Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Fifth Season by N.K Jemisin (4 stars)

Hugo winner! This is very unusual fantasy. The world building is complex, it's about as far from your standard medieval setting with elves, swords, and magic as possible. It's a very messy and believable world, no cardboard cutout characters - there's various gender identities and sexual orientations. There's racism, governmental oppression and desperate people surviving a hostile world.

The narration itself is highly unusual, the novel spends a large amount of time in a second-person POV. It's honestly pretty annoying to read:

For the past ten years you've lived as ordinary a life as possible. You came to Tirimo from elsewhere; the townsfolk don't really care where or why. Since you were obviously well educated, you became a teacher at the local creche for children aged ten to thirteen.

At times it feels much more like a puzzle with hints, than a regular novel:

There are things you should be noticing, here. Things that are missing, and conspicuous by their absence. Notice, for example, that no one in the Stillness speaks of islands.
I've waited too long to write this review, so I don't have too much to say.

4 stars.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness (1 star)

You read an entire trilogy that you rated as one star each? Yes, I did. I really wanted to see how this thing ended.

Spoilers ahead.

This whole novel lurches from one inconsistency to another, with lots of attention and focus on boring detail that doesn't advance the story at all.

It starts out with implying that a major character Emily Mather has died, which is a fairly crucial plot point given that Knox kills her. Why does that happen off the page? Harkness seems to be deliberately keeping away any scenes that are remotely interesting. I mean Diana and Mr. wine list could have time-traveled back to just after when they left and avoided this weird time gap in which Emily gets killed, but of course that fits with how poorly thought out all the time travel logic was.

There's yet more family squabbles and tense dinners over Diana's acceptance into the family (essentially the same plot as the entire first two books). Matthew gets into doing a bunch of gardening and house renovations to the witches' house, which is described in lots of boring detail.
“If you keep Matthew from renting that steel roller he’s been talking about to resurface the driveway, 
Easy-to-grow plants like elfwort and yarrow helped the children understand the seasonal cycle of birth, growth, decay, and fallowness that guided any witch’s work in the craft. A hollow stump served as a container for mint and other invasive plants.
Matthew is constantly running his fingers through his hair, whenever he's worried or needs to think, which is every couple of paragraphs:
Matthew drove his fingers through his hair.
Diana has this whole dragon familiar thing, which basically hardly ever features in the novel apart from when it needs to be a deus ex machina. It reads like it's some sort of neglected pet.

Harkness introduces a ton of new characters for no real reason, apart from padding, and continues to ignore the most interesting characters:
Fernando was a domestic tyrant—far worse than Em ever was—and his changes to Sarah’s diet and exercise plan were radical and inflexible. He signed my aunt up for a CSA program that delivered a box of exotic vegetables like kale and chard every week, and he walked the property’s fence line with her whenever she tried to sneak a cigarette.

Matthew and Diana continue to be Mary Sue's in a very self-congratulatory tedious way:

“I can create because my father was a weaver, and I can destroy because my mother had the talent for higher, darker magics.” “A union of opposites,” Matthew said. “Your parents were an alchemical wedding, too. One that produced a marvelous child.”
A incredibly implausible best friend Chris turns up that has literally never been mentioned in two whole previous novels:
Why didn’t you tell me? Where have you been? Why didn’t you let me help? 
Yeah, Diana, you are a seriously terrible friend. What was this guy supposed to think happened to you? And of course, Chris drops his entire professional career direction to go off and research all the crazy shit that his supposed best friend is talking about. Seems plausible.

We find out Ysabeau has PTSD or something since she's created an insane set of alarms that are going off multiple times a day:
Other alarms marked the hour of Hugh’s death and Godfrey’s, the hour when Louisa had first exhibited signs of blood rage, the hour when Marcus had demonstrated definitively that the same disease had not touched him.
There's a weird "drinking during pregnancy is OK" message being pushed, it's mentioned more than once:
“My own mam drank whiskey every day of her pregnancy—and
Marcus had assured me that a single glass every now and again wouldn’t affect the babies, provided I waited a couple of hours before I nursed. 
The whole Congregation is apparently on the hunt for Diana and Matthew, but they are telling their story to pretty much everyone, so the Congregation is pretty terrible at being an ominous all-powerful organization. A sentiment which is reinforced by turning scary vampire Gerbert into grandpa-on-the-internet who gets viruses and needs to call up geek squad:
Sadly for Gerbert—though happily for Ysabeau—an addiction to the Internet and an understanding of how best to use it did not always go hand in hand. Because of the sites he frequented, Gerbert was plagued by computer viruses.
Still with the yoga.

