Miles Naismith Vorkosigan has come a long way since his miserable attempt to qualify for the Barrayaran Milit...moreOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Miles Naismith Vorkosigan has come a long way since his miserable attempt to qualify for the Barrayaran Military Service Academy - since then he's created a commanding (if solely based on smoke and mirrors) mercenary fleet, saved the Barrayaran Emperor, and thwarted a full-out war. Officially serving out a position as Imperial Security Courier, the brilliant (if physically less-appealing) Miles and his cousin the handsome (if decidedly less-brilliant) Ivan Vorpatril are sent on a diplomatic envoy to Cetaganda to attend the state funeral of the late Celestial Empress. Trouble starts immediately, however, when Miles and Ivan's ship is boarded by a Ba (the genetically engineered, genderless servants of the Haut class of Cetagandan women), who leaves behind a strange object. When that same intruder, known as the Ba Lura, is found dead shortly later - an apparent "suicide" - the plot thickens. Apparently, Ba Lura was the most senior and trusted of the late Empress's servitors, and the object left behind on Miles' ship is a unique key; a Cetagandan artifact of paramount importance. Someone is trying to frame Barrayar for stealing the key, and it is up to the brilliant Miles to figure out which Cetagandan lord is playing at war and thwart his efforts before Barrayar is drawn into the mix. (OK, there's also the added motivation of Miles trying to look impressive in front of a beautiful Haut lady, too.)
Miles Vorkosigan remains one of my favorite characters in all of science fiction (heck, probably in all of fiction) - and Cetaganda only solidifies this elevated position. Miles may seem like he has the world going for him - he's the only son of a wealthy and admired military father and mother - but in-utero was the victim of a poison gas attack, which resulted in physical disabilities for Miles (namely, his stunted height at under 5' tall and his extremely brittle bones), even more glaring because of the importance that Barrayar places on physical prowess. In the first books of the series, Miles is frequently referred to by his fellow Barrayans as a mutant because of his appearance which deeply affects the way Miles perceives of himself (even if this is subconscious) and his urge to prove everyone wrong with his superior intellect. In Cetaganda, the internal desire that Miles has to please and to become a proper hero has never been more glaring. In this world, where beauty is a genetically-engineered given, where the Haut females are so breathtakingly gorgeous and elevated that they mask themselves from any lower lifeforms behind their protective bubbles, Miles is utterly out of place. And for the first time in the series, it becomes clear that Miles' decisions are eminently self-serving - he needs to prove himself a hero, to impress the beautiful Haut Rian on the one hand, but also to show that he can do it all alone. This added depth to Miles' character is remarkable, and in my opinion makes Cetaganda all the more memorable.
I should also make sure to say - this somewhat uglier side of Miles' personality does not come at the expense of the entertainment value of the book. Because people. Miles is hilarious. As per usual, there were many parts of Cetaganda that caused me to laugh out loud because of Miles' (or should I say, Lois McMaster Bujold's) superior wit. Ivan Vorpatril also is inching his way up in my heart as a favorite character because he is so single-minded (but charming in the extreme, of course) in his pursuit of a good time. His particular conflict in Cetaganda - the victim of a practical joke instigated by Cetagandan ghem lord Yorobev - is hilarious, as he earns a reputation as a tireless, lady-pleasing giver in bed.
And I have yet to say anything of the story itself! I loved the world of Cetaganda with its varied, stringent rules and rigid social hierarchy of Ba, Ghem and Haut. The power struggle within the Cetagandan empire, with the Haut women atop the social structure (if completely behind the scenes) is fascinating, and the preoccupation with genetic perfection - no matter how far it takes them from human - is also beautifully conceived. What paled in comparison, however, was the mystery of the Ba Lura's murder and the identity of the Cetagandan rabblerouser. While the progression of the mystery is well done and well written per Bujold's normal high standard, the storyline wasn't as captivating as The Warrior's Apprentice or The Vor Game. Of course, your mileage may vary - as a lighter standalone adventure, Cetaganda certainly feels like the kind of book I would read over and over again.
