Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award, Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart - no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments - even at the risk of one's life - is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.” ~WWEnd.com
This series had been on my radar for years, and I finally decided to give it a shot after it became a Hugo finalist for best series.  This is the first (but not the last) book I’ve read by Marie Brennan.
My Thoughts:

A Natural History of Dragons is set in a fantasy world, but within a nation that is a clear analogue of Victorian England, complete with severe restrictions on the lives and interests of women.  I’m not a big fan of Victorian stories, and I often find fictional sexism exhausting to read--particularly the kind of sexism that bars women from success in a male-dominated fields (physicist here, this is not new to me).  However, this is ameliorated by the fact that the story is told by the future, highly successful naturalist Lady Trent. Thus, we know from the beginning that she eventually wins, and society does change. When we see the barriers that are placed in front of her solely because of her gender, we can at least know for sure that she is going to overcome them.

Though the setting may not have won me over, the emphasis on science certainly did.  If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed that I love stories about fictional scientific research.  In this novel, I somewhat predictably loved Isabella’s constant drive to learn about and study dragons. The study of live dragons only got underway fairly late in the novel, but her early life also involves the investigation of small dragon-like creatures called “sparklings”, among other things.  The status of the dragon subfield felt well thought-out, with some known facts, some misconceptions, and a wide area of unknowns. This novel covers only Isabella’s first expedition, so I’m sure there’s still plenty to learn about these creatures in the rest of the series.

Since this is a fictional memoir, it also has a strong focus on the personal details of Isabella’s life.  The story begins with her childhood, and we follow her as she grows into a young woman, struggling to find a way to follow her passion for science. I thought she was an excellent heroine. I enjoyed her intelligence and curiosity, and could empathize with her (sometimes reckless) enthusiasm for her field of study.  Her narration was smooth to read, and I liked her sense of humor. In general, I would have said that the tone of the book was light, and that there was a sense that everything would come out okay in the end. However, there is at least one serious sad twist, which caught me off guard. In any case, I have enjoyed this introduction to the life of Isabella, dragon naturalist.  
My Rating: 3.5/5

A Natural History of Dragons kicks off a five-book fictional memoir series about the life of Isabella, who will become the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist.  This book includes her childhood through her first dragon expedition, and describes the difficulties she has in following her interest in science in a restrictive Victorian-like society.  I am not a big fan of Victorian-style fiction and the frustrating sexism that entails, but I liked Isabella and I strongly identified with her curiosity and drive. I’ve already read the second book in the series (review coming soon), and I am definitely planning to read the rest!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Published: Hodder & Stoughton (2018)
Series: Book 3 of the Wayfarers
Awards Nominated: Nominated for the Hugo, Locus SF and Red Tentacle Awards

The Book:

Hundreds of years ago, the last humans on Earth boarded the Exodus Fleet in search of a new home among the stars. After centuries spent wandering empty space, their descendants were eventually accepted by the well-established species that govern the Milky Way.

But that was long ago. Today, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, the birthplace of many, yet a place few outsiders have ever visited. While the Exodans take great pride in their original community and traditions, their culture has been influenced by others beyond their bulkheads. As many Exodans leave for alien cities or terrestrial colonies, those who remain are left to ponder their own lives and futures: What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination? Why remain in space when there are habitable worlds available to live? What is the price of sustaining their carefully balanced way of life—and is it worth saving at all?

A young apprentice, a lifelong spacer with young children, a planet-raised traveler, an alien academic, a caretaker for the dead, and an Archivist whose mission is to ensure no one’s story is forgotten, wrestle with these profound universal questions. The answers may seem small on the galactic scale, but to these individuals, it could mean everything.” ~WWEnd.com

I read this one as a part of a community read-along, for which you can see my spoiler-filled answers to the discussion questions here, here, and here.  Since I’ve posted a lot about it lately, I pushed this review to the top of my review queue.

