Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Farthest Shore


Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 11/12/2018, Reviewed 11/12/2018
3 stars

This is the third book of the original Earthsea Trilogy.  It’s by far the toughest of the three books.  It spends a lot of time on the difficult journey of the two main characters and poses philosophical questions about life and death.  I had a much tougher time getting into the story and the characters than I did in the first two books.  I even had a tough time with the prose.  It felt like LeGuin was trying too hard to write an ultimate conclusion to the trilogy. 

Taking place quite a while after “The Tombs of Atuan”, magic and true names seem to be disappearing from Earthsea.  Mages in different parts of the archipelago are being ostracized or going insane from their inability to use magic or invoke true names.  Sparrowhawk, now an Archmage, goes on a quest to find the source of the evil and put a stop to it.  He takes along Arren, a young prince, as his companion, for Sparrowhawk has foreseen that it is necessary to bring him along.  Their quest takes them on a journey to the farthest shore at the end of the world where they must confront the ultimate evil.

The book is told from Arren’s point of view.  Like the main characters of the previous two books, Arren is young.  He is filled with angst, not normal teen angst, but an existential angst that throws into question his decision to follow Sparrowhawk.  He questions the use and non-use of magic in small things like conjuring of winds to push their boat along all the way up to the granting of eternal life.  He despairs in the middle of the journey, questioning Sparrowhawk’s sanity, but then is filled with hope and loyalty as he comes to his senses. 

Sparrowhawk is now an old man.  He’s no longer the brash, young apprentice as in the first book, nor the well-humored mentor of the second book.  Here, he’s quiet and introspective, not saying much unless he is prodded by Arren.  And that’s a shame, because he’s not as interesting in this novel as he was in the first two.  And for all his angst, I don’t feel like Arren is that interesting either.  Maybe it’s because their journey is so long and relatively uneventful. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  Like the previous two books, it is low on plot, but this one is high on philosophy, which I found to be a bit of a slog.  It seems like blasphemy to give LeGuin three stars, but not every book can be a home run.  Despite not caring much for this book, I’m still looking forward to the next three because they were written so much later.  It will be interesting to see where she goes with the next books.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Scardust


Suzanne van Rooyen
Completed 11/10/2018, Reviewed 11/11/2018
3 stars

I read this book because I saw a friend of mine reading it on Goodreads, it was inexpensive on Amazon, and it featured a science fiction M/M romance.  It had a lot of good imagery, and the prose was decent.  For some reason though, I couldn’t get engrossed in the story.  I read it feeling somewhat removed from the action.  I tried to let the characters get into my head, but they just wouldn’t stick.  In the end, I thought it was okay, but nothing earthshattering.


Raleigh Williams is a nineteen-year-old man in Dead Rock, Texas in the near future.  Before his brother committed suicide, Raleigh promised him he would scatter his ashes on Mars.  Now he wants to get accepted into the MarsLife program to follow through with his promise.  The only thing holding him back is his juvie record and money.  He’s saving money for the entrance exam by turning tricks with the truckers passing through town.  One night, he is nearly missed by a falling meteor.  He investigates the crash site and finds a naked man with swirls all over his body.  When the strange man wakes up, he finds he can’t remember his name or his past.  Raleigh names him Crow.  Together they try to find out who Crow is, heal Raleigh’s past, and slowly but surely fall in love. 

The plot is interesting.  It plays a lot with the concept of reality, and you constantly question whether Crow is an alien, an artificial intelligence, or a human.  He seems human, and is falling in love with Raleigh, but strange things keep happening, like his eyes shine purple and he heals instantly.  The stakes rise when it appears that they are being hunted by people in black, non-descript SUVs.  They say they are from homeland security, but they act a lot more nefariously than your average government agent. 

The characterization is pretty good as well.  Raleigh is a broken fellow.  He’s been in juvenile detention for beating up the sheriff’s son, and of course, the sheriff’s son had been harassing and bullying Raleigh for years.  Besides that, he has terrible self-esteem for being a sex worker.  He believes his is unlovable, that no one would want someone with his history, or that anyone who was interested in him would be trying to fix him.  So he loses either way.  With Crow, it’s different.  Crow seems to be the only person who might be able to pull him out of this downward spiral he’s on.  However, falling in love doesn’t jive with Raleigh’s plan to become an astronaut and get his brother’s ashes to Mars.  That’s one more monkey wrench in the burgeoning romance between the two.

