Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Malinda Lo
Completed 9/5/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
3 stars

There are a lot of retellings and deconstructions of classic fairy tales these days.  It seems to have its own subgenre designation, Fairytale Fantasy.  Perhaps the most well-known is “Wicked”.  Its author has also played with the Snow White and Cinderella tales.  Helen Oyeyemi has also become well-known for her deconstructions of myth and fairy tales.  Having read and loved both these authors, I went into “Ash” expecting more of the same.  It is, to an extent.  It’s Cinderella with a coming of age Lesbian twist and a more complex relationship with the realm of faerie than the normal fairy godmother.  But the majority of it lacked a certain warmth that could have really propelled this book into classic status. 

Ash is Aisling, beloved of her parents, and having an affinity toward magical awareness.  Her mother dies young.  Her father remarries and then soon dies, leaving her an unwanted ward and sole servant of her stepmother and stepsisters.  Then Ash meets the King’s Huntress.  Instead of the magic being used to meet the prince, its purpose is to bring Ash and the Huntress together despite the social gap between them. 

I think the lack of warmth comes from how Ash reacts to her predicament.  Like many LGBT youths, Ash disengages from her feelings, leaving her a cold shell that allows her to function in her deplorable predicament.  This is understandable, and should be relatable, but I didn’t attain the empathy that I could have.  Perhaps it’s because this is actually a YA novel.  My experience with YA novels is that they sometimes do lack a sense of depth even though deep feelings are being explored.  It may be the brevity of the book, or perhaps just a lack of skill of the author.  Even Ash’s falling in love, first with the mysterious faerie Sidhean, then with the Huntress didn’t quite gel for me.

The character I really liked was Kaisa, the Huntress.  She added the warmth to the novel that was sorely needed.  Like Ash, I spent all the time between scenes with Kaisa waiting for her.  She’s a strong woman, well-developed as a character.  She’s not simply a caricature, like the prince in many standard fairy tales, but a very human person.  I liked Kaisa so much, I’m considering reading the Lo’s prequel about her.

The book is short, which may be its flaw.  Perhaps if the author spent more time with Ash, allowing us to see the hurt more rather than just the cold husk, the book would have worked better for me.  I thought all the interpolations of the details of the story were well thought out, the magic, the relationship with the step-relatives, the more realistic immersion into a Victorian social structure.  But there was just that warmth missing that left me with a rather indifferent feeling at the end.  I should have wanted more of Ash, but instead, I wanted more of Kaisa.  Perhaps that’s why Lo wrote the prequel:  the readers of the book felt as I did.  I give the book three stars out of five.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gilgamesh the King

Robert Silverberg
Completed 9/3/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
4 stars

The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is an ancient epic Sumerian poem about the exploits of Gilgamesh, the greatest king of Uruk in Mesopotamia.  It tells the tale of how he overworked his people to build a great kingdom, his friendship with the wild man Enkidu who was sent by the gods to distract him, his battles with the goddess Inanna, the earliest account of the great flood, and his journey seeking immortality.  Silverberg’s book is a novelization of the epic with some liberties taken, particularly the interaction with the gods.  The result is a highly readable retelling of what is considered the first piece of literature in human history.  I was completely engrossed in the book, both from an historical perspective and by the wonderful prose that Silverberg is known for.

Gilgamesh is an unreliable narrator.  This becomes evident as the book progresses.  Being told in first person, it paints him as a great, likeable hero, only eventually revealing to the reader that his perspective might be flawed.  This is a wonderful device drawing the reader into his personal struggles from his exile as a child to his claiming of the throne, then to his rebuilding of the kingdom.  But rumors abound that his people are exhausted from his seemingly unending supply of energy, his only distraction appearing to be his loneliness for intimate companionship.  That’s where the veneer of infallibility is first cracked.  Of course he has a harem of many wives, but we figure out he suffers from a few complexes.  To remedy this and to provide relief to his people, the gods send him a friend, Enkidu, a man who was raised by wild animals, the only man who can challenge him, and get him a little past his self-absorption. 

My one problem with the book is that Silverberg had to note that the relationship with Enkidu was not a gay relationship, but one of extreme filial love, and wrestling.  It’s like he had to appease the censors who thought the relationship was too homoerotic.  I mean, come on, they were always wrestling.  Considering they never engaged in sexual relations, I think it would have been fine to have left this statement out, leaving it ambiguous.  Considering Gilgamesh’s huge harem of wives and insatiable appetite for them, I think it’s much more believable to postulate that he was bisexual, and a similar book written today probably would have allowed that.

