Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review: Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Tor, 2003
Series: Book 3 of Kushiel’s Legacy

The Book:

“After the events of Kushiel’s Chosen, Phèdre and Joscelin enjoy a decade of peace together.  One thing mars their happiness—the knowledge that Phèdre’s childhood friend Hyacinthe is still trapped eternally on a lonely island by the curse of the angel Rahab.  She has spent these years in pursuit of the only power that may grant his freedom: the Name of God.

Help may come from an unexpected place, but not without a price.  Melisande Shahrizai, still imprisoned in La Serenissima, has learned that her beloved son has vanished.  When her own agents fail, she turns to her nemesis Phèdre for help, offering her knowledge of the Name of God in exchange.  Phèdre and Joscelin’s journey may well take them through Hell and back, and they will have to find the strength to endure the torment and to protect the ones they love.” ~Allie

This is the final book of Phèdre’s Trilogy, the first half of Kushiel’s Legacy. I read this one as a part of a read-along, and our spoiler-filled discussions can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. We’re actually picking up with the first book of Imriel’s Trilogy, Kushiel's Scion, in a few days (the schedule has been announced here), so please hop on over to our goodreads group, or join us on twitter (@SFFReadAlongs) if you’d like to join the fun!

My Thoughts:

This novel provides the conclusion of Phèdre’s Trilogy, though the series continues for another six books.  To a large extent, then, it involves wrapping up her story while introducing the bridge to the next third of the story, Melisande’s son Imriel.  Phèdre is now in her thirties, and I once again loved seeing how much she and Joscelin had grown and matured in the intervening years.  I especially liked their partnership, and how well the two of them have now come to understand and appreciate one another.  Their love is really something beautiful, and I think it has grown into something unbreakable as well. The action of this novel is bookended by useful recap at the beginning and a long, grand conclusion.The central novel part of the novel is composed of two mostly separate storylines, that of finding Imriel and that of freeing Hyacinthe. 

The first storyline was the most tense and compelling to me, probably in part because I did not really know what would happen or what exactly Phèdre and Joscelin would face.  This story introduced us to an important character, Imriel, but also took us to the darkest place in the entire trilogy.  Imriel has been taken by child slavers, and has been sold into a truly horrific situation. In her pursuit of him, Phèdre is driven not just by her sympathy for an innocent child or her promise to Melisande, but also as an avatar of Kushiel’s justice.  There is a lot of sexual content in these books, but in this section it goes beyond that, way past the games of BDSM and into actual torture.  It was very hard to read, and I don’t think I could have continued with the book if it had been no hope near at hand.  However, this is a story about overcoming darkness, and so I was eager to read of how they would defeat that sickening level of evil.  These experiences are not something the characters can come to peace with quickly, and I expect their memories will continue to play a role in Imriel’s Trilogy.

For the second storyline, Phèdre’s desire to rescue Hyacinthe has been such a constant throughout the trilogy that I always assumed she would eventually achieve it.  I felt like I pretty much knew all the major points of this plot already, so I was mostly following along with Phèdre to fill in the details.  This part of the story involves more entertaining travel and exposure to new cultures, including an isolated nation that a commenter in the read-along pointed out was modeled after Ethiopian Jews.  The traveling and the culmination of the journey was interesting, but didn’t have the same tension as the rescue of Imriel. After all was said and done, the conclusion of the story was suitably impressive for a farewell to the adventures of the Comtesse Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève.   

My Rating: 4/5

Kushiel’s Avatar provides a satisfying conclusion to Phèdre and Joscelin’s adventures, while also introducing the hero for the next three books, Imriel, the son of Melisande Shahrizai.  In between the beginning recaps and the long resolution of the trilogy, Phèdre and Joscelin followed the two goals of freeing Hyacinthe from his curse and rescuing Imriel from wherever he might have been taken. I felt like the end of the Hyacinthe plotline was a foregone conclusion, but the search for Imriel leads Phèdre to a surprisingly dark and disturbing place.  Happily, that darkness can’t last, and this final novel of Phèdre’s journey leaves her in a life that seems like it will be full of love.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
Published: Avon, 1995
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“This story of malaria, fever, delirium and discovery stretches across time and space—from Ronald Ross’s malaria research in Victorian India, to the obsessed Murugan’s study of Ross’s life in 1995 Calcutta, to Antar’s investigation into the disappearance of his acquaintance Murugan in near-future New York.  The cord that binds them all together may involve a shadowy conspiracy, which makes use of malaria’s ability to affect the brain to achieve a kind of immortality.” ~Allie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Amitav Ghosh, and it was also my next commute audio book. It’s my second review for Stainless Steel Droppings’ Sci-Fi Experience.

