rachelmanija: (FMA: Ed among the ignorant)
( May. 26th, 2015 09:43 am)
I was on vacation, and the one movie theatre in town had only two options. It was this, or Pitch Perfect 2. I have not seen Pitch Perfect 1. Also, I like George Clooney. Tomorrowland it was!


If one of those old-school sf fans who keeps trying to make teenagers read Heinlein juveniles was hired to make a big-budget movie as propaganda for optimism, they might well have created Tomorrowland.

The plot, as best as I can summarize it without too many spoilers, is that a little boy tries to build a jetpack in 1964. He is encouraged by a mysterious little girl, Athena, who tells him to hope and keep trying and to believe in optimism and the future. Then the movie jumps ahead to Casey, a genius teenage girl who believes in hope and trying and optimism and the future. We know this because most of her dialogue early on consists of stuff like, “Keep trying! You can’t give up hope! Believe in the future! Cynicism is bad! Optimism is good!”

Then she gets a magic button that transports her to a cool future straight out of Analog circa 1950. (In one of the few actual cool bits in the movie, her physical self and surroundings in the current world continue to affect her self in the future; when she moves, both her selves move, so if she walks into the wall of her present-day house, she smacks into an invisible barrier in the future. Sadly, not much is made of this.)

And then she meets Athena, who proceeds to direct her on a plot coupon collecting adventure. There are random killer robots. And also George Clooney, the idealistic little boy, now grown up and bitter. Casey lectures him on optimism, in case you missed her speech the first time. But even if you missed it the first two times, it’s okay; she gives it about six more times. And if you miss those, you still won’t miss the speech, because other characters give it too. Repeatedly.

I liked the girl who played Athena. She had a surprising amount of technical skill. I did not like the girl who played Casey, but I think that was at least as much the fault of the script as the actress. Clooney had the advantage of playing the bitter guy, which meant he had the least number of paens to optimism.

I appreciated the message – you can change the world, but first you have to believe that change is possible; optimism is not stupidity and despair is not wisdom; the future might be pretty cool – but I did not appreciate that about 50% of the total dialogue consisted of explicitly stating the message. After about the twentieth time some character robotically recites something like, “Optimism is good! Despair is bad! Believe in a bright future!” I started feeling like I was in the Brave New World. Which is not at all what was intended.

Also, considering that the entire movie was about the idea that the future is cool… the future was not actually that cool. It had robots, jet packs, floating swimming pools, and floating trains. The swimming pools were neat, but by now kids have seen lots of movies depicting cool futures, and pretty much all of them have a more comprehensive and appealing vision of future coolness than “things that float.”

And also, the future was not actually the future. It was a pocket dimension. I think. It was explained several times, collecting additional plot holes and confusingness with each iteration.

This was by no means the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It had some good bits. And it was at least bad in a different way than big-budget kids’ movies are usually bad. I normally find Disney movies highly competent but slick. This was not slick. It was a hot mess. I suspect that there was so much interference from so many people, many of them probably trying to make sure the audience could follow it, that it ended up simultaneously convoluted and simplistic, over-explained and confusing. And while it was not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it is very possibly the most anvillicious.
Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss. Science fiction classic with amazing worldbuilding, in a world where each season lasts for hundreds of years. Also relentlessly gross and grim, with characters who didn't engage me at all. Gave up.

Yet I feel strangely cheered that a brilliant man like Brian Aldiss can commit a sentence - not meant to be funny - like Something in his hollow belly went whang at the thought.

Even the best of us sometimes write "Something went whang."

Into the Night, by Suzanne Brockmann. I had somehow missed reading this installment of her Troubleshooters Navy SEALs series. Sadly, it was the worst one. Mike Muldoon has no personality - he's young, hot, likes older women, and... uh... that's basically it. White House staffer Joan DaCosta is incredibly annoying. There are stupid misunderstandings galore, plus yet another ridiculous romantic obstacle impossible to take seriously: Horrors! This completely perfect man is younger than me! Also, virtually nothing happens in the entire book.

