Sunday, July 29, 2018

City of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennett
Completed 7/29/2018, Reviewed 7/29/2018
4 stars

This self-contained first book of a trilogy is a very satisfying book indeed.  The world building is phenomenal.  It creates a world with a pantheon of six divinities which created a continent.  Bulikov, the holy city is at the center of the continent and the center of the action of the novel.  This city of miracles has been subjugated by Saypur, an island nation to the south that was once its former colony.  All the conflict that occurs are because of the war which turned the tide against Bulikov.  This is a highly readable, very intense novel which I found myself excited to be reaching for every day. 

That’s the background.  The plot revolves around Shara, a Saypuri operative who comes to Bulikov under the guise of a junior cultural ambassador to investigate the death of a Saypuri professor, Efrem Pangyui.  He came to Bulikov to study the history of the city and its conqueror, the Kaj.  This causes an uproar because the denizens of Bulikov are not permitted to remember their history, particularly the divinities who were assassinated by the Kaj.  Shara is accompanied by Sigrud, her terrifying Viking-like secretary.  Together they uncover a violent plot to overthrow the Saypuri dominance over Bulikov.

The plot is complex-sounding because it is wonderfully multi-layered.  There are subplots underlying the basic murder mystery of the professor.  The layering is enhanced by the prose.  It’s not too flowery; it has just the right amount of description to enhance the world building without it becoming overbearing.  The combination of the plot and the prose made me want to find out the history of the city, the divinites, and the magic.  It was done with just the right amount of info-dump, written in a way that was both informative and intriguing. 

The characterization is strong, with fleshed-out supporting characters.  My favorite was Sigrud, Shara’s “secretary”.  He’s really a bodyguard slash strong-arm slash right-hand man who relishes doing the dirty work for Shara.  He comes from the north pirating country and is basically a Viking.  He’s a quiet, calm, operative’s assistant, but also a berserker who doesn’t flinch when confronted by a group of terrorists or a sea monster.

There are loads of magical items called miracles left by the gods and their saints.  Some still work, some don’t.  For example, a flying carpet whose threads will lift tons of steel or a door that will transport you to its matching mate.  And there’s miracles to be incanted with hand gestures or baubles to perform actions like hide you in plain sight or take you to the old city.  The author just gives you enough not to overwhelm you, but leave you wanting more.

I give this book four out of five stars.  I really enjoyed the book.  It’s an intelligent fantasy set in somewhat modern times built out of worlds that resemble ours.  Bennett is a good writer and I think I would enjoy reading the rest of this series.  I can see why it was nominated for so many awards when it came out.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fuzzies and Other People

H. Beam Piper
Completed 7/22/2018, Reviewed 7/22/2018
4 stars

This third book in the Fuzzy series was published twenty years after the second book and the author’s death.  The manuscript was found in his basement and finally published in 1984.  I loved it.  It has the maturity of the second book with the playfulness of the first.  The story continues right after the end of the second book.  I believe all three of these books should be read one after the other for the full effect.

The narrative of the book is a little different.  While it follows the humans on the planet Zarathustra and their experiences with the Fuzzies, it also follows a group of Fuzzies still in the wild.  I really liked this.  It got us into the heads of the Fuzzies more deeply than either of the first two books. 

Warning:  This being the third book, this review will have some spoilers for the previous two books.

After the plot to steal the sunstones is foiled, the criminals are caught and face trial.  They have a sharp lawyer who is trying to get them absolved from faginism and slavery charges, which carries a death sentence.  Faginism, like Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, is the entrapment and training of youths to commit crimes for the adults.  This would hold because legally, the Fuzzies are considered 10-12-year-old children and the criminals coerced the Fuzzies into executing their plan to steal the sunstones.  But if the lawyer can get this overturned, it would throw the whole adoption of Fuzzies by humans into turmoil, and they would lose a lot of their protections.  In the meantime, a group of Fuzzies still in the wild have a close encounter with humans, known as Big Ones.  The Wise One of the group believes that Big Ones wouldn’t hurt them and wants to bring his little group of eight to the south where they believe the big ones live.  The story follows them in their travels as they hunt for food and fight predators and the elements. 

