Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Einstein Intersection

Samuel R Delany
Completed 2/25/2021, Reviewed 2/25/2021
3 stars

Wow, I’m really not sure what I just read.  Fortunately, I’ve read about it, so that helps.  I generally really like Delany, so even with his weird, experimental, and new wave works, I try to stay open to the experience.  This book was a little tougher for me than his others, even Dhalgren.  It was a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and my understanding is that it was heavily influenced by the film “Black Orpheus”.  Though I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar with the myth, so I had that as a basis.  There was also a Minotaur-like scene and even a Jesus and Judas thread.  Picking out the elements of the myths was fun, but the prose was pretty difficult.  I would say this book falls in the category of the new wave of SF which was dominant at the time of its publication.  This book won the Nebula Award for 1967 and was nominated for a Hugo in 1968. 

This novel takes place on a futuristic Earth.  Lo Lobey is a young goatherd who falls in love with Friza.  Friza dies suddenly and Lo Lobey wants her back.  He wants to exact revenge on her killer, Kid Death.  He leaves his village and comes across a herd of dragons being moved across the countryside.  He joins the effort which is led by Spider and Green-Eye.  Along the way, he encounters Kid Death multiple times, but doesn’t have the chance to slay him.  Eventually, the herd makes its way to the big city where he finally confronts his nemesis. 

That’s probably one of the shortest plot summaries I’ve ever written.  Well, this is an extremely short book.  My edition was 136 pages.  Though the plot is short, the world-building is large.  As you progress through the book, you find out more and more about what has happened to the Earth and the society that now occupies it. 

The character development is also quite good.  It becomes clear that the people of this Earth are mutants, as Lo Lobey describes his friends and acquaintances.  They are all a little different:  some small, some tall, some very hairy, some very smooth.  Lo Lobey himself kind of sounds like a pear-shaped Neanderthal.  He’s also young, idealistic, and rash.  He has a machete that he plays like a flute.  He doesn’t really want to learn to hunt, but is made to hunt a very large bull-like creature with hands for hooves.  When Friza dies, all he wants to do is kill the person responsible for her death and bring her back. 

My problem with the book is that as it goes on, it gets more and more esoteric.  In the final third of the book, Lo Lobey has interactions and confrontations with multiple people who try to explain to him the significance of myth and relate it to his quest.  So it gets meta and leaves him, and us, hanging.  Also, Delany includes quotes at the beginnings of each chapter, including excerpts from his own journal he kept while writing the book and traveling across Europe.  In one of his quotes, he basically says that it’s time to write the ending, and endings should be inconclusive.  Well, this one was.  There’s some resolution, but not totally.  It felt more like Delany just got tired of writing and stopped. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  The first third is fairly understandable, the second third starts to get weird, then last third gets way weird.  But I give Delany props for placing a mythic journey in a very strange setting, and then mixing other myths along with it.  The title, by the way, is pretty misleading.  Delany actually wanted to entitle it “A Fabulous, Formless Darkness”, but the publisher wanted a pulpier title instead.  The original title doesn’t tell you much about the contents, but at least it’s not a misdirection.  Einstein only comes up in a late discussion between Spider and Lo Lobey.  Should you read this book?  I’d say give it a pass unless you are a big Delany fan, into new wave SF of the ‘60s, or are reading through all the Nebula winners. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Prince of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/23/2021, Reviewed 2/23/2021
3 stars

So the series ends with a sigh.  Not a shout.  Not a whimper.  In this last book, everything comes together a little too nicely.  And there are some plotlines that are still unresolved, or at least glossed over, as if there was more to come.  This may be apocryphal, but I read in a few places that Zelazny was planning another five books in the series.  He did write five short stories in the Amber universe, but I’m not sure where they are in the timeline.    The book is pretty fast-paced and readable, and the buildup is strong.  But the climax left me feeling empty.

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Knight of Shadows, and well, all the last four books.

Merlin returns home to the Courts of Chaos upon the death of its king.  Merlin is suddenly third in line for the throne as heirs before him have either relinquished their claim or have died in mysterious ways.  It is not known who is killing them off.  His half-brother Jurt is one or two behind him in the line.  Jurt contacts Merlin and tells him he has called off his vendetta because he is afraid of the powers that seem to be in control.  Merlin accepts his apology and the two work with Luke and Nayda to get to the bottom of the mysteries of the murders, the conflict between the Pattern and the Logrus, the controlling efforts of Merlin’s mother Dara and his half-brother Mandor, and the whereabouts of his missing father Corwin. 

This is really just a light overview of the plot of this book.  It is actually a very complicated story.  The Pattern and the Logrus, the mazes of Amber and Chaos respectively, have become sentient and are sending ghosts to manipulate Merlin to align with them.  It appears that the Logrus has actually planned for Merlin to become king of Chaos since his conception.  It also wants him to marry Coral who has had the Jewel of Judgement implanted in her eye.  This would bring the Jewel back to the Courts of Chaos instead of in Amber.  Dara and Mandor each want Merlin on the throne and plan to manipulate him once there.  And these are just some of the major things happening in this book.

The writing is still terrific.  The dialogue is realistic.  I was a lot less confused in this book compared to “Knight” despite everything going on.  On the downside, there’s a deus ex machina in the form of a ring that gives Merlin a lot of power.  Between that, the Ghostwheel’s power, and Jurt’s new found ability to jump just about anywhere, Merlin seems unstoppable.  Everything seems to go his way.  It’s the sum of these things that makes the ending feel lukewarm.

As a whole, I enjoyed the Merlin cycle, though not as much as the Corwin cycle, i.e. the first five books.  On the plus side for the Merlin cycle, there are many exciting parts and the complexity of the plots was fun.  And the writing felt more mature than in the Corwin cycle.  I liked Merlin himself, even when he was being too trusting and making bad decisions.  On the negative side, the books had some heavily psychedelic moments that were difficult to traverse, though once having trudged through, made the later parts easier to understand.  And of course, the flat ending.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It would have been four stars, save for the less than satisfying ending.  I give the whole Merlin cycle four stars.  I think it’s a darned good read.  Reflecting back on the whole Amber series, I think it illustrates Zelazny’s imagination and writing skills.  I was impressed by the elegant prose that did not require a thousand pages per book.  He was able to maintain complex scenes  and relationships with a literary economy that would make Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin look like windbags.  Having now read Amber, I want to go through and read just about everything by Zelazny I can get my hands on.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Knight of Shadows

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/21/2021, Reviewed 2/21/2021
3 stars

For some odd reason, I’m finding the second Amber Chronicles books alternately very good and confusing.  This book is a confusing one.  It starts out fairly normally, but quickly gets esoteric, almost psychedelic and metaphysical.  It made for some slow reading trying to figure out just what was going on.  The prose in it is very good, enhancing the world building by adding a new layer onto it, but it was hard to see how it fit into everything else.

This book finds Merlin back in Amber with Mandor and Jasra after almost defeating Jurt and Mask.  They escaped however, and the three continue to try to figure out how to defeat them.  Then Merlin ends up in a strange monochromatic place which turns out to be a battleground for the powers of the Pattern and Chaos within him.  His journey through this place was interesting but confusing for me.  It felt like it was hanging out there almost as a side story to the main plot line.  In it, he is tempted by ghostly apparitions to decide whether to choose to align himself with the Pattern or with Chaos.  He doesn’t want to choose, but wants the two forces to live within him equally. 

What I liked about this strange journey of Merlin’s is that it adds a whole new dimension to the Logrus, the ever-changing maze of Chaos, and the Pattern, the design that defines the existence of Amber.  The two powers exhibit sentience in the battle for Merlin’s allegiance and soul.  But being the son of the Corwin of Amber and Dara of Chaos, he wants them to live in harmony within him.  During this journey, his magical wristband Frakir which warns him of danger and helps him out of tough scrapes also gains sentience, communicating with him and advising him on how to proceed through this strange process.   However, as I mentioned above, it felt like out of place in the plot, suspending the quest to defeat Jurt and Mask for most of the book, and not really providing me with any real sense of how it related to the rest of the book.  It’s almost like Zelazny had a great tangential idea and forced it in somewhere, ending up in the ninth book. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  I found it to be one of the weaker books in the series.  While the prose is still good, and the character development of the Frakir and the Ghostwheel is really good, it was just too esoteric for me.  It left all the plot lines in a jumble, even adding a strange twist in the end with Luke, his cousin, and Coral, his aunt.  Still I’m very interested to see how it all ties together in the tenth and final book. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Sign of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/17/2021, Reviewed 2/17/2021
4 stars

The eighth book of the Chronicles of Amber returns to form, picking the pace up again and making for a good fast read.  It starts off strangely but then becomes coherent as the scene unfolds.  So don’t let the opening sequence deter you.  This book is chock full of twists and turns that have for me become synonymous with Amber.  And the cliffhanger is killer. 

