Sunday, October 30, 2022

Only Begotten Daughter

James Morrow
Completed 10/23/2022, Reviewed 10/23/2022
4 stars

Loved this book.  I also loved Morrow’s later “Towing Jehovah”, which I read back in the ‘90s, before I was writing reviews.  This one postulates a modern day messiah.  This one, though, is a woman, a half-sister to Jesus.  She is destined to battle the devil as well as the Neo-Christians who are trying to bring about the second coming.  It’s a satirical look at religious extremism and reflects on the question that if Jesus came back, would we recognize him, or anyone divine.  This book, as well as “Towing Jehovah” won World Fantasy Awards, with “Daughter” winning for 1991, and both were nominated for a slew of others.

Murray Katz is an awkward, lonely, Jewish man living in a defunct lighthouse near Atlantic City, New Jersey.  To earn extra money, he regularly sells to a nearby sperm bank that specializes in contributions from Nobel winners as well as common men.  After one such visit, Murray is contacted by a scientist at the bank and is told that he produced a full embryo, not just gametes.  Upon finding it, the scientist put it in an artificial womb. Murray steals the womb right before a Neo-Christian group called the Revelationists bomb the bank.  He and a lesbian woman named Georgina who had been impregnated from the bank bring the fetus to term and they both raise their respective daughters together.  After realizing that his daughter Julie can perform miracles and is begotten of God, he spends her childhood trying to reinforce in her to not perform any such miracles, lest groups like the Revelationists come for her.  As she grows, she is tempted by the devil, spends time in hell, and does her best to stand against the Revelationists, all the while trying to gain direct contact with God.  

I really like all the characters in this book.  Julie and Murray are terrific characters.  So human, and Julie, also so divine.  I could empathize with both.  Georgina and her daughter Phoebe are also great, though Phoebe develops a lot of behavioral issues.  It is all done so well.  They are believable and natural.  Even the bad guys are well-developed, specifically, Reverend Billy, who heads the Revelationists and tries to bring about the second coming through violence, fire, and murder, all based on his interpretation of Revelations.  He’s not totally one-dimensionally evil, having questions of conscience about what he’s doing throughout the book.  He’s more three-dimensional than I would have expected.

Morrow is a good writer, with spare prose that’s not too flowery.  It kept me engaged even during some slow parts of the book.  Yes, there were some slow parts, particularly when Julie is finally adult.  She tries to figure out ways to spread her message without being a miracle-worker.  And that section is a little dry.  Also, when she returns from hell, it gets a little slow at times until the finale.  But the majority of the book is well-paced and very interesting.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It fell just short of five stars because of the slow-paced sections.  I found myself questioning Morrow’s choice of situations to put Julie in.  However, overall, this book ranks up there with some of the great religious satires of the 90’s, like American Gods and “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff” by Christopher Moore, and “Live from Golgotha” by Gore Vidal (the last two also from the time before I was writing reviews).  I find it a shame that Morrow is not as well known and as widely read.  He’s a very good writer and has some terrific ideas, questions, and points to make.  I’ve been wanting to read more of him for a long time, and after “Daughter”, I think I’ll be searching his other books out a little harder.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Ascent to Godhood

Neon Yang
Completed 10/15/2022, Reviewed 10/15/2022
4 stars

I guess I like Yang’s more sprawling stories because this one got me like the first.  It’s a short novella, but tells the story of how the Protector came into power through the eyes of her former closest confident.  I usually don’t care for court intrigue.  However, this one gave just enough detail to keep it enthralling and fast paced.  It’s told as if the narrator is recounting the past to someone, but the style makes it feel very immediate.  This book was nominated for several novella category awards. 

The narrator of this book is Lady Han.  As a child she was sold from her poor farming family and then sold again into prostitution.  She serviced high ranking officials and also performed as a dancer with the other girls from the house where she worked.  At one function, Hekate, the daughter of the Protector, contacts her and asks her to steal documents from one of her clients, a high ranking noble who supports a cousin as the next Protector.  Hekate wants to see her brother on the throne instead.  Lady Han does the deed and the uses the documents to discredit the noble and the cousin.  Thus begins the relationship with Lady Han and the eventually ascension of Hekate to the throne.  

Lady Han is a great character.  She’s loyal to a fault, but eventually has epiphanies that lead her to realize she can’t trust Hekate.  In a short eighty pages, she grows from a na├»ve young girl to a wise old woman who can see through the mess her life has become being associated with Hekate.  This is one of Yang’s strongest points.  She creates believable characters with depth and passion.  As for Hekate, we knew what she was like from the first three books, and this story shows she was a shrewd and cunning person from early in her life.  Her cruelty begins later in the book after a betrayal by her brother.

I like origin stories.  I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much.  The other origin story I can think of that blew my mind was “Dragonsdawn” by Anne McCaffrey.  It’s a very different book, but it’s another example of how a prequel can be great after having been immersed in the world building through the previous books.  

I don’t have much more to say about this book, it being short and too easy to stumble into spoilers.  But it’s a great ending to a terrific series.  I give this book four stars out of five.  Overall, I’d say the series is four stars as well, even though I gave the middle two books only three stars.  I loved the world building, the prose, the characters, the form.  If Yang continued to write novellas in this series, I’d definitely read them.  

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Descent of Monsters

Neon Yang
Completed 10/12/2022, Reviewed 10/12/2022
3 stars

The third entry in the Tensorate series was another good story, but again, not as great as the first.  This one was basically a murder mystery.  However, it was about the slaughter of a whole institute of people and the cover-up that ensued.  It did keep me on the edge of my seat, mostly because of the narrator, a police investigator who figures out that the government is hiding a big dark secret.  Most of the main characters are back, but in smaller roles.  It’s all about the investigator and how she deals with conspiracy to hide the real reason for the institute and the cause of the murders.

Investigator Chuwan Sariman is called to resolve the murders of a large number of people in a secret institute that conducted strange experiments, about which she can get no information.  Even the interviews with the two suspects, our Akeha and Rider, have deleted content.  The government is pushing Chuwan to close the case, but the whole story is messy.  The more she uncovers, the greater the conspiracy seems.  Finally she quits the force and tries to figure out the real purpose of the institute and real cause of all the deaths.  Of course, this leads her to our main characters from the first two books.  

What I liked best about this book was the form.  It’s epistolary, that is, told in letters, memos, and journal entries.  Almost all the content is narrated by Chuwan, with the exception of a few of the memos she receives from her superiors.  There’s also an interview with Rider that is splendidly told.  I was impressed by Yang’s ability to keep the story going without it seeming like exposition.  What really helped were Chuwan’s journal entries where she gets very real about her disgust for the police force and the Tensorate government.  

The world building is pretty interesting in this book, particularly when the real purpose of the institute is revealed.  Despite the sense of the setting being medieval China, there’s a lot of technology, from machines and from magic.  There are guns, hovercrafts, and mechanisms that are almost steampunkish.  I’ve seen references to this being silpunk, which I’m guessing means silk punk.  Anyway, it kept me on my toes whenever I would lapse into thinking it was all horses and kimonos.

I also really liked the writing.  Yang really got into the meat of Chuwan’s dilemma making me feel her frustrations as the case reached its premature end.  I definitely could empathize with her.  And the writing was very real and immediate, not full of flowery prose.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Despite this rating of “good”, I did enjoy it and am glad I’m reading the series.  As a whole, I think it exceeds the average of the ratings of each individual book.  We’ll see if this holds true through the fourth installment.  

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Red Threads of Fortune

Neon Yang
Completed 10/9/2022, Reviewed 10/9/2022
3 stars

This novella suffers from sophomore slump, as many second books in a series do.  It didn’t grab me the way the first one did.  The plot simply felt average and the magic system, spirituality, and gender innovations weren’t really taken to a different level.  It was simply a story in the same universe as the first, The Black Tides of Heaven.  It didn’t help that I’ve been so distracted by work.  However, I was hoping for something to get lost in so I could stop thinking about work, but this book didn’t pull me in.  It was nominated for a 2017 Otherwise Award, vying against the first book, strangely enough.

This story takes place two years after the events of the first book.  Mokoya has recovered from the physical damage she sustained, but emotionally, she’s a wreck.  She’s lost her gift of prophecy as well as her daughter.  Now she takes to the countryside, hunting down the terrifying naga, which are flying dragon-like creatures.  In particular, one enormous naga seems bent on destroying the mining city of Bataanar.  On her journey, she meets the mysterious Rider, who she takes as a lover.  Together, they try to unravel the mystery of this mega-naga before it destroys the city and leads the countryside into another war.

This book is told from Mokoya’s perspective.  So that’s different from first book, which was mostly told from her twin Akeha’s perspective.  However, there isn’t much new about her here, other than her grieving over her daughter.  Akeha and the rest of the characters from the first book play smaller roles.  It’s really about Mokoya and her budding relationship with Rider.  

There isn’t much more to the world building here either.  The only item of note is that we learn more about the naga and the experiments performed with them by a nefarious cabal.  The prose, however, really shines.  There’s a lot more description here as we spend a lot of time in Mokoya’s head rather than in dialogue. It’s beautifully written, but doesn’t advance the plot very much.  In fact, I felt like it took half this short work to really get going.  