This secondary plot of the wild Fuzzies is what made the book for me.  It was great society building, replete with Fuzzy language.  It exemplified how the Fuzzies lived before contact with humans.  It shows them to be intelligent, though primitive, and more than just smart pets, which is the feeling you get from the second book. 

This, like the other books, is short.  It’s an easy read and very engrossing.  The trilogy is well worth the read, if you can find the third book.  As of this writing, it is not in e-book format.  I found it at Powell’s and it was the only copy they had.  I’m so glad I found it.  Now I think I’m suitably prepared to read Scalzi’s reboot, “Fuzzy Nation”.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


Clifford D. Simak
Completed 7/21/2018, Reviewed 7/21/2018
3 stars

I love Clifford D. Simak’s writing.  He’s known as writing “pastoral” science fiction, where there is an emphasis on rural settings and characters.  This collection of related short stories mostly has pastoral settings, although it begins with the demise of the city.  Like many of his novels, it also involves robots.  In these stories, there’s also ants and dogs.  I liked this book but wasn’t moved as much as I have been by other works by him.  The prose is gorgeous, but I just wasn’t engaged in many of the stories.  Still this book won an International Fantasy Award in 1952 and is considered a classic. 

The premise of the book is that because of atomic energy, people are moving out of cities.  The concept of the tribe is no longer needed.  Also, without cities, there are no strike zones for atomic bombs, so peace has become prevalent.  The book follows one family, the Websters, through the collapse of the city of the first story, the flight of people first to rural areas then to other planets, the development of robots, the development of dogs having the ability to speak and read, and the overtaking of the earth by ants.  It’s a lot to cover in nine short stories, but Simak does it in his classic style of a slow paced, high concept narrative.

The stories were originally written and published separately.  When Simak put together this book, he introduced each story with a preface written by a dog critic who discusses the probable reality of the stories, contemplating whether they are fact or simply legends, and thus doubting the existence of humans.  These prefaces tie the stories together a little more than without them.  The overall effect is something like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, only more cohesive.  You get the sense that Simak was writing these as if he knew he would put the stories together in a single-book format later

The only character that exists throughout most of the stories is Jenkins, the Websters’ ageless robot butler.  He stays with the Websters from his creation, basically through the end of time.  He’s subdued, as robots often are in Simak’s stories, but utterly faithful.  He’s always ready with a drink and a kind word.  He also is a master to the dogs as they evolve and the Websters disappear.  The other robots continue to build robots to be chaperones for the dogs and Jenkins seems to be the master of all of these. 

The prose is just lovely, as has been the prose of every book I’ve read of Simak’s.  However, I didn’t find all the stories that engaging.  I often found my mind wandering as I was reading them and didn’t feel fully engaged until the last two stories.  The very last story, called Epilogue was appended to the collection in 1974 (I believe).  I can’t really go into too much detail without spoiling the ending, but I thought it tied everything together really well.  I give the book three stars out of five. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fuzzy Sapiens

H. Beam Piper
Completed 7/15/2018, Reviewed 7/15/2018
3 stars

This is the sequel to “Little Fuzzy”.  It begins right after the previous book ends.  It’s better written than the first book, but the story is not quite as interesting.  It’s still a quick read, just not nearly as fun or thought-provoking.  Since it is a sequel, the plot summary has some spoilers, so be aware if you continue reading this review.

The story begins with the building of the new non-corporate government now that the planet’s designation has been changed to Type IV due to the legal decision that Fuzzies are sentient beings.  The corporation that used to run the planet, the CZC, is now trying to transition into being charter-less, that is, it no longer has a monopoly on the planet.  One of the first actions of the new government is to allow the adoption of the Fuzzies by humans.  Of course, everyone wants one.  Interestingly enough, word has spread among the Fuzzies that the Big Ones (humans) are good and will feed and protect them, so they want to be adopted as well.  Even the head of the corporation, Victor, befriends and adopts one.  But the birthing of a new government is not easy, and there are some missing Fuzzies that everyone is looking for. 

