Monday, May 30th, 2011

CryoBurn (Vorkosigan Saga, #14)CryoBurn by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the final book in my minor-quest to read all of the 2011 Hugo best novel nominees. Given that it’s #14 in a series I haven’t read, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it: I almost didn’t read it at all. Thankfully, a sense of completion-ism won out, and I decided to give it a shot.

It’s "thankfully", because, even being completely unfamiliar with the universe and the characters, it was a great read.

Obviously, I don’t know how it compares to the other books in the series; but as a stand-alone work, it’s great. It’s easy to read, while still having good writing (however you define good writing: I’m personally a fan of varied sentence structures and random dependent clauses). It’s a fun adventure story. There’s a bit of mystery that is fun to resolve along with the protagonists (of course, Miles figured it out before I did. I guess that’s why he’s the hero…).

And it features a real, live sphinx. What more could you ask for?

Its flaws, if you want to call it that, is that it wouldn’t be a good introduction to the genre for someone whose head isn’t already filled with spaceships and cloning chambers. But if your bookshelf already overflows with Card, Bear, or Scalzi, then it should fit right in. Of course, considering how acclaimed this series is, if your bookshelf features those authors, there’s a good chance this or its sister-novels are already on it.

Still, while it’s definitely a good book, it’s not a great one. This isn’t a fault: if everything were "great", we’d simply have to reset our expectations. And, I think, as the genre has matured over the years, my expectations have been reset. So, within that context, it’s a solid SF adventure work that I’m happy to have read.

I’ll add the rest of the series to my to-read stack and look forward to getting to them.

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

FeedFeed by Mira Grant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was on my reading list because I’m trying to read all of the 2011 Hugo best-novel nominees before the awards are announced in a couple of months. Which is to say, this book was nominated for the 2011 Hugo.

And it took me a long time to figure out why because, in a fairly objective way, it’s just not a very good book. The writing style is astoundingly simplistic. The writing never chooses to rise above a middle-school vocabulary, and most sentences are of the standard "subject-verb-adjective-object" construction. Based on the writing, I’d assume that it was intended as a young-adult novel if it weren’t for the random bouts of profanity and slightly creepy discussions of the female protagonists’ underclothes. Since there’s no real explanation for it (not that I want to encourage the idea that writing intended for the young adult market should be boring), it seems that the unchallenging and staid writing was simply accidental.

In my quest to figure out why this book is Hugo-nominated, I next stopped to consider the world-building. An imaginative, rich world can make up for bad writing. But the world falls down as well: the author says something about how the vast majority of the population is too scared to leave their houses, but doesn’t offer an explanation for why there are fully staffed and stocked restaurants and movie theaters and convention centers. It tries to set up a weird dynamic between "nothing has changed in the world" and "everything has changed in the world". This could have been successful, if it had played on an undercurrent of terror in a populace who was just trying to go about their lives; but instead, it just seems confused like the author would occasionally forget what book she was writing.

I think this is most clearly shown ni the way that the entire book is about a thriving and ingenious blogosphere existing in an America where the idea of freedom of the press has long since been abandoned. The idea that all journalists are required to be appropriately licensed (and that there are different licenses which allow those journalists to tell certain stories!) goes completely against the idea of properly licensed bloggers uncovering a government-wide conspiracy. They simply wouldn’t be allowed to start looking and no one would think it was strange ("Guess they didn’t have the proper licenses…").

This, it turns out, leads into why I think this book was well received by the Hugo voters. It’s a book about some perky and attractive bloggers getting out and having an adventure. It’s about the bloggers always being the smartest people in the room, being the only ones devoted to the truth, and the only ones smart enough and dedicated enough to look around and leave no stone unturned. In short, this is a Mary Sue novel which lets every blogger out there fantasize about being the only one who can fight both zombies and the establishment in one go. As if that weren’t absurd enough, the bloggers also happen to be universally loved and trusted because they’re so incredibly noble.

SPOILER ALERT Do you want to know how to tell the bad guy in this book? He’s the one who doesn’t like the bloggers. The only one.

So, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this book has a large fan base on the Internet. But ultimately, such undiscriminating tastes will not help the real-life bloggers to become as attractive and successful as the bloggers in the book. But then, I suppose that’s what the wish-fulfillment aspect is all about.

This is a terribly disappointing book to have earned the words "Hugo Nominated" on its cover.

[Edited To Add: Reading back over this review, it seems like I’m denigrating bloggers to a large extent. That was never my intention. Instead, I’m denigrating the bloggers for whom the Mary Sue of this book (is there a different word that means “Mary Sue for a collective group instead of just the author?”) is so effective that they nominate it en masse for one of speculative fiction’s highest honors. I know bloggers of all shapes and sizes: attractive, ugly, young, old, outgoing, misanthropic, and everything in between. They’re all great people and I admire some of them very much. I personally fall under the “young and ugly, misanthropically socially anxious, and thoroughly incapable” category (though I’m not much of a blogger these days).

The point is, I’m happy being that. It’s who I am, and I long ago came to terms with it. Nosce te ipsum. I find the characters in this book offensive because they seem to exist purely as a way for me to escape who I am. I’m perfectly okay with escapism from where I am. But I think it’s rather unhealthy to try to promote escapism from ourselves entirely. And even if I didn’t think that way, I certainly wouldn’t celebrate a bad book because it offered me that escape. A bad book is a bad book.]

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The Dervish HouseThe Dervish House by Ian McDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have, on several occasions, termed The Dervish House as "literary". In more cynical moments, perhaps I said something closer to "trying to be literary." And whether you consider that good or ill (or, like me, you vacillate between the two opinions depending on mood), this is definitely not space opera.

For at least the first half of the book, I had noticeable difficulty finding a plot. At the time, I thought that was a bug; but now, I consider it something of a feature. Instead of a rollicking good adventure like one usually finds in the SF section, this is really a collection of character studies. It’s a much subtler book telling small stories of several people in the city of Istanbul (which, in the grand traditions of such things, stands out as a character itself). That there stories all eventually seem to collied in some sort to make it seem as though they were all smaller chunks of a larger whole eventually seems irrelevant, if not a miscalculation. It might not really have been necessary.

Which is to say, this book is a slow burn. This is especially true if, like me, you largely read genre novels. It’s worth it, though. It’s well written and, once it finally manages to suck you in, proves to be a rewarding experience.

This book found its way on to my reading list because it’s on the nominee list for the Hugo novel for 2011. I can certainly see why: it seems destined to join the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale on the short list of books that SF fans can point to and say "See! We have serious literature as well!". I can therefore see many voters picking choosing this book merely for the genre to gain some sort of literary street-cred.

That said, the vast majority of this book is SF only by coincidence. Only one of the sub-plots really needed to be set in the near-future for it to make sense. The rest could have easily been placed in the current day with only a few nouns changed. As a book and a story, this is first rate. But as SF, it feels lacking.

SF, in my mind, is at its best when it uses fictional technology or magic to explore questions that aren’t really ask-able in our world; or, barring that, to explore every-day questions-of-the-day by using suitable stand-ins. So, good SF can range from "What does ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ mean in a world where people can swap bodies at will?’ and ‘What happens when a society gets bored of immortality?’ to ‘How does the fall of the USSR look if you substitute Klingons for Communists?’. But when you simply drop standard stories into futuristic settings, you don’t really get any of that. You get a book that’s good on its own merits, but not one that’s necessarily good SF.

Which is to say that this is a good book. Possibly the best I’ve read so far this year. I’m just not convinced it really added anything to the genre. So while it gets a hearty recommendation from me, it doesn’t get my fictional Hugo vote. But, if it doesn’t win, that won’t be anything to be sad about. Since, as I said, it’s very, very good on its own merits.

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy, Book #1)The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those rarest of books: one that I read straight through in a single sitting. Which is to say: it can hold one’s interest (it doesn’t hurt for one’s spouse to be out for the evening, of course).

That said, other than "It’s really good!", I don’t have much to say about it. It’s dark fantasy. It’s well-paced and never bogs down. The protagonist is bitchin’. And the story? It’s full of magic and gods warriors and all sorts of goodness. There really isn’t much to dislike.

Most of the reviews I write are negative: even with books I like, I write about the negatives. It’s who I am.

But I don’t have anything bad to say about this book. Which means that this review is necessarily short:

It’s really good!

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

All ClearAll Clear by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review contains very minor spoilers.

This is really a review of All Clear as well as the previous Blackout: two volumes making up a single work. I previously reviewed Blackout and noted some of its many problems. There, I’d hoped that the second volume would correct a lot of it. It didn’t.

The author seems to go to great pains to point out to the reader, "This book is just like an Agatha Christie book! Just with no murders!". I haven’t read any of Christie’s work, but I’ve always been under the impression that they’re detective novels: the reader’s viewpoint is the detective’s viewpoint as the detective interviews people and gathers clues.

This isn’t a detective novel, though. The reader’s viewpoint switches between characters, and while sharing a character’s viewpoint, the reader is privy to that character’s thoughts. Except, since this book is in the style of an Agatha Christie book, the characters are forced to hide their thoughts from themselves. So you get weird structures like "She wants me to tell her an important thing that happened. But I won’t."* Of course, by being unspecific, the character doesn’t tell the reader either. At times, it feels like the author is lording it over us: "I know what’s going on but I won’t give you enough information to figure it out, neener-neener-neener." This comes down to the level of "This character over here in subplot A is the same as the character in subplot C. But I won’t tell you that until the book is over. I’m hoping you’ll think that I masterfully wove threads together for the big reveal. But mostly I just want to know more than you do."

But, as annoying as I found this style, it still could have been redeemed in proper service to a plot. But there isn’t really one to be found here. I can tell you what the theme of the book is (but I won’t, since discovering the theme is about the only point of the book; hence, it’d be a massive spoiler), but I don’t think I can tell you what the plot is.

Stuff happens to the characters. And they knock on doors trying to find each other, but they miss each other.** They finally find each other and proceed to tell half-truths and outright lies because otherwise the book would be too short. More stuff happens to the characters.***

Even Arthur Dent has more agency than the characters in this book.

As a follow-up to To Say Nothing of the Dog, this is a really disappointing book. At the same time, I see a lot of similarities between the two books. I just think it worked better in the former because there were reasons for the main character to be out of sorts (he was time lagged and he was unprepared for time travel to that location, so he was also doing a fish-out-of-water thing), there was an actual plot, and it was genuinely funny.

Blackout/All Clear forgot to bring the explanations (there’s no reason for the characters to behave like they do. They just do.), the plot, and the funny.

My mind boggles that this was nominated for a Hugo. I can only assume it’s because Willis has already won 10 of the things: not nominating her would just make the ballot look weird.

All that said: I do give this three stars, and there are things to like about it. The characterization of the London Blitz is well done and intriguing. Alf and Binnie are great. The writing (at a sentence and paragraph level, at least) is well done and engrossing. It’s even entertaining in a light-reading sort of way. It certainly isn’t a bad book.

But it’s not a terribly good book, and most of my disappointment stems from expecting something great because of its predecessor and its place on the Hugo nomination list.

*Not an actual sentence from the book, but it exemplifies a common structure.

**This happens constantly.

***Alf and Binnie are my favorite characters in this book because they actually do things; even if those things are mostly painting stripes on cows to annoy local farmers.