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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Kappa Child

Hiromi Goto
Completed 9/24/2016 Reviewed 9/25/2016
4 stars

I’ve never read any of the “Little House on the Prairie” books but I understand the general gist from having seen a few episodes of the TV series back in my youth.  They represent a child’s view growing up in prairie homesteading days written for children.  The main, unnamed character of “The Kappa Child” is a bit obsessed with the book.  So when her Canadian family of Japanese descent moves from the lush metropolitan Vancouver, BC to the Canadian prairie, of course she’s going to compare and refer a lot to her favorite book.  But the worlds couldn’t be any more different, with her father’s dream of growing rice rather than something that would actually flourish.  And her father is abusive to the children and the mother. 

The book takes place in the present of the adult protagonist with flashbacks to her childhood moving to the farm.  In the present, she encounters a Kappa, a green water sprite, part frog, part turtle, part human.  But rather than real traditional fantasy, the encounter has more of a magical realism quality.  The encounter, which involves sumo wrestling as Kappas are prone to engage in, leaves the protagonist supernaturally pregnant.  So she must deal with her unbelievable, undetectable pregnancy, the pain of her childhood past, and her not-so-great present relationships. 

I realize the summary of the book is somewhat confusing, but the book reflects that.  The narrator, our protagonist, is an unreliable narrator, often not realizing the reality of what’s going on around her.  She has incredibly low self-esteem, and not so great relationships with her sisters and friends.  So the view we get of her life is skewed toward the negative.  But that’s not to say that the book is a confusing downer.  It is in fact a pretty good read where the jumps between the past and present are actually very easy to follow. 

What’s most confusing is the Kappa aspect.  At the end of the book, the author fully explains what a Kappa is from Japanese mythology.  It left me wondering about the significance of the main character being pregnant with a Kappa child.  Is that what I was supposed to be getting out of it?  Or perhaps, she  herself is the Kappa child. 

Even though I couldn’t quite figure this out, I really enjoyed the book.  The narrator has a very interesting perspective on her life.  It makes the book very readable.  I give the book four out of five stars.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016


Greg Egan
Completed 9/5/2016 Reviewed 9/13/2016
4 stars

This book is science fiction in the true sense of the term:  it is fiction that deals with science.  In this case the science is genetics.  A family is on a tropical island studying butterflies with a strange genetic mutation.  A civil war breaks out and the parents are killed, leaving Prabir to care for his younger sister Madhursee, getting them rescued.  Twenty years later, Madhursee returns to the island to study the growing number of genetic mutations in the region, leaving Prabir to deal with his ghosts from the past. 

The book is very hard science.  I was surprised at how technical the biology was.  There were times I had to skim over the prose because it was too technical for me.  However, I gleaned enough to get the basic gist of what was going on.  My lack of deep understanding didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. 

The characterization is really good.  Egan wrote Prabir well, delving into the mind of a nine year old, and then presenting him twenty years later, more than a little controlling and broken.  The other characters are good too, but Prabir is the main character and it’s his perspective that the book is written in. 

I should also note that the author is Australian.  His familiarity with the tropics and the politics of the region creates a realism that a non-native wouldn’t have.  It took me a while to integrate this fact with the organic nature of the book.  It reads so naturally of the tropics of Indonesia.   

I give this book four out of five stars.  I really enjoyed it even though the science is quite hard.  It gets especially exciting as the book progresses and Prabir discovers the other mutations that have been infesting the region.  It’s a smart, exciting read.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spaceman Blues: A Love Song

Brian Francis Slattery
Completed 9/3/2016 Reviewed 9/13/2016
4 stars

This is one strange book.  It’s about Wendell Apogee who is trying to find his lover who has suddenly disappeared.  His search takes him through the underbelly of New York, where he encounters parties, cockfights, aliens (illegal and extraterrestrial), and a city below the city.  It’s fantastically imagined and quite well developed for such a short book.  And it has a wild ending you don’t see coming. 

