Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Half a Crown


Jo Walton
Completed 6/29/2020, Reviewed 6/30/2020
4 stars

This is the third book in the Small Change trilogy, which began with Farthing and was followed by Ha’penny.  It’s another book that by the middle, I could not put it down.  This one began a little slowly, but picked up quickly.  It takes place ten years after the last book.  It still features Investigator Peter Carmichael who is now head of the British equivalent of the Gestapo and his ward, Elvira, the daughter of another policeman who was killed in the first book.  This being the end of the trilogy, everything that had been percolating in the previous books finally comes to a dramatic head.  The book didn’t win any awards but was nominated for several, including two in other countries.


Though Carmichael is head of the Watch, he is part of a secret network inside and outside the Watch to get Jews out of the country.  There is a peace conference scheduled to take place in London between the fascist prime minister Normanby, Hitler, and the royal prince of Japan, the representatives of the three superpowers.  All eyes are on London and it is Carmichael’s job to keep the city under control.  At the same time, Elvira and her best friend Betsy are about to make their coming out as debutantes.  About a week before the conference, the two of them go to a rally with Lord Alan, a friend of Betsy’s family.  A riot ensues.  Betsy breaks her arm and Elvira is arrested.  Elvira is treated terribly, being pumped for information she doesn’t have.  Carmichael gets her out, but it is only the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare for both of them that culminates in a dramatic opening of the peace conference. 

The book has the same form as the previous two.  It is told by two narrators, Elvira in first person, and third person from Carmichael’s perspective.  It is Elvira’s narrative that begins at a slow pace.  Although very smart (she’s been accepted at Oxford), she’s still rather a bubble-headed debutante.  But her story becomes very interesting.  Her mother abandoned her at the age of six and her father was killed when she was eight.  Carmichael raises her to be a proper lady even though her mentor, Betsy’s mother, considers her guttertrash.  Still, she transcends the slights and focuses on position and future.  She has little mind for politics and though disturbing, her upper-class mentality makes her arrest and detention almost comical.  But as the story continues, she becomes more aware of the state of the country and begins her own unlikely fight against fascism.

Carmichael is again a great character.  His relationship with is partner Jack is more detailed in this book than in the others.  Even though Elvira lived with them, he and Jack kept their relationship a secret from her, as they did from the rest of the world.  Still, the prime minister and the head of Scotland Yard know about him and Jack and use that to manipulate him, as they have since the end of the first book.  Somehow, Carmichael stays sane balancing being a substitute father, a husband, the head of the Watch, and the head of the secret movement to get persecuted Jews out of the country.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The writing is prosy, but tight and the dialogue realistic.  The unveiling of events is riveting.  On my second day of reading, I could barely put the book down.  I stayed up too late to finish it, and way to late to write this review.  I have to say as a whole, the trilogy is tremendous.  It’s well thought out and has a dramatic conclusion.  I love Jo Walton’s writing and am looking forward to her most recent trilogy, the first of which I’ve already picked up on sale. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Motherlines


Suzy McKee Charnas
Completed 6/28/2020, Reviewed 6/28/2020
3 stars

I had heard better things about this book than the first in the series, Walk to the End of the World.  It’s certainly different in how it’s written and it’s about a women’s dystopia rather than that of men.  But I felt it suffered from several issues, most notably, a boring plot.  It follows the character Alldera from the first book as she discovers tribes of women and free fems out beyond the Wild.  The world building is pretty great and the prose is generally decent.  However, I just couldn’t get involved with the characters, much like the first book.  Even though Alldera was in the focus of the book, I couldn’t identify with her.  Nonetheless, this is the second book of the Holdcraft Chronicles which is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame and a Sideways retro award winner. 

Alldera, the fem slave from the first book, runs away from Holdfast as it plunges into civil war.  She makes her way through the Wild searching for the tribe of escaped fems that are purported to be somewhere out west.  She finds herself pregnant by one of her captors who raped her as she bravely makes her way alone in the wilderness.  She spies monsters, two-headed four-legged creatures that pursue her.  She discovers they are women on horses.  They bring her back to their tribe to nurse her back to health and help her deliver her child.  She is told the women are descendants of a group of women who were genetically modified to be able to bear children without men.  But when Alldera discovers how the pregnancies are activated, she runs off to the find the free fems.  They, however, are quite dysfunctional, almost recreating the negative, unhealthy environment that they escaped from.  Alldera has no choice but to try to reconcile the two tribes and try to bring out the best between them.

One of the biggest problems with the first book was the exposition.  This book doesn’t have quite the same problem.  It introduces the two cultures a little more organically.  Only a few times does story devolve into info dumping.  Still, I could not get immersed in the story.  I could never see where the book wanted to take me until the very end.  It was more slice of life rather than a strongly plotted story. 

Another problem was the characterization.  I didn’t care for any of the characters.  Some were benevolent, some were mean, but they all felt very two-dimensional.  And even though the story was told in third person mostly from the point of view Alldera, I didn’t feel like she was fleshed out.  It seemed she had no emotions, as if she were disaffected.  Granted, she was on guard through much of the beginning of the book, as you’d expect from someone who suffered intense abuse and then was put into a somewhat healthier environment.  But she never comes out of it.  She grows attached to some of the women she has sexual relationships with, but even that didn’t draw me in. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  Like the first book, the world-building was phenomenal.  I thought Charnas’ creation of two dystopias and trying to make a utopia out of their combination was great.  The prose was also good, with lush descriptions of a harsh plains environment.  I just couldn’t care enough about the main character or any of the other secondary characters.  Like Alldera, I almost felt a disassociation with book.  Sticking with it was tough, even though I had long sessions with it.  But, this is considered a classic of feminist lesbian science fiction, and I’m glad I read it.  However, I’m probably not going to read the rest of the series, which Charnas finally completed thirty years after these first two books were published. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Ha’penny


Jo Walton
Completed 6/26/2020, Reviewed 6/26/2020
4 stars

This is another amazing book in the Small Change trilogy.  Like it’s predecessor Farthing, it’s a mystery set in an alternative England where it is allied with the victorious Nazis in 1949.  This one didn’t have me as enthralled as the first book.  I thought the pacing was a little slow in the middle, but it’s still a mostly riveting read.  Where this book really excelled was in the characterization.  I thought Viola Lark, one of the two narrators, was brilliantly depicted.  I think I also really liked it because it was about theater people, and I love the theater.  This book was nominated for multiple awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2008, and won the Prometheus Award the same year. 

The book starts out shortly after the end of the previous one.  An actress and another person are killed when a bomb goes off in her house.  It’s quickly established that bomb was being assembled there and went off accidently.  Scotland Yard Investigator Peter Carmichael is once again called in to investigate.  It turns out the actress was supposed to be in a new production of Hamlet in London.  The story also follows Viola, who is tapped to play Hamlet in the same gender-bending production.  It turns out Viola has a familial connection to this bombing.  In addition, Hitler, Himmler, and the new fascist prime minister Normanby are scheduled to attend the opening night.  Carmichael can see what’s going on, but it is up to him to get the evidence and put the pieces together before the deadly night.

The story is once again told through two narratives, Viola’s and Carmichael’s.  In Viola’s first-person narrative, she tells the story of how she came to find out the connections her family has to the bombings and to Hitler, as well as the progression of the play.  With Carmichael, we get another third-person police procedural, but this time, there’s more emphasis on his personal relationship with his partner, who poses as his manservant to try to obfuscate their gay identities.  Both narratives are told extremely well, although, as I mentioned above, I thought it got a little slow in the middle, particularly in Viola’s story.  However, her transformation from politically ignorant to awareness is what kept me going through that part. 

Carmichael is also really well developed as he copes with the despair and hopelessness from the last case and the hopelessness of being gay in a country that is becoming more fascist.  There’s more interaction with his partner Jack, though he spends so much time on the case, we don’t get to see as much of Jack as I’d like. 

The book is still terrifying in its depiction of a world where Jews, homosexuals, and other undesirables are made scapegoats and are brutally treated.  There’s even a law which suspends constitutionally guaranteed rights in order to round up people without trial.  Jews are sent back to continental Europe, which is completely occupied by the Nazis, because “they know how to take care of them there.”  It’s all very chilling and poignant given what’s going on in the USA today. 