Matthew continues to make completely unilateral important decisions without consulting Diana:
“What is this about?” I asked Matthew when he opened my door. “I thought we should divide the ceremony into two parts: a pagan naming ceremony here, and a Christian baptism at the church,”
and Phoebe quits her career at Sotheby's: another professional woman enters an abusive relationship and throws her life away. Great role models in this book.

There's nothing satisfying about any of this, and I have no idea why these books are rated so highly on Amazon.

1 star.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (1 star)

Well, here we are, second book in the terrible series that I'm reading for no good reason. Spoilers ahead.

This has got to be hands-down the least plausible conception of time-travel that ever made it to print. But first some background. So Matthew picks a time (the year 1590) seemingly pretty much at random, but presumably because Harkness had done the research for that time period and wanted to show it off.

There's literally no good reason to pick that time in history - Matthew doesn't know any powerful witches to train Diana alive at that time, and people are being executed left and right for witchcraft, whether they are actual witches or not. So you know, asking around for a witch to learn from isn't going to exactly be easy. Not to mention that Diana is going to stick out like a sore thumb: she is a modern woman and doesn't know anything about how to live in 1590. Cue long boring sections about how to write with a quill and get dressed.

So poor life choices, but fine. Here's how the time travel works. Matthew shows up and 1590 Matthew just disappears....Umm. OK. Sure. What happens when they leave? Apparently 1590 Matthew just reappears and he is going to be confused AF because for a good few months he was apparently hanging out with some crazy woman, who he married, and carried on with at Queen Elizabeth's court, adopted a kid etc. But 1590 Matthew is just going to pop back into being and what? Be really confused? And somehow he doesn't remember that experience a few centuries later when he starts hanging out with Diana? This situation is just so dumb.

That's why most time travel fiction actually tries to avoid your real self in the past. But no, that would get in the way of making Matthew THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN HISTORY. I mean he's friends with literally everyone famous from that era, which seems like a poor decision for a creature who's supposed to be hiding, since you know, he doesn't actually age at all. It's all just so implausible.

Anyway, the novel continues in it's boring way, with even more abusive terrible relationships, this time modelling spectacularly bad behavior towards Phoebe:
Phoebe’s hand was trembling. That man—that strange man with no grasp of proper etiquette and startling blue eyes—had kissed her. At her place of work. Without her permission.
Kit's obviously the largest danger to Diana, but everyone seems implausibly oblivious to this. Especially Diana and Matthew themselves. It allows Diana to get into a slow-motion bond-villain death trap with a jousting mannequin.

I'm pretty sick of hearing about Ashmole 782.

1 star.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (1 star)

Occasionally I look at the most positively reviewed books on Amazon, and peruse "top 100" lists. I'm not sure which one of those led me here, but that's my excuse. On the upside I get to indulge in a negative review, which is a lot more fun to write than a 3-4 star review, which is most of the books I read.

First up it's not fantasy, it's a romance novel. The magic, vampirey and time-travel bits are thrown in haphazardly and in a way that destroys any credibility of a well-thought out world. We follow a young witch as she discovers her powers and then throws her future away on a sick relationship with a rich controlling asshole who happens to be a vampire. If that sounds like the twilight series to you, it should.

