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Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Ever since I got heavily into Steampunk during my time at college, The Difference Engine has been one of the books that constantly comes up as one of the genre's forerunners, something that everyone interested in Steampunk should read. So, when I actually got round to reading it, I was really looking forward to getting sucked into a world of adventure, fantastical science and bright hopes for the future.

I really should have kept Gibson and Sterling's background in Cyberpunk more in mind. This wasn't the bastion of optimism that I had been expecting, given the values of the genre. No, this was focused very much on the "-punk" part of the genre's name, set in a world of great progress and ingenuity that is hampered by class wars. Admittedly not as grim as many cyberpunk novels and films that I've seen, but it was still something of a shock. The main action follows three main viewpoint characters. The first is Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a former Luddite politician who has fallen on hard times in the years since his death. The second is Edward Mallory, a palaeontologist at the peak of his career after discovering a complete dinosaur skeleton. And finally, there is Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy based on a historical figure of the same name. The thing that bring these three people together is a set of punch cards that have been attracting significant attention due to their association with Lady Ada Byron, though no-one seems to have any real idea of their contents. I personally found it very hard to get through this, simply because the plot was so slow and circuitous. So many names and events turned up over the course of the novel that it was hard to keep track of when someone returned in the narrative; as such, I'm sure that there were events that should have seemed more significant, but weren't in my mind. And at the end of it all, I still had to consult Wikipedia to find out what those damn punch cards actually contained, as the reference that the narrative makes is somewhat outside of my sphere of knowledge. So would I recommend this? Yes and no.
Okay, so on the side of yes, I would say that if you're interested in the technological and political history of the Victorian era, the history of the Internet age and modern Science, then this will be utterly fascinating to you. I can only lay claim to these in passing, so there was a lot of content that completely passed me by, probably to my detriment. Despite this, even I found the world that Gibson and Sterling had created to be utterly fascinating. If you're looking for a completely comprehensive world that is simultaneously familiar to us as Victorian Britain and yet alien and weirdly advanced, then you can't go wrong here.
On the side of no, it does meander quite a bit in its quest to follow the path of these punch cards, and can lead into sections that feel both pointless and kind of uncomfortable. Much as I am sure that a character would be reasonably sure to get drunk and stay with a prostitute overnight in the course of their life at that point, I am equally sure that I do not want to see said encounter. It seemed like it needed slimming down, especially in Edward Mallory's section of the narrative; I was honestly wondering whether it would ever end at some points.

Overall, it very much depends what you're looking for when it comes to novels. If you're looking for world-building and a more critical examination of the Victorian era and the Steampunk genre, then I'm sure that you'll get on with The Difference Engine like a house on fire. If you're looking for something a bit faster paced and the more optimistic side of Steampunk, then I would perhaps look elsewhere. I can appreciate both types, but I think that this might have been aimed at someone perhaps more intellectual than me, so I can't help but feel that I missed out on a lot. 3.5/5

Next review: River of Gods by Ian McDonald

Signing off,

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This one came with some mixed expectations. On the one hand, my track record with military science fiction is pretty much non-existent, so I really had no idea what I was getting myself in for. That's just a little bit scary. On the other hand, I'd heard almost nothing but praise for it, so at the very least I was starting with some of the most highly regarded military science fiction. My reaction at the end is pretty mixed too.

The Forever War follows William Mandella, a physics student in the halcyon days of 1996, who gets recruited into a war against an alien enemy, the Taurans, after an exploration ship is destroyed in deep space. The catch is that every time they travel to a new world to defend, their rate of time gets increasingly disparate from that of Earth's. When Mandella returns to the planet after what seems to him like two years, it has actually been over two decades; this time dilation only gets worse the longer he stays in space, with each new batch of recruits or civilians that he meets only seeming more and more alien in comparison to the time that he came from.
So, the good bits. First, it managed to make physics at least passably interesting, which is always a feat for me. And you really need to have at least a passing interest in that area of science for The Forever War to have any appeal whatsoever, considering that the main concept is hinged on it. Second, the combat scenes are fantastically written, with just the right balance of excitement and overwhelming sense of futility. They are utterly brutal, for varying different reasons each time, and Mandella is basically just thrown in at the deep end and praying for the best outcome each time. If you're more interested in the military aspect of the genre, I'd definitely recommend this. The main character is largely well-written too, likeable enough that the audience sympathises with his conflicting desires for the war to end and to not face what Earth has become, but detached enough that his survival makes sense.
So far so good, right? That's where my modern, liberal sensibilities come in to make things thoroughly uncomfortable for me. I didn't think that the sexual politics were written in a great way, which is why I hated how unavoidable it became as the book progressed. Okay, so minor spoiler here: when Mandella goes back to Earth, he finds that after a population boom that has taxed resources, the world's government is encouraging people to partake in homosexuality. Mandella is not comfortable with this, so when this element of society becomes more and more prevalent, it kind of feels like the book is making the point of "homosexuality = big, bad future". Add to that the implication that we will get to the point where sexual preferences can just be turned on and off? It's just all kinds of homogenous, stereotyped and uncomfortable. I know it was written in 1974, but come on. It's a book about a war in space. At what point would I have cared what the majority of the population's sexual preferences were? At what point would I have assumed that it was any different from the varied spread that we are currently aware of? It's a weird opposition between gay and straight, and I'm sure the world-building would have done fine without it. It may not bother other people anywhere near as much, but sexual politics is a subject that is close to my heart and cannot be messed with.

Overall then, a largely successful novel. Fantastic combat scenes and interesting science that is let down, at least for me, by the outdated sexual politics. Probably worth at least one read by fans of the genre, either military or science fiction. 3.5/5

Next review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Signing off,

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

I had been looking forward to reading The Guardians immensely, as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories. Then my mum gave it a read and wasn't hugely impressed. A bit of a hurdle, but then she and I have had wildly different opinions before, and who was to say that this wouldn't be any different?

The story follows main protagonist Trevor and his childhood friends in two separate, but closely interlinked, story-lines. In the past, it follows their teenage selves in the aftermath of the disappearance of their music teacher, and the terrible events that happen in the abandoned house in Caledonia street. In the present, they are in their forties, returning to their home-town after the suicide of Ben, the only one who stayed after graduating high school; whilst sorting through his late friend's belongings, Trevor finds himself having to confront whatever is in the abandoned house once more, lest it forever be a sword of Damocles.
It was okay. It kind of read like it had the potential to be a really great, grippingly creepy horror story about a haunted house, but was held back by certain elements that didn't quite work. So what did work, first of all? The haunted house was pretty much perfect. The idea that the more you spent in the house, or even just looking at it, would make you more and more unstable and thus willing to listen to the evil spirit within? Now that was a concept that I could run with. And it did produce some genuinely eerie moments that were the real highlights of the book. But of course, there have to be downsides.
The first thing that instantly bugged me was the writing style. It was a fairly casual tone, but at the same time, overly wordy and a bit on the flowery side. If he could describe something in one piece of imagery, the author would use two or stretch that one bit of imagery to the absolute breaking point. It very much reminded me of my own writing at the pre-edit stage, which is possibly why it annoyed me so much.
Secondly, the plot is dragged down by a part of the story-line in the past, which seems to make little sense even in context. Okay, so their music teacher, a pretty young woman, goes missing and Ben says that he thinks that he saw someone drag her into the haunted house, which is across the street from him; he can't be sure what he saw though, and it might not have even been human. Understandably, his friends are sceptical. So when he later says that he thinks that the person that he saw manhandling her was their hockey coach, what is their reaction? They pretty much instantly believe him. I find this a bit of a stretch of credibility really, especially since we as readers are kind of expected to just believe Ben as well, without any other evidence. Since I could never be sure that their suspicions were correct, it made what followed in that part of the story-line deeply uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I have seen main protagonists do worse, but usually the text is self-aware enough to know that what they're doing is wrong; here, it felt like I was supposed to sympathise, but it really didn't sit right with me. Also, there were a couple of things that made the crime-reader part of me want to scream, because they do some REALLY dumb things during their investigation that would surely get them caught and at least implicated in a crime, all in the name of keeping out of trouble. Very frustrating.

Overall, a book that had potential, but was just okay in the end. The characters were serviceable and did what they should, but little more. The story was similarly average, with a few twists that I wasn't expecting, but more than a little stupid plotting to balance them out. The haunted house sections were fantastic, all the more so for being surrounded by generally more mediocre parts. I really wish there had been more focus on the house, instead of the rest that didn't work so much. 3/5

Next review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Signing off,

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

I knew very little about this book when I first received it, other than what could be gleaned from the blurb. The only other thing that I had to go on was that the person who gave it to me was so liberally applying praise that I was almost surprised she didn't get tongue-tied. I'll admit, the memory of her enthusiastic take on the book was the main thing that stuck, as the blurb was not really enough to make me pick it up otherwise.