I give this book three stars out of five, kind of a let down after Black Tides.  But Yang continues to impress me with her wordsmithing and ability to portray a complicated gendered society with grace and ease.  I’ll continue to read through this series, having all of them in one volume, because I’m interested to see where else Yang can go in this world.  Hopefully it picks up a bit, but even if it stays average, it’s still worth reading.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Black Tides of Heaven

Neon Yang
Completed 10/5/2022, Reviewed 10/6/2022
4 stars

This is probably the first fantasy I’ve read with a complete but not complicated non-binary gender fluid society.  With it’s three sequels bound in one volume, this novella was nominated for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award.  Standalone, it was nominated for the 2017 Sideways and Golden Tentacle Awards.  It has a very engaging story about twins with special powers who take very different paths, but ultimately are trying to escape and rebel against the shadow of their monarch mother.  

Akeha and Mokoya are twins of their mother the Protector who rules their land with an iron fist.  She bears the twins solely for the purpose of repaying a debt to the monastery that helped her overcome a rebellion.  The twins go off the monastery and learn the spiritual and magical ways of the monks and nuns.  Soon Mokoya displays the ability to see the future through their dreams.  When the Protector gets wind of this, she demands them back so she can exploit the gift to keep her enemies at bay.  They do return to the castle but are very unhappy.  When the time comes to decide their genders, Mokoya decides to be a female and return to the Monastery.  Akeha decides to be a male and runs away from their abusive, exploitive mother.  Eventually, he becomes linked to the Machinists, a rebel group aimed at overthrowing the Protectorate.

The narrative is mostly told from Akeha’s point of view, but it feels like you’re inside the head of both them and Mokoya.  I found myself empathizing with them and their plight, particularly their frustration with their scheming mother.  She knows how to press their buttons and does it well.  Once she makes the twins return to the castle, she makes Mokoya wear a box that records and transmits their dreams to her so that she can see what’s about to happen and try to fight it.  But the twins already know that there is no getting around Fate.  The box is the ultimate in parental control of the lives of children, and I think everyone can relate to that at some level.

Yang was primarily a short story writer.  When they were approached with the idea of writing a longer piece, they procrastinated for a while out of fear.  When they finally wrote this novella, they came up with a hit.  It was well received, and for good reason.  It’s beautifully written, with just enough prosy description to get a good sense of the world of the Protectorate, its religions, and culture.  At first you would think the non-binary nature of the society would be a difficult read, but it was not.  I found it to be very easy to slip into the culture and follow Akeha and Mokoya’s lives, before and after their choosing their gender.

I give this novella four stars out of five.  I have the whole series of novellas and I’ll be reading them one after the other because I like the world Yang built so well.  The remaining three are shorter than this one, so it shouldn’t take me too much time to get through them all.  

Thursday, October 6, 2022

A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine
Completed 10/1/2022, Reviewed 10/1/2022
4 stars

I’m begrudgingly admitting to liking this book. I was pretty meh about the first book in the Teixcalaan series, A Memory Called Empire, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading the sequel.  However, it won the 2022 Hugo Award and was nominated for a slew of others, including the 2021 Lambda Literary Award.  Since I’ve read all the Hugos, and since I’ve been reading all the Lammy nominees of late, I buckled down and read it.  Starting it was like pulling teeth.  It had all the pitfalls that I didn’t like from the first book, the wacky names, the character statements interrupted by long prose, and tons of politics.  It took me nearly a week to get through the first third of the book.  Then it was Saturday, and I read the last 300 pages.  And I got it, and I liked it.  So yeah, I’ll admit to agreeing with the Hugo voters on this one.

The plot is convoluted as it has multiple points of view bouncing around and it takes a while before the narrative narrows down to two main story lines that eventually converge.  The empire is on the verge of war with an unknown enemy.  It is slaughtering citizens and barbarians with no discrimination.  Three Seagrass takes it upon herself to invite Mahit to join her on a diplomatic mission to try to communicate with the enemy and prevent a long destructive war.  In the meantime, the clone of the old Emperor is now eleven-years-old and as precocious as ever.  He’s heir to the throne and his guardian is the current Emperor.  She calls him her little spy, becoming her ears in secret places.  But soon he has his own realizations about the enemy that could put a stop the genocide that seems inevitable.

Yeah, complicated.  And the setup in the first hundred fifty pages is so tedious.  I could not for the life of me get into what anybody was doing or saying.  It was a lot of posturing and playing politics.  After that, I finally got what all the setup was about and it started to make sense.  However, it still took about another fifty or so pages to remember who all the characters were.  The whole naming scheme kept me from remembering who was who.  There’s Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote, and Nineteen this and Nine that.  When the narration finally narrowed down to Eight Antidote, the heir apparent, and Mahit and Three Seagrass, I finally was able to follow what was going on.  Then the first contact plotline emerges and is really interesting.

