juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Title: The House of Binding Thorns (Dominion of the Fallen Book 2)
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Published: Ace, 2017
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 340
Total Page Count: 230,925
Text Number: 737
Read Because: recommended by Rachel, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Not long after the events of the first book, House Hawthorne becomes embroiled in conflicts and alliances with the dragon kingdom. This has a slow start—there's a big cast and numerous subplots, all tied together by something like a murder-mystery (of which Bodard is fond, and I am not); it stands largely independent of The House of Shattered Wings, and maintains most of that book's weaknesses (like repetitive descriptions) and indulgences (like the moldering elegance of the setting). It's the second half where things come together. The plot coalescing is adequate, and Bodard has a knack for large finales (here, perhaps, overlong), but the real joy is in the characters—there's a number of great character types (a pregnant woman and her angel wife is an especial delight), and Asmodeus's development, as an unrepentant and unforgivable person who still has depth, even value, is ambiguous and subtly-wrought. I didn't particularly enjoy this, but appreciate its payoff; it's more successful than Shattered Wings, and may be worth reading if you've already begun the series.

Title: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Author: James Tiptree Jr.
Published: Tachyon Publications, 2004 (1990)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 505
Total Page Count: 231,430
Text Number: 738
Read Because: personal enjoyment
Review: Eighteen stories, most published under the Tiptree pseudonym, combining themes of gender, sex, death, and speculative science. This is a long and thorough collection, in part because many of the stories are novella-length, in part because Tiptree's voice and theme are confrontational and fatalistic. Tiptree has some repetitive stylistic choices: many of the stories end with a twist or thematic summation, often individually successful (as in "The Screwfly Solution"), but transparent and repetitive when viewed in sequence; in the forgivable search for an idealistic solution to the anger and fear that motivate these stories, some are over-long, some defy suspension of disbelief ("With Delicate Mad Hands"). But, while the angry, didactic tone can be punishing, the content and perspective more than compensate. Tiptree embodies a masculine point of view while writing feminist fiction ("The Girl Who Was Plugged In," "The Women Men Don't See"—a central, prevalent doubling of identity, including but not limited to gender identity), intertwines speculative concepts with intensely critical social themes, and possesses intensity, vigor, and valuable rage. The cumulative effect of this collection far exceeds its component parts. .

Title: Way Station
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Published: Open Road Media, 2015 (1963)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 215
Total Page Count: 231,645
Text Number: 739
Read Because: recommended by Kalanadi, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library

That was how it started, Enoch thought, almost a hundred years ago. The campfire fantasy had turned into fact and the Earth now was on galactic charts, a way station for many different peoples traveling star to star. Strangers once, but now there were no strangers. There were no such things as strangers. In whatever form, with whatever purpose, all of them were people.

From a Midwestern homestead, one lonely man runs a way station for alien travelers. This takes a quiet, almost distant approach to its premise; the protagonist is more witness than actor and the tone is wistful, contemplating the vastness of the universe and what role humankind deserves within it. It's eminently quotable.

"There may come a day," Ulysses said, "when it won't be like that. I can look ahead and see, in some thousands of years, the knitting of the galaxy together into one great culture, one huge area of understanding. The local and the racial variations will still exist, of course, and that is as it should be, but overriding all of these will be a tolerance that will make for what one might be tempted to call a brotherhood."

"You sound," said Enoch, "almost like a human. That is the sort of hope that many of our thinkers have held out."

Half of the narrative is akin to a science fiction fairy market, a cavalcade of wonders which rambles almost like a travelogue, slowing the pace but suiting the tone. The plot eventually coalescences, pulling neatly from perhaps too many of the established elements, and is a little too large, leaning on coincidence and hinging on problematic tropes regarding disability. But the ending preserves the overall tone, and if the small pieces are better than the larger plot, then they are fantastic pieces: beautiful, mournful, hopeful, idyllic but not idealized, profound without slipping into the facile. I sincerely loved this; a pleasure to read.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and Way Station both made it on my favorite and formative list—there are absolutely objective flaws here, and ones I can recognize (unlike the rare favorite which I know must not be objectively flawless & yet which makes me convinced it is), but they're solid 4.5 "it feels like a 5-star book," where feeling is the operative response—they are both a little more than themselves. Satisfying to have a few of those after a slew of sheer mediocrity.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Season of Storms (Witcher Book 8)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Translator: fan translation
Published: superNOWA, 2013
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 380
Total Page Count: 218,085
Text Number: 661
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: After the short stories and before the other novels, Geralt goes on a quest to recover his stolen swords. Insofar as the best part of the series is Ciri, and Ciri is not here present, this is something of a letdown. There's plenty of nods to central characters and plot, but this story feels both less urgent and heartfelt. It's almost prosaic: somewhere between comedy of errors/slice of life/travelogue, the daily life of a Witcher down on his luck, resembling the short story collections more than the novels. That setup allows Geralt's personality to shine through and he is, as always, a delight; the Witcher setdressing is present, the subplots are successful, and there's even some profound, if coy, worldbuilding in the frame narrative. But without the interpersonal relationships that made me care about this series, I came away underwhelmed.