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Blood of Amber.

The book picks up where we were dropped, in Wonderland amidst many of Lewis Carroll’s characters.  Merlin soon realizes that Luke was slipped a mickey and he is in his acid trip.  While there, he is pursued by a Fire Angel.  With the help of the Jabberwock, he defeats it and leaves Luke to sober up.  He returns to Amber and devises a plan to defeat his half-brother Jurt and the unknown sorcerer he has named Mask.  He engages his other half-brother Mandor and Luke’s mother Jasra to help him.  

The characters are pretty well defined by this book, although we get introduced to Mandor and Jasra.  Mandor is an ally and has been since childhood.  He’s a pretty good guy and adds a nice sense of humor to the story.  In the short time we spend with Jasra, we find out she’s deliciously devious, but is not above negotiations, agreeing to help Merlin and Mandor defeat Jurt and the Mask.  She has a vested interest as this effort would get her back her kingdom.  We also again meet the shape shifter, finally finding out its true nature. 

The writing is still pretty solid.  There are no long ruminations on what’s happened up to this point, so the story doesn’t get bogged down like it did in Blood.  But there are more revelations that add more twists throughout the book.   I only saw one of them coming.  I have to say that the combat scenes are particularly well written.  In many books, I get lost in them and end up glazing over them.  But I can follow Zelazny’s pretty well. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I thought it was up to par with the majority of the Amber novels.  As I predicted, I don’t have much to say about this book, as much of it has been said in the previous two reviews.  Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it and hope the next one can keep up the pace.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Blood of Amber

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/16/2021, Reviewed 2/16/2021
3 stars

This book, the seventh in the Amber Chronicles, was less action, more mystery development than Trumps of Doom.  It featured one long, difficult chapter that was Merlin trying to figure out who is behind all the mayhem in Amber based on all his experiences so far.  It also featured a game of questions and answers between himself and another character where he was trying to get information that she had and vice versa.  These made the book drag somewhat, breaking up the pace that was set in Trumps.  The scenes were useful in bringing all the knowledge together, but they were a tough read.  I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Trumps but still have high hopes for the remaining books. 

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Trumps.

Merlin escapes from the blue crystal cave where Luke has imprisoned him.  He meets a hermit near a battle site who confirms his information about Luke and Jasra.  After being chased by a tornado powered by his mysterious enemy, he jumps to San Francisco where his aunt Flora is living.  They discuss what’s happened to him so far, ruminating on who is behind all the mayhem.  He jumps back to Amber and is assaulted by several assassins.  He’s helped by Vinta, the widow of the uncle who was murdered in the last book.  He finds out he has been followed by a shape-shifter who is supposedly trying to help him.  While at her family’s country manor, a wounded Luke appears asking for help.  Merlin leaves and tries to save Jasra, who has been captured by an unknown enemy.  This leads him to a direct confrontation with his own enemy, the force that has been trying to kill him and destroy all of Amber.

I think the biggest downfall of this book was the rehashing of events as Merlin meets different characters, namely Vinta and his aunt Flora, as well as his own chapter-long rumination on all the evidence.  While in one respect, it was good to get the data analyzed, in another, it dragged the book to a snail’s pace.  It did however get us some character development of Flora, who hadn’t had much page time through this series.  She added some levity to the situation.  The encounter with Vinta was good for helping tie together some loose ends of other minor characters.

I give this book three stars out of four.  It just didn’t have the wow of the previous book.  I like the characters and the prose is still terrific.  The book is very readable.  I became very aware of how well constructed the topography of Amber and its Shadows is.  The cliffhanger of this book is quite bizarre and has me a little wary of the next book.  I don’t have much else to say about this book, as it has the same basic structural qualities of the first book.  But I’m in for the long haul on this series and I do want to find out what is actually going on.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Trumps of Doom

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/15/2021, Reviewed 2/15/2021
4 stars

I love being surprised by books, as is probably evident by how many of my reviews start out with “I was surprised by this book”.  This is the first book of the second set of five in the Amber Chronicles, in other words, the sixth in the series.  These latter five, which follow Merlin of Amber, are downplayed by fans as being not as good as the first five, which follow his father Corwin.  I really liked it, however.  It plops you right into action and over the course of the book, catches you up on who Merlin is, what may or may not have happened to his father, reintroduces his aunts and uncles, and works you into Amber and its Shadows.  There’s some info dumping, but I rather liked it, giving me a chance to remember what the Amber universe is about, having read the first five about six months ago.  With all the books I read, I don’t remember the details of most of them, so this is a good thing.  This book won the Locus Fantasy Award in 1986.

