Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Stone Prince

Fiona Patton
Completed 12/3/2016 Reviewed 12/7/2016
3 stars

I liked this book.  While it has same-sex relationships, it’s not the great gay fantasy novel, but it’s good.  The author really does her best in the scenes between the main character Demnor and his companion Kelahnus, and telling the story about their relationship, from its rocky start to the present conflict where Demnor has to marry a woman for political reasons.  Demnor is a pretty damaged character.  He is the heir to throne and the power of the Living Flame, but he has been shaped by his powerful, emotionally abusive mother who is the current ruler.  So the story really centers on Demnor and his struggles in life and love and inheritance, and Kelahnus’ response to it all.

I really liked Kelahnus.  He’s not just a lover.  He’s part of what you can consider a concubine guild where people are trained to be the lovers of the hierarchy.  They serve the function of providing companionship until the aristocrat gets married.  And even after that, the relationship usually continues in some form.  In the case of Demnor and Kelahnus though, the two have fallen in love.  This creates a problems for Demnor’s future as Aristok (King) and the need for him to marry for political reasons and provide an heir.  Kelahnus has to navigate through all of Demnor’s political life while not despairing. 

The first half of the book was my favorite part, where we get to know the characters and the special social structure of the world.  The second half takes a big turn into politics.  I felt like it dragged, turning the book into the fantasy equivalent of a tedious space opera.  This brought the book to a snail’s crawl for me, losing the spark of the first half.

This is a shame too because the book had so much going for it.  Besides the companionship structure and the fluidity of sexuality, gender has a prominent role.  The aristocracy can be either male or female.  For example, all the children of the Arsitok are Princes, even the girls.  Women also serve in the military.  What makes this aspect of the book so great is that it is not an issue.  It just is.  It’s really well written in that respect.  And it’s easy to miss if you don’t pay attention to the pronouns of the soldiers, guards, and aristocrats.   

The magic and spirituality of the Living Flame concept was really interesting too.  Demnor is the heir of this powerful magic that helps him and his army in battles.  I thought it was understated, or perhaps underutilized.  The scenes with the flame are predominantly in the second half of the book.  It almost seems like it’s used sparingly on purpose, perhaps it has a much larger role in the next books in the series.


Yes, this book is the first of a series.  As I stated at the beginning of this review, I liked it, but I did not love it.  I found the second half somewhat tedious and it put me off from reading the rest of the series.  I was really glad however, that the book is self-contained.  It doesn’t leave you hanging for the next book in the series.  I give the book three stars out of five.  Maybe if the author could have edited out about half of the second half, I would have enjoyed it more.  The remaining action could have lifted the pace and made it a little more exciting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fortune’s Pawn

Rachel Bach
Completed 11/26/2016 Reviewed 11/28/2016
4 stars

I was really surprised by this book.  It’s space opera and I enjoyed it.  As my followers know, I generally don’t like space opera, but I seem to be warming up to it.  I think it depends on the book.  This one has a pretty good in-your-face kick-ass female main character and a good beginning.  Oh yeah, and I need to mention it’s the first book of a trilogy.  It’s a pick from my book club.  I usually don’t like reading books from series for book club because then I often feel the compulsion to read all of it.  But this one was so fun, I just might.

The book follows the adventures of Devi Morris, a mercenary who has risen high in her career.  Her goal is to get into the King’s elite corps, the Devastators.  You can’t join the Devastators, you have to be chosen.  A great way to get noticed is to get a security job on the Glorious Fool, a trade ship that gets into trouble so often that a one year stint on it is equivalent to five years anywhere else.  She takes the job and of course trouble ensues.   

Devi is a great character.  Her narrative is told well in first person.  I really got into her character with the narration.  I could understand her drive for perfection in her job, as well as her distraction by the handsome Rupert.  The same way she goes after her career, she goes after her men.  It was hilarious and heartbreaking.  I’m not positive, but I think this book passes the Bechdel test:  Devi converses with another female character and it’s not about men, which is so interesting to me because so much of the book is about her chasing a man. 

The plot is fun, it’s basic space opera, although being the first third of a trilogy, it doesn’t get too far into all the subplots.  The book is basically about Devi getting used to the motley crew of the Glorious Fool, her obsession with Rupert, and the introduction of the aliens of the universe.  Three of the four races are on the ship.  One is not, but we meet them farther in.  There’s an invisible monster that Devi has to fight and a mysterious monster that seems to be helpful and powerful.  They’re all pretty cool.