I was chatting with Devon about the Witcher series and mentioned offhand that there are eight books, the two short story collections, the five novels, and the... —and then I realized that I had never reviewed this later prequel, never even written notes for it; granted, I read it late last December, when I was reading less and a lot of my reviews got delayed, but the fact that I entirely forgot this book says something about it, I suppose.

Title: Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire Book 1)
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Published: Solaris, 2016
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 385
Total Page Count: 218,470
Text Number: 662
Read Because: co-read with Teja, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: An infantry solider named Cheris is selected to host Jedao, a long-dead traitor and brilliant general, in order to combat a heretical uprising. This has the inconsistent, piecemeal feel of a first novel: the beginning is almost deliberately obtuse (coming in familiar with the author's short fiction makes the style and worldbuilding more accessible, but patience serves just as well) where later sections are over-explained. But the experience entire is a remarkable journey. Math-as-calendar/-as-technology/-as-society is an engaging high concept, but the system's limitations and complicated cultural effects are what make it convincing. Lee's voice is an intense sensory experience, with evocative and alien synesthetic descriptions. The interpersonal relationships remind me of CJ Cherryh's uniquely implicit/explicit dynamics, where everything is tersely understated but functions on an intense, tropey level. The format, especially as a series opener, reminds me of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch: it introduces an entire world and has a satisfying arc, but is obviously the first part of a longer battle.

I enjoyed Lee's short fiction, but also found it frustrating because iteration and length limitations turned otherwise fantastic voice and concepts into repetitive worldbuilding. His first novel is everything I hoped for. The same techniques and themes are here, but they're given more space and elaboration. It's distinctive, fulfilling, and fully realized. I recommend it, and look forward to the sequels.

A pair of quotes, for posterity; I adore the language, the weird math-fantasy-science, how unsettling and evocative and strange it all is.

Read more... )

Title: Home (Binti Book 2)
Author: Nnedi Okrafor
Published: Tor, 2017
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 175
Total Page Count: 218,645
Text Number: 663
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: One year after the events of the first book, Binti makes a pilgrimage home. I enjoyed the first novella in this series, but wanted more from it, specifically more complexity. This is more. It's as vivid, with equally satisfying character growth (these books would make fantastic movies, they're subplot-free and just the right length, and the world is so engaging) but Binti is working between points of intense, unpretty emotional conflict, and her cultural background is rendered with increasing complexity—it's a more complicated, difficult story. But unlike the first book, which is complete almost to its detriment, this one ends at the conclusion of Binti's character arc and leaves the plot with a cliffhanger; I'd've preferred a finished, novel-length work. But I still enjoyed and recommend it, and will read the next installment.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
I encountered a discussion on [tumblr.com profile] why-animals-do-the-thing about bi/pan/trans/ace/aro animals, or rather, about the non-existence of cis/straight animals, and how gender identity and sexual orientation work in the animal world, and the relationship between biology, gendered pronouns, and anthropomorphization, and nothing has ever better articulated my gender identity.

I've discussed my pronoun use before with a tl;dr of "female pronouns are convenient and acceptable; non-gendered pronouns are equally accurate: because I'm a cat and cats don't have genders, and using these words isn't the same as embracing their connotations"—which has always been about as close as I can come to a gender identity. I present as cis female due to my body shape/the clothing that flatters in & in which I feel comfortable, but don't identify anywhere on any human gender spectrum. My spay/neuter status as a desexed cat has always been the defining factor of my identity—and that's not even a measurable real thing; it's complicated, it has no particular overlap with human gender identities or agender/genderqueer experiences, and more to do with the way gender (doesn't) work in animals, particularly desexed domestic animals.

I'm quoting that post here, for my own record keeping and future reference, with all credit to anon submitter and the parent blog. I just want to make sure I never lose it. It's such a good post! The personal connections I make to therianthropy/my gender are a smaller, secondary conversation, but it was elucidating to see these things laid out and they helped explain some of me to me.

Read more... )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: The Tower of the Swallow (Witcher Book 6)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Translator: David French
Published: London: Orbit, 2016 (1997)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 450
Total Page Count: 206,220
Text Number: 610
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Unusual phenomena usher in an early autumn as Ciri is orphaned from the Rats and sets off on a quest to meet her destiny. The chronology here is all over the place, alternating between the autumn equinox and Saovine as it backtracks to explain the sequence of events. It's also the longest book so far, with a politics-heavy middle section and a huge cast--often confusing as a result, but it's still rewarding to watch the pieces come together. Structure aside, this has a strong atmosphere (a perfect autumn book, haunted and eerie) and gives Ciri generous page time and development. She's as phenomenal as always--here, traumatized, impetuous, but brilliant in her adolescence, foiled by the aged hermit that takes her in. Yennefer's ruthless pursuit of her daughter is equally compelling. (These fantastic female characters doesn't excuse the sexism seeded in the larger worldbuilding.) This isn't the most effective of the Witcher novels, but it's one of the most engaging by virtue its mythic leanings and core cast.

Title: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Author: Donnie Eichar
Published: San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 290
Total Page Count: 206,510
Text Number: 611
Read Because: reviewed by ViennaWaitsBooks, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: An investigation into the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which nine experienced ski hikers died after fleeing their camp--underdressed, in sub-zero temperatures--for unknown reasons. Eichar interweaves three timelines: the original ski hike, the search for the missing hikers, and his own investigations into the case 50 years later; the last of these threatens to overwhelm the book, but the pacing works overall--until Eichar presents his hypothetical solution to the mystery in an unintegrated, abrupt conclusion. But it's a convincing solution, and this researched and humanized without being bogged down by minutiae, and unsensationalized while maintaining an eerie atmosphere. It has the compulsive readability I look for in this variety of nonfiction, despite Eichar's clunky writing, and is satisfying both in question and answer.

Title: The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (Fairyland Book 3)
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrator: Ana Juan
Published: New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2013
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 250
Total Page Count: 206,760
Text Number: 612
Read Because: continuing the series, hardcover from my personal library (originally a holiday gift from my parents, I think)
Review: September journeys to Fairyland's moon, there to rediscover her traveling companions and face a Yeti. The framework of this series has begun to weary me, despite that this book has a stronger structure than the second; Valente's writing is as rich as always, but the one-off locations and speaking characters still bleed together. (And there are weird stumbles like characters popping in and out of scenes--perhaps corrected in later editions?) But while I don't think the rest of this series is as independently successful as the first book, the cumulative emotional elements have stolen my heart. They're perfectly balanced between private complexity and explicit, cathartic address; it almost feels too complicated for the intended audience, but in a way I admire--respecting the capacity of younger readers and being willing to age with them.

September suddenly realized something. "But Ell, Orrery begins with O! How can you know so much about it?"

The Wyverary soared high, his neck stretching into a long red ribbon, full of words and pies and relief and flying.

"I'm growing up!" he cried.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Published: New York: Amulet Books, 2013
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 385
Total Page Count: 190,945
Text Number: 565
Read Because: local author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: 16-year-old Mary Shelley Black comes to San Diego in the height of World War I, an influenza outbreak, and the rise of spiritualism, there to find the death of a loved one test her skepticism.

"Oh, you silly, naïve men." I shook my weary head and genuinely pitied their ignorance. "You've clearly never been a sixteen-year-old girl in the fall of 1918."

This is a novel entrenched in its historical setting, in spiritualism and the pervasive death that birthed it. It grows into a ghost story, adopting a suitable gothic/paranormal tone, and the whodunnit, carefully integrated into historical context, is only somewhat undermined by a rushed, neat conclusion. The atmosphere is strong, but the emotional register is always a bit off—characters over-emote, dialog is heavy-handed, and, while Mary Shelley proves to be delightful, the exaggerated tone keeps the story at arm's length, insufficiently convincing or compelling. In both setting and content, this is remarkably similar to Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song—if you like one, try the other. But I found that In the Shadow of Blackbirds failed to coalesce.

While I'm at it, another list no one asked for!

Literature, music, and a few historical figures mentioned in In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winter
in order of appearance, approximately exhaustive

H.G. Wells
The Mysterious Island, Around the World in Eighty Days, and other work, Jules Verne
White Fang, Jack London
"The Passions", William Collins
McGuffey Readers
Fairytales of Ludwig Tieck
Fairytales of the Brother Grimm
Herman Hesse
"Lullaby," Brahms
A Treasury of War Poetry, ed. George Herbert Clarke, specifically: "The Death of Peace," Ronald Ross; "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," Alan Seeger; "The Hell-Gate of Soissons," Herbert Kaufman; "Into Battle," Julian Grenfell; "The Trenches," Frederic Manning
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as historical figure)
Duncan MacDougall, physician
Cottingley Fairies, photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Pirates of Penzance
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Oz series, L. Frank Baum
"Sing a Song of Sixpence"
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (as allusion)
"The Star-Spangled Banner"
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Published: New York: Vintage Books, 1991 (1977)
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 280
Total Page Count: 189,690
Text Number: 561
Read Because: buddy-read with Teja, from my personal library
Review: Bob Arctor, a narcotics officer, is tasked to investigate himself in his undercover identity as a drug dealer. I'll admit, this is a strange pick for one of my favorite books. It's an undignified look at drug culture, with secondary and sometimes ineffective speculative aspects and significant PoV sexism. But the central issues of identity work so well in concert with the themes and speculative elements, and the voices—even when characters are that their most inane and infuriating--are strong, including Arctor's PoV, which makes for memorable and profound sections. The entire book is written, with respect, from within: it's self-deprecatory, caricatured, mournful, and loving; an honest experience and personal homage. I respect it, and think it's superbly done.

My first encounter with A Scanner Darkly was the film, which is a fantastic and surprisingly faithful adaptation, and may be why I find the dialog particularly strong.

It's hardest to write reviews for the books I really love, especially books like this which seem so hard to love; here, let me have a lot of feels about social white noise and Dick's afterward, instead (as posted on Tumblr):

Read more... )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Black Iris
Author: Leah Raeder
Published: New York: Atria, 2015
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 370
Total Page Count: 188,410
Text Number: 553
Read Because: queer author/content, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: As she enters college, troubled teenager Laney falls in with a pair of friends in the party scene. An aggressively unreliable narrator means the plot it not what it first seems; the non-linear narrative can be difficult to keep straight and is overtly contrived, and the scale is exaggerated, too intense and too smart—a stylization echoed in the lush, harsh language, psychological insights, promiscuity and drug use, and violent interpersonal dynamics. But also present are queer characters and relationships, power dynamics, obsession, vengeance, mental illness, poetry, and love. Black Iris is something in between Dangerous Liaisons, urban fantasy of manners, and a harsher Francesca Lia Block, and in larger quantity, I'd find it exhausting—but in this one novel, which is compulsively readable and a victorious labor of love, it's phenomenal.

A quote I need to preserve for posterity. )
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Teja (he formerly known as Express) currently has a twice-weekly work commute and so has gone from being a very rare reader to a somewhat more frequent reader; our tastes have only partial overlap, but when he asked my opinion on Neuromancer I'd just never read it. Because it is what it is as a seminal cyberpunk novel, I bought it otherwise blind—about a million years ago, while visiting Dee in the Seattle area, from the marvelous Duvall Books. It's the used bookstore that daydreams are made of, with gently creaking hardwood floors, packed shelves, and nostalgic actually-used-bookstore prices—I bought Neuromancer for $1.50.

So Teja started reading it on his own, and was unsure what he thought of the first few chapters; so I started reading it along with him, with only the most casual of overlaps and conversations. He's read other books on my recommendation and we've discussed them, but co-reading was much more engaging. There's room in it for spoilers (instead of the perpetually frustrating "I have thoughts, but they take into context/reveal later events") and minutiae as well as larger reflections on narrative and genre. A+ experience; we reading his next book together as well.

The book itself, as expressed, left little impression. There is one particular exception:

"The Villa Straylight," said a jeweled thing on the pedestal, in a voice like music, "is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves…"

[…] "In Straylight, the hull’s inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising toward a solid core of microcircuitry, our clan’s corporate heart, a cylinder of silicon wormholed with narrow maintenance tunnels, some no wider than a man’s hand. The bright crabs burrow there, the drones, alert for micromechanical decay or sabotage."

Predictably, I'm more invested in -punk as subgenre than as work. The subgenres have the potential to explore the push/pull of their central concept, but in practice rarely do. Steampunk has too much pull, too much idealization and aesthetic, forgetting the necessary anxiety about technology and society. Cyberpunk has too much push, and Neuromancer pushes especially hard: Gibson's novel is all grim and grit and awful characters and pervasive fatigue, even when he's inventing a new technological marvel—it's an awful world to be in.

Villa Straylight was for me the one exception, this interlocking manufactured techno-historical dreamscape populated by wasteful and corrupted residents trapped within their own recursive, futureless pseudo-incest—it's an excessive image but an effective one, and the decadence of the setting was such welcome counterpoint to the pervasive grim tone.

Harder for me to remember is that the novel has pull aspects that I just can't access. I think Case is an awful protagonist, but his male power fantasy isn't for me. Teja pointed out that Rivera even functions as a foil: the overtly misogynistic evil counterpart that turns the author and reader surrogate protagonist into a Nice Guy pseudo-antihero. And unlike modern steampunk, cyberpunk was a direct reflection of the era that birthed it. The pull, the optimism and burgeoning potential of cyber technology, doesn't need to be illustrated: it's innate to the technology of the time.

If cyberpunk is dead, then may it rest in peace; I care less for its contemporary examples than for its post-80s influences, which have a more seductive aesthetic to set against the anxiety of technology(/development/society/change), which I find more enjoyable and effective. And I care more about that push/pull interplay than the subgenres themselves—except mythpunk, which actually gets it right, and asylumpunk, which doesn't even properly exist but in which I am personally invested.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Patternmaster (Patternmaster Book 4)
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Published: New York: Open Road, 2012 (1976)
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 200
Total Page Count: 183,510
Text Number: 541
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: The territory of telepathic Patternists is under constant attack by animalic, virulent Clayarks—which makes the succession of a new Pattermaster urgent. Patternmaster is surprisingly small, not just short but localized in scope despite the speculative concepts of the larger world. It's a compelling starting point for a series that backtracks to explore those speculative elements, but if they're already familiar then it's an underwhelming finale. Butler's prose is particularly workmanlike, but as always she excels in conveying the claustrophobic pressure of a flawed social system. Most surprising is the appearance of bisexual female character, who defies Butler's frustrating tendency towards heteronormativity and, outspoken and feminist, also provides this flawless exchange:

"I don't think you've done anything to her. Joachim has, and certainly Coransee has. But you're only about to."

"By leaving her—or by taking her?"

"By deciding for her."

"I don't want to get her killed."

Amber shrugged. "If it were me, I'd want to make up my own mind."

My opinion of this series entire remains unchanged: it is best read in publication order, and to read it in internal chronological order makes for an uneven, frustrating experience. I wish I could go back and correct my mistake; having made it, I'm still glad to have read the series, but this novel in particular left little impression.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: On the Edge of Gone
Author: Corinne Duyvis
Published: New York: Amulet Books, 2016
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 450
Total Page Count: 181,070
Text Number: 533
Read Because: personal enjoyment, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: After a comet hits earth, one autistic girl tries to find a way to get her family safely aboard a generation ship. Duyvis's hallmark is diverse casting, and that's particularly true here, from the broad representation in the supporting cast to the protagonist's autism—which, while accessible to uninformed or neurotypical readers, is never rendered simplistic; Duyvis writes with experience and valuable honesty. But I find that Duyvis's other hallmark is unenjoyable plotting, and this is no exception. The setting is apocalyptic, but the scale is local and personal—which often means the plot is repetitive and fueled by short-sighted or foolish decisions. Duyvis's previous novel Otherbound offered compelling emotional bonds to offset its grim content; On the Edge of Gone has no such counterpoint outside of an artificially optimistic ending.

"Whether someone is useful only matters if you value people by their use": On The Edge of Gone is a study of persistence, survival, personal worth—and the issues, both personal and social, that get in the way. It's thoughtful, possessing of an unforgiving gray morality and a necessary undercurrent of optimism. I value and admire those characteristics—but the fact remains that this isn't an enjoyable book to read. I find myself ambivalent, and despite its value can't recommend it.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Silently and Very Fast
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Stirling: Wyrm Publishing, 2011
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 130
Total Page Count: 180,620
Text Number: 532
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Elefsis, a machine intelligence, traces her origin and the history of the family that helped create her. This is a superb work, and one that could only have been written by Valente. Rich imagery and mythic themes are her signature; here, those elements become a literal internal landscape and a tool for approximating—and creating—experience and feeling. This isn't hard scifi, but nor is it as soft or as fantastical as I was expecting: the emphasis is on identity and the interpersonal, but it's also a direct confrontation of the boundaries of intelligence, of how we define and create a self, of when we're willing to confer selfhood; an intelligent, pointed (and convincing, and trope-aware) examination of the concept of artificial intelligence. Valente is one of my favorite authors, but this still exceeded by expectations. It's a dense, beautiful, brilliant work, and I recommend it with enthusiasm. It was published free online by Clarkesworld.

I preserve these quotes both because they sum up the thrust of the text, and because they're perfect:

Read more... )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)
Author: Ann Leckie
Published: New York: Orbit, 2013
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 385
Total Page Count: 179,310
Text Number: 527
Read Because: discussed by Books and Pieces, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Once an AI with numerous subsets and physical bodies, Breq is now left with one physical body and desperate, unformed plan. Ancillary Justice has an almost unforgivably slow start, due to an epic space opera scale, an intentionally oblique narrative, and some confusing names. But after the initial adjustment period, the book excels. It's satisfying to watch the wide-ranging plots coalesce, and Leckie's philosophical battles have subtle human faces. The central concept of multi-facet and -body intelligence is phenomenal, not just creative but well-realized; exploring Breq's pluralized point of view is broadening, and has effective reverberations throughout the plot. The non-gendered society I find less successful*, but it remains a welcome addition. I find it easy to overlook Ancillary Justice's flaws, not because I don't see them but because the book is so captivating that I just don't care. I look forward to reading the sequels.

* I am of many minds regarding the treatment of gender. The non-gendered "she" is an innate misnomer and erases non-gendered identities—which are not a speculative thought-experiment: non-gendered people exist, and so do non-gendered pronouns. That said, "she" as universal default is intentionally confrontational, demanding that the reader never develop assumptions about either gender or culture. I enjoy also the reversal of being confused by and dismissing gendered societies—but to remove all concepts of gender is also limiting. There are moment I love, Breq's view of concourse chief among them:

I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people. I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaii—never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned, tied). Thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn't need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.

On an individual level, in Breq's grammatical troubles and the intentional crossover into the reader's experience, the execution is often successful. At a worldbuilding/conceptual level, the issue of gender can be clumsy. But what a joy to be given the opportunity to debate this issue at all.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I recently completed The Great Star Trek: TOS first viewing; I grew up on TNG and Voyager and DS9, but had never watched TOS until just now. As I watched, I read along with Eugene Myers and Torie Atkinson's re-watch, here on Tor.com, with the third season on The Viewscreen. Torie's analyses I found particularly relevant, both because she came it from the same position as me (familiar with most of Star Trek, but not with TOS), but particularly because of how she examines and confronts Roddenberry's attempts, successes, and failures in exploring and representing equality.

Star Trek: The Original Series, complete series, 1966-69
This exceeded my expectations. It's not as forward-thinking as Roddenberry's vision demanded, which I don't think the time period excuses, given Roddenberry's intent. But the intent is so good, and more than occasionally effective; the underlying sense of wonder is inspiring, the cast and the inter-character dynamics are phenomenal, and Spock—Spock I adore, and I now understand how much Nimoy brought to the show and character. The number of authentically enjoyable episodes balances the amount of formulaic or ridiculous drivel, and while the third season lags it only feels like a preponderance of the bad elements that were there throughout—although most of the series clichés, especially Kirk's womanizing and the lady of the week, seem to come from this season rather than the show entire. I regret that the show prioritizes the return to status quo, but it was inevitable consequence of the genre's development. In sum: not near corny as I expected it to be; dated, flawed, certainly, but authentically enjoyable. I agree with Torie Atkinson's thoughts in the Star Trek Re-watch: Season 1 Wrap-Up: the sincerity and unidealized optimism is surprisingly effective.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture, film, 1979, dir. Robert Wise
I can appreciate this for what it is: an homage, love letter, and the celebration of an effects budget. The same things which are wearisome—namely, the long, slow shots of the ship and other special effects—are in some ways the most endearing: it's almost fanservice, the frank admiration of some of the most beloved bits of TOS. Pity about the recycled plot, and putting the band back together stymies character progression (although Spock, as always, is strong). TMP isn't great as a movie, but I appreciate it as a revival.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, film, 1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer
Not much I can say that hasn't been said. Khan's characterization feels flat—I wanted something more than the definitive obsession with Kirk. The rest of the cast fairs far better, with solid characterization and character progression; I adore Spock in the captain's seat, and the intercast dynamics are fantastic. This successfully translates the feel of the show into movie format: similar ethos, movie-appropriate pacing, and a satisfying number of subplots; the end is strong. But I fail to find it as memorable as TMP—perhaps because it's simply more traditional and successful a film.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, film, 1984, dir. Leonard Nimoy
Another one that I enjoyed, despite general consensus. I love successful narratives-in-absentia, and so respond well to a story that orbits an absent character. And how lovely, to see McCoy given more complexity. This is a smaller, more private story; melancholy, personal, heartsick; the destruction of the Enterprise contributes significantly to this tone. I hate back from the dead plotlines in principle, and I didn't care one whit about the B-plot or the villain; the film certainly has flaws. But the small parts of it which work well I treasure.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, film, 1986, dir. Leonard Nimoy
A humorous installment is well-timed and surprisingly effective, and—other than the ridiculous premise—this has great pacing and strong character moments. TVH absolutely tips towards embarrassment squick, but it never oversteps, thank goodness. It's charming and silly, the cast has just enough substance, and it's utterly engaging to watch—but not, ultimately, particularly memorable or complex.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, film, 1989, dir. William Shatner
I could have done without. There's some well-intended elements—namely, to give glimpses into the backstory and private lives of the crew—but they're ineffective; meanwhile, the humor is cringe-inducing and while the plot echoes some reoccurring series themes, it does a poor job of it and the fake god is particularly clumsy. I wish it had gone in a different direction—I would have loved to better explore the experience of a Vulcan with emotions.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, film, 1991, dir. Nicholas Meyer
This is such a rewarding endnote. The murder-mystery plot isn't flawless (the courtroom scene is frustrating, despite the appearance of Michael Dorn; the clue-search aboard the ship tends toward silly), but the balance of the plot's momentum and the depth of the metaphor is almost flawless. I love to see Kirk confronted, to see him proven wrong and forced to change; I love a bit less Spock's flaws, but the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic in this film is some of my favorite in the series entire. This may be the most enjoyable and watchable of the films—and final voice-over and the signatures on the stars was the most perfect of all possible conclusions. (Reader, I cried.)

This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun, and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man ... where no one has gone before.

Bonus, crossposted from Tumblr: In defense of 3.20 The Way to Eden )
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
What impresses me while reading the original novels is how good NBC Hannibal is a retelling.

There’s a sweet spot in retellings: enough references to the source material to justify basing it there, enough originality to justify retelling it. It's difficult to get right, and often separate from the work’s other merits—take as example Pamela Dean's Tam Lin: an engrossing, cozy narrative about coming of age and academia, with a Tam Lin ballad crammed into the closing act; the inspiration is great, the book itself is lovely, but the actual retelling feels clumsy.

NBC Hannibal occurs pre-Red Dragon but is more than happy to pervert canon; the characters are harvested from the book, but gleefully recast (gender and racial diversity, in my TV?) and fleshed out; later interactions between Will and Hannibal mimic interactions between Clarice and Hannibal in the third book; some lines appear verbatim, out of another character’s mouth; showstopping scenes (dat burning wheelchair) reoccur, enacted by different people with different results; and this is my favorite bit: Will’s house seems to be inspired by the house in which Harris wrote Red Dragon and, himself, discovered Hannibal.

So it has roots dug deep into the source material, but it’s also growing a metaphorical tree, a big old one. Some of what it has to say is questionable (the Hannibal/Clarice relationship becomes explicitly sexual; the same interactions recast as Hannibal/Will are not; meanwhile, when Bloom is recast as a woman, the Hannibal/Alana Bloom relationship is), but it is constantly, undeniably talkative. It’s more explicit than the source material, such that—

"The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike," was the last thing Graham heard as the steel door closed behind him.

—becomes an entire season. It shares Harris’s psychological overlay, but takes a more sensual approach to Harris’s predilection for discomforting physicality. It does what Red Dragon fails to do, what Harris began to do in later books: it casts Hannibal central, because he and his effects are what is most fascinating, but it explores those effects with more intention and result than the books.

My entire time spent watching Hannibal is spent going, oh, this is good; this is pushing itself forward, challenging itself, and it’s constantly good. Good doesn't happen often. And I continue to be surprised to find it’s not just good in its own right, but also as a retelling. It’s all around, intentionally, well done. Now that’s super rare.
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: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Once Upon a Time has this fascination with interconnection. That was fine in the first season when it functioned to knit together the parallel storylines; now it makes for a plot which hinges on coincidence. I'm catching up on season 3, and the reveal of Pan's identity is uncalled for.

I finally got around to reading Barrie's Peter Pan this year, and it lines up with Mary Poppins and the Alice books in that the source material can be pretty creepy and that's fantastic. Poppins is a little inhuman, capricious and cold. Wonderland is as much nightmare as dream, denying Alice bodily autonomy and questioning her identity. And Pan is what Valente calls "heartless" in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:

All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.

He is incapable of seeing the world outside himself, unaware of consequence; a consummate child and, given the power he has in Neverland, that makes him scary. I love the idea of dark retellings of children's classics like these books, but the truth is the source material often does it better; compare the disconcerting undercurrent of Pan's nature within the wonder of Neverland to the artless, racist, excessive gothic parade of Brom's The Child Thief which, as you may gather, I rather disliked. I love to see subtext turned text, but it's hard to find retellings that are actually loyal to, or even as effective as, what it is that makes the text intriguing or unsettling or dark.

Once Upon a Time's Pan isn't perfect but he's surprisingly good--in part because Robbie Kray can act; in part because his dynamics with other cast members intrigue me; in part, and to the point, because Pan has that same heartlessness and because he treats his machinations as a game--and while that phrasing grows stale, it's effective. The Lost Boys are older in OUaT but it works, it makes them more rebellious and as such more dangerous. But Pan still feels like a child, capable of leadership and responsibility but with not just a refusal but an inability to fathom compassion, relationships, selflessness, sympathy.

Finding out that he hasn't always been a child, and putting him in a parent/child relationship with another character, undermines the shit out of that. It makes him seem pathetic, even a little gross; a desperate play-actor rather than a precocious, heartless child. All because the narrative wants to make one more madcap, half-written, coincidental interconnection, sigh.

