Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Heirs of Mars

Author: Joseph Robert Lewis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 275
Warnings: References to terrorism, death, descriptions of really gross injuries
Rating: 4/5

I really have to read more Science Fiction! This book only proves that I'm overlooking a simply fantastic genre. This book is chock full of poignantly cruel ethical dilemmas as well as a rich cast with conflicting morals and goals. The setting was internally realistic, with an attention to detail on the science that the engineer in me loves. I am going to read so much more Joseph Lewis.

The story was a little difficult to follow at first blush, with three major storylines and three sets of characters with separate sets of ambitions and histories. The first group to appear are Asher, Priya and Martin. Asher and Priya are two humans with a shared tragedy, and Martin's the comic relief. In the next chapter we're introduced to Holm and his robot cohorts, who haven't yet been vilified in the story, and never really do with Holm there to narrate from their (his?) point of view. A little later Selene and Niobi are introduced, a pretty awesome pair of rangers, the bounty hunters/mercenaries of Mars. All three groups offer a different perspective on what's happening on the red planet.

Naturally the situation isn't simple either. There is a lot of tension on Mars since the development of "clones", mental copies of terminal human professionals. They're intended to replace stressed out colonizers so it's a feature rather than a bug that they can't learn anything new, or deviate from their donor's personality. As if that wasn't cool enough the story follows the narrative path to the defeat of the final robot rebellion, artificial personalities that are slightly tweaked copies of Mother, a satellite over Venus that became sentient. Either of these concepts could have been a story unto itself! Together the gimmicks lie a little thick on the ground, but that's the worst I can say about Lewis' book.

After finishing this book I spent some time thinking about what makes a being sentient. Technically the clones are alive, but they are incapable of changing at all from the moment they're created. One of the clones, Toshiro, suffers immensely because the last thoughts of his donor were terror of the robots but he can't hack his own brain enough to stop having nightmares. I consider my sentience is a result is my ability to adapt my personality, even my way of thinking. I can try to be anything, but the clones can't. Does that make them human? Jut how cruel is it to create something that can realize they're frozen in time? The robots from Venus make a much better case for a truly sentient being. They have diverging goals from Mother and they occasionally defect. Who counts as alive? I have no idea.

"The Heirs of Mars" roused these questions in me, but they didn't seek to answer them. Very few of the characters voiced their opinion, although many of the decisions characters made reflected their personal opinions. No one... preached about it though, so in the end I felt the question of which AI's were sentient was my personal problem. In fact, the climax of the novel took all of this "sentience" stuff as unnecessary. The primary question was more "who deserves to live on Mars", and that was answered easy enough: whoever can survive there.

The novel finished after the defeat of the last independent robot, but nothing is really resolved. It's likely that time (a few generations) will give Martians the maturity to deal with clones kindly. Asher is still suffering from the loss of his daughter, and he's still digging at the past. The hope is that everyone can deal with their issue and live happily ever after on the red planet, (what? this is very surprising to me) but at the end of "The Heirs of Mars" none of this has happened. I can't help it, but I prefer that sort of ending to some sort of "happily ever after" nonsense.

If you remove all of the science fiction window-dressing, this was well-written story about a lot of people during the worst week of their life. Sometimes they came through, sometimes they didn't. The human vs. robot storyline was significantly less fun than the clones vs. humans one, so I was pleased that more time was spent following it. I flew through this book, and it's because there were so many little moments when I felt Lewis did things just right. This book reminded me of my love of the genre, and this author impressed me on many fronts. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Among Thieves, A Tale of Kin

Author: Douglas Hulick
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 414
Warnings: References to death, descriptions of fighting.
Rating: 2.5/5

"Among Thieves" is the story of Drothe, an information gatherer who works for a gang boss called Nicco. However Drothe is much more than his ties to Nicco, and this story follows him through the usual treacharous underworld hijinks as he gets beaten up, crosses swords with some pretty crazy villains, breaks (and makes) promises and eventually rises to fame and power in the sprawling city of Ildrecca.

There was one aspect of this book that struck me early on, and really brought down my interest. Initially the "sleazy underworld where the main character has a heart 'o gold" scenario irritated me because it's cliched, but in addition to that Hulick would stop the action and Drothe would to give a brief explanation from his first person perspective every time a new word was mentioned. This takes the reader out of the action, it's heavy-handed and it's not necessary! If Hulick couldn't express the meaning of underworld jargon with context, he shouldn't have used it. This drove me up a wall, and I couldn't get interested in the book until it stopped.

Once we moved out of the introductory phase of the story, I was able to appreciate some of the well-written parts. Hulick creates a multi-facated world, with political, religious and magical systems that I'm dying to hear more about. He also wrote some of the most convincing sword-fighting I've ever read.

