Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Companion to Wolves

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 12/28/2019, Reviewed 12/29/2019
3 stars

This was a very peculiar book.  It was a bit reminiscent of the “Dragonriders of Pern” series, but with wolves instead of dragons and set in a Viking like culture.  Instead of threads, they fight trolls and instead of it being an honor to be in this wolf community, it has fallen into disfavor.  What was most peculiar about the book was that there is a lot of m/m sex, but there is almost no gay content.  The characters are mostly straight, or maybe bisexual.  Because the men are psychically bonded with wolves, both male and female, the men have sex with each other when the wolves do.  So if you’re expecting a m/m romance, this is not that book.  It is sexual politics with no sexuality. 

The plot however was simple but interesting.  Njall is the son of a powerful landholder who is heir to his father and sexually active with women.  One day a member of the wolf community comes with his companion wolf and demands that the father, Gunnar, tithe his son to the community as is the custom.  Gunnar is adamant that he will not for two reasons.  First, the community has fallen out of favor because the troll threat has greatly lessened, and second, because of the rumors of the man on man sex that happens.  However, Njall is dramatically drawn to the wolf, disobeys his father and joins the community.  There, he takes a new name, Isolfr, and pairs with a she-wolf who is destined to be a queen.  Together they fight a new wave of invading trolls.

Then it gets sexually weird.  When his she-wolf goes into heat, the male wolves become sexually aroused.  The same goes for the human companions of the wolves.  When the she-wolf chooses a mate, the associated human companions also have sex.  The thing is, Isolfr is basically straight and is not interested in man on man sex.  However, because he is driven to a sexual frenzy by his wolf-sister, he accepts the passive role, actively participating in it, but at the same time wishing it were over.  He never bonds with his sexual partners.  In fact, he is promiscuous with the women who work in the community (in traditional women’s roles) and even fathers a child with a local woman.  I was a little uncomfortable with these scenes.  While there is consent, it is a bit dubious.  Isolfr and others bonded with she-wolves accept their duties as their companions, but they are not necessarily gay or even bisexual.  It made for some uncomfortable reading. 

Another problem I had with the book is that there are a lot of characters, human and wolf, and they all have difficult, unfamiliar names.  There is no real differentiation in the names of each type, except that some of the men have “fr” at the end of their names.  I found it very confusing.  I often didn’t know who was a man and who was a wolf.  And the charater development of the minor characters is not that great.  So it was tough to tell who was through much of the book. 

The best things about the book are the world-building and the trolls.  The world-building is quite extensive, being a Nordic-like culture with references to the Nordic gods and the complexity of the social structure of community.  The trolls are pretty cool and even they have a social structure and some humanity, though that is not made evident until late in the book. 

I give this book three stars out of five for the world-building and the trolls.  It is a highly readable book, though the myriad of names slowed me down some.  The complexity of the wolf social structure and their companions was really well done.  I think I could have given this four stars if it weren’t for the sexual aspect. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Gilda Stories

Jewelle L Gomez
Completed 12/26/2019, Reviewed 12/26/2019
4 stars

This is not your typical vampire story.  While most vampire literature focuses on the sexy and the bloodthirsty, this book does so only subtly.  It focuses more on the main character’s search for self and relationship with other vampires and the world around her.  Gilda is a benevolent black lesbian vampire, made in 1850, who travels across the country at various times through the present and future.  The stories are vignettes that take place over a two-hundred-year span. At each stop, Gilda tries to build or integrate into a community of other vampires as well as the ordinary humans around her and struggles with whether it is worth the risk to bring someone else into the fold simply to help her with her own loneliness.  I found the book to be very readable with great prose and subtle takes on racism, feminism, dominant culture, the environment, and sexuality.  The book won two Lambda Literary Awards in 1991, for general lesbian literature and for lesbian sci fi/fantasy/horror (back when the sf/f/h category was separated into gay and lesbian). 

