Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Half a Crown

Jo Walton
Completed 6/29/2020, Reviewed 6/30/2020
4 stars

This is the third book in the Small Change trilogy, which began with Farthing and was followed by Ha’penny.  It’s another book that by the middle, I could not put it down.  This one began a little slowly, but picked up quickly.  It takes place ten years after the last book.  It still features Investigator Peter Carmichael who is now head of the British equivalent of the Gestapo and his ward, Elvira, the daughter of another policeman who was killed in the first book.  This being the end of the trilogy, everything that had been percolating in the previous books finally comes to a dramatic head.  The book didn’t win any awards but was nominated for several, including two in other countries.

Though Carmichael is head of the Watch, he is part of a secret network inside and outside the Watch to get Jews out of the country.  There is a peace conference scheduled to take place in London between the fascist prime minister Normanby, Hitler, and the royal prince of Japan, the representatives of the three superpowers.  All eyes are on London and it is Carmichael’s job to keep the city under control.  At the same time, Elvira and her best friend Betsy are about to make their coming out as debutantes.  About a week before the conference, the two of them go to a rally with Lord Alan, a friend of Betsy’s family.  A riot ensues.  Betsy breaks her arm and Elvira is arrested.  Elvira is treated terribly, being pumped for information she doesn’t have.  Carmichael gets her out, but it is only the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare for both of them that culminates in a dramatic opening of the peace conference. 

The book has the same form as the previous two.  It is told by two narrators, Elvira in first person, and third person from Carmichael’s perspective.  It is Elvira’s narrative that begins at a slow pace.  Although very smart (she’s been accepted at Oxford), she’s still rather a bubble-headed debutante.  But her story becomes very interesting.  Her mother abandoned her at the age of six and her father was killed when she was eight.  Carmichael raises her to be a proper lady even though her mentor, Betsy’s mother, considers her guttertrash.  Still, she transcends the slights and focuses on position and future.  She has little mind for politics and though disturbing, her upper-class mentality makes her arrest and detention almost comical.  But as the story continues, she becomes more aware of the state of the country and begins her own unlikely fight against fascism.

Carmichael is again a great character.  His relationship with is partner Jack is more detailed in this book than in the others.  Even though Elvira lived with them, he and Jack kept their relationship a secret from her, as they did from the rest of the world.  Still, the prime minister and the head of Scotland Yard know about him and Jack and use that to manipulate him, as they have since the end of the first book.  Somehow, Carmichael stays sane balancing being a substitute father, a husband, the head of the Watch, and the head of the secret movement to get persecuted Jews out of the country.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The writing is prosy, but tight and the dialogue realistic.  The unveiling of events is riveting.  On my second day of reading, I could barely put the book down.  I stayed up too late to finish it, and way to late to write this review.  I have to say as a whole, the trilogy is tremendous.  It’s well thought out and has a dramatic conclusion.  I love Jo Walton’s writing and am looking forward to her most recent trilogy, the first of which I’ve already picked up on sale. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Suzy McKee Charnas
Completed 6/28/2020, Reviewed 6/28/2020
3 stars

I had heard better things about this book than the first in the series, Walk to the End of the World.  It’s certainly different in how it’s written and it’s about a women’s dystopia rather than that of men.  But I felt it suffered from several issues, most notably, a boring plot.  It follows the character Alldera from the first book as she discovers tribes of women and free fems out beyond the Wild.  The world building is pretty great and the prose is generally decent.  However, I just couldn’t get involved with the characters, much like the first book.  Even though Alldera was in the focus of the book, I couldn’t identify with her.  Nonetheless, this is the second book of the Holdcraft Chronicles which is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame and a Sideways retro award winner. 

Alldera, the fem slave from the first book, runs away from Holdfast as it plunges into civil war.  She makes her way through the Wild searching for the tribe of escaped fems that are purported to be somewhere out west.  She finds herself pregnant by one of her captors who raped her as she bravely makes her way alone in the wilderness.  She spies monsters, two-headed four-legged creatures that pursue her.  She discovers they are women on horses.  They bring her back to their tribe to nurse her back to health and help her deliver her child.  She is told the women are descendants of a group of women who were genetically modified to be able to bear children without men.  But when Alldera discovers how the pregnancies are activated, she runs off to the find the free fems.  They, however, are quite dysfunctional, almost recreating the negative, unhealthy environment that they escaped from.  Alldera has no choice but to try to reconcile the two tribes and try to bring out the best between them.

One of the biggest problems with the first book was the exposition.  This book doesn’t have quite the same problem.  It introduces the two cultures a little more organically.  Only a few times does story devolve into info dumping.  Still, I could not get immersed in the story.  I could never see where the book wanted to take me until the very end.  It was more slice of life rather than a strongly plotted story. 