A Long Long Sleep follows Rosalinda Fitzroy, a girl who wakes up from stasis to find that 62 years have passed. Her presence forgotten after the deaths of her parents, Rose must now navigate a world in which not only are her parents and her first love gone, but has also gone through some pretty major upheaval after a series of pandemics have ravaged the human population. While she tries to adapt to this new life, she may have to confront what is left of her past before one of the remnants comes back to take whatever she has left to lose.
Holy cow, I did not expect this to be so good. It's a bit of a slow start, as both the reader and Rose have to get used to a strange new world that we've been basically dropped in, but the writing is surprisingly engaging and lures you in slowly but surely. By the end, I was crying like a little girl. That might well be because the ending decides that after all the excitement is through, it'll batter what's left of you with all of the feels. ALL of them. It is a tad on the predictable side, although I wasn't able to completely foresee all of the twists, so it kind of met a nice balance of surprise and making me feel smart. The only real problem I have with it is that some of the plot's details are revealed towards the end in a way that doesn't make much sense; it kind of feels like the author got stuck on how she was meant to reveal the main bad guy and applied a liberal dose of handwaving and desperate hope.
The characters are the main strength of A Long Long Sleep, and it's the desire to see them come out okay that makes it as emotionally powerful as it is. The three main people to talk about are Rose and her two school friends, Bren and Otto. I could talk about her first love, Xavier, but that could very easily stray into spoiler territory, so I shall refrain from doing so here. Rose is our main protagonist and the narrator of the majority of the novel. She starts off very fragile and passive, qualities that I first assumed were because of the shock of waking up to find that over 60 years have passed. But as the novel goes on, you begin to realise that there's a lot to Rose's personality that she denies herself and the main plot largely corresponds to her internal journey to understand what made her this overly passive, self-loathing person and how to grow out of it. The descriptions of what made her this way were probably what endeared her to me most, because, while I may not have gone through situations anywhere near as awful as she did, I completely understand what it feels like to think that you're worthless after people tell you this constantly. It's not a comfortable journey to read about, but I personally found it to be an incredibly cathartic one.
Possibly the most fascinating character is Otto, a boy who was part of an experiment involving genetically modified human embryos and has had to fight his whole life just to be considered human. I found him particularly interesting because the combination of the whole "having to fight a legal battle to be granted personhood" and the fact that he is effectively mute, communicating primarily through touch telepathy and instant messaging, reminded me really strongly of some of the politics that I've come across in researching autism and other disabilities. Earlier in the year, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; since then, I've been looking more closely at a community that I had had tangential connection with all my life, but never really knew a huge deal about. As a result, I've found a lot of politics involving trying to prove to particularly stubborn and bigoted people that autistic people are just as able to live full and healthy lives as their neurotypical brethren and should be allowed to do so unmolested. I imagine that anyone who could be considered disabled, particularly those with invisible disabilities, would find Otto's story particularly engaging, but I can, of course, only speak from my own experience. In particular, I liked the way that his telepathy is handled. After briefly communicating with Rose in this way, he refuses to touch her throughout most of the book, because he finds her mind frightening and overwhelming. It very much reminded me of the reactions that I've gotten in response to sensory overload and that deliberate withdrawal from the offending stimulus felt very real to me.
The only one left to really discuss is Bren. He was most definitely the weakest out of the main characters. He's an overall nice guy, dependable, reasonably pretty. He fit the kind of Prince Charming role and had the hint of an underlying inner conflict about what he wants his future to be, but he seemed kind of underdeveloped compared to Rose and Otto. Basically he's inoffensive but bland.

Definitely a flawed novel in regards to plotting and some of the characterisation, but it packs one hell of an emotional punch. I would recommend it simply for the joy of getting to know Rose and Otto. It's a good place to start teen readers with science fiction, especially those who are less concerned with worldbuilding and more with engaging characters. If you get triggered by scenes of emotional abuse, you might want to skip this though; it can get pretty scary at times. 4.5/5

Next review: The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

Signing off,

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I've been looking forward to this book for quite a while now. Why? It was the first fantasy that I had ever seen that was set in an Arabian-style world, as opposed to yet another generic pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-European excuse for lazy writing. It meant different customs, different kinds of heroes and heroines. And I was really in need of a change.