My Thoughts:

This was a very confusing novel for me, and while I was trying to process it I came across this interesting analysis by Prof. Shubha Tiwari.  For anyone who is interested in an examination of the ideas and thematic goals of the novel, I would recommend taking a look.  After reading that article, though, I feel like I just didn't have an understanding of Indian culture, mythology and history that was sufficient to fully appreciate what Ghosh was doing. This is not a novel that leads the reader by the hand, so others like me might want to be prepared to do some outside supplemental reading.  On the other hand, I did enjoy the opportunity to learn a bit more about India, both in the novel itself and in my internet reading afterward. The setting of Calcutta in 1995 was especially vivid and unfamiliar to me, so the bits of usual daily life were just as intriguing as the more unusual or confusing elements.

In addition to the unfamiliar cultural setting, there’s an awful lot going on. The story intertwines a fictional version of Ronald Ross’s malaria research, a ‘present’ story in 1995 Calcutta, a near-future story, and various one-off side stories.  The strongest thread is the ‘present’ one, which includes not only Murugan but also two Indian women—Sonali, a celebrity and former actress, and Urmila, an ambitious reporter.  I enjoyed reading about these characters, but I felt like the plot was a little overly dominated by uncovering and explaining information in dialogue.  Quite a lot of Ross’s story, as well as other historical tales and theories about the shadowy organization and their goals, are directly told by Murugan to whichever character he is around at the moment.  Listening to this in audiobook form, it felt especially noticeable that a lot of the story involved Murugan spouting information at people.  There was a lot of discussion about influencing reality through the careful control of information, so I suspect this may have been a deliberate narrative choice.  

With all of this, there are a lot of ideas and bits of plot floating around, which did not all seem to gel at the end of the novel.  It’s entirely possible I missed some metaphorical meanings or subtle connections, and that I will just need to read this again one day to try and work them out.  However, on this read through it felt like a lot of things were introduced that did not lead much of anywhere. For instance, there were side stories about spiritualists, an epidemic, and a ghostly encounter at a train station, all of which seemed only very loosely connected to the main story.  For that matter, assuming the main story involves the shadowy organization that is searching for the “Calcutta Chromosome”, the entire novel is set at something of a distance.  I vaguely understand some of the organization’s goals, but we only ever see these people through the lenses of other peoples’ stories. In the end, The Calcutta Chromosome felt like something of a puzzle, but one that I could not quite manage to solve.

My Rating: 3/5

I felt like The Calcutta Chromosome was a challenging novel, and one which I think I ultimately did not fully understand. Despite this, it was fun to read a science fiction novel based in India, and it was probably a good experience to read so far out of my reading comfort zone.  I enjoyed reading about Calcutta in 1995 and the characters who lived there.  At the same time, I felt like too much of the story was tied up in the transfer of information through dialogue, and I was disappointed by how little closure there was in the end for the many different topics brought up through the course of the novel.  I found reading this novel to be both and interesting and a frustrating experience. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published: Amazing Stories/Scribner (1971), Gollancz (2001)
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Nebula Awards

The Book: 

“George Orr discovers that his dreams sometimes have the power to alter reality, and the knowledge fills him with terror of his own mind and dreams.  His actions lead him to psychiatric therapy, where he consults with a dream expert that he hopes can help to cure him.  

His well-meaning therapist, Haber, sees other possibilities in George’s power, and begins to see him more as a powerful tool than a patient.  Playing God is a dangerous game, though, and dreams are a difficult tool to control with precision.”  ~Allie

This was my next commute audio book. Reviews of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work have not shown up on this blog for the same reason as Asimov’s; I enjoyed her work immensely as a child, and had read the majority of her novels-to-date before I began this blog.  There are a few that slipped through the cracks, like The Lathe of Heaven, and I’m sure I’ll review them here eventually!  

This is also my first science fiction review for Stainless Steel Droppings Sci-Fi Experience, which runs from December 2015 to January 2016.  The review site for all participants can be found here.  I haven't managed an intro post for this, but I am planning to put up some reviews of science fiction books, television shows, and (maybe) movies in the weeks to come. Thanks to Chris Goff for the cool banner!

My Thoughts:

The Lathe of Heaven is a short book set in Portland, Oregon, and it is tightly focused on a few characters and the single central premise of dreams altering reality. The main conflict is between the dreamer George and his therapist Haber, who have very different personalities, ideologies and places in society.  Since Haber is a respected therapist and George is labeled as a mentally ill patient who is legally obliged to seek help, Haber is able to directly exert power over George. Haber is also an overbearing and paternalistic man, confident in his own beliefs, while George is passive, uncertain, and believes that Haber means well. Haber believes the correct path is to use George’s ability to improve the world, while George wants to rid himself of the ability and to live in harmony with a stable reality. They both had pretty reasonable arguments to support their goals, though I’m not sure I completely agreed with either of them.

The interplay between them was compelling, even while it was frustrating and infuriating to see how Haber attempted to undermine and control George.  I think I believe George, though, that Haber was not acting out of malice, but out of the misguided sense that he was in a position to know what was best for everyone. The third major character, a dark-skinned lawyer named Heather Lelache, is the one who eventually acts as a catalyst for change in George’s hopeless situation. I enjoyed Heather’s temperament—it was nice to see her described as prickly and aggressive, and then to realize that this was not a negative characterization.  As things begin to spiral out of control, it was interesting to see what constants survived between shifts in reality, within each of these characters and in relation to one another.

