Archive for Books

Review: The Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born, or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock. You expect it. Humanoid aliens, they’re trouble.”

— Mary Gentle, The Golden Witchbreed

A few months ago, I finally picked up Mary Gentle’s science fiction duology, The Golden Witchbreed and its sequel, Ancient Light. The story that begins in The Golden Witchbreed is standard SF: A human ambassador arrives on an alien world to assist the first contact team, and finds herself snarled in local politics. The difference lies, first, in what those local politics turn out to be, and second, in Mary Gentle’s deft handling of character and interwoven plotlines.

The alien planet, Orthe, is inhabited by humanoid aliens who are just human enough to make the ambassador trip up — and the reader, too, if she’s not careful. The Ortheans are drawn with superb attention to detail. Most of the aliens that the reader meets in The Golden Witchbreed live in small holdings that answer to a larger, elected-as-needed assembly of representatives, and an elected monarch who rules by divine right. Mary Gentle does not make the mistake of having a One World Culture for her aliens, however, or even just a few variations on a theme.

As the ambassador travels away from the capital city, the reader gets to see one culture shade into another. I enjoyed watching the ambassador slowly adapt to Orthe. As her grasp of the language and social niceties moves from being trained, to being practiced, to being second nature, the vocabulary in her narration changes. The humans have classed the Ortheans as a pretech, but when a group of Barbarians arrive in the hollowed-out hull of an ancient flying machine, both the reader and the ambassador realize that something far stranger is going on.

The Golden Witchbreed is a good book, but it is not a complete story without Ancient Light. Ancient Light begins twenty years after the ambassador leaves Orthe. Political upheaval on Earth has left her without a government to represent — instead, she answers to the Company. Having discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization on Orthe, the Company wants to know whether any of the alien technology could be put to human use. Alien politics, human politics, alien religion, and the ambassador’s own shaky hold on her sanity raise the stakes in Ancient Light to the point where I finished this book standing up — because finding a chair would have meant looking away from the page.

Orthe is a world so finely balanced that mere observation by an outsider is enough to change the system. To me, these books read as a statement about invasion and colonization, though Mary Gentle never wields the message stick hard enough to make me confident that’s what she was trying to say. The Orthe duology is good science fiction, and has as much to say about our past as our future. I recommend these books without hesitation.

Review: Zero History by William Gibson

With the possible exception of the Very Ugly Shirt, I think I’ve seen all of the technology in William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, featured on BoingBoing. Zero History is a science fiction novel because a science fiction writer wrote it. If it had been written by someone other than William Gibson, it could have been shelved with the thrillers. On the other hand, Zero History does two things that science fiction is supposed to do: It examines the impact of technology on human beings; and if the science was taken out, the plot wouldn’t work.

Hubertus Bigend, the eccentric billionaire from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, once again recruits the former rock star, Hollis Henry. This time he’s tracking a fashion genius whose anti-advertising has created an underground sensation. With the former benzo addict Milgrim, would-be military contractors, and a surprisingly straightforward romantic subplot, William Gibson pulls together another intricate and enthralling novel.

I found this book to be more ambivalent than the other two. Fear drives the characters. I have not figured out what Hollis is running from, aside from her mysterious and frightening benefactor. Milgrim is remembering what fear is like without sedatives to insulate him from the world. The generalized paranoia that underlies modern military-worship keeps the nominal bad guys moving through a series of misunderstood signals that might have been comic if the stakes didn’t feel so high. At the end, despite the protagonists’ celebrations, I had the unsettling impression that the bad guys won.

Zero History is a continuation of the series that started with Pattern Recognition. It brings back both the style and many of the characters from those books, not his earlier work. Gibson’s precisely-machined writing is a pleasure to read, as always. He lets his plot drift, so it feels like all the characters are sliding slowly and inevitably towards towards a single point of crisis. While Zero History never reaches the frenzy I remember from other Gibson novels, it kept me engaged until the end. Also, I adored the bit with the penguin.

I will reread this book. Zero History is not a stand-alone novel, and I believe I will benefit from reading the whole series in order. Readers who are looking for a return to Neuromancer will be disappointed. Fans of the other Bigend books should pick this one up, too.