The subplots were way more interesting, but the WWII one (which I liked a lot) had little page time, and the doomed romance between Mary Lou and the sweet Arab guy ended incredibly depressingly, with him probably dying of injuries sustained in the action climax and everyone falsely believing that he was a terrorist. I wonder if this is resolved in a later book, and I just don't remember it because I didn't have the context that would have made it seem relevant. (I remember what happened to Mary Lou; I mean what happened to Ibrahim Rahman.)
A science fiction novel in an unusual subgenre: the main characters aren't human, and don't have human bodies. There are only a handful of these, mostly written by C. J. Cherryh, but I almost always enjoy them. It's surprising how rare it is to write solely or primarily from the POV of an alien.

I'm clarifying "don't have human bodies" because there's a lot of books that are technically from alien POVs but the aliens are physically identical to humans except for maybe having green blood or pointy ears. The effect of those books is quite different from those in which all the characters are giant cats.

In a world full of many non-human races, Moon is a lonely orphan shapeshifter, hiding his true nature amongst various non-shapeshifting people lest he be mistaken for the only shapeshifting race he's heard of, the predatory Fell. After he's unveiled and nearly killed, he meets one of his own kind for the first time since childhood, and learns that he is a Raksura, a member of the generally non-evil shapeshifting race.

"Won't you come back to your people? They'll all be delighted to meet you!" Needless to say, things don't go quite that smoothly.

I enjoyed the alien world of the Raksura, with their communal social organization, and I am a sucker for stories of lonely people finding a home, especially if they have no social skills and are basically feral. So I liked those aspects of the book. Minuses were flat prose that produced an unintended emotional distance, and that I dislike inherently evil races. The latter was, unfortunately, a major feature of the book.

The Cloud Roads (The Books of the Raksura)
Given that this is about a lesbian Latina boxer who is genetically unable to feel fear, I have no idea why it took me so long to get to it. It is not only exactly up my alley, but is very well-written, gripping, moving, sometimes funny, sometimes sexy, and probably of wide appeal even to people who don’t find that premise instantly charming.

In the not-quite-post-apocalyptic near future, the town of Santa Olivia has been cordoned off as part of a gigantic effort to seal the border between the US and Mexico. The inhabitants of the town, mostly poor and Latino/a, are stuck there, subject to the American military base on site but with no recourse from the government of either country. However, it’s not an orderly dystopia, but a poor and somewhat lawless town where people live their lives and have relationships and sports and happy times, even though conditions are hard and unjust.

Speaking of sports. The American military commander loves boxing. Once a year, a match is held between an Olympic-level boxer he brings in, and whatever man from Santa Olivia wants to face him. If the latter can win, he gets a ticket out of town. Needless to say, this creates a thriving boxing subculture, jumping at the prize that’s perpetually just out of reach.

But all this is prologue. The story concerns a young woman from Santa Olivia who falls in love with a fugitive from Haiti… a man who was experimented on and genetically engineered. Urban legend calls those men werewolves, but they can’t shapeshift. However, they’re stronger, faster, and unable to feel fear. He’s on the run and soon leaves… but not before fathering a little girl, whom he playfully names Loup.

The bulk of the story is about Loup growing up, mostly in an orphanage. Being unable to fear gives her an odd emotional tenor, not quite autism spectrum but similar. She seems strange to other people, and in her circumstances, being unable to fear means that she needs to hide herself lest she attract unwanted attention. But while she puts off some people, she intrigues others, and soon she’s at the heart of a little band of orphanage kids.

Loup may not feel fear, but she knows injustice when she sees it, and there’s a lot around. There’s also a local legend of a child saint, Santa Olivia, depicted as a little girl in a blue dress. Loup and her friends take on the role of Santa Olivia, stealth dispenser of justice. (In one hilarious scene, she creates a rain of live snakes.) And then there’s that boxing match…

I loved this book. The town and its people feel incredibly real, making unpredictable choices in the way that actual human beings do. The power dynamics, both social and individual, were also strikingly realistic. The relationships were wonderful, from Loup’s childhood buddies to her first romance to (my favorite) her relationship with an arrogant asshole male boxer who goes from being an enemy to a sparring partner to an unexpected friend.

This is written in a completely different style and tone from Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart books, so if you didn’t like those, you may well like Santa Olivia. If you did like those, you may also like Santa Olivia. There’s a sequel, but the story feels complete within the book.

