Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Child Garden

Geoff Ryman
Completed 6/29/2019, Reviewed 6/29/2019
4 stars

Geoff Ryman’s imagination is quite a force.  In this book, he has imagined a bizarre dystopian future which he explains at the beginning in about four pages.  Then he goes on to create a strange novel based on this world in the next four hundred.  It’s an interesting form, building a world quickly and then setting a story in it.  The story however, is as complex as his world.  This is not a quick book.  It takes effort and concentration to understand what’s going on, and in the end, I don’t know if I got it all.  But I found it to be beautifully written, and enjoyed what I could grasp of the complex plot.  It won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell awards for science fiction in 1990.

The book takes place in a future London after a world-wide communist revolution.  There is a hive mind called the Consensus which is created by Reading the minds of all children at the age of ten.  At this time, all socially unacceptable behavior is destroyed.  Unfortunately, this includes all talent and imagination.  Also, cancer has been cured, but the cure has cut the average lifespan to the age of thirty-five.  To make people mature more quickly, they are infected with viruses that impart all the knowledge they’d ever need.  This, in combination with being Read, creates a population that knows a lot but has no passion or appreciation for knowledge and particularly, the arts. 

Milena is an enigma.  As a child, she was immune to the viruses so she had to learn on her own and at ten she wasn’t Read.  She goes through early life feeling less than.  She is placed in life as an actress, but has no real passion for it.  Everything is rote for the other actors and for the children they perform for.  They do not appreciate the plays she performs.  One day, she meets a genetically engineered human, in the form of a polar bear, so created to be able to work in the Antarctic.  GE’s are not infected with viruses and are not read.  This polar bear person, named Rolfa, loves to sing opera and secretly sets literature to music.  Milena befriends Rolfa and falls in love with her, but their love is never actualized.  She discovers Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” set to music and sets out to orchestrate and direct a holographic production of it in the sky.  But in the process of getting it produced, Rolfa gets Read and loses her talent and is cured of her lesbian orientation. 

The form of the book is almost as complex as the world-building and the plot.  It’s divided into two books.  The first book is fairly straight-forward.  It follows Milena as she meets and loses Rolfa, stops being an actress, and begins being a director.  The second book is more convoluted.  Its timeline is non-linear as Milena remembers her childhood and works on getting the opera produced.  I was very fortunate to have read a review of the book that pointed this out, so I was prepared for the effort required to follow the multiple plot threads through the jumping timeline.  However, it was still pretty difficult to follow.  This second book is the section where it requires a lot of effort to keep up with the subplots. 

My only complaint with the book is that there was a strange relationship between Milena and her first choice as lighting designer for the opera.  After not choosing her to do the lighting production, the woman stalks and harasses Milena through holographic projections.  At first it made me angry, which I believe was the intended response to the scene.  But then I became quite bored with it as it dragged on.  The harassment gets worse and worse, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the book, and these scenes were very long.  I eventually became annoyed with it, wanting desperately to get back to the other subplots.  Without this, I think the book would have been about fifty pages shorter and I would have maybe had a better chance of keeping the other subplots straight in my head. 

Otherwise, the book is beautifully written, building this complex world with wonderful word and expression choices.  Ryman’s imagination was simply amazing to me.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I think this book would be lost on hard-core science fiction fans because the plot is so out there, but I think it is one of the most creative dystopias I’ve ever encountered in my reading. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Daughters of an Emerald Dusk

Katherine V. Forrest
Completed 6/23/2019, Reviewed 6/23/2019
4 stars

This book is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy which began strongly in Daughters of a Coral Dawn and continued weakly in Daughters of an Amber Noon.  Like the first, it is written from several voices’ perspectives, weaving a complete narrative that is active rather than expositional, which was my biggest problem with the second book.  The theme is that the best intentions can have unintended consequences, as the women’s utopia created on the planet Maternas gets thrown for a loop by the very odd behavior of its younger generations.  It brings in Gaia theory, that is, the theory that a planet is a self-regulating, complex system where living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.  The introduction of the Unity, the now ten thousand women who settled on Maternas from Earth, has tipped the balance of Maternas and the planet is now fighting back.  This book won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror in 2006, and I think it was very deserving.

