Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Book Review (page 2 of 4)

Double Book Review: A Song for Arbonne and Hounded

Phew, it’s been a busy month (ok, still busy. This post is brought to you by insomnia!). But I did manage to finish two novels: one I had been working on for a while, and one that was just a quick read.

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A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay is the one I was working on for a while. I started listening to the audiobook over the summer, but then someone else at the library put a hold on it so I couldn’t renew it for a while. I’ve had mixed success with Kay’s books in the past. Most of his more recent books are “alternate world historical fantasy”: they are minimal or non-magic settings modeled after actual historical settings, but in a made-up world which give a little more leeway than true historical fiction. This is actually the sort of style I have gravitated to in some of my own writing, and Kay is one of the only authors who writes in this style regularly. However, Kay’s earlier books (The Fioinavar Tapestry series) are more traditional fantasy worlds borrowing heavily from Narnia and Middle Earth. I really did not like his first book like this, The Summer Tree.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Song for Arbonne. It turned out to be a sort of middle ground. It is set in a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, specifically drawing on Provence. It has some magic, but not a lot. The kingdom of Arbonne is the main setting, and it’s an interesting take on traditional High Fantasy. There are tournaments and sword fighting and everything, but Arbonne is a matriarchal kingdom that highly values music, and troubadors and singers and the like are held in very high esteem. The story focuses on Blaise, a knight from the hyper-masculine and militaristic neighboring kingdom of Gorhaut, who has left his home and is serving as a sword for hire. Unlike a lot of fantasy, A Song for Arbonne is much more focused on courtly intrigue than violence, though it has its fair share. Much of the book involves barbed exchanges between various nobility vying for power rather than open combat.

A Song for Arbonne is a slow burn: it takes patience as Kay builds up the intricate and complicated relationships between the various characters and nations, but I really enjoyed it. It’s sort of like a less gritty Game of Thrones, somehow finding the sweet spot and managing to depict a lovely and idyllic medieval kingdom while still having lots of interesting intrigue and enough danger to make for a good story. It also has the notable distinction of being a stand-alone fantasy novel, which is almost unheard of.

Also, I would highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is excellent, and given that Arbonne is so centered on musicians and troubadors, there are lots of songs in the book. The reader for the audiobook is also a really fantastic singer, and I found myself looking forward to the little bits of song scattered throughout to book just to hear him sing. The wuality of the narrator can make a big difference with audiobooks, and Song for Arbonne has a good one.

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The other novel that I recently finished was Hounded by Kevin Hearne. I picked this up because I follow the author on Twitter and he seems like a funny and cool guy, and because it’s an urban fantasy set in Phoenix, which is kind of a neat change. Unfortunately, I did not like it very much: it’s just not my kind of book.

The premise is that Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2100 year-old druid who has settled down in Tempe to avoid his nemesis Aengus Og, one of the pantheon of celtic gods. But, as we learn from a succession of sexy goddesses, the bad guys (Aengus Og, some disposable mythological henchmen, and a coven of gorgeous witches) have finally found Atticus and he is forced to confront them with the help of his friends, the local werewolf pack, a vampire, and the sexy barmaid from the local Irish pub (who also happens to be possessed by a powerful witch from India).

In case you couldn’t tell, it’s a pretty silly book. Which is fine, humorous novels can be good, but my problem with Hounded is that it’s also incredibly shallow. There’s nothing there under the surface. The writing feels padded and vacuous: an interesting turn of phrase is never used when the most obvious one could be used instead. The worldbuilding is nonexistent, just a mashup of mythologies. It’s also a blatant male wish fulfillment fantasy (what guy wouldn’t want to be a sexy immortal spell-wielding druid who has a talking dog and gets to sleep and/or flirt with a succession of beautiful and sometimes dangerous women and goddesses while handily dispatching your enemies with a magic sword that can cut through anything?) and not much else. A 2100 year-old druid who has witnessed all that history could be a fascinating character. What sort of wisdom would living that long bring? He’s traveled the world, witnessed the rise and fall of empires and cultures, fought in countless wars. He has also outlived every mortal friend he has known. And yet, there’s no depth to his character: he mostly just makes wisecracks and sleeps with goddesses. I’m not saying he’s not allowed to have a sense of humor, but I guess I would have also liked a little more pathos/gravitas with someone who has lived so long and seen so much.