 This book gets an easy four stars.  It’s fun, it’s an easy read, and it was the sort of fluff I needed after a couple of good but heavier books.  As I started out this review, I may just follow up and read the rest of the trilogy.  The conspiracy plot was just beginning at the end of this book and I didn’t find it tedious the way I often find conspiracy and politics in space opera to be tedious.  Instead it set me up to want to finish the trilogy.  So surprise…I enjoyed a space opera and highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Larque on the Wing

Nancy Springer
Completed 11/20/2016 Reviewed 11/21/2016
4 stars

This is a difficult book to categorize.  I suppose it qualifies as magical realism, although I’m not an expert on that genre.  At the very least, it’s a fantasy about a woman with some magical abilities.  It won the Tiptree award which honors SF/F books which deal with gender issues.  It’s highly deserving.  This is perhaps one of the most creative ways of exploring gender issues that I’ve read in a long time. 

The story is about Larque, a 40-something year old woman with a husband and three sons who has the ability to make doppelgangers of herself and others.  She has made one of her 10-year old self that is causing trouble.  On top of that, she’s come across a hidden part of town where she gets a makeover into a sexy young gay man.  To make things even more complicated, Larque’s mother can blink away things she doesn’t like or blink them into forms she finds more pleasing.  By the middle of the book, there are three versions of Larque running around, the 10 year old, the gay man, and a plastic, soulless, virtuous woman.  Larque’s existential question is to either remain a gay man, or integrate all her selves back into one middle aged woman and reconcile the life she wanted for herself with the life she has.

It’s a complicated premise, and Springer did a terrific job of creating an understandable plot despite the complexity of the doppelgangers and the blinking mother.  The mother reminded me of Dolores Umbrage from the Harry Potter series, evil wrapped in a compact package, ignoring pleas for love and understanding so that she can see the world how she wants to see it.  It’s all both funny and frightening. 

There is a much referenced quote that I’d like to quote as well:  “Dimly, with her burning heart more than her mind, she began to understand why she had always liked gay men. They suffered, were persecuted, they were outsiders in a world where studbuck male heteros held all the power, they did not count, they were Other – the way women were.”  This quote speaks so perfectly to both women and gay men, on how we experience the world, as the Other.  And the timing of reading this quote in this book, when current events demonstrate how much the white male heteros are trying to hold onto all the power, was just perfect for me.

My only complaint with the book was that the 10-year old Sky was often too whiney.  I think she was supposed to be.  After all, she was supposed to be 10 and un-nurtured.  But it got to me after a while, and I felt distracted by Sky rather than feeling like she was integral to the story.  It all makes sense and comes together in the end, but her journey was just a little too annoying. 


I give this book four out of five stars.  I found it to be a refreshing piece of fantasy, or magical realism, or perhaps we could call it suburban fantasy.  It came real close to being five stars, but the annoying Sky character broke my love affair with the book.  I highly recommend it though for anyone who feels powerless, has unreconciled aspects of themselves, or feels unsatisfied with where they ended up in their lives.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Did Miss Darrington See?

Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed.
Completed 11/13/2016 Reviewed 11/14/2016
5 stars

This is an anthology of feminist supernatural short stories written between 1850 and 1989.  Almost all the stories have a ghost, but none are truly horror stories.  At least not like how we consider horror today.  They are just mostly ghost stories with the most common theme of women trying to be authentic.  None of the stories are man-hating, although one of the stories has a man who is rather a cad.  They are almost all simply about fulfillment in a woman’s life, or the lack thereof, and that issue brought forth by the appearance of a ghost. 

Many of the older stories are classical gothic story-telling.  A few are magical realism.  Several deal with lesbian relationships, or at the very least have homoerotic overtones.  Some of these in the older stories feature what was known as Boston marriages, relationships between two women who lived together without the support of a man.  The relationships were not always sexual, but in these stories, the implication that they were is pretty evident.

I really enjoyed most of the stories.  I found them quite emotionally engaging without being maudlin or soapy.  There were only a few I didn’t care for.  One, “The Teacher” was about a man who goes back to visit an old school teacher who barely remembers him.  Another, “Pandora Pandemonia” was a short piece mostly filled with classical imagery.   I didn’t get either of these stories.

