Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: Young Miles

Author: Lois Mcmaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: 1-3/22+
Warnings: Ableism
Rating: 4.5/5

There is something fantastically wonderful about this series. I'm revealing my preferences here, but these books have a feminist sensibility that is beyond refreshing. In addition they're all short with thrilling plot-lines! It makes it hard to put a Vorkosigan book down once you've started. Still, there is so much worthwhile going on in these books. They're fantastic! Check 'em out.

I should point out that "Young Miles" is actually an omnibus of Vorkosigan books, starting with the novel in which Miles is the youngest and continuing with two short stories in internal chronological order. In the case of this omnibus all three stories are also in real-world chronological order, but that isn't always the case. I think it's pretty cool that a few of the books that take place later in Miles' timeline were written before parts of "Young Miles" (publishing order can be found here). My general stance on anthologies from a single author is "No, thank you," because all the books are written by the same author around the same period of time, so they share similar themes and ideas. However this anthology (less so than "Miles in Love")  feels like it was written by several different authors.The staggered nature of each story in the publishing order does a good job of cutting out any feeling of monotony.

For this reason I'd prefer to offer a short review for each book:

The Warrior's Apprentice (1986)
This was the weakest book in "Young Miles" in terms of plot. Looking back, it felt like Bujold had a very specific set of things that she had already determined would happen in this book and had to fit them in. However, it took a while for me to reach that realization: the plot is rushed in the same way as a movie chase screen. While reading, I paused maybe once in the 200-some pages to wonder if everything was falling into place just a little too ridiculously perfect, but then I immediately dived back in.

In terms of characterization it was a fantastic hook, clearly showcasing the best aspects of Miles Naismith: how brilliant, charismatic and goddamn lucky he is. If you need a reason to read these books, Miles is it. He's one of the greatest main character's I've ever read. Sure, he's a walking cliche, but the Vorkosigan books in general and "The Warrior's Apprentice" in particular serve as a reminder why cliches exist: when done well, they're irresistible.

The Mountains of Mourning (1989)
This is a very touching short story, but I don't think murder mysteries are Bujold's (or Mile's) strong suits. I found the plot good, but not great. All the characters beyond Miles were only mildly interesting (aside from Ninny, obviously) and the conclusion of this story was far sadder than I was expecting.

I sometimes imagine the Barrayarans as slightly British in the sense that they cling pretty desperately to their monarchy, and they all have an attitude of stiff upper lip when it comes to personal tragedy. Many of the characters across the Vorkosigan universe never speak openly of exactly what's bothering them, and it lends a sense of authenticity to everything. Out here in the real world, few people will open up and spill their deepest secrets after you've known them for a few days, but the characters in "The Mountains of Mourning" did. I recognize the brevity of the story is partly at fault, but it still bothers me a little.

Something wonderfully positive I'd like to say about this book is ahead of it's time in representing ableism.

The Vor Game (1990)
This was my favorite book of the "Young Miles" omnibus! It has all the same rushed, thrilling plot as "The Warrior's Apprentice" but it didn't seem as outrageous. One of the strongest points about Bujold's writing is her ability to create a sense of suspense that lasts an entire novel. There was no point in this story where I didn't desperately want to know what was going to happen next.

Bujold is also good at creating a memorable cast. Tung, Bel and Gregor are all distinct, interesting (fictional) people who it's possible actually care about. Miles is the creme de la creme of poignant characters, as you might imagine. He reminds me a little of Ender from "Ender's Game" with his unflappable charm and brilliance. Unlike Ender he's around 19 at this point and significantly more interesting for it.

"The Warrior's Apprentice" and "The Mountains of Mourning" located free online.