The other problem is that there are basically no stakes. Atticus already has magic that makes him immortal in terms of dying of natural causes, and early on in the book he makes a deal with the celtic goddess of death so that he won’t die even if mortally wounded. So who cares if monsters attack him? He can’t be killed, and he can heal himself almost immediately as long as he can draw energy from the earth. His sword can cut through anything, and he has a variety of spells they he can cast, along with a bunch of very powerful friends. With almost zero risk and almost unlimited power, action scenes become pretty boring.

And finally (some spoilers below), there is a scene about halfway through the novel that involved a police officer, possessed by Aengus Og, shooting Atticus and in turn being gunned down by his fellow officers for shooting an unarmed (white) man. The author could not have forseen how poorly this scene would hold up over time, but given the countless police shootings of unarmed black men in the news lately, reading about how these cops immediately shot one of their own because he shot a civilian (so unthinkable!) was… awkward. (This also reminds me: the book is full of scenes of blatant magic use in the presence of normal people, and they invariably don’t care at all. At one point Atticus decapitates one of Aengus Og’s henchmen in the front lawn of a friendly old Irish lady, and she is briefly horrified until he explains that the bad guy was British, at which point she basically shrugs and says “ok, good job then”.)

Anyway, plenty of people seem to like Hounded and the other books in this series, but it was decidedly not for me. It was like the book equivalent of a brainless summer blockbuster. Entertaining, but mostly an exercise in wish fulfillment with lots of exciting action but no substance. Like cotton candy, it tastes good, but you quickly realize there’s nothing actually there.

Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:

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Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!

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Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

Book Review: House of Leaves

I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say about this book since I finished it yesterday afternoon. It defies a simple summary but I will try. I think a disjointed list of adjectives is a good place to start. House of Leaves is, at times:

  • Beautiful
  • Boring
  • Fascinating
  • Annoying
  • Weird
  • Pretentious
  • Experimental
  • Tedious
  • Creepy
  • Detailed
  • Impressive

For the uninitiated, House of Leaves is a novel that experiments wildly with the form, pushing the boundaries of what can even be considered a novel. The book consists of a core document, which is a dry academic literary analysis of a documentary called the Navidson Record, written by an old man named Zampano, and discovered and assembled into a single document after his death by a young man named Johnny Truant. The Navidson Record is a documentary (which may or may not actually exist) about a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and his family, who move into an old house and discover that a closet door in the hallway opens up into an infinite, constantly changing, maddening labyrinth. In the footnotes of the main document, Johnny Truant writes his own story in long, rambling, increasingly insane passages, as he becomes more and more obsessed with House of Leaves and the impossible house described in the Navidson Record. In secondary footnotes to Johnny’s footnotes, his backstory is told obliquely in a series of letters written by his mother while she was in a mental institution, gradually spiraling into insanity.

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As the book progresses, the text gradually disintegrates from a normally formatted page of text into bizarre chunks and strings and pieces of text that mimic the labyrinth of the house. Reading it, you often find yourself having to hold the book upside down or sideways or diagonally. Footnotes will send you on a wild goose chase through the multiple appendices. There’s a whole section of poetry in the back (much of it nonsensical, some of it quite good), as well as photographs (themselves depicting text scrawled onto notecards or scraps of burned paper). At one point, the pages of text have a sort of tunnel through them, revealing text on the following page. Entire sections are left blank or are struck out. The word House is always shown in blue.

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This was a frustrating book for me. It’s clear the author can write well: there are moments of beautiful writing hidden in here, and there is some great symbolism running through the book, of the kind that engages the mind and makes me think that there is surely more beneath the surface that I wasn’t quite perceiving. But at the same time, as I said above, it is sometimes almost unreadable. The central document is written in an obnoxiously academic and exceedingly boring style, made all the more boring because it is a fictional parody of actual literary criticism, and it is a detailed analysis and critique of another fictional document (the Navidson Record), which may or may not even exist in the fictional world in which the literary criticism is taking place! I found my self falling asleep regularly while reading this.