My Thoughts:

The novels in the Wayfarers series all take place in the same universe, but the stories are only very tangentially related.  To learn about the universe, I would still recommend reading them in publication order, but it doesn’t matter as much for the plot or characters.  With regards to the plot, Chambers does not follow a traditional narrative structure in Record of a Spaceborn Few.  Instead, she tends towards a “slice-of-life” structure, which is more focused on character study through the events of daily life than in conflict or adventures.  We are following a handful of people who live in the Exodus Fleet, the group of habitable spaceships that (along with Mars) has become the homeland of humans after the death of Earth.  The story explores each of their relationship to their home, their thoughts on the meaning of their lives, and how they see a future in the Fleet or out of it.

At first, I felt like there were too many switching perspectives, and the general peacefulness of the characters’ lives made it a little difficult to keep them straight.  After getting at least a few chapters from each viewpoint, though, the different voices and themes began to take shape in my mind. It was also interesting to learn more about Fleet society, and how the necessity of harmony and balance continues to shape their culture.  Though it is an unusual science-fictional setting, the Fleet also has a lot of problems in common with small US towns. The Fleet is seen as a backwater, and there’s a drain of the younger generation to far-off universities and career opportunities. The Fleet is also seen as not having all that much to offer the wider galactic society, so there is generally not a lot of interest from outsiders.  Concerns about the long-term future and safety of the Fleet, it’s place in wider society, and the value of its culture influence the character arcs of each of the viewpoint characters.

Just as the wider societal problems have an analogue in reality, the personal troubles of each character are relatable to the lives of modern readers.  I suspect that readers will identify more strongly with different characters, depending on where they currently are in their lives. I was especially drawn to the story of Eyas, a woman with a culturally valued career in post-life care. She loved her career and her community, but also found that it was demanding and restricted how much of herself she was able to express.  Other characters included Kip (a teen who longs to run off to a university), Isabelle (an elderly woman forging ties with alien researchers), Sawyer (a planet-born young man longing for a simpler life), and Tessa (a mother who is uncertain about her family’s future in the Fleet). I enjoyed following them as they each looked for their own answers, and determined the path that their lives should take. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in the Wayfarers universe, though the story itself is standalone. That story takes even more of a “slice-of-life” approach than the previous books in the series, as we follow the perspectives of a handful of humans in the Exodus Fleet going about their daily lives. It’s a peaceful novel, focused on character study rather than a traditional plot.  I enjoyed learning about the culture of the Fleet, and seeing the challenges it faced as an enduring community. Despite the science-fictional setting, I feel like each of the characters represented relatable anxieties from different stages of human life. It’s an unusual novel, but one that I’m glad to have read. I’ll keep an eye out for the next Wayfarers book!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher
Published: Sofawolf Press (2017), Red Wombat (2016)
Awards Nominated: Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel

The Book:

When the witch Baba Yaga walks her house into the backyard, eleven-year-old Summer enters into a bargain for her heart's desire. Her search will take her to the strange, surreal world of Orcus, where birds talk, women change their shape, and frogs sometimes grow on trees. But underneath the whimsy of Orcus lies a persistent darkness, and Summer finds herself hunted by the monstrous Houndbreaker, who serves the distant, mysterious Queen-in-Chains…” ~Red Wombat

This one was free (link above) and up for the Lodestar Award, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I didn’t realize T. Kingfisher was an alternate name for Ursula Vernon until after I’d read it.  I’ve enjoyed some of her short fiction, too.

My Thoughts:

Summer in Orcus is a traditional portal fantasy with some unusual elements, targeting a middle grade to young adult audience.  I’d recommend it for people who like Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series (and vice versa), since I feel like they both have the same kind of whimsical fantasy with more serious themes running throughout.  In this case, the real-world themes involve Summer’s relationship with her mother, who struggles with allowing her anxiety to limit her young daughter’s life.  Summer loves her mother, but also feels like maybe it would be alright if she had some adventures. Her mother’s anxiety shapes the way Summer views herself and the world around her, conflicting with her desire to explore and experience.

