Monday, January 14, 2019

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

At first, it’s easy to discount Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s first science fiction novel. After all, best-known fantasy series (Shadows of the Apt) has a very singular theme that has made him well known: insects. And, to a certain regard, Children of Time, continues the motif.

Spiders… in… Space!!!

Well, not in space.  They’re on a terraformed planet,  the accidental consequence of a bioengineering project. The reader witnesses the evolution of the new sentient race. Their early days are as hunters, morphing over time to a space-age society.

The other half of the story focuses on the Gilgamesh; an ark ship carrying the last vestiges of the human race. Faster-than-light travel isn’t a part of this world, so the voyagers go into stasis. Members of Key Crew awaken every so often to make sure the ship is running smoothly. Of course, things go off the rails, and it’s the fault of the people. Per usual.

Tchaikovsky’s prior work has  been  as a fantasy writer. That serves him in good stead for this volume, particularly for the spiders’ culture.  Evolutionary biology goes into the background of the story. Bit it’s easy to see that the society he presents is the effort of a cracking good world-builder. I itched to skip over the human chapters, only to focus on the more creative work he did with the spiders. But doing that would have been detrimental to the strength of the story.

I’m giving that half too little credit. The Gilgamesh portions were as good. But in a different way. Thinking about how humanity will end is bittersweet. It’s tough to see the race hasn’t moved past its tribalism and obsession with mortality.

There’s a great phrase near the end of the story: “a tyranny of priorities.” The drama between the two groups is driven by their own survival needs and hampered by a lack of communication. The way that they realize that the tyranny can fall away is a bit of a slick trick that comes at the eleventh hour. It’s a good solution, but it feels like Tchaikovsky had a clever idea that he couldn’t quite follow through on.

My biggest gripe about the story is the main human character, Holsten. He’s an interesting academic, and provides a great viewpoint. But he lacks agency. He’s there as a reader’s avatar, and he doesn’t grow too much as a person. You could argue that his static nature is symbolic of humanity as presented. Which is a sad commentary, but important.

That  said, Children of Time is an excellent book with a lot of great, entertaining ideas. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Nahri is a young, street smart con artist living in Cairo. The Ottoman and French Empires are contesting the land, meaning that there are all sorts of marks for her fortune telling business. 

But Nahri has other skills, too. She has a knack for healing the sick. If she hears any language, she can understand and speak it. Her own native tongue, Divasti, is completely different from anything else others speak. 

While participating in a Zar exorcism ceremony, Nahri decides to use Divasti to add some exotic flair. Little does she know that it will get the attention of a daeva and a ifrit. Plunged into a world that she previously thought was myth, Nahri has to navigate her place in the new world. 

Overall, this was a fun book to read. I've had it near the top of my queue since April, but felt the time was right just a few weeks ago. I took it with me to a major convention, PAX Unplugged. I found the story engaging enough that I was stealing time before gaming sessions to enjoy it! It certainly made standing in the registration lines a lot more bearable. 

Nahri is a well-rounded character, as are the supporting cast. But the setting is definitely the highlight of the book. It's fun to read a story that takes its cues from Islamic culture. Chakraborty does a great job of making the world details come to life. Because the general public lacks a lot of knowledge, the book has to do a lot of world-building, so the pacing can be a bit slower at times. But for seasoned fantasy readers, that's not an impediment. Many would see it as a feature rather than a bug. For those looking for more consolidated detail, there is a glossary at the back of the book.

If I were to compare City of Brass to another book, the choice that comes to mind is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Nahri and Harry share some interesting parallels. They're both young, destitute people with special abilities. They're both orphans, and they both have an unlikely mentor (although Hagrid and Dara have very different personalities). The similarities are superficial, granted, but there's enough parallels that it really piqued my interest. 

Honestly, I think that's a sign that S.A. Chakraborty was trying to grow her writing chops. City of Brass is a debut novel, and a rather ambitious one at that. Plotting isn't an easy task to learn, so keeping the plot familiar acts as training wheels while the author is learning. If the plot were at the same level for further volumes, I'd grade harder.

As it is, though, City of Brass is an entertaining read with a vivid setting and solid plot. The characters are fairly likeable overall, with solid motivations and intentions. I'm really looking forward to the next book of the series, The Kingdom of Copper. That'll be released next January.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The SpaceTime Reading Challenge

As I looked over the review selections I made so far, I noticed something. It's been heavily skewed towards fantasy. Nothing wrong with that; I enjoy fantasy novels quite a bit. But I also really enjoy science fiction. 