I kind of remembered Mahit from the first book.  She was the main character.  But I read that book early last year and didn’t remember details.  Nor did I remember that she and Three Seagrass had a spark between them.  In this book, their relationship erupts into full intimacy, and I have to say, it was done really well.  Great character development and relationship building.  I did also like Eight Antidote.  As the heir apparent, he takes his job as the Emperor’s spy seriously, but also has his own sense of morality.  He develops a well-informed conscience and gets to act on it.

I’m glad I devoted a whole Saturday to finishing this book.  Reading only twenty pages a night for a week doesn’t lend itself to remembering a cast of characters with unmemorable names.  It also makes it hard to follow all the narratives that the book starts out with.  But reading in one sitting made it all come together for me.  I give this book four stars out of five.  Unfortunately, I don’t think a good book should have to be read in one sitting.  I like books that are a little less complicated.  That’s why I tend not to like space opera.  There are too many characters and situations to remember.  And if you only get to read twenty pages a night for a while, it makes the book that much less enjoyable.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Shadow Year

Jeffrey Ford
Completed 9/25/2022, Reviewed 9/25/2022
5 stars

This awesome book won the 2009 World Fantasy Award as well as the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award.  Like some of the WFA that I’ve read recently, it’s a novel with a little fantasy element to it, but just a little.  It’s mostly a fabulously written story about a boy and his family in the early sixties living in a Long Island town with turmoil within and without the family unit.  There’s mental illness and terrible crimes in this sleepy town.  The main character and his brother and sister feel it is up to them to solve the mystery.  Like the blurb on the back cover, the book is reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Body” (aka by the film’s title “Stand by Me”).  It is an excellent psychological drama that grabbed me in the morning and didn’t let go until I finished it late that night.

The main character is a sixth grader.  His brother Jim just started junior high and his younger sister Mary speaks in multiple voices, has a savant relationship with numbers, and seems to know what’s happening around town because of them.  Jim has built a replica of the town in this basement with clay figures representing the inhabitants.  He calls the replica Botch Town.  When Mary whispers numbers to herself, she moves the people pieces around Botch Town representing where they are or where they’re going to be.  At the beginning of the novel, there’s a peeping tom.  A little later, a boy from the main character’s class goes missing.  Later, an old man is found dead of a snapped neck in a snow drift.  The school janitor receives an anonymous letter telling him he’s in danger.  The main character and his brother try to solve the mystery of who these perpetrators are during the “Shadow Year”.

The writing of this book is marvelous.  It has an easy prose style that makes reading a joy and lets you read faster and faster until you get to the very end.  The setting is so well described that you really feel like you’re living in the sixties.  The only part that didn’t seem right was some of the details of the period, specifically, the music.  The story begins towards the end of one summer and continues through the end of the next.  That Thanksgiving, everyone is learning how do dance “The Twist” by Chubby Checker.  Later in that time period, “Time of the Seasons” by the Zombies is playing on the radio.  In reality, the songs were released several years apart.  If you could ignore this, though, the penny candy and references to “Leave it to Beaver” and President Johnson fill in the gap nicely.

The main character (M.C.) calls this time period the Shadow Year because so many terrible things happen.  At home, money has become an issue.  Father works several jobs.  Mother works and is a bipolar alcoholic. Every night, she chain smokes and drinks wine and cream sherry until she passes out on the couch.  The M.C. has trouble in school.  In fact all the children have trouble this year.  In town, there is the peeping tom.  Then the little boy goes missing. The M.C.’s only escapes are books and Jim and Mary.  

Mary is an interesting character.  She appears to be the problem child.  No one can figure out if she is smart or stupid.  While reading, you get the feeling she’s a savant with multiple personality disorder.  She plays school by herself, changing her voice for the teacher and the other students.  One of the students, Mickey, is a boy.  Sometimes, during stressful situations, Mickey comes out, like at Thanksgiving, or even at school where she is in a class for problem children. You never really know what Mary’s issue is, you just infer them from her behavior.

The fantasy element is very light.  There is a possibility that one of the characters is a ghost.  Also, the children believe that the murder suspect has “powers”.  Then there’s Mary who seems to know where to put the clay figures in Botch Town to represent where they really are, as if she has some psychic ability.  She claims to know where the missing’ boy’s body is located.  She seems to know where the murder suspect is going to appear next.  It’s as if her mental illness comes with a side benefit.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely engaged in this book, wrapped up in the characters and their search for the murderer.  I couldn’t put the book down.  Thanks goodness I was reading it on a Saturday and was able to finish it in one day.  I had empathy for the M.C. and his situation at school and in the family.  I was surprised to feel this way about the book because it read like regular fiction rather than genre fiction.  But it was so marvelously written and engaging that I found I loved it.  I was glad it pulled me in right at the beginning, unlike the author’s previous WFA winner, The Physiognomy, which took a long while to get into.  If another book of his popped up on my radar, I would definitely give it a whirl.