book reviews by Althea

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Space Opera – Rich Horton, ed.

A highly enjoyable exploration of where the ‘Space Opera’ genre has gone, and how it’s developed…

*****“The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars” by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed)
Remarkably excellent. Very reminiscent of a more-poetic Iain Banks.
A warrior/strategist arrives to pits her wits against an ancient gamesmaster. What happens in this small space and time will have ramifications on a much larger scale, as Lee gives us a glimpse of a vertiginous universe…

****“The Wreck of the Godspeed” by James Patrick Kelly (Between Worlds)
A young pilgrim wins an essay contest; the prize to spend a year (or the option of two) aboard a legendary exploration ship. However, the ship is eccentric, to say the least, and the other passengers are worried… Well crafted, good characters, and an interesting take on the ramifications of matter-transportation. The end felt a little rushed and inconclusive, though.

****“Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones (The New Space Opera)
This was the second ‘Ki-An’ story I’ve read by Gwyneth Jones. The first (‘The Ki-Anna’) was pretty good, but this one was excellent. A story of a diplomat assigned to be the ‘minder’ for the two foreign leaders of one side in an ethnic civil war, the events, unfolding, reflect on the greater truths of the unpleasant necessities of politics, and an invitation to consider the ethics of choosing the lesser evil.

***“Six Lights Off Green Scar” by Gareth L. Powell (Aphelion)
A space prospector, scarred by an earlier experience, has been in semi-retirement – but now a journalist has convinced him to go on one last trek. His past, however, will come back to haunt him… violently.

***“Glory” by Greg Egan (The New Space Opera)
A pair of archaeologists adopt alien bodies to examine the remnants of a long-dead civilization. But no matter how careful they are, their work and their presence may have a destabilizing influence.

***“The Mote Dancer and the Firelife” by Chris Willrich (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Haunted by the spectre of her dead partner, a spacer seeks some kind of conclusion in the midst of an alien – and violent – culture. Will she find what she’s bargaining for – or his her quest more of a deathwish? Interesting alien elements here, which I’d be interested to explore more deeply.

**“On Rickety Thistlewaite” by Michael F. Flynn (Analog)
Eh, this one was not for me. The bulk of the story seems to be trying to play on ethnic-stereotypes for humor (Chinese and Irish, in space), but then the end goes for the tragically sentimental, and is inconclusive, on top of it.

****“War Without End” by Una McCormack (Conflicts)
An aging war criminal agrees to an interview with an elderly archivist from the side he’s always considered his enemies. Although his ideas have not changed, he is drawn to the opportunity to record his side of the story for posterity. Really well done, and all-too-believable. Deals with harsh issues with sensitivity.

*****“Finisterra” by David Moles (F&SF)
Caught in an untenable situation, an engineer agrees to a job that she knows will not be strictly legal… but once out on what turns out to be a poaching expedition killing a protected alien species, her ethical compunctions are stretched to the limit. Poignant, complex, and very relevant…

****“Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik (Warriors)
Two planets are in the midst of civil war. The way of life of a people is threatened. Into this conflict comes an foreign agent, willing to help, to divulge information about the other side. But little do her new acquaintances realize that her agenda is not as selfless as it seems, and that she is working with counterparts on the other side of the conflict. Really nicely done, with well-drawn emotional complexity.

***“Plotters and Shooters” by Kage Baker (Fast Forward 1)
Revenge of the Nerds meets Ender’s Game – with a twist. Fun, but not Baker’s best, in my opinion.

****“The Muse of Empires Lost” by Paul Berger (Twenty Epics)
Jemmi, a beggar child on a decaying orbital habitat, has the ability to bend other people’s minds to her will. Only one other person in existence has similar powers – the former ruler of an interstellar empire. He has dreams of restoring his former glory – but gets more than he bargained for when he tries to recruit Jemmi to his cause.