So I decided to even out the scales a bit. So I found an online challenge specifically devoted to science fiction: the SpaceTime Reading Challenge! It was nice to find a challenge that was specifically focused on science fiction.

The challenge runs from 1 January to 31 December, 2019. Currently, there are four different participation levels.
  • 5 books: Planet hopper
  • 10 books: Interstellar explorer
  • 20 books: Galactic navigator
  • 40 books: To Infinity and Beyond
I've settled on the Galactic Navigator level. I want to leave some open room in my schedule for other books, and perhaps another challenge. I had a lot of success with the 2018 r/Fantasy Book Bingo challenge, and I may want to do that again.

Here's my potential SpaceTime list:
  1. Grass by Sherri Tepper
  2. The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt
  3. Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken
  4. The Poison Master by Liz Williams
  5. Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin
  6. Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Nova by Samuel R. Delaney
  8. A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
  9. The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson
  10. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  11. A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder
  12. Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
  13. Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
  14. Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter
  15. Tekwar by William Shatner
  16. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi 
  17. The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason
  18. Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
  19. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  20. Mistworld by Simon R. Green
This may change over time. I don't typically think about what I want to read until I'm done with one book. So I may find myself mixing up the list a bit. Also, I probably won't go in the numerical order listed, for similar reasons.

As I finish and review each book,  I'll add a link to the title.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

The world has been decimated by the Vanishers -- a race of aliens who came and exploited the world and then disappeared.

Now, humanity lives in the vestiges of a world created in their image. Life isn't easy. Due to the power vacuum the Vanishers left behind, society has fractured down into small villages. Unknown, new diseases ravage the population.

Fortunately, there is one individual who is helping humanity. The Vanishers left one of their servants behind: the dragon Vu Côn. She walks the earth, trying to make things better for those left behind. Normally, if she helps heal someone, she takes them as her own. Instead of complying to this practice, Yên's village makes a switch. They trade Yên, a failed scholar, instead.

Fortunately, Vu Côn has need of a scholar. She has two children at home in the Vanishers' palace. A scholar is exactly what she needs. So Yên goes to live in the Vanishers' Palace.

On her blog, de Bodard described this book as a story she wrote for herself. She had decided to write a f/f re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, with a mythical Vietnamese setting. It really works perfectly, for several different reasons. First, you can tell that the story is a labor of love. From the subject matter to her decision to self-publish, de Bodard made choices that allowed the story to be what she wanted it to be.

I really admire that decision. We got a lovely little work that feels familiar and fresh at the same time. Also, I think it does a great job of being daring. If de Bodard had focused on writing a book that would have been friendly to publishers, the work would not have been so strong to it's vision.
As I was reading, I kept confronting a singular question. What does the word "vertiginous" mean? It was used at least six different times to describe the palace. Normally, I can understand an unfamiliar word from the story's context, but this time I was puzzled.

At first I thought it was talking about a deep, watery green. Which shows a bit of personal prejudice. I tend to associate Asian dragons with water, Probably because of sources like Chinese dragon mythology. Miyazaki's river dragon, Haku, from Spirited Away also influences my perspective.

The word actually has a more apt meaning. According to Merriam Webster, it's characterized by vertigo or dizziness. It can also mean inclined to frequent, pointless change. 

This definition makes a lot of sense with the description of the Vanishers: an alien race who was  fearsome and unfathomable. It was a nice twist on expectations. I was expecting a fantasy based in mythology, but the Vanishers are more akin to the pantheon of the Cthulhu Mythos. 

Vu Côn, as the Beast analog, was a particularly fascinating character. She was a servant of the Vanishers that got left behind. She feels obligated to the destroyed world that her overlords left behind. Instead of being a Beast trapped by a curse, Vu Côn is motivated by a sense of responsibility. She is seen as a Beast because her motivations aren't clearly understood. 
 
Her lot is particularly poignant when you think about the way people treat her. Afraid of the dragon, they don't treat her like a person. They see her as someone to be feared. Vu Côn doesn't want to be ostracized in this way, but she accepts it as a form of personal atonement for the deeds she did. 
 
In a similar way, Yên is an outsider. She is interested in academics, but isn't good enough to go to the academy. She can't find her purpose in the village, but feels tied there by familial obligation. It is only with another outsider that she can accept who she is and find fulfillment. 
 
In the Vanisher's Palace isn't a long read, but it is well done. If you're looking for a different take on fairy tales, or for a lesbian love story with a great setting, I highly recommend it.

NOTE: I purchased this novel via pre-order. But I also received a copy of it through NetGalley.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

At the Table of Wolves by Kay Kenyon

In 1936, Germany's invasive streak is starting to become more noticeable. Weeks earlier, Rhineland was taken. While most of Europe is questioning what to do, England hasn't officially taken a position. But, of course, their espionage teams have begun monitoring for a Jerry invasion. 

Since the end of World War I, a new resource is available: Talents. It's not entirely clear why, but supernatural abilities have begun to bloom, sometimes in the most unexpected people.

Kim Tavistock is one of those people. A British/American dual citizen, she has returned to her father's homeland.  Her career as an investigative reporter in America has collapsed, and she's looking for a way to put her skills to use. Her Talent is spill; people share private, personal information with her. Just the perfect ability for a spy to have.

This book has a great story, but it's far less action-packed than what I expected. I think that was due to the cover. It's got an imposing, tense air. Those planes flying across bring up mental images of the bombing of London. The portrait of Kim is reminiscent of Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter. The promo copy on Simon and Schuster's website actually name checks Agent Carter along with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I was expecting more behind-the-lines burglary and espionage flavored by superpowers.

Instead, the book has a high amount of social interaction, making the le Carré comparison more apt. Many of the important scenes are set in high society countryside weekends and fancy luncheons. The crux of information gathering in the story is gossip. Due to her Talent, Kim excels at this. Kenyon makes a fascinating choice, though, by making Kim uncomfortable with her ability.  She has no issues with her former role as an investigative reporter; but she wants people to like her for who she is. Kim doesn't want to betray people's trust, even unintentionally.

A major theme of the book is the dangers of a spy's life. By dint of the craft, one can't share information with those close. Kim isn't the only one who faces this issue. Her father, Julian, is a spy as well. Unlike Kim, Julian is working for H.R.M.'s government. The conflict between these two spies is at the crux of the story. They've been estranged for years. Now, both want to develop a closer relationship with each other. However, they each feel their secrets are too insurmountable. Kenyon is familiar with the theme of daughter/father conflict. It's a huge driver in her epic science fantasy series, The Entire and the Rose. It's not surprising to see her return to it in The Dark Talents.

One thing I particularly appreciated about At the Table of Wolves was the examination of modern events of the time. It's easy to look back at WWII and draw clear, black-and-white ideological lines. Kenyon captures the confusion of the time, though. A lot of people around the world thought that Hitler wasn't so bad. Even King Edward VIII (who reigned from January to December 1936) had pro-Nazi tendencies. After his abdication, Edward and his wife actually visited Hitler in Germany, and there were numerous rumors. Early in the book Kim mistakenly believes that her father is actually a supporter of Hitler, describing him as "something of a Nazi."

While the book is largely well done, there are a few flies in the ointment. The largest is the written use of accents in the story. The Tavistocks, being landed gentry, have servants. Their accents are thick and hard to read. It comes down to personal taste, but I have a hard time reading accents as they're written. It looks awful on the page. Also, it immediately hearkens back to the first time I saw it done -- the moles of Redwall. If it didn't make me think immediately of a children's book, I may be more lenient.

Overall, though, the story is breezily written, and is easy to follow. As mentioned before, the intrigue is a bit low-key compared to expectations, but it's very well paced and enjoyable.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death is the story of a young woman named Onyesonwu.  It takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Sudan. Magic is real, and  coexists with legacy technology.

Onyesonwu is a child of interracial rape, an Ewu.  As a result of this heritage, her skin is the color of sand and she  immediately stands out in her culture. Her name translates as "who  fears death?"

The story is a rather character-driven  journey. The stakes are incredibly personal. Onyesonwu's mother's people  are the Okeke. The Nuru, her father's people, are invaders who have  subjugated many Okeke villages.

Okorafor pointed to this article on the Darfur crisis as inspiration. Onyesonwu's father, Daib, is a particularly nasty character. He acts as the book's main villain. For much of the story, she tries to reject that he is her father.

