Friday, June 22, 2012

Summer Reads: A Few Random Book Reviews

Summer reading evokes images of beach chairs or hammocks, lazing around with undemanding stories. While I indulge in my share, I also think it's good to give my brain at least a little exercise, too. Summer's a good time to catch up on books I've been hearing about, and to try something new. So here's a potpourri of what I've been enjoying.

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Despite all the fuss over this debut fantasy novel, it took me a while to pick it up. I'm not sure what I can usefully add to what has already been said, except to say that the praise is richly deserved. There's a bit of a bobble at the very opening, for me, at least, but that is undoubtedly a matter of taste and it doesn't last long. Very cool stuff about a castle that's a whole city, byzantine schemes and some very unpleasant, ruthless people, a few enslaved and therefore resentful gods, a heroine on the track of her mother's killer, and occasional moments of stunning compassion. Very shortly, I was immersed and am now looking forward to reading more by Jemisin.

Connie Willis. Blackout/All Clear. Time-traveling historians visit the London Blitz, get trapped  there, try to find a way home without changing history and thereby creating a future in which their world (and their time machine) does not exist. All done up in inimitable Connie Willis style. This two-part novel is (fortunately or unfortunately, according to your taste) downright chatty, with lots of conversations in which characters alternate between discussing the minutia of surviving in a dangerous historical period and trying to figure out either how to get home, why their failsafe return strategies aren't working, and whether they are inadvertently changing history. If you like dialog, you'll relish them, but if you find this sort of detail tedious, the story will be slow going. Crucial details are planted in the midst, and if your eyes are glazing over, you'll miss them. Another objection I've heard, although it wasn't an issue for me, was the
romanticizing of a very grim, difficult period, sort of "Blitz as tourist attraction." Especially when coming from Brits whose families lived through that terrible time, this is a valid concern. As a writer, I understand the challenge of how to use historical events (that have their own cultural context and recent memory) as a jumping-off point for a speculative tale while remaining respectful of what those events meant to the people who actually experienced them. For me, the "alternate history" flavor to this story made it seem as if I were reading not about the actual historical events but about a time and place as seen through the eyes of retroactive (and unreliable) visitors. Even so, it's important to keep in mind that just because Willis depicts events vividly does not mean they are historically accurate. This is, after all, speculative fiction, not serious scholarship.

Marissa Meyer. Cinder. Retellings of classic fairy tales are hot stuff these days. This one (whose title leaves no doubt as to which story it is) is a particular delight because not only is Cinder a cyborg (a secret she's at pains to disguise because of rampant anti-cyborg prejudice) but she's a computer mechanic. Smart, capable, and not at all interested in the attentions of Prince Charming. She has better things to do with her life than attend a ball -- like plan her own escape from servitude. One of the twists that most delighted me was the affection and loyalty between Cinder and one of her stepsisters, her only human friend.

Trey Shiels (Linda Nagata), The Dread Hammer. I discovered Linda Nagata as a science fiction writer, inventive and thoughtful. Her fantasy is no different.
This is not a story to be read superficially, for my first impression was a series of unsympathetic characters who deserved whatever is coming to them. The protagonist is a young man with the magical ability to move invisibly from one place to another and a penchant for slaughter; emotionally, he's an infant, as apt as not to casually eliminate anyone who might pose a problem in the future. But Nagata is too skilled and subtle a storyteller to resort to stereotypes. Nothing is as it seems and how we view characters -- and their own capacity for self-knowledge and change -- evolves along with the story line. Who is the monster here? Who is the hero? Can love and loyalty change people? Or is it the other way around, that people warp the meaning and uses of devotion and honor? There are no simple answers here, only a story that is deeply respectful of the reader's ability to draw his own conclusions.

Franny Billingsley, Chime. In some ways, this YA Norton Award Finalist reminded me of one of my favorite books, Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones. Part of the resemblance is the way magic is woven into a Victorianeque sort-of-steampunk setting, but part is the interplay between how the young, unreliable narrator sees herself (in this case, she must keep secret that she's a witch and her anger can harm the people she loves) and how others see her -- how I as the reader come to see her.

The teen years are fraught with self-uncertainty, at least mine were. We're trying to figure out who we are, what we're like, what we have control over. We tell ourselves and others stories about ourselves, and not all of them are true. What are the consequences of lies we know we're telling? What about those lies other people have told about us that we actually believe? Briony, the narrator of Chime, has more than her share of secrets. She also has a keen intellect, an unquenchable sense of humor, and a willingness to sacrifice herself for those she loves that connects with not just teen readers but those of all ages.

Many books contain a scene that in itself is "worth the price of admission." Chime contains an encounter with flying witches on the wild swamplands. When the witches take to the air, their lack of undergarments is made quite clear as they waggle their naked backsides at the astonished hunters (who then have the wisdom to not mention this aspect in their report).

Marianne de Pierres, Glitter Rose. I found this little collection of short stories in my goodie bag at the last World Fantasy Convention. Otherwise, I might never have known about it, as it's from a small print run by an Australian publisher (Twelfth Planet Press). These are exquisite stories, understated in the best sense of the word, with weirdness and mystery (and a little drama here and there) woven into them. Most of them follow the narrator as she arrives on a tropical island, seeking solace for a deep wound that she can't even bear to describe. The island, however, is subject to waves of wind-borne spores that generate "exotic, often terminal afflictions" for anyone who cannot afford the expensive antidote. As Tinashi settles into her self-imposed exile, she develops relationships with the island's inhabitants, layer by layer exposing their secrets, her own, and those of the tidal spores.

With the last of the sunset...strange phosphorescence claimed the sand, colorless at first and rapidly changing to a carpet of tiny, shining, rose-coloured grains. Something about them compelled me to hasten to the beach and run them through my fingers and toes.

I must have stirred, because Geronimo and Arthur Wang each laid a hand on my arm.

"The spores are active," Arthur Wang explained. "Walking on the beach during glitter rose can be..." he trailed off.

Geronimo took it up, his voice a quiet boom. "What the Prof. Is saying, Tinashi, is -- if you walk on the beach at glitter rose, you might has well feed your Tyline to the fish. And you don't know what the spores will do. How they will change you. Everyone is different. The locals, I mean. Some things you can see, like the eyes and the water retention in the forehead. Others it's only on the inside. They're the ones to watch. You never know about them. By heaven, it's tempting though." His voice brimmed with emotion in that last sentence, like a man on the limit of endurance.

I glanced among them then, and saw the feeling mirrored in their faces. Longing. And fear.

I gulped my pink champagne deeply and felt the tingle waken dead places in me.

Holly Black, The Poison Eaters and other stories. I'm all over the place with Holly Black novels; loved Tithe, hated The White Cat. I approached this collection with a bit of trepidation, but found the stories to be well-written, quirky, sometimes a tad gruesome or sad or pessimistic, but always engaging. I think the key word is consistent, and it was quite wonderful to see how an author maintains literary quality and sensibilities, a moral compass as it were, regardless of genre or plot or character specifics. I think that's the mark of a professional who takes her craft seriously, and is well worth paying attention to.

Daniel O'Malley, The Rook. This is subtitled, On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service, and it's part amnesiac-female-James Bond With Cthulhu, part mystery, and part Secret Alchemical Societies At War. Myfanwy Thomas, a highly-placed member of HMSSS, wakes up with a badly bruised face, a circle of dead bodies, and no memory of who she is or what
happened. Being the insanely organized person she was, she's written a series of letters to herself, explaining what she does for this secret agency and how she came to believe that her memory would be wiped clean on this particular date. Then it's up to "new" Myfanwy to not only discover the traitor in the agency, but to keep up the pretense of being who she is. Unfortunately the "old" Myfanwy was quite a timid doormat, and the "new" version stands up for herself, making for some interesting situations. This also got me to wondering about the reasons amnesiac characters work (or don't work). At their best, they evoke resonances of our own experiences trying to figure out who we are and how we got here. (At worst, of course, the amnesiac hero/ine represents the blankness of the author's imagination...) The Rook is engaging and great fun, if a little heavy on the bodily fluids in places.

The painting at the top of the blog is "Reading By The Shore," by Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914), public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Forgot to add: The Dread Hammer is available as an ebook from Book View Cafe here: