Category Archives: book review

Books that inspire me– “The Curse of Chalion”

curse of chalion2

I have blogged before about how I am, in general, bored with the fantasy genre as it currently exists. To me most fantasy seems to be recycled material I have seen over and over again. Considering that I have been reading fantasy since about 1972, that may not be complete hyperbole.

There are exceptions. I am, along with the rest of the Western World, impatiently awaiting George R. R. Martin’s next volume, The Winds of Winter. I have been a fan of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea fantasies for literally decades. And I currently reading (and enjoying) Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which was nominated for a Hugo this year (a review is in the pipeline).

But these are exceptions. You may notice that each of these examples reside at a very high level of literary quality. Unfortunately, in my opinion, your average fantasy novel falls well short of this level. Worse, there seems to be a lot– I mean, a lot— of formula. How many novels nowadays manage to break free from a medieval-style world (the fact that Martin does it well doesn’t mean it isn’t a worn-out cliche), wizards, dragons, implacable evil, blah blah blah? Too many fantasies these days just seem interchangeable.

Let me introduce you to one that isn’t.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold is, in my wildly biased opinion, one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. The fantasy world she creates isn’t a straightforward medieval rehash; rather, it strongly resembles Reconquista Spain, a welcome change of pace. The story revolves around the breaking of a curse that haunts the royal house of the kingdom of Chalion. The protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is honorable, honest and dedicated, but not boring– he is also deeply wounded, uncertain, and sometimes blundering. The balance Bujold crafts between these attributes is so skillful that Cazaril emerges as a fully authentic character who is good, but not some sort of wax dummy– a narrative feat considerably harder than it looks. Cazaril is the sort of character who immediately engages my sympathy and interest.

Another great selling point of the book for me is that Bujold does not use magic in the story, or at least magic as it’s typically employed in fantasy. Magic is one of things I like least about fantasies, which probably goes a long way to explaining my antipathy to much of the genre. To me magic seems a lazy, over-used device.

Instead, Bujold creates a theology in which the gods are active participants in the story’s action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This device allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise. It’s an internally consistent piece of world-building that manages to avoid the cliches of fantasy magic.

Although there is violence in the novel, there are no epic battles, and the evil in the story arises from the machinations of perfectly ordinary and understandable human beings and their greed and selfishness. No dark wizards conjuring in black towers; just ordinary villains, clawing their way toward power, who don’t care how many people get hurt along the way. It’s a refreshingly realistic take on conflict in a fantasy setting.

For me this is one of those books you read until the covers fall off. It appeals to me with its sympathetic characters (and not just Cazaril), its rich, well-realized world that resonates with real-world history, and its believable politics and human muddle mingled with questions of the divine. It’s a brilliant example of how to combine the mundane and the sacred, adventure and deeper questions. It’s the sort of story I would very much like to create; Bujold’s execution, though, intimidates me and causes me to doubt I will ever have the skill to do so.

I want to keep trying, though.

Later.

Advertisements

Books that inspire me– “Citizen of the Galaxy”

Princess of Fire is now available as a Createspace POD paperback. Phase One of my GBtWD (Get Back to Work, Doofus) project is complete. I’ve started on Phase Two, which is creating a synopsis for Princess of Stars. I’ve allocated a month to that phase. Once I have it in hand, I can start drafting Princess of Stars.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doodling and reading and thinking about what I can do to expand my blogging efforts– and it occurred to me that it might be fun to do a series on books that inspire me, similar to my previous blogs on films. Almost at once, a first candidate for review presented itself.

A few weeks ago Chuck Wendig issued a flash fiction challenge, “YOUR VERY OWN SPACE OPERA”. I didn’t follow up on the challenge– 1000 words is not nearly enough for a proper space opera story, in my opinion– but it reminded me of past space operas, my own (unpublished) and others, and I was inspired to revisit a book that, for me, is one of my Ur-works of science fiction, and, specifically, space opera– Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.