It’s also an annoying book to read, because at times you need multiple bookmarks to keep track of where you are. Often footnotes will send you to some obscure appendix only to find that there is nothing there. Other times you’ll think you are near the end of a section, only to end up following a footnote to an entire separate section hidden in the appendix. Toward the beginning the experimental form of the book was fun and cute, but the novelty quickly wore off for me and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. And speaking of rolling my eyes: this book is very pretentious. It wants very much to make sure you know exactly how clever it is being.

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The thing about the experimental format of the book is that it disrupts the actual story lines in a way that (a) makes them seem bigger and more complex than they actually are, and (b) makes them harder to stay invested in. I was not particularly gripped by either Navidson or Johnny’s story. Johnny mostly talked about doing drugs and sleeping with a variety of beautiful women, and Navidson’s story can basically be summed up as “Men explore a giant labyrinth full of symbolism”.

I have seen people online say that this was one of the scariest books they had ever read. I’ll say flat out that I didn’t really find this book to be scary. There were a few rare moments that were slightly creepy, but even those were more of the “heh, cool” kind of creepy than the “yikes, I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight” sort.

On the flip side though, I have tremendous respect for the sheer amount of work that went into making such a convoluted and complicated book work. The attention to detail is amazing. There are a few sections with scientific detail about radioisotope dating and the age of the solar system and advanced analysis techniques that totally pass my sniff test. There are extensive citations to other documents, many of which are also fictional, but others which are not. And the editors, typesetters, and publisher deserve a medal for putting this book together.

And as I said, there are parts of the writing that are very good, and the layers of symbolism and meaning are masterfully woven through the disjointed and bizarre pieces of the book. Yeah, it’s obnoxious and pretentious at times, but it also, somehow, works.

Bottom line, although there are a lot of things about this book that were “not for me”, I am glad I read it, and I can recognize that it takes a certain sort of insane brilliance to write something like this. If you’re looking for something scary, you can do better than this, but it is certainly the most unique reading experience I can recall having, and I would recommend it to others just for that.

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!

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  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.

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  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.

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  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)

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  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.

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  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

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  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.

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  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.

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  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.

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  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

Book Review: The Dog Stars

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I came across this book in a list of recommended post-apocalyptic fiction, and was pleased to find that it was available as an audiobook from the Phoenix library, so I downloaded it and listened while traveling over the past couple of weeks. The basic premise is pretty standard post-apocalytic fare: A super-flu has swept across the planet, killing 99.7% of people and leading to the collapse of civilization. The main character is a survivor who lives at an old airport with his gun-loving partner Bangley and his old dog Jasper. The main character, Hig, has an old Cessna that he occasionally flies around to scout for hostile gangs or to go visit some nearby survivors. During one flight, he receives a garbled message from a distant airfield, and the main plot has to do with what heppens when he goes to investigate.

This book reminded me a lot of The Road, although not quite so bleak. It uses very stylized writing with lots of sentence fragments and apparently the printed version doesn’t really use quotes either. I think reading it as text might have been pretty challenging and/or annoying; this was a rare case where I think hearing it as an audiobook may have really helped. The book mostly manages to pull off this blatant imitation of Cormac McCarthy because the writing is pretty good once you get through the odd style. There are some very nice poetic descriptions.

Unfortunately the story itself is lacking. It moves very slowly, and then ends abruptly without really feeling (to me) like anything has really been resolved. It’s always a bad sign when I am shocked that a book has ended and have to double check to make sure I didn’t accidentally skip a part of the audiobook.

Also, underneath the literary style of the writing, this story basically boils down to an adolescent boy’s fantasy of what the apocalypse would be like. Hig’s life basically alternates between teaming up with Bangley to kill any “bad guys” intruding on their property, and going up into the mountains with his loyal dog to fish. One of these days I’d like to read a post-apocalyptic novel where the collapse of society doesn’t inevitably lead to roving bands of thugs out to kill each other. From what I’ve seen of major disasters in the real world, they tend to lead people banding together and cooperating to recover rather than giving up on any semblance of decency and descending immediately into rape and murder. Call me crazy, but I’d like to see more post apocalyptic fiction that doesn’t assume that most people are fundamentally terrible.