Two pieces really stood out for me.  One was “The Little, Dirty Girl” by Joanna Russ.  I was surprised by this piece because I’ve only read novels of Russ, and they are Science Fiction and very avant-garde.  I found her novels difficult to understand, but this story was not only understandable, but very touching.  It’s about a woman who sees a little girl wearing a dirty out-of-date dress.  The girl follows the woman around and the woman eventually begins to take care of the girl.  It soon becomes evident that the little girl is a ghost although she manifests quite physically.  It also becomes clear that the girl represents the woman’s inner child and helps her reconcile her own mother-issues.

The second piece I really liked was “The Doll”.  It’s about a woman who becomes obsessed with a life-sized representation of the former mistress of a castle.  This is one of those stories with homoerotic overtones.  The editor does a great job of providing introductions to each story.  These intros are really helpful in inspiring thoughts and questions about the stories.  Particularly, it made me wonder if this is really about suppression of homoerotic feelings, or about closure in obsessive relationships.

A third story I wanted to mention is “A Friend In Need”.  It’s a relatively newer story about two women who discover they were each other’s imaginary friends growing up.  It explores what we sometimes will do to get through abusive childhoods.  This story was imaginative and emotionally gripping. 


I give this book five out of five stars.  It’s the first book in a long time to which I had an emotional response.  I started out appreciating it academically, but then with each story, it drew me farther and farther in, so that by the last story, I was simply captivated.  I don’t expect everyone to have the same response to this book.  The stories are a lot more subtle than what we’re used to.  But if you’re up for a subtle set of stories written by women about women, then I highly recommend this anthology.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trouble and Her Friends

Melissa Scott
Completed 11/6/2016 Reviewed 11/9/2016
2 stars

“Trouble” is the username of India Carliss, a former hacker who gave up her underground life traversing the net to be a network admin for an artist’s colony when hacking became criminalized.  She left everything behind, including her friends and girlfriend.  Three years later, someone is causing trouble in the net using her username, implicating her in illegal activity.  Trouble and her ex go on a quest to find the culprit uncovering a much more sinister plot.

I’m not a fan of cyberpunk, but this book won a Lambda Literary Award, and Melissa Scott has won more Lammies than any other author.  So I thought I’d give it a try.  Unfortunately, it just reinforced my dislike of cyberpunk. 

The story takes place in both the virtual world, written in italics, and the real world, written in normal font.  At first I thought I’d like this.  The imagery of the virtual world is reminiscent of movies like Tron, with lots of bizarre colors and shapes representing networks, data, and bulletin boards.  Yes, this book is over twenty years old, so the cyber bulletin board phenomenon is still at its peak.  After a while, though, it felt pretty simplistic and hackneyed.  Worst of all, reading italics for too long put a strain on my eyes. 

The one thing I have to give this book props on is the prose.  In general, it’s quite good.  It was easy reading from that perspective.  Where the book lacks is in the plot.  There isn’t too much of one.  The book can be divided into two halves, the first half being Trouble and her ex, Cerise, individually fretting about Trouble getting into trouble, and the second half, Trouble and Cerise fretting together about Trouble getting into trouble.  Okay, there’s a little more than that.  They take a journey to a town that’s both virtual and real to find the non-Trouble.  They meet some mildly interesting characters along the way.  But it mostly felt like nothing really happened, and most of the dialogue is rehashing the plot to that point.   

I think the book was missing tension, particularly tension between Cerise and Trouble.  You would think that the relationship between the two women would be fraught with tension since Trouble just walked out on Cerise three years earlier with nary a word.  But Cerise was too forgiving for me and their working together was much too easy.  There’s some mild sexual tension, but even that seems unrealistic by normal standards of human emotions.  Life’s messy, but little in the interaction between these two was messy. 


I give this book two out of five stars.  It just didn’t do anything for me.  Finishing the book became a mechanical process.  I really didn’t care about Trouble or her friends, or her enemies.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

Triptych

J.M. Frey
Completed 10/22/2016 Reviewed 10/24/2016
4 stars

Triptych was a surprisingly good book.  It’s about alien refugees from a dead world coming to live on earth and integrating themselves into our society.  It specifically follows one alien, Kalp, who comes to fall in love with and enter a relationship with a human couple, Gwen and Basil.  There’s a little more going on in the book than simply that, but that plot is a substantial portion of the book.  Told from the point of view of the alien, it is one of the most intriguing books I’ve read in a while.