Fire and Thorns is the first book in a trilogy of the same name, in which we follow the adventures of Princess Elisa. She lives in a world where once every century, God bestows upon someone a Godstone, a living jewel in their navel, that acts as a sign that they have been chosen for an act of great heroism and faith. Elisa is the current bearer of the Godstone, and at sixteen she has done little to prove that she is worthy of God's faith. She does little but pray and study ancient texts, and her crippling feelings of inferiority regarding her own abilities expresses itself through comfort eating. The first scene in the book is her ripping her hastily sewn wedding dress through bulk alone. She only feels worse when she is given away in political marriage to a man who won't even acknowledge her as his wife in his home country. But she finds that her time of service is much closer at hand than she ever imagined, and that she is in possession of greater strengths than she ever dreamed.
There is something incredibly comforting about having the main protagonist be an obese teenage girl. Not only is the humiliation of not fitting into your own clothes realised here in uncomfortably familiar detail, but it actually addresses something that you don't really see in much fiction. Fat people very rarely being the main protagonist, or in the main cast at all, and all that jazz. It confronts a weird social perception that people seem to make between weight/body shape and skill/intelligence. When Elisa starts the book, she is treated with condescension, with people more impressed than should really be warranted when they realise that she has an incredibly sharp academic and strategic mind. She has spent her entire life learning about classical texts, including texts on military strategy, and yet they're surprised by the evidence that is presented to them. Because of events in the text that I shan't spoil, she slims down quite drastically by the end. At which point she is suddenly everybody's favourite person and taken much more seriously. Admittedly, her actions up to that point must have had some impact, but maybe not quite so drastic. I guess I was just really charmed by Elisa, who really comes into her own over the course of the narrative, though I did feel somewhat predisposed towards liking her.
The plot is pretty cool, with a nice mix of political intrigue, adventure, quest and even a little bit of romance. It's pretty slow in the first part, where it's mainly courtly intrigue, but that has never really been much of an issue for me. I love courtly intrigue, so I was loving it. The second part ups the pace a fair bit and moves away from the intrigue and more towards the adventure and military sort of aspects. It took me a bit longer to warm to this bit, but still enjoyable. The romance was the most obviously weak part of the narrative. There are two main love interests, but neither go anywhere. The first is her much older husband Alejandro, which, given that she's sixteen, puts him maybe in his 30s or 40s. Either way, he's incredibly beautiful and charming, but initially has no interest in her and is pretty spineless. The second is a comrade that she meets in the second part, who seems to love her almost from the start, despite his friends' doubt in her. He's pretty sweet. Neither go anywhere and the endings of both romantic sub-plots is pretty swift and brutal. More realistic I guess, but at the same time just a tad bit confusing. My gut wants a romance sub-plot to be realistic-ish, but with an ultimately happy ending. Fire and Thorns sort of started the sub-plots, then did take-backsies and I don't know how to feel about it. In either case, the romance aspects seemed more rushed than other parts of the narrative even when they were there, so I wasn't too gutted when they were abruptly cut off.
The fantasy elements were really cool. The way that the Godstone instinctively acts towards friendly and not-so-friendly intentions, the way that Elisa can activate it through prayer, the further-reaching consequences of previous bearers' Godstones now that they aren't part of a living body. The main enemy of the narrative, the Inviernos, were kind of interesting, but not really explored much. I wanted to know more about them, what they wanted, how they lived and such. But nope. All we got was "they're pale and burn people with evil blood magic." Kind of took a page from Dragon Age there, huh? Maybe more will turn up in the following books, but it would have been nice to get a little bit more concrete info than "they're evil, run with it".

A very well written book, if a little simple at times. Definitely something to get teens into fantasy, especially girls. I would have killed for a protagonist like Elisa when I was younger. I'll probably pick up the next book in the series if I see it, although this does stand on its own quite nicely. 4/5

Next review: A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

Signing off,

Saturday, 18 October 2014

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

I had heard interesting things about Marcus Sedgwick's books, particularly Midwinterblood and My Swordhand is Singing. So when one of the books that I got from Gollancz was his book White Crow, I was mildly intrigued, though the blurb was a bit too vague for my tastes. I might well have picked up another of his books because of the cool titles, but otherwise this might well have been an author that would have passed me by.