Santa Olivia
Six of Doris Piserchia's sf novels are now on Kindle for $3.99. (You'd think Hachette could afford to give them covers.) Piserchia is one of those writers who would probably be more famous if she had been male, or written under a male pseudonym. Then she might have been considered ground-breaking and innovative, rather than merely weird. Her books are wild space adventures with a distinctly hallucinatory atmosphere, often starring young women who go for what they want, whether it's sex or adventure, with no regard whatsoever for the proper place of women or what others might think of them. Sadly, that attitude is still rare.

Typical summary (minus female protagonist): It all began when someone tried to push Creed into the flesh pool to be ingested. The assassination failed, but Creed was never the same again. Because it launched the new cliff-dwellers of Creed's colony onto a new course of life - which could lead to humanity's re-emergence as Earth's masters.

In those far future days, Earth's masters were two trees. Not trees as we know them, but two Everest-high growths, whose sentient roots and fast-growing branches dominated every living thing on the world. Men lived between their arboreal combat.

A few quotes from Goodreads:

Levi: Pretty much as bizarre as I remember. I think another reviewer called Piserchia's work dreamlike, and I'm going to second that description. The kind of dream where everything is extraordinarily complex but it all makes perfect sense at the time and it's only when you try to describe it later that you realize you don't quite know where to start.

Vroom: Still delightful, decades later. I remain convinced Piserchia was either heavily medicated or using recreational pharmaceuticals when writing this. My favorite of her writing.

I remember enjoying Spaceling and Star Rider.

My next mention is not a rec per se given that I have not yet had a chance to read it, and it is less easy to obtain than one might expect from an e-book. But this is the sort of thing that I bet a small but select few of you might really, really like.

Graydon Saunders was one of the most interesting posters on rec.arts.sf.written and .composition back in the Usenet Cretaceous Period. Every now and then, he would post excerpts of his fiction. It was completely obvious to me that he was a very good writer, and also that he was way too strange of a writer to ever be published by a major publishing house. His excerpts, which were always quite evocative and beautiful, tended to read as if they were written from an alternate dimension in which fantasy had taken a completely different direction than it did in our world, and the ur-influences were not Tolkien and Lewis, but Beowulf, Njal's Saga, and "Uncleftish Beholding."

He finally self-published his book. Here it is! The March North, by Graydon Saunders Read the comments to this review for an explanation of how to obtain it. I'm sure Graydon would send a copy if you ask.

ETA: Explanation of how to purchase it is now in the comments of the LJ entry.
Note: This is a list of all novels which fit the criteria described below. It does not express opinions on the quality, authenticity, or positivity of the portrayals of the characters in the books. Please use your own judgment in deciding which books you wish to read or buy.

I have not read all these books! Commentary on the ones I have read reflects my opinions on the books as literature. Title links go to Amazon, and some descriptions were taken from Amazon.

These were the criteria used to compile the list: 1) The book must be science fiction or fantasy or otherwise not realism, and must have been published, either originally in reprint, as YA (Vanyel was never published as YA), 2) It must contain at least one major LGBTQ character who is clearly identified as such within the book itself. (Dumbledore is not; neither are Tom and Carl), 3) Major is defined as having a POV and/or a storyline of their own and/or lots of page-time. 4) In most cases, it must be published by a mainstream or small-press publisher in the USA.

Books in which the protagonist is LGBTQ are marked with a star.

I made this list because less than one percent of all YA novels published in the USA within the last ten years have any LGBTQ characters at all, even minor supporting ones. Of those few novels, most are mainstream literature, not sf or fantasy.

I have not specified the authors' sexual orientation or gender identity. This list is about characters rather than authors, and I don't know how all the authors identify.

Check out the list! )
The first two books in this series were easy to describe. In a Spain-esque fantasy land, a baby princess, Elisa, has a magical rock materialize in her belly-button. This marks her as chosen by God to fulfill some special but unknown mission. She grows up feeling unworthy, but is plunged into adventure and political machinations and grows up a lot, eventually coming to master her magical powers, learn to be a competent ruler, and come to a greater understanding of the world.

By the end of the second book, a number of intriguing revelations and plot twists alter the premises set up above, making a detailed description of book three highly spoilery. Specific notes go beneath the cut; spoilers will appear in comments.

