Thursday, December 14, 2006

River Secrets

By Shannon Hale.

This book continues the story of the world of Bayern (introduced in The Goose Girl and Enna Burning) from Razo's point of view. I liked this at least as much as The Goose Girl, although you almost certainly need to read the first two in order to get the most out of the story. Razo, unlike Isi and Enna, is apparently just an ordinary guy, certain he has no talents besides stuffing "two cherries into one nostril." Obviously any story that starts off like that isn't going to end there (well, except for The Witch Queen... let's say, any good story.) Entertaining hijinks ensue. I think this book made me laugh more than either of the previous two.

My favorite thing about this book (at the moment) is the way it deals with love and courtship. Not everything is "love at first sight", and even when two characters are undeniably in love with each other their future together is uncertain, not because of outside influences ("I'm the prince and I've been promised to someone else in marriage") but just because of the way they interact with each other. This is definitely not all the book is about, but it is a significant subplot.

Definitely recommended as quite a sweet story, but you will probably need to read The Goose Girl and Enna Burning first in order to get the most out of it. I also agree with some other reviewers who said that there are a lot of names to keep up with. While the review I read blamed it on the fact that the reviewer had not read the previous books, I can say that most of the characters in this book are new and I also had a little trouble keeping up with some of the characters, although it may be my fault for reading it so fast. (I just got my hands on it last night.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Switching to Blogger in beta

I've just switched this blog over to the Blogger beta. Let me know if anything has gone horribly wrong as a result.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Goose Girl

By Shannon Hale.

A great fairy tale somewhat in the lines of Robin McKinley's retellings. This one is based on the Brothers Grimm tale "The Goose Girl", and was quite enjoyable to read, although there were parts where Ani/Isi's naivety was painful enough to make me put the book down before continuing onward. Definitely recommended if you like any sort of fantasy or fairy tales or stories that end well. There is one somewhat mature reference, but I find that in this case "mature" isn't necessarily a synonym for "dirty."

I didn't like it's successor (or "companion novel") Enna Burning quite as much, but it was also a decent read. I'm still waiting on River Secrets, the third volume in the series.

If you like fairy tales (and don't take yourself too seriously) you might also enjoy No Rest for the Wicked, a clever webcomic that starts with the Buried Moon and makes good its escape.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Glory Season

By David Brin.

This sci-fi book is based on a cute premise, but I found the ending extremely unsatisfying due to its weak resolution. The premise is this: humans have colonised other planets. One such isolated colony chose, close to ten thousand years ago (if I'm interpreting the years given correctly), to modify humanity so that women reproduced clonally during the winter. However, men were still required to spark the process.

Problems with this book? Maia gets knocked on the head and kidnapped a lot of times. You get tired of it after a while. Also, she finds out partway through that she and her twin sister (genetic "vars" or variants, conceived during the summer) were named after characters in an old book who... let me guess... had the same idea to pass themselves off as clones that Maia and Leie had. Why? Respect for someone who managed to establish a clan of clones is automatically higher than for genetic vars, who are cast away by most clans when they reach their fifteenth year.

Some of the plot twists (Renna's identity) are a little too obvious, while too many other questions go unanswered. And the ending is quite weak, while not appearing to have a sequel. Not a great book, but not unreadable. However: other opinions may differ. Apparently it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1994.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

American Caesar

By William Manchester.

A biography of Douglas MacArthur.

This was a fairly interesting read, but at times it got bogged down in excessive detail, quoting various opposing letters and interviews from actors in the MacArthur saga. The author makes a big production of excusing MacArthur for many of his mistakes by saying that other parties were equally responsible. His prose descriptions of maps leave something to be desired; it would be nice if the maps were featured more prominently for easier reference.

I also have doubts about the veracity of his account. There are numerous references to other sources, but various people on the Internet seem to think Manchester is not an accurate biographer, tending to glorify his subjects, and some of the things attributed to MacArthur (constantly on the front lines risking snipers, for example, and never getting hit) seem after a while to be somewhat excessive and perhaps unlikely.

It's also not always clear what is happening at a given point. The author makes frequent forward references to events in the future and it's somewhat hard to keep track of them, especially when he refers to things an educated reader may have been assumed to know (this book is dated 1978), but I didn't. It may be helpful to have some familiarity with MacArthur's life and the twentieth century in the United States beforehand.

I only found it to be a compelling read at a few spots, so it was pretty hard to get through. That and my doubts about the book's accuracy make me uncertain about how useful it was to read. It did suggest interesting questions, making me wonder, for example, what the Chinese and Soviets thought about the U.S. during the latter time period covered. However, in itself, I suspect another book (not yet found, at least by me) could have presented the desired information in a more palatable manner.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Sailing to Sarantium

By Guy Gavriel Kay.

This book seems to lack focus a bit. Allegedly, it concerns a mosaicist named Crispin traveling to Byzantium, err, Sarantium to create a mosaic for the emperor. Unfortunately, the author seems to starting off each chapter with a new character and taking the book in all different directions, with the result that it falls apart in the end. (I know there is a sequel, but I haven't read it.)

The style reminds me most strongly of Bujold; the world Kay has created (or borrowed) is rather easy to immerse oneself in. However, I don't think his work is quite as good. The ending, to say the least, is disappointing. (Once again, this may be rectified by the second installment.) The author also uses an annoying narrative trick where, just about every time Crispin starts to get distracted by another project, someone knocks him out and carries him further towards Sarantium. It might have worked once, but more than that is too much.

The alchemy, or rather magic, reminds me of The Secrets of Jin-Shei; it is somewhat different, but expresses similar limitations. It also has an inevitably sad outcome.

An OK book, but it probably won't keep you awake at night.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Shape-Changer's Wife

By Sharon Shinn.

I thought this was much better than The Safe-Keeper's Secret*, which I read before this one arrived.

I want to say this story is like a vignette but I'm not sure I know what that means. It has very few (about three) important characters in it and pretty much concerns itself with the interactions between them over maybe half a year. The fantasy concepts may have been trite, nothing out of the usual, but this short book (novella?) is really more about the characters. I found the ending (and the epilogue) quite touching.

Recommended. It's a fairly short story that shouldn't take long to finish, and I think the relationships and characters make it worth reading.

* I have not posted about The Safe-Keeper's Secret and probably won't; I found it pretty boring, having correctly guessed the secret maybe 30 pages into the book, and not worth recommending.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Cracked Throne

By Joshua Palmatier.

I'm no longer sure why I liked the first book in this series. I think part of the appeal was that Varis was relatively innocent, but figuring that out from reading my old post is next to impossible.

The first three quarters of this book turned me off it, making the above question occur to me. Watch as Varis metamorphoses from an angry, paranoid, starving street rat (to use Aladdin's term; hers is "gutterscum") to an angry, paranoid, starving tyrant.

In other words, the characters (especially Varis) seem a little flat. It doesn't help that the bad guys are apparently attacking and destroying ships and who knows what else for no apparent reason (the reason is revealed in the last 20 pages of the book.)

Varis is constantly going through the crucible in this book; she apparently never has time to relax, and when she does she doesn't bother narrating. ("One month later...") It seems like all anyone wants to do in Amenkor is practice fighting her. She makes bad decisions and caters to the mob. (Can you say "fall of Rome"?) The major plot point halfway through is practically transparent to the reader but apparently not to Varis and the hundreds of personalities stored in the throne... unless they were manipulating her. The conversation is a bit slow at times.

This book was saved by its ending; if it wasn't for the last 80 or so pages I would have left thinking it was completely irredeemable. As it is, it kind of ends on a cliff-hanger and Varis as a character doesn't seem to have changed very much from the beginning of the book. Sure, she's gotten more practice fighting and using her magical powers, but it's pretty obvious that there will always be someone better than she is who is interested in taking her down.

I will have to reserve judgment until the third book comes out. Right now, I have to say I definitely wouldn't recommend this book by itself, but the trilogy may be redeemed by the third book.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson.

I can't really recommend this book. Before I read it (the first of his books that I've read, by the way), I was under the impression that he was a superb writer. Maybe he is now, but this book doesn't show it so much. The amount of profanity, sex, and what seems to me to be a dated view of the future (this book first came out in 1992) are fairly disenchanting. (Sometimes a dated view is charming, but ones that involve computers very much resembling our own tend to grate on me...)

Good things about this book: The characters, even the bad ones, are pretty likeable. Stephenson has a fair sense of humour or at least of the ludicrous and made me laugh quite a bit (for example, near the beginning the Mafia sends out a black helicopter to record a pizza delivery within the 30 minute time limit so they won't have to give away a free pizza). People carry around portable nuclear reactors.

Bad things: There is a large amount of profanity. This book reinterprets the Bible in a way I assume is similar to the DaVinci Code in its irreverence (though I haven't read the latter). Reading about a 15-year-old girl having sex is sad and appalling. The timeline is extremely unclear: when things happen seems to jump all over the place, especially near the beginning, and it's really weird that Y.T. and Hiro seem to be the best of buddies a day after meeting each other. In fact, the way it's written, it seems like this whole book only takes place over a week or two, but there must be a discontinuity somewhere because near the end it's mentioned that Y.T. and Hiro have gone out for fast food together many times and gotten to know each other, which is either not described earlier in the book, or I missed it.

I probably shouldn't have finished this book; I felt near the beginning that it probably wasn't worth reading. I certainly can't recommend it; perhaps Cryptonomicon will be better. (It's sitting on my shelf waiting...)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Spindle's End

By Robin McKinley.

The McKinley version of Sleeping Beauty, of course. Humorous and entertaining throughout ("And for ecstatic visions, there was always the illegal eating of fish.") Also quite sweet, but don't prick yourself on the ending: parts of it are quite sad. Also, the first chapter, though still written in humorous style, is a lengthy exposition of the country and how magic works, and various other sections tend to get rather vague on some points. (Six or seven years of developing friendship are somehow condensed into a few pages?)

Also, how obvious a name is Pernicia? I mean, you know who the evil fairy is from the beginning when she shows up to lay the curse, but still...

Worth reading especially if you like sweet fairy tales with (fairly) happy endings, and haven't seen anything but the Disney version, where the princess (and Snow White, too) is completely helpless to do anything. This book is probably set in the same world as Damar, since there is a brief reference to a country of that name (and another to modern Earth), but since I haven't read the Damar books I don't know if this casts any more light on them. Probably not.

Update: Here is a pertinent Bible verse for (the second half of) this story: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) It rather touchingly lives up to this idea.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


By John Hersey.

This should be required reading in US History. In fact, I'm considering e-mailing my AP US History teacher from high school, whom I haven't contacted in three or four years, and telling her so (or at least suggesting it.)

This short book, originally a (long) article in The New Yorker, details the experiences of 6 Hiroshimans who were lucky enough to survive the atomic bomb. It really speaks for itself.

See this paper for more information on the article's publication and the public reaction to it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

By Jane Lindskold (author of the perhaps better known Firekeeper series.)

This is a pretty good book. Although the era depicted is dark and amorphous, the characters are bright and feel very real even when they aren't described very much--what you do hear about them is enough to suggest real people. There are a lot of ethical/moral choices made, making this book a good one to think about, but you don't have to think about it to understand the story. (Well... see below for a possible exception.)

The (strikingly beautiful, we are told) narrator is Sarah, a possibly thirty year old autistic who, despite her speech inhibition, is considered functional enough to be released from the Home onto the streets. She can only speak to others using significant quotations memorized from Shakespeare, the Bible, etc., but (probably initially because of her beauty, despite what we'd like to think of higher motives) manages to attract the attention and protection of the Wolf Pack, a gang modeled after the Jungle Book and lead by the ruthless and kind Head Wolf. The real trouble starts when the Home issues a readmit order for her and tries everything to get her back...

Sarah is an interesting character. Older for sure than Firekeeper, in some ways she seems quite mature and in others she is like a child. She seems to accept rape as an inevitable fact of life for her, starting from when she was 12 years old, but it is only that; she doesn't seem particularly obsessed or scarred by it. The fantasy hook is this: Sarah can hear inanimate objects speaking. She brings her rubber dragon everywhere and feeds them whenever she eats. (They are a two-headed dragon named Betwixt and Between.)

The setting is a dark, unnamed metropolis, too big to be effectively policed. (Do all the things that go on in this book go on in large cities?) The Wolf Pack consists largely of children (and some older) prostitutes, but what can anyone who cares do for them? Everyone on the streets is poor. Instead of putting up wanted or missing posters, the hunt for Sarah is turned into a candy contest of "Cream on the outside, mint on the inside--spot our girl!"

My problems with the book were the following:

One, we are told and shown over and over that Sarah can only speak through quotations. Trying to come up with her own words makes her choke. How, then, does she narrate the book? I had more trouble with suspension-of-disbelief over this issue during the first chapters than later on; there is a possible explanation fairly late in the book, but it might just be that we, the readers, are looking in on Sarah's mind.

Two, the mind-over-matter trope, also known as "All I have to do to kill you is convince your brain that you're dead!" (The Matrix, anyone?) In many cases (including this one) accompanied by other physical symptoms apparently produced by the brain, such as bleeding or bruises.

Three, the afore mentioned explanation late in the book of how Sarah could talk freely. It was trying to be scientific, I think (this book is sort of on the borderline between sci fi and fantasy), but it implied that she could imagine or dream of talking, but was unable to actually carry out the physical action.

And finally, the destruction of the Bad Guys data and computers via a computer virus. Why wouldn't they have backups? Plot convenience, I guess. (Or she intentionally left open room for a sequel, although it's not looking too likely for a book first published 12 years ago.)

All in all, a lovely read. Recommended (but it does contain some sexual references; young readers are cautioned.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

There Are Doors

By Gene Wolfe.

Bizarre would be one word to describe this book. "Dream-like" seems to be one that's popular in the Amazon reviews.

This is the story of a pretty mediocre guy going after the girl of his dreams. He (whatever his name actually is; about two thirds of the way through, I suddenly realized that it had not been disclosed) is a rather good furniture salesman, but appears to have no private life at all. When he gets a girlfriend who dumps him after a few days, he becomes obsessed with finding her, and finds himself wandering through the "doors" mentioned in the incomprehensible note she left behind.

The problem is, the doors can be any door, and so he finds himself in another world without even realizing that he's there until he's placed in a mental institution for, uh, alcoholism. Which, from everything that's said, seems to be a non-issue for him. The world is different from the Earth we know in ways that are so obvious and well-known that nobody there bothers to clue him in; the differences are one of those shared cultural assumptions that no one talks about.

A fairly interesting book, I guess. It was certainly quite readable after I started it: there are lots of questions raised and, like some other books I can't be bothered to name at the moment, Wolfe manages to convince you that all the answers are there too, if only you think about it enough. Some are outright handed to you, but others are less obvious.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

An Obsession with Butterflies

By Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History.

This book started off well, with a bunch of attention-grabbing facts (who collected 2.5 million butterflies in his lifetime? find out!), but seemed to thin out factwise towards the end. As usual, Russell has a lovely, strong voice in her writing:

I can't believe they trust me, alone.

I sit at the table, waiting for David Carter.

Then I stand up, and sneak to the nearest drawer. [...]

I tiptoe down the wooden canyon, open two more drawers, three more, five more, an Owl, a Zebra Longwing, a Red Admiral. I leave them all open. The butterflies begin to stir, pushing their wings against the case, moving up, bright ghosts, through the glass into the air. (pp.152-153)

You will probably enjoy it quite a bit if you're an insect lover, and it has a fairly extensive bibliography at the end of (perhaps) more scholarly sources. However, I didn't think it was quite as well written as Hunger was.

The Wood Wife

By Terri Windling.

Sort of reminds me of Charles de Lint's stories, but it seems like Windling mixes in more of her own ideas, such as the idea of fairies having "artists" who use human lives as their clay.

The Wood Wife is set mostly in the Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern United States. Maggie Black inherits the estate of a deceased writer with whom she corresponded, but never met, and moves there in hopes of finding unpublished writing and putting together a biography of his life. She slowly falls in love with the desert and the creatures that live there, blah, blah, blah.

I suppose this is one of those pretty good books that I didn't really love because they weren't quite my cup of tea, but I still thought it was better than okay. It might be worth checking out.

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.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


A collection of short stories by divers authors edited by Sharyn November.

There are about 16 stories in here (one of them is illustrated in comic form), each by a different author. They're all at least decent, but I'm not sure how many of them I would be tempted to reread later. "Hope Chest", a "Western" by Garth Nix, stands out and defies explanation. Read it.

"The Baby in the Night Deposit Box" was amusing, if a little cheesy; Poppy was endearing in "Flotsom"; "Byndley" is about what you would expect from Patricia McKillip (the ending wasn't much of a surprise, at least to me); and "Medusa" is noticeably short (only four pages or so) but somewhat sympathetic to the title character for a change. (After all, she couldn't have always been that ugly... everyone is some parent's child.)

Some of the other stories are probably also worth reading, though maybe not twice. "Hope Chest" definitely had the most emotional impact.

Worth checking out.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Prize in the Game

By Jo Walton.

Well-written but it becomes melancholy partway through, with practically inevitable doom resulting from a serious curse for what seemed like a wrong cause. There were some irksome typos ("how at" instead of "at how", "than" instead of "that", and so on) which suggested hasty publishing, though.

I have put off reading this book for at least a year, probably, since I read The King's Peace and The King's Name, because I knew at least some of what would happen to the characters in this book and didn't feel like getting to know them better. (This book concerns some events befalling certain characters before they appear in Sulien's books.)

This has much of the same flavor, but is perhaps narrower and less majestic. Sulien's story is hard to top.

The author's note at the beginning says that a candle casts a shadow both backwards and forwards, but I think I might recommend reading this before The King's Peace and The King's Name, although for the same reason you might arguably read them the other way around: certain events in those two books will change the way you look at Conal and Emer. I also have sympathy for Elenn; Maga is a horrible mother (and king) but forcing Elenn to marry four husbands in as many days is even more appalling than usual. It leads to some saying she bears a curse...

Worth reading if you read The King's Peace and The King's Name, too, either before or after. I don't think it would stand very well by itself; although The Prize in the Game is quite understandable on its own, I don't think it's worth reading without the greater context provided by the other two books.

Incidentally, the title refers to a kingship, but it seems to be almost a trivial matter, mentioned halfway through and not referred to directly again. I think the cost of winning the game is far more than the one who wins would ever have willingly paid, but the narrative never says that explicitly. The last (one-page) chapter is also somewhat ambiguous: is the last line casting judgment or only noting a simple truth?

Update: The other thing I wanted to mention was how every warrior knows charms to heals wounds, prevent "weapon rot" (blood poisoning), reattach limbs, etc.--as long as the weapon that dealt the wound is available. Consequently, they all tend to come through battles either alive and with very few consequences or permanently dead. Almost no one in these books dies slowly. They take fighting very glibly as well, and that's part of the reason these are melancholy; diplomacy is not much employed and often enough you end up fighting against the side your friends are on. I think the consequences of a system like that in the real world would be horrific.

I should also mention their suspect beliefs about fertility: women are not fertile before their wombs are opened by a priest when they get married, and not wanting a child can cause a miscarriage. (Admittedly the first one is proved wrong more than once in Sulien's books, so I guess not even they believe it entirely...)


By Emma Bull.

I only have a few things to say about this book. First: it feels somewhat stilted, and very much reminiscent of the Liavek story in Firebirds RIsing, making me wonder if all shared-universe stories tend to turn out this way. It does not seem as well written as War for the Oaks, somehow, with regard to its style and smoothness. Maybe it was just intended to be a grittier book.

Second: I think Tick-Tick is a much more interesting character than Orient (the finder of the title).

Third: Beware the Pamela Dean quote on the back of the book: "Watch out. This looks like a fast-paced mystery novel with lots of snappy dialogue, but it will sneak up on you and break your heart." That last clause is certainly true.

Finally: I'm not sure why people would prefer this over War for the Oaks, although I don't think I'll be reading either again any time soon. The emotional involvement in the events that break your heart is the only part that stands out as being better than War for the Oaks, but YMMV.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Door Into Ocean

By Joan Slonczewski.

Beautiful, tragic and perhaps frightening, all at the same time.

The Sharers live on rafts on a moon covered by ocean; only the dead sink to touch the floor of their world. Their language is built around sharing: death alone cannot be shared, according to their beliefs. You cannot talk without listening, you cannot teach without learning, you cannot rule without being ruled, you cannot be a deceiver without being deceived, you cannot betray without being betrayed. All verbs cut two ways.

The trouble comes when Valans (from the planet the moon Shora orbits) try to subjugate Shora. There is a fundamental lack of understanding between the two peoples; though some, like Nisi and Spinel, come to be Sharers themselves, the learning is difficult. The Valans are afraid of these people who are not afraid, even of death, and who consider death-hastening evidence of a great sickness of the mind. The Sharers seem a lot like Gandhi with their methods of nonviolent protest, developed over the ten thousand years their civilization has lived to deal with each other. There are also definite echoes of Dune in the way they consider fear and pain. (One of Merwen's theories is that Valans are afraid because they do not understand how to control pain, instead of being controlled by it.)

Despite the above, don't let me fool you into thinking this book is impersonal; it deals very much with people: Nisi the Deceiver, Spinel, Usha, Merwen, Lystra and Realgar, centrally, and others who are still important even if less present in the narrative.

The Sharers science, lifeshaping, is beautiful, just as in The Children Star, or more so: this book gives a much clearer picture of it. The Sharers consider that they have a duty to their lesser "sisters" who share the ocean with them and object to, in part, the toxins the Valans dump in the water to get rid of short-term menaces in favor of long-term ones. They have clickflies which store libraries worth of data and communicate across the planet (though somewhat slowly, as they take time to breed and travel), they harness starworms to give transmit underwater subsonic pulses which communicate much more quickly, and they can regrow limbs and repair genes in living organisms, even if very little of the patient (e.g., the head and part of the chest) is left, if they get there before death.

On the other hand, they also share something called whitetrance, "the most vulnerable level of consciousness", which allows them to choose death at any time, a decision they cannot interfere with.

This book also casts light forward onto Sarai in The Children Star, revealing both much of the background she must have come from (though it isn't entirely clear whether this book takes place before or after, it seems likely to be several centuries or even a millenia or more before) and how unusual she is among her people. Sarai is, incidentally, a very appropriate name; she hopes in The Children Star that no one realizes how much of a compulsion she has to care for children, something which all Sharers seem to share to a greater or lesser degree.

I like this book a lot, but it lacks the real answer to sin and death, though there are parallels. Sharers consider the death-hasteners (soldiers) to be sick children who do not see that others are like themselves, and try to share healing with them, but it is a rather humanistic healing indeed, although there is some mention of souls and the planet itself guiding them. Of course, they also accept death as a natural part of life; Valedon threatens that all will die if they do not cooperate, which all Sharers admit is true, but only when Merwen tries to understand the Valans does she realize that they mean death will be hastened, something unthinkable to the Sharer philosophy.

Anyways--a very compelling read. I can definitely recommend it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Amulet of Samarkand

By Jonathan Stroud. Book one of the Bartimaeus trilogy.

This book does not live up to the hype. If you're expecting something wittily and drily humorous, well, I laughed at a few lines, but overall I'd say Pratchett does the job much better. Bartimaeus comes across as rather petty and mean at some points and unfortunately does not develop the sort of relationship I was expecting with Nathaniel.

The book does come to a definite conclusion even if there are a ton of loose ends left behind for the rest of the trilogy to weave together. However, there also seem to be some contradictions relating to the practice of magic. (Both characters seem to agree that all of a magician's power comes from summoning demons, so how then do they do other things like fire and lightning bolts, which don't seem to be directly related to summoning? And what about the prison spheres used on errant djinni?) Nathaniel's character also seems promising at first, due to his precocious magical ability, but by the end he too seemed somewhat petty and indisputably deluded.

I don't really want to read the rest of the trilogy, but I might just to see if it turns into anything better.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

War for the Oaks

By Emma Bull.

This is billed as a classic urban fantasy. I think it lives up to that for the most part, with a nice amount of spunk and large quantities of musical flavor mixed in. However, I did find the one or two sex scenes somewhat offensive and jarring to the overall mood of the book.

This is the story of Eddi McCandry, a rhythm guitarist who should be a lead singer in her own band, but is instead stuck with losers. Well... until she quits the band and ends up practically kidnapped by the mystical side of town, recruited to help the Seelie Court wage war against the Unseelie. The premise is rather more interesting than usual: the fairies need her because without her mortality tainting the field, they can't kill each other. Fortunately for her (and them), she turns out to be less of a quiet, compliant victim than they might have hoped.

A reasonably good book. There's a nice appendix in the paperback I checked out that has some exposition about and excerpts from the screenplay she (and her husband, I think) wrote based on the book. Unfortunately, it's rather easy for me to imagine a bad movie being made out of it, and less easy to imagine a truly excellent one. For that matter, I don't think this book is truly superb, which is how some people seem to react to it. It is a sweet story but doesn't seem very well resolved--it's more like all the loose threads are shoved under the carpet at the end. (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Paladin of Souls

By Lois McMaster Bujold. Sequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion.

For some reason The Curse of Chalion reminded me of Juliet Marillier's books, although I was later not sure whether it was the contents or the cover art of the two sequels which did it.

If the content is responsible, doubtlessly one aspect that reminded me of Marillier is the clear presence of the supernatural. Unlike other books with artificial and false religions, the gods in this world (in both Curse and Paladin of Souls) show up very clearly and have a well-defined relationship with the material world: they can do nothing to affect it without a willing embodied accomplice, in fact. Usually. The seductiveness of their appearance is one of the dangers of reading this book.

However, I was laughing most of the way through (or chuckling or giggling or snorting, at least) because of the dry and often black humour. Ista was introduced in The Curse of Chalion but played only a secondary part, as part of a royal family hobbled by a curse going back a few generations. (SPOILER for The Curse of Chalion): As of Paladin of Souls, she has been freed of the curse, but scarcely knows what to do with herself. So, she goes on a pilgrimage and finds rather more of the gods than she wanted, especially considering she wanted to get away from them. The results are often, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious. Maybe it's just me.

I found this a fairly quick read, in parts because Ista is an interesting character, sympathetic, having lost about half her life to the curse (she married into it at age 18 or so), and drily humorous. It's especially funny how everyone touched by the gods tries to tell everyone who wants to be but hasn't been that they are much better off the way they are, and none of them ever listens.

I don't think I found The Curse of Chalion quite as entertaining; although it was somehow still an unreasonably attractive and interesting story, it didn't have as much levity as Paladin of Souls. But like I said, it could just be me and my exhaustion speaking. (It's the second book I read today, the first being War for the Oaks, which probably deserves its reputation as a classic. If I had to rank them, I'd say War for the Oaks is more worth checking out, but I don't think I'll write a post about it until tomorrow.)

The Riddle-Master Trilogy

By Patricia McKillip.

This originally consisted of three volumes: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind, but it was republished as a three-in-one paperback with a brief but interesting introduction by the author.

The story is complex and somewhat difficult to get into. New facts pop up like mushrooms, where you least expect them: I found myself having to refer back to chapter 1 while reading chapter 2, thinking "Wait a minute--he has stars on his forehead? How did I miss that?" Well, I don't think I did miss it. The author neglects to mention some things at first. The relationship between Morgon and Deth seems also to sprout up like magic; it seems to appear rather quickly, although the fault is mine for reading too quickly. The astute reader (or one who's read a book like Apropos of Nothing) may guess the answers to some of the many questions raised rather far before the end.

The story seems to me much darker than most of her later novels (the ones I've read), and lacking some of her beautiful charm and descriptions, although that might be fitting for the nature of the book. As her introduction says, this is the story that was closest to her childhood's heart, and certain parts of it seem somewhat unformed as a result.

The riddles referred to in the title are more along the lines of instructive catechism. "Who was such-and-such, and why did he die?" There is a proper answer to be memorized (or discovered) for each, and a moral lesson or stricture to be learned as a result, although the author leaves it to the reader to determine the lessons from most of the riddles actually unraveled in the book, rather than the past ones merely referred to. This is not a book to be read with your brain turned off. It is a plot that requires thought and careful attention to details. Some things are left implied and unexplained. Familiarity with Welsh or Celtic mythology may help with your understanding; the most obvious reference (to me) is the presence of landlaw, a mystical binding between ruler and realm, which also appears (in somewhat stronger form) in Jo Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name (which I recommend as interesting and somehow more tangible than the usual fantasies: they are set in a very solid, well-defined world, even if being close to death might mean being a lingering spirit... the joke is funnier in the book).

Not quite as beautiful as McKillip's later works, Riddle-Master is a darker and more challenging read, with some rough edges, but it might well be worth checking out.

Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen

Both by Tamora Pierce.

Oh boy. Here come a bunch of posts.

Aly seems at first to be the consumnate spy; only sixteen years old, she stubbornly runs away, supposedly to give her parents some time alone, and she ends up captured by pirates and conscripted by Kyprioth, the one-time god of the Copper Isles, to protect and serve the descendants of the native royal family. How's that for a run-on sentence?

She still seems, maybe, a little too perfect, but her flaws were more apparent on a second reading: she has all of the emotional maturity you might expect of a 16-year-old... which is to say, not as much as might be hoped. She rushes into all sorts of things without thinking much and faces blades at her throat with calm advice about the fastest way to kill her. Well, one blade, anyway.

In short, this is a fairly light-hearted story set in the world of Tortall. The characters don't really change or grow all that much; Aly manages to confront and overcome her own misconceptions but otherwise remains much the same throughout. Her playacting with Taybur ("I'm only a maid, sir! Please, sir, I don't know what you're talking about!") and his responses ("Let's pretend you've already given the 'I don't know what you're talking about' speech and proceed from there") are possibly the most amusing part of either book.

In fact, Taybur is perhaps a little too perfect himself. Faultlessly loyal and vigilant; what more could a king ask of his guard? Well... read the story and find out.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Green Rider

By Kristen Britain.

This was my second reading, and somehow I had let what other people said about the book get in the way of what I thought about it. (I'm sure I've mentioned before how gullible I am.) This book is quite enjoyable, despite some rough spots. The printing I have contains several irritating typos, but the story is interesting regardless.

Karigan, despite being our heroine, has several notable character flaws, not the least of which is pigheadedness. She doesn't think twice about jumping into danger. She also seems somewhat careless about hurting others, although she may be encouraged in this by third parties: witness how the Berry sisters dodge her query about the ship-in-a-bottle near the beginning. I put the book down several times because I couldn't stand how she was embarassing herself.

The story seems somewhat disjointed, with various episodes (the Berry sisters, the town of North, the monster, Somial) being only loosely part of the plot by having only weak justification for their presence. Sometimes, I guess, stories are like that, but it seems as though some things, such as the appearance of the eagle, were tossed in only to satisfy tropes.

In the end, I might have to call this book cute and entertaining, but it falls short of being epic. There is a sequel, First Rider's Call, (which I have also previously read, but not recently) and the author is working on a third book.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hunger: An Unnatural History

By Sharman Apt Russell.

I decided this looked interesting when I saw it mentioned on The Fanatic Cook (a blog) and got it out of the library.

This is a fascinating book, covering the physical and psychological effects of hunger, but it also takes a dark turn about halfway through, covering starvation and malnutrition, and what's being done (or possibly more often not done) about them. The descriptions of what went on in the midst of World War II are heartbreaking.

What this book doesn't really cover much is the political and social aspects that cause famine. They're mentioned as being the real problem in several cases (e.g., Somalia), as opposed to a simple lack of food, but it doesn't really explain what they are. It does, however, point out our bias towards children in advertising and treating the problem, and asks why we aren't (really) treating the adults who could be growing and distributing more food.

This book is interesting, starting with a description of the biological processes that occur during hunger, and going on to the big picture, but it also offers a challenge. The author confesses:

While in Guatemala, I also went to a few tourist sites, [...] where I easily spent seventy-five dollars many times over. That was my epiphany. I will give money to the woman in Tejar and to organizations like Concern Worldwide. I will help--but only so much, only so far. It is not that I believe these children are less than my own. It is not that I believe I do not have a responsibility for them. It is just that in a world of haves and have-nots, I do not want to give up too much of what I have. I do not want to diminish the complexity and diversity of my life. Instead, I will choose to spend another seventy-five dollars on myself rather than send another child to school, and I will choose to do this over and over again. I no longer think of myself as a good person. I have adjusted to that. (emphasis added)

The Cottagers

By Marshall N. Klimasewiski.

When two families decide to share a cottage on Vancouver Island in Canada, they have no idea their relationships and lives will be changed forever.

This is a sort of spooky book, but well within the realm of possibility. (ie, not fantasy) It's kind of heavy reading even though it's only a little over 300 pages. It seems to be about relationships and how they change, and the little accidents that can result in a happy marriage or a catastrophic loss. I'm left wondering whether the change in their lives was already inevitable or due only to the events that happened on the island.

There are also enough things left unsaid that you wonder what other surprises might be implied below the surface.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


By Brandon Sanderson.

A cute (I can tell you're hearing the death knell when I use that word), light fantasy with some fresher ideas than just a ring of power. It's not that it doesn't have death and carnage in it, it's that for some reason it didn't capture me emotionally. Hence the "light" feel. Possibly it's caused by Raoden's unending optimism. There are no sex scenes in here, making it a pretty clean book. It also deals with one or two religious issues but while they may have been challenging to the characters they didn't seem very interesting to me.

On the super-duper upside, there are tons of extras on the author's website, including notes on each chapter. It's interesting seeing the author's thought process about some of the issues and the way he handled certain scenes. It's also interesting having him point out details that I completely missed. (Sarene sees Raoden being escorted to Elantris in chapter 2; it's only one or two sentences so maybe I can be excused for missing it or not comprehending. One is led to wonder if she later remembers that and realizes that she saw him.) There are also little details that I did notice, like the aons before each chapter, and wondered at the significance of. Apparently they were intentional.

On the downside, the book just didn't grab me emotionally. I don't know if it's me or the book, which otherwise seems fairly well written.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


By Michael A. Stackpole. Second book in the Age of Discovery trilogy.

This is another book where the characters are more rounded than usual, but in this case everyone is larger than life. And they all have secrets. Qiro Anturasi is frightening, but shows a hint of sanity.

For once, turning to the last page yields a pleasant spoiler. Try it (if you like spoilers); you will likely start thinking "That explains so much..." or "I should have seen that coming."

Other mysteries are revealed. The dead girl accomplishes very little, leaving us to wonder why she has a place in this trilogy. Surely it isn't just to be tortured and killed in the first book?

The story, if you aren't familiar with it, centers around the Anturasi family, a map-making dynasty ruled by Qiro Anturasi, an old tyrant whose maps are considered almost magical. Sail without them and you are likely to be lost; sail with them and make a fortune. He and his family are considered national treasures and as a result are locked up (most of the time) in a gilded tower, but the times are changing and old enemies seem to be coming back to life. It's a good idea to read A Secret Atlas first; this book is not kind to readers who haven't picked up the first in a while. I wanted to check whether many of the surprises were foreshadowed in the first book or not, but I didn't have it on hand.

This book and A Secret Atlas are hard to read because there are so many characters to keep track of, but it gets a little easier in this book as the threads continue weaving together and the characters take their places in the big picture. As usual, I find it interesting that Qiro figures very little in the narration, but ultimately is behind almost everything that happens. Perhaps we'll find out his method and motivation in the third book, but it may always be a mystery.

This is a fascinating story with lots to think about until the third volume comes out, even if I had trouble sitting still while I was reading it. Junel is an offensive character but you trust that he will get what's coming to him. However, this book reminds me of The Swans' War: I'm afraid that not everything may be resolved quite so neatly as a reader could hope. The fates of many are up in the air, and it ends with a sharp (if implied) "To be continued!"

Monday, August 07, 2006


By Paula Volsky. There is a torture scene near the end.

I am of two minds about this book. On one hand, it obviously owes a lot to A Tale of Two Cities for the overall plot and flavor of the setting, but on the other hand the characters are original, distinct and interesting. Eliste is a spoiled privileged child of the upper classes of her country, but she is also a naive and sympathetic character, even though by page 10 it's obvious she'll have to grow up. Her grandmother is stern and proud, but stands by her convictions; her "uncle" (really a great-great uncle or something along those lines) is kind, but solitary and a bit fanciful. Aurelie is flighty and lacks any concept of personal honor, but is hard to call bad; I suppose she serves as the grandmother's foil with regards to convictions.

The plot, as mentioned, is inspired by the events of the French Revolution. Eliste departs her father's home near the beginning to visit the capital, and is eventually engulfed in the reign of terror caused by the growing civil unrest. In addition to her personal struggle, we get a picture of the other people involved in the revolution, including two of the revolutionary leaders, opposed to each other's ideologies.

Eliste is a surprisingly vulnerable character, for all of her supposed Exalted status; magic is not only rare and difficult in this world, but it affects her drastically, there being little she can do to fight it, back cover notwithstanding.

A pretty good book with interesting characters (it's hard to know what to make of Aurelie), with a plot reminiscent of A Tale of Two Cities. Whether that's a good or bad thing is for you to decide, I guess.

When Darkness Falls

By Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Third book in the Obsidian Trilogy; the first two are The Outstretched Shadow and To Light a Candle.

I don't think this book is really worth reading unless you've already read the first two and want to know what happens. Actually, I read the first two and I still don't think this was really worth finishing. It is a little dense at times and not very compelling. The climax proceeds with rather terrible inevitability which results in a lack of suspense: you've been told what's going to happen since book one and (spoiler) it finally happens.

The ending is "happy" enough, but I don't think it's enough of a reward for slogging through this. The author cheats. Also, it seems like a lot that could go wrong doesn't, something I haven't noticed happening quite so obviously in other books. Others have a lot of threads and anguish tying up the third part of the trilogy, but this one seems to proceed rather smoothly, even if a lot of people die.

And now for a large, spoilerific whine about the ending: It's stated several times that the Wild Magic doesn't care about individuals. Therefore, one of the only reasons for it to, uh, "help" Idalia is because it plans to use her again in the future. The other reason I can think of is because others who hear her story in the future might not be so willing to serve if they saw how little she was rewarded. Since Idalia should no longer be able to use magic, the first reason doesn't really seem plausible to me, and even if it is true it means the Wild Magic is cheating more than death, but in addition the great covenants that it's suggested allow it to exist. The second reasoning is not so plausible since it seems like everyone in this book is terribly willing to sacrifice themselves without expecting personal reward at all. So, we are left with possibility #3: the author wanted a happy ending and didn't mind breaking rules to get it. Bleh.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Outlaws of Sherwood

By Robin McKinley.

Well-crafted, as you would expect from McKinley, but my heart wasn't in it. Even so, there were several pleasantly surprising plot twists.

While reading it the story seemed even more familiar to me than the Beauty and the Beast, perhaps since I remember reading other versions of it as a child or perhaps because this retelling is not so original as, for example, Rose Daughter was.

You'll probably like it if you like Robin Hood, or ancient English politics. This telling certainly adds more of a political element (between the Saxons and Normans) than I remember from my childhood, and which certainly isn't in the Disney version.

Update (8/7): As Martin LaBar mentions in the comments, this book also features women more prominently than other versions of the Robin Hood myth, and more women than just Marian, too. This is certainly a prominent detail for those of you considering reading it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Firefly Cloak

By Sheri Reynolds, who according to the jacket is also the author of The Rapture of Canaan. Just thought you'd like to know that.

The cover flap bills this as a coming-of-age novel, but you pretty quickly start wondering whether it's the mother, the daughter, or the grandmother who needs to come of age... by the end of the book, it seems like all three needed it.

This book seems like a slice-of-life (a cliche?)--it could easily have happened to real people and probably has. The descriptions feel very authentic (although I've never been in a Southern city on the boardwalk so I can't say for certain, but they convinced me) and it's easy to imagine that the author went through many of the experiences described herself.

It feels a little bit like light reading, but that might just be my bias. Families are important too, and there are definitely emotional moments, even if it isn't about an epic quest to save the world (tee em). So listen up AMBER: you might like it.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Falling Woman

By Pat Murphy.

Creepy book. It reminds me of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin: a novel about modern day life (archaelogy in this case) with pieces of the supernatural mixed in. Elizabeth Butler, as the back says, is an archaelogist who sees the past... and on a dig in Mexico, she meets a Mayan priestess who can see the future, apparently.

I guess the description above also applies to Nadya, but I think this was a somewhat better book, although it (and Tam Lin) still doesn't appeal to me that much. In other words, I don't think I'll be reading them again.

The narration in this one is first person alternating between Elizabeth and her daughter. I believe I prefer first-person for some reason. It tends to make the story more interesting when a real person is narrating it.

I saw part of the ending coming from a mile away; just about as soon as the Mayan mentions Elizabeth's daughter, story logic demands what will eventually happen.

Not much more to say about these ones. I guess read it if you like heavily realistic sorts of fantasies like Tam Lin and I guess even Nadya, which upon reflection sort of fits in the same category, although set mostly in the 1800s. It's not my cup of tea, though.


By Pat Murphy.

This is the story of a woman who becomes a wolf one night a month trying to find her way.

It's written very heavily and seriously written, with little to no humor (or the humor is so dry I completely failed to see it, which I consider unlikely for me). It doesn't exactly end on a bad note, but it feels sort of unfinished to me. I found myself sympathizing more with Jenny than with the main character, I think. There are several lurid sex scenes (ugh).

Not really recommended. I think the author has potential as a good writer but probably needs to inject some more excitement into her writing. Looking back it's a fairly boring book, although while reading it I had hope for something better to come. My hopes mostly died at the end of part 2.

Kingdom of Cages

By Sarah Zettel.

The characters are interesting and fairly realistic, but the plot is seriously flawed. Certain events are only barely implied to have happened.

A civilization that has space elevators and faster than light travel and even penicillin but not vaccines (Jenner, Pasteur, 1800s, et al) is not convincing. Chena, Teal, Tam, and Dionte are all interesting and rounded in some way, but the author seems to drop the ball later in the book, especially with other characters such as Aleph, who had potential but ended up seeming rather flat. Dionte too showed only hints of goodness--she was perhaps too far gone and too certain of herself to show any more. The ending was somewhat vague and, as I said, only implied the resolution of some important plot points because it isn't clear how the story would have finished if they hadn't been resolved.

Still, I guess I finished the book, and that says something. I'm not sure what, though.

Check out the cover art, it's pretty nice and has only metaphorical applicability to the story.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Children Star (updated)

By Joan Slonczewski.

Wow. I really liked this book. It reminds me of Speaker for the Dead, actually.

The story concerns Prokaryon, a planet full of life inimical to unmodified humans--the environment has a high proportion of arsenic and other variations in chemistry which require extensive (and expensive) nanoengineered changes in physiology to adapt to. As a result, relatively few people have colonized it. The problem is that, although there has been no proof, many suspect the planet has "hidden masters" which are intelligent and may object to the human colonization. The problem is that no one has been able to find them, although the fact that it rains only after nightfall or when fires need to be put out is rather suspicious.

This book is the story of how they are found and how humans react to the first real alien species they've ever encountered. (There are also species like the aquatic Sharers in existence, but they seem to have been derived from humans via bioengineering rather than being completely alien.)

I liked this a lot, but the author doesn't seem to have published any new books recently (since 2000), though there are a few others out by her. They may be worth checking out.

Update: Just a few additional thoughts I had.

Favorite quote: "We're the Dancing People, and we'll dance to the stars!"

'jum has got to be the most interesting character. It's not entirely clear if she's mentally disabled in some way (idiot savant?) or just had a lonely childhood. Another fun quote from her: "What's one plus one?" "A little less than one and a half." Unusually, her strange form of addition doesn't seem to have any significance later in the book, although I certainly expected it to. She is quite delightful when she's not throwing rocks at people--see the dancing quote above! (Or maybe it has to do with the fact that she finally has her own friends.)

Another interesting point is how the sentients (robotic intelligences that have gained their own rights) also participate in the religion of the Spirit Caller brotherhood in the book. They seem to sincerely believe and pray. For that matter, the hidden masters also seem to have a religion, based on the questions they ask Rod (which are quite amusing; he ends up saying "Why are you asking me? I don't have the answers!")

Perhaps the biggest flaw in this book is the question of why Proteus wanted to terraform Prokaryon so badly. Surely there are plenty of uninhabited planets floating around that could be terraformed without destroying an amazing native ecosystem, environment and civilization? Especially if what he really wanted was lanthanide mines--I'm sure they could have been found in asteroids and other unoccupied space debris. I suppose one scene suggests he enjoys the feeling of power (playing God) that owning an occupied planet gives him, but the decision doesn't seem to make very good business sense.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Circle of the Moon

By Barbara Hambly. The sequel to Sisters of the Raven.

Oddly enough, the description on the back of the paperback is even more inaccurate than usual. What it says never happens at all, to my recollection.

I enjoyed this one more than Sisters of the Raven; perhaps because there were fewer characters, or perhaps because most of them were already introduced in the previous book. Many questions were answered. The reason magic changed is also given, although in a form that may only be meaningful to the reader, if that, and I suppose the djinn who gave the answer. Funny!

So we learn more about the characters and magic and other matters that have been hinted at, but on the downside the plot doesn't seem all that cohesive. The conflict is really a set of smaller issues that all end up concerning the people: the king's upcoming trial by ordeal for fitness to hold the throne, the green mist that spreads madness, and the sick children of a faraway people. The obvious romance heavily foreshadowed by book one goes on mostly behind the scenes.

I don't know what to recommend about this one. It's decent, but not really excellent in my mind. However, I may just be tired. It is not as banal as other books I've felt dubious about recommending.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sisters of the Raven

By Barbara Hambly.

Before trying to read this, I started Icefalcon's Quest, and didn't get past the first few chapters. I was tempted to not finish this book, either.

It might not be that it's particularly badly written, but for some reason I don't have a lot of empathy for the characters. Raeshaldis was the only one I really wanted to see what happened to, and there was a lot of pointless (to me) detail on the way there. I guess the ending wasn't very satisfying, either; not like The Witch Queen unsatisfying, where I hated the ending completely, but really emotionally dead. This book left me not really caring one way or the other.

The story is, for some unspecified reason, in a country that seems sort of like a magical mixture of Egypt and the Far East, the men who have always had the power to do magic are losing their abilities... and women are gaining them. This book takes place after the transition is pretty much complete, and is more about the fallout, political and otherwise. But mostly political.

Raeshaldis is your typical female teenager who isn't content to sit on a shelf and be some man's wife, but it seems like even she isn't characterized very deeply. We learn very little of her past and the pasts of other characters in the book. Much of the plot is driven by going to this place, asking questions, then going somewhere else and asking more questions, which gets sort of tiring after a while. Of course, none of the men who have lost their power are all that eager to train the women in using their own power, and even when they do Raeshaldis and the other sisters of the Raven (so-named because the raven is considered a magical answer) find that the rituals aren't always reliable for them.

Probably not worth reading, but I'm still planning to see if the sequel (Circle of the Moon) is any better.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Skewed Throne

By Joshua Palmatier.

I actually liked this book. Don't let what I'm about to say fool you. I think it was a bit short since I finished it so quickly, but I can't think of much that was blatantly missing from the plot. Questions are raised which will hopefully be answered later in the series.

So the story's about a girl who's grown up starving in the slums of Amenkor. Like many people in her situation do in fiction (I can't speak for reality, but it might be true), she becomes a thief. The thing is, she has a little bit more than just a streetwise upbringing to help her; when she was six years old, she almost drowned in a fountain when she was with her mother, and she began to see the world in a different way, and occasionally anticipate the future just before it happens. Comparisons to Improbable, anyone? I suppose there have been any number of books featuring similar abilities.

But wait, there's more! The Mistress who rules the city from the Skewed Throne is slowly losing control, making decisions that range from uselessness to outright maliciousness. Spoilerishness: As it turns out, the throne has voices of its own, harvested souls from every ruler who's sat on it. Insert comparisons to the wall in First Rider's Call and Gene Wolfe again, please. (Wow, he turns up everywhere, doesn't he? There are actually at least of a couple parallels here, now that I think about it.)

Throughout the book, Varis seems railroaded along with no real decisions of her own, controlled by her fears and perhaps subtle prescience. At the end she seems almost the same; she's gained a superficial ability to hide what she's feeling, but I don't think she's really accepted any of it. It remains to be seen whether she matures into someone with control over her own life, although she certainly has it over others with her dagger. Other characters are also perhaps a bit of a mystery. The Mistress of the city is barely developed at all, but apparently figures at least some in the next book, from snooping on the author's LiveJournal. Erick's attitude towards Varis is also hard to figure out, not to mention how he found her again with perfect timing in the city proper. And there is always the White Fire to consider: although it didn't change anything visibly, it has left an invisible stamp on Varis and perhaps other parts of the city. What is it? Where did it come from? And why did it (apparently) choose her?

Worth a read, I think. Keep an eye out for The Cracked Throne in November. (And The Fugitives of Chaos! I object to so many books I want coming out at the end of the semester, but maybe that means they'll be in libraries by the time I have time to read them... And lest I get prideful, there is always the possibility that I will never have the chance to do so.)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Witch Queen

By Jan Siegel. Alternatively titled Witch's Honor.

I don't think I knew that there was another book to the series when I read The Dragon Charmer.

Somehow this is a dark (but morbidly humorous at times) mix of modern and ancient fantasy. The ending may break your heart (I suspect it's the reason the average score on Amazon is so low), but as I just saw pointed out in another blog it makes sense as one of the only things Fern could do to reclaim her honor.

Fern is a desparately unhappy heroine in both the second and third books of this trilogy (I haven't read Prospero's Children); she does what she thinks she needs to, but she never really accepts being a witch. And she has very poor luck with boyfriends. On the other hand, it is possible to have a little sympathy for Morgus, because as evil as she is, she really is clueless and hopeless in the modern world... but only a little: she repeatedly ignores (reluctant!) warnings that Fern is a danger to her.

I don't know whether to recommend this series or not. Despite a bit of humor, the core of the story is dark with only "artificial light" at the end, foreshadowed by the telling and poetic "prayer" at the beginning of the book. Fern makes her own way without God and, I fear, that is a grave mistake. I highly doubt the author will relent in a sequel. I guess the best purpose of this book is to serve as a warning: this is what happens in a world and a life without a savior.

*** Update: SPOILERS. I will come straight out and say it: Fern kills herself, either figuratively or literally, by drinking the waters of Lethe (cf. the ending of The Orphans of Chaos and the storyteller in Earth Logic, and imagine Fern sitting around in limbo waiting for her body to die.) The ending implies but doesn't quite say that she dies physically as well, leaving an empty room. If not, she apparently loses 14 years of memories... maybe things will turn out differently the second time she grows up, or not. Her solution is not merciful or forgiving, but only meaningless oblivion. I am writing this to get it out of my head.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Fire in the Mist by Holly Lisle. A young shepherdess turns out to have extreme magical talent and ends up fighting a 400 year old evil menace. Okay, I guess, although you tend to expect her to get into trouble with her attitude and nothing terribly bad ever happens to her. There are two more books that I haven't read since they aren't in any of the libraries around here (this one is readable online.)

Mairelon the Magician and Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede. Two kind of cliched semi-historical fantasies. The most interesting part is the history, probably. The ending of Magician's Ward is obvious almost from the beginning, what with the forced romance.

Take a Thief by Mercedes Lackey. A young boy (11 or 12) ends up surviving on the streets as a thief, mentored along with a gang of other boys by an old soldier until the tenement where they live burns down and the boy decides to get revenge. He winds up stealing what he thinks is an ordinary horse and ends up as one of the queen's (magical) heralds. I started this last night and didn't really want to finish it this morning because it seemed too commonplace, not to mention the little quirks of Oddly Capitalized language getting on my nerves. It might have seemed a little bit more serious if the author wasn't so free with her capitals. A sort of cute story, I guess, although really it's effect is to make me want to find out more about the world of Valdemar (there seem to be 15 or 20 books set in this world), and more especially wonder how the system of heralds and companions got set up. Things like this should have a story behind them, right? There also wasn't much detail about the sorts of magical gifts that people might have.

The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint. An interesting little Newford tale. It isn't just the cover artist, Imogene really does turn blue about halfway through. When her mother moves to Newford with Imogene and her brother Jared, Imogene tries to fit in at school but quickly attracts attention from the school ghost, a gang of fairies gone wrong, and some things called soul eaters. Sort of a light read, but I guess it's entertaining enough. We also see a slightly sinister side to Christy Riddell, who in the adult books seems like he can do no wrong.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eyes of the Calculor

By Sean McMullen. Third book of the Greatwinter Trilogy.

I only realized this was a third book after I started it, but it is fairly entertaining by itself, even if somewhat confusing. Amazon reviews suggest the confusion is only partly helped by knowing what came before.

This is one of those post-apocalyptic/nuclear winter sorts of books, but there's a big difference: people seem remarkably well educated as to what went on two thousand years ago before the so-called Greatwinter that resulted in a ban on (certain types of) fueled engines. As such, these people are not exactly averse to technology as such and have thought up many clever ways to get things done without using such engines, including a horse-powered electrical computer. Unfortunately, as this book begins, an orbital band around Earth, known as Mirrorsun, decides to destroy most such electrical machines via something resembling an EMP (shielded ones deep underground or in Faraday cages are not affected), so the development of that idea is sort of derailed. I guess we have a good idea where it might have ended up anyway from modern experience.

This book is entertaining, but also quite confusing at points and very casual about sex. What happens to Velesti doesn't seem quite right but it doesn't seem clearly wrong either.

Have a quote:
"What is your friend's name?"
"Frelle Velesti Dis--"
"She's telling the truth!" exclaimed Fras Shadowmouse. "That is our proof."
"How so?" asked the mayor.
"If you are ever unlucky enough to be helped by Velesti Disore, Fras Mayor, you will know."

Saturday, July 15, 2006


By Tad Williams. In four volumes.

I'd say this saga has been about 3000 pages in the reading. There are two major problems with this story:

The author doesn't, apparently, know how to be concise. 3000 pages is way too long. Couldn't he have taken out some of the detail? Please?

The science of about 50 years in the future is not very convincing. People are using palm readers as security (from what I've heard it's possible to fool fingerprint scanners now with about 15 minutes and some Jello), you can hack any system just as long as you're fast enough to get in before it throws you out, and VR rigs involving harnesses, hearing plugs and goggles can apparently hypnotize you into feel like you are in reality instead of the system and you can't disconnect. And also that you can die from what happens to you online.

There's another thing I don't like which is probably also a flaw: the author leaves the answers to almost all the questions raised (at least the big ones) to about the last 300 pages of the fourth volume. I mostly slogged through volumes two and three because I was afraid I would miss something, but I apparently could have skipped to near the end of the fourth volume and not missed too much. I would suggest that the author could at least have provided hints and clues about some of the answers (perhaps he did, and I wasn't smart enough to notice them).

Most of the threads (even ones I had forgotten) were wrapped up pretty well in the ending, although a couple questions were left unanswered. The ethical questions about the existence of the virtual life forms, one of the more interesting parts of the book to me, are never really considered in great depth. Most of them never even know and even if they're told, they seem to filter the information out as inconsistent within the simulation. Odd, huh? The Stone Girl (Vol. 4) is really likeable, too, and well characterized as a child.

One of the style oddities is the presence of a "Foreword" and "Afterword" in each book that I think should really be "Prologues" and "Epilogues." "Foreword", I think, implies more of an editorial note that is not part of the story's narrative.

I think the biggest problem with this story is its ridiculous length, but if you can slog through 3000 pages the author tells a fairly interesting tale.