I have been a fan of Patricia McKillips' fantasy for some years now. It is always moving and lyrical, and she captures the feel of old fairy tales bet...moreI have been a fan of Patricia McKillips' fantasy for some years now. It is always moving and lyrical, and she captures the feel of old fairy tales better than any other author I know of. I have slowly been acquiring all of her books, and so in the course of my collecting I happened upon Moon-Flash in an out-of-print mass market edition. I immediately liked the cover art, for the alien animals and because Kyreol was a woman of color -- something still FAR too rare on the SF and Fantasy shelves. Something about the cover, too, reminded me of Island of the Blue Dolphins, though I can not tell you what it was.
I finally got around to reading Moon-Flash because I was falling behind in my SF Challenge and it was very short. I read it in a morning's sitting, falling easily into McKillip's more toned-down style (at least, compared to her fantasy; there's still plenty of symbolism and metaphor compared to most SF out there) and into Kyreol's child-like perspective. This is definitely a book suitable for a fairly young audience -- I would say it's suitable for even precocious 9-year olds -- but it is one of those rare books that despite that still holds riches for mature audiences. Children will immediately be able to relate to Kyreol's vast curiosity and fear; adults will be able to understand better the parts of the world that Kyreol can not -- its simplicities and its strangenesses, its tragedies, its hard choices.
It is a coming-of-age tale, a romance, a meditation on the power of dreams. It is a traveler's tale, and a tale of first contact. It is also a delicately beautiful exploration of the ethics of Star Trek's Prime Directive: an exploration, I say, because McKillip gives us no easy answers. But ultimately, it is a moving book about love, in all its forms: romantic love, the love between parents and children, and the abstract love of entire peoples, which can build monuments and change worlds.(less)
Really, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of ta...moreReally, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of tale within tale within tale ad infinitum is endlessly engaging, as Valente moves confidently between layers every few pages. I would strongly recommend you read this book rapidly -- it would be difficult to track the various layers of story over too many days or with breaks to read other novels, and characters reappear without warning a hundred pages after you thought they were done with, so it's good to have their stories still fresh in your mind. But Valente keeps everything clear, demonstrating a very impressive mastery of her story. If I have one quibble it's that she is not kind to her male characters, and I'm not entirely sure why this book won the Tiptree Award, but it is definitely a book I will cherish, and one I am already planning to someday inflict on my children at bedtime. It made me laugh and it brought me to tears; I have magical images dancing behind my eyes; and I will definitely, definitely be reading the next volume the instant I can get my grubby little hands on it. (Do I sound like a frantic fangirl? I am, I am. . .)(less)
njoyable, but my enjoyment was hampered by its very YA-ness. The characters are all likable, the world is interesting, and the prose gets very much ou...morenjoyable, but my enjoyment was hampered by its very YA-ness. The characters are all likable, the world is interesting, and the prose gets very much out of the way of a story that kept me turning the pages, but everything was too EASY. There were good characters and bad characters with no shades of grey (and c'mon, a decadent, evil emperor and the only description he gets is that he's grossly fat? really? THAT'S what makes someone evil?), and the good characters always seemed to have more than enough power to topple the bad characters -- there was no true sense of jeopardy, because every challenge the good characters faced they overcame with relative ease, even though they had no idea what they were doing. I much prefer the writing of Dickinson's wife, Robin McKinley -- also mostly YA, and with the same stark contrast between good and evil, but at least her characters sweat and bleed for their victories, and nothing is ever just handed to them.(less)
This is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her d...moreThis is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her death last January. The speculative fiction field is lessened by her loss, and this book is a reminder of exactly why.
I suspect I will be in the minority in holding this opinion. It's a slight book, both in length and in that it is one in which not a whole lot happens. The heavy-duty world-building went on in the previous two novels, and this one is essentially nothing more than a gentle coming-of-age travelogue and romance. It has a likeable young protagonist, some light adventure, some not-very-dark secrets, and a happy ending. All of that is usually enough for a young adult audience, which is why I think it will work best when aimed at that reading level.