Merlin is known as Merle Corey and is living on Earth which is one of the Shadows of Amber.  It’s April 30th and he’s waiting to be assassinated, as he does every year on this day.  He doesn’t know why; he’s just come to expect it.  His ex-girlfriend Julia is killed by a strange and terrible beast.  Luke, one of his best friends, is almost killed by an unknown assailant.  After all this tragedy, he goes to upstate New York to see his father’s lawyer and confidant, Bill.  He unloads all the strange tragedy that’s hit him.  But danger rears his ugly head there and he and Bill jump to Amber through one of Merlin’s trump cards.  There he discovers one of his uncles has been killed and another nearly so.  And so he begins a journey through Shadow to discover the mysterious force that’s trying to kill him and his familiy and protect the Ghostwheel, a device of power he created which just might destroy Amber.

Like most of the Amber books, this one is pretty short, just over a hundred and eighty pages.  But as you can tell by the plot, a lot is packed into it.  I felt like Zelazny’s writing had improved over the first five.  It’s a little prosier, a little more mature.  The prose doesn’t get in the way of the action or the plot, though.  I thought it enhanced the world building and made the action very readable.  Being almost half a year since reading the first five, I thought I’d have trouble getting back into the Amber mode, but I had no problem being plopped into it and zipping right along with Merlin. 

I thought the character of Merlin was quite good.  The book is told in first person, so it’s easy to get into him.  He’s much like his father, but doesn’t drink, smoke, and carouse as much.  He’s less of an every-man than his father, being a brilliant computer programmer, but he’s still relatable.  He’s a loner and cynic, despite being a wizard himself.  He has a polite relationship with his aunts and uncles, as a nephew would of the older generation.  Since the first five books, those aunts and uncles have all lived in relative peace with one another, even Fiona, who was initially pretty evil.  She even watches out for Merlin as he tries to figure out who is after him.  There isn’t much other character development as few of the other characters really come to the forefront.  Those that do are enigmas that Merlin is trying to figure out.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a fast, easy read that’s wildly entertaining.  All the books in this second half of the series are short, and I expect, like the first five, that my reviews will get shorter as I progress through them.  Once again, I’ll be reading these books one after another to keep myself in the Amber universe. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Moving Mars

Greg Bear
Completed 2/14/2021, Reviewed 2/14/2021
4 stars

I was surprised by this book.  It’s yet another Martian epic, this time by one of the masters of hard sci fi.  I didn’t think I’d like it, as I feel Mars-ed out.  But I really liked it, after a fashion.  I hard a hard time staying interested in the first half of the book, but suddenly, I found myself engrossed and involved with the plot.  It’s a very political book, featuring the attempts of Mars colonists to form a central government from the self-ruled family-based syndicates that had developed, a move that threatens the three mega-nations of Earth.  By the end, I realized that what I thought was an excruciatingly slow build-up was necessary to set the scene for the fast-paced second half.  I’m glad I stuck with it.  This book won the Nebula Award for 1994 and was nominated for several others, including the Hugo.  Interestingly enough, it beat Robinson’s Green Mars for the Nebula, but lost to it for the Hugo.

The book is the memoir of Casseia Majumdar.  The book begins with her involvement in a student uprising against the “statists” who want to form a central government and fall under the jurisdiction of Earth.  The statists are expelled.  During the event, she meets Charles Franklin, a brilliant physics student who falls madly in love with her.  When they meet after things on Mars return to normal, they have a brief affair, but she rejects his sudden proposal.  They go their separate ways, Cassie to finish studying political science, Charles to do secret innovative research.  Cassie gets an internship to accompany her third uncle to Earth.  He is acting as an ambassador from Mars despite not having a centralized government.  On the trip, she finds out how menacing the Earth’s mega-nations are.  When she comes back, she becomes part of a new central government movement.  She comes across Charles again, who has discovered a way to communicate and move large objects over vast distances simultaneously.  When the Earth begins making violent overtures, it seems their only hope is (dah dah daaaaaah) moving Mars. 

