juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Well Witched (Verdigris Deep)
Author: Frances Hardinge
Narrator: Bianca Amato
Published: Recorded Audio, 2009 (2007)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 370
Total Page Count: 212,705
Text Number: 670
Read Because: fan of the author, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When three children steal coins from a wishing well, they find themselves cursed with strange powers and obligated to fulfill the wishes bound to the stolen coins. Well Witched is further proof that there's nothing quite like Hardinge's books. Her initial premises are supremely creepy, and her flexible, creative metaphors render a vivid atmosphere. But the explanations behind these premises, and the resulting plots, are more mundane and occasionally comic—exacerbated here by the middle grade characters/audience, which further lightens the tone. Then again, she's compassionate, insightful, and has a knack subverting tropes, all of which makes for satisfying character growth. Her books are always flawed, if only because that shift in tone from horror to adventure/comedy is inconsistent and disappointing. But I love that she writes them, and especially love the elements that work best in Well Witched: the Glass House, the internal logic of the magic system which unites character growth and plot, the satisfying but unsimplified way that relationships develop; it's so enjoyable, so distinctive, if not perfect.

Title: The Weight of Feathers
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Published: Thomas Dunne, 2015
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 315
Total Page Count: 213,020
Text Number: 671
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Two teenagers from rival circus families cross paths. It's a beautiful premise, evocative and diverse: Spanish mermaids and French-Romani tree-climbers makes for a romantic but unidealized tableau, engaging race and class and assimilation; beautiful imagery and light touches of magical realism create an immersive setting. But the execution is merely adequate. It's all so predictable, from the nature of the feud to the course of the central romance—and while the protagonists are likable, their chemistry isn't enough to carry the book. I wish there were more going on, in the supporting cast, or larger world, or even more conflict or development in the romance than just the circus feud. As is, this is what it feels like: a first novel, with promising component parts but unremarkable execution.

Title: Victory of Eagles (Temeraire Book 5)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2008
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 365
Total Page Count: 213,385
Text Number: 672
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When Laurence and Temeraire are separated, Temeraire assumes a commission of his own. The introduction of Temerarie's PoV is only briefly disorientating; it is, on the whole, a great addition, because this book is all about consequences—of the recent cliffhanger, but also of Laurence's actions throughout the series, and to see them from without, via a character unaware of that complicated social and moral position, is especially effective. It also keeps this book from becoming too dour—so too does the breadth of the action and progression of the war. This is almost too neat a book, in the way that reoccurring characters and ongoing arcs tie into the plot, but that would be my only complaint; I loved it, I found it necessary and well-realized and, if less pointedly feel-good than other series favorites, then perhaps more substantial.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Annihilation (Southern Reach Book 1)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Published: FSG Originals, 2014
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 195
Total Page Count: 218,840
Text Number: 664
Read Because: personal enjoyment, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A biologist joins an expedition into Area X, quarantined after an undisclosed event and now uninhabited. This is akin to the most compelling and surreal parts of the podcast TANIS, or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise—half terrain, half experience, entirely a revelation, thick with body horror and existential horror. The ending is substantial and convincing, which is crucial to this type of narrative. For better or worse, the bizarre usually needs a counterbalance, both to contrast and distract, so the intrigue isn't lost; here, that's the protagonist and her husband, a relationship which is bland and vaguely unlikeable. But the short length means most of the focus can be Area X itself, and VanderMeer's distant narration, a removed and precise take on New Weird's vivid imagery, is a strong fit. I really enjoyed this; it's easy to come up with this premise, but requires both creativity and discretion to drive it home, to make it profound but keep it on the edge of unknowable. This hit that balance, to satisfying effect.

Title: Empire of Ivory (Temeraire Book 4)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2007
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 400
Total Page Count: 211,240
Text Number: 665
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Laurence and Temeraire search for a cure to the illness ravaging England's dragons. Unlike the previous installment, this book has a solid throughline. The plot makes for extraordinarily satisfying hurt/comfort—revolving around Laurence and Temeraire, but, unusually, also around other dragons and their captains; it's a welcome broadening of emotional investment, and works beautifully. This book also marks the series's first major departure from history (dragons aside, of course), and it's a telling change that directly addresses the racial issues that permeate the narrative. I was initially skeptical of the tendency to elide historical slavery and the fictional social role of dragons, but the way this development works, combined with increasingly diverse representation, specifically of Africans, goes a long way to resolving that. This series is super tropey, in its tone and relationships, which is what makes it so compulsively readable. But the underlying historical setting, with all its injustice and complication, tempers and enriches that tone. I'm remain in love with the series, but this volume in particular was fantastic. (And, that ending!)

