Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Quartered Sea

Tanya Huff
Completed 2/29/2020, Reviewed 2/29/2020
4 stars

Sometimes I really like Tanya Huff’s books, sometimes I think they’re okay.  This time, I thought the book was kind of average but I really liked it.  It’s average because the magic system is not that spectacular:  music as a way of manipulating the elements.  I really liked it though because of what she did with it.  The energy of the elements is called “kigh.”  The main character only Sings water, but he is such a profound bard that not only controls water, but it responds to his presence and emotions as well.  That’s what set apart this magical musical world.  This book was nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ+ content in genre fiction.

Benedikt is a Bard with low self-esteem because he can only Sing water, while other Bards Sing more than one element.  Nonetheless, his talent has caught the attention of the Queen.  She asks him to be the Bard for a voyage into unknown waters to look for a fabled land of dark-skinned people.  Everyone thinks this is crazy.  The Captain of the Bards won’t let any of the Bards volunteer, though Benedikt accepts the challenge.  Besides the usual dangers, sending a ship out without a Bard who Sings air means that there will be little communication from the boat and lack of control of the wind.  On the voyage, the ship hits a hurricane.  Benedikt controls the sea, but not the wind.  The boat sinks and Benedikt is the only survivor.  He ends up on the shore of a new Aztec-like land and gets caught in a political struggle between a powerful brother and sister as the dynastic order is about to change.  Stranded, he must use his wits and his gift to survive both their dangerous ambitions.

I was pretty impressed by the character of Benedikt.  I could relate to him because he constantly doubts himself even though he is extremely talented.  Some might see him as whiny, but I see him as being very human.  He knows he’s good at Singing water, but he’s intimidated by everyone else’s multi-quartered talents.  It’s like how I long felt in my career.  I know I’m good at what I do, but I was always, and still sometimes am, intimidated by others who know more than me.  It wreaks havoc with self-esteem and takes a long time to get past.  Sometimes, it takes getting through very difficult situations to finally see that you’re good enough. 

I also liked the Aztec-like land where Benedikt was shipwrecked.  It was very detailed and very interesting.  It surpassed his European-like home in some areas, specifically art, but was worse in other things, particularly the cruelty of the rulers.  Bards have the gift of languages as well, so Benedikt picks up their language with ease.  This helps him navigate the dangerous relationship he has with the rulers.

There isn’t that much LGBTQ+ content, considering the award it was nominated for.  Benedikt seems to be bisexual.  And everyone seems to be attracted to him.  But there’s only one person who has fallen in love with him, and it’s his thoughts of him that help Benedikt keep his wits about him.  I would have liked to have seen their relationship develop more before Benedikt goes on the voyage.  Instead, his love interest doesn’t realize how much he loved him until it is thought that Benedikt was killed in the storm. 

It should be noted that this is the fourth book of a series.  I didn’t read the first three, as I saw that the story followed a different main character than the first three.  It more or less stands alone, but it did take me while to understand the concept of “kigh”, which probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I had read the first three.  Other than that, I thought I understood everything else pretty well, especially since a majority of the action takes place in the Aztec-like land which would be new to all readers of the whole series.

I give the book four stars out of five.  It might be a little generous, but I really enjoyed it.  In general, I really like Huff’s writing style.  Sometimes I think it’s fluff, but she does well with character development and world-building.  Even though I’m fifty-fifty with three and four stars on her books, I’d definitely read more of her, throwing her books on my fifty-some-odd TBR book pile.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Gracekeepers

Kristy Logan
Completed 2/25/2020, Reviewed 2/25/2020
4 stars

Sometimes a book grabs me and I don’t exactly know why.  Usually, it’s the prose, or the action, or the characters, or some combination that gets me, and I can pinpoint it.  With “The Gracekeepers,” I can’t quite put my finger on why I loved this book.  It reads like a lovely non-genre novel that could make the best sellers’ list, which I might have read in my younger days, but would normally bore me these days.  It’s sort of a magical realism/dystopia fusion that is apparently inspired by Scottish myths and fairy tales.  It takes place in the future when sea levels have risen, leaving only islands rather than continents.  People are either islanders or sea-farers, and they don’t get along.  And through a strange set of circumstances, two young women meet and find they are soulmates.  This book won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ+ Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, was nominated for a Kitschie (for progressive, intelligent, and entertaining genre fiction), and was on the James Tiptree Jr. Honor List (for genre fiction that expands or explores our understanding of gender).

