To start, a passion play is "a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering, and death." (Thank you Wikipedia! EmTo start, a passion play is "a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering, and death." (Thank you Wikipedia! Emphasis my own.) The title is thus a significant hint as to what sort of story this is; judging from the few reviews I've spotted online, not enough people got this going in.
That out of the way, this is an impressive first novel. Stewart's pacing is steady, his characters are well-drawn (if a bit stereotypical), and his prose is assured. The novel works equally well as science fiction, with its dystopic future and telepathic narrator, and as a mystery, with its cast of distinct suspects and very memorable dead man. It's lean and taut and packs a punch.
I actually wished it were a little less lean -- while I was content to simply wonder about how the Redemption Presidency came about, and why the police hired private contractors to do their detective work, and how they managed to get around that pesky first amendment right to freedom of religion, I really felt the novel needed a bit more of an infodump about the narrator's psychic abilities. They were central to the plot (whereas all the governmental stuff was mere backdrop) and I couldn't figure out a couple of key points (mostly whether or not anyone knew she was a shaper, and what the difference was between shapers and empaths) that would have changed how I read several scenes.
Despite that dissatisfaction, this is a powerful novel. Stewart has said "I wanted to write a book about moral choice. . . [to] create a society in which everyone cared passionately about moral choice." At the end I think I would quibble over whether there was a choice at all, but I didn't really care, because Stewart succeeded so well in capturing the tone of those sorts of moments, the agony of a crisis of faith and the relief in re-committing oneself, even in a pyrrhic fashion. Despite the SF world-building and mystery plot, this is an intimate novel, one that rises and falls with how well the reader responds to Diane's voice. The novel starts with the following:
When I try to write it down, it dies: I find myself speaking with my father's polished, thoughtful voice. But what I want to do is shout until my heart cracks, shout like a preacher at a Redemption service. I want God to grant me a voice that will shatter these concrete walls like the ramparts of Jericho. I want to speak in tongues my damnation, make you all see that this isn't just about the murder of Jonathan Mask, but about law and God and justice.
It's a dark time and we all sound like the Bible.
If that works for you, you will very likely love this novel. I did....more
This is science fiction about adults, for adults. Everything about it is solid: the prose, the world-building, the characters. Both the central mysterThis is science fiction about adults, for adults. Everything about it is solid: the prose, the world-building, the characters. Both the central mystery and the central romance are well-paced and resolve satisfactorily. In short, it's damn good.
The prose is of the sort that gets out of the reader's way, putting the story front and center. It's written in tight third person perspective, alternating fairly regularly between Mace and Nemily. The pacing is sure, doling out information about the characters, the world, and the mystery as needed and not before. There is a rough moment early on when the story jumps forward in time several years; I wish the part before the jump had been set aside in a prologue or a Part I to give that jump more visceral impact. But that's just a quibble.
The world-building is quite compelling. It's barely 100 years into our future, when the solar system is in the process of being settled but humans have yet to make it any further out. In that 100 years there has clearly been quite a bit of political upheaval, and figuring out the details of that history is at times a more intriguing mystery than the one Mace is investigating. There are a couple of infodumps when all action comes to a screeching halt, but for the most part Tiedemann manages to show a messy, precarious balance of power that is fascinating in its own right and increasingly relevant to the main plot.
But the thing that makes this book refreshingly adult fare is the characters. There's sex too, it's true, and more of it than I was expecting; but the far more groundbreaking elements are the ways in which Mace and Nemily are not your standard noir detective and ingenue. Much though he might want to be, Mace is not a loner: he is surrounded by people who care for him. Not a fellowship determined to aid him in his quest, but friends, of varying degrees, both people he'd trust his life to and people he wouldn't, but who want to celebrate his birthday with him anyway. And though Nemily looks at first like the typical cold, desperate woman with a secret, she just gets stranger and stranger, a convincingly alien future human. And over their entire relationship hangs the spectre of Mace's dead wife, who is not some gilded idol but instead a complex and achingly real woman whose death I felt more the further into the story I got.
If this book has a weakness it is the central mystery; part of the reason I found the world more intriguing than the plot was that I had figured out much of the mystery well in advance of the characters. The villains were also a shade too hissable for my liking. But overall this is a strong entry in the science fiction mystery canon, and one with a far better romantic subplot than most (actually, two romantic subplots, one forward and one backward). I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it....more
This is the umpteenth Vorkosigan Saga novel, long salivated after by all right and proper fans (whose ranks do include me, as fair warning), and likeThis is the umpteenth Vorkosigan Saga novel, long salivated after by all right and proper fans (whose ranks do include me, as fair warning), and like all books in the series it functions as a stand-alone and even would serve as a decent introduction to the series. It's not the best introduction, but anyone who comes to the series through this novel will have no trouble keeping up with the plot here and will also not be spoiled on any major events from earlier on, except for Mirror Dance -- but to be fair, just knowing that the series continues is a spoiler for Mirror Dance.
