Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 12/21/2014, Reviewed 12/31/2014
5 stars

I finally got around to reading the first book of this trilogy, having read the sequels, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt, earlier this year.  Much to my relief, I found “The Curse of Chalion” to be an awesome book.  It has the same basic components found in the later novels, but this time, the whole was the greater than the sum of its parts. I was enthralled.

“Curse” follows Cazaril, who has just escaped nearly two years as a galley slave for the Roknari, the enemies of Chalion.  For some reason, he had been condemned to that fate after being ordered to surrender the castle he was defending from the Roknari while the rest of the soldiers were ransomed and released.  He returns to Chalion physically and emotionally damaged and assumes a position of tutor to Iselle, the royesse (princess) and Betriz, her lady-in-waiting, under the patronage of her grandmother, the dowager provincara, for whom he was a page before entering the military.  There, Cazaril discovers that nearly that the whole royal family is under a dark curse, and he seems to be the one person who can break it.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review.  I knew I loved it, but I wasn’t sure why.  After a lot of reflection, I think the reason is the main character, Cazaril.  He’s a broken man, hoping to find a place for himself in his old world, no matter how lowly.  He is empty, defeated, feeling less than everyone around him.  He’d rather not engage, let alone talk about himself, lest tears well up, plummeting him into a debilitating crying fit.  Reading this book at this point in my life, I could relate to brokenness, sidestepping conversations, lying in response to the question “How are you?”, and wondering what passing remark or obscure reference will tip me over the edge. 

Yet through all this dejectedness, Cazaril finds he is wanted, needed, and loved.  He is even willing to give up his life to save the lives of the people who have shown him kindness.  And by being the hero for Chalion, he also redeems himself.

Once again, the religion of Bujold’s universe is a main character in the story.  The five gods, the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and the Bastard, play major roles in the people of Chalion.  The Mother and Daughter are featured in this novel.  At one point, Cazaril finds he has become a saint, touched by one of the gods and given a second site that lets him see auras and ghosts, and hearing the gods’ whisperings.  This gift permits Cazaril a reprieve from a demon who wants to steal his soul for dabbling in death magic, and possession by the soul of the man who died because of it. 

The basic plot of this book is very simple, saving a kingdom from an evil usurper.  But it’s the journey of Cazaril through his own personal demons, as well as through the spiritual nightmare he’s put himself in that makes the book so astounding.  The supporting characters are also great.  I loved Iselle and Betriz.  Through the book, they grow from annoying, vapid teenagers to confident, powerful young adults.

I also really liked Umegat, a groom to the current roya (king) of Chalion.  He’s another broken man who carries a powerful spiritual experience within himself as well.  At first, he seems a little like Lurch from the Addams Family.  But he transforms into a profound confidant, mentor, guardian, and friend to Cazaril.

The last thing I want to mention is the sensuality of the book.  Bujold created characters that, while not all beautiful (though of course, some are very much so), have an earthiness that was viscerally compelling.  Even in reflecting on the book while I write this review, I can still feel the powerful attraction I had to these people.  I think this signifies that Bujold created real people, not cardboard characters in a fantasy opera.  I cared deeply for them.  Though it’s easy to tell how the story will end (even without reading the sequels first), I wanted to see Cazaril heroic journey and how Iselle comes into her own.  After the last page, I wanted to hug them tightly and whisper in their ears, “See, you did it”.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars for the depth of Cazaril and the supporting characters, and for the last sentence of my last paragraph.  I think if I had read this book first, I might have had a different experience with the sequels, though they were all supposed to be stand-alone stories.  Or maybe I just read this book at the right time in my life to finally get what Bujold trying to build in her universe of Chalion.  .    

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Choice of Gods

Clifford D. Simak
Completed 12/24/2014, Reviewed 12/27/2014
5 stars

I first fell in love with Clifford Simak while reading his award winning novelette, “The Big Front Yard”.  Two novels later, I am still enamored with the way he juxtaposes rural America and science fiction.  In this novel, Simak’s characters are the few remaining humans on earth after a mysterious rapture has taken most people to another planet.  Of the remaining few, most have developed instantaneous interstellar thought-travel, and all are nearly immortal. Only Jason and Martha Whitney, a small tribe of Native Americans, and some scattered others are left to a world that has slowly returned to a nearly pre-modern human state, except for the robots.  Now after 5000 years, the raptured masses have rediscovered their planet of origin and want to return, threatening the idyllic life of the remaining few, and the Eden-like state to which the Earth has returned.

Most technology has decayed, except for the huge population of nearly indestructible robots.  The
pre-rapture population created the robots to serve humans.  Bereft of their prime object, they are left to figure out for themselves how to satisfy their primary programming.  The Whitneys have a few robots to help them farm the land.  One small group live in a monastery, reviewing theological writings in search of religious truths left unanswered by humans.  The Native Americans eschew the robots, reclaiming their ancestral subsistence lifestyle.  The rest of the robots live in the decaying metropolitan remnants, searching for meaning.

What I love best about Simak’s work is the way he uses prose to convey the peaceful existence of his characters in their rural settings.  This is not a long a book, so there are not multipage odes to rustic life.  It is simply the way he advances the plot through walks in the forests and along rivers that create the sylvan mood that puts the reader into a state of calm.  When the prospect of billions of returning humans nears, it not only threatens the characters, but the comforting state the reader has reached through the prose.

There is only one alien in this story, but it epitomizes what I have loved so much of the few of Simak’s work that I’ve read.  His aliens are not anthropomorphized earth animals, like Card’s piggies in Speaker for the Dead, Niven’s Ringworld horse and tiger creatures, or Leiber’s cringe-worthy Tigerishka of The Wanderer.  They are always truly weird.  Here our one alien most closely resembles a can of worms.  I also really like how Simak makes mention of the inability to communicate with aliens.  It’s not just language, but the frame of reference for language.  While it’s great that we can communicate with other sentient species in most science fiction, the tack Simak takes seems more plausible, at least from the perspective of early contact.

Most importantly, I admire the theme of the novel.  Left unchecked, humanity will deplete the Earth of all its resources.  Once removed, nature can reclaim much but not all of what it lost.  A small population can live in harmony with nature, though it is nice to have some robotic help.  Simak loved his rural Wisconsin roots and conveys that admirably in his work.  It recalls for me my own desire to live in a small town near natural wonders, despite the practical problems of high cost of living and low wages, just to have that experience that we give up in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  Though it could have been longer, with more development of secondary characters, it is a beautiful work with meaning and message that tugs at the heart of who and where I would like to be.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Speaker for the Dead

Orson Scott Card
Completed 12/3/2014, Reviewed 12/16-26/2014
5 stars

This being the review of a sequel, be aware it contains spoilers of its predecessor. 

The sequel to “Ender’s Game” is another difficult book to read.  It continues the story of Ender as a 35 year old man, though it takes place 3000 years after the events of the first book, thanks to relativistic travel.  As a way of atoning for his leading military forces to destroy the “buggers”, he becomes a Speaker for the Dead, a person called upon at a person’s death to speak to the life of that person, the good and the bad.  He did this initially when he finds a larval queen bugger who communicates with him telepathically and explains the history and intentions of the race.  Ender recorded this in a book, anonymously using the name Speaker for the Dead.  The book became a sensation, inspiring others to become speakers. 