Another problem was the characterization.  I didn’t care for any of the characters.  Some were benevolent, some were mean, but they all felt very two-dimensional.  And even though the story was told in third person mostly from the point of view Alldera, I didn’t feel like she was fleshed out.  It seemed she had no emotions, as if she were disaffected.  Granted, she was on guard through much of the beginning of the book, as you’d expect from someone who suffered intense abuse and then was put into a somewhat healthier environment.  But she never comes out of it.  She grows attached to some of the women she has sexual relationships with, but even that didn’t draw me in. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  Like the first book, the world-building was phenomenal.  I thought Charnas’ creation of two dystopias and trying to make a utopia out of their combination was great.  The prose was also good, with lush descriptions of a harsh plains environment.  I just couldn’t care enough about the main character or any of the other secondary characters.  Like Alldera, I almost felt a disassociation with book.  Sticking with it was tough, even though I had long sessions with it.  But, this is considered a classic of feminist lesbian science fiction, and I’m glad I read it.  However, I’m probably not going to read the rest of the series, which Charnas finally completed thirty years after these first two books were published. 

Friday, June 26, 2020


Jo Walton
Completed 6/26/2020, Reviewed 6/26/2020
4 stars

This is another amazing book in the Small Change trilogy.  Like it’s predecessor Farthing, it’s a mystery set in an alternative England where it is allied with the victorious Nazis in 1949.  This one didn’t have me as enthralled as the first book.  I thought the pacing was a little slow in the middle, but it’s still a mostly riveting read.  Where this book really excelled was in the characterization.  I thought Viola Lark, one of the two narrators, was brilliantly depicted.  I think I also really liked it because it was about theater people, and I love the theater.  This book was nominated for multiple awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2008, and won the Prometheus Award the same year. 

The book starts out shortly after the end of the previous one.  An actress and another person are killed when a bomb goes off in her house.  It’s quickly established that bomb was being assembled there and went off accidently.  Scotland Yard Investigator Peter Carmichael is once again called in to investigate.  It turns out the actress was supposed to be in a new production of Hamlet in London.  The story also follows Viola, who is tapped to play Hamlet in the same gender-bending production.  It turns out Viola has a familial connection to this bombing.  In addition, Hitler, Himmler, and the new fascist prime minister Normanby are scheduled to attend the opening night.  Carmichael can see what’s going on, but it is up to him to get the evidence and put the pieces together before the deadly night.

The story is once again told through two narratives, Viola’s and Carmichael’s.  In Viola’s first-person narrative, she tells the story of how she came to find out the connections her family has to the bombings and to Hitler, as well as the progression of the play.  With Carmichael, we get another third-person police procedural, but this time, there’s more emphasis on his personal relationship with his partner, who poses as his manservant to try to obfuscate their gay identities.  Both narratives are told extremely well, although, as I mentioned above, I thought it got a little slow in the middle, particularly in Viola’s story.  However, her transformation from politically ignorant to awareness is what kept me going through that part. 

Carmichael is also really well developed as he copes with the despair and hopelessness from the last case and the hopelessness of being gay in a country that is becoming more fascist.  There’s more interaction with his partner Jack, though he spends so much time on the case, we don’t get to see as much of Jack as I’d like. 

The book is still terrifying in its depiction of a world where Jews, homosexuals, and other undesirables are made scapegoats and are brutally treated.  There’s even a law which suspends constitutionally guaranteed rights in order to round up people without trial.  Jews are sent back to continental Europe, which is completely occupied by the Nazis, because “they know how to take care of them there.”  It’s all very chilling and poignant given what’s going on in the USA today. 

I give this book four stars out of five, that’s one less star than its predecessor, because of the lost pacing in the middle.  But other than that, it’s a fine book with terrific prose and realistic dialogue.  I’m going to take a break again and read another book before getting to the last entry in the trilogy, mostly to chill after the very suspenseful, thought-provoking ending.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Walk to the End of the World

Suzy McKee Charnas
Completed 6/22/2020, Reviewed 6/22/2020
3 stars

This is the first dystopian novel I’ve read in a long time where men dominate women.  And it’s the first one I’ve read from the point of view of the men.  It takes place many years after nuclear war and women are treated as property, slaves, and even as pets.  It’s disturbing as hell.  Unfortunately, the message was lost in the writing style of the book; it was non-stop exposition.  I continually lost the plot because either a character or the third person omniscient narrator always seemed to go back in time to explain some aspect of a character’s life or some point in the history of how the world got to this point.  Nonetheless, this book plus its sequels, together known as “The Holdfast Chronicles”, is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame.  This book plus its first sequel, together known as “The Slave and the Free”, won an Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree Award) retrospective honor. 

The plot is fairly simple.  In the future white men dominate a nearly barren world.  Women, called “fems”, are kept as slaves or pets.  All other racial and ethnic minorites had been wiped out shortly after the nuclear holocaust.  The men are divided into boys, Juniors, and Seniors with a strict hierarchy meant to keep peace amongst themselves.  Servan, a rebel Junior, and a captain who refuses to integrate into the Seniors, take a third man, Eykar, another Junior, to find his father.  It is a rule that fathers do not know their sons and vice versa because of the belief in inter-generational war.  They are trying to find Eykar’s father because he believes he is trying to kill him.  On the way, Alldera, a fem, is acquired and accompanies this trio.  Through this journey, this crazy world unfolds in horrific ways. 

