Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber

This came highly recommended by a friend, and I was a little shocked when it arrived at the library by exactly how big it was. 800 pages! But it is a fairly large print, and not particularly dense prose, so I finished it faster than I was expecting.

This is mainly the story of an extraordinarily intellectually intelligent prostitute named Sugar. She is beautiful, very unique looking, and very good at figuring out what people want. She is a great character. You can't help but want her to succeed, even when you see her working so very hard at something that you are sure isn't going to make her happy.

The narrative starts very oddly, with the narrator talking to you as if you are actually physically present in 1870s London, following people around, hoping to make connections that will eventually lead you to the upper crust of London society. I really enjoyed this, and it was very similar to what everyone in that society is trying to do - work their way as far up the social ladder as they possibly could. I also especially loved Caroline, the first prostitute you meet in the story. Her life is fairly horrible, she has lost everything that you would figure makes life worth living, and yet she is a fundamentally happy person, able to enjoy the little things that are left to her, and caring deeply about the people in her life.

Sugar is a more complicated character. She is not at all happy with her lot in life, and grasps at the opportunity to change things when William Rackham comes along. He is initially infatuated with Sugar, and she works very hard to make herself utterly indispensable to him so that he will not lose interest. It is fascinating that although Sugar doesn't love William, in fact she doesn't like him in the slightest, she is so invested in making him love her that she winds up acting and feeling very much like someone desperately in love.

William's wife Agnes is another fascinating character. Initially she seems utterly crazy and it would be very easy to write her in such a way that the reader would simply despise her, and yet you wind up really caring about her and wanting things to work out somehow so that she will be alright. The situation with her daughter Sophie just left me shaking my head in disbelief at the entire 19th century and their attitude towards women.

Overall I think I really enjoyed this book, but it has some really horrible moments that left me feeling pretty depressed. On the other hand, if you want a very graphic example about how much the situation of women has improved over the past 200 years, this is a very good book to read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Delta Wedding - Eudora Welty

This wound up on my reading list because of an intriguing post over on Evening All Afternoon

"I've been writing a lot lately about feminist musicologistSusan McClary and her ideas about the need for an alternative narrative practice. McClary goes in search of a mode of storytelling that does not dwell in a land of perpetual desire, of constant striving for a climax or resolution which, once achieved, spells the end of the story (the so-called "phallic" or "heroic" narrative arc), but that instead stresses pleasure over desire, that glories in what McClary calls a "voluptuous 'being-in-time' quality" - an examination of what we have and who we are, rather than what I want and who I would rather be."
which made me really curious to see what a novel without resolution would be like.

Delta Wedding is a week in the life of a large family in the Mississippi delta. One of the daughters is getting married and outlying family are coming for the wedding. There is very little plot. One of the characters, Laura McRaven, is 9 years old, has recently lost her mother, and is back for the wedding and quite possibly to stay permanently rather than living in a far away town with only her father. Another character, George, is dealing with the fact that his wife Robbie has just run away and it isn't entirely clear why, or whether she is going to come back. Then there's Dabney, the bride, who is marrying 'beneath' her, and it becomes obvious that she doesn't actually know Troy all that well, and that they don't actually spend much time together. The day after the wedding where several different groups head into town to run errands not realizing that it is Sunday and all the stores will be closed. So many little things which in an ordinary book would drive the typical big problem, increasing miscommunication, eventually leading to huge misunderstandings, and finally some sort of resolution.

Instead life goes on. Things which could lead to huge misunderstandings instead get resolved, often with very little effort because the people involved really do love one another and are very used to living together. Issues get sorted out, problems get solved at least temporarily, and life goes on. Laura gets invited to stay on the plantation with her aunt & uncle, and of course says yes (it is what she's expected to say after all), but then thinks to herself that she probably won't stay. But of course she is only nine, and her aunt will almost certainly convince her father to let her stay, and she will probably be quite happy there...and you can sort of see how she is going to wind up belonging in two places at once.

It is pretty fascinating. There are so many people and so much activity that there is very little privacy. Everyone is quite aware of what everyone else is doing, and yet it is easy to wander off on your own, and everyone definitely has their own private thoughts. It is a comfortable place where there are lots of adults to share the responsibilities for taking care of all the children, and yet there are so many different children that it won't be particularly easy to see when someone is having a problem but not being really noisy about it. There will be a lot of benign neglect along with any number of assumptions about what particular children want to be doing...which won't coincide with what they actually want. Especially with Laura. And yet the fact that she will have a place there, will belong to this family is likely going to be really good for her, even though she won't have the undivided attention that she might get living in town with her father.

