Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey
Published: Tor, 2008
Series: Book 6 of Kushiel’s Legacy

The Book:

“Imriel and Sidonie attempted to deny their love, but now they are determined to follow Elua’s edict to love as thou wilt. After the tragic death of Imriel’s wife, Dorelei, they have publicly acknowledged their romantic relationship.  Unfortunately, Imriel’s mother is the realm’s most famous traitor, and Sidonie is the heir to the throne.  Queen Ysandre is not willing to set aside old hatred and will only allow the lovers to marry if Imriel brings his estranged mother to justice.

Before this situation can be resolved, a delegation from Carthage throws the City of Elua into disarray.  Imriel and Sidonie’s love will be tested as never before, and they will both need all their wits and courage to protect the land they call home.” ~Allie

This is the sixth book of the Kushiel’s Legacy series, and the third book of Imriel’s trilogy.  I read this as a  part of a community read-along, and you can see the spoiler-filled discussion here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7. Other bloggers who participated in the read-along include Lynn's Book Blog, Dab of Darkness, Emma Wolf, and Over the Effing Rainbow. I am going to mention one spoiler in the second paragraph below, because it is very important to my reaction to the book.

My Thoughts:

Now that I have finished the first two trilogies of the Kushiel’s Legacy series, I see two major differences between the style of Phedre’s story and that of Imriel’s.  As I have commented before, Phedre’s trilogy was more of an epic fantasy, while Imriel’s is more of a romance.  There are certainly romantic relationships and sexual content involved in all of the novels,  but these elements take a more central role in Imriel’s trilogy.  Through all the new lands and adventures, the story of Imriel and Sidonie is fundamentally about two lovers overcoming a wide variety of external political and magical obstacles to their love.  The second difference involves the treatment of magic. The supernatural elements of Phedre’s story were largely of a mysterious and religious nature, whereas Imriel more frequently encounters straightforward sorcery and spellcasting.  These are value-neutral differences, since reader preferences vary, but the information might be useful for potential readers.  For my part, I was more partial to the style of Phedre’s trilogy, though I still enjoyed Imriel’s story.

(spoiler) In addition, I was somewhat frustrated by the central conflict.  While the political complications of Sidonie and Imriel’s relationship are considered, the story centers on an external magical obstacle--a mind control spell that affects everyone in the City of Elua. Their relationship is erased from everyone’s minds, and an alternative reality--where Sidonie loves someone else--is created.  This was an interesting way to examine what parts of these characters are fundamental to their nature, and what can be manipulated through modification of memory.  It also served to test the strength of the bond between Sidonie and Imriel against powerful magic.  On the other hand, it meant that readers essentially spend a large amount of the book with ‘alternate universe’ versions of all the characters.  Since returning to a particular set of characters is one of the things I love about this series, I found this unsatisfying.  The story certainly had tension, and I wanted Sidonie and Imriel to prevail, but I was also extremely impatient for everyone to get their minds back. (end spoiler)

On the other hand, there is still a lot to enjoy in Kushiel’s Mercy, and I enjoyed seeing Imriel’s story wind to a satisfying conclusion.  It is always fun to return to the familiar characters in Phedre and Imriel’s generations, and the novel did not disappoint in terms of introducing new fantasy versions of real lands and cultures.  Carthage is an obvious destination, but we also get to see more of Aragonia and some Mediterranean islands.  I was also delighted to see that Melisande was playing a role in the story again.  She was an impressive charismatic villain in Phedre’s trilogy, and I had missed her scheming in Imriel’s story.  I have enjoyed following all of the characters through so many adventures, alongside some really excellent bloggers who shared their perspectives and insights.  I’m sad that this is the final novel that will feature this place and time, but we will see more of this world in the final trilogy of Kushiel’s Legacy!

My Rating: 3/5

Kushiel’s Mercy draws the second trilogy of Kushiel’s Legacy to a close and concludes the story of Imriel de la Courcel.  It was not my favorite of the series, partially due to the increased focus on romance and the straightforward style of sorcery. All the same, I enjoyed revisiting Imriel, Sidonie, and other familiar characters, and seeing on what paths their lives are leading them.  It’s hard to say goodbye to such a wonderful cast, but I’m looking forward to reading more of Carey’s work in the future!

