Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold

And so we come to what seems to happen to every character with a long enough history--an evil twin.  Such is Brothers in Arms, my latest read in the Vorkosigan saga.  This one is on the short side, just under 250 pages.  And it's OK that it's not longer--while it is well-written, this novel just doesn't seem to have a destination.  There are several interweaving plots against Admiral Naismith, the most salient of which is a clone (the evil twin) under the control of a Komarran rebel.  Miles foils the plots by treating Mark as a brother, basically, though it is obvious that is going to come back to bite him.  His highly dynamic personality is not really on display in this book, though.  It's just tough to engage.  He does finally get it on with Elli Quinn, so we'll see where that goes. 

My understanding from other reviews is that this is the low point in the series.  It gets better again.  Onward and upward, then.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Labirynth, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'm now returning to the Vorkosigan saga with Labirynth, a novella set somewhat in mid-career for Miles Naismith.  In this volume he is Admiral Naismith, commanding the Dendarii Free Mercenaries.  We get to see something of Jackson's Whole, the libertarian paradise where most anything goes.  Miles is to recover a talented genetic engineer, who won't come without his samples, which turn out to be embedded in an ideal soldier prototype.

Here we see, for the first time in the internal chronology, Miles as a sexual being.  He claims to have had sex at 15, but where in previous volumes he was mostly frustrated he now has acquired a backstory of at least trying to get laid.  And get laid he does, by the soldier, an 8-foot tall female frightening powerhouse.  Well well.  In the aftward to the omnibus volume linked above, Bujold says that this volume explores more of the boundaries of what it means to be human and acceptable.  It's effectively done and a nice add for the series.  I am plunging on, hoping to finish by Christmas.  After all, next year's awards start soon after that!  And I do have a few other things in mind to read.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

This is the last of my World Fantasy Award reads, and this time I had to pony up for it--will donate it to the Library.  And really, it was worthwhile, Zoo City is a unique read in many ways.

The book is set in Johannesburg, in a ghetto named after the book title.  Our protagonist is Animalled--has an animal familiar, a side effect of having committed a major crime.  This is supposedly the result of a virus of some kind, though there is a heavy dose of magic involved and the explanations don't really put all the pieces together.  The author even has a reference to Pullman's Dark Materials series, since it is based on animal familiars as well.  But Zoo City is much darker. 

This is a noir mystery, and very well done.  The book is aimed at the South African audience, with a later American release, so it's interesting to read a novel not aimed at us Yanks.  Zinzi December is a sympathetic figure despite being a former and current criminal and drug addict.  She is still trying to do right, trying to save children.  The interplay with the animals is mildly underdone--they can't speak, so the interchanges are more like what one would have with a very close pet, as opposed to Pullman's dialogues.  You could almost get the idea of what it would be like to be very attached to a very exotic pet in real life.  Also interesting are the hints at societal accommodation (food for your animal in jail).  There will be more, there's plenty of room for a sequel at the end.  I recommend it with a solid three and half stars.  Probably my favorite among the World Fantasy Award nominees this year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

Continuing my reading of the 2011 World Fantasy Award winners, I just finished Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.  My local library was tasteful enough to pick up a copy.  Reading the award nominees has really helped stretch my reading taste, and this little morsel worked well for me.

The book is based on a Senegalese folk tale, but the author is from Barbados and flavors that in heavily.  Paama is a woman of good and wholesome spirit, who was made a poor match in her endlessly hungry husband.  She has left him to live with her family, but he finally comes to find her.  He is just a fool in this story, though, as the gods (the djombi) decide to involve themselves in her life.  She is given the Chaos Stick, the power to influence events in unlikely ways.  This power had belonged to another djombi, and their interaction over his attempts to recover it provide the meat of the story.

The story is pretty light, overall, no serious pain or ugliness.  It meanders to a beginning and end, which the storyteller makes plain is on purpose.  I feel better for having read it, though I don't know that I will remember it for very long.

I was intrigued by the author's biography.  She has done many things and is now in academia, and writes on the side.  This is just the sort of book one can get from an author who does not write fiction for a living.  It is done purely on its own terms.  Read it as a good counterpoint to full-on professional writing like Guy Gavriel Kay or the Wheel of Time series.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos (in the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem collection) is sort of a side trip in the Wormhole Nexus, not in the line of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, though he is mentioned.  This story features Elli Quinn, a mercenary who fought for him and had her face blown off.  But it centers on Ethan Urqhart, a doctor from Athos, a planet far out of the way founded for men only.  He must leave it to find ovarian cultures to continue their cell lines.

This book has a very different feel from the others in that the hero is himself not a particularly colorful character.  Ethan is a solid, down-to-earth doctor who ends up part of an espionage caper.  Kind of like Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, only Elli Quinn isn't so crazy.  It's an action book, but the flavor is much less warlike than the main series.

It always takes some guts to write mainstream novels with a gay character of any kind, let alone a lead character.  Bujold wrote and managed to sell this one in the 80's, when AIDS was first running rampant.  What's really interesting here is that while his sexuality is not hidden, it's not so much of a big deal in the book.  On Athos that's all there is, so homosexuality is taken for granted and isn't a special part of one's identity.  Although being Athosian is, and not having contact with women.  I think the latter is the bigger deal.  Ethan comes to some realizations on that score as well.  So the book is of some interest as a period piece from a time when LGBT was just starting to move into the mainstream, propelled in some part by sympathy.  Ethan needs no sympathy, or special treatment of any sort.  He is capable and fully comfortable in his own skin.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Continuing my reading of this year's World Fantasy Award nominees, I bit off a substantial chunk and read Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.  Asia is such a huge place, it should have a lot of material to be explored for fantasy.  And I'm sure it does.  Not as sure that I really got a good look here.  The novel starts out with promising fantasy material--the protagonist spends two years putting ghosts to rest by burying their remains at a haunted battleground.  He does it to honor his dead father, though it is never really clear why he chose this way.  Even to himself.  And the consequences of the deed are momentous for him, and probably the whole of China (Kitan, in the book).  He is given an impossibly large gift, which throws the court into a spin.  The theme throughout is that of a relatively simple (though learned, and not innocent) man trying to handle himself in a powerful empire's court.

There is action, physical and sexual, but the real point is the intrigue.  Because of this, the book often reads as slow.  And I struggled to read the ending, as there wasn't a lot of suspense.  The novel is historical, so the ending is known and telegraphed.  It's decent, but I wouldn't say it is a leading contender.  Still waiting for that one.  So far it's close between Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death and N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was wild fun.

Three stars for this one.