Summer’s ambitions in her secondary world are more modest than I expected.  She doesn’t think of herself as a girl who could save the world, but she does hope that she might save something-- in this case, a magical tree that sprouts frogs. In pursuit of this and her heart’s desire, she ends up gathering a small party of allied fantastical creatures. She wanders from odd situation to situation, and her only assurance that she’s on the right track is the occasional presence of a particular color (which reminds me of hiking trails).  Her path is not without resistance, though, and when she does meet with violence, it is abrupt and terrifying. In general, bad things in Orcus have a particular kind of weary, despairing, cynical darkness that I have not often seen in works targeting younger readers. Anyway, Summer’s journey does have an eventual destination, and I thought it wrapped up her personal arc well.

My Rating: 3.5 /5 

Summer in Orcus is a young adult/middle grade portal fantasy that I would recommend to fans of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series.  The fantasy land, Orcus, is full of interesting and quirky supernatural creatures and lands, and the heroine, Summer, feels authentic to me as a child protagonist. She enters Orcus with fairly modest goals, carrying with her the influences of her mother’s struggle with anxiety.  She may not be a warrior or a hero, but she has her own journey to travel, and her own heart’s desire to find. Summer’s story feels very episodic at times, but I thought it came to a good resolution in the end.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Read-Along: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Part 3 [END]

I’ve been a little delayed, but today I have the final post for the Read-Along of Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few. The discussion here may include spoilers from the entire book, so be warned.  Sometime in the near future, I plan to post my usual review of the book. Overall, I felt like this was a very peaceful book, largely about good people figuring out their own lives.

Ghuh'loloan's offer of help to reach out to the galactic community in a different way speaks volumes about her thoughtfulness, and how well she's truly learned during her time on the Asteria. What do you think of her suggestions for how to help the Fleet thrive, going forward?

I’m glad that this part of the story, at least, has a relatively happy ending.  I hope that her efforts do help the fleet for the future, and that it remains viable and even grows to be able to contribute to the galactic community.  

Tessa makes her decision, after receiving an unexpected gift of her own ... What are your thoughts on her choice, and on her relationship with George now that we've seen more of him?

I think her choice makes sense, given how traumatized her daughter was by the fleet ship’s destruction.  She lives in a place where Aya can feel safe now. I was a little surprised that George decided to come with them on a permanent basis.  Before, their relationship really felt more like a friendship to me than a couple. That was both because of the distance between them, but also just because of how they interacted with one another.  It looks like that might be shifting towards a more traditional kind of couple relationship. And you never know, maybe George will be a great baker one day. In an odd coincidence, my husband is also baking a new type of bread while I’m typing this. Maybe he and George have some things in common.

Eyas and Sunny build a relationship of a different sort, first when she visits him at home and then when they come up with the outreach programme. How do you feel about this budding new relationship (yes this is a shipping question and no I'm not sorry), and would you visit somewhere like the Asteria if you knew that this help would be offered?

I think they make good friends, and they could certainly try out being something more!  I think their class will be very helpful, not just for potential immigrants but also for tourists and business travelers.  There are so many things about a community that you can’t know from the outside, and that no one would think to tell you. I think that having this kind of a program available, and advertising it, makes the Fleet look much more welcoming to everyone. I typically only travel to places where I think I will feel safe, and a program like this would certainly help to give that impression. 

Time moves on, and Kip grows up, and my heart swells. What are your final thoughts about the changes in him, both before and after returning home to the Fleet?

I knew he was a good kid!  It was nice to see how living outside the Fleet changed his perspective of it, and to see how it began to be a unique heritage that he actually wanted to share with his alien friends.  I was kind of skeptical when Isabelle said she thought Kip should be an archivist, but I think he did really grow into it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Read-Along: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Part 2

It’s time for the second post in the read-along of Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few.  This post will cover parts 2-4, so beware of spoilers up to there!  A lot happened this time, and I am now no longer expecting any kind of traditional overarching plot. This is entirely a slice-of-life story about living in the Exodan Fleet.  Now, on to the questions:

Sawyer's story comes to a rather abrupt end in these chapters... Were you surprised by his fate? And do you sympathise with his situation, or did he bring that on himself?

I did not see it coming in the slightest.  Even after the narrative said he had died, I thought maybe he was just unconscious, until Kip and his friend overheard about the disposal of his body.  He was a perspective character! They’re supposed to be safe! I feel bad for Sawyer, so yes I did sympathize with him. 

As for how he died, Oats should really have considered that Sawyer was from a planet.  He didn’t have the same kinds of instincts drilled into him as people who grew up in spaceships.  He was upset, and stressed, and I think it was reasonable that he didn’t consider the danger posed by a sealed door in vacuum.  His crew should have taken care of him, and they didn’t.

In general, though, I did see that he was headed for trouble.  The “salvage crew” he joined was really obviously shady, and he just blew past every warning.  “We like to keep our postings off the lists”, the pinhole drive, how the parameters of the job started changing once he could no longer back out.  I expected him to end up arrested, and Eyas would have to speak for him. At the very least, I’m glad she was there to identify him, and to grieve for him.    

It seems as though Tessa is considering leaving the Fleet with her family. Do you think she will? If so, do you think it's the right call for her to make?

Is she? I didn’t pick up that she was making concrete plans, but I could have missed it. I can see how the destruction of the other ship might make one reconsider life in the fleet. Other than that, the fleet seems like a good place, but I also get the sense that it won’t be around forever. 

Kip takes a big step forward in his personal growth after the smash incident, by taking to heart the feelings and the dignity of others instead of only thinking of himself. How much of this change in him do you think will stick, and what are your feelings about Ras after their 'conversation' about what to do?

I don’t think Kip is a bad kid at all, just easily swayed by people who make poor decisions. Ras is not a good friend, but it’s going to be up to Kip to realize that.  It must be frustrating for his parents to be able to see that, and also know that they can’t make Kip realize he has a bad friend. It might help that Kip is going to get Ras into major trouble about this, if he comes fully clean about the smash.  Their friendship may not survive. Regardless, I think these two incidents together might be enough to help him learn how to stand firm against peer pressure.

Isabel and Eyas have also been presented with the possibility of significant change, in their respective stories within this story. Isabel has an opportunity to open doors for the Fleet within the larger galactic community, while Eyas finds herself opening up emotionally in ways she perhaps had never done before (with Sunny, and later when she grieves for Sawyer). What further changes do you see all of this bringing for their own community on the Asteria, and for the Fleet in general?

I feel like what Eyas needs is a private life.  Part of her loneliness, and her feeling of incompleteness in her career, is simply that there is a large part of herself that has no place in her life.  If she had people to go home to, who expected “Eyas the person” and not “Eyas the caretaker”, I think that would relieve some of her dissatisfaction. I feel like that’s what she’s doing, in her kind-of-relationship with Sunny.  He is helping her by creating a place in her life where she can be herself. Maybe she’ll find a way to build that outside of a tryst club.

Isabel’s story might involve a much more dramatic change for the fleet.  I think that the interest that Ghuh’loloan’s bringing to the fleet will ultimately be a good thing.  There are issues with the fleet that need to be addressed, and it’s good that the benefactors want to meet with fleet members to find out what and how.  I hope the end result is positive!

Friday, November 8, 2019

Read-Along: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Part 1

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a read-along, but now it’s time to get back into the habit!  I’ve joined a read-along of Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few for this November, together with Lisa of Dear Geek Place and a few others.  The schedule is as follows, in case you’d like to join in discussion in future weeks:

Week 1: Friday 8th November, discussing Prologue & Part 1
Week 2: Friday 15th November, discussing Parts 2, 3 & 4
Week 3: Friday 22nd November, discussing Parts 5, 6 & 7

I’ve read and reviewed both The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, and have been looking forward to learning about the Exodus Fleet in Record of a Spaceborn Few. Today, I’m going to answer the Week 1 discussion questions, so beware of spoilers from here on out through Part 1!  To be honest, it took me longer to get into this one, because the point-of-view kept bouncing around between unrelated (or only slightly related) characters.  I’m still enjoying it, though!

1. As with the previous Wayfarer books, this one is driven more by characters and ideas than by high-energy/high-action plot, despite that prologue. If you're new to the series, is this approach one that surprised you, and what do you think of it so far? If you have read the books before, is it something you appreciate?

It didn’t surprise me, since I’m not new to the series.  It did seem a little more meandering than I remember from previous books, though.  In the first, we had the challenging wormhole-making job, and the second had a clear character arc driving the action.  So far, in this one, we’re just following the daily life of a handful of people in the Fleet, and any kind of overarching plot has yet to emerge.  Their daily lives are interesting, I am just hoping for a little bit more to the plot.

2. Sticking with first impressions a bit longer - what do you think of Exodan life (and all that history), and of the way Becky Chambers presents it to the reader, ie. specifically through the lenses of these characters?

I like the idea of the Fleet as a kind of human homeworld. I didn’t feel like I was being info-dumped on as we learned through the eyes of various characters.  It’s a little sad that the young people see it as a dead-end place, I think, because that implies that the Fleet is in decline from which it may not ultimately recover.

3. In addition to the personal perspective on Exodan life, we do get some perspective from 'outside' sources, namely Sawyer and, to a lesser extent, Ghuh'loloan. How do you feel about their particular perspectives on the Exodan Fleet, and do you think these views in particular are important ones to share? If so, why? (Or why not?)

I think it was important to show at least one outsider view, simply so that we as the readers could get a better description of the society through their experiences. Ghuh’loloan shows that some people do care about learning about humanity, which is nice.  Sawyer… I felt kind of bad for him about that fishy pickle sandwich. He has this idealized picture of what the Fleet is, and maybe he needs to calm down for a while. I think it was nice to show the true outsider view (the alien) and the outsider-with-a-connection view (a human who has never been there before).  It’s kind of like showing, for instance, the culture of a Chinese town simultaneously through the eyes of a white American vs. an American of Chinese descent.

4. Politics, technology, gender identity... As before, this is a book that's all about relationships. How they begin, how they stand now, and how they might progress. There's a lot of today's unfurling potential in how Chambers writes her stories and builds her world(s), but notably without a lot of our conflict. Do you think this is a world we can build, or does it feel too good to be true?  

I don’t know if “too good to be true” is exactly how I’d put it.  I mean, the Earth was destroyed and our species is a minor addition to the wider galactic society.  However, I like that the people in her books, generally, are kind. I sometimes feel like there is a lack of kindness in the world today, but I don’t need that lack to be reflected in the stories I read. I hope we can build a world someday where people care about others, where “no one goes hungry, and everyone has a home”.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books 2012
Series: Book 2 of the Books of the Raksura

The Book:

Moon, once a solitary wanderer, has become consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. Together, they travel with their people on a pair of flying ships in hopes of finding a new home for their colony. Moon finally feels like he’s found a tribe where he belongs.

But when the travelers reach the ancestral home of Indigo Cloud, shrouded within the trunk of a mountain-sized tree, they discover a blight infecting its core. Nearby they find the remains of the invaders who may be responsible, as well as evidence of a devastating theft. This discovery sends Moon and the hunters of Indigo Cloud on a quest for the heartstone of the tree—a quest that will lead them far away, across the Serpent Sea. . . .” ~Night Shade Books
Here continues my reviews of the Books of the Raksura.  I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I plan to at some point!

My Thoughts:

The Serpent Sea picks up where The Cloud Roads left off and continues directly into a new adventure.  There is a bit of recap at the beginning to orient the reader, but I would strongly recommend reading the series in order. If you have already read The Cloud Roads, then you basically know what kind of book you’ll be getting withThe Serpent Sea. Moon is still trying to fit into his new community, Indigo Cloud court still has internal problems, and a new external problem requires adventuring and combat.  This new problem comes in the form of a lost treasure, the heartstone of the tree, which our characters must journey to recover. I had been hoping for more focus on problems internal to the court, so I was a little disappointed when I realized this was the direction the story would take. I intend that as a compliment towards Wells’s world-building with the Raksuran court, not as a slight of this book.

