Saturday, April 27, 2019

Karen Memory

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 4/27/2019, Reviewed 4/27/2019
4 stars

I’m not a huge steampunk or western fan, but I really enjoyed this cross between the two.  The book is about a prostitute with a heart of gold in the Pacific Northwest during the Washington territory days in the 1800s.  It’s mixed with a Jack the Ripper style murder mystery where women are found in alleyways flogged to death.  It was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2016 for positive LGBTQ content in Science Fiction/Fantasy.

The book is told in first person narrative by Karen Memery, like memory but with an e.  She’s an orphaned girl doing the best she can in Madame Damnable’s high-class bordello in a town called Rapid that’s a sort of amalgam of Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, servicing the mariners and the gold seekers before they head up to Alaska.  All is relatively normal until one day, an injured girl named Priya shows up on the doorstep.  Turns out she’s from India and was abducted and forced into prostitution by the evil competing bordello.  Taking her in creates a war between the two houses.  At around the same time women begin appearing in alleyways flogged to death.  The owner of the other house has a mind-control device that he uses to control his indentured prostitutes as well as influence the people of the town against Madame Damnable.  Also coming into the story are a black Lone Ranger type with an American Indian sidekick who are searching for the murderer.  Together they all try to solve the murder mystery while surviving the attacks from the competing house.

The story is really well done.  It’s told in old west style, low-educated grammar.  At first I found it a little annoying, then appreciated it for giving us a sense of who Karen is.  It’s just the right touch of quaint without being too difficult to read.  There aren’t a lot of flashbacks into Karen’s past but she conveys her life experience as well as her hopes and dreams.  In particular, she tells us about how she is falling in love with Priya and wants to settle down on a ranch of her own with her.  She’s been saving up money to buy land, as working in the Hotel Mon Cherie pays pretty well.  We get to know a lot about Priya, as well as several of the young women working at the bordello as they all interact as a family.  The characterization is really well done.

In the steampunk category, there are dirigibles, the mind-control device, a Nautilus-type submersible run by a captain nicknamed Nemo, and a walk-in sewing machine/automaton that Karen uses as a sort of coat of armor.  This walk-in sewing machine was the only thing I didn’t quite get.  I got that it was like having armor that enhances the musculature of the wearer, but I never got how it was used for sewing.  It didn’t ruin the story for me in any way, it just made me wonder what it’s for besides escaping from burning buildings or busting people out of jail. 

Readers of my blog may note that I’ve been reading this book over two weeks.  It’s not a long book, and it’s quick reading.  I was just distracted by gaming.  If I wasn’t playing games for two solid weeks, I would have read more than 20 pages a night.  The action is well described and fast paced.  I would have finished this book a lot more quickly if I hadn’t been playing so many games. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s not my usual brand of excellent, but it was really well written and thought out.  I liked Karen, the book’s setting, and its plot.  It’s pretty fun, and I think would have been a fast read under normal circumstances. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Luna: New Moon

Ian McDonald
Completed 4/10/2019, Reviewed 4/11/2019
4 stars

This book is the definition of space opera.  It’s sort of a cross between a prime-time soap opera and The Godfather set on the Moon.  It’s about five families, known as the Five Dragons, who control five different mega-corporations on the Moon and their wars with each other.  At first I didn’t care for the book.  I was overwhelmed with the number of characters (of which there is a three- or four-page glossary before the book starts) and the constant changes in perspectives among many of them.  Somewhere after about a third of the way through, I got hooked into the story and found it a fascinating and engrossing thrill-ride.  It’s the first book in a three-part (so far) series that ends with a bang, but also leaves you hanging for the sequel.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2016 for positive portrayal of LGBTQ themes in SF/Fantasy.

The majority of the story centers around the Corta family, led by the matriarch Adriana.  Hailing from Brazil, they control the extraction of Helium-3, fulfilling the energy demands of the Earth.  She is old, and there is tension between two of her children, Rafa and Lucas, over who will have control of the company when she dies.  More immediately, there is a sort of lukewarm war between the Cortas and another family, the McKenzies, who run a mega-mining operation.  There are assassinations and attempts, arranged marriages to create alliances, vendettas, and all sorts of intrigue within and between each family.  All this in an environment where the line between life and death is razor sharp.  In fact, people must pay for the Four Elementals:  water, air, carbon, and data.  People pay per breath.  Become unemployed, and soon you will suffocate from not being able to afford your breathing.  But this is a minor issue for the ultra-rich Five Dragons.

The world created on the Moon is one of extreme capitalism run amok.  There is no law but contract law.  You can murder, steal, cheat on your spouse, and so on, as long as you have not signed a contract forbidding it.  And when contract breaches come to court, they can be settled by a duel.  There are no guns on the moon because of the chances of puncturing holes in the protected environments, so the duels usually involve knives.  And there is no democracy, no government of any kind.  Everything is basically controlled by the Five Dragons. 

Like a TV show like Dallas or Dynasty, almost all the characters are part of one of the five families, or work for them.  We don’t get a taste of what it’s like to be poor on the Moon, except through the eyes of one character, Mariana, a fairly recent immigrant who with her friend (or lover, I was never sure exactly which) are within pennies of running out of breaths.  Fortunately, she gets a job with the Cortas, but not before her friend dies from lack of payment.  However, Mariana’s struggle with poverty really only occurs at the beginning.  Once she is employed, we don’t experience what the lower classes experience ever again.  This is too bad, for though it would make the book much longer, it might have made the world a little more fully developed.

I was really surprised that I liked the characters in the Corta family even though they had their share of moral repugnance.  They’re not the good guys.  They are just most three-dimensional characters of the book.  There is a machismo that runs through the men of the family, which is a fatal flaw for many of them, particularly Carlosinho and Lucas.  I liked Lucasinho, Adriana’s mostly gay grandson.  At seventeen, he attempts to run away from home and live without his family.  He has to learn to live by his wits since his father Lucas cuts him off from his accounts.  I also liked Ariel, Adriana’s daughter who is a lawyer and an asexual.  And lastly, I was intrigued by Wagner, Adriana’s youngest son, who is a “wolf”.  He lives in a pack and is influenced by the full Earth in the sky.  The concept of a wolf seemed to be a little hokey, but it intrigued me and I wish there was a little more description of what being a wolf actually entails.

I give the book four stars out of five.  It took a while to grab me, but once it did, I wanted to keep on reading.  However, I don’t necessarily feel compelled to follow the story into the next books.  The prose is decent, but I didn’t like how the perspective changed numerous times through a chapter.  This was especially problematic in the beginning when there are so many characters being introduced.  I recommend this book to anyone who likes space opera.