The shifts in reality from George’s dreams also allowed for some creative world-building.  Though the changes originated within George’s dreams, they did not manifest with dream-like illogic.  Instead, reality changed retroactively in such a way that the new reality would make coherent sense.  Therefore, after each shift, the reader is presented with an internally consistent world that takes into account, in past and present, the causes and effects of the change.  Early on, when the dreams are directed by Haber’s certainty about how to fix the world, the effects often demonstrate his lack of perspective.  For instance, at one point he ‘fixes’ racism by eliminating race.  This might superficially solve the problem, but it also greatly diminishes humanity, a fact that is obvious to everyone except Haber.  It was fascinating to watch each planned improvement for the world progress from intention, through interpretation and to incorporation into reality, and to consider what the effects said about the people involved.  The Lathe of Heaven was written 45 years ago, but the characters, social issues, and view of human nature are still relevant for today’s audiences.

My Rating: 5/5

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an excellent short novel that does not feel especially dated, despite being written near half a century ago. The interactions between George, whose dreams affect reality, his misguided therapist Haber, and the outsider Heather feel authentic despite how dramatically reality changes.  It was interesting to see how each alteration of reality changed the history and present of George’s world, as well as how each alteration reflected the characters’ perception of humanity and its problems.  I think this one is rightly considered a classic of science fiction, and I hope it finds a readership for many years to come.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Last First Snow by Max Gladstone

Last First Snow by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2015
Series: Book 4 of the Craft Sequence

The Book:

Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation-especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods' decaying edicts. As long as the gods' wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill's people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne's work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace-or failing that, to save as many people as they can.”

I am still loving Gladstone’s Craft Sequence!  I read this one as a part of a read-along, and you can see our spoiler-filled discussions here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.  I feel like the books and events in this series are now sufficiently interconnected that--even though each book has its own standalone story--you really need to have read the previous books in the series to best appreciate this one.
My Thoughts:

I was very eager to get to Last First Snow, because I had heard that it was a prequel involving the life of Elayne Kevarian, a recurring character from the previous books in the series.  I loved Elayne in Three Parts Dead, was excited to see her again briefly in Full Fathom Five, and was thrilled that she would be a viewpoint character this time around.  Her perspective of the world does not disappoint; she is the same intensely driven, intelligent, and powerful woman she is in the previous novels, and the insight into her emotions and reasoning only makes her more fascinating.  The other viewpoint character is actually someone I found very unsympathetic in his previous appearance, Temoc from Two Serpents Rise. I was surprised that he was such a compelling character-- a dedicated father, husband, and Eagle Knight who was struggling to reconcile his obligations to his faith and his people with those to his family.   I definitely didn’t agree with many of his choices, but I could see the pressures made him into the man he is in Two Serpents Rise.  

I think prequels are challenging stories to write, since the audience knows the direction everything has to go. In this case, while I knew the broad strokes of how the situation would end, the journey there was surprisingly tense.  I think my rough knowledge of what must eventually happen between Temoc, his gods, and his son added an extra layer of dread to my perception of events.  Even when things seem to be going well, I was always waiting for everything to fall apart.  The details of the central conflict, also, kept the tension high.  I might know roughly where Temoc and Elayne would end up, but I had no idea what would happen to any of the minor characters on either (or neither) side.  Each of these minor characters had their own motivations, even if they sought similar goals, which made the tangled knot of disagreements between the protestors and the developers that much more complicated.

Though the world may be full of Craft and supernatural religious power, the main conflict involves the very real-world problem of gentrification.  The developers want to improve the Skittersill, but their plans would destroy the existing community.  It was interesting to see both sides lay out their arguments during negotiations, and to see if there might be a way forward that addresses the concerns of both parties.  Of course, as in real life, the gradient of power did not only fall along economic lines.  The developers were largely secular Craftspeople, while the protesters mostly held to a religion that had fallen out of power in the Wars. The negotiations not only had to solve the immediate problems, but to avoid re-opening old, not-truly-healed wounds.  I don’t want to spoil the end of the book, but I think anyone who has read Two Serpents Rise will already know that something is bound to go violently wrong. I will say that the ending was powerful and heart-breaking, and--despite being a prequel--it held several unexpected surprises.  In my opinion, this is the strongest yet of the Craft Sequence novels.  

