Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ventus - Karl Schroeder

I was lucky enough to meet Karl Schroeder at SFContario in Toronto not too long ago, and I was really impressed by what he had to say, and by his opinions on the usefulness of SF - allowing us glimpses of possible futures and the vocabulary to discuss them - that I decided to go find some of his books. Ventus was the easiest to get my hands on, as it is available for free online. I don't usually enjoy reading things on the computer screen, but Ventus was good enough that I just kept right on reading.

Initially it appears to be a fantasy novel, set on the planet Ventus which superficially resembles medieval earth, with a young protagonist Jordan Mason saving one of his workers from what appears to be some supernatural being, and having visions which appear to be from some sort of gods referred to as "The Winds". Fairly soon it transpires that all of these apparently fantastical elements are the result of advanced technology, but technology which is not under the control of the humans inhabiting Ventus, but some bizarre artificial intelligence with its own agenda. Or agendas as the case may be.

This is simultaneously a glorious romp through a fantasy world, a fascinating look at what the world might be like if every element of nature had its own voice and agenda, and a wonderful technological battle with advanced artificial intelligences with the future of the galaxy at stake. It isn't short, but it sure is fun to read.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Count Zero - William Gibson

The sequel to Neuromancer, but quite a ways down the road. There are a few secondary characters from Neuromancer who show up in this story, but it does stand alone very nicely. I think. It has been a while since I read Neuromancer, and I may have missed making a few connections here and there.

There are 3 main characters, 2 of whom do finally meet near the very end of the book, and the 3rd who is there to give the reader a much different perspective on what is actually happening in the world.

Turner is a mercenary who specializes in extracting top level scientists from the companies who essentially own them and arranging for them to defect to a new company. The companies would often prefer to kill the scientist in question rather than lose them to a competitor, so this can get pretty messy. Turner has essentially just been rebuilt from the ground up following an explosion after his last job went badly. Now he's back on the job, extracting yet another research scientist.

Marly is a disgraced art gallery owner who has just been hired by the richest man on the planet in order to track down the source of some very unusual pieces of artwork. In the process she gets to discover just exactly how different the ultra-rich are from regular folks - her employer lives entirely in cyber-space while what remains of his body lies in a giant tank somewhere in a bunker in Stockholm.

Finally there's Bobby Newmark, aka Count Zero, who really wants to be a "console jockey". This is where it becomes really obvious that this book was written in 1986, and you can see how Gibson's idea of Cyberspace, while really cool, is very very different from the internet as we're familiar with it. A console jockey appears to use a keyboard for input, and manual dexterity is definitely important. They're linked in to Cyberspace via electrodes attached to the forehead, and the experience appears to be very much like riding a motorbike through a shifting 3D landscape. The problem with Bobby is that he is very inexperienced, and doesn't actually seem all that good at what he wants to do. He's just a script kiddie. But he has accidentally wandered into the middle of something much bigger than he is, and while he is just a teenage boy, he really does his best.

Having finished this, what I really want to do is to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, then sit down and read all 3 of these books back to back. There is some really cool stuff going on conceptually, but I find with Gibson that I really have to pay attention to the pictures he is drawing in my head, otherwise things stop making sense very quickly. This isn't the sort of story you can just skim over, he expects a reasonable amount of effort from his readers...which is awesome...except that it really does take some work.

Ariel - Steven R. Boyett

I bought this book after John Scalzi recommended it over on the Whatever, and then just couldn't get past the first chapter for ages. I was finally in the right mood for it though and really quite enjoyed it (although it isn't perfect) - enough that I'm planning to get my hands on the sequel, Elegy Beach.

The story opens with a boy & his unicorn (or a unicorn & her boy) walking down an abandoned highway together. They would probably be content to simply explore this post-apocalyptic world together, living mostly off the land and only coming near cities to take what they need from stores that haven't already been looted by everyone else. Unfortunately there are other people in the world, and one of them is a necromancer who wants Ariel's horn. Also, boys to grow up, and unicorns aren't necessarily compatible with growing up. It is a great coming of age story with good characters and marvelous fight scenes, and I especially enjoyed the author's commentary at the end.

So, mostly I really enjoyed the story, but I had some major problems with the world. The idea of "The Change" where technology suddenly stops working, pollution vanishes, and magical creatures suddenly appear, is fabulous, but the execution isn't perfect. How can watches and compound bows keep working if bicycles don't? What Boyett really wanted to do was to remove guns and modern transportation from the world - which is great - but there are probably better ways to do it. Sky's suggestion was to make combustion suddenly stop working, so engines and guns don't work but other things still do. I'm sure someone else could poke holes through that too. Mostly this didn't bother me though. My big problem was the social changes following the Change. Where did all the people go? Pete & Ariel are wandering through a very sparsely populated landscape, and yet folks didn't all starve to death because there are still canned goods on grocery store shelves. I think they're mostly assumed to have died as a result of violence, but the speed at which society just falls apart just doesn't feel right to me. It doesn't mesh with the fact that so many stores in large cities haven't been completely looted and destroyed.

Anyway, these are the sorts of things that you'd expect to see cropping up in a first novel, and the story is good enough, the action especially, that it is still eminently readable.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Midsummer Night - Freda Warrington

This is a sequel to Elfland in that it is set in the same world, slightly further in the future, but it is a very different story with a very different set of characters. I really liked this - Elfland had a very satisfying ending, and I was happy to leave those characters where they were - not that I'd mind hearing more about them, but their story had been told.

Gill is running from something, and has wound up in a small cottage on the Cairndonan estate of Dame Juliana Flagg, desperate for solitude. But it is clear from the very beginning that being left alone is not going to solve her problems. The entry of several rather nosy people, while quite upsetting to Gill, is not nearly as upsetting to the reader. Gill is not Aetherial, yet she finds herself in the Spiral one day with some fascinating consequences. Gradually the mystery of what is really happening at Cairndonan, and why Dame J hasn't sold a piece of artwork in 15 years is revealed. Naturally the revelation involves some adventures in the Spiral and a lot more insight into the workings of the Aetherial community.

It could have easily been a black and white story of good vs evil. One of the characters, Rufus, is very definitely evil, quite possibly the devil, and yet the "good guys" weren't nearly as good as they seemed. There was also the interesting question of how important it is to punish someone for a crime committed over a thousand years ago. This was a fun book to read, hard to put down, easy to get lost in, with a totally satisfying ending - you can see how the characters are now free to get on with their lives, they have lots of different options open to them which are all going to be far more interesting to the characters themselves than to the reader, and so you are happy to let them get on with their lives while still longing for a sequel because it is the setting itself which is so fascinating. Our own familiar world, interleaved with that of the Spiral where the Aetherials can take on their alternate forms, often more animal than human, with their very different life-spans. I'm looking forward to the next one!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Elfland - Freda Warrington

Although this book is titled "Elfland", most of it takes place on Earth. Fairyland is accessible via many small doors, and the great gates are thrown open once every seven years for a giant celebration (for Aetherial's only), but the gates have been closed - either to save everyone from certain destruction, or because their keeper, Lawrence Wilder, has been completely taken over by paranoia. For whatever reason, the Aetherials living on Earth have been closed off from their birthright, and it isn't clear whether this will be deadly to them in the long run or not. For the younger Aetherials, including Rosie Fox and her brothers Matt & Lucas, this doesn't seem to be a huge problem as they were too young to have been initiated when the gates were closed. They don't know Fairyland, and they don't miss it. But this is just the background - the setup for a community within a community, which allows Warrington to explore what it means to belong somewhere when you're born straddling the boundary between two wildly different worlds. Matt desperately wants to be fully human, and attempts to control his younger siblings and discourage them from fairy tendencies, and encourage them towards relationships with other humans - and away from Aetherials and their customs.

