Friday, December 29, 2017

Review: Naamah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Gollancz/Grand Central Publishing (2010)
Series: Book 8 of Kushiel’s Legacy

The Book:

“Moirin has finished her task in Ch’in, far from her European home.  In the process, she has split her diadh-anam, the soul-spark of her people, to guard her love Bao from death.  However, this has made him her literal soulmate--a role he never agreed to fill. Bao flees to seek out his own origins, and to come to terms with his renewed life and unasked-for purpose.

Moirin, frustrated by his desertion, follows after him. However, the lands are treacherous for a lone woman far from home. She will find many friends and some enemies as she struggles across countries to reunite with her soulmate.” ~Allie

This long-delayed review is for a novel read during a community read-along, and you can see our spoiler-filled discussions here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.  This is the second book of the third trilogy of Kushiel’s Legacy, and I will be finishing up with a review of the final book soon.

My Thoughts:

Naamah’s Curse provides some things I always expect and enjoy from the Kushiel’s Legacy series; a focus on exploring fantasy versions of a variety of cultures over the course of many adventures.  Up until Moirin’s departure to Ch’in (fantasy China) in the previous novel, the series had primarily focused on Europe. In Naamah’s Curse, Moirin departs from Ch’in to travel through fantasy versions of several Asian cultures in her quest to reunite with Bao.  It’s always a lot of fun to see the outsider protagonist encounter new cultures and come to appreciate new ways of life.  However, I felt that Moirin sometimes tended to bring more judgment to the cultures she encountered than other protagonists have in the past, and she also seems to have more of a drive to change them to fit her own ideals.

Though she has many adventures, Moirin’s lack of agency continues to be a problem in this series.  All of her major (and some minor) decisions continue to be directed by her diadh-anam, which gives the sense that she is simply serving as a very obedient puppet.  In this book, her diadh-anam has even taken over her love life and emotions.  It has determined that Bao is her soulmate, and neither of them have any more say in the matter.  Given the series’s usual theme of “Love as thou wilt”, I was disappointed to see this trilogy’s romance end up as “love as you’re told”.  I was not even particularly sympathetic to their romance, given that they are sometimes shockingly callous about how their great love affects other people’s lives.  Bao, in particular, makes some very serious and destructive decisions, and they seem to be more glossed over than realistically resolved.  

While Moirin doesn’t seem to have very much free will, she’s also pretty heavily overpowered. Multiple deities speak with her regularly, and imbue her with a wide variety of magical powers. Her bear-witch gives her stealth powers and the ability to remove memories.  Various d’Angeline angels give her powers related to sex, communing with plants and animals, and magically making plants bloom. Her divine powers enable her to heal those beyond the aid of medicine and to open doors to the spirit realm.  She has picked up a charm for finding lost things, and seems to have developed a natural genius for language.  She’s also absolutely gorgeous, a master archer, a survivalist, and able to inspire protective love in nearly anyone who isn’t evil.  Given all these advantages, it seems nearly impossible for her to fail--except in situations where people interfere with her superpowers (like Superman and Kryptonite). Despite my complaints, I did continue reading the series to see the end of Moirin’s journey.

My Rating: 2.5/5

In the second book of Moirin’s trilogy, she explores many cultures in a fantasy version of Asia.  As usual, I enjoyed seeing her encounter different ways of life, and enjoyed seeing the adventures she encounters in her life.  At the same time, I still feel like her diadh-anam is leading her by the nose on a path she likely would not otherwise have taken.  Now, her diadh-anam also controls her romantic feelings and relationships, so her and Bao’s bond is no longer of their own free will. She is also getting pretty overfull of natural advantages and mystical powers, so that her successes often feel too easy and assured.  I continued on to finish Moirin’s trilogy, but I think Phedre’s trilogy is going to continue to be my favorite section of the overall series.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

TV Musings: Fall 2017

Today, I want to talk again about some of the science fiction and fantasy television shows I’ve been watching lately.  There are so many fun ones out these days that I’m still pretty far behind. This season’s batch is very heavily science-fiction, and covers the end of one show and the beginning of three others!

Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 5): This season was planned as the conclusion of the show, and it successfully wraps up the many mysteries and character arcs that have been introduced over the previous four seasons.  In other words, this show does have a complete story, and it was not canceled before its time. In broad strokes, the show features a group of young women who discover that they are experimental clones created and monitored by a mysterious organization focused on the artificial evolution of humanity. I appreciated the emphasis on the importance of both nature and nurture in human development, showing how each of these women lead very different lives while sharing similar traits.  In this season, it was also nice to see Sarah (one of the clones) begin to acknowledge her daughter as a person with her own hopes and desires, not as a Macguffin to be protected. Not all of the many memorable supporting characters made it to the end, so it was bittersweet seeing the survivors move forward into their future. Farewell to a show that was suspenseful, clever and often darkly humorous, and which featured a vibrant cast of complicated people.

Salvation (CBS, Season 1): I was not really expecting a science fiction show from CBS, but it looks like they’re starting to be interested in embracing the genre (they also have Star Trek: Discovery and an upcoming Twilight Zone reboot). In Salvation, a bright grad student one day discovers that a massive asteroid will strike the Earth in six month.  He soons becomes involved with the US government and Darius Tanz (an Elon-Musk-like scientist), as they plan to divert the asteroid and save humanity. That seems like a sensible plot that would wrap up fairly quickly, but this assessment ignores that humans are often horrible and self-destructive.  Luckily, the main characters are all sincere people with good intentions, so it’s easy to root for them in their struggle against malice and corruption.  There’s a fair amount of artistic license with the science, but the story is a lot of fun.  I expect this one is likely to wrap up in its second season.  

Legion (FX, Season 1):  Legion is a show that has a very strong sense of style, and it presents a colorful, confusing explosion of a story. It revolves around a very powerful (and dangerous) mutant named David, who is living in a mental institution.  He ends up taken in by a mutant group that wants to help disentangle the effects of his powers from his mental issues, all while contending with threats from both inside his mind and out.  I thought the over-the-top style worked well to convey the blurring of reality and illusion, and it was sometimes pretty comical as well. On a side note, it must have been incredibly fun for the actress who played David’s friend Lenny (and she was amazing in the role). I also liked that the show surprised me; I couldn’t really see where it was going and I didn’t predict some of the twists. I’m excited to see where they’ll take things in the second season.      

The Orville (Fox, Season 1): This was not the strongest sci-fi entry of the fall, but it was light and entertaining enough that I watched the full season.  I really like the idea, showing an exploratory vessel in a Star-Trek-ish universe that is run by ordinary people.  There were some neat touches, which illustrated what it would be like if the crew members saw their work as just a job and not necessarily a calling (e.g. “Is is okay to have soda on the bridge?”).  Like Star Trek, it is episodic in structure, with each episode telling a short story focused on one of the people of the Orville. Some of these stories are really interesting and funny (“Into the Fold”--a supercilious robot and a family are crash-landed on a post-apocalyptic planet), and some are unintentionally horrifying (“Cupid’s Dagger”--basically an extended rape joke).  Some continuing weaknesses are a lack of creativity in alien species, glaring plot holes, and the focus on the captain and XO’s failed relationship as a source of humor.  Still, there were enough fun episodes that I am planning to try the second season next year!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit (2015)
Series: Book 5 of The Expanse

The Book:

A thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.”

I read this book as an audiobook for a community read-along, and you can see our spoiler-filled discussions here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.  This is my favorite of the series so far. I’m planning to post my review of Babylon’s Ashes later in December, and I’ll be joining a read-along for Persepolis Rising in January!

My Thoughts:

Nemesis Games takes a different approach than previous novels in terms of the viewpoint characters. Instead of introducing new characters, it gives the reader the perspective of characters they already know and (at least in my case) like a great deal.  Holden remains our continuing hero through the series, but the other chapters are through the eyes of Alex, Naomi and Amos, the crew of the Rocinante.  I was so excited to see the universe through their eyes, and also to learn more about their pasts and how their experiences have shaped them. Each of them has a distinct personality and voice.  By the end, I felt like I understood each of them so much more than I had before. I was especially impressed with Naomi’s tenacity and intelligence, and she has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the series.

While I loved these characters in general, their differing backgrounds also made them ideal for this particular story.  The four of them scattered--to Mars, the Earth, and the Belt--to address their own personal matters. Meanwhile, solar-system-wide mysteries and civilization-changing events were afoot, and these large-scale events ran through and wove together the viewpoint characters’ individual stories. Unlike my complaints with Cibola Burn, this time every chapter felt necessary to the whole, and the characters always seemed integral to the events happening around them. There were some really spectacularly fun bits, too, like Amos’s blunt conversations with Chrisjen Avasarala and Alex’s collaboration with Bobbie.  I enjoyed how well the novel balanced funny or emotional character moments with the consequences of major system-wide events.

On the larger scale, this novel deals with the consequences of the opening of the gates on the existing status quo of the solar system.  While having loads of new planets may seem like a good thing, it does have negative effects.  The great project to terraform Mars is beginning to look a little pointless, and Belters worry that an increased focus on planetary living will push them out of existence.  These conflicting human motivations drive the story, and alien-related problems move to the back-burner.  When the crisis point comes, it is a game changer for humanity and for this series.  I’m still curious to learn more about the ancient alien civilization, but I have enjoyed the focus on human actions in this stage of the story.   I’m excited to see what will happen in the final four books of the series!

My Rating: 5/5

Nemesis Games, 5th book of The Expanse, is my favorite of the series to date.  Instead of introducing new major characters, the viewpoint characters were the members of the close-knit Rocinante crew. The story was full of suspense and action, and each character’s personal arc tied into the momentous events that affect humanity across the solar system.  There’s very little to do with aliens this time around, and instead the focus is on how the current events have affected the various slices of human civilization.  I think Nemesis Games will be hard to top, but I’ll be happy if the rest of the series proves me wrong!   

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Short Fiction: August 2017

It’s time to highlight another handful of my favorite short fiction stories, this time from those that were published in August 2017!  This time, I found all the stories very deeply emotionally affecting, and each also held a sense of hope and peace for the future.  This is the first time I’ve featured Elaine Cuyegkeng and Kate Marshall, but Linda Nagata has shown up on my blog before for both short fiction and long.  I’m still planning on continuing her military SF series at some point.  Anyway, on to the stories, and I have provided links to where they are available to read online!   

These Constellations will be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Short Story, Strange Horizons): In a space-faring empire, young precognitive girls from a particular culture are taken, indoctrinated, and physically patched into starships.  The main character has already been made into a starship, and she watches the possible futures of another girl who was ransomed from the same fate by familial wealth. This is a story of the suffering caused by colonialism, racism and the commodification of people.  At the same time, as we see the vision and revolutionary tendencies of the unmade girl, it carries a strong sense of hope that injustice will not always go unchallenged. As the story says, “The problem is that people are reasonable. They are very reasonable, until they cannot be reasonable anymore.

Red Bark and Ambergris by Kate Marshall (Short Story, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): In this fantasy world, people who have the ability to ‘sense’ are taken from their homes and imprisoned on a dreary island to work out their lives in service to a cruel queen.  Sarai dreams of becoming a poison-tamer, the only path that may eventually grant her access to the queen and court. However, her natural talent is in constructing beautiful scents to evoke memory and emotion, not taming poisons.  She may never be allowed to return home, but she must decide what meaning she will make of her life.  It was a very emotional story, focused on her internal struggle as represented by the competing talents.  Her eventual conclusion was bittersweet, but it felt fitting.

The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata (Short Story, The world’s slow collapse is reaching its end, and it looks like the human race will not survive.  Susannah has already lost everything, and she has dedicated the remainder of her life to remotely building an obelisk on Mars.  Humanity may pass away, but the obelisk will remain as a memorial.  However, the world hasn’t actually ended quite yet, and events may upset her final plans.  This story is kind of a tearjerker, but it is also about the importance of not giving in to despair.  Susannah is a very emotionally engaging character, and following her changing perspective through the story left me feeling more hopeful for the future.