Wendell is a pretty good character.  He starts off rather blandly, but then happens to become a sort of superhero.  It’s rather strange and quirky, but the development is satisfying.  There are also several Latino characters, which is quite rare for a science fiction book. 

The one thing I didn’t care for in this book was the prose.  I found it at times to be too much, to over-descriptive, sometimes causing me to lose my focus on the story.  It’s like losing the forest for the trees.  But if you can push past the prosy parts, the book is quite readable.

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about the book.  If I go into much more detail describing it, it gives away too much for this short book.  And my creative juices just are not flowing enough yet.  Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed it, despite the prose.  The quirkiness of the plot and the little universe Slattery creates really kept me going.  Four out of five stars.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mistborn: The Final Empire

Brandon Sanderson
Completed 8/25/2016 Reviewed 8/25/2016
4 stars

Mistborn is another book club selection.  I didn’t vote for it, but I didn’t mind it winning.  It has always been one of those books I should get around to reading.  I knew it had a lot of praise, so I guess my expectations were a little high.  When I actually opened the books, I found it difficult to get into, to the tune of about a quarter of the book.  Finally, I started to like it, adventure revved up and most importantly, I felt like I was getting into the head of Vin, the main character.

Vin is an orphan, half noble, half skaa (lower class).  She survives as a thief, running around with gangs.  She has a gift for luck, making things go her way.  Then she stumbles upon a gang that shows her that her gift is much larger than she thought.  And this gang has a much larger mission than just stealing.  They want to overthrow the tyrannical government that keeps the skaa as slaves to the nobility.  She joins the group, growing in her powers and trying to help with the coup. 

The book is clearly a statement on the evils of slavery and classism.  But it also touches on the seduction of money and power.  The best parts of the book for me were the scenes where Vin is disguised as a noble woman, attending balls, and trying to spread and gather rumors as to the state of the nobility.  She often reflects on the comforts of having money to dress and eat well versus where she was before this mission, sleeping in alleys and eating what she could find. 

The book is also quite a complex universe.  Sanderson imbues this world with magic, but it’s a very specific kind.  It uses metals to produce a desired effect, including having sway over people, seeing into the future, and travelling at the speed of racing horses.  Called Allomancy, it is the gift that Vin has.  One problem I had with the book is that there’s a lot of description of the different aspects of Allomancy.  I found this to be fairly boring.  However, when Vin is using it, the action soars, reminiscent of the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  There are times when she’s following Kelsier, her mentor, and times when she’s actually doing battle.   Both types of scenes are riveting, as is being inside Vin’s head during these scenes. 

As I mentioned, the book goes through a lot of exposition with the Allomancy.  It also goes into great details in the plot to overthrow the government.  I found the details to be rather dry and my mind wandered a lot here.  Unfortunately I think the dryness is necessary because it all does make sense when the status quo does begin to unravel and when the magic is in use.  But at 650 pages, I thought some judicious editing could have disposed of some of the extraneous exposition. 

There are a lot of characters in the book as well.  I felt that I couldn’t get into the heads of the other characters as much as was available to me.  Particularly, Kelsier, Vin’s mentor and the leader of this group of revolutionary thieves, is basically a second main character.  There are a fair number of scenes where he is the point of view.  But I never felt him the way I felt Vin.  Kelsier was more like a major secondary character, and the scenes with his POV were somehow out of place when we should be focusing on Vin. 

Even with the complex magical system, I was only going to give this book three stars.  Fortunately, the ending is quite a page turner.  It makes up for the unnecessary length of the book and the lack of empathy I felt for Kelsier.  I also appreciated the fact that the book wraps up nicely considering there’s five more books in the series.  So I settled on four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Marissa Meyer
Completed 8/7/2016 Reviewed 8/22/2016
Three stars

It took me a long time to get around to writing this review.  Not because the book wasn’t any good.  I just didn’t have anything really original to say about it.  The book is yet another play on the Cinderella theme, this one is science fiction rather than fantasy.  Cinder is a cyborg, and because of that, she is lower class.  She has a stepmother and stepsisters, there’s a handsome prince, and she even has a pumpkin colored car.  A lot of these parts are fun.  But there is a whole second plotline that could almost have been told without having to rely on the Cinderella tropes.  They felt good enough that I think they could have been expanded without the fairy tale parts and been a successful standalone story.