The book is told in alternating POV between Crow and Raleigh.  Normally, this should let the reader really get into the heads of the main characters.  For me, it didn’t work.  I still felt third person-ish throughout the book, like I was removed from the situation.  It made the development of the romance seem to take forever, most of the book in fact.  But then the big twist in the end is pretty satisfying and in the last thirty or so pages, I was able to connect. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  The pros offset my disconnectedness from the characters.  All in all, it was a good book, just not very riveting until the end. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Arabella of Mars


David D. Levine
Completed 11/06/2018, Reviewed 11/06/2018
3 stars

This was a fun little novel with regency era and steampunk flavoring.  It harkens back to older science fiction where there is air in space between the planets and space travel is accomplished with boats that can sail the interplanetary distances in relatively short amounts of time.  Mars has a British colony, not unlike India where the Brits own and cultivate the land and the native Martians are relegated to servant and nanny positions.  And the Napoleonic Wars occur in space as well as on Earth.  The book is pretty well written, but this is basically a fluff novel with little substance.

The year is 1813 and sixteen-year-old Arabella lives on Mars on her father’s plantation.  After playing on the Martian plains in her Martian trousers, Arabella sustains a slight head injury.  Her mother takes extreme issue with the way she is not being brought up as a proper young English lady should and brings her and her sisters back to Earth.  While on Earth, her father back on Mars dies suddenly, leaving her beloved brother Michael to run the family business.  She is sent to a cousin’s house to grieve.  Her cousin Simon gets a wild idea to murder Michael to steal the inheritance.  To stop Simon, she poses as a boy and gets a job as an airman aboard the Diana bound for Mars.  Can she hide her gender among these rough and tumble airmen long enough to make it back to Mars and save her brother?

There are some spoilers in this paragraph, so be forewarned.  Arabella is a good character, but a bit of a Mary Sue, that is, an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character.  She’s a tomboy, the only girl breaking out of the English lady mold that all the other woman are stuck in.  She’s smart, creative, adventurous, and understands the inner workings of automatons, which is a hobby of her father.  It’s that knowledge of automatons that gets her the job on the Diana.  Even though times are tough, everything she touches seems to turn to gold, even single-handedly stopping a mutiny.  She seems to constantly save the day.  It requires a lot of willing suspension of disbelief that one person can have so much good luck.  It gets to the point where you just know that everything is going to work out in the end one way or another, and that was a little disappointing.  She doesn’t have much of a growth arc, but I still liked her.

The plot itself is pretty good as well.  The time on Mars and on Earth were interesting and often exciting.  My biggest complaint was that I thought much of her time aboard the Diana was boring.  It is filled with details of ship sailing that might excite other people, but didn’t excite me.  A lot of it felt like filler.  Fortunately, it was easy reading.  I am guessing that it harkened back to the pre-SF adventure novels which featured sailing to exotic locations. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s good, but nothing groundbreaking.  The trope of women hiding as men has been done a lot as has the counter-cultural woman in the 19th century.  Still, the book was basically fun, with a simple but exciting ending.  It was easy to guess what was going to happen in the end.  I’d recommend the book as a light, fluff read.    

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Tombs of Atuan


Ursula K LeGuin
Completed 11/3/2018, Reviewed 11/3/2018
4 stars

This is the second book in the Earthsea Cycle.  It’s a standalone novel, though Sparrowhawk from “A Wizard of Earthsea” is a major character.  Again, it’s beautifully written, and this time, there’s a female protagonist.  It again has a theme of good versus evil, but it is subtler in this book.  LeGuin writes subtle very well.  The book is short, the prose is tight and the characterization is really good. 


Tenar is a little girl who is taken at the age of five to be the reincarnation of the High Priestess to the gods of Atuan, the Nameless Ones.  She becomes the Eaten One, gaining a new name Arha.  Being taken at such an early age, she forgets her past life and learns the ways of being a priestess.  She does ritual dances, decides the fates of prisoners, is the sole heir to the catacombs beneath the temple which are guarded by the Nameless Ones.  One day she finds Sparrowhawk in the catacombs.  She locks him in, and reports this treasonous act.  Of course, it is she who must decide his fate.  For some reason, she decides not to kill him, but hides him there, slowly learning about the rest of the world.  Sparrowhawk asks Arha to leave with him, and she must decide if she will stay and let him die, or leave and learn a whole new way to live.

Arha is a wonderful character.  She starts out a simple child.  She is taken in by the priestesses where she learns her new role.  She slowly becomes indoctrinated into the order and becomes as corrupt and ruthless as the other priestesses.  But when Sparrowhawk shows up, she’s intrigued by him.  She slowly comes to realize the futility of her present situation.  It’s amazing how she has this metanoia so believably in such a short book.  It’s a tribute to LeGuin’s power with words and storytelling. 

