Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit (2015)
Series: Book 3 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards

The Book:

For a moment, things seem to be under control for the soldier known as Breq. Then a search of Athoek Station's slums turns up someone who shouldn't exist - someone who might be an ancillary from a ship that's been hiding beyond the empire's reach for three thousand years. Meanwhile, a messenger from the alien and mysterious Presger empire arrives - as does Breq's enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai, ruler of an empire at war with itself.

Anaander is heavily armed and extremely unhappy with Breq. She could take her ship and crew and flee, but that would leave everyone at Athoek in terrible danger. Breq has a desperate plan. The odds aren't good, but that's never stopped her before.” ~WWEnd.com

This is the conclusion of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and I would strongly recommend reading the series in order (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy). I would also particularly suggest reading the last two in quick succession.  The third novel picks up right after the second, and my year gap in reading left me scrambling to remember who everyone was and what was going on.  It would have been a much smoother transition if I’d read Ancillary Sword more recently.

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Justice had an epic scope, as we followed the starship-turned-individual Breq in her quest to avenge her grief on the multi-bodied leader of a galactic empire.  Ancillary Sword shifted to a smaller and more personal scale, as Breq took a new spaceship to the backwater Athoek Station in search of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s sister.  I had expected that Ancillary Mercy would shift back to the broader stage of the galaxy, but Breq and her crewmen remain with Athoek Station to the end.  Many of the questions and problems brought up in Ancillary Sword are resolved, but there is very little conclusion regarding the wider political concerns from Ancillary Justice. Anaander Miaanai’s civil war and the fragile treaty with the alien Presger both come into play in some sense, but it turns out that neither is really the focus of the trilogy.

Instead, I see now that the trilogy is more concerned with ideas of personhood, identity and relationships.  The three books chronicle Breq’s journey from being a starship’s ancillary to accepting that she is a person in her own right.  Even after the events of the first novel, Breq is convinced that she is a replaceable object, and expresses discomfort with accepting the captaincy of another AI-starship, a role she believes a person should have. In line with this, Breq’s narrative generally focuses heavily on the people around her, often neglecting her own feelings and reactions.  Despite her self-negation, Breq actually does have a strong and charismatic personality, and I enjoyed watching her progress in self-awareness and in finding a place where she truly belongs.  

While the novel involves some excitement and action in the struggle against the Anaander Miaanai that comes to Athoek, much of the story focuses on quieter character moments. Two new characters are also introduced that serve mostly as comic relief, a cranky ancillary of the ancient ship Sphene and the absurdly clueless new Presger translator. Seivarden plays a larger role in this installment, and we see her forced to confront her arrogance, her addictions, and the mental and emotional instability that she has been patching up through her loyalty to Breq.  Tisarwat’s arc is more concerned with her coming to terms with her own identity, and the fact that it has been heavily influenced by Anaander.  The various other AI in the system all have personalities that are somewhat similar (as they are programmed to take a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of ‘their people’), but it was interesting to think how the events of the story might change them.  This was not really the kind of conclusion I expected for this trilogy, but I enjoyed reading about the characters I have come to love.  There is so much left unresolved, though, that I hope Leckie returns to this universe again in the future.

My Rating: 4/5

Ancillary Mercy, the conclusion of the Imperial Radch trilogy, retains the tighter focus of the trilogy’s middle novel.  While many of the questions of Ancillary Sword are addressed, the trilogy leaves some of the larger-scale concerns of Ancillary Justice unresolved.  Instead, the novel focuses on events at Athoek station, as well as the personal development of Breq and her troubled officers.  It was satisfying to see Breq maneuvering against an Anaander Miaanai again, but the novel ends before we get to see the longer-term consequences of her interesting decisions in this confrontation.  While this does close out the trilogy, I hope that this is not the last novel about the Imperial Radch.   

Friday, November 25, 2016

Short Fiction: August & September 2016

It’s time for a look at a few of my favorites out of the science fiction and fantasy short fiction works that have been recently published.  I rely on Rocket Stack Rank to provide me with a monthly list of stories to read, and I also have a subscription with the Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.  This is my first year keeping a close look at short fiction, so I’m hoping to branch out to subscriptions with additional magazines (such as Asimov’s or Analog) in the future.

