Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Published: Orbit/Redhook 2014
Awards Won: Campbelll Memorial Award
Awards Nominated: BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards

The Book:

“Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.' This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.” ~WWend.com

This is the first book I’ve read by Claire North, and I picked it up because of its award nominations and Campbell award win.  It turns out that I really love time-looping novels.

My Thoughts:

This is the second novel about time-looping lives that I have read, with the first being Ken Grimwood’s Replay.  While the two books share a similar premise (and are both excellent), they are also very different in execution.  Grimwood’s novel was more about the personal growth and self-realization that comes with repeating one’s life in many variations.  The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, on the other hand, is more like a spy novel that plays out between two characters over multiple lives.  The established mechanics behind how being a ‘kalachakra’ (life-looper) works play a major role in the story, and the internal consistency gives you a framework to try to figure out how the conflict will eventually be concluded.

The most exciting part of the story revolved around the sometimes friendly and sometimes adversarial relationship between two kalachakra, Harry and Vincent.  Both of them are capable of playing a long game, spending multiple lives maneuvering themselves into position to achieve their ultimate goals.  It was really thrilling to read about their interactions, as they both maintained careful facades and planned their betrayals. Behind Harry lies the support of the Cronus Club, a kalachakra organization that believes in the preservation of the timeline.  Vincent, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything (even the future) to get what he wants.  The stakes are high, and the ending sticks in my mind as one of the most thrilling I’ve read in quite some time.

Outside this conflict, there’s also a lot of time devoted to fleshing out the world and the way the kalachakra interact with it.  I enjoyed the speculation on what people might choose to do if they know they will repeat their lives over and over.  Some people seek out dissipation or violence, while others (like Harry) pursue different avenues of learning or expertise.  Over time, some kalachakra even have so many regrets that they seek memory erasure as a way of starting anew. It was interesting to see how the variations in these people’s lives sent small ripples through the spheres in which they lived.  I really loved the setup of this world, both for the exploration of human nature it allows and as a way to set up a delightfully twisty plot.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an exciting spy-novel-esque story about a group of people whose lives loop repeatedly.  I loved the mechanics behind how this life-looping functioned, and seeing what a variety of people might choose to do within the endless repetition. I found the tension between Harry and the antagonist, Vincent, to be very compelling, and I eagerly followed their attempts to out-maneuver each other. I am interested to see what else Claire North (a.k.a. Catherine Webb) has written and will write in the future.  

A side note...
One implication of the setting that was not addressed, but which I thought was really cool, was about the incidence of becoming a kalachakra. The looping nature of their lives implies that all humans loop repeatedly, but they simply don’t remember between one life to the next.  Since new kalachakra occasionally arise, it seems that it is an enlightened state that, given enough time, all people might eventually reach.  If there is ever another novel set in this world, it would be fascinating to see what happens to the timeline when eventually most or all of the people can remember from life to life.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Short Fiction: November 2016

It’s time to discuss my favorite short fiction published in November!  It’s all short stories this time, and mostly available for free from Tor.com (links given below).  I actually just finished Charlie Jane Anders novel, All the Birds in the Sky, so it was a nice treat to find a short story set in the same universe.

Everything that Isn’t Winter by Margaret Killjoy (Short Story, Tor.com): This was a beautifully-written post-apocalyptic story, featuring a stable community that has rebuilt from the ashes.  The story involves a direct physical threat to their way of life, but it also involves the changing emotional state of the narrator, one of the community’s protectors.  He worries that he is defined by his violence, and that the future holds no place for him.  I found it really interesting to read about this transition from a mindset of survival to one of hope.    

Clover by Charlie Jane Anders (Short Story, Tor.com): This one is mostly for those who have read All the Birds in the Sky, and who wondered what happened to Berkley the cat.  The story does involve Patricia and magic, but the main focus is on the life and relationship of the couple that take in Berkley after Patricia went away.  It was a sweet story, and one that left me feeling happy.

Between Going and Staying by Lilliam Rivera (Short Story, F&SF): I thought this one was powerful, though it was not particularly happy.  The main character Dolores is a doliente, a professional mourner.  She makes lots of money by performing flashy services for rich families, and she doesn’t think much about the fact that she is working for cartel families.  When a former lover is taken and presumably killed for her activism, Dolores is forced to consciously consider the role she has decided to play in the world.   

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Published: William Morrow & Co., 2015
Awards Won: Prometheus Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF and Campbell Memorial Awards

The Book:

“One day, the moon was destroyed.  No one really knew how or why it happened, but soon these questions were wiped out by a more urgent concern. The pieces of the moon would continue to collide, and eventually the rubble would wipe out all life on Earth for thousands of years.