This book is an exploration of relationships. Should you marry for love or for security? Can you keep on loving someone after they have betrayed you? If your partner has previously been hurt by someone cheating on them, is there a stronger obligation for you to avoid hurting them in that way? Is it possible to survive the loss of someone you love? Then there is the difference between simply being in a relationship with someone, and actually marrying them - marriage changes the nature of the relationship, but it also includes your family. Additionally there are parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendship. All of the characters have depth - there is no one in this story who is perfect, and there are several characters who are very difficult to even like - which is part of the reason I had trouble getting going with this story, and what ultimately made it really great.

I really enjoyed this. It made me think a lot about the effect that being in various relationships has had on me. How much easier things are when you have the same goals and desires, when there is trust. How a good relationship makes everything in your life better, and brighter, and easier. How a bad relationship can just rip you apart, and how escaping from a bad relationship doesn't just affect the two of you, but extends out to your family and friends. How some things are forgiveable, and some things aren't - and which is which depends on the people involved rather than the specifics of what has happened.

In addition there's a really great story going on. Epic adventures, battles between the forces of ...well definitely not good & evil...more like battles between the forces of left & right honestly. There is lots of beautiful imagery, gorgeous fairy landscapes, and wonderful earthly views. There are all sorts of different ways of being right, or wrong. I had trouble getting through the first third of this book, but once it got going I just couldn't put it down, and was really sad when it ended.

Monday, June 27, 2011

East - Edith Pattou

This is a great example of titles and cover art being important. This is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, "East of the Sun, and West of the Moon", which is totally clear from the cover. It jumped out at me as I walked past it in the library and I'm really glad it did!

This is a wonderfully told story, totally satisfying and incorporates the original story beautifully with lots of extra details. My favorite bit is the superstition about birth direction (the direction in which your mother is facing when you are born) affecting personality, and how seriously (or not) various characters take it. Now that I'm thinking about it, Elli is an East - which works nicely, because her name begins with E, as it should.

Rose is the main character of this story, and she is one of the narrators. The other two main narrators are her father and her brother Neddy who she is very close to. There are also a few chapters narrated by either the Troll Queen or the White Bear. In the first case it gives you a nice glimpse into the workings of troll society, and let you understand why the White Bear was enchanted in the first place - which just wouldn't make sense without the Troll Queen's narration. The White Bear's chapters are also fascinating because they really emphasize that his thoughts are not entirely human thoughts - he really is a white bear.

My favorite bit here was the ending. Rose and the White Bear are in love with one another, she has just completed a dangerous quest to rescue him, and yet they don't just rush into one another's arms. Their relationship needs to be redefined now that he is human again. I also love that while her quest to find the White Bear is extraordinary, rescuing him is not just as simple as finding him.

This is a great fairy tale, and also a great retelling of it. And thanks to LibraryThing I've now got a couple more retellings of it on hold!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Inheritance - Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb

Megan Lindholm & Robin Hobb are the same person, but with very different writing styles. I'm pretty much in love with both of them, so it shouldn't be too surprising that I totally loved this book, but I'm not always a fan of short stories. I had only read their novels, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find that all of these stories were gripping and wonderful. These stories were all long enough to let me actually feel involved with the main characters, and while they didn't all have happy endings, they were all very satisfying. I couldn't manage to read it all in one sitting, I had to take breaks between stories to process what I'd been reading.

Here's a breakdown of each story so I can remember them!

A Touch of Lavender - Aliens, addiction, abandonment, love in all its many varieties. I didn't really 'get' this story, I don't fully understand why it ends the way it does, but I really loved it while I was reading it. Billy's relationships - with his mother, with his sister, but especially with Lavender. What it can mean to a child when someone is really there for them, and listens and cares about them.

Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man - Magic isn't always what you expect it to be. And life doesn't always deliver what you want. But you're allowed to enjoy the good bits, and

Cut - A fabulous and chilling take on circumcision and female genital mutilation. It really has me thinking about parenthood and responsibility. At what point do we have to let our children go out and make their own mistakes?

The Fifth Squashed Cat - This is a really weird little story, but I enjoyed it. It is easy to feel superior when you're smart, but it doesn't always get you what you want. And people don't always appreciate your smug little feeling of superiority.

Strays - This is about stray cats, and a stray child. And more obliquely about when it is possible to help someone and when it isn't.

Finis - This one is really short, the POV character isn't really involved in the story at all, the main character only puts in a brief appearance, and most of the story takes place offstage. But it is great and it is fun rather than frustrating to figure out what is going on here.

Drum Machine - Dystopian future where you select your progeny from a list of officially approved prototypes who will be psychologically compatible and not prove unduly challenging to raise. In order to highlight the issues with this particular dystopia there is a little story running through the background about the difference between scripted and spontaneous music - and helps you see what has led to this particular future.

Homecoming - The first Rain Wilds settlers and their struggle to survive. Carillion is an artist, and aristocrat, and a mother who has been thrust into a horrible situation. It would be really easy for her to simply abdicate all responsibility, and in fact that is what she does initially, but watching her evolve as a person and put her own unique abilities to use solving problems is great. It is a scary story, hard to see how any good can come of this, but watching them fall in love with the Rain Wilds has made me want to go back and re-read Liveship Traders, and very excited about the new series.

The Inheritance - Shortest of the three Hobb stories. Set in Bingtown as the granddaughter of a Trader reclaims her inheritance - which isn't quite what she was expecting it to be.

Cat's Meat - The best story of the bunch in my opinion, although that's possibly only because I read it last. Set in the Farseer universe. The main character is almost totally powerless when her son's father shows up again after abandoning them years ago. She has to choose between fighting back (which is likely to have an immediate and disastrous outcome) and running away (also likely to be a disaster) and discovers a rather unexpected ally in her pet cat.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Elemental Assassin series - Jennifer Estep

The author's "Big Idea" behind this series is that books should be fun - and I would have to say that she succeeded admirably in that particular goal, because fun is exactly the word I would choose to describe this story. Gin Blanco is a really fun character, and the four books I've read so far have been extremely entertaining. Unfortunately that's about all they are - brain candy. Which isn't a problem if that's what you're looking for - fun, sexy, full of adventure - but doesn't make you come to new conclusions about the world. The big problem with Gin is that she's too powerful - she's a kick-ass assassin, she's got piles of cash, she's got a fantastic backup team, and she's the most powerful elemental around with not only one, but two elemental powers. So nothing ordinary can possibly be a threat - and so the author has to throw some really extra-ordinary bad guys in her way. So you wind up with this crazily powerful character getting beaten up over and over again (because that's the formula - the good guy isn't just allowed to walk in and win with no effort) which makes them seem much less powerful than they're supposed to be...which in turn makes the "I'm the best assassin in Ashland" line come off a bit whiny. Which is a real shame, because this series is otherwise excellent. There's a very decent background storyline running through the entire series. The little repetitive bits which have to exist because this is written as separate novels are short & sweet - they didn't bother me at all and that sort of thing usually drives me crazy. Really, what Gin needs is more people to beat up - she retires very near the start of book 1, and I think that's a real shame. One of my favorite bits is the hit in the opening chapter - excellent little story, nice demonstration that Gin is totally awesome at what she does. It would make the book a bit longer, but if there were one or two contract killings in each book that were just a cakewalk it would make things even more fun.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie

This was mentioned by Cloud on Wandering Scientist. It is the story of Junior, a Spokane Indian, growing up on the reservation and his decision to attend an all-white school in the neighbouring farm town in the hopes of escaping the trap everyone else on the rez seems to have fallen into - giving up. Junior has had to fight his entire life, but this decision puts him at odds with almost everyone in his community, and drops him into a social setting which runs according to totally different rules than he is used to.