A large part of the story deals  with confronting her place in society and what it means to be Ewu. As she grows older, Onyesonwu  sees herself as a burden on her mother and stepfather. It's a struggle  that she pushes against throughout the entire story.

She  tries to follow her village's customs, even those her parents  disapprove of.  As an attempt to  increase her social standing within their community, . This creates a  temporary rift between her and her parents. But it provides a strong  bond with the others undergoing the ritual -- an important element to the story.

I liked this book quite a bit. I'm particularly biased towards first-person novels. In that regard, Who Fears Death  was already staged to meet my taste. Much of the book is in the first  person, from Onyesonwu's perspective. I loved getting into Onyesonwu's  views of the world. It was immediate, tense, and immersive.

It  is revealed that Onyesonwu is telling the story to a transcriber. so it becomes questionable how accurate the narration is. Which is great, because I like unreliable narrators, too. It  also changed the genre of the story from memoir to possible gospel.

The  ending left me feeling like Onyesonwu left an indelible change on her  world. She could be a possible messiah figure. It ended with enough ambiguity to  let the readers draw their own conclusion. But I would love to see how  Onyesonwu affected the two cultures presented in the future.

This  was Nnedi Okorafor's first novel for adults. She had written several  young adult novels before this one. She does a great job with the tone  of the book. I loved how it sucked me in with the beauty of the prose.  The chapter length is very well done. They read almost as well crystallized short stories.

While  this book was amazing, I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. The content  could definitely make some squeamish. I felt uncomfortable during certain portions. Particularly because I was reading out in public.

I realize that caveat is a large one for many people. But it is a good story that shines a light on feeling like an uncomfortable  in society.  Now more than ever, that's an important factor to think  about. If you are all right with the uncomfortable aspects  of the story, I highly recommend Who Fears Death.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner


Swordspoint, published in 1986, bills itself as a "melodrama of manners." According to a little internet research, it's a foremost work in the mannerpunk subgenre. Mannerpunk hails back to the regency era, and focuses on social niceties in a fantasy world.

Think The Importance of Being Earnest, but there could be dragons and wizards.

Swordspoint is set in the fictional town of Riverside. The city used to be a monarchy, but now a council of nobles preside. The river bisects the town. The upper crust is on one side, the commoners on the other.

A major factor in the politics of the city is the duelists. Mercenary fencers take commissions from nobility. Sometimes, these are for general non-lethal performances. Weddings, parties, the like. Other jobs are law sanctioned contracted hits. The nobility use the duelists to fight a highly codified proxy war among themselves.

I enjoyed the relationship at the center of the story. Richard is a duelist in high demand, and Alec is a scholar from a noble past. They're are interesting characters with a lot of life. You can tell that Ellen Kushner worked hard to develop their romance in a real, relatable way.

The book's title comes from the following epigram: "Every man lives at swordspoint." This means that every one has something in their life that makes them susceptible. It's a great foreshadowing. One particularly odious nobleman tries to use Alec as leverage over Richard. The swordsman complies, and then wreaks a particularly nasty revenge.

While there was a great deal to enjoy in the story, I did find it a rather mixed bag.

Pacing was a bit of an issue. I had a hard time paying attention to the parties and the social fetes of the upper class. While they expanded the world of Riverside, it wasn't easy to like any of the members of nobility. They were rather flat -- as if they were scenery pieces rather than real people. I would have enjoyed it more if there weren't such a wide array of parties and fetes. Less superfluous exploration of the higher class would have tightened up the story.

I listened to this as an audio book. The author narrated it, with help from various actors. There were also sound effects and musical clips. It won an Audie Award in 2013, so I had high hopes for the quality of the production.

Unfortunately, I found it fell short. The sound effects and music were more-or-less random in execution. Only some of the characters had different voice actors. Also, some of the lines awkwardly shift from the narrator to the actors mid-break.

I would have enjoyed the book more without the "enhancements." If they created a full audio-drama, that'd be wonderful. It's one of my favorite mediums. But this amalgam of book and audio drama didn't work. It was an exercise in exasperation.

Ellen Kushner did a fine job narrating the story. If the production had maintained that, it would have been a far more entertaining work. The extra fluff only made it harder to listen to.

Final word, Swordspoint is a very serviceable work that could have been even better.