There are two main characters and two plots that intersect.  Callanish is a Gracekeeper.  She lives on an island and performs a water burial ritural for sea-farers (damplings).  She uses caged birds called Graces as markers for the place where the body was submerged.  She has a secret that keeps her servicing the damplings rather than live on the island where she was raised as a “landlocker.”  North is a young woman in a sea-faring circus, performing with a bear.  Her act is one of the highlights of the circus, which brings odd and sometimes mildly transgressive entertainment to the landlockers.  She is expected to marry the Ringmaster’s son and become a landlocker herself.  She also has a secret, and would rather live the rest of her life with the bear at sea than be married and live on land.  When one of the circus performers dies during a storm, they bring his body to Callanish for the Resting ritual.  There North and Callanish meet.  In their short time together, they bond.  But North leaves with the circus, leaving the two longing for each other.

The best word to describe this book is lovely.  It’s a complicated plot with little action.  The prose is wonderful, with bounteous descriptions and mood setting.  The world building is not intense, rather it leaves you with just a sense of this mostly aquatic world.  It’s not a happy world, and Callanish and North are not happy people.  Life is hard, especially for the damplings.  The pace isn’t quick, but I tore through it in barely three days, two of them working days on which I don’t normally read a lot.  That’s how much I enjoyed it. 

The characters are very well crafted.  I liked how they all developed, except for the Ringmaster Jarrow, aka Red Gold.  He was overbearing and oblivious.  He annoyed me.  Even in the end, he was still blinded by his own belief system, never waking up to the facts of the situation around him.  It made reading him very frustrating.  On the positive side of that, though, it kept the tension around North and her future quite intense.  

I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s well crafted and well, lovely.  Again, I don’t know why I was so into it.  I just couldn’t put it down.  It’s not normally the type of book I’d love.  The only thing that kept me from giving it five stars is that I didn’t get emotionally attached to either of the main characters.  I always felt like a watcher, rather than totally empathizing with them.  This may have had to do with the bouncing narrative.  It changed perspective a lot.  While it was usually from Callanish or North’s perspective, it also featured the perspectives of many secondary characters.  I think if the two main characters narratives were in first person, I might have gotten more emotionally involved.  Nonetheless, it’s a very good book.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Assassin’s Apprentice

Robin Hobb
Completed 2/23/2020, Reviewed 2/23/2020
5 stars

I was bowled over by how much I loved this book.  It’s my first Robin Hobb, a book club read.  I didn’t think I’d like it because I’m not a big fan of court politics, but it was very entertaining and highly readable.  I wasn’t overwhelmed by a multitude of characters with convoluted motivations for doing what they do.  Instead, it was relatively straight forward with good and bad characters as well as ambiguous situations.  Of course, being about the training of an assassin, the situations are morally suspect at best.  But I had empathy for the main character, Fitz and wanted him to find his place in the world.

We are first introduced to Fitz only as Boy.  He’s the illegitimate son of the crown Prince.  At age six, he’s torn from his mother and sent to the royal castle to be raised.  There, he draws the scorn of almost everyone, being referred to only as Boy, or the bastard.  He’s put in the keeping of the stablemaster, Burrich, until the royal family can figure out what to do with him.  His father, an excellent negotiator and apparently a perfect successor to the throne, abdicates and leaves the castle with his barren wife to live in disgrace in the countryside.  The Boy never meets his father and is named Fitz by the Burrich.  There, he learns to tend horses and dogs, discovering he has the Wit, that is, the ability to communicate with animals.  He bonds with one of the dogs, Nosey.  Burrich discovers Fitz has this gift and takes Nosey away, warning him that this is an unnatural gift and leads to becoming so bonded with animals that he’ll become wild himself.  This causes him to hate and distrust Burrich, making his youth a difficult and frustrating experience.