My Rating: 5 /5

Last First Snow is the fourth novel in the Craft Sequence.  It is a prequel that takes place in Dresediel Lex, featuring Elayne Kevarian and Temoc, in the years when Caleb from Two Serpents Rise is still a child.  Elayne and Temoc are both fascinating, conflicted characters, and they are accompanied by a cast of minor characters whose differing baggage and motivations impact the direction of the story.  The central conflict involves a protest against the proposed gentrification of the Skittersill, but this immediate issue also threatens to re-ignite violence in the city along ideological lines.  I thought this was a very powerful and tragic story, and it is my favorite novel of the Craft Sequence to date.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Tor, 2002
Series: Book 2 of Kushiel’s Legacy
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award

This is the second book in a series, so beware of spoilers for book 1, Kushiel's Dart, in the description and review below.

The Book:

“After the events of Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre and Joscelin were finally able to relax together in the peaceful, countryside estate that was left to her by her adopted guardian, Anafiel Delaunay.  Phèdre, now in her twenties, initially enjoys her new lifestyle, but soon begins to feel restless.  The catalyst for change comes in the return of her sangoire cloak. It could only have been sent by the beautiful and cruel Melisande Shahrizai, and Phèdre immediately recognizes it as an invitation to re-enter the dangerous game of politics.

Melisande has already been declared a traitor to Terre d’Ange, but being in hiding does not seem to have stopped her from scheming.  Phèdre feels connected to her through bonds of both love and hate, and she feels that she may be the only one who can unravel the truth before it is too late. With a new noble title, the trust of her monarch, and a soaring reputation as a Servant of Naamah, Phèdre enters the game now with much more power and knowledge than she held years before.  She is determined to follow her path to the end, regardless of the cost to herself and to her relationship with the man she loves most, Joscelin.” ~Allie

I’m running behind on reviews again, but will hopefully be able to catch up during the winter break!  I read Kushiel’s Chosen as a part of a read-along, and you can see the spoiler-filled discussions in the following posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.  I am continuing to love this series, and wonder why I never picked it up before.  I would recommend anyone who is interested in the series to begin with Kushiel’s Dart.

My Thoughts:

Kushiel’s Chosen continues on from the events in Kushiel’s Dart, following Phèdre into a new phase of her life.  Phèdre is now in her twenties, and while she is still a political schemer and a masochistic courtesan, she is now also a Comtesse in a relationship with her ex-Cassiline bodyguard, Joscelin.  I commented in my last review that I would be interested to see how she matured as she moved into adulthood, and this continuation of the series has not disappointed in that regard.  She still has her trademarks of vanity and ethnocentrism, though the latter is progressively weakened as she continues to experience other lands and cultures.  While she does still use her sexuality, beauty and reputation to her advantage, I appreciated that she is beginning to rely more often on her mind. In fighting against Melisande, she will have to do so, since the woman is a master manipulator with a seemingly unbreakable hold on Phèdre’s heart.  I never completely bought the draw Melisande had for Phèdre, but for the most part I just chalked it up as a result of their mutual connections to Kushiel.   

In any case, the plan to find and to foil Melisande leads Phèdre through a number of new lands.  The most notable is the nation of La Serenissima (a.k.a. the Serene Republic of Venice), in which we are introduced to a new set of political movers and shakers in a society with different traditions and social mores than Phèdre’s home.  Beyond Serenissima, she ends up passing through a number of other Mediterranean nations, each with their own distinct ways of life. The Yeshuites, who are a cultural group that seems to be roughly based on Messianic Judaism, play a larger role in the novel as well.  I enjoyed matching up the fantasy lands with their real-life counterparts, and trying to find what myths and aspects of the culture might have inspired different aspects of the fictional versions. Amidst this travel and widening horizons, there is an intense epic fantasy story, involving politics, betrayals and other unexpected plot twists, pirates, and mystical experiences in several cultural traditions.

I felt there was a bit less sexual content in this third of the trilogy, but the romantic relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin plays a larger role.  I am not usually much of a romance fan, but I think they must be my favorite epic fantasy couple.  When they are on the same page, they complement each other so well, and their bond is based on years of shared trauma and shared happiness.  However, in this book, they hit some roadblocks in their relationship.  I liked that the problems that came between them rose naturally out of their incompatibilities, rather than from any external force.  In fact, most of their problems involved their differing desires, attitudes about sex, and expectations of a romantic relationship.  
If their relationship is going to survive, they both need to learn how to compromise.  When the novel drew to a close, I was already eager to see what would happen next for Phèdre and Joscelin.

My Rating: 4 / 5

Kushiel’s Chosen is an excellent continuation of the story of Phèdre’s life, which started with Carey’s debut Kushiel’s Dart. The characters are growing and maturing, and their adventures lead them to new lands and new cultures.  I still am not sure I understand Phèdre’s obsession with Melisande, but I have to admit that she is an entertaining, intelligent and ruthless villain.  The main plot is again an exciting tale of political manipulation, travel, and overcoming hardships, but I felt Phèdre and Joscelin’s romance also played a larger role.  I really enjoy their relationship, and how their problems arise naturally from their mismatched expectations and desires.  I’ve already read Kushiel’s Avatar at this point (what can I say, I’m running late on reviews), and I’m looking forward to reading the next trilogy!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Ballantine Books, 1968
Series: Space Odyssey Book 1

The Book:

“After the discovery of a mysterious alien artifact on the moon, a manned mission is sent out deep into the solar system.  Their mission is so secret that not even the astronauts themselves know their true purpose. The ship carries danger with it into the void, and no one knows what the astronauts might encounter at their journey’s end.” ~Allie

I meant for this to be a part of my Sci-Fi Month participation, but November ended up being extremely busy this year (especially near the end).  Hopefully, I can be a bit more active next year!  On to 2001, I was surprised that HAL didn’t play a larger role in the story, since that was mostly what I remember from a long-ago movie viewing. Also, just a note on Clarke adaptations, Childhood’s End will be airing on Syfy in just a few weeks!

