Book Review: Fortune’s Pawn, by Rachel Bach

cover of Fortune's Pawn

Fortune’s Pawn is the first book in The Paradox Series, and it is absolutely yummy if you are into light space opera with a tough, smart heroine, some romance, and lots of action.  Which I am, so…yum!

Devi is a mercenary who hopes to reach a high status position as a Devestator, one of the King’s guards.  In order to get promoted, Devi accepts a job guarding a ship that always seems to get into trouble.  The ship has an irritable captain, a mechanic who slaps patches onto the hull with maniacal cheer, a doctor who is a species of alien known for eating humans, and a silent, mysterious young girl who plays chess by herself all the time.  The ship also has a very sexy cook who has lots of secrets.  And, true to its reputation, the ship and/or its crew seems to be in trouble almost all of the time.

I like that the author respects the reader’s intelligence enough to slip in world-building without spelling things out at length.  This world seems solid, dirty, and real, with complex but believable social structures.  And Devi is a great character.  Although Devi is often rescued, it’s not because she’s a girl.  Her competence as a fighter is well established and she only requires assistance when she is fighting an extremely unusual opponent, an extremely large number of opponents, or both.    She reminded me a bit of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but she’s much more mentally healthy than Starbuck.  Not that she doesn’t have her neurosis, but on the whole she’s socially adept, confident, and not self-destructive.  

The pace of the book is good – there are moments of calm and conversation, there’s humor, there’s tons of action, and some hefty mysteries for Devi to solve.  I don’t think this book is a genre-buster – if you are not interested in science fiction books set in space with lots of action, then give this book a pass.  but if you like tough warrior heroines, sexy, mysterious, kind heroes, and a strong supporting cast in an interesting, action packed setting, don’t miss this book.  My one caveat is that it ends on something of a cliffhanger, so be prepared for that.

Can we just spend a moment to pay proper respect to the cover art?  See what that is?  A picture of a woman, that does not focus on her boobs or her butt!  I love this cover art so very much.  Over on orbit.net you can read this entry by the illustrator (Kirk Benshoff) about how he made the art for the series.  It’s beautiful, it fits the concept, it fits the character, it tells the reader at a glance who the book is about.  Kudos, Kirk Benshoff.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Kerry Sieh

photo of Kerry SiehQuick!  Think of a LGBT scientist!  I drew a blank at Alan Turing.  But of course history is full of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender scientists.  Historically, the sexual orientations of some scientists, as with other historical figures, is a matter of conjecture – in some case conjuncture backed by a lot of evidence, in some case not so much.  Historical scientists who were likely to be either gay or bi-sexual include Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Francis Bacon, and Alexander von Humbolt.

Today scientists, especially those in the US, are more likely to be open about their orientation.  Kerry Sieh is an openly gay scientist who studies geology and seismology.  Dr. Sieh did most of his work in California before being offered a position as Director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore.  Dr. Sieh was excited about the post but had to establish that he would be able to live openly as a gay man in a country where a law criminalizing homosexuality is still on the books.  ‘I’m no crusader, but I’m going to be myself…I would not have come here if my partner could not have come with me, ” he told Straits Times in 2008.

Dr. Sieh focuses his work on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, with a goal of creating practical plans and solutions to reduce suffering in case of disaster.  He invented the field of paleosiesmology, which involves using geologic layers and formations to understand active faults.  In Asia, he has studied the Sunda megathrust, an undersea fault line, to predict future quakes and tsunamis.

For more information about Dr. Sieh, you can check out this article “Senior Scientists enjoy New Latitude at Singapore Earth-Science Center”.  This was my major source for this blog entry.  I found more details about his work at the Nanyang Technical University webpage.

Friday Book Club: Dracula and The Angel in the House

SWT-Book-Clubs Once upon a time, there was a poet with the rather wonderful name of Coventry Patmore,  He published a long poem in installments between 1854-1862.  This poem, called “The Angel in the House”, laid out an image of womanhood that became the Victorian ideal.

‘The Angel in the House’ ideal was based on the premise that women were superior to men morally and that their role was to provide a stable, serene domestic environment for their husband and their children.  The Victorian Era was a time of great social instability, and men of every socio-economic class were in some way affected by the changes of their society.  The Angel was to provide a sanctuary from a troublesome world, and to provide moral guidance to men and to children.