I don’t have too much else to say about this book.  If I did, I would just be repeating myself from the previous book’s review.  It has the same style and tone.  I’m guessing the next book in the series will also be short, as it was written so quickly after this one.  I give the book four stars out of five. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sacred Band


Joseph D. Carriker Jr.
Completed 11/01/2018, Reviewed 11/02/2018
4 stars

This book is an interesting take on the superhero trope.  It’s set in a world after superheroes have had their heyday.  Now they are not vigilantes making things right.  In fact, they’re trained by the government to control their gifts and live normal lives, having them redirect their gifts towards being productive members of society.  Of course, this doesn’t last long when LGBTQ and other disenfranchised youth start disappearing around the world and nobody else is helping to look for them.  This is a really good first novel by a local Portland author.  Though I thought the writing was a bit weak and some of the dialogue a little hokey, the plot and the humanity of the characters really made up for it. 


The story introduces us to Rusty, a young gay man living in Portland who has a superpower of sensing and manipulating magnetic fields.  He’s called an Echo, someone who has found themselves with a superpower after a strange natural event.  There are lots of Echoes, as strange natural events keep happening around the world.  They are normal like everyone else except for this one power.  Rusty’s best friend is Deosil (pronounced JESH-il), a transgendered woman who has the power to channel the earth’s energy.

There are also Originals, the first twenty-two people with superpowers.  They have multiple powers and are more like Superman.  The last group are the Empowered, people whom the government turned into superheroes.

Everything is basically going fine for Rusty until he realizes that a Facebook friend in the Ukraine has gone missing.  He believes that some terrible fate has befallen him because the Ukraine has been recriminalizing homosexuality and not pursuing the perpetrators of hate crimes.  Rusty enlists the help of Sentinel, a retired Original who also happens to be gay to go clandestinely to the Ukraine to find out what happened to his friend.  What they uncover is far more nefarious and leads to an ultimate showdown of good versus evil. 

What I liked best about the book was the portrayal of the characters.  They were all very human even though they have special powers.  They were all on the LGBTQ spectrum and all had struggled with coming out in some form or another.  Most of them were reluctant heroes as well, not really wanting to be in the spotlight, and certainly not intending to be role models for LGBTQ youth, but ending up that way.  I particularly could identify with Sentinel, whose real name is Mitch.  He’s came out in the eighties when his partner Radiant, another one of the Originals, was killed by an evil Original.  After a terrible media storm, he goes into seclusion trying to live his life as a normal human, until Rusty calls on him to help him in his quest to find the missing Ukrainian man. 

I liked the plot.  It’s very comic-bookish, with lots of action.  You can easily see this being translated into a graphic novel or a film.  But there’s also a lot of world-building and character development.  The first chapter was a little difficult, with a detailed explanation of the origins of the Originals, Empowered, and Echoes.  That’s followed by a fairly long buildup introducing Rusty and Deosil.  But it all works well and is highly readable.  That said, I thought the writing was a little lacking.  The prose was a little too basic, with no real style per se.  It’s told in third person omniscient following Rusty, but it could have been a little tighter with better word choices. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  I had a lot of fun with the book.  The entertainment value helped me forgive the weak prose.  It doesn’t have a tight ending, leaving it open for a sequel, which I would definitely read.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Wizard of Earthsea


Ursula K LeGuin
Completed 10/30/2018, Reviewed 10/30/2018
4 stars

“A Wizard of Earthsea” is the first book in the Earthsea Cycle.  It is a beautiful book about a young magician coming to know himself.  It was written for a young adult audience before YA was a genre.  But it is more than simply a YA novel.  It’s themes of the hero’s journey, good versus evil, and embracing the shadow self speaks to all ages.  It is a fantasy novel without a war or some other “us versus them” trope. 

Duny is a young goat herder on a small island in the Earthsea archipelago.  Duny is his birth name.  As he grows up, he shows a propensity for magic under the tutelage of his aunt, a witch.  During this time, he comes to be known as Sparrowhawk.  But neither Duny nor Sparrowhawk is his true name.  He only finds that out once he becomes an apprentice to the local wizard.  Sparrowhawk however is impatient with the slowness of his studies, so the local wizard sends him to a school for wizards (thirty years before Harry Potter).  There, on a dare, he awakens the ghost of a long dead woman, which also unleashes an evil shadow into the world of the living.  His mission becomes to find and conquer the shadow before it conquers him. 

