Reading Challenge #84: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

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Reading Challenge #85: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

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Reading Challenge #89: The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon

It’s reading challenge time again! This time I’ll be sharing my thoughts on #89, The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. This a relatively modern novel, as it was published in 1991. It is also a romance novel, a type of fiction I probably have not willingly read since around 1991. I had plenty of warning. It’s right there in the description on Amazon that this is a time travel romance novel. I’m not sure why I was surprised that it ended up being exactly that. I guess deep down I am still an optimist.

TW: discussion of abuse, torture, sexual assault

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Reading Challenge #90: The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock

I read this one while I was traveling, so it took me a little while to write up my thoughts. If you’re following along with my reading challenge this is #90 on the list, The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock. The first Elric novelette was published in 1961, with continuations, sequels, prequels, etc. being published through the early 2000s.

This one was tricky to get started on. There are a lot of Elric stories floating around and I had to resort to a chronological list to try to figure out exactly what I was reading and where it fell in the scheme of things. I ended up reading a collection that contained most of the stories from the 1960s, from Elric’s first appearance through the one in which he meets his end. From what I gather, the stories and novels published later are all meant to fill in the spaces in-between these original tales. While I enjoyed what I read enough to want more, I decided to stop in the interests of moving forward with this challenge, and not potentially ruining a good thing.

Elric appeared on the scene at a time when high sorcery and adventure were in favor and instead gave us a moody, evil, and ultimately weak anti-hero. The stories take place in a place and time that might be future or past but has to exist because the stories of heroes keep having to retell themselves. Elric himself is a long-lived, elf-like being, one of the last remnants of a dead civilization that’s been replaced by younger races. He’s the last of a royal line, but he’s sickly and weak and marked as an outsider by his albinism. The guy should be a giant walking cliche but even though I was rolling my eyes at the start, it turns out that these stories are actually strangely compelling.

There’s a thread of addiction and loss that feels personal even though it is presented in fantasy trope trappings. Elric’s sword, Stormbringer, feeds and empowers him via the souls of those he has killed with it. With it in hand he is nigh invincible, without it he can barely function, but in addition to being outright evil, it also has a penchant for claiming the souls of those closest to him whether he tries to prevent it or not. In the end Stormbringer is a necessary evil because without it Elric would be too weak to fight and chaos would take over the world.

The greater battle in this series is cast as chaos versus law instead of evil versus good. Many of the ideas presented here have percolated their way through so much of the fantasy media and games I’ve consumed, unknowing, over the years. In retrospect it is not surprising at all to me that some of the pantheon from these stories ended up in one of the early monster manuals for D&D. Again and again what was surprising was the quality of the writing itself and its somewhat more literary approach. Sure, some of its metaphors are heavy-handed, but at least there are metaphors instead of beating you about the head with the obvious like many genre works do.

Looking at the covers, the descriptions, and the date of publication of the Elric stories I would have guessed that I would be panning this series. Instead I really enjoyed it, and would recommend checking it out. Something about judging books by their covers I guess…

TL;DR:  A brooding anti-hero with a magic sword that manages to be engaging instead of completely cliched.

The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: I really enjoyed these, in spite of myself. Sword and sorcery isn’t usually my favorite genre but when it is this well written it is easy to see why so many people love it.

Next up: The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

Book Challenge #92: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Surprise! We’ve reached reading challenge time again already! We’re up to #92, Sunshine by Robin McKinley. It’s one of the more recently published novels on the list, from 2003. This one left me confused on a couple fronts, not the least of which was how the hell it ended up on this list.

When I started reading this book I was a bit surprised it was on this “best of” list. For the most part it looks like not a lot of “horror” or horror-adjacent novels made it. The usual vampire novel suspects like Dracula or anything by Anne Rice are nowhere to be found. I do enjoy some urban fantasy so I don’t object to the genre being represented, but I could definitely think of some better choices than this one.

The novel follows Rae, aka “Sunshine”, a coffeeshop baker with a family history of magic who very quickly gets tangled up with vampires. The world building here is a bit different from the norm in urban fantasy, since “Others”, the catch-all term for demons, angels, weres, vampires, etc., are all out in the open and well known to exist and participate in society. The world is in the aftermath of a large-scale magical war, so there is also a small post-apocalypse element too.

Sunshine has magical powers but she had been largely ignoring them because she didn’t need them in her day to day life. When she gets abducted by vampires at the start of the book she’s forced to use them or end up dead. The blurbs I read about this book described it as a fresh spin on the genre but it didn’t feel that way to me. Perhaps if I had read it when it was released I’d feel differently. The story is pretty straightforward. Girl gets abducted by vampires, rediscovers her latent magical powers, reluctantly teams up with a mysterious vampire who doesn’t want to drink her blood for some reason, ~obligatory vampire-human sexual tension~, something something the human and the good vampire triumph over the evil vampires. There’s nothing horrible here, but nothing exciting or new either.

The biggest things which made it hard for me to enjoy this book were the point of view and style. We get the constant internal monologue thing which is so common, but every once in a while there’s a weird fourth-wall breaking moment thrown in too. It is definitely a style thing that didn’t work for me. Some of my favorite urban fantasy novels are my favorites because I enjoy the main character’s personality and point of view, but that was not the case here. I get the reluctant heroine thing, but it wasn’t fun reading an entire book where the main character is constantly complaining that they wish they were anywhere else. By the end I was wishing that too.