Believers in the ‘Angel in the House’ ideal believed that a woman should be intelligent and well-educated enough to converse with her husband and teach her children, but she should not engage in intellectual pursuits.  She should not work outside the home and of course her behavior would always be socially proper and sexually pure.  In this ideal, a man lucky enough to be married to an Angel should appreciate her and not treat her badly.  But if he did, she must patiently guide him towards better behavior, and stoically endure her own suffering.

So, let’s talk about Lucy Westnera and Mina Harker, in Dracula.  Lucy Westnera is like that blonde girl in the slasher movie who has (*gasp*) HAD SEX.  Although Lucy is, presumably, a virgin, she’s enough of a flirt that you just know poor Lucy isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.  She’s sweet, she’s kind, all the men adore her, but they like her a little too much, and she likes them a little too much.  She’s not “pure”.

But Mina is the Angel incarnate.  She’s smart, she’s well-educated, she has practical skills, but she is content to use them to assist her man – she has no ambition to strike out on her own as one of those “New Women”.  The “New Women” was a phrase coined towards the end of the Victorian Era that described women who resisted the Angel in the House ideal – they were self-supporting and independent, and often rejected the idea of monogamy.

Mina Harker is also the heart of the group.  When Jonathon is ill, her one thought is to nurse him back to physical and emotional health.  She comforts Lucy’s suitors with supreme tact and kindness.  She is the moral guide of the story, insisting that one should not hate Dracula, but be thankful that with his death he will be restored to God.  Mina is capable with a firearm but chooses to remain in the background both as a matter of strategy (she may be controlled by the Count) and as a matter of temperament.  It is the men’s job to protect her and it is her job to emotionally and spiritually guide the men.

I do think that Stoker plays a bit of a double game in Dracula.  Mina makes fun of the “new woman” but she seems a little envious of them as well.  And in the original manuscript, Lucy says, “I almost envy mother sometimes for her knowledge, when she can talk to people whist I have to sit by like a dumb animal and smile a stereotyped smile till I find myself blushing at being an incarnate lie.  And it is so silly and childish to blush and without reason too.”  This does not appear in the published manuscript, but it, combined with the ambivalent attitude of Mina towards professional women, suggests that Stoker’s views about the roles of women were not as clear-cut as a quick reading of Dracula suggests.

Should you be interested in the original poem by Coventry Patmore, poemhunter.com has the complete poem, “The Angel in the House”.

Personal Aside:  Nathaniel Hawthorne was a huge believer in the ‘Angel in the House’ ideal.  I did my senior thesis on Hawthorne and his views on women.  Mercifully, I’ve forgotten almost everything I’ve written, although I’m left with a strong impression that Hawthorne was a brilliant writer and a colossal jerk.  Hawthorne’s gothic novel House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, has a character, Phoebe, who is a textbook example of the ‘Angel in the House’.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Eye-Spy

Agents of SHIELD logoThis is more like it!  This week’s episode was fun, but also suspenseful, gross, creepy, and emotionally engaging.  I worried during this episode, and I laughed, and I went, “Ewwww!”  So, a good week.

The Good Stuff

This episode set a different tone than the previous episodes. with a creepy opening sequence in which a young black woman encounters a group of strange men with suits, briefcases, and red masks at a street fair.  They end up on the same train, the lights go out, and when they come back on train is full of dead red-faced guys while she is at the station unloading a box of diamonds into her hand.  It’s part horror, part heist.

See?  They're creepy!

See? They’re creepy!

