Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 3

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/11/2018, reviewed 3/11/2018
5 stars

What a terrific series!  Book 3 lived up to its predecessors, Book 1 and Book 2, making a great ending to the trilogy.  It is full of tragedy, war, betrayal, and of course, love.  It’s epic in scope and an exhausting read.  I loved it.  And as I mentioned in the last review, if you continue on with this review, there will be spoilers to the previous books.

The story picks up with the Paran family in the service of a nobleman.  Keshan has a vision that his lover, Jandu who is cursed to live one year as a woman, is in danger from one of the family’s enemies.  He intervenes which breaks the terms of the exile, giving aid to the family.  When the family returns from exile and Jandu is turned back into a man, the Parans present themselves to the king who rejects their penance, demanding three more years of exile, and casting Keshan to the untouchables caste.  Jandu’s brother, who should be king of half the kingdom, rejects the exile and declares civil war.  Can Jandu and Keshan’s love survive the despair and war?

The world building of the series is tremendous.  It creates quite a world of this nation, the rivalry of two clans of the same family, the caste system, the magic, and the demons (who I think I called gods in the last review).  The magic and the demons really come into play here during the war, after there not being as much in the first two books. 

The character development is also tremendous.  The main character, Jandu, who is cocky and rather obnoxious in Book 1 becomes a paragon of virtue.  Tarek remains obsessed with the straight king rather than turning to the man who could fulfill him.  Keshan goes from being so strong to so unsure.  It’s all so well done and if I go into any more detail, I’ll give too much away.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It’s sort of a delayed five-star award for the whole series.  I really loved it.  The ending is actually bittersweet but ultimately incredibly satisfying.  It’s a short book and I read it on a Sunday.  It was literally hard to put down. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Stars My Destination

Alfred Bester
Completed 3/10/2018, reviewed 3/10/2018
4 stars

The only previous Bester I had read was The Demolished Man, his Hugo winning novel.  I liked it but wasn’t thrilled.  I much more enjoyed The Stars My Destination.  I felt the prose was much better and the story overall was much more interesting.  It’s strange because this book has been called a proto-cyberpunk version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I usually don’t care for cyberpunk.  Somehow, this book grabbed me in the prologue and kept me glued to it to the end.

The plot is pretty complex.  The time is the future, where teleportation, or jaunting, is the main means of travel.  People can jaunte up to 1000 miles at a time.  Space and time jaunting has not yet been discovered.  This has disrupted the economy so badly that war has erupted between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites.  It’s in this time of the turbulence that Gulliver Foyle, low ranking gutter trash on the spaceship Nomad, is marooned in space after what was probably an attack by the Outer Satellites.  An Inner Planets ship, the Vorga, comes close enough to rescue him, but doesn’t.  From then on, Gully Foyle develops a mad obsession to destroy the Vorga.

In addition to this story line, it turns out that the Nomad was carrying a secret cargo that has the potential for ending the war.  There is also some secret about the Vorga that people are dying over.  Lastly, Gully himself may have a secret that could be even more important than ending the war.

Gully is an anti-hero, a protagonist that will rape, torture, and murder to see his plan of vengeance succeed.  He has such a one-track mind, that he cannot be tortured into revealing what happened to the Nomad.  Despite being so morally depraved, I really liked Gully.  I especially liked him when he was speaking in gutter slang.  I didn’t like what he did, but his character develops as the plot moves along, and he does get a sort-of redemption in the end.

While this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (I’m pretty sure none of the female characters ever speak to each other), the female characters are rather strong for a novel from the ‘50s.  They all have or had some type of career, for good or for bad, and all play a part in Gully’s redemption.

I find it interesting that Bester again plays with form like he did in The Demolished Man.  He uses different patterns of text and strings of characters to get across a situation where Gully’s senses become crossed.  It’s difficult to describe here.  It has to be read. 

