Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Privilege of the Sword

By Ellen Kushner.

Somehow I found this book mentioned on Sherwood Smith's site (along with it's predecessor, Swordspoint) and connected it to the ideas "fun" and "appropriate for young adults." Oops.

The story is, for reasons not really explained, Katherine's rich uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, invites her to the city to learn swordsmanship. If he does, he'll cancel the pending suits against her family and pay off all their debts. This might give you an idea of the kind of person he is. Once she's in his power, she proceeds to learn swordsmanship, as promised. However, her time in the city shapes her in other ways, too... it's unclear how much of it was planned by the Mad Duke. He indisputably and unnecessarily drugs her at one point so that she won't disturb him with his lover, even though he leaves her to collapse in the same room. Ugh.

This book is well written, after a fashion (good style), and Katherine's voice narrating in various sections is part of what makes it bearable, I think. However, the flagrant sex (and homosexuality, and sexual "liberation" type themes) make it and its predecessor quite unpleasant. You're not missing anything particularly deep or moving if you skip reading this; there are enough other well-written books in the world. If you don't object to the kinds of the content mentioned above, on the other hand, you might it a delightful read, as the dozens of reviewers quotes (mostly for her several previous books, two of which are in the Riverside universe of this one) seem to attest to.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

More Quickies: The end of the Shamer Chronicles, Tooth and Claw, Firebirds Rising, and Forgotten Beasts

Well, I am getting behind and don't feel like writing so much, so here are a bunch of books at once.

Firebirds Rising (anthology). Edited by Sharyn November. I enjoyed the stories in this collection more than the ones in Firebirds, which I thought were decent but not great. I particularly liked and remember The Wizards of Perfil, Quill, and What Used to Be Good Still Is, all three of which seem somehow bittersweet, with The Wizards of Perfil being more sweet and the other two perhaps more bitter, although not outright depressing. I'll admit to pretty much skipping Alan Dean Foster's story (I checked out a couple of his books once and did not really enjoy them), but the rest were for the most part quite good. Patricia McKillip's Jack o'Lantern is quite different from the usual fantasy that she writes. It seems more real, somehow. The rest are worth checking out. P.S.: Quill is not about writing like you might think, although it is the name of the narrator.

I read Singing the Dogstar Blues (by Alison Goodman) a few weeks ago because The Real Thing (in Firebirds Rising) referred to it. It wasn't that bad, but it wasn't that good either--it seemed sort of bland and generic to me, although I'll admit to being amused by Joss's origins. Otherwise, it's about a college kid who has been chosen to partner a telepathic alien in a school for time travel. The book ends but the story seems unfinished, as attested by The Real Thing which takes place somewhat later.

The Serpent Gift and The Shamer's War round out the Shamer Chronicles by Lene Kaaberbol. I think I liked them better than the first two books; they both seem somewhat deeper and more serious, although in a way The Serpent Gift doesn't seem like it goes deep enough. Perhaps the lack of in-depth angsting about certain events is a good thing, though. The Shamer's War finishes the series, perhaps appropriately, but some of the plot events once again seem a little too pat and convenient. Dina's uncle shows up, tries to take her away, strikes her down so that she can become more powerful than you could possibly imagine (my little joke), and vanishes out of the story. Almost all this happens in one chapter. There's also a short little essay by some (apparently real) professor after the abrupt end of the book, although it may not be in the American edition that was just released. I also found the fourth book to feel rather different from the first three, and wondered if it was a difference in editing between the UK and US releases, if it was just written differently, or if the typesetting and feel of the paper affected my impression so much. (I found a copy of the UK version in a local library, amazingly enough.) Despite the plot contrivances, I still think this series is worth reading for the originality of the idea and the moral issues involved.

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton, is an odd Victorian fantasy novel. Starring dragons instead of humans. The dragons are definitely an integral part of it, but the Victorian part seems like the more prominent aspect. She won a World Fantasy Award for it, I think, but it's not really my cup of tea. (Not that I drink tea.) You might like it.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip, was one of her earlier books. (I'm not sure whether it was her first or not.) The first sentence threw me off since it was a bit cruder than McKillip usually is, but I eventually read it. I think there are probably three whole books left unwritten in about the first five pages. The first half of this book is sort of mediocre and maybe handled more clumsily than I've come to expect from McKillip, but halfway through there is a major event and suddenly the story becomes extremely intense and focused on Sybel's revenge. Sybel is especially interesting as a wizard because unlike almost every other one of McKillip's mages, she is rather sharply limited in her powers to magic related to calling minds. No shape-shifting or invisibility or listening to plants or even conjuring a simple flame for her. I would undoubtedly get more out of with a second reading, like many of her other books, but it'll have to wait a while.

Wow, am I caught up already?

Monday, September 18, 2006


By Karen Romano Young.

I really enjoyed this book; highly recommended. Go read it!

The dimensions of kind of odd so that even though it's 380-some pages, it still seems small and short. I read through it in about two and a half hours, that's for sure. Despite the cover (the reddish purple reminds me of Sunshine's cover), it definitely isn't horror. Unless you're arachnophobic. It's about a girl named Nancy growing up in New York, sort of.

Nancy's family is from an odd ethnic background, even for New York. Her father lives on a rooftop and works as a roofer. Her mother lives below ground and weaves incessantly as the days get long. Her grandfather can't seem to stop betting on horse races, and her grandmother tells stories that get inside her head and make her do crazy things. The problem is, they're all telling her she needs to grow up and being really cryptic about what they expect to happen to her. Why? (Even after finishing it, it isn't really clear why.)

Definitely a cool, cute book. I picked it up, was reminded of Firefly Cloak by the flap, and started reading. It is definitely a coming-of-age type story, only with spiders. Or humans. Or angels. (I know, it's corny.) You really aren't sure for the first few chapters exactly what they are, although angels is pretty much out of the picture.

Should I be negative? There are a few spots where it's unclear exactly what happens, especially at the end. The plot might be pretty ordinary if none of the characters had any suspiciously spidery traits. The dark cover with the silk coming from the hand make it look like a horror book, although actually Nancy, who's afraid of heights but being pressured by her parents to climb, does wish she could spin silk like a spider. There was nothing else that bothered me too much.

The Green and the Gray

By Timothy Zahn.

The Greens and the Grays are both groups of alien refugees from a war on their home planet. They've been quietly living on Earth since about 1928, until they each discover that the other group still exists. Trouble starts because, of course, the war was between them.

This book could easily be a sort of cheesy alien movie. There don't seem to any terribly deep ideas in it. Instead, there's a couple who are given Melantha Green at gunpoint and told to take care of her. And the police officer who thinks all he has to stop is an impending gang war. And the classic move of "Let's go sneak into the enemy's HQ while supposed to be out meeting with us somewhere else", only Roger and Caroline (fortunately--anyone can see what a stupid idea it is) don't manage to get that far. The outlandish explanations of the physics involved in the Gray technology and eventual plot twists (what planet did the Greens and the Grays come from, anyway?) make this story seem more like fantasy than sci fi.

Not offensive, but also not substantial. It seems kind of fluffy.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Shade's Children

By Garth Nix.

One day fifteen years ago, seven Overlords appeared and everyone over the age of 14 vanished. The children were herded into Dorms until their fourteenth birthdays, then to be taken as collections of useful parts and made into biological monsters for the Overlords' war games.

The reviewers on Amazon seem to think this is horror; it certainly is horrible, although horror wasn't the first label I would have thought of.

It was definitely readable, although probably not worth reading. The first chapter was so provocative (Ella implying she was going to die) that I immediately skipped to the last one to find out if she did, before reading the rest of the book.

There are some holes in the tale: What happened to the world outside of the city? It seems more likely than everyone vanishing the world across (although certainly possible), the Overlords merely translated the City into a slightly different reality, leaving everything they didn't want behind. And, what happens when their technology is destroyed?

Not really worth reading, although it wasn't really painful either.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Fire and Hemlock

By Dianna Wynne Jones.

This is an odd book, mixing the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Unfortunately I'm not as familiar with Thomas the Rhymer (if reading Pamela Dean's version of Tam Lin can be said to make me familiar with Tam Lin, although one of the stories in Firebirds was also based on it), so I can't say it's an odd mixture specifically. The writing strikes me as somewhat less mature than some of the other good books I've read lately, although I haven't read much by DWJ except for her two stories in Firebirds and Firebirds Rising. The ending is admittedly unclear, although it tantalizes me with the possibility of understanding if only I think about it a little bit more or reread the book, which I'm probably not going to do. The "Coda" (not quite an epilogue) resolves a couple remaining issues with a sort of childish logic that is almost offensively simple compared to the conundrums Polly wound her way through at the climax.

The teaser is, Polly is around 19 years old and about to leave for college when a picture (titled Fire and Hemlock, of course) and a book in her room trigger her memory. She has a hidden set of memories conflicting with what she previously remembered, in which she snuck into Hunsdon House when she was 10 years old and ended up at a funeral for someone's mother. She was rescued from the reading of the Will by a Thomas Lynn, who was also bored stiff, and developed an odd sort of friendship with him. How could she have forgotten him so completely?

It seems like very little is done with the device of Polly in the four years later while she's remembering. Much of the book is spent retelling what happened to her in the five years before she forgot (and what made her forget?), with only a few comments about what she thinks now. Her character seems to hardly change in those four years, with the excuse that since she had just remembered, the memories were like yesterday to her, and she sort of resumes her relationship with Thomas Lynn right where she left it off.

The narrative is readable enough, I suppose, but I have a hard time seeing how this is a lot of people's favorite DWJ book.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Daughter of Elysium

By Joan Slonczewski.

Definitely not as good as A Door Into Ocean or The Children Star.

The repeated explanations of meiosis and pre-natal germ cell development is... repetitive, and not really an interesting part of the story, for one thing. For another, the parts of "The Web" (a sort of Sharer philosophy text which is really a fairly brief narration by Cassi, Berenice's adopted daughter from the first book, sort of) read like a thinly veiled and insane philosophy text. The innocence of the Sharers, and whatever else that was attractive about the other two books, really isn't here. The story lines feel disjointed, jumping between Raincloud and Blackbear's plots, and the Sharers are barely present until the end. I had a hard time accepting that their culture could have changed so much as to allow the apparent concessions that the existence of Elysium involved, but there it is. When they do show up, their culture still doesn't ring true.

The machines also seem flat and poorly characterized; only a couple stand out and seem to be extreme examples. Little insight into their culture is given; much instead goes on behind the scenes.

The frequent hints at sex scenes (between Raincloud and her husband) were unappetizing and unwanted; there was very little so blatant in the other two books. (I wonder why she changed in this one? Perhaps it didn't work out well, since A Door Into Ocean came first and The Children Star came after.)

It explains some background and a couple rather specific references in The Children Star, but it's not really worth reading.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Shamer's Daughter and The Shamer's Signet

By Lene Kaaberbol.

I just ran into these spontaneously on the shelves at Shenendehowa, and I'm glad. Dina is a young girl (around 11) growing up in a sort of medieval society. She wants to have friends and so on, but the gift she inherited from her mother makes it difficult: anyone who looks into a Shamer's eyes will have to face all their own regrets and shame. Most people avoid looking.

The comparison to Tamora Pierce's books is probably apt: Dina is (mostly) capable and headstrong, but these seem a little darker, possibly because the enemy who has no shame is terrible indeed. Events often seem to be set against Dina and everyone else, before sudden reversals. The end of The Shamer's Signet seems especially convenient and out-of-nowhere. Oh, well.

Spiritually, they make me think of John 3:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

Almost everyone avoids looking in a Shamer's eyes. I have to wonder if I would, too.

I'm looking forward to The Serpent Gift and The Shamer's War, books three and four.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Dubious Hills

By Pamela Dean.

This is still a fantastic book, even if it's a bit sad. (I've read it once before.)

Arry is the 14-year-old Physici of a community in the Dubious Hills, where everyone has (starting around puberty) a magical province of knowledge they can call their own. Hers is the knowledge of pain: whenever anyone is hurt, they rely on her to tell them so; she feels their pain as her own. The intent of the Shapers who made the spell was to prevent war, pain and suffering as much as possible, but the coming of some wolves is beginning to upset the balance. Arry, conscientious about her job even though she's only 14, begins to realize there are hurts other than physical, and struggles to find out what to do about them.

On the first reading, I took it for granted that everyone in the community pretty much accepted everyone else's knowledge. They are almost always careful about citing the original source of any statement of fact made. On this reading, I began to (cynically) wonder if perhaps some of the older members of the community were not as trusting of their own knowledge as they seemed. There's nothing definite to indicate that, so it could just be me.

Arry thinks at the beginning that she's grown up, even though she's only 14, because she's taking care of her brother and sister (her parents are gone and assumed dead) and serving as Physici to her community, but the events that come certainly challenge her and stretch her. She asks many sharp questions about knowledge and pain and responsibility which no one else seems to be able to answer. The painful part is that she and even younger children are left doing something about the problem because everyone older is trying to ignore it and hope it goes away. Is what they do right or wrong? What should everyone else have done? There are definitely questions left to ponder when you finish.

Just an interesting tidbit: I don't remember noticing the significance of the names Arry, Beldi and Con before, but it reflects the kind of systematic mind their mother and/or father must have had.

I am definitely looking forward to seeing what Arry and her siblings become in Going North (work in progress), where (SPOILER) they travel outside the bounds of the spell that gave Arry her knowledge. (Beldi and Con aren't old enough to have theirs yet.) Will Arry still be sensitive and caring when she no longer feels other people's pain, or will she be more selfish? How will she mature? What will she think about what she did after she's had some time to consider what she did in The Dubious Hills? One of the questions in The Dubious Hills is whether someone's province always matches their character, or whether perhaps it helps determine their character. How Arry changes or behaves without the spell affecting her will definitely be interesting.

Highly recommended.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Wren series

Consisting (so far) of Wren to the Rescue, Wren's Quest, and Wren's War. By Sherwood Smith.

I read these books for nostalgic reasons, having read them in my childhood (ha, ha) and remembering very little of them, until I stumbled on them again recently because Sherwood Smith is one of the authors in the Firebirds anthology.

Really, I don't think they're very good. The first book seems especially simplistic, depicting characters in a way that reminds me of a child's straightforward view of the world. No one is anything other than what they claim to be, two preteens can make a long journey on their own to the fortress of evil, etc. I admit I felt rather cynical when I assumed someone was a traitor (there were even hints that it was so) and it turned out not to be so.

The second and third books were somewhat better than the first, but still not great. There are certain obvious objections to raise, such as... if magical resources are limited, as Wren is taught, why does she never have trouble doing magic? The principle is mentioned once and then seemingly forgotten. It seems as if what she can do depends on where the author wanted the plot to go, not what she was actually capable of, since she seemed to actually regress after the first book.

Wren is an appealing character, with a greater destiny that's only hinted at in these three books, but I don't think her story is very well told.

The Abhorsen Trilogy

Consisting of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen by Garth Nix.

The Abhorsen are a family of necromancers dedicated to putting the dead to rest. The first book, Sabriel, feels almost like a separate story from the other two, which are tightly joined. Sabriel as a character struck me as cold and perhaps a bit proud, and for some reason I didn't like her book that much. There were a lot of vague hints about things that I took to be much more than they were in the second and third books.

I was starting to be concerned that the second book was all about "teen angst", with Lirael complaining, when things started to happen. She immediately became a (more) sympathetic character when her memory was tampered with by the leaders of the Clayr, her own people, something which I can't stand in any book. She is very quiet and perhaps shy because she doesn't fit in, but also somewhat headstrong and hasty, like Sabriel. As she meets up with Prince Sameth (Sabriel's son) and finds other companions, she begins to find her place in the world, a process that continues in the third book.

I suppose these books were interesting, but they somehow lack charm and appeal, for me. Perhaps it's because they deal so much with death. I'd like to recommend them, but I can't.