I thought this book was going to be one long tedious space opera, or worse, what I would call court drama in a fantasy novel.  On the contrary, I found it to be quite a smart piece of fiction.  The science is pretty hard, for which Bear is celebrated, but I found it somewhat straight forward to follow.  It enhances the story rather than eclipsing it.  The characters are in the forefront as well, being well-developed.  Even the bad guys get decent development.  I didn’t like Cassie at first.  She’s about twenty when the book begins and comes across as an annoying teenager, joining the anti-statist uprising on a whim.  I didn’t like her treatment of the equally annoying lovelorn Charles.  That’s what made the first half of the book so difficult for me to like.  But as it progressed, they both grew into brilliant, yet fairly normal adults.  By the time they finally meet again, I found I really liked them.

The writing is good, (eventually) well-paced, almost journalistic in style, as one would expect from a memoir.  It’s the dialogue that really fleshes out the characters and builds the world.  This is the third book in a series, but it stands alone and doesn’t rely too much on info dumping to fill you in on how Mars has developed or the state of the politics of Mars and the Earth.  I thought it was all described quite organically.  The ending of the book is also very realistic.  It’s messy, not a hunky-dory tidy ending.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It starts out very slowly, but if you stick with it, I think you'll enjoy it.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Falling Woman

Pat Murphy
Completed 2/12/2021, Reviewed 2/12/2021
5 stars

I loved this book.  It reminded me of the style of  The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  It has phenomenal prose with a terrific story.  The setting of the story is in an ancient Mayan ruin in the Yucatan peninsula.  It is a tale of an archeologist and her estranged daughter wrapped in the supernatural and Mayan mythology.    I was really emotionally moved by the mother-daughter relationship tale and gripped by the mystery of the spirits of the ruins.  I read this book in two days thanks to a snowstorm that kept me home from work one day 😊.  The author is a co-founder of the James Tiptree Award, now known as the Sideways Award, which honors books that explore or expand on the understanding of gender in science fiction and fantasy.  This book won Murphy the Nebula Award for 1987 and was also nominated for the Mythopoeic Award. 

Elizabeth Butler is a renowned archeologist whose books challenge the accepted understanding of the ancient Mayans.  She is on a dig in Dzibilchaltun on the Yucatan peninsula.  Unexpectedly, her daughter Diane arrives from the states after her father’s death and quitting her job.  She wants to stay with Elizabeth and help on the dig.  She agrees, but their relationship is strained at best.  Now, Elizabeth has had the ability to see ancient spirits since her suicide attempt as a young woman.  At the dig, she sees and speaks to the spirit of a Mayan holy woman who leads her to a burial site at the dig.  In exchange, the holy woman wants a sacrifice to help bring forth the reign of the goddess Ix Chebel Yax.

The characters came alive for me in this book.  The emotionally distant Elizabeth, the confused Diane, as well as the other academics on the dig were all well-crafted.  I found myself empathizing with them.  Even the two local men who are on the make with Diane and her hut-mate Barbara were more than one-dimensional.  I think the excellent character development dovetailed on the richness of the prose.  The details of the characters and the setting never felt extraneous, but always organic and necessary to the text.

Both Elizabeth and Diane were complex characters.  I particularly like Elizabeth.  She had been hospitalized after her suicide attempt and called crazy by her ex-husband.  She accepted her interactions with the spirits as a new normal in her life.  But for the reader and her fellow archeologists who heard her speaking Mayan to herself, there was always the question of whether she really was crazy or not.  Diane has also begun seeing spirits, though not to the extent of her mother, and she doesn’t necessarily believe in the fleeting shadowy images.  She doesn’t exactly know why she has come to Mexico to be with the mother she barely knew and struggles with her own inner demons.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It was a pleasure reading it.  It was very interesting reading about the Mayan pantheon and the complex Mayan calendar.  I thought the interaction between Elizabeth and Diane was very realistic, devoid of saccharine, soapy melodrama.  The realness of it is what made me get so emotionally involved with the characters.  The supernatural aspect is not overbearing either.  It progresses at a decent pace through the book, not overwhelming the story until its natural conclusion at the climax.  Overall, this is simply a beautifully written book that kept me turning the pages and feeling emotionally involved the whole way through.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Man Plus

Frederik Pohl
Completed 2/10/2021, Reviewed 2/10/2021
4 stars

There have been a lot of books about colonizing Mars throughout the history of Sci Fi.  This one, published in 1976, has a different approach.  It postulates that to be successful, a human must be modified into a cyborg to thrive on Mars.  What we get is a sort of “Six Million Dollar Man” meets Kafka.  The majority of the story is about the development of the cyborg.  Only a small part of the end actually has him on Mars.  It makes for a plodding, but interesting, and at times intense novel.  It’s not as action-packed as Pohl’s Hugo winning Gateway.  It’s a much more cerebral experience, questioning what it means to be human and a man.  This book won the Nebula for 1976 and was nominated for several other awards.

Earth has become a mess with food shortages, climate problems, international hostilities, and the threat of global nuclear war.  It is believed that the only thing to save us is the colonization of Mars.  The U.S. experiments with enhancing a human by replacing body parts, including the skin, with cybernetics.  The result is a demonic looking cyborg that can survive Mars’ harsh elements without a space suit.  The first volunteer has a deadly stroke.  Next on the list is Roger Torraway.  The book goes through the process of replacing his parts and its effects on Roger, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  It strains his relationship with his wife.  But eventually, the transformation succeeds and he goes to Mars.

Roger is an all-round nice fellow.  He’s an astronaut and the hero of a mission to rescue a group of cosmonauts several years earlier.  His character is pretty decent, but I never quite got in his head.  I could never quite relate to his original nice-guy personality and his transformation into the morose monster he becomes.  This is where the Kafka reference applies.  I have never read “Metamorphosis”, but I am familiar with the basic gist.  Roger doesn’t adjust to his new self until he gets to Mars.  I found this hard to deal with.  I’m not saying he shouldn’t have had mental and emotional problems with the transition, but his existential angst dragged on way too long in my opinion. 

I had a much better time with Father Don Kayman, a Jesuit priest and a brilliant scientist whose specialty is the study of Mars.  The rule of celibacy has been lifted for priests, and he’s having an affair with a nun.  He struggles with this relationship.  He provides psychological and spiritual (not religious) support to Roger.  This made him very human and very easy to relate to.

The female characters are very much ‘70s Sci Fi women.  Dorrie is his wife who he supports in her pottery hobby.  Suelie Carpenter is one of his nurses.  Both are surprisingly three dimensional, though they are both relegated to being there for Roger’s pleasure, and pain.  There is one amusing scene where Dorrie is interviewed by Fem magazine where the feminist interviewer grills her on how she’s going to self-actualize while her husband is on the way to Mars.  It was really the only point where there was some modern aspect for a female character, but I think it was meant to be humorous, which I found sad.  There is more to the plotlines of Dorrie and Suelie, but to reveal them would be spoilers. 

The writing was kind of strange.  The story is told in third person by an unnamed “we”.  It’s only revealed in the last chapter who “we” are.  The prose is pretty good, although sometimes, it felt like it was a lot of “tell me” rather than “show me” what’s happening and a fair amount of info dumping.  This made it occasionally slow and plodding, only picking up when there was actual dialogue.

I give this book four stars out of five.  Even though I thought the pacing was way too slow, it did make me think a lot.  The premise was original, extrapolating the “Six Million Dollar Man” concept to a cyborg thriving on Mars.  And it was way different than any other Mars novel I’ve come across.  The Kafkaesque metamorphosis was nice touch, even though the angst got to me.  This was not a light read, but upon reflection, I did enjoy it in an existential way.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Healer’s War

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Completed 2/7/2021, Reviewed 2/7/2021
4 stars

This is a fantasy novel set during the Vietnam War.  It’s about an army nurse who becomes the possessor of an amulet that lets her see auras.   It’s really a war novel with a little fantasy thrown in.  The author was previously known for writing humorous fantasy novels, but with this book, she took a more serious turn and won the Nebula for 1989 for it.  It’s a powerful novel with a terrific ending that left me nearly in tears.  The prose is great.  The character development is really good.  The only thing lacking was the plot.  It reads like a memoir rather than like a developed novel.  The author says it is not autobiographical, but I’m sure the themes are based on her experience:  racism, sexism, the horrors of war, and what it’s like to be a life saver and caregiver in an environment of death and destruction.

Kitty McCulley is an army nurse at a facility that treats both GIs and natives.  After nearly killing a young Vietnamese girl by administering the wrong dose of a drug, she’s transferred to orthopedics, i.e., the ward for people who have lost limbs.  She finds it to be a good assignment.  One of her patients is an old Vietnamese man whom she is told is a holy man.  Before he dies, he gives her his amulet that lets the wearer see auras.  When a new head doctor who clearly hates the Vietnamese people comes on board, he starts giving discharge orders even though they are not fully healed.  She tries to relocate a young boy with one leg to a decent facility, with her boyfriend supplying the chopper.  The chopper crashes and her boyfriend killed.  Now, with the young boy in tow, she must navigate the jungle to try to get them back to safety.  On the way she discovers the true power of the amulet and what it means to be a healer.