Title: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Narrators: Rebecca Mozo, Lincoln Hoppe
Published: Scholastic Audio, 2013
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 300
Total Page Count: 211,540
Text Number: 666
Read Because: reading more from the author, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: The kings of Palmares Tres are elected by the public and ritually sacrificed by the queen, a symbolic role disrupted by the election of an unusually popular king plucked from the city's lowest social class. It's hard to introduce this novel's elements—nanotechnology, post-apocalyptic manufactured societies, celebrity, love affairs, art—in a summary; the book does a better job of it, of sinking the reader deeper and deeper into the larger-than-life, vibrantly detailed world of Palmares Tres. In another setting, the romances would be melodramatic; within this appropriately heightened tableau, they're bittersweet and symbolic, and refreshingly non-monogamous.

This is what I hoped for, after I read Love is the Drug and found it unsatisfying but saw potential in the author: I wanted that diversity, that eye for daily detail, that penchant for dramatic romances, explored within a creative and highly speculative setting. And the result is remarkable, grandiose and complicated and sincerely emotional, and one of my favorite books of the year.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home (Fairyland Book 5)
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrator: Ana Juan
Published: Feiwel and Friends, 2016
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 320
Total Page Count: 215,830
Text Number: 655
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When its previous rulers are revived, September and company must compete in a race for the crown of Fairyland. The cumulative effect of this series is what makes it successful, and the finale is all about culmination: expanding and reuniting the cast, challenging and resolving September's relationship with Saturday, and her relationships with Halloween, Maud, Mallow, and the Marquess, and, finally, her relationship with Fairyland. It's also an especially obvious travelogue, which has become the series's weakness—but here, too much else is going on for the traveling to overwhelm the plot. I've had quibbles with the series entire, and none of the books have lived up to my experience with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland—but September's cumulative journey through Fairyland has a comparable resonance, and couldn't have been contained in a single book. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland reflects that exactly, and is just how I wanted the series to end.

read last December; still not caught up on belated reviews, pls send help—interestingly, they're all finales of series, and I liked them all; I guess the cumulative feels of multiple books makes writing a review of a good book that much harder, esp. as reviews of finales almost must become reviews of the series entire, a "was it worth it?" judgement

Title: Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas Book #1)
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Published: Sourcebooks Fire, 2016
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 330
Total Page Count: 216,160
Text Number: 656
Read Because: reading PoC, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Alex believes her family's magic has only ever brought them pain, so she attempts to cast off her own powers with disastrous results. As a premise—Latinx witches with their own customs, pantheon, and hereditary magics; a journey into a dangerous portal world; a bisexual love triangle; novel-length themes of self-acceptance—this is phenomenal. But the writing lets it down. The staccato sentences grow repetitive, and brief visual descriptions deaden the action and the magic; combined with a predictable plot, it all just ... sits there, lost potential. I wanted badly to love this, and probably would have fared better were I a visually-inclined reader, but frankly I can't recommend it.

Title: Black Powder War (Temerarie Book 3)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2007 (2006)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 350
Total Page Count: 216,510
Text Number: 657
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Laurence and company undertake an overland journey, only to encounter hurdles and the war at every turn. This installation begins as a comedy of errors and develops into a tragedy of errors, all without a strong overarching plot. Yet neither the misery nor aimlessness are particularly tiresome, although I did lose the thread the war a bit (my own fault—I let my attention slip while listening and I'm unfamiliar with the history). It works partially because there's still enough action to provide momentum, but moreso because the human element compensates: the precision of the lived, daily detail within the historical and fantastical setting, the way characters's personalities and values are shaped by these experiences, and, at the heart, the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire have pathos and humor and just enough conviction. This series continues to engage and satisfy me, and I can't wait to read more.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Affinity
Author: Sarah Waters
Published: Penguin, 2002 (1999)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 360
Total Page Count: 209,320
Text Number: 637
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When a troubled woman begins volunteer work at her local prison, she meets a captivating spiritualist inmate. Waters's books consistently offer a dramatic, discomforting tension—they're set deep within their historical contexts, dealing with social/gender roles and queer relationships; they're unromanticized, yet evocative and atmospheric. I found Affinity's social tensions (imprisonment, mental health, suicide within gendered/social context) especially unpleasant for personal reasons, but they have strong thematic synergy. But much of the book's tension lies in the authenticity of the supernatural elements, which means most plot developments are shunted into dramatic revelations in the closing act—and, though both logical and foreshadowed, this still betrays the long, slow engagement that is the bulk of the narrative. This is my least favorite Waters novel so far, which is to praise with a faint damning: it's compelling and sympathetic, but didn't strike me in the way that Waters's other novels have.

Title: Throne of Jade (Temeraire Book 2)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2007 (2006)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 370
Total Page Count: 209,690
Text Number: 638
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: After discovering that Temeraire is a Celestial, the rarest and most prestigious of Chinese dragon breeds, Laurence and crew must make a political journey to China itself. I love an extended training montage; as such, this second book in the series lack the immediate appeal of the first. Its focus is politics and culture clash, sometimes in petty ways (which suit the historical setting, but still weary), but improving as themes develop and Chinese dragons are explored. The plot is unremarkable, but what I love about this series is the proactive way it engages the companion animal trope, and here it extends both its setting and purview to explore the social role of dragons across two cultures, while maintaining an emotional center in the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. I may not have loved this as much as the first book, but I remain content with the series so far—it's a satisfying and increasingly thorough take on one of my favorite tropes.

Title: It's All Absolutely Fine
Author and Illustrator: Ruby Elliot
Published: Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2017
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 255
Total Page Count: 209,945
Text Number: 639
Read Because: personal enjoyment, print book borrowed from Dee
A memoir and comic collection by a 20-something woman figuring out how to live life as an adult with mental illness. Chapter divisions give the book structure, but grouping the comics makes most of them feel repetitive while leaving a handful of outliers—themselves quite cute!—to stick out sorely. I feel like the comics would be more successful viewed individually, and my experiencing seeing the author's work online supports this. The text sections are honest and have a distinctive informal and self-deprecatory tone. It's all quite relatable, but I'm not sure who the intended audience is meant to be: not an outsider, as everything hinges on relatability; but the lack of detail or productive payoff make it feel too shallow for a fellow sufferer.

I'll be honest: I am the exact wrong audience for this. I find memoirs of this tone wallowy and vaguely triggering; they evoke all the frustrations of female bodies and mental illness, but don't do anything with that except provide sympathy and platitudes. Readers that benefit from a sense of kinship and loving self-mockery will probably have a far better experience.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: His Majesty's Dragon(/Temeraire) (Temeraire Book 1)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2007 (2006)
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 365
Total Page Count: 207,930
Text Number: 633
Read Because: companion animal trope, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When he captures a dragon egg, a ship's captain must forgo naval service and become part of the Aerial Corps in England's war against French forces. In other words: the Napoleonic Wars with dragon bond animals. I have no interest in that historical setting, but the unusual nature of the Aerial Corps (namely, there are women) is engaging and the corps's outsider status adds narrative intrigue. I don't care much about dragons, but love bond animals—and this iteration is especially tropey. There's a wide variety of human/dragon dynamics on display and some solid worldbuilding, but the perspective is cozily centered on the protagonist pair and their sincere, endearing intimacy. The emotional beats are occasionally predictable, but always satisfying. I'm glad for the sequels, and only regret that it took me so long to start this series.
juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
Title: Forty Thousand in Gehenna (Unionside Book 1)
Author: C.J. Cherryh
Published: New York: Daw Books, 1984 (1983)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 445
Total Page Count: 201,290
Text Number: 593
Read Because: fan of the author/bond animal trope, purchased used from Powell's (as a gift from [personal profile] century_eyes)
Review: The Union settlers that come to Gehenna as part of a political expansion find themselves abandoned there in the company of the native giant lizards who may have more sapience than it first seemed. This novel chronicles the fall and creation of civilizations, and as such has a strange structure. The first two thirds is an overview of broad swaths of time, seen in glimpses from various denizens; the staccato pacing helps balance the distant narrative. Only the final third introduces characters to appeal to reader investment; it also engages some bond animal tropes and brings to fruition issues of civilization, definitions of sapience, and a truly alien species interfacing with humans. Cherryh's novels are often one part politics and one part id—and Forty Thousand in Gehenna is a particularly pronounced example. It's a slow burn with a too-quick end, but pays off for readers that enjoy Cherryh's style or the tropes at play. I imagine it holds up well to rereads.