The book is told sequentially from four perspectives, that of each of the above four characters.  First, it’s told from the captain’s POV, then from Servan’s, then Eykar’s, and finally from Alldera’s.  But really, it’s about the lives of the men in this terrible world.  Boy children, cubs, are taken from fems at birth and put into what amounts to orphanages where they are taught the culture and protocol of this men’s world.  Later as Juniors, they work for a corporation, though we don’t really know much about that.  Then as a Senior, they have more control over direction of society.  Relationships are between men and only allowed between those of the same group.  There are to be no inter-generational relationships, although they do occur between Juniors and Seniors.  Sex with fems is not necessarily forbidden, but a man can accuse a fem of bewitching him and have her burned at the stake.  Even though the three men in our group are very much products of this society, they are basically outsiders due to the damage they suffered as children and as Juniors. 

We do get a lot of scenes depicting the abuse of the fems and a sense of their daily life through the travels of the group.  The suffer all forms of abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual.  It’s all deplorable, but it’s mostly indirect, since it’s seen through the eyes of the three men for the majority of the book.  When we finally get to Alldera’s perspective, we mostly see how she perceives the men.  Towards the end, we find out that there might be free fems living in The Wilds, but we don’t know that for sure in this book.   

I give the book three stars out of five.  This is was not a pleasant read for me for three reasons:  the treatment of women, the continuous exposition, and the jargon.  The first two, I’ve already discussed.  With respect to jargon, there were many words used that I never fully grasped.  One such word, a Rover, at first I thought was a dog, then a guard dog, then a human guard, then some sort of sub-human male guard.  If I understood what the jargon meant, I think I would have appreciated the world building and the prose a lot more.  In fact, the prose and world building were really quite phenomenal.  But they were lost on me because of the three problems described above.   I think this could have been four-star book if it wasn’t for these three problems. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020


Jo Walton
Completed 6/19/2020, Reviewed 6/19/2020
5 stars

I had only read three books by Jo Walton, but she was one of my favorite authors.  It seemed she could do no wrong.  This book confirms that for me.  It was terrific, a powerful tour de force, and it’s only the first book in the Small Change trilogy.  It takes place in an alternative 1949 England where the country has made peace with the Nazi empire that won World War II and occupies continental Europe.  There is extreme prejudice against the Jews in England and a fascist regime seems to be on the horizon.  It’s a very appropriate read for what’s happening in the U.S. today, the whole “it can’t happen here” mentality as echoes of fascism creep into the government.  It affected me intensely and I could barely put the book down to sleep last night.  This book was nominated for multiple awards including the Nebula in 2006.

The story begins on a manor in England where a wealthy family is having a large party.  The family is part of a political force, the Farthing Set, that is on the verge of coming into power in the government.  Overnight, one of the guests, the Minister of Education, and possible future Chancellor is murdered.  Scotland Yard is called in, and it appears that David Kahn, the Jewish husband of the daughter of the family may be the killer.  However, Peter Carmichael, the inspector, believes it is a setup, as does Lucy, David’s wife, and that the real killer is one of the Farthing Set themselves.  The race is on to figure out who the real killer is before David is found guilty by the mere fact that he is a Jew who was at the party.

The book is basically a murder mystery.  The evidence points to David, but it is all way to obvious.  No murderer would leave behind the clues that are found at the murder site.  Fortunately, Inspector Peter is on the ball, trying to put other discrepancies together to find out who the real killer is.  But underneath the murder mystery is the frightening reality of England turning into an anti-Semitic clone of Nazi Germany.  It makes for a gripping, frightening read. 

The book is told in chapters alternating between first person Lucy and third person Inspector Peter.  It is a very effective way to follow both the insider’s view of what’s going on and the outsider’s coming to understand it.  The insider’s view begins very British-ly.  It’s all high-brow manners and politics.  Nobody says anything outright; it’s all gossip, innuendo, and the occasional caustic remark.  Although in the case of Lucy’s mother, who hates that David is Jewish, the remarks are more than occasional.  There is also the potential for scandal in that some of the characters are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, all of which in 1949 England is illegal.

The character development is very well done.  Even the minor characters are really well-drawn.  They may be stereotypically British, but they are not just cardboard cutouts.  Inspector Peter is awesome as the detective who knows something else is going on.  He hates the rise of anti-Semitism that’s taking over England, identifying with the Jews as he has his own secrets to hide from the government.  I thought Lucy was going to be irritating as a narrator.  In the beginning, she’s very focused on manners, as are everyone else in the Farthing Set.  But as the murder mystery unfolds, implicating David, she turns out to have quite a good head on her shoulders. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  It starts out very four-star, with excellent writing and wonderful prose.  But as the book progressed, I was deeply affected by the rise of the fascists and the danger to David and Lucy.  It was powerful and horrific.  I couldn’t shake the terrible feelings I had with the ending, finishing the book right before my yoga class, making my practice rather a rather difficult one.  I’m going to read the rest of the trilogy, but I’m going to intersperse it with other books to give myself a break from its intensity.  So I guess it’s kind of a warning.  If you decide to read this book, be prepared for something akin to the rise of power of the Nazis in Germany, but with a British bent.  It’s a quick read, but not an easy one. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Mordred, Bastard Son

Douglas Clegg
Completed 6/18/2020, Reviewed 6/18/2020
4 stars

This is a twist on the story of Mordred from the Arthurian legend.  The author tells you right at the beginning that he plays loose and fast with the legend and does it very well.  In this telling, Mordred is gay, and the story takes you from his childhood to early adulthood.  I really enjoyed this well-written story, with beautiful prose and great characterization.  I was sucked into the story quickly and disheartened to find that the author never wrote the rest of his planned series.  The book is a quick read, and I would have bought the other books.  Normally, Clegg writes horror and suspense, having won several awards in that genre.  This was his first venture into pure fantasy and it got him a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2007. 

