Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Shadow in Summer

By Daniel Abraham. This is the first of four (planned) books in his Long Price Quartet, the meaning of which becomes clear shortly into the story.

The central fantastic premise is clever and original, or at least novel to me. I don't think it's one I've seen before. The magic is based on poetry: a skilled poet can describe a natural force, enslaving it in a human form that can be controlled at the poet's will. The central one in this book is sterility, as personified in Seedless, whom I actually found to be one of the most sympathetic characters. However, if the poet fails to use an original and worthy description, a price is exacted by nature: death.

Unfortunately, many of the characters are not very likeable. Several strike me as spoiled, drifting children who lack perseverance in the face of adversity. Having difficulties in a relationship? Just give it up and find someone else to love. This is what bothered me most about this book. At the end of it, very few people have grown appreciably; in fact, they seem to shrink, stripped of the illusion of maturity. (The Galt's household manager is one exception.) While the world-building is very good (in my opinion, of course), the story is not emotionally satisfying. Perhaps the next three books will change that, but I am not in the mood to see; perhaps when they're all out I'll look at them again.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Singularity's Ring

By Paul Melko.

This book is reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, idea-wise: many humans in the book's world have been genetically engineered (before birth) to have special glands capable of transmitting emotions and thoughts between small groups (two to five) of people. They are then socially trained to work together as a "single" person, or pod human. The characters were interesting, although I didn't come away from the book convinced, as they were, that they couldn't possibly function apart as individual beings.

However, despite several surprising plot twists (don't read the inside cover, though), the plot seemed driven too much by external impetuses. Every time the main character, Apollo Papadopulos, started doing something, it seemed as if another catastrophe, kidnapping, or intervention appeared to set them on a different path. The story also seemed somewhat disjointed, especially in the first half, with dropped plot threads all over the place. (For example, Manuel's twin sister is briefly mentioned, but never followed up on; the Gene Wars are also left unexplained, although with somewhat more justification, perhaps; and another important plot line is also dropped.) The principle antagonists don't have very convincing motivations.

Typographically, there are several annoying homonym errors: break instead of brake, loose instead of lose, and so on. Someone used a spelling checker, perhaps, but ended up with wrong words instead of misspelled ones.

Still, I liked this book quite a bit. The main character, Apollo Papadopulos (really five people who work together as one, most of the time), was quite likeable. Though the storytelling could have been smoother, some of the ideas were quite good; I especially liked the details about the Ring's engineering and the explanation for pods. Others were lacking; the impact of pod minds on sexuality and marriage, for example, was glossed over with a line that sounded like it was from a catechism and some vague sex scenes. Other human relationships, like friendship and parenthood, also seem to have been subsumed by the creation of pods; singletons (some who don't have the pod genetics, others who failed to combine into pods) live in their own enclaves apart from pod society as rejects. The Overgovernment was also left in a shadowy position in the background, despite having a large investment in creating and training Apollo for their mission. Apollo's assertion that "of course" quintets should have five times as many votes because they use five times as many resources as single humans didn't ring true.

If you like the nifty ideas and adventures in science fiction, you'll probably like this book, but don't look too closely at some of the details.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party

By Mr. M. T. Anderson of Boston.

Recommended, with the slight caveat that there is a second volume forthcoming. Even so, this volume stands very well on its own.

The narrative is composed of accounts, largely from Octavian's perspective, of his early life and accomplishments. It is the eve of the American Revolution, and he is being raised by a household of musicians, artists and philosophers in an experiment to determine whether the African race is intellectually equal to the European race. His restrained and analytical narrative is occasionally interrupted by outbursts of emotion as he relates the treatment of his mother, an African princess, and his own changing conditions as the source of the household's funding changes. While the philosophers (perhaps better called scientists) measure his ingestion and excretion, overlooking the intangible ingredients which make a man, Octavian learns to observe the world around him, and learns, perhaps, more than they would wish.

What he sees are the peculiar events occurring in the name of freedom: old men tarred and feathered, property destroyed and merchants run out of town, slaves fighting for their masters' freedom, all occurring in the name of "Liberty and Property." As Octavian learns, the Liberty is for those with white skin, and others are Property.

This is a good book that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

I especially enjoyed the historical aspect; it was not often in high school, talking about American history, that I was reminded of the horror and caprice of war, even when the cause is righteous. In its latter half, this book brings close the uncertainty that surrounded those who were not elites and leaders, who were fighting to survive in the face of a conflict brought about by an upper class. While the book is fiction, a historical footnote adds that several experiments like the one described above actually occurred.

The second volume is scheduled for October, 2008. Hat tip to olmue for the mention that made me look it up in the first place.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Flora Segunda

By Ysabeau Wilce.

This is a strange sort of book, reminiscent of Alma Alexander's Gift of the Unmage in that a culture somewhat out of the mainstream is represented. It also reminded me of The Ordinary in the way there are so many unexplained threads that probably lead to the short stories Wilce has published in this universe, mentioned on the back flap. It feels like a world where there is more behind the scenery than you get to see in this book.

The story is about Flora Segunda, whom her mother had to replace her first child, also named Flora, who is gone (though perhaps not dead, considering the vagueness with she's referred to). Flora's mother is the General to the Warlord of a subdued nation; what exactly went on between this state and the empire they fought, especially on a personal level between the leaders, is one of the things I'd like to know more about, since it is hinted that things are not exactly what they seem, but never satisfactorily explained.

Anyway, regardless of the political background, this book is concerned with the trouble Flora gets into when she tries to revive her house's magical butler behind her mother's back. You also get the feeling that there's more behind the scenes here with the house's history and her father's past—he lives in the Eyrie at the top of a tower at the top of the house, and it wasn't clear to me in the beginning that he was her father and not her brother, since she calls him Poppy.

Of course, Flora's mother has good reason for locking away the house's butler, and Flora gets into more trouble than she can deal with on her own. The ending seems a little weak, leaving many things unexplained, as I already mentioned. There is supposed to be a sequel, Flora Redux, so perhaps some questions will be answered then, but I suspect more of them are answered in the aforementioned short stories.

It also seems very odd that Flora, nearly 14 years old, sees nothing wrong with climbing under the covers next to her (male) friend Udo, other than keeping his mother from noticing that she's there breaking his curfew, of course.