My reading challenge stalled out for a bit as I tried to make my way through #87, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. This entry was originally published as 4 novels in 1980-83. The kindle versions I found split the collection into 2 parts, so this review will only focus on the first two “books”.
It’s reading challenge time again! This time I’ll be sharing my thoughts on #88, The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, originally published in 1991. This is a rare find for this challenge – part of a large series of novels licensed to expand on a movie franchise, as opposed to the many novels on the challenge list that eventually got made into movies.
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
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
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
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
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
It’s time to knock another book off of my challenge list. This time we’re discussing #96, Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle. First published in 1977, this novel looks at what happens when a comet collides with Earth. Spoilers Ahoy!
Let’s get this book’s biggest strength laid out right up front. The authors do an incredible job of setting up the science. I don’t pretend to know if everything presented about the comet and its physical effects is completely accurate, but as someone with a career in the geosciences, it feels plausible. The initial strikes are devastating, but they also set off secondary disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves. These all combine to change the landscape and the weather substantially, and add challenges for the survivors to worry about. The only piece of the science that felt really unlikely to me was the fact that the space station survived and the astronauts were able to return safely, and I can allow that suspension of disbelief for the sake of the narrative. Overall the science felt good, if very depressing.
The story itself follows a whole host of characters for several months before and after “Hammerfall”. There are so many characters that in fact today, about a week after I finished reading, I can’t even recall all of them or their names. The book moves around to different perspectives for each chapter and it does help to give a much wider view of what is happening than a smaller cast possibly could. We get to see the stories of scientists, astronauts, politicians, religious leaders, and filmmakers side by side with those of a mailman, an accountant, and other more mundane folks. The comet starts as a vehicle for self-promotion for the amateur astronomer and the documentary filmmaker, then becomes an object of interest and a means to an end for scientists and politicians. Once it becomes clear that the comet has a chance of hitting Earth, it becomes an object of religious fervor and a scapegoat for moral transgressions. Having so many perspectives let us see all these different angles of the comet first-hand. Once the disaster happens it also lets us see the many different ways that the comet ruined lives.
A few times while reading this one I felt the hopelessness of the situation and considered giving up on the book. After all, the time of holiday stress is not the greatest for reading a depressing book about the end of the world. This hit me the most when reading the perspective of Maureen, the senator’s daughter. She’s very pragmatic about their chances for survival and has a hard time reconciling the fact that she has to be a leader and a voice of hope for the town when she has none for herself. The hopelessness is compounded by sexism that gives the unwritten understanding that she can’t take over leadership when her father dies, so she has to choose a husband that can. I’d like to hope that if this book were written today her situation would be more in her own hands and less dependent on the men around her.
The way women and people of color are portrayed definitely contribute to how dated the novel feels. It is very difficult to disentangle how much of the racism and sexism are the too-real human response in the face of societal breakdown, and how much are the authors’ biases bleeding through. I very much got the feeling while reading that the authors would probably consider themselves on the progressive end of the spectrum for the time, but the results still widely miss the mark by my standards today. For example, in the space station, there’s some interesting discussion and parallels between the woman cosmonaut and the black astronaut and the pressures they face to appear perfect. Unfortunately in the same chapter the woman’s actions get dismissed as part of her “monthly troubles”. I could also rail at length about the lack of agency of all of the women in this book, or about the black characters who start out as criminals and end up cannibals. Suffice it to say that race and gender issues are a problem this book acknowledges but doesn’t deal with very well.
In the end I can see why this one is rated as a classic, and can agree even if I don’t think it holds up quite so well 40 years later. It is a good example of its genre that gives a reasonable look at what might happen in the months surrounding a catastrophic event like a comet impact. Heck, it even manages not to end on an entirely depressing note which was a pleasant surprise. Large-scale disaster stories like this generally don’t work very well for my tastes. I much prefer the chance to get to know a smaller cast of characters, regardless of the scale of the problems they face. That, in combination with how dated it feels in terms of both society and technology, led me to give this one a middling score.
Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Rating: 3/5 stars
Verdict: Excellent example of apocalypse fiction from its time. Unfortunately apocalypse fiction isn’t my thing, and this one in particular feels pretty dated now.
Next up: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
I’m doing a bit better on my book challenge this month. This time I’m reviewing The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, published in 1992. This is the first book on the list so far that had never heard of, and the first one that I’ve given a 5/5 rating. Read on to find out why I loved this book so much!
This book takes place in the near future 21st century, where historians not only study the past via archaeological digs and old tomes, but also by traveling back in time to experience things for themselves. The technology is in its growth phase in the book, established enough that there are protocols for it and trained technicians to oversee it but new enough that whole swaths of history are still off-limits due to safety concerns. Kivrin, our protagonist, is a bright and determined student at Oxford who wants to be the first to visit the 1300s.
The novel opens as Kivrin is being prepared to leave for her journey to 1320. There’s comedic but all-too-real rivalry between departments or schools at the university. Her mentor Dunworthy specializes in less remote time periods that are more routinely open to time travel, and is concerned about her safety and the way the drop is being rushed. Meanwhile the acting head of the medieval department appears more focused on the prestige and opportunity he might gain by pushing the project through before the actual department head returns from Christmas vacation. Kivrin herself is just excited to be on her way to see the middle ages at Christmastime and wants everyone to stop worrying over her. The whole book is full of genuine-feeling interactions between characters with real motivations and expressions and it’s part of why I enjoyed it so much.
The drop to 1320 appears to be a success, but shortly after it is completed the technician in charge comes down with a serious illness. Unbeknownst to the modern characters, Kivrin also becomes ill upon arrival in the past. The net that allows time travel is supposed to be impervious to things like diseases coming back through, but did something go wrong? The story splits, and follows both Kivrin’s experiences in the 1300s and the epidemic happening in 21st century Oxford. We get treated to the antics of overprotective mothers, precocious children, and status-seekers across the centuries. There are heroes and saints and villains but mostly there are average folks just trying to make the best of terrible situations and get on with their lives.
What started out as a story about time travel turned out to be part medical mystery, part survival story, and part family drama. It was so satisfying to watch these parts unfold in tandem across both timelines. Also, though I don’t usually like children in general, it was impossible not to become attached to the children in this story. Colin, in the future, watches the epidemic unfold with morbid fascination, ducking past quarantine lines, helping in the hospital, and endlessly sucking on his everlasting gobstopper. Agnes, in the past, could be any young girl in any age, playing with her puppy, teasing her older sister, jingling her new bell during mass when she’s supposed to be quiet. I absolutely cared about these characters and wanted them to have a happy end to their stories, even the ones who, from one perspective, had already been dead for hundreds of years. I stayed up way too late reading the last section of the book in one go because I was too invested to put it down before I knew what happened to all of these people I cared about. And that’s leaving out the biggest question: Would Kivrin ever make it home?
The strength of the last book I read for this challenge (Perdido Street Station) was in the deft complexity of the story threads and the way the city itself felt alive. By contrast, I was almost always a few steps ahead of the plot of The Doomsday Book, but it didn’t matter in the slightest because I genuinely cared about the characters and wanted to see how things played out. It also helped immensely that the grim realities of life in the middle ages and in the midst of a modern epidemic are at least partially offset by moments of humor and human kindness. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!
The past is wonderful and terrible and nothing like you imagined, but you will be glad you made the journey.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Rating: 5/5 stars
Verdict: Deeply human and relatable characters and an engaging story make this my first 5/5 book of the challenge. You should read it!
It’s been 2 months since my last entry for my book challenge. This means I’m officially in violation of my self-imposed rules, since I’m supposed to get to at least one book a month. Fortunately I made up the rules and there’s no penalty for breaking them, so I can carry on and futilely try to describe Perdido Street Station, published in 2000. Here goes nothing.