Today, I will discuss stories published in August and September of this year.  As usual, I will provide links for the stories that are available for free online.     

Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus by Jeremiah Tolbert (Novelette, Lightspeed): This is the story of a clandestine food truck gathering of chefs that explore bizarre experimental cooking.  The creativity of the foods were a highlight of the story, and it was interesting how each dish danced along the line between delicious and disturbing.  I, like the main character, really enjoy imaginative food, so I had a lot of fun reading this speculative foodie fiction.

The Voice in the Cornfield, The Word Made Flesh by Desirina Boskovich (Short Story, Fantasy & Science Fiction): This one was a quiet, emotional story about an alien that crash-lands near a Mennonite community.  Few people notice the alien’s silent pain as it lies there, slowly dying, except for several women who are also suffering.  Boskovich writes from her experience of living in a Mennonite community, and she shows the cruelty and suffering that can lie just below a peaceful surface.  
The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello by David Gerrold (Novella, Fantasy & Science Fiction): This is a sequel to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Mr. Costello, Hero”, which I have not read.  However, “The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello” still stands alone as a very entertaining novella.  The story is from the perspective of a protagonist with a dark past who has joined a farming/ranching family on an alien planet.  One day, a smooth-talking fellow shows up and claims to have a plan to turn a certain violent, unruly local animal into livestock.  This sort of thing has cost many idiots their lives in the past, but what would it mean for their world if he succeeds?  I love Gerrold’s writing style, and how vividly he describes this world, the local ecosystem, and the human society that thrives there.   

A Deeper Green by Samantha Murray (Novelette, Beyond Ceaseless Skies): In this story of a struggling human colony on an alien planet, Juvianna has the ability to enter and alter people’s minds.  In her community, her skill is traditionally used to eradicate the memories of a crime and the feelings that led to it.  In this way, the community does not lose criminals as useful members of society.  With such a powerful gift, some people inevitably have different ideas of how it should be used.  Juvianna must balance her responsibility to her community and loved ones with her own sense of morality. Her gift was a very interesting concept, and I appreciated how the story explored its possibilities for personal and communal help and harm.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Cary [END]

Welcome to the seventh and final post in the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy, the sixth book of the Kushiel’s Legacy series and the final book of Imriel’s trilogy. This week’s questions cover chapter 76 through the end and are provided by Susan of Dab of Darkness, so beware of spoilers for the full first six books of Kushiel’s Legacy below.

1) We talked last week a bit about the charm Imriel put on Sidonie so she could maintain her own will. Did it work as well as you expected? Less or more? Is there anything more they could have done with these charms?

I think it worked better than I expected.  Maybe it was because she settled very slowly into the spell, due to the charm, but she never fully lost herself.  The two of them would have failed in the end, if she had.  I don’t blame Kratos, he couldn’t have watched her every second of every day.

I wondered if Kratos could have quietly sedated her for a while, so Imriel could have snuck in and redone the charms.  I don’t know if that would have worked, though, or if it only worked because the charm was in place before she set foot on Terre d’Ange soil.  In any case, that would have been very hard to pull off without being caught.  There’s no telling what they would have done if it seemed like Imriel was endangering Sidonie, since we saw how easily people turned against him.

2) Mavros as part of the Queen's Guard! Was that a surprise to you? Were you surprised by any other characters in this weird, corrupted version of the City of Elua?

I did not expect that at all.  Thinking about it, Mavros is extremely loyal to his family.  Maybe that is the seed that the spell built on?  I’m so used to seeing him as an excitable flirt that he seemed like a totally different person.  Beyond the weirdness of Mavros, I wasn’t shocked any more than I was over the people we saw in the previous section.

3) In a desperate moment, Imriel seems to be filled with the light of the 13, or at least Elua, until he's knocked out. Do you think it was Elua answering his prayers sideways?

I think it was definitely divine influence.  Imriel seems to think it was so he would be knocked out and carried to that particular bed, where he would be in a position to see the pattern on the gem-painting of the oak tree.  That seems extremely convoluted, but it’s possible.  It seems like Elua and his Companions do not generally solve problems for their descendents, but instead set up situations where those loyal to them will be able to get what they need to solve the problems themselves.  