Similar Authors and Books
"The Dispossesed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Usrula K. Le Guin
"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review and Recommendation: Delusions of Gender

Author: Cordelia Fine
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 338
Warnings: Eh
Rating: 5/5

I can not recommend this book highly enough. This was one of the coolest books I have ever read. I wish everyone would read it! There's a wealth of information how we think that I find fascinating. Some of the theories suggested are a bit scary, and some feel like a missing piece of a puzzle falling into place. Beyond the arresting subject matter, I appreciated Cordelia Fine's excellent writing style and the sense of purpose it gives her book. This book is personally appealing to me, but I believe everyone could take advantage of it's demand to see gender as a much more flexible concept than our parents led us to believe.

First and foremost, as I said above, awesome information. I spent no small amount of time after reading this book  actually following the footnotes to studies. I'm not going to pretend I read them all, but I was emboldened to critically consider the methods used to collect data in popularization, even those that Fine referenced. I am also more aware of those really irritating assumptions about an entire gender's mental capacity. I really hate those. If I heard someone say that all Asian people are worse at math than white people, I sure and heck wouldn't just accept that.

Fine's writing style was also just what I wanted. Her prose is witty, interesting and her conclusions are unabashed. All of her theories are backed up with a chain of evidence presented in reasonable journal articles, but she takes time to pepper her prose with anecdotal evidence. These asides keep "Delusions of Gender" from being a dry textbook and make the ideas Fine endorses (that ladies aren't inherently empathetic to everyone, stupid or more irrational than anyone else) more accessible. After all, we're not talking about ancient history or hypothetical people. This book posits theories about people right now, about culture as you know it.

So, if you're a feminist, or if you don't call yourself that but get frustrated when someone suggests women are "just bad at math" read this book. You'll love it. If you may have said women are just naturally bad at math, but when asked why realize your only answer is "because", check out this book. You might like it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Ember and Ash

Author: Pamela Freeman
Genre: YA Fantasy
Pages: 498
Warnings: N/A
Rating: 2/5

I don't have a strong endorsement of this book. There were some wonderfully entertaining qualities to her prose, particularly the well-developed setting, probably because this book is a one-off of her Castings trilogy. However the characters were a real weak point for me. I had trouble distinguishing their personalities, and I didn't care too much for any of them aside from Martine (Ember's mother).

Freeman's setting is top-notch. The environment created by the local gods who oversee matters local matters like death with the Powers who function as the Elements at their most animated was lovely. I appreciate the depth that went into them, as well as the myriad of people who communicate, worship and work for them. I got the feeling Freeman created a complete world and only showed us the bits we needed to see, which I love.

However, there were some really annoying aspects of this book that I want to caution readers about. There is a host of side-characters, and it's really obvious they have a sub-plot created especially for them with no real value to the Ember/Ash storyline. The sense of urgency created by the sub-plot involving Arvid (Ember's father) was just unnecessary. I was also irritated by the scene where Ember, Ash, Holly and several unnamed guards left the Last Domain's capital. It seemed sloppy to me that anyone reading that scene knew the "unnamed" guards were going to die, and soon, to emphasize how dangerous it was. I completely respect an author who's willing to kill off characters, but this was so obvious a plot point I couldn't take it seriously. Mean as this sounds, if Freeman can't bother to introduce the readers to a set of guards, why are we supposed to care if they're hurt? Altogether, I didn't see the same attention to detail in the smaller plot points of "Ember and Ash" that I so enjoyed in the setting.

I have to reiterate that the characterization in this book wasn't top notch. I expect a lot from my fantasy books, and interesting, believable characters are a big part of that. While some of the characters in "Ember and Ash" were likable enough, but I couldn't tell their internal monologues apart. On a much more personalized note, I thought the separation of Ember and Ash was ill conceived and story ended just when things were getting sexy.

I thought this was a reasonable bit of fluff-fiction, and I'm interested to see what else Pamela Freeman writes in the future. It was a fun read while it lasted, so if you've got the time and you like elementals, I would suggest this book.

Things I'm curious about: Did anyone else hate Arvid? Is there any saucy Ember/Ash fanfiction, hidden away in a dark and dusty corner of the internet? Can anyone explain what was up with Ice? I know the assumption that elements are mercurial was worked into the plot early, but still.