My Thoughts:

I find it kind of hard to talk at length about Arthur C. Clarke’s older works, because they are generally such pure and simple expressions of scientific and/or extraterrestrial wonder.  2001: A Space Odyssey is no different in this regard, a story of first contact and the value of sentience in a wide universe.  This novel in particular has had a massive impact on science fiction culture, partially due to Kubrick’s film adaptation.  I barely remember the movie, and I’d never read the book, and still much of the story felt familiar.  I remembered the monolith and its uplift of proto-humans, the space journey in the ship with the dangerous AI, and the astronaut’s eventual destination.  All of the journey is carefully told in Clarke’s usual dry, meticulous style, which I have always enjoyed. HAL provided some conflict and excitement along the way, but I was also drawn in by the awe in the descriptions of approaching massive planets.  

Also usual of my experience with Clarke’s writing, the characters are secondary to the story’s ideas, which are what stay with you after the closing scene.  On top of the first contact and uplift ideas, the future Clarke imagines deviates from our own recent history and present in some interesting ways.  In particular, I was very intrigued by his solutions for the difficulties of space travel--including eating and eliminating in microgravity--and how they differ from the solutions used by today’s space agencies.  However, he also seems to have missed a lot of social progress in his extrapolation to the future.  Given how the story ends, I was surprised to read that Clarke originally intended 2001 as a standalone work.  It seems perfectly set up to show more of humanity’s future, though the sequel didn’t follow until over a decade later.  Clarke seems to have had a way of writing novels that leave people eager to know what might happen next in the universe he has imagined.

My Rating: 4 /5  

2001: A Space Odyssey is another classic by Arthur C. Clarke that deserves its enduring popularity.  As a fan of science fiction and Arthur C. Clarke, it was high time I finally got around to reading it.  2001: A Space Odyssey covers the wonder of space travel and first contact with an alien species, and it has a fair amount of conflict with the untrustworthy ship AI.  The novel also provided a view from 1968 of an imagined future of space travel.  We’re clearly far behind Clarke’s imagined manned space program, but it was really interesting to compare his dreams of the future to our recent past.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, END

Welcome to the final week of the read-along of Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, a week which also marks the end of the read-along of the trilogy.  Many thanks to Susan of Dab of Darkness for organizing this read-along, and for inspiring me to read to read a series that I have ended up enjoying so much.  Also, many thanks to the other participants—Emily, Lynn and Lisa—for all of their discussion and differing perspectives.  I hope I will be able to read and discuss more books with you in the future!  I provided the questions this week, and they cover chapters 83 to the end of the novel, so beware of spoilers for the entire trilogy below!

1. Phedre stops by to extract a promise from Melisande.  Why do you think Melisande chose the condition she did, out of the two that Phedre asked for?  Do you think she has some other scheme afoot that no longer involves the d'Angeline throne?

I think Phedre was right that this was the only time she would be able to extract a promise from Melisande, and I believe that she will keep it.  I am suspecting that Melisande may have chosen the condition that least interferes with her current schemes, though.  There are other sources of power besides the d’Angeline throne, so I’m wondering if she is turning her eyes elsewhere.  I really don’t know what exactly she might be after, starting a cult based around, but I suspect she’ll show up again in future books.

2. When Phedre gets back to the City of Elua, she faces Ysandre's anger.  Do you think Ysandre treated Phedre & Joscelin fairly?  What do you agree or disagree with in her reaction?

I was actually pretty disappointed with the way Ysandre handled this. In their first meeting, I lost a fair amount of respect for her when Ysandre brought up that Phedre’s profession and lack of noble blood made her worth less than other nobility.  Phedre has probably done as much or more than any noble to prove her value to Terre d’Ange, so that felt like a much lower blow than Phedre’s bringing up Anafiel Delaunay.  To be honest, her denigrating Phedre’s position made me more angry than her delaying Hyacinthe’s rescue.  He had endured for over a decade, so adding a few more months before his rescue was harsh, but not life-threatening. 

After seeing how it all played out in the end, I suspect it was just a show of dominance from Ysandre, so it didn’t look like she could be so easily manipulated by a Comtesse.  I think this could have been avoided by Ysandre meeting with Phedre and Joscelin privately, and then deciding how to spin things in public.