But that's just the gloss, the stuff the publisher sees (based on the jacket description which, as always with Baker's novels, spoils some things better left unspoiled and gets other things completely wrong). At its core this novel is just as subversive as the two that came before in this gloriously zany fantasy world -- unlike 95% of fantasy written today, it is a novel about the commonplace events that make up the lives of the vast majority of people inhabiting any world, real or imagined. It very gently paints a portrait of the lower classes, the working (and non-working) poor, whose lives are counted so negligibly by the characters portrayed in most fantasy novels. It's about the everyday tragedies of a hard life, and the way small lives get swallowed up by large ones, and the difference that creates in perception.
There is a beautiful passage between Eliss and Krelan where they talk about the way they see the universe. Krelan, living amongst the nobility his entire life, waxes on about how ordered the world is, the strict hierarchies keeping everyone in balance, in their place. And Eliss, whose idea of luxury is eating at a Red House (an establishment Krelan thinks terribly declasse) breaks in to say "But there isn't any balance. That's just made up. A Diamondcut can end up dead in the river mud, and a demon can fall in love with a goddess. Things just happen. Sometimes they're even good things."
That viewpoint is exactly the viewpoint so often missing from fantasy worlds. This loosely related trilogy, no matter its outer trappings, has always been about the value in seeking happiness, in forming families, in striving to be true to individuals rather than principles, and in enjoying life today, because it is a fragile thing. And that message, when delivered in such a gently beguiling way, is one I hope resonates with everyone who reads it.(less)
WARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nov...moreWARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nova blast and the crew is reeling from all of the deaths, particularly Rien's sacrifice to bring the new angel -- an A.I. integrating all of the splinter A.I.s that developed when the ship broke down centuries before -- into existence. Perceval is now captain, but she is barely functional as she deals with her grief, and there is an enormous power vacuum that the remaining Exalts of Rule and Engine -- both those for and against Perceval's captaincy -- are scrambling to fill. And while the A.I.s have all been integrated into the new angel, it is bothered by enormous black spaces in its awareness of the ship, due either to damage or enemy machinations.
And then a very dangerous prisoner escapes, so two teams -- one led by Tristen, the other by Benedick -- are sent in pursuit.
The plot is made up entirely by that pursuit, and I found that choice disappointing. The entire plot of Dust was Perceval and Rien fleeing through the fascinating landscape of the half-ruined ship; to have the entire plot of this one be another chase through a now-much-more-familiar landscape just seemed repetitive. There are a couple new and exciting set-pieces -- particularly a scene involving massive intelligent fungi doing something deliciously unexpected -- but ultimately I felt a bit let down by Bear's imagination. What stood out most about Dust for me was how gloriously imaginative the world-building was; with that thrill behind me this was just another SF action novel.
Or would have been, were it not for the characters.
If there was one flaw in Dust, it was that all of the characters were ciphers to me for 2/3 of the novel. Not so here. Dust and Chill ended up being mirror images of each other: the first all ideas and no character development; the second few (new) ideas but wonderful, complex characters with long histories and complicated relationships. The chase plot is really just window-dressing for internal, character-driven action, as the characters left standing after Dust figure out who they want to be in this new world.
Unfortunately, window-dressing or not the chase plot was still there, and it required a resolution, and that resolution was something of a deus-ex-machina. It also left a pretty significant plot thread dangling, as this is the middle book of a trilogy. But for these characters I would forgive a great deal more than that.(less)
I knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory character...moreI knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory character building, and purple prose. But what totally threw me at the start of the first book (Sword Dancer) was that Roberson seems to know absolutely nothing about how to survive in the desert. The entire novel is a trek through the desert, and yet the two main characters set off with a little dried meat in their bags and a couple of waterskins on a moment's notice. Apparently this is a desert where waterholes and oases are only a day or two apart, but Tiger spends a lot of time talking about how sometimes wells are fouled, and sandstorms come up in a moment, and there are all these dangerous animals that can lay you low, and no time at all preparing for any of those dangers. If a seasoned trekker is going off into a desert that dangerous, he rides a camel (by the way, where were the camels? it was definitely supposed to be the Arabian desert) if he's not in a major rush and he brings along at least one extra in case his animal goes lame and to carry extra supplies. He should have a small tent he can pitch around himself to provide some protection from a sandstorm. He should have a heck of a lot more water and food. It would have been one thing if the idiotic Northerner had tried to go into the desert with no preparation, but for the supposed world-wise Southerner to do it completely ruined my faith in the author's ability to handle her own world.
