book reviews by Althea

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Chrysanthe – Yves Meynard **

Not bad, but I’m not finding myself staying up nights wondering, “what happens next,” either.
Our protagonist has been raised in near-isolation since early childhood by an uncle. Her therapist, with the aid of recovered-memory therapy, has convinced her that she was a victim of long-term sexual abuse at the hands of her father, which was why she was taken away from her family.

Then – a handsome young man appears. He tells her that he is a knight, who has been seeking her for years, and that all she has known is a lie. In actuality, she is the princess of the one true realm, kidnapped from her loving father and hidden in an artificial ‘made world.’

Running off and questing ensues. The princess is returned to her home, but not all is happy ever after, since she’s got major mental issues, and enemies of the realm are still at large. More running about and questing.

The whole thing with the therapy sounds a bit cheesy, but I actually thought it was handled well, and convincingly.

The weak point in the book is the characterization. Characters tend to be either good or evil, not very complex, and rather flat.

The most interesting aspect of the book, I thought, was the whole ‘made worlds’ concept. According to the theory, the ‘real world’ is stultifyingly tiny. It’s a physically small, homogenous, quite boring speck without much history – or anything. In contrast, the ‘made worlds’ are infinite, diverse, and encompass literally everything that could be imagined – universes and dimensions. They include places much like our own world. But they are – supposedly – not real. It’s a fascinating reversal of expectations – but it’s really quite an unpleasant and disturbing concept on a very deep level, and I suspect that it is why many people have reacted in a negative and emotional way to this book.

The concept also isn’t fully explored – instead, much of the plot is taken up with typical-fantasy sorcerous battles and such. I assume sequels are taking it somewhere… but I’m not sure I loved it enough to follow them.


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Newton’s Cannon – Greg Keyes ***

I just read “Dark Matter,” which puts the character of Isaac Newton in a Sherlock Holmes-type role, so when I realized I had another book featuring Mr. Newton, I decided to compare and contrast.

Well, this book isn’t so much about Isaac Newton. It’s actually more about Ben Franklin. (!) But then again… it’s not really about Ben Franklin. I tend, in general, to dislike books that name-check famous historical characters to the extent that this one does, but it didn’t bother me in this book. It took a little bit to figure out why, but I believe it’s because they really came across as characters in a fantasy novel, not actual historical figures. It was so far-fetched that discrepancies didn’t bother me.

As a fantasy novel, I really enjoyed the book.
It’s an alternate-history/steampunk setting. The premise is that in 1681, Isaac Newton made a scientific/alchemical discovery (of ‘philosopher’s mercury’) which enabled various innovations – artificial lighting, aetherschreibers (which enable long-distance communications), etc.
Now, in 1715, the discovery may also enable a weapon of indescribable power – and France may use that weapon to wipe England off the map.

A complex and fantastic story ensues, replete with plots, innovations and derring-do. A young Ben Franklin is the principal character, but a brilliant female mathematician at the French court is an excellent counterpoint. Good fun. Not as good as Keyes’ ‘Thorn and Bone’ epic, though.

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Maid Marian – Elsa Watson **

Picked up this book because of the beautiful cover and ROBIN HOOD!
I have to say, the book design is lovely. It’s credited to Lauren Dong, and I think she deserves a credit here too. Not just the cover, but the lovely flowers inside, even the typesetting is nice.

However, the story… well, I really, really WANTED to like it. Very soon into the book, I realized that the characters’ attitudes and behaviors were not consistent with 15th-century England. That’s actually OK with me, I adjusted my attitude to regard this as a British-influenced fantasy book. However, it’s really more of a romance than a fantasy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as a romance. The relationship between Robin and Marian is oddly lacking in heat. It’s rather abstract and chaste; I just wasn’t feeling their connection.
Other than the romance, the plot has to do with the disenfranchised noblewoman Marian enlisting Robin’s help to get her lands back, as she’s been cheated out of them by the conniving Lady Pernelle. This plot device creates an awkwardness that isn’t ever resolved: Robin is for the poor folks, but he ends up marrying into the gentry and settling down happily in a great manor. No change is made in the status quo, except that Marian has her consciousness raised about how serfs live, and vows to “do her best” for them. Now, I don’t demand revolution in every book. If you don’t want to criticize the feudal system, by all means don’t. But this book pays PC lip service to criticizing it, which is unsatisfying, to say the least.
Also, I didn’t think the scenario where the young master of the manor agrees to be instructed in the art of fighting with a cudgel by his young servant girl was consistent with the internal ‘culture’ of the book, let alone a realistic depiction of the historical era.
I have to admit that I also found this Marian to be an annoying person.
Not only was she both naive and jealous, but she pulled the crap that any person deserves to be unceremoniously dumped for: “Oh, I am So Attracted to you because you are a Bad-ass, dangerous outlaw! But wait! Now that we’ve hooked up, you should change completely, and be safe and reliable and never take any risks! And if you don’t do what I want, I will act like a psycho and run away! But that just means I must Love You!” Argh, Ugh.