****“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette (Fast Ships and Black Sails)
Black Alice is a pirate, on a sentient, organic spaceship. However, she’s a pretty lowly pirate. Stuck down in engineering, she doesn’t even usually get to know what the captain’s planning or how a battle might be going… She doesn’t care much for her coworkers, though she does occasionally dream of becoming one of the top engineers – the ones the ship actually listens to. Nice, with an unexpectedly satisfying outcome.

***“Lehr Rex” by Jay Lake (Forbidden Planets)
A pretty overt homage to Blade Runner here, in a story of a team sent to investigate a lost mission… with a ‘planet-busting’ bomb. The story’s OK… I’m not really sure what the point of one of the character’s sexist comments at the beginning of the story was – they go unexamined, don’t really add anything, and aren’t relevant to the rest of the events…

****“Cracklegrackle” by Justina Robson (The New Space Opera 2)
A journalist with a missing daughter agrees to interview an alien ‘psychic’ detective. Outwardly, he claims to believe the alien’s abilities are a fraud – but he agrees all too quickly to have his daughter’s mysterious disappearance investigated. The outcome is emotionally wrenching. Very much a crime mystery, with an almost incidental sci-fi setting.

***“Hideaway” by Alastair Reynolds (Interzone)
A group of humans are desperate refugees from the aliens who have been ‘cleansing’ the galaxy of our race. They seem to be facing a difficult choice: die fighting, or hide, opting to ‘upload’ themselves into a computer program and continue to experience a virtual existence. But then, a third opportunity presents itself.

***“Isabel of the Fall” by Ian R. MacLeod (Interzone)
In an artificial habitat, strict roles have sprung up, dictated by dogmatic religion. In the face of this, two young women, priestesses of different cults, secretly happen to meet and become friends – in the process breaking all the rules. The story aims for high tragedy, but I felt like it tried a little too hard.

***“Precious Mental” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s)
This was OK, I suppose. It didn’t really grab me, emotionally. This long story (it’s a novella) is set in Reed’s ‘Great Ship’ universe, which is new to me. Most people are cyborgs, traveling between stars, living unimaginably long lifespans. But even for this world, Pamir has lived a long life, leaving his former identity behind and living incognito as a lowly mechanic. However, one being may be suspicious – enough so that Pamir is kidnapped and shanghaied into working on an alien propulsion drive. It makes some sense that a story of such epic scope might feel a bit leisurely and unhurried – but I ended up just feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing.

****“Two Sisters in Exile” by Aliette de Bodard (Solaris Rising 1.5)
A young woman from a proud and violent warrior culture has been sent to return the hull of a sentient ship to its people; to explain that it was killed by accident and avoid causing a diplomatic incident. She disdains the culture she visits as peaceful and weak – but despite herself is impressed with what she sees upon her visit. I loved the ending here – the conclusions that the main character comes to are perfectly in line with her culture – but it’s left up to the reader to wonder whether or not she is correct.

***“Lode Stars” by Lavie Tidhar (The Immersion Book of SF)
A tale set in an odd far-future full of biotech, uploaded ghosts, and religious worship of black holes… (sort of). A woman seeks to investigate the mysteries that led to her father’s death. (maybe). Original, but doesn’t feel quite like a finished piece.

****“Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld)
A military general (who may be a posthumous clone) is sent on a mission to try to convince her ex-wife to reconsider her goals and actions as a seditionist leader. Gradually, the reasons that the woman has decided to rebel against the power structure that her former partner belongs to are revealed – with complex implications as far as ethics and interpersonal relationships… The point here is to raise questions, but I did wish the ending was more conclusive…

****“The Tear” by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
Beautiful, beautiful writing here. A pleasure to read just for the poetry of McDonald’s language. Not only that, but a strikingly original portrayal of two very interesting cultures from the panhuman diaspora. All that said – I’m not positive the structure here completely worked. I loved the set-up, and the relationship between two young men who are forced to grow apart due to elements of their culture. I loved the introduction of the nano-aliens, and the results of first contact. However, the piece keeps going, expanding scope and changing focus – and I’m not sure the latter part meshes perfectly with the first part. I still really enjoyed it.