The prose is tremendous.  As I mentioned earlier, it really shines in the beginning until the plot grips you and keeps you going to the end.  Different layers of the plot keep the story from devolving into a simple adventure story, and the climax is very satisfying.  I give this book four stars out of five. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 2

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/9/2018, Reviewed 3/9/2018
4 stars

I continue to surprise myself by how much I like this series.  I guess one would call it fantasy opera because it is a fantasy replete with magic and magical beings, though used sparingly, and full of court maneuverings and intrigue.  As my regular readers are already aware, I’m not a fan of space opera in general, but this has me hooked.  Be aware that the summary and discussion of this book constitutes a spoiler for the first book, so don’t read further if you want to avoid the spoilers.

Book Two follows the Paran family as they are exiled from the kingdom.  They are forced to live in hiding for three years, avoiding all contact with anyone who would know them lest their exile be extended another three years.  I addition, anyone who would give them any aid would be cast down to the lowest caste, that is, be made an untouchable. 

This of course creates a terrible situation for Jandu and his lover Keshan.  They will not be able to see each other for three years.  Secretly, though, they find a way to send letters to each other.  All the while, Jandu tries to hide this relationship from his family, as homosexuality is forbidden in the kingdom and at least his eldest brother, the man who would be king, is not tolerant.  After two years of hiding in the jungle, the family is discovered by one of their arch enemies who is spying for the king.  Jardu kills him and the family is on the run again.  This time they hide as servants in the household of a neighboring lord, taking pseudonyms, hiding in plain sight.

Back in the kingdom, Tarek, the king’s new judge still has unrequited love for the king.  He too keeps his love a secret lest he be put to death.  Still he finds ways to find quick encounters, particularly with one of his army’s commanders.  In the meantime, Tarek makes his way around the kingdom enforcing new laws and fealty to the king.  When a lord exhibits rebellious behavior, Tarek goes in and squashes him. 

Despite being a second book in a trilogy, I found it to be riveting.  You’d think that a book primarily about living in exile would be boring, but it wasn’t.  It’s full of interesting twists and turns and encounters with magical beings.  In an interesting turn of events, Jandu is cursed by a goddess to turn into a woman.  Jandu prays to the head god and gets a reprieve:  he only has to live one year as a woman.  The family uses this to their advantage when they become servants of the neighboring lord.  Jandu, now a woman, poses as a music teacher, teaching the lord’s youngest son to play the flute. 

The character development is great.  All the characters become much more fleshed out in this volume.  I felt like I had empathy for most of them.  And I think that’s the point, creating moral ambiguity among the characters.  Even the bad king isn’t so bad.  He’s doing some bad things, but at the same time, slowly working to end the caste system and creating a more just kingdom.  But his obsession with finding the Paran family supplants all his good works. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a short book, and pretty easy reading.  Having the series be three short chunks rather than one long book was a smart idea.  It makes it like a serial where you can’t wait to get to the next part.  You can find the review for Book 1 here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dark Light Years

Brian Aldiss
Completed 3/6/2018, reviewed 3/6/2018
3 stars

What is civilization?  What is intelligence?  Will we know when we make first contact?  These are the questions that are asked in this book by Brian Aldiss.  The earthlings in this book define civilization as the distance that man has placed between himself and his own excreta.  When first contact is made, it’s with a race of beings that wallow in dirt and their own excreta.  They look like hippos, even though they are called rhino-men.  They have six appendages with hands with two opposable thumbs.  They don’t experience pain.  They make sounds out of multiple orifices.  Their spaceship is made out of wood and is covered in their filth.  So, are they intelligent?  Is this civilization?  Or are they lowly animals?

This book makes one pause to reflect on these questions.  The basic plot of this short novel is that we may not be able to tell when we make first contact because of our own cultural biases.  This may also apply vice versa.  Will aliens recognize us as intelligent and having civilization? 

I liked the plot of the book very much.  I didn’t care for the characters, though.  The humans, that is.  There was no one I was able to identify with or empathize with.  Everyone was too, well, human.  Maybe I’ve just been exposed to a lot of first contact novels, but it seemed that there was no one who really understood how to approach contact with alien life.  Almost everyone’s approach was shoot first, try to establish contact later.  It reminded me of the South Park episode where Uncle Jimbo takes the kids hunting and tells them to shout, “He’s coming right at me”, then shoot, regardless of what the target was actually doing.  But I think that was the point, to show the inhuman nature of man.  Still I would have liked to have seen a character who would have taken more issue with how they were treating the aliens.   