I found this book to be a little drier than the first.  It doesn’t feature as much playfulness.  The focus is primarily on the humans, the government, and the CZC.  Much of the page time is devoted to the development and execution of the adoption service, which just isn’t that interesting.  In fact, I felt a little uneasy about the whole adoption thing.  It seems to me that if there are sentient beings, they should be left alone to develop on their own.  Adoption seems patronizing and pet-like rather than respectful of the Fuzzies as their own race.  Maybe I’m too used to the Star Trek Prime Directive for non-interference with indigenous races. 

However, it did seem like the writing was much stronger, less pulpy than the first.  I was surprised at how much easier it was to read this book than the first, even though I found it less interesting. 

While Jack Halloway, the original discoverer of the Fuzzies is still featured in this sequel, Victor is probably the main character.  He makes an easy transition from anti-Fuzzy to pro-Fuzzy.  This happens because he finds a Fuzzy in his bedroom one day, and the Fuzzy takes to him immediately.  Victor is hesitant at first but falls victim to the Fuzzy’s irresistible charms.  I found myself really rooting for him in his transformation. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  There’s a third book that was published about twenty years after the author’s death, though it’s not in e-book format, and at least one other author has continued the Fuzzy stories.  However, I’m looking forward to the Fuzzy reboot by John Scalzi, entitled “Fuzzy Nation”, which I hope to read soon.

Little Fuzzy

H. Beam Piper
Completed 7/14/2018, Reviewed 7/15/2018
4 stars

Little Fuzzy is a classic about the definition of sentient life.  It was nominated for a Hugo back in 1963.  The first paragraph has a lot of technical jargon, but it is not hard science fiction.  It’s a short, easy read that makes you think about how we will determine whether or not alien species are sentient.  I enjoyed it immensely, finding the discovery of the species and the subsequent trial riveting.

Jack Holloway mines sunstones on a distant planet.  He discovers a small, silken-furred native mammal that no one else has seen before on the planet.  The mammal takes to him and Jack to it.  He names him Little Fuzzy and begins to see that the mammal can make tools and learn by watching.  Little Fuzzy even understands the concept of trade.  Soon Little Fuzzy brings his family unit to live with Jack.  He shares his discovery with several others who agree that the Fuzzies are sentient.

The discovery of sentient life on the planet would change the designation from Type III to Type IV.  This has great implications for the corporation that is now basically running the planet.  Once designated as Type IV, the corporation would lose its contract and jurisdiction would turn over to a non-corporate government.  So the corporation does everything possible to discredit Jack.  These result in events that lead to a court case to determine whether the Fuzzies are sentient or not.

There’s a sort of pulp novel quality to the book, but that’s probably because it’s short and Fuzzies are cute.  The cuteness is a little unbelievable at first.  It almost reads like a Disney documentary or a YA novel.  But the reader needs this to learn about the Fuzzies and their skills.  When it moved into the court case, it reminded me of “Inherit the Wind”, the play and film about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial. 

The characters are great.  Jack is particularly fun as the grizzled, seventy-year-old prospector who is the first human to meet a Fuzzy.  He is right out of the old west, but with bigger, more technologically advanced equipment.  The corporate bad guys are just that, a little one dimensional, but it sets up the conflict for the later court case. 

It’s hard to go into much more detail because it is such a short book.  Anything else would give away too much.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s fun and exciting and instantly pleasing.  I think this is a must-read for any science fiction fan to see the early speculation of first contact. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Northern Girl

Elizabeth A. Lynn
Completed 7/14/2018, Reviewed 7/14/2018
4 stars

This is the third of a trilogy, though the books somewhat standalone, similar to Lois McMasters Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series.  I read this book because it has lesbian content although it is fairly low key.  It turned out to be quite a good fantasy, mostly for its political intrigue.  The storyline of the title character is not nearly as exciting, although she is a good character.  I liked the book a lot, finding myself plunged into the drama of the city where it takes place, even though it is not really an action driven story.

The are really two plots to this book.  The first concerns the title character, Sorren.  She is a far-traveler.  That is, she has visions of events from far away places.  Specifically, she has visions of Tornor, a keep in the north, from which her family came generations ago.  She hides this gift because it means she would have to join the White Clan, which consists of witches who have similar magical gifts.  So she stays quiet, working as a bondservant to the Lady Arre Med, cleaning, shopping for the household, and acting as a personal assistant to Arre.  She has a lover, Paxe, the Yardmaster of the Med guards.  Sorren longs to go to the Tornor after her bond service is up when she turns eighteen.  She’s also a drummer, often playing at festivals and for Isak, Arre’s dancer brother. 

The second plot follows the political atmosphere of the city where Sorren lives, Kendra-on-the-Delta.  The Lady Arre is one of the city council members of Kendra.  She discovers that swords, which were banned in the city by the White Clan, are being smuggled in.  This is not only illegal but threatens the stability of the city.  It is already tottering on chaos, with massive brawls occurring with more frequency on the docks.  Arre must find out who is behind this smuggling before the city returns to its violent past. 

I normally don’t like books with political intrigue.  I often find there to be too many secondary characters who I often lose track of.  But I found myself drawn into it easily.  I have to say the world building was great, even though I had not read the first two books in the series.  There was enough description of the city, its races, religion, and social structure that made this book stand alone well. 

I also liked the characters.  The leading characters were all women, some of whom like Arre held positions of power or like Paxe were city guards.  Most especially, I enjoyed the Kadra, a ghya, or hermaphrodite, who was an alcoholic who dreams of returning to the sea.  Sorren befriends her, because she is also a mapmaker, drawing for Sorren a map of the route to the Tornor Keep.  Kadra also acquires a bow for Sorren to help her learn how to shoot, a skill at which the northern peoples are supposed to excel.  While only a minor character, Kadra is fascinating and one of the few people from the town Sorren likes.

The narration of the book is also interesting.  It is told third person from Sorren, Arre, and Pax.  At first, I was a little annoyed by it, because, after all, the book is entitled The Northern Girl.  I thought it should be told from Sorren’s perspective exclusively.  But after I got into the rhythm of the book, I found it flowed very well.  Changing the point of view helped move both plots, giving you the different perspectives from the three very different characters.

I have to say I did not think I’d care for this book when I first picked it up.  It’s rather long, and I thought it would be boring based on the blurbs I’d seen.  But I really enjoyed it, finding it well written and interesting.  I give this book four out of five stars. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Invisible Library

Genevieve Cogman
Completed 7/7/2018, Reviewed 7/7/2018
3 stars

Books about books and libraries are always fun.  This one is no exception.  The Invisible Library is about a librarian who travels to alternate dimensions to find rare books, books that only exist in that one dimension, not across multiple dimensions.  It mixes steampunk, magic, mystery, and chaotic creatures to create a fun, easy reading experience.  It’s not a great book, and for a time after the opening scene, I felt it was a little meh, but it picks up about halfway through and has an exciting climax. 

Irene is the dimension jumping librarian.  She just comes back from one assignment to find she’s immediately given a new one.  Her job is to retrieve a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that has an additional tale that only exists in that one dimension.  On this trip, Irene is given a trainee, Kai.  He has a few secrets up his sleeve that aren’t revealed until much later.  The catch in this assignment is that the dimension they must travel to is imbued with chaos, which draws other creatures like the Fae, vampires, and werewolves. 

The basic premise of the book is great.  It’s no wonder that the author is about to release the fifth book in the series.  It lends itself to a myriad of plots retrieving books from different dimensions.  However, I felt that this book suffered in the beginning with a lot of “start-up” issues.   We spend a lot of time with Irene getting to know Kai and getting started in the alternative dimension.  I’m not big on smash ‘em up action books, but there just isn’t that much action in the beginning.  There’s a murder, but it just isn’t that interesting at first.  It doesn’t come together until a bunch of mind-controlled alligators crash a dinner gala. 

The characterization is good.  Irene is the main character and the best drawn.  She’s smart, gutsy, loyal, and funny.  I was disappointed with rest of the characters.  I thought they were fairly one-dimensional.  There was not much to Kai.  I wonder if he becomes more fleshed out in later novels.  Vale, a Sherlock Holmes-ish inhabitant of the alternate dimension, is almost interesting.  He and Irene have several good scenes together.  Of course, there is a villain and an antagonistic librarian who round out the story. 

One thing I liked about the world that Cogman created was that it was steampunk, but not overly so.  There weren’t a lot of bustles and corsets, and women were often engineers.  While there was a Victorian sensibility to the world-building, with deference to ladies’ sensibilities, it wasn’t chokingly misogynistic.

The book starts off great, slows down some, and then picks up about halfway through.  Overall, I liked the book.  It was fun.  I think people who like mysteries will like the book as well.  I give the book three out of five stars.   

Monday, July 2, 2018

Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Completed 7/2/2018, Reviewed 7/2/2018
4 stars

Kurt Vonnegut has always been one of my favorite authors.  He writes in a very compact style while infusing his work with the darkest of satire.  This early work of his is no different.  Told from a first-person point of view, he recounts the events leading up to the end of the world by a weapon that freezes water up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.  Both easy to read and devastatingly funny, my eyes were continuously wide with amazement at Vonnegut’s sardonic wit. 

Vonnegut tells the tale of a man trying to write a book about the father of the atomic bomb.  In addition to the bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented something called Ice-9, a weapon that if released, would freeze all the water in the world.  The narrator begins his research by contacting the Hoenikker’s surviving children.  His journey leads him to the island of San Lorenzo, where he discovers the eldest Hoenikker, Frank, is the right-hand man of the island’s dictator, “Papa” Monzano.  He also meets the other two children there.  Also on the island is Bokonon, a man who created a religion to replace the Christianity that devasted the place.  Through a series of improbably events, Ice-9 is released, ending the world as we know it.

Written over fifty years ago, the book has a cold war feeling to it, even though it is not specifically about the cold war.  It also has some recollections of WWII, which Vonnegut took part in and was forever molded into an anti-war activist.  Still, it is very relevant to today, citing the stupidity of man in just about every character in the book. 

What I liked best about the book is the narration.  The unnamed narrator is very dry and very aware.  He listens to the self-involved people around him, and rather than engaging, his main response to their ramblings is “Huh”, emphasizing their self-absorbed delusions to the reader.  Frank Hoenikker likes his style so much, noting that he likes the “cut of his jib”, that he offers the narrator the island’s presidency on the eve of “Papa’s” death.  The narrator never loses his cool until late in the book, with the first small release of Ice-9. 

As I mentioned before, the writing style is compact, yet it is stuffed with satire on cold war Americans.  It makes for very easy reading and makes one appreciative of its terseness.  Unlike a lot of the fantasy I’ve read lately, there isn’t a whole lot of prose to complicate the dialogue. He gets right to the point with the plot and characters.

The characters aside from the narrator are wonderfully one-dimensional, very 1950s suburban blandness.  They don’t have to say much to give you an idea of how shallow they are.  In a way, they reminded me of Salinger’s Glass family from “Franny and Zooey” and other stories, in a word, narcissistic.  As an introvert, it’s how I see most of the people I come across in daily life.  It made me really identify with the narrator.

Vonnegut’s commentary on religion is also priceless.  Two men, Bokonon and McCabe, create a religion based on lies.  McCabe, who rules the island before “Papa”, sets up Bokonon as a traitor, because nothing spreads a religion more than adversity.  Bokonon basically becomes a messiah and all the inhabitants become Bokononians.

The story is science fiction in its plot with Ice-9, but the book is so much more than that.  It is a satire on humanity, revealing the banality of the average person in a world on the brink of destruction.  I give this book four out of five stars.