4) We have a few desperate moments once the location of the gem is revealed to Imriel - his duel with Joscelin, his ride to the square, his scramble up the tree, his taking hold of Sidonie, and the breaking of the spell, the appearance of the demon. What did you like most about these moments? Anything you didn't like?

I was so scared that Joscelin was going to kill Kratos, especially after he stabbed him.  I wasn’t sure at first how Imriel would get past him, either, since Joscelin was more skilled than both of them put together.  It was a very clever but risky move to charge him barehanded.  With Sidonie, it’s lucky she’s so good with pronunciation.  That would have been horrible if they failed simply because no one could get the vowels or the emphasis quite right.  I would say what I liked the most was that Sidonie was able to keep hold of herself just enough to help end the spell.  

5) Terre D'Ange is at peace. What reconciliations stood out to you?

I am glad Imriel convinced Ysandre that she had to face the people she had wronged.  I don’t feel like the reconciliation would have gone as well if Ysandre and Drustan had just stayed hidden away and let Sidonie handle it.  I also was not expecting Hyacinthe to be there, when Alais and Barquiel came to the city.  

6) Finally, we have a wedding. Perfect ending to the trilogy? Need something more? Any final questions that you want answered?

I like that Imriel’s trilogy ends with a party, as did Phedre’s, and that we got a quick reminder of all the characters we’ve grown to love along the way!  I especially like that Hyacinthe sees happiness in Imriel’s future.  I don’t think I really have any more questions that need answers.

Other Stuff:

--I like Sidonie’s tattoo.  She changed the scar into a badge of honor, and I agree that it is not irreverent for her to carry a kind of Mark of Naamah after all that she’s done.

--I am skeptical of their amazing stamina, to be still alert and awake after a wedding celebration that lasted almost to sunrise.  The style of wedding seems quite French, but those kinds of weddings wear me out.  I guess some people are just really energized by extremely long parties?

--Finally, we saw some pushback over Imriel’s idea of “women”! It was a nice touch that Sidonie had no interest in planning her wedding.

--Alais is very clever.  If Breidaia agrees, she has resolved all the problems between Alba and Terre d’Ange, and also contrived to have a certain Conor nearby ;).

--I appreciate that even after the events of this book, Imriel still thinks often of Dorelei.

--It turns out Ysandre did abdicate after realizing all that she had done, but I’m glad Sidonie refused the throne.  As much as I dislike Ysandre’s decisions sometimes, it would have been a terrible way for a generally good reign to end.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Published: Del Rey/Random House (2015)
Awards Won: Nebula, Holdstock, Locus F and Mythopoeic Awards
Awards Nominated: Hugo and World Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn't, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose. ~taken from NetGalley

I received half of the novel Uprooted in the 2016 Hugo Voter’s Packet.  When I’d finished the first half, I contacted the publisher as directed in the packet, eager to see how the story ended.  They kindly gave me the rest of the novel, which I finished in time for the end of Hugo voting (yes, I am behind in reviews again).  

My Thoughts:

Uprooted is an interesting combination of several genres, some of which I enjoy more than others. The novel begins more or less like a young adult paranormal romance. Young Agnieszka (a.k.a. Nieshka) is forced to live alone with the Dragon, a much older man with supernatural powers that treats her with cold disdain.  Naturally, some sparks fly.  However, romance is actually a rather small part of the overall novel, which is a story of friendship, politics, and a deadly struggle against an intelligent, pervasive malevolent force.  I was delighted that Nieshka and Kasia’s friendship plays an important role in the story, even after Nieshka’s choosing, and that Nieshka doesn’t forget about her origins.  For all that Nieshka’s world and understanding is broadened through the story, her home never becomes just a footnote in her history.  

Part of that is because it is the Wood that shapes much of Nieshka’s hometown, from the precautions they take against it to the support they provide their magical protector, and the Wood drives the story’s central conflict.  It is very effectively portrayed as a terrifying force of cruelty and death, to the extent that I would say this edges over into horror.  It is not simply a matter of the violence the Wood can inflict, but the corruption of the mind as well.  Someone straying within might die horribly, but they might also return home changed and murder their own family.  The combination of malice, intelligence, and patience makes the Wood an enemy that does not seem defeatable.  I think that having such a dangerous opposing force was part of why I was willing to accept Nieshka’s unusually fast rise in power and capability.  I felt that if she had not blossomed so quickly, she would surely have been cut short.

