Friday, July 25, 2014

New Voices: Queen & Commander by Janine A. Southard

Queen & Commander, by Janine A. Southard
Published: Self-published, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Hive Queen Saga
Awards Won:  Ippy Award (Silver Medal for Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror E-book)

“The Welsh-colonized world of Rhiannon’s home has a strict career tracking system, designed to direct each person to their optimal future.  Unfortunately, Rhiannon knows her personality and intelligence will mark her as a future "Perceiver", when what she really wants is to be one of the elite “Queens”.

The “Hive” system organizes the best and brightest men into small teams to be overseen by a strong, charismatic woman, their Queen.  Rhiannon manages to finagle her way into her chosen career path, but then her friends draw her into a reckless scheme. Before long, she’s recruited an unusual hive, dropped out of high school, and taken over running an old spaceship, Ceridwen’s Cauldron!” ~Allie

Janine Southard kindly gifted me a copy of this novel, as well as the recently published second novel of the series, Hive & Heist, for review consideration.  Southard has worked in fiction and marketing writing and editing, and Queen & Commander is her first science fiction novel.  You can read the first two chapters on her website.

This is the first self-published novel I’ve reviewed on my blog, mostly because I have still not really figured out how to navigate the market.  As far as I can tell so far, the Ippy Awards seem like a good starting point for checking out self-published fiction. 

Queen & Commander targets a young adult audience, and I expect that it would work well down to early middle school age.  The prose was simple, but functional, and the characters seemed like a good representation the mental and emotional state of teenagers. Even with the far-future setting, some events even echoed my memories from high school years, such as the scene where a store clerk refused to acknowledge one of the teens as a legitimate customer.  However, I also liked that the main characters’ perspectives did not seem to be shown as unquestionably accurate. For instance, Rhiannon was convinced she ‘outsmarted’ the test.  From my perspective, I suspected that the adults were not tricked, but rather chose to allow her to attempt her desired career.  They even signed her up for counseling, to help her adapt to a career that wasn’t perfectly suited to her personality. I also really enjoyed the imperfections of the characters, such that they were able to make believable and serious mistakes. 

Some of the most noticeable of these mistakes were Rhiannon’s attempts to manage her Hive. Rhiannon’s team includes her shy best friend Gwyn, Gwyn’s possessive boyfriend Victor, her classmates Luciano and Gavin, and her one unexpected recruit, Alan. I have a lot of experience with managing small groups, and I appreciated how clearly the story communicated the group’s dynamics, as well as what each of them needed from their leader. The perspective shifted between the characters, allowing the reader to get a good grasp on the distinct personalities of each character and the ways they related to one another. I am looking forward to seeing how their group develops in future books, and how Rhiannon cultivates her leadership style.

I am also hoping that the next book will contain more information about the interesting world that Rhiannon and her friends inhabit. While the most plot-relevant details were introduced, I felt like there wasn’t quite enough background to set the story firmly in context. For instance, the Welsh are the dominant space-faring culture, but there is, as yet, no future-history to explain how the current situation came about. Also, while the story established the concrete rules of the Hive system, it didn’t really explain why the system existed in the first place. I was also baffled about the purpose behind the strict gender roles (women cannot be in a Hive, men can’t be a Queen), given that Hives are defined by loyalty and common purpose, not romantic attraction. The lack of context also left me uncertain about how to interpret the teenager’s scheme.  It seemed to me like their spaceship gig was the equivalent of dropping out of high school and getting a job—maybe unexpected for a University-tracked student, but not unprecedented.

Queen & Commander is clearly intended as an introduction for a series, and I felt like the main purpose of the story was to set up Rhiannon and her friends for future adventures.  However, the plot moved quickly, there was plenty of excitement in their spaceship’s maiden voyage. The latter part of the book began to set up part of what I expect will eventually be the main conflict of the series, and the story ended on a cliffhanger.  I enjoyed getting to know the crew of Ceridwen’s Cauldron, and I am looking forward to seeing how things develop in Hive & Heist!

Monday, July 21, 2014

2014 Hugos: Short Fiction

The end of Hugo voting is coming up at the end of the month, and I am more or less on top of reading the fiction nominees this year! What’s more, for the first time ever, I’m going to be attending the WorldCon in London this year! Is anyone else that I e-know going to be there?