The plot is not really that grand, as the book is divided into different stories at specific points in time over a two-hundred-year span.  A slave girl in 1850 Mississippi runs away from her master when her mother dies.  She is found by a vampire named Gilda and brought to live and work in a brothel as a housekeeper.  Eventually, the vampire and her companion, a Native American named Bird, turn the slave girl into a vampire like themselves.  Bird acts as her mentor, teaching her to read, write, and about life in general and as a vampire.  She acquires her name from Gilda, her maker, when the older Gilda takes the voluntary of death of staying out in direct sunlight.  Unable to accept the older Gilda’s death, Bird eventually returns to her people to rediscover her own family and culture, leaving the younger Gilda to make her way in the world alone.  Eventually, she comes across others like her, and develops tenuous relationships with normal humans. 

Gilda spends most of her time as an artist, whether it be as a hairdresser, a theatrical worker, a writer, or a singer.  At one point she’s also a farmer.  The thrust of her existence though is to find a community for herself.  She does meet up with other vampires with whom she does maintain relationships with throughout the cycle of stories.  But her primary goal is to find someone who she can make a vampire to call brother or sister.  The caveat though is to make sure she finds someone who understands what they are getting into and to make sure the feeling is mutual, that she is not doing it for selfish reasons.  Even the code of the vampires’ eating habits is about mutuality: life for life.  When feeding, the vampire must give something in return, usually a psychic peace or resolution.  Never does a vampire feed to the death of their victims.  There are some vampires, however, who do not live by the code and Gilda does encounter one in the 1955 story. 

As I noted above, there is not a grand overarching plot through the stories.  Each one has its own plot.  The main theme is about finding community, or home.  Gilda, being the main character, is the best developed, though the secondary characters are well-drawn for being present for short periods of time.  The real star of the book is the prose.  Gomez is a terrific writer.  She doesn’t bang you over the head with issues.  She presents them subtly in the stories, making you care about them by caring for Gilda and her plight. 

I liked this book very much.  I was hard to put down.  My only problem with it was that I felt one step removed from the action.  But in a sense, I understand this reaction I had because Gilda always feels one step removed from the action herself.  She is always the observer, never feeling fully integrated into either the human or the vampire community.  This is something I can relate to myself, as I never feel fully a part of either the straight or the gay community.  I play the observer, only very cautiously letting someone close to me.  So I could really identify with Gilda at that level.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s a terrific read, and I’d highly recommend it to people who don’t like the classic vampire story. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Fifth Sacred Thing

Completed 12/21/2019, Reviewed 12/21/2019
4 stars

I was first introduced to Starhawk in Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing”, a book about Creation Spirituality.  She had written several books on the topic as well on Goddess worship.  This is her first work of fiction.  It encapsulates a lot of the spirituality she espouses in the context of a future utopian society fighting against a dystopian power trying to overtake it.  It took a long while for me to get into the book, but I found myself drawn in by the world building and eventually became very engaged with it.  It won the Lambda Literary Award in 1994. 

The utopia of the book is in what was formerly known as San Francisco.  Everyone is free, everyone has a voice in what is going on, everyone works at what they want to do, and everyone pitches in to help each other.  Racial and religious diversity are supported.  Most people are polyamorous.  This is counter to the oppressive regime in the dystopia to the south, where women and minorities are repressed, sexual diversity is punished, and everyone must conform to the purity laws.  Those who transgress against the norm are told they have lost their immortal soul and are conscripted into the army or sexual slavery. 

The plot of the book isn’t that ground breaking and at times, I found it a little boring.  But Starhawk makes it all very real with warm, simple prose.  I found myself enjoying every return to the pages of the book, even when I felt like I didn’t know where the plot was going.

The characters were all very well drawn.  And the two main characters are black, which I found very refreshing.  Madrone, one of the main characters, is a healer witch.  She works with the local doctor to heal through spiritual energy and herbal concoctions.  One of her lovers, Sandy, just died from an epidemic that ran through the community, which may or may not have been biological warfare from the south.  One of her other lovers is Bird.  He’s been imprisoned in the south for ten years and it is not known if he’s alive or dead.  The story follows the two of them in alternating chapters for most of the book.