We can thank three things for this week’s success – decent writing that was unafraid to show a story that doesn’t revolve around Our Heroes emotional tics, excellent direction (the opening montage was visually fantastic), and a sublime performance from guest star Pascale Armand, as Akela Amadour.  Here she is, folks:

PASCALE ARMAND

It’s a tribute to the power of tropes that I saw the opening scene as a woman being stalked by creepy guys, when in fact the plot suggests that she stalked them.  And there are lots of other nifty reversal and twists in this episode.  Above all, Armand is such a subtle actress that she single-handedly brings a high level of gravitas to the show, which the actors around her do a great job of keeping it from becoming oppressive.  Akela projects vulnerability, so I felt empathy and worry for her.  She’s tough (physically and mentally – holy shit, that eyeball thing was badass!)  and smart, so I respected her.  And her presence allows for more conflict among the team  – May is genuinely put out with Coulson, the ever-infallible Coulson seems to have made a huge mistake in the past with Akela, and everyone has to do things they aren’t comfortable doing.  So, I laughed plenty during this episode, and had fun, and got to take a much-needed weekly break from Thinking Deep Thoughts, but I also got very invested in what was going on.  Congrats, show!

I’m fond of the fact that this show keeps addressing, and subverting, the idea that the role of an agent is to seduce people.  In the pilot, Skye only uses her womanly wiles to gain an advantage over Ward after he specifically tells her that that will work.  In the next episode, Coulson’s ex tries to seduce him but that just makes him realize that she’s up to something.  In the following episode, Skye attempts wiles again but is informed by the bad guy that he is only interested in her brains.  And in this one, Ward has to seduce a man.  Now, I’m annoyed that Ward would balk at the idea of seducing a man.  He’s been an agent for ages and I find it hard to believe that he hasn’t had to do it before.  But, I find it hilarious that the problem isn’t really that he has to seduce a man, it’s that he has to seduce a man who is probably straight, and that the answer to this conundrum is to try to make friends.  Yes, Ward, friends.  It’s in the dictionary.  Look it up.

Agent May is extra scary in the morning.

Agent May is not amused.

The Not As Good Stuff

I still don’t understand why Fitz and Simmons are doing eye surgery.  They don’t understand it either.  Is it actually possible that no one on the planet but me, Fitz, and Simmons understands the difference between being able to build a bomb and being able to cut someone’s eye out without doing unintentional damage?  I mean, anyone can cut out an eyeball, but putting it back, or even leaving it out and not having your patient bleed to death through their eye socket – that’s tricky.  I’m sorry to have to dwell on such a disgusting subject, but oh, my God, the eye horror was through the roof this week, with the needle, and the – OK, see, now I have to go lie down.

Best Lines of the Week

The best line this week comes from the unexpected difficulties of stakeouts, when Fitz, Simmons, and Skye ask Ward where they are supposed to pee (“It was really a long drive! and some of us are nervous”) and he suggests an empty water bottle, prompting Skye to say, “Did you ever learn the part where boy parts and girl parts are different, and our parts aren’t PENISES?”

For other standouts, I give you the following:

Fitz/Simmons giving Ward experimental weaponry:  “In case you miss!  Or…have…multiple..assilants”.

Coulson:  “Next time I get to decide what we call ourselves, OK?”

When Skye mentions being attacked during the stakeout, Coulson says, “That should never have happened”.  and when she brushes it off saying it wasn’t as scary as listening to her parents fight, he says, “That should never have happened either”.  Now I have, like, ALL the emotions.  Excuse me while I just stick my heart back into my chest.

Couple bits of trivia – this episode was directed by…wait for it…Roxann Dawson!  Who played B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager!  Personally, I’m not a fan of Voyager, but I was a fan of that character, so – Hi!  And on a purely personal note, whenever I’m looking for images for these posts I keep finding images of Loki instead.  Oh, Loki.  Ours is a forbidden love.

Wednesday Video: Bill Nye Talks about Talking about Evolution

WednesdayVideoWe’ll miss you on Dancing with the Stars, Bill, but we prefer you doing your science thing.  In this clip, Bill Nye talks about teaching evolution.  His tip – use your passion!  He also explains why the concept of evolution is so difficult for people to grasp – it’s counter to our experience of the scale of time and of how we do things.  Check it out:

Book Review: MaddAddam

cover of MaddAddamMaddAddam is the last book in the brilliant trilogy that includes Oryx and Crake and In the Year of the Flood.  I absolutely recommend it.  I give it many thumbs up.

MaddAddam has a helpful intro that sums up the events of the previous two books in the series.  I had read them, but forgotten almost all the details, so it was helpful to me.  I certainly recommend reading the previous two books, because they are amazing – but I think you can follow MaddAddam without having read them as long as you read “The Story So Far”.