We start with Diana, smart intelligent researcher, world-renowned expert, and modern woman. By her own account she has a very healthy respect for how dangerous vampires are, but within a few pages she's jumping in the car of an incredibly powerful one. They head out to a yoga session for vamps, daemons, and witches at this guy's house, at which point I realised this was actually a romance novel.
Dozens of daemons, vampires, and witches dipped and swooped their bodies into graceful, upward curves.
Ugh. From here on in, it's just Matthew showing off ridiculously expensive wine/real-estate/antiques/art and Diana ignoring all the relationship red flags anyone should ever need. I thought she was supposed to be a strong-spirited intelligent modern woman.
“This is Ch√Ęteau Margaux from a very great vintage. Some people consider it the finest red wine ever made.”
 She hands over her blood sample and he proceeds to dictate everything about her life, including who she can talk to, and then starts physically assaulting her.
“Let me go, Matthew.” I struggled in his arms. “No.” No man had ever refused when I asked him to stop doing something—whether it was blowing his nose in the library or trying to slip a hand up my shirt after a movie. I struggled again. Matthew’s arms got tighter. “Stop fighting me.” He sounded amused. “You’ll get tired long before I do, I assure you.”
 Miriam sees the same thing:
“She told me I needed to learn how to take care of myself and stop relying on you to protect me. She basically accused me of playing the damsel in distress.”
That was your intervention Diana, I feel sad that you couldn't see it. Oh well, back to Matthew dictating everything about your life and you being passive:
“You’ll stay at Woodstock until Peter Knox leaves Oxford.” My face must have betrayed my dismay. “It won’t be so bad,” he said gently. “You’ll have all the yoga you want.” With Matthew in bodyguard mode, I didn’t have much choice.
“This family is not a democracy, especially not at a time like this. When I tell you to do something, you do it, without hesitation or question. Understood?”
“Do you understand why you must not question Matthew when he tells you to do something?”
 I mean, you're an expert horse rider, but sure, let him treat you like a baby:
“I can get onto a horse myself,” I said hotly. “But you don’t need to.” Matthew’s hands cupped my shin, lifting me effortlessly into the saddle.

It makes me sick to think that all the people giving this 5 stars on amazon apparently might actually admire this kind of relationship with Mr. patronizing wine-list:
“You’re tired,” he said, “and hungry. Maybe we should wait until after lunch.”
Surprise! Time for some time-travel, don't bother asking when/where you're going though, your husband can decide all that for you:
I still knew nothing, except that I was headed to a time before 1976 and a place where Matthew had played chess.
Spoiler from the next book: Matthew had no idea what he was doing when he picked the time and place.

There's just barely enough interesting stuff happening in amongst the cringeworthy relationship bits and girlfriend-meeting-the-family boring drama, the woke-up-and-went-out-for-breakfast bits, then-I-went-rowing bits, and then-we-had-dinner bits to make me want to read the next book to see if there's more interesting fantasy world stuff happening in the new time period.

But really I don't have a good reason to read the next one, this was terrible, maybe I just like writing negative reviews.

1 star.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (4 stars)

I can see how this was very groundbreaking in 1969. It is a well written thought experiment on gender and sex, and how it influences so much of society structure and behaviour. Amazingly it has stood the test of decades and much progression in our thinking about gender and sexuality to still be readable and relevant to the modern reader. There's plenty of old sci-fi that hasn't aged nearly as well, and shows it was definitely deserving of it's Hugo and Nebula awards.

We follow a human ambassdor's experience on the planet Winter where:
Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.
Le Guin leads us through many facets of the society and ambassador Genly's realisation of just how different this gender neutral world really is to a human male:
The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.
In addition to the gender thought experiment there's also plenty of other issues touched upon, including how damaging rabid nationalism can be.

If you're after a rollicking plot and scintillating adventure on another planet, this is not the book for you. It feels like reading a documentary about another planet, a super-interesting one, but the plot isn't the strongest part of the novel.

4 stars.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (3 stars)

There's a lot of crazy stuff in this novel. Quaiche's Cathedrals, Skade being a psychopath, ship completely controlled by plague assimilated captain, and more. I'm honestly not really sure what to think, but I left this whole series fairly unfulfilled. It's an awful lot of words to read to have that feeling, and I struggled to get through this one. It's been too long since I read it to put down anything more coherent.

 3 stars.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds (3 stars)

Book 2 of the revelation space series. It's been too long since I read this to give it a proper review. Mostly what I remember is that it was a fairly boring chase for these fancy weapons through a whole lot of space, when probably what they should be doing is actually using the weapons.

3 stars.