After a time, Fitz is visited by strange man known as Chade.  Chade informs him that he has been chosen by the King to become an assassin and wants him trained as such.  He trains at night with Chade while attending the stable and his other schooling during the day.  Whenever he can, he runs out into the town and hangs out with street urchins, becoming close with a girl who makes candles and has an abusive, alcoholic father.  But as his studies increase, he gets to spend less and less time with her.  Eventually, he is assigned his first major assassination, to kill the brother of the Princess who is going to marry the new heir to the throne.

Upon the opening of the book, you can’t help but have empathy for Fitz.  He’s put in a terrible situation at an early age.  I found myself having empathy for him in the first chapter.  Burrich, despite taking Nosey away from him, is also mostly likeable.  He does the best he can with Fitz even though that is not enough.  And he can’t protect him from the disdain of being a bastard in the royal court.  Because he is of royal blood, Fitz also has the gift called the Skill, a psychic ability with people.  At one point, he is assigned to develop his skill under Galen, a cruel abusive instructor who wants Fitz to fail.  This training makes Fitz more enemies and haters than friends, leaving him mostly only Chade and Burrich for support.

The book doesn’t really have a lot of action until the end.  Mostly, it is about a boy growing up in a deplorable situation.  But it is well written and very engaging.  I found myself having a hard time putting it down.  At the end, despite passing out after about two hundred pages during the day, I woke up after a few hours and found myself being driven to read the last seventy pages late into the night.  Fitz is just so darned likeable, I couldn’t help but plow through to the end to see what was going to happen to him.  This speaks a lot to the characterization.  Even though the bad guys are more or less cookie cutter evil, I found them engaging and deliciously monstrous. 

I give the book five stars out of five.  It’s the most engaging book I’ve read in a while.  It’s also the first series in a while that I wanted to continue reading after the first book, despite the height of my TBR pile.  So I don’t know when I’ll get to the rest of the books, but I will definitely read them.  I tend to write off authors who mostly only have one long series, especially in fantasy.  I don’t know why I have this prejudice, but I realize now that it has kept me from discovering a wonderful book and writer.  I know that not every author is consistent throughout a series, but I’ll give Hobb the benefit of the doubt here and at least read the rest of this first trilogy.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams
Completed 2/17/2020, Reviewed 2/17/2020
4 stars

The fifth and final installment of the Hitchhiker’s series must have just struck me the right way at the right time.  It’s the least liked of the series by the majority of fans, but I really enjoyed it.  Like all his books, it’s hard to know where it’s going.  Everything is absurd and random.  It’s darker than the previous books and has an abrupt ending.  It is said that Adams wrote this book during a particularly difficult year and was thinking of writing a sixth book to bring it to a better conclusion.  Tragically, he died before writing it.  Still, I liked what he tried to do here and feel satisfied that the “trilogy” had closure.

The plot, once again, is rather convoluted.  The book begins with Tricia McMillan (Trillian’s real name) as a TV reporter going to an interview for a job on a morning news program in the US.  It turns out that this is a parallel universe Trillian who met Zaphod Beeblebrox at a party but did not go into space with him.  She does, however, meet aliens who seek her out to recalibrate astrology from the point of view of the newly discovered tenth planet, where they’ve been hanging out.  Ford Prefect goes back to the Guide’s main office only to find that the Guide has been bought by a new company and wants him to work as a restaurant critic.  Arthur Dent lost Fenchurch, his new love, when the spaceship they were on jumped dimensions.  Distraught, he tries to get back to Earth but keeps finding it in different dimensions where it’s sometimes not there, but mostly it’s different from the Earth from his original dimension.  He ends up on a primitive planet, hailed as a gift from Bob, their god, as master sandwich maker.  Trillian finds him and presents him with his daughter, who she had via the sperm Arthur sold to get money for his journey to find a home.  When Trillian wanted to have a baby, she searched the galaxy sperm banks, but the only human sperm was Arthur’s.  Hijinx ensue.