The story begins with some familiar fairy tale conventions (e.g. magical forest, periodic sacrifice of young girls) that are woven into a world which is a pleasure to discover.  Nieshka, growing up in a rural village, simply accepts even the stranger aspects of her life as normal.  With a suspension of disbelief trained by reading lots of speculative fiction, I assumed the same.  However, even Nieshka’s former quiet life has much more going on beneath the surface, and everything that happens in this story does so for a reason.  Many aspects of the story become more clear as Nieshka’s sphere widens to include more of her nation.  I was eager to learn about this world’s magic and the place of its practitioners in society, as well as details of the politics that become tangled up with Nieshka’s situation.  I think the richness of this world could easily support other stories, and I hope Novik considers returning here someday.

My Rating: 4 /5

Uprooted is a novel that draws thematically from a variety of genres-- such as fairy tales, romance, court fantasy, and horror -- to craft a story that kept me enthralled.  The malevolent Wood was a truly chilling antagonist, and I felt that its threat balanced well against Agnieszka’s hyper-competence.  I also appreciated that although Agnieszka was taken away from her home, it and her relationships there remained important to the story.  I enjoyed the time I spent learning about this richly-imagined world, and I hope that one day Novik might return here to tell another story!  In the meantime, maybe I should read Temeraire...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Carey Part 6

Welcome to week six of the read-along of Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey!  I have provided the questions this week, and they cover chapters 63 through 75.  If you’re interested in this or future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group.  From here on out, beware of spoilers!

1.  The Euskerri paid a brutal price for their sovereignty.  What do you think about how this played out?  Did anything stick out in your mind?

The real-world Euskerri (the Basques) are still a part of Spain, so I think it’s interesting that Carey has them separating from the larger country in this fantasy version.  The way it seemed in the novel, it looks like the Euskerri have paid a proportionally heavier price than Aragon in the defense against Carthage.  I wonder how many lives would have been saved if Aragon had granted their independence earlier, so that they would have coordinated as allies in the fight against Carthage from the beginning.

2. How do you feel about the way things ended for Astegal?  Was it just?  If not, what would you have preferred to see happen?

I am not really sure how to answer this question, so I hope other people have interesting views.  I think in this case it would be difficult to separate justice from vengeance, especially for Sidonie and Imriel.  In general, I am opposed to capital punishment, due to the risk of executing innocent people.  In this fictional case, there is no doubt of Astegal’s guilt, or that he is responsible for many deaths.  I also think the only just reason for execution is to prevent future harm to society from repeat violent offenders.  I’m not sure if Astegal falls into this category, though Bodeshmun definitely did.  Astegal is a captured general, so he is not going to be able to repeat his crimes. I’m not sure what I would have preferred to happen.  To note, real-world Aragon does not practice capital punishment in modern day.

3. Do you have any theories on why Imriel's charm is able to protect Sidonie?

I was actually pretty surprised this worked.  Maybe most of the spell is in the croonie stone?  If not, I think it could be that Elua is extremely angry at what has happened, and is willing to pull some strings to help out.

4. What do you think about Alais's change of heart regarding political power and her new plans for her future?

I’m glad she’s no longer trying to end matrilineal succession in Alba. Also, I respect her for refusing to a marriage that she does not want.  I think a future as an ollamh may bring her closer to happiness.  We saw in the previous book that she loved Alba deeply, even if she didn’t have any particular feelings for Talorcan.  I think she has found a way to follow the command to “love as thou wilt”.

5.  The spell twists the personalities of people we knew, sometimes in disturbing ways.  Do you see the seeds of who they are now in their true selves?  Given their currently twisted view of reality, do you think anyone is acting against their own principles?

