Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit, 2014
Series: Book 2 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards
Awards Won: Locus SF and BSFA Awards

The Book:

“Breq was once a human segment of a spaceship’s AI, comfortably integrated with machines and other bodies’ perspectives.  Now she has only one human body left, and she knows who to blame for her loss— Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch.  That same Anaander Mianaai has chosen to adopt Breq into her family, to give her command of the ship Mercy of Kalr, and to dispatch her to Athoek Station, the home of Lieutenant Awn’s sister. 

Athoek is a relatively peaceful system that was annexed 600 years ago, and is now mainly concerned with the growing of tea.  However, old class and cultural divides are still causing problems, the Station’s AI is mysteriously unhappy, and not everything the leaders say seems to add up.  Athoek is going to be a difficult knot for Breq and her crew to untangle. ~Allie

This is the second novel of the Imperial Radch, and this is a series in which the books should definitely be read in order. So far, this series has been hitting all the right notes for me, and I’m looking forward to Ancillary Mercy!

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Sword picks up after the events of Ancillary Justice and follows the same protagonist, Breq the former ancillary.  The story this time is a smaller-scale, slower, and more intimate, as it focuses on the interpersonal and intercultural relationships within a single system in Radch space.  Since it takes place entirely within Radch space, where no one considers gender, the use of female pronouns as default is less noticeable than in Ancillary Justice. I still enjoy how clearly this one choice demonstrates the irrelevance of gender to the story.  Breq’s role is more complicated in Athoek than her narrow focus of the previous novel, but she does her best to apply her own sense of rightness and justice to every situation that arises.  The social problems she addresses are pretty black-and-white (such as oppression, slavery, and domestic abuse), but it seemed sadly realistic to see how difficult it was to force people to understand that the problems even existed.

There is no longer a past storyline, through which we could see Breq’s existence as an ancillary, but I appreciated that she is still something slightly different than human.  Her ability to process information allows Mercy of Kalr to feed her information on the activity and emotional states of the crew, so the single-narrator format is not quite as limited in perspective as it could have been otherwise.  It was also interesting to see how she struggles to cope with the loneliness of a single-body existence.  As for the rest of the cast, while I wish Seivarden had played a slightly larger role, there were plenty of other memorable new characters.  In particular, I enjoyed Breq’s mentor-like relationship with the teenage Lieutenant Tisarwat, who is struggling with a crisis of identity on top of her more ordinary teen problems.  I hope that she continues to play a major role in Ancillary Mercy.

In some ways, Ancillary Sword does feel a bit like a middle book. Though there’s plenty going on, not much of it concerns what I’d considered the major questions of the series, such as the civil war within Anaander Mianaai’s mind or the stability of the treaty with the mysterious Presger.  However, even though these threads may not have progressed, I enjoyed the focus on a single location and group of people. There were many things happening on Athoek on a variety of scales— oppression of populations, interpersonal problems, crime, potential diplomatic incidents, and so on.  Everything seemed to fit together quite naturally, making a story that was very easy to follow and enjoy, and the conclusion tied up the novel nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing how Breq’s life will continue in Ancillary Mercy!  

My Rating: 5/5

Ancillary Sword is a wonderful sequel to the book that took many awards by storm last year, Ancillary Justice.  The story is quieter and set on a smaller scale than the first book, with a more character-oriented focus.  Since it takes place entirely in a system of Radch space, the default use of female pronouns is also less noticeable. The plot mostly involves Breq coming to a new system and doing what she can to address injustices on both small and large scales, and I have continued to enjoy following her perspective.  Of the new characters, my favorite storyline would have to be that of the young Lieutenant Tisarwat, who Breq (sort of) takes under her wing.  I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, which is planned for publication later this year!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe

The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
Published: Timescape Books, 1981
Series: Book 3 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: BFS and Locus F Awards
Awards Nominated: BSFA, Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy Awards

Warning: This is the third book of a series, so there are some spoilers of the first two books in the following text.

The Book:

“The exiled torturer Severian has finally reached his post at the city of Thrax, where it appears he will be able to settle into a regular career and position in society.  However, when Severian finds that he is unable to carry out a sentence without question, he must flee Thrax and head into the wilderness.

Severian follows the trail of the Pelerines, the religious order from whom he accidentally received the Claw of the Conciliator, while he was in Nessus.  Along his path lie many familiar and unfamiliar dangers, and he will face many experiences that are both wondrous and horrifying.” ~Allie

For the third book of the series, I listened to the novel on audiobook during my daily commute.  I plan to also listen to the final installment of the series through audiobook, after I finish my ongoing listen of Greg Egan’s Permutation City.

My Thoughts:

After three books, I think that this series is starting to grow on me. I was a little frustrated that the first half of the series finished without Severian ever reaching Thrax, since his inability to reach his destination left me with the sense that he was wandering around with no purpose.  I was delighted to see that this novel opened with him already settled in Thrax, even though he didn’t stay there for long. The format of this installment of Severian’s memoir was similar to the previous ones; he spent most of the book wandering around having adventures and occasionally recounting in-universe stories.  Even so, I felt that his journey was a little more focused on his eventual goal than it was before, and I appreciated that small sense of forward momentum.