This is a fascinating look at two different societies through the eyes of someone who doesn't quite fit into either. It could be a horrible and depressing book, but Junior is such a brave and positive character that it isn't. There are really horrible incidents with people both on and off the reserve, but there are some absolutely fantastic examples of kindness and humanity which balance these. None of the characters were black and white. Junior's best friend spends most of the book refusing to talk to him, and only at the very end does he manage to cope with Junior's decision to leave the reservation. The big mean kid at the new school, who is initially very mean and racist, winds up being one of the kindest and most thoughtful characters once he has actually gotten to know Junior as a person rather than a stereotype. People are people, and they act it in this book. No one is all good or all bad. Sometimes good decisions lead to tragedy. Sometimes horrible things happen for no reason. But people go on being people, and mostly they are good people.

There's an astonishing amount of depth in this very short and very readable little book, and the cartoons scattered throughout are fabulous. Not just simple illustrations, they actually help tell the story. I loved it and it is going on my list of books to put in Elli's way once she's a bit older.

Monday, March 28, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis

Still in the mood to time travel with Connie Willis, I decided to re-read To Say Nothing of the Dog which is one of my favorites and the book that made me really fall in love with Willis. Set in future Oxford, in Mr. Dunworthy's time travel lab, this story is a lighthearted comedy/mystery which pulls strongly from Jerome K Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)", and Agatha Christie murder mysteries (without the murder).

The time-travel lab has accepted a commission in order to help finance their research. While it may be impossible to bring items from the past through the net into the future (well, present from their POV), it is certainly possible to observe historic places in order to recreate them. The absurdly wealthy Lady Schrapnel wishes to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, exactly has it was immediately prior to the bombing in WWII. She has virtually taken over the time-travel lab in order to accomplish this, and refuses to take no as an answer. Ned Henry is in charge of attempting to locate something called the "Bishop's Bird Stump" which was in the cathedral in the weeks leading up to the bombing, but which disappeared at some point and cannot be located. It is of vital importance to Lady Schrapnel, as seeing the Bishop's Bird Stump in the original Coventry Cathedral was a turning point in the life of one of her ancestors - Tossie Mering - although the details are missing from the rather waterlogged diary which has survived. Verity Kindle has been sent back to Victorian England to attempt to peek at the diary before it gets ruined, and hopefully accompany Tossie on her trip to Coventry. On one of her trips she accidentally brings something forward through the net, which shouldn't be possible, and everyone fears that it will trigger a paradox and change the future - it seems that the change wouldn't be immediate, but that alternate timelines would slowly converge - giving people a little time to attempt to fix the problem. Ned has made so many trips to try and figure out what precisely has happened to the Bishop's Bird Stump that he has become severely time-lagged - and so he is sent back to the Victorian Era to get a couple weeks rest in the only place Lady Schrapnel will be unable to track him down. Ned becomes involved in Verity's attempts to fix the incongruity she may have caused and hilarity ensues.

As usual the details of the time-travel mechanics are slightly different from previous books. There is a much stronger focus on objects not being able to travel forward in time, to the extent that the characters have to ensure that the clothing they are wearing is from the future. There is mention of safeguards being built into the net to cause it to fail to open in the case of too much slippage - and yet based on the details given it always appears that slippage is something which gets calculated after the travel has taken place. It is also the case that people originally tried to bring treasures through the net, and were unable to, years prior to any safeguards being implemented, so it is very unclear exactly what is preventing objects from travelling forwards in time.

At any rate, if you're willing to overlook some incongruities, and accept that the universe has some sort of organizational principle which prevents certain types of paradoxes and contrives to repair itself in the case of minor damage, then the plot is quite entertaining. But the plot isn't the best thing here, that's definitely the characters and the Victorian setting. This is a story I will keep coming back to, but I think it is better to read it by itself.

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

After finishing Blackout and not having All Clear to dive into, I felt compelled to pick up Doomsday Book so I could at least visit with some of the characters. I've read this several times, and it seems to improve with each reading. The first time I had a lot of trouble getting into the story, there's so much going on what with the book being set simultaneously in the future and in the past. Willis doesn't waste much time setting the scene, she lets you figure things out for yourself, but it was published in the early 90's, and so her vision of the year 2060 doesn't always work - they've got video phones (it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out), but not cell phones which just feels all wrong...sort of like some weird version of the past rather than the future. On top of that, the future setting is Oxford college, which is such a timeless setting that I often managed to forget we were supposed to be in the future. Once I got past my initial confusion (which wouldn't have been so bad if I had only slowed down and read things more carefully...but I'm impatient like that) things got fabulous. Like all of her other books the pacing is breathless. Lots of miscommunication, lots of faulty assumptions. Unlike most of the other books, the person travelling to the past, Kivrin Engle, was quite well prepared. At least she was about as prepared as she could have been, but she was going rather a long way back, and it turns out that her preparations weren't perfect.

There are two separate stories going on here, Kivrin's story which is taking place in the past, and Mr. Dunworthy's story which is taking place in the "present" which is actually the future from our point of view. Kivrin has travelled back to the 1300's in order to experience a Medieval Christmas (the number of holy days means it will be easy for her to figure out exactly when she has arrived since time travel is usually off by a few days). Mr. Dunworthy is spending Christmas in Oxford, in the middle of an epidemic which begins very shortly after Kivrin leaves for the past.

As usual there are mysteries to unravel. The tech in charge of Kivrin's trip to the past is too ill to explain exactly what has gone wrong, the source of the epidemic is unknown, Kivrin fell ill shortly after arriving in the past and doesn't know exactly where her drop is located - vital information if she is going to be able to get back there in order to get home. The thing which struck me reading this was the amount of time the time travellers spend obsessing about how they will get back home again. It does make sense, being stuck in the past is scary, but they often seem to spend more time worrying about the details of exactly how they are getting home than in observing their surroundings. It certainly keeps the level of suspense high, but it is a bit disconcerting.

The big thing that struck me upon reading this is the subtle differences in how time travel works between the books. In this book the tech needs to establish a "fix" on the person who has travelled back in time that will allow them to reopen the "net" to the precise physical and temporal location in order to retrieve them. At one point in the story it appears that this fix has been lost (due to someone shutting off the power!) and so it will be impossible to retrieve Kivrin. In Blackout on the other hand, the time travellers have the expectation that failure to return on schedule via their original drop will result in a retrieval team being sent after them. This is time travel after all...if the folks in the future realize that there is a giant problem, they can just send someone back to the moment where the original traveller arrived, and have them return immediately. It does make sense that the mechanics are slightly different from book to book - it makes the plot work properly. If someone could have simply stepped through and prevented Kivrin's trip, the story would not have taken place. And the whole idea of sending a retrieval team probably didn't occur to anyone until afterwards. Still, it really seems like they might have come up with a better plan than "show up in this exact spot precisely two weeks after you arrived".

While the specific details of the time travel mechanics and protocols are in flux, which does sort of make sense as the technology is still relatively new, the story itself is fantastic and the characters are wonderful. I highly recommend it, but if you've got a choice I think they will work much better if you read Doomsday Book first!

Blackout - Connie Wilis

I've been a Connie Willis fan for years, ever since someone whose advice I trust told me that I absolutely had to read Doomsday Book. Blackout has been out for a while, but I hadn't really been paying attention until I saw Jo Walton's post which started with this very relevant piece of information

Blackout and All Clear are one book, conveniently bound in two volumes. Don’t read them out of order, don’t read one without the other.

So I waited until they were both available at the library, and put them on hold. Of course Blackout showed up first (which I guess is a good thing), but it has a reasonably long waiting list, and All Clear won't arrive for a while. So now I've read the first half of this story and am waiting very impatiently for the second. I'm so glad that I knew this one would end without a real resolution, because otherwise I would have been incredibly disappointed. Which isn't to say the ending is terrible. When you know that the next bit is coming soon, it is a totally reasonable point to leave off the story - the immediate source of tension has been relieved, and it is apparent that the folks back home are aware that there is a problem. But there's still a giant problem which has yet to be resolved.