Monday, February 13, 2017

TV Musings: Fall Science Fiction and Fantasy

Welcome to my latest discussion post for television I’ve enjoyed recently.  This one covers mostly television shows that premiered in fall of 2016, some seasons of which have only recently finished.  There is a massive amount of genre television out there these days, and I’m enjoying being spoiled for choice in my entertainment! My next post on television will probably involve a lot of original streaming content from Amazon/Netflix.

Falling Water (USA) Season 1: This unusual show follows three characters whose lives are taking unusual turns due to situations involving lucid dreaming. Burton struggles to differentiate dreams and reality as he aids his firm in brokering a sketchy deal for rights to “rare earth metals”. The detective Taka pursues a deadly collective dreaming cult, spurred on by the hope that they may be able to reach his catatonic mother. Trendspotter Tess is convinced that she has given birth to a son, though she remembers no details beyond the vivid experience of childbirth.  She begins to see a young boy in her dreams, and joins a collective dreaming study in exchange for help in finding him.  Their three stories interact in unexpected ways as we slowly begin to see what is going on with dreaming in this world.

I think the writers really took a risk with this one, because the show is unapologetically weird and confusing.  For that reason, it also doesn’t work particularly well as a one-episode-a-week show.  After the first few episodes, I waited until the full season was out, so that I could watch everything at once.  It’s much easier to keep all the details in mind and to make the right connections if you watch the episodes back-to-back.  Watching it this way, it was easier to appreciate the originality of the show, as well as its ability to capture the baffling logic and unexpected transitions of dreaming. This is a show that demands patience and attention, and it doesn’t hurt if you have a fondness for stories about dreams. There’s no word yet on whether there will be a second season.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America) Season 1: Humor is a very tricky thing, since what makes one person laugh until their sides hurt will always make someone else yawn.  Dirk Gently’s dark, absurd humor was perfect for me.  I would say that if you aren’t laughing by the end of the bridge scene in episode two, you can safely assume that the rest of the show’s humor will not be your thing.  If you are, though, then you will probably love it as much as I did!

This is another show that requires some patience, this time because in the beginning it intentionally and aggressively doesn’t make any sense.  For instance, Dirk Gently’s original goal is to investigate a multiple murder that happened in a hotel penthouse.  The murder weapon is apparently a shark. There are tons of different factions (the police, the FBI, a cult, the Spring family and staff, some energy vampires,  the holistic detective, the holistic assassin…) and a multitude of little details that only begin to slot together near the very end. The plan of Dirk Gently and his reluctant assistant Todd is to just keep doing stuff until everything makes sense, and so the viewer also has to surrender to the flow of the universe.  The ending did fit most things together nicely, though, and I was happy to hear that there will be a second season for this one!  

3% (Netflix) Season 1: This Brazilian Netflix series is an interesting take on a familiar premise.  Civilization has mostly collapsed, and a small subset of people (3% of the world’s population), like in a technologically-advanced offshore paradise.  The founders of this community were believers in meritocracy, so “the process” is held each year to select the top 3% of the world’s 20-year-olds as new members.  This show follows the process in Brazil, where the egalitarian terrorist group “The Cause” is attempting to infiltrate the offshore.

It starts out simply, following a group of young people as they try to pass the various tests in the process.  However, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, both in terms of the motivations of the young folks and the machinations of the testers themselves.  It’s unclear whether the process is actually selecting the ‘best’, and whether that definition is even something that everyone would agree with.  The show can be pretty violent at times, because it does not flinch from the darker side of human nature.  At the end of the first season, there is clearly still more story to tell.  I believe I have heard that a second season is planned for later this year.

Frequency (the CW) Season 1: The CW primarily targets a teenage demographic, so its adult-targeted shows are rare and almost always cancelled after one season.  Containment was a victim of this tendency last summer.  It was a pretty decent show that had a very disappointing series finale.  I’m afraid Frequency is now falling to the same fate.  The second-to-last episode was a very good conclusion to the season, so I opted not to watch the finale this time.  I enjoyed the series, but I feel like the story has reached a good stopping place.  