I’m planning to do a few short opinion posts, to give my top pick(s) of each category. All the nominees can be found on the Hugo website.  Today, I’m covering short fiction. From longest to shortest, the short fiction categories are novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

For the novellas, my favorite is Catherynne M. Valente’s Six Gun Snow White. The language of the novella is as lovely, poetic, and chaotic as I have come to expect from Valente. It is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, but it also incorporates Native American mythology and ‘wild west’ culture.  This one struck me as a little bit similar to Deathless, in the way it combined folklore with a haunting emotional story. 

The novelette category had some really strong contenders, and I’m down to three that I would be especially happy to see claim the prize.  By a hair, my favorite was The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang.   This novelette covered the development of technology that allowed people to maintain an easily searchable, permanent record of their entire life.  The story explored the possible effects that this, and other kinds of recording technology, might have on people, their relationships, and their perceptions.

My other two favorite novelettes were Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars and Aliette de Bodard’s The Waiting Stars.  The Lady Astronaut of Mars involves the difficult choices of an elderly astronaut whose husband is terminally ill.  It's a very effective emotional story, though it's extremely sad. I don’t want to give away the main plot twist of The Waiting Stars, but it takes place within Aliette de Bodard's Xuya universe. I think the story still works well if you aren't familiar with the universe (I wasn't), but it might take a little longer to figure out what's happening.

As for the short stories, I came down in favor of The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, by John Chu.  The story imagines a world where telling lies causes one to be mysteriously drenched in water.  The premise is used for emphasis in a story of love and family drama.

What were your favorites this year?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
Published: Gollancz, 2012
Awards Won: Campbell Award and British Science Fiction Association Award

The Book:

“Murder has been committed, and Jack Glass is guilty—that much is certain.  But what exactly has he done? How? Why?  These are the more interesting questions. In a future world where trillions of expendable humans live in fragile bubbles in space, even the rumor of faster than light travel is enough to cast the power structures of the world into disarray—and to cause several very unusual murders.

A series of three mysteries form the backbone of this story, and each one of them is impossible in its own way. These three mysteries include: a need to escape from an isolated prison asteroid, a murder that conveniently occurs for a wealthy girl detective’s birthday, and a gun that seems to have shot in the wrong direction. When something is impossible, though, it usually just means that you’re overlooking a crucial detail.” ~Allie  

I’ve been meaning to check out Adam Roberts’s work for a while, but for the longest time, his work wasn’t published in e-book format (or, sometimes, outside the UK). I’ve already bought Jack Glass and By Light Alone in physical form, but it looks like his work has become more easily available (as e-books) since then! I expect that I will read more of his novels in the future.

My Thoughts:

Jack Glass was an incredibly entertaining mystery science-fiction novel, with an enthusiastic style of narration and mysteries that seemed to invite reader speculation.  Rather than just trying to figure out ‘whodunit’ (that much was given), the challenge was to figure out all the intricacies of the situation before they were revealed.  I think that sufficient clues were given in most situations, such that figuring it out was possible, though sometimes challenging. The science aspects were sometimes a bit sketchy, but I was willing to overlook that in order to enjoy the story.  I often found myself pausing in my reading, to sort out what I thought the explanations would be.  I definitely missed some details, but, happily, the solutions are also given within the novel!  It was really fun to see what I had right, and what I’d overlooked.

Beneath the fun of solving the mysteries, though, Jack Glass slowly shows a pretty dark, pessimistic future.  Trillions of humans live on the edge of death in fragile slum bubbles, and the luckiest of these are heavily drugged in order to become ultra-loyal servants of the wealthy.  The solar system is a cold place, governed by power politics and profit, and human beings are seen as a cheap, renewable resource. In such a world, and especially in a murder story, it should come as no surprise that there’s some fairly gruesome violence and references to sexual assault.  Most of the more disturbing violence occurs within the first third of the novel, in which Jac is trapped for an 11-year sentence in an asteroid with a group of convicts. In the later parts of the story, though, I think the liveliness of the story tends to balance the grimness of the setting.

