Monday, 18 September 2017

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

It feels like I've been reading a lot about fairy tales recently.My themed SF/F book club is in the middle of five months of reading books with fairy tales for the themes, although when I was choosing books for that, I tried to steer clear of books that were about fae coming into our world. (I made one exception.) I did so because I felt like there were enough of those that it could be its own theme, so this collection was fairy tales in fairy tale worlds. I wasn't dogmatic about it, but it was one of my guiding principles.

This book definitely belongs in the fae-coming-into-our-world category. It happens in a small town called Fairfold, where the fae never went entirely away. Those who live there all their lives all know those who trespassed into Fairy and never returned. Tourists come, and sometimes disappear. A changeling is left with a local family, and when the human mother figures it out and when she gets her own child back, she refuses to give up the changeling either. There is an equilibrium.

In this world, Hazel used to think of herself as a knight, wielding a sword she found by a lake as a child. With her brother as troubadour by her side, making magic music, she fought the fae who tried to prey in more malicious ways on the people of her town. But then she made a deal with the fairy king for her brother's sake, and nothing has quite gone right since. They're both in high school, and Hazel doesn't know how to be who she is anymore, and has her own reasons for keeping her heart far away from anyone. She doesn't know when her debt (seven years of her life) will come due.

One of the notable features of her town is a Sleeping Beauty - but a guy Sleeping Beauty, under glass like Snow White in the Disney film. Generations of teens have partied on his magical glass coffin, but he hasn't woken up. Then, one morning, the case is broken and the boy is gone. Both Hazel and Ben, her brother, are attached to what they'd made of the boy in their heads.

And then kids in the town start being found asleep and not waking up. With the help of Ben and Ben's best friend, Jack (Jack was the changeling who was kept), Hazel has to figure out who let the boy out, who is threatening her town, and what happens at night when she's not conscious to see it.

This is definitely YA, but it's good YA. The characters are strong and interesting, and the writing pulled me along eagerly, wanting to know what happened next. Things are messy and difficult, but none of the conflict feels forced or out of character.

However, I think the strongest part of this are the relationships. Borderline neglected by loving but careless parents, Hazel and Ben have one of the most interesting sibling relationships I've read in a while, and Hazel and Ben's relationships with their parents, with Jack, with the boy under glass, all are interesting and avoid simplistic answers.

I don't know if I'd call this my favourite of the numerous stories that are out there about the fae entering a version of our world, but it's very solid, and certainly up there.

Friday, 15 September 2017

First Person Peculiar by Mike Resnick

I picked up this collection of Mike Resnick short stories in a Humble Bundle a while ago - I'm not sure which one, but I'm guessing the Nebula bundle, as I believe at least one and perhaps more of these stories were nominated for and/or won that award. Weirdly, I read this in close proximity to another book of short stories by another author that came in the same bundle, and the two started to blend together in my head.

So, not having read any Resnick before, what's the verdict? The first thing that strikes me is that a lot of these stories are genuinely funny. Resnick tends to have a humorous touch, even when the stories themselves get a little dark. They're often about incorporating elements of other genres - hardboiled detectives, heists, Casablanca, romantic comedies - into a science fiction (and less often, a fantasy) world. A lot of these I really enjoyed.

That's the good side, and we'll get back to it when I talk about a few of the stories I really enjoyed. The not so great side is that, well, his female characters are not great. I mean, most of the characters in these stories are kind of caricatures, so I'm not looking for deep understanding, but after we got through the second Jewish mother, the Jewish American princess and the fourth or fifth dead hooker...well, it felt like even for caricatures, the women were getting absurdly short shrift. Particularly the dead hooker aspect. (Three of those turn up in a story about Jack the Ripper, but it was only shortly after a spooky little story where violent criminals have their minds wiped and are supposed to be unable to regain memories, but one guy does, and starts his new killing spree guessed it.)

It's unfortunate, because otherwise, I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself. A lot of these aren't deep (although a few are), and I can definitely be sucked into enjoyable little short stories. If, you know, the humour included fewer dead prostitutes and parodies of Jewish women.

If you can put that aside, (and I mostly can but not entirely,) I did enjoy the rest of the stories. They sometimes play with religious ideas, such as Resnick's take on the Wandering Jew of legend, and his actual enjoyment of an incredibly long life, or the later story where the Creator turns out to be a not-very-bright student in a galaxy creation class.

And many of his stories exist in interaction with popular culture, like the one where Rick Blaine is hoping to finally get the girl THIS TIME the movie comes around on the eternal reel. Or the one where a guy winning a lot of money gets mobbed by a host of gold-diggers (sigh), each with their own magician to help them turn the odds in their favour. Or the one where a hard-boiled detective is sent off with a beautiful dame in search of the sheet music for Leibowitz's Canticle, except the dame has plans of her own. And the last story, where John Carter shows up in an aging man's backyard, searching for the way back to Mars, and the narrator, having lost his own wife, beings to hope maybe she's out there with Dejah Thoris somewhere.

But I think my favourite story is a fairly short one where a travel agent robot is programmed with enthusiasm, and then gets up and walks away from his desk one day. It's short, and powerful, and the ending a bit depressing. It's one of the strongest stories in the book.

On the overall topic of recommending the book or not, though...I don't know. If you have a lot of time and love short stories, and can hold judgement on gender stereotypes in abeyance, maybe. Otherwise, there are a lot of great short stories out there. There are some really good ones here, but also some stuff that made it less thoroughly enjoyable than I'd have liked it to be. (AKA write about fewer tortured and murdered prostitutes in your funny stories, thank you!)

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Planetfall by Emma Newman

I picked up Planetfall more or less randomly, not knowing what to expect. I had the feeling that it was young adult, but the story within didn't seem YA at all - older characters for one, but also deep dives into mental illness and trauma that I had not been expecting. Best of all, this all felt done well, and urgently, and the story pressing. Honestly, it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Emma Newman knows how to write, guys. Reading this was an intense experience, as she took us inside the main character Ren, in the grips of PTSD and hoarding, and didn't let go the whole way through. Those mental issues aren't all of who Ren is, but she's been struggling so long that one more stressor is about all it would take to break her. She's strong, but fraying, and the way the readaer is taken along on that journey with her is powerful and internal. And stressful.

So, the story. A small settlement of people live on a planet in the shadow of a huge building/growth/shrine/monolith called God's City. They followed a woman from Earth to this place, when she believed she was on a divine mission, led to these coordinates. She is said to live within the monolith, and sends out yearly  messages to the people still living in the village below.

Right near the beginning, though, we learn two things from Ren, short for Renata. Suh, the prophet and her friend and perhaps lover, isn't alive in there or isn't quite alive - we know something happened to her, but not what. She's definitely not sending those yearly messages. Another occupant of the village is, and he and Renata are also in some way implicated in an accident that killed a bunch of the seekers.

We get this through Ren's eyes, so burdened with guilt and stress over these long-ago events, she can barely look at them head-on. Life goes on in a holding pattern in this village, supported by matter printers, which Ren maintains - and raids the discards for bits she can salvage and fix, driven to try to make things better. Even if she never gets around to it. It's an impulse without a good outlet, because she can't even think about the things that need the most fixing.

Then a strange human comes, on a planet that should have no other humans. He's a survivor of the pod lost or purposefully destroyed, alone. The society tries to find a place for him, while writing meaning over his arrival. He is the first to realize that Ren's introversion is hiding deeper problems and strives to bring them to light.

Meanwhile, Ren ventures into God's City on illicit investigations, and finally, after many years, starts to gain some insight into what the city might be and what brought them there.

I don't want to give more away, because a great deal of the pleasure of this book was in the journey. It's interesting - you know you're in the mind of an unstable narrator, and it's stressful to be there. Even as people reached out to help her, the prose was such that I felt her anxiety and understood it from the inside, rather that just seeing it from a distance. That's a huge thing to be able to do, to take a reader into the mind of someone who is acting in ways that seem irrational, and make them understandable. To make me want to protect her.

There are points at which each of us would break, and I've always thought that that adage about God never giving anyone more than they could handle was bullshit, and I think I would think so even if I were Christian. It's perfectly possible to have more happen than can be borne, for anyone, and sometimes it does. What do you do in the aftermath? And when you live in the shadow of the unknown?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Half The World by Joe Abercrombie

I came back to Joe Abercrombie's books ready to find them too nihilistic and grim, and give them up again. (To be fair, I found the the first book in The First Law series fine, but by the end of the second book, the unrelenting bleakness had gotten to me. It wasn't that I disliked his writing or even the books, but I found the mood too much to take on willingly.)  I had hoped that his series written for a slightly younger audience might let up on the darkness, just a little bit? I wasn't expecting sunshine and puppies, that's for damned sure.

Which is good, because I found neither, although my fears about tone didn't come to fruition either. It's still dark, but not as relentlessly dark. I'm intrigued enough that I'll read the third in the series eventually. I'm not sold to the point of adding Abercrombie to my personal list of authors to follow enthusiastically, but he's back on the list of those I certainly don't mind reading more of if his books cross my path. Although that might be restricted to the vaguely Young Adult-type ones.

In this second book of the trilogy, Yarvi, the main character of the first book, is back, now installed as a Minister to his uncle and new step-father, the King. Yeah, the same person - his mother married his uncle, her first husband's brother, at the end of the last book, to cement his claim to the throne. Their kingdom is threatened by the overreaching hand of the Emperor and his ministers, and Yarvi is given the task of creating a coalition to stand against the largest power in the region. (I'm very fuzzy on geography and thinking visually, so where all these bits of the world are in relation to each other is more than a little opaque to me.)

In amassing a crew, he picks up a motley crew of sailors, then extends himself to take with him two who otherwise would be left to moulder, in various ways. Thorn, a young woman who had been training to become a soldier, despite the disdain and cruelty of her teachers, accidentally kills one of the other trainees when three of them are set on her at once by her trainer. She is in prison, likely to be executed, but Yarvi intervenes to pull her out and take her with him, putting her under the tutelage of one of the characters from the previous book, a fearsome woman warrior.

When Thorn killed, there was only one who spoke in her defence, another trainee named Brand. He was ostracized for his efforts to do the right thing, but Father Yarvi noticed, and takes him with the ship as well. Much of the book is spent on the voyage, with Thorn training, and various feats of heroism done as hostile lands are crossed.

Repeatedly, Brand and/or Thorn are called upon by circumstances to display their valour and skill/strength. Thorn, in particular, becomes the object of stories, particularly when she meets the young new Queen of the place to which they were travelling. This story meanders, much as the trip that the characters undertake does, but also manages to pull the reader along, feeling that there's an underlying purpose.

Yarvi's eventual purpose, or rather, one circumstance he was ready to deal with, is revealed at the end, in a very Macbeth/Eowyn type of ending, when Thorn seems to stand ready to thwart a prophecy. However, since it was Abercrombie, and I wasn't sure how dark this book was going, I wasn't sure how it would turn out. In that, I was surprised, and that was interesting. So, I'm intrigued enough to keep on and finish.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Book Lists: Even The Land Has Changed

I had a few ideas for the next theme for my book club, but when I asked for additional suggestions, I got a truly staggering number of responses on Facebook! This theme is somewhere between cli fi and post-apocalyptic - the proviso is that it has to be about a world where the physical landscape has changed or is changing, not just human society. (I said I would also perhaps include books on terraforming, where the change is intentional.) I haven't had a chance to research all of these, but including my own ideas, these are the books that were suggested:

The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin
Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer
The Wind-Up Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
The Gone Away World - Nick Harkaway
Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood
The Stone Gods - Jeanette Winterson
The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi
Red Mars (and the other books in the trilogy) - Kim Stanley Robinson
Forty Signs of Rain - Kim Stanley Robinson
Seveneves - Neal Stephenson
Ship Breaker - Paola Bacigalupi
The Drowned Cities - Paola Bacigalupi
Dune - Frank Herbert
The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
Neuropath - Scott Bakker
The Family Tree - Sheri S. Tepper
The Swarm - Frank Schatzing
A Scientific Romance - Ronald Wright
Timescape - Gregory Benford

Any suggestions to add to the list?

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip

I intended to write this review yesterday, before the book club that was going to discuss it in the evening. But it didn't matter how many times I opened this page, I just sat there, unable to think of the words I wanted to say about this book. I'd liked it well enough, but damned if I could think of a single thing to say.

So it was a little helpful when I went to my book club and discovered that the other people there had pretty much hated it. I still would say that I liked it overall, but I also can't say that a single one of their criticisms were wrong, and often, what they had to say sparked similar annoyance in me. I'm still not in the "hated it" camp, but, influenced by those around me, I could see why my initial attempts to write about this book were met with difficulty, because I was having trouble thinking of specific things I liked.

Which is too bad, because I sort of liked the writing style. That being said, the story itself was very repetitive. I agreed totally when that came up as a criticism. The more I think about it, the more the middle-to-the-end of the book goes over and over the same territory, even literally, as Rois, the main character, goes from her house to the house of the man who has disappeared to the woods three or four times.

(This is both a Snow White and Rose Red tale, and, slightly, a Tam Lin tale. The Tam Lin aspect was why I'd picked it for the group, and I was disappointed more wasn't made of it.) Two sisters live in a peasant town, and are relatively happy. One is content to marry her childhood sweetheart, the other likes running around barefoot in the woods too much to be truly normal, although everyone seems to know her eccentricities and love and accept her anyway. It's very much Belle from Beauty & the Beast syndrome - she doesn't fit into this provincial life, but really, the life isn't that bad (in this story). It's kind of frustrating when we get the leads in these fairy tale stories that aren't so much critiques of fairy tale life as they are interested in telling the story of the "girl who isn't like other girls." The one who runs wild in the woods and Has Opinions.

This wild girl is named Rois, and no one was quite sure how the hell that was supposed to be pronounced. Rose? Like Lois, but with an R? Royce?  A mysterious man comes to their town to rebuild his ancestral manor, and maybe he's actually come from the land of the fairies. Rois falls in love with him, and then her sister falls in love with him, with the whole "wastes away staring out the window when he doesn't come" thing going on. 

What frustrated me about the Tam Lin elements is that Rois is told what she needs to do to free him about a third of the book in, and then proceeds to not do anything about it until the last 30 pages. And I'm not sure why the Fairy Queen who was trying to hold him told her what to do - it would have made more sense coming from other lips. But if we're billing this as a Tam Lin story, let's go right into that. And maybe instead of going over the same ground over and over again in the mid-to-end of the book, you could have the Tam Lin stuff happen and then write about what the consequences are after it's officially over? I mean, if you're looking to fill space, you could have a third act.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

American Craftsmen by Tom Doyle

This is an interesting concept, and the execution is, well, it's not great. It's not execrable, either. It's the kind of book that you don't mind reading, but really wish that it was about 30% better, and then it could get an enthusiastic recommendation as a good pulp read. I like good pulpy fun, but those books really have to embrace that aspect of themselves. This comes so close to being rollicking, but not quite, and at times, it tries a little too hard to be serious, and it's not that either.

So this book is about a world where the CIA has a magical branch of operatives. All well and good, right? I even like that a good part of the book is about a hangover of Puritan magical attitudes, as two of the major families originate in that time period. That would be fine, except that then it seems that ALL the magic users employed by the CIA and indeed, that exist in the continental U.S., come from Puritan families. Except for the first family the main character meets who aren't Puritan are immigrants from Iran. In this family, the young woman has magical powers unlike anything seen before, and of course she and the main character fall head over heels.

So, wait a second. In all this time, all hundreds of years of U.S. history, magic users who came from immigrant groups never materialized? Not at all? Not even from white immigrants of British Isles ancestry who DIDN'T come over with the Puritans? Not one? Except the first woman he meets outside that group is one? That's the kind of logical leap that beggars the imagination. Particularly when the story seems to state that the CIA was formed in part to control magic users who weren't their Puritan lackeys, which seems a) super racist and b) unlikely, given that the CIA was created in the 1940s, and that leaves a whole century and half at least where non-Puritan magic users could be running around, and they suddenly and definitively managed to take control in such a way it's not even remarked upon? It's either rare, or it's not, and trying to say it's all Puritan except for this plot-convenient Iranian beauty for the main character to fall in love with is...not really the greatest way to handle this.

I mean, I am all for books about an occult secret service. I'm even okay if it's a little more rah-rah than, say Charles Stross' Laundry books, although I will always love sardonic skepticism of intelligence services more than All-American Puritan boy toys.

So, how is the prose and how are the characters? Well, the prose is unobjectionable - it's not great, and weirdly, it is mostly written fairly colloquially, with very occasional erudite words thrown in, and it almost always struck me as odd. I like vocabulary, but it didn't seem to match the rest of the book. As for the characters, well....  They're...fine? Pretty one-dimensional? They all fight ancestral battles over two centuries old like it happened to them? There doesn't seem to be much room for variations of human experience, or even one person thinking "hey, that doesn't make much sense, does it?"

They are pretty much what you would expect to find if you really thought that personality traits were handed down through families, and that family history would always be as vivid to later generations as it was to those who experienced it. It's not that people can't get obsessed over the past, and I supposed having ghosts around might not help the issue, but there's been remarkably little drift over the centuries. And Scherie, sure, she's powerful, but she's mostly there to be gorgeous, the object of the main character's affections, and to be a weapon at the end. Even her stated goals of going back to Iran to fight against oppression there fall by the wayside once she falls in love.  (There are a number of secondary female characters, and they're no better or worse than the male ones.)

I'm struggling with the part where this was just okay. It was okay! But it's not a lot more and that's too bad, because it could have been 30% more fun and I would have been telling lots of people to read it.