Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fuzzy Sapiens

H. Beam Piper
Completed 7/15/2018, Reviewed 7/15/2018
3 stars

This is the sequel to “Little Fuzzy”.  It begins right after the previous book ends.  It’s better written than the first book, but the story is not quite as interesting.  It’s still a quick read, just not nearly as fun or thought-provoking.  Since it is a sequel, the plot summary has some spoilers, so be aware if you continue reading this review.

The story begins with the building of the new non-corporate government now that the planet’s designation has been changed to Type IV due to the legal decision that Fuzzies are sentient beings.  The corporation that used to run the planet, the CZC, is now trying to transition into being charter-less, that is, it no longer has a monopoly on the planet.  One of the first actions of the new government is to allow the adoption of the Fuzzies by humans.  Of course, everyone wants one.  Interestingly enough, word has spread among the Fuzzies that the Big Ones (humans) are good and will feed and protect them, so they want to be adopted as well.  Even the head of the corporation, Victor, befriends and adopts one.  But the birthing of a new government is not easy, and there are some missing Fuzzies that everyone is looking for. 

I found this book to be a little drier than the first.  It doesn’t feature as much playfulness.  The focus is primarily on the humans, the government, and the CZC.  Much of the page time is devoted to the development and execution of the adoption service, which just isn’t that interesting.  In fact, I felt a little uneasy about the whole adoption thing.  It seems to me that if there are sentient beings, they should be left alone to develop on their own.  Adoption seems patronizing and pet-like rather than respectful of the Fuzzies as their own race.  Maybe I’m too used to the Star Trek Prime Directive for non-interference with indigenous races. 

However, it did seem like the writing was much stronger, less pulpy than the first.  I was surprised at how much easier it was to read this book than the first, even though I found it less interesting. 

While Jack Halloway, the original discoverer of the Fuzzies is still featured in this sequel, Victor is probably the main character.  He makes an easy transition from anti-Fuzzy to pro-Fuzzy.  This happens because he finds a Fuzzy in his bedroom one day, and the Fuzzy takes to him immediately.  Victor is hesitant at first but falls victim to the Fuzzy’s irresistible charms.  I found myself really rooting for him in his transformation. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  There’s a third book that was published about twenty years after the author’s death, though it’s not in e-book format, and at least one other author has continued the Fuzzy stories.  However, I’m looking forward to the Fuzzy reboot by John Scalzi, entitled “Fuzzy Nation”, which I hope to read soon.

Little Fuzzy

H. Beam Piper
Completed 7/14/2018, Reviewed 7/15/2018
4 stars

Little Fuzzy is a classic about the definition of sentient life.  It was nominated for a Hugo back in 1963.  The first paragraph has a lot of technical jargon, but it is not hard science fiction.  It’s a short, easy read that makes you think about how we will determine whether or not alien species are sentient.  I enjoyed it immensely, finding the discovery of the species and the subsequent trial riveting.

Jack Holloway mines sunstones on a distant planet.  He discovers a small, silken-furred native mammal that no one else has seen before on the planet.  The mammal takes to him and Jack to it.  He names him Little Fuzzy and begins to see that the mammal can make tools and learn by watching.  Little Fuzzy even understands the concept of trade.  Soon Little Fuzzy brings his family unit to live with Jack.  He shares his discovery with several others who agree that the Fuzzies are sentient.

The discovery of sentient life on the planet would change the designation from Type III to Type IV.  This has great implications for the corporation that is now basically running the planet.  Once designated as Type IV, the corporation would lose its contract and jurisdiction would turn over to a non-corporate government.  So the corporation does everything possible to discredit Jack.  These result in events that lead to a court case to determine whether the Fuzzies are sentient or not.

There’s a sort of pulp novel quality to the book, but that’s probably because it’s short and Fuzzies are cute.  The cuteness is a little unbelievable at first.  It almost reads like a Disney documentary or a YA novel.  But the reader needs this to learn about the Fuzzies and their skills.  When it moved into the court case, it reminded me of “Inherit the Wind”, the play and film about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial. 

The characters are great.  Jack is particularly fun as the grizzled, seventy-year-old prospector who is the first human to meet a Fuzzy.  He is right out of the old west, but with bigger, more technologically advanced equipment.  The corporate bad guys are just that, a little one dimensional, but it sets up the conflict for the later court case. 

