Friday, February 28, 2014

The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After

Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Completed 2/19/2014, Reviewed 2/23/2014
4 stars

One of the joys of the YA genre is that a story doesn’t have to be too much more than it seems.  Like the first two books in the series, “Magician” is light, fun, and exciting.  This book returns to the form of the epistolary novel, conveying the story through letters.  This time, Kate and Cecelia’s husbands also write a few letters of their own.  The story takes place ten years later.  Kate and Cecelia each have their own families now, and of course, the children get involved in the action as well. Within a few pages I was transported back into the world of these magical families, reading in a BBC series accent, and delighting in the details.

This time around James is called by the Duke of Wellington, now the prime minister of England, to investigate the disappearance of a German magician who was sent to do some surveying for the new railroads being laid throughout the countryside.  Cecelia accompanies him and sends her children to stay with Thomas and Kate.  Along the way, James and Cecelia encounter a magical network called ley lines, stone circles, and a sheepdog.  Thomas and Kate have their own magical hands full when their own son Edward becomes ensnared by a gypsy woman.  Quickly, all the little details become subplots and begin to weave together into a conspiracy that could destroy England itself.

There isn’t much more to say about this book that I haven’t said in my reviews of the first two books.  I had a terrific time reading it.  Wrede and Stevermer have again created a wonderful novel.  It saddens me that the books are currently out of print.  With the success of Austen films and the Austen Zombie novels, one would think that the Kate and Cecelia series would remain popular and in print.  If anything, I hope that my enthusiasm for the series will help renew the interest of the genre fiction public.  These books won’t change the world, but they will be a bright spot in anyone’s reading list.

Behold The Man

Michael Moorcock
Completed 2/16/2014, Reviewed 2/23/2014
4 stars

More than twenty-five years before Gore Vidal sent film crews and celebrities to make a media event of the crucifixion of Jesus, Michael Moorcock sent Karl Glogauer back in a time machine to see the crucifixion for himself.  While not as humorously irreverent as Gore, Moorcock takes a skewed look at the foundation of Christianity through the eyes of an obsessed agnostic.  The novel is an expanded form of the Nebula winning novella published in 1966.

Beaten by camp counselors, molested by a choir director, bullied by classmates, failed at love, and questioning religion, Glogauer is very much a character straight out of many modern classic novels of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Think about crossing Updike and Roth, set it in urban England, and then speculate about time travel.  Obsessed with crucifixion and crosses since he was a young boy, Glogauer jumps at the chance to travel back in time. to meet the historical Jesus and witness the crucifixion.  Initially, he finds himself among John the Baptist and the Essenes, a community of Jews living austerely, according to the Torah, and awaiting the Messiah.  After some time, he goes in search of Jesus, only to become a surrogate savior. 

I really liked Glogauer.  He’s not a great man.  In fact, he’s quite pathetic.  He’s flawed in many ways, especially in his relationships with women.  But in the space of this extremely short novel, Moorcock draws a complete character.  I really liked the form of the novel, too.  It jumps between significant points in Glogauer’s life and his experiences in first century Israel.   Interspersed with screams of pain and anguish, it sets the tone for the novel, the character, and the obvious outcome of his adventure.

One aspect I really enjoyed was that Glogauer spent time living among the Essenes.  It called to mind two different thoughts.  First, the book was published at a time when interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls was very high.  Some of the contents of the scrolls included the Community Rule, rules of living with the Essenes.  Moorcock’s placing of Glogauer among the Essenes gives us a little insight into what was known of them in the mid ‘60s.  Moorcock could have gone into a lot more detail here and I would have been thrilled.  Instead, you get an just an amuse bouche of the ancient desert community. 

The second point of interest is that there was (and may still be) a train of thought that John the Baptist was an Essene and Jesus lived among them as well, before beginning his public ministry.  Moorcock uses this scenario to ease the reader into believing that Glogauer could simply slide into the role of not-so-reluctant Messiah after a few years in an ascetic community.  In case you’re wondering, Glogauer also happened to be a student of psychology and ancient languages, which makes a solo trip to the past a little more believable. 

This is not for the religiously squeamish.  The revelations about the Jesus and his family are sure to offend.  But I think the message of the book is that the specific details of the beginning of Christianity are not significant.  The fact is that this was a messianic, apocalyptic time which was ripe for a new religion regardless of what really happened and who it happened to.  And this was going to screw up people for the next two thousand years.

This is a four star book.  It’s immediate, engrossing, and thought-provoking.  I actually wished it was longer. There could have been a lot more exploration of the past and a lot more details of Glogauer’s relationships, obsessions, and pathos.  But what you get is worth the short ride. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 2000 A Deepness in the Sky

Vernor Vinge
Completed 2/15/2014, reviewed 2/15/2014
4 stars

In finishing this book, I achieved two amazing feats.  First, I have read all the Hugo Award winners through 2013, excluding the retro winners.  Second, I learned to like the space opera.  While I knew I’d accomplish the first, I never thought I’d accomplish the second.

“Deepness” is a classic space opera.  The Qeng Ho, the ultimate interplanetary traders, are at Arachna, a planet orbiting a strangely variable star.  The star is about to relight, awakening Arachna’s spider-like sentient race from their 200 year hibernation.   Their mission is to make contact with the spiders and engage them in interplanetary commerce.  Another group, the Emergents, have also shown up with less noble intentions.  A war between the two breaks out, leaving the Emergents the victors but with crippled ships and a lot of captive Qeng Ho.  Together they must wait until the spiders awake and become technologically savvy enough to help them restore their ship.  Several of the Qeng Ho try to devise a plan to overthrow the Emergents and protect the spiders from their genocidal intentions.

Woven through the main plot is story of the spiders, particularly one, Sherkaner Underhill, a brilliant engineer, whose ideas and inventions push his people from the dawn of radio to a place not much different technologically and philosophically from where we are today.  The rapid rise of technology produces great wonders, and of course, great danger.  Underhill with his wife, General Victory Smith, and children must work together to avoid the nuclear precipice that their world seems to be edging toward.  Don’t let the character’s names fool you.  They sound hokey, like you’d find in a bad juvenile novel.  The oddness of their names is part of an interesting twist in the plot.

When I began the book, I was none too thrilled.  As many of my followers know, I’m not a fan of space opera.  The drama between the Emergents and the Qeng Ho seemed to have a cast of thousands, dry technology filled with lots of jargon, and very cardboard characters.  There was the power hungry Podmaster, the young, na├»ve, lovelorn flight commander, and the smart and perky preteen, among many others.  Reading it was a chore, only alleviated when the story returned to spiders.  They were a wonderful alien species right from the start.  This, I thought, is where Vinge was hiding his good characters. 

Then something happened.  After the Emergents beat and basically enslave the Qeng Ho, the story takes a very different turn.  Vinge takes the time to flesh out the human characters.  He gives them histories, loves, friendships, and motivations.  I found myself intrigued with their efforts to subvert the Emergents.  Next thing I knew, I was riveted by how the plotlines of the Qeng Ho, the Emergents, and the spiders were all coming together in a fast-paced, explosive finale. 

A very interesting concept was how the Emergents enslaved their foes.  It’s called the Focus. It is basically a virus that the Emergents had engineered out of a deadly plague into a mind-control device.  When properly introduced and manipulated to its host, this virus turns a person into a single-minded automaton.  A focused person becomes just that, intensely focused on the task at hand.  When properly organized and directed, these zipheads become organic AI computers networks, finding solutions to problems in days, instead of years.  I found this concept really intriguing.  To me, it was a fictionalization of what’s happening to our education system today.  Schools, from elementary to university, have become robot factories.  Their purpose is no longer to produce educated critical thinkers, but rather focused automatons who can get gainful employment but lack the ability to appreciate anything beyond a video game, an action movie, and a celebrity reality series, let alone make an informed decision about the state of world affairs, or carry on an intelligent conversation about literature.

What concerns me is that Vinge’s solution to the ziphead problem is the Qeng Ho.  Commerce will free the zipheads and save an alien society bent on destroying itself.  But isn’t it commerce gone insane that has created this environment?  The people who society deems are successful today have are one-dimensional.  If I want to talk about an action flick, I go to work.  If want to have an intelligent conversation about theater or class struggle or a good book, I go to a coffee shop.

That’s why I liked this book.  It had great characters, exciting multiple intertwining plots, and it made me think.  I don’t agree with it, but it made a statement and entertained me.  Last year, you wouldn’t catch me dead saying this about a space opera:  I give this book 4 stars.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 1982 Downbelow Station

C. J. Cherryh
Completed 1/16/2014, Reviewed
2 stars

I’m not a big fan of C.J. Cherryh.  I know she has a huge fan following, but I find her books a tough read.  This was no exception.  It started out interestingly, with a chapter summarizing Earth’s early space colonization activities.  As space stations were built farther away, the more remote stations and merchants, which formed the Union, began to rebel against domination by the Earth Company.  Chapter Two begins the story in the middle of the war between the Union and the Company at Downbelow Station, the first station built around a planet inhabited by sentient, although primitive beings.  That’s where it fell apart for me. 

As many of my readers know, I don’t care for space operas.  This is first of the operas to win a Hugo.  It’s full of anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, gangs, riots, assassins, and greed.  No one is really happy and it takes a long time to figure out if any of the characters are even likeable.  The book is divided into five parts, and Cherryh spends a lot of the first three inside the characters heads.  They’re low on action, and high in exposition and setup.  I found this unbearably tedious.  All the characters are flawed.  I don’t mind flawed characters, but was sad was that most of them were cardboard and unredeemable. 

Eventually, I discovered I did like a few of the characters, but it took me until Part 4 to realize it.  Angelo Konstantin runs Downbelow station.  Damon, his son and head of Legal Affairs, turns out to have a heart.  He’s confronted with applying a mind-wiping procedure on Joshua Talley.  Damon feels bad about permitting it, even though Talley himself requests it.  He makes the effort to befriend Talley after the procedure is performed, protecting him from the escalating problems on the station.  Emilio, the other Konstantin son, works on Pell, aka Downbelow, the planet the station orbits.  Emilio has an affection for the Hisa, the simian-like sentient species of Pell.  That made him likeable to me.  Damon and Emilio spend much of the book trying to keep the station, its inhabitants, and its projects on the planet neutral in the conflict.  I was also surprised to find myself liking Talley, who you know is not one of the good guys, but through his mind-wipe, appears to become redeemable. 

