Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Moon and the Sun

Vonda N McIntyre
Completed 12/29/2020, Reviewed 12/31/2020
4 stars

I was prepared to hate this book.  It is an alt-history of a period I don’t particularly like, the French court of Louis XIV filled with excruciating detail about clothes and social station.  The heroine is a poor lady-in-waiting who was abused by nuns when she was raised in the convent in the French colony of Martinique.  And an inordinate amount of time is spent on court drama and relationships, licit and illicit.  But after about a quarter of the way through, I found myself caught up in all this drama as it supported the main plot of this story, the bringing of a human-like sea monster to Louis’ menagerie of animals. 

Marie-Joseph de la Croix is the lady-in-waiting to the sister-in-law and niece of Louis XIV.  Her brother Yves is a Jesuit scientist-priest who has captured two sea monsters, killing one and bringing the other back to France.  Louis is convinced the sea monster has an immortality organ and commissions Yves to find it.  Marie-Joseph, who assisted Yves scientific experiments as a youth, once again assists him by caring for living female and drawing pictures of the dead male as he performs an autopsy on it.  Marie-Joseph finds she can communicate with the living one and figures out she is human, or at least human-like, having almost the exact anatomy of a human.  She fights for the right of the sea monster while Louis is bent on eating it to acquire its property of immortality. 

This is another book about a strong woman who doesn’t remain in her station, trying to buck the system with her intelligence despite her lack of power in society.  Not only does she try to convince the King, but also the Pope who is visiting and happens to be the King’s cousin.  Of course the Pope is convinced the sea creature is just an animal and soulless.  Yves struggles with his scientific background and his allegiance to the King and the Pope.  The only person who believes Marie-Joseph is Lucien, close friend and confidant of the King, who also happens to be an atheist and a dwarf. 

In addition to the main plot, there are subplots involving Marie-Joseph’s slave, a Turkish woman who becomes a popular servant at the Louis XIV court, and the making of a match for Marie-Joseph with the man who is the lover of Louis’ brother.  These with the main plot made for a very well-thought-out story that rivaled the lush alt-history style of Guy Gavriel Kay in The Lions of Al-Rassan.

The characters, like the details of the story, are very detailed and developed.  Marie-Joseph is a very likeable character.  Rooting for her is easy.  It is also very easy to empathize with Yves, her brother, as he struggles with his duties as subject of France and Rome versus his training as a scientist.  Lucien is also very likeable with details about his struggles in life as a little person in the 17th century.  The other characters vary between likeable, relatable, and deplorable, but they are all extremely well drawn.  Even the King and the cad are complex.  There are simply no one-dimensional major characters. 

McIntyre captures the opulence and decadence of the French nobility, with jewels, entitlement, and promiscuity everywhere.  The story mostly takes place at Versailles but there are few times when the King must go through town and someone from the crowd pleads with him about taxes or poverty.  But this was the Sun King who basically saw himself as God.  There are statues and paintings of Roman gods everywhere.  Specifically, there’s a statue of Apollo who should be facing the direction of the sun, but instead faces the direction of the Sun King.  Eventually, I felt slimy from reading about diamond encrusted shoe buckles, with peacock feathers, gold, and other jewels in everyone’s clothes.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It won the Nebula for 1997.  It is beautifully written and extremely well researched.  Most of the characters are historical, except for Marie-Joseph and Yves.  Yet McIntyre breathes life into all of them and really captures the essence of the 17th century privilege.  It’s very different from her Hugo and Nebula winner Dreamsnake, being a period piece, but definitely worthy of an award itself.  

Monday, December 28, 2020


Gail Carriger
Completed 12/26/2020, Reviewed 12/28/2020
3 stars

This was fun fluff.  It’s a Victorian comedy of manners with a powerful heroine, vampires, and werewolves.  I’ve had this on my bookshelf for quite a while and finally pulled it down.  I was pleased that I enjoyed it and will eventually get around to reading some others in the series.  The prose is quite nice.  It is very easy reading.  This is just what the doctor ordered after reading the terse Tolkien History of Middle Earth Series.

Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster (age 24!).  She’s not considered marriageable because she is a little dark skinned from being half Italian and has a prominent nose.  Her mother and stepsisters are more concerned with fashion and marriage than anything more substantial.  So Alexia never tells them that she has no soul, that is, she’s a preternatural.  When she touches a supernatural being, they are made powerless.  When she touches a vampire, its teeth retract.  When she touches a werewolf, it reverts back to human.

