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.