The book begins with the arrival of more women from Earth on Maternas, including Olympia and Joss, two of the narrators from the second book.  They find it beautiful but notice strange behavior of the young people.  With the return of Megan the original emigrants’ leader, Minerva the historian, and Mother back to the planet, the council calls a meeting to discuss the problem with the new generations of daughters.  Due to a time warp for the people who traveled to and from Earth, fifty-five years have passed, and there are two generations of daughters who do not communicate and have left the utopia built by the founders to live on the continent of Amazonia on the equator.  The parents are distraught and have stopped having children until something can be figured out.  What follows is a journey to the heart and mind of a planet that is out of balance and doing anything it can to repair itself.

The narration this time is by Minerva, Olympia, and Joss.  There is no third person narrative line.  It works a lot better.  As I mentioned before, this book doesn’t rely as much on exposition, only in the beginning at the council where they catch the travelers up on what they’ve missed.  The voices of the narrators are much clearer this time as well.  Whereas in the second book it almost seemed like the author was popping up saying, “Now I’m Joss” and “Now I’m Africa”, the narrators here are much more distinctive and the characters are much more developed.

I’ve read some reviews where the readers thought that the book was kind of campy, but I didn’t find it exaggerated or over-the-top.  Sure, the strange children trope can get kind of campy and has been done may times, but I found it to be exciting and wonderfully weird.

It also seems that the author kind of does a one-eighty on the separatist theme.  I really can’t go into too much detail because that would be a spoiler.  But suffice it to say that she perhaps has grown a bit since the publication of the original book and has become more of an inclusivist rather than an exclusivist.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It was a short book, under two hundred pages.  Except for the fact that I had to sleep, I could barely put it down, reading it in two days.  I’m glad I read the whole trilogy.  Even though this book begins with a rundown of the basic facts from the first two books, it doesn’t begin to give you the experience that I had reading them. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Daughters of an Amber Noon

Katherine V. Forrest
Completed 6/22/2019, Reviewed 6/22/2019
3 stars

This is the second book in the Daughters trilogy.  In the first book, Daughters of a Coral Dawn, four thousand descendants of Mother leave Earth to form a women’s utopia on a distant planet.  Two thousand of their sisters remain on Earth for various reasons.  This book follows their story.  I didn’t find it as gripping as the first novel.  Even though this book came out eighteen years after the first, it feels like sophomore slump.  There was a lot of exposition.  Rather than showing me what happened, it was a lot of telling me what happened.  Even the ending had epilogue-like chapters explaining what had happened rather than taking me through the events as they unfolded.

The book follows the two thousand descendants of Mother who remained on Earth.  In the first book, the political and social structure was hostile toward women.  Now, a new dictator, Theo Zedera, has taken over the world and things have gotten even worse.  Specifically, he’s hunting for the remnants of Unity who have left society and are hiding in the desert.  As with the women who emigrated, these women are especially gifted.  So, they’ve built an enclave hidden by a volcano which is practically impenetrable and unfindable.  One of the women in particular, Africa, was a close friend and personal advisor of Zed before he became dictator.  She is now working to make this refuge a utopia, but bears tremendous guilt for fostering Zed’s maniacal and narcissistic ways.  The question is, how long can they remain hidden before Zed finds them?