As I said, there isn’t much plot.  The first half of the book is Kitty’s life as a nurse.  She cares for patients, meets a handsome helicopter pilot named Tony with whom she has an affair, and generally makes due with her assignment.  The buildup of the amulet story line is very slow through this part.  She doesn’t get the amulet until halfway through the book.  Next thing you know, she’s going AWOL to take the boy to another facility, since his parents are dead and he’d be turned out on the street upon discharged.  Then the helicopter crashes, kills Tony, and she’s wandering through the jungle with the boy. 

The second half of the book recounts her time in the jungle.  This is where it picks up a little.  She meets an African-American soldier who is the only survivor of an ambush on his regiment.  He’s a little insane from the experience, but together, the three of them look for help.  It’s on this trip that she finds she can actually heal with the amulet.  Then she is captured by the Viet Cong but not killed or tortured because she may be a holy woman. 

All of this may sound tight, but reading it isn’t.  It’s all described beautifully, but there’s nothing to propel you through the book, nothing driving the plot.  It meanders through Kitty’s experience with no clear direction.  However, I felt like I could really empathize with her.  I guess that means this is a character study.  But even at that, the pacing was rather plodding until she starts healing with the amulet.

As for character development, she’s doesn’t allow herself deep emotions, as that would be too traumatizing.  She always stays a little removed which keeps her sane.  So when she does cry, it’s really intense.  I felt like the other characters were also well done.  I saw almost all of them as real people.  The only two that were a little two dimensional were the lead doctor and the general who finds her in the jungle.  They are narcissistic and abusive and products of racism and sexism.  It was easy to hate them as they treat her with suspicion and disdain. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  Under normal circumstances, I’d give this book five stars because my eyes watered at the end.  But the pace was entirely too slow and the plotline doesn’t really start until halfway through the book.  It does make me interested in her other work, however.  I had never heard of this author before, but she has published over forty novels, collaborated with Anne McCaffrey, and written many short stories.  Right now, I feel like I could use one of her comic fantasies to come down off the feeling of despair I have after reading this one. 


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Falling Free

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 2/3/2021, Reviewed 2/3/2021
3 stars

My experience of Bujold is rather mixed.  I’ve loved a few of her books and either disliked or felt meh about the rest.  I’ve read eight altogether.  This one makes nine, and it’s another meh.  It has all the makings of an exciting space opera, and lord knows I have pretty mixed reactions to space opera.  I simply found it uninteresting.  I had to force my way through most of it.  This one even had a good message, but that didn’t help.  The only reason I read it is because I’m trying to finish my quest to read all the Nebula winners, which this one won for 1988.    It was also nominated for a Hugo and she was awarded a Grand Master title in 2020.  She has legions of loyal fans; I guess I’m just not one of them.

This book is about Leo Graf, an engineer who is brought up to a space facility above the planet Rodeo.  It has about 1300 inhabitants, a thousand of which are quaddies, genetically engineered humans who have four arms, two where they’re legs are supposed to be.  This gives them the ability to be very agile in zero gravity.  They are resistant to muscular atrophying and are very strong.  They are also indoctrinated to be highly skilled technicians subservient to the corporation that exploits their labor.  Leo is there to give advanced welding training to the quaddies.  He finds himself appalled that the corporation treats them as property, and eventually leads the quaddies into a revolt against their oppressors.

The characters felt two-dimensional.  I never really felt like I was in the heads of any of them.  The closest I came was to Silver, a quaddie hydroponics tech who helps lead the revolt.  She had a little more of a character arc than the rest, going from subservience to questioning in a rather realistic way.  I could never get into Leo’s head.  He’s a nice, smart guy but I couldn’t muster up any emotional attachment toward him.  And the bad guy, Bruce Van Atta, was very one-dimensional.  He’s pure, stereotypical corporate slime with absolutely no redeeming qualities.  He never questions his motives or actions.  He was so stereotypical that he became cartoonish. 

I thought the writing was sufficient: not much prose, but the dialogue was fairly realistic.  Her writing was definitely better in her later books.  The world-building was good.  The space station and the quaddies were explained well.  I bought into the premise easily.  I actually became invested in the revolt and found myself a little more interested once it happened.  But I never felt fully invested in the book.  And the message of the book is good: you can’t treat people like property or assets, even if they’re different than you, or in this case, genetically modified.

I can’t say the book is bad, just meh.  I give it three stars out of five because of the world-building, the dialogue, and the plot.  I can say that Bujold has a great imagination.  The plots of all nine books I’ve read were smart, if not ingenious.  There’s just something about her writing that often does not enthrall me.  So generally, I don’t seek her out without motivation from a challenge.  I think other people who are more into space opera might enjoy this book.  And note, even though this is fourth book in the Vorkosigan Saga, it takes place two hundred years before the stories of Miles and his mother.  If you want to read the book in order of events rather than publishing order, this would be your starting point. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Dark Matter

Blake Crouch
Completed 2/1/2021, Reviewed 2/1/2021
3 stars

I really struggled with my decision of whether or not I liked this book.  It is a very fast, easy read thriller with very simply explained quantum physics.  It’s about a man who is dragged against his will into an alternate universe and when he figures that out, tries to return home.  The beginning was suspenseful.  In the middle, he enters many of the other alternate universes that were created by different decisions in his past, hoping that each door opened to his home universe.  I got pretty bored with that part.   The last quarter of the book picked up with an unexpected twist that I found quite fun.  And the ending was overly sentimental.  So I ended up with mixed feelings about it.  This was a book club in exile read, and I’m sure there’s going to be a plethora of opinions expressed, because, well, I had a plethora of reactions to it, which is a good barometer of the what the discussion will be like.

The story begins with Jason Dessen, a college physics professor who gave up his career as a brilliant researcher to have a family.  He’s married to Daniela, a brilliant artist who gave up her career to raise their son Charlie.  One night, Jason is attacked by a masked stranger who injects him with a sedative and another drug.  When he awakes, he finds himself surrounded by people he doesn’t know.  He’s not married and doesn’t have a child.  It takes him a while to figure out he’s in a different universe and his self from this universe, whom he calls Jason2, has swapped places with him.  The device for the interdimensional transport is a large box that Jason2 has developed.  He realizes this is what he would have become if he never married.  But all he thinks about is going home.  Yeah, it kind of has a Wizard of Oz vibe. 

The big problem is that the people of Jason2’s universe want to find out the truth as well as protect the secret of the box.  They will go to any length to make this happen.  After an exciting and tragic chase, he gets to the box with the company’s psychoanalyst, Amanda.  The box presents them with an infinite number of doors to alternative universes.  They visit many before they figure out that they have some effect on what’s behind each door, bringing them closer and closer to Jason’s home. 

I liked the premise of there being an infinite number of universes based on the choices someone makes.  It reminds me of a short story a friend told me about, whose title I never got, where every choice the main character made created multiple universes based on every possible choice to every action the character took.  It drove that character insane.  Jason, too, questions his sanity as he and Amanda visit all the different universes looking for the correct one.  I found it a little trite, however, that Jason makes his way back home when he’s down to his last vial of the special compound that creates the quantum effect that gets him to the corridor of doors to the parallel universes.  It’s kind of an easy plot device. 

The opening of doors to other universes started out interesting, but got tedious as Jason becomes more and more morose over not being able to find his way back home.  The author used many scenarios for the alt-unis:  post-apocalyptic, pandemic, and futuristic to name a few.  But after the first couple, I got bored with them despite the book being a fast read.

I thought the character development was okay, but nothing special.  Even though the book is written in first person present tense, I didn’t really feel like I was in Jason’s head.  I was annoyed by his bad decisions in some of the alt-unis.  There are two female characters, Daniela and Amanda.  Amanda is a little better developed than the Daniela, or most of the other characters for that matter.  She has a pretty level head on her shoulders being a psychoanalyst and has good insight into Jason.  It’s a shame when she leaves Jason, never to reappear in the book.  Her absence is definitely missed in the last quarter of the book.

The prose is fair-to-middlin’.  One of the things that makes it a quick read is that there are a lot of paragraphs that are only one sentence long.  There are no long descriptions and most of the dialogue is rather clipped.  Even the action is simply described. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s not great literature. It’s not great pop sci fi.  It’s not even a great thriller really.  The writing style drives you to the end at a breakneck pace.  And that’s what makes the book not too bad.  I really toyed with giving it two stars, but in the final analysis, I was pretty entertained.