Saturday, May 27, 2006

Castle in the Air

By Dianna Wynne Jones.

I read it yesterday in between The Bone Doll's Twin and The Waterborn. There is pretty much nothing to say about it, since it's classic. If you haven't read it, you should (unless you detest humor and completely hate life.)

The same goes for the book it's a sequel to, Howl's Moving Castle, which has also been made into a movie in a form which slightly resembles the book. You don't really have to read Howl first, but you'll probably feel smarter and guess more of what's going on in this one.

Ummmmm. And since I mentioned it, I don't think The Bone Doll's Twin is worth reading, really.


By Michael Chabon.

I can think of only one reason this book wasn't in the children's section, and I'm not sure it's a very good one. Anyways. This is a cute and humorous tale about how the worst baseball player in the history of Clam Island, Washington ends up saving the world... by breaking a window. It has a little bit of everything: elves, sasquatches, giants, tricksters, hot dogs, and mad scientists (well, one at least). Even though I thought a lot of was pretty funny, I don't feel like I really enjoyed it that much in hindsight. It's kind of a light read, but it might entertain you on a rainy day.

The Blackgod

By J. Gregory Keyes. The sequel to The Waterborn.

This is a worthy sequel, I think. I enjoyed it more than the first book, I think, even though there were moments I kept thinking "Wait a minute, I thought he had grown up?" about Perkar. The author also (in my opinion) overuses the cheap device of saying "He told her" without specifying what he told her, which is to say about twice, that I remember--but still, would it hurt so much to skip part of the narrative? Other authors would just skip the part where he told her and let you assume it occurred behind the scenes, instead of uselessly saying that he told her and then not telling the reader what was said (until later, of course). Although, the surprising twists of the story were for the most part pretty obvious, if only because they're the same surprising twists that occur in every story like this.

This and Waterborn are probably worth a read (read Waterborn first). They're both quite well written if not terribly original.

The Waterborn

By J. Gregory Keyes. Finally a book that comes to a decent conclusion even though there's a sequel!

This book reminds me so much of Sean Russell's The One Kingdom trilogy, probably just because there is a river that is central to both books. There really aren't that many similarities between the rivers (perhaps they will be revealed in the sequel, which I have yet to read): Sean Russell's is human and kind (although not technically the river), while Keyes's river is definitely strange, inhuman and cruel.

Like the description on Amazon says, this is the story you've read before: spunky princess and immature hero on a quest, but I think it was quite well told this time. The hero finds the mystical sword halfway through, but there aren't any rings of power (that would be going too far.)

This story is about Hezhi and Perkur. Hezhi is an imperial princess, who for all of that seems to be rather extremely ignored by her parents. She starts out at age ten looking for her cousin D'en (I think the apostrophe is a ridiculous conceit), several years older than her, who was taken away by the priests to below the city. In the process she ends up teaching herself to read (and finally being taught by the tricky old librarian) and discovering what no one is able to tell her: the fate of the children who are taken.

What's really shocking is how she never seems to see her parents. She seems to have had no education aside from what she manages to teach herself. When her mother visits her once near the end of the book, the mother says the fact that Hezhi even recognized or remembered her is more than she had hoped for. It leaves you wondering how these people have managed to rule an empire for so long.

Perkur, a few years older at 17, is the other side of the coin. He brashly makes an unwanted promise to slay the river that is the city's lifeblood (for reasons of his own) and ends up summoned to Hezhi's side instead.

The most irritating thing about this book is how stupid Hezhi and Perkur both are. Hezhi starts out disrespectful and immature, thinking that being a princess will let her get away with anything, but I guess she learns that it won't. Perkur is even worse.

The story does start off with an interesting prelude which hints at the greater plan that might come to fruition in the sequel, which I have yet to read.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the few but beautiful illustrations, one for the beginning of each part and occasionally one at the end of a chapter. They add a nice touch. More books should have them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Books of Great Alta

By Jane Yolen. (The books are Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna.)

I find I have less and less to say. I may have been prejudiced ahead of time (I read reviews on Amazon, of course), but even if Skada is in this story it doesn't seem like it tells her story.

Jenna is raised in a Hame, a sort of convent of all women who possess the secret of calling the other side of their selves out of darkness, to accompany them as their "dark sisters" in moonlight and firelight. Each dark sister knows everything her light sister knows, and they are said to be in some way the same person, but references are made to them living in their own world of shadow when they are not manifested by their light sisters' sides. Skada seemed to be more than just Jenna's reflection, though, and it seems as if even Yolen admitted there was something wrong with their relationship: at one point, when she fades away because of a fire going out, Jenna fails to notice (she is asleep beside her), but the comment is added that "She never noticed."

The interspersed (fictional) historical commentary seemed a little bit too abrupt. I think I would have preferred an uninterrupted narrative.

I think definite potential existed to develop the relationship between Jenna and Skada, but it seemed more like Skada only served as comic relief. Whenever Jenna didn't feel like hearing her advice, she just walked away from the light that cast her shadow, and yet it didn't seem that she already knew what the advice was most of the time, indicating that if Skada wasn't a separate person, she was at least a hidden facet of Jenna's self. Jenna never seems to ask how her sister is doing or what she feels; Skada always seems to offer her advice unprompted or not at all.

I think this could have been worth reading and probably was for the potential of the idea, but the manifestation definitely leaves something to be desired.

Bear Daughter

By Judith Berman. Published September 2005 (I guess in paperback only?)

A touching story of a girl who wakes up one morning when she's twelve years old and realizes she's lost something. Most of the book consists of the finding: before that morning, she was a bear, but somehow she has lost her "bear mask" which enables her to take that form... and at first she doesn't even want anything to do with it or the rest of her heritage.

The style is relatively simple, but fluid and cohesive. I think this could probably be in the children's section. An interesting mythology and an angry heroine who, I think, grows up along the way lead to another happy ending. I seem to be having more luck with these lately, don't I?

Drawback: The story never really answers how she lost her mask (or at least implies that there is more to it than the simple answer heard in the first chapter.) But, this isn't a big lack considering everything else that happens.

It does contain reincarnation in a rather tangible form, along with spirits and other (apparently) Native American beliefs.

The Book of the New Sun

By Gene Wolfe. (This is the SFBC edition with all four volumes.)

I actually don't have much to say about this: it reads like a classic so it probably is. Severian, a torturer (torturers in Wolfe's world apply the punishments dictated by judges, of which long imprisonment is not one) tells the story of how he backs onto the throne. Others have said much more than I am willing to and probably in greater and more accurate detail.

Be warned, Severian has (and admits to having, in The Urth of the New Sun, which I did not read) a "weakness for women." He ends up having sex with practically every woman who crosses his path, which eventually (to me) becomes ridiculous. Your point of tolerance may be more or less than mine.

Interestingly, other critics apparently felt deceived as they read the end of the tetralogy. Apparently, I'm not smart enough to feel deceived, too smart, or was forewarned by reading such warnings when I was only perhaps two thirds of the way through.

Others have better reviews than mine: here is a good one.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Golden Age Trilogy

Consisting of The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence.

Somewhere recently I saw that a reviewer is not supposed to express his own opinion of a book, but list the pros and cons so that others can make their own decision. News flash: The pros and cons depend on the reviewers opinion and personality. Oh well, here goes:

Pros: A golden, imaginative picture of the future reminiscent of Accelerando (even though I'm pretty sure Accelerando came out years later). An almost perfectly happy ending (no one you really care about dies or is crippled permanently or any such.)

Cons: An important question raised concerning the motivations of certain of the characters is never directly answered, but left to be inferred from how they behave, I guess. The spiritual implications of the technologies they have ("Noumenal recording" which effectively results in immortality, for one) are pretty much ignored.

Conclusion: Pretty interesting story. Probably worth a read if you like science fiction.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Changer of Days (Alma Alexander)

Consisting of two volumes: The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, by Alma Alexander (Hromic).

This is another split manuscript. How many of these have I read recently? Well, this one is split at a more appropriate point, at least.

The basic plot is good: A young child inherits the crown when her father dies on a battlefield, but is forced into exile when her older half-brother takes over the army and returns to take the crown for himself. The child, Anghara, has inherited formidable powers of so-called "Sight" from her mother and father, and is forced to flee from the home she is fostered at when they become too much for her to control. Along her journey, she discovers that her destiny is more than just reclaiming the throne (which her mother foresaw practically at the beginning.)

Now the problems: Characterization. Almost all of the characters in this book are flat. Their natures seem to provide little in the way of complexity and conflict that could advance the plot in interesting, convincing ways. Anghara's half brother, Sif, after launching a genocide against the Sighted people of his kingdom for sheltering her, waffles and delays killing her once she falls back into his hands. This could have been convincing if we had been shown some indication that something in his character would have made him reluctant, some conflict, but in the past he had seemed ruthless and whole-hearted in his pursuit. The way the story is told, it seems like the only reason he didn't kill her was because it wasn't her fate to be killed, since she still had a destiny to achieve. No, the author didn't explicitly say that, but there's not really much alternative explanation.

Anghara starts off as a precocious 9-year-old, wise and regal perhaps beyond her years. She ends up almost exactly the same, only 9 or 10 years older, at the end. While she knew how to give commands, it didn't really seem like she knew how to have them obeyed. It seemed like her hastily developed romantic interest did most of the leading and planning for her, while she sat around waiting for things to happen to her. Her realization that she is an incarnation of the "Changer of Days" seems to have done little for her, although the first volume foreshadows great promise in that direction; instead, it seems that the only real result is that the deities worshipped in her world are magically replaced by others.

In short, I like this story quite a bit. There are no gratuitous sex scenes to skip over, unlike many, many other books... However, the characters are too flat to be really convincing. The story seems more driven by where the plot needs to get to than by the nature of Anghara and the others.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Crown of Stars (Kate Elliott)

Crown of Stars is the final volume in a series that I picked up halfway through, with Child of Flame.

As usual for this series, the author weaves together about 30 (I don't even know if I'm exaggerating) different storylines into a complex piece of political intrigue and dangerous "adventure." This book neatly ties up most of the dangling threads from the previous installments, but it's hard to read without knowledge of what happened before: it seems assumed that the reader is intimately and recently familiar with all the events that have already happened. For example, throughout the first half suggestions are made that Liath's daughter is dead, when she is merely being "fostered" among the Aoi, a development that occurred in the previous volume but which is not actually explained until halfway through this one.

The short epilogue serves to endcap the series from a perspective probably 30 or 50 years later than the events in the book by suggesting that all the main characters (but perhaps one) have died. Nevertheless, some (perhaps unanswerable) questions are left.

Conclusion: A cohesive and detailed fantasy, if you can get through all the books before it.