Del's character was also problematic for me at the very opening. She has supposedly spent five years training herself for this mission, but she is unwilling to wait a day (or an hour) to properly prepare herself for a dangerous journey through the desert? Those are incompatible world views. She should be patient after spending so much time breaking down cultural barriers in the north, and she exhibits no patience at all in the novel. With the decisions she made (or wanted to make) she should have died almost immediately having come nowhere near achieving her object for simple lack of foresight.
And because Roberson lost me so early on, I spent a great deal of time looking for other inconsistencies. For instance, the desert seems Arabian, and some of the tribes seem Bedouin, which fits, and several cultures seem Arabic, but heaven is called Valhail (and sounds quite a bit like Valhalla when it is mentioned) and all the terms related to sword fighting seem drawn from Japanese culture. I don't mind authors picking and choosing things they like from world cultures, but if they aren't cultures that naturally mingle in our world, the terms should be disguised quite a bit more so that an average reader doesn't detect the source material. That sort of thing I might have overlooked if Roberson had my trust, but since she handled her desert so poorly I wasn't willing to extend her any credit on those accounts.
I did make it through the entire first novel; it read quickly, and it was pretty much as I expected. But every time things were moving along decently well and Roberson was rebuilding my suspension of disbelief she would do something else that revealed her lack of control over her novel: the characters would do something inconsistent, or some aspect of the world would get lost that was set up earlier, or a passage of time would be handled badly. By the time the climax was reached, I still didn't like either of the main characters, I didn't buy their growth, and I didn't care at all whether they accomplished their goals. Given all that, I am undecided on whether or not to read the next novel. It is incredibly light, easy reading -- probably only an afternoon's worth -- and I already own it, but I still don't know if I want to bother.(less)
First, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They a...moreFirst, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They aren't fundamentally important inaccuracies -- though it is very important to realize that the "she" referred to at the start of the second paragraph is Kagaya-hime, not the "aging empress" who isn't an empress at all -- but it bugs me now that I've read the story to see how wrong it is. Ah well, moving on.
This is a wonderful book, sure to appeal to fans of Patricia McKillip and Catherynne Valente, though it's more accessible than either of their work. It's very much rooted in the myths of Japan, and while I don't know a ton about the time period, nothing of what I do know was contradicted by what Johnson wrote, so I am assuming that she captured the era (Heian-era Japan I believe) with some degree of accuracy. Like in McKillip and Valente's work, this is not fantasy that lovingly details a set of rules for its magic system; it is fantasy where there are gods and there are humans and there are animals and the lines between these things are not sharp at all, where anything can happen and no one is much surprised when anything does. Logic plays a role, but it's dream logic, and the worst error to commit is in assuming that any other being's motivations match our own.
But what made this book brilliant (and caused it to be nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) is the way in which it is fundamentally a womens' fantasy. The fudoki of the cats is entirely female; there is no place for males, and none of the fudoki cares to even know the names of the toms that fathered their kittens. Harueme (this would be the aging noblewoman narrating Kagaya-hime's tale, half-sister to the former Emperor Shirakawa) also lives in an almost entirely female world, where women have husbands and lovers but their days are spent hidden from male sight (and even the seductions take place with an eye to maintaining the illusion that no man can see their faces). Harueme loved her half-brother, and reminisces about her soldier-lover Domei, but the most important relationship she has is with her attendant, Shigeko. The novel even acknowledges that women menstruate -- I'm pretty sure I can count on one hand the SF/F novels that do that -- and there are elaborate (historically-based, I assume) codes of conduct built around that simple fact of life. It's a novel about women's issues: family and home and place in a society when all of those things are rigidly proscribed.
It works on a pure fantasy level too, with the cat-transformed-into-a-human element and the presence of the kami (which are a whole class of gods, not the name of a specific god as the jacket implies) and even a small war of revenge that leads to a seige; and I'm pretty sure it works as historical fiction, though as I've said I don't know very much about the time period so I can't attest to its accuracy. But it will linger in my memory because it shows a slice of life fantasy novels too often forget, not with any particular message, but just because these are stories that rarely get told. I wish there were more novels like this.(less)
So much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First...moreSo much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First off, there is thankfully nowhere near the same level of obnoxious unnecessary Capitalization in the text as there is in the jacket description. But the cover art is both eye-catching and accurate so the marketing's a wash overall. The cover art also captures the part of this book that I enjoyed the most: the sections starting about a third of the way in that are part of the long tradition of lost worlds fiction. I loved Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Caspak Trilogy ages ago, and this book is a worthy entry in that genre. It depicts the same sort of bizarre wilderness, filled with unexpected dangers and delights. I raced through the sections traveling through and trying to survive that wildnerness and was varying disappointed and annoyed when other elements of the novel came to the fore.
The central world-building premise, that of the metaphor of God as clockmaker made literal, is absurdly cool. It's an obvious fit in the clockpunk genre, and Lake's reminders that this world is not our world were effective and rarely overplayed. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the protagonist could hear the heavens ticking along -- an ability that grows and changes over the course of the book, mirroring Hethor's character arc. But I wanted more done with this premise; with so much of the plot resting on turns and crises of faith, I wanted much (much!) more information on how Lake's Christianity is not our Christianity. Little changes like the Brass Christ and the altered Lord's Prayer are nice. . . but I wanted (and felt the story needed) to see how God's presence manifest and undeniable changed the history of the Western World, given how much of the moving force of our world's history rests of disputes over faith. I didn't buy that Hethor's world would be as similar to ours as it clearly was.
Even though the book is most rightly clockpunk, it is also steampunk -- it's set in the Victorian period, and there are airships in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, I felt the entire steampunk setting was nothing more than window-dressing. There was never anything done with it. So, for example, we're told that America never broke away from England but that has no bearing on the plot and there's never any reason given for why the alternate historical elements of heavenly clockwork and working magic would have made America less likely to rebel. The Chinese Empire is the major threat to England rather than any of the other powers in Europe, but again, we're never shown why and it makes absolutely no difference to the plot who the enemy is. As far as I can tell, pretty much the only reason to give this novel a steampunk setting rather than the more natural clockpunk Renaissance setting is so that Lake can have all the adventures happen on an airship, and that's just not enough reason for me.
In fact, almost all of my reservations with the novel arise from its setting. The entire Southern Hemisphere is essentially erased, and even though that has happened for good world-building reasons it made me raise my eyebrows. If that erasure had had a measurable impact on the history of the Northern Hemisphere I would have applauded it as daring; but apparently the whole Age of Exploration (and Imperialism) was able to function exactly like ours. . . without Africa or half of the Americas to explore and conquer and mine for resources. Um, no. (One character even has a throwaway line dissing slave owners. . . who were the slaves?)
Compounding this issue is the fact that the second half of the book, the whole section I enjoyed for its Lost World air, harps (and harps, and harps) on the Noble Savage trope. Can we please retire that one now?
I had some issues with Lake's control over perspective as well -- the entire book was written from a tight third-person, except when Hethor was describing things, and then it switched to omniscient so that Lake could use references not available to his main character -- but overall this book will probably succeed or fail depending on the reader's enjoyment of lost worlds and tolerance for problematic world-building. For me it was about as much of a wash as the marketing.(less)