I'm not really sure what I thought of this. It is beautifully written and was enjoyable to read once I got over trying to anticipate where the story was going (it wasn't going anywhere, it was just hanging out and enjoying the scenery). I read it up at the cottage, and was a little bit depressed from time to time...which might be because of the book, or the fact I wasn't sleeping all that well. I'm not sure I would read it again, and yet I am finding myself thinking quite a bit about it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Child of Fire - Harry Connolly

This was the subject of a Big Idea piece a while back, and the concept intrigued me. Also, the windbreaker. And it really didn't disappoint. This story is quick, fun, and different.

There were a few things which threw me off initially and almost made me put the book down without reading it. First of all, on the cover it says "A Twenty Palaces Novel" which made me think that it wasn't necessarily the first book in the series. Then, when you start reading, the main character makes many references to previous events - which is totally normal when you need to fill people in on the back story - but in such a way that it made me feel like there was definitely a previous book, and that I would probably be happier if I read that one first. It turns out this was the first novel published, but there is in fact a prequel...which I haven't read, but other people on the internet seem to think is worth reading. If my library had a copy, I would definitely get my hands on it, unfortunately this is the only book of Harry Connolly's they happen to have...and I enjoyed it enough that I'm seriously considering buying the whole series.

Ray Lilly has just gotten out of jail. He's been a car thief, he's killed his best friend, and now he's working for someone who hates him but who has for some reason agreed not to kill him (for the time being at least) and who has been instrumental in getting him out of jail, and he's flat broke. It turns out that he's actually a really good guy when you give him a chance. He really does want to save the world, and that makes him really quite lovable. He's definitely someone you want to have on your side.

The magic in this story is really interesting and fairly different from what I've seen other places. It isn't really well explained in the first book, largely because we're seeing the world through Ray's eyes, and while he would like to understand the magic a whole lot better, he doesn't actually know all that much about it. Yet. I'm really curious to find out what he's going to do next.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

This was the subject of a Big Idea post which I think is really worth reading before you read the book. This is not a cheerful, happy book, it is a modern-day post-apocalyptic survival story. This is the story of what happens after we run out of cheap oil, global warming sets in, and the oceans rise. And it is about the people who will have to be coping with these things - the kids.

It is beautifully written, and because it is a young adult story with kids as the protagonists, they aren't sitting around bemoaning the world as it used to be - they are simply living in their world. And even though they can see how things used to be, and can imagine things being better, they have never experienced the ease of our lives, and so they are just coping - living their lives as best they can.

I really do like what Bacigalupi has done here. It would be really easy to have all the kids be good guys, and all the adults be bad guys, but he doesn't do that. None of the kids are perfect, and even when Nailer sets out to save the life of the girl he finds trapped on the boat, he has very good reasons for doing so - both logical and emotional - and even then he often questions this decision. He could so easily let her die and keep everything he can salvage from her ship. Instead he is aiming for a life that he almost can't even imagine - sailing on one of the beautiful white-sailed ships he sees on the horizon. But the struggle to get there is more than most people would have the strength for. In the end he persists, and you get to see the possibility of the entire world becoming ever so slightly a better place - someone in a position of power (potentially) has finally seen what life is really like for the folks at the bottom of the heap. Life is certainly looking up for Nailer, and probably even for the community he grew up in, although the cost hasn't been cheap.

This is not a happy story, although being written for kids it is not nearly as bleak and depressing as The Windup-Girl, but it is a very satisfying adventure. I would definitely recommend it, but it is the sort of book you probably want to read before handing it off to a young teenager.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The City and the City - China Mieville

This story is very nearly a totally ordinary murder mystery, but the author is China Mieville, so obviously it can't be just straight-up fiction, and yet there is no magic in these twin cities - neither in Beszel or Ul Qoma. It is hard to imagine how this situation came to be, two cities physically overlapping one another, with the inhabitants of each hard at work ignoring the city they don't belong in. At first it seems that there must be some sort of magic involved, but there isn't - just the power of belief.

Tyador Borlu is a cop with a dead body on his hands. He's trying to figure out who she is, why she was killed, and who killed her. In order to do so, he winds up moving between his home city, Beszel, and the city of Ul Qoma which exist in the same physical space, but occupy very different psychological spaces. We see the world through Tyador's eyes, which makes things interesting, especially when he interacts with foreigners who mostly find it impossible to "unsee" the city they are not supposed to be seeing. Clearly the existence of two separate cities is just a trick of the mind, and yet it works - the inhabitants of these cities act as though they live in physically separate places. Each city has its own transit system, a slum in one city can coexist with a very nice neighbourhood in the other, people make international phone calls to the house just up the street. It makes absolutely no sense, and yet this is a communal fiction with a total buy-in from the locals. It helps that breaking these rules and "seeing" the city you aren't supposed to be in is a crime, policed by the mysterious "Breach". Possibly there is magic involved there, but it isn't explicit.