ARC provided by NetGalley – and greatly appreciated! As always, my opinions are unaffected by the source of the book.


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Honor’s Paradox – PC Hodgell ***

Oops – I missed one!
I got this through interlibrary loan, and thought it was #5 – but it’s #6. However, I didn’t actually notice that I missed one until I was done. (Yes, there were a few mystifying bits – but Hodgell’s writing tends toward those.) Jame is still a randon cadet, establishing her leadership and demanding respect in a difficult situation. I actually thought this one flowed a lot more smoothly than ‘To Ride a Rathorn.’

The main theme here is the one referred to in the title: is it more honorable to show loyalty, upholding your vows and your position – or is it more honorable to do what one believes is the correct thing?

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Disturbed by Her Song – Tanith Lee ****

Black Eyed Susan
A hotel chambermaid develops an obsession with the possibly-ghostly figure of a lovely woman, seen wandering the halls. In the face of her fascination, her ambiguous and exploitative relationships with her coworkers and employers fade into unimportance.

The Kiss
A brief piece about a woman who tells a sentimental lie to avoid a gay-bashing. Old-fashioned, but unfortunately the issues it brings up poignantly are all-too-current.

Ne Que V’on Desir
A man has a brief affair on a train, but his perceptions of what has happened are abruptly changed by hearsay.

The x’s Are Not Kisses
When her girlfriend leaves on a trip to see an old friend, a woman is consumed with a burning jealousy, fanned into suicidal flames by the discovery of some frankly erotic letters found in her private office. Ends on a sweet and love-affirming note – but the protagonist here is simply too weak and annoying for me to have any sympathy.

A strange, short piece about an unloved young boy, the son of a prostitute, and his first awareness of his own sexuality.

Death and the Maiden
A woman’s interest is caught by the elegant Vera Blaze, the society wife of the renowned and scandalous Pre-Raphaelite painter John Blaze. Unfortunately for her, Vera requests that she seduce her daughter, a bizarrely troubled young woman who harbors an unhealthy obsession with her ethically repugnant father. This one reminded me of Elizabeth Hand…

Fleurs en Hiver
Short-short about a brief fascination with a woman glimpsed in a restaurant.

The Crow
Echoes of fairytales resound in this short piece about two men, sharing a troubled relationship, who meet an old man in the woods.

Disturbed by her Song
An actress spends her life in love with a colleague who never notices, let alone reciprocates, her feelings. Like in so many of Lee’s pieces, she does an excellent job of elevating sad – even pathetic – human emotions and behaviors to the realm of the mythic.

I suppose I should mention the conceit of this book, which is that the stories are supposedly from the point of view, not of ‘Tanith Lee’ but of her characters, Esther Garber and Judas Garbah. Personally, I find it wholly unnecessary: these stories are clearly by Lee and no one else, and do not differ from her other work in any notable way.
That’s just fine, since I love Lee’s writing

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Alias Hook – Lisa Jensen ****

I picked this up ¬because I’m one of the seemingly-few people who’ve read Jensen’s previous novel, ‘Witch From the Sea,’ which was a highly entertaining historical fantasy of the swashbuckling life. Here, she continues on with the pirate theme, writing a riff on ‘Peter Pan’ from the point of view of Captain Hook.
I have to admit that I had my doubts about the premise. Stories based in another author’s world are often suspect: there are so many ways in which it can go horribly wrong. Probably due to my attitude, it took me a little while to get into the book – but then, it fully won me over.

