Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden by Jack Vance

Lyonesse : Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance
Published : Berkeley Publishing Group, 1983
Series : Book 1 of the Lyonesse Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award, Locus Fantasy Award, and World Fantasy Award

The Book :

“The Elder Isles, located in the modern-day Bay of Biscay, contain a number of independent, often contentious, kingdoms. Some of kingdom’s monarchs have an eye towards unifying the entire region under a single rule.  One of these ambitious rulers is King Casmir of Lyonesse, who is determined to use anyone and anything he can to conquer the other islands.  For the most part, his ambition gains him only powerful enemies and war.

It is Casmir’s pretty, powerless, neglected daughter Suldrun, however, whose sad life sets a wide-reaching tale in motion  Though most of the excitement and magic is experienced by others, the start of it all can be traced back to Suldrun’s peaceful, isolated garden.  In these kingdoms full of violence, war, magic, ogres and fairies, there are plenty of adventures—good and bad—to be had by young princes, cruel rulers, and powerful sorcerers.”    ~Allie

I know I said I was going to review The Sparrow next, but this I wanted to make sure I got this month’s Grand Master’s Reading Challenge review out on time. This is the first novel I’ve read by Jack Vance, and it’s possible I should have started out with some of his science fiction.  I’ve heard Vance’s work described as pulp-style adventure fare, where the destination of the story matters little compared to the interesting things you see along the journey.

My Thoughts:

Suldrun’s Garden starts out very much like what I would think of as a typical high fantasy.  The Elder Isles seem like a fantasy version of medieval times, and the story seems constantly interrupted by lectures about lines of inheritance, politics,  and geography. Whether all the dry detail is a benefit or a drawback will really depend on the reader.  I can see the appeal of Vance portraying the Isles as a large place with many different peoples and lands.  However, the solid blocks of information seemed to come at very jarring places in the narrative.  In my case, it took me quite some time to develop an interest in the lands of the Elder Isles, and the information dumps were more of a hindrance than a help (at least initially) in building that interest.

The many characters that peopled the Elder Isles also seemed fairly usual for high fantasy--primarily princes and princesses, sorcerers, and fully evil villains.  The story starts out featuring the pretty Princess Suldrun.  She suffers from most of the familial problems of fantasy princesses (her father wants to marry her off, her parents really wanted a son, etc.).  This is not necessarily always a formula for a boring character, but Suldrun is also incredibly passive and inactive.  She spends most of her time wandering aimlessly about the castle and sitting alone in her garden.  She does her best to avoid any kind of social interaction, so she has essentially no meaningful relationships. Of course, when her Hero shows up, she falls in love instantly and marries him shortly thereafter.  The best thing I can say about Suldrun is that the novel soon abandons her to follow much more interesting stories.

The story of Suldrun’s Garden eventually builds to a climax, but it is difficult to see where it is going for most of the first half of the novel.  The narrative skips from one character to another seemingly at random, though one can begin to see the design as the overarching story starts to become clear. Aside from Suldrun’s story, other plotlines feature the sorcerer Shimrod, the evil wannabe-sorcerer/ruler Carfilhiot, the wandering Prince Aillas, and the children Dhrun and Glyneth.  It was with Shimrod’s story that I began to appreciate Jack Vance’s creativity, as he described magic and other realms.  Prince Aillas’ journey is much more of a straightforward adventure story, with lots of hardship and daring deeds.  The story of Dhrun and Glyneth, with its fairy-tale quality, is possibly my favorite.  There are many different kinds of stories within this single novel, so it would be hard to not find something of interest. In my case, Suldrun’s story left me completely cold, but I thought that many of the other characters had delightfully creative, magical, and adventurous tales.

While I found a lot to enjoy in many of the stories, I was bothered by the frequent use of rape or the threat of rape in the many of the plotlines. Of course, it’s not unreasonable that a story featuring a medieval-style society would include some depiction of rape. What most bothered me was the sheer prevalence of rape in this society and the way it was used in the story.  It seemed like nearly every female character had been either raped or threatened with rape, sometimes more than once.  One adolescent female character in particular, Glyneth, seemed to lead a life under the constant threat of rape.  As far as the usage, rape typically seemed to be included as a comic story or as a way of showing the evilness of a villain. I did not appreciate the former, and the latter seemed entirely unnecessary.  Most of the villains were clearly completely evil, and their actions, even without the rape, emphasized this ad nauseam.   

