Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mississippi Blues

By Kathleen Ann Goonan.

An aside about spoilers: I often include (what I consider to be) mild spoilers in my reviews. Perhaps it's because I'm excited about some details and want you, who will probably never read most of these books, to be excited too, but I've also often found that the impression I got of a book from someone else's review was completely wrong, meaning that any plot details they mentioned really didn't spoil anything at all, because I ended up imagining a completely different context around them. Maybe someone else can comment on why they're so hated?

Obviously, anything below may especially be considered a spoiler for Queen City Jazz, since the events in this book all come after that one.

Back to the book, which is the sequel to Queen City Jazz and in which Verity commissions two river boats, one of which is very short-lived, discovers her pregnancy in humorous fashion, along with other details of greater and lesser importance, and heads down the Mississippi River with the somewhat childlike former population of Cincinnati, which she feels responsible for, having evicted them from their own city. Also, there are Mark Twain clones, one of whom is occasionally reminded that she is not really Sam Clemens by virtue of the fact that he was not female. Many references to the journey of Huck Finn are made.

If you liked Queen City Jazz, you will probably want to read this sequel. It continues with humor and sadness mixed into a somewhat psychedelic journey down the Mississippi River. (What's up with those clowns?) Verity and Blaze return, as well as many new characters: "Lightnin'" Lil, "Diamond" Jack, Peabody, Mattie, Mark Twain, Masa, James, Alice, the Professor, and others who seem to feel a need to hop onto a riverboat. The journey is dangerous and there are doubts about whether Norleans is even there. (Early on, someone warns Verity that her people will probably die from the information plague that is compelling them down the river if they don't get there quickly enough.) So read it if you liked the first one and want to find out what happens next, or possibly if you enjoy stories about river journeys. I admit that I'm reluctant to read the next one because 1) I hear it's a prequel and 2) I don't want to hear about any more bad things happening to the characters.

Friday, September 28, 2007


By Elizabeth Knox. Book one of The Dreamhunter Duet.

Exciting semi-real-world fantasy, but take careful note of that "part one." The book ends suddenly. This book feels like it wants to be set in the real world, but the author wasn't quite brave enough to put it in the U.S., so she made up a new continent and country called "Southland." Maybe it's supposed to be Australia? Another book set near the turn of the century (hand-cranked movie cameras and gas lights play a role), like The Star of Kazan, but this one has an element of magic. Actually, there are suggestions that it's quite a lot of magic.

Twenty-some years ago, Tziga Hame disappeared from the top of a stage coach and was found back along the road with a broken leg. He had unintentionally discovered "the Place", not on any map, where dreams could be found. Special people, known as dreamhunters, could go to sleep in various areas there and bring the dreams back home to share with others, resulting in a burgeoning industry of dreams for hire. Not everyone can get into the Place, though, and even those who can cannot all bring back dreams.

Now, in the time of the book, Tziga disappears, and his daughter Laura and her cousin Rose's family are left to discover what's going on.

I think the best thing about this book is how distinct the characters are. They are all unique; only Laura and her aunt can cross over into the Place, so it's not like everyone is a wizard here. There are figures mentioned that perhaps only 1 in 500 people is able to do so. Rose and Laura's uncle Chorley are not so gifted, but they have their own talents.

Also good: the prose is clear. There are nice details such as the Fire Watch and the lack of small, portable motors to drive the movie cameras of the time at a regular pace. Every character seems to matter, even if they don't appear for more than a page. (When I get to the end of the second book I may revise this opinion.) The characters don't all believe the same things or act the same way, as I already mentioned. And it's pretty clean. (There are a couple innuendos, but I don't remember anything blatant.)

Lots of fun. You may, however, not appreciate the lack of cool swordfights and dragons, I suppose; a lot of the "action" is verbal fencing or sneaking around or dreaming rather than anything directly confrontational. You'll want to be sure you have easy access to the second book, Dreamquake (in the U.S., anyway), when you finish this one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Star of Kazan

By Eva Ibbotson. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Discovered from olmue's blog.

Re-reading her review, I'm struck at the Little Princess comparison: it reminded me of that book too. It also struck me as a good book to read aloud. The language is a bit simple (it was in the children's section) but the sentences are definitely manageable. It's also quite a quick read despite being 400 pages.

Best of all, it's a sweet story. (It really is a lot like The Little Princess.) It's also exciting approaching the end: there is real danger involved, although it still seems realistic. (Not everything that could possibly go wrong does, unlike in some books.)

Perhaps I should mention some more detail. Annika is a foundling at the beginning of the 20th century. She is adopted by the two servants in a house in Vienna owned by two brothers and a sister who are professors (of geology, art history and music.) She grows up serving but not unwillingly; the whole city loves her, including the professors. At least, that's what it seems like—there are several places where the narration describes various otherwise unknown people asking what happened to her or hearing that she's back and so on. Then the aristocratic mother she's dreamed of for so long shows up... Annika discovers that aristocrats eat turnip jam and live in leaky houses and don't wear galoshes to show that they're tougher than common mortals. At least, that's her interpretation of the situation. Her friends from Vienna eventually get into gear and save her.

Should I be critical now? At a certain point in the plot, the narration switches back to Annika's friends in Vienna, implying that some time has passed. It seems a little bit sudden since up to then we've seen almost everything as it happens to Annika. The language is simple and clear but somewhat pedantic in places: several times words are defined right after they're used.

Besides the sweet story (I've used that word way too many times), there are humorous moments where I laughed out loud. The story isn't funny the whole way through, but Ibbotson does a good job lightening up heavy moments.

I want to go read The Little Princess now.

Also: new label! Apparently things shelved in the children's section are not "juvenile", they're "middle grade." Or something. This distinction may be too fine for me. (I'm nearsighted, didn't you know?) The important part is that this book is clean. (It's shocking what you can find under "young adult" these days.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Queen City Jazz

By Kathleen Ann Goonan.

This book sure knew how to push my buttons. Verity is a young woman being yanked around in a power game through compulsions that she is biologically unable to deny. We are quickly told that she, perhaps sixteen years old, has been visiting a library in nearby Dayton once a year, to be filled with knowledge? memories? that she cannot remember afterwards. Every time, the seductive pull of the Bell changes her refusal into acquiescence.

Of course I'm a sucker for sympathizing with characters who are being coerced not only physically, but also emotionally, mentally, by having their very memories rewritten... something that never happens in the real world, right? This is science fiction, but is, like A Door Into Ocean, more concerned with people than the particulars of the technology. It reminded me of Ceres Storm in the way technology is magical and also in the way the protagonist, for the first half of the book, seems to just stumble her way exactly into the places she needs to be to solve the puzzle and pick apart the twisted knot that Cincinnati, "Enlivened" by nanotechnology, has become.

This book does not seem to have a place for God; one character says that the prayers of past religions were really people talking to other parts of their own brains. I hear that the third and fourth books of this quartet, really prequels, reveal that aliens were perhaps responsible for the nanotech future. (Actually, I got that off Amazon when I was checking to see if any more of the books were about Verity.)

I think I liked this book mostly because of Verity's sympathetic quality: young, bewildered, callously manipulated by forces she barely knows exist. The creative application of technology was somewhat interesting, especially the tie-ins with bees, but the author didn't use very many fresh ideas besides that one. The repeated references to jazz figures were tiring, especially after reading In War Times by the same author. (She makes many of the same references in both books.) The plot was vague in some parts, although I'm hoping the sequel (Mississippi Blues) may clear up some of them.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but I don't think it was truly great.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Winter Prince, A Coalition of Lions, and The Sunbird

By Elizabeth E. Wein.

The Winter Prince is a good (though it seems a little short) take on Arthurian legend, from the viewpoint of Medraut (Mordred). It may have a bit too much angst about his relationship with his mother, but I thought it was well done. You may think I'm biased towards Arthur stories because I also enjoyed Jo Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name, but it isn't so. (He doth protest too much, right? Better take this with a grain of salt.) I read another Arthurian book recently that I thought was pretty bad. (I am not planning to write a review of it, since I didn't finish it.)

A Coalition of Lions takes Wein's series into original territory. After the disaster at Camelot, the king and his sons are dead. His only daughter, Princess Goewin, travels to Aksum (ancient Ethiopia) to marry her betrothed and reclaim her kingdom from her aunt Morgause. She doesn't find what she expects, though.

In the third book, The Sunbird, she sends her young nephew Telemakos to spy out who is breaking the trade embargo in Aksum and spreading plague.

While all three are shelved as young adult, they do contain violence and cruelty. Wein's heros and heroine are not invincible or even superhuman; they suffer. There is no obvious magic*; these books ring of historical authenticity. (I suspect Wein has done her research well.) Both Aksum and England are Christian countries, but not everyone is well educated. (Medraut describes a scene with his siblings where they fail to recognize a scene from Revelation and says "Don't you even know what you believe in?")

Flaws are perhaps that they seem a little short, especially The Winter Prince. In A Coalition of Lions the great conflict is resolved too easily. Telemakos falters when presented with an opportunity for revenge at the end of his travail.

Still, I enjoyed them quite a bit and recommend them. I'm looking forward to reading The Mark of Solomon, featuring the further adventures of Telemakos, after the second book comes out next year.

* (The one possible exception is that Medraut, whose name means "Marksman", always hits what he aims at. I am labeling them fantasy because that's what Arthurian legend is usually considered.)

Update: Two minor notes. I think I found this book because it was mentioned here, and I also just found the author's LiveJournal.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


By Michael Flynn.

Science fiction set in the Middle Ages. (There is a present day component interspersed with the narrative from the 1300s, too, but it's not the largest part.) The best thing about this book is how real it seems; although I don't know much about the Middle Ages, the author has either done his research or is very good at faking it with realistic details. (For example: the Inquisition had very strict rules for trials, so much so that people were known to commit blasphemy so that they would be tried by the Church courts rather than the secular ones.) The writing is crisp, not vague. The intersection between two different cultures is also very interesting; what one insists at the beginning is true seems to change as they interact with each other.

The story, in short, is that an alien ship crashes in Eifelheim, a village in medieval Germany. The priest of that village becomes the mediator between the aliens and the villagers, trying to help and understand them while serving his own flock. In the present day segments, based on a novella, a historian and a physicist are about to stumble on what happened in that past, but the more interesting portion is the medieval narrative. Despite the sad ending (this is around the time of the Black Plague), the characters, both aliens and humans, have a great deal of pathos. It's especially interesting how the villagers, instead of being cardboard scenery, come to develop their own opinions about the aliens, who look nothing like men (they're described as giant grasshoppers), but inside are human, although foreign.

Recommended. As an aside, I would be interested in knowing if someone who actually does know about medieval Germany could comment on the factuality of the world-building.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn 2)

By Brandon Sanderson. Sequel to The Final Empire.

Overall entertaining, but mostly light reading. Sanderson concentrates more on interpersonal relationships in this book than on further developing the magic systems that he is (perhaps) well known for. There is one scene near the middle that I have trouble accepting as "in character", but it could just be my naivete.

The ending, however, is certainly unrealistic; it feels like Sanderson couldn't think up a better plot device to do what he wanted and so left the gimmick from the first draft (or whatever) in there. It kind of reminds me of the scene in Toy Story 2 in Woody's Roundup where the dog barks and Woody interprets: "Oh! What's that? You say Sparky and the others are stuck in the mine on the other side of the canyon without any water or light?" I may not remember this line exactly, but you get the idea: impossible detail is read into the situation by some of the characters.

I also felt somewhat cheated with regard to the plot mysteries; there is only one that I felt there were enough to clues to figure out early (and I felt like an idiot when it was revealed because it was so obvious in hindsight). The world-building details also seem a little lacking: you see a lot of big-picture things like the color of the sky and the brown (not green) plants, but political structure outside of the city and what the lower classes do inside the city seem formless and void. They can't all be thieves, can they?

This is entertaining fantasy, but somewhat lacking in intellectual satisfaction. Still, it has going for it that it's very clean, the main characters are all somewhat sympathetic (Sanderson is careful to show that the thug character loves and cares for his family), the world is interesting (even if we'd like to know more about it) and the action scenes are plentiful. I am still looking forward to book 3 (as yet apparently untitled), even if the ending of this one was lacking in verisimilitude. (There's a 50-cent word for you.)

On an editorial note, there is a two-page summary of the first book at the back which should have been at the front. That's just my opinion, though.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Book of the Long Sun

By Gene Wolfe, in four volumes (Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of the Long Sun, Exodus from the Long Sun) or two volumes (Litany of the Long Sun and Epiphany of the Long Sun) or maybe even one SFBC volume.

I actually disagree substantially with the Inchoatus review this time. I found this to be one of Gene Wolfe's most straightforward books, but perhaps I'm too simplistic and not sufficiently interested in what the "true" story really is. I do admit that their criticism about unsympathetic characters has some weight to it, though. In the sequel, The Book of the Short Sun, the characters I found most sympathetic were the aliens. (Note: You should read The Book of the Long Sun before The Book of the Short Sun to get the most out of it.) I also found the sequel to be much more byzantine and confusing.

This is a very Christian book in some ways. Patera Silk, the priest in charge of the most impoverished parish in his city, receives an epiphany from a god known as the Outsider. The Outsider is considered to be a minor god because he is not one of Pas's children, but Silk gradually comes to believe that the Outsider is the god of all gods. References to events Silk was shown, such as "a man riding a donkey entering a foreign city while people waved large, fan-like leaves", are extremely suggestive.

Although I found this fairly straightforward, especially compared to The Book of the Short Sun, it still requires a significant amount of concentration to get through. There are times when characters act on knowledge that they don't share, and some things that just aren't explained at all. The end declares that this book is a record put together by Horn, one of Silk's students, based on his own and other witness's testimony as well as conversations with Silk himself, which casts doubt on certain parts of the narrative. This may be why Inchoatus had so much trouble with it; I don't know. There are also various details upon which light is shed only in the following Book of the Short Sun.

In addition, while I enjoyed it as an adventure, as I said, the characters themselves were somewhat lacking in sympathetic qualities.

This is definitely science fiction, and requires a substantial amount of time to read. You will probably want to have all four books on hand, as the narrative proceeds directly from each book to the next without any obvious logical division in the plot (unlike The Book of the New Sun, which was segmented at least somewhat logically, and The Book of the Short Sun, written as a sort of memoir of past events while also recording the ongoing ones in the life of the (fictional) writer, which was logically divided by where he ran out of paper.) You will probably also want to read The Book of the Short Sun (On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles, and Return to the Whorl) soon afterward, while your memory of the events in this book is still fresh. For that reason, I can't really make an unconditional recommendation of this; it is an awful lot of pages to commit to, although they are aguably not wasted pages, as Wolfe rarely or never adds irrelevant details. Still, I enjoyed this quite a bit and parts of The Book of the Short Sun even more.