I feel like this could have made two really good books. There are two main plot-lines that the reader follows. A modern day story of Rebecca, a girl who has retreated to the countryside with her father after some scandal has made him something of a pariah, and her strange "friendship" with local girl Ferelith. This is juxtaposed with a story set two centuries before, chronicling the experiments of a priest and the newest member of his parish, Dr Barrieux, as they try to determine once and for all what is in the afterlife. Both are set in the village of Winterfold, a seaside settlement that used to be a hub for trade, but has been eaten away over the years as the sea erodes the cliffside. While both plot-lines work and have some thematic ties, I don't think that both were essential for the book to have. As it was, there were problems in both that I think could have been remedied by dropping one or the other entirely. In both, there was a lot of story to get through and half as much space needed; there were certain things that I thought would get at least some explanation, but were still only vaguely alluded to by the end, which I will discuss below.
So, the modern story-line. I thought it was kinda toothless. Yeah, there is something a bit unnerving about Rebecca's friendship with Ferelith, but I knew so little about them as individuals that it fell flat. Yes, I know a little bit about Ferelith's unfortunate family history, and yes I know a little bit about what drove Rebecca and her dad to leave London for this village in the middle of nowhere. There are two problems with this. One, I still only know what is essentially a cliffs-notes version of their pasts, nothing actually resembling details, hows and whys. Two, they don't really have much beyond their pasts, so I know how they react to personal tragedy, but nothing about what they're like in day to day life. Heck, it was so poorly conceived that by the end, I can tell you more about Ferelith, the girl who is supposed to be mysterious and strange, than I can about Rebecca, the girl who is presumably supposed to be the audience surrogate. Additionally, by the end of the modern plot, it didn't really feel like much had really been achieved. Sure, Rebecca gets a bit of emotional closure, but that didn't resonate anywhere near as much as the author wanted it to; see above point.
On balance, I did prefer the historical plot, which makes its own failings all the more frustrating. But first, the things that I liked about it. Mainly, I liked that it was a genuinely creepy story of two men trying to meddle in realms that they cannot and should not understand, with a build-up that is absolutely full of suspense. The thought of an entire book about a futile and dangerous attempt to find evidence of an afterlife is one that fills me with glee. The problem with this was, again, the characterisation, even more so than in the modern story-line. If I could have heard more about the tantalising backstory elements that the author tempted me with, instead of yet more hypocritical whining from the priest character, then this could have been enough to save the book entirely. I wanted to know more about Dr Barrieux's dead wife and child, more about the cult that the priest grew up in before he found God, more about the village's growing suspicion. Instead I got the priest repeatedly angsting about how he finds it so easy to visualise Hell, but not Heaven.

Overall, this was an exercise in how it is often better to have one simple idea fleshed out really well, rather than two stories smashed together and told only competently. If it had just been the historical plot given the space and characterisation that it needed, then I would have been an extremely happy bunny. As it was, I'm just annoyed that there was so much unrealised potential. I did briefly consider saying that it might be due to the age range it was aimed at, but that's just insulting teenagers. Teen fiction should be richer than this. 3/5

Next review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Signing off,

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably a book that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, for two reasons. One, I had heard very good things about it, even from people who don't normally like fantasy. Two, I had read some of his work before, mainly the first couple volumes of the Sandman comics and liked what I'd seen. As it was, my fiance practically begged me to read it next, and seeing as that was several months ago, I can't really keep putting it off. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows the unnamed narrator as he returns to the country lane where he spent his early childhood, and finds himself drawn to the house at the very end of the lane. There, he reminisces about the childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock by name, who used to live there with her mother and grandmother and believed that the duck-pond in her garden was an ocean. At first, his childhood looks to be normal, if unusually solitary for a seven year old boy. It is only when a lodger of his parents' kills himself in the family car that strange things begin to occur, and the narrator finds himself a mostly unwilling participant in the upcoming events. 
I finished this book this morning, and my first thought was "Well, that happened." While that sounds flippant, it was meant in the kind of distressed bewilderment that accompanies the ending of a very well-written book that you have no clue what the meaning of it was meant to be. I suppose the thing that really caught me off-guard was the surreal, languid sort of tone that it had. Things certainly happened, quite distressing things at times, but it always seemed like it was happening at arm's length somehow. I suppose that the closest thing that I can compare it to would be a fairy tale: vivid events told in such a way that they are given distance and a strange, off-kilter viewpoint. The other thing that caught me out at the end was the feeling that the story wasn't finished. Not in terms of actual plot-line, that was absolutely fine. I mean in a more deliberate way; the story feels unfinished because the narrator isn't ready to let it go yet. The overall effect of this, mixed with the aforementioned tone, seems to be that of a myth for adults, the kind of simple story that we kind of forget about and underestimate as we grow older. 
As I've ruminated over the course of the day, I was wondering what Ocean at the End of the Lane was about, at least for me. I kept coming back to a line of dialogue that turns up towards the end. The line in question was, "Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?" It wasn't a moment that initially seemed huge in context, but it stayed in my head far longer than other parts, and when that happens it's usually a sign to pay attention. So I guess for me, it's become a kind of fable about the damage that can happen to children when they come into conflict with adults; you sort of assume that with age comes wisdom, but there are a lot of essential things that you sort of deliberately forget as you grow. When that comes into conflict with what we've decided is "grown-up" behaviour, then the child is almost guaranteed to lose, regardless of whether that's right or not. It's something that Gaiman keeps pointing to throughout the story and it got more than a little uncomfortable. Maybe I needed to feel a little uncomfortable. 