Dovetailing on this, one of Gilgamesh’s duties as king and representative of the consort Dumuzid, is to have an annual encounter with the priestess who is the representative of the goddess Inanna.  What’s significant about this is that this priestess is really the only woman he loves.  It creates a great sexual tension that permeates all of Gilgamesh’s thoughts and actions.  The introduction of Enkidu creates a triangle that sets the tone for the rest of the book and the tragedy that follows. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Gilgamesh’s relationship to religion and the gods.  While he performs all the religious rituals necessary of a king, he also has a very modern, almost cynical view towards them.  It sets up a battle of the sexes and secularism, with religion represented by a women and the state represented by a man.  This multi-layered conflict is threaded throughout the latter half of the book, creating the exciting denouement that finishes the novel.  I know there is a sequel, where Silverberg pulls out more stories from the original Epic, including the journeys through the underworld, but this conclusion is quite satisfying.

I’ve only read one other Silverberg book, but considering he never won a best novel Hugo, he seems to be one of the more underappreciated writers of the golden era.  And I think that many SF readers are missing out one of the era’s best.  Silverberg’s prose is wonderful.  It never gets too haughty, but still feels literary.  Exemplified in this book, the words, plot, and images simply flow like water, making the reading experience a delight. 

Despite my one concern, I give this book four stars out of five.  I was completely engrossed in the book and the characters.  This was another one my used paperback purchases from Orycon with pretty small font, and I thought I’d have trouble with that as well as the fact that this is basically historical fiction with a little mythology thrown it.  But it proved me wrong and Silverberg remains one of the authors I just have to read more of.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Samuel R. Delany
Completed 8/30/2015, Reviewed 9/1/2015
4 stars

“Nova” is a very complex little novel.  Part space opera, quest, political statement, and philosophical reflection, it’s also considered a forerunner of the nanotechnology sub-genre.  This is only my second novel of Delany’s and I found it quite gripping.  At times the hard SF left me a little dazed, as well as the changing points of view, but the brevity of the book and the tight prose kept me from being lost for too long.

My previous Delany work was his massive play with form, “Dhalgren”, which came a few years later.  I regularly found foreshadowing of the later work in various passages here, sometimes with the playing with form, and sometimes when the characters were having philosophical conversations.  In fact, there’s a “form surprise” at the end of the novel which actually made me laugh.  There are other similarities as well, like the character with one shoe.  But it didn’t distract me; it just gave me a feeling of familiarity. 

This book is about a spaceship captain from a powerful family who wants to fly into a star that goes nova and retrieve seven tons of Illyrion, which is very rare and is used to power spaceships and make hostile planets habitable.  His reason for doing this is for a vendetta against another powerful family whose control of the market and most of the galaxy would be destroyed by the massive influx of Illyrion into the market.   Captain Von Ray assembles a diverse and bizarre crew for this venture, travelling from planet to planet looking for clues to a star ready to blow.

Delany makes a lot of points in this book.  He grandly plays with diversity with the captain and other characters being bi- or multi-racial, a set of black twins where one is an albino, and a gypsy.  He also uses a special syntax for the characters from one part of the galaxy.  It’s tough reading at first, but is fun at the same time.  For the nanotechnology, people are given implants at an early age with which they can work and learn better and can then achieve a greater sense of job satisfaction.  At the same time, the tarot is accepted as fact and disbelievers are tantamount to flat-earthers.  One of the characters is writing a novel, a dead art form, and he gets to expound on art and culture with his crewmates.  It’s just amazing that Delany could pack so much into such a short novel and still keep it exciting. 

The characters are very well developed.  While the book begins with the gypsy, known as the Mouse, we get the most background on the captain when we hear the history of the vendetta.  But the Mouse is intriguing, particularly because he can play the syrinx, an instrument that creates visual and olfactory stimuli in addition to playing music.  It makes Mouse beloved by many minor characters as well as by the reader. 

This book was quite a ride for only being about 220 pages.  As you can probably tell from how much I jump from item to item in the review, there’s a lot to take in.  In fact, it’s maybe a little too much, which is perhaps why “Dhalgren”, his next major work, came seven years later and filled nearly 900 pages.  I give “Nova” four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Cosmic Engineers

Clifford D. Simak
Completed 8/27/2015, Reviewed 8/28/2015
4 stars

Every book of Simak’s I read reinforces that he’s my favorite author of the golden age of SF.  He created great stories without falling into the trappings of space opera.  His books are always thoughtful and thought provoking.  “The Cosmic Engineers” is no exception.  While on the surface, it has a plot that sounds like space opera, it’s much more, retaining a simplicity and sweetness that I’ve come to expect from him.  

