Monday, April 27, 2015

News: Read-Along of Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey

I'd like to announce a read-along of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, in which I will be participating!  This is a series that I've been interested in but have never read, so the read-along, started by the Dab of Darkness blog, seems like the perfect time to give it a try!  Here's the current schedule:

Week 1: May 10, Chapters 1-8, Hosted by Dab of Darkness
Week 2: May 17, Chapters 9-18, Hosted by Tethyan Books
Week 3: May 24, Chapters 19-26, Hosted by Over the Effing Rainbow
Week 4: May 31, Chapters 27-36, Hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
Week 5: June 7, Chapters 37-45, Hosted by Dab of Darkness (unless someone else wants to host)
Week 6: June 14, Chapters 46-54, Hosted by Books Without Any Pictures
Week 7: June 21, Chapters 55-63, Hosted by Dolce Bellezza
Week 8: June 28, Chapters 64-73, Hosted by Lynn’s Book Blog
Week 9: July 5, Chapters 74-83, Hosted by Dab of Darkness (unless someone else wants to host)
Week 10: July 12, Chapter 84-END, Hosted by Over the Effing Rainbow

and here is the list of current participants:

Celine at Nyx Book Reviews
Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza
Susan (me) at Dab of Darkness

Each week, the week's host will send around questions about the section of the book covered.  The participants will post their answers, along with any other musings about that section, and then there's generally lots of discussion in comments, especially at the weekly host's blog. 

There's still plenty of time if anyone would like to jump in and join the fun!  You don't have to host or even have a blog-- you're welcome to discuss in the comments of the hosting blog each week. We also have a Goodreads Group started for SF/F Read-Alongs in general, and there is a specific folder for this read-along. 

I'm looking forward to reading and discussing Kushiel's Dart with everyone!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix
Published: HarperCollins Australia, 1995
Series: Book 1 of the Old Kingdom

The Book:

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him.

She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death--and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.”

I’ve never read anything by Garth Nix before, but this series comes highly recommended by some of my best friends.  Surprised that I hadn’t read it in high school, they marched me right to a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble and said, “Here, this is the book you’re buying today.” Thank you, friends, for encouraging me to fill this gap in my reading!

My Thoughts:

The world of Sabriel contains magical and technological lands that are separated by a long wall. The heroine, Sabriel, has spent most of her life in technological Ancelstierre, though she has remained close enough to the wall to be able to practice magic.  Her father practices his art-- making sure the dead remain dead-- in the Old Kingdom, but he has kept her mostly ignorant of her home realm.  Within the story, this is for her protection, but it also allows Sabriel to be a character through which the reader can learn about the magical kingdom.  I was impressed by the creativity of the uses of magic and the different magic systems, and the vividness of description that made the more action-heavy scenes easy to visualize.  I didn’t get an altogether clear sense of the framework underpinning the magic, but it seemed like something that might be explored more thoroughly in the later novels of the series.

I felt like the heart of the story involved Sabriel’s growing into her responsibilities, finding confidence in herself, and accepting the nature of death.  She seemed like an excellent young adult heroine, since I think her uncertainty and feelings of inadequacy would be particularly easy to identify with for people of that age.  In addition, her loyalty to her family and friends, her compassion, her practicality, her courage, and her capability to rise to the occasion make her a heroine that it is easy to admire.  Her companions, the talking cat Mogget and the dislocated Touchstone, also help her along the way.  I loved Mogget’s sarcastic personality, and was happy that Touchstone’s potential as a love interest did not overwhelm the story.   

Sabriel’s story here is very straightforward and complete in one novel-- she has to find and rescue her father, and find out what evil has managed to imprison him.  The story has a lot of forward momentum, initially because of a powerful dead creature, likely related to her father’s trouble, that is relentlessly pursuing her.  On top of this immediate danger, Sabriel is driven by the knowledge that the longer it takes her to find her father, the less likely it is that she will be able to save him. There’s a lot of action, danger, and excitement along the way, as Sabriel learns more about the state of the Old Kingdom and the evil that her father was trying to defeat.  Overall, it was a very fun, quickly-paced novel, and one that was difficult to put down.