The story begins when Morgan is pregnant with Mordred after being raped by Arthur, her half-brother.  There is a prophesy that Mordred will bring down Arthur’s kingdom if allowed to live.  Arthur’s men pursue Morgan, forcing her to leave the castle where she rules as Queen and flee to Gaul.  There she stays with others from Britannia who worship the same goddess and keep the pagan traditions.  Mordred is born and grows up, is tutored by Merlin, and falls in love with his best friend, who does not return his love.  When Morgan disappears and tries to commit suicide, Mordred swears his chastity to three witches in return for his mother’s whereabouts so he can save her.  Eventually he is tempted and forced to a terrible alternative promise that again threatens her life.

The narrative is told in first person by Mordred in a retrospective, relating the story to a young monk who is hiding him from pursuers.  It is mostly prose with some dialogue, though the prose is beautiful to read and keeps the plot going at a good pace.  Being told in first person, we get deep in Mordred’s head, making it easy to empathize with him.  He’s the victim of circumstance, never really understanding his father’s wrath.  He must deal with his mother’s growing despair and depression, basically PTSD after her rape and loss of her role as Queen.  He also struggles with the fact that he seems to be the only gay boy in the tribe where they live.  Though supported by the tribe, he is lonely and wants to experience love as all the other boys of his age do. 

Needless to say, the character development of Mordred is terrific.  So is that of his best friend Lukat, his aunt Morgause, and the wise old woman Vivienne.  Merlin is done well as a sort of super-Druid.  Despite her being central to the beginning of the story, I felt that Morgan Le Fey was the only major character not well developed.  She starts off well, but her spiral into despair and depression just sort of happens quickly.  It’s believable, but it happens in the background.  Lancelot and Guinevere also show up in the book, but not until the end. 

The book is a quick, easy read.  My only real exposure to the Arthurian legend is The Once and Future King, which I read in high school, Camelot, Excalibur, and Tolkien’s brief work The Fall of Arthur.  I never read Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur.  So really, my experience is based mostly on pop culture.  In a way, this was good.  I’m not an Arthurian purist and didn’t have any expectations going into this book.  I was able to enjoy it without thinking, “Hey, that’s not right.”  My only issue with the book is that it ends rather abruptly and the sequel, which should have come out in 2018, was never published.  If it ever does get released, I’ll pretty definitely read it.  I give this book four stars out of five.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Many-Colored Land

Julian May
Completed 6/16/2020, Reviewed 6/16/2020
4 stars

This was a surprisingly good book with one-way time travel, psychic abilities, aliens, and a dash of fantasy.  It uses the common trope of a motley crew of humans who try to overthrow the alien overlords.  I found it started slowly, introducing the large cast of characters, then built up to a better pace as the plot settled.  The cast is very diverse, including different nationalities, a nun, and an unstable lesbian.  This book was written in the early 80’s, so most of the characterizations are a bit stereotypical, but not too bad.  There were a few deep cringes, such as the use of the slang term for the Romani people.  But I felt that the author tried really hard to be inclusive and if she were writing today, she would have done a better job of it.  The book was nominated for a slew of awards and won the Locus Award for Science Fiction. 

In the twenty-second century, humans have settled around the galaxy.  One man on Earth discovered a time machine which successfully transports back six million years to the Pliocene Era, but destroys any living thing trying to come return.  It becomes popular with the misfits of the galaxy as a form of self-imposed exile, looking to start fresh somewhere else, outside the mores imposed by the galactic social structure called the Milieu.  The book begins with (I think it was) eight people, giving their backgrounds and motivation for going back in time.  When they finally do, they find that the Earth has been settled by an alien race that has basically enslaved all the time travelers over the years.  Most of the women are kept as sexual slaves because something about the sun has rendered the female aliens barren, and the aliens are genetically so close to us that sex produces viable offspring.  The aliens use a torc, a sturdy necklace of sorts, to control the humans so that many of them don’t have qualms with life under the alien rule.  But this rag-tag group will have none of that and try to find a way to fight back.

The character development isn’t bad.  Since we get the motivation of the travelers at the beginning of the book, we get a good sense of who they are.  A couple of the characters actually grow in the course of the book.  My favorites were the nun, Amerie, and the lesbian, Felice.  Amerie is burned out from her work as a caregiver for the dying.  She wants to follow her original dream of being a hermit.  She was never accepted into any of the cloistered orders so she feels her one chance to follow that dream is to take the Exile.  Because of her medical background, she becomes the medic for the exiled. 

Felice is an anti-social, hot-headed, former hockey star.  She wants to go because having been fired from the hockey team for violence, she thinks it would be best to live life alone and self-sustaining.  Once in the past, she takes none of the guff of the aliens and is the first to try to plot against them.  Her mission becomes to free all of humanity.  In an interesting development, Amerie becomes one of the few people who can really get through to Felice to temper her violent tendencies.