Most of humanity will not survive, but some believe that a fragment could endure.  All resources on Earth pour towards building a habitat for humans in orbit, who may be able to live in the darkness of space for long enough to one day return to their home planet.  Will they be able to overcome mechanical problems and human nature, or is this truly the end?” ~Allie

I’ve read a number of Stephenson’s books, and The Diamond Age and Anathem are my favorites so far.  I generally enjoy Stephenson’s creative ideas.

My Thoughts:

If you’re looking for a book about what could destroy the moon, or looking for an action-packed post-cataclysm space adventure--this is not that book.  However, if you’re more interested in what might happen if the moon were to spontaneously break up, and how one might harness current and extrapolated near future technology to ensure the future of the human race--you’re in the right place.  Seveneves is less interested in traditional narrative arcs than it is in exploring the details of a program the human race might cobble together to allow humans to live in orbit for thousands of years.  There are a few recurring characters to get attached to, but there are also many individuals who might show up only on a single sub-project. The pace is pretty glacial, as we go basically day-by-day through the efforts made in the time leading up to the destruction of life on Earth.  This makes for a very interesting technical story, but not one that is necessarily all that narratively compelling.

For me, the highlight of the book was the detailed focus on science and technology. It must have taken a tremendous amount of research to put together such a thorough picture of the scenario and the human response to it. The idea of keeping isolated humans alive in orbit for thousands of years with near-future technology initially seemed ludicrous, but it began to feel more plausible as the novel went through every angle on the proposed solutions. I enjoyed reading about the construction of the swarm of habitats, the collision avoidance system, and the plans for future genetic diversity.  It was also interesting to see how the people coped with the loss of Earth and their suddenly relatively tiny community.  The writing could be very dry at times, but it was a genuinely fascinating idea.

On the other hand, I had some issues with the pacing and the story.  At the beginning, we were presented with a nearly day-by-day accounting of the time leading up to the end of the Earth.  However, time eventually sped up, and later there was a time jump of thousands of years.  I know that was the only way to show what became of the program and humanity.  Unfortunately, the abruptness of the time shift damaged the sense of plausibility I had with the story, since it skipped over so many details of the intervening time.  Also, a jump of thousands of years means jettisoning a cast of characters I had slowly been growing to enjoy, and instead introducing a whole new group of people in a drastically different society.  This snowballing of the pace also made the ending feel sudden, and some things tied up too neatly for my taste. While I am glad to have read this one, it’s not my favorite of Stephenson’s work.  

My Rating: 3/5

Seveneves is hard science fiction with the science front and center, while the characters and story take a backseat.  Stephenson’s novels usually have really cool ideas, and the novel does not disappoint on that account. I had never considered what would happen if the moon spontaneously broke up, and the intense level of detail lavished on the development of the orbital habitat program made the aftermath feel surprisingly plausible.  While I enjoyed the science, I felt that the latter part of the book seemed rushed and the ending was too sudden.  There was also not all that much to hang on to in terms of character arcs, especially since the cast changes completely after a large time jump. For my part, the interesting ideas were more than enough to keep me reading, despite my complaints. I hope we never actually lose our moon, so that we only ever have to consider this as an interesting hypothetical situation!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, End

Welcome to the final week of the read-along of Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey!  I anticipate community-reading the second two books of the trilogy later this year, and I’ll post more details on that when they are available.  For now, we say farewell to Naamah’s Kiss with discussion questions provided by Lynn of Lynn’s Book Blog.  As always, watch out for spoilers below!      

1. Moirin has come a long way since we first met her.  How do you think her adventures have changed her if at all - does anything stand out in particular?

I think she’s more mature now than she was at the beginning of her journey, and I feel like she understands a lot more about people (her upbringing didn’t involve much help on that subject). Her night with Snow Tiger highlighted that, as she actually sees herself now as the comforter and mentor, rather than the other way around. She spent a lot of time sort of floundering in the City of Elua, and I feel like she has gotten her feet under her in Ch’in.

2. I was hit by how far Moirin’s magical abilities have come along, I don’t think I particularly expected it to be honest - why do you think that might be?

I think her interactions with various characters has prompted the blossoming of her abilities.  Master Lo Feng and his Way taught her mindfulness and more of an awareness of herself and her surroundings, and I’m sure the dragon had his part in awakening latent power in her.

I’m pretty happy she discovered the memory-eating power, because it would have been horrible if all those people had been killed for knowing about the use of gunpowder as a weapon.  On that note, though, I don’t think this is a long term solution.  It sounded like many people were aware of gunpowder and its non-martial uses, so it seems inevitable that others will once again turn it to war.  Even if they don’t, people in other parts of the world will, and then Ch’in will be at a disadvantage when they eventually encounter them.  The box is already open, and I don’t think they can close it.  

3. Looking back through the story it feels like most aspects had a bearing on the final outcome, do you think Moirin’s path is really set in stone or does she have the ability to change things?

This is one thing that has irritated me a bit about the story, which is that Moirin does not seem to have any power to change things.  She could always turn away from her destiny, allowing her diadh-anam to gutter and die.  If she follows her diadh-anam, though, she is following a pre-ordained path.  Even her love life is largely dictated by her diadh-anam, when it is not controlled by Naamah.  I guess her big question is going to be whether she would have chosen this path in life, if she had a choice.

4. Do you feel that Moirin’s actions will have an impact on the Maghuin Dhonn in any way?

I don’t see how they could.  Ch’in is pretty far away to even be a trade partner for Alba.  On the other hand, assuming she does eventually return home, she will bring with her teachings from wise people of a different culture.  That may have an impact on the Maghuin Dhonn society.

5. Were you surprised by the final chapters with Lo and Bao and the overall reaction of Bao?

I was surprised Lo Feng gave his life to resurrect Bao, but it makes sense in retrospect.  I admit that I wished Moirin could’ve fixed Bao’s staff before he had to block all those poison darts, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.  

I was also surprised by Bao’s resistance to being with Moirin.  I thought their decision had more or less already been made.  It was clear they liked each other, and they were both straightforward in their intention of pursuing a relationship after the dragon business was settled.  I guess I can see his point, that he would never know what course their relationship would have taken without supernatural meddling.

6. We know that Moirin is about to set off an another journey as this book ends.  Any predictions, hopes or fears for what is to come next?

Oh, please, let her not go to Darsanga. I hope she ends up going to Terra Nova.  I feel like that’s been hinted at, off and on, during this book. Whether or not she’ll be with Bao, I don’t know.  It would be really interesting if they ended up as close friends and partners, but Moirin’s great love was with someone else.

Other Things:

--I'm glad Snow Tiger was able to build some happier memories about physical intimacy.

--Why didn't they disarm Black Sleeve before taking him in the presence of the Imperial Family, as well as the most celebrated wise man and all of his apprentices?  They KNEW he threw poison darts out of his sleeves!

--If Snow Tiger and Ten Tigers Dai do fall in love... that doesn't seem like it would have a great societal impact.  Literally the only male guard who is allowed to avoid castration, and he gets in her bed.

--I get the feeling that Bao's encounter with his father (if he finds him) will not be as happy as Moirin's. Hopefully, Moirin will be there in time to comfort him.

--The finding charm came in handy! I wonder if that will be a recurring tool she uses in her future adventures.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, Part 6

Welcome to week six of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey's Naamah's Kiss, the first book of Moirin's Trilogy and the seventh book of the Kushiel's Legacy series.  This week's questions cover chapters 61-74, and have been provided by me!  This read-along is nearing its end, but if you're interested in future read-alongs, you can keep an eye on our goodreads group.  Now, on to the questions and beware of spoilers below:

1) We've finally met Snow Tiger!  What do you make of her and her relationship with Moirin?  Does anything stand out in particular?

While I think it's good that Snow Tiger has someone to confide in, it's pretty rough how the dragon has forced them together.  It's a good thing they get along, at least when the dragon isn't causing problems. That must have been really horrible for Snow Tiger, when the dragon first woke up.  I don't think he really appreciates that there's no way to give back what he took from her. 

One thing that stuck out to me about Snow Tiger is that she is written as very small and dainty, and yet on par with soldiers for strength (even without the dragon, I believe).  Why couldn't she have just been strong and looked like it? I understand why d'Angelines are all beautiful, but why does everyone else have to be?

2) The dragon is a surprising new addition to the cast.  What do you think he'll do when he is free?  Will he really help in the civil war? 

There seemed to be this general assumption that the dragon would help the emperor quell the civil war, but I don't remember if he ever actually agreed to this.  He was imprisoned because Master Lo Feng stole his essence in the first place, so I'm not convinced he has any interest in taking a side in this conflict. He does have a weird fondness for Moirin, so maybe he would help just to protect her. 