What I liked best about this book was that it looks at humanity from the point of view of the alien.  It makes it an examination of human behavior from an outsider’s point of view.  There are some scenes which are a little trite, like confusing laughing and crying and of course sex and fighting.  But they are done well and keep the story moving.

Kalp the alien is a wonderful character.  He is so earnest in his attempts to integrate himself with humans that I just ached for him.  The aching grows as he falls in love with Gwen and Basil.  You see, on his planet, unions are made of threes, not twos.  Hence the title:  A triptych is usually a painting or some other art on three frames hinged together.   By having three persons in a relationship, one can bear and raise a child, the second takes care of the bearer, while the third continues to work and support the whole family.  So it is natural for Kalp too fall in love with the couple.  The fun, and eventually, the heartbreak comes in as the three adapt to the triptych.

Needless to say, this setup does not sit well with everyone.  Some humans show their lack of humanity as they target the aliens and their lovers for assassination.  It is an obvious reflection of our society’s intolerance to the LGBT community.  But I didn’t mind being hit over the head with the metaphor because the characters, particularly Kalp, are so well done.  And the writing is particularly good for a first novel. 


This book is definitely a hidden gem, one that I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t worked on the LGBT resource list for Worlds Without End.  It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award several years ago.    I give this book four stars out of five for the interesting take on bisexuality and polyamory with the twist that the third is an alien.  But also because it was highly readable and a great third person narration from the alien’s perspective.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin
Completed 10/15/2016 Reviewed 10/18/2016
4 stars

This book is a bit of a difficult read at first.  There are three character narratives, one in second person present, the other two in third person present.  Each character is an orogene, someone who can move or stay geophysical forces like earthquakes and volcanos.  Through them, we learn what it is to be an orogene in three different circumstances.  First, you are young and your gift (or curse) is first discovered, you are taken to the Fulcrum, where you are assigned a Guardian who has often abusive control over you.  Second, you are halfway through your orogene training in the controlled environment that is none too pleasant.  But now you’re outside the Fulcrum on a journey and have to use your gift.  Third, when you live with your gift hidden from everyone, or as hidden as possible.  (Sorry, it’s quite by accident that I began writing in 2nd person).  None of these situations is pleasant.  It turns out being an orogene isn’t pleasant.

This is magnificent world building.  It’s incredibly imaginative, a world where the magic is in control of the earth.  It’s a little like being an earth bender from the cartoon Avatar: The Last Air Bender.   But here it’s all about the earth.  “Earth” is used like we use “Hell”, and “rust” is a curse.  The continent is called The Stillness, but it is anything but still.  Hence the need for orogenes to keep the ground from shaking.  But the world is afraid of the orogenes for the potential destruction they can cause as well.  So they are rounded up and taken to the Fulcrum, a sort of school where they are watched by their sadistic guardians and trained in their gift.

As you can see, the world is very dark, but not dark in a typical middle-ages pseudo-European world.  People are light and dark skinned, male and female, and not exclusively heterosexual.  It makes for a really well-rounded world.  I have to say I occasionally had a hard time remembering who was what race, which I think speaks to how much I am conditioned to thinking that the characters of a story are always default white.  

The prose is also amazing.  I have to admit, 2nd person is not my favorite tense to read, but those chapters read more easily than I expected.  I think it speaks well to Jemisin as a writer.  I had a much tougher time reading “Halting State” by Charles Stross, which was also written in 2nd person.    Here the narrative flows much better, though it still took me several chapters to get into the swing of the tense.  Especially since it alternates with chapters written in 3rd person present.

The one thing I didn’t find was empathy for the characters.  I was really interested in what was happening to them, but I wasn’t right there with them.  I never completely immersed myself into the story.  I found this sad because I was all ready to jump on the five star bandwagon that this book has been riding.  Maybe I’m still in a place where I can’t let myself go completely when I’m reading.  I found myself a little distanced from it, able to observe that this was an intense, well-crafted book, but not able to feel it.  So I give this book four stars out of five. 


As a sort of post script, I want to add that the reader should be aware of the glossary at the back of the book.  It really helps with understanding the universe of the book.  I didn’t discover the glossary until about halfway through the book.  Finding it made a bit difference.