On more technical matters, the prose and dialogue were written in a stilted, formal, pseudo-medieval style. For an example, consider this description of furniture by Princess Suldrun, early in the story:

“Suldrun surveyed the interloping furniture with equal disapproval.  It intruded into the space between the tall chairs, and impeded their intercourse.  Why would anyone do so clumsy a deed? No doubt the arrival of the three grandees had dictated the arrangement.” P.38

All of the characters seemed to speak in a very similar manner, from a 9-year-old boy raised by fairies to the middle-aged king of a realm. For an example of the style of speech, here is a conversation that took place as King Casmir received visitors:

“’Sirs, for now I suggest that you make haste to your chambers, where warm fires and dry clothing will bring you comfort.  In due course we will exchange our counsels.’
Sir Milliflor responded: ‘Thank you, King Casmir.  In truth we are wet; the cursed rain has allowed us no respite!’ “ p.36

For the sake of comparison, here is the voice of a 9-year-old, considering his mortal peril:

Dhrun bethought himself of his talisman. “Remarkable that I am not terrified!” he told himself in a quavering voice. “Well, then, I must prove my mettle and kill these horrid creatures!” p.205

Since this is a novel with many, many characters, this sameness of voice sometimes made it difficult to keep the minor characters distinct in my mind.  Altogether, there were certainly things to enjoy in Suldrun’s Garden, but I’m not sure this is a series I want to continue.  I am considering checking out some of Vance’s science fiction, because I think his creativity might appeal to me more in a different style of world.

My Rating: 2.5/5

Suldrun’s Garden is a meandering tale, though the plotlines of the main characters do connect neatly in the climax and conclusion.  The novel jumps from character to character, showing many kinds of stories—from the tale of the boring, anti-social Princess Suldrun, to those of wandering princes, sorcerers, evil rulers, and children caught in a kind of dark fairy tale.  I very strongly disliked the prevalence and treatment of rape throughout the novel, and it did significantly reduce my enjoyment of the novel.  The writing has a very stilted, pseudo-medieval feel, and the frequent asides about geography and cultures can be seen as either a strength or a weakness, depending on the reader’s preferences. Though much of the setting seems like generic fantasy fare, there are points where Vance’s creativity shines through.  I will probably read more Vance in the future, but I’m not sure if I want to continue this trilogy. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Published : Sandstone Press (2011), Harper Perennial (2012)
Awards Won : Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book :

A rogue virus that kills pregnant women has been let loose in the world, and nothing less than the survival of the human race is at stake.

Some blame the scientists, others see the hand of God, and still others claim that human arrogance and destructiveness are reaping the punishment they deserve. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl living in extraordinary times. As her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her toward the ultimate act of heroism. She wants her life to make a difference. But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her scientist father fears, impressionable, innocent, and incapable of understanding where her actions will lead?

Set in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman's struggle to become independent of her parents. As the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart, Jessie begins to question her parents' attitudes, their behavior, and the very world they have bequeathed her.”

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a difficult novel for me to review.  While it is thought provoking, certain aspects of the novel left me feeling very frustrated. I can see the appeal of the work for the young adult audience, but I think this is a book that should be coupled with some mature discussion of the ideas and themes it contains.

Warning: There are some spoilers of the novel’s contents in the review below concerning “Jessie’s ultimate act of heroism”.

My Thoughts:

The story is told through the journal of Jessie Lamb, who is a member of the last generation to be born before the worldwide onset of Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), which has a 100% fatality rate for pregnant women.  Facing the very possible end of the human race, I think that the various human reactions are believable. There are many activist groups, but their actions often seem unfocused or based on wishful thinking. Jessie and her peers share a ‘grown-ups are stupid and evil’ attitude, and they blame adults for creating all society’s problems.  Adult scientists are struggling to find a way to cure or circumvent the disease, but others blame science for creating the disease in the first place.  One possible response to MDS is known as the “Sleeping Beauty” program, where young, female volunteers are put into a coma so that they can trade their lives to give birth.

I think Jessie is probably an accurate representation of a certain type of 16-year-old, but reading from her point of view was a real chore. Jessie seems incredibly immature and she has a very limited theory of mind. In other words, I think Jessie is just on the verge of understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings separate from her own. As a result, she is childishly self-centered and has little patience for anything that doesn’t revolve around her. She is also almost completely incapable of imagining how her decisions and actions will affect the people she loves.  I appreciated the effectiveness of her portrayal, but I still found her to be a highly unlikeable and frustrating protagonist.

Jessie Lamb’s major decision is to volunteer for the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ program, and seeing her thought process raises serious questions about whether her consent to the program is even valid. Her off-hand comments throughout the text lead me to believe that Jessie is not honest with herself about the motivations behind her volunteering.  While she sometimes thinks about saving the human race by creating a baby, her mind seems to frequently focus on what a relief it will be to die.  For example, here she explains her thoughts on volunteering:

“Sometimes I feel like my brain will explode and I want to bash a nail into my head to let some of it out-- … And when I remember I’m volunteering and imagine the injection, and everything draining away from me—it makes me feel peaceful.” ~p. 138

Jessie constantly frames her chosen death as a noble and heroic sacrifice, but all of these little things make it seem as though she simply wants to commit suicide in a way that is painless and publicly admirable.  Jessie’s constant glamorization of suicide, in the absence of any clear statement in the opposite direction, left me feeling uneasy about what final impression would be left by the story.

In an interview after the novel, I was able to read an interview with Jane Rogers, discussing her intention for The Testament of Jessie Lamb. If I understood correctly, Rogers intended to show the thought process of a young fundamentalist who chooses to give their life for a cause that they believe will positively impact the world.  She was particularly interested in the shift of power between the child and his/her parents that this conviction gradually caused. 

Rogers said that she considered writing a story featuring a suicide bomber, but she feared that readers would then come to the story having pre-judged the protagonist.  I think it was a good decision to frame her story in a fictional future, where a fictional catastrophe created an extreme situation.  Jessie’s decision has no real-world counterpart, so readers can view Jessie without pre-formed prejudices.  I don’t think Rogers wanted a situation where one could easily say “Jessie’s in the right” or “Jessie’s parents have it right”. Rogers seemed most interested in showing how Jessie came to the point of making such an extreme decision, and how her decision affected her relationships with the people around her.  From that perspective, whether Jessie’s decision is right or wrong, or even whether it is ultimately useful for the world, is beside the point.

My Rating: 4/5

The Testament of Jessie Lamb was in some ways a frustrating book to read, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers.  What it does offer is an often-irritating view into the inner workings of the mind of a suicidal 16-year-old idealist.  Jessie’s immaturity and the carelessness with which she treats the people who love her is almost painful to read.  I appreciated the novel as a look into the thought process that could lead a young girl to decide to throw away her life for a cause, and as an exploration of how that decision alters the balance of power between the girl and her parents. The story steers deliberately around any moral judgment of Jessie’s behavior, but I wish there had been more discussion within the story of the morality and ethicality of Jessie and her right to make such a decision. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summary: 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel

The nominees for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel were actually a pretty difficult batch to rank.  I was surprised to see that all of the nominees were written by authors whose work I have read and, for the most part, enjoyed.

In the end, my top-ranked Hugo novel is Among Others, by Jo Walton.  I’ve consistently enjoyed Jo Walton’s novels, so I had high expectations coming in to this one.  While I personally loved it, I think that it has a very specific target audience—fans of science fiction and fantasy who had to deal with some social isolation as they grew up and sought out people more like themselves.  It also wouldn’t hurt if those fans had read a lot of the popular science fiction novels of the 1960s and 1970s, since the narrator brought up these works frequently.  It is a ‘diary’ novel, and the possibly unreliability of the narrator left the reality of the story’s magical elements delightfully ambiguous.

The other two novels that came close to the top for me were Embassytown, by China Miéville and Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. Both of these are decidedly science fiction, as opposed to the fantasy and sci-fi review aspects of Among Others, so I can see them as the more traditional winners of the Hugo Award.  I loved the ideas in Embassytown, and I really enjoyed how the story of human-alien relations played out.  My main criticisms of Embassytown would be about the stiffness of the characterization and feeling of detachment from the thoughts and feelings of the characters.  Leviathan Wakes, on the other hand, was much more about entertainment than big ideas.  I was pretty thrilled by the characters, the setting, the action, the humor, and the horrific turns the story kept taking.

A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin, is another big contender for the Hugo, and it has already claimed the Locus Fantasy award and a few other nominations.  I am a fan of Martin in general, and a fan of ASoIaF in specific, but I didn't think this was the strongest novel of the series.  In my opinion, the series is picking up way too many unnecessary point-of-view characters, and it’s stalling out the story.  I have high hopes for the remaining novels, though, once Martin starts killing a few of these characters off! 

Deadline, by Mira Grant, is the final nominee, a sequel to the novel Feed, which ended up second for the Hugo Award last year.  While I loved  Feed, I was pretty disappointed by this sequel.  The problems that I was able to overlook in the first novel—simplified politics, mustache-twirling villains, etc.—seemed more glaring the second time around.  Furthermore, the plot seemed kind of unfocused, the new narrator grated on my nerves, and a surprise plot twist seemed to invalidate one of the most emotionally effective scenes of Feed.  I ended up deciding not to read the final volume of the trilogy, though I may still go back and finish off the story one day.

What do you think about this year’s nominees?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (AKA Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham)
Published : Orbit, 2011
Series : Book 1 of the Expanse
Awards Nominated : Locus SF and Hugo Awards

The Book :

“Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.”

Leviathan Wake is my last review of this year’s Hugo novel nominees, so I’ll have a summary post up about this year’s Hugos soon.  I’ve never read anything by Ty Franck before (I believe this is his first novel), but I’ve enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, in addition to some of his shorter work published in Asimov’s. I’d been looking forward to reading their collaboration, and I think they work well together.  Apparently, Abraham wrote from Miller’s point of view, Franck wrote from Holden’s point of view, and then they edited each other’s work.  The result is a very smooth and coherent novel that felt as though it were written by a single author.  From what I hear, this is planned as a six novel series.  The second novel, Caliban’s War, is already out.   

My Thoughts :

When it comes to excitement and adventure, Leviathan Wakes definitely did not disappoint. Leviathan Wakes was mostly a solar-system-bound space opera, but it also contained elements of noir and horror. Frequent humor helped to lighten the mood in darker places, but the characters still remained appreciative of the seriousness of their predicaments.  The story was full of explosions, disasters, large-scale space operations, and horrifying surprises.  It didn’t take long for the story to get into high gear, and the stakes were fatally high for both the heroes and the human race as a whole. In general, the story seemed like the novel equivalent of a well-crafted sci-fi adventure film.  It featured a team of heroes caught up in world-shatteringly significant events, and it pitted them against some unmistakably evil villains.  There was also a romantic subplot and a few regrettable action film cliché moments.  All of that added up to a highly exciting and entertaining story, which kept me eagerly turning the pages.

The two heroes of the story were Holden and Miller, whose viewpoint chapters alternated. Holden was an idealist who believed that all information should be freely broadcasted, and people tended to treat him as something of a holy fool.  While I can respect Holden’s standing by his convictions, I felt that he needed to take more responsibility for the destruction his ‘free information’ could cause.  Miller was contrasted with Holden by his belief that information should be guarded, and released with care in order to bring about a desired result.  I liked the idea of the heroes, but their characterization seemed a little too deliberately extreme to be realistic, especially near the beginning.  All the same, it was interesting to see how these very different characters interacted with one another, and how they developed throughout the story.

Holden and Miller were strengthened as characters by their supporting casts.  With the inclusion of Holden’s surviving crew, Miller’s colleagues, Martian soldiers, people who worked at research stations, and a rebellious ‘belter’ organization, the universe of Leviathan Wakes felt real and highly populated.  Of course, few of these supporting characters were especially developed, but most of them still felt distinct in personality and voice.  To me, the most interesting supporting characters were the members of Holden’s crew.  They each had memorable personalities and meaningful roles in the unfolding story.  Even the love interest character was interesting in her own right, and I hope she plays a large role in the story to come.

In addition to an exciting story and memorable characters, the “Expanse” universe seemed very well designed.  Though the setting of Leviathan Wakes was limited to our solar system, the novel showed that this was more than enough space to create a compelling and complex universe.  The descriptions of the physical spaces and of the different levels of social, political, and economic structure were sufficient to make the solar system feel like a real place where people lived and worked. I enjoyed the examination of the physical and cultural differences between the ‘belter’ and ‘inner planet’ citizens, and of the difficult relationship between them.  I loved this fictional future setting, and I feel like it has a lot of potential for future novels.

My Rating : 4.5/5

Leviathan Wakes is a highly engaging, exciting space opera set solely within our current solar system.  While most of the story is a space adventure, there are also some noir and horror elements.  To me, Leviathan Wakes seemed to novels what especially well-crafted action movies are to films.   It was very exciting, it had humorous moments to break up the darker segments, it had characters that were  painted in extremes, and it had occasional moments of cliché.  Behind the action of Leviathan Wakes were characters that were easy to care about, and our colonized solar system made for a very interesting setting. In short, Leviathan Wakes was thoroughly entertaining, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!