Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Book of Lamps and Banners

Elizabeth Hand
Completed 10/28/2023, Reviewed 10/29/2023
4 stars

Elizabeth Hand is always a good read.  This one surprised me in that there is very little fantasy or sci fi in it.  But the premise is that there’s a book with fantastical powers that has been found and subsequently stolen.  A common premise, but Hand couches it within a mystery thriller with a drug-addled female anti-hero.  The result is a taut mystery that takes you from the crowded streets of London amidst neo-Nazi nationalists to the desolation of a Swedish island on the Baltic Sea.  This book is the 4th in a series featuring the protagonist, which I didn’t know when I got the book, but it reads very well as a standalone.  I slipped into the story and was immediately hooked on this mess of a middle aged woman searching for something that will provide her with a windfall to make her life easier.

The book begins with Cass trying to figure out what happened to her old boyfriend.  In the meantime, she runs into Gryffin, an old flame from her bookstore days.  He’s a dealer in antiquarian books now and has come across an amazing find.  The Book of Lamps and Banners was only ever rumored to exist.  It was written by multiple people over the centuries, perhaps even by Aristotle.  Filled with drawings as often seen in ancient books, it may also be the ultimate code.  Gryffin has sold the book to a woman who is writing software that would help people with PTSD and other traumatic events heal from it.  She purports that the book is the final piece of code she needs for her software.  Suddenly everyone around them begins being murdered in a mysterious way and the book is stolen.  Cass thinks if she could recover the book, she could sell it and make a fortune that would let her retire in Greece.  But actually doing that is a dangerous path.

Hand does a tremendous job with character development.  I felt like I was completely in the Cass’ head, right there with her as she snorts crank and drinks anything alcoholic she can get her hands on.  When she finally does meet up with her old boyfriend, she drags him into her chaotic life and quest.  If anything, I questioned myself on why I was so drawn to her.  It’s like watching a train wreck.  She somehow balances on the verge of OD, and her obsession with the book is ridiculous.  However, I was in it hook, line, and sinker.

The setting is also pretty amazing, between London and the remote Swedish island.  The world is on the verge of the COVID pandemic.  Nazi nationalists are on the move, and the Book of Lamps and Banners ties into their occult obsession.  When we move to the desolation of the island, that’s even more exciting than the bustle of London.  The writing is awesome, with the perfect balance between prosy descriptions and smart dialogue.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a terse thriller, and a great read in a genre I usually don’t get into much.  I think Hand is underrated as a fantasist although she’s won multiple awards for her shorter works.  I’ll be reading one more book by her before the year is out, a sci fi piece, which I’m really looking forward to.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Time Enough for Love

Robert A Heinlein
Completed 10/21/2023, Reviewed 10/21/2023
3 stars

This book is extremely well written.  Despite my taking nearly two weeks to finish this longest of Heinlein’s works, I felt like I sped through it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy what I read.  I found the constant proselytizing about the benefits of polyamory, free love, and community childrearing to be tedious after a while.  The science fiction in the story was an aside.  In fact, there was very little science fiction in the book at all.  Sure it had computers, time travel, space ships, and DNA manipulation, but it was all just a platform for Heinlein to preach his sexual utopian ideas.  

Lazarus Long is a man who is at least 2000 years old.  He is the patriarch of a huge family which keeps records of him and his descendants.  When he is pulled by one of his descendants from a brothel where he’s contemplating finally dying, he’s rejuvenated and given the will to continue living.  During that time, he tells stories of his past to help fill in his historical gaps.  Then he goes back in time to see his family when he was a child, but instead of going back after the end of WWI, he goes back at the beginning, and gets involved with the war as well as his family, and most disturbingly, his mother.

I have to say that the characterization is quite excellent.  I had pictures in my head of almost all the characters, between their looks and their dispositions.  I was quite amazed that I kind of liked Lazarus and the members of his commune.  I used to think Heinlein was misogynistic.  After reading this, I believe he wasn’t.  He believes women are made to be fully realized humans.  He just happens to be obsessed with having as much sex with them as he can, as Lazarus did.  And Lazarus finds all the women who want to have sex with him, so it’s a win-win situation.

There were some things that made me cringe a bit.  The most glaring one is that there are a fair number of jokes about rape that wouldn’t made it past an editor or publisher of a book written today.  On the other hand, there were some surprises as well.  Galahad meets Ishtar for the first time after deciding they were going to have sex.  When she takes off her helmet he says, “Oh, you’re a woman.”  Ishtar replies, “Does that matter?”  Galahad says, “I guess not.”  I thought that was a decent nod to sexual fluidity, more than I would have expected from Heinlein and the early 1970s.

The part of the book I liked the best was where he goes homesteading on a planet with his new wife Dora.  They have lots of children together and create a sexual utopia.  However, this really reminded me of the quote I once heard which irked me at the time but felt relevant here.  If you take the science fiction out of a story and you still have a story, it’s not science fiction.  While I still don’t buy it completely, I did feel like this book wasn’t really science fiction.  It was merely the background in which Heinlein gets to espouse his utopian fantasies.