The narrative is more or less similar to Coral Dawn.  It is told from the journal entries of several women.  This time the women include Olympia, one of Mother’s nine daughters who has taken over the role of historian for the Unity; the aforementioned Africa; and Joss, a woman assigned to Africa as a sort of personal assistant and is secretly infatuated with her.  In addition to these, there is also a third person narrative from the perspective of one of Zed’s generals which gives you behind-the-scenes insight into the workings of Zed and his henchmen.  I found the narratives of the women less distinctive than in the first book, and their characterization less formed.  I didn’t feel like I was in any of their heads, and they all more or less sounded the same.  They gave a lot of history of the women but explained rather poorly who they really were.  As characterization goes, Zed and his henchmen were better drawn than any of the narrating women.  And it was not hard to imagine the hateful workings of a narcissistic despot considering our current political climate.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s decent, but not nearly as good as its predecessor, which I nearly gave five stars.  It was drier with none of the cheeky humor that Mother provided.  I found it a little tougher to read, with not much going on until the end.  And the ending does wrap things up rather nicely and somewhat astonishingly.  I’m still looking forward to the final book, which won the Lambda Literary Award, though I hope it was on its own merits rather than a lifetime achievement award for someone who wrote a book that has become a classic of lesbian science fiction literature. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Daughters of a Coral Dawn

Katherine V. Forrest
Completed 6/19/2019, Reviewed 6/19/2019
4 stars

I thought this book was an excellent excursion into old-school lesbian feminist science fiction.  First published in 1984, it imagines a world where a group of women have escaped an oppressive sexist government and created their own utopia on a distant planet.  Then some men from their old world show up and they somehow have to deal with them.  It is really well written and well thought out.  Unfortunately, it is dated in that today, we are all about inclusivity, as opposed to separatism.  However, I think it is an important novel from an historical perspective, and as we see today how women’s right are slowly eroding, it still has some meaning for us. 

The book begins with an Earth man marrying an alien woman.  Although this union is illegal, the alien looks so much like an Earth human that she can pass as such.  They have nine daughters, all at once.  All the daughters are brilliant in some way.  As they mature and marry, they have more brilliant daughters.  They also live much longer than humans, so soon there are six thousand descendants.  The world they live in is very patriarchal and sexist, though these women have made their way to the tops of their fields.  At one point, “Mother” calls an enclave of all her descendants.  Called the “Unity”, they decide it is time to leave their repressive life on Earth and create a new homeland on another planet.  All is peaceful on “Maternas” until a damaged ship from Earth arrives and threatens their very existence.

The story is told from the point of view of several women, the primary two being Minerva, the historian of the Unity, and Megan, the chosen leader of the group.  Both are in journal form.  Their journal entries go back and forth to create the narrative.  Minerva is one of the elders of the group, one of the original nine daughters.  Her chapters give the history of the family and recounts the settling of Maternas.  Megan’s fills in the blanks, and give an insight into what it’s like to be a leader and a pledged celibate.  Minerva is quite likeable as the main voice of the story.  Megan’s character is a little dry at times, as she eschews emotional reactions and maintains a professional air.  But I began to like her character more as she became vulnerable when one of the women on the planet flirts with her.  You get to see some of her shell beginning to crack.

I also really liked Mother.  She added humor to everyone’s seriousness.  She had an insightful head on her shoulders and called them as she saw them.  She’s also the only heterosexual on the planet.  All the other women begin to form relationships. 

The one thing I seemed to have missed was how the lesbian couples were having children.  But they do continue to have progeny, all daughters, and soon the population of the planet goes from four to ten thousand.  (Only four thousand of the original six thousand actually leave Earth.  The rest stay on Earth and are the subject of the second in this series). 

I read quite a few reviews of this book and there are a lot of people who disliked it because of the separatist and men-hating attitude.  While I found it a little archaic, I didn’t find it much different from other books of this period, the most popular one being “The Handmaid’s Tale.  Being a man, I wasn’t put off or threatened by the book’s themes.  Rather, I felt it was an educational experience, getting a feeling for the separatist attitudes which came before our much healthier and contemporary energies of inclusivity and the fight against toxic masculinity. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It was very nearly a five-star book, as the prose was beautiful without being overbearing, and the story, though not really original (there have been other lesbian science fiction utopia books before this one), kept my interest keenly.  But the emotional impact of the book was not as profound as I’ve usually experienced for a five-star review.  However, I look forward to the rest of the series and hope to get them all read successively.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Ophiuchi Hotline

John Varley
Completed 6/16/2019, Reviewed 6/16/2019
3 stars

This was John Varley’s first novel, from 1977.  It involves cloning of the protagonist until there are several of her running around the solar system.  It makes for complex plotlines following the clones.  I enjoyed it though.  It was a good first novel:  good writing and well thought out.  I did find it difficult to keep up with the plots as the main character was cloned, but in the end, it was worth it.  It’s the first of a series by Varley, of which he just published a fourth book last year. 