The one fault I have with the book is that it didn’t seem to really move.  Reading it was a slow process with little direction towards where it was intending to go.  Now that’s not to say that there was not action, because there was.  It just didn’t have any urgency.  That was why I needed the first hundred pages or so to get into the book.  I had to be immersed in the world and the characters before I started to care for them.  Eventually, I was, and I couldn’t stop reading it, even at that slow pace.

The book has a lot to say about what we could be doing to make this world a better place.  Peace, love, acceptance, patience.  And the passive resistance tactic when the army from the south comes to invade the utopia is really quite impressive.  I found it quite profound, especially because the choice between passive and active resistance is debated quite a lot throughout the invasion. 

I was going to give this book three stars at first, but I found myself really enjoying the heck out of it.  I had come to be totally immersed in its world, appreciating the characters and the philosophy it expounded.  I finally had to admit that it was really a four star out of five book.  Some may find it a little dated with concepts that came to the forefront during the New Age movement, but it describes many truths about human nature and what we can achieve if we can just get along.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Lions of Al-Rassan

Guy Gavriel Kay
Completed 12/7/2019, Reviewed 12/7/2019
5 stars

This was my first book by Kay.  At over five hundred pages, it’s one of the longest books I’ve read in a long time.  I was dreading it at first, but as I got past the first fifty pages or so, I became enchanted by the prose.  There are a lot of characters and city-states, and there is a lot of politics.  Usually I lose my way in this type of book.  But the prose was so glorious that the reading of it became easy and I didn’t have that hard of a time following the kings, the religions, the politics, and the warring.  It helped that I read some reviews first so I didn’t go cold into the book.  So I knew ahead of time that the setting is an alternative Medieval Spain, conquered by a people like the Moors, with the old Christian-like states pushed north, and a Jewish-like minority throughout.

The setup is fairly complex.  The Asharites control about three-quarters of the peninsula.  They are a desert people whose god is revealed through the stars and their prophet Ashar.  Once united as Al-Rassan, the land has degraded down to a collection of city-states.  Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite.  He’s many things, including a poet, a kingly advisor, and an assassin.  The Jaddites live in the north and some in the east.  Rodrigo Belmonte is a military captain of a band of mercenaries working for one of the Jaddite kings.  The Kindath live throughout Al-Rassan, but are generally quartered in ghettos, and are highly suspect by the Asharites.  In the Jaddite territories, they are often slaves.  Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who treats all people.  Through a series of unusual events, these three characters end up exiled to one of the Jaddite kingdoms where they become strong friends despite their religious differences in a world inching closer and closer to a holy war. 

This book is really about relationships between people and their similarities and differences as a metaphor for how the world should get along.  It is about love, honor, and respect in a world with too little of these.  The complexity of the world and the relationships of these three main characters simply took my breath away.  There are good guys and bad guys, but the point of view of the book is told from many people from the three religions and the different city-states, leaving a lot of moral ambiguity.

There are many featured characters besides the three main ones.  Some of their names were similar so that made things a little hard to follow at times.  However, Kay makes sure to restate who people are which made it a little easier to remember.  They were all very well developed.  No one seemed like a cardboard cutout. 

My only complaint about the book is that it’s considered fantasy.  There are two moons and one of Rodrigo Belmonte’s sons can see the future.  But that’s about it.  It’s really alternate history and it’s probably more appropriate to use the term speculative fiction than fantasy.  But that’s really a minor point. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely absorbed in it.  Everything about the book, the plot, the prose, the characters, the world-building, all combine to form one terrific novel.  The ending was quite a surprise and quite devastating.  This was one of those books where I had to chill after finishing.  I really felt like had been immersed in a different world, and coming out of it required a conscious transition.  Kay has some retractors, but a lot of people love him.  I guess I’m now one of the converted.  At some point, I’ll have to read Tigana, which is considered his best.