This book concludes the story of a not very far in the future dystopia in which a bioengineered plague has destroyed most of humanity.  As with the other books, this one is dark, violent, gross, beautiful, touching, and has a deep core of optimism and warmth – much more than you’d expect from a story which, at various points in the series, has involved child abuse, rape, murder, mad science at its most disgusting, pollution, and the importance of eating whatever is in the freezer first, before the power goes out.  Of course a lot of this horrified me – it was meant to.  But at the end, I felt hopeful.  The series is demanding, but not nihilistic, despite having many nihilistic characters (particularly in the first two books – the characters in MaddAddam are pretty much focused on survival as a community and a species, not on wreaking havoc).

The other surprising thing about this particular piece of dystopia is that it’s funny.  The story of “Oh Fuck” for instance, is hilarious, as is the understatement of the century, “This is a major cultural misunderstanding.”  This humor helps make the poignancy of the story bearable – and it’s needed, as characters battle grief and confusion and loneliness in their own ways.  But they also make, or keep and strengthen, deep emotional connections to each other.

E.M. Foster said, “Only connect!”  The first book, Oryx and Crake, was about destruction.  The second book, In the Year of the Flood, was about survival.  This book is about connection, and that’s what makes it uplifting despite all the pain within it.

covers of Oryx and Crake and In the Year of the Flood

One last thing – Margaret Atwood claims that all the science stuff in the trilogy is either actually in place now or is theoretically possible.  As evidence, she has this site:  maddadam’s world.  It’s AMAZING.  so go check it out.

Gateway Drugs: The Horror Edition

door opening onto poppiesFor this month’s Gateway Drugs, I bring you a sampling of some influential horror novels.  These are good books to read if you want to try the genre out – they are also good books if you want to understand the genre.  I tried to pick books that had a lasting influence on genre.  I’ve also steered away from most horror/sci fi and horror/vampires and werewolves and zombies (oh my!).  But I made a couple of exceptions, and of course a lot of horror crosses over into other genres.  For instance, Frankenstein is easily as much science fiction as it is horror.  So dive under the covers with a flashlight and celebrate Halloween with:

The Classics

Any collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe

Frankenstein:  by Mary Shelley

Dracula:  by Bram Stoker

Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde:  by Robert Louis Stevenson

These stories include gore and purely psychological horror.  They are a vital influence on not only horror but all literature that came after the Victorian Age, including thoughts on sex, death, gender, science, and religion. Honestly, even if you have zero interest in horror, if you want to be well-read, you have to read these – I’m sorry, but that’s the deal.  I’m sure it’s a law but I’m too busy reading to go look it up.  And read some H.P. Lovecraft, too!

Modern Horror

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This is a ghost story/haunted house story that combines scares with psychological horror.  I also recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle but it’s not as widely influential as Hill House.

I am Legend:  by Richard Matheson

I’m purposely avoiding a lot of vampire stuff (we’ll have to do a whole separate Gateway edition about vampires one of these days).  I made an exception for Dracula and for I Am Legend because they influenced literature beyond the depiction of vampires.  In the case of I Am Legend, which is a remarkably unpleasant but important book, Matheson made a mark not so much on vampire stories but on apocalyptic stories in horror and in science fiction.  It’s also notable for having an anti-hero and a twist that reveals just how anti the hero actually is.

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m hard pressed to pick one Stephen King book but I think The Shining made a broader mark on literature in general than any of his other work.  There’s plenty of gore in this book but the scariest moments tend to involve the mind.  Few things can top the impact of finding out just what Jack has been typing all this time.  And it’s not just a scary story but a true tragedy, as in a Greek style tragedy.  Stephen King never lets you forget the human impact of what happens.

John Dies at the End by David Wong

This book is new enough that I guess I can’t say whether it will be influential or not, but when I read it it felt new – like the first horror novel of the Internet age.  It’s gross and crass and scary and funny (and really gross- I have to confess that I skipped some bits).  It’s not for the faint of heart.  But it feels like a crazy book that reflects horror from a uniquely modern standpoint.  And did I mention that it’s funny?

A Great Book About Horror

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

A perfect primer for horror including all the mediums (a particularly horrible radio show is mentioned).  Fantastic.