Hundreds of years in the future, the earth has been invaded by aliens simply known as the Invaders.  They basically ransacked all modern development, leaving green pastures and new sprouting plants.  In the succeeding years, ten billion people died of starvation.  Most of the remaining humans left the earth to live on our moon, Luna, as well other planets and moons in our solar system.  There, they are the recipients of new technological advances that are sent to them by aliens from somewhere in the constellation Ophiuchus via what’s been called the Ophiuchi Hotline.  But after several hundred years of this, the Invaders want payment for the information, throwing the eight worlds of humanity into chaos.

Lilo-Alexandr-Calypso is a genetics scientist who deals in genetic modifications.  She’s been working primarily on food but also works on humans, which makes her an enemy of the human race.  She is saved by a self-stylized Boss Tweed by cloning her and sending the clone to the gallows in exchange for working for him.  She agrees to this but soon finds out this is a prison of sorts.  She tries several escape attempts where she dies and is cloned back again.  Eventually, there are three clones of her each with their own plotline.  The main story follows her as she tries to find out what the payment is that the Ophiuchians want.

Lilo is a good character, but not particularly well defined.  We have some moments in her head, but not a lot.  I felt like I was always one step removed from her, rather than in her head.  She’s passionate about her work as well as escaping from the clutches of Boss Tweed and his clone minions.  But I think the three clones of Lilo added to my inability to stay in her head, because there were three different heads to try to get into.  On an interesting personal note, Lilo is bisexual, and in the future, there is a lot of gender fluidity.  It’s one of the reasons this book made it onto the WWE LGBTQ reading list.

This was a short book, at just over 200 pages, but it is jam-packed with excitement.  There’s a decent amount of good prose as well.  Ultimately, I felt the book suffered from the undertaking of too complex a plotline with the three clones. I’ve also read Varley’s Titan, which was written two years later, but I found it a much better book.  I give this one three stars out of five.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Earth Logic

Laurie J Marks
Completed 6/12/2019, Reviewed 6/12/2019
3 stars

This was a very hard book for me to read.  While I found the prose to be quite good, I felt that there wasn’t much of a plot.  That isn’t to say little happened.  A lot happened, but I couldn’t tell where the story wanted to go.  In the end, it all made sense, but the journey getting there was rather hard to follow.  Nothing was really riveting.  It’s the second book in the Elemental Logic series, the first being Fire Logic.  Like its predecessor, the book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ images in genre lit. 

The story picks up with Karis, the G’deon of Shaftal surrounded by her makeshift family of followers.  G’deon means she’s the ruler of the country.  She has not moved into that position because she’s waiting for a sign, something to signal that it is time to confront the invading forces, the Sainnites.  However, neither she nor her entourage know what sign they are looking for.  All Karis knows for sure is that she wants to bring about the end of the Sainnite occupation through peaceful means.

Karis isn’t really the main character of the book, though.  We do follow her in one of the narratives, but she doesn’t feel like the central part of the book, even though she’s the G’deon.  The much more interesting and profound character is Clement, a commander of the Sainnite army.  We follow her in the second narrative of the book.  Clement is a strong leader and had a complex personality.  She gives us a taste of what it’s like to be a leader of the invading force in a foreign land.  Zanja, who was a main character in the last book, has a major role in this book.  She’s not really a main character, but plays a pivotal role in the whole question of when Karis should make her move.  Specifically, she finds out through the reading of prophetic cards that she must die for Shaftal to be free.