A lot of that liveliness comes from the voices of the characters through which we experience the story—who are, surprisingly, not Jack Glass, though he is often present.  This includes the unnamed (until later) narrator, who is ‘doctorwatson’-ing the story for our benefit, who has an engaging voice, and the wealthy, young detective, Diana Argent.  While the middle section is in Diana Argent’s voice, it still seems to be written by the unnamed narrator. Diana Argent is an extremely wealthy young girl, who has been raised as a data analyzer, and who specializes in people.  She has therefore developed a deep interest in murder mysteries, and it is her very own “birthday” murder mystery that leads into the larger story. Her voice is full of enthusiastic slang (“No wavy way!”), a good portion of which she probably doesn’t even understand (“That’s close enough for government work.”).  The minor characters in the story seem only very lightly characterized, but Diana, Jack, and the unnamed narrator are more than sufficient to bring life to the mysteries they encounter.

My Rating: 4/5

Jack Glass was an extremely fun mystery science fiction story, set in a surprisingly depressing future scenario for the solar system.  I really enjoyed trying to work out the details of each of the three ‘murder mystery’ situations before the answers were revealed, though I was not 100% successful.  The main story involved the social effects of the rumor of the possibility of faster-than-light travel, in a society governed by politics and profit, where the vast majority of people live in extreme poverty. The distinctive, enthusiastic narrative voice, especially in the second section, helped to give a lively feeling to the story, despite the grim setting.  Overall, Jack Glass was an entertaining novel, and I plan to read more of Roberts’s novels in the future.      

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New Voices: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Published: HarperCollins, Blue Door (2013)
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: Mythopoeic Award

Helene Wecker published her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, in April of last year, and it has already garnered quite a lot of positive attention. In a section after the end of the novel, Wecker describes the story of how this novel came to be.  While she started her career working as a writer in marketing and communications, she realized that not trying her hand at becoming a fiction writer might one day be her biggest regret.  The Golem and the Jinni is a work of many years, inspired at first by her and her husband’s family histories as children of Jewish and Arab American immigrants, respectively. An interesting Q&A about the novel can be found here, on her website.

I would describe The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in late-1800s New York, as a pleasantly sedate story.  The physical and cultural setting felt very solid to me, and I enjoyed the portrayal of daily city life from various perspectives.  At first I was a little confused at the patient care with which some seemingly minor characters were introduced, typically with a life history explaining how they came to be the person they are today.  However, all of these minor characters eventually had a role to play in the story, as the pieces slowly fell into place for the larger plot that tied the story together.  I enjoyed how neatly everything came together in the end, though the climax risked feeling a little too rushed, and the coincidences a little too convenient.

From my perspective, the greatest strength of the story is in its exploration of the characters and their relationships with one another.  Aside from the supernatural entities of the title, the communities they inhabited were also filled with memorable characters. There are really too many to list here, but some of my favorites were the kind, troubled Rabbi who took the golem in, and the afflicted former doctor known to others in the Syrian neighborhood as “Ice Cream Saleh”.  Even the villain, though he was portrayed as irredeemable, had understandable motivations and was capable of good as well as evil.  Having so many distinct, believable characters helped to give the world an open, expansive feeling, and I felt that their presence also helped to define the communities that Wecker set out to portray.

While I appreciated the side characters, I think that the most memorable characters for me were the golem, Chava, and the jinni, Ahmad.  The two characters were wonderfully complementary, but also had enough in common that it seemed natural for them to gravitate toward one another.  For instance, they are both ‘born’ into a community where they mostly belong, but where they still feel like an outsider.  I don’t have the experience of being the child of an immigrant, but I wondered whether that last might have been meant to portray the sense of belonging/not-belonging that someone in that situation might feel.

Beyond the similarities of their situations, their personalities are balanced like yin and yang.  Chava is able to sense the needs of others, so she is hyper-aware of her connection to the people around her and of the effects on others of her every action and word.  Ahmad, on the other hand, is used to thinking of himself as separate, and rarely considers what effects his actions might have on anyone.  Chava doubts her own decisions and longs for guidance, while Ahmad typically disregards the guidance of others and longs to direct his own path.  Even their situations are inverted: Chava is a being that is designed for servitude, but who finds herself unexpectedly free, while Ahmad is a being that is intended to be free, who finds himself unexpectedly bound.  These differences in situation and temperament led to some very interesting discussions about social responsibility, free will, and religion, where both of them were able to learn from the perspective of the other. Their experiences, both separate and together, helped them both to grow beyond what either might have expected at the beginning of the story.