The action finally picked up for me in the fourth part.  After suffering through mind-numbing exposition, there was finally some unmuddled action.  That’s where I felt Cherryh shines as a writer.  It saved the book from receiving a single star.  As war finally comes to Downbelow Station, Damon and Talley try to hide from the Unionists.  It’s written with real tension and immediacy.  It was first time I felt like I was actually in the book, and happy to be inside the characters heads.  Back on Pell, Emilio enlists the help of the Hisa to hide him, his wife, and a large group of workers living on the planet, from the conflict on the station.  Again, tension and immediacy. 

Now for the Hisa.  They had all the makings of a good alien race.  They were primitive and had a close relationship with their planet.  There was just something about the way they spoke that was really annoying.  Granted, I didn’t expect them to be perfect English speakers, but they reminded me a little too much of Jar Jar Binks in their speech patterns, even though Jar Jar was created over ten years later.  I also didn’t like that they were effectively slave labor for the humans on Pell.  Their simplistic devotion to the Konstantin family was creepy, especially when I wasn’t yet sure the family wasn’t evil and exploiting them.  I did care for them, though, and scenes involving them were some of the brighter parts of the story.

Now I have to make mention of something about Cherryh that drives me nuts.  She likes to drop articles and words in common phrases.  The one that kills me is “of a sudden” instead of “all of a sudden”.  She uses it a lot, so it’s always in your face.  She did this throughout “Cyteen” and I thought it was an editorial or publishing problem.  After this book, it appears it’s been a style decision she’s employed at least since 1981.  Being someone who looks for mistakes and defects for a living, reading a book with sentences like, “Of a sudden they undocked from station” invokes my gag reflex. 

As I mentioned earlier, after Part One, I wanted to give this book one star.  If I did, it would have only been the second Hugo winner receiving that notoriety.  Part Four saved it from that plight.  Two stars.  Still, I don’t think I’ll ever read another novel by Cherryh. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Deep Wizardry

Diane Duane
Completed 2/4/2014, Reviewed 2/4/2014
2 stars

I read this book for my SF book club’s February selection.  I’m not a connoisseur of young adult SF/fantasy, but have read some.  The other contender for February, another YA novel, was “Sorcery and Cecelia” by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.  That book was wonderful, so much so that I read the second book in the series and have the third one waiting in the wings.  “Deep Wizardry” in comparison was, well, meh.

The book is about Nita and Kit, two young and relatively new wizards.  In their second adventure (this is the second book in the series), the two youngsters meet some sea mammals on their summer vacation on Long Island.  One, a whale named S’reee, invites them to join her and 9 others in a whale song ritual that must be performed to stop a terrible evil emerging from the ocean depths.  If not stopped, this evil, which is already having effects on land as well as in the water, will destroy the tri-state area, and eventually, engulf the world.  Nita and Kit take an oath to perform the ritual, only to find out that what they’ve promised to do is more dangerous than they ever could have imagined.

My big problem with the book is that the whole good and evil myth of the whales is way too close to Christian myth.  From the temptation by the evil one to the blood sacrifice of the savior, it was so obvious it was almost too painful to read.  I think the problem was that rather than let the imagery come through the whole narrative, it’s dumped on the reader in one expositional scene.  Maybe the author wrote it this way because she felt that young readers wouldn’t get something subtle.  Maybe she thought she had to hit them over the heads with it.  Maybe that’s what you have to do with young readers.  Or maybe she just made a bad decision. 

This exposition comes early in the book, and it set me in an overly critical mood for a most of the first half.  I wasn’t even excited with the appearance of Nita and Kit’s two mentors, Tom and Carl.  They’re a gay couple (yaaay!) with a parrot named Machu Picchu who can tell the future (uuugh).  She wrote this book in 1985, a time when gay characters did not appear much in YA literature.  “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Losing Uncle Tim” wouldn’t even be published for another four years.  So I have to give props to Diane Duane for creating the characters. 

I finally began to get more involved in the book with the introduction of the Master Shark.  This deliciously sly and possibly malevolent character must be a part of the song ritual.  While preparing for the ritual, Nita has several interactions with Ed (yeah, I know, but it’s actually short for a really long, barely pronounceable name).  Through this, Ed emerges as the most complex and profound character in the story.  I really liked Ed.  He kept me from tossing the book half-way through, and saved it from getting a lower rating. 

As the time for the ritual approaches, the book does become exciting.  The ritual has grave dangers, and I became caught in how Nita and Kit were going to survive.  By the way, that’s not a spoiler.  After all, there are seven more installments after this one.  And Nita’s wrestling with her commitment to do the right thing at a potential great cost to herself helps make her a little less of a cardboard cutout of a kid. 

I decided on two stars for this book.  It was decent, but it didn’t want me to follow their further adventures in the next book, let alone for seven more.  If you can make your way through the first half, the rest isn’t too bad.