The highlights of previous books have been, for me, the creative details of Severian’s various encounters.  The Sword of the Lictor is no different in this respect, and I especially enjoyed the creepy and oppressive atmosphere of several of his more horror-themed experiences.  For instance, one scene takes place in the traditional horror locale of an isolated cabin, and involves a very creative kind of monster.  Another takes place up in the mountains, and involves a monster of the human variety.  In addition to enjoying the stories on their own merit, I was also pleased to see some of the mysteries from previous novels finally explained.   I enjoyed seeing more of the dying ‘Urth’, and hearing more about how various people lived on it.    

One of my largest complaints about the earlier books was the character of Severian, and I felt like this was the first book that took steps towards making him a little sympathetic.  Several acts that contributed to this involved him caring for children in need, with no expectation of repayment.  The act that caused him to flee Thrax also helped me see him in a slightly kinder light.  I think it also helped that a long stretch of this novel did not involve Severian sleeping with women, since his perspective on women is problematic at best.  I appreciated seeing a bit more about the rationalizations he had been given as a child for his career as a torturer, since this made it a little easier to see where he was coming from. I still wouldn’t say Severian is a good person-- not by a long shot-- but I am starting to see him as a person that is perhaps in transition into becoming someone better.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he might grow in the final fourth of the story!

My Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve been having a hard time getting into this classic of science fiction, but The Sword of the Lictor is my favorite of the series so far.  Though it still features Severian wandering around and encountering various situations, the overall story felt a little bit more focused.  Some of the individual encounters are especially chilling, and I was happy to see some long-standing questions answered at last.  I’ve never been particularly fond of the main character, the torturer Severian, but I felt like he took some steps toward becoming a better person in this fourth of the story.  I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen next!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: The Moon and the Sun by Vonda M. McIntyre

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda M. McIntyre
Published: Pocket Books, 1997
Awards Won: Nebula Award, Intergalactic Award

The Book:

“The family of Marie-Josèphe de la Croix has risen in prominence at the court of Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV of France.  Her brother Yves has become the king’s favored natural philosopher, and he has just returned from an expedition where he has captured a live sea monster. While Yves wants to study this new creature for science, the aging king suspects it holds the secret to immortality.

Yves and Marie-Josèphe are pulled into the complicated social life of the court at Versailles, as they try to please the king without sacrificing their principles. The court is an especially difficult place for Marie-Josèphe, who has no dowry to ensure a good marriage and dreads one day returning to the silence of a convent. She must find a way to stay true to herself without losing all chance of a happy future.”~Allie

This is the second novel l’ve enjoyed by Vonda M. McIntyre, the first being Dreamsnake. This one is supposedly going to be made into a movie pretty soon, on April 10th! Mysteriously, there are still no trailers or promos for the film, so I’m not sure if it will hold to that date or not.  We’ll see!  

To get into the right mindset, I also watched Le Roi Danse just before my final edit of this review.  The film is set a fair bit before The Moon and the Sun, but also gives an interesting look at baroque music, Versailles, and King Louis XIV.  

My Thoughts:

I think that The Moon and the Sun would be an excellent book for anyone interested in the day-to-day social scene of King Louis XIV’s court at Versailles.  It feels like McIntyre put a lot of time into researching what it might have been like at that particular point in history, and there are endless descriptions of clothing, hairstyles, the social hierarchy, the religion, and a variety of social gatherings.  There are also a variety of real historical figures who show up, of which my favorite was the young Domenico Scarlatti (I am biased, I love playing his music).  I believe that McIntyre actually cut down on the various titles each person carried, but the titles that remained made it a little difficult to keep people straight, at least at the beginning. Aside from the existence of the sea monster, I felt like the novel painted a thorough picture of what it might have been like to live at the Court of Versailles.  As a student of baroque music and a person who has visited the palace and grounds, it was an interesting glimpse into another world.

Though there are several viewpoint characters, it is clear that the heroine is Marie-Josèphe de la Croix.  She’s a perfectly likable lead, but that very perfection can be a little annoying at times. She’s more skilled than others at just about everything: drawing, composing music, mathematics, horseback riding, languages, etc.  She’s devoutly religious, demure and humble, though it seems she is constantly being singled out by important members of the court because she is so special. She’s also very sheltered—she begins the story as a grown woman who believes that having sex is a horrible experience married couples must endure in order to build a family.  With all of her charms, it is inevitable that she would attract a handful of men at court, and so her story involves a romance.  I don’t want to give details of that part away, but I rather liked her slow-building romance and thought it suited the character and her story well. Aside from Marie-Josèphe, the court was populated with a wide variety of characters, and the tangle of these courtiers attachments provided a complicated social backdrop.  