Review: “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

One of the things I’m going to miss terribly when e-books are the norm and brick-and-mortar stores are few and far between will be the opportunity to walk into a bookstore, pick up the one thing I really want to read, and then hit the discount rack on the way to the checkout. That’s exactly what I did when I was in Florida recently, picking up I Shall Wear Midnight, which I later reviewed on this site.

Among the books I picked up on my way out of the store was a three-pack of John Carter of Mars novels, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’d heard there might be a movie coming soon, and I wanted to familiarize myself with a sci-fi classic that I probably should’ve read long ago anyway.

Now that I’ve finished A Princess of Mars, I can sort of see why they’re classics. Sort of.

Like many novels written in the late 19th/early 20th century, A Princess of Mars starts out with the discovery of a manuscript by the author himself, and his memories of “Uncle Jack”. Burroughs uses the device effectively to set up the mythology of John Carter, and then jumps into the story. The first act is fairly straightforward: Carter goes to Mars, discovers he’s stronger than most everyone there, and manages to impress the natives. Burroughs spends a lot of time describing this new world, and though most readers of current fiction would say tl;dr or bemoan the author’s use of infodumps, that was the style back then, so I give it a pass. At the end of that act, he meets Dejah Thoris, the eponymous Princess of Mars, and decides he’s fallen in love with her.

By this point in the novel, I’d hit on its major sticking point — at least, in my mind — and it’s something I’ve seen in other fiction of the era: John Carter… well, he’s awesome.

No, he’s not awesome. He’s AWESOME. There’s literally nothing John Carter cannot do on Mars: he has superior strength, agility, martial prowess, physical attractiveness (as compared to humans of Earth, not the Green Men of Barsoom), problem-solving skills, intelligence, and luck. It’s like God rolled a series of natural 20s when He was creating Carter, and Carter knows exactly how to take advantage of that. He instantly figures out how to move in Mars’s lower gravity. He applies his knowledge of battle from the Civil War to fighting alongside several different alien races. He isn’t completely floored by the weird appearance of the Tharks (the green men of Mars). He learns to speak the Martian language and use Martian telepathy despite not — to our knowledge, anyway — knowing any languages other than English nor how to be telepathic at all beforehand.

And, what’s more, he instantly wins the trust of pretty much everyone around him. The few who don’t like him are so clearly Stereotypical Evil Characters that the reader knows almost immediately they’ll be getting some kind of comeuppance, most likely at Carter’s hands (or sword).

The rest of the story is spent on getting Carter back together with Thoris — they are separated in the second act — and it’s kind of blah through there (there’s even a pod racing scene, sort of) before the grand finale, when Carter leads the good Martians against some really, really, unmistake-ably evil Martians. Kind of like how, in Star Trek 6, there were honorable Klingons and evil Klingons.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. There was lots of adventure, interesting scenery and worldbuilding, and if the aliens were a little too human, that’s not really a failing — it’s just the way stories were written back then. Besides, the characters are consistent within themselves — none of them do anything that immediately drags you out of the story. The ending wraps up a little too fast, as stories from that era were wont to do, but that’s okay, because we know there’ll be more John Carter of Mars stories coming up. I feel bad for readers of that era, who didn’t know there’d be more.

A Princess of Mars is short enough that you can read it in a weekend, if you read at a good clip. The version I have has some very nice illustrations by Thomas Yeates, and an introduction by Mike Ashley that lays out the history of the Barsoom series. The book itself is suitable for reading by mature tweens who are already into sci-fi or adventure stories, though the illustrations do contain PG-13 nudity (Carter himself shows up naked on Mars, and to assimilate with the Tharks, he forgoes clothing as they do). I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m currently enjoying the second book, Gods of Mars, which is part of the omnibus.

What We’re Reading: “Gregor the Overlander”

The Underland Chronicles: Gregor the OverlanderI am the mom of an eight-year-old, so I do keep up with the kids’ book market, but I chose these books because they were written by the Queen of Pacing, Suzanne Collins, author of the huge hit, The Hunger Games trilogy. (Which I loved, despite the disappointment of Mockingjay, but that’s another blog post.) When I found that she’d written five midgrade novels, I got them via eMusic. (not an affiliate link, I do love eMusic for their catalog and their non-DRM files.)

Here is where I’m firmly believing that tropes and clichés don’t kill stories; bad writing kills stories. If I told you the basic plot- boy in our world falls into mysterious magical underground kingdom were he’s prophesied to save them all, you’d snort and say, “oh, that’s original.” But so what? Original or not, Collins makes it awesome.

Gregor is eleven, and a pretty responsible kid, since his grandmother has dementia and his mom takes care of him, his seven year old sister Lizzie, and his two year old sister Boots. His dad disappeared over two years ago, and he’s had to take on a lot of the childcare (and elder care) since his mom works to support the five of them. He falls into the Underland, where they immediately treat him like a dirty stranger (they keep insisting he bathe) and he inadvertently offends them frequently. Then we find out about the prophesy, and the giant rats, and a quest, and it’s a whole thing.

What makes Collins’ work shine is, of course, her pacing, which keeps me sitting in the car long after I’ve gotten home to get to the end of a chapter. But her characters are also awesome. Gregor should show a little more fear as an eleven year old- he admits to a fear of heights, but we never see this fear manifest- but he’s a solid kid who’s smart but impulsive. The surprise is how well his two year old sister fits into the story. Boots is charming and fun and has a weird ability to tell the giant cockroaches (“crawlers” is the polite term) apart, something the Underlanders can’t even do. When she has a tantrum in the first book, it’s perfectly suited to the situation, and even comes in handy as they’re captured by some creatures who don’t like loud noises.

Sometimes it seems a little too easy traveling with a two year old (I seem to remember my two year old not being so ready to accept a brand new schedule, never mind constant adventure), and the descriptions in the underland sometimes seem too clear to allow for the amount of light they had available, but those are minor complaints to an otherwise fun read.

Prophesies, other lands, and heroic outsiders are common tropes in fantasy, but give them to a talented writer, and you will still have a book you can’t put down. I’ve finished the first two, Gregor the Overlander and The Prophesy of Bane, and I’m eager to get the other three. Highly recommended for any mid-grade reader (or adult) who loves adventure.

(Since this is an audio podcast, I should mention the audiobook is a great listen, the narrator giving life to the characters. The consistency isn’t the same through the books, though, which is irritating. A major rat character sounds bored and sardonic in book 1 and scratchy and mean in book 2….)

Book Review: White Tiger, by Kylie Chan

Confession time: I don’t finish books I don’t like. I find it a waste of my time, and if I don’t care to finish the book, I don’t care to find out what happens at the end. *

The sad truth is, I didn’t finish White Tiger.

It hooked me, quite well in fact. I read 250 pages the first night. The pacing was good, the characters interesting. We have a headstrong English teacher, Emma, quitting her kindergarten teacher job in Hong Kong and immediately getting picked up as a live-in nanny for one of the girls she tutors. The single dad is smokin’ hot, the girl is delightful, and the pay is amazing. The conflict comes when she realizes he’s a god and he can’t return to his palace because he has to protect his daughter from demons who would kidnap her to control him, but staying away from his source of power is making him weaker and weaker. (There’s a romance bit too, of course.)

Emma befriends the chauffeur/bodyguard, who is part information-dispenser and part tool to keep the character (and therefore the reader) in the dark. The character is a good one, don’t get me wrong, but he and Emma begin pulling practical jokes on each other that just seem to come out of nowhere. He doesn’t seem particularly playful, and every time they played a prank on each other, it pulled me out of the story because I started thinking, “Why did that happen?”

But the biggest flaw of this book was the lack of editing. It was far too long and needed tightening. Some dialogue was just unnecessary, some characters repeating verbatim sentences they’d said a paragraph earlier.

I can also see non-martial arts aficionados getting lost in the battle scenes, because Emma begins training with the god and Chan uses words that martial arts fans would know, but I’m afraid others would not. And even though she went into detail about the training, she kept using only the term “martial arts” and never saying what system they were studying. (The fact that this was a Chinese god teaching her “katas” which are Japanese forms bugged the crap out of me. At least she didn’t call him “sensei” which is also Japanese.)

In short, White Tiger had a good hook, a good premise, but suffered from bloat, and I just got bored with the repetition. If an editor had cut 100 pages, it probably would have held my interest.