I have to say that I really enjoyed the first half of the book.  It was an easy read, having just finished a much more difficult book.  But once I figured out the big plot reveal, I got bored with it and simply wanted it to end.  There’s a plague decimating the population.  The Queen of the Moon promises to give the prince the cure if he marries her.  The problem is that the Queen of the Moon is evil and can exert her will over people to keep them in line.  Marrying the prince would bring a huge segment of Earth’s population under her control. 

Okay, so now that I write it out, the book sounds pretty juvenile.  And it is.  The book was recommended for grades six through eight.  I often like juvenile fiction.  But I felt that the plot reveal is too easy.  I also wondered if we needed another fairy tale retold with a twist.  In fact, this book is one of a series of fairy tale retellings.  And in this book, when you get to the end, it leaves you just hanging.  Even if it is a series, I’d much rather have a book be more self-contained, unless we know it’s simply a large book cut into parts by the publisher, like LOTR.

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s light fluff and fun if you let it be fun, not expecting too much out of it.    

Friday, July 8, 2016

Imperial Earth

Arthur C. Clarke
Completed 7/4/2016, reviewed 7/5/2016
3 stars

Couched in a travelogue story about a man from Titan visiting the earth to help celebrate the U.S.’s quadricentennial, this novel is a look at where we can be in another two hundred years.  It predicts a future where being bisexual is the norm and technology has advanced us to a non-aggressive, relatively peaceful world.  It is great reading, though in place of much action, Clarke’s writing fills you with a sense of scientific wonder. 

Duncan Makenzie is the second clone of the family which administers what passes as government on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  He is chosen by his “parents” to represent Titan at the U.S.’s quadricentennial and to “father” a new clone for the family from himself.  The story is predominantly about his travel to Earth, his exploration of what Washington and New York have become, and his finding out about what happened to the two loves of his youth, Calindy and Karl.

The plot is dotted with scientific and social predictions.  Clarke spends a lot of time talking about space travel using hydrogen.  Titan is primarily a hydrogen mining colony for this purpose, holding up its economy with this industry.  He also talks a lot about the search for extraterrestrials and the technology needed to accomplish this. A little more closer to today, Clarke predicts the internet, hand held devices, and Skype, although their use is still command line oriented rather than graphical interfaces.  And granted, picture phone calls have been predicted for a long time. 

Clarke predicts that technology has made the world a better place, more peaceful, with very little violence.  This is a dream that many writers have fantasized about, but we never seem to accomplish.  Looking at life today, the growth of technology has done nothing for peace.  Even the work week for many of us has stretched beyond forty hours rather than shrinking it, increasing stress rather than reducing it.  Today, it is still a pipe dream, but perhaps it can still be something to hope for.

Also on the social level, I found it very interesting that Clarke did a terrific job writing about a bi-normative society with minimal propaganda.  He doesn’t beat us over the head with it, it just is.  Duncan simply loved both Karl and Calindy when he was younger.  This is very refreshing and amazing for a book published in 1976.

There is one part that is disturbing, the cloning process.  Successfully cloned embryos are gestated by a farm of women who want to have children.  The disturbing part is that they are mentally or physically disabled in some way.  It’s like Clarke is saying that these women have no option for having children other than by joining a baby making farm.  He’s also saying that these women want to have children for the sake of the birthing of children and giving them away, not for the sake of loving and raising them.  I can’t imagine where he got this idea. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  Really, it’s a four star book, but I took off one star because of the baby farm concept.  That was too disturbing to ignore in rating the book.  Otherwise, it was very readable despite the hard science.  The chapters are short, making the technology easy to follow, rather than being overly long complex descriptions.  The character of Duncan is extremely well developed, and the distinction between himself and his “fathers” is subtle but tangible.  The plot may be a little thin, being primarily a travelogue, but it is a very good, interesting read.