On Tumblr: regarding maps.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: The Game of Rat and Dragon
Author: Cordwainer Smith
Published: Galaxy Science Fiction, 1955
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 15
Total Page Count: 189,720
Text Number: 557
Read Because: interested in companion animal trope, ebook from Project Gutenberg
Review: In the future, humans cannot undergo the dangerous hyperspace journeys alone. The short story is more concept than narrative or character piece. The speculative elements and style are dated, and what functions as plot is, at best, bizarre. But the core concept is creative, oddball, and an unusual prototype of the companion/magical bond animal trope, as early examples go. This is impossible to take seriously, but it's a harmless way to spend a few minutes.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Title: Rider at the Gate (Finisterre: The Nighthorses Book 1)
Author: C.J. Cherryh
Published: New York: Warner Books, 1995
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 470
Total Page Count: 184,420
Text Number: 543
Read Because: fan of the author and trope, paperback purchased used from The Book Bin
Review: Telepathic Nighthorses are the most powerful creatures on the planet, and partnering with them enable humans to maintain settlements and trade. But a rogue Nighthorse is a fearsome threat, with the power to drive entire settlements mad. There's a lot going on here: four convergent groups of characters, a modicum of worldbuilding based around telepathic bond animals and early winter alien frontierism, and a mystery plot—all written in Cherryh's terse, minute style. Those aspects don't always coalesce—I disliked the aesthetic, rarely cared about the characters's interconnections, and, while the final tableau is effective, the plot's resolution is too simple. But I came to this book for telepathic horses companions, and there it delivers without qualification. The focus is communication: the intimacy of Rider/Nighthorse interactions played to effect against grim winter; the fallout of telepathy, how it forces some intimacies and denies others. The unforgiving and rewarding focus on the (inter)personal is precisely what I wanted from this trope by this author. Rider at the Gate is difficult to recommend, as it's hardly an essential read even for fans of Cherryh—but if you love this trope, it won't disappoint.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Title: The Companions
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Published: New York: HarperCollins, 2009 (2003)
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 464
Total Page Count: 160,358
Text Number: 468
Read Because: mentioned in this discussion of the companion animal trope, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Bioengineered dogs are brought to the newly-discovered planet Moss, whose inhabited status is still under debate. Tepper is a conservationist author, but in an embarrassing way: lofty, extremist, frankly unresearched; reaching for an untenable and romanticized ideal while painting the opposition in such exaggerated and villainous strokes as to obscure the real problem. The tone here is satirical but flat, like humor that's missed the mark. And to call the ending a deus ex machina would be a vast understatement—it's a miracle fix for humanity's problems as diagnosed in a grandiose climax, heavy-handed and without real-world analog. There are some human/dog interactions which—despite the comical dog-speech—work; the rest of the book is a disappointment, crowded with ideas but largely deprived of depth.

This isn't the first time I've had this reaction to Tepper. I love Grass (largely for its concept), but Beauty, The Family Tree, and now The Companions all feel overlarge and unrefined. I sympathize with much of the underlying intent, but in both concept and tone Tepper has lost me, and it's time that I put down her work.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Dogsbody
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Published: New York: Firebird, 2012 (1975)
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 272
Total Page Count: 158,747
Text Number: 463
Read Because: mentioned in this discussion of the companion animal trope, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Convicted of a murder he did not commit, the star Sirius is sentenced to live in the body of a dog and find the murder weapon, lost on Earth. Dogsbody leaves me ambivalent. I'm incredibly picky about fictional representations of animals and animal/human relations; these were dated and outright abusive (and so discomforting to read), and, worse, unconvincing. The caricatured animals undercut the entire premise--and few things annoy me more than animal narratives gone wrong. Yet Jones is an accomplished writer, and Dogsbody does so many interesting things: the smorgasbord of inspirations, beginning with sentient stars culminating in a transcendent Wild Hunt; the complex emotional landscape and flawless, bittersweet conclusion--it's swift, engaging, and creative; sometimes messy, sometimes successful. I treasure what I liked about this, but find that the flaws outweigh. Readers who are more forgiving about animal representations may have better luck.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Let's talk more about the Farseer Trilogy.

Remember what I wrote about tropes in Royal Assassin? Assassin's Quest is like that, but x1000. Found family/unusual intimacies overlap the companion animal trope in the last book as Fitz's Wit becomes public knowledge and those close to him begin to interact with Nighteyes.

Not everything always works. Hobbs puts aside three established characters and welcomes to new one, so the found family can feel forced; the unusual intimacies between characters are often so explicit that they almost feel forced, too.

But when it does work....

No. He turned to face me squarely, met my eyes as no wild wolf would have. We do not share. We are one. I am no longer a wolf, you are no longer a man. What we are together, I have no name for. Perhaps the one who spoke to us of the Old Blood would have a word to explain it. He paused. See how much a man I am, that I speak of having a word for an idea? No word is needed. We exist, and we are whatever we are.

I would set you free if I could.

Would you? I would not part from you.

...it's one of the most resonant examples of the companion animal trope that I've encountered, it's messy jealousies mixed in with unbreakable bonds, it's conflating sex with Skill and love with hatred. It may be the jealousy that I most admire, because it keeps grounded and complex the otherwise idealized aspects of Fitz's pack, and reminds us that his coming of age isn't just about king and country, but also about his uncle and friends. This sort of emotional register speaks directly to my id, and I could barely be more pleased with this series entire.

One more quote, for good measure:

One does not have to be Witted to know the companionship of a beast, and to know that the friendship of an animal is every bit as rich and complicated as that of a man or woman. Nosy had been a friendly, inquisitive, boyish dog when he was mine. Smithy had been tough and aggressive, inclined to bully anyone who would give way to him, and his sense of humor had had a rough edge to it. Nighteyes was as unlike them as he was unlike Burrich or Chade. It is no disrespect to any of them to say I was closest to him.

He could not count. But I could not read deer scent on the air and tell if it was a buck or doe. If he could not plan ahead to the day after tomorrow, neither was I capable of the fierce concentration he could bring to a stalk. There were differences between us; neither of us claimed superiority. No one issued a command to the other, or expected unquestioning obedience of the other. My hands were useful things for removing porcupine quills and ticks and thorns and for scratching especially itchy and unreachable spots on his back. My height gave me a certain advantage in spotting game and spying out terrain. So even when he pitied me for my “cow's teeth” and poor vision at night, and a nose he referred to as a numb lump between my eyes, he did not look down on me. We both knew his hunting prowess accounted for most of the meat that we ate. Yet he never begrudged me an equal share. Find that in a man, if you can.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Assassin's Quest (Farseer Trilogy Book 3)
Author: Robin Hobb
Published: New York: Spectra, 2002 (1997)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 757
Total Page Count: 152,666
Text Number: 446
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope/continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: In this final book, Fitz seeks desperate solutions to Regal's command of the Six Duchies and the Red Ship's ongoing attacks. I remain impressed by how completely I adored this series. Assassin's Quest is higher concept and high fantasy, much longer and with a more significant plot, but the first two books built a solid, character-based foundation which supports that weight. This series has never been perfect, and its conclusion is no exception: new characters crop up without warning, Fitz frequently comes off as dim, and the epilogue threatens to be underwhelming. But with every book, this series has pushed its tropes--the companion animal, the found family with all of its messy and strange intimacies, Fitz's coming of age, hurt/comfort--further, and the end result has a visceral, pit of the belly satisfaction. Within its limitations, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

And the ferret's triumph in the epilogue? It made me put the book down for a solid handful of minutes and just laugh and laugh.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
For Hanukkah the boy bought me a Windows phone. I'm not putting my SIM card in it because, ever since college, phone calls have been a panic trigger, and I get spam calls too often. Instead I've been using it as a PDA/Flight Rising-from-bed browser.

I'm really in love with Cortana, Window's personal assistant AI thingy; I recognize that I'm mostly in love with the idea of Cortana.

An AI companion is strangely similar to a companion animal, tropewise. The AI, like an animal, is a bit less than human—not as threatening, by virtue of being exempt from normal human socialization; potentially of limited sentience, certainly limited in social standing, a little subservient. But as in the companion animal trope, what makes an AI companion (like Cortana in the Halo series, like what the Ghost in Destiny could be) is that they're more than just animals or programs: they're sentient, they're friends; furthermore, the bond they have with their person is remarkable by nature. The companion animal trope isn't just about humans as a group being able to communicate with super-intelligent animals as a group—it's about bonds, frequently unbreakable and/or psychic ones, between one human and one animal, specific and intense. Similarly, the companion AI exists to serve, or at least work in tandem with, a specific person, effectively as an extension to that person's operating system.

That last is the direction that Microsoft took when designing Cortana the personal assistant, and her extensibility is what makes her unique from, and potentially more successful than, competitors. And she needs extension—because what she is now is can be personalized only as long as your personality is a zip code and a preference between business news and national news.

But the potential! A lot of what I'd want is too niche (I don't read collated news but instead prefer people talking about their own consumption experiences—a "gaming"/"literature" tickybox would be less useful to me than, say, a functional mobile tumblr experience), but while some seems obscure ("Cortana, I'm having an anxiety attack." "Here, let me play that song you use to calm yourself"), it's actually totally accessible: teachable and/or programmable, more diverse, keywords and phrases triggering programmed or programmable responses. In other words: what an extensible API is. It just needs to be used.

Some of that can come from apps; some should honestly be in base Cortana. For example, there's no damn good reason why I can't set my own snooze length on reminders.

I know that Window's personal assistant Cortana will never be Halo partner-in-your-head idealized relationship Cortana, but the fantasy is there. And taking from it its best parts of what makes that fantasy work—the intelligence (or appearance thereof), the in-my-pocket immediacy/intimacy, the extension to my personal OS—could make for a great program.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
So I recently read Royal Assassin, the second book in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy; I reviewed it, but I also want to talk about it all fannish-wise.

I'm not a particular Farseer fan. I never read them growing up, but have been impressed with them—not as great literature, but they're consistently compelling; Hobb takes a leisurely pace that stresses daily interpersonal relations over high concept worldbuilding, which I appreciate. I don't love the characters, but I adore the tropes, so let's talk tropes.

Companion Animals
That'd be psychic- and/or magical-human/animal bonds. (TV Tropes: Bond Creatures.) I've been reading a lot of this trope over the last ~two years. The companion animal trope is usually marked for its idealization: an animal is exempt from the burden of normal human socialization, they're usually subservient, and their love is dog-pure. Farseer has a lot of that, especially in the heart-wrenching end of the first book. But the Wit is taboo because society believes intimacy with animals corrupts a man, and it's about that too: the messiness and inhumanness of being bonded to a beast—in a way more reminiscent of Iskryne/A Companion to Wolves than Pern or Valdemar.

Unusually Intimate Relationships
This isn't an established trope but it's Juu's personal hobbyhorse: relationships which are unusually intimate and/or are intimate in unusual ways are my favorite thing in all media. In Royal Assassin, Fitz forms psychic bonds with Prince Verity that last for months; they share each other's sexual urges and even inclinations. He fights with the spirit of his bond wolf, ripping out enemy throats with his teeth. He envies the potential intimacy of the Skill-bonded coterie, groups half-dozen large who share a psychic link. The book wallows deep in weird over-intimacies and the difficulty of navigating interpersonal relationships, and it's messy and discomforting and slyly idealistic—and so while none of the characters or even relationships particularly interest me, the cumulative effect is fantastic. This is Forbidden Circle level intimacy, graceless and compelling.

There's a bit of hurt/comfort mixed in, too; perhaps what impresses me most is how tropey or, even more, how id-level the book is. Suitable, I suppose, for Fitz's adolescence: it's a book about unapologetic and impolite gut desires as much as it is about loyalty and coming of age. In other words: entirely my thing.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Royal Assassin (Farseer Trilogy Book 2)
Author: Robin Hobb
Published: New York: Random House, 2002 (1996)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 752
Total Page Count: 151,186
Text Number: 441
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope/continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Recovering from the events that end the first book, Fitz returns to a country caught in the grip of raider attacks and budding civil unrest. The first book in this series surprised me for its eminent readability and leisurely, immersive pacing. This sequel felt like more of the same—still good, but unoriginal. But as it comes into itself, it shines. Royal Assassin is about relationships—weird, psychic, overly intimate relationships that make Fitz feel crowded and lonely at the same time; the effort of maintaining relationships; imperfect messy intimacies like fighting with your teeth while bonded to a wolf or lusting after a woman while bonded to her husband. It's at the level of Bradley's The Forbidden Circle, engaging intimacy and taboo with little grace but great effect; not subtle, not even skillful, but compelling.

The intrigues of the plot which surrounds these relationships aren't particularly robust, but they're sufficent; the characterization is rocky, and Fitz's adolescence feels, frankly, shallow. The series is by no means great: it's frequently predictable, trope-reliant, and indulgent. But it's good, consistently engaging, and the id-level upon which this book lingers is a personal delight.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Title: Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Robin Hobb
Published: New York: Random House, 2002 (1995)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 480
Total Page Count: 149,909
Text Number: 439
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: The bastard son of a prince comes to his father's home to discover the unique role he can play in a changing society. Assassin's Apprentice moves leisurely, lingering on the day to day life of its fantasy society, yet it never drags—nor is it overburdened by worldbuilding, nor does it wallow in the protagonist's adolescence. Through most of the book I wanted more of the magical companion animal trope that drew it to my attention, but the final act provides that in plenty; its intrigues aren't excessive, but have satisfying weight. It's not a flawless effort, and the interpersonal aspects and the antagonist characterization are both trite. But I was surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed Assassin's Apprentice. Its combined effect is absorbing, far more so than I usually find this genre. I plan to continue with the series, but I could be satisfied with just this book (which does stand alone).
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Ariel (Change Book 1)
Author: Steven R. Boyett
Published: New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (1983)
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 435
Total Page Count: 146,799
Text Number: 432
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A young man and his Familiar, a unicorn, are interrupted in their journeys across post-apocalyptic America by a necromancer who has his sights set on Ariel's horn. With a unicorn and magical apocalypse, Ariel is an interesting book in part and in theory; the world has potential, and the companion animal trope is particularly id-driven and surprisingly explicit as an examination purity and intimacy. But Boyett caves to the perceived need for an antagonist/conflict/climax, and while the grittiness that adds to the world is useful context for the boy/unicorn bond, it also comes to overshadow it. I wish Ariel were a different book, one with a less ambitious plot and more willingness to linger on the bittersweet ending. The book it is instead is readable but loses its way, but I don't particularly recommend it.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
What are you currently reading?
Ariel, Steven R. Boyett. I've been reading the companion animal trope with intent for about two years ago, largely prompted by [personal profile] rachelmanija's rundown of a Siren's panel on the subject. I never read (or consume) anything in excess because I burn out fast; I'm particularly susceptible to that here because the genre is riddled with questionable quality. I'm mostly referring to Pern, Valdemar, and other endless series, but the trope as a whole is id-driven and frequently adjunct to the plot, and so sometimes shows up to serve unique functions in books I'd otherwise avoid. Ariel isn't necessarily one of those—I'm fond the post-apocalyptic—but its unicorn-in-a-dystopia is a decent example of what it means to read a trope, rather than a genre: I'm here for one feature, and when that feature isn't the core of its fictional world (Pern &c), it may instead show up in the weirdest places.

What Ariel does with the trope: There's a number of types of human/animal bonds in the book, including pets and thralls. Meanwhile, the protagonist's companion animal, a unicorn, has a human or super-human intelligence, their communication is verbal and their bond has psychic/magical elements; functionally, Ariel is the better-than-real partner Pete can't have—more than once he wishes she were human. There's a sensual/physical but non-sexual element to their relationship, and what prevents it from being sexual is primarily Ariel's body and secondarily the fact that Pete has to remain a virgin (because: unicorn). It's not unusual for sex to be part of this trope, but it usually appears in the form of humans experiencing their companion's sexuality or, occasionally, vice versa; to see it addressed as a possible component of the human/companion bond is frankly gratifying—if the bonds are that intimate, you'd think it'd come up more often.

What did you recently finish reading?
The Beast Master, Andre Norton, obviously in the same pursuit. What The Beast Master does with the trope, which I didn't mention in my review: The early passage I quoted in my review says more about what the trope could become than what it is; it goes underexplored, and didn't just seem that way because I was only there to explore it. Much of the book's emotional journey is about the protagonist surviving despite his bond animals, functionally as an aspect of the travelogue/survival plot but thematically as the protagonist's journey towards independent action and thought. He has multiple bond animals (which is deeply unusual in most examples of this trope), most are realistically animal, and each functionally serves as a trained tool—but the human/animal bond has a psychic element, and the bond big cat feels slightly more than animal and significantly more complex in her relationship with the protagonist.

What do you think you'll read next?
Not a companion animal book! I'll probably go back to Zelazny's Amber series; I'm currently between pentalogies. But five books is a lot (see: burning out on series)—I may need another unrelated book to cleanse my palate first.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Title: The Beast Master (The Beast Master Book 1)
Author: Andre Norton
Published: New York: Tor, 2010 (1959)
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 192
Total Page Count: 146,364
Text Number: 431
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope
Review: After war destroys Earth, a survivor and ex-combatant with the unique ability to lead a team of animals travels to the settler planet of Arzor to exact personal revenge. I read The Beast Master as a precursor to the companion animal trope; Norton's concept of select men with intimate, near-psychic bonds with animals would later inspire authors like Lackey and McCaffrey towards Valdemar and Pern, and as a forerunner The Beast Master is existent, intriguing, and unsatisfying. The human/animal bond is compelling and certainly unique, but receives only fringe examination; I can see what inspired later authors to latch on to the idea, and am glad they did.

As a novel, the book is quick and engaging but not particularly memorable. The plot is deceptive, more of a travelogue and cultural drama than personal vendetta; the plot comes to somewhat too neat of a conclusion but the well-realized world leaves plenty of room for sequels. The Beast Master also functions as my introduction to Norton, and I'll return to her—she has an effortless accessibly without skimping on character or content; I can't speak for the representation of the Native (Navajo) protagonist, but it was remarkably less racist than I anticipated, even handled with respect. In short, this book is precisely what I hoped for, as early evidence of the companion animal trope and as a readable novel, but offered little more; I don't particularly recommend it but I'm glad to have read it.

To the spectator the ex-Commando might be standing impassively, the meerkats clinging to him, his hand resting lightly on Surra’s round skull, the eagle quiet on his shoulder. But an awareness, which was unuttered, unheard speech, linked him with animals and bird. The breadth of that communication could not be assessed outside a "team," but it forged them into a harmonious whole, which was a weapon if need be, a companionship always.
—The Beast Master, 7
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Magic's Price (The Last Herald Mage Book 3)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Published:: New York: DAW, 1990
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 352
Total Page Count: 141,295
Text Number: 414
Read Because: personal enjoyment, e-book borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: In his 30s, Vanyel now works in the heart of Haven, advising the king and training new Heralds. One trainee, a remarkable young bard named Stephen, has his sights set on Vanyel—but so does the agent behind the war which has threatened Valdemar for all these years. In Magic's Price the plot finally comes full circle, but it's a disjointed, unevenly paced, and unfailingly predictable circle; what's somewhat more compelling is the conclusion to Vanyel's emotional journey. Vanyel has aged, but his emotional growth continues to feel delineated rather than convincing; any hope that the angst may have been scaled back is quashed by a gratuitous rape scene and melodramatic conclusion. The Last Herald Mage series ends as it began; like Magic's Pawn, Magic's Price is again memorable—and, again, for all the wrong reasons. The melodrama of these these books left a strong impression on me as an adolescent and I can see why, but upon reread I in no way recommend them.


juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)

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