I found the plot to be both inventive and juvenile.  It’s as if the author kept on throwing things into the mix to come up with something new, but ended up creating something that appeals to the high school sci fi nerd in the reader.  But on the other hand, that’s what I liked about it.  There isn’t much humor in the story, there is a fair amount of violence, and like many stories with a large number of characters, it can be a tad melodramatic.  But it appealed to the less mature, nerdy side of my tastes. 

I give the book four stars out of five because I thought it was very entertaining.  The writing is pretty decent, with good prose.  There’s some exposition, but it was reasonable.  I give it props for having a major lesbian character written by a straight woman forty years ago that’s not man-hating nor falls into a butch/fem role, but she’s definitely aggressive.  What I liked best was that she makes positive contributions to the group despite her temper.  There are three more books in the series.  I don’t know if I’ll get to them or not, but this book ends with only minor resolution, though it’s not a cliffhanger.  You just have to read the next book to find out what happens to half the characters.  I guess that sounds like a cliffhanger, but really, I felt this book ended at a good spot.  And it doesn’t manipulate you to get you to read the next book.  It’s simply that the story continues in the next book.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Shadowed Sun

NK Jemisin
Completed 6/13/2020, Reviewed 6/13/2020
5 stars

I loved this book immensely, more so than The Killing Moon, it’s predecessor.  It tackles deeper, darker issues, such as incest, abuse, and rape.  It’s not a direct sequel; it takes place ten years after Moon and a few of the characters recur in this volume.  It’s the same universe, though, with the same dreaming magic for healing and ending life.  The city-state where the action took place in Moon has been conquered by the city-state it intended to conquer.  There are all sorts of political machinations among the conquerors and the conquered.  And somehow through the darkness and politics, I found myself completely enrapt in the lives of the main characters.  It’s a shame this book wasn’t nominated for awards, as its predecessor was.  I thought it was written better and the magic used and described better, though this latter part is probably because I didn’t need the first half of the book to learn it as I did in Moon.

Hanani is the first woman who has become an apprentice Sharer, in fact she is the first woman ever accepted into the Hetawa, the organization that deals with dreaming magic.  As a Sharer, her primary focus is healing through dreams.  She and her mentor Mni-inh are assigned to a squad that goes out to the desert to try to engage with Wanahomen, the heir apparent to the throne, and the barbarian tribe he’s come to lead, to overthrow the city’s occupiers.  In the meantime, there is a dreaming plague taking over the city.  It kills people while they are asleep as well as the Sharer, or apprentice, or acolyte who is working their dreams.  The cause is not known but the casualties keep mounting.  This causes fear among the general population which is already near the tipping point of revolution against the invaders. 

I thought Hanani was an awesome character.  As the first woman in the Hetawa, she is constantly up against sexism to such a degree that she must dress and act like a man to perform her functions.  She is doubted by the Superior and many of her colleagues.  Only her mentor gives her the support she needs, becoming like a father to her.  When she goes on the mission to the desert, she is kept there, as sort of a hostage, to show good faith and trust between the Hetawa and Wanahomen.  There she has all sorts of difficult encounters with the barbarians, the selfish Prince, death, destruction, and her own heart and mind.  Through all this, her character development is so good, I became completely enmeshed in her emotions and frustrations.

Wanahomen was another great character.  As the heir apparent, he is full of bile over the death of his father by the Hetawa.  Thus, he hates them.  However, he is soon won over to their side.  That process is really well developed.  Telling any more gives too much away.  I also really liked Mni-inh, Hanani’s mentor, and Yanassa, Wanahomen’s first lover and the mother of his child.  Yanassa is smart, sassy, and helps Hanani cope with being the woman that the Hetawa had repressed. 

The violence towards women is very difficult to read.  It is not gratuitous violence as in a regular action novel.  It is all very necessary to character development and the plot.  The book acknowledges it, discusses it, subverts it, and most importantly, does it in a way that does not perpetuate it (this is almost a direct quote from NK Jemisin’s blog on sexual violence from 2012).  I thought it was very well done and very provocative. 

I had to give this book five stars out of five.  It really grabbed me.  It had me reading the last third of this five hundred page book very late into the night.  I simply had to find out how Hanani would come to be at peace after all the troubles she had to bear.  This is an excellent book, but as with everything I’ve read of Jemisin, it is very dark.  She may have won the Hugo and Nebula for The Broken Earth series, but her previous books are also excellent.  I have to say that Jemisin has become one of my favorite authors. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Killing Moon

NK Jemisin
Completed 6/10/2020, Reviewed 6/10/2020
4 stars

This first book of the Dreamblood Duology marks the third series by NK Jemisin I’ve read.  She is an awesome world builder.  This time, the world consists of a people who harvest dreams to use for healing and the maintenance of peace.  In addition, the final dream harvest, done by Gatherers, guides a person’s soul to the afterlife and union with the Goddess of Dreams.  It is akin to euthanasia and it is a peaceful way to die.  However, there are other tribes around this one that find the practice appalling.  This conflict makes for an amazingly dark fantasy filled with action and intrigue. 