That is just a barebones overview of the plot.  It is much more textured and nuanced than that.  In typical LeGuin form, the plot is not very exciting save for a battle of wits with a dragon and an enchantress.  Like her much later “Annals of the Western Shore” novels (Gifts, Voices, and Powers), it is heavy on world building and mood.  There is a lot of detail about the nature of magic and the power of words and names.  Magic takes energy and can take its toll on the wielder.  It should not be wielded without understanding the implications of its execution.  For example, stopping a storm in one place can cause a flood somewhere else.  Regarding names, once you know the true name of something, it gives you power over that thing.  It’s all very sophisticated and well developed for such a short book.

The prose is interesting.  It is sparse, but beautiful.  It’s one of those books where you feel like nothing written could be thrown away.  It isn’t full of similes to pad up the novel.  LeGuin simply uses strong nouns and adjectives. 

Being such a short book, there isn’t much character development except for the protagonist.  And even that is minimal.  We don’t really get into the head of Sparrowhawk.  His story is told almost as if performed by a storyteller around a campfire, with a lot of exposition and little dialogue.  Still, it is easy to relate to him as he succumbs to the prodding of a young girl, accepts a dare to show off to his colleagues at wizard school, and wallows in despair as he makes his journey to find the evil shadow.  It’s interesting to note that Sparrowhawk and most of the characters are not white.  LeGuin very subtly made the characters people of color at a time when fantasy was dominated by European derived races. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a classic from which many authors have gotten inspiration, like the Harry Potter series and anything with a school for magic.  I read what was then just the Earthsea Trilogy back in college and loved it.  Rereading this first book, it felt fresh as ever, despite the lack of women in the story.  The second book’s protagonist is female, though.  I really look forward to reading the rest of the cycle, which is now a total of six books. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Wanting Seed


Anthony Burgess
Completed 10/27/2018, Reviewed 10/27/2018
2 stars

I did not like this book.  Written in 1962, it’s a “comedy” about overpopulation and the resulting in a degradation of society: famine, reproductive control, cannibalism, and war.  This is known as a Malthusian comedy, derived from the theories of population versus resources by Thomas Robert Malthus (Yes, I had to look it up, though I did remember it from high school social studies after reading a few sentences about it).  I didn’t find it remotely funny, not even in a satirical sense.  Being nearly sixty years old, this book is full of the prejudices against race and sexuality, using them for satirical purposes, but ends up coming across as racist, sexist, and homophobic. 

The story is set in a dystopian future.  It’s about Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna, a married couple living in an overcrowded world with strict rationing of food, propaganda against having more than one child, and government promotion of homosexuality as a further means of birth control.  Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna’s first child has died.  Now officially, they can’t have any more children.  Beatrice-Joanna is having an affair with Tristram’s brother Derek, who is posing as gay man to advance in the government.  She gets pregnant by him causing a rift in the marriage.  Tristram, a social studies teacher, goes out for a drink, for what passes as alcohol.  He ends up in jail after happening to be at worker’s strike that turns violent.  From there his life goes from bad to worse.  He then escapes from jail, only to be tricked into conscripting with the British Army.

I thought the characters and basic plot were rather soapy and were merely present to convey the message.  No thought was put into making the characters anything but cardboard stiff upper-lip Brits.  Tristram’s experience is Kafkaesque, but it doesn’t have any of the profound absurdity of Kafka’s “The Trial”.  It’s simply tedious.  Beatrice-Joanna is just a character out of a soap opera.  Her life is simply being a wife, mother, or a lover.  Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself considering the time it was written, but she has no depth and nothing else defining her except that she goes for walks and talks to the sea. 

I found the homosexual content of the book to be deeply insulting.  It’s meant to be a joke that the world is promoting homosexuality as a means of birth control.  It implies that it is a choice rather than an orientation.  It’s lumped into the same category as the cannibalistic content of the book.  And once the government falls, the people go crazy sexually, with heterosexual orgies and bizarre fertility rites.  Even Derek, Tristram’s brother, “switches” his sexuality to maintain his position in the new government.  It’s all rather disgusting and I was pretty deeply offended by it.

By the same token, racism is rampant throughout the book as well.  Black, bi- and multi-racial people abound in the book, but they are the butts of the joke as much as the sexuality is.  I think it would have been less offensive if the book had no people of color at all, rather then use them to get a satirical point across.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I don’t think this book could have been published today.  It’s supposed to be satire.  I get that.  But I found it merely offensive.  This is an example of the sort of novel that would be widely read for its scandalous ideas, setting any sort of human rights struggle back fifty years.  I gave it two stars instead of one because at least the prose was decent.