The story begins where Alexia is at a ball and meets a rove vampire, one that is not associated with a hive.  Unlike all the registered vampires, this one does not seem to know she is a preternatural and attacks her.  She fights it off and kills it with her trusty parasol and a wooden hairpin.  This raises concerns with the local hive and the Queen’s department of the paranormal.  The investigation is led by Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and a werewolf).  Maccon and Alexia constantly trade barbs as their attraction to each other grows.  But amidst this romance, Alexia is pursued by the local vampires and a mysterious wax-faced creature that appears superhuman and is not affected by her touch.  Maccon and Alexia try to get to the bottom of the mystery of the appearance of rove, unregistered vampires and the strange creature.

The characters are well crafted.  Alexia is a strong-willed young woman in the 19th century world of repressed women and mores.  She’s instantly likeable.  Maccon is great at the Scottish alpha werewolf investigator.  He falls in love with Alexia despite their constant bickering.  Alexia falls for Maccon as well, but she constantly, comically misreads his advances.  Lord Akeldama is a great supporting character.  He is an ancient vampire who is no longer associated with hive.  He’s a flamboyant, gay fop who seems to know a little about everything that’s going on in the supernatural world.  He’s Alexia’s best friend and confidant.  There are several other supporting werewolves and vampires that round out this universe, as well as annoying humans including Alexia’s mother and stepsisters. 

On the positive side, it’s always great to read a genre book with a strong female lead, especially in a Victorian setting.  It’s also a delightfully different take on alternative history, where the supernatural have “come out” and have integrated into gentle society after centuries of living in the shadows.  My one problem with the book is that it took too long for Alexia to comprehend Maccon’s intentions.  This is a problem I have with most comedies of manners.  People in these types of stories misread each other and I get aggravated with how thick they can be.  But I guess that’s what makes for the comedy. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s very fun and a good fluff read.  I probably would have given it four stars if I hadn’t gotten so aggravated over the slow pace of Alexia’s coming around with the romance.  I still look forward to reading more of this series as it is a great read after heavy novels. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Becky Chambers
Completed 12/22/2020, Reviewed 12/22/2020
4 stars

This is the third standalone book in the Wayfarers series. Like the first two books, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, it is a character study. Unlike the first two books, it doesn’t have much of a plot. This is basically a slice of life of five people living on a colony ship. There are some intriguing points that cause all the characters to reflect on their lives and relationships. But the main point of the book is that humanity has learned to live in space and have become basically nice, peaceful, cooperating people and this is the story of a few of them.

The story begins on one of 32 colony ships carrying the remnants of Earth’s population, known as the Exodans. One of its sister ships has blown up. They pick up the bodies. Then life continues on for the characters, all of whom are affected by the disaster. Later, one of the characters is killed accidently, and the body is found days later. This affects all the characters, inspiring more reflection on their situations and choices in life. So you see, not much of a plot. The real story is in the characters.

My favorite characters are probably the more complex. The first one, Eyas, named after a young hawk, is basically a funeral director. She preps the bodies of the dead, holds a ritual ceremony for them with the grieving family, and composts them. This is one of the most important jobs on the ship, as it recycles the deceased to support the living. But after dealing with the influx of bodies from the sister ship, she seeks solace in a brothel, which is a legal business on the ships. She develops a special intimacy with Sunny, the male prostitute with the heart of gold.

My next favorite character was Isobel. She is one of the ship’s archivists. She maintains the records of Earth, the history of the ship, and the present happenings. She is one of the grand dames of the ship and lives with her long-time wife. She maintains an interesting perspective on life and events aboard the ship. In addition, she hosts an alien from the Galactic Council who comes to make observations of the Exodans.

The other characters are good, but less complex. There’s Tessa, a working mom of two who also takes care of her ailing father. Her husband works in space and is not home often. There’s Kip, an angsty teen with a questionable friend who wants to leave the ship and go planet-side. Lastly, there’s Sawyer who grew up on a planet and comes to the ship looking to reinvent himself.

The story is told disjointedly, with each chapter being from the perspective of one of the characters. This threw me at first, feeling like there were too many characters. But about halfway through the book, I realized I really cared about what was going on in each of their lives, even the moody teen Kip.