Anyway, later in the book (spoiler alert! No really, I’m about to give away the rest of the plot in a few sentences!)…

 

…Hig comes across a woman living in seclusion with her father. Of course she is beautiful, and of course she very quickly falls for him, and they go skinny dipping in fresh mountain streams and make love under the stars and then she comes back to live with him. Her dad, a former Navy SEAL, becomes BFFs with Bangley as they bond over being old badass dudes. The End.

All in all, I’m kind of ambivalent about this one. As an audiobook it was ok. I don’t think I would have been able to get through it actually reading it because of the weird style and slow pace. It’s clearly trying to imitate The Road, and has some moments of very nice writing but didn’t have a very satisfying ending and had a weird undercurrent of adolescent male wish fulfillment that makes it hard to really recommend it.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

This is the sort of book that is best if you go into it knowing as little as possible, so it’s a bit of a challenge to review. I will keep this review vague, but if you really don’t want to know anything more than my verdict, here it is: This is a great book with well-drawn, morally complex characters, and you should definitely read it.

Ok, with that said, I am now going to reveal a small amount about the book so I can talk about it a bit more…

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This is a book about zombies. This isn’t a major spoiler, because it is heavily hinted at in the blurb on the cover, but it’s all I’m really going to reveal because one of the best things about the book is figuring things out as you get farther and farther along. Some books keep secrets from the reader and it’s incredibly annoying, but this one doles out the information at just the right pace, making it fascinating to read.

This book is way better than your average zombie apocalypse. It uses some familiar tropes but also does things differently enough that I didn’t feel like I had read it before. There is a good deal of scientific detail about the zombies and although my area of science expertise is not biology, the science didn’t set off any alarms in my mind for being too ridiculous. It’s well done enough that I bought in completely.

The real strength of this story are the characters. This is a tightly written novel with a small cast of characters, but each of them is fleshed out and complex, with interesting backstories and plausible motivations. I was especially impressed by the “villain” character: this book could serve as a textbook for how to write a morally complex villain who the reader can sympathize with even while hating them.

Another perk is that as far as I can tell this is a stand-alone novel, not the beginning of a ten-part epic series. It is long enough to draw you in deeply but is not bloated like some sci-fi and fantasy books can become. The story arcs draw to a satisfying conclusion, and the ending is a good one that will really make you think.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

Book Review: Three Body Problem

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The Three Body Problem is the first novel in a trilogy  by the popular Chinese author Liu Cixin. It took the sci-fi community by storm last year, winning the Hugo award for best novel, so I thought it would be worth checking out. Also, it is always interesting to read books that have been translated into English.

The novel is set in a combination of flashbacks to the Chinese cultural revolution and aftermath, and a near-future “present”. I don’t want to give away too much of the story because part of the appeal is gradually figuring out what is going on, but I think it’s safe to say that this is a novel about first contact with an alien civilization. This novel falls squarely into the realm of “hard” science fiction: most of the characters are physicists, and they love to tell each other about physics. A major element in the novel in addition to all the physics, is a (very boring) virtual reality video game with the same name as the book.

In fact, I have to report that I found this novel overall to be pretty boring. There are some great moments that will definitely stick in my mind, but for the most part it moved very slowly and had way too many lengthy digressions about some technical concept or other. Since I have degrees in physics and physics-adjacent fields, I’m just not impressed by novels that rely so heavily on impressing the reader with how cool certain technical ideas are and how much research the author did. (Especially when the author makes some sloppy mistakes with certain details…). I’ll always prefer a compelling story about interesting characters over a lesson in how logic gates in a computer work.

I could have tolerated the lessons if the story moved faster, but it was pretty glacial, and it’s only the start of the story. It’s always a bad sign when I am startled that a book is over because it means it didn’t feel like it was wrapping up its story arcs very well. Three Body Problem doesn’t feel like a complete novel, it feels like the first third of a massive (and rather boring) novel, and that’s something that always annoys me.

Oh well. It was interesting to read a popular novel by a Chinese author, and there were moments that were great, but I don’t think I’ll be continuing the series.

 

Book Review: Shaman

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If you’re like most people (or at least, most sci-fi fans), you know of author Kim Stanley Robinson for his epic Mars trilogy about colonizing the red planet. So, it might surprise you to hear that among his many other books is Shaman, a story about early humans in Europe 32,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. It is admittedly a different sort of story, lacking the epic scope and huge cast of characters and political maneuverings. But it does have this in common: it’s clear Robinson did a ton of research into the latest science before writing, and then filled in the gaps with plausible speculation to tell a compelling story. And it deals with some similar themes, such as: what would a society look like where you’re starting almost from scratch?

Shaman focuses on a young man named Loon who is being trained to become a shaman by his mentor and adopted father Thorn. There is eventually a quest-type plot, but much of the book is just a leisurely exploration of what life might have been like back then. It’s not especially fast paced, but it is fascinating. This is a time when humans are not the only sentient apes on the planet: neanderthals still exist at the fringes of human territory, sometimes as friends, sometimes as foes. It’s a world where humans are not yet at the top of the food chain, and wolves are not quite domesticated into loyal dogs yet. Heck, humans barely think of themselves as different from animals: Loon doesn’t call his kin group a “tribe”, he calls them a “pack”. And at one point, he refers to his fingernails as “claws”.

But the great thing about the book is that despite the primitive setting, and the “cave man” characters, they are humans just like you or me (except way tougher…I don’t know about you but I couldn’t go out into a winter storm, naked, with no tools of any kind, and come back alive days later with food in my belly and wearing clothes). Yes, they struggle to hunt and gather enough food to survive the winter, something you and I (hopefully) don’t have to worry about. But much of the conflict in the story comes from very familiar difficulties: Does she like me? Will my friend be jealous if I kiss her? What if I don’t want to do the job I am expected to when I grow up? Is the boss making good decisions? Can this stranger be trusted? And the characters are not dumb. One of my favorite characters, the old crone Heather who is sort of Loon’s adoptive mother, represents the potential for humans to figure out the world they live in. She has basically figured out the fundamentals of the scientific method and she uses it to test different herbs for their medicinal properties. There’s a charming scene where she is helping Loon to design a better pair of snowshoes where she explains to him the idea of making and testing multiple different prototypes to find which one works best. But there’s also a poignancy to the book’s exploration of these early hints of technological advancement. At one point this is brought to the fore when a character dies, and in reflecting on their death, Loon laments all the knowledge that person had which is now lost forever. As a modern reader, we know that writing would not be invented for another 29,000 years or so, and almost everything in between, every Heather who has started to figure things out, is simply…lost.

The other interesting thing that the extremely ancient setting allows for is a sort of stripped-down look at human culture, with all of the baggage of 32,000 years removed. I read some reviews of this book that said that it talks about sex too much, but I think their actual complaint was that it is talked about so frankly and openly. Sorry, but humans just think about sex a lot. Trying to hide that under layers and layers of taboos and cultural norms (many of which are more recent than most people realize) doesn’t change the fact. Heck, some of the oldest examples of human artwork are “venus figurines” depicting voluptuous women. It especially makes sense for Loon, a teen-aged boy in a society that doesn’t see sex as shameful at all, to think about it quite a lot.

There are also some great scenes about cave painting, where the author tries to imagine what was going through the artist’s mind while painting the various animal figures that populate the walls of ancient caves. In particular, these scenes do a great job of demonstrating that although the paintings look simple, a lot of thought likely went into them: using the roughness of the cave wall to make the animals appear to move in flickering torch light, adjusting the shading to draw the eye to certain animals. Drawing partial forms or extra limbs to depict motion.

Another major theme of the book is our species’ knack for survival against all odds. Without giving too much away, I will say that a large chunk of the book’s climax deals with a protracted chase, with the protagonists trying to escape from enemies. The chase goes on and on, and the heroes have to keep going despite lacking food or shelter, and despite injuries that would send a frail modern human crying to the emergency room and convalescing for weeks or longer. Even after they escape from enemies, they have to withstand nature as it does its best to kill them. It’s actually exhausting to read, but it does a great job of illustrating how difficult survival was back then. It’s amazing to think that humans are tough enough to withstand what is described, but the truth is we are.

Anyway, overall I really enjoyed Shaman. It’s a little weak on plot, but it is about such a fascinating subject that I didn’t really mind. It does a great job of transporting the reader back to the dawn of modern humanity, in all its brutal and beautiful wilderness, and in the process examines what makes us human.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

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One of the side effects of having a day job that borders on science fiction (shooting rocks on Mars with a laser mounted on a nuclear-powered robot) is that I find it’s much harder for “hard” sci-fi to impress me. (“Hard” sci-fi, for the uninitiated, is sci-fi that tries to be scientifically accurate.) Too often it’s full of cardboard characters who are there just to advance the plot to the next point where the author can lecture the reader about the next gee-whiz piece of futuristic tech that they researched.

However, I had heard some great things about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) and the rest of the Expanse series. I even had a brief exchange on twitter with them in which they expressed interest in asking me some questions about Mars (alas nothing ever came of this). So I was cautiously optimistic when I finally was able to get my hands on an ebook of Leviathan Wakes from the library.

Turns out no caution was necessary: Leviathan Wakes was excellent. Possibly the best hard science fiction I have read since Red Mars. Heck, in many ways, it’s better than Red Mars. Leviathan Wakes is set a few hundred years into a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. Often sci-fi skips over this phase of exploration and just waves its hands and says that humans have colonized the stars and there is faster than light travel so now let’s go fight some aliens. That’s not the case here. Instead of shying away from the messy, slow, complicated process of becoming a multi-planet species, Leviathan Wakes drops us right in the middle of it. Earth is still the cradle of life and is required to sustain the colonies, but only barely. Mars is a sovereign nation with a dominant military presence in space. Ceres and Eros and other large asteroids have been reconstructed into giant space stations, home to millions (artificial gravity provided by spinning up the whole asteroid and building stations such that “up” is toward the interior of the asteroid”). The asteroid belt and outer planets have loosely allied into the “Outer Planets Alliance”.

The book does a great job with the technical details. The main bending of the rules has to do with the propulsion system used by the ships. Other than that everything is pretty good. There’s no artificial gravity fields or “inertial dampers”. Instead gravity is provided by either spinning or accelerating. For high levels of acceleration, people have to strap into padded couches and get injected with a cocktail of drugs to avoid passing out. Combat in space is as much a dance of jamming communications or being dark to radar or detecting infrared signatures as it is about actually firing ordnance (and of course, it’s mostly missiles since the distances involved are usually too larger for ballistic projectiles to make sense).

But while it is good with the technical details, the book doesn’t get bogged down in them, and it has some great characters too. The two point of view characters are Jim Holden, an idealistic captain of a small crew (a bit reminiscent of Firefly) who keep ending up in the middle of unexpectedly significant events, and Miller, a washed up detective on Ceres trying to complete his final missing person case against all odds (bringing a bit of the noir/mystery genre to the book, especially in the first half). The supporting cast are good too: Naomi Nagata (Holden’s highly competent XO), Alex Kamal (a Martian-born ex-navy pilot), and Amos Burton (the hilarious mechanic). Even minor characters have distinct personalities and a role to play in the story.

The future of Leviathan Wakes feels real. It’s not just a bunch of white American scientists and steely-eyed missile men with “the right stuff”. The space stations are huge and messy and multicultural. Kids from the slums of Ceres speak an almost incomprehensible mash up of slang and various languages. The Mormons are at Tycho station, preparing to launch a generation ship to the stars. There are women in positions of authority (head of security on Ceres, admiral in the Martian navy, etc.). Arabic and Hindi are commonly spoken, and many other cultures make cameo appearances in the names of minor characters. This all adds up to a feeling of verisimilitude, like this is a future that could really exist.

To me, that’s one of the best things about this book. It makes it feel possible to colonize the solar system, something that in my line of work it’s easy to get cynical about. I was discussing the book with a co-worker the other day and she said something that I realized really rang true. Not only is it a good book, but it makes me more excited about my job because in some small way I’m contributing toward the future that the book depicts.

So ok, the technical details are good, the characters are good, what about the plot? It’s awesome. This is a long book, but it’s a page-turner. Every chapter ends with something that makes you want to start reading the next one. Cliffhangers can be poorly done, with the reader wondering what just happened or getting annoyed at the author for hiding things. There’s very little of that here. Instead you get the good kind of cliffhanger, where the chapter ends with some new twist or piece of information with such major implications that you just have to turn the page and find out what happens next. I was reminded in the best possible way of Storm of Swords, where the book seemed to have several climaxes because so much happened. A similar thing happened here. I feared I was nearing the end at one point because things were starting to feel climactic, only to check on my kindle and find that I was only halfway finished! I do much of my reading out loud to my wife right before bed and I can always tell if a book is working by how long it takes for me to start to nod off. I’ll just say this: I didn’t nod off very often with this book!

Bottom line? Leviathan Wakes was awesome. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially my planetary science colleagues. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next books in the series. There is also apparently a TV show on SyFy based on the books called The Expanse, so I will need to check that out (once I have verified that it won’t spoil events in the later books).

Other minor thoughts:

  • Reading out loud also means that it’s noticeable when dialog doesn’t feel natural. I’m happy to report that the dialog in Leviathan Wakes reads very well out loud. I imagine the audiobook would be very good.
  • The book deftly incorporates bits and piece of other genres and pieces of fiction that I have loved without ever feeling like a copy cat. I mentioned above that the crew of the Rocinante reminded me a bit of Firefly, and that Miller’s early chapters had a nice noir feel to them. I was also reminded of StarCraft and Mass Effect at times, two of my favorite sci-fi video games.
  • I only have a few negative things to say about the book. It would have been nice to have a female POV character. There were a few times where I lost track of exactly what was happening and why (in particular, the geometry of the inside of the big space stations could be confusing and so the characters’ motivations for getting to a certain location sometimes got fuzzy). And as with any sci-fi, there were a few cases where the rules had to be broken to accommodate the plot.

Book Review: Outlander

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I had heard a lot about Outlander, the famous romance novel involving a nurse from the 1940s who travels back in time and falls in love with a handsome Scotsman. Many of my female friends love the book and its sequels, and I heard the TV show being lauded as Game of Thrones, but for women. So I thought it would be educational for me to read the novel and see what all the fuss was about. I’ve never really read much in the romance genre, which always seemed like a shame because surely there’s some good stuff there that I am missing out on. Outlander is often given as an example of a great romance novel, so I figured I should try it.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge up front that I’m decidedly not the target audience for Outlander. I get that. That was actually part of the appeal: so much fiction is written with “white straight male” as the target audience that I wanted to see what it would be like to read something that wasn’t “for me”.

Sadly, I have to report that I really didn’t like it very much, and I am shocked that women do.

The first half of the book was fine. I read it in one huge gulp while traveling overseas, and while the writing wasn’t amazing, it was a pretty good story. But then two things happened. First, I wasn’t traveling anymore so my chunks of reading time were much more fragmented, meaning I could only read smaller passages at a time. This always leads to me being more picky about the quality of writing, no matter what I’m reading. When you aren’t fully sucked in, it’s easier to spot the odd word choices or sentences that fall flat, or minor inconsistencies. But more importantly, at around the halfway mark in the book, Jamie the sexy Scotsman beats the main character with a belt. And then, within a matter of days, she has basically forgiven him. And then he rapes her (but it’s ok because after she says “No, Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” and he keeps going and says he “means to make you mine” and that the marriage vows included the provision that she must “obey”, she eventually says “yes”, so it’s definitely just kinky sex that leaves her battered and bruised definitely not rape). And that was when the book lost me.

From the way the book is written, it’s clear that this incident is supposed to be forgiven and Claire (and therefore the reader, because Claire is very nearly a blank-slate of a character upon which the reader is supposed to project herself) falls madly in love with sexy Jamie the sexy Scotsman. But for me, the moment he beat her and then raped her, the logical behavior on her part would be to try to escape as quickly as possible and go back to her loving husband in the present. You know, the one she chose voluntarily and who does not abuse her? The book from that point on should have been about getting away from this barbaric man, and this barbaric time period and back to the man who she supposedly loves. But nope. She goes to the standing stones that sent her back in time and then decides that she’d rather not go back to 1945 and all of its relative safety and comfort. Her husband in the present, Frank, is a slim academic type who Claire finds ever so boring as he goes on and on about his historical studies. Nothing is so unappealing as an intelligent man who is passionate about his academic pursuits. Much better to stay in the past with Jamie, the big, buff, virile Highlander whose favorite pass-times are (1) finding any excuse at all to be beaten (seriously, like half of this book is about all the times Jamie was beaten in the past, or gets beaten in the present, or is recovering from being beaten, etc.), and (2) sex.

