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.