If I was feeling a bit more charitable I would give this one a 3/5, because it really is not in the same class of terrible as A Spell for Chameleon. It would make a fine throwaway beach novel. However I do think it was below average, so I can’t quite bring myself to give it an average rating. If I could assign half points this one would be a 2.5/5. Not awful but not really good either.

TL;DR:  Middling to below-average vampire novel.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Rating: 2/5 stars

Verdict: If you love the southern vampire (True Blood) books you might find something to like here, otherwise this one is a safe skip.

Next up: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

Book Challenge #93: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I finished another book on my list, and that means it is reading challenge time yet again! This book is #93, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, first published in 1992. This is notable because it tied with the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis for the 1993 Hugo. Definitely a good year for genre fiction. On with the show!

This book is an interesting amalgam. It is partly a sci-fi novel about artificial intelligence and interstellar conquest, and partly a fantasy novel about warring tribes of creatures with no advanced technology. Bridging the divide are a handful of humans who happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times. The book opens with some human explorers/scavengers who uncover and activate a malevolent Power, or artificial intelligence, which gets released out into the galaxy. Only one ship escapes, carrying a family, a cargo of all the settlement’s children in cryosleep, and some fragment which may either be a piece of code the Power, eventually known as the Blight, requires or some means of stopping it. Either way the Blight desperately wants it.

The ship is able to escape mainly because of the “Zones of Thought” that this series is named after. This is the interesting conceit that there are different bands of the galaxy that permit more and more complex technology and things like advanced AIs and faster than light travel. Most Powers or AIs have to be in the Transcend or the High Beyond. The escaped ship ended up in the bottom of the Beyond, near the “Slowness” where high technology essentially breaks down and becomes useless. I think these zones make for a really interesting narrative device, but I was a little frustrated because they aren’t really clearly explained until fairly deep into the book, and because they feel like a plot device and not something that is scientifically plausible.

The story follows the two children who were awake on the escaped ship after they have an emergency landing on a low-technology planet populated by the Tines. These are creatures somewhat like dogs, where each pack of 4-8 individual animals is one whole person. I really enjoyed the thought experiment of what these creatures would be like and how their societies develop. Their politics and interpersonal relationships drive much of the narrative. There are major differences in how they respond to the fact that aliens have dropped down from the sky and bring technology and potential access to the stars.  The ship’s distress beacon is picked up by the crew of the Out of Band II, which escapes a Blight attack in the High Beyond and is racing against the Blight and warmongering aliens to get to the Tines world and hopefully find the countermeasure. By the time they get near their goal they have been tailed by three different fleets of aliens, and will have to deal with a war between different factions of the Tines, and hopefully be able to save the human children in addition to saving the galaxy.

There’s a lot of high concept ideas going on in this novel, and to its credit it still manages to be engaging and have interesting characters. It is also quite entertaining watching the rest of the galaxy respond to the ongoing crisis of the Blight via what is essentially a galactic message board system, complete with probable sources and bad translations. My only real complaint is that the mechanics of the way the different zones work are weird and slightly immersion breaking for me.

TL;DR:  Some high-concept ideas executed in an approachable and engaging way.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: Read it if you like thinking about how alien races and AIs might think

Next up: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Book Challenge #94: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

It’s reading challenge time again! This book is #94, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1953. I actually really enjoyed the introduction to this one, since it gave a whole history of Asimov’s robot novels and shone some light on the state of publishing at that time. Now on to my review!

I had read this book a very long time ago, which was enough to ruin the “whodunnit” of the mystery but left my memory of the details vague, and I enjoyed revisiting them. The story centers around Elijah, a detective who has the unenviable task of investigating a murder fraught with diplomatic hazards between Earth and the “spacers” who colonized other planets but still have an embassy of sorts back on Earth. To complicate matters, the detective is forced to partner with a robot, R. Daneel. This is problematic in a world where robots are widely disliked or distrusted due to them replacing humans in many jobs, with only a minimum social safety net for those squeezed out of work. It is also challenging because all robots on Earth are instantly recognizable as such, while R. Daneel is effectively indistinguishable from a human without close examination.

As the story progresses the relationship between the human and robot detectives slowly thaws, with many missteps along the way. I won’t completely spoil the story here since it is technically a detective novel and for me knowing the who and the why of the murder in advance did detract from the fun of the experience a little. The murder case isn’t always compelling, but the social context makes this novel interesting. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in here about how you can pack the highest density of people into a city, which by the time of this story are sprawling monstrosities the size of some states or small countries, where people never see the open sky. The density and efficiency of these massive population centers are also what make them extremely vulnerable, and yet the people who live there almost never seem to realize that. The conflicts between the people of Earth and the Spacers are partially due to things like religion but are mostly related to how they view distribution of resources.  The goal of the Spacers is to find some way to convince Earth to start colonizing new planets again, for the good of humanity as a whole. This is an interesting concept and in stark contrast to many sci-fi works that pit Earth against its colonies as they fight for resources. It was fun to see things like interplanetary relations and the Malthusian growth problem tackled from a very different perspective than the Mars books I just finished reading.

TL;DR:  There’s a reason this one is a classic. It is a fairly simple story but told well, and with some thought provoking commentary on automation, planetary carrying capacity, and effecting cultural change.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: Go read it. It’s short, sweet, and worth your time.

Next up: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge