Saturday, November 24, 2007

Several books at once

I'll try to be brief.

Lilli Thal's Mimus, translated by John Brownjohn. When a medieval king is betrayed, his son is given to the enemy king's court jester as an apprentice. I skipped parts as too painful to read because it was easy to foresee that things were only going to get worse because of what Florin, the prince, did. My notes say I found this because carbonelle mentioned it in a comment on superversive's blog; I must have foolishly thought I could easily find the reference again. I forgot about it until I spotted it at the library and remembered the title. There's no (fantasy) magic and there are quite a few references to God and the church, but the church (at least the one Florin enters) is not all that you might hope—they throw him out because, being a jester, he lacks a soul.

Julie E. Czerneda's Survival. First book in a trilogy, it doesn't end very satisfactorily. On the other hand, it wasn't so engaging that I'll be miserable waiting for the next two installments to show up. It reminds me of Slonczewski's books (probably because both authors are biologists) but wasn't as good, in my opinion. Maybe the others will change my mind. The premise: Dr. Mackenzie Connor, a salmon researcher in a near future where humanity has joined an interstellar union of species, ends up drawn into an investigation of the destruction of an entire region of worlds, called the Chasm, from which all life has gone. Dr. Connor protests mightily that she only knows about salmon, but is forced to cooperate by higher-ups and the disappearance of her friend Emily Mamani. There is a lot of build-up and description for not much profit, and not enough humor in most of it, as opposed to the charm of investigation and discovery that appears in some other books. It remains to be seen whether the second and third volumes will compensate. I found it because Kristen Britain (author of Green Rider) mentioned Czerneda in an interview and this was the only book the library had on hand.

Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers. An orphaned girl is given to a local dragon by her aunt in the hopes that a knight or prince will rescue her and marry her (and, not insignificantly, her aunt) out of poverty. The dragon turns out to have unexpected qualities, so she bargains to leave it alone in exchange for a treasure from its hoard... which turns out to be a shoe collection. Shod with a fine pair of slippers, she sets out to make her fortune... Charming and sweet, but there were also some really tense moments. I liked it. Definitely in the original fairy tale category.

Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human. Three novellas fixed up into one book. Classic sci-fi with telepaths, teleports, and telekines, all three of which probably resulted in my enjoyment of sci-fi as a child, and of this book. They don't seem to feature much in modern sci-fi, unfortunately. The language is, at times, somewhat vague, and for quite a while near the beginning you may wonder where the story is going—so many characters are introduced without apparent connection to each other, it's a little hard to keep track. One of them is mentioned for a page and then disappears until 100 pages later. I also disliked the philosophy shown in the ending.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Cordelia's Honor. Omni-bus of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, this is my first read in the Vorkosigan canon. I think I liked Shards of Honor somewhat more than Barrayar, which was much more serious, but both have many moments of humor. It was painfully obvious who was going to fall in love. I also wondered, when Cordelia was sneaking around on Barrayar (a planet whose population is mostly of Russian descent), how there could be so many people with bright red hair that she would not be immediately noticed. As Bujold writes in the afterword, Barrayar is a book about parenthood. If clandestine activity is involved, well, that must be part of being a parent. Ha.

George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. Classic. I read the version illustrated by Alan Parry and couldn't help noticing that the illustrations often seemed to be a page or two later than the part of the story illustrated, which is a bit unfortunate. Reading this brought back so many memories (I think I saw the movie as a child). I couldn't help wondering which parts were abridged.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blood and Iron

By Elizabeth Bear.

This is a dark novel of faerie along the lines of Tithe and Wicked Lovely and even Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, at least the parts of that book that deal with faerie. I stayed up late reading it, which is why I'm mentioning it, although I'll also mention that the reason may only be that it twigged on one of my personal buttons, a lack of volition; faeries can apparently bind and control each other through their names and do so as a common practice, and the main character (which I will call so despite the presence of numerous viewpoint characters) is under such a binding.

This does not feel like the first novel in a series: numerous characters and conflicts are introduced very quickly (by page 20, I was wondering who all these people were already and how they were going to end up related to each other), and there are a lot of unexplained issues in the background. There is at least one line that I couldn't make sense of. Also, the ending goes into what is presumably a little prelude to the second book before stopping. There's also a lot of implied sex.

So why did I enjoy it? There is an extremely effective point of view change at a critical moment (I hesitate to say more about that). There is at least one other really shocking moment. Flipping to the end of the book wasn't enough to give away how things ended: the middle of the story is actually important.

I don't know. From one perspective, it's an exciting adventure and political intrigue story, well-written. From another, it has a ton of characters, a lot of whom aren't really fleshed out for us, and some really disturbing elements that I'm hoping the second book will redeem.* I found I liked it better than I thought I would, so you might too.

On a mostly unrelated note, I wonder why the author is using a pen name instead of her real name; the copyright page says "Copyright Sarah Kindred writing as Elizabeth Bear." Yes, I actually do usually read the copyright page. Scary, huh?

* Wondering why saying "God" hurts faeries is actually only a minor one emotionally (for me), but I suspect it's very telling on their relationship to Heaven and Hell, upon which the second book promises to reveal more.

Update (12/10/2007): I found the sequel (Whiskey & Water) disappointing. The omniscient point of view makes it very hard to keep track of which characters know what at what point, and her self-professed short story style doesn't help (but read her post, it's interesting and argues for a different perspective.) I also didn't have much in the way of guesses about motivation or even what's going on early on; there wasn't enough information, misleading or otherwise, for me to even formulate a plausible hypothesis. Her use of unfamiliar legends and myths may not have helped (Fionnghuala goes from the seeming wise-woman of the first book to become someone else entirely without any warning or hints that I picked up on, although to be fair I may have read the book too quickly.) And I agreed with some other reviewers who said the book started too slowly—I think that the author let a lot of the tension that was present in the ending of Blood & Iron drop simply by letting seven years pass. I really didn't want to finish the book, but I forced myself in the hope that it would get better. Also, there were too many gratuitous sex scenes.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


By A. E. Van Vogt.

Exciting adventure, but something is definitely missing in the way the characters behave. Foreshadowing (even false foreshadowing) seems distinctly absent. The science fiction tropes are also dated (hypnotism plays a big role again, as in Cordwainer Smith and Isaac Asimov's fiction of the same period and in Van Vogt's World of Null-A), and the ending is a little weak, possibly reflecting initial publication as a serial novel: perhaps Van Vogt wasn't sure he was finished with the story.

The problem with the characters is that the main ones seem too credulous for superhumans who are both (a) supposedly several times more intelligent than an adult human and (b) aware that humans lie. They seem to swallow every successive thing that someone else tells them, despite supposedly having a fantastic grasp of human psychology due to their ability to read minds. (The superintelligent superhumans as main characters idea is also reminiscent of the only other Van Vogt book I've read (mostly), The World of Null-A.) Also, we see less of the other characters than we'd like; even Kathleen Layton appears mostly in the beginning and then fades away as Jommy Cross takes center stage as a mostly solitary actor, with a shadowy "organization" in the background chasing him but little interaction with other people.

Despite this weakness in the characters and the dated nature of the science fiction (hypnotism, mind-reading and antigravity in the same world with super-strong steel, newspapers, and "radiotelephones"), this is still a pretty good story for its length. (Short, if you're in doubt.) Brevity is a virtue, supposedly. There is also no mention of God or religion, if I remember correctly; the majority of people are treated as a mob without individual thoughts or perrsonalities, easily manipulated by the ruling powers through their irrational fear of slans. What is a slan? Read it and find out—if you trust the author that much...

There is a sequel (at least partly) by another author.

The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I

By Ben Macintyre. (A post at Wittingshire pointed me to it.)

Non-fiction story of seven English soldiers who were stuck behind the lines in France during the English retreat in 1914 (during the Great War); one of the soldiers falls in love with one of the village girls, hence the title (you are told this in the prologue), and eventually the soldiers are caught by the occupying German army.

Pretty good book, but it seems a little short to cover two entire years of life. 80 years later, however, I guess the author may not have been able to come up with enough confirmed detail to flesh out the story more. I also disliked the epilogue, agreeing with the villagers that he interviewed in it that it was better left in the past.


Book 2 of Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter duology.

This book starts off slowly with a recap of the previous book, but quickly picks up speed beginning with the second chapter. Knox's writing reminds me of John C. Wright's—mysteries from the first book are well-planted seeds that grow into explanations here, and the ending is quite complete except for one plot thread which the author obviously intended to leave open.

Once again, I noticed how most of the characters are so distinct in personality and actions, but I also noticed a few nameless throwaway ones. Also once again, the historical details (especially the inclusion of a certain major scene) are very convincing. The atheist vs. Christian debate continues and plays a role in the ending.

There is also premarital sex, although in the oblique fashion that, when I was younger, made me take a (children's) book to my parents and say, "I think it's talking about sex!" and then have to present my five different pieces of evidence from various pages to convince them. Well, actually, I don't think it was that oblique in this book. I don't know what the typical historical attitude towards it would have been, but the Hames and the Tiebolds are certainly not typical families.

Definitely a fun, exciting second half with a good ending (although if you like every thread to be tied off and snipped, you'll be disappointed). The attempt to let someone pick it up without having first read the first book, while perhaps well-intentioned, does slow it down somewhat at the beginning, however. Read Dreamhunter first.