It’s hard to go into much more detail because it is such a short book.  Anything else would give away too much.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s fun and exciting and instantly pleasing.  I think this is a must-read for any science fiction fan to see the early speculation of first contact. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Northern Girl

Elizabeth A. Lynn
Completed 7/14/2018, Reviewed 7/14/2018
4 stars

This is the third of a trilogy, though the books somewhat standalone, similar to Lois McMasters Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series.  I read this book because it has lesbian content although it is fairly low key.  It turned out to be quite a good fantasy, mostly for its political intrigue.  The storyline of the title character is not nearly as exciting, although she is a good character.  I liked the book a lot, finding myself plunged into the drama of the city where it takes place, even though it is not really an action driven story.

The are really two plots to this book.  The first concerns the title character, Sorren.  She is a far-traveler.  That is, she has visions of events from far away places.  Specifically, she has visions of Tornor, a keep in the north, from which her family came generations ago.  She hides this gift because it means she would have to join the White Clan, which consists of witches who have similar magical gifts.  So she stays quiet, working as a bondservant to the Lady Arre Med, cleaning, shopping for the household, and acting as a personal assistant to Arre.  She has a lover, Paxe, the Yardmaster of the Med guards.  Sorren longs to go to the Tornor after her bond service is up when she turns eighteen.  She’s also a drummer, often playing at festivals and for Isak, Arre’s dancer brother. 

The second plot follows the political atmosphere of the city where Sorren lives, Kendra-on-the-Delta.  The Lady Arre is one of the city council members of Kendra.  She discovers that swords, which were banned in the city by the White Clan, are being smuggled in.  This is not only illegal but threatens the stability of the city.  It is already tottering on chaos, with massive brawls occurring with more frequency on the docks.  Arre must find out who is behind this smuggling before the city returns to its violent past. 

I normally don’t like books with political intrigue.  I often find there to be too many secondary characters who I often lose track of.  But I found myself drawn into it easily.  I have to say the world building was great, even though I had not read the first two books in the series.  There was enough description of the city, its races, religion, and social structure that made this book stand alone well. 

I also liked the characters.  The leading characters were all women, some of whom like Arre held positions of power or like Paxe were city guards.  Most especially, I enjoyed the Kadra, a ghya, or hermaphrodite, who was an alcoholic who dreams of returning to the sea.  Sorren befriends her, because she is also a mapmaker, drawing for Sorren a map of the route to the Tornor Keep.  Kadra also acquires a bow for Sorren to help her learn how to shoot, a skill at which the northern peoples are supposed to excel.  While only a minor character, Kadra is fascinating and one of the few people from the town Sorren likes.

The narration of the book is also interesting.  It is told third person from Sorren, Arre, and Pax.  At first, I was a little annoyed by it, because, after all, the book is entitled The Northern Girl.  I thought it should be told from Sorren’s perspective exclusively.  But after I got into the rhythm of the book, I found it flowed very well.  Changing the point of view helped move both plots, giving you the different perspectives from the three very different characters.

I have to say I did not think I’d care for this book when I first picked it up.  It’s rather long, and I thought it would be boring based on the blurbs I’d seen.  But I really enjoyed it, finding it well written and interesting.  I give this book four out of five stars. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Invisible Library

Genevieve Cogman
Completed 7/7/2018, Reviewed 7/7/2018
3 stars

Books about books and libraries are always fun.  This one is no exception.  The Invisible Library is about a librarian who travels to alternate dimensions to find rare books, books that only exist in that one dimension, not across multiple dimensions.  It mixes steampunk, magic, mystery, and chaotic creatures to create a fun, easy reading experience.  It’s not a great book, and for a time after the opening scene, I felt it was a little meh, but it picks up about halfway through and has an exciting climax. 

Irene is the dimension jumping librarian.  She just comes back from one assignment to find she’s immediately given a new one.  Her job is to retrieve a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that has an additional tale that only exists in that one dimension.  On this trip, Irene is given a trainee, Kai.  He has a few secrets up his sleeve that aren’t revealed until much later.  The catch in this assignment is that the dimension they must travel to is imbued with chaos, which draws other creatures like the Fae, vampires, and werewolves. 

The basic premise of the book is great.  It’s no wonder that the author is about to release the fifth book in the series.  It lends itself to a myriad of plots retrieving books from different dimensions.  However, I felt that this book suffered in the beginning with a lot of “start-up” issues.   We spend a lot of time with Irene getting to know Kai and getting started in the alternative dimension.  I’m not big on smash ‘em up action books, but there just isn’t that much action in the beginning.  There’s a murder, but it just isn’t that interesting at first.  It doesn’t come together until a bunch of mind-controlled alligators crash a dinner gala. 