Gary and Herb are journalists exploring the solar system to write stories on all the planets.  They get a message that they need to go to Pluto to stop someone who has built a rocket ship with a drive that will go faster than light, carrying him to Alpha Centauri.  On their way, they pick up a woman who’s been in floating in a ship in suspended animation, but mentally awake for a thousand years, keeping herself from going crazy by solving the universe’s problems.  When they all arrive at Pluto, they help the local scientist interpret a communication from alien beings, calling them cosmic engineers.  They find out the universe is about to be destroyed and the engineers need their help to stop it.

Like most of Simak’s works, this book is short, succinct yet prosy.  His writing style is almost comforting in how well it reads.  And in only 160 pages, he comes up with interesting characters who are multi-dimensional.  I like the fact that considering this book was written in 1950, he made Caroline a mathematical and scientific genius.  She was already quite the mind before her suspended animation, but having had a thousand years to ponder all of the universe’s mysteries, she’s the one that makes the intellectual breakthroughs. 

Another one of my favorite themes of his which he uses here is the bizarre alien.  Except for the engineers, they are not humanoid nor are they humanlike earth mammals with annoying names like Tigerishka.  They look like slugs and blobs and only sometimes have something resembling faces.  It reinforces the idea that just because we are the “advanced” species, other intelligent life will not necessarily look like us.

While not long enough to be a terribly deep book, he does offer some interesting 5th dimensional science, bizarre hyperintelligence on the edge of sanity, and a theory of who we are and where we are going.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, wishing it was longer, unlike the long books which I believe would have been much more enjoyable if they were at least a hundred pages shorter.  Perhaps of all author’s I’ve read in these past three years of SF/Fantasy immersion, Simak is one in whom I never seem disappointed.  He always has a fascinating twist on things, and there’s always at least one intriguingly gooey alien.  Four stars out of five.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Web of the Witch World

Andre Norton
Completed 8/25/2015, Reviewed 8/26/2015
4 stars

“Web” was a bit of a surprise.  I liked “Witch World”, but didn’t love it.  I struggled with the prose and simply the act of reading.  The version of the book I had was a first edition paperback with a font that looks like 6 point on yellowing paper so old, it’s orange.  I could only read about twenty pages before getting tired.  It was nominated for a Hugo in 1964, but it didn’t generate the excitement in me I thought it would.  “Web” on the other hand, had me totally enrapt.  I ate it up despite the similar prose, tiny font, orange pages, and watering eyes.  I’m guessing that I needed to warm up to the world building with one book, so I could slide right into it with this one.

The first thing that struck me as great was how Norton recapped the first book through the first several chapters.  Sometimes recaps can be annoying, but it being a year and a half the first book, I found it put me right back into this weird universe.  You see, we’re not really sure we’re on earth, even Simon the main character doesn’t exactly know where he time-space travelled to, but he learned the language, integrated into their society, even marrying one of the witches.  Now a new crisis has emerged.  Loyse, who posed as a boy to flee her betrothal to the evil duke Yleth, has been returned to Karsten where she will be forced to marry him, despite being in love with Koris.  Simon and Koris undertake to rescue her, and Simon eventually falls once again into the hands of the Koldor. 

In putting together that summary, I realized it sounds soapy, but these stories are considered the predecessor to the contemporary subgenre of romantic fantasy.  In addition, the fantasy is layered with an unknown technology, bending the genre even further.  There are flying machines, submarines, and recording devices, but nary a steam engine or dirigible.  And it all works to create a fascinating world with likeable characters and exciting adventure.  And one more bend, Norton’s work is also considered YA, drawing young girls into a predominantly male genre even before it was commonly known that she herself was a woman.  Her given name was Alice.

The prose is still a little terse for me.  It reminds me of Tolkien’s style from his posthumous work, though not nearly as complex.  I found myself having an easier time reading it after about 20 pages in.  It’s a little like Shakespeare, at first you’re lost, then after a short while, you’re in the rhythm and groove of the words and it flows comfortably.

Simon is a great understated hero and I have a fondness for Loyse who breaks gender stereotypes left and right.  Jaelithe is interesting.  She had to give up her witch powers when she chose to marry Simon, reinforcing the old trope that women must choose between marriage and career, or that sex causes powerlessness.  To my relief, she discovers other magic within herself, turning the trope on its head.  I was happy to read in my research for this review that Norton often shook up this notion that women were powerless and that sex and power were mutually exclusive.  No wonder she was able to draw so many girls of the baby boomer generation into the genre. 

I think if I went back and reread the first book, I would probably rate it higher than I did, in light of my reaction to this book.  It’s a great adventure chock full of imagination.  I wonder if she isn’t just the founder of the romantic fantasy, but of dark fantasy as well.  Fantasy of course has always had a dark side, think Grimm and LOTR, but there were times I was confusing my memory of “Witch World” with the very dark universe of Richard K. Morgan’s “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy (“The Steel Remains”, “The Cold Commands”, and “The Dark Defiles”), though those are darker places than most people probably would want to go.  I give “Web” four out of five stars.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

1998 Hugo Winner: Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Read 2012, reviewed 5/19/2013
3 stars

This book felt like two separate novels.  The first half is about the main character, Julian Class, and his role in the war as a mechanic for a weapon called the soldierboy.  The soldierboy is operated by a soldier connected through a mental link with the weapon.  It’s a great technological concept.  However, I was bored with the battle scenes.  I realize the point of the battle scenes is to give you an understanding of the theory of how the soldier becomes telepathically linked to the soldierboy and its effects on the soldier.  However, it quickly bored me.

Fortunately, the second half of the novel takes a very different turn.  Julian discovers that the same process used to link a soldier with a soldierboy, if carried further, turns humans in to peace-loving, non-violent beings.  And the government and crazed radical cults don’t like that.  I read through this part voraciously, loving the tension, and the race to find a way to make a permanently peaceful Earth.

Another aspect I didn’t care for in this novel was the story-telling technique.  It bounced between first person Julian, and third person observer.  It was quite distracting, and probably added to my dislike of the first half of the book.  It seemed more natural in the second half, but that may be because it took me reading through all the war scenes to get the narrative style down.

Once again, Haldeman has created a novel which demonstrates the futility of war.  Here he takes it one step further and parodies our current social conflict:  War may be hell, but the infrastructure won’t find a way to end it permanently, and there will always be crazy people who will always support violence and war as a means to their end.

I only gave this book 3 stars because of my problems with the narration, and my boredom with the first half.  I do have concerns that I read this book after reading “The Forever War” and was tainted because of it.  If I had read this book first, I might have liked it better.  But I do realize that in general I do not like reading war stories.  What saved this book was the second half.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Rite of Passage

Alexei Panshin
Completed 8/23/2015, Reviewed 8/25/2015
4 stars

Mia lives on a spaceship that held many of the survivors of the self-destruction of earth.  Now that most of the survivors have colonized other planets, the relatively small population of the ship maintains its size by limiting births and putting 14 year olds through Trial, a rite of passage where they must live on a colony planet with limited supplies for 30 days.  Trial has a significant mortality rate.  The spoiled daughter of the Chairman of the ship’s Council, Trial forces Mia to reevaluate her father, her peers, her instructors, and her parochial moral values.  While not specifically a YA novel, this book feels like an ancestor of the recent crop of coming of age through some terrible trial type YA books and movies.

I really liked this book.  I thought Panshin did a great job of creating a spoiled tweener girl.  She knows how to manipulate her friends and father.  She parrots the views of a very parochial environment, and doesn’t change until she is faced with seeing the other as just as human as she.  I’d be interested in how women readers feel about Mia.  Did Panshin capture the essence of a pre-teen girl, or can you tell it’s a man trying to write as a girl?  And as a man, I’m looking at it through my own lenses, remembering how I perceived the girls in my 7th and 8th grade class vs. the women I knew in college.  This book won the Nebula, and I wonder if it’s because it’s a good study of a strong female character at a time in SF’s history when there still weren’t many girls or women appearing on the pages except as wives, secretaries, or communications officers.

The book is short.  I read it in two days.  The prose is sparse, but I enjoyed that here, having recently read a lot of books where the prose got in the way of the story.  I’ve been thinking a lot that books need better editors, lopping off at least one hundred pages on some of these large tomes.  This book felt right: short, to the point, but still connecting me to the characters and keeping me engaged with the plot.  It explores important themes like racism, the generation gap, and hegemonic colonization, or how countries like ours have treated the third world.  I was actually surprised when I realized this was a morality play.  And Panshin drives home his points as Mia confirms her old beliefs through her philosophy studies and then experiences a metanoia through the events that occur during her Trial. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I loved Mia and her journey.  I was completely engrossed in the plot and loved how she grew from her experience.  There are tons of great quotes, which I wish I had written down.  But there was one that I’ll paraphrase for my closing:  No one should be able to kill someone unless they know them and will be forced to feel something for having taken that life.  It sounds simplistic and doesn’t cover crimes committed by persons the victims know, but it makes a great point about the insanity of war and the dehumanization of the other.