The show involves a father (Frank) and daughter (Raimy) time-travel-communicating over a twenty year gap using a ham radio.  They’re working together to stop a serial killer before he abducts and kills Raimy’s mother.  They make a lot of understandable mistakes in the process, since neither of them are used to this sort of time-hopping investigation.  I appreciated that they stayed consistent with the concept of how the timeline changed, and I found the mechanics of how it worked really interesting.  Raimy’s working knowledge of the world didn’t update instantly when something in the past changed.  Instead, she would only realize the alteration when she actively retrieved the memory, realizing in the process that she recalled multiple overlapping versions of events. I can’t imagine how disorienting it would be to have your reality and history shifting underneath you like that.  All in all, the father-daughter teamwork, the high stakes, and the timeline-changing mechanics made it a pretty compelling show to watch!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Published: Saga Press (2015)
Series: Book 1 of the Dandelion Dynasty
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: Locus Award for Best First Novel

The Book:

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.” ~Amazon.com

This is Ken Liu’s first novel, and it kicks of the Dandelion Dynasty series.  This is a series you definitely have to read in order.  I’ve actually already read the second book, Wall of Storms, but I will try to keep my reactions to each book separate in the reviews.

My Thoughts:
The Grace of Kings  is set in a Chinese-influenced fantasy empire composed of many islands.  The story is concerned with the political and military conflicts that arise as the recently unified empire crumbles after the first Emperor’s death.  It took me a long time to be fully drawn into the story.  The only truly fantastical element in this first volume are the islands’ deities, who interfere in small ways to spur on their favorite mortals.  These many deities were such a small part of the story that I was still having a hard time keeping them straight by the end of the novel.  On top of this, the human characters also make quite a crowd, and it took a while for me to even get a good sense of them all.  Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu might be the main characters, but there are some minor characters that I found even more compelling.  By the end, a few of my favorites included the brilliant and unconventional general Gin Mazoti, Kuni’s wife Jia, and the unexpectedly excellent strategist Kindo Marana.  It might have been slow in initially catching my interest, but by the end there was no question but that I would need to read the rest of the series.

Part of what I loved about the novel involves its willingness to meaningfully explore ideas related to the structure of society, the practice of power, and the idea of fate, as well as many other interesting topics. Mata and Kuni’s ideologies map mostly to aristocracy and meritocracy, respectively.  Mata feels that nobility is an inheritable trait, and that the traditional status quo represents a ‘natural’ hierarchy that should be respected.  Kuni, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to challenge societal conventions, and believes that anyone should be able to define their own place in life through their actions--just as he did.  Their worldviews influence how they perceive each other, and how they each believe power should be wielded.  I loved that neither of these characters were a ‘chosen one’, because the story does not embrace the idea of destiny.  No one in the story fully knows what they’re doing, and they all can only make decisions based on their imperfect understanding of the world. This made for a chaotic story, but ultimately one in which I cared deeply about the decisions made by individuals.

I was also surprised by how much I was drawn in by the political and even military maneuvering. The novel felt like it had more of a nuts and bolts approach than most epic fantasies I’ve read.  We get to see all of the small decisions that build or destroy a political figure, all the wise moves and mistakes they make as they accumulate or lose power.  Similarly, the military tactics were detailed and creative.  Aside from Mata, most of the powerful characters engage in intelligent military tactics and work to leverage whatever advantages they can find in unexpected ways.  I especially enjoyed how they incorporate new ideas and new technologies, something that continues to be a draw in the next book in the series.  In the end, this novel does feel like a complete story, but I was still eager to see what would happen after the close of Kuni and Mata’s story.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Grace of Kings is an innovative and entertaining first book of an epic fantasy series, though it is heavy on epic and light on fantasy.  It took a while to feel grounded in the world, with all the many deities and even more numerous mortal characters.  Though it is set in a fictional world, some of the interesting social and political ideas feel quite relevant for our modern reality.  I also loved the political maneuvering and the creative approach to war.  By the end of the novel, I was pretty certain that I would read the rest of the series.  In fact, I’ve already read the second book, and am waiting impatiently for the final book of the trilogy!