To get back to the story. This is set in the same world as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Not too far in the future, time travel has been discovered, and it is possible to go back in time (although not forward), and observe historic events. Although it is impossible to bring most objects back, and there are some self correcting mechanisms in the continuum itself which prevent things like the murder of Hitler which would affect the course of history. This story revolves around three different time travellers - Polly Churchill (Polly Sebastian), Merope ? (Eileen O'Reilly), and Mike Davis who have travelled back in time to WWII in order to observe various different things. Like every Connie Willis book I've ever read, the style is fairly confusing. People are rushing around looking for something or someone, hiding from someone else. Nothing is going quite according to schedule and no one is ever totally prepared. The first few chapters wind up being fairly confusing - each chapter is from a different POV, and there are four different POV characters, and it takes a few paragraphs before it is entirely clear who you're following. Also, there's timetravel, so you not only have to figure out who is talking, but where & when they are. Which is additionally confounded by the fact that time travel isn't precise, so often the character in question is trying to figure out when exactly they are - and they can't just walk up to someone and ask the date & time without seeming incredibly suspicious, there's a war going on after all! Surprisingly it doesn't take long to become completely absorbed in the story - the sense of confusion you have as the reader is similar to the sense of confusion the characters are experiencing which seems to make it easier to empathize with them, which I'm sure is the point to this writing style. Real life is often confusing and only forms itself into a coherent narrative in retrospect. Still, things are confusing enough that I think this book will benefit enormously from being re-read. And I really can't wait until the next one shows up!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Minding Frankie - Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy is one of my favorite authors when it comes to comfort reading. Her stories don't require a ton of mental effort and they tend towards happy endings. This is her latest novel, centering around an infant named Frankie and her father Noel, but actually about the entire community who is pitching in to help take care of her. There are so many characters in the novel that there's almost no overarching story, but almost all the supporting cast are characters from previous stories, so they don't need as much introduction as they would otherwise. We get a quick visit with the twins, Simon & Maud, and see how they are growing into fine young people and a real credit to Muttie & Lizzie. The characters from Heart & Soul get some time in the spotlight, and the plotline involving Clara Casey & Frank Ennis gets pushed along a little...but not much. Mostly this book just felt like a series of vignettes, loosely held together by the Frankie plotline, but I really felt like that plot wasn't nearly strong enough to hold the book together. There were some moments where it really felt like it was about to take off, and then it just didn't. On the one hand that's a good thing, because Frankie's just a tiny baby and doesn't deserve to have her first year of life be totally traumatic, but Noel and his ongoing struggle with alcoholism just isn't quite compelling enough. Noel's cousin Emily was also a great character, who could have been the plot tying the story together...and again it just sort of fell flat. She's corresponding with her friend Betsy in America, and there's a whole story there, but you just get a glimpse of it. She has a whole romance, that just sort of happens while you're looking the other way. And Moira seemed like she could have been a really neat character...and then just when things seemed like they were starting to get really interesting with her, nothing much happens. Then there's Lisa with her miserable childhood and relationship with Anton.

On the whole I enjoyed this book. Much more than Night of Rain and Stars, but it felt much more like a set of interconnected short stories rather than a novel. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I really enjoyed getting caught up with some old friends who I had missed, but I'm not nearly as invested in any of the new characters as I usually am by the end of one of Maeve Binchy's novels.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Liar - Justine Larbalastier

I originally read about Liar on BoingBoing. Young Adult urban fantasy with an unreliable narrator. Except that by the time it showed up on my doorstep I had totally forgotten about the fantasy aspect, and so I started reading this thinking that it was just strait up fiction, which made things even better.

Micah is a compulsive liar, and she's narrating the story. The format is something along the lines of a journal, being written after the events in question have taken place. But the journal doesn't appear to be a private journal, necessarily, and so there's definitely a question of how honest Micah is being. Especially when you get to a new chapter and she starts by apologizing for lying, and clarifying where the lies were in the previous chapter. There are chapter segments, tagged with titles like "Before", "After", and "Family history" which helps a lot in keeping track of what's going on. The event they refer to is the death of a boy who was killed, possibly murdered, and who had been in some sort of a relationship with Micah.

It feels fairly obvious right off the bat that Micah didn't kill Zach. She is horrified and traumatized by his death, and yet she's lying about many of the things surrounding his death, and often lying to the authorities. Some of these lies feel very much like a just a confused teenager - telling one story to the authorities who she has been taught to distrust, another to Zach's official girlfriend who she feels, sorry for, threatened by, and weirdly attracted to, and yet another story for her parents. But most teenagers (I think) have a tendency to be honest with the police, especially when there's a murder investigation underway. Especially when someone they loved is dead, and they aren't responsible.

Obviously there's a twist, and yet I totally missed all the hints in the first half of the book, and it took me a while to actually believe Micah once she finally revealed what was actually going on. Micah is so adept at lying and filling in those little details that make lies convincing. When I outlined the story to Sky he saw the twist immediately because I didn't include those little details.

Her unreliability makes the story fascinating. I'm still not entirely clear on some of the details of the story - specifically surrounding her younger brother. Turns out that lying about having lied about something is quite convincing too. By the end of the story you know that Micah is a liar, you've been lied to often enough that you can't just relax and trust her, and yet she is being more honest with you now than ever.

This is a lovely story, twisty and turney and totally satisfying. And way more true than if it had just been told factually without all the lies. Because lies are the foundation of Micah's life, and once you start to be able to see through the lies, and understand why she is lying and what she lies about, you're able to understand her in a way that you never could otherwise.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Five Odd Honors - Jane Lindskold

The first half of this book is just a simple continuation of the previous book. The Orphans have created the Nine Gates (actually, they made the first gate, then rescued the guardians who created the rest of the gates for them), but in order to open the final gate into the Lands, they need to have a representative of each of the 12 Earthly Branches, so they continue in their attempts to contact the ghosts of the original exiles for those five branches whose descendants have lapsed. There are some very unexpected challenges to overcome, and some things which should be challenges which wind up being unexpectedly easy. The practical upshot is that we wind up with five new characters who were the original exiles. One of them, Loyal Wind, the Horse, actually becomes a POV character which is pretty fascinating because he didn't spend much time in our world, but he has had most of a century of experience as a ghost which has definitely impacted the person he is now.

Pearl and Brenda remain POV characters, but we lose Honey Dream which makes sense as she is now definitely on the same side as the Orphans and is generally in the same physical location as Pearl. Once the gates are opened they discover that all is not as expected in the Lands, and so a group of scouts are chosen to go through and figure out what exactly is going on. It is now September, and real life goes on even though exciting things are still happening, so Brenda winds up back at school which leads to some interesting exploration of the other side of her heritage. I was expecting a giant conflict to come of this, especially because it is hinted at all throughout the first book, and practically set up in the second book, but instead of conflict there is cooperation. The conflict arises from an entirely unexpected quarter and focuses around Pearl Bright.

The ending to this story is good and wraps up the trilogy nicely. There are still a ton of open questions, but I think that will always be the case at the end of a good fantasy story. The ending to the story occurs once most of the major questions regarding the folks from our world have been answered, but before everyone has gone back to life as usual. This was pretty satisfying as I could imagine several different ways in which things play out once people try to get on with their lives, and there are tons of possibilities open for everyone. I'm really hoping this isn't the end though. I'm still really wrapped up in the characters. I want to know what happens in the Lands next, I want to know how things with Flying Claw turn out, I want to know what Brenda chooses to do next, I want to watch Lani grow up, I want to see whether the relationship between the Orphans and the other indigenous magical traditions changes now that they are no longer Orphaned.

So, Jane Lindskold, here's hoping that you decide to write another trilogy in this world!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nine Gates - Jane Lindskold

This story made much more sense once I realized it was the second in the series and not the first! The two groups which were opposing each other in the first book are now working together to return to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice. In order to do this they need to construct the Nine Gates in order to travel through the Guardian Realms and reach the Lands. The Gates must also be linked to the Nine Yellow Springs which are located in Hell (Chinese version which is quite different than the usual Western versions of Hell - but still the afterlife). They will also need a representative from each of the Earthly Branches in order to accomplish this, but some of the descendants of the original exiles are no longer aware of their lineage, and so the spirits of their ancestors must be contacted and persuaded to assist.