I found it really disturbing that Ysandre was willing to murder her own people to end the civil war.  I think this could be a dark mirror of her stubbornness and her intense drive to preserve her rule.  I feel like Phedre and Joscelin’s actions are a dark reflection of their love and worry for Imriel.  This was a really nasty spell, and I hope they’re able to end it soon.  If they remember all they have said and done, I wonder if Ysandre will abdicate the throne to Sidonie.  I think the seeds of Ysandre’s actions are in her real personality, but I think she will be horrified to realize what she has done and what she was willing to do.

Other Things:

--It looks like the alliance with Barquiel may have just changed into something permanent!  I never thought it would be possible for Imriel would earn his respect.

--Sidonie is an amazing actress right now.  That must be such a strain though, especially since she is in constant physical pain that she can’t show.  I don’t think this situation can last for long.

--I’m impressed with Kratos.  He seems to have a knack for this kind of undercover work, and he’s good at thinking on his feet.

--Am I the only one thinking that Imriel and Sidonie could use her bindings as a hot-cold method to find the gemstone? (Pain… now less pain… now more pain, it’s that way!)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Carey, Part 5

Welcome to week five of the read-along of Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey.  This week’s reading covers chapters 50 through 62, and the questions are provided by Lynn of Lynn’s Books.  Let’s get right to the discussion!

We had a number of dramatic chases and escapes this week - what really stood out most for you.

I would say the horseback escape through battle stood out the most to me.  That must have been really terrifying for Sidonie, who has never experienced war firsthand before.  Not to mention, they were riding through combat on horses they didn’t know.  The horses could have easily spooked unexpectedly and gotten them killed.  I assume they were trained warhorses, but they are still intelligent creatures with their own personalities.  It is frightening to think of trusting your life so completely to a perfect stranger, and that goes both ways.

Imriel and Sidonie meet with Nicola L’Envers y Aragon who turns into an ally for the two of them arranging for them to gain audience and we once again see Sidonie’s diplomacy skills - how do you think she would compare to Ysandre as a ruler?

I think she has already shown herself to be a bit more reasonable than Ysandre.  She has visited Alba, and she has been willing to change her mind when she gets new information. She also generally treats people ‘below’ her with compassion and respect, which is not something I particularly remember of Ysandre.  In summary, I think Sidonie will be a more flexible ruler than Ysandre, and that she will make a Terre d’Ange that is less likely to break.  

Imriel made a statement this week about once wanting to be a hero but now having changed his mind - and how heroism meant living in terror that you wouldn’t be able to protect those you loved - what do you make of his thinking?

I think it shows his maturity.  When he was young, he kind of romanticized the idea of being a hero like Joscelin.  In reality, I don’t think Joscelin much enjoyed being a hero.  It mostly involved enduring through a lot of pain and humiliation, and desperately trying to keep Phedre from being killed or worse.  If he and Sidonie get through this alive, though, I’m sure they will be remembered as heroes in song.

Euskerri.  The plan is to sway the Euskerri (by offering them sovereignty) to side with Aragonia.   Do you think the Euskerri are wise to accept or not?

I hate to say it, but I kind of see their perspective.  This is incredibly annoying from the perspective of Imriel and Sidonie, but they have no reason to trust that the offer of sovereignty is made in good faith.  I get the feeling they have been abused by Aragonia in the past, and they aren’t willing to send their people to die without a guarantee that it is worth it.  That being said, I think they are wise to accept.  I don’t think Carthage is likely to be reasonable about sovereignty issues.

Finally, it seems like both Imriel and Sidonie will return to the battlefront - what do you think of the agreement reached?  What do you predict going forward?

Imriel is not a bad soldier.  I hope he is not injured in some permanent way, and I expect he’ll probably spend most of the battle making sure Sidonie is safe.  I bet the Aragonian nobles will be surprised to see them again.

Other Things:

--Part of me wonders if Barquiel and Alais will manage to sort out Terre d’Ange before Sidonie and Imriel get there.  They’ve sent along the key word, which is all they really needed.

--On that note, I feel like everyone has forgot that Sidonie will lose her mind if she crosses back over into Terre d’Ange.  Unless I am missing something?  There were two different spells on Sidonie, and they only broke the one, right?

--I hope the two of them actually get to a future where they aren’t constantly having to check each other’s wounds.

--Didn’t they say at one point that part of the navy got away from Terre d’Ange?  If they aren’t ensorceled, why aren’t they helping Aragonia?