It's an odd book to recommend. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wants the feelings to be simple and clear-cut, because that is as far from what you'll get as is possible to define. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that reads simply, but feels much bigger than you would expect from 243 pages. I've done my best to define what it's left me, but I think that personal experience will always trump my descriptions. 5/5 

Next review: White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White Cat by Holly Black

So, this got practically devoured. Evidently I've needed to read more than I thought I did. This was another book that I got during my work experience with Gollancz and it's been one of the more tempting premises on my shelf.

White Cat follows Cassel Sharpe, the only non-magical member of his immediate family, and something of a black sheep. Not only is he not magical, but his family are protecting an awful secret that he can barely comprehend himself. Three years before, he killed his best friend Lila, and to this day he has no memory of the event or why he could possibly do it. As a result, he tries to keep a low profile, become as close to a normal person as he can be by fitting in at school and trying to make something of himself. This is disrupted when he awakens from a dream of a white cat stealing his tongue, only to find that he has been sleepwalking; that he finds this out whilst on the roof of his school's dormitory is particularly alarming. From here, everything he knows is brought into question, and all of it shadowed by the same white cat.
I absolutely loved this. I had read some of Holly Black's work before and, to be honest, not been terribly impressed. I kind of expected something similar to happen here, intriguing premise or not, and for me to have devoured this book within a day is utterly refreshing.
So, to the good points. The world-building is fantastic. Set in a version of modern day where magical gifts are illegal in many countries, it actually sets out the consequences of such a society with surprising depth. Because magic is cast through skin contact via the hands, gloves have become common place and to be seen without them is either a huge sign of trust or incredibly threatening. Magic is not without it's consequences, shown in the form of blowback: for example, with an emotion worker, someone who can manipulate other people's opinions and feelings, they have the downside of becoming increasingly emotionally unstable. And the fact that magic has been illegal for generations means that those who want to practice their magic are almost forced into becoming members of a crime family, and the prices that come with that territory are well-explored and really quite awful.
The characters are pretty good. Cassel is the one we get to know the most intimately, given that he's the narrator and main protagonist, and to see the emotional rollercoaster that he goes through as a result of others' machinations is utterly heartbreaking at times. Cassel's family get a fair bit of fleshing out as well, but are a little more opaque. Maybe in later installments they'll get more attention, which would be nice. I'd especially like to see more of Desi Sharpe, Cassel's death worker grandfather.
The plot was a bit easy to figure out at times, with several of the big twists maybe signposted a bit too clearly; you sort of wonder how Cassel didn't put the pieces together sooner. Despite this, it's still very well written and doesn't really make any wrong steps.

Definitely one for a fantasy fan who's looking for something modern that isn't your typical urban fantasy. It's perhaps less complex than a lot of fantasy that I've read, given it's YA audience, but the raw emotional impact more than makes up for it, as does a really interesting world. Going to be looking out for the sequels, that's for sure. 4.5/5

Next review: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Signing off,

Monday, 13 October 2014

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Wow, this is embarrassing. I did not expect to fall behind schedule quite so dramatically. Having made the first few steps toward becoming more organised though, I finally got round to reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not quite what I was expecting, I will admit.

