book reviews by Althea

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The Peace War (Across Realtime, #1) – Vernor Vinge ***

While not Vinge’s most impressive novel (I’ll give ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ that designation), The Peace War is a very competent, effective post-apocalyptic/science fiction novel.
Some years ago, at the outbreak of international war, someone invented the ‘bobble’ – spherical containment fields which could eliminate threats by creating an unbreakable barrier around a weapon, or battalion…
The war was terribly destructive anyway, and now a level of reduced technology is enforced by mob-style governments. However, a technological underground resistance exists – including the brilliant scientist who invented this field. When he finds a ghetto urchin who may be a natural math genius, he finally agrees to take on an apprentice.
But the situation is becoming more hazardous for the underground, because it seems that someone else has discovered the secret of the bobble.


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Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1) – Charlaine Harris ***

The first in Harris’ “Southern Vampire” series, Dead Until Dark introduces us to Sookie, a telepathic small-town waitress who is plagued by her unusual ability – hearing peoples thoughts all the time drives her nuts! But when a handsome vampire moves into town – and Sookie realizes that her telepathy doesn’t work on the undead – well, she falls for vampire Bill hook, fangs, and sinker…
A very light, fun read for fans of Laurell Hamilton and Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with which it shares a very similar premise (vampires joining mainstream society).

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The Dream Of Scipio – Iain Pears ***

Much more serious – and much slower going than Pears’ art history mysteries; unlike those, this book definitely has literary aspirations. The Dream of Scipio actually tells three different stories, (slightly) intertwined by the device of a philosophical manuscript influenced by Cicero, and by the themes of love, political maneuvering, friendship, betrayal – and Europe’s persistent anti-Semitism.
As Pears describes the titular document, the book is “partly… a discourse on love and friendship and the connection between those and the life of the soul and the exercise of virtue.”
It repeatedly, from different angles, examines the questions of whether evil done by those with good intentions is a greater evil than others, or whether evil committed for a greater good can be justified.
The reader explores these themes through the stories of: Manlius, a powerful Roman at the age of the decline of the Empire, and his love/muse, the philosopher Sophia. Olivier, a medieval seeker after knowledge and the girl from the Jewish ghetto that he falls in love with Rebecca. Julien, a European at the outbreak of WWII and his love, Julia, also Jewish.
Not an easy or lighthearted book, but many may find it worth the time.

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The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin *****

I’ve read this classic (winner of both the Hugo & Nebula awards) more than once before. Although well known for its exploration of alternate views on gender and sexuality, and it does discuss that, it, in the end, is really a story about humanity and the nature of friendship.
Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen, a sort of non-partisan organization that facilitates travel and communication between worlds, has volunteered to try bring the Karhide into the Ekumen. On the planet known as Winter, he is overhelmed an alienated by the cold and inhospitable weather, by the inscrutable social customs and baffling political machinations of the people of the country of Karhide, and perhaps most of all by the fact that the the people of Karhide are asexual for much of the time, only coming into ‘heat’ or ‘kemmer’ at certain periods – at which time they could become either gender.
Following his mission, Ai meets Estraven, an official of Karhide who falls out of favor and is exiled… the events that follow are both bitter political drama and action-adventure quest, during the course of which Ai – and the reader learn more of the nature of humanity.
A truly excellent book.

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The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova ***

I’d read some fairly bad reviews of this bestselling vampire novel, but I found it to be fairly entertaining. The premise is that Dracula has survived until the present day… not only sucking the blood of innocent academics, but possibly posing a threat to gradually set himself up as some kind of evil dictator…
This slow-moving plot may potentially be foiled by certain individuals who have received mysterious antique books – blank except for a sinister centerfold depicting a dragon… But who is behind the books, and what is their true purpose?
Kostova tells the story through a device where a young woman investigates her father’s disappearance, in the process learning the story of how her father had followed a similar quest, investigating the disappearance of his academic advisor, and how the advisor had also investigated the myth of Dracula…
Unfortunately the middle story is the only one that fully comes to life; the others are fairly rudimentary. I also found it unbelievable that everyone in the novel seemed to think that ‘Dracula’ was a very obscure story, that only a few knew about.
But, those complaints aside, while not a great work of literature, this was an enjoyable novel. And it has librarians – always a plus in my books!

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Firebird (Fairy Tales #1) – Mercedes Lackey ***

Better than much of Lackey’s work, this novel retells the Russian legend of the Firebird (with plenty of editorial embellishment). Ilya, a handsome Russian prince with a habit of womanizing, seems like he has everything going for him – except that his seven lunkhead brothers want to kill him, and their father doesn’t particularly care. After a rash of mysterious thefts of rare cherries from a prized orchard, Ilya discovers that the culprit is a beautiful and magical bird-woman. Using the chaos she’s thrown the household into to escape his family, he finds himself on a quest to rescue a dozen gorgeous tsarinas from an enchanted castle… but will he ever learn the true meaning of love?
Recommended for fans of re-told fairy tales, such as those by Jane Yolen, and much of Terri Windling & Ellen Datlow’s Fairy Tale series.