Humans now live on one hundred planets, one of which is Lusitania, colonized by a mission of Brazilian Catholics and home to the pequeninos, or “piggies”, the only intelligent life discovered since the xenocide of the buggers.  When Pipo, the lead xenologist (alien anthropologist), is murdered by the piggies, one of his assistants makes a request for a speaker.  Ender, being the closest, fulfills the request, uncovering a dysfunctional community and piecing together the biological and sociological mystery that is the piggies. 

There are several themes in the book that made it difficult for me to read.  First, the relationships of the main characters are profoundly dysfunctional.  At the beginning of the book, Novinha is a young girl whose parents died discovering the cure to a fatal virus which decimated the colony.  She grows up an orphan in the shadow of her parents who have been put on the fast track to sainthood.  She becomes a xenobiologist, marries a man she doesn’t love, and neglects her five children.  Novinha knows the reason why Pipo was murdered.  She hides this information so that Pipo’s son, her true love Libo, doesn’t suffer the same fate.  And it’s all this hiding that is the source of all the dysfunction in her life.

Card created an incredible cast of characters with the children of the scientists.  They all have distinct personalities and issues because of the circumstances of Pipo’s death and Novinha’s secrets.  They are exacerbated by growing up in a tight-knit, gossipy, stereotypical Catholic-controlled community.   I think the brilliance of Card is in the children, and that’s what made it so cringe-worthy.  They are distinct, troubled, and even tortured souls, like their mother.  I have often found that children in science fiction novels, and more often films, are saccharine, creating melodrama rather than real emotion.  Here, the drama is tense and gut-wrenching. 

Another relationship that’s difficult is Ender and his sister, Val.  After the horrors Ender endures in the first book, his only companion and support has been his sister.  He’s traveled the hundred worlds with her for 3000 relativistic years, but now must leave her for his next speaking.  By going to Lusitania, he will still be in his 30s upon his return, while his sister will be in her 80s.  It makes for another gut-wrenching scene. 

Lastly, the world of the piggies creates one of the most difficult moral dilemmas I’ve ever read in a science fiction novel.  Their morality is based on their biology, but seems anathema to us.  It is the source of all the conflict between the humans and the piggies.  And it conveys the clear message that we cannot judge the actions of others unless we understand who they are.  It is perhaps the most difficult concept in humanity.  As difficult as it is to take in the context of human-alien relationships, it makes it that much more accusatory when we transpose it on ourselves and our own human conflicts.  While reading it, the irony of author’s own xenophobia towards the LGBT community was not lost on me. 

The one thing I didn’t like about the book was the stereotypical portrayal of Catholicism.  Like most religions, it is expressed in many different ways across its body of believers.  I acknowledge that there are many places and communities where the Church still wields great power, control, and repression over its members.  At the same time, there are other expressions where there is love, acceptance, and healthy dialogue.  Card’s choice of this experience of Catholicism would be equivalent to my writing a story with a Mormon mission peopled with polygamist families with 14 year old wives and controlling interest in corporations which manufacture products forbidden to the Church members.  I much preferred the more modern treatment of missionary work in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

This is another 5 star book by Card.  He creates an incredible world with difficult issues and emotions.  It is perhaps one of the most profound Hugo winners in its tackling of the morality challenges of first contact.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ender’s Game

Orson Scott Card
Completed 11/27/2014, Reviewed 12/3/2014
5 stars

This was my second reading of “Ender’s Game”.  I loved it the first time, though I don’t remember the reasons.  That’s part of why I write reviews now, to document my feelings about a book, and hopefully give enough explanation that later I can read it and go, “Oh, yeah”.  Reading it again, I still loved it, and this time I can say with confidence the reason: this book is horrifying.

“Ender’s Game” is one of the most widely read and well-loved contemporary science fiction novels of all time, save perhaps for “Dune” and a few others.  It tops World Without End’s Most Read list and several of Goodread’s lists.  It’s about a brilliant boy who is a “Third”, the third child in a society where a family is normally only allowed two children.  In exchange for being allowed to have a Third, his family promises him to the military.  At age 6, after being abused by his older brother, Peter, for most of his young life, an officer comes to take him to military school.  Ender’s only regret is leaving his beloved older sister, Valentine, who protected him from Peter.  In the orbiting academy, Ender’s training is a lonely affair.  Set up by the teachers to be generally ignored or hated by his peers, he has to rely on the skills he learned from surviving life with Peter.  By age 10, he progresses to command school where he learns he is humanity’s last hope in the war against an alien race.

First of all, this book is an easy read.  It grabs you from the first few pages and doesn’t release you until the very end.  As much as I like prosy, literary novels, I also enjoy quickly paced, matter of fact writing.  We spend a lot of time in Ender’s head, and some in Val’s, but the pace never slackens.  Ender’s life in military school is a series of tougher and tougher obstacles, both military and interpersonal, and his conquering them proves  that Ender has what it takes to defeat the enemy Buggers.

What’s horrifying to me is that all this happens to a boy.  Though young, Ender never has a childhood, from the abuse by his brother to the indoctrination and conflicts of the school.  At age 6, he despairs profoundly, and unbelievable rage percolates just below the surface of his brilliant, logistical mind.  He learns that he will never really have friends and discovers that no adult will protect or comfort him.  Reading the book, it’s easy to forget that Ender is so young.  I think I was more conscious of it this time, and that’s why I was so horrified.

Questions of morality arise from Ender’s circumstances.  Does being manipulated into a wunderkind strategist and killing machine excuse him from the guilt of his actions?  Is it brainwashing?  Does he ever really have a choice?  Throughout the book, Ender struggles internally with both his inner and outer demons.  But again, it is horrific (I know I’m overusing the word) that a child must endure this.  And ultimately, it made me wonder how easy it would be to turn a young victim into the next Hitler.

I also have to mention that I was apprehensive about rereading this novel and it’s sequel.  I have read a lot about the author’s attitude and actions toward the LGBT community and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to judge the book without bias.  Although he has backed down on a lot of his hard-line stance, I wonder if he did this simply to counter the boycotting of the movie version which was released last year.  I guess there’s a part of me that won’t believe him until I see a photo taken of him dancing with a gay person at a bar, a la Anita Bryant.  That said, I was rather shocked I was able to enjoy the book and enjoy and review it on its own merits.  

I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  It evoked a tremendous emotional response in me.  Instead of using that same word again, I’ll say that it devastated me.  I think this is a must read.  And despite the fact that it takes place in the future in zero g during an alien war, it’s ultimately soft science fiction, a morality tale of a most extreme form.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Citadel of the Autarch

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/22/2014, Reviewed 11/23/2014
5 stars

The final book in “The Book of the New Sun” tetralogy is both an easier read than the first three and a complex, unresolved ending that leaves you realizing that this series is a complex, multi-layered saga that requires multiple reads and active discussion and analysis.  It more or less answers my question as to why I had such a tough time staying focused through a lot of the prose of the earlier books.  This series is an enigma and it has only been by reading some analysis of it online that I am beginning to understand what was really happening throughout it.  I’m not going to try to convey that in this review.  It gives away too much of the dramatic, crazy ending.  You’ll have to read it yourself, perhaps multiple times, as I probably will to really understand just how great a writer Wolfe is.

