book reviews by Althea

Leave a comment

The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain Banks *****

I couldn’t wait for this one to come up on my wish list… I checked it out from the library. The first thing I noticed was that Mr. Banks has a new jacket-flap photo. Aaagh! He looks old! That means I’m old too!

I love all of the Culture novels, but some are better than others. This is one of the better ones.

The Gzilt culture have scheduled the time at which they, as a culture, will Sublime – leave the concern of this world behind for a higher plane of existence.

Before this happens, a young woman from Gzilt, Vyr Cossont, has made it her life-work to successfully play one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written – the Hydrogen Sonata. (Too bad that from an aesthetic perspective, it sounds godawful, and pretty much no one wants to listen to it.)

However, on a higher galactic level, events concerning the Gzilt are afoot. An elder race has a secret concerning the Gzilt’s primary religion, and revealing that secret might interfere with their Subliming. Or not. Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference at all. However, for some reason, someone cares enough about this mystery to blow up and murder a Culture Mind ship – which captures the attention of a bunch of nosy/aloof Minds, who choose to investigate.

The only lead they have is rumors of a man who is said to be the oldest human alive – and by coincidence, Vyr Cossont had a passing friendly acquaintance with him a few years back. She gets recruited to help track him down to try to find out what he knows….

All this, and a ton and a half more, get tied together in a complex, philosophical, grotesque, eerily beautiful, and oh yeah – funny and action-packed narrative.


Leave a comment

Wizards – Jack Dann

While reading this book, I just came across this article:

It’s pretty unusual that an anthology ever gets more than 3 stars from me – after all, tastes differ, and in any random selection, there’s bound to be a few stories I think are great, and a few that don’t do much for me. However, this anthology was, really, really good. I’d say 4.5 stars.

Neil Gaiman – “The Witch’s Headstone”. (2008 Locus Award winner for best Novelette.) The story later turned out to be a chapter in ‘The Graveyard Book,’ so I’d already read it. But it was worth reading again.

Garth Nix – “Holly and Iron”. A female Robin Hood in an alternate-history “Ingland” is shaken when her poor tactics lead to her sister’s death. Will she be able to find a way to unite a divided country?

Mary Rosenblum – “Color Vision.” I’ve read Rosenblum’s first two novels (because they were part of the Del Rey Discovery series, which featured a bunch of great new authors) – but apparently she’s published 8 books since then! I might have to try some catching up! This story is a teen sci-fi piece, about how a young girl’s synaesthesia turns out to be a lifesaver, when the new school principal turns out to be a villain from another world.

Kage Baker – “The Ruby Incomparable.” Kage Baker is truly missed. I only have a few more books by her to read, and I’ve sort of been saving them, since I know no more are coming… Here, she tells the tale of a fairy-tale marriage between Pure good and Pure evil. The story is available for free online:

Eoin Colfer’s – “The Fowl’s Tale.” I’m not a huge Colfer fan (didn’t like Artemis Fowl), but this story’s only 5 pages long, so it doesn’t grate. Amusing tale of a greedy parrot who shows up at court with a tale to tell…

Jane Yolen – “Slipping Sideways Through Eternity.” A modern Jewish girl meets the Prophet Elijah, who takes her on a trip through time, helps her understand her heritage, and inspires her for the future.

Tad Williams – “The Stranger’s Hands.” A village takes in two wanderers – a man who seems to have lost his wits in an injury, and his caretaker. Soon, it is discovered that some who touch the disabled man’s hands have their heart’s desire magically granted. Soon, the needy flock to the town in hopes of having their wishes granted. But with greater exposure comes the revelation that the village’s miracle man is (or was) actually one of the most powerful, dangerous, and evil wizards around. Is there some trick here? A well-crafted and thought-provoking tale.

Patricia A. McKillip – “Naming Day.” A young woman eagerly anticipates her ‘naming day,’ when her magical academy conducts a ceremony in which the students choose their magical name. But her mother has a lesson about values to teach her daughter.

Elizabeth Hand – “Winter’s Wife”. Hand is really good at short stories, and this in no exception. This was probably my favorite in the book… about a ‘mountain man’ from Maine, who marries a bride from Iceland that he met on the Internet. When a developer starts destroying ancient trees, something must be done…

Andy Duncan – “A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question.” I’d read this Southern Gothic piece before (in Fantasy: The Best of the Year, 2008) but again, it was worth re-reading. Basically, a girl runs away from working in a sideshow, ends up living in a witch’s house full of ghosts, and meets the devil… but there’s more to it than that.

Peter S. Beagle – “Barrens Dance.” The reason I got this book – I was looking for more from Peter Beagle. This story is redolent of ancient myth, as it tells the story of what a woman must do to escape an evil wizard’s unwanted advances.

Nancy Kress – “Stone Man.” Under stress, a boy discovers he has heretofore-unknown magical powers. it loses him a friend, but gains him a new group of friends and a mission in life… Not Kress’ best, but not bad.

Jeffrey Ford – “The Manticore Spell.” A monster might be dangerous – but also sublime: endangered and strangely beautiful. Should every monster be killed?