Captain Hook, the story posits, was Captain Hookbridge – a wealthy, 17th century rake who lived a cruel and dissolute life as a privateer until the curse of a woman he’d wronged sent him into the Neverland. Trapped and unable to die, he endures endless years as the nemesis of Peter Pan that J.M. Barrie’s stories introduced us all to. But one day, the unthinkable happens – an adult woman is found in Neverland. Parrish is escaping the trauma she endured as a nurse during WWII – but no one in Neverland is prepared for what her arrival might mean.

Peter Pan is a particularly difficult story to work with, I think, because it has so much about it to love – while simultaneously being deeply problematic from a modern point of view. I feel that in ‘Alias Hook’ Jensen succeed in capturing the magic that readers such as myself remember from childhood – while simultaneously creating a romantic adventure for adults – which also has a lot to say about what it actually means to ‘grow up.’ Jensen’s message about maturity – specifically ‘manhood’ – is one that a great many people today could stand to take to heart.

As a child – Barrie’s Peter Pan worked for me. The idea of never growing up was undeniably attractive. And, as an adult, ‘Alias Hook’ worked for me. It shows the limitations (and heartlessness) of aspects of childhood [her Pan is a dangerous tyrant in all his innocence]; discusses the problems caused when people don’t learn and grow with the years, and shows the possibility of a richness to life that children have not yet glimpsed. The conclusion is sweet and satisfying, full of the possibility of healing and redemption, without being overly sentimental.

I’m glad to see that, although it might’ve taken quite a while, Jensen’s been picked up by a major publisher. Hopefully more tales of the sea will be forthcoming!

Advance copy of this book was provided by NetGalley. Many thanks for the opportunity to read – as always, my opinion is my own.

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Fathom – Cherie Priest ***

A tale of elemental magic.

A young woman goes to visit a troubled cousin that she barely knows – and nearly immediately, both the women are thrown into the ancient plots and machinations of an ancient water witch and her earth-magic-wielding rival.

The fate of the planet may be at stake – but which of these beings that seek to use humans as pawns should we really be rooting for?

The book does an excellent job of portraying powerful, inhuman forces of nature personified. There’s a nicely eerie, weird feel to it, and strange, lovely imagery.

However, I did feel it would have worked even better if the ‘human’ elements of the story had felt more grounded. There’s a strange, floating timelessness to them, as well as some extreme events introduced very abruptly and never fully explained, that make the non-supernatural elements here feel almost as incomprehensibly alien as the magical ones. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure it fully worked for me.

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The City of Ember – Jeanne DuPrau ***

This is a cute book, but I would’ve liked it better if I were quite a lot younger. It’s an entry into the post-apocalyptic underground-bunker genre, aimed at kids and younger teens.
In a small, poorly-lit city, where no one even remembers the concept of ‘outside,’ 12-year-old Lina is mainly concerned with her new job and her family.

However, the signs are becoming clearer and clearer: Ember’s people are running out of supplies. Soon, the lights may go out for the final time… Lina and her friend Doon run into corruption and mishaps in their quest to find a way out of Ember.

It’s a short book, and ends abruptly, just on the verge of major revelations… (yes, there are sequels).

Not bad, but for adults, I’d recommend the similarly-themed ‘Wool’ over this…

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All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park **

This is one of those cases of a whole being less than the sum of its parts.

There is some good writing here. I’ve had Park’s ‘Princess of Roumania’ on by TBR for a while now, and I’m not revising my plans to read it.

However, this is very explicitly not in the vein of Park’s other novels. It’s more of a piece of writing *about* his novels (and a number of other things). It’s metafiction that explores the differences between (and the intersection of) reality, memory, and imagination.

It’s an ambitious project – and there are interesting ideas in it. But it doesn’t pull together. I read all the way through, hoping that it would – that the random and disparate elements would come together in some kind of philosophical conclusion. But then… it just kind of fizzles out.

As I said, I’m still planning on reading some of the author’s other work – but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start (especially since it seems to refer to and discuss elements of Park’s other published works, expecting a reader’s familiarity with them.)

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy…