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.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (3.5 stars)

This Revelation Space series followed on in a very similar vein to the three body problem, but was less memorable. Maybe I just got burnt out on hard sci-fi. In this series there's a race of aliens crushing intelligent life in the galaxy that trips technological triggers by getting too advanced, as well as a plague ship that has consumed it's captain, and lots of relics of dead civilisations.

 I've waited too long to review these books so it's going to be a short review.

The frequent POV switching was quite annoying. Especially since they happened just with new paragraphs and without any headings.

 The Mademoiselle was cringe-worthy Dr. Evil overplayed bad guy, all it was missing was a white cat to stroke:
“Oh yes,” the Mademoiselle said. Then she snatched at the globe with her hand, crushing it between her fingers, rivulets of dust pouring between them. “Very much more.”
And this description of security controls made me laugh out loud. Sounds like something from a kids TV show:
“Access counter-insurgent protocols; lambda-plus severity, maximum battle-readiness concurrence and counter-check to be assumed, full autonomous denial-suppression, criticality-nine Armageddon defaults, red-one-alpha security-bypass, all Triumvirate privileges invoked at all levels; all non-Triumvirate privileges rescinded.” 

3.5 stars.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Death's End by Cixin Liu (4 stars)

Another impressive, thoughtful novel by Cixin Liu, closing out the series. I'm finding these fairly hard to review, mostly because I've waited too long to write the reviews, but here's some random thoughts.

The thought experiment of what would happen if humanity developed highly reliable hibernation technology was interesting and fairly horrifying:
Once the technology was successfully commercialized, those who could afford it would use it to skip to paradise, while the rest of humanity would have to stay behind in the comparatively depressing present to construct that paradise for them.
Shooting a brain out into space with a series of nuclear weapons was badass.

The transition from Luo Ji to Cheng Xin as swordholder was brilliantly executed and shocking.

The specific focus on Australia as a refugee settlement was fairly weird.

4 stars.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (4 stars)

Sequel to the excellent Three Body Problem. Less Chinese history, even more crazy thought experiments. Some serious spoilers ahead.

What would you do if your mortal enemy could observe even your most secret discussions and all strategy was essentially an open book? Humanity comes up with a really novel solution in the form of the Wallfacers and Trisolaris counters with their Wallbreakers. Great stuff.

The Wallfacer Luo Ji is obviously set up to be the real danger, by appearing to do nothing for a very long time.
How are we supposed to know whether or not you have already started work?
The Trisolarans recognise the threat and come up with a super sophisticated assassination method. Meanwhile Zang Beihai is also coming up with his own amazingly complex murder plot to remove opposition to technological research: it involves creating bullets out of meteorites....

The central realization of the book is that the universe is a dangerous dark forest where voices are silenced quickly, which is a neat explanation of the Fermi paradox.
“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

A very interesting and thought-provoking read.

4 stars