Overall, I enjoyed this trilogy a lot. The world is vivid and intriguing, despite some jarring errors. (It was the one with the jerboa filets and the vomiting horses. On that note, warning for animal harm (poisoning horses for strategic purposes) and Scorpions of Unusual Size.) Actually, the fact that Carson did any worldbuilding at all unfortunately made the errors and blank spaces stand out more.

It has interesting characters and excellent narrative drive, and uses God or something which the characters believe is God in a non-obnoxious manner – that is, no “Come to Jesus,” no “religious people are morons,” and no “Surprise twist - God is a computer!”

The three books feel very different from each other, even though they end up telling a single complete story. The first book is primarily about character growth via a fish out of water narrative, the second book is about learning to rule and expanding the world, and the third book is a classic quest narrative and also about the costs and moral compromises involved in being a ruler. As a whole, the trilogy touches on all those aspects, but character growth most of all. The Elisa of the first book is a completely different person by the end of the trilogy.

My biggest problem with the final novel is that by the end of the second book, I was primarily interested in the world and how it had come to be. By the end of the third book, a few questions were answered and more were implied, but a whole bunch of the most intriguing questions were never addressed.

As if Carson knew exactly what I was thinking, on literally the last page Elisa rattles off a list of questions which she says are still unknown. I guess I’m glad that Carson noticed that she’d raised a lot of intriguing issues that were never addressed, but I would have liked to have her actually address them. Especially since I was more interested in the worldbuilding than in the political maneuvering which took up the final third of the book.

The Bitter Kingdom (Girl of Fire and Thorns)

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This is the sequel to Malinda Lo’s Adaptation. The entire premise of Inheritance is a spoiler for Adaptation, so all I will say outside of the cut is that I enjoyed the sequel. Below the cut are huge spoilers for both books.

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Lo’s Adaptation starts out with a small-scale threatened apocalypse by birds, and turns into an X-Files episode starring a bisexual teenage girl in San Francisco. I liked it a lot, and that’s all I can say without spoilers.

“Natural Selection,” a novella, is set after Adaptation and before its sequel, Inheritance. “Natural Selection” can be read independently of either book, but is hugely spoilery for Adaptation. I liked it a lot, but that’s all I can say about it without spoilers.

Natural Selection. Only $1.99!

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In a post-apocalyptic Brazil ruled by a council of Aunties, a teenage Summer King is elected once a year. For one year, he is famous, feted, and given anything he wants, not to mention having a limited amount of actual power. At the end of the year, he is ceremonially executed.

There is an in-story reason for this which readers may or may not find plausible, but I do find it completely believable that a fair number of teenagers would compete to be king for a year: live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. In fact, one of the most notable aspects of the novel was how convincingly teenage the teenagers are: idealistic and self-centered, impulsive and passionate, equally and alternately obsessed with sex and death, fashion trends and the meaning of art, hot celebrities and best friends.

June is a teenage graffiti artist whose best friend, Gil, falls for Enki, the glamorous, newly elected Summer King. Reluctantly, because she doesn’t want to screw up her friendship, she also develops a crush on the beautiful and doomed Enki. It turns out that June and Enki have quite a bit in common, and begin collaborating on dangerous, radical, guerilla art projects!

This novel has gotten a lot of positive press, but the rave reviews I read for it actually put me off reading it. The book was so highly praised for its politics that I got the impression that it was nothing but politics: worthy but dull, as if it should be consumed solely for its nutritional value. I didn’t read it until I was on the plane for Sirens, where Alaya was a Guest of Honor. So I was pleasantly surprised by how completely enthralled I was — and by how fun and even id-tastic it was!

Regarding id-tastic, let’s start with Enki, the object of desire. He is beautiful and doomed. He’s self-destructive, hot, a revolutionary, a dancer, and a king. He has connected himself to the city via illegal nanotech, so if something goes wrong with the city, he feels its pain and dramatically faints. If this is the sort of thing you like – and I am not ashamed to say that is the sort of thing I like – you will like this book.

The future!Brazil setting is vivid, the science fiction details are cool, there’s lots of sense of wonder, the love triangle didn’t make me want to tear my hair out, the plot moves fast, the characters are genuinely diverse, the hero has his nervous system wired into the city, and the heroine is a guerilla graffiti artist.

It’s got dark and serious aspects, but overall, it’s fun to read. This is not an “eat your broccoli” book. It’s a fruit tart with real fruit (so you’ll get your vitamin C) but the crust is made with butter, and there’s whipped cream on top.

The Summer Prince
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Aug. 20th, 2013 01:48 pm)
Sherwood Smith has a new book out, Lhind the Thief. I haven't read it yet, but she says it contains "disguises, flying, swashbuckling on land and sea, tree-houses, secrets, telepathy, magical powers and spells, food, good-looking villains as well as heroes, and even some romance." You can buy it for $4.50 at Amazon (Lhind the Thief) or at Book View Cafe, where the authors get 95% of the money (Lhind the Thief). That is my hand on the cover, attempting to launch a new career as a hand model.

Melinda Lo's delicious YA science fiction thriller Adaptation - think X-Files with a teenage bisexual heroine-- is a Kindle daily deal at $2.99. Do not click on the links for her upcoming sequel or on her upcoming promotional novella unless you want to get spoiled for everything! However, if you click on my author tag for her, you will be linked to a review with the spoiler-cut intact. Adaptation.

Read anything good lately?
My quest to read more self-published books is mostly demonstrating to me that there is often no difference in quality between them and traditionally published books. In fact, in certain genres, it is much easier to find more ambitious or unusual books, of equal literary quality, in self-publishing.

I am tempted to say that this middle-grade book is more ambitious than most, but recently middle-grade seems to be getting more ambitious, while YA, overall, is getting less so.

It's divided into three timelines, which bleed into each other from fairly early on. In modern times, American Meredith is sent away from her beloved pregnant Lipizzan horse and her mother, who is recovering from cancer, to accompany her archaelogist aunt on a dig in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, Meritre, a singer in the temple of Amon, worries about her pregnant mother and the pharoah's daughter, who is sick with a mysterious plague. And in a cyberpunk future that has cured most diseases, Meru pursues her missing mother into a secret quarantine zone.

This novel reminded me of a childhood favorite, Mary Stolz's Cat in the Mirror, which also contrasted dual timelines, of the same soul reincarnated in ancient Egypt and modern New York. Tarr's book is more complex and ambitious. The three timelines are not merely compared and contrasted and paralleled, but directly affect each other.

The book starts a little slow, probably due to having to set up three plot lines rather than one, but becomes quite a page-turner by about the one-third mark. The themes are grief, times changing and times staying the same, the inevitability of death, and the equal inevitability of life going on: reincarnation, and birth, and life itself.

Satisfying and complex. I especially liked the pets of the three girls: a horse, a cat, and a half-insubstantial alien creature.

Note: The author is a friend, so I'm probably not that objective.

Living in Threes
This is a very difficult book to review. It's a sequel to Anderson's Ultraviolet, which had some nice twists. Though the cover copy suggests that Quicksilver can be read on its own, it spoils every plot twist in Ultraviolet, starting from the very first page. (I also think it would be pretty difficult to follow without having read Ultraviolet first. In fact, I found some plot points difficult to follow because it had been so long since I had read Ultraviolet.)

They're both good books. But if you have any interest in reading either, start with Ultraviolet and don't even read the premise of Quicksilver - literally everything about it is a spoiler for Ultraviolet.

I am going to do two levels of spoiler cuts. The first level will be spoilery for Ultraviolet, the second for Quicksilver.

giant Ultraviolet spoilers )

giant Quicksilver spoilers )


Clever YA sf in the old-school vein of "work through all the implications of a premise."

Teenage Ephraim finds a "magic coin" which can alter reality, and uses it improve his life: make his mom not an alcoholic, make his crush like him, etc. However, each change creates snowballing changes, often of a monkey's paw nature.

Without getting into moderate spoilers for the nature of the premise (revealed about a third of the way in) about all I can say is that yes, it does deal with the moral implications of "make someone like you," but other implications aren't dealt with as well. As a whole, the novel is solid and gripping but not quite inspired; the second half moves away from extrapolation and into action, and the extrapolation was more interesting.

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Fair Coin
Come for the apocalypse.
Stay for cupcakes.
Die for love.

Solid, inventive, well-characterized YA science fiction. By “science fiction,” I mean “cool powers and alien invasion,” not “paper-thin dystopia in which the government’s main concern appears to be micro-managing the love triangles of teenagers.”

Madeleine, an aspiring artist, visits Sydney to paint her cousin Tyler’s portrait. Tyler is a famous cross-dressing actor, and probably my favorite character in the book despite his comparatively small part.

Her plans are stymied by an alien invasion. Starry towers rise up from the cities, and dust falls from the sky. Some people are given powers, others strange vulnerabilities, and still yet others are possessed by aliens. Stars shine from Madeleine’s skin, and she gets together with other teenagers to learn to use their powers and try to save the world.

The opening sequence, in which Madeleine tries to escape from a wrecked subway station, gets the book off to a great start. I stalled out for a while in a slow sequence in which the teenagers are interminably holed up in a hotel, but the story picks up enormously after that.

Host has a lot of respect for teenagers, and I liked the unabashedly heroic tone of the story. Rather than taking the apocalypse as an excuse for an orgy of rape and cannibalism, Host’s characters band together, form a community, explore their new relationships, take the time to make plans that make sense, and risk their lives for a cause they believe in. It’s engaging, uplifting, and, by the end, surprisingly moving.

This isn’t a flawless novel. Some events are confusing or poorly set-up, some of the dialogue is clunky, and I read the explanation of the alien invasion three times and I still don’t understand it. Too many characters are introduced in too-quick succession, and I didn’t realize that “Emily” and “Millie” were the same person with a nickname until I got to the cast of characters at the end. The sequence at the end with Gavin was really confusing, too. The book could have used one more rewrite.

However, so could at least half of the professionally edited YA novels I’ve read recently, many of which have glaring continuity errors, nonsensical motivations, ridiculous worldbuilding, unlikable characters, and, often, proofreading errors and poor formatting. In some cases, they are nothing but a string of action sequences strung together by plot holes.

And All the Stars isn’t Code Name Verity. But it’s imaginative, well-thought-out, and heartfelt. I will definitely read more of Host’s books.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

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And All the Stars. Only $4.99!

Host self-publishes because of the glacial pace of traditional publishing, which got one of her novels stuck in review for TEN YEARS.

But there may be other reasons as well, which have nothing to do with the quality of her writing. Again, I'm not saying that she's one of the absolute best YA writers out there. But based on this, she's certainly one of the better ones. And when I say "better ones," I mean "compared to all the YA novels I've been reading that come out from major publishers," not "compared to the slush pile."

Speaking only of American publishing, which is the only publishing I know anything about, I can see why this novel would be a hard sell. It is not set in America, it involves aliens, and the tone and style are different from most YA sf I've read recently. (And there are gay characters, though in the supporting cast.) For a first-time author, those could be insurmountable obstacles.

M. C. A. Hogarth has a thought-provoking article on those issues. Maybe the audience for books about middle-aged female Hispanic space Marines is small. Maybe the audience for psychic Australian teenagers fighting aliens is small. But I'm glad that e-publishing makes it possible now for those books to find their audience.
I have often had this book recommended to me as a small classic of YA sf in the subcategories of post-apocalyptic, psychic kids, and Australian. It was written in 1987, when there wasn't quite such a glut of psychic kid and post-apocalyptic YA as accumulated later on. But it was still unimpressive.

As is explained in prologue of infodump, after a nuclear war, mutations and science were banned. Mutants can be executed or exiled if caught.

Teenage Elspeth is a telepathic mutant who can read minds, force people to do her bidding, and communicate with animals. She also has other extremely powerful abilities which are revealed later, when it's convenient for her to be able to unlock doors and kill people with her brain. Despite these abilities, her family has been executed and she is in a precarious position, under threat of death if her talents are discovered. Her brother, a teenage total jerk, has a somewhat higher status for reasons I forget and is not very helpful to her.

She ends up exiled to a prison/lab/boarding house for teenage mutants. There she is forced to slave in the kitchens, while sinister experiments are going on off-page. This section occupies about two-thirds of the book, and it felt like absolutely nothing was going on.