My personal copy of the book is the thirty-seven year-old Ballantine paperback with the Darrell K. Sweet cover, which is now permanently fixed in my mind as the definitive image of Thorby and Baslim the Cripple–

thorby2

**********Spoilers hereafter, beware**********

Often the books you read in your youth are the ones that make the strongest impression and which stay with you the longest. So it is for me with Citizen of the Galaxy. I read this little novel before I was sixteen, when I was a lonely nerd desperate to find ways of engaging my imagination more powerful than those supplied by my narrow natal culture. I found just such a vehicle in Citizen of the Galaxy.

This is the story of Thorby, a scrawny, young, and scarred (in many ways) slave, who, through a twist of circumstances, comes to be the property of a beggar called Baslim the Cripple. Baslim is more than he appears (as is Thorby) and he adopts Thorby as his foster son. This starts Thorby a path to re-discover his past, and find his place in a complex and dangerous universe.

Heinlein was a master of creating future worlds with a wonderful economy of words. In Citizen of the Galaxy he surpassed himself. In the first few pages he paints a picture of Thorby’s enslavement and sale in Jubbulpore with small verbal brushstrokes–

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer repeated. “A fine, healthy lad, suitable as page or tireboy. Imagine him, my lords and ladies, in the livery of your house. Look at–” His words were lost in the scream of a ship, dopplering in at the spaceport behind him.

Heinlein did more in that one paragraph than many modern writers can do in pages of scribbling.

More than that, though, Heinlein’s artistry is seen in the large-scale structure of the book, in which he creates, not one or two cultures for Thorby to navigate, but four, plus others, human and non-human, of which we get glimpses. He brings each of them to life with that same economy. Each society is a stage in Thorby’s growth from slave to free person, as he grows more sophisticated and worldly-wise with each– and, ironically, finds that he has to struggle against new forms of slavery even in freedom. His contact with each society is broken in wrenching ways, forcing him to find his way anew. The drawback with this plot structure is that the novel’s short length does not allow for a detailed exploration of each society or Thorby’s adventures in them (more about that below).

Heinlein did not invent space opera. If there is any one person who deserves that accolade, it would be E. E. “Doc” Smith, with his Skylark and Lensman series, although there were plenty of predecessors even to Smith. But Heinlein put his stamp on the sub-genre with Citizen and other books. His writing and his concepts were just that good.

One aspect of the novel I particularly enjoy is the vivid life Heinlein gives to the capital of the Sargonate, Jubbulpore, where the novel begins. Decades before Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Heinlein created a world where high technology lives cheek-and-jowl with extreme poverty, corruption and superstition. It’s also a strong portrait of life in an all-powerful tyranny, where even nominally free people have reason to fear the authorities– but where ordinary people still find ways to resist.

The book is not perfect. It telegraphs one or two pieces of plot that would have been better left as surprises. Personally, I find myself wishing that Heinlein would have spent more time on Thorby’s experiences in each culture, particularly his time in the Hegemonic Guard, which passes without even a major space battle (unless you count flying mashed potatoes). This last complaint is probably the result of the fact that Heinlein’s juveniles were intended to be short and were produced on a time-table, at least one a year for more than a decade. This is one Heinlein novel which you might wish was a little more door-stopperish than average.

Far more critical, however, is the fact that Heinlein does not completely close the circle for Thorby. Thorby finds a place and a purpose in the last society he has to negotiate, as the head of a powerful family corporation– but the lingering question of whether officers of that corporation actually caused the death of his parents and sold him into slavery to cover their own culpability in the interstellar slave-trade is never really resolved. There is no emotional or psychological catharsis or resolution, no vengeance or retribution, not even a perp walk. The climax of the book is a proxy fight for control of the family corporation, which is perhaps logical in terms of corporate culture, but overall is a dramatic let-down– and it’s followed by an unsatisfying and rather awkward concluding chapter in which Thorby– whose full name is Thor Bradley Rudbek– sits around thinking about how Baslim would want him to stay the course in his corporate job, to do what he can to fight slavery from his position of economic power. Not exactly an ending that makes you light up the literary equivalent of a cigarette.

The weakness of the book’s ending is puzzling, and has come in for a lot criticism over time. When you compare it to the perfect resolutions of other Heinlein books, such as Have Space Suit Will Travel or The Door into Summer, it’s doubly-puzzling. Heinlein was perfectly capable of giving a book a dramatically satisfying conclusion, but somehow this one (in my opinion) got away from him.

A review of the book’s history does not shed a great deal of light on this conundrum. Citizen was written from November to December, 1956 (staggeringly fast, even for a short book). It was came out in hardcover in July, 1957. In other words, Heinlein had seven months to reconsider the ending, but there is no evidence he ever did. It appears this is a case of him applying his own Rules of Writing to himself, in particular, Rule Number Three–

1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Rule Number Three has been indicted for causing a great deal of confusion in the minds of novice writers– but it might explain the ending of Citizen. It’s pretty clear that Heinlein finished it, shoved it into the pipeline to Scribner’s, and moved on to other projects, including Have Space Suit Will Travel.

As frustrating as the ending is, however, it doesn’t change the overall power of the book, shaped as it is by Heinlein’s unique imagination, and his ability to depict humanity at its worst and best.

If you want to write science-fiction in general, and space opera in particular, this is a book you have to read.

A Review of the novel “Station Eleven”

I’m not much of a reader of literary fiction, but an NPR review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel caught my ear some days ago. It sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of the library.

I’ve mentioned before that it is a rare book nowadays that rivets my attention. As a reader I am old and jaded, and when I look at much of what is being published nowadays I have a sense that I have seen it before. Not many books crack my sense of ennui.

Station Eleven managed the feat. Its story kept me going to the very end. It is a pleasant surprise.

*****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****

The book’s central premise is that, sometime in the near future, humanity is very nearly wiped out by a new, extremely lethal strain of influenza (the “Georgian flu”). In a matter of weeks global civilization collapses, leaving scattered survivors– those lucky enough to dodge being exposed to the flu, and the very, very few who are naturally immune– struggling to survive.

In most hands this sort of premise would have been given an epic treatment, with scientists and politicians and military men figuring prominently in the story, struggling against the disease in widely scattered locations around the world. This is more-or-less the approach of the movie Contagion, a film I personally enjoyed. In general, calling something epic gets my attention.

Station Eleven, in contrast, completely abstains from an epic approach. Instead, Mandel creates an intimate portrait of the end of the world, and she makes it work. The book starts with the death of Arthur Leander, a middle-aged film star who drops dead in the middle of a production of King Lear in Toronto, on the very night the influenza arrives in the city. The story then moves back and forth in time, describing the lives of several characters, before and after the flu, whose stories are intertwined around Leander and which continue to collide even after his death and the end of civilization. One such character is Kirsten, a young woman who was a child actress in the production of Lear in which Leander died. Twenty years in the future she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a peripatetic band of musicians and actors who travel between the scattered settlements of survivors in what was once the state of Michigan, giving performances. It’s a changed world, but Beethoven and Shakespeare, not surprisingly, remain relevant.

Even with the small scale, and the shifts back and forth in time and from character to character, Mandel creates an utterly believable post-apocalyptic world. There are almost no false notes here, no over-the-top heroics, no blood-drenched battles, no easy answers to the horrors people go through. About the only complaints I have are that one piece of climactic business is resolved by what appears to be a deus ex machina, and there are parts of Arthur Leander’s story I could have done without. Aside from those quibbles, however, the story flows smoothly and leaves the reader with a sense of verisimilitude– this is what the collapse of civilization would look like, from the inside.

Mandel also brings a fresh perspective to post-apocalyptic story-telling, focusing on the importance of art, even after the collapse of society. Aside from the Traveling Symphony itself, copies of a science-fiction graphic novel, Station Eleven, created by Leander’s first wife, serve as a thread that connects many of the characters over time, often in unexpected ways. The comic is so loving described in the story that I find myself wishing I could buy a copy. The ultimate point Mandel is trying to make about art among the ruins is summed up by a quote from Star Trek: Voyager— “Survival is insufficient”– an axiom that contains within itself the seed of rebirth for human society. As a theme it is powerful and resonant.

I recommend Station Eleven highly– and I hope someone is working on a movie. I think it would work on the screen, although it lacks the sort of suspension-of-disbelief-straining action movie-makers, and audiences, seem to demand nowadays.

More about that in a future post. For the time being, go get the book. You won’t regret it.

Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” – an exceedingly quick review of a short novel

This past week I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

http://www.amazon.com/Ocean-End-Lane-Novel/dp/0062255665/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1421777954&sr=8-3&keywords=Neil+Gaiman

I live in awe of Neil Gaiman as an author. That’s despite the fact I am not heavily into much of his work. Mostly this is because I don’t like horror in general. My favorite works of Gaiman’s are more in the line of Neverwhere, American Gods, and Anansi Boys, which is probably some sort of pattern. Oh, and Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, actually made this former Southern Baptist laugh about the Apocalypse, no mean feat. In whatever genre he’s writing, though, the plain fact is that Gaiman is one of the best writers of imaginative literature alive today.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is nothing short of brilliant. It is a short novel revolving around a middle-aged man, who returns to the scene of an epic struggle to save the universe, in which he was a major player at the age of seven. I do not want to say more than that, because in no way, shape or form do I want to spoil this book for anyone.

Gaiman’s writing in this book is some of the most powerful I have read recently. With absolute economy he sets up an epic battle that keeps you turning the pages, wondering what’s going to happen next. He creates, with complete authenticity, the world of a seven year old boy who finds himself thrown into dangers beyond imagination– and then he creates a world beyond our mundane existence as full of wonder as it is horror. I’ve gotten very picky in my old age about what I read, but this book just kept pulling me onward.

This book joins my list of favorites from Gaiman’s works. Highly recommended.

A review of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

My wife is a big fan of this writer named Jane Austen. I mean, she has all the movies they’ve made out of her books, and she watches one of them about every other weekend. Me, I just go play Halo until she’s done. It’s gotten to be an issue in our marriage, though, and she finally made me read this book, threatening to cut off my supply of Cheetos.

So I read it.

I have to tell you, this novel has some serious problems.

First off, this has got to be the biggest chick-book in the whole world. It’s about nothing but these women trying to get married. Or they’re trying not to get married, just because they don’t like the guy. Or at first they don’t like the guy, then they do. I mean, come on, make up your minds.

Second, there isn’t a decent space battle or alien invasion in the whole story. I kept waiting for that shoe to drop, but it never did. There are no vampires, zombies, or werewolves, either. There’s no post-apocalyptic oppressive government making these women battle for the right to marry. None of them discover they have special powers, unless you count dancing, sipping tea and talking. The author just ignores all modern conventions of good literature. For pity’s sake, nobody even gets tied up in this novel! I mean, how is it supposed to hold the reader’s interest?

It would have helped if the author hadn’t set the story in Regency England. She does a pretty good job with the period lingo, but it gets convoluted at times, and it’s not really very realistic. I mean, there are several points at which it would have made a lot more sense for Lizzy Bennet to just say, “Hey, f*** off, Darcy!” A lot more to the point, too.

The two emotional high points of the novel are Darcy’s proposal to Lizzy and Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham. Lizzy rejects Darcy’s proposal because she doesn’t like him and because she’s pissed that Darcy kept her sister Jane from marrying Chuck Bingley. Ok, that’s good, except that the two of them go on for pages about it. This is where a good f*** off would have come in handy. That, and a sudden eruption of extra-dimensional demons. Would have moved the action along better.

The other high point, Lydia’s elopement, just puzzles the crap out of me. I mean, Lizzy and her family go on and on about Lydia running off with Wickham, like it’s some sort of family catastrophe. What’s the big deal? I mean, my sister Sissy ran off with the drummer of a rock band when she was sixteen, and nobody noticed for eight weeks. Just meant more gravy to go around at dinner.

How this novel is supposed to be a major piece of literature just escapes me. Austen just doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the modern publishing world. She’s not completely hopeless, but I would recommend she read up on what’s hot right now, like Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades. Maybe throw in some time watching Transformers.

As it is now, though, she just can’t compete.