Also, let’s talk about the antagonist in this story “Black Jack” Randall. In what is surely the most subtle subliminal message ever, the bad guy looks just like Claire’s husband from the present! Hmmmm! “Golly, I wonder if she will go back to her pathetic, skinny, nerdy husband who also happens to look like the vile, raping, antagonist?” How do we know he is not just a rapist, but the bad kind that we hate? (because it’s already been established that beatings and rape are ok as long as the victim deserves it and eventually stops protesting) Why, because he’s a homosexual of course! By my count there are two gay men in this book. One is a minor character who, of course, molests little boys. The other is the antagonist, Jack Randall, a pathetic and evil man who gets off on torturing and raping Jamie toward the end of the book.

For most of the book, Claire is an extremely passive and boring character (the better to allow the reader to project onto her).  She goes from place to place, obeying what others say, listening in on important conversations without being part of them, making very few decisions for herself. At the end of the book I was excited that she was finally taking initiative in attempting to save Jamie, reversing the damsel in distress trope by having the woman save the man. But of course we can’t have that, so she ends up being held at knifepoint and Jamie saves her by giving himself up as a plaything for the bad guy. Then Claire gets tossed out in the snow, and in a ridiculous scene, wins in hand-to-hand combat with a starving wolf by breaking its neck against the corner of a building (I mean, I know WWII nurses were tough, but come on). And then she gets rescued by some men, who then actually rescue Jamie, somehow, through a plot involving unleashing a herd of cattle in the dungeon? Oh and she kills a man by severing his brain stem with a knife. Because that’s easy to do for someone with very little training or strength.

And then at the end of the book, they flee to Normandy, and Claire (a) very nearly converts to Catholicism for some reason (mostly so that there can be a scene where a priest hears her confession and absolves her of any guilt about leaving her loving husband Frank behind in the future), and (b) cures Jamie of his severe bacterial infection AND his PTSD by sending him into an opium-induced hallucination where he thinks that she is the bad guy, and he fights her, and then they end up naked on the floor? Yeah, I don’t know what that was all about.

And finally, the book ends with some sexy sex in an underground hot spring and the revelation that Claire is not infertile, as she once thought! The powerful sperm of the sexy Scotsman, clearly superior to the sperm from her boring, skinny nerd husband, managed to impregnate her. Hooray!

Phew. Ok, so clearly I didn’t much like this book. The only reason I kept with it is because I wanted to see what all my friends saw in it. Maybe my problem is just that I’m the opposite of the target audience, but I really can’t comprehend why so many of my feminist female friends like this book. And just to be clear, I don’t mind the loving detail used in describing how sexy Jamie is: I expected that and it didn’t really bother me. Certainly plenty of books that I read are guilty of the opposite: describing female characters in great detail (making sure to mention something about breasts), and then oh yeah also there was a dude standing next to her and he was tall or something. And it’s not even that the writing is mediocre: I read plenty of fantasy and historical fiction books with just so-so writing. It really all comes back to the fact that I don’t get how a relatively modern woman is supposed to just forgive a man who beats her with a belt for “disobedience”. I don’t care how handsome or charming or honest or self-deprecating he is, or how much he tells you about all the times he was beaten as a kid (har har, isn’t it cute how he got beaten so much because he’s stubborn and disobedient? After all, “boys will be boys” and the only thing to do about it is beat them. PS: Claire, Jamie wants to make it clear that if you have kids he’s totally beating them too.) If this book is supposed to be a woman’s fantasy (and for the vast majority of the book it clearly is), then why make the love interest beat her and rape her? I just don’t get it. I’m very uncomfortable with the potential conclusions that could be drawn from that. But then, I don’t understand why so many women apparently enjoy reading 50 Shades of Gray either.

In any case, let’s just leave it at this: I’m glad to be done with this book and very much looking forward to reading something new.

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