* OK, there is one mystery I did wonder about. The name of the book is White Tiger, and we meet a god who is the white tiger, but as far as I read, his role was tiny. I wondered where Chan was going to put him that would justify naming the whole book after him…

Book Review: I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

The world of genre fiction was dealt a serious blow when author Terry Pratchett announced that he suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It didn’t stop him from writing, but it may have moved up the end of his writing career. His previous Discworld novel, “Unseen Academicals”, was – to my mind, anyway – full of plots and ideas that Pratchett may have wanted to cover in future novels but was afraid he wouldn’t be able to. I thought it made the book suffer.

Not so much with “I Shall Wear Midnight”, the latest – and possibly the last, depending upon the progress of Pratchett’s illness – Tiffany Aching novel.

“Midnight” begins when Tiffany is 16, and has taken on the mantle of the witch of the Chalk, a land in Discworld relatively close to Lancre. She does all the mucky jobs witches do – birthing babies, seeing to the sick, laying out the dead, and generally living and working near the edge. Early on, we are shown just how well Tiffany has learned her craft from Granny Weatherwax, “the most highly regarded of the leaders [witches] didn’t have” (“Wyrd Sisters”) when she has to deal with Seth Petty, who has beaten his pregnant teenage daughter so severely that she lost the baby.

And there we have the first insight that “Midnight”, while being a YA novel and shelved as such in many bookstores, is not for the immature. The thing is, after having read the book, that sequence is the most graphic and adult in the novel. To me it served a similar purpose to Shepherd Book’s death in “Serenity” – a character will be killed off, to show how serious this is. There’s a scene or two later in the book that reminds us, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Seth Petty did.

I think we needed it, too, because the novel’s main villain, the Cunning Man – the spirit of a long-dead priest of Omnianism, a religion established in “Small Gods” and referred to many times throughout the series – is somewhat hard to wrap one’s head around. We’re told he comes back every few hundred years, and he fights the witches, and the witches generally win. He came back this time because Tiffany kissed the Wintersmith (in the book of the same name) and drew enough attention to herself.

The Cunning Man is the kind of villain that works well for a YA audience because it makes people do things they normally wouldn’t, against their will – similar to the hiver in “A Hat Full of Sky” – but it makes the book a little difficult to follow when it comes to the main plot. It’s like “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”: Harry has the Dursleys, school, Quidditch, the Voldemort War, being in love with Ginny, and he has to deal with the whole Voldemort thing… but that last one gets lost in the shuffle amid all the other story arcs. The same with “Midnight” – Tiffany has to handle a lot of things in this book besides the Cunning Man, including caring for the people of the Chalk, the imminent marriage of her friend Roland (son of the Baron), the Duchess’s treatment of her people, and Amber Petty (Seth’s daughter), who seems to really like the Nac Mac Feegle.

Oh, yes. The Feegles are back – Rob Anybody, Jeannie the Kelda, and fan favorite, Daft Wullie. Rob even puts aside his Feegle nature for a moment when the Baron’s men threaten their mound. It’s quite a moment. And speaking of people who are back, one of the best parts of the book is when Tiffany meets Granny Weatherwax’s other successful apprentice.

“Midnight” brings us all our favorite witches – Granny, Nanny, and even Magrat, along with mentions of Tiffany’s friends Petulia and Anagramma, and her teacher Miss Tick – as well as introducing Mrs. Proust, who has a very surprising connection to Boffo (see “Wintersmith”). Tiffany also meets Captains Carrot and Angua (glad to see she’s finally gotten that promotion), Constable Haddock, and the inimitable Commander Vimes. But the book takes place on the Chalk, for the most part, and despite the attendance of the senior witches – one of whom (and you can easily guess which) has fought the Cunning Man before – it’s Tiffany who must save the day.

I’ll be honest: I really didn’t care for “The Wee Free Men”, but the rest of the Aching books have been good, solid stories, and if this one meandered a bit and did contain a tad too much additional plot (Miss Smith, the Duchess and Leticia, Tiffany Goes to Ankh-Morpork – which really felt shoehorned in there), Pratchett is still a good enough storyteller to tie it up neatly at the end. If “I Shall Wear Midnight” turns out to be the final Tiffany Aching novel, then I for one am satisfied with how her arc ends.

Besides, that means we can get back to the business of making Vimes the next Patrician*.

* Oh, come on, you know that’s how the Discworld series will end.