The group of Raksuran characters interact with several new societies in the process of the search, and I enjoyed seeing a bit more of this vast world.  It was interesting to see them interact with another Raksuran court, and the floating city on the sea where much of the action took place was creative, though fragile-seeming.  Their interactions with groundling species drive home the fact that, while they aren’t the Fell, the Raksura are pretty terrifying and dangerous as well. I’m looking forward to seeing if there is more cooperation between the Raksura and certain groundling societies in the future books.  Whether that happens or not, I get the sense that there’s still plenty of room in this world to explore in the rest of the series.

The writing style is similar to the first book, concise with a focus on actions and dialogue.  There are again many named minor characters to keep straight, but the story is fast-paced and suspenseful.  I also enjoyed the way this book focuses on Moon’s experiences as a solitary. One of my favorite parts involves him using his skills at blending into groundling societies to infiltrate a magister’s tower.  We also get to see part of the basis for the prejudice against solitaries in Raksuran society. The ending is exciting, and my only complaint would be about a random combat scene that happens in the denouement.  It felt strangely jarring, since it happens after the main conflicts have been resolved. I suspect it might be intended to foreshadow conflicts that will arise in the next book. I guess I’ll see sooner or later!

My Rating: 4/5

The Serpent Sea is a fitting continuation of the story that begins in The Cloud Roads, and I expect fans of the first will also like the second. Most of the long-running conflicts in the Indigo Cloud court are still present, but the theft of their colony tree’s heartstone presents the immediate problem that must be solved in the arc of this novel.  I enjoyed seeing more of the world, and getting the chance to see Moon’s particular skills benefit his new community. I’m hoping for more focus on the court itself in the next book, The Siren Depths, which I am definitely planning to read!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Books of the Raksura
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

“Moon has spent his life hiding what he is: a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as he is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself—someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into the shape-shifter community.

What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power, that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival, and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself . . . and his newfound kin.  ~ Night Shade Books
Completely independently, I happened to come across the Raksura series and the Murderbot Diaries at roughly the same time.  They seem very different to have come from the same person! I’ve read the first two books of the Raksura series so far, so I bumped up the review of the second book to be for next week. 
My Thoughts:
I see The Cloud Roads as the kind of book that has crossover appeal for Adult and YA target demographics, though it is marketed as an adult fantasy novel.  At the center of the novel is a self-realization arc for the main character, Moon. Though he is already biologically an adult, his personal growth feels in many ways like a coming-of-age story. Moon knows virtually nothing about himself, his species, and his origins, and we follow him as he slowly learns, opens up, and comes into his own in Raksuran society. In addition, the writing style is concise and direct, with lots of action and dialogue.  The story moves very quickly, and the prose is easy to read.
I got the sense that the world of The Cloud Roads was enormous, and that only a tiny fraction of it was involved in this first novel.  This seems to leave plenty of room for new places and new people to come into the story later in the series.  In this first book, most of the emphasis is on the Raksura, though we also get some information about the villain species, the Fell.  I’m not typically a big fan of stories with entirely evil species, but in this case I appreciate that it allows for a relatively simple external conflict to pair with Moon’s more complicated internal struggles.  As for the Raksura, I really enjoyed reading about their biology and culture. Members of different castes have different available shape-shifting forms, and I thought the attention to how their bodies influenced their mannerisms and activities gave the characters a good sense of physical presence as non-humans. There was a lot of information and many named minor characters to keep straight, but I feel like this will get easier as I continue in the series.
One thing that I especially liked about Raksuran culture was the partial inversion of common human gender roles and stereotypes. A person of Moon’s caste (a consort) is valuable primarily for his fertility, and is expected to be moody, delicate, flighty and emotional. While Moon is indeed kind of moody and emotional, which I think is understandable given his background, he doesn’t fit with some of the other expectations.  For instance, having grown up alone, he is accustomed to hunting and fighting, and he is not exactly delicate. If he were a woman in a society with “traditional gender roles”, I think he’d be considered an awkward tomboy. I found it interesting to see a society that not only inverts some of our world’s stereotypes, but also then challenges them within its own framework. At the end of The Cloud Roads, I was eager to see more about how Moon’s new community would continue and how they would address internal issues that still need to be resolved.    
My rating: 4/5 
The Cloud Roads is the entertaining first book of a series about shape-shifting Raksura, and the difficulties their people encounter in a fantasy world.  This book follows Moon, a young shape-shifter who grew up in ignorance of his heritage, and who is welcomed back into a troubled Raksuran community.  I enjoyed the level of detail with which Raksuran biology and society are imagined, and I sympathized with Moon as he tried to learn to fit into their culture. I especially liked the partial inversion of human gender stereotypes with respect to Moon’s caste and character.  This was a fast-moving book, and it left me eager to learn more about this world in the rest of the series!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published: Del Rey (2017)
Series: Book 1 of the Winternight Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award

The Book:

"Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.

Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.

But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales." ~Penguin Random House

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s first novel, and I read it for consideration in voting for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer (now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer).  Arden was a finalist for both 2018 and 2019.

My Thoughts:

The Bear and the Nightingale is a chronological story of the birth and childhood of the main character, Vasilisa (a.k.a Vasya).  The story is slow and meandering, often shifting to follow small subplots, and changing viewpoint characters fairly frequently. The supernatural conflict mentioned in the description does eventually arise, but it takes a long time for it to come to the forefront.  I think this kind of story rewards a reader with a strong emotional investment in the main character, Vasya. For me, she is an easy character to like -- kind, curious, and bold-- but I also think the narrative oversells her specialness a little. I get the impression that this novel is an origin story, and that the rest of the trilogy might follow her adventures as an adult.

Similar to my reaction to Vasya, I get the feeling that my emotional responses to the characters were not quite in line with the intent of the story. For instance, the description above makes Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, sound far more malicious and powerful than she actually is. I felt I could see the whole shape of Anna’s life, and it was a neverending nightmare. Her ability to see supernatural creatures could have been a blessing, but she genuinely believes that they are demons haunting her every waking day. She is also a victim of repeated marital rape, by a character we are meant to like.  She has no real power over anyone, not even herself. The enforcement of Christian piety is through the local priest, another person who is in Vasya’s life against his own will. I don’t blame him for some bitterness, since he is aware that his career is being sabotaged. Beyond that, though, he starts to embody virtually every negative stereotype of the Christian church. As a Christian, I didn’t like the way the story set up Christianity as an uncomplicated villain. 

Though I might not have had the intended reactions to the characters, I liked the writing style and the setting. It was interesting to see the various spirits from Russian folklore, and I enjoyed the chance to practice my understanding of Russian diminutives.  The setting was vivid--it seemed like I could almost feel the chill of winter. The supernatural elements were well-grounded, and felt like an organic part of Vasya’s world. I am not sure whether I would consider this novel to be part of the YA subgenre. The denser writing style and slow build of the story is more characteristic of adult fantasy, but it is a story about the childhood and coming-of-age of a young girl. Regardless, I can see how this is a book that has captured the imagination of many people. 

My Rating: 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale is a slowly-paced origin story for the heroine, Vasilisa, who I expect will continue as the main character in the rest of the Winternight Trilogy.  I enjoyed the descriptive writing of the rural Russian countryside where she grew up, and the inclusion of creatures out of Russian folktales. The parts of the story that were supernatural fit in well with the natural world.  I personally had more sympathy for the antagonists than I think was intended, and perhaps a bit less for the heroine. I feel like this one was just not exactly up my alley, though I can understand its popularity.