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.