This is a great story with a nice balance between the ordinary familiar world - including conflicts with the followers of other magical traditions, some of whom would really like to learn their peculiar style of magical workings, and journeys into the fantastical Guardian Realms. The juxtaposition of high fantasy and everyday life keeps things moving at a nice pace.

I really enjoyed the character development. Honey Dream (originally from the Lands) joins Pearl Bright and Brenda Morris as one of the narrators and her perspective is fascinating. It is really neat to get the contrast between the two cultures. The conflict between Honey and Brenda is great, mostly very subtle and centered around Flying Claw - Honey Dream's professed "beloved" who appears to be quite interested in Brenda, while Brenda is simultaneously attracted and repulsed. The relationships between these characters are fairly central, and yet the relationships between the other characters are not neglected. There is a lot of conflict between Gaheris (Brenda's father, the Rat) and Albert Wu, descendant of the exiled emperor, which deepens here and is explained to some degree. Then there's the oddity about Brenda - she has access to more magic than she should, and she's being contacted by other magical beings who claim to have a long relationship with her mother's side of the family, originally from Ireland.

One thing I especially enjoyed is the inclusion of Lani, the Rabbit's 2.5 year old daughter. She is living in Pearl's house along with most of the others, and needs to be cared for even when crazy things are going on. At one point her mother, Nissa, has gone to the Guardian Realms with a group of others, and has left Lani at Pearl's house. When she returns, she finds that Lani has been sent to stay with Waking Lizard and Righteous Drum, while Pearl and the other Orphans were off doing something dangerous. As a mother I think I would have been really distressed to find that my young daughter had been sent of to spend the night in the care of two older men who were currently allies but had not always been. There were magical treaties in place which prevented them from offering any harm to Lani, so she was perfectly safe, but I could imagine many children not coping particularly well in this situation. However it did illuminate some things about Waking Lizard and Righteous Drum's characters - they really are good guys, and both love children, and I found it very interesting that at every point during the story Lani is accounted for. She has never just been abandoned, assumed to be taken care of offstage. I'm not entirely sure why I like this so much, it leads to lots of unnecessary details, and yet it is a constant reminder that just because there is a crazy fantasy quest going on the real world doesn't just grind to a halt while you deal with the crisis. The level of detail involved in the food everyone is eating, and the living arrangements for this large and eccentric group takes up a lot of time, but I think it really helps to set the scene and make things believable. People's relationships change when they are forced to live in close accommodations, especially when it is fairly long term with no definite end point.

But I need to stop writing this now, because the next book is waiting for me, and I really really want to find out what happens next!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thirteen Orphans - Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold manages to write fantasy set in the real world. Very subtle magic which tends to be central to the story, but the characters are contemporary and the setting is familiar. Not quite what I'd call urban fantasy, since I tend to think of that as somewhat gritty. This is more suburban fantasy. The settings tend to be quite nice. Then there's the "Through Wolf's Eyes" series which is just straight up fantasy and totally awesome.

I accidentally picked up the second book in this series, Nine Gates, and got almost half-way through before realizing I'd started in the wrong spot. It was enjoyable, and she didn't spend any time at all on background details, just a whole lot of in-cluing, but this isn't a stand-alone novel, you really need to start with book 1!

So, back to book 1 then. This is set in the US with a lovely Chinese flavour. All of the characters are of Chinese (sort of) descent, but are very American. The magic is wonderful, based on Mah-jong which I have never played but am finding myself more and more intrigued by. There are hints of other magics in the world which follow different rules, but we don't get exposed to any of that yet. In the hands of a novice, spells need to be prepared ahead of time. An expert is able to cast spells on the fly. Inborn ability is important, but won't get you very far without an awful lot of work. I absolutely love the way contemporary materials are used to make spellcrafting easier to use. Lindskold did an amazing job with the magic system here.

The main characters are descendents of thirteen exiles from the Lands born of Smoke and Sacrifice, a magical realm created by the destruction of books and scholars in ancient China. Each of the exiles had a magical association to one of the characters from the Chinese zodiac (plus the cat - descendent of the emperor's son), which gets inherited by their heir when they die. The heirs suddenly find themselves under attack by someone, presumably from the Lands, who is stealing the abilities and all of the memories associated with this association. In some cases, where this association was very central to the person's life, it causes a dramatic personality change and a degree of amnesia. In other cases the amnesia is quite mild. The few who have escaped these magical attacks get together to try and figure out what is happening and how to regain their colleagues memories.

It's a great story. There are two main POV characters, Pearl Bright - daughter of the exile Tiger, who was a child actress and now fairly elderly but still very capable, and Brenda Morris - teenage daughter of the Rat who has had his memories magically removed. They're both great characters, dealing with different aspects of the same problems. Brenda is only just learning about her peculiar heritage, so learning about the background details happens very naturally. Her acceptance of the situation, of magic, of her own ability to perform magic, are very realistic. She reacts the way I would expect an American teenager to react - with disbelief and skepticism which rapidly turns to acceptance when they find themselves under attack, but returns to a believable level of incredulity once the danger has passed. She is a very nice contrast to Pearl Bright for whom being the Tiger's heir was central to her childhood, and who has been the Tiger and the leader of their loosely connected group of exiles for many years by virtue of her being the only second generation descendent of the exiles still living.

A very quick and fun read, I can wait to pick up the next volume.

Monday, February 28, 2011

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

This is the second book I've read recently that made me feel optimistic about the future. We get a good healthy dose of pessimism from the newspaper everyday, I think this makes a nice counterpoint.

The book starts with Kelly exploring his own relationship with technology. The attempt to figure out which pieces to use, and which to avoid. He points out that it just isn't possible to live without technology, because it isn't just what I think of as "high tech" like computers, cars, and cell phones. Kelly points out that as a species we've been using technology since the stone age, and that it is what has allowed us to succeed in a variety of inhospitable environments. He points out that humans are the reproductive organs of technology. Barring some sort of catastrophe, we are going to continue co-evolving with our technology. We're already way past the point where one single person can make everything they require for their day to day life. Even Mennonites who lag 50 years behind the curve in terms of acquiring new technology aren't entirely self sufficient.

Kelly argues that "The Technium" (sphere of technology comprising things which are made rather than born) is the 7th kingdom of life, and that it is co-evolving with us. Parts can migrate from one tool to another, things made for one purpose gain new and previously unimaginable uses. Attempting to ban technologies doesn't work in the long run. The more technology we have, the more choices are available, and that choice needs to be added to the positive side of the balance sheet when it comes to deciding whether a particular technology is a benefit to society or not. He concludes that we have a moral responsibility to create as many new things as possible, and to embrace our relationship with technology as that is the best way to increase the number of choices available to everyone. That refusing to use something simply because it is new and may cause unanticipated problems is selfish and backward thinking.

I really do like the idea that our goal should be to increase the number of choices available. In the world of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station the worst crime possible is choice theft, and I was found that perspective to be very illuminating. Increasing the amount of technology available isn't the only way of increasing the number of choices available in the world, trying to make sure everyone on the planet has enough to eat strikes me as something that would increase choices too, but I think it is a good one.

It has been argued that we have so many choices these days that it has become overwhelming. That people were happier when the course of their lives were laid out before them, and they could simply live their lives content in the knowledge that they weren't missing out on anything. The more I think about this, the more I agree that it is false. Having too many choices of breakfast cereal can be daunting, but learning to cope with choice is something we can learn to do. In fact, it is something that technology can help us with.

I really do like the vision of the world that Kelly offers here. I'm not convinced by his arguments that the evolution of technology is inevitable, but thinking about the Technium as a kingdom of life which is evolving and with which we have a symbiotic relationship is interesting and I think it is useful. It is easy to feel that technology is bad, that new 'improvements' are actually making our lives worse, but I'm definitely finding myself convinced otherwise. Especially watching the situation at the moment in various countries around the world as they use social networks to organize demonstrations against oppressive regimes I'm seeing the dramatic increase in choices as a direct result of technology.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Companion to Wolves - Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

This originally started out as an attempt to mock the "people with animal companions" fantasy sub-genre, and then turned into something so fabulous that they decided to publish it and I'm so glad they did. Humans bonding with dragons or wolves, and then being affected by their companion's emotions...especially mating urges...has been done. It is really easy to do badly. Monette & Bear do it really well. Rolled up into a great fantasy story is a critique of society's attitudes towards sex (specifically homosexuality), and gender roles.

Usually in these sorts of stories people who bond with animals are very highly thought of. Also, in fantasy stories there is a tendency towards gender equality, especially with the whole bonding with animals thing you like to have female animals bonding with females, and males with males, so the whole "mating frenzy" thing works out in a relatively palatable way. Here, the wolves are fighting animals, the female wolves are the leaders of the pack, only men bond with wolves, and the wolf-halls are viewed practically with contempt - who would want to live with animals? Yet, they used to fill a vital role in protecting villages from the trolls, who now haven't been seen in a generation, so there is grumbling about needing to have them around, especially when they show up to collect young boys in the hopes that they will bond with the wolf-pups.

Having only men bonded to wolves allowed them to put in what is basically a rape scene without the usual attendant baggage of "poor weak woman who just can't cope with sex". You also wind up with a man, who is definitely interested in women, in a position of having to have sex with other men (which he has been brought up to think of as abhorrent), and coming to realize that sex doesn't have to define you, and that there are many different faces to love. I kept imagining what the book would be like if Isolfr (the main character, who happens to be bonded to a dominant female wolf) were a woman, and it would have masked the issues as women's issues rather than something which would be difficult for anyone to cope with.

This was a fabulous story, definitely intended for adults rather than children, one of those amazing books that helps you to look at the world in new ways. The only problem is with the character names. There are tons of characters, their names are all Norse-sounding, and far too many of them end in fr and are hard to distinguish. Also the young boys change their names once they bond with a wolf, so you have to keep track of what someone used to be called. Then there are the wolf names, and you need to track which wolf is bonded with which man. I think re-reading it will be no problem, but the first time through was pretty rough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Guide to the Good Life - William B. Irvine

I found out about this via BoingBoing, shortly after I had read a few of Seneca's essays. It sounded interesting, and I'm really glad I picked it up.

Apparently the ancient Greek & Roman philosophers thought that the whole point of philosophy was to develop a "Philosophy of Life". Basically an overarching goal, and a strategy for attaining that goal. Irvine has recently adopted Stoicism, or at least his own particular brand of Stoicism, as his philosophy of life and has written this book to help anyone else who wants to do something similar.

The Stoics' ultimate goal was to attain virtue, thereby achieving "tranquility", a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions. When you're in a state of tranquility it is easy base our decisions on logic rather than emotion, and lead a more virtuous life.

In order to achieve tranquility, the Stoics advocate several techniques. The first is negative visualization -where you imagine what would happen if you were to lose something you value; your job, your house, your partner, your child, your health. The goal of this is to help you appreciate what you have, as well as develop strategies to cope with a tragedy should it occur. The second technique is to stop worrying about things over which you do not have complete control, and to reframe your goals so that they are under your control. For example, if your goal in playing a game of tennis is to win, this will be affected by how well your partner plays. If instead your goal is to play your best, you can achieve this even if you don't win the game. Finally, the Stoics give a lot of fairly specific advice about how to deal with insults, cope with grief, and avoid envy.

The goal is to attain virtue or tranquility, not wealth. Stoics didn't have a problem with being wealthy, and certainly advocated enjoying your wealth and the things money could buy if you happened to have it, but recommended that you not become too attached to possessions.

Irvine goes into the history of Stoicism in a bit more detail, talking about several eminent Stoic philosophers, specifically Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius, and Marcus Aurelius. He also spends rather a lot of time worrying about how to cope with other people's opinion of your new Stoic lifestyle, and advocates not actually telling anyone that you're converting to Stoicism, which I found pretty hilarious. I suspect his target audience is relatively wealthy and running happily along on the hedonic treadmill, where you just keep buying more and better and fancier things in an attempt to make yourself happy. Their friends are all still on this treadmill and are going to give them a hard time if they don't acquire the latest gadgets and fanciest cars available, or wear clothing that is out of style.

While I was a bit irritated by the approach Irvine takes, since it is aimed at someone with a lifestyle very different than mine, I really appreciate his description of the Stoic philosophy of life. I had already adopted a lot of the strategies they advocate, but I think that doing them deliberately will help. I've been working to reframe my goals in terms of things I have control over (having a goal of getting my advisor to praise me is just silly...and hasn't been getting me anywhere). I really like the idea that I should be happy with my life, and that I don't need a giant pile of money and things. Helps to validate the decisions we've made over the past few years which overall I'm very happy about, but occasionally get pangs of envy when we visit friends who have made drastically different decisions, and now live in fancy houses with cars and gadgets and jet-setting lifestyles.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dreaming Jewels - Theodore Sturgeon

The Dreaming Jewels was another re-read by Jo Walton. I was intrigued by the first paragraph which she posted
They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.
which is a wonderful hook, but then once I found out what it was he'd been doing...well, gross sure, but disgusting? It was a bit of a let-down. I guess I'd been assuming that he was doing something that I would find disgusting. It wound up making me even more sympathetic towards Horty, which isn't a bad thing, but it made the world feel less familiar.

Theodore Sturgeon has been on my list of SF authors I should be at least remotely familiar with, which is the main reason I picked this up (also that first paragraph...I really really wanted to know what he'd been doing under the bleachers!). I've had trouble trying to read older SF before. Harlan Ellison is another one I keep trying to like and failing at. Ray Bradbury. I think there are a whole pile of things giving me trouble. First off there's the really gritty feel to a lot of these. The future they're writing about tends to be dystopic, overpopulated and dirty. The characters tend to be very lonely. Key bits of technology are missing, while fancy things that we don't have yet are commonplace. They wind up feeling unanchored in time - set simultaneously in the future and in the past. A large part of the story is set in the circus - which doesn't mean the same thing anymore thanks to Cirque du Soleil. I can cope with Enid Blyton characters running away to join the circus because they're set so solidly in the past, but here it just doesn't resonate for me at all. Then there's the blend of SF and horror that I think is becoming less common these days. I really don't enjoy horror, but I suspect that most SF fans do. I can handle evil characters, but I don't like creeping blackness and an overall atmosphere of depression. The stories tend to be shorter than what I'm used to - short stories have always been more difficult for me to read, maybe they just take more concentration, maybe I just need more practice, but a short story seems to leave less space for the people. Finally people's names in these old stories just seem wrong. Horty is a horrible nickname. It is short for Horton - who in my mind is an elephant sitting up in a tree hatching an egg. Zena is a warrior princess, not a midget in a circus. It makes the world feel even more thin and flimsy than it already did. I'm having to put so much effort into believing in the story that I don't have any energy left to care about the characters. Maybe I just need to take a deep breath and start reading these like SF set in some alternate past in order to cope with the cognitive dissonance these seem to generate.

All of this is a real shame, because the story is quite good. There's a lot of character development, a real examination of what makes someone human. The ending was great, and so was the love story running through it. Having Jo's write-ups and the comments to help guide me to the bits of the story that really matter are definitely helping me enjoy some of these stories more than I would manage on my own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I don't remember who recommended this, but several people told me "You must read The Hunger Games!" and now I'm going to be saying the same thing to anyone I know who likes Young Adult fiction.