Ehiru is a Gatherer.  He is given a commission to do such a harvest and botches it up.  Instead of peaceful death, the recipient has a horrifying death.  He goes into seclusion to repent for his terrible error.  Later he is accused of being a Reaper, a rogue Gatherer who simply murders people to feed on their dreams.  He is given a chance to clear his name by taking a new commission, to do a final extraction on Sunandi, an ambassador for a neighboring nation which abhors dream harvesting.  When her servant tries to stop Ehiru, she awakens, and tries to convince him that the Reaper is part of a larger plot to incite war with her nation.  She mostly convinces him.  Together with his apprentice Gatherer, Nijiri, the three try to figure out the plot and the mystery of the Reaper. 

Ehiru, Nijiri, and Sunandi are all very well developed.  It was easy to get into all their heads.  The book is narrated mostly through them in third person.  I liked all three, despite their different moralities.  They all remain true to themselves and yet find a common interest to fight for, the maintenance of peace.  The secondary characters are also surprisingly three dimensional.  Even the bad guy is done well.  I didn’t even realize he’s the bad guy until later in the book. 

The world building is interesting because it is roughly based on ancient Egypt.  The heart of the main city-state is at the delta of a river very much like the Nile.  It floods its banks every year and fertilizes the soil.  People count floods, not years.  It is surrounded by a desert which is sparsely populated.  It is the most prosperous state and its primary law is peace.  It is ruled by a Prince in a line that’s supposedly descended from the sun.  It has a Pantheon, but only a few of the gods are reference in this book.  The most notable and revered is the Goddess of Dreams and the Afterlife.

Jemisin’s writing is always incredibly readable.  She has great balance between prosy descriptions and dialogue.  Her ideas are very original, and she does a great job of explaining them over the course of the book.  It does help that she includes a glossary of terms. 

The one thing I didn’t care for about the book was that it was a slow burn.  Things happen, but it took a while for it to all come together.  It’s engrossing, especially in the middle and at the end, but beginning dragged a bit.  I think it was because there were so many concepts introduced, it was hard for me to take it all in.  There was also the problem of three main characters to introduce.  They all get their own chapter in the beginning, but they do so with a lot of the secondary characters as well.  Again, it was a sort of overload. 

Overall, it’s really a terrific book.  I give it four stars out of five.  It’s dark and very serious.  It’s original and creative.  I’m continually amazed at Jemisin’s imagination.  She designs worlds, complete with mythologies and magics, that are very different from each other.  It’s no wonder that her books are nominated for awards and show up on best-of lists. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Wild Swans

Peg Kerr
Completed 6/6/2020, Reviewed 6/7/2020
5 stars

This was a very difficult book to read, not because of the writing, but because of the subject matter.  It deals with the AIDS epidemic on a very personal level.  It juxtaposes a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” with a tale about a gay young man, kicked out by his family, and coming out in New York City in the early ‘80s.  Having come out myself at about the same time, I lived through this period.  Reading a book or seeing a film about it is very hard for me and brings up a lot of anger, terrible sadness, and survivor’s guilt.  Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book, with the way it told the two stories.  Both stories left me emotionally devastated, but immensely satisfied as well.  It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award and won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2000.

This first story takes place in the late 1600s.  Eliza is the daughter of an earl.  Her stepmother has turned her eleven brothers into swans and gets Eliza banished from court.  She and her brothers go to the New World where she works on breaking the curse that keeps her brothers as swans by day and humans by night.  In alternating chapters, we encounter Elias, a gay eighteen-year-old, who has been abandoned by his family.  He goes to New York where he lives on the streets.  There, he meets Sean who takes him in, helps him get a job, and shows him gay life in the big city.  Elias falls for Sean.  But as their relationship develops, their friends start dying of strange cancers and infections. 

The character development is phenomenal.  I could identify and empathize with Eliza and Elias.  Elias, of course, was easy, having been only a few years older than him in the early ‘80s.  Eliza, on the other hand, was easy because Kerr’s writing is so good.  I felt transported back to 17th century England and later Colonial Massachusetts.  The world building was great.  I haven’t read Hans Christian Anderson’s version of the fairy tale, so I don’t know how much Kerr elaborated on it, but I felt that the world was rich and realistic.  I was also impressed that the other major and minor characters were just as well rounded.  Nobody felt like a cardboard cutout of a character.  Even the evil stepmother felt more three dimensional than most nemeses. 

Reflecting on the story of Elias, his coming out, and his relationship with Sean in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is difficult for me.  It brings up all sorts of emotions that I don’t necessarily want to face or feel.  I was glad the book dealt with it in a very matter-of-fact way.  It’s easy for a book to get maudlin when everyone around you is getting sick and dying.  But I felt it wasn’t maudlin at all.   Yet, it still had an emotional punch.  I loved Elias and Sean, even though they were both flawed, Elias in his naivete and Sean in his more cynical nature.  So it is not an easy romantic story.  Their relationship grew over time and wasn’t immune to rough spots.   

My only criticism of the book was how the two stories came together in the end.  It was simultaneously beautiful and a little forced.   I found myself (not so successfully) holding back the tears with both narratives, but in between my sobs thinking “Huh?”  Of course, it’s the ending, so going into detail would be a spoiler.

I give this book five stars out of five.  Yeah, I cried.  I read this book quickly because as it unfolded, I knew it would get harder and harder to read.  The prose was lovely and encouraged my reading speed.  I didn’t feel I missed out on anything by reading too quickly, except I probably would have cried earlier in the book if I had allowed myself to read more slowly. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Speaking Dreams

Severna Park
Completed 5/29/2020, Reviewed 5/29/2020
4 stars

Maybe I’m becoming a softy, but I really liked this lesbian space opera about a galactic empire, evil slavers, and vicious aliens.  I thought it was well-written even though the pacing was uneven.  The plot was surprisingly exciting.  I was especially gripped by the whole concept of a slaver race keeping planets of humans as breeding grounds for their slavery industry.  It was horrifying and emotionally pretty gut-wrenching.  This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Sci Fi/Fantasy in 1993.

Costa is a young woman on a planet which Sector, the enslaving race, uses to breed slaves.  Costa is destined to marry and bear lots of children.  But she has several secrets.  First, she likes women.  Second, she has dreams that give her detailed events of the near future, usually, the events of the next day.  She uses the information from these dreams to try to thwart the Sector.  The problem is, she usually doesn’t think the actions through and causes more harm than good.  Eventually, her actions get her into serious trouble and instead of bearing children, she is made a slave. 

Two years later, Mira LoDire, a diplomat for the Emirate that controls a large part of the galaxy, buys Costa.  Mira is against slavery, but is ordered to buy one by her superior officer so as to be taken seriously in upcoming negotiations with Sector.  Costa is nearly despondent from the abuse she’s received as a slave.  It takes her a while to heal emotionally.  At the same time, an alien race of bloodthirsty insect-like aliens is threatening the Emirate.  Because of her past on her slave planet and her dreams, Costa and Mira become entangled in a dangerous powerplay between Sector and the Emirate.

I really liked Mira.  She’s a down to earth woman who buys Costa because she wants to save and protect her, not because she’d made a good slave.  At first, Mira’s dismissive of Costa’s prescient abilities as it is not known that slaves are bred with any psychic powers.  But she eventually comes around as the dreams turn into reality.  Her transition from doubter to believer is done well.  Costa was harder to warm up to.  Even though the book begins with her, I got frustrated with how she didn’t seem to learn from her mistakes when acting out on her dreams.  That development took a long time, but when it did, it made her much more likable. 

Of course, Mira and Costa fall in love.  At first, I was a little uneasy with it.  I wondered if it was akin to Stockholm Syndrome.  But it wasn’t that at all, and their relationship developed well.  And together with the excitement of the book, it became a romance I found myself cheering for.  It’s not a romantic novel with science fiction.  It has what I thought was an appropriate amount for any novel. 

As I noted above, I thought the whole way the author dealt with slavery was done really well.  I thought the whole concept of a future that had regressed to a slavery economy was well done.  I had such empathy for the enslaved.  It was easy to hate the slavers.  They were out and out evil.  Maybe too inhuman.  The book is told third person from Mira and Costa’s point of view, so we never know what makes the slavers tick.  But I was cheering so hard for them, I didn’t really care about the slavers.

I give the book four stars out of five.  Despite having a pretty good emotional response to it, I thought the book was a little flawed.  Some of the science is not described well.  A hardcore science fiction fan may take issues with some of it, like the instantaneous interstellar communication.  And there were times when the book really dragged.  But in general, the writing is good, the dialogue is smart, the plot is enjoyable, and the suspense engrossing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Passion of New Eve

Angela Carter
Completed 5/27/2020, Reviewed 5/27/2020
3 stars

I have a love-hate reaction to this book.  On the love side, it’s very poetic and explores race, gender, and gender roles in outrageous, satirical ways.  On the hate side, it has a very negative portrayal of transgendered persons.  Specifically, it has the notion that transitioning is an act of violence and having a different gender identity is there to shock.  This book was first published in 1977, so it reflects a lot of the mentality of that time period with regards to all the issues it deals with.  It’s considered a post-feminist classic.  But I think reading this as a trans man or woman is analogous to me reading “The Wanting Seed” by Anthony Burgess.  It may be a classic, but it does not represent me or my community in a healthy, affirming light.  Even as satire, this book is just too negative in its representation of trans persons.

The plot is pretty crazy.  In a very near-future world (with 1977 being its reference point), Evelyn is an Englishman who gets a job teaching at a university in New York.  When he gets to New York, he finds it is on the verge of chaos because of race and gender wars.  In fact, he loses his job because the university is besieged by militant activists and later blown up.  Without a job, he meets an African American woman Leilah.  They end up having a sexual relationship, but it’s devoid of emotion and borders on sadistic.  When she ends up pregnant, he forces her to have an abortion.  Then finding out he has inherited some money, he takes it, buys a bulletproof car, and drives to the desert.  There, he is captured by a militant women’s group where he is forcibly transgendered, complete with functioning female reproductive organs.  Now known as Eve, she escapes only to have a series of more violent encounters culminating in a front row seat of an apocalyptic end of the U.S.