3.  The next major event of the story is the confrontation with Rahab.  Did this go how you expected, or were there any notable surprises?

I did not expect Phedre to take on the curse herself, and I didn’t expect Kushiel’s Dart to come into play.  It was a really powerful confrontation, though, and I appreciated that Phedre tried to convince Rahab to show mercy before she used the Name of God.  I don’t think he necessarily deserved mercy, but I respect Phedre’s compassion as well as her ability to do what has to be done.

4. Do you think Hyacinthe will (or should) pass on his knowledge and power at some point? Also, how much of an impact do you think he will have on the Tsingano culture?  

I feel like I understand a lot more about the Master of the Straits deal than I did before!  I had assumed his power would be gone with the curse, so I hadn’t really thought about this in advance. It seems like his power is pretty important for the defense of Terre d’Ange and Alba, so it would make sense for him to pass it on, especially now that it doesn’t come with a curse.  I expect he’ll need a young apprentice to carry it to the next generation.  I think this knowledge is too powerful to be lost, so I hope he passes it on.

As for the Tsingano, it looks like he has already had an indirect impact on their culture.  They seem to be rethinking their stance against Didikani and the Dromonde, at the very least.  I liked that he did his best to help them move more towards gender equality, though that kind of change would certainly take a long time to really take root.

5. At the end, all is well, and Phedre seems content with her life.  Was there anything that stood out to you in the resolution of the story, or in Phedre's massive party in Night's Doorstep?  How do you feel about the way her trilogy has ended?

I loved the simple happiness of this ending.  Phedre and Joscelin are happy (as we see in the bath scene…), they have their adopted son safe at home, Hyacinthe is free, and all is forgiven with Ysandre.  Phedre’s party was also very impressive, and I think it was important that Hyacinthe’s value was finally acknowledged by all in the City of Elua.  It was also a reflection of the beginning of the series—Phedre began as a child, quietly attending elaborate parties, now she is a woman in her thirties that has the money and power to throw them in honor of others.

There has been so much suffering throughout this trilogy, I think this conclusion was a good balance.  Their story is also clearly not yet over, since they still have many years ahead of them raising Imriel, enjoying their hobbies at Montreve, and interacting with the d’Angeline court. “Love as thou wilt,” was a fitting final thought for the series, and now Phedre, Joscelin, Imriel, and others are finally free to do just that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, Part 7

Hello all, and welcome to week 7 of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Avatar!  I’m a few days late this time, due to having way too much work to do over the weekend.  Better late than never, right?  We’re finishing up this read-along next week, but if you’re interesting in catching the end, or in future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group page!  This week covers chapters 74-82, and the discussion questions are provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow.  Beware of spoilers, and let’s get to the discussion!

1.Yevuneh and the other women agree to help Phedre continue on her quest, and though it doesn't go smoothly, she succeeds in finding the Broken Tablets and the Name of God! What did you think of how this part of the story played out?

I think this is how it had to have happened.  If the men hadn’t chased them down, Phedre wouldn’t have been threatened.  If Phedre hadn’t been threatened, Imriel wouldn’t have tried to defend her. Then if Imriel hadn’t been in danger, Phedre might not have been able to reach that place in herself that held selfless love.  I really appreciate that it was an adopted parent/child love that made her worthy to carry the Name of God.

2. When the dust settles, Imriel's position on where he feels he belongs is all the more firm - he wants to be with Phedre and Joscelin, and not with House Courcel. Do you have any thoughts on how things will go for them when they return home?

I would be extremely sad if Imriel didn’t end up as Joscelin and Phedre’s son at the end of this.  He clearly has chosen them as his parents.  For their part, both Phedre and Joscelin seemed not altogether content with their decision not to have children.  Phedre didn’t want to risk her child having to also bear Kushiel’s Dart, and Joscelin thought that would be going too far against his former Cassiline ideals.  For both of them, it was more external reasons than emotional reasons that they didn’t want to start a family.  Now, their love for Imriel will allow them to have a child without having to worry about any of these considerations!  In terms of the politics, I still hope Phedre will use her boon to adopt him as Imriel nó Delaunay.

3. Among other important changes to their way of life, the possibility of trade between Saba and other nations has opened up in the aftermath of what Phedre has done. This leads her to speculate that the intentions of the gods go far beyond what she was aware. What do you think of that bigger-picture theory? What might it mean for the world in general?

I hadn’t really considered that angle on the situation.  In that sense, perhaps the deities are working together, Elua and his Companions alongside the Jewish God.  I think that does make some sense, given the connection of Elua’s birth with the death of God’s Son.  In that sense, perhaps it was God’s intention to find a home for Imriel, to stop the Angra Mainyu cult, to forgive the people of Saba, and to free Hyacinthe from his curse.  I still don’t like that Imriel had to suffer to start this chain of events, but it does seem to be righting a lot of wrongs that have been resting unaddressed for many years.

4. We're heading toward the finale, and hopefully to a resolution regarding Hyacinthe's fate... Do you have any thoughts about what might happen when Phedre gets back to him?

I’m hoping he’ll be free, and he’ll go to be with his British almost-girlfriend.  Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll visit Phedre and Joscelin from time to time.  Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’m so ready for everything to end up happy!  If freeing Hyacinthe really is part of God’s plan to right wrongs, then I am wondering if the Name of God will vanish from Phedre’s mind after she uses it to lift Hyacinthe’s curse.  It was a gift, after all, and seemed to be given to her for this purpose.

Other Things:

—The descriptions of rain were just so miserable!  I can’t imagine having to travel like that for so long.

—Joscelin’s lion mane is amazing.  I even found a fan art of it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Published: Doubleday (1974), Gollancz (2001)
Awards Won: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo, and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

Jason Tavener woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognised, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future. When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.”

I’ve read a handful of novels and short fiction by Philip K. Dick, and have enjoyed most of them.  Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said didn’t really work for me.  On a happier note, Amazon Prime’s television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, one of Dick’s novels that I did really enjoy, is now online!

My Thoughts:

It might be the case that I was really just in the wrong mood for Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, because I have generally enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work in the past.  I know a lot of people really enjoyed this novel (look at all the awards!).  In fact, I’m really surprised I bounced off of this one as hard as I did.  For me, the first issue was the writing style.  Philip K. Dick’s prose is often pretty plain and workman-like, but it seemed particularly clunky in this novel.  For instance, he actually used the word ‘friendlily’ multiple times.  I wondered if he was deliberately playing up the artlessness of the prose to get the right tone for Tavener’s life of shallowness and celebrity.  Even if that’s the case, though, I find modern-day celebrity culture tedious, and thus was not really drawn in by this fictional version.
This lack of interest ties into my issues with the characters, who all seem pretty vapid and aimless, and with the plot, which is more or less nonexistent.  Random things happen, but they often don’t seem to have an impact on either past or future.  For instance, shortly after the opening of the story, someone nearly succeeds in murdering the main character.  Afterward, neither the event nor the perpetrator have any further role in the story.  Tavener’s vanished identity is a mystery, but it’s not one he’s going to solve.  Instead, he wanders around, encountering the a variety of women, and the reasoning for his situation is tacked on to the end of the story like an afterthought.  I gather that this is one of those books where the wandering around is really the point, and I know PKD often abruptly ends his novels with wild ideas that are interesting but might not make much sense.  In this case, though, I think I was just not engaged enough with the story or the characters to really appreciate the ideas behind them.

It seems like the world might have been a kind of 1970s nightmare, and in that sense I think it has not aged well.  Some of the things which might have been extrapolations of trends in the 1970s no longer have any resonance with this Millennial reader.  I think this would be a surmountable obstacle, except that the world-building seems to exist only for these atmospheric purposes that it does not achieve for me.  Tavener’s country is a police state, where rebelling university students have been trapped underground and people are regularly sent to labor camps for little or no reason. Everyone is always ready to turn on everyone else, so there’s not much genuine connection between people.  There’s also this weird thing about the main character being a ‘Six’, a person genetically engineered to be better and smarter than baseline humans.  Except he isn’t, at least in any way I can tell.  I’m not sure if this is a jab at the idea of genetic engineering or a failure of voice. Given how many novels Philip K. Dick has published, I suppose it’s not surprising that some of them are just not my thing.

My Rating: 2/5

I normally like Philip K. Dick’s work, but I bounced very hard off of this one. This is the story of a shallow pop star briefly losing his fame and identity, and of his wandering around until it is restored.  All of the characters seemed vapid, shallow and incapable of meaningful human connection, and I was frustrated by the apparent pointlessness of the plot.  I think the reveal at the end could have been an interesting twist if I’d been in the mood for it, but instead it just felt tacked on.  I’ll probably still read more Philip K. Dick in the future, because I am honestly surprised I did not enjoy this one.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Video Game Reviews: Science Fiction Variety

In another departure from my usual reviewing habits, today I’m going to tackle science fiction video games for Sci-fi Month!  I have been a kind of intermittent gamer since I was a child. I played my share of NES titles, but then switched to PC games until the PS2 came out.  After a brief, intense period of playing PS2, I switched back to computer games--most especially World of Warcraft, in which I had a lot of fun.  These days, I mostly play Resident Evil, Left4Dead and Diablo 3 on PC, and my husband and I have launched a new project to enjoy console gaming.

Shortly after the PS4/Xbox1 came out, we purchased an Xbox360, planning to check out all the best used games.  To that end, we had an amazingly fun day-trip to Lyon, where we visited all of the gaming stores we could find and picked up a wide variety of titles.  We have primarily targeted science fiction or fantasy games that are not FPS, since FPS on console is extremely annoying for my left-handed husband.  I’ve been considering doing short reviews of these games on this blog, as we go through them, so I figured Sci-fi Month was a great time to give it a try!  