3) What do you think of the Path of Dharma, as described by Master Lo Feng?  What path would you prefer to follow?

Out of the options given so far in the book, I think I'd go for Master Lo Feng's Way.  It seems like the least extreme, and is based mostly on mindfulness exercises.  I'm not particularly good at those, but I think I'd be worse at the other paths.

4) Moirin does not seem to mind Bao's jealousy.  What do you think of their possible future as a couple?

When Moirin was not wanting to marry Cillian, I thought maybe she was not into that sort of relationship.  Now that we've seen her with Bao, though, it seems like maybe Cillian was just not the right guy.  Right now, she seems to maybe want to have a traditional, exclusive relationship with Bao. On the other hand, she doesn't have a lot of willpower when it comes to desire, so I'm not sure she could handle being in a long-term exclusive relationship.  In that sense, I think they're both bound to hurt one another eventually.

5) Do you think they acted wisely against Lord Jiang's men at the temple?  Can you see any other decision they should have taken?

I feel like there must have been a better option besides "let the dragon kill everyone".  Maybe they could have kept a closer eye on the monks, so that no one would betray them.  Once the soldiers were already attacking, though, I guess there weren't really any other options left.

Other Things:

--Though I'm not convinced the dragon will join them, Master Lo could make gunpowder weapons.  He as much as said that he knew how, he just didn't think the technology should be used as a weapon.

--The walkway to the temple sounded terrifying.  I have done a cliffside hike just once in my life.  It was terrifying, but at least now I know what an endorphin rush feels like.  Just reading about Moirin stumbling on the path was a little stressful!

--It's a good thing Snow Tiger's dad backed her up instead of disowning her.  It's also a good thing she has a team helping her, because she's not much of a strategist (though it was nice of her to help those villagers).

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Publish: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Awards Nominated: Derleth & Campbell Memorial Awards
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.” ~Amazon.com

I’d never read anything by Emily St. John Mandel before, and picked this one up due to the attention it received in SFF awards (as well as a strong recommendation from George R.R. Martin).

My Thoughts:

I put off reading this novel for quite some time, because I was afraid it would be terribly depressing.  After all, it is about mass death, the collapse of civilization, and the survivors who live in the wreckage.  Though the material was extremely sad, I liked that the tone felt more contemplative and hopeful than I had expected. Rather than a story about an inevitable end, it was a story of death and rebirth.  The end of our civilization was something to be grieved and remembered, but it was not the end of everything.  It was important for the survivors to remember the past, but not to let it constrain how their world would develop in the future. Just after the flu pandemic, people could only struggle to meet their basic needs.  As time passed, those remaining began to gather into communities.  Twenty years later, the success of the Traveling Symphony shows that mere survival is no longer sufficient, and that people are beginning to once again long for art and music.  Though the new world is dangerous, and though the pre-flu world will never return, the existence of Kirsten’s group gives me the sense that there is still hope for the future.

The novel’s atmosphere is enhanced by the fictional unpublished “Dr. Eleven” comics created by Arthur Leander’s ex-wife. “Dr. Eleven” ties characters together in unexpected ways, and is a kind of nexus for connecting several different storylines.  The characters in the comic are forced to build a new life in a space station, though many of them still long for the now-forbidden Earth.  The descriptions of the comic, as well as the work that was put into its creation, were hauntingly beautiful.  I found myself wondering if someone might actually create the fictional work someday, because I would love to actually see the artwork.  In any case, I enjoyed reading about the comic, and I liked the way it reflected the emotion of the story.

The story itself jumps back and forth in time, with scenes before, during, and twenty years after the pandemic.  The most continuous storyline is the one involving Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony, with difficulties they encounter in the new world.  Other scenes involve the fate of a handful of characters, all loosely connected by the actor Arthur Leander and the “Dr. Eleven” comics.  There was not a whole lot of time to become invested in each character, and some of their stories seemed to just trail off.  I was less interested in the pre-pandemic sections, which mostly followed Leander’s celebrity love life.  In the post-pandemic sections, I thought Kirsten’s amnesia and impressive knife-throwing skills felt a little clich├ęd, but I did enjoy her as a heroine through which to observe the slow growth of a new civilization.  For me, rather than in plot and characters, the strength of the novel was in the poetic and atmospheric depiction of the death and rebirth of human civilization.

My Rating: 3.5 /5

Station Eleven is the story of a worldwide civilizational collapse, but it thankfully avoids being relentlessly depressing or nihilistic.  Instead, it is a quiet, thoughtful book showing the death of one world and the birth of another.  The handful of characters are all connected through the actor Arthur Leander and through his ex-wife’s haunting comic, “Dr. Eleven”.  Kirsten’s storyline twenty years after the pandemic has the most conventional plot, but it is interspersed with scenes from other characters that take place before and during the collapse.  I had a hard time getting emotionally invested in the characters, but I really enjoyed the writing and the emotional tone of the story.  Also, “Dr. Eleven” is fictional, but it looks like St. John Mandel may write a script for the comics.  It would be interesting to see if the pictures match what I imagined while reading Station Eleven!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, Part 5

Welcome to week five of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah’s Kiss, the first book in Moirin’s Trilogy and the seventh in the Kushiel’s Legacy series! If you’re interested in joining this or future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group. Questions this week are provided by Susan of Dab of Darkness, and they cover chapters 49-60. Beware of spoilers below!

1) Moirin and the Circle do one final summoning. What did you think of Focalor’s choices in who to spare or not? King Daniel also has to make some choices in who to punish or not - do you think he was fair? Is he correct in that he should have given his people something greater to strive for?

I guess Focalor could see into their hearts, so he could most accurately judge their purity of purpose.  I feel like they must have all known this summoning was likely to harm or kill Moirin, though, so I don’t see their motivations as particularly noble.  I feel like he should have killed Raphael.  Raphael was a healer who forced Moirin into a potentially deadly promise as a condition for aiding someone.  That’s a fair bit worse than Claire, in my opinion.

In the human punishments, I think King Daniel was too lenient.  It is true that the summoning did not break any law.  However, I think that Raphael should have been punished for essentially assaulting a member of House Courcel, by forcing her into a situation where he knew that she would be harmed.  I’m not sure if the rest of the group knew that he used her father’s life to coerce her into serving them.  If they didn’t, then they didn’t know Moirin was not there of her free will, and therefore they at least don’t carry that particular guilt.

I disagree with King Daniel’s idea that he is partially to blame for their actions.  Plenty of people lived in Terre d’Ange with the same lack of striving, and somehow they managed not to nearly kill Alban people in the pursuit of summoning demons.  In a narrative sense, I suspect this is the seed for his planning eventual d’Angeline journeys to Terra Nova.  It will be neat if Moirin ends up going there, too.

2) Master Lo is summoned home to Ch'in to do what he can for the Emperor's daughter Snow Tiger. What do you think of her ailment? What role, if any, do you expect Moirin to play in healing her?

Maybe it involves some hidden thing that needs to be revealed?  The ailment sounds a lot like what Focalor was planning to do to Raphael, except that I got the impression that Raphael’s soul would be pretty much stamped out.  It sounds like Snow Tiger’s soul is still in there, though it gets overrun at times.  I’m not sure what Moirin could do for Snow Tiger right now, since she isn’t a healer of humans.

3) We learn more about Bao's past. Do you like him any more or any less now? We also hear some amazing things about Master Lo. Do you think any of them are true?

He seems to have led a really difficult life, and not all of his decisions were good ones.  I respected that he chose to reject the use of sexual abuse, and that this was the trigger that cause him to rethink his life.  I guess I like him about the same.  As for Master Lo, I’m curious as to why he has been able to live so long.  I expect most of the stories are true, given how much magic we’ve seen in the book so far!

4) During the lengthy voyage, Moirin has language lessons, learns a bit about the Ch'in religions, and enjoys Bao's attentions. What stood out for you?

I had been a little frustrated that Moirin seemed to lack Phedre and Imriel’s curiosity and skill in languages, so it was a relief to see her finally study Ch’in.  I was also happy to see that she was eventually able to make friends with some of the women on board.

5) They finally make land right into the middle of a civil war. What do you think about Black Sleeve? What do you think his relationship to Master Lo is?

I don’t really have a guess as to their relationship, though they clearly seem to have some kind of connection.  I don’t feel like I know enough about the people involved to say much about the political situation.  I hope they allowed at least the women from the ship to surrender.

Other Things:

--Bao’s broken d’Angeline was a little distracting, but I was glad to see it was purposeful on his part (based on how he learned languages quickly).  I’m glad that phrasing is abandoned now that they are both speaking Ch’in.

--Blossom is a very impressive horse.  After the muscular atrophy from such a long sea voyage, she was able to make a strenuous journey for Moirin.  I hope we haven’t seen the last of her.

--I hope for her sake that Moirin doesn’t get quite as disastrously entangled in Ch’in politics as she did in Terre d’Ange.