As far as characterization goes, I didn’t feel like there was much character development except for Clement, she being the new character in this book.   In a supporting role was an interesting person named Gilley who was sort of her personal assistant.  He was deformed and unattractive, but helped Clement stay grounded in reality.  As much story as there was around the characters who appeared in the last book, there wasn’t much development in their personalities.  One had to rely on their memories of the last book to really get a sense of who they were in this book. 

There are a lot of plot details that are more exciting, but they all happen towards the end of the book, and I don’t want to give any spoilers.  In general, though, there isn’t that much excitement in the book until you get to the second half of the book.  I give this book three stars out of five.  While the prose was enjoyable, there wasn’t enough directionality to the book.  Even through the second half, I wasn’t sure where the plot was going.  The book was okay, but I’d expect more from an award winner.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Wicked Gentlemen

Ginn Hale
Completed 6/7/2019, Reviewed 6/7/2019
4 stars

The title of the book is deceiving.  To me, it invokes a farcical plot of British gentlemen doing dastardly things, or at least being ironic and smug.  Well, the plot is certainly about evil men, but it is not farcical at all.  It’s dark, it’s about humans and the descendants of demons, there are mysteries, but no one is foppish.  The setting invokes industrial age England, but it is much more than that.  Author Ginn Hale has created a very intriguing world with protagonists doing the best they can in deprecating circumstances.  I really enjoyed it despite the title, having gotten a taste of this world in her contribution to the last book I read, the anthology Devil Take Me.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ content in genre fiction in 2008.

This book is about Belimai Sykes and Capt. William Harper.  Belimai is a Prodigal, the descendant of demons who repented and returned to earth, only to live as second-class citizens in an underground city.  Many of these beings still retain some magic, although many of these traits are being diluted in the generations.  For example, Belimai can fly, and can smell minute scents and taste the air around him.  Harper is a human priest in the order of the Inquisitors, a police force that keeps the demon spawn population under its thumb.  They meet when Harper and his brother-in-law Edward seek out Belimai to help them find Harper’s sister/Edward’s wife who appears to have been abducted.  In addition, there has been a rash of murders of Prodigals that Harper is investigating. 

The book is divided into two stories.  The plot of the first one is detailed above and it is told in first person, Belimai’s point of view.  The second one continues the relationship between Belimai and Harper but is told from Harper’s point of view, third person.  In this story, Harper happens upon the murder of a girl, apparently by her uncle, but the Abbot of the Inquisitors and another captain conspire with the uncle to cover it up and blame it on a flying Prodigal.  Since there are only a few flying Prodigals left, including Belimai, Harper must whisk him to safety and save the suspects and suspected consipiring humans from the powerful grasp of the Abbot. 

Hale’s prose is lovely, with just the right amount of description and dialogue.  It makes for quick reading but still provides for great world building and characterization.  Belimai and Harper are wonderfully drawn.  I felt like I was in the heads of both characters in their respective stories.  I particularly like Belimai’s sardonic wit.  Harper, though fighting for good, is hardly a saint, and has his own secrets and inner demons.  He reminded me a little of a strong, silent type noir-ish detective, not unlike Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner”.  And the chemistry between Belimai and Harper is very nicely developed, starting in fits and spurts, and smoothing out as the book progresses. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I had the good fortune of leaving work early today and getting to read this relatively short book in a day.  It was an entertaining experience, being able to read it all in one sitting, and being able stay in the gritty world that Hale built.  I understand there are two short story sequels besides the one I’ve already read.  I’ll probably look them up and give them a read as they are apparently available for free as a lot of short fiction is these days.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Devil Take Me

Jordan L. Hawk, et al.
Completed 6/6/2019, Reviewed 6/6/2019
4 stars

This is an anthology of gay urban fantasy with demons or the devil.  Most are about men who have sold their souls.  It features authors I’ve never heard of before, save one, and they are all women.  I really enjoyed most of these stories.  They’re all a little twilight zone-ish in their urban-ness, with their twists and surprises.  They are well written and entertaining, despite having similar plots and/or themes.   The book is a very different from what I’ve mostly been reading, edging closer to the horror side of the fantasy genre.  It was well worth the diversion. 

