book reviews by Althea

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Steampunk – Jeff VanDerMeer, ed.

Average of 2.68 stars for all the items rounds up to 3, I suppose.
Overall, rather disappointing. There are two truly excellent stories; I’d read them both before.

*** Introduction – The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk – Jess Nevins. Makes an interesting and informative connection between steampunk and ‘Edisonades’ – 19th-century boys’ pulp fiction focusing on new technology.

** Benediction – Michael Moorcock. A quite random and inconclusive excerpt from the novel ‘The Warlord of the Air.’ Read the book instead. (or, possibly, the whole trilogy.)

** Lord Kelvin’s Machine – James P. Blaylock. A stilted, faux-19th century writing style and a strange lack of tension make this tale strangely boring. Various characters are scheming to destroy and/or save the earth (by pushing us into the path of an asteroid, or not), but I could not bring myself to care about the planet’s fate.

*** The Giving Mouth – Ian R. Macleod. Loved the setting and characters. The details were brilliantly, grotesquely original. The setup was great, working both as story and allegory, as an abused lord’s son in a medieval-ish mining town seeks to come to terms with the empty, horrific world he sees around him and find meaning & beauty in life. However, the resolution didn’t really come together for me.

*****A Sun in the Attic – Mary Gentle. A re-read. (It’s in the Gentle collection ‘Cartomancy.’)I love this story. Both heartbreaking and satisfying, it challenges social expectations, portrays emotional conflicts that ring true, and creates one of the best scenarios I’ve ever read about intentionally turning away from technology and what technology brings with it.

*** The God-Clown is Near – Jay Lake. A couple of thugs pressure a man to create a bio-engineered golem to their specifications. The world is effectively horrific and filled with grotesquerie and depravation… but the plot was slight, and I felt like it was just going out of its way to be gratuitously shocking.

* The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down – Joe R. Lansdale. I really don’t have terribly delicate sensibilities. It’s not the crudeness of this story I objected to, it was the lack of cleverness. There’s no particular reason to make HG Wells’ time traveler a blood sucking vampire obsessed with anal impalement. And what were those space shuttle people doing there? The story doesn’t cohere, and says nothing.

*** The Selene Gardening Society – Molly Brown. A women’s group decided to terraform the moon by sending our compostable garbage there. Mildly amusing.

*****Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang. A re-read (included in his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.) Ted Chiang is freakin’ brilliant. However, this isn’t steampunk at all, but idea-based, blow-your-mind science fiction. However, I have no objection to it being in this book, because the more people that read Chiang, the better. I’d be in favor of a proposal to add a Chiang story into every published anthology… romance, chicken-soup stories, sports fiction… you name it, stick in a Chiang. Fine, this does have a 19th-century setting and golems… but still.

*** The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance – Michael Chabon. Like everything Michael Chabon puts out, this is brilliantly written, with spare, effective characterization and emotional drama that sucks you straight in… but this tale of two boys on an alt-history American Frontier, dragged into their parents’ politics, cries out to be expanded into a novel. It doesn’t feel like a complete work.

*** Victoria – Paul di Filippo. From the description I’d read of this story (“Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt.”) I expected to hate it. However, it was actually fairly amusing.

*** Reflected Light – Rachel Pollock. Not bad. This story also has an ‘unfinished’ feel, but in this case, I think it works. Told in fragments, allegedly found on decaying wax cylinder recordings, it relates a factory worker’s feelings of friendship and guilt regarding a missing co-worker. It speaks eloquently of the many ‘lost voices’ of history.

** Minutes of the Last Meeting – Stepan Chapman. An alternate history version of what happened to the last Tsar in 1918. Here, it wasn’t just the end a family, but the end of much more. There are some good ideas here, but it gets a little muddled, as the author tries to jam a glut of elements into 30 pages.

*** Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast – Neal Stephenson. This one isn’t actually an excerpt. (or steampunk, at all.) It’s a story about future anthropologists being holed up in a glass elevator waiting for savage local tribes to attack. The story (written in 1995) presciently discussed the practical and ethical issues we’re now facing regarding 3-D printers and their capabilities.

* The Steam Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey – Rick Klaw. This reads like it was written by someone with a very unclear idea of what steampunk actually is, who did a google search.

* The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre Within the Comic Book Medium – Bill Baker. This author describes the plots of some comic books. I skimmed it – boring.


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Pirate Sun – Karl Schroeder **

(Virga, #3)

I really liked the first two in this series (as well as other books I’ve read by Schroeder) but this one really just didn’t do it for me.

It picks up a character that I was never particularly enthralled by in the other books (Chaison Fanning) and puts him front and center. However, even though he’s the main character in this book, I still never got a good sense of who he is as a person. I can’t even picture him clearly.

The story starts with a prison break – Admiral Fanning’s bad-ass wife, Venera, has planned his escape – but things go wrong, and they don’t connect. (And we don’t see Venera again until the end, blah.)
Instead, Fanning is picked up by an enigmatic woman who is genetically modified to look like an anime character (double-blah; that really turned me off).

Lots of completely forgettable running around occurs. The fate of the (very conceptually interesting) world of Virga is at stake. Unfortunately, I got bored.

I still may move on to the next one in the series, in the hopes that it picks up again – because I really want it to. But I’d recommend giving this one a miss.

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Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was – Angélica Gorodischer ****

Of course, I read this because it was translated by Ursula K. LeGuin.
I can see why she liked it – the book touches on many of the themes that LeGuin deals with in her own work.
As usual (actually, without a known exception) LeGuin will not steer you wrong. (I’ve started buying any book that I see LeGuin has blurbed, and they are ALL good.)

However, although the book is very good, it’s not as good as LeGuin.