As far as murder mysteries go, there's nothing incredible going on here, but this particular crime and the scene are inextricably intertwined. The setting is fascinating and weird, and Mieville really plays the reader's attempt to immerse themselves in the setting, and accept its bizarre rules as fact, against them when it comes to figuring out the mystery. I really enjoyed this, but I'm not nearly as enthralled as I was by The Scar. Still, I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good mystery and can cope with a very non-standard setting - or equally to anyone who enjoys SF...even though it really isn't SF or fantasy - it just requires the same reading protocols.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Scar - China Mieville

This is the second book set in the world of Bas-Lag. While it comes after Perdido Street Station, it isn't exactly a sequel. Having an understanding of what the city of New Crobuzon is like helps a bit, but certainly isn't necessary.

The Scar is the story of Bellis Coldwine who has had to leave New Crobuzon following the events chronicled in Perdido Street Station (although she knows less about what actually happened there than you do if you've read the book). She didn't want to leave, and is deeply resentful of the events which have forced her to go, and of the places she is now forced to be. Bellis is an interesting character, hard to like at first, she is very cold and resentful, although it is easy to sympathize with her frustration at her current circumstances.

I think this may be my favorite Mieville story so far. The city of Armada is possibly the coolest city ever, and the world of Bas-Lag is totally fascinating. You get to find out so much more about the world than in Perdido Street Station. Mieville's in-cluing isn't nearly a subtle as some, but it is very well done. The characters themselves are wandering through a world which they don't fully understand, but simply have to accept and cope with, and the lack of upfront explanations for things forces the reader into this same mindset, which is really helpful when it comes to trying to understand a character like Bellis who is very cold and resists becoming involved with her new environment.

Armada is a floating city composed of hundreds of boats tied together. It travels, although very slowly, and is essentially a pirate economy. No one outside of Armada knows that it exists, and the Armadans work very hard to keep it this way. It has a really fascinating political structure with different individuals or groups in charge of policing the various regions of the city. I can't really imagine something like this working in reality. The effects of a large storm would probably be more severe than what's described in the story, and I can't imagine the boats themselves would be as structurally sound as they would have to be...but it is certainly plausible, and definitely interesting enough for me to happily ignore the fact that it probably shouldn't work.

Armada itself was my favorite bit, but there were so many other awesome bits too. The mosquito-people, the crazy library, the Ghosthead empire, the possible sword, the Lovers, Uther Doul. Every other page there was a fascinating new thing to think about, and the story unfolding as Bellis copes with life in Armada and her desperate desire to go home. The setting is almost better than the story...the story is just a scaffolding to hang all of the beautiful bits of scenery and background and character onto. Yet for all of that the story itself works too - it certainly doesn't detract from the scenery.

Overall, a ton of fun to read and definitely worth re-reading.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Embassytown - China Mieville

I'm on a bit of a China Mieville kick at the moment, having re-read Perdido Street Station recently. There was an interview with Mieville on BoingBoing recently and this bit really caught my attention:

Tom: Do you have a favourite among your books?
China: It will sound like a hedge, because generally I think my answer oscillates between three—can you oscillate between three things?—anyway, it does that. As a quick and dirty answer, the book that I think is probably the most seamless, the one that I think works best in its own terms, is The City and the City. The one that I think is in some ways the most ambitious, and that I've worked at the hardest over the longest time, is probably Embassytown. But the one that feels most kind of like an unmediated expression of my core, and that means the most to me for all its flaws, is Iron Council.

I don't know why I enjoy hearing an author's opinion of his own work so much, but hearing that this book was hard to write and then reading is pretty hard to read too! Just wrapping my mind around what was going on and the aliens involved took effort. I can't actually imagine writing this, let alone coming up with the concept.

It contains aliens who do not think like humans, and thus find it almost impossible to communicate with humans. In fact, it isn't clear that anyone is actually communicating what they think they are communicating, but they have some sort of a system which appears to work ok. The only other place I've seen this is C.J.Cherryh's Chanur series where there are a couple species of aliens - methane breathers - who have a lot of trouble communicating with the oxygen breathers, but they've managed just barely enough to put together some safety regulations and avoid huge incidents, but not quite enough that anyone is really comfortable. Coming up with alien modes of communication, and then trying to get the concept across to the reader when the reader should clearly be unable to communicate with one of these is difficult.