I give this book four stars out of five, that’s one less star than its predecessor, because of the lost pacing in the middle.  But other than that, it’s a fine book with terrific prose and realistic dialogue.  I’m going to take a break again and read another book before getting to the last entry in the trilogy, mostly to chill after the very suspenseful, thought-provoking ending.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Walk to the End of the World


Suzy McKee Charnas
Completed 6/22/2020, Reviewed 6/22/2020
3 stars

This is the first dystopian novel I’ve read in a long time where men dominate women.  And it’s the first one I’ve read from the point of view of the men.  It takes place many years after nuclear war and women are treated as property, slaves, and even as pets.  It’s disturbing as hell.  Unfortunately, the message was lost in the writing style of the book; it was non-stop exposition.  I continually lost the plot because either a character or the third person omniscient narrator always seemed to go back in time to explain some aspect of a character’s life or some point in the history of how the world got to this point.  Nonetheless, this book plus its sequels, together known as “The Holdfast Chronicles”, is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame.  This book plus its first sequel, together known as “The Slave and the Free”, won an Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree Award) retrospective honor. 

The plot is fairly simple.  In the future white men dominate a nearly barren world.  Women, called “fems”, are kept as slaves or pets.  All other racial and ethnic minorites had been wiped out shortly after the nuclear holocaust.  The men are divided into boys, Juniors, and Seniors with a strict hierarchy meant to keep peace amongst themselves.  Servan, a rebel Junior, and a captain who refuses to integrate into the Seniors, take a third man, Eykar, another Junior, to find his father.  It is a rule that fathers do not know their sons and vice versa because of the belief in inter-generational war.  They are trying to find Eykar’s father because he believes he is trying to kill him.  On the way, Alldera, a fem, is acquired and accompanies this trio.  Through this journey, this crazy world unfolds in horrific ways. 

The book is told sequentially from four perspectives, that of each of the above four characters.  First, it’s told from the captain’s POV, then from Servan’s, then Eykar’s, and finally from Alldera’s.  But really, it’s about the lives of the men in this terrible world.  Boy children, cubs, are taken from fems at birth and put into what amounts to orphanages where they are taught the culture and protocol of this men’s world.  Later as Juniors, they work for a corporation, though we don’t really know much about that.  Then as a Senior, they have more control over direction of society.  Relationships are between men and only allowed between those of the same group.  There are to be no inter-generational relationships, although they do occur between Juniors and Seniors.  Sex with fems is not necessarily forbidden, but a man can accuse a fem of bewitching him and have her burned at the stake.  Even though the three men in our group are very much products of this society, they are basically outsiders due to the damage they suffered as children and as Juniors. 

We do get a lot of scenes depicting the abuse of the fems and a sense of their daily life through the travels of the group.  The suffer all forms of abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual.  It’s all deplorable, but it’s mostly indirect, since it’s seen through the eyes of the three men for the majority of the book.  When we finally get to Alldera’s perspective, we mostly see how she perceives the men.  Towards the end, we find out that there might be free fems living in The Wilds, but we don’t know that for sure in this book.   

I give the book three stars out of five.  This is was not a pleasant read for me for three reasons:  the treatment of women, the continuous exposition, and the jargon.  The first two, I’ve already discussed.  With respect to jargon, there were many words used that I never fully grasped.  One such word, a Rover, at first I thought was a dog, then a guard dog, then a human guard, then some sort of sub-human male guard.  If I understood what the jargon meant, I think I would have appreciated the world building and the prose a lot more.  In fact, the prose and world building were really quite phenomenal.  But they were lost on me because of the three problems described above.   I think this could have been four-star book if it wasn’t for these three problems. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Farthing


Jo Walton
Completed 6/19/2020, Reviewed 6/19/2020
5 stars

I had only read three books by Jo Walton, but she was one of my favorite authors.  It seemed she could do no wrong.  This book confirms that for me.  It was terrific, a powerful tour de force, and it’s only the first book in the Small Change trilogy.  It takes place in an alternative 1949 England where the country has made peace with the Nazi empire that won World War II and occupies continental Europe.  There is extreme prejudice against the Jews in England and a fascist regime seems to be on the horizon.  It’s a very appropriate read for what’s happening in the U.S. today, the whole “it can’t happen here” mentality as echoes of fascism creep into the government.  It affected me intensely and I could barely put the book down to sleep last night.  This book was nominated for multiple awards including the Nebula in 2006.


The story begins on a manor in England where a wealthy family is having a large party.  The family is part of a political force, the Farthing Set, that is on the verge of coming into power in the government.  Overnight, one of the guests, the Minister of Education, and possible future Chancellor is murdered.  Scotland Yard is called in, and it appears that David Kahn, the Jewish husband of the daughter of the family may be the killer.  However, Peter Carmichael, the inspector, believes it is a setup, as does Lucy, David’s wife, and that the real killer is one of the Farthing Set themselves.  The race is on to figure out who the real killer is before David is found guilty by the mere fact that he is a Jew who was at the party.