Watching OUaT is an exercise is missed opportunity (not even gonna mention Mulan right now), but this one stung.
juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published: New York: Vintage International, 1991 (1990)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 555
Total Page Count: 147,546
Text Number: 434
Read Because: personal enjoyment, from my personal library
Review: Two scholars are drawn together when they discover evidence of a secret love-affair between their objects of study, famous Victorian poets. Possession is self-aware and -congratulatory, redundant and transparent; it's also lush, smart, heartfelt, and utterly effective. A book this aware of its own limitations and crutches could do more to correct them, but no matter how many caveats I provide, the truth is that I loved Possession. For all its imperfections, it's utterly successful; for all its contrivances, it has a contagious, unshakable faith in what it does. I wish that some of what remains in the margins (such as Christabel's relationship with Blanche) were more explicit, and that the heavy-handed parallels between the Victorian lovers and their modern-day scholars were less explicit; ironic, given the palimpsest of a narrative, but the book would benefit from more subtlety—the conclusion is particularly heavy-handed. But this is a book of love, self-aware and self-deprecating but fueled by love, love for history and women and writing and academia, love for its post-modernism and its message, and, no matter how tritely, love for love itself. I adored it, and I know I'll reread it some day.

I would not for the whole world diminish you. I know it is usual in these circumstances to protest—"I love you for yourself alone"—"I love you essentially"—and as you imply, my dearest, to mean by "you essentially"—lips hands and eyes. But you must know—we do know—that it is not so—dearest, I love your soul and with that your poetry—the grammar and stopping and hurrying syntax of your quick thought—quite as much essentially you as Cleopatra's hopping was essentially hers to delight Antony—more essentially, in that while all lips hands and eyes resemble each other somewhat (though yours are enchanting and also magnetic)—your thought clothed with your words is uniquely you, came with you, would vanish if you vanished—

Possession, 218-9
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: The White Dragon (The Dragonriders of Pern Book 3)
Author: Anne McCaffrey
Published: New York: Ballantine Books, 1986
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 468
Total Page Count: 133,555
Text Number: 391
Read Because: continuing the series, e-book borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Jaxom is the future Lord Holder of Ruatha, but in defiance of tradition he's also bonded to a dragon—the small, unusual, white Ruth. This is the story of his coming of age, as he insists on embracing both of his roles and leaves Pern changed in his wake. The White Dragon is an improvement over its immediate predecessor, Dragonquest, in large part because it has a stronger focus: Jaxom, whose maturation is realistic if not compelling. Jaxom's bond with Ruth is more unique, both because Ruth is better characterized than most dragons and because sex is an active issue in their relationship. This brings into the forefront something that lingered unexamined at the fringes of previous Pern books, but surprisingly—given the slut-shaming and implied rape that suffuse those books—it's a liberal examination. Jaxom's sexuality is problematically heteronormative, but the way he negotiates sexual activity and identity with Ruth is strange, intimate, and compelling. McCaffrey's writing, however, has undergone no change: The White Dragon is overlong—the world of Pern has attained significant, if artificially structured, complexity, but it can be at the cost of a good story—and artless; dialog is particularly cumbersome. This is the last I plan to read of Pern, perhaps indefinitely, and I still don't recommend this series, nor this book—but The White Dragon does bring some interesting things to the table.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.

But let's not pretend that the book in the least ways handles sex well—wait just a second, did our sympathetic male protagonist just wish that a "difficult" female character would be raped in order to put her in her place? Yes, yes he did. )
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern Book 1)
Author: Anne McCaffrey
Published: New York: Ballantine Books, 1968
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 320
Total Page Count: 132,400
Text Number: 388
Read Because: interest in the companion animal trope, e-book borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: As dragonriders search for a woman, Lessa, to bond with a newborn dragon queen, the Red Star rises: after four centuries of safety, the dragonrider F'lar must rally Pern to action before deadly Thread begins to fall from the sky. Dragonflight is an uneven but successful entry into the world of Pern. McCaffrey's voice is unskilled and the plot manages to be both predictable and ad hoc, but the protagonists are promising—they're often unlikable and share no chemistry, but they have robust and rewarding agency. But the real reason to read Dragonflight is for its archetypal example of the magical companion animal trope. The dragons lack personality, exist solely for human benefit, and are artificially stratified, but they're undeniably compelling.

A feeling of joy suffused Lessa; a feeling of warmth, tenderness, unalloyed affection, and instant respect and admiration flooded mind and heart and soul. Never again would Lessa lack an advocate, a defender, an intimate, aware instantly of the temper of her mind and heart, of her desires. How wonderful was Lessa, the thought intruded into Lessa's reflections, how pretty, how kind, how thoughtful, how brave and clever!
Dragonflight, 72

While not well explored in its own right, it's a fascinating and formative beginning—and familiarity with Pern's archetypes give depth to other incarnations of the trope. This in no way makes Dragonflight a better book. As well as poorly written, it's deeply problematic: Lessa is a strong female character, but she's pitted divisively against women who have less agency (as a result of Pern's sexist society), more sex, or more body fat; dragon mating creates an implied but unaddressed threat of human rape. I don't recommend Dragonflight unless you share my interest in the magical companion animal trope; but if you do, it's successful as an archetype of the trope and while flawed remains a readable novel.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.


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

September 2017

345 6789
1011 12 13141516
1718192021 2223


RSS Atom


Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags