Monthly Archives: May 2015

Memory

This is one review I’ve been both dreading and looking forward to. I’ve been puttin it off for a while now because it’s one of my favorite books and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.

Memory  / Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory is more or less universally acknowledged to be the best Vorkosigan book. It manages to maintain the humor of the series while dealing with the fallout of the events of Mirror dance in an appropriately serious manner. It’s an emotionally demanding read if you’re the type to get invested in the characters when you read. It’s less dark than Mirror dance but tackles issues of personal responsibility and the potential costs of actually getting what they want. 

Memory is a book that I’ve heard more than one person describe as their favorite book that they’ll never read again. Others have said they love rereading it but always skip the first few chapters. It’s a point if view I can understand. While Memory is the “best” of the series it’s not my favorite (that would be the combination of Komarr and A civil campaign). I reread it about once a year but I look forward to finishing it so I can get to Komarr. I’m not sure my spouse appreciates that since I can’t even describe the plot of Memory out loud without crying. It’s that powerful. (Although I also cry every time I see or think about that ASL Wells Fargo commercial so keep that in mind).

Plot summary

On a routine hostage rescue mission Miles has a seizure and ends up severely injuring the rescuee. Miles is force to choose between admitting that the events of Mirror dance have left him medically unfit to continue to serve in the field or falsifying his report to Simin Illyan in an attempt to hide his condition. Miles makes his choice and lives with the consequences.

Also there’s some intrigue going on and a plot and stuff but this book is really all about Character.

So how is it?

It’s great. If it wasn’t about space-faring mercenaries it would be widely recognized as a Great Work of Literature. It’s the culmination of ideas that have been building for a long time across the series. I recently reread most of the earlier novels and it’s amazing how well these events are foreshadowed. Cordelia has repeatedly remarked that her son must eventually choose between being “the little Admiral” (excellent Napoleon reference, by the way) and “Lord Vorkosigan”. Here, Miles is forced to make that choice, and while at one point it seems like that choice has been made for him ultimately he does decide.

It’s a book about making hard choices, where you pay a significant cost no matter what you do. The finale is amazingly powerful. 

Memory’s biggest drawback is that it requires the reader I have read the rest of the series for maximum impact. The vast majority of the Vorkosigan books are completely modular, but without having read Mirror dance at a minimum you won’t get as much out of this one.

The way Bujold deals with mental health issues continues to amaze me. Other characters have been pointing out for a few books now that Miles is not exactly sane. The way Mark* processes the events of the previous book hint that the situation with Miles’s “cover identity” is more complex and deeply rooted than it might first appear. Bujold is one of the only authors I can think of who can successfully write mentally ill characters as regular people.

*this character’s identity left intentionally ambiguous to avoid spoiling earlier installments

Memory is a major turning point. Not only do characters make decisions that have permanent effects, but Memory also marks a significant shift in genre for the series. This is partially because one of the major subtexts to Memory is that Miles is solidly an adult now and partially because of choices that various characters make.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and I’d recommend it for absolutely everyone if getting the most out of it didn’t require investing in the series as a whole. As I mentioned above, I call it the best of the series but my favorite is Komarr and A civil campaign taken as a single novel (à la Miles in love omnibus ed.). A civil campaign was by far the most fun Vorkosigan book until the publication of Captain Vorpatril’s alliance, which comes close even if it’s not about Miles.

It probably says something about me that my favorite installments in a series that’s usually called space opera are a Regency romance (in space!) and a screwball comedy (in space!).

I’ve long considered doing a “reading guide” type post on the series. Now that I’ve reviewed the major turning point that’s probably what I’ll do next.

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On silliness

Lately I’ve been rather frustrate at the books I’ve been reading. Specifically, I’ve been frustrated that every book seems to take itself so seriously. Book like Deadtown, which are hard to describe to non-genre diehards without accusations of rediculousness but who can’t seem to find room for any lightness.

I’m not saying books need to be funny, but I’m also drawing a line between repartée/the occasional joke and true silliness. It’s especially frustrating in urban fantasy since the genre is so facially absurd. But instead you end up with things like Working stiff that are unrelentingly dark despite their position as “light” reading.

I’m really just reiterating the classic criticism of most comics since the 80s, but it applies to every genre. Not everything has to be totally grim all the time. It’s part of the reason I like Séanan McGuire as much as I do. 

It’s perfectly possible for silliness and seriousness to coexist. Perhaps the best example is Saga which as I’ve mentioned before includes the most emotionally powerful single page I have ever seen. It also includes lines like “there are only three forms of high art: the symphony, the illustrated children’s book, and the board game.” Also a creation myth that is also a fart joke.

Doing silliness right is hard. It’s incredibly easy to do it badly. Sir A Propos of nothing attempts it and ends up with most of the jokes in horrifically poor taste. Ms. Marvel does it well, and Order of the stick is a masterpiece of silliness. Moving away from comics the successes are less visible. Douglas Adams is the obvious referent for sf. As far as my reading experience goes, Lois McMaster Bujold is the only sf writer that comes close to matching Saga’s blend of serious, powerful work and humor. Outside of sf, Alexandre Dumas (père, I’ve not read fils) manages it (The three musketeers is actually hilarious. The 70s Three musketeers/Four musketeers films are really the only adaptations I’ve seen that get that across). Par conséquent I’ve seen elements of silliness in Arturo Pérez-Reverted as well. In terms of fantasy, I feel like Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress books do a good job of not becoming too bogged down in seriousness while still telling a “straight” story. Of course, for more popular recent work, the Gentleman Bastards series does that too.

Vonnegut did it too, although aspects of his work haven’t aged well. It’s one of the reasons I love the old screwball comedies, despite the virtually omnipresent sexism and racism (His girl Friday is probably the one that holds up the best here).

The lack of silliness in most fiction is probably why I end up rereading most of the Vorkosigan saga every year. It’s also probably while I can acknowledge that Memory is probably the best book in the series the combo of Komarr and A civil campaign (as Miles in love) is actually my favorite. I unironically love the 1960s Batman series for the same reason. 

Terry Pratchett is probably the obvious author to mention here. While I enjoy reading his stuff from time to time, I could never get into it enough to really consider myself a fan. Part of it is that I lack a lot of the cultural referents, but it’s mostly that I find the vast majority of his characters unlikeable and it’s really hard for me to latch on to books without at least one marginally charming character. Also, I can only really handle so much satire. That’s my frustration in sf, that the options are frequently grimaced seriousness or satire. I’d like something in between, as the endless parade of wink-wink-nudge-nudge Flinstones-type “humor” is pretty tired by this point. 

So I’ve decided that for the foreseeable future I’m swearing off super-serious stuff. I have enough going on that unrelenting pessimism without the slightest tinge of comic relief is more wearying than I’m willing to put up with. It probably won’t affect my posts here too much beyond possibly skipping some titles in the queue (there are still more than 100 books on my “to be reviewed” list).

Working stiff (Revivalist novels)

Working stiff / Rachel Caine

The most disturbing book I have ever read was Maxime Chattam’s Prédateurs. Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy comes in second.

Also, it’s a romance?

Plot summary (in which a first chapter plot twist is revealed)

Bryn David, ex-military, is the new funeral home director at a fancy (possibly Californian*) funeral home.

Unfortunately for her, after discovering that her new employer is selling a mysterious drug out of the basement. After being murdered to keep the secret she discovers that she has been brought back from the dead by the drug, but there’s a catch: if she doesn’t get a fresh injection every 24 hours, her body will start to rot.

Joining up with the dashing Patrick McAllister, Bryn must now fight back against a major pharmaceutical company’s sinister plans while trying to find a cure for her condition.

*whaaaa? To get there, you gotta take the 405 to the Brigadoon and them take a u-turn to get on I-96 to go past Plaga Arroyo and then you head west on the North-South tollway. /joke

So how is it?

Disturbing, but not consistently so. There’s some over the top action and some graphic violence, but the way the people who go without their injections start to decompose while still fully conscious is the part that almost made me give up on the series. There’s a reveal towards the end of the first book that was especially hard to take.

I did read all three, and they are interesting for the way they don’t use many of the traditional urban fantay trappings. There’s no magic, no paranormal activity of any kind. It’s all about the nanites here (which amounts to the same thing but at least it’s not another vampire book).

At its core, Working stiff is a slow building zombie story where the zombies are fully conscious “living” things. Most of the classic zombie tropes appear at some point, but each one gets enough of a twist that the series does feel unique.

It’s an interesting series but not for the easily disturbed. 

Below I reveal a later plot twist so skip the next sentence if you want to be surprised

It says something, either about the series or about my own weirdness, that the introduction of the “flesh eating ravenous cannibals who are compelled to spread their affliction” was a relief because cannibalism in protagonists is less disturbing than other things that were going on.

(Yeah that was a long sentence)

Recommendation

Because of how disturbing I found it it’s not a book I’m likely to recommend. If I did, it would pretty much only be to people who enjoy both paranormal romance and incredibly violent horror movies. Fans of Antichrist could certainly handle this (although it lacks the “arty” aspects). 

The only time I’d recommend it is for fans of Nalini Singh, who seems to do the hardcore horror/romance genre blending fairy well.

Spider’s bite (Elemental assassin series)

Spider’s bite / Jennifer Estep

The Elemental assassin series occupies the middle ground between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Set in a vaguely defined southern town, the series features intense action, scenes of cookery described in vivid detail, and fairly graphic violence.

Plot summary

Gin Snow, alias “The Spider” juggles her career as one of the south’s most highly sought after assassins with working in her adoptive father and handler’a barbecue restaurant.

Betrayed by her employer on what was supposed to be her last job (at least for the time being) Gin embarks on a quest for revenge that will last for several books and that will eventually reveal the true identity of her parents’ murderer.

Also people have magic powers and there are the obligatory vampires.

So how is it?

It’s fun in a totally disposable kind of way, despite the terrible name of the series. It’s one of those series that I’ll grab whenever I can’t find enough books at the library, but it’s not really something I’d actively seek out.

I find myself coming back to it significantly more often than I do similar series, in part because despite the body count the series never gets really stressful. It’s dark but not disturbing and the presence of magical healing powers goes a long way to reduce the sense of peril.

These are books I’ll finish in a day on my commute. I’m five or six books in at this point, having just finished the “parent murderer” story arc (the identity of whom was painfully obvious from the beginning).

Estep does a decent job of inserting the sequel hooks gradually, where elements that go relatively unremarked in earlier books are built upon over time to make the whole thing feel more connected than some series. It’s not exactly a monster of the week series – more like the mythos episodes of the X-files, where the monster of the week is there but is a lieutenant or other relation to the Big Bad. 

The romance element is present but follows the urban fantasy arc of building over the course of the series rather than the historical romance method of each installment featuring a different family member. I’d still call it urban fantasy but some of the romance novel writing style and plotting is definitely there.

The violence isn’t as graphic as, say, Nalini Singh’s work, but the romantic elements also aren’t as intense. The Elemental assassin books are plot driven first and foremost, so while it has definite crossover appeal paranormal romance purists would be better off reading Singh.

Recommendation

It’s a perfectly serviceable series but not a first line recommendation. Worth reading, even if Gin’s competence level varies wildly from scene to scene. Definitely a go-to recommendation for crossover paranormal romance/urban fantasy fans but not one with much appeal outside the genre.

For those who don’t mind the violence but want more romance/character development I’d recommend Nalini Singh’s Angel’s kiss.

For those who would prefer less emphasis on the romance I’d recommend, as usual, the October Daye series. 

For those who like the tone of this but are less thrilled by the magic, I’d recommend Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy

Saga

Saga / Brian K. Vaughan ; Fiona Staples

I’ve been trying not to review comics unless they are completed, but I wanted to review this one so here you go.

One of the reasons for this review is that Saga placed very well on the ALA’s most frequently challenged books list. 

One of the most common reasons it was challenged represents a hilarious misunderstanding of the story at its most basic level. I’ll address that later.

The other most common reason is “unsuited to age group”. Considering the “for mature readers” label and the fact that the first line of dialogue is “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting” I’m really wondering who these complainants think the target audience is. Part of the fault here is probably on libraries who keep graphic fiction with YA and/or J fiction (I’ve worked in libraries where this is the case. At my current library we have a John Le Carré novel classed in LC class K (Law), so there’s obviously a continuum of how seriously fiction gets taken). The other problem is the association of comics with “kiddie stuff” which hasn’t been true in the history of the genre. There have always been comics targeting adults, and since the 80s at the latest more “mature” fare has represented a huge chunk of the market.

These must be the same people who complain about how R rated movies and Mature rated video game are inappropriate for children.

Overly basic plot summary

There’s a lot going on in Saga but this will keep it as simple as possible.

A war between a planet and its moon has been going on for generations. To save their local environment, most of the combat has been outsourced to other worlds. Marko and Alana are two soldiers on opposite sides of the war. After Alana breaks conscientious objector Marko out of the POW camp where she works as a guard, the couple find themselves on the run, hunted by both sides. Then they have a baby.

So how is it?

At the risk of hyperbole, Saga is one of the best things I have ever put in my brain. This is sff at its absolute best, and a landmark achievement in its medium.

There’s a lot to talk about here. The setting in particular is absolutely amazing, featuring a whimsical imagination combined with a great sense of adventure and some serious pathos.

The characters are exceedingly well designed, from the lovers on the run to the blue blood Prince Robot to the scene-stealing Lying Cat. They populate a universe with a fantastic diversity of characters in a universe that’s familiar (bored housewives buy bodice rippers from supermarket checkout stands) yet also unfathomably bizarre (one of said bodice rippers is about a couple who spends most of their time playing board games and ordering takeout).

There’s some fantastic details there: the moon dwellers have their own language that is fictional but that anyone with basic familiarity with a Romance language should have no problem deciphering. It’s that blend of exotic with the easily understandable that makes Saga so great.

It’s a serious, heart-wrenching story here that’s not above absolute silliness (wait until you learn what the opposite of war is …)

The third volume of Saga features the most emotionally powerful single page I’ve ever seen. In my most recent reread I had to put it aside for over a week before continuing. I cry just thinking about it. (Full disclosure: I also cried while rereading Shards of honor recently. So it doesn’t take much).

Saga is a space adventure with serious heart, where the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is exceedingly fine. Not because the good guys are grim badasses, but because the “bad guys” are just regular folks.

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of Saga as well, but I don’t want to spoil it.

I realize I still haven’t mentioned the artwork. Staples is great and the art is wonderful and is vital to making the story work.

The other reason why Saga has been challenged is that it is “anti-family”. Saga. A story about a man and woman struggling to raise their baby in the face I overwhelming opposition. A story whose most obvious theme is “family is important”. 

I can’t help but think that there’s a racist component to that complaint.

Recommendation

Saga is amazing. It is also very violent and “perverse”. There’s no denying that this is a “mature” title but as much as it revels in excess it’s not gratuitous. It’s a must recommend even for those who don’t normally read the format. I’ve won over more than one non-comics reader with Saga. 

It’s explicit which might be a stumbling block but it’s not intentionally offensive so I’m generally more willing to take a risk and recommend this one.

It’s something I encourage everyone to try for themselves.