I give the book four stars out of five. My only complaint with the book is that I felt it took too long to get the hang of the changing perspectives from the different chapters. That with the lack of plot makes for a slow burn. But instead of getting bored, I found myself really loving the characters. I got tied up in their personal lives and how the events of the ship changed their perspectives. It ended up being one of those books that warmed my heart and made me wish it wouldn’t end.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Peoples of Middle Earth

JRR Tolkien
Completed 12/18/2020, Reviewed 12/18/2020
4 stars

This is the final book in the History of Middle Earth (HoME) series.  It was also one of the more interesting.  It covers the appendices from The Lord of the Rings, etymological and phonological changes to names throughout the legendarium, contemplation of logical problems with names and people, and lastly includes two unfinished stories.  I have to admit, the language section was a bit of a slog, giving the development of names and the two elvish language (Quenya and Sindar) versions of the names.  One might argue that most of the HoME series dealt in the development of names, which wouldn’t be a lie, as Tolkien continually changed names and dates as his legendarium developed from 1917 until his death in 1973.  But the rest was more interesting than usual.  

I’ve read the appendices to the Lord of the Rings several times.  They’ve always seemed like just an afterthought to LOTR and definitely a downbeat after the emotional rollercoater of the trilogy.  But really, they are the first taste of the detail of the Tolkien legendarium.  I got a new perspective of them after reading the revisions presented in this volume.   I haven’t read LOTR since reading The Silmarillion and the HoME series, so I wonder if I’d get more out of the appendices now that I have this new insight into the First and Second Ages. 

For example, Arwen is the coming together of two lines of half-human, half-elves.  Her relationship with Aragorn echoes the relationship of Beren and Luthien, who feature so prominently in the First Age.  There’s more history of the presumed evolution of the hobbits, Deagol and Smeagol being members of one of the clans that moved into the Shire during the Third Age.  And there’s more history of the Dwarves and their lineage, from their creation by one of the Valar who couldn’t wait for the Iluvatar’s children to awaken to Thorin Oakenshield and Gimli.

There’s more about Galadriel.  She was created specifically for LOTR.  She proved to be so popular and profound, not just with fans but with Tolkien himself, that he worked her into the legendarium afterward.  She is Arwen’s grandmother and fostered her for a while after Arwen’s mother is attacked by Orcs and dies.  Tolkien also addresses the conundrum of Glorfindels.  He used the name for a character in The Fall of Gondolin as well as in LOTR.  He spent much time debating whether or not they were the same person, as no two elves have the same name. 

Almost all of the writings in this volume are essays which Tolkien produced to further analyze and explain, to himself at least, how everyone and everything fits together in his universe.  In volumes 10 and 11, it was rather tedious.  Here it’s makes much more sense and is much more interesting.

The last two pieces in the book are starts to stories that Tolkien never developed.  The first is called “The New Shadow” and takes place after Aragorn dies, a hundred years into the Fourth Age.  There is a new evil, but we only get a very brief hint of it.  Tolkien felt that the story was too dark, and might be anti-climactic after the epic scale of the fall of Sauron.  The second is called Tal-Elmar and gives a perspective of the Numenorians from the point of view of the Wild Men.  Tolkien didn’t know how he could work this into LOTR and gave up on it.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I would have given this book five stars if the etymological section wasn’t so dry.  The rest of the book I found more engaging than the most of the HoME series.  Having read the whole series, I have to say I’m glad I did, but I’m glad it’s done.  It’s more than the average person would find interesting.  It’s really a huge academic work, not for casual reading.  But I did enjoy seeing the processes Tolkien went through creating his universe.  And it’s the closest one can get to reading everything he ever wrote.  Now all I have left are his translation of Beowulf, a few other non-Middle-Earth books, his compilation of letters, and a book on the Inklings I got for free.  Those will wait until next year.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Nectar of Nightmares

Craig Laurance Gidney
Completed 12/7/2020, Reviewed 12/7/2020
4 stars

I really love Gidney’s writing, even when he delves into weird fantasy, as this novelette does.  It has four chapters, three are stories with their own characters experiencing a strange vision and then tying together in the final chapter.  The first story is about a young girl who dances in a ballet about a swan that is not Swan Lake.  She is so repulsed by the story that she begins to hate ballet.  Then she begins having visions of a Swan Girl.  In the second story, a young woman who gets into a series of bad relationships has a vision of a hairy boy when she takes a swig of a drug-laced drink her girlfriend gives her.  In the third story, a man has nightmares of the church he grew up in.  He decides to research nightmares at a layman’s level.  The final story ties them all together.

This book has haunting images drawn by Orion Zangara that capture the feel of these weird stories.  The novelette stands on its own without the images, but they do complement it very well.

Gidney does like to venture into weird fiction, which I am now more acutely aware of having recently read so much Lovecraft.  His last book, A Spectral Hue, employed art as magic.  This time, it’s visions and nightmares.  I love the title of the book in that it invokes a sense not commonly associated with dreams and nightmares.  It adds a dimension to the weirdness that reflects the sensory feel of Gidney’s prose.  In a few short pages, he’s able to create intense atmospheres and well-developed characters. 

I give this short work four stars out of five.  The novelette is only 37 pages, but in that brief space, I felt like I got novel’s worth of texture and depth.  It’s convinced me to read his more of his work next year. 

Monday, December 7, 2020


Hugh Howey
Completed 12/5/2020, Reviewed 12/7/2020
2 stars

This was one of the most tedious books I’ve read in a long while.  I was surprised at this because it has a lot of fans.  In fact, the book was originally self-published as short stories and novellas and then after huge success, the stories were combined into one omnibus when it was finally picked up by a major publisher.  The author went on to write two more books in what’s now called the Silo series.  But I just didn’t like it.  The pacing as mostly painstakingly slow.  The only parts that felt like they moved were the beginning and the end.  I didn’t connect with most of the characters.  And most of all, it felt derivative: the old meme of people living underground after an apocalyptic event.

The action mostly takes place in an underground silo.  The story begins when the sheriff asks to go outside.  This is a treasonous statement, and therefore is condemned to go into the poisonous outside to clean the cameras that monitor the conditions of the outside.  The ranking deputy picks Juliette, a mechanic from far down in the silo to become the new sheriff.  The deputy and the mayor go to retrieve her and she accepts the job, only to be ousted by the head of IT, the second most powerful person in the silo after the mayor.  Juliette is then condemned to a cleaning as well, but survives, causing an uprising in the silo. 

This is one of those books where an inanimate object is itself one of the characters.  The silo is described in so much detail that it has a characterization of its own.  This was what made it so tediously slow for me.  We learn most about the silo when the mayor and the deputy descend from the top floors, where they live and work, down the massive stairwell to fetch Juliette from Mechanical in the depths of the silo.  We discover the layout of the silo, the class differentiation amongst the inhabitants, and most importantly, the location and power of the IT department.  This is the sort of description you’d expect from an author like Arthur C. Clarke, who always seems to pull it off.  I felt like Howey did not.  It just wasn’t interesting enough, nor did it evoke any sense of wonder.

The human characters where okay.  I thought they were actually well-developed, but I didn’t find myself identifying with most of them.  The only character I really liked was Solo, the sole survivor of Silo #17.  He’s not particularly well-developed, but I liked that he was borderline crazy after living alone for thirty years or so.  He had personality whereas the other major characters were just flat.  I also liked Lukas, Juliette’s love interest, who must decide whether he sides with the uprising or the establishment.  Solo and Lukas added color to what I felt were mostly grey, flat characters. 

The writing was actually not too bad.  I felt like it was geared toward young adults, even though this it isn’t about teens.  It just has that YA feel.  The writing style wasn’t simple, just straight-forward, almost journalistic.  There are no luscious prosy descriptions of anything.  The dialogue was realistic.  I didn’t fumble through convoluted conversations.  And even though the book is comprised of five short stories and novellas, it holds up as a single novel.  But there was just nothing to absorb me into the story. 

I think one of the biggest problems for me was the derivative nature of the plot.  People living underground after an apocalyptic event.  It’s been done before in books and movies.  Maybe the author was thinking, “I’ll take this trope and give it a twist, add a revolution.”  The twist was simply not enough to breathe any life into the story.

I give this book two stars out of five.  While some aspects were good, it didn’t work for me overall.  The sum was less than the parts.  There’s a good amount of resolution at the end, but clearly, the author intended to keep the story going.  I have no intention of reading any more of this series, though.  I want to find out what happens to Solo, but not enough to wade through more details about the silo and its uninteresting inhabitants.