The sea monster was the main fantasy element, but her existence seemed more natural and biological than magical.  From a note by McIntyre after the end of the novel, it seems that the story grew around the idea of what might have happened if sea people had actually existed in this time period.  Through Marie-Josèphe and her brother’s work, we see an idea of how scientists of that age (natural philosophers) might have approached the study of such a creature.  The existence and nature of the sea monster also prompted discussions of personhood and self-determination, not only for non-humans, but also for different classes or genders of humans.  Though the sea monster is eventually important in driving the story forward, I felt that the focus was really on romance and social maneuvering at the Court of Versailles. I feel like I am perhaps not the target audience for this novel, but I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it.       

My Rating: 3.5/5   

The Moon and the Sun is a historical romance featuring a somewhat improbably perfect heroine, with a fantastical twist in the existence of sea people.  I think it would be most enjoyed by readers interested in fiction about daily life at Le Roi Soleil’s court at Versailles, since the setting, fashions, customs, complicated social webs, and politics were portrayed in great detail.  The many titled people are court were difficult to keep straight at first, but they provided a complicated social environment for the ingenue, Marie-Josèphe, to navigate. The fantasy part of the story comes along very slowly, though it does eventually affect events.  Though I occasionally became impatient with the heroine’s unending goodness and the many hairstyle or outfit descriptions, I enjoyed both the story of The Moon and the Sun and its meticulous setting.   

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Published: Mulholland Books (2014)

The Book:

“Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies, but this one is unique even by Detroit's standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused. The cops nickname him "Bambi," but as stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?

If you're Detective Versado's over-achieving teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you are the disgraced journalist, Jonno, you do whatever it takes to investigate what may become the most heinous crime story in memory. If you're Thomas Keen, you'll do what you can to keep clean, keep your head down, and try to help the broken and possibly visionary artist obsessed with setting loose The Dream, tearing reality, assembling the city anew.”

I’d been waiting to finish my review of The Shining Girls before I read this, and now I am once again caught up with reading all of Beukes’s novels. I’ve also heard that this one is going to be adapted as a television series.  I’m going to keep an eye out for that!

My Thoughts:

Broken Monsters shares a number of similarities with The Shining Girls (which I reviewed few weeks ago). They’re both serial killer stories with a supernatural twist, and so tend to lean toward thriller and horror genres. They both also have viewpoint chapters from the killer’s perspective.  They are also both set in a major American city, and the culture of the city is a heavy influence (Chicago for The Shining Girls and Detroit for Broken Monsters).  However, the focus and structure of the two novels are quite different. In terms of structure, I felt like Broken Monsters was moving a little bit back toward the style of Moxyland, where there are multiple characters with separate storylines, which intersect at different points.  I liked that there was a lot more going on in the plot besides the central murder mystery, and I think this was a major reason why this book captured my attention so completely.

A major focus of the story involved social media and modern art, and the intersection of the two in terms of presentation, audience and meaning.  I think it is pretty tricky to involve a lot of social media and communication technology, because the trends through which people communicate can change so rapidly.  In relation to the current world, I thought the memes, teenage behavior, and txtspk felt fairly accurate, though I don’t know how gracefully these aspects will age.  For example, will anyone know what Nyan Cat was in ten years, and what will Facebook become? On the other hand, I doubt that the basic idea of the use of social media as a kind of form of performance art and identity construction will change anytime soon.  The creative aspect of social media is seen in both Jonno’s journalism and the risky online activities of Layla and her best friend.  The Detroit modern art scene plays a prominent role as well, and even the murders can be seen as horrific attempts to bring dreams to life. I enjoyed how many of the storylines explored the connections or lack of connections between the artist’s intent, the observer’s perception, and reality.

The focus on social media and art was a major part of what I liked about the novel, but I also enjoyed the characters (though their actions sometimes stressed me out).  I feel like all of the primary characters are ‘broken monsters’ in their own ways.  The killer is a monster, but his murders are more related to mixing dreams and reality than homicidal intent.  The other main characters are less monstrous, but still deeply flawed. For instance, Jonno wrecked his previous relationship and career, and is so desperate to recover them both that his sense of morality has started fraying.  Layla’s problems mostly come from her inexperience and poor decision-making, and her mother struggles to balance her loyalty to the police force with her loyalty to her daughter. TK is probably one of the kindest of the main characters, but he also has a lot of mistakes and heartache in his past.  It was fascinating to watch each of these characters struggle to cope with situations spinning far out of their control, and I ended up staying up far too late one night to see how things would come out in the end.

My Rating: 4/5

Broken Monsters is another of Lauren Beukes’s novels that fall outside of my usual favorite genres (SFF).  Like Shining Girls, it is a horror and thriller about a supernatural-tinged serial killer, but the many viewpoint characters and separate storylines reminded me a little of the style of Moxyland. The post-collapse city of Detroit and its culture plays a large role in the story, and the usage of communication technology feels very contemporary and accurate.  I really enjoyed the role social media, art and ideas of perception vs. intent played throughout various plotlines. In the end, I thought this novel was excellent, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of story Beukes will write next!