I gave this book three stars out of five because I thought it was really well written.  The characters were great, even though Lazarus Long is clearly Heinlein.  However, I didn’t really enjoy it.  There wasn’t much of a plot and I felt like I was getting hit over the head with the sex, even more so than some sci fi and fantasy erotica I’ve read.  I think I’d rather read about sex than the philosophy of sex. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

An Apprentice to Elves

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 10/8/2023, Reviewed 10/8/2023
3 stars

Finally got to the conclusion of the Iskryne trilogy.  It was okay.  I thought it better than the middle book, A Tempering of Men.  But what I realized with this volume is that I felt that the prose was generally uninteresting.  And by prose, I mean the descriptive parts of the book.  Usually, the descriptions of the characters and the world fill out the missing parts and make world and the characters come alive as much as the dialogue.  In general, though, I simply wasn’t interested in how the authors were describing anything.  I just wanted the plotlines to keep moving.  I think all three books suffered from this, but it was most evident in this volume because I actually liked the plot and wanted to see what happened next.

The main plot concerns Alfgyfa, the daughter of Isolfr from the first book.  Being a woman, she can’t bond with the wolves.  So Isolfr sends her to the Elves to apprentice as a blacksmith rather than having her become a housewife-ish person.  The book picks up where she goes to the Elves and of course, being human, gets into a lot of trouble.  She excels at smithing, but her ideas and actions don’t mesh with the behavior of the underground society of Elves.  So Tin, her mastersmith, takes her back to her father, where the Northmen are trying to figure out how to deal with the Rhean invaders.  Alfgyfa becomes somewhat of an ambassador to the Elves.  There are two factions of Elves, the ones who metalsmiths and the stonesmiths.  The two had a schism millennia ago, but now both are needed to help fend off the Rheans.  Alfgyfa has a relationship with both and tries to help reconcile the division before the Northmen go to war.

Alfgyfa was generally a likeable character.  I enjoyed her feistiness.  Tin was also interesting, and in general, the smiths were interesting in that they were female Elves.  So if you find the wolf-bonding of the human men a bit misogynistic, you get a reprieve in the women doing traditional masculine work.  It made for interesting relationships, particularly between Alfgyfa and other apprentices.  I also liked  Otter, the woman slave of the Rheans who is rescued by a Northman and taken in as his daughter.  Her perspective is interesting as an outsider looking into this wolf-centric society.  

I thought this book was better than Tempering in that the characters who were featured were much more definable.  There were still too many men and their names, their wolves’ names, and other pseudo-Nordic names still ran together.  But the introduction of Elven names as well as the Rhean pseudo-Roman names helped keep from drowning in the similar sounds.  And the major points of view were from the women:  Alfgyfa, Tin, and Otter.  

All in all, I thought this wasn’t a bad book, and it ended the trilogy pretty well.  In general though, I don’t think this is that good of a series.  Despite giving A Companion to Wolves four stars, I’d give the trilogy as a whole only three stars.  Once past the novelty of the human/wolf relationships wears off, it’s just another fantasy, with not much that’s really special. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Oath of Gold

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 10/3/2023, Reviewed 10/3/2023
5 stars

This book is the best out of the three in The Deed of Paksenarrion series.  I loved the first two, but this one is full of character development and magic all wrapped up in an exciting conclusion.  The book starts with Paks at her lowest point and builds her way back to being a king maker.  It’s like Moon saved up all her best ideas for this book.  The series reminded me of Lord of the Rings in its imagination and execution.  It’s like Moon took LOTR, deconstructed it, and from the remains constructed something original told from a female perspective.  This series is that tremendous.

This book begins with Paks wandering the countryside begging for work and food.  She makes her way back to Master Oakhollow, guardian of the trees, who is able to heal her from the torture by the evil forces of the spider demon.  She then joins a group of ranger elves where she builds back her skill and confidence as a warrior.  She also finally accepts that she is meant to be a paladin, acknowledging all her magical gifts, including the ability to heal.  Finally, as a paladin of Gird the saint, she begins to get messages from the gods which eventually put her on a quest to find and restore the lost heir to a nearby kingdom to his rightful throne.

Reading this book was like a homecoming, even though I had just read the first two in the last two months.  When I opened this book, I realized just how much I loved the character of Paks.  Reading how she traveled the land trying to survive to making her way back to Master Oakhollow’s grove and finding healing there was so moving for me.  This followed by the journey of accepting her paladin gift simply stole my heart.  There were a few things in this book that I could see coming from a mile away, like who the missing king was.  But the journey to that moment was exhilarating.  

This is going to be a rather short blog entry, as I already feel like I’ve given away too much.  Suffice it to say, I loved this book.  Five starts out of five.  It is one of the best high fantasy trilogies I’ve read in a long time.  The prose is wonderful as is the world building.  Paks growth from being a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter to warrior to spiritual pilgrim in Divided Allegiance to paladin in this book is marvelous.  I also felt that many of her other characters were pretty well developed as well, with only a few one-dimensional baddies.  

(You should be aware of the trigger warning:  this book has some graphic torture and allusions to rape.  It is hard to read.)

This series deserves to be named among the best fantasy series ever.  I think Moon is quite the master story teller.  I think she really needs to be made a Grand Master.  These books plus Speed of Dark and Remnant Population are among the best I’ve ever read.  I think Moon is up there in my top five favorite authors now.