For novels about Maid Marian and Robin Hood, I’d highly recommend Jennifer Roberson’s ‘Lady of the Forest,’ or Robin McKinley’s ‘Outlaws of Sherwood’ over this book.

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Tesseracts3 – Candas Jane Dorsey, ed.

A good, high-quality anthology of sci-fi by Canadian authors. I’d previously read #5 in this series and was disappointed – this was a MUCH stronger collection.

The Gift – Pat Forde
A sentimental, but excellent story about a young boy who seeks mentoring from a brilliant but discredited mathematician.

The Other Eye – Phyllis Gotlieb
I’d read this story before, in Gotlieb’s ‘Blue Apes’ collection. It’s one of those stories where it ends and you’re like, “Wow! Just.. wow. Wait, what?” A haunting depiction of a young person in a repressive, underground society, experiencing bizarre visions.

Breaking Ball – Michael Skeet
There’s a bit too much baseball in this story… but it’s really about two very different brothers, one full of resentment about the past – and the realization that the future can be different – on two wildly different levels. Reminded me a bit of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Tales from the Holograph Woods – Eileen Kernaghan
A poem.

Cogito – Elizabeth Vonarburg
Sorry, I found this story deeply annoying. The didactic way in which it is narrated made me want to strangle someone, and the oh-so-philosophical denouement was of a truly ‘does-a-bear-shit-in-the-woods’ complexity. Too bad, because if she’d just gone with telling a story instead of trying to be ‘deep,’ the premise – a future colony where people augment their senses to the point where a ‘normal’ person isn’t considered to have a life worth living – was interesting.

Homelanding – Margaret Atwood
I’d read this story before, but it is worth re-reading. A woman tries to describe humanity to aliens. Meaningful, funny and insightful.

Uncle Dobbins Parrot Fair – Charles deLint
I didn’t love the ending – but there are some truly weird and haunting moments in this story about how the magic inside every person can become real… and escape. Better make sure that what you’re loosing on the world is lovely, not awful!

Invisible Boy – Cliff Burns
Eh. This story about a boy living with two people who fight all the time and are no good at parenting tries a bit too hard.

A Niche – Peter Watts
A really excellent story of psychological horror. Two women are on a submarine mission, alone on an undersea base. Both have varied issues. Is it because they are suited to the circumstances? Or are there other reasons?

Hanging Out in the Third World Laundromat – Leslie Gadallah
Yes, laundromats are boring and make you want to escape into fantasy worlds. I’m aware of that.

Happy Days in Old Chernobyl – Claude-Michel Prevost
I didn’t like this one. It’s an experimentally told story. “In this story, there is…” and then something. Repeatedly. It’s annoying, and not much happens.

Carpe Diem – Eileen Kernaghan
Some old women in a nursing home… variously rebellious, resigned, depressed… It bears some similarity to Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go.’

Spring Sunset – John Park
Very brief piece on how the younger generation is quicker to accept the new… and how change comes with a sense of loss for the older.

Iserman’s Override – Scott MacKay
An original twist on the theme of the ship’s computer that’s convinced it has to kill everyone aboard.

Only a Lifetime – Daniel Sernine
A meditational piece from the point of view of a generation ship’s consciousness.

An Alien Sun – Leah Silverman
A poem.

Against the Dust – Kelly Graves
A very Ray Bradbury feel to this one, with it’s nostalgia-infused reminiscences of a small boy, playing in the fields and dirt, digging up lost things with a stick… but then he finds something more unusual than old bottles and debris…

She Announces… – Tom Henighan
Paolo to Francesca – Tom Henighan

The Pools of Air – Karl Schroeder
I only discovered Karl Schroeder recently, but I really, really enjoy his writing. A media team goes up to an unmanned probe exploring Jupiter for a human-interest story. But something goes terribly wrong, and the three of them will have to re-examine their priorities if they’re to have any chance of survival.

Vishnu’s Navel – Ben Begamudre
A Hindu-inspired neo-folktale.

The Winds of Time – Joel Champetier
Very brief sci-fi tale with the feel of an ancient folk tale, where artifacts from other times are borne on the wind, and repressive regimes try to prevent revolution. Lovely.

Birthday – PK Page
Hmm. A short story on the theme of death/rebirth. I didn’t think it was the most successful piece here.

Phoenix Sunset – Colleen Anderson
A dystopian cyberpunk YA story, which might win an award for Most Frickin’ Hopeless and Depressing Thing Ever! But I don’t mind that.

Muffin Explains Teleology to the World At Large – James Alan Gardner
Why are wise men showing up in his yard, and random people adulating his six-year-old sister? Jamie’s not sure. But Muffin knows more than she’s telling. I don’t usually like this sort of quirky/absurdist thing – but somehow, I quite enjoyed this.

Canadola – Esther Rochon
A woman reminisces about a time period where she did rough contract work on a remote planet. She had some grotesque and weird experiences. (Though I REALLY wanted the evil heads to come after her like in the 80’s video game ‘Space Harrier’…)

In the Land of Unblind – Judith Merril
It’s kind of a poem and kind of a story, and it’s really sexy…

North of Whitehorse Station – Leona Gom
It’s one of those futures where there are no men. This time it was some kind of plague where all the men died. That was a while ago… long enough ago that when boys are born, they hide in fear. I dunno. I didn’t really like the assumption that even trained into submissiveness, that awful male aggression will threaten to burst out… Overall, I had a very been there, done that feeling about this. It was interesting – once.

Under Another Moon – Dave Duncan
I only read one novel by Duncan, years ago, and I don’t remember being impressed by it. But I actually loved this story. It had a VERY original take on gender relations – but it also told a good story while exploring it. (Basically, children and the elderly are considered to be gender neutral, and every individual goes through a life phase as a woman, and then as a man.)

Proscripts of Gehenna – Jean-Louis Trudel
Remote colony. Life is tough. Surrounded by werewolves. The werewolves will inherit the world… I liked it.

Doing Television – William Gibson
William Gibson is one of my very favorite authors. This is very good, but it’s not one of his major works. Cyber-mood piece.

The Water Man – Ursula Pflug
Hmm. Water. Is it a drug? Not sure. Trippy and surreal, set in an artists’ studio.

Guinea Pig – Francine Pelletier
Shades of ‘Never Let Me Go,’ again… the rich mysteriously get organ donations… and a little girl flees after hearing some half-understood but disturbing words…

Final Instructions – Lesley Choyce
A final poem.

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The Truth-Teller’s Tale – Sharon Shinn ****

I really enjoy Shinn’s writing, but I didn’t like this quite as much as the previous book in this series, “The Safe-Keeper’s Secret.”
It’s a stand-alone story, although reading the first one first would help, a little bit, as far as understanding the premise behind this ‘world.’
In this story, the romance is front and center, and the ‘fantasy’ aspects take a (very) background role. Adele and Eleda are ‘mirror twins’ – seeingly identical, but with very different personalities. One becomes a ‘safe-keeper’ – honor bound to never spill a secret, the other a ‘truth-teller’ – pledged to always speak even difficult truths. Their similar appearance can lead to trouble!

I like the scenario a lot, but I felt that the previous book dealt deftly with complex ethical issues, and this one just kinda got everyone happily hooked up with their true love, while actually ignoring some of the social issues brought up by the plotline.

I’d still recommend this for fans of fairytale-style fiction.

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Southern Fire – Juliet E. McKenna ***

(The Aldabreshin Compass, #1)

Although this is the first book in a series, it’s apparently set in the same world (just a different part of it) as her previous series. Not sure how much background I lost for not having read any of the previous books – this is the first book by McKenna I’ve read.

It introduces a tribal, island-based culture where life is lived by portents and omens, but magic is despised and feared. When a neighboring tribe is decimated by mysterious, magic-wielding invaders from the south, the warlord Kheda fakes his own death and goes on a quest to the north, because it is rumored that the peoples to the north know how to fight magic. But if word gets out that Kheda has even investigated magic, he could be considered ‘tainted’ by it…

I like how McKenna sets up a convincingly foreign culture, with its own sets of rules and taboos, and portrays people from that culture on their own terms. However, especially at the beginning, it felt like there was a bit too much ‘setting the scene’ and not enough story. Kheda, who’s the main character, never really intrigued me. When Dev (a self-centered, amoral, renegade(?) wizard from the north) suddenly appeared, his chapters were instantly more compelling. I wanted to know more about his background! Kheda just seemed kind of boring in comparison.

The writing here was pretty good; I’d read more from this author, but I’m not feeling compelled to go order more books in the series right now…

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Ragamuffin – Tobias S. Buckell ***

(Xenowealth #2)

Aw, darn. I didn’t realize till looking on goodreads that this is #2 in a series. I even own #1, sitting somewhere in the TBR boxes. So – I have to admit that perhaps some of my issues with the book might be cleared up by having read the first book first.

It’s space opera.
It is an action book. It goes at a mile-a-minute, and something totally new is happening every 3 pages. There is no pausing for explanation, introspection, or anything else.

It’s in 3 parts.
The first part deals solely with the bad-ass heroine Nashara, who’s a cyber-clone designed to take out the alien masters of humanity, or something (it’s not specified). I really liked and enjoyed this part, even though interesting things kept getting brought up and then zipped swiftly by, never to return…

The second part starts very abruptly, and with no seeming connection to the first part. Suddenly, we are on an alien planet where there are Azteca, whose rivals are the Tolteca, and there are recently re-arrived aliens, who some humans regard as gods, called the Teotl. Ok, all fine and good. But there needs to be at least Some Tiny Explanation of why human settlers would re-create a dead civilization, complete with ethnic rivalries. Nothing. Not one line of explanation. And I kept going, “Who are all these people, and how is this supposed to tie in with the first story?”

OK, the third part ties it together. Sort of. Nashara hooks back up with the fleet of Ragamuffin (rebel Caribbean people) ships and uses her cyber powers to take over the Chinese/Japanese ships that are in league with the alien Satraps (these are different aliens than the Teotl), and form a sort-of alliance with the untrustworthy Teotl, who claim to be refugees from some Other aliens, and some children are rescued, and a lot of other people get blown up but the good guys win… for now.