My Rating: 4/5

Sabriel is an exciting young adult fantasy novel that I regret it has taken me twenty years to get around to reading. I enjoyed the creativity of the various kinds of Old Kingdom magic, though I hope the system is more thoroughly explained in the later novels of the series. I think the heroine Sabriel would be easily relatable for teen girls, and I appreciated that her strength and competence also made her a character that was easy to admire.  Sabriel’s quest to rescue her father was simple in structure, but there was plenty of action and excitement along the way. I enjoyed following Sabriel as she learned about the Old Kingdom and grew into her responsibilities as her father’s daughter.  I am looking forward to reading the sequels!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2011
Series: Book 3 of the Spin Sequence

Warning: This book is the final volume of a trilogy, so there are some spoilers of the first two books (Spin and Axis) ahead!

The Book:

“Turk Findley has been transported 10,000 years into the future by the Hypotheticals’ temporal arch, and now he has been taken in by a fanatical limbic democracy that expect him to facilitate their eventual glorious communion with those same Hypotheticals.  They are traveling through the series of arches that link the human worlds, moving back to the destroyed, uninhabitable Earth.

Turk is not the only survivor from his time.  Isaac Dvali, the experimental child who was created to communicate with the Hypotheticals, has also come through the temporal arch.  Turk’s other companion is Treya, a far future woman whose mind also contains the personality of a woman from his time, Allison Pearl.  In a twist of space and time, their story is filtered into the mind of a troubled young man from Turk’s past, Orrin Mather, who lives in the latter days of the dying Earth.  Tying past and future together, the story of the Spin is finally drawing to a close.” ~Allie

I’ve read a number of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels in the past, all of which I have reviewed on my blog.  I think that the more I read of his work, the more I enjoy his style of storytelling!  The Spin Sequence is a series of three novels that could be considered standalone, but which would be best read in order.  Vortex in particular feels like more of a sequel to Axis than to Spin, since it resolves the stories of two of the main characters of Axis, Turk and Isaac.  Robert Charles Wilson’s latest novel, The Affinities, will be coming out soon, on April 21st!

My Thoughts:
A different span of time is covered by each of the novels of the Spin Sequence.  Spin covered the lifetime of a group of people who experienced the night when the Hypotheticals’ shield first covered the Earth.  Axis occurred perhaps decades later, and covered specific events that occurred in a very short time frame.  Vortex ties the two schemes together with dual storylines: one that is compact in time, set in Turk’s youth, and one that is much more expansive, beginning 10,000 years later.  The two stories are connected through the character of Turk Findley and the personality of Allison Pearl, as well as by the mysterious transfer of Turk’s story from the future into the mind of Orrin Mather, a man from his past.

The two stories are linked in more subtle ways as well, such as by the development of the understanding of the Hypotheticals and by the fate of the damaged and eventually destroyed Earth.  I remember thinking in Spin that simply providing more fossil fuel resources to the Earth was not a great solution to the energy crunch problem, so I appreciated seeing the long-term effects of that play out here.  On a personal level, as well, the dual storylines address the act that has shaped and shadowed much of Turk’s life--his not-quite-accidental killing of a man, which is first mentioned in Axis.  Isaac also struggles with defining the meaning and purpose of his life, which was originally designed to serve the purposes of others.  I enjoyed the way the stories complemented each other, and was eager to learn what was behind their more mysterious, direct connection.

In addition to being nicely complementary, I felt that the two separate storylines were intriguing in their own rights.  In Turk’s past, the story was told from the point of view of the psychiatrist Sandra Cole, who is initially tasked with interviewing Orrin Mather to determine his suitability to be taken into a Texan involuntary psychiatric care system.  The cop on his case, Bose, introduces Sandra to Orrin’s story of Turk Findley’s future, and together they try to uncover the truth behind the origin of his writings and why someone seems to want him to be locked up.  The story covers a place and time in human history we haven’t seen much of in the trilogy, where the environment of the Earth is in decline and the Martian extended life treatment is a controversial issue.  The far-future is suitably strange, with the limbic democracy of the giant floating island of Vox, it’s hard-coded faith in the Hypotheticals, and the ‘cortical democracies’ that oppose them.  I enjoyed following Turk as he learned how things work in this strange new world, and saw both the appeal and horror of this particular new human way of life.  The conclusion of the series ties everything together, and it provides the kinds of revelations and explanations that I have been patiently waiting for since Spin without losing the story’s emotional, human core.  Altogether, I think this was an excellent conclusion to a highly entertaining series.

My Rating: 4.5/5  

Vortex provides a wonderful conclusion to a series that I have enjoyed, and it finally provides some of the answers to the questions first raised in Spin. The narrative manages to handle both large and small scale, by focusing on two storylines that are separated by 10,000 years.  Each of these stories are entertaining in their own right and complementary to one another, and they are tied together beautifully in the final act.  In the far future, the story follows Turk Findley, who has awaken to find himself a guest of the fanatical limbic democracy Vox, a mobile nation that is headed for the dead Earth and communion with the Hypotheticals.  His story is somehow transferred into the mind of Orrin Mather, a drifter who lived on the dying Earth in the time of Turk’s youth.  The novel relates the grandeur and horror of events that have shaped humanity and the universe, without losing touch with the emotional, human journey of its handful of characters.  I’m happy that the series has ended on such a high note, though I am a bit sad that my experience of this interesting universe and its characters has now come to a close.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the WorldBreaker Saga

The Book:

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past...while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.

Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.  

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.”

This is the third book I’ve read by Kameron Hurley.  I’ve read God’s War and Infidel from her science fiction bug-technology trilogy, and have unfortunately not yet read the conclusion, Rapture (a failure of planning, not of intent). I bought The Mirror Empire during Hurley’s book-launch promotion, so I actually have a copy with a signed book plate!  I believe I will also be receiving a review copy of The Empire Ascendant at some point, so hopefully I’ll manage to have that review up near the publication date.  In other news, Hurley is also going to be publishing a space opera novel, The Stars are Legion, in 2016!

My Thoughts:

The Mirror Empire is the first novel of an unusual, dark, epic fantasy series. If you think that the description in the blurb above sounds very complicated, that’s because it is.  While it features the usual detailed cultures and magic system of epic fantasy, the setting itself is far from ordinary.  This is world of organic buildings and mobile, carnivorous plants, where the magic rises and falls with the prominence of the various satellites.  It is also a world that can be connected through blood portals to other, ‘mirror’ worlds, where the same peoples have experienced differing histories that have led to a wildly diverging present. There’s a massive amount of information to take in, but it is revealed only as it becomes directly relevant.  This approach avoids long explanatory sections, but also makes it a little difficult to get a sense of the world early on.  So far, though, getting to know this world has been worth the effort, and I expect that the familiarity gained through this novel will make it much easier to dive into the next.

The world of The Mirror Empire also follows the current trend toward dark, gritty fantasy, where any given character can very easily be hurt, maimed, or killed, and the lines between good and evil are blurry at best. The death and violence throughout could be a little overwhelming at times, but the novel never quite went past my ‘grimdark’ limit.  Part of that may have been because the grittiness of the setting was not established through the particular use of culturally-sanctioned violence against women. In fact, gender roles and expectations appear to vary significantly across the variety of cultures and races. In one culture there are three recognized genders, and in another, one can self-identify as any of five accepted genders.  The closest any culture comes to the usual gritty fantasy setup is Dorinah, where pseudo-medieval gender roles are reversed.  It was one of the more interesting twists on a generally boring culture that I’ve read, though I am happy that this culture was not the sole focus.  I’m curious to see how these cultural differences will affect the story to come.  

As in most epic fantasies, the novel follows a handful of diverse viewpoint characters. The four primary characters are Lilia, Ahkio, Roh, and Zezili.  Lilia seems most like a fantasy protagonist to me, with her tragic past and her great magical potential.  However, she is neither beautiful and nor completely able-bodied, and she spends a lot of time focusing on protecting herself from a world that would kill her without a care. Ahkio has been thrust into a leadership position that he neither expected nor wanted, and I spent a lot of time tensely waiting for him to fail horribly. I enjoyed the Roh’s childish exuberance, but I dread to see what the world will eventually force him to become.  Zezili, a powerful woman of Dorinah, carries a lot of the negative traits that are often forgiven in heros, and I am curious to see how she may develop in future novels. There were also a handful of interesting secondary viewpoint characters, such as the Dhai hero Ghrasia and Zezili’s delicate husband Anavha. I enjoyed the very different perspectives provided by each of the viewpoint characters, and I think that this is a group I will happily follow through the sprawling fantasy story that The Mirror Empire has begun.  

My Rating: 4/5

The Mirror Empire starts off a dark epic fantasy series that takes place in a very unfamiliar world, and features a set of characters that don’t fall into the standard epic fantasy archetypes. The world is incredibly complex, with many cultures, multiple worlds, a satellite-based magic system, and an unusual physical setting. There are no long explanations to break up the narrative, so an understanding of the world is pieced together as you go along. The viewpoint characters are diverse and have interesting flaws, and I think it is a group that will make for an entertaining long-term story.  I’m already looking forward to the sequel!