Suffice it to say, I loved Cetaganda. Good thing I have Ethan of Athos lined up on my ereader next... (although it appears this next book is Miles-less?! Fellow Vorkosigan fans, any insight you can give me?!)(less)
A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Sleight of Hand, my first real introduction to Peter S. Beagle’s...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers HERE
A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Sleight of Hand, my first real introduction to Peter S. Beagle’s writing and I loved it so much I proceeded to add some of his other books to my TBR pile: The Last Unicorn because everybody seems to love it and A Fine and Private Place which came highly recommended by The Other Ana (www.thingsmeanalot.com) I decided to start in chronological order: A Fine and Private Place was Mr Beagle’s first book, published back in 1960 and written when he was merely 19 years old.
Well, you can colour me dumbfounded: this was his first book? Written when he was NINETEEN? It is almost unbelievable but there you have it: talent. Mr Beagle has it in spades.
Jonathan Rebeck has been living in an abandoned mausoleum within Bronx’s Yorkchester Cemetery and for the past 19 years hasn’t crossed its gates. There, he has everything he needs. He bathes in the public restrooms, drinks from the public water fountain, gets his food delivered by a talking, friendly raven (because ravens bring things to people – that’s what they do) and generally spends his days in quiet, solitary contemplation. Sometimes though, he gets the fleeting company of the recently dead before they move on to wherever they must go. As they all do eventually because the dead forget about living and eventually fade away.
Michael Morgan is newly dead, certain he was killed by his wife and determined to stay put and not let go of life but just like any other ghost, soon enough he starts forgetting. On the other side of the spectrum, the idea of fading away suits Laura Durand, another recent arrival, well enough. Ironically, she can’t really rest and finds herself feeling more alive than ever. The two strike up a friendship just as Mr Rebeck starts to enjoy the company of a living person for the first time in 19 years by befriending Gertrude Klapperm, widow of another of the cemetery’s residents.
A Fine and Private Place is a wonderful novel of magic realism and it revolves around the aforementioned four people (and the one raven). Very, very little happens in terms of plot which is really, a funny thing to say, because the main theme of the novel (death vs. life) is so momentous and there is a such a gravitas around its characters and the conversations they have with each other that it almost makes me uncomfortable to be so crass as to say that there is hardly any action within these covers.
But there isn’t. Not in the strict sense of the word although there is some movement towards say, the future, in the ending. This is a very introspective story and the characters spend their time talking or thinking about life and death. Not that it is a heavy, depressing piece of writing. Quite the contrary, there is beauty and melancholy and delicate consideration about people’s lives and even laugh-out-loud funny moments, courtesy of the raven. The story is mostly confined to the cemetery (this fine and private place) though, as three of its main characters are unable to leave it: the ghosts because they physically can’t and Mr Rebeck because he won’t allow himself to.
The significance of the latter is obvious: who is really living, who is really dead? The ghosts fight to live, to grasp one last moment before they forget everything. Rebeck is worst than a ghost, with his self-imposed imprisonment, even though he lives in perpetual self-denial believing that he is free from societal norms and is actually providing a service to the dead with his companionship.
Beyond that, there is the examination of the afterlife and what it entails: in this world, there is no hell or heaven. There is only memory and forgetfulness and the ghosts inhabit that place in-between. It doesn’t mean that things are black or white. Quite the contrary, if there is anything to be said about this novel is how even as the characters philosophise to their heart’s desires, the answers are fuzzy or non-existent. Take memory itself. Its power is so tremendous that it can ground ghosts and make them more alive. It can do the same to the living and imprison them to the past. At one point in the novel it is said that despite popular belief, it is “the living that haunt the dead”.
Or how about love? Does love last forever? Must it? When two of the characters fall in love, is it really love what they feel? Or is it a last attempt to remain alive? Does it matter? I guess it is up to the reader to answer that one.
A Fine and Private Place is a beautifully written novel, the sort of book that needs to be enjoyed and savoured slowly. I loved it: it is truly incredible, lovely and really romantic too. (less)
Neef is a changeling, a human baby stolen by fairies who lives in the Central Park of New York Between, an Otherworld Manhattan that co-exists with ou...moreNeef is a changeling, a human baby stolen by fairies who lives in the Central Park of New York Between, an Otherworld Manhattan that co-exists with our own, inhabited by all sorts of Fairy Folk. Neef (whose real name she doesn’t care to disclose to just anybody since – as you know – real names have power) has been brought up by her fairy godmother the white rat Astris and lives under the protection of The Green Lady, the Genius of the Central Park. Neef’s days are spent in relative tranquillity, learning about Folk Lore and attending lessons at her world’s (awesome) version of the Metropolitan Museum.
But Neef is super curious and yearns for adventures. And it is that curiosity that lands her in trouble and she ends up (unknowingly) violating a geas put on her and breaking Fairy law. The result is that she is to be banished from home after losing the protection of the Green Lady, effectively becoming prey to the Wild Hunt. But there is always a way out or a bargain to be made when it comes to the Folk and so Neef and her friends convince the Green Lady to accept a deal: Neef is to go in search of three objects, all of them close to impossible to obtain. Even as scared as she is, Neef takes the challenge as it ought to be taken: as an opportunity to go on a quest and to finally live a Grand Adventure. And a Grand Adventure she has – from being kidnapped to meeting her fairy changeling, from facing mermaids and dragons to meeting the Bull of Wall Street, it’s all very worthy of a cool heroine who deals with all the obstacles with smarts and determination (and sometimes, tears).
At the end there is definitely some growth (as any real quester will tell you) and so Neef grows up but interestingly enough, she doesn’t grow human – or at least, I didn’t read it as such. Her sense of ethic is shaped and determined by the Folk stories she knows. She has been completed integrated to her life – she never once thinks about leaving her fairy life for a mortal life, for example. She also knows all the supposed rules of a Quest and everything that relates to stories and she uses this knowledge to her advantage, even when it means breaking those very rules. Part of what made this book such a pleasure to read was the fact that Neef has so much awareness about Fantasy and Folklore tropes. I also loved how varied those stories were as the premise is that the mortal immigrants who moved to NY from all over the world have taken the Folk – and their stories – with them and even beloved book characters become alive in New York Between.
That said, I picked Changeling to read after reading and loving Delia Sherman’s amazing The Freedom Maze and I was curious to see how both books compared (or not). I am saying this as a matter of full disclosure: this is how I read this book. So, they are very different books in the end, with very different stories and motives. But I thought it was very interesting that both heroines shared a couple of traits. Both departed on their stories because of the similar impetus that both protagonists shared: the desire to go on an adventure. Plus, both of them loved stories and had a certain awareness of tropes relating to fairytales. The difference lies in how The Freedom Maze’s heroine awareness did not help her at all because, even though there were fantastical elements in that story, she was living in the “real world” whereas Neef uses those to her advantage and with success – but then again, Changeling is a Fantasy story through and through.
That also transcribes in how the two stories progress: Changeling is a very, very light romp – even when Neef is at dangerous moments, that danger never really comes through. In fact, that is my biggest problem (if I can even call it that, considering how I enjoyed it) with Changeling: considering the stakes, considering the creatures Neef has to face, the challenges proved to be extremely easy and work out perfectly in the end. I wondered: isn’t it also part of traditional stories that there are great costs to a protagonist on a quest? In that sense, I thought that The Freedom Maze explored that idea much better. Having said that I am also very much aware of the fact that it is not really fair to compare the two books on those grounds but there you have it.
Changeling is supposed to be a light, fantastical romp with a very cool heroine and on its own, it is one of the most imaginative Middle Grade Fantasy stories I’ve had the pleasure to read. (less)