Evelyn in not a likeable guy.  He doesn’t treat women well.  When he is forcibly made a woman, Eve has to confront all the issues that come with being a woman, including abuse, rape, religious oppression, and pregnancy.  It takes Eve the whole book to understand what it means to be a woman, and what it means to love.  It’s sort of like a cross between Kafka, Vonnegut, and William Burroughs with a feminist theme and an unsympathetic main character.  I use those names because they represent the absurd, satire, and psychedelic writing in my reading history.  There’s even what one might call pre-magical realism.  This book is a mashup of these.  But unlike Kafka’s Joseph K or a Vonnegut character, I had no empathy for the main character, either as Evelyn or as Eve. 

Evelyn has an obsession with an old American actress, Tristessa de St. Ange, sort of an amalgam of several tragic Hollywood divas.  Tristessa keeps on reappearing throughout the book, including literally.  My take is that she is supposed to represent the perfect woman, someone as Evelyn, he cannot meet, nor as Eve, aspire to be.  I think there is a lot of symbolism in this book.  I didn’t necessarily get most of it, but it feels pretty heavy handed nonetheless.  It makes me wonder if this is how the British saw the U.S. in 1977, a violent, oppressive country with little hope for women.  Carter is British and did spend time in the U.S., as well as in quite a few other countries around the world. 

The author uses very poetic language to tell the story.  At times, it’s almost stream of consciousness, with the main character going off on long tangents in his and her mind.  The story is told in first person, so we do spend all our time in his and her head.  At first, I found the language off-putting, but after about thirty or so pages, it flowed beautifully.  Unfortunately, all the violent circumstances Eve encounters does not make the reading a beautiful experience.  There is definitely a stark contrast between the prose and the plot.

I give the book three stars out of five.  That’s sort of a split between a four-star satire and a two-star treatment of transgender as a device rather than as an issue.  Is this an important book to read?  I think so, mostly for its satire and vision of the result of oppression.  Is it an affirming book to read?  Definitely not.  I think I would have rather read this in a classroom setting where there would be a lot of discussion and affirmation of my experience of the book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Gwyneth Jones
Completed 6/2/2020, Reviewed 6/2/2020
2 stars

This was a real slog of a book.  It was a very long slice of life book about a tortured but brilliant scientist and her college friends over a period of about twenty years or so.  It wasn’t classic science fiction; it was general fiction with a little science thrown in.  Her devotion to science was the reason why her life and relationships were so bad.  However, like a good Brit, she had a stiff upper lip, living in a lot of denial and repression, not dealing with the issues in her life until it all comes to a head at the end.  I didn’t like it, but it did win a Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the Otherwise Award. 

The story begins in college, where Anna, a microbiology student, meets a group of people who become lifelong friends.  Near the end of one of the years, she has a sexual affair with one of them, an American foreign exchange student named Spence.  Anna goes on to graduate school and while working on her doctorate, finds an anomaly with the interaction of the X and Y chromosomes that could mean a new step in the evolution of human sexuality.  Anna meets up with Spence again and eventually they get married.  No one wants to fund her research but she becomes obsessed with it, working on it in between other projects.  Her obsession with it ends up interfering with everything in her life. 

What I didn’t like most about the book was that I never became interested in any of the characters, not Anna, Spence, or a major secondary character Ramone.  Anna was too emotionless.  I never felt that she had a passion for her research, just a cold obsession.  And you never get the impression that she was capable of love.  Spence was also uninteresting, although at least he was in love with Anna.  Ramone was a colorful character, a woman-hating woman with weird sexual fetishes.  She’s obsessed with Anna but Spence gets to Anna first.  Despite her quirks, I was never interested with where her character development went.

The prose is lyrical, but boring and hard to read.  I didn’t like how the perspective often switched between third person narration and first person thoughts.  You’re reading about Anna’s actions in third person, then suddenly you’re in her head as she thinking about something in first person.  Then it reverts back to describing actions in third person.  Rather than feeling like the book flowed, this style was jarring and difficult to follow. 

The author has a note at the end of the book that this kind of science, sexual genetics, has always intrigued her.  There just wasn’t enough of it though.  It’s not that I’m interested in X and Y chromosomal behavior, but it’s clear that you could have thrown just about any scientific breakthrough in there and the outcome would have been the same.  It doesn’t really affect anything until the very end, and even there it seems more like an afterthought than a conclusion.

One thing I did like about the book was that it brings to light the plight of the woman scientist in a world dominated by men.  There’s a lot of sexual politics that frustrates Anna and she doesn’t handle it well, nor does she know how to play the game with her male colleagues and superiors.  Yet her discovery is something that should win a Nobel Prize since it revolutionizes the whole way of thinking about sexual expression and genetics.  The book unfortunately never gets that far into the future.  You wish it would just to see some positive feedback on her lifetime of frustrated work.  In the last half of the book, I was thinking, please, just give her a little redemption of some sort.

I give the book two stars out of five.  It’s an ambitious work, but lacking in many areas.  It doesn’t really feel like science fiction, or even meta.  As I said before, it’s just general fiction with a little science thrown in.  It felt like a boring, fictionalized biography of someone with only one interesting quality: her research.  Oh yeah, I never figured out the significance of the cover.  It has two Asian women in traditional garb.  There’s a passing reference to Asian woodcuts (I can’t remember from which country) but it is so fleeting as not to be memorable.