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.