Hunger Games is reminiscent of The Running Man by Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman), but the games themselves are more akin to Survivor. In a dystopian future Katniss Everdeen becomes one of 24 competitors in the Hunger Games - the annual display of power by the current rulers of Panem which used to be North America. Two children from each district between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to participate in the annual fight to the death. Since you are allowed to put your name into the lottery more than once in order to receive an annual allotment of food, the poorer folks are much more likely to be selected. In richer districts there are often volunteers, since the reward for winning the games is to be set for life, but in the poorer districts "winning" the lottery is a death sentence.

Katniss is an awesome main character. She's strong and independent. Not inclined to trust anyone, and yet extremely loyal and caring once she has placed her trust. I thought Collins did a fabulous job of making Katniss's motivations clear. Every decision she makes is based on her experience and personality. She is a very real character and very easy to empathize with even though she is so independent.

The focus of this book is the Hunger Games, and that is Katniss's focus as well since she doesn't expect to survive, but the best moment for me was when I came to the very last sentence and saw the words "end of Book One" - and understood the implication that this was only the beginning! Even if the follow-up was only going to be Katniss heading home to her district and living in a nice house with her mother and sister, I want to know what happens! She isn't a simple person, and there's no way she could just adapt to a life of relative luxury. She's a fighter and a survivor, and has just been given access to a larger world. She's about to become a player in a much bigger game, with much bigger stakes and I can't wait to find out how she's going to cope with it!

This was totally fabulous. Super quick to read, incredibly hard to put down. Definitely violent a points, but not at all in a dehumanizing way. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a teenager. In fact, I think I will go do that now :)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dying of the Light - George R. R. Martin

Yet another re-read by Jo Walton over at Tor.com. Her write-up fascinated me, and I'm already a fan of GRRM, so this one definitely belonged on my reading list.

Within the first few chapters I'd fallen in love with the setting. Jo says:
the planet itself is certainly one of the protagonists
and I know what she means, but I'm not sure I would phrase it that way. The setting is totally unique, and I found myself wondering whether GRRM had dreamed up the story and then created the setting in order to make the story work, or if the setting came first and he dropped the story in. Honestly I suspect they were both independent creations which he fiddled with to make them work together, because both setting and story are totally awesome.

Worlorn is a wandering planet which recently wandered close enough to a star-cluster to warm up enough to terraform. Folks from the Fringe planets decided to hold a years-long festival there with each planet contributing a city as well as plants & animals to help form the ecology. There are probably a million stories you could write, set during the Fringe Festival, yet this story is set following the festival as the planet moves further and further from the light, and every day is colder and darker than the previous.

Layered on top of this is the story of Dirk t'Larion and Gwen Delvado, and their interactions with the culture of High Kavalaar. High Kavalaar also seems like it could totally be the setting of a million fascinating little stories and explorations of a very unusual culture. Instead we just see the fringes of that culture, and the impact of its interactions with other human cultures.

There are so many awesome little bits. The power of naming something. What you need to do in order to respect yourself. How much our decisions depend on the people they will impact - you do things differently when your actions will affect someone you love. The role of violence. Whether refusing to react violently is a good idea or not. Learning to respect someone who is completely different and has totally different values.

But mostly what was awesome about this story, was that I had no idea where it was going most of the time. Done poorly this would have left me feeling very frustrated and unable to connect with the characters, but GRRM is awesome. Initially it seemed like a fairly straightforward setup. Gwen had sent for Dirk, he was going to show up and rescue her from whatever weird situation she had gotten herself involved in, they would travel off into the sunset. Then things got weird - people's reactions weren't quite right, you really couldn't imagine Gwen wanting to leave the guy she's obviously in love with for Dirk, and it because obvious very quickly that Dirk wasn't at all in love with Gwen. By about half-way through the book I had no idea where anything was going and couldn't really imagine a situation where Gwen & Dirk were going to survive the night, let alone get through another hundred pages. Then things started to get really interesting.

In most fantasy things are black and white. GRRM really excels at writing stories where the right choice just isn't clear, and often coming up with circumstances where there isn't actually a right choice. This is a story about how we often see the person we want to exist rather than the person who is actually there, and how we try to be the person who is being reflected back at us. The answer this story has come up with is that just being yourself won't necessarily work - what you really need to do is to find the right person to reflect you back at yourself.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves - Matt Ridley

I've always enjoyed Matt Ridley's books on biology, so I was looking forward to this one.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book. I went through a phase several years ago of feeling like the world was becoming more crowded, and more polluted, and worse, and worse, and that if I were to ever have a child their quality of life couldn't possibly be even remotely equivalent to my own, so it would be a total disaster and irresponsible to have children since the future was so incredibly hopeless. Sky did manage to talk me out of this by pointing out that people tend towards a certain level of happiness no matter what their physical surroundings, and that you don't need to guarantee perfection prior to having kids. Ironically this was right about the time he decided he didn't necessarily want to have children himself, and now I did want to have one, and many discussions were had, eventually resulting in Elli - who appears to be quite happy. Matt Ridley covers the other side of the argument - the one Sky totally ignored - that it is quite common to feel that the current situation is as good as things can possibly get, since the future can't improve it must be about to start heading downhill, and that this point of view is totally inaccurate if you're looking at the world as a whole. It is possible that in some small corners the world is getting worse. Wars break out, some places are unreasonably prosperous for a while and then suffer a reverse, there are housing bubbles and depressions. But overall the average living conditions for everyone in the world are improving. The number of people living in poverty may be increasing, but the percentage is decreasing - maybe not today in particular, but on average. Decreasing child mortality actually causes populations to decrease rather than increase, so overpopulation doesn't look like the enormous problem it once did. Change happens slowly and can take generations, but attitudes can change, and they do change. There are problems, but humans have a track record of innovating their way around these problems, so that something which seems insurmountable today may prove to not even be an issue at all tomorrow.

So, the first half of the book was totally wonderful, and I felt so much better about the world and people in general having read it. The second half was fascinating, but I'm not quite as sure how I feel about it. The basic premise was that we need to keep consuming energy at pretty close to the current rate, and that our energy consumption is probably going to have to go up. And that renewable sources of energy really aren't the way to go. And that burning fossil fuels isn't nearly as bad as everyone has been making it out to be.

All of his arguments made sense to me while I was reading the book. Hydro-electricity is a great source of power, but you have to flood a huge area when you're creating the dam, and the people living there aren't necessarily going to be happy about it, and it isn't necessarily a clean or green process. Plus the dam can be an eyesore. Windmills take up huge amounts of space, they're ugly and noisy, and can cause all sorts of problems of their own. Solar power also takes up lots of space and isn't going to be very reliable if you happen to want power at night or on a cloudy day. Biodiesel is an environmental disaster (it is awesome if you happen to own the only converted van in the province, and are using left-over french fry oil that was just going to get thrown out. Growing corn simply to process it into oil in order to fuel cars is a net loss even if you don't count the environmental impact...it just happens to be very pretty politically.) So he's arguing that burning fossil fuels is totally necessary, and actually has a smaller environmental impact per unit of energy than the so called renewables. And I think he's right...but it is the sort of argument that you're always wondering what sort of hidden agenda the person writing has that honestly I'm scared of just taking this information at face value, and yet I don't know where to go for an unbiased opinion. I'm not even sure that an unbiased opinion exists. But I do think that I agree with his argument that turning farmland into a windfarm instead of returning it to a "natural" state isn't necessarily an improvement, and that if you need to cut down a forest in order to create new farmland to replace the land that is now sprouting windmills...that is taking a step backwards. But I think there's a degree of integration that he's missing out on. A single windmill in the middle of a farmer's field probably isn't reducing the amount of food grown significantly. And putting solar panels on your roof doesn't take space away from a forest, and it will help reduce temperatures in a city. I think he's also underestimating the impact of things like strip-mining. On the other hand, his point that the entire world needs access to cheap energy - it isn't fair for those of us living in first world countries to tell people in third world countries that they aren't allowed to burn fossil fuels because it is bad for the environment. People need to have a certain amount of wealth before they are really able to care about the environment, so the best solution is to help everyone all over the world be rich enough that we can all afford to care about the environment. After all, if your child is starving you don't particularly care whether or not their chance of getting cancer over the next 60 years has gone up by 1%...it just isn't immediate enough. But when you expect them to live until at least 80...all of a sudden it becomes quite relevant and worth fighting for.

Overall I think this was a fabulous book and extremely well written. I find all of Ridley's work very easy to read, so even though it is long it wasn't hard to finish. I found the degree of optimism extremely refreshing, and I certainly slept better at night while reading this. I didn't love the "down with green energy, fossil fuels are wonderful" attitude towards the end of the book, but it did make an interesting change in perspective. I just worry that everything has gotten so black and white that no opinion can possibly be balanced anymore.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wesley the Owl - Stacey O'Brien

Lovely true story about raising Wesley the barn owl. His wing was injured very young and he was never going to have the stamina to live on his own in the wild, so Stacey O'Brien took responsibility for bringing him up. She was trained as a biologist and working full-time with owls, so she did know what she was getting herself in for, but for me it was a really vivid lesson in the difference between domesticated and wild animals. Agreeing to raise Wesley was making a years-long commitment. When he was young she couldn't leave him alone at all (mother owls don't leave the nest for several months after their eggs hatch, the fathers are in charge of fetching food for the family), and even once he was older and could be left at home during the day, getting someone to look after him if she ever wanted to travel was a major undertaking. His food needed to be fresh (or at least fresh frozen) mice, fed several times a day. If it was someone other than Stacey doing the feeding they could not actually come into the room with Wesley as he would attack them, and had to wear protective gear to even come to the door and give him his mice. Taking care of Wesley required a level of commitment that I doubt most people could handle. On the other hand, Wesley sounds like he was an incredibly devoted, and very unique little companion. Owls mate for life, and he decided that Stacey was his mate - even attempted to feed her mice and got extremely upset when she declined to eat them (she eventually got really good at pretending). He sounds like a wonderful character, and I really enjoyed reading about him, but I can't imagine adopting an owl. I can't even imagine putting that much effort into a relationship with another person!

Overall a fabulous book. I picked it up because I loved Daily Coyote so much, and the story is even more incredible, but O'Brien isn't a professional writer or photographer, and so the book doesn't hold together quite as well as it should. On the other hand, she is a biologist, and the insights into barn owls that she acquires are just fabulous. I wish this had been written from a more scientific and less emotional/religious experience perspective...but that may just be me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

I've been excited about reading this since I first heard it was coming out, and it definitely lived up to expectations. It is fantastical history which is a genre all of its own as far as I know. There are lots of people who do historical retellings, but GGK throws in a touch or more of fantasy which makes it extra-special. I think it would be really easy to do this wrong, but the fantastical bits just slip right in and make the fact that the whole world is unfamiliar seem easier to deal with. At least to me. I know how to go about reading fantasy, and I know that I'm not required to have any extra knowledge to make things work.

Under Heaven is wonderful. I've read a bit of the jacket quote to several people, and it is a fabulous bit that just grabbed me right away, let me know I was going to love the book, and was a great intro to the story without giving any of the action away, Tai is informed that he is to be presented with 250 Sardian horses:

You give a man one of the legendary Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propelling him toward rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Giving two hundred and fifty is unthinkable - a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Tai realizes some of the implications this gift will have, and tries to prepare himself to cope, but he doesn't have the imagination or the experience to prepare him for everything to come.

This is the retelling of a moment in the history of the Tang dynasty in China, and while some of the details have been altered slightly (at any rate, they're different from what I found on Wikipedia - and who knows how accurate that might be), it is a wonderful story and makes me feel like I really understand what happened back then. GGK also has this wonderful way of showing you how events will appear to someone reading about them in a history book, which simultaneously makes it easier for him to get away with changing some of the details - because who really knows what actually happened after all - and helping you realize how the world works.

One of my favorite bits happened near the beginning of the book when Tai is stopping at a Pleasure Palace on his way back to civilization, and enters the room to find one of his favorite poets, the Banished Immortal, holding court. This man is renowned for his poetry, considered one of the greatest living poets, and Tai is just completely overawed to be in his presence. Yet the scene is told from the first person perspective of a young, foreign courtesan, who is hideously bored by poetry, and incredibly irritated that this disgusting, drunken, obnoxious and filthy man is the centre of attention. At first I couldn't fathom why we were seeing the world through her eyes, but then I realized that it was giving me a much better perspective on this character, who was to be very important throughout the story, and was in fact an important historical figure, than I could possibly have gotten looking through the eyes of someone who already loved him and his poetry. The rest of the book would show him through rose-coloured glasses, but this small glimpse of another facet was just amazing. There is always more than one side to a story.

The other thing I love about this, and pretty much every book of GGK's I've ever read - he writes wonderful female characters. They're real people, not just love interests. Even when their role in the story is, or should be, primarily a love interest, they're always so much more than that. The Emperor's concubine who could so easily have no personality at all is a major political player, Tai's sister is incredibly courageous even when she thinks all possible hope is lost, the courtesan he loves is an amazingly strong and intelligent woman, and the Kanlin Warrior who travels with him is also quite a character.

While I have enjoyed all of GGK's books, this one is special. The story is fabulous, the characters are amazing, and I think he really nailed the ending. I'm waiting for Sky to read it, because I want to know what he thinks - there's a chance he'll hate this ending, because it does have that element of randomness that real life tends to have - but I think the randomness is handled beautifully, and that it highlights the fact that there are many possible happy endings. In fact, most people will find happiness in whatever ending finds them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tower at Sony Wood - Patricia A. McKillip

As usual, this was a beautiful story with gorgeous imagery. I didn't like the actual story as much as Song for the Basilisk or most of her other work. Initially it appears to be a fairly normal - Queen is trapped in a tower, being impersonated by some sort of evil witch or fairy, knight must run off to rescue Queen without actually telling anyone what he's up to so that the kingdom isn't thrown into total upheaval.

The knight in question, Cyan Dag, is sent off on his quest by a lady Bard. It rapidly becomes evident that there's something up as the same Bard (or another one very similar...I'm not actually sure) is busy sending one of his enemies (Thayne Ysse) off on a nearby quest to fight a dragon, acquire its treasure, and use the treasure to attack Cyan Dag's kingdom. So you're thinking that actually the Bard is evil and has tricked Cyan Dag, getting him out of the way or something, while encouraging the northern kingdom (where Thayne Ysse is from) to attack - possibly in collusion with the changeling queen. So Cyan Dag is off to rescue a queen trapped in a tower, Thayne Ysse is off to challenge a dragon in another tower, and then there's a third character, Melanthys, who spends all of her time embroidering in a tower where a magical mirror is showing her glimpses of things happening far off...which she embroiders, and then leaves on the window ledge where they disappear.

So we have 3 different towers, 3 different main characters, multiple strange bard-type women who keep showing up in unexpected places and lots of very strange seeming magic. Also, all of the towers appear to be in the same place...or possibly not really existing in real locations. It all adds up to a story that feels hideously confusing at times. I'm willing to put up with a lot of that from Patricia McKillip, but this was pretty extreme. It is hard to focus on all the different aspects of the story when you don't know how they are connected or which bits are the really important ones. Especially when you're having some trouble distinguishing the characters. What kept me reading was Melanthys and her family, which initially felt like it wasn't really central to the story, but in fact wound up being very very important.

The ending was quite satisfying. Everyone's motives were explained, very important things got resolved in ways that worked and were obviously going to continue to work for a long time to come. People overall were going to be much better off. So overall I enjoyed the story, but it isn't compelling me to pick it back up and re-read it immediately, even though I'm really tempted to see if it still feels as confusing one I know where it is going (and now that I know there are actually 3 different lady Bards and not just 1 with the ability to pop around the world at will).