There aren’t as many comical asides in this book.  What’s funny is the absurdity of everything, right down to the long diatribe on sandwich making that precedes discovering that Arthur is the master sandwich maker on a primitive planet.  You can tell there was something the matter with Adams when he was writing this book.  The levity isn’t there.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s dark, dark and absurd.

The writing style, like in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, is more novel-like rather than a collection of skits.  More thought went into the development of the plotlines.  The characterization is good as well, breathing life into Tricia and the resuming the despair of Arthur.  The only negative thing I can say about the book is the removal of Fenchurch from the story.  I felt like it was too convenient, as if Adams just couldn’t think of what to do with her character, so he had her disappear during the dimension shift.  It was an easy out that I bet even Adams felt bad about. 

I give the book four stars out of five, mostly because I thought the book was well written, even the abrupt ending.  It pulled many things together, albeit rather quickly.  I just wish Fenchurch was in it, because I thought Arthur deserved some happiness, more than just one book’s worth. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Stone Sky

NK Jemisin
Completed 2/16/2020, Reviewed 2/16/2020
3 stars

I was a little disappointed in this last installment of The Broken Earth Trilogy.  I thought it was slow going.  It’s basically a travelogue of two of three the main characters.  It probably didn’t help that it took me two years to read this third book, but still, because of how good the first two books were, I thought this would hold my interest better.  It helped that there was a Glossary at the end of the book, which I reviewed early on in my reading to refamiliarize myself with the jargon and concepts.  Still, I thought there could have been immediacy written into the traveling, as their actions at their destinations would determine the fate of the Earth.

As with the earlier books, there are three narratives.  The narrative of Essun, the Orogene who is trying to save the Earth by bringing the approaching moon back into its orbit, is told in second person present.  This in itself had previously been rivetingly told.  Here, it was more about her relationships with several people in a newly formed community looking for a home.  Yes, she was also searching for her daughter, Nassun, the subject of the third person narrative, but it just wasn’t gripping really gripping.  The narrative of Nassun was also a mixed bag.  She was going to the Obelisk Gate to destroy the Moon, which would destroy the Earth.  She had seen a lot that was not good with humanity and thought it best to put it out of its misery.  She’s only eleven years old at the time, but has seen the horrors that Stills inflict on the Orogenes, that is, the people who do not have any control over the seismic activities of the earth versus people like her who do.  The third narrative told in first person by Hoa (Houwha), a Stone Eater, was much more interesting.  It is a flashback into how the Moon was released from its orbit and how he became a Stone Eater.  But even that plotline took an awfully long time to rev up. 

The writing is still marvelous.  The book was very readable even if the plots were slow.  Her word selections were inspired.  It went hand in hand with the world-building, which was quite excellent, even though most of the world-building had already happened in the first two books.  There was so much more that was revealed in the deadcivs, that is, the ancient civilization’s cities that they encountered.  The one part that was really riveting and terrifying was when Nassun and her Guardian travel through the middle of the Earth on something like a subway, passing through all the magic of the Earth’s center. 

The ending was also riveting, which I was grateful for.  You know it’s going to be a showdown between Essun and Nassun, but how it happens is quite a surprise.  I’ll leave it at that as to avoid spoilers.  But was it worth the wait?  Not necessarily.  All too often throughout the book, I just wanted it to get there. 

The characterization is excellent.  Even though it had been two years since I finished the second book, Jemisin did a great job of recalling the characters and their emotional lives.  I felt like I had just put the books down yesterday, and she didn’t even have massive recaps at the beginning of the book.  It was just enough to get me back into the swing of it, along with the reading of the Glossary. 