Plotwise, Two Gentlemen of Verona was a lot sillier than I had initially assumed. It starts with two friends, Proteus and Valentine; the former begins the play in the process of proclaiming his undying love to the fair maiden Julia, a sentiment that the latter finds utterly ludicrous. Valentine sees no value in courting love, instead choosing to move into the court of the Duke of Milan to see and experience more of the world. As if God were just waiting for the most ironic moment, Valentine soon falls in love with the Duke's daughter, Silvia. All seems to be going well until Proteus finds himself inadvertently sent to the same court, so that he might benefit in similar ways to Valentine, where he too falls in love with Silvia. Literally the scene after he has sworn undying love with Julia. This was the point where I realised that this might be a tad on the ludicrous side. Not as rife with unbelievable coincidences as Comedy of Errors was, but still firmly on the silly side. I can very much get behind a play that looks at the conflict between what you want in relationships with different people: Proteus' betrayal of his friend to further his own suit with Silvia could be a really interesting and in-depth character study of a deeply conflicted person. The thing that makes it feel silly is the pacing: while the right dramatic beats are there, they feel shallow at best. Maybe this is something that would work for me better if I saw a production of it, but having only read it, it feels like Shakespeare was racing through these scenes as quickly as he possibly could. As a result, nothing really seems to go beyond the surface and that was a bit disappointing.
The comic relief could have been better. I realise that Proteus' idiot servant, Launce, was just a dramatic means for the main actors to have time to change between scenes, I just wish his monologues could have been more entertaining. As it is, they seem more like confused ramblings than anything actually funny. Though that may well be the Elizabethan sense of humour being lost in translation. Or maybe it's funnier on-stage. Either way, my loss, I'm sure.

Overall, a pretty harmless play. It's restored my faith in Shakespeare somewhat after the disaster that was Comedy of Errors. It would be nice to have something a little more involved next time though. 3/5

Next review: White Cat by Holly Black

Signing off,

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill

After Ringworld, I needed something lighter. I figured that Some Girls Bite would be just the antidote I was looking for, the kind of trashy novel that doesn't require a lot of thought and can act as a kind of recharge period. While it did act as a recharge period, my initial opinion was perhaps a bit harsh.

Some Girls Bite follows Merit, a graduate student who is changed into a vampire after she is nearly killed after an attack by an unknown vampire. To say that she is unhappy about this turn of events would be an understatement; in fact, having been torn away from her contented life of research and academia, she is determined to hate the one who forced the change on her, a master vampire named Ethan Sullivan. This is only complicated by some serious sexual chemistry between the two of them and his expectations regarding her unquestioning loyalty and gratitude. When she finds out that she is only one of a series of women attacked by vampires, however, she finds that she may well be safer in allying herself to Sullivan, as well as a few other supernatural allies, as she tries to figure out who tried to kill her.
From the description, this sounds like it's going to be your standard trashy vampire romance novel. And initially I was fully expecting it to unfold in the exact way these books always unfold. I was pleasantly surprised. The cliched route to take would be for there to be the alpha male vampire with either a wilting flower needing his firm but tender touch to guide her through this new world, or with a fiery sarcastic minx who would challenge him at every turn but eventually be melted by his somewhat dubious charms. In some ways Merit and Ethan fit the second mold, with one rather important difference: their affair fails to start. Fairly early on, Ethan manages to essentially ruin his chances of getting together with Merit precisely because he is a fairly standard alpha male "romantic" hero; by insisting on asserting his superiority, he pushes her away because, in the long run, that just is not something you want to have to deal with. There's chemistry, but Merit knows full well that chemistry alone won't make a relationship work if there's such blatant power issues and obviously different agendas between them, and that was really surprising and pretty damn cool. It's the main good thing that I brought from Some Girls Bite. The other main thing that the novel pulled off well was the characterisation and relationships between Merit and her friends, with Jeff, the flirtatious, if utterly hopeless, shapeshifter being a particular favourite of mine.
But, of course, few books are perfect. If it were perfect, I would be having the equivalent of a stutter right now. There are a couple things that were just kind of average, where they could have been really interesting. First, the world-building needs some work. It's your standard urban fantasy world where if you can think of a humanoid supernatural or mythical creature, then it exists. It also does the whole "vampire coming out" thing, which has been done to death by now. There's the hint of interesting politics, not only between vampire houses but between vampires and other supernatural creatures; unfortunately, it's frustratingly vague in this book, and after the intense world-building in Ringworld, it's all the more obvious. Additionally, the mystery isn't all that well developed. For one thing, most of the book is focused on Merit's attempts to fit into this new rigidly hierarchical society, with the murders being almost a side issue. Also, after a certain point in the book, the culprit becomes disappointingly obvious after one of Merit's friends makes a prophecy regarding what the fallout of the murders will be; seeing as the person being hinted at isn't going to be Merit, there's only really one person who fits the bill otherwise and the big reveal at the end fell a bit flat. Admittedly though, it has set up an interesting set of circumstances for book number 2 in the series, so I'm curious to see where it will go.