The book is basically a murder mystery.  The evidence points to David, but it is all way to obvious.  No murderer would leave behind the clues that are found at the murder site.  Fortunately, Inspector Peter is on the ball, trying to put other discrepancies together to find out who the real killer is.  But underneath the murder mystery is the frightening reality of England turning into an anti-Semitic clone of Nazi Germany.  It makes for a gripping, frightening read. 

The book is told in chapters alternating between first person Lucy and third person Inspector Peter.  It is a very effective way to follow both the insider’s view of what’s going on and the outsider’s coming to understand it.  The insider’s view begins very British-ly.  It’s all high-brow manners and politics.  Nobody says anything outright; it’s all gossip, innuendo, and the occasional caustic remark.  Although in the case of Lucy’s mother, who hates that David is Jewish, the remarks are more than occasional.  There is also the potential for scandal in that some of the characters are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, all of which in 1949 England is illegal.

The character development is very well done.  Even the minor characters are really well-drawn.  They may be stereotypically British, but they are not just cardboard cutouts.  Inspector Peter is awesome as the detective who knows something else is going on.  He hates the rise of anti-Semitism that’s taking over England, identifying with the Jews as he has his own secrets to hide from the government.  I thought Lucy was going to be irritating as a narrator.  In the beginning, she’s very focused on manners, as are everyone else in the Farthing Set.  But as the murder mystery unfolds, implicating David, she turns out to have quite a good head on her shoulders. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  It starts out very four-star, with excellent writing and wonderful prose.  But as the book progressed, I was deeply affected by the rise of the fascists and the danger to David and Lucy.  It was powerful and horrific.  I couldn’t shake the terrible feelings I had with the ending, finishing the book right before my yoga class, making my practice rather a rather difficult one.  I’m going to read the rest of the trilogy, but I’m going to intersperse it with other books to give myself a break from its intensity.  So I guess it’s kind of a warning.  If you decide to read this book, be prepared for something akin to the rise of power of the Nazis in Germany, but with a British bent.  It’s a quick read, but not an easy one. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Mordred, Bastard Son


Douglas Clegg
Completed 6/18/2020, Reviewed 6/18/2020
4 stars

This is a twist on the story of Mordred from the Arthurian legend.  The author tells you right at the beginning that he plays loose and fast with the legend and does it very well.  In this telling, Mordred is gay, and the story takes you from his childhood to early adulthood.  I really enjoyed this well-written story, with beautiful prose and great characterization.  I was sucked into the story quickly and disheartened to find that the author never wrote the rest of his planned series.  The book is a quick read, and I would have bought the other books.  Normally, Clegg writes horror and suspense, having won several awards in that genre.  This was his first venture into pure fantasy and it got him a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2007. 

The story begins when Morgan is pregnant with Mordred after being raped by Arthur, her half-brother.  There is a prophesy that Mordred will bring down Arthur’s kingdom if allowed to live.  Arthur’s men pursue Morgan, forcing her to leave the castle where she rules as Queen and flee to Gaul.  There she stays with others from Britannia who worship the same goddess and keep the pagan traditions.  Mordred is born and grows up, is tutored by Merlin, and falls in love with his best friend, who does not return his love.  When Morgan disappears and tries to commit suicide, Mordred swears his chastity to three witches in return for his mother’s whereabouts so he can save her.  Eventually he is tempted and forced to a terrible alternative promise that again threatens her life.

The narrative is told in first person by Mordred in a retrospective, relating the story to a young monk who is hiding him from pursuers.  It is mostly prose with some dialogue, though the prose is beautiful to read and keeps the plot going at a good pace.  Being told in first person, we get deep in Mordred’s head, making it easy to empathize with him.  He’s the victim of circumstance, never really understanding his father’s wrath.  He must deal with his mother’s growing despair and depression, basically PTSD after her rape and loss of her role as Queen.  He also struggles with the fact that he seems to be the only gay boy in the tribe where they live.  Though supported by the tribe, he is lonely and wants to experience love as all the other boys of his age do. 

Needless to say, the character development of Mordred is terrific.  So is that of his best friend Lukat, his aunt Morgause, and the wise old woman Vivienne.  Merlin is done well as a sort of super-Druid.  Despite her being central to the beginning of the story, I felt that Morgan Le Fey was the only major character not well developed.  She starts off well, but her spiral into despair and depression just sort of happens quickly.  It’s believable, but it happens in the background.  Lancelot and Guinevere also show up in the book, but not until the end. 