I give the book three stars out of five because it just felt too long.  About halfway through, I wanted to be done with it.  I think part of the problem with the book is also that it is very depressing.  There is very little humor in the book.  We’re still in a Fifth Season, that is, six or more months of devastation from seismic and volcanic activity.  So there’s desolation everywhere.  And even though there’s diversity in the characters, the persecution of the Orogenes by the Stills is depressing.  Particularly, Nassun’s view of the world at age eleven is just heartbreaking.  There needed to be some type of levity to keep it from being such a drag to read.  Reading the reader reviews, a lot of people loved this book.  I can say I liked it, but didn’t love it as much as the first two.  Still, I’ve become a fan of Jemisin’s writing and will definitely be reading more of her. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams
Completed 2/9/2020, Reviewed 2/9/2020
4 stars

The fourth installment of the Hitchhiker’s series was a surprise.  I really enjoyed it.  Like the first two, it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the storytelling is much tighter and there are fewer asides.  It’s not necessarily laugh out loud funny, but I often had a smile on my face.  Unlike the first three, the majority of it takes place on Earth and Arthur Dent is the main character, not merely a MacGuffin (that is, a person, object, or event that is necessary to the plot but irrelevant itself).  Rather than being the butt of many of the jokes, he gets to have a real plot line and much deeper character development.

The plot is very straight forward.  In a nutshell, Arthur comes back to Earth five months after it was supposedly destroyed (eight years his time), finds his way home, and falls in love. The woman he falls in love with is named Fenchurch (don’t ask).  She like everyone else on Earth had the “hallucination” that Earth was destroyed by the Vogon construction fleet, but she actually remembers the Earth being destroyed.  She doesn’t believe it was a hallucination.  In addition, all the dolphins have disappeared.  She has a strange story to tell, having received a message in her sleep that she doesn’t quite remember, as does Arthur from his hitchhiking around the Galaxy, so they hit it off pretty quickly, although how they meet is a strange story in itself, sort of a Sleeping Beauty trope.  Anyway, they try to pursue answers to their questions about the message, the Earth, and the dolphins. 

In the meantime, Ford Prefect is getting into trouble in space and is desperately trying to find a way back to Arthur.  He too finds that the Earth seems to have escaped destruction when his copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy updates itself so that the entry for Earth changes from “mostly harmless” to Ford’s full account from his fifteen years of research.  Eventually, he catches up with Arthur and Fenchurch and joins them in their search.

What I liked most about this book was the romance.  It was both touching and funny.  It was simply nice to see Arthur get his due after being the hapless schlemiel for three books.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Arthur teaches Fenchurch to fly and they are intimate at airplane altitudes.  It is the butt of a few jokes later on in the book. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It felt like Adams was becoming more of a novel writer rather than a skit writer with this book.  I don’t mean to diss the previous books, but it seemed like he was growing as a writer.  Even though this book was pretty short, it packed a lot of punch.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Spin Control

Chris Moriarty
Completed 2/8/2020, Reviewed 2/8/2020
4 stars

I liked this book without really understanding what was going on.  Like most books in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, the concepts usually lose me.  I guess I just don’t have the mind for them.  It’s kind of like being a luddite while working in the computer industry, which I am, and in which I do.  Still, I really liked reading this book.  The prose was terrific.  It was very readable.  My problem though was that the author threw around a ton of jargon that I only partially comprehended.  This is the second book of a series, though it’s not a direct sequel to the first.  Still, I wonder if I would have understood more if I read the first book, or if I would have simply stopped at the first book if it had the same complexity of this one.  I read this because it is on the Worlds Without End LGBTQ Spec. Fic. Resource, having been nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2007.

The plot is very complicated.  I know I only have just a light grasp of it, but here’s the gist of what I gathered.  In the far future, clones, Ais, and some regular humans live on a Ring around the Earth, where technology continues to advance.  They send clones into space to travel to other planets to terraform.  The people who stayed on Earth are mostly religious fanatics still fighting wars over the same old issues as well as for water, the rarest resource on the planet.  As punishment, the civilization on the Ring has a technology embargo on the Earth, keeping them from advancing technologically. 

Arkady is Syndicate clone who has been on a mission to terraform a planet called Novalis.  There he acquired a genetic weapon that could possibly wipe out humanity.  The Syndicate sends him to Earth and Israel is not trying to buy the weapon, but sell it, and Arkady, to the highest bidder.  This weapon, though, has more far-reaching consequences than anyone ever imagined.  Among the bidders are Catherine Li, a former officer for the Peacekeepers, and her lover, Roland Cohen, the longest-lived AI.  They not only share their lives, but their minds, though their relationship is rather rocky.  There are other bidders, and no one is above manipulation and violence to get their hands on Arkady. 