Altogether, I think The Golem and the Jinni is an award-worthy novel, and a truly excellent debut from a new talent.  The story is a rather slow-moving one, focused largely on the daily life of two supernatural beings in Jewish and Syrian communities of late-1800’s New York City.  The novel is also shaped by a larger, magical plot that slowly surfaces as the novel progresses, in which all the characters eventually play a part.  However, I think my favorite part of the novel was in the strong development of its many characters, and in their interactions with one another and their communities. I look forward to seeing what Helene Wecker will publish next!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Published: Timescape Books, 1981
Series: Book 2 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: Nebula, Locus Fantasy
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy, Hugo, Mythopoeic

Warning: This is the second book of a series, so there are some spoilers of the first book in the following text.

The Book:

“Armed with the gem known as “The Claw of the Conciliator” and the sword Terminus Est, Severian continues his journey to become the new carnifex of Thrax.  On the way, his journey is temporarily derailed by his devotion to the revolutionary Vodalus, who sends him to deliver a message to a servant in the House Absolute.  His path will cross with many former friends and acquaintances, and many strange and surreal experiences await him.”~Allie

Since this is a continuation of the story from the first novel, I would strongly recommend for prospective readers to begin the series with The Shadow of the Torturer. Also, the review of The Golem and the Jinni is coming soon; I just got a little out of order!

My Thoughts:

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second fourth of Severian’s story, and most of the things I liked and disliked from the first novel are present here, as well. I enjoyed the far future, dying earth setting, with a decayed society living alongside high technology from days gone by. I read once that high fantasy often tended to describe a world declining from past greatness, while science fiction often tended to describe a world progressing towards greatness. I enjoyed how Wolfe wrote his science fictional world with this kind of fantasy-esque atmosphere.  It was always interesting to see how the characters would interact with modern or future technology, and I felt like I was also starting to get a better sense of the myths and legends Wolfe was drawing from for particular events or characters.  I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of the allusions and references, but it’s fun to try to pick them out as I go.

However, while I enjoyed the setting, I found it much harder to drum up sympathy for the main cast of characters. I think that Severian might have been an easier character to like if I were privy to less of his thoughts. For instance, Severian carefully described the bodies of all the women he met, and pondered the subtle nuances between the different kinds of lust he felt for each of them.  I did not find these considerations as fascinating as teenage Severian must have, and I found many of his views on women and other topics to be pretty appalling.  Some of the other characters, such as Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos and Baldanders, had pretty interesting histories or circumstances, but none of them were particularly easy to like.  I was curious about the source of Dorcas's dreams, and the nature of the connection between Dr. Talos and Baldanders, but only in a detached sort of way. Of course, not all novels necessarily need to have a cast of likeable characters, but as it was, it was hard to feel emotionally invested in their personal stories.  

I was less surprised by the plot structure this time around, since the second novel is much like the first.  Severian is technically still on his way to Thrax, as ordered near the beginning of the first novel, but he is still incredibly easy to distract from that goal.  Instead of following a direct path, he wanders through a variety of surreal, improbably connected events.  His meandering experiences are also interrupted by several stories within the story: one written tale and one play that the group with Dr. Talos is performing. I suspect they contain clues for the nature of the story to come, but I admit that I am not yet clear on what many of those clues might be. I found it to be easier to appreciate the story once I let go of the expectation that the plot would proceed in any particular direction, and simply enjoyed the scenes as they passed.

My Rating: 3 /5

The Claw of the Conciliator is similar in style to The Shadow of the Torturer, with the same wandering plot structure and series of surreal experiences.  As Severian wanders, though, more of the nature of the world and of the story in which he is living is beginning to be revealed. While the second novel provided more insight into the structure of the world, it also managed to destroy most of my remaining sympathy for the characters, particularly the protagonist.  While I am still interested in considering the tetralogy as a complete work, having to experience the story from Severian's point of view can be very wearing.  I will probably finish the rest of the series, but maybe not until I've caught up with my 2014 challenges.