The best part was when the narrative was told from the aliens’ points of view.  The story became very creative in these parts.  I wished there was more of it, but what we get was enough to understand their behavior and to realize they were just as confounded by us as we were of them. 

One minor complaint I had with the book was that it was very British.  In this, I mean Aldiss used a lot of British argot which went over my head.  There were occasionally sentences that I had no idea what they meant.  I don’t think I missed anything of importance, it was just my lack of understanding of certain passages. 

Overall, I liked the book.  I give it three stars out of five.  I think I could have given it four stars if there was one character for whom I had some empathy. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 1

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/3/2018, Reviewed 3/4/2018
4 stars

I actually liked this book of court intrigue.  At first, I found it pretty dry despite the gay love story subplot.  But soon I found myself caught up in the decision of who will be king.  Even the gay subplot becomes more intense as we find out homosexuality is punishable by death.  This Lambda Literary Award nominee for SF/Fantasy/Horror kept my attention.  It’s the first of a trilogy, so now I have to decide whether or not I’m going to read the rest of it.

The plot is actually quite complex.  Marhavad is a kingdom ruled by a regent.  There are two princes vying for the throne, both sons of the king, but half-brothers.  They are now of age and the regent has to choose one of them.  The people of the kingdom have taken sides as well, and the choosing of one over the other may cause civil war.

Enter Keshan, a lord who has prophetic visions.  He has foreseen himself bringing down the caste system that governs the lives of the people of Marhavad.  He supports the prince who says he will help dismantle the caste system.  But Keshan becomes distracted when he falls in love with the other prince’s younger brother, Jandu.  Jandu is not part of the court intrigue.  He is perhaps the greatest archer in the kingdom, rather full of himself, and quite closeted. 

The plot takes more twists and turns and has more major and minor characters, too many for a summary.  I found it quite interesting after a while.  Everything becomes more immediate and profound when Jandu witnesses the execution of two men found guilty of sodomy.  But it was hard to take sides when both princes have their good and bad points. 

Keshan and Jandu are the best drawn characters.  Since their subplot takes most of the book, they get the page time to be the most well-developed.  There’s another character Tarek, who is also well-developed.  Tarek is from the second caste while all the other characters are from the highest caste.  Tarek has no love of Jandu’s brother, and aligns himself with the other prince.  If this prince becomes king, Tarek is promised to be elevated to the top caste in return for his loyalty and service.  But Tarek has a secret too.  He has an intense self-loathing for his own homosexuality. 

There is also a system of magic and a race of magical beings which come to play in the book.  The magic is complex, based on spells, which in turn are actually invocations of the magical beings.  While we get to see some of this, I’m guessing it comes more into play in the later books. 

I was going to give this book three stars, but I found myself totally enrapt at the end.  Even though you know what is coming, I thought it was written well.  Especially knowing that it’s a trilogy, you know it can’t end well.  But I really liked the journey.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Twenty-Third Century: Nontraditional Love

Rafael Grugman
Completed 2/26/2018, Reviewed 2/28/2018
4 stars

When I think of satire, I usually think of something that has humor in it.  This book is a satire, but has very little humor.  It projects a future where the majority of people in the world are homosexual, and only about 10% are heterosexual.  These 10% are persecuted as deviants, a danger to society.  History and even literature is rewritten to represent the homosexual majority.  It’s a terrific book, but hard to read at times.  It takes all our current experience of oppression of gays and lesbians and turns it on its head.

The book is translated from Russian.  It’s the first translation from Russian I’ve read that I was able to follow well.  In fact, it’s the first translation I’ve read in a long while that was fairly easy to read.  The book takes place in the US, and all the names of the main characters are American.  This is different from books that take place in Russia where everybody seems to have nine names. 

The plot is fairly straight-forward.  No pun intended.  It follows Robert Marcus, a heterosexual who has a clandestine affair with Liza.  They hide from authorities by feigning marriage to the same gendered persons of another couple.  All four live in a two family house.  At night, they secretly change rooms to sleep their lovers while carrying on as homosexual couples during the day.  Normal reproduction is also illegal, but the couples pretend to have artificially inseminated children, the boy being raised by the men and the girl being raised by the women.  After a while Liza leaves this arrangement.  Robert tries to make a go of converting to being homosexual to make life easier for himself.  He meets an older man who dies in his bed.  Robert is accused of murder, confirming that heterosexuals are a menace to society.  The rest of the book follows Robert in a riveting 1984-Kafkaesque experience.

Everything about this book is done pretty well, the plot, the characters.  The one thing I found hard to take in the story, though, was that in the relationships, for both gays and lesbians, there was a “husband” and a “wife”.  I found this rather odd, unless that is the experience of the author in Russia, that couples have roles like straight couples.  I also thought that maybe this was part of the satire; it was hard to tell. 

Another thing was that the only character that is well developed is Marcus.  He’s the narrator, but still, I would have liked to have seen Liza fleshed out a little better.  There is a part of her that is rather “wifey” in the sense that she’s not a strong person, relying on the men in her life to tell her what to do.  Again, that may be part of the satirical effect, the woman being weaker than the man.  It is hard to tell.

Politically, I’d give this book five stars for what it attempts and accomplishes.  However, as an overall enjoyment experience, I’d have to give this book four stars.  While I was pretty gripped to the story, I wasn’t really emotionally involved enough, which is my requirement for giving five stars.  But if you like Kafka’s “The Trial” and Terry Gilliam’s film “Brasil”, this is definitely the book for you. 

One thing I should also note is that this book has a sequel.  However, I don’t think it has been published in English yet.  I did searches and didn’t find anything indicating that the author has published it at all.  So if you read it, be prepared for a cliff hanger that’s not going to be resolved any time soon.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Wolf at the Door

Jameson Currier
Completed 2/25/2018, reviewed 2/25/2018
3 stars

I wish I’d visited New Orleans at some point in my life.  It seems a world apart from anything in my experience.  My only exposure to it is mostly from literature, movies, and TV.  The Wolf at the Door is a new book to add to my list of virtual New Orleans visits.  And while it doesn’t give a grand tour of the city, it certainly has the tone one would expect from a story about a haunted, gay-owned and operated guesthouse in the French Quarter.  It’s a fun little book, light-reading with a couple of deep messages thrown in.  It was nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ images in SF/Fantasy/Horror.

Avery runs a guesthouse and his ex, Parker, runs the adjoining restaurant.  Together they own the building and run ragged with their businesses, barely keeping their heads above water.  Avery, who drinks, eats, and works too much, is starting to see ghosts, strange little balls of light, and a spectral wolf.  Are they real, or is it just the booze?  Surrounded by a cast of gay men and lesbians, Avery tries to get of the bottom of his visions.

The interesting thing about the book is that it’s not just a ghost story, it’s also a personal journey of spiritual rediscovery.  Avery grew up in a family of charlatan faith healers and snake handling evangelists.  His experience of God is not a healthy one.  Growing up gay only made matters worse.  Now with all the ghosties floating around, he soon learns that it’s possible to have a relationship with God that’s healthy and tangible.  I was surprised a little by this.  I felt it was introduced a little awkwardly, but eventually it wove into the story pretty well. 

The book also discusses slavery in Louisiana in the 1800s.  In addition to the horror that slavery is, we hear the story of a family full of interracial relationships with its slaves, the offspring of some are slaves and others are free.  It’s really frightening how cruel a family can be.  And the story is based on the author’s actual research on New Orleans life in the 1800s.

I did have a few problems with the book.  Avery reads an old journal from one of the family that originally owned the building, the family that I described in the preceding paragraph.  It is interesting at first, but goes on a little too long.  I felt the book dragged in spots during this part.  He also reads from an unpublished manuscript which drags a little.  Lastly, there isn’t much dialogue.  A majority of the story takes place in Avery’s head.  Sometimes this drags a bit too.  It does help us understand though that he is potentially an unreliable narrator.  I would have liked to have seen more interaction with the other people at the guesthouse, though.  They were setup interestingly and I thought could have had a lot more participation in the narrative.

Overall I enjoyed the book.  It’s full of flawed but endearing characters.  It’s a quick read despite dragging in a few parts.  I give the book three out of five stars.