Severian continues his wandering north to the war zone between the Commonwealth and the people of the north.  He raises a soldier from the dead using the Claw of the Conciliator, and they both end up at a something of a M*A*S*H unit run by religious order which used to be the possessor the Claw.  There he recovers and finds himself the judge of story contest to determine who will marry a beautiful female soldier.  Before he makes his decision, he is tasked to move an ascetic from a castle in path of the war.  There he learns more about a race of people who are actually aliens watching over humans.  When he returns the hospital is destroyed and most of his acquaintances are dead or dying.  He continues toward the war, enlisting, and being wounded in battle.  He is saved by the Autarch who then reveals Severian’s destiny. 

This book is a little easier reading because there are more dialogues and exposition.  It starts to tie up many loose ends left by the first three books.  The prose is still gorgeous, but in this book, you really begin to question Severian as a narrator:  what were lies, what was truth, and ultimately, how many Severians are there.  Yes, I used the plural.

TBOTNS is considered a science-fantasy.  The first three books feel like fantasy, but this conclusion reveals that a lot of it is based in science fiction.  We discover that there are aliens shepherding human-kind through its destiny.  There is time travel bouncing the aliens around Severian’s life.  There are parallel universes, energy rich black holes, and “stellar weapons”.  You get inklings throughout the series that there is much more science fiction that what you think you see on the surface, but you don’t begin to understand it all until this last segment.

One analysis I read called TBOTNS the Ulysses of SF.  There are puzzles and questions throughout the book.  There’s a story that the publisher asked Wolfe to add single paragraph at the end that wrapped up the story with a “and they lived happily ever after”.  Wolfe instead wrote a coda piece that performs this function.  Considering that at the end, I thought, “What? Wait a minute.  Noooo!   Yesssss!  Argh!”, I’ll have to pick up that fifth book.  There is also a companion book of essays about the series by Wolfe called “Castle of the Otter”, a mis-quote of the title of this fourth book.  I’ll have to pick that up too.

Don’t let that discourage you from reading this.  It is an amazing work, with glorious prose, beautiful characters, and a brilliant, complex universe.  It leaves you with, “I have to know more!” rather than a simple “I don’t get it”.  This series is one that at some point, I will want to read at least one more time.  I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sword of the Lictor

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/16/2014, Reviewed 11/22/2014
5 stars

 “Sword of the Lictor” is the third installment of the Book of the New Sun.  It continues the journey of Severian, a torturer who cannot seem to find his place in the world.  The story picks up with him in the destination of his exile journey.  Once again, he shows mercy to a “client”, necessitating another flee from possible indictment and more progress on returning the Claw of the Conciliator to its rightful guardians.

One of the basic themes of the series is relationship versus aloneness.  The theme runs through each book, but in this installment, Wolfe really drove it home for me.  This time, Severian loses a woman he loves and a foster son.  Being immersed in a feeling of aloneness and abandonment myself at this time, I was devastated by these losses.  I related to his stoic retelling of these trials, as well as the moments when his emotions burst through and overwhelmed him.  It reinforces the idea that while we may have the occasional companionship, ultimately, we must forge our way through life alone.  Nothing is permanent, and the randomness of life never lets us get too comfortable with the people whose paths may cross ours.

Unlike the last book in the series, “Sword” seems to have a stronger sense of movement and purpose.  While it still ends with Severian on the road, it feels less meandering.  He’s determined to return the Claw, and must get through numerous trials to accomplish this.  In one very intense sequence, Severian is staying with a small family in the mountains.  Their lives are often disrupted by a creature that incorporates into itself the life force and memories of the people it devours.  This is a more evil, perverted variation on the corpse eating feast in the last book.  Instead of sacramentality, the monster uses the essence of its victims to manipulate those it stalks into becoming its next meal.  The scene is truly terrifying as Severian tries to keep the family from willingly running directly into the mouth of doom. 

Severian’s other encounters are equally enthralling, including the climax of the book, where he learns the true nature of Dr. Talos and Badlanders, the leader of the acting troupe from the first two books and his lumbering giant sidekick.  The exposition and ensuing battle scenes are riveting. 

Again, the prose is the star of this book.  But more like the first book, “Shadow of the Torturer”, it didn’t distract me from the plot and the action as much.  There were still times when I was lulled by the glorious descriptions, losing track of the action, but less often than during the second book.  Perhaps that goes back to my point about “Sword” seeming to a better sense of purpose in itself. 

Like its predecessors, this book was nominated for and won multiple awards.  Wolfe’s imagination and writing continue to be top notch.  I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  I was incredibly moved and devastated by the loss in this book.  If I had read this when my own life was more stable, I may not have been as emotionally affected.  But since I was, it meets my criteria of being an excellent book that invokes a strong emotional reaction. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Claw of the Conciliator

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/9/2014, Reviewed 11/16/2014
4 stars

 I finally began reading the rest of the Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe.  “Claw” is the second in the series and picks up with our torturer Severian alone on his exile journey to his new home.  Like the first book, “Shadow of the Torturer”, this book is chock full of gorgeous prose and insight into Severian’s character.  I loved it, loved reading it, but felt it suffered from the usual plight of the sophomore book in a fantasy series: a sense of meandering.

The book follows Severian on his continuing journey to his new home in exile.  It begins with his being accompanied by Jonas, who he met at some time between the end of the first book, and the beginning of this one.  They are searching for the company of diverse and interesting people Severian was travelling with before losing them at the end of the first book.

Jonas is a wonderful character.  He has become Severian’s traveling companion, friend, and confident, not unlike Sam Gamgee in LOTR.  Jonas seems to have an unflagging desire to help and support Severian, but it is not exactly made clear why until well into the book.  And even there, it’s a little murky.  It didn’t matter though, I found him incredibly interesting and likeable. 

Ultimately, though, the book is about Severian’s experience with the “Claw”, a stolen gem that was slipped into his satchel unknowingly.  It is a relic of the Conciliator, aka the New Sun, a sort of savior whose return is supposed to be imminent and necessary for the restoration of the dying sun.  The Claw has amazing powers that Severian doesn’t quite understand, but tries to use, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  He is now its guardian, and he recognizes that he must return it to the religious order that formerly guarded it, and he regularly switches allegiances and makes oaths he later breaks, just to further his quest to return the Claw.

There is one scene that really sticks out.  Thecla, the woman to whom he showed mercy in the first book by letting her commit suicide rather than suffer under his torture, returns.  At a feast by the revolutionary to whom she was consort, her roasted body is served.  Severian attains Thecla’s memories and experiences by eating her flesh and drinking a strange potion.  Like a cross between Eucharist and the rituals of some remote primitive peoples, this sacramental meal completes the intimacy between them.  Now a part of him, her essence aids him throughout the rest of his journey.

What really struck me again about this book was the prose.  It is written so beautifully that every paragraph sent me into a blur of images and feelings.  Unfortunately, this was also part of the book’s downfall.  I often would find myself so lulled by the prose, reveling in its images and feelings, that I would miss the action.  I regularly had to go back and reread sections to see how and where where I missed the action because it so seamlessly blended into Severian’s thoughts and reflections.  It accentuated that meandering feeling that made it hard to determine where the plot was going.

But I can’t fault the book too terribly for this.  It is so beautiful, and the universe and characters are so interesting, that it’s hard to stop reading.  Even though I felt that the plot meandered without a clear direction, it’s still an amazing read.  It’s easy to see why the book was nominated for five and won two awards.  Gene Wolfe is a terrific writer.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars, that is, it’s an excellent book.  It just didn’t have the emotional impact “Shadow of the Torturer” gave me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson
Completed 10/31/2014, Reviewed 11/1/2014
2 stars

Life happened after reading about 100 pages of this book.  My partner of 10 years decided to leave me.  This probably tainted my opinion of “Snow Crash”.  I was already having a hard time concentrating on anything, and I just wanted to explode out of my skin.  But rather than finding solace in reading, all the things about this book that were supposed to be great felt self-conscious and arrogant.  This book came out in the 1992.  So perhaps I needed a more 90’s sardonic mind-set, with less distraction by real life events that made this book feel like an exercise in narcissism. 

“Snow Crash” takes place in a dystopian future where the government has broken down and the country is organized and run by franchises of former entities:  the CIA/Library of Congress conglomerate known as the CIC, Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, Bob’s Police Security, and Uncle Enzo’s Mafia franchise of pizza delivery chains.  The protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (yeah, talk about narcissistic choice), is a hacker who co-created a virtual universe used by millions of computer users.  By day, he lives in a storage unit, delivers pizza for the Mafia, practices sword fighting with his katanas, and mines data for the CIC.  After crashing the Mafia car on a nearly failed attempt to deliver a pizza in 30 minutes, he retreats to his Metaverse, where he discovers a computer virus that destroying the minds of other hackers.  Called Snow Crash, the virus practically destroys his former hacker partner, sending our Hiro on a mission to destroy the virus and its creators. 

The one thing I liked about the book was that the concept of the virus was based on Sumerian mythology.  I found myself trudging through the narrative, waiting for more discussion of the gods and the myth of the Tower of Babel.  This might be the boring part for some readers, being long, almost non-fiction accounts of the Sumerian myths.  But I found the opposite true.  I enjoyed those parts while finding the action tedious and difficult to follow.

I was really confused by the timeline of the story.  Time passes but feels unaccounted for, creating gaps in the development of the relationships in the story.  The secondary character, the 15 year old skateboarding Kourier named Y.T., which stands for Yours Truly (another ugh), is introduced when she gets Hiro’s pizza to its destination after he crashes his car.  From that point on, they become friends, with her eventually helping Hiro with his mission, and getting into trouble on her own as well.  Somewhere in there, this relationship developed, but I have no idea where.  Towards the end of the book, Hiro reflects on all the times he spent with Y.T., but I don’t remember any of that development. 

I liked a lot of the concepts of the book.  The Metaverse is an interesting prediction of the now ubiquitous MMORPGs like Second Life and World of Warcraft.  However, reading it over 20 years after publication feels like the book is nothing more than “a guy and his MMORPG character”, not unlike Stephenson’s later book “The Diamond Age”, which I loved, being dated enough to be reduced to a story about a girl and her tablet.  

The dystopian organization of the remnants of the U.S. was pretty interesting too, creating the environment for the bad guys to take over the world via Snow Crash and the Sumerian mythology.  But eventually, this felt derivative or perhaps like a deconstruction of a Robert Ludlum spy novel where some unassuming guy foils the megalomaniac. 

Perhaps I need to reread this book again in a few years.  Given a return to normalcy in my life, I might have a more open mind for this darling of science fiction fans and literary critics alike.  But it made me trepidatious about taking on Stephenson’s massive tomes like “Anathem”.  I give this book 2 stars, with the right to re-review sometime in the future when my own perspective is perhaps a little more tolerant. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Foundation’s Edge - Hugo winner 1983

Isaac Asimov
Completed 6/21/2013, Reviewed 6/22/2013
4 stars

“Foundation’s Edge” presented a challenge: to read the first three books in the Foundation series.  None of these were Hugo winners.  They were published before the awards began.  Other readers had advised me to read the first three as well.  I thought it wouldn’t be too bad.  All three books consisted of short stories, written independently for s.f. magazines before being collected into “novels.” 

“Foundation” began well.  I loved the first four stories.  They dealt with the establishment of the Foundation, and its first several crises.  I began to lose it in the fifth story.  It was about the beginnings of the space traders.  Somehow, the commerce aspect just didn’t grab me.  I found the next two stories, told in “Foundation and Empire,” rather tedious as well.  I think they fell into the category of many short stories I read:  Introducing a lot of characters without much development, leaving me not caring about their plight.  I also found that as the stories progressed, there was way too much exposition, extensive dialogues and monologues to reveal and move the plot.

“Second Foundation” consisted of two stories, one shorter story which was okay, and a longer story which was really great.  The story of “The Mule” was interesting, imaginative, and full of action.  The character development was much better.  I cared about each character introduced.  It was a great setup for beginning “Foundation’s Edge.”

“Edge” was the first of the Foundation novels to begin life as an actual novel, rather than as a collection of short stories.  Asimov’s writing style was much tighter, more reminiscent of “The Gods Themselves” than the earlier Foundation stories.  The characters are very well developed.  I cared about all of them, even the bad guys.

Once again, Asimov relies on exposition to explain and move the plot, but somehow, here, it was much more interesting and seemed more appropriate.  The relationships between the characters created a more natural environment for the lengthy descriptions and reveals.  And Asimov’s writing style was clearly more mature, as I was able to follow and enjoy the dialogues and monologues.  Unlike the earlier stories, the exposition really moved the plot forward.

It was interesting to see the role of women change throughout the series.  The first three books were written in the 40s.  “Edge” was from the 80s.  Out of the first nine stories, there are only two female characters of interest, and they are in “Second Foundation.”  In “Edge,” there are female characters throughout the story.  They are still archetypal:  bitch, goddess, lover, subservient wife.  But they feel a little more naturally a part of the story.   Whereas in “Second,” I had the feeling Asimov was trying to say, “Hey look, I can write about women!  See, women can be in science fiction!” 

There is one point that makes me wonder if my feelings about the book and acceptance of exposition isn’t tainted.  The plot contains a search for the genesis, the search for Earth, the source planet.  I always find genesis stories incredibly intriguing.  This may have made me more willing to accept the expositions, rather than be bored by them.  In my final analysis of this book, I’m going to assume that the book is better because it held me better than most of the preceding stories.

“Foundation’s Edge is a great sequel” to an uneven series.  I give it 4 stars (out of 4 in my rating system, 5 being reserved for books that change my life).  Where the crises in some of the earlier stories seemed forced, this crisis seemed a natural part of the Foundation universe.  It was well worth getting through the first trilogy to read, understand and appreciate this book.

POST SCRIPT:  “The Mule” from “Second Foundation” won a retro Hugo for 1946.  I didn’t realize this until after I wrote this review.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Uplift War - 1988 Hugo Winner

David Brin
Finished 4/26/2013, Reviewed 4/27/2013
4 stars

I loved this book.  I liked it more than Startide Rising.  It read like great science fiction:  Aliens that weren’t too cartoonish, contemporary theme of environmentalism transposed on another planet in the future, sapient chimps, and characters I cared about. 

There were a lot of characters, similar to Startide Rising.  In that book, I had a tough time keeping all the dolphins and aliens straight in my head.  In particular, the dolphins had names which all ran together for me.  In Uplift, there were two main chimps, aliens, and humans.  The chimps had human names, which were easier to remember.  The two main aliens were also easier to keep separate.  The invading aliens were a little confusing at first, but because of their titles, their characteristics were easier to follow and keep separate.