The book is a series of stories all set in an imaginary (but rather realistic) ancient empire. It felt slightly Eastern European to me, but others may see it differently. The Empire is thousands of years old, and dynasties have come and gone, so Gorodischer has given herself a wide canvas to work on. The portrayals of the nature of human society, which this book focuses on, are similarly broad and deep. (My one criticism is that while the social and political situations were vivid and dramatic, the characters themselves, to me, were not so memorable.)

The Empire has been ruled by men and women wise and foolish, cruel and just. Those they ruled have also been venal or honest, have succeeded or failed…
The stories are all told as if they were oral narratives, folk stories told by a storyteller in a village square or around a campfire…as such, they have a feeling of mythology, and also create a commentary about how a society is defined by the stories it tells about itself.

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The Price of Spring – Daniel Abraham *****

(Long Price, #4)

An excellent conclusion to a truly impressive series.
You could probably read this on its own, but the experience would be much richer for having read the ones that come before – I recommend reading the whole series (4 books, each set 15 years apart.)
[A bitchy aside here – not enough of these were printed. I ended up having to get this one through interlibrary loan… why do publishers always do this!? (I know why, that is a rhetorical question. It’s just annoying.)]
As the book opens, the cities of the Khaiem and their rivals/enemies of the Kingdom of Galt have been thrown into a disastrous situation due to the actions of the andat (a kind of magical golem) at the conclusion of the previous book (An Autumn War). Fifteen years have passed, but the kingdoms, instead of working together (a solution which would ensure survival), have both weltered in bitterness and failure.

Now, both the Khai and his old friend/enemy/rival Maati each have a plan to save the lands of the Khaiem. However, the plans are completely mutually incompatible. Each works hard and desperately to convince others to make the compromises and sacrifices necessary for a scheme to work. Each is convinced of the rightness of his actions. But the reader sees that disaster seems inevitable.

At first, I had doubts about the book, because one of the main characters is operating on the premise that conclusions on a topic, if researched and created by women rather than men, will be utterly different, because men and women think so differently. I don’t agree. But Abraham deals with this deftly, and although gender politics are a large part of the book, his characters are all fully-realized individuals. Abraham is truly excellent at creating complex characters and multivalent relationships between them – one of my favorite things about this series is that it presents characters from different angles – it shows believably how people change, how one person can be seen differently by different people, at different times. The reader can’t trust that someone who seems to be a villain at one time will remain a villain.

In a vivid and unique setting, Abraham concludes a story which is difficult at times, thoughtful, and deeply satisfying.

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The Farthest Shore – Ursula K. LeGuin *****

(Earthsea, #3)

All three books of the original Earthsea trilogy have always been right up there with my most favorite books of all time, but both when I was a child, and now, I thought that The Farthest Shore was the least strong of the three. However, I think I had different reasons for feeling that way now, than I did then.

I think that now, the main focus of the book worked better for me – the whole idea of dealing with the consequences of your own actions, as well as LeGuin’s conceptual idea of evil, and the ineffable spark (made of joy, creativity and a sense of purpose [which is also magic]) that makes life worth living.

I know that LeGuin was working with telling her story within an intentionally traditional framework, but this time around I found it curious that, for an author well-known for her exploration of very non-traditional government and social structures, with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility, here she seemingly uncritically presents a young prince, Arren, who is destined, by ‘divine’ right, to rule for no more reason than his bloodline. Hmm. However, I very much liked the fact that in this book, the previous book’s assumptions about the magical symbol that will bring peace to all the lands is shown to have been kind of wrong – it hasn’t worked quite all that well…

It illustrates, like many elements of this book, that nothing is permanently stable, and that a state of balance (like the balance between life and death itself) is something that must be constantly maintained. The book is about the need for both outer balance and inner balance – about accepting fear, and not letting that fear control you:

“This is. And thou art. There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

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The Tombs of Atuan – Ursula K. LeGuin *****

(Earthsea, #2)

One of my favorite books of all time – I’ve probably read this one over two dozen times.

It’s a deceptively simple story, simple in the way that all truths are simple, allegorical in that it can be applied to all of our lives. it’s a story of growing up, of claiming freedom and independence, and all the fear and pain and joy that can accompany that. But it’s also just the story of Tenar, called Arha, priestess of the Nameless Ones and mistress of the Undertomb – a girl who believes herself hard, cold and powerful. And it is the story of Ged, the young wizard who finds himself at her mercy. It is a story of finding compassion, and how strength lies not in the dark and restricted ways, or in bringing death – but instead lies in having the courage to admit vulnerability, in daring to step outside all that is taught and to find ones way to the light.

The writing is just beautiful – some of the descriptive passages here are unparallelled. A perfect book.

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A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. LeGuin *****

(Earthsea, #1)

A re-read. Actually, I’ve probably read the trilogy a couple of dozen times, but it’s been long enough that many of the elements felt fresh.

This time, looking at the book analytically, what struck me most:

First, whether it’s a natural resonance or a direct shaping, LeGuin has deeply affected the way I view the world, and my most deeply-held feelings of ethics. (Earthsea and LoTR were probably my most-read children’s books, and while Tolkien is glorious and wonderful, and gives the reader that sense of ‘something beyond,’ LeGuin, while no less wonderful, is quietly practical, earthily grounded, concentrating on the interior, the sense of self and one’s place in the world.

Second: Her prose is just amazing. It’s not what in vogue right now. (Or even what was in vogue in the 60’s, when this was written.) I think she was consciously harking back to 19th-century writers such as Howard Pyle. The language is spare and elegant, elevated yet accessible – and it leaves room between the lines for the imagination.

Also – though much less importantly – I’d forgotten what an annoying and arrogant person Ged was as a kid! Probably because when I read this first, I was quite similar. Hopefully I’ve grown a bit since then…