Infernal Affairs by Jordan L. Hawk is about a crossroads demon, that is, a demon who offers something in exchange for your soul.  But the demon in this story, Ralgath was tricked into giving superpowers to a non-binary person of color, Chess, who wanted to hunt monsters.  Demoted for giving an unauthorized gift, this demon is later given the chance to redeem himself by investigating who on Earth is capturing other crossroads demons.  Ralgath employs Chess to help him with this investigation by offering to return their soul.  This was a great, tight story, full of humor and intrigue.  Ralgath is a really colorful character, trying to prove himself after the debacle of letting his emotions get away with him.  It was an awesome beginning to the anthology.

Collared by T.A. Moore is about Jack, a former priest, who investigates mysteries that the regular police and PIs can’t or won’t figure out because of their demonic nature.  Jack has sold his soul to Math, a demon with whom he has an unhealthy sexual relationship.  The town in which the story takes place is full of demons who have left hell and settled in South Carolina.  This story was a very terse read.  It’s written like a noir PI mystery, but its prose was heavy which made the plot very confusing.  Even the torrid sex scene between Jack and Math was difficult reading.  It was a disappointment after the fun Infernal Affairs.

Counterfeit Viscount by Ginn Hale is about Archie, a man posing as a viscount after he returns from war.  He has sold his soul to Nimble, a Prodigal, that is, a class of people who are descended from devils who are treated as less than and live in an underground city.  Archie and Nimble become embroiled in a mystery where Prodigals keep disappearing and all evidence points to a fighting club that admits regular people and Prodigals as long as they are sponsored by a regular person.  Archie and Nimble are secretly in love and their relationship is put to the test as they investigate the disappearances.  It was a good story set in the world of Hale’s award winning “Wicked Gentlemen” which I just bought.  I had a little trouble understanding the world Hale built at first, but really enjoyed the characters.  I think I’ll enjoy her full “Gentlemen” novel based on my positive feeling towards this one.

11:59 by C.S. Poe.  Asuka sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to fight the monsters that have been invading the world.  In a strange reversal, the devil offers him his soul back if he can find a way to keep the monsters from eating the souls in the underworld.  With his new found boyfriend, Merrick, he tries to put an end to the monsters and the nightmares that have been afflicting the world for the past five years.  This was a short story, but very engaging.  It pulls you in at the beginning and holds you through its surreal ending. 

Wonderland City by Rhys Ford.  Another soul selling.  This time, Xander lives through the looking glass in Wonderland City where no one cares if he’s gay.  However, another little girl has slipped through.  We all know what happened the first time when Alice was in Wonderland.  Now, the devil offers Xander’s soul back in exchange for finding the girl and keeping her from unraveling the fabric of existence.  I thought this was an interesting take on the Alice story.  It had a lot of action which I found not tiresome, but riveting.  It had a similar feel to 11:59 but felt original nonetheless.

Dark Favors by Jordan Castillo Price.  One last soul selling story features Johnny, a bar owner who sold his soul when he was very young.  Nearly twenty years later, the devil returns to ask Johnny to kill a famous TV personality, but not harm her bodyguard, Adam.  This was a very well written, fast-paced story with a protracted steamy scene between Johnny and Adam.  The prose and dialogue was magnificent, with chapters alternating between 1961 Johnny and 1979 Johnny and Adam.  It works really well, with great character development.

I give this book four out of five stars.  I found most of the stories very gripping.  Anthologies with a single theme can get a little tedious, but this one didn’t.  Each author had a different take on the devil concept, even though there was a noir-ish feel to most of the narratives.  This book was one of those Kindle deals of the day.  Normally, I only buy those books I’m familiar with, but I wasn’t with this one.  I just took a chance on it and it paid off really well.