Remember Me by DONTNOD Entertainment

Remember Me is one of the most memorable (haha) of the games we’ve played so far.  Not only does it include some creative game dynamics and aesthetically pleasing art, it also featured a really interesting future world and story.  The story is set in a dystopian future Paris, where a corporation called Memorize has commodified memories through a popularly-used implant.  The main character, Nilin, begins in the Bastille, where the prisoners are kept docile through forced amnesia.  The amnesiac discovering her own identity is not a unique story in video games, but I loved learning about the world and Nilin’s life alongside her.

The game dynamics ranged from decent to really interesting.  The combat involved the ability to build your own combos, which would allow you to both do damage to your enemies or heal yourself. There was also a fair amount of climbing around Neo-Paris, but only on predefined paths. The most unique dynamic of the game is the main character’s ability to change a person’s memories, and therefore change who they are in the present.  I liked how it emphasized the relationship between our experiences and our identities, and the shaded morality involved in the manipulation of memories as means to an end.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West by Ninja Theory

In case you didn’t pick it up from the name, this post-robot-apocalypse game is based on the ever-famous Journey to the West. I was really surprised by how well the ancient story translated into science fiction, though of course there were some changes. The main characters are the ‘monk’ Tripitaka and Monkey, though in this version they are a young woman who manages to trap a muscular guy known as Monkey through the use of a modified slave collar.  They journey to the west together towards Trip’s home, and they learn about the truth behind their broken world in the process.

This is another fighting/climbing adventure game, but with the added fun of partner-based strategy. The player takes on the role of Monkey, and has to coordinate with AI Trip’s particular set of technology-based skills in order to survive.  For instance, Trip can send a robotic dragonfly around to spy out the land, or make a hologram to draw fire away from Monkey.  I really loved the AI-teamwork aspect of the game, and finding out how to optimize the use of both characters.  The way the story ended was very unexpected, but I think it is a more ambiguous, thoughtful ending that will stick in your mind long after the game is through.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis Games

XCOM is a game I’d always heard was awesome, but I seemed to have missed my window to play the original game--I ran into all sorts of problems trying to run old XCOM on a new computer, and eventually gave up.  I’m glad I checked it out in its newer incarnation, because it is an awesome game!  In fact, it’s one of the only games I feel like I might want to play again sometime (and maybe not lose Australia to the aliens.  Sorry, Australia!).  I don’t mean that as a slight against other games, though, I just think that a strategy game like this one tends to have more replay value than an action role-playing game.

XCOM balances base-building, research, and turn-based combat.  All of these things are really fun, but I think the soldiers that you gear up and take out to fight aliens were my favorite part.  I was surprised by how attached I got to my soldiers, and I still have happy feelings about Maria the psychic sniper being one of the survivors of the final battle.  I was one of those people that obsessively saved after every minor skirmish, because I just couldn’t handle the thought of my favorite soldiers being killed by aliens.  Just writing about this makes me think it might be time to play it again soon...   

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified by 2K Marin

Then one day, someone thought that XCOM really needed to be reimagined as more of a shooter/ role-playing game.  In practice, it was reminiscent enough of Enemy Unknown that I was disappointed by the differences.  There is some research, but it doesn’t quite carry the same weight.  You do fight with a squad of soldiers, but the combat is time-based instead of turn-based, and it revolves around the main character. I didn’t feel as attached to the soldiers, and their class skills seemed less interesting and useful.

The main positive difference is the inclusion of a story that involves a small set of major characters.  If you want a kind of XCOM that has more immediate action and a more linear story, this might be what you’re looking for. Agent Carter (no, not Peggy, sadly) starts off as a pretty standard doesn’t-play-by-the-rules tough-guy, whose dark past has sent him into alcoholism. Once the aliens get involved, though, the story picks up and becomes more interesting. If one can avoid comparing it to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then it really is a fun game in its own right.

Prototype by Radical Entertainment

Prototype follows a guy named Alex Mercer as he tries to find out the truth behind the virus that is changing his body, while it simultaneously spreads to kill everyone in his city. The story is not that complicated, but the game is really based around action and violence.  You have a lot of freedom to leap around the city map--engaging in challenges and generally rampaging--in between the central story quests. The story is kind of interesting, and it was kind of exhilarating to send Alex running up skyscrapers and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, though I had a hard time getting fine control over his movements.  

The world has three factions: civilians, military, and infected.  You’re supposed to stay undetected by the military, or they’ll send tanks and helicopters after you.  Of course, you can always just commandeer the tanks and shoot down the helicopters instead of hiding, and it’s usually faster.  The infected include the most difficult enemies to fight, and the civilians are mostly collateral damage. Prototype was a little less my style than the other games listed here, in that it felt more like an action game than a science fiction game, and I’m not really into the gratuitous violence. I’ve already got a copy of Prototype 2 on the shelf, but it might be a while before I get around to playing it.