Then there is Avice, the main character, who is also a simile in the 'language' spoken by the Ariekei. They speak only truth, and so when they want to say "this is like the girl in the room who ate what was given to her", they needed a girl to sit in a room and eat what was given to her, so they paid her to perform this little scenario so that they could then refer to it. Utterly bizarre. Anyway all of this means that they cannot lie, but they are fascinated by lies and lying because of the odd mental dissonance it produces for them. Avice is a good character. She grew up in Embassytown, and then left on a spaceship, and is pretty much the only person ever to come back. She isn't back because she wants to be, she's back because her husband is a linguist and is fascinated by the Ariekei. So she doesn't quite fit in with any particular group in Embassytown, and seeing through her eyes lets us see all the different aspects of the Embassytown economy.

The story is fascinating and weird. It was really interesting, but I didn't really engage with the main character. Possibly because she didn't really want to be there? She was trying to feel aloof for most of the story, which made things difficult for me. Towards the end she really starts to care about Embassytown and its future, and at that point I really started to care about which point the book was basically over. Overall a very interesting book, but I'm not sure I would bother to read it again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars - Steven Brust

Jo Walton's review over on really says it all.

This is the story of a young painter, Greg, who rents a studio with 4 other artists. They've been at this for 3 years, and none of them are earning a living from their art yet, they've mostly run through all their savings and are trying to figure out what to do next - throw in the towel or try to scrape together enough money to put on a show. Interspersed is the Hungarian fairy tale which Greg is telling them in installments, about a Hungarian Taltos who needs to find the sun, the moon, and the stars and put them in the sky so that there will be light. It is an old fairy tale, full of things which make no sense and I struggled with it. The story of Greg and his painting, and the other artists in the studio...was wonderful.

My favorite bit was definitely reading about the process of painting the monster painting which Greg is working on. I feel as though I learned quite a lot about art in the process, and I now want to go hang out in an art gallery for a while and read up on art history. The thing which I think could have been a lot of fun, but I don't have the background to appreciate: all the chapter titles were names of famous paintings (I think), and they may have been related to things going on in the story. So it might be fun to read through it again while reading up on all the title paintings.

I'm still pretty frustrated by the fact that I can't make any connections between the fairy tale and the story. Jo Walton suggests that the figures in the painting (Uranus, Artemis & Apollo) represent the sun, the moon, and the stars...but I'm not quite seeing how that works. And even if it does work, I still don't see enough connections to make the fairy tale work for me. On the other hand, the rest of the story was rather fascinating.

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

This book has gotten some awesome reviews, but what made me really really want to read it was the Big Idea piece written by the author himself. The review over on BoingBoing didn't hurt either.

The thing which fascinated me most, and made the book a little hard to read, was the absence of a 'good-guy'. Anderson Lake is a calorie man living undercover in Thailand, and he wants to get his hands on Thailand's seed bank - purely for his own profit. Hock Seng is a Malaysian Chinese whose entire family was killed during the uprisings in Malaysia and is now scraping an existence in Thailand, where the 'yellow-card' Chinese are not allowed to take most jobs. He is lucky and happens to be employed by Lake, but he doesn't actually like Lake and is actively trying to steal the plans for the factory, as well as skimming as much cash off the top as he can. So he's sort of sympathetic, but he's been hurt so badly that he really is just out for himself. Then there is Emiko, the wind-up girl. She is a genetically engineered 'New Person' who has been abandoned by her Japanese owner in Thailand where the temperature is causing her physical problems, and the permits which keep her from being mulched are so expensive that she is basically being tortured by her employer and has absolutely no recourse or even hope for the future. She initially seems sympathetic, but is driven by her situation into actions which are not 'good'. Then there's Jaidee - the Tiger of Bangkok - who is definitely a good-guy, he's on the side of Thailand and against the calorie monopolies, but he is a fighter and his actions often seem terrible to the people he is ultimately defending, and then he winds up dead and it becomes clear that his second-in-command isn't quite on the right side.

So it is hard to find a character to sympathize with. By the time I got fairly close to the end there wasn't anyone I was rooting for - they were all fighting so hard for their own survival, but it was really hard to see how anything good could possibly come out of the whole mess. Honestly the only 'character' you can possibly be rooting for is Thailand itself. It has managed to keep itself afloat thus far, but destruction looms. There was no 'right' ending looming on the horizon. Everything seemed like a potential disaster, but somehow Bacigalupi pulled out a very reasonable ending which actually left a decent amount of hope for the future, both of the country and of some of the more sympathetic characters.

Overall I'm really glad I finally got around to reading this and I would highly recommend it to anyone - but it isn't a feel-good book. It is a fascinating book full of interesting ideas and a fairly terrifying view of the future.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Unremembered - Peter Orullian

I was really looking forward to this, and really wanted to love it, but getting all the way through was a real struggle. I had read the short story "Sacrifice of the first Sheason" which I thought was intriguing, and then I read the author's description of the book and what he was trying to accomplish: , which also sounded great. Then I got my hands on the actual book, and while the story isn't bad, there were just too many little things which drove me completely crazy.

