Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Smoke and Shadows

Tanya Huff
Completed 2/11/2017 Reviewed 2/21/2017
4 stars

“Smoke and Shadows” begins a series by Tanya Huff that follows a supporting character from the Blood novels.  Tony, an ex-junkie and hustler, has gotten clean and sober with the help of vampire Henry and is now working as a production assistant on a Canadian TV series about a vampire detective.  Despite all the inaccuracies, considering he was in a relationship with a vampire, he likes his job.  But strange things begin to happen around the studio.  First he notices that the shadows seem to have a mind of their own.  Then there is a death on set.  And suddenly, Tony is in the middle of his own paranormal investigation.  With Henry and a wizard from another dimension at his side, Tony tries to subvert a takeover from the Shadowlord. 

This is another fluff novel from Tanya Huff.  But I have to say it was very entertaining.  First off, I really liked the meta-scenario of a guy who knows about vampires working on a TV series about a vampire.  The show, “Dark Night”, reminded me of the Canadian syndicated series “Forever Knight” from the 90s.  It wasn’t a great show, but it was fun fluff.  Like this novel. 

One of the best things about the book is that it is self-contained even though it’s part of a series.  It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are part of a series and are not self-contained.  I don’t mind it as much anymore, and don’t begrudge authors writing trilogies.  After all, my favorite book is LOTR, a trilogy.  But for the most part, these days, I want to read a book that ends.  This one did.  I was so happy at the end of it.  I think that’s part of why I gave it a high rating.

As far as characterization goes, Tony is great.  He’s gay and has a crush on a one of the stars of the series who is apparently straight, but gives off mixed signals.  He also goes on a comical date with the show’s music director, who has a crush on him.  All this, though, creates some conflict because Henry is still in the picture.  Tony is no longer in a relationship with the vampire, but he still helps Tony out throughout the story.  There’s a few interesting instances where we understand why Tony wanted out of the relationship when we learn of Henry’s possessiveness.  It’s not just normal possessiveness, but the kind that a vampire has for his prey, and it’s intense.

I found Arra, the wizard from the dimension of the Shadowlord to be a bit annoying at times.  She has a great setup.  She’s the special effects director for the show.  Of course she uses her powers to create great effects on the show’s low budget.  Unfortunately, she does not want to help our hero subdue the Shadowlord.  It’s understandable that she’s reluctant considering she barely escaped destruction in her own dimension.  However, I would have liked to have seen her have more backbone throughout the story rather than just near the end.

I gave this book four stars because I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s not a great book, but I really enjoyed it.  At some point in the future, I would consider reading the other books in the series, just not now.  Tony’s a great character and I’d like to see him have success in life, amidst all the supernatural urban fantasy that he gets into.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ethan of Athos

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 1/29/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
4 stars

I’ve been hit or miss with Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan Saga.  The book was a hit.  The plot is a little off the main line of the Saga, more like an offshoot.  It revolves around Ethan of the planet Athos, a world of men.  It turns the meme of a female utopia on its head.  Children are born from uterine replicators, which is not unheard of in this universe.  With a planet of only men, the replicators wear out and new organs are needed.  Ethan, a doctor who works with the replicators, is chosen to go in search of a new supplier after the previous package of ovarian cultures is sabotaged.  It forces him to go out into space and deal with the rest of society for the first time ever, including women.  It leads to some comical moments.  Of course, this being part of one of the more famous space opera series, Ethan ends up in the middle of espionage with the evil Cetagandans.

What’s surprising about this book is that it was written in 1986 but is a mainstream novel that deals with gay issues.  Many of the men on Athos are in M/M relationships, though not all, mostly those who raise children.  Being a planet of only men, all the children are sons.  Now it should be noted that the gay issues are quite tempered.  But there’s a bashing scene that was really traumatic to me.  And just the fact that it exists in this book from such a long time ago is quite stunning to me.

The culture clash between Ethan and the rest of the universe is embodied in Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is after the same Cetagandans that are after Ethan.  She keeps on popping up on Ethan, causing a lot of cognitive dissonance.  The scenes are humorous even though the circumstances become direr.  It’s fun to watch him slowly back away whenever she approaches him.  You see, the planet of Athos is actually rather misogynistic.  It is incorporated into its religion and morality.  Women are seen as the embodiment of sin.  So whenever Ethan interacts with Elli, he’s concerned that her immorality will rub off on him.  At first the misogyny is disconcerting, but Ethan comes to understand and appreciate Elli, and of course the lessons are learned.  The best part is watching all that develop and unfold for Ethan.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a surprisingly fun, fast-paced space opera romp.  It’s a quick read yet has enough depth to contain messages about tolerance and acceptance.  The book is self-contained in this epic multi-book saga so it can be read without having read any of the other books, which I always find a plus.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Devil You Know

KJ Parker
Completed 1/26/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
5 stars

It’s been a long time since I awarded a book five stars.  This one did it for me.  It’s about Saloninus from “Blue and Gold”, the philosopher/alchemist who lies a lot, and I mean, a lot.  He’s now in his 70s.  He decides to sell his soul to the devil, in grand Faustian tradition, for another 20 years to finish his life’s work.  But the question is can the king of lies outwit the father of lies?

It just so happens that the demon sent to Saloninus with the contract and to watch over him for those 20 years is a fan of his philosophy.  Saloninus’ arguments prove the lack of existence of God and prove that morality is relative.  But does he really believe his own writings.  The demon comes to realize this as he comes to realize that his brilliant ward probably has a loophole to get out of the contract at the end of the 20 years.   

The book is short; it is just a novella.  The narration switches a lot between the demon and Solaninus, which at first is a little disorienting.  It quickly got the two voices down and had no problem with the switches between scenes versus the switching between narrators, making it and easy read.   As I noted at the top, I gave this book five stars because I was completely caught up in the question of what Solaninus had up his sleeve, and the demon’s attempts to figure it out.  

Monday, January 30, 2017


John Varley
Completed 1/22/2017 Reviewed 1/24/2017
4 stars

The captain of a spaceship and her crew are on an exploratory mission to Saturn.  They discover a new moon and quickly realize that it appears to be a generations ship.  When they approach the moon-ship, it seizes them, destroying the ship and burying them.  Sometime later, the crew emerges from the ground in what is reminiscent of birthing.  They are not near each other when they emerge, and they are naked and hairless.  Eventually they find one another as they explore this strange world, meet its inhabitants, and search for its creators.

I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.  Written in 1979, the book has a vintage feel to it, where the emphasis is more on discovery and exploration.  If this were a film, there would be a lot of scenes requiring the actors to have a look of awe on their faces.  But as a book, it worked really well.   It reminded me of some of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, where the emphasis is on the wonder, and a little less on the plot. 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is its progressive approach to issues of gender, race, and sexuality.  The captain is a woman, Cirocco “Rocky” Jones.  For 1979, I thought this was quite surprising.  There are also lesbian relationships in the book.  To be fair, there are a lot of relationships in the book.  It takes the premise that on a long distance, long term mission, there’s going to be some coming together of people on the ship.  In fact, the whole beginning seems to be about the different permutations the crew had gone through.  At first, it seemed a little off-putting, but it certainly added to the back story of the crew and set the reader up for the later interpersonal conflicts. 

The author looks at race relations through the intelligent beings that inhabit this place.  Specifically, there are two creatures, centaurs and angels, who for some unknown reason, engage in battle whenever they come across each other.  It’s almost as if it’s in their DNA.  To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told through Rocky’s perspective, so of course her character is the most fleshed out.  Still, most of the characters get good scenes and are more than cardboard cutouts.  What’s really cool is that each of the characters gets something akin to a special power having gone through their rebirthing.  Several of them can communicate with one of the several intelligent species.  One actually turns into one of the species.  For the most part, these powers are benevolent, but it does cause for some problems among the crew. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  It is also the first of a trilogy, though the book stands on its own.  I liked that.  I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy any time soon.  But this book was a cool, mostly fun romp through Varley’s imagination.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Blue and Gold

KJ Parker
Completed 1/16/2017, reviewed 1/16/2017
3 stars

Blue and Gold has the most unreliable narrator I’ve ever read.  And the narrator tells you on the second page that he lies.  How much does he lie?  A lot.  So much so that it’s hard to tell when he’s telling the truth, if at all.  It makes for an interesting and entertaining read.  But in the end, you wonder if the point of the whole novella is that it’s a shaggy dog story.  Well, the last sentence isn’t a pun, but it is the punchline. 

As I mentioned, this is a novella.  It’s only about a hundred pages.  I was surprised at how much character development there was, particularly of the main character, just by being the first person unreliable narrator, even though sometimes, he spoke of himself in third person too.  You don’t get any descriptions of the characters, just their general dispositions from the dialogue.  And the dialogue and narration is pretty good.

The premise of the book is that Saloninus is an alchemist, and possibly the best alchemist ever.  He’s been commissioned by his friend the prince to create an elixir of eternal youth and to turn base metals into gold.  In the process, he accidently kills his wife and goes on the run.  Allegedly.  As the book progresses, the lies change a bit and you don’t know when you’re getting the truth.  And Saloninus jumps between the past and present quite a bit, which keeps the keeps the reader off balance as well.