The characterization is good.  Irene is the main character and the best drawn.  She’s smart, gutsy, loyal, and funny.  I was disappointed with rest of the characters.  I thought they were fairly one-dimensional.  There was not much to Kai.  I wonder if he becomes more fleshed out in later novels.  Vale, a Sherlock Holmes-ish inhabitant of the alternate dimension, is almost interesting.  He and Irene have several good scenes together.  Of course, there is a villain and an antagonistic librarian who round out the story. 

One thing I liked about the world that Cogman created was that it was steampunk, but not overly so.  There weren’t a lot of bustles and corsets, and women were often engineers.  While there was a Victorian sensibility to the world-building, with deference to ladies’ sensibilities, it wasn’t chokingly misogynistic.

The book starts off great, slows down some, and then picks up about halfway through.  Overall, I liked the book.  It was fun.  I think people who like mysteries will like the book as well.  I give the book three out of five stars.   

Monday, July 2, 2018

Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Completed 7/2/2018, Reviewed 7/2/2018
4 stars

Kurt Vonnegut has always been one of my favorite authors.  He writes in a very compact style while infusing his work with the darkest of satire.  This early work of his is no different.  Told from a first-person point of view, he recounts the events leading up to the end of the world by a weapon that freezes water up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.  Both easy to read and devastatingly funny, my eyes were continuously wide with amazement at Vonnegut’s sardonic wit. 

Vonnegut tells the tale of a man trying to write a book about the father of the atomic bomb.  In addition to the bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented something called Ice-9, a weapon that if released, would freeze all the water in the world.  The narrator begins his research by contacting the Hoenikker’s surviving children.  His journey leads him to the island of San Lorenzo, where he discovers the eldest Hoenikker, Frank, is the right-hand man of the island’s dictator, “Papa” Monzano.  He also meets the other two children there.  Also on the island is Bokonon, a man who created a religion to replace the Christianity that devasted the place.  Through a series of improbably events, Ice-9 is released, ending the world as we know it.

Written over fifty years ago, the book has a cold war feeling to it, even though it is not specifically about the cold war.  It also has some recollections of WWII, which Vonnegut took part in and was forever molded into an anti-war activist.  Still, it is very relevant to today, citing the stupidity of man in just about every character in the book. 

What I liked best about the book is the narration.  The unnamed narrator is very dry and very aware.  He listens to the self-involved people around him, and rather than engaging, his main response to their ramblings is “Huh”, emphasizing their self-absorbed delusions to the reader.  Frank Hoenikker likes his style so much, noting that he likes the “cut of his jib”, that he offers the narrator the island’s presidency on the eve of “Papa’s” death.  The narrator never loses his cool until late in the book, with the first small release of Ice-9. 

As I mentioned before, the writing style is compact, yet it is stuffed with satire on cold war Americans.  It makes for very easy reading and makes one appreciative of its terseness.  Unlike a lot of the fantasy I’ve read lately, there isn’t a whole lot of prose to complicate the dialogue. He gets right to the point with the plot and characters.

The characters aside from the narrator are wonderfully one-dimensional, very 1950s suburban blandness.  They don’t have to say much to give you an idea of how shallow they are.  In a way, they reminded me of Salinger’s Glass family from “Franny and Zooey” and other stories, in a word, narcissistic.  As an introvert, it’s how I see most of the people I come across in daily life.  It made me really identify with the narrator.

Vonnegut’s commentary on religion is also priceless.  Two men, Bokonon and McCabe, create a religion based on lies.  McCabe, who rules the island before “Papa”, sets up Bokonon as a traitor, because nothing spreads a religion more than adversity.  Bokonon basically becomes a messiah and all the inhabitants become Bokononians.

The story is science fiction in its plot with Ice-9, but the book is so much more than that.  It is a satire on humanity, revealing the banality of the average person in a world on the brink of destruction.  I give this book four out of five stars. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Luck in the Shadows

Lynn Flewelling
Completed 6/30/2018, Reviewed 6/30/2018
3 stars

This is the first of a series of fantasy novels.  Books three through seven in the series were nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.  This book has only a few hints of the gay content that the later books were acclaimed for.  It is a good book in its own right, weaving a tale of magic, mentorship, thieving, and spying.  It has good world building and spends a lot of time introducing the characters.  It’s a good, enjoyable book, but slow on the uptake.

The primary strength of the book is the world building.  The countries, the gods, the queen and her dynasty, and the elves all make for decent story telling.  What it lacks is plot.  What plot there is is basically an introduction to the main characters.  Alec is a sixteen-year-old boy wrongly imprisoned for spying.  His cellmate helps him escape and sets him up as an apprentice.  The cellmate, Seregil, is a bard, a thief, and a spy, among other things.  Seregil mentors Alec, helping him become something other than the country bumpkin he is.  Together, they get involved in trying to uncover a plot to overthrow the Queen.

Both Alec and Seregil are very likeable characters.  Alec is quick, smart, and an excellent bowman, even though he can’t read.  Seregil is wonderfully mysterious, full of surprises that are slowly revealed as he reveals himself to Alec.  He is continually much more than he seems.  He has a quick wit that adds humor to the story.  He mentors Alec in his crafts, giving the boy a purpose in life. 

There are several other characters that receive a lot of attention.  Micum is Seregil’s friend and part-time cohort.  At one point in their past, Seregil fell in love with Micum, although the latter chose to marry a woman instead.  Nysander is also Seregil’s friend and former mentor.  He’s a wizened wizard who has close ties to the Queen’s court.  He is kind of a Gandalf-ish sort of character who also has a sense of humor.  Micum and Nysander also help in mentoring Alec a little, each taking him under their wing at various times. 

One thing that is very interesting about the book is that the author lets women have strong roles.  Specifically, women get to be soldiers.  Also, the royalty is matrilineal.  The land is ruled by the Queen, and upon her death, the eldest daughter takes the throne.  Thus, there are numerous women showing up as supporting characters in the novel.  So it’s not just a sausage fest of the four male main characters.  And I have to say that most of the characters are very multi-dimensional.   You get the sense that they are real people. 

The book is good, but it’s a slow burn.  There are several subplots running through the story and only one of them has much resolution.  The rest are all setups for the remainder of the series.  At times I didn’t mind it because it allowed for good character development, but it also dragged in the second half.  I give this book three stars out of five. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sea, Swallow Me

Craig Laurance Gidney
Completed 6/20/2018, Reviewed 6/24/2018
4 stars

This is a collection of short stories which was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror.  Most of the stories would fall into the Fantasy category, and perhaps under the subheading of Urban Fantasy.  Almost all have to do with some sort of spiritual or mystical experience.  The prose is absolutely beautiful and the characters developed nicely for short stories.  The protagonists are mostly gay and/or black, with a few exceptions being a young Buddhist monk in a monastery, and a white Frenchman.  It’s a wonderful collection that I was glad to finally get around to. 

I really liked all the stories, but here are a few that I though stood out from the rest.

Her Spirit Hovering – This is about Howard, a young man longing to be a famous artist.  He has a mother who disapproved of almost everything in Howard’s life: his art, an Indian girlfriend, a white boyfriend, living in the city.  Howard carries her around in his head, even after she dies.

Come Join Me – Aime is a young boy who after a long spell of what sounds like the flu develops the ability to see dead people.  First, he sees relatives, later, all the people from the town he’s growing up in who came before him, particularly African and Native American people.  The last member of his family to have this gift killed herself because the voice of the dead people calling to her was so strong.  Will Aime suffer the same fate?

Sea, Swallow Me – The titular story is about a man on a tropical vacation who leaves his resort to experience the local flavor of the native peoples.  He comes across a village that is having some sort of religious experience with the Sea.  He follows, only to become trapped in their ritual.

Circus Boy Without a Safety Net – CB becomes obsessed with Lena Horne after watching the movie version of “The Wiz”, becoming his patron saint.  His parents of course disapproved when they found black Barbie-like dolls in gorgeous glitter gowns hidden in his closet.  In response, CB joins the church choir, where his talent for singing shines.  Despite all this hiding, the question becomes, will he ever be able to come out. 

A Bird of Ice – This story is about a young Buddhist monk who lives in a monastery.  One day he saves a swan from freezing in the river.  It turns out the swan is really a spirit who has fallen in love with him.  The young monk must decide if he will let himself love the spirit back. 

Catch Him by the Toe – A dark tale about the town of Azalea when the circus comes to town.  One of the acts is Sambo, an African Tiger Tamer, and Simba, the tiger he tames.  When Simba gets loose, fear grips the town and they descend to their basest instincts in resolving the problem.

Well, I guess that’s most of the stories.  I think what this says is that the stories really stuck with me.  I give this book four out of five stars.  The stories are haunting and deliciously prosy.  The collection is short, only about two hundred pages for nine stories.  Well worth the time to become acquainted with this excellent young voice in the fantasy genre.