I have to admit that even though I didn’t get the plot, I applaud Moriarty for its complexity.  Normally, I would have been very frustrated with it.  For some reason, I wasn’t.  I was intrigued, though I never really got all the ins and outs of it.  There were times where I didn’t know what I was reading, but it read well, if that makes sense.  And there were an awful lot of characters who I could never tell whether they were good or bad, which I believe was probably the point.  Moral ambiguity to the max.  The only character I really had an understanding of was Arkady.  Being developed and raised by his Syndicate, he didn’t know much about the ways of regular humans.  Often, he was confused about what was going on around him, which I really identified with. 

The world-building was quite tremendous.  I was amazed at Moriarty’s grasp on her creation, that is, a world so far in the future but still has the same old conflicts, particularly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious fanaticism, the dominance of corporations, and the eroding of the US.  This kind of goes hand in hand with my amazement at her prose.  She so expertly described everything in this world that I really felt a part of it, even when the plot was lost on me. 
The book falls in the LGBTQ category because the clones, like Arkady, only partner with other clones from their same Syndicate.  Normally, the clones from the same tank all have the same name.  But Arkady’s clone-mate is named Arkasha, though they are made from the same genetic material.  We know of their relationship because both were sent on the same mission to the planet Novalis.  The format of the book has the chapters alternating between the plot on Earth and the past mission to Novalis where Arkady acquired the weapon.

I give this book four stars out of five because I realize it is a really good, well-developed, and executed book.  Normally, when the plot is so convoluted that I can’t follow it, I give the book two or three stars.  But this time, I knew I was reading something quite amazing, even though I didn’t get it.  So how would I recommend this book?  I’d suggest it for people who are into cyberpunk and/or espionage novels and aren’t afraid of a lot of characters, acronyms and new jargon. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/27/2020, Reviewed 2/2/2020
3 stars

This third installment of the Hitchhiker’s series wasn’t as gripping and hilarious as the last.  It really feels like Adams is losing steam here.  It seems like there are fewer jokes and puns in this one.  The situations, while absurd, made me smile, but not really laugh.  I remember feeling this way when I first read it.  I think one of the problems is that some of the jokes might be more conducive to being visual.  Like the time-traveling couch appearing at a cricket match and the theory of flying.  I also think I probably missed a lot of the jokes because I only know the bare bones of cricket, and the main plot hinges on knowledge of the game.

The book picks up on Earth two million years ago where Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are stranded.  Ford has wandered off leaving Arthur alone for several years.  One day Ford comes back and they also happen to find a time-traveling couch.  The couch brings them back to Earth at a cricket match two days before it’s destroyed, and right before a spaceship attacks the field.  They’re picked up by another spaceship helmed by Slartibartfast, a character who made a brief appearance in the first book.  Together, the three of them go on a quest to save the universe from the inhabitants of a planet seeking to destroy it.  They’re rejoined by Trillian and Zaphod Beeblebrox as well.

There was more plot to this book and less asides.  I think that was the downfall of the book.  The first two books are pretty much absurd scene after absurd scene loosely connected by a plot.  This one seemed more to be a strong plot which happens to have a few asides.  Most notably, the party that never ends.  That’s where we meet up with Trillian again.

Trillian has a little bigger role in this book.  She acts as an empathetic listener to the aliens who want to destroy the universe, giving them a chance to talk out their feelings and help some of them get over wanting to destroy the universe.  Marvin, the depressed robot also makes an appearance and has a particularly influential presence with these same aliens.  That part was genuinely funny to me. 

The science of flying made more sense to me this time and was more comical than the first time I read the book.  The science is that you fall, but are distracted at the last second and miss hitting the ground.  It’s something Ford Prefect struggles with, but happens to Arthur, well, accidentally. 

Overall, I give this book three stars out of five.  It just didn’t grip me as strongly as Restaurant did.