Overall, an above average vampire novel. I know, all the ones that I've picked up seem to have been above average; either I'm just easy to please or I've been lucky so far. An interesting subversion of romance tropes and good characterisation is brought down by vague world-building and a subpar mystery. I'd still be interested in reading the next installment though. 3.5/5

Next review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Right, so, first review of the new year. Hopefully I should be more prolific this year, but considering how long I took with this one, that could be high hopes. Anyway, Ringworld was practically forced on me by my fiance, who is very much a fan of the world-building style of science-fiction novels. Me, not so much, but I agreed to read it because I do find them as a whole interesting, if not wholly satisfying. So how did this measure up?

Ringworld for the most part follows Louis Wu, a human who is contacted by a Puppeteer, a creature long absent from all of known space, who needs him for an intriguing mission. His experience of exploration will be combined with the resources provided by the Puppeteer, named Nessus, as well as the combat skills of the tiger-like Kzin known as Speaker to Animals, and the supposed luck of a human named Teela Brown; with these qualities, they intend to examine and potentially explore a strange structure dubbed the Ringworld. As you can probably tell from the cover there, the Ringworld is an artificial structure built within the Goldilocks zone of a yellow star, creating a living space that is just about incomprehensible to the human mind. Their plans are quickly thwarted by a strange set of circumstances and they must deal with each other's secret agendas and the unknown surface of the Ringworld. 
From the synopsis, this all sounds too good to be true. It kind of is. I'll talk about the good stuff first. For one thing, it is a very thought-provoking book, with concepts of future technology and the process of moving out into unmapped territory all very well fleshed out. The group dynamic between the war-like Speaker and the cowardly Nessus, and the humans who try and balance them out, is engaging and progresses in an understandable and logical way. And the overall plot is generally easy to follow, despite the occasional bit of technobabble that can seem a bit overwhelming at times. So there's a lot to like and recommend this for. 
That is, before I get to the negative aspects, which may well be a game breaker for some readers. Firstly, although I praised the group dynamic, I can't really deny that the group's consistency and logical development largely hinges on the characters not really being much more than a 2D concept. For example, if somoene had told me that Speaker was meant to be a Klingon, or any of the other alien races that have been created as war-like but honourable, then I would believe them pretty damn quickly. Nessus is a perfect example of a cowardly race most concerned with safety, despite being touted as one of the "insane" ones. Teela, the supposedly lucky one, is characterised by her near horrifying lack of knowledge about pain and sadness. Louis, despite being the point-of-view character, felt kind of like a void of personality, doing things simply because it was the mid-point between the beliefs of Speaker and Nessus. Each gets some development, but never enough to make them feel fully fleshed-out or believable. It's like putting paper cutouts on an immaculate oil landscape and expecting the audience to buy that the two things were given the same amount of effort and time. As a result of this, I kind of felt that some of the moments in the book that should have been really important and awe-inspiring just fell flat, simply because the characters didn't have enough character to impart the impressive nature of what they were witnessing. Secondly, while most of the concepts introduced were things that I could accept within suspension of disbelief, there was one thing that seemed strikingly out of place. The flying motorcycles that could dispense food and water? I could buy that. An artificial day/night cycle created by metal plates between the Ringworld and the sun? Sure, that makes sense. The evolutionary path of the Puppeteers? No, now that's just silly. For those of you interested, take a look at what they're supposed to look like. 

So, the Puppeteers. A three-legged, herbivorous race with two heads that act as eyestalks/hands and a large hump on their backs concealing their brain. I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of an environment that would allow for such creatures to evolve in the first place, let alone become the dominant species of their planet and achieve space travel. I'm all for aliens that don't just look like humans with face-paint (see the Turians from Mass Effect, my favourite alien species, as an example), but there is a point where you have to stop and ask "No, really, how is this a thing that people take seriously?" 

In conclusion, Ringworld is a novel that is primarily aimed at people most interested in comprehensive world-building, ignoring the absurdity of the Puppeteers. The characters are suitable for their roles in-universe, but they never come into their own; for me this was disappointing, as it made the tension disappear completely and I couldn't quite bring myself to be wholly invested. Definitely one for when you're in a thinking mood. 3.5/5 

Next review: Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill 

Signing off,