I loved the theme of guerrilla environmentalism.  While topical when the book was written, it seemed more profound today.  There is great appeal to turning “primitive” and fighting the invasion forces of the scheming alien establishment.  Here, the last free human, an allied alien, and a band of sentient chimps are forced into hiding in the mountains, don clothing and weapons made from local plant life, and fight the invading forces using guerrilla tactics.  Initially a spoiled playboy, the human scouts through the mountains unshaven, in a loin cloth, making tarzan calls.  Through this transformation, he comes to realize who he is and what his gifts are.  And the allied alien, also a somewhat spoiled child, comes into her adulthood as well though the same process.

The intelligent chimps are also great characters.  It was so easy to empathize and identify with the struggle to be recognized as being equal with the other intelligent races, despite the fact that they range from the heroic to the villainous, from the motivated to the complacent, just like humans and the other alien races.

What was significant for me was that all the main characters, including the invading aliens, went through some type of transformation.  Some faced their fears, found their courage, found their intelligence, and learned from or at least recognized their mistakes.

In reading the book, I couldn’t help but think it was highly influenced by the Star Wars era.  It had action, great characters, and a monumental struggle for the right to exist.  Except for the necessary special effects, this book could easily have translated into a great film at the time it was written.  Now that we have the computer technology, I think it should be.  It is a timeless story of fighting oppression, coming to ones’ own, and saving a planet.  From the first few pages, it never lost its grip on me.  I couldn’t help but give it 4 stars.

Friday, November 7, 2014

1980 Fountains of Paradise

 Arthur C. Clarke
 Read 1/2013, reviewed 4/15/2013
 3 stars

I read this book before “Rama,” but am writing this after my review of it.  Despite this book having a little more action and characterization than “Rama,” I had a tougher time getting into it.  It didn’t grab me until the exciting climax.  The juxtaposition of the ancient King’s biography and the construction of the gardens were interesting, but still didn’t grip me.  The same held true with the conflict with the monks. 

As with Clarke’s other books I’ve read, “Fountains” is really well written.  His descriptions of everything is vivid and precise: the science/engineering, the characters thoughts and actions, the history.  But again, it reads more like non-fiction than fiction.  The characters don’t have emotional arcs.  They just are.  Things happen to them.  They respond.  It’s all very sterile. 

I give this book 3 stars because of the imagination that went into this book, and for his amazing descriptive abilities.  If I could have just felt something for the characters, I would have given it four stars.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch
Completed 10/19/2014, Reviewed 11/2/2014
4 stars

I began reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” having heard a lot of hype about the book.  It had a fantastic response to an online group read several years ago and a friend of mine said it was the best fantasy book she’d ever read.  So I went into it with a lot of trepidation.  The title has a misleading Celtic sound to it, though it’s set in a pseudo-Italian world of city-states with gangs and a Mafia like organization of organized crime.  Once I got over my preconceptions, I found the book exciting and highly enjoyable. 

Locke Lamora is an orphan brought up in a gang known as the Gentlemen Bastards.  An ornery and devious fellow, he shows a lot of promise at an early age as a mastermind of complex scams.  He is mentored by a blind priest, who is actually neither blind nor a priest, of the temple of the often unacknowledged thirteenth god of a pantheon of twelve.  In a nice storytelling style, we learn of his apprenticing while being led through his most complex scam and eventually, the main plot of the book, the bringing down of an evil “Grey King” who tries to destroy the crime syndicate and take over the city-state as his own.

The best thing about this book is the characterization.  Locke and his gang are extremely likeable characters.  They make a charming fraternity of orphans, somewhat akin to Robin Hood and his band, stealing from the rich.  The one thing they never learned from their mentor, though, was what to do with their accumulated wealth.  So they know how to steal, buy a stage costumer’s dream of disguises, create fine cuisine, and in the process amass quite a large fortune.  And they do it all in the most amusing ways. 

This book was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award.  Its universe is well-realized, particularly the religious aspect. Having a world with gods, temples, priests, and acolytes adds an interesting and often intriguing dimension to a story.  Lynch realizes it by having the Gentlemen Bastards spend months as acolytes in the different temples, learning the rituals and behaviors of the other communities, specifically so they can disguise themselves as followers of the other gods in their scams.  This was very interesting, particularly the death goddess cult, which induces near-death, and sometimes deadly, experiences in its acolytes. 

Another aspect of the fantasy is the mystery of the previous occupants of the planet.  The world of Locke Lamora was built by unknown aliens who left cities of unearthly glass and metal structures.  The humans who later inhabited the cities don’t know the nature of the materials, but live in and relish the beauty and strength of the structures.  I find this very intriguing and would be interested in finding out if the origin is to be revealed later in the series.

There were times toward the end where I felt the book dragged a bit.  I felt like it short-circuited the buildup to the denouement.  Aside from this misstep, which may be my own perception and impatience, the climax is faced-paced and exciting. I highly recommend this book.  I had a lot of fun reading it.  I give this book 4 stars.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Gateway - Hugo Award Review 1978

1978 The Gateway
Frederik Pohl
Read 2/2013, reviewed 4/26/13
4 stars

This book was a surprise to me.  I had read several short stories by Pohl and didn’t care for them.  Gateway had me almost from the get-go.  I loved the construction of the novel:  narration of the main plot, alternating with therapy sessions, interspersed with technical reports and classifieds.  The reports and classified added a flavoring to the novel.  They were not directly tied with the plot, but added to the feel of living on the planet as a prospector. 

The main character was brash, arrogant, and immature.  I can’t say he grows through the novel, but we get to understand why he is the way he is, and what holds him back from growing.  Sometimes the therapy sessions are a little annoying, because that’s where you see his immaturity quite bluntly.  But they are necessary in getting him to a resolution.

The concept of the gateway is really interesting.  I really liked the idea of using alien technology as much as is understood, and having occasional fatal repercussions because of the lack of full knowledge of how the technology works.  It’s an interesting twist, an one of the earliest concepts of reverse engineering which I’ve encountered.  It also explores the concept of a community of people dealing with a high risk profession.  I could particularly relate to the main character’s fear of risk.

I gave this book 4 stars because I was so quickly engrossed in the plot, the characters, the concepts, and the irony.  I more or less saw the ending coming, but was pleased by how it unfolded.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Dark Defiles

Richard K. Morgan
Completed 10/11/2014, Reviewed 10/13/2014
4 stars

I was able to get my hands on an advanced reading copy (AARC) of “The Dark Defiles” by Richard K. Morgan from my SF guy at Powell’s books.  So this review was written a mere 6 days after its publication date.  I felt honored to get to read it ahead of time, and felt quite fulfilled.  It’s a worthy conclusion to the “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy.  But if I could change one thing about it, I’d cut about a hundred pages. 

 “Defiles” continues the saga of Ringil Eskiath, the gay, outcast war-hero and his two sidekicks, Archeth the black, Lesbian, half-human half-immortal warrior daughter of an alien race of engineers, and Egar the Dragonbane, the straight, berserker barbarian.  The story begins as they realize their journey to find the body of an ancient evil king nearing resurrection seems to be a farce.  But they soon get separated and end up on two different paths toward what seems like the destruction of the world.

Richard K. Morgan has become one of my favorite writers this year.  I read the first two books in the series, as well as his first book, “Altered Carbon”, a science fiction tale.  He writes dark, cynical, intense prose.  His books are incredibly readable.  My main complaint about “Dark” is the length.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to pick it up, and I never wanted to put it down.  He has perhaps the most readable action scenes I’ve ever read.  His characters often wallow in moroseness and self-doubt, but there is always a touch of humor and downright sardonicism.  And even when all seems to be lost, the characters always come up with a darkly humorous thought or statement to add an ironic touch to the scene. 