Tanith Lee – “Zinder.” By day, Zinder is a deformed dwarf who lives in an impoverished village, tormented by ignorant bullies. But by night he is a powerful wizard, who travels the world, dispensing advice and magical boons amid glittering courts, and doing good deeds for the needy. Kind of a retelling of the Biblical tale that Jesus may be disguised as any lowly beggar… written with Lee’s own poetic language and lovely imagery.

Terry Bisson – “Billy and the Wizard.” Short, surreal tale of a boy who finds a wizard in his garage. Not my favorite, but I can see why others would like it.

Terry Dowling – “The Magikkers.” If someone told you you had only enough magic for one true spell – and then asked you to give away that magic, would you?

Gene Wolfe – “The Magic Animal.” Sometimes I love Gene Wolfe, and at other times I feel that his stories go off track due to their ambition. This Arthurian tale verges toward the latter, but there are still some lovely aspects to it.

Orson Scott Card – “Stonefather.” This novella is apparently in the world of Card’s ‘Mithermages’ series (2 books published so far; haven’t read either yet.) However, I probably will – this is a good (if a bit typical) high fantasy story, with an original take on earth/water magic and an interesting setup.

Leave a comment

Ethan of Athos – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

Although this is “#3 in the Vorkosigan saga,” it’s really a stand-alone novel featuring the titular Ethan as the protagonist. Ethan is a medical doctor born & raised on Athos, a gender-separatist colony planet inhabited solely by men. The planet’s out-of-the-way location and reputation as a cultural backwater means it doesn’t get much traffic, and the men of Athos are isolated and fearful of the outside world – especially women.
However, Athos is in need of fresh ovarian tissue for their artificial replicators. After a mail-order delivery turns out to be unusable garbage, the colony decides to send Dr. Ethan on a business trip off-planet to personally select the medical supplies needed… a trip on which he will have to personally interact with (shock! horror!) females!
What’s fun, of course, is that one of the women in question turns out to be Elli Quinn, and the mild-mannered Ethan is unwittingly drawn into a web of spies, assassins and unethical bioengineers.

A well-plotted, entertaining adventure, but I did find some of the bits about the whole men-only society to be a bit cliched… Still, enjoyed both the humor and the action.

Leave a comment

The Carnivorous Carnival – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events #10)

The Baudelaires pursue Count Olaf & his henchpersons to a carnival; where they masquerade as employees of the freakshow. Unfortunately, someone gets the bright idea of boosting attendance at the sideshow by feeding performers to the lions.

As usual, adults are weak-willed and ineffectual, if not outright evil, and the children will have to rely on their own resources to make their escape…

Leave a comment

The Malice of Fortune – Michael Ennis ****

I loved Ennis’ “Duchess of Milan,” was not so blown away by his other novel “Byzantium.” Reading “Malice of Fortune,” I think that his forte is Renaissance Italy. I really enjoyed this historical mystery.

Furious over the mysterious death of his beloved son, Pope Alexander Borgia blackmails the murdered Juan’s former mistress, Damiata, into going to investigate the circumstances of his death. With the Pope holding her son hostage, and under suspicion herself, she has no choice.

Niccolo Machiavelli teams up with her, and as more and more mutilated bodies turn up around the city, even Leonardo Da Vinci gets involved, suspecting that the killer or killers are taunting him with a mathematical puzzle.

The challenge for the would-be detectives is not figuring out which of the many suspects could have committed such brutal crimes – most, if not all of the brutal condottierri lords are well known to be capable of atrocities. As far as motivation? Well, Juan was nearly universally disliked, both personally and politically.

I’m deducting a star because the whole serial-killer-creates-geometric-patterns-with-dead-bodies, in-which-a-clue-can-be-found plot, has been done until it does not need to be done any more. However, both Niccolo and Damiata are well-drawn and entertaining characters, and the story proceeds with a nice amount of complexity and thoughtfulness. An enjoyable read.

Leave a comment

Carmilla – Joseph Sheridan LeFanu ****

This month’s book club selection, so I went up to the attic and dug out my old childhood copy of this… How very, very excellent is the cover art on this edition? (1971 Scholastic).
The negative aspect of this edition is that there are no introductory notes or even anything about the date that the story was written (classy, Scholastic).
Still, this is a classic vampire story: a must-read, and worth a re-read.
I personally feel that the lesbian aspect of the story has been overemphasized – there are only a few times it crosses the line over from that old-fashioned ‘my very dear friend’ kinda thing… so don’t expect too much in the way of eroticism.
But LeFanu achieves a psychologically complex and morally ambiguous tale, as he tells this story of a lonely young woman who invites a stranger into her home and her heart.

Structurally, there are a few aspects to the story I feel could be better, and a few oddly unanswered questions… but hey, it was written in 1872, and was so very influential and historically important that any possible failings are only to be forgiven.

Leave a comment

Cetaganda – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

(Vorkosigan, #9(

Not my very favorite in this series so far, but still an excellent mystery/adventure.
Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin are sent as diplomatic envoys to a state funeral on Cetaganda. Basically, all they’re expected to do is to show up and look suitably grave.
However, the minute their spaceship docks, a mysterious assault occurs. In a combination of diplomatic tact and egotistical curiosity, Miles stays silent about the event, and embarks on solving the mystery himself.
Murder, politics, an enigmatic beauty, and a colorful society all come into play in a fast-moving story.