Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Queen's Gambit

By Walter Tevis.

Very good story about chess. Who knew it could be so exciting? While in an orphanage, Beth Harmon happens to see the janitor playing chess in the basement one day... and she's hooked. While she has a significant talent at the game, she does have other problems: she uses the tranquilizers the orphanage handed out to "even their dispositions" to sleep at night, and becomes somewhat dependent on them. She has very few friends and no social life; almost her entire focus is on chess, her idol

There is some sex, although none of it seems particularly gratuitous; it reveals some things about Beth's character. Still, it is explicit enough that you may not a child read this book. There is also some profanity.

This book hints at deeper issues than chess. Beth's dependence on tranquilizers and later alcohol reflect her unhappiness with the rest of her life. Halfway through, she meets another child prodigy whose goal is to be the best by age 16, and asks him what he will do then. The question is obviously one she should be thinking about herself. (And perhaps she is, off-stage, since she thought to ask it.)

Recommended. A note: unlike my usual fare, the only fantastic element in this is Beth's amazing talent for chess, which is arguably not something completely out of the realm of possibility, considering real examples of prodigies. Also of note is the age: this book was published in the 1980s and seems to be set somewhat earlier than that.

This is Sarah Deming's favorite novel (that's how I found it), and she created a Wikipedia entry for it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Perilous Gard

By Elizabeth Marie Pope. Found via Oached Pish.

Kate Sutton, lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, is exiled by the Queen to a castle in Elvenwood. The trouble she stumbles into there is all the more chilling for being so plausible: this book could easily be called historical fiction rather than fantasy.

This book took some time to grow on me. It began slowly, but the characters gradually grew in depth. The enemies (if they can be called that) are portrayed more as foreign, with a different (and fatalistic) outlook on life, than as willingly evil; and they are still human, even so. With their people declining, they have very little hope for the future.

Kate is also likable, although she seems to have few interests of her own other than satisfying her curiosity about the mysteries of the castle. She is not too perfect; in several cases she is saved only by happenstance, perhaps by God. In others, she has to accept and work within the situation where she finds herself.

As I said, this book has grown and is still growing on me. (To be honest, there are a few pages in the middle that I haven't yet brought myself to read.) I recommend it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Sweet Far Thing

Being the third book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. The title is taken from the W. B. Yeats poem "The Rose of Battle", which sounds a lot cooler than the title does by itself. (Well, the excerpt of it in the epigraph does, at least. I haven't read the whole thing.) The first and second books are A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels.

It's sweet and it's far. What more do you need to know?*

I found all three books in the trilogy difficult to read straight through. Gemma Doyle starts off the very first book (A Great and Terrible Beauty) by lying to teachers in order to ingratiate herself to other students at her new finishing school, and continues on with similar selfish behavior. In one of Aesop's fables, Something Bad would therefore happen, but the unfortunate events in these books are often ascribable to fate rather than consequence. Although she can also be tender and caring, it seems that she is that way (without ulterior motives) to only a few people, her closest friends and her father, until partway through the third book.

This is a Victorian Gothic, a strange hybrid of finishing schools and parties in turn-of-the-century England juxtaposed with sinister spirits and magic in "the realms." Gemma and her friends are least bearable when they have magic at their disposal: they seem to use it at every whim, with no apparent self-control. Part of the tension hanging over the series is caused by the assumption one would make that walking around like you own the world and doing whatever you want will cause trouble, but as I mentioned, most of the trouble seems to come from other causes, although it was aggravated by Gemma's reluctance to deal with it promptly. Instead of keeping the numerous promises that she makes (and breaks) so easily, she entertains illusion and glamour in a sort of fairyland. Her friends are, admittedly, somewhat culpable in her behavior, but most of her growth as a character seems to come fairly quickly near the end. (At least, that is my recollection, although I read the first two books a couple months ago.)

In the end, if you like dresses and games and vicious cliques and intrigue and sinister magic, you may like this trilogy. I did end up enjoying the third book somewhat more than the first two, because the characters were no longer in stasis. However, I probably wouldn't read it again.

* Yes, I more or less stole, err, borrowed this line from Maureen Johnson, who has at the linked location a short video interview with Libba Bray. Short and funny.

The Year of the Griffin

By Dianna Wynne Jones.

This isn't a real in-depth review because I'm lazy, but I'd like to say that I found this book (the sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm) extremely funny. At least last night. And then it (the plot) got darker...

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Wreck of the River of Stars

By Michael Flynn.

A few months ago, I enjoyed reading Michael Flynn's book Eifelheim. Recently I saw his name again and decided to check out some more books by him.

As you might guess from the title, this book is a tragedy. What's perhaps unique about it is that (almost?) every character has a tragic flaw. While the story has a lot to do with the sailors' attempts to bring the ship safely to port (which chiefly involves shedding enough momentum in time to stop at Jupiter when it's at the right place in its orbit), it also has a lot to do with their backgrounds and characters. In fact, I would say this story is more about the characters than about the science fictional elements, which are more of a backdrop. It starts a little slowly (I had trouble keeping track of all the characters being thrown at me) but picks up steam a ways in.

There is a lot of sex. In fact, I almost stopped reading when the self-destructive ship's doctor decides to seduce the only passenger with her private drug cocktail within the first 10 pages. For some reason I didn't, and I eventually started caring about what happened to the characters—at least, some of them. The Igbo girl particularly is amazingly and amusingly perceptive about what drives the other people on the ship. Even though you know the ship will be wrecked (if not in the sense of being destroyed, perhaps, the crew is certainly destroyed), there is something about this book that keeps you hoping everyone will survive.

If you enjoy tragedies and science fiction that focuses on characters (it was fairly apparent that the captain was going to be a central character in the story when he died in the first few pages), you might like this book. On the other hand, it also has (seemingly) realistic science—no faster-than-light travel or fusion drives that don't require fuel. However, I probably won't be reading it again: the often gratuitous sex ("I can't be pregnant! He's too young to father a child!") combined with the tragedy makes it somewhat unpalatable.