The book only suffers on the one point, the length.  It felt like the publisher decided that Morgan was now a big enough draw to not require an editor.  As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I felt that there were scenes and descriptions which could have been edited out to make the story go a little faster.  While there are many books that make me wish I could stay in the universe longer, this one made me feel like I had really come to a stopping point with its conclusion.  I got to the end and I was satisfied. 

Like the first two books, “Defiles” is full of sex and gore.  While quite in your face, it always seems appropriate to the story.  The universe Morgan creates is vulgar, and not just in the sense of not being polite, but also in the sense of being down with the common people.  The story is high fantasy, but is grounded in the outcast. 

I think what I enjoyed the most about this book was the interaction with the supernatural.  While there are gods and demons in the previous books, they are more in our characters’ faces than before.  They are all basically tricksters, interfering with humans as a game to achieve their ends.  Since they appear more often, they are better realized than in the first books.  Whenever one appeared, I found myself excited, quickening my reading pace. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s far better than “The Cold Commands”, but it didn’t have the same emotional punch the first book, “The Steel Remains”, gave me.  But Morgan has opened me to a new world of fantasy and science fiction I haven’t really enjoyed much before.  I’m glad I discovered him and look forward to reading the rest of his work over the next few years.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Immortals

James Gunn
Completed 9/30/2014, Reviewed 10/13/2014
4 stars

I vaguely remember a TV series called “The Immortals” back from the ’70s.  It was listed in the TV Guide as science fiction, but I remember being quite disappointed by it being more of an adventure/hunt down a guy show.  In doing my research on James Gunn for the Grand Master challenge, finding what little there was in our library, I thought, what the heck, I’ll try this book, it’s probably better than the TV series.   I was thrilled to find that the book is so much deeper than I expected, telling a story of greed and despair in a near future where only the rich can afford health care, while the rest go without or become forever indebted to hospitals.  Hey, it’s a story about the present!

“The Immortals” is 5 short stories, four from the ‘50s and one from 2004.  They follow the progress of one doctor, Russell Pearce, and the human race as they hunt down the first immortal human, Marshall Cartwright, and his descendants.  Getting a transfusion of Cartwright’s blood will reverse all aging, trauma, and disease in a normal person for about 30 days.  So the quest begins by the richest and most powerful men to capture the Cartwrights and to turn them into human immortality serum machines. 

The first few stories basically begin as adventures, with the main plot being the discovery and pursuit of the Cartwrights’ magical blood.  Dr. Pearce makes the initial discovery, tries to track down Marshall Cartwright, and dreams of synthesizing the component that imparts immortality.  But the stories evolve into something much more profound.  Gunn gives us a forecast of the terrifying future of health care, where hospitals become centers of civilization for those who can afford it, and are under regular attack by the rest of the world which has devolved into sprawling, violent slums where antibiotics have become street drugs and illegal “healers” become the health provider of consequence.

It amazed me that the majority of these stories were written almost fifty years ago.  Having had health insurance through most of my jobs, I had erroneously come to believe that health care only became unaffordable in the last twenty or so.  Gunn’s stories were already predicting this before I was born.  He also foresaw the rise of “healers”, people who take a more holistic approach to medicine.  Rather than just treating the problem, healers treat the person.

What’s most surprising about this book is that the basic plot of the Cartwrights is merely a catalyst for the speculation.   What starts out as an adventure story becomes an apocalyptic vision of the future.  I found myself in awe of Gunn’s imagination and how apropos it is to the current state of our world, fifty years after the fact.  Some of the science is a little dated.  His 2004 short story attempts to rectify this by bringing in current blood-borne diseases and the concept of DNA.  But that it’s easy to let that slide in light of his insight into his terrifying future. 

I’m glad I chose this as my first James Gunn book.  I now have another author I just have to read more of.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Leviathan Wakes

James S.A. Corey
Completed 9/27/2014, Reviewed 9/28/2014
3 stars

October is space opera month for my SF book club.  It didn’t matter what book they were going to pick, I just don’t care for space opera.  I considered skipping this one, but since I figured out I could use it for one of my challenges (The Book of Ones: read the first book of a series), I though what the hell, give it a try.  To my surprise, it wasn’t half bad.

The crew of the Canterbury investigates a distress signal emanating from a small asteroid.  James Holden and a few of the crew take a shuttle to the surface where they find an empty ship.  Another ship seemingly appears out of nowhere and vaporizes the Canterbury.  Left on the asteroid, they find a battery from the Mars Navy, leading them to believe the attack on their ship was from Mars.  Holden broadcasts his findings on an open signal, starting a war between Mars and the inhabitants of the Asteroid belt. 

At the same time, Detective Miller, a “Belter” himself, is assigned the investigation of the disappearance of Julie Mao, an heiress.  As the tensions between Mars and the Belters escalate, Miller finds that Julie may somehow be connected to the war.  This leads Holden and Miller on a dangerous trek to figure out and try to stop the hostilities that are overtaking the solar system. 

What I liked most about this book was the character development.  Most space operas I’ve read are full of two dimensional characters that make it easy to figure out who to cheer for and who to boo.  The two main characters are basically good, but struggle with their own demons and bad decisions, making for interesting angst. 

Miller, while being a fairly typical noir-pot-boiler detective, has a lot of complexity.  Besides the usual angst, he finds himself obsessed with finding the heiress and falling in love with her specter, at the same time questioning his own motives and relationship to the other Belters calling for the blood of the Martians.

Holden is a good guy.  He believes in the truth.  But it seems like every ship he comes into contact with seems to get destroyed.  Whenever he reports back the truth, as he sees it, of who blew up what, the violence of the war spirals toward new heights of depravity.      

I also liked the mystery of the alien goo that keeps popping up around the asteroid belt.  Sort of a variation on “The Blob”, it turns people into “vomit zombies” and leaves them a mass of writhing gelatinous filth.  Combined with the political chaos of the solar system wide war and the search for the heiress, it made for quite an exciting page turning plot point.

Though not a great novel, this is a pretty enjoyable read.  The moral dilemmas facing the main characters made for some interesting interpersonal relationships.  I liked that the book wasn’t as oppressively heavy as a C.J. Cherryh opera and read better than most of the entries I’ve read in the Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  I don’t plan on reading the rest of the Expanse trilogy, but I don’t regret reading its first entry either.  I give this book a nice middlin’ three stars out of five.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Exquisite Corpse

Poppy Z. Brite
Completed 9/12/2014, Reviewed 9/21/2014
5 stars

Poppy Z. Brite only spent about a decade or so writing horror.  “Exquisite Corpse” is her last full length horror novel.  It is the terrifying and grotesque tale of a necrophiliac and cannibal who, well, hook up.  While her two earlier novels lushly escort you through accessible, gothic themes and plot, “Corpse”, pardon the expression, bites you with tight, efficient prose and drags you kicking and screaming through the darkest, goriest nightmare you will ever have.  If you don’t want nightmares, jump right to my final paragraph.  If you’re brave, and think you can stomach the full review, read on.