For a hundred pages, the effect works well.  If this were a full length novel, I think it would have been too much.  There’s a sequel which I have from the library which I think I’ll read after a respite with another book first. 

While not a brilliant book, the effect of the unreliable narrator was fun.  I recommend this for a fun read, keeping in mind that the whole thing is basically a gag.  I give the book three out of five stars.  Just remember to keep in mind what has blue got to do with gold….

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis

Ali Smith
Completed 1/13/2017, reviewed 1/13/2017
4 stars

Girl Meets Boy is part of a series of books that are retellings of famous myths.  There are books in this collection by A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, among others.  This book is a riff on the myth of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While not exactly a retelling, it plays on the story of a girl raised as a boy until her wedding day.  In the story, we get girl meets boy, girl meets girl, and girls take on corporate greed.  It’s interesting, interestingly written, and very satisfying.
The myth of Iphis is a little more complicated than my one liner in the opening paragraph.  It’s the story of a poor couple.  The woman gets pregnant.  As she approaches delivery time, her husband tells her that if the baby is a boy, that would be great.  If it’s a girl, he’ll have to kill her because they can’t afford a girl.  The woman prays to Isis.  The goddess’s response is to bear the child and if it’s a girl, raise it as a boy.  The woman does, naming the girl Iphis which is both a boy and a girl’s name.  All is well for the longest time.  Iphis develops a friendship with a beautiful little girl named Ianthe.  They fall in love.  Then their fathers arrange a marriage.  At the news, Iphis panics because she can’t truly meet Ianthe’s needs as a woman.  She prays to Isis who hears her pleas and changes her into a man in time for the marriage to be successful.  This is the metamorphosis of this story in Ovid’s collection.

Girl Meets Boy is the story of two sisters.  Both work for Pure, a company the sells overpriced bottled water.  Anthea is a dreamer, she hates her corporate job.  Imogen, the more pragmatic sister, loves her job and helps develop the name for the product.  Their company is threatened by a person who goes by the name of Iphis, who writes anti-corporate graffiti slurs that are the bane of Pure.  Anthea falls for Iphis and Imogen is threatened by her.  The rest of the book is about how the sisters resolve their issues around Iphis and Pure. 
The book is written in an avant-garde sort of style, without quotations, with a lot of inner dialogue, with the narrative bouncing between the sisters.  It’s a little disconcerting at first, but easy to adapt to.  The style set a tone for me that the story was a little different itself, where gender and gender identity may be fluid.  Smith does a wonderful job turning stereotypical gender roles on their heads.  She also does an incredible job describing the homophobia that goes on in Imogen’s head while she goes out for a jog.  

I give this book four out of five stars.  The writing is really terrific and the character development is masterful for such a short book.  It’s not exactly fantasy, but it is an interpolation of a fantasy.  It was nominated for a Tiptree award and ended up on many best of lists for gender studies and LGBTQ content.  While it doesn’t make me want to run out and read the other myth books in the series by this publisher, it does make me want to read more by the author.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Skull of Truth

Bruce Coville
Completed 1/11/2017 Reviewed 1/12/2017
4 stars

This juvenile fantasy novel is a delightful story chock full of social issues.  Predominantly, it is a tale about lying and telling the truth.   Charlie is a boy who lies all the time.  One day, he steals a magic skull, although he’s never stolen anything in his life before this.  The skull forces the people around it to tell the truth.  Of course, telling the truth gets him into as much trouble as lying did, especially since no one really believes him.  The skull’s influence also rubs off on the people in Charlie’s life, like his family.  So Charlie must navigate his life until he can find a way to part with the skull.

What amazed me most about this book was its level of sophistication.  Besides the lying theme, the story also deals with cancer, the environment, and gay issues.  It made me wonder if this book wouldn’t be better suited for a tweener than juvenile.  But I applaud the author for an excellent job writing a book that deals with these issues.   He uses humor and compassion, creating a wonderful learning opportunity for the main character and the reader. 

SPOILER ALERT:  The one issue discussed in the book that I had a problem with was when at a family dinner, with the skull nearby, everyone begins speaking only the truth.  The great-grandmother blurts out that she was a stripper.  While really comical, this is the primary reason for thinking the book should be read by tweeners rather than younger children.  But it made for a terrifically funny scene, which eventually lead to the poignant part with the gay uncle coming out. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  It had terrific characters and was wonderfully written.  I read it in a day and enjoyed every minute of it.  It’s funny but teaches important lessons.  It was a joy to read after the couple of really heavy books I just finished.