This was primarily a story about Drothe, a completely un-collected, stressed-out Nose who survives a unhealthy amount of close calls. His best friend and sidekick Bronze Degean was a good counter-balance (and probably the reason so much of Drothe's schemes worked).  I liked Deagan's solid competence more than Drothe's suaveness, but both were fun characters.

The overarching plot was pretty good too. I think some of the page-to-page details could have been better staged, but once I figured out the big picture, I was pretty interested. It's a good big picture, with all the right plot twists (some obvious and some not) and a great deal of information about Drothe's potential left unanswered. There are also a huge amount of double-crossing and Hulick handled this well.

I am naturally suspicious of books that center around a "criminal underworld" element. It's probably unfair to some really good writers out there who love writing about thieves (or assassins), but I've found it's an excellent tool for cutting down on the number of bad books I read. In general I avoid fantasy books that borrow a big part of their setting from something that's overdone, because it's usually a sign the book is written by a bad author trying to hide their lousy writing with a bunch of flash, or a new author who isn't secure in their own narrative voice.

Thus I started reading this book with tensed shoulders, waiting for the author to trip up and write something insanely stupid. That didn't happen. Sure, there are a few things that I think Hulick could polish, but there was nothing in this book that made me just want to set it down and walk away (which has happened before). What actually happened was the inverse. It took me about 150 pages, but I this book eventually drew me in, despite my resistance. The book improved in quality towards the end. The author's note indicated that Hulick wrote this book over several years (and in between much of his life) and I noticed the improvement in his writing. I look forward to Douglas Hulick's next book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 526
Warnings: Descriptions of violence, references to abuse
Series: 3/3 in the Millenium Trilogy
Rating: 4/5

The final installment of the Millennium Trilogy begins immediately after "The Girl who Played with Fire" as Lisbeth Salander is transported to a hospital in Gosseberga. The book climaxes with Salander's trial, but the meat of the story is the investigation of Zalachenko undertaken by Michael Blomkvist. A huge part of this book goes into answering any questions I had about the who, what, when and how of Zalachenko's exploits and the people who covered it up. True to form, Larsson reveals all.

Aside from the primary Salander/Blomkvist plot line, Erika Berger had a great story arc following her new job as editor-in-chief at SMP, the conservative-ist, boy's club-ist newspaper in Sweden (maybe? I hope so). Berger's plot line, which has no bearing on the main story arc, fits in nicely with theory that Larsson's books all have some feminist theme.

The first book in the trilogy focused on physical violence against women, with the rape of Lisbeth being a prime example. The second book emphasizes gendered psychological prejudice in the form of some really judgmental publicity during the police investigation and roughly everything Detective Faste did (man he was an asshole). The last book's theme was a little harder to guess, but I think it's about how women fight back. Obviously a court trial is one way for women to defend themselves against illegal attacks (which is what Salander does despite being the one on trial), and Berger's plot line is all about standing up for herself SMP.

Salander spends much of the book in a hospital bed, which means she played a smaller role this time. However there were a lot of other awesome characters who took up the slack, one of which was Berger. Monica Figuerola, a confident workout fanatic and Security Police agent, becomes a fixture when Sรคpo begins an investigation of the mysterious "Section" within their ranks. Annika Giannini, Blomkvist's little sister, takes charge as Lisbeth's lawyer and rocks at it. Several other characters are also pretty cool women: Sonja Modig is still present, Malin Erikson takes over for Berger has head editor at Millenium, and... you know what? I think there are more female characters than I should mention by name! In fact, I can't think of a single evil, incompetent or even mean woman in this entire book! It's unrealistic, but it's so nice to read about non-stereotyped women that I absolutely refuse to complain.

I loved reading about Salander's revenge towards the end of the book, where Giannini just crushes Salander's accusers in the courtroom. I grinned like a fool during the entire thing, because it's so gratifying to see her win. Salander personally never expected to have anyone on her side, but it's so wonderful to see the justice system cover her and in general to see good things happen to a person who deserves it.

Lisbeth is obviously by far and away my favorite part of this book, and I felt that in "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" Larsson drew our attention to Salander's weaknesses. As a result of her injuries she spends a lot of time relying on other people. Salander is completely out of her element, and it shows when talks with anyone, let alone when she tries to thank her friends. She is really, horrendously awful with people.

So many awesome women! I'll miss reading books where roughly half of the characters are female and none of them are damsels in distress. On the other hand, I am okay reading less about violence against women, which is why the first book in this series was so rough on me. Luckily I was still interested after finishing "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the trilogy got better and better for me. I know the sheer about of detail is annoying for a lot of people, but it never bothered me that much, and it even works in Larsson's favor in this book, because there is a lot of information about Zalachenko that I wanted to know. I had a lot of empathy for many of his characters, even Blomkvist. "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" was definitively my favorite of the Millenium series, and I'm a little sad that I've finished them all. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

Author: Padma Viswanathan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 616
Warnings: Very few, actually.
Rating: 1.5/5

This book chronicles 70 years of Brahmin family life in Tamil Nadu (one of the southernmost states in India). I almost didn't finish reading this book, most likely since the prominent characters didn't come into play until much later on because they had to reach adulthood. At about the halfway point the book stopped being a litany of who begot who and the various players started interacting, and in my estimation this book went from a 1/5 to a 1.5/5.

A lot of this book was focused on the ceremony of being Brahmin in southern India, and I was incredibly pleased not to be treated like a tourist. This meant that since I have no familiarity with any aspect of Indian culture, I also spent the first half a the book wondering what was going through everyone's head. I would not be surprised if a lot of information flew right over my head while I was trying to get my bearings. I am completely okay with this, since I didn't pick up this book to gawk at anybody or undermine their traditions. At absolute best, I am now in a better position to educate myself about Brahmin and Tamil culture, and I plan to do so in a polite and respectful way. After reading a few historical books that stomp all over indigenous cultures (I'm looking at you, Sherlock Holmes) this book's attitude (considering it was written for an English-reading audience) was a welcome respite.

Most of the plot of this book was focused on the interplay between the family members, which was primarily about getting married, having children and living happily; there was also an undercurrent of discord beyond the normal family disagreements over the country's political shift. The vertex of this conflict is between Sivakami, the conservative matriarch of the family and her vindictive son Varium. All of this drama, as it were, was understated and subtle, as family foulness usually is. My response to this was that I wanted to slowly trudge through family heartbreak, like most human beings I don't have to read about it. More than that, the book's plot was just too close to boring to appeal to me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: The Girl who Played with Fire

Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Pages: 471
Warnings: References to violence and prostitution, graphic descriptions of dead bodies
Series: 2/3 in the Millennium Trilogy
Rating: 3.5/5

This book picks up almost two years after "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (18 months later to be exact, and I know that because it was repeated like 5 times). After a brief interlude in the Caribbean, Lisbeth Salander is accused of killing several people. The first half of the story leaves you in complete suspense about whether or not she committed murder, and the second half has of several major revelations that clarify her relationship to the murders in the beginning of the book.

Compared to the previous book in the series, which took place decades after the mystery being investigated, Stieg Larsson's second book is... just as slow paced. I was surprised at how plodding the story was, considering it was during an active police investigation. I was expecting a lot more action, and I did not get it until the last 20 pages so be prepared for that. The pace makes sense when you consider Larsson likes to describe obscure details about scenes. For instance, when Lisbeth was buying apartment furniture I was lucky enough to read exactly which model of kitchen tables, chairs and bed-stands she bought. This emphasis on minutiae isn't all bad though, because I thought it lent an intimacy to my relationship with the characters. I mean, your friends will tell you what type of bed-stands they buy too.

Good news to anyone who made it through the first book but was bothered by the violence: there is much less in this book! I get the feeling Larsson is creating a feminist theme for each of his books. The first in the trilogy was about physical violence and the theme of this one was unconscious bias/prejudice. Basically there were a lot of assholes in this book. Two prominent characters, one from Milton Security and one from the police force, were almost comically homophobic and sexist; most of the background cast was at worst mildly prejudiced. Since every women in the world has faced at least one such asshole, this form of discrimination was much easier to stomach.

Other awesome news: Lisbeth Salander is still kicking ass! This book was much more focused on her actions and her past, which is the primary reason I loved it. It was lovely to see characters come out of the woodwork to defend and support her. There can always be more badass women.

While Larsson's style of writing is not my favorite, for the reason mentioned, I think he has great skill creating realistic and likable characters.  This is where that overuse of detail comes into play. When I learn exactly what's in Lisbeth Salander's satchel (which happens at one point), the mundane details make her more realistic. Larsson portrays his characters like he's a little embarrassed to let us see their private lives, which feels so natural that you relate to them more like an actual human being, not a plot device.

Just like the previous book, the plot is focused more on the motivations behind the murders than on the murder part. Just like the previous book, interesting things happen, but they are all packed in the last hundred or so pages. Again Lisbeth Salander is freaking fantastic and Michael Blomkvist is mediocre. If you liked the first book for these reasons, you'll like this book. If you liked Salander more than Blomkvist, you'll like this book even more!