What amazed me the most about “Corpse” was how quickly Brite gets the reader into the heads of the serial killers.  She does it by introducing you to Andrew Compton while planning his escape from prison and reflecting on his career killing the teenage detritus of British society and having sex with their dead bodies.  Jay Byrne, on the other hand, is at-large in New Orleans, having sex with the eviscerated bodies of runaways and tourists then eating them.  Jay is in a little crisis, wanting to eat his teenage drug dealer, but afraid of breaking his own rule of not selecting locals for dinner.  As much as you don’t want to be there, within a few chapters, you are part of the angst of these two wretched creatures, and barely able to contain yourself with the anticipation of how they are going to meet.

The third corner of this dark triangle is Tran, the drug dealer.  Having already disappeared on his HIV-positive lover after their tests came back different, he runs away from home when his parents find his old love letters.  Young and na├»ve, his poor judgment easily drops him in the lap of the two monsters.  Watching him make bad decision after bad decision is like being a little kid watching Frankenstein, feeling the setup, covering your eyes, saying “No, no, no” but still peeking through your fingers to watch it happen. 

I have to mention the last major character of the book, Luke, the HIV-positive lover.  He has a show on a pirate radio station where he releases all his rage about his AIDS diagnosis.  It’s just as brutal and horrific as the content of the story.  “Exquisite Corpse” was written in the 90’s.  I think it’s safe to say that what this book really does is give us the most gruesome metaphor for that horror that eviscerated a huge part of the gay population.  Brite was angry, and this is how she let you know it.

Throughout the book, Brite gives you graphic, horrendous accounts of the murder, mutilation, necrophilia and cannibalism.  It is hard to believe that someone could actually imagine this stuff.  But she does, conveying it with nerve-wracking, engrossing prose.  That’s what’s so masterful about Brite.  She writes about horrible things and makes you want to read it to the end. 

In all honesty, I have to give this book five stars.  It scared the pants off me, and I couldn’t stop reading it.  However, I do not recommend this book to everyone.  You need a strong stomach for unbelievably graphic sex and violence.  The whole time I was reading it, my pulse was rapid and my breathing short.  I often had to put the book down, get up, and drink a glass of water, just to be able to pull myself out of the altered state in which this book put me.  During the first evisceration, marveling at the tight, almost beautiful prose describing this horrific process, I was reminded of a review of the movie “The Exorcist” in our local Catholic Archdiocesan newspaper back in the 70’s.  The already biased critic said that it was a topic that should not have been put on film, but admitted, “It’s an excellent production of a bad movie.”  That’s what “Exquisite Corpse” is, an amazing, riveting, terrifying book about very, very evil things. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
Completed 9/21/2014, Reviewed 9/21/2014
5 stars

I was lucky enough to win an ARC (advanced reading copy) of “The Bone Clocks” from Tor, the publisher, on its website.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit it into my reading schedule, as I still had eleven books to read this year to complete all my challenges on the Worlds Without End site.  But I wanted to read it because my partner had been recommended Mitchell by a friend, and because Mitchell was coming for a signing at Powell’s in a few weeks.  And of course, I HAD to read it before getting it signed!  So I started.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but when I finished it, I cried uncontrollably for about five minutes. 

The story takes you through the life of Holly Sykes, who as a child heard voices, the Radio People, and was frequently visited by a mysterious beautiful woman.  In 1984, years after the voices and visions have disappeared, she’s grown up to be a bratty British teenager who runs away from home to move in with her adult boyfriend.  When she finds him in bed with her best friend, she continues running, adamant about not letting her mother win this latest battle.  She happens upon a strange old woman by the river asks her if she’d promise to give her asylum if she needed it.  Confused, she agrees, and begins a journey of strange coincidences over the next decades that lead her into the middle of a fantastical war between rival immortals. 

“The Bone Clocks” is a story about Holly, but it is told from the point of view of multiple characters.  All these characters have some connection with her and come with their own back stories and subplots, but they masterfully keep the main plot moving forward.  I have to admit that the plot development through the first several hundred pages is rather slow.  You only get to see glimpses of the supernatural events, and it is rather difficult to figure out what’s exactly going on until you’re nearly halfway through the book.

This may make it seem like the first half of the book is boring.  In fact, it absolutely is not.  The writing is brilliant, change of voice between narrators is masterful, the characters are fully developed, and the pace never drags.  I was completely engrossed with each narrator, their trials and tribulations, and how they intersected Holly’s life decade by decade. 

I only had two criticisms, and I think they are minor.  The first is that the book is very Anglo-centric.  I understood quite a few of the British slang and cultural references, but I know I missed an awful lot.  I’m sure the same is true in reverse, as Brits try to read US authors that rely heavily on referencing the current American culture.  So…minor.  The second criticism is that the ultimate battle between the immortals reminded me of something Clive Barker would write.  Specifically, I heard echoes of “Imajica”.  But as the suspense built, I dismissed these thoughts.  Mitchell is an incredible story teller in his own right.  Even if some elements were similar, Mitchell’s execution is brilliant, and this book stands on its own.

Lastly I have to admit I was shocked at how involved I became in Holly’s life.  Meeting her decade after decade through the eyes of different people threw me at first.  But when she returns as the narrator in the last chapter, I didn’t want her story to end.  I was completely invested.

And as I stated at the beginning, I cried my eyes out at the end.  This of course necessitates a five out of five star rating.  I give four stars to an excellent book, when I can say, “Hey, that’s a great book!”  I give five stars to a book that profoundly moves me, when my response is, “Oh…my…god!”  This was it.   I don’t read much new literature, relying on my local library to satisfy my SF and Fantasy needs.  But for 2014, I believe this is the book to beat. 

Addendum (written 9/28/14):  I saw Mitchell at Powell’s a few nights ago.  He quite a funny person, and did a great job reading from his book.  During the Q&A, he admitted that he much prefers writing novellas.  Since there isn’t much market anymore for the novella, he uses his strength to write groups of novellas with a common thread to create a full book.  So that’s his modus operandi, which explains the form of “The Bone Clocks”.  I read another blogger’s review criticizing the book as feeling like a collection of novellas.  So I guess he hit the nail on the head.  This revelation definitely helped me make more sense of the book, and made me appreciate its complexity even more.

Friday, September 26, 2014

New Amsterdam

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 9/13/2014, Reviewed 9/14/2014
1 star

I decided to read this book to complete the Elizabeth Noun challenge: read one book by each author named Elizabeth with a noun for a last name (the others being Moon and Hand).  The premise sounded great, a wampry (vampire) and an alcoholic magician join forces to solve murder mysteries in an alternative history where the American colonies remained parts of the British and Dutch empires.  Within ten pages, my mind numbed, my eyes glazed, and I wondered how I was ever going to get through it.

The book is formatted as a collection of short stories more or less advancing the plot of Abby Irene, a forensic sorcerer for the British Crown; Sebastian the wampyr; Jack, Sebastian’s companion, ward, and primary food-source; and Mrs. Smith, a well-to-do author of mysteries.  In New Amsterdam, recently ceded to Great Britain by The Netherlands, they become a little community of companions and mystery solvers, while confronting the corruption and oppression of the colonial and imperial governments.

The ideas are good, the characters full of potential, and the murder mysteries are, well, mysterious.  The problem with the book is that Bear is not a great writer.  The main characters are ripe for great development.  I was intrigued by all of them, but they are never really fleshed out.  They were rose above standard fare, cardboard and one-dimensional.  There are moments where their relationships attempt depth, particularly in the feeding scenes, but the intensity of these scenes does not carry through the rest of the narrative. 

Jack was my favorite character.  A foppish, flirty young man with lots of seedy connections, he is defensive and supportive of, and madly in love with Sebastian.  His scenes with the wampyr are some of the best, but the rest of the time, he’s either sullen or simply summarizing his investigations.  We get no other depth into the person of Jack, or much detail on his relationships with the lower class, the revolutionaries, and the other connections he makes with the people on the fringe of society.

Abby Irene, as the alcoholic magician, should be a great character, but she is perhaps the most flat.  Her story involves soapy, illicit, and ultimately boring relationships with some of the most powerful men of New Amsterdam.  I never really bought her angst, and her use of magic throughout the story is quite bland.  When she pulls out her wand, it always seems to be an afterthought.  I often found myself thinking, “That’s right.  I forgot she’s a wizard.”  Suzanne Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” does a much better job of creating an alternate history where magic is an integral part of the reality of the setting and characters. 

Ultimately, the stories in this book feel more like episodes of a bad TV series on an also-ran cable network, with poor writers, mediocre acting, and only an occasional moment of inspiration.  There are a lot of good ideas, but the execution is poor.  It feels like Bear decided to write a book targeting the steampunk subculture, throwing in dirigibles, vampires, the dawn of electricity, a little magic, and a Victorian America, but really didn’t know how to meld it into something more than made-for-cable episodes. 

Throughout the reading of this book, my brain wanted to explode from the tedium of the prose.  I actually had to break it up, reading other books between each chapter.  Even by the end, when I decided I did like most of the characters, I was still bored by the writing style and execution of the story.  Having finally finished it, I don’t have any interest in picking up any other books by Bear.  This is my lowest rating of a book this year: one star out of five.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Altered Carbon

Richard K. Morgan
Completed 9/12/2014, Reviewed 9/13/2014
4 stars

After reading two books in his “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy and loving his prose, I decided to try another Morgan book, this time, his first novel, “Altered Carbon”.  For it, he won the Philip K. Dick Award for best novel first published in the US as a paperback original.  I knew it was a noir-ish thriller, another sub-genre I’m not especially drawn to, but I thought I’d give it a chance.  To my astonishment, I can say that this is the first such book where I didn’t get terribly lost, but actually enjoyed it. 

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-U.N. Envoy (read special forces) in the twenty-fifth century who died a particularly nasty death.  Like almost everyone else who has died, the cortical stack in his neck that contains his whole essence and memory is put in storage.  Bancroft, a very rich man, pulls Kovacs out of storage and re-sleeves him into a new body to investigate Bancroft’s death.  You see, the billionaire recently either committed suicide or was murdered, and his stack was destroyed. But since he was rich enough, he had an external backup of his stack.  So Kovacs tries to piece together the 48 hours between the last backup and Bancroft’s death event.  His investigation takes him not only through the seamy side of Bay City, but into the darkness of his own soul. 

Morgan really excels in creating characters with a dark edge.  Everyone has flaws, and Kovacs is no exception. He’s is not a nice guy.  He was accepted as an Envoy because he particularly violent and anti-social.  Throughout the investigation, he is in constant conflict, struggling between completing his mission and acting out in rage against anyone who crosses him.  Adding to the complexity, the body he’s inhabiting was the lover of a cop he must work very closely with during the investigation.  Needless to say, when your cortical stack gets placed in the body of someone else, some physical responses just can’t be controlled. 

As in Morgan’s other books, I really liked the prose.  I’ve read a lot of SF noir where I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.  Maybe because of my previous exposure to Morgan, I loved every simile and description.  I generally don’t like a lot of flashback and back story, but I found it really fleshed-out Kovacs and helped explain his motivation and responses. 

“Carbon” has a complex plot, but I really enjoyed it.  Morgan writes well, creating believable characters, a steamy atmosphere, and interesting science.  At times, I got a little lost, but never went past the point of no return, as I so often do in SF noir.  My excitement for this book has reinvigorated my anticipation for the final book in his “Heroes” fantasy trilogy, which I just got as an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) edition, all 638 pages.  I give “Altered Carbon” four out of five stars.  

Friday, September 19, 2014


Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)
Completed 9/5/2014, Reviewed 9/13/2014
4 stars

Grant has written a terrific yarn about zombies, politics, and media.  It’s fast, exciting, and personal.  This is probably the fastest 600 pages I’ve read in a long time (three days).  Reading this after a couple of very literary novels, and while taking a break between chapters of a terrible book, “Feed” was a welcome breath of easy pop/best seller-SF air. 

Not really a genesis novel, the events take place about a generation after the zombie apocalypse.  Georgia (George) is a Newsie, a blogger who reports straight news, with little or no emotional content.  Her brother, Shaun, is an Irwin, a blogger named after the Australian croc personality because they entertain their readers by poking sticks at things, in Shaun’s case, zombies.  Buffy is a Fictional, a blogger who writes fiction based on real events, and she writes poetry.  Together, the form the core of an internet journalist team who report the news about life in the zombie present.  Their team is chosen by lottery for the opportunity to be the official bloggers of the campaign of Senator Ryman, a potential presidential candidate.  On the trail, they uncover a conspiracy that could rock the country and threaten their very lives. 

At its heart, “Feed” is a journalist novel, sort of a first-person “All the President’s Men” with zombies thrown in.  The team’s careers are based on the how blogging has become the standard for reporting the news, in all its forms:  straight, investigative, and entertainment.  George’s mission is to report the raw truth, with the hopeful side-effect of getting good ratings.  As Ryman’s campaign bloggers, they reach a new pinnacle in their career, and like many good journalists, they acquire some enemies.

The main characters are great.  I had some trouble with their likeability at first, George being brusque, Shaun being out of control, and Buffy being religious and a hopeless romantic.  They were a little two-dimensional.  That dissipated quickly as the action built and the conspiracy unwound.  Soon I was deeply involved with them, their relationships, and their adventure.  The presidential candidates are a bit too stereotypical: Ryman is the honest politician with a heart of gold while Tate is the gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’, wimin and youngin’ hatin’ xenophobe from Texan.  But it was easy to dismiss these criticisms because the ride was just so damned exciting.

One of my favorite points about the book is that it makes director George Romeo, of the “Living Dead” movies fame, a prophet for his vision of zombies.  They stagger, they eat the living, and they’re killed by destroying the brain.  McGuire adds her own twist on his zombie mythology.  Her take is that the phenomenon was caused by two “cures” that crossed and mutated.  This new virus infects all creatures over forty pounds, but the pathogen does not take over the body until it dies, or is otherwise activated, as in being bitten by a zombie, or exposed to a large does of it.  It affects human by about the age of seven and large animals.  People don’t eat meat much anymore, and only cats are left as pets.  Life goes on, but with a shadow hanging over the human race, knowing that unless proper precautions are taken, a zombie outbreak can occur anywhere, anytime.

Zombies are really in right now.  The “Zombie Apocalypse” has become as much a part of our consciousness as the “Red Menace” was not too long ago.  A lot of people will admit they are bored with it, or downright hate the zombie craze, including the people from my SF book club.  After reading “Feed”, the majority of the group agreed it’s fun, exciting, and a worth the read.  I was shocked by the positive response.  If you’re a doubter, put aside your bias and give it a chance.  I loved it, and I think most people will too.  Four stars out of five.