Monday, May 30, 2011

Update: Out of Town

Hey all: I'm currently on vacation, so there will be no posting for the rest of the week. Expect to see regular posting resume during the second week of June!

For now, here is a picture of me in Amsterdam! For clarification purposes only, I am the one with flowers on my shirt.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Naamah's Curse

Author: Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Alternate History Fiction
Pages: 537
Warnings: Sexual Harassment, Consensual sex between adults
Series: 7/8(?) in Kushiel's Legacy
Rating: 3.5/5

Jacqueline Carey's "Naamah's Curse" is a reminder that the first requirement of a good book is to be entertaining. It took me over a week to read "The Sword of Shannara", and I had almost nothing else to distract me. In contrast I breezed through "Naamah's Curse" in a day and a half. I won't say I couldn't put it down, but I didn't have to: this book is very easy reading. It picks up immediately after "Naamah's Kiss" with Moirin traveling through psuedo-China (Ch'in) as she chases after Bao.

If you've read the previous book this should come as no surprise, but Moirin is very sexual. She sleeps with almost every major character in the book. It would differentiate this from harlequin romance novels though, as the descriptions of sex aren't terribly explicit, where explicit includes more than flowery euphemisms for vulvae and penises. However if you're uncomfortable with causal sex between members of any gender, avoid this book. You will not enjoy the opinions expressed in this book regarding sexual relations. Luckily for me  I really appreciate her attitude towards sex, although I was not interested in "Kushiel's Dart".

Something that did leave me concerned was the portrayals of the psuedo -Chinese (Ch'in), -Mongolian (Tartar) and -Bhutanese (Bhodistanese). Warning bells start ringing in my head when a book is written in English about non-English-speaking cultures, even if they're dressed up with different names. Typically such portrayals are stilted, with characters that are presented as over-played caricatures (like Mr. Miyagi from the movie "The Karate Kid", which always makes me cringe). As part of the intended audience instead of the intended subject matter I'm not in a great position to judge how stereotyped the non-native characters are, but I'd welcome critical analysis of it.

The only borrowed culture I do know for sure was one-sided was that of the Russian (Vralians) Christians. I know Carey made a point of stating that the Vralians in the novel were from an intolerant sect of Eastern European Christians, but they were all uniformly incapable of having healthy sex lives. While I have personal qualms about the more extreme sects of Christianity's opinions about sex, I seriously doubt that even the most uptight families are as repressed as Aleski's, and they were the only Vralian family mentioned. More importantly, being prudish isn't the same thing as being hateful. In all of the other civilizations Moirin meets a wide swath of people, while in Vralia she only meets sexually repressed, unhealthy people.

If you'd like an easy to read story, with some mildly interesting characters and a plot, I would encourage you to read this book if it's readily available. I will probably read the conclusion to this trilogy, but I am unlikely to go back and read any of the previous books in the series. However if you're likely to have any disagreements with the philosophy espoused within (that sex is awesome, and can be shared between any two people who are attracted and care about each other) ... I'm sorry. Also you shouldn't read this book.

Questions and Comments Welcome~

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Sword of Shannara

Author: Terry Brooks
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 726
Warnings: Death, some imagery of violence death, Tolkien-clone
Rating: 2.5/5

One of my friends suggested I look into Terry Brook's Shannara book series, but it took me no small amount of time to decide which book to start with. After a bit of research I gave up trying to be systematic and settled on "The Sword of Shannara". It's the first book in the series Terry Brooks wrote, although it takes place towards the end of the universe's chronology.

I swear, "The Sword of Shannara" is a clone of Tolkien's style, archetypes and plot. This goes beyond the basic similarities most high fantasy books share. Some of the similarities were positive, but Brooks also copied some of my least favorite aspects of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The wholesale borrowing of major plot points is the most obvious.

The plot is as follows: A mysterious wizard druid arrives in the peaceful Shire Shady Vale and informs Frodo Shea that only he is qualified to destroy wield the legendary One Ring Sword of Shannara so it can't be used by the evil Sauron can be used to kill the Warlock Lord. He and a few close companions travel to an official meeting in Rivendell Culhaven, the home of the elves dwarves. Along the way they are harrowed by Ring Wraiths Skull Bearers. There the main characters band with a group of humans, elves and dwarves to quest for the ring sword. During their travels they shortcut through the cursed mines of Moria Hall of Kings. After a certain amount of running around which I can't be bothered to remember, the party gets split into at least two groups culmination of the story. The majority of the humans, elves and dwarves converge on the kingdom of Rohan Callahorn, where they must free the king from the evil influence of Wormtongue Stenmin. Then his people retreat to Helm's Deep Tyrsis, a highly fortified keep where they attempt to hold back the forces of evil. After a long and painful siege, the elven army comes to their rescue, and the army of Mordor the Skull Kingdom is defeated. At the same time the main character and his stalwart sidekick Samwise Panamon Creel travel to the heart of enemy territory with their guide Gollum Keltset to destroy the ring use the sword.  After a certain amount of soul-searching, their mission is accomplished, and everyone who's still alive goes home!

To be fair, I did simplify some points to emphasize their similarity and skipped over some of the more boring fight scenes in LotR. However with only mild embellishment most of the major plot points of "The Sword of Shannara" are a name-change away from those in "The Lord of the Rings". On the plus side, that meant the plot was solid, and could be described using words like "epic" and "legendary". On the down side, I've already read LotR. For anyone else who also just happens to have read Tolkien's trilogy, there will be zero sense of suspense generated by Brook's book. For instance, when the heroes traveled into the Hall of Kings, I already knew there was a terrifying monster lurking at the end. The surprise? It was a water-monster instead of a fire-monster! There is very little different material, so I'll try to avoid revealing any more of it.

I can't fault Brooks for using the same species list as Tolkien, since almost every high fantasy writer draws from said list. I believe there are good fantasy books that feature species aside from Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Gnomes out there. I do! Brandon Sanderson, back me up here.

Another characteristic of Tolkien's that I would have preferred Brooks left alone was his overly wordy prose. It took me almost a year to finish "The Two Towers", because I just lost the motivation to read it three times and didn't come back to it for months. Brook's first book is a little better, but I found myself skipping over huge chunks of descriptive paragraphs to get to dialogue. My interest in hearing more about some of the characters who diverge from Tolkien's template warred with my disinterest in his prose. The result was that I finished this book, but I didn't like it all that much. I don't want to read any more novels written by Brooks unless I can get some assurance he stopped trying to be Tolkien.

Some of the areas I thought Brooks shined as an author was when he left Tolkien alone. I enjoyed all of the new characters Brooks created, like Panamon Creel, and Menion Leah. I thought they were most interesting personalities because they didn't have analogues to Tolkien's characters and because Brooks spent more time fleshing them out. I also liked that "The Sword of Shannara" is set on a post-nuclear-apocalypse Earth, which was a relatively new story idea in 1967.

If you liked Tolkien, you'll like Terry Brooks. You'll definitively like "The Sword of Shannara" for all the same reasons "The Lord of the Rings" tickled your fancy. Enjoy rich fantasy worlds, with an author who dreamed up a timeline lasting thousands of years before or after the book you're reading? Like the reassuringly familiar structure of high fantasy, the straightforwardness of Good versus Evil in Black Cloaks? Have a crush on elves? Good, you should read this when you have some free time. If you've already read LotR and you don't want to read it again, stay away from this. Go read some science fiction, for goodness sake.

Questions, Comments and Kvetching Welcome~

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: Heirs of Mars Preludes

Author: Joseph Robert Lewis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 28
Warnings: Gynoids!
Rating: 3.5/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of this book through the  LibraryThing Member Giveaway. Thanks!

So, this is a set of three short stories that all take place prior to "Heirs of Mars". Adorably, their names correspond roughly to the setting of each story, and create a nice triumvirate (Heaven, Earth, Hell). Be warned though, these stories are quite short, I blew through them in one sitting.

The first story, "To Reign in Heaven", is set in the space around Venus, where the infamous Mother has recently come into sentience and is sending her Cartesian children packing for Mars. The bulk of the story centers around India, a gynoid left behind inside the weather satellite that is Mother. India was my favorite character of the anthology actually; she's got immense strength of character and painfully human emotions to back it up. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, but this story certainly suggested there could be an official sequel to "Heirs of Mars".

"To Walk the Earth" was another snapshot, this time of Victoria, the woman who refused to go to Mars with Asher. Victoria was a strong character as well, but strong to the point of being inflexible, a flaw I can appreciate if not enjoy reading about. The premise was classic sci-fi, about Victoria and Asher questioning humanity's current dependence on media for stimulation. The ending didn't sit too well with me because I thought it was a little over the top.

I enjoyed "To Serve in Hell" the most, because it showcased Lewis' ability to present two opposing viewpoints of the same event realistically. It is from the perspective of the farmers who beat up Asher in the beginning of "Heirs of Mars", who I originally had no sympathy for. Their ringleader's name is Neil, by the way. Experiencing Neil's point of view was painful and illuminating. My conclusion is that Neil is still a dick, but I can sympathize with what drove him to be that person.

There are two ways to evaluate "Heirs of Mars: Preludes": as a stand-alone anthology and as an expansion of the original novel. I enjoyed the set of short stories as an expansion because I wanted to hear more about the characters. Naturally anyone who liked "Heirs of Mars" will enjoy these stories as well. However I do think it's possible for someone to enjoy them without having read the novel. Lewis does make a point of developing India, Victoria and Neil enough that they can breathe without the life support of the original book, although I don't think they'd be as rewarding a read.

Comments and Questions Welcome~