The book is a quick, easy read.  My only real exposure to the Arthurian legend is The Once and Future King, which I read in high school, Camelot, Excalibur, and Tolkien’s brief work The Fall of Arthur.  I never read Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur.  So really, my experience is based mostly on pop culture.  In a way, this was good.  I’m not an Arthurian purist and didn’t have any expectations going into this book.  I was able to enjoy it without thinking, “Hey, that’s not right.”  My only issue with the book is that it ends rather abruptly and the sequel, which should have come out in 2018, was never published.  If it ever does get released, I’ll pretty definitely read it.  I give this book four stars out of five.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Many-Colored Land


Julian May
Completed 6/16/2020, Reviewed 6/16/2020
4 stars

This was a surprisingly good book with one-way time travel, psychic abilities, aliens, and a dash of fantasy.  It uses the common trope of a motley crew of humans who try to overthrow the alien overlords.  I found it started slowly, introducing the large cast of characters, then built up to a better pace as the plot settled.  The cast is very diverse, including different nationalities, a nun, and an unstable lesbian.  This book was written in the early 80’s, so most of the characterizations are a bit stereotypical, but not too bad.  There were a few deep cringes, such as the use of the slang term for the Romani people.  But I felt that the author tried really hard to be inclusive and if she were writing today, she would have done a better job of it.  The book was nominated for a slew of awards and won the Locus Award for Science Fiction. 


In the twenty-second century, humans have settled around the galaxy.  One man on Earth discovered a time machine which successfully transports back six million years to the Pliocene Era, but destroys any living thing trying to come return.  It becomes popular with the misfits of the galaxy as a form of self-imposed exile, looking to start fresh somewhere else, outside the mores imposed by the galactic social structure called the Milieu.  The book begins with (I think it was) eight people, giving their backgrounds and motivation for going back in time.  When they finally do, they find that the Earth has been settled by an alien race that has basically enslaved all the time travelers over the years.  Most of the women are kept as sexual slaves because something about the sun has rendered the female aliens barren, and the aliens are genetically so close to us that sex produces viable offspring.  The aliens use a torc, a sturdy necklace of sorts, to control the humans so that many of them don’t have qualms with life under the alien rule.  But this rag-tag group will have none of that and try to find a way to fight back.

The character development isn’t bad.  Since we get the motivation of the travelers at the beginning of the book, we get a good sense of who they are.  A couple of the characters actually grow in the course of the book.  My favorites were the nun, Amerie, and the lesbian, Felice.  Amerie is burned out from her work as a caregiver for the dying.  She wants to follow her original dream of being a hermit.  She was never accepted into any of the cloistered orders so she feels her one chance to follow that dream is to take the Exile.  Because of her medical background, she becomes the medic for the exiled. 

Felice is an anti-social, hot-headed, former hockey star.  She wants to go because having been fired from the hockey team for violence, she thinks it would be best to live life alone and self-sustaining.  Once in the past, she takes none of the guff of the aliens and is the first to try to plot against them.  Her mission becomes to free all of humanity.  In an interesting development, Amerie becomes one of the few people who can really get through to Felice to temper her violent tendencies.

I found the plot to be both inventive and juvenile.  It’s as if the author kept on throwing things into the mix to come up with something new, but ended up creating something that appeals to the high school sci fi nerd in the reader.  But on the other hand, that’s what I liked about it.  There isn’t much humor in the story, there is a fair amount of violence, and like many stories with a large number of characters, it can be a tad melodramatic.  But it appealed to the less mature, nerdy side of my tastes. 

I give the book four stars out of five because I thought it was very entertaining.  The writing is pretty decent, with good prose.  There’s some exposition, but it was reasonable.  I give it props for having a major lesbian character written by a straight woman forty years ago that’s not man-hating nor falls into a butch/fem role, but she’s definitely aggressive.  What I liked best was that she makes positive contributions to the group despite her temper.  There are three more books in the series.  I don’t know if I’ll get to them or not, but this book ends with only minor resolution, though it’s not a cliffhanger.  You just have to read the next book to find out what happens to half the characters.  I guess that sounds like a cliffhanger, but really, I felt this book ended at a good spot.  And it doesn’t manipulate you to get you to read the next book.  It’s simply that the story continues in the next book.