Rating : 3.5/5

Blindsight is an interesting first contact novel, featuring truly inhuman aliens and some relatively alien human characters. I enjoyed learning about the aliens, and reading about the ideas that arose from the humans’ study of them.  I did not find any of the characters very engaging, though, and this sometimes made it difficult to be invested in the story. I would recommend Blindsight for readers looking for an interesting first contact story, but with the caveat that the story is more driven by ideas than by characters.