First off, it isn't at all clear what is going on. Which is fine, these sorts of stories you expect to unfold gradually, but it kept getting to a point where it seemed like we were going to have a bit of a reveal...and then nothing. The main character, Tahn, is just being dragged along by the Sheason, Vendanj, and we really have no idea what makes Tahn special. Except that he's got this weird gap in his memory, and there's something strange which happens when he fires his bow. Fine. There's something going on, if he actually knew what it was he'd be too scared to continue...really? He does a whole pile of really stupid stuff, jumping in and getting involved in other people's problems - he's a teenage boy who doesn't seem to have any fear of consequences at all, so I don't buy that things are too scary to explain to him.

Then there's Mira. She's a Far, and they only live until they turn 18. While some of the Far have more than 1 child (Mira has a sister), it is apparent from the story that not every Far has a child, and they all die by age 18. I'm seeing some problems here. Also, any culture where the parents all die before their kids hit age 10? You're going to have communal child-care. None of this kids getting fostered by some other woman...that woman needs to be having her own babies, and lots of them, not spending her energy raising someone else's children. This social structure just doesn't work, and even if there are bits that haven't been explained which could make it work, I cannot fathom any explanation that has a female of child-bearing age running around as a warrior.

Finally, the thing which bugged me the most was the language. I get that you want to use cool new terms for lots of things, and that you're trying to do interesting things with the language. Some authors manage to do fabulous stuff, usually by stealing from actual languages, but there are books like Clockwork Orange which do incredible things with language. Changing breakfast to endfast? That was just annoying. Calling your nasty monsters the "Quietgiven" and then referring to them as "Given"? Made me totally stumble. Having your characters use nicknames for one another is also great, especially when they're the slightly derogatory type that teenage boys come up with for one another, and when you're trying to emphasize that they're only boys and not actually men yet (really? did you really need to come up with a special word for teenager? I will grant that it is important to the story...but really?), but you need to do a better job of introducing the nickname. Like having it initially used in dialogue instead of during a chunk of narrative (which is from the POV of the person using the nickname, so it is just internal dialogue, but when the nickname is a common English word...just added to the overall confusion). Mixed in with the language was the interactions between the characters - the tones they use with one another were often at odds with the relationship between them. Like a reverential tone being used in reference to someone very young and inexperienced, regarding something fairly inconsequential.

So, I struggled through all of this, because I had enjoyed the short story so much, and really wanted to find out what was going on. There's some cool musical magic which wanted more elaboration. The Sheason's abilities are really interesting. The political situation is also pretty cool. But the story just isn't doing it for me. This little group has been dragged all the way to the edge of the earth so that Tahn can have a particular experience and become someone who will actually be able to stop the Quietgiven, but it just fell flat. They succeeded, but I'm still not seeing that they've substantially improved the situation. And the bit where he screws up and saves Mira - really? Was that really the best you could do? Surely there was a better way to set that particular bit up.

I'm just frustrated by this whole book. I want to love it. I want to read the whole series, but it is just way too long for something with this many flaws. I like Orullian's writing style, but there are just too many little things which jolt me out of the story, or make me have to stop and try to figure out what the heck is going on (like that little scene on the riverboat...they're gambling...with lives? experiences? that was just weird). So often I can see what he's trying to do, and it is awesome. There are tons of truly fabulous ideas here, so incredibly much potential, and yet it just isn't working. I suspect I will keep an eye on him, because these are all just things that should improve with time and experience.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Perdido Street Station - China Mieville

This is my second time reading Perdido Street Station, and it definitely deserved a second read. The characters had all stuck nicely in my head, and the basic outline of the plot, but all of the details had slipped, some of them quite dramatically.

The story begins as Yagharek the Garuda arrives in New Crobuzon desperate for someone to restore his lost ability to fly. Garuda have wings, and his have been sawn off in judgement for his crime of "Second degree choice theft without respect". Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a renegade scientist, takes on the commission of restoring his ability to fly, and comes almost to the point of being able to fulfill it, when the person whose choice had been stolen by Yagharek arrives and requests that he refrain. Yagharek is guilty of a crime, has been judged by his community, and is now suffering the consequences. It is not Isaac's place to undo the punishment. It turns out that Yag's crime was what we would term rape, although the Garuda insists that to think of his crime as rape, and herself as a victim is to horribly misunderstand the situation - her choice to not have sex with Yagharek, and to avoid dealing with the repercussions of it has been stolen, in a manner which particularly disrespected her and their whole community. I *really* like this rephrasing of rape as the freedom of choice being stolen. This throws Isaac into a horrible situation - he has already accepted the commission, and in the process of completing it has become quite close with Yagharek, but if he completes his work and Yag is allowed to fly, he is basically judging Yag not-guilty, and if he refuses, he is judging Yag as being guilty. At least this is what it comes down to in the book. Or at least, that's what it comes down to in Isaac's mind. Immediately following we get a description of exactly what happened to Yag, and honestly I do think he's been punished enough - but I guess the point is that his society doesn't feel that he will be sufficiently punished if flight is returned to him.

I do love this story, even though it is essentially a tragedy. Isaac accidentally releases an enormous threat to the city of New Crobuzon, and is then forced to deal with it. While many others attempt to deal with the slake-moths, it is clear that none of them will be successful. At least not for a while, and the one who has the best chance in fact wants to recapture the slake-moths and maintain them in captivity which we've already seen isn't foolproof. The things Isaac and his friends go through in order to kill the slake-moths and rescue the city are horrible, ugly, and terrifying. The final battle where they manage to kill most of the moths, they also have to fight off the city militia who should be on their side, but who don't have a clue what's going on and aren't prepared to listen. Finally, once all the moths are dead and the battle is over, even the reward of being able to complete his crisis engine and let Yag fly is taken away by the horrible moral dilemma involved. No one comes out of this in one piece. There is no reward for a job well done. Every single thing Isaac loved or valued is gone, and he is forced to leave the city he loves (and saved!) in order to survive. Yet somehow the ending fits. It isn't horrible and depressing. Isaac has accomplished something phenomenal, and at least *he* knows it, even if no one else does. You don't save the world just for the acclamation - you save the world because it needs saving, even though it costs you everything. This ending is bleak, but beautiful at the same time.

Aside from the depressing and realistic bits (which are totally awesome, don't get me wrong) this book is full of totally fabulous characters and ideas and things. Different ways of being and thinking. Ideas about what it means to be human, or sentient, or good, or evil. Having a truly brilliant mad scientist as a main character is lots of fun. The Weaver is a wonderful character, although horribly confusing (but at least as confusing to the other characters as to the reader). The handlingers are fact all of the non-human residents of New Crobuzon are completely awesome. The world is gritty, ugly, and stunningly beautiful all at once.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When the Sea is Rising Red - Cat Hellisen

I read "Mother, Crone, Maiden" over on and was intrigued enough that I wanted to know more. The short story makes a lot more sense having read the book, but having read the short made the book pretty fascinating too.

Felicita and Ilven are both high caste young women in a society where women are not valued. They have considerable magical abilities which can only be unlocked by the drug skriv - which is addictive and expensive, and so they are largely untrained. Neither of them wants to be married off to some unknown man living far away, and both wind up making disastrous decisions in order to avoid this particular fate.

"Mother, Crone, Maiden" is the story of Ilven's decision, "When the Sea is Rising Red" is Felicita's story, but is largely the consequence of the catastrophe wrought by Ilven. It is a story about wanting more than is being offered to you, and how escaping from a comfortable but stifling future isn't always the best choice. Ultimately it appears that society has failed both of these young women, as well as most of the regular folks. I really enjoyed the perspective that Felicita acquires - she has wound up in a rather decent situation for someone who has run away from home and has almost no useful skills, and yet after a while she would give almost anything to be able to go back home if only to sleep in a comfortable bed every night. She has run away from her family, but still loves them, and is hurt by the fact that other people hate them. These aren't the typical reflections of a runaway.

In addition to some very interesting characters, the world itself is fascinating. The magic-using High Lammers are at the top of society, although their magic is limited by the availability of skriv. Lammers without magic are a rung or two lower, along with the Hob - another race, although both seem quite human. Some of the Hob have magic although having inherent magic is a death sentence if the authorities find out about it. Then at the very bottom rung of society are the Vampires - who have only very recently been admitted to society. Shunned by virtually everyone, the few who do live in town are extremely wealthy and thus much better off than the run-of-the-mill Lammers and Hob. The economic structure of this particular city has been slowly disintegrating and appears poised for dramatic change over the next generation or two. The High Lammers are only just barely holding on to their positions of power. And yet this isn't the only city in the world, there are others with very different economic situations. I'm very much looking forward to learning more about this place.

Overall, a nice quick read with great characters and a really unique world. For a first novel it is really impressive and I'm looking forward to more books by Cat Hellisen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Sharing Knife - Lois McMaster Bujold

After starting out with Curse of Chalion, tearing my way through the Vorkosigan saga and falling madly in love with Miles, I finished my feast of all things Bujold with the Sharing Knife. This is a romantic fantasy, and the fantasy element allowed Bujold to avoid the part that always turns me off romance - the bit where the main characters get into a huge fight because of a miscommunication or misunderstanding. Fawn & Dag fall in love very early on, and they remain in love with one another throughout the entire series. And more than that, they're partners in the life they're building together.

The story is a bit slow at times, largely because as they travel around, their story needs to be told over and over again to the new people they meet. And since the telling varies, and the tale has a large impact on the people they meet, you get to hear it over and over again. This was exacerbated for me by listening to the audiobook, which meant that I couldn't just skip over bits the way I usually would. On the other hand, the action does move pretty quick once it gets going, and there was one scene near the end that gave me the shaking horrors. It certainly isn't just about repeating the same themes over and over!

One of the things I enjoyed most about this was the exploration of being both valued and loved in a relationship. Fawn is loved but not valued by her family, and the result is stifling. Dag on the other hand is valued, but not loved. The effect on their personalities once they fall in love with one another of being both loved and valued by someone whom you love and value is transcendent.

Overall a great story - wonderful love story, excellent action, and a very interesting world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Bone Key - Sarah Monette

I've been in love with Sarah Monette since I first read her Doctrine of Labyrinths series. The Bone Key is totally different, but completely awesome. It is a series of short stories about Kyle Murchison Booth - a reclusive museum archivist, specialist in rare books and necromantic mysteries. He isn't good at interacting with other people, but he can't always avoid them.

Inspired by HP Lovecraft and MR James, these stories are tinged with the same sort of horror, but contain characters you actually care about - sometimes even the scary ones. If you love Lovecraft's stories, you'll find this even better.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Elegy Beach - Steven R Boyett

I enjoyed Ariel (which is the first book of the Change), but I really loved Elegy Beach. It is a sequel, but not the standard sort of a sequel. The main character in Elegy Beach is Pete's son Fred (named after Pete's sword, which is totally awesome since you know exactly how much that sword meant to Pete, and just how whimsically he named it). Fred of course was born after the change, and his whole generation see the world through vastly different eyes than their parents. Fred is quite a good sorcerer, as is his good friend Yan, although Yan isn't exactly good. Yan wants power, and he doesn't particularly care about hurting other folks in order to get it. He has also been brought up on stories of life before the Change, and desperately wants to experience that world.

This winds up being a great adventure story. We get to find out what happened to Pete & Ariel after the end of their story, and the world of the Change starts to make a lot more sense than it did originally, but I really think that it is the little things about this story that make it amazing. The sea serpents mating in the ocean, Yan having a poster of the first moonlanding on his bedroom wall, the surfliner railway car that Fred & Yan turn into a home, potions brewed up over a camp stove and stored in a thermos, 'Ariel' the book showing up in this story - written by Pete, published by someone who stumbled across the manuscript and turned into an instant hit. One of my absolute favorite things is the centaur funeral custom: telling stories about people that other people have lost.

I only read this because John Scalzi wrote about it so glowingly (and the description of the book written by Steven Boyett sounded interesting too). I picked up a copy of Ariel based on that recommendation, and was a little disappointed, but reading Elegy Beach made it up to me. It isn't perfect, there are enough little details not quite right about the world to jolt me out of full immersion, but there are more than enough totally awesome bits to make it totally worth reading.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold

Recommended by Jo Walton over on There are so many thing I love about this book that it is hard to know where to start. First of, Caz is a wonderful main character. To begin with, he's not a teenager, he's 35 (ironically so am I, which is probably why this appeals to me), he's very mature, and he has a lot of life experience. He started out in life as mid-level nobility, then spent years as a soldier and commander, sold as a slave as the result of an 'error', and now reduced to begging for a place in the noble household where he once served as a page. Somehow this hasn't soured him, he is still an extremely lovable character. It is easy to see why the other characters trust and value him so highly, and at the same time also easy to see why he undervalues himself.

Next, there is the religion. In a world where religion is such a powerful force, it would be easy to have characters with little or no free will, but that is definitely not the case here. There are 5 gods (Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) who can't interact with the physical world except by working through people. And they can only work through people who allow them to do so, and even then they are limited by the abilities of those people, including their ability to open themselves up to the gods will. While people who interact directly with the gods are (mostly) revered, their personal experiences are not always positive. Being touched by the gods isn't easy. On top of that, not everyone believes in all the gods - there is a faction (called the Quadrene heresy by the characters in this story) which doesn't believe in the Bastard, although it is entirely clear to everyone who does believe in him that he exists - but you can't have a personal experience of a god you don't believe in, so they continue to disbelieve. I'm not entirely sure why, but I find this extremely cool.

Then there's the story itself, which is awesome. There's a curse (obviously), devious political plots, the coming of age of a princess, a couple totally awesome love stories, exciting chase scenes, all that good stuff.

Finally, I think what makes me absolutely love this book was the characters and their motivations. The world is consistent - you can see how political and social structures have come to be. The characters are well motivated - at no point are their actions contrived. Actions all have reasonable consequences.

This book totally blew me away, and I'm already working my way through several more of Bujold's novels.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lady of Mazes - Karl Schroeder

This is a sort of prequel to Ventus, in that Ventus is dealing with events following the destruction of the rogue AI 3340, and Lady of Mazes includes the birth 0f 3340, but it is mostly an exploration of what it means to be human, and what can happen when you layer virtual reality on top of reality to the point that your body and your consciousness are no longer necessarily in the same place. When you can create virtual versions of yourself, so real that your friends will happily interact with them as if they were you - to the point of getting upset if they don't always have a personal version of you available (in much the same way that everyone is constantly available on their cell these days, except that your cell is being answered by a machine so sophisticated that very few people even care about the difference). Obviously you need to synch up with your alternates frequently enough that you aren't caught totally offguard.

Inscape is a technology that allows you to see the world exactly as you wish, and also causes the world to react to your wishes. You'll never be cold or hungry or lonely, your friends (or copies of them at any rate) are always with you. Life without inscape, as Livia Kodaly discovers following a tour bus accident, is terrifying, difficult, and enough to make the average person simply give up.

Livia's world of Teven Coronal uses "Tech Locks" to create regions of consensual realities called manifolds where only previously agreed-upon levels of technology will operate. Her own manifold of Westerhaven has a relatively high level of technology, however she has visited adjacent manifolds which are quite primitive, even by our standards. While she is visiting, her own high tech will refuse to work for her.

The accident, it turns out, was a warning of worse things to come. Some force is trying to destroy the tech locks and force all technology to be freely available to all people - destroying the manifolds and their way of life in the process. In an effort to get help, Livia and some friends travel beyond the world of Teven Coronal and discover the world of the Archipelago - also occupied by people originally from Earth, also reliant on inscape technology, but without tech locks and with a very different system of government. In this crazy new world of totally unlimited possibility, people have come to rely on AIs, residing within inscape, to craft personal narratives in order to keep everyone sane and happy. Life is virtually meaningless, nothing new is being created, but people's perceptions of their own lives are as full of wonderful things as possible. The dangers of something like this are insidious, and difficult to perceive, and the people of the Archipelago are fascinated by Livia and her life in Westerhaven.

The actual story is fairly interesting - political intrigue in a world without geographical boundaries, battles against technology designed by ourselves to protect and shield us from reality, the possibility of using humans linked together in virtual reality as elements of an incredible artificial intelligence. There's a lot of stuff going on, but I found things were often too bizarre for me to completely follow. Perhaps re-reading would help, but I'm not really in love with the characters enough to do that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson

This is the sequel to Count Zero, and continues the story begun there and wraps up a few loose ends from Neuromancer. While I'm glad I read this, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Neuromancer. There are four separate storylines going on here: Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza chief who has been sent to London to avoid a Yakuza war; Slick Henry in Dog Solitude who is creating some fairly extreme artwork while recovering from the mind-warping treatment he received in prison; Mona Lisa, so poor that she fell through the cracks virtually at birth, with an uncanny resemblance to the sim-start Angie Mitchell; and finally Angie Mitchell herself - recovering from a drug addiction and searching for Count Zero - who she broke up with a while back.

It is a great story, and I think I would get more out of it if I were to sit down and read all three books back to back. Because the setting is so unusual, it is pretty easy to get the picture in your head wrong and miss important things. One of the things I find hardest to wrap my mind around is Gibson's vision of cyberspace. I'm trying to draw an analogy with the Internet as we know it today, but it is completely different. Ordinary people don't have access to it. Fax machines are ubiquitous (and deliver the morning news - apparently for free) but no one has email, or smart phones. Cyberspace is really a place, with its own inhabitants, and the equipment used to get there doesn't seem easy to come by. I think my main problem with these books is a failure to grasp exactly what Gibson envisions cyberspace to be...and since it is very central to the whole plot...that makes things tricky. I need to re-read these books while being very careful not to conflate Gibson's cyberspace with the internet.

That being said, I love the idea of sim-stars. Angie Mitchell records her entire sensorium and people can play it back to experience exactly what she did while it was being recorded. The incredible contrast between Mona Lisa's life and Angie's is almost overwhelming, and then when you realize that what Mona does for fun is to experience Angie's life via is a bit mind-blowing. That said, I think I enjoyed the setting and the characters more than the actual story.