What makes the Vorkosigan Saga unique in my experience (and if there are any other series that share this quality, please, let me know!) is that it is a very long-running series where each book does stand-alone yet which carries the same set of characters throughout (with the occasional addition or subtraction) and in which the characters undergo fundamental change throughout, significant, life-altering experiences that can't be brushed off or reset in the next volume. The best volumes in the series are, in fact, those that deal with those life-altering experiences.
Cryoburn does not fall into that category. Instead, it falls into the slightly-less-satisfying but still exceptional category of Vorkosigan Saga novels that use the science fiction setting to explore the effect of technological innovation on human society. Unlike many science fiction writers, Bujold has little interest in the physics of her universe; she hand-waved some wormhole-aided space travel technology and then never gave it another thought. The technology Bujold is interested in exploring is the technology of life and death. Many of her novels explore what strange subcultures we might create given a workable uterine replicator (Falling Free, Ethan of Athos, and Cetaganda leap to mind, and the technology is important in nearly all of the others); this novel explores in depth what strange distortions the cryochamber (a technology that allows freezing and reliable reviving of humans near -- or recently -- dead) might work through society.
I don't think Bujold gets enough credit for how science fiction -y her novels are. Not hard SF -- we get no lovingly technical infodumps of any of these technologies -- but true soft SF of the sort Ursula LeGuin writes, extrapolating futures frightening for how very human they are. I believe, in every Bujold novel, in the way her societies have been distorted. But unlike much thoughtful soft SF, Bujold always bears in mind that she is writing an entertaining story first. I suspect this is why it's easy for people to brush her off. There is nothing didactic about her writing, and the social extrapolation is always either essential to the plot (in which case you can look at it as purely plot-related) or done in small little asides that, if you are racing to get to the end, are very easy to overlook. She also takes time to make the reader laugh, often -- something I wish far more science fiction authors would do.
So Cryoburn works in both those ways. Like many a Miles novel before it, it's a fast-paced adventure wherein Miles happens to people, and their lives (and worlds) are skewed in his wake. Like recent Miles novels, Cryoburn very much benefits from having two POV characters besides Miles; these POVs let us see more of the human cost of his manic forward momentum. One of the alternate POVs, a young boy named Jin, is very well-done and makes this the first Vorkosigan novel since The Warrior's Apprentice that is fundamentally YA-friendly. (The other POV is Armsman Roic, who though wonderful in the novella "Winterfair Gifts" is used mainly for plot-advancement here.) And like all Vorkosigan Saga novels, everything comes together in a hectic (but never confusing) climax with Miles the victor.
But after that satisfying (though not world-shattering) climax comes the denouement, which was telegraphed from page one (and which Bujold has repeatedly told readers was next for the series) and which I had been dreading from the moment I heard this book was going to be published. And it feels. . . strange. It left me off-balance, and while I'm sure it was supposed to leave me off-balance I can't help but wonder if Bujold just chickened out. The Aftermaths section (a perfectly pitched call-back to the first Vorkosigan novel, Shards of Honor) was delicate, and so very right (it's a set of five drabbles), but. . . it will likely leave any new readers confused and cold, and to longtime fans it feels like the only "To be continued" of the series, because it screams for elaboration.
On the other hand, it does work, intellectually, as a cap for a series that has produced three Hugo-winning novels, one Nebula-winning novel, and a number of Hugo- and Nebula-winning short stories and novellas. So it is entirely possible that I am left unsatisfied simply because it's over. Again....more
This is the sort of science fiction that's perfect to hand to someone who says they never read science fiction -- sure, it's set in the future, and thThis is the sort of science fiction that's perfect to hand to someone who says they never read science fiction -- sure, it's set in the future, and there are space ships, and we visit a couple of different planets in a vast interstellar empire, but that's ultimately just a slightly-more-exotic-than-usual setting for a story about some very human people whose lives touch because they each in some way illuminate the central mystery.
Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective, and within the 10-15 pages devoted to that character Eschbach is able to give the reader a strong sense of who that character is and what his/her life is like -- and most of those lives are hard, and filled with tragedies large and small. Whether it is Eschbach's doing or the translator's, the prose is imbued with a sense of distance that makes those tragedies bearable -- and were it not for that sense of distance I would have had to put the book down several times to cry. But the book isn't about those tragedies; each one is presented not for pathos but because it gives the reader (and soon, some of the characters) clues about the purpose behind the hair carpets.
As we delve deeper into the mystery the plotting becomes more complex and the scope widens -- we begin to sense the vast sweeps of history and the passions behind them. The book does lose a little of its focus in a couple chapters -- three of the perspectives ended up almost totally extraneous to the final resolution. But the resolution itself is horrifying, and all the more potent because of the dryness of the narration. This is a book that lingers long past the final page, and one which feels far richer than 300 pages has a right to be. I am immensely glad that it was translated into English....more
There is nothing really new in the SF meets noir detective novel. On the noir side, there is the cynical, hard-boiled detective unwillingly drawn in tThere is nothing really new in the SF meets noir detective novel. On the noir side, there is the cynical, hard-boiled detective unwillingly drawn in to the machinations of the powerful; there are the beautiful women embroiled in the case in varying degrees, nearly all of whom eventually get bedded; there is the city filled to the brim with drug dealers, whorehouses, and little people being eaten up by the powerful. On the SF side, there are hints of an ancient galactic civilization, now defunct; there are guns and computer programs to do anything anyone could want; there are A.I.s, particularly The Hendrix, which is a fabulous invention; and of course, there is the ubiquitous process of resleeving, by which death has been conquered – for the rich. Even the melding of the two genres is not new: it dates back at least to Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw novels.
What Altered Carbon provides, however, is all of those familiar elements done up in a superb style. It is an extraordinarily visual book – I understood from the first page of the prologue why Joel Silver and Warner Bros. bought the film rights for $1 million. The narrative is fast-paced, the tone is spot-on, and the philosophical musings, while also not ground-breaking in any way, are moments to savor rather than skip over. The mystery is satisfyingly twisty but still fair to the reader, and the final confrontation ratchets up the tension to a screaming pitch then uses the bare minimum of words to choreograph the denoument.
I do have one quibble, however: I read the author bio in the back of the book first, and two of the three sentences were about the film rights. I found this a tad tasteless, not very informative, and kind of distracting, as I spent the entire novel trying to imagine how someone would film it....more
The Prefect started out rough for me. The characterization was shoddy through the opening act -- the only female viewpoint character, Thalia Ng, was aThe Prefect started out rough for me. The characterization was shoddy through the opening act -- the only female viewpoint character, Thalia Ng, was also the only character who seemed to feel any emotion at all, and as she was mainly nervous and afraid her emotions undercut my respect for her as a prefect -- especially as the other prefects whose viewpoints Reynolds showed all appeared calm, cool, collected, and totally in control. There were also moments where Reynolds forced the characters to have totally artificial-feeling conversations to provide important information to the reader -- not quite conversations of the "Well, as you know, Bill, the Glitter Band is a string of 10,000 habitats circling the planet Yellowstone" variety, but close.
The imaginative scope of The Prefect fell shy for me in the beginning as well. All the best bits of imaginative work had been covered in previous novels set in this universe -- the Ultras and their ships are very minor characters, the Glitter Band and Chasm City are just there as backdrop, and no real prose is spent going over any of their wonders. The only new bits of imagination are expended on the four habitats that Thalia visits by herself, and they seemed surprisingly juvenile creations -- one consists of people who have given up most of their physical bodies in favor of a total life of the mind, so when they need to walk around they are merely heads in boxes; another is made up of people who have modeled their bodies after various animals and engage in violent jousting tournaments full of claws and teeth, fur and feathers. That imagery has been done before, and Reynolds himself seemed bored with it, as he switched away from Thalia's perspective after he set each of those habitats up and didn't return to her until she was done dealing with them.
But as soon as Thalia arrived at House Aubusson, the novel started picking up speed. That habitat did show some of Reynolds' usual imagination, and its role in the complicated Demarchist voting system was fascinating to me. And shortly after that point, the final showdown began, and the book started racing towards its finish line. From that point I was glued to the page, feeling the tension rising and worrying my own brain at the problem of coming up with a solution to the threat bearing down on Panoply and the Glitter Band.
Unfortunately, that point was only 180 pages into a 563 page novel. There is no way for any author to maintain a feverish intensity for the entire last two-thirds. The only way to pace a novel of that length is to have a mini-climax somewhere in the middle, a ramping down of the tension, and then a second, higher escalation for the true climax at the end. Reynolds had no mini-climax, no ramping down and then re-escalation, so though I raced through the middle section, by the time the story was starting to draw to a close I (and the narrative) was losing steam. The ending itself was a bit too much of a deus ex machina resolution for my taste (quite literally, actually), and the emotional story arc for Dreyfus simply never connected enough for me for that to be justification for reading the almost 600 pages.
So ultimately, I would recommend this novel to anyone who's read the other Revelation Space novels because it does fill in some of the back story on the Glitter Band, but anyone who has never tried Reynolds before would be much better off starting with the original trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap), which has much more impressive hard SF imaginings (I miss the Nostalgia for Infinity!) or with the other semi-standalone novel, Chasm City, which has a much better mystery....more