I was mostly bored by the book. Elspeth has very little personality. In fact, the only character with personality is a stray cat. Though a summary of events would make it seem like exciting things are happening, they are often narrated rather than shown, and are so underdeveloped that the sense is that nothing is happening. Dullsville.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1
I’m catching up on reviews; I read this some time last month. This is a bit unfortunate, because I enjoyed it while I read it, and if I’d reviewed it immediately afterward, I would have been more positive. One month later, I’m finding it un-memorable, which is not what I want from a Vorkosigan book.

In other ways, too, it wasn’t what I wanted. I always liked Ivan as a character, and what I probably would have liked best would be something with a tone along the lines of the early Miles books – funny with serious undertones, or serious with lots of funny moments – like The Warrior’s Apprentice or The Vor Game. I would have loved to see Bujold take Ivan a little more seriously, and have him wrestle with taking himself a little more seriously. Alternately, I would have enjoyed a pure light-hearted romp like Cetaganda or Ethan of Athos.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance had a few good serious moments, and it had some excellent light-hearted romping. But it was embedded in a lot of low-conflict, low-stakes, low-emotion, low-intensity scenes hanging around Barrayar. I found this especially frustrating because I kept seeing how a scene or plot point could have played out in a more interesting way, and then it often didn’t.

I did enjoy reading this, so the review is more grumpy than my actual experience of the book. The first quarter or so, on Komarr, was pretty great. Especially the scene with the groats. I also loved the offering to the dead, and the conversation where Tej and Rish talk over their problems and keep coming to the conclusion that they could probably be solved by someone having sex with Byerly.

My issues with this book come down to why I love Bujold’s earlier books. They tend to have very intense feelings and high stakes, whether emotional or physical. This book had low-key emotions and low stakes. It had some good comic scenes, but was too slow-paced to work as pure comedy.

The issue of stakes also applies to comedy, as a lot of comedy only works if the characters are extremely, extremely worried that something will go wrong, and are putting tons of effort into ensuring that it won’t, or trying to fix it if it does. A lot of this book would have been funnier if the characters had been more frantic.

Spoilers below.

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Please feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (Vorkosigan Saga)
In an alternate future America, everyone is born with two souls in a single body. They are given two names, like the novel’s protagonists, Eva and Addie. But by about age five, one of the personalities fades away—effectively, it dies. The rare “hybrid” children, who grow older with both personalities intact, are considered a menace to society and are whisked away, never to be seen again. The “multiple personalities are banned and the government controls hybrids” premise is not given a detailed explanation, but the reason for the ban is at least given a justification with slightly more substance than the usual “because.”

Eva and Addie seemed on track to become hybrids when they were children. But, realizing that this would doom them, they instead pretended that Eva had faded and died. In fact, the novel is narrated by Eva, who is very much alive. However, she has lost the ability to move their shared body, and exists only as a secret presence, able to communicate with Addie, but with no one else.

This intriguing YA dystopia is both promising and disappointing. It is far better-written than average, has a genuinely clever premise, and avoids a number of stupid tropes which seem almost obligatory in YA dystopias. The unusual choice of narrator— Eva, who lives within Addie’s body— is quite compelling, and their shared existence and peculiar dilemma is handled with a touching emotional realism.

The first third or so of this novel, which simply explores Eva and Addie’s situation, is excellent. However, after that, they spend most of the rest of the novel locked up in a government facility with other hybrid kids. The story becomes much more conventional, moving from an intimate exploration of identity under strange circumstances to a typical “teenagers learn that their dystopia is a dystopia.” Zhang is excellent at little emotional moments, but not so good at action sequences; the book moves away from emotional moments and toward action sequences, to its detriment.

Her choice of plot doesn’t serve her premise as well as it could; it probably needed to be smaller and more character-focused, or else broader and more about social implications. The second two-thirds of the book rest in an in-between place, no longer intimate but without showing much more of the wider world. Also, considering that the entire premise is about two souls in one body, it would have been good if any of the hybrids beside Addie and Eva actually had two souls with noticeably different personalities.

That being said, Zhang is a talented writer, and the premise really is great. I would check out the second book to see if it focuses more on being a double soul, and less on "dystopian governments are bad."

What's Left of Me: The Hybrid Chronicles, Book One
Malinda Lo’s latest novel opens with birds falling dead from the sky. Teenage Reese Holloway and her crush object/debate partner, David Li, are caught in a strange near-apocalypse as all over the world, flocks of birds crash into airplanes. Unable to get a flight home from their debate, they rent a car and try to drive back. After adventures which I won’t spoil, they make it back to San Francisco, where life has gone more or less back to normal… except for their strange new abilities, gaps in their memories, and the men in black who keep following them around. Reese meets a cute, mysterious girl, Amber, and finds that she isn’t as straight as she had thought. But that’s only the beginning of her discoveries…

Adaptation is quite different from Lo's Ash, a fairytale retelling, and Huntress, a quest fantasy. I liked it the best of the three, partly because so many elements of Adaptation suit my tastes, but more because it has an emotional immediacy that the other two didn’t quite reach. The setting, from apocalyptic freeways in Nevada to a lesbian club in San Francisco, is as vividly depicted as the characters’ feelings. The structure is distinctly three-act: action-packed beginning, long leisurely slow build of a middle, action-packed climax. I enjoyed all three, but you will probably like the book more if you know going in that the whole thing isn’t the wild ride of the beginning.

It’s old-school science fiction given new life by Lo’s gift for depicting moment-to-moment physical and emotional sensations, especially those of sexual attraction, and by her likable cast of characters, who are diverse in a natural-feeling, realistic way. Adaptation is built from familiar tropes, though ones currently extremely rare in YA, but is executed beautifully. Imagine an episode of the X-Files – an early one, back when it was still good – done as a sensual YA novel with a bisexual heroine and a love triangle that doesn’t make you want to throw things. If that sounds good to you, you will almost certainly enjoy this novel immensely.

It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but it’s definitely one half of a complete story. The sequel will be out next year. I intend to buy it in hardcover.


Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Godchild: flapping embryo)
( Oct. 3rd, 2012 11:31 am)
I found a fascinating blog entry by Rahul Kanakia, the guy who wrote the bedbugs-and-squatters story, with a gay teenage Indian hero (yay!), for Diverse Energies. (I see elsewhere on the site that "I'm currently shopping a gay-themed YA novel -- set in a dystopian Washington, D.C. -- to agents." I hope it sells. Depressing or not, I would read it.)

The sly humor in his story also comes through in his post, but that's not why I'm linking it. It's about how he got into the anthology in the first place. He was not solicited for a dystopian story, but for "an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity."

He adds, "Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise."

In comments, anthology editor Tobias Buckell notes, "In the YA market they’ve decided anything that looks SF is ‘dystopian’ because ‘SF’ is like a bad word, so if there is a way to shoehorn the word dystopian on the cover it seems to end up there."

Regarding Diverse Energies, it intrigues me that, when given the guidelines Kanakia quotes, almost every single author wrote a genuinely dystopian story - a story in which the world is objectively awful, oppressive, and/or doomed. (Exception: Tempest Bradford. The other two non-quite-dystopian stories were reprints, not stories written for that prompt.)

This is not just about marketing, but about perception. Buckell could have just as easily received a bunch of non-dystopian stories, in which the world was not horrible, and slapped "dystopian" on the cover to satisfy the demands of marketing.

But in fact, not a single author read the prompt "action-oriented sf with a teen hero and diversity" and wrote a space opera, a story about teens meeting aliens, a non-horrific future world like Nnedi Okorafor's biotech wonderland, a story about mutant or psychic or uploaded or immortal or robot or alien teens, or anything that could not be very easily and accurately classified as a dystopia. (Again, exception for Bradford, who wrote an intriguing alternate realities story with dystopian elements.)

I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

And so, the fictional future, at least as far as teen sf is concerned, is incredibly bleak.

Too bad! I don't much like dystopias, or the sort of post-apocalyptic stories that are about cannibal rape gangs and mass slaughter. I like post-apocalyptics that are about a transformed and marvelous and terrible landscape (like Railsea or Nnedi Okorafor's books), space opera, other planets with different cultures and aliens, and mutants. I like to think that the future will be different rather than doomed.

As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.


rachelmanija: (Default)


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