Book Review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

cover of Ancillary JusticeEvery where I turn, people are talking about Ancillary Justice.  It’s been nominated for a Nebula Award and a Hugo, and now that I’ve finally read it I can see why.  This book plays with points of view cleverly to tell a complicated story in a deceptively simple way.

Once upon a time there was a vast empire that conquered hundreds of worlds.  With each conquest, the empire took people, wiped their minds, and had artificial intelligences implanted into these bodies.  A starship, such as Justice of Toren, would have an artificial intelligence running the ship and thousands of linked bodies that could be deployed both on and off the ship.

Our story begins with one of the bodies, severed from contact with the ship and with other Ancillaries.  Breq is seeking justice and vengeance upon the leader of the empire.  She struggles with functioning as an individual and with functioning within a variety of alien cultures.  Through a series of flashbacks, we find out what launched Breq on her mission, while in the present Breq navigates political and cultural hurdles on her way to her goal.

Two elements of that struggle are of particular note: her need to deliberately shape her face into facial expressions to convey or conceal emotion, and her struggles with identifying gender in different cultures.  Breq shows no interest in sex, but she is very much interested in getting what she needs from people, and that means using language properly and avoiding offense, and THAT means keeping track of how gender is identified and discussed in different languages.  In Breq’s native language, there is no gender, so in the book, everyone is described as “her” unless Breq has to specify.  This has a fascinating impact on the reader.  In our culture, the “norm”, the baseline, is white male.  In Breq’s world, the baseline is neutral, but as a reader, I read it as female because she uses “she”.  This means that I found myself picturing almost all the characters as female – a truly liberating experience.  It turns out that the concept “women are people” is a lot easier to grasp when all people are identified as women until further notice.

Because Breq can (initially) see many different things at once, she serves multiple roles as a narrator.  She’s an almost omniscient narrator, able to report on many different events at once.  She’s a personal, first person narrator and her character is amazingly relatable.  She spends so much time with another character that the other character, Lieutenant Awn, serves as the soul of the book until Breq is able to fill that function herself.  And due to political schemes, she’s an unreliable narrator.

I love it that even though this is Space Opera, it’s ecumenical.  It’s not 1000 pages long.  It is planned as a trilogy, but not a never-ending series.  It uses simple language but is complex in its discussion of music, gender, religion, culture, colonialism, war, ethics, and friendship.  There have, of course, been other stories about hive minds discovering individuality, and sentient ships, but Ancillary Justice doesn’t feel like anything else.  It feels fresh and new and interesting and emotionally compelling.  There’s been a lot of buzz about this book and it’s all deserved!


Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Cover of "Hild"Hild is a fascinating historical fiction about Saint Hilda of Whitby.  It’s a slow-paced book but not dull.  It’s immersive.  To read the book is to step into the 600’s in Britain, where Hild survives by watching everything and everyone around her, even as she struggles to make sense of her own desires and dreams.

In this book (Griffith tentatively plans to do three), Hild goes from age three to adulthood.  During this time she become’s the king’s seer and has to navigate treacherous politics and war.  She learns to fight and she participates in battle and in ridding a region of bandits.  She learns weaving and some healing arts and the art of midwifery.  Do not read this book if you are pregnant as not all pregnancies end well and some are very, very bloody and harrowing.  She struggles with her sexuality, especially her feelings towards her foster-brother.  Above all, she watches.

Read because of the gorgeous use of language.  Here’s a sample passage:

She crunched in the grey-brown sedge on the edge of the rhyme and watched.  It might be spring half a mile away, down in the valley along the beck, but here, high on the march moor by the sea, it was a harsh, color-less world.  Here there was no greening blossom, no curve of burbling stream or round river rocks.  The rhymes ran spear-straight into the horizon, the willow beds running between them, all under a tin-grey sky.  Steel-coloured water lapped and slapped along the dirt banks, and the willow canes, not yet in leaf, rattled and shook like tally sticks.

It’s interesting to me that this book has been nominated for a Nebula Award, because the elements of fantasy are very minimal.  This is a book that is deeply based in realism.  Smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste are important to Hild personally and politically.  She can tell what’s happening inside a pregnant woman by looking at the woman’s urine and she can tell whether or not someone is pregnant in the first place by smelling them.  She knows how to deliver a painless mercy kill to a wounded man and she knows that if she plants red flowers she’ll have an advantage in trade the following year (because bees like red flowers, which means more honey, which means more mead).  Most of Hild’s prophecies come from her careful observations of the world around her.  She knows that the coming winter will be hard because she watched bird behavior, not because of mystical events.  I absolutely think this book deserves awards but I’m not sure the category of “fantasy” is accurate for it.

Anyone who is interested in the craft of writing should read at least some of this book, even if the genre isn’t interesting to them.  It was certainly interesting to me, although it moved slowly.  There’s a lot of waiting and observing, punctuated by quick, brutal action and confusing political turmoil.  I cared about hold and worried about her and I’m anxious for the sequel!

Mini Review: Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Ironskin was nominated for a Nebula Award in the Best Novel category, and it’s easy to see why (the winner was 2312).  This incredibly poignant, passionate and inventive fantasy take on Jane Eyre is set in a world in which England has just barely won a war against the fey.

The world-building is fantastic (pun intended) and the characters shine.  Jane is a wonderful character who shares the original Jane Eyre’s strong sense of ethics, self respect, and passion.  The only flaw in the book is that the romance between Jane and her brooding employer is under-developed.  As long as you are reading this as a fantasy about an amazing woman, as opposed to a romance where the love story takes center stage, you will love the book.  My full-length review is at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

A Star Trek Video for Your Every Mood

WednesdayVideoWhen I was at the Nebula Awards, I got to meet John Scalzi, author of Redshirts.  This was John’s last year as the president of Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA).  Part of the president’s duties is, apparently, coordinating the Nebula Awards Weekend event.  When I met him, he was at a book signing table and he looked frazzled as only someone who is simultaneously signing books and coordinating a large multi-day convention can look.  Despite this, and despite the fact that I was fangirling like an idiot, he still managed to be very nice to me   Redshirts is such a great book that Jonathan Coulton wrote a song about it, and trekpropguy made this video.  Lovely and sad.  Read Redshirts right now!  Call in sick!  Stay up all might!  Just read it!

And now, for something completely different…A Katy Perry song, which I loathe and despise, being put to such good use that even I had to smile at it!  Now that time has passed since I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, I have to admit that I remember the plot holes much less than I remember the thrill of lines like, “This is Captain Sulu”.  This video nicely captures the fun side of Trek.  Happy Wednesday!

Things I Heard at the Nebula Awards Weekend

Nebula Award LogoThe Nebulas were an amazing event.  I was surrounded by brilliant people who were also warm and welcoming to me, the rookie.  People put me in contact with folks to interview, helped me with recording, gave me books (So!  Many!  Books!).  And yes, people did very kindly admire photos of my nine year old daughter, and, in one case, also photos of my dog.  Suave and professional, that’s me.  One of the highlights of the event was showing new steampunk author Michael J. Martinez a photo of my daughter holding her Yoda doll and watching Star Wars:  A New Hope and seeing a photo of his daughter using the force grip on him.  Us geek parents are a strange lot – and Michael’s book, The Daedalus Incident, is available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, should you wish to check it out.

I’m sure I’ll be blogging about this event for months, but here’s just a few of the odd, profound, funny, and marvelous things I heard, or overheard, at the Nebulas:

Alethea Kontis:  I wear tiaras because they are awesome and so am I!

E.C. Myers (who happens to be male):  I used to read all the books my sister brought home from school, and I loved the Sweet Valley High books, especially the one where Elizabeth gets in a motorcycle accident and wakes up with her twin, Jessica’s, personality.  I also loved The Babysitter’s Club, because Claudia was the only Asian character I could find.

Mary Robinette Kowal (whose character, Vincent, is loosely based on her husband):  You can tell what a crush I have on my husband by how many times Vincent takes off his shirt.

Connie Willis:  In good romantic comedy, love is a positve force when it is selfless.  Love, communication, compassion, can fix everything.  Sometimes love conquers – especially when people are willing to give each other up.

Sarah Beth Durst:  Fantasy is the literature of hope.

Nick Sagan (quoting his father, Carl Sagan):  We make our world significant by the courage of our questions.

Steven Gould (introducing the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Nominees):  A reading from the sacred texts of my people:  “The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast sea, is a land famous for wizards”.

Gene Wolfe (accepting the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award):  You are all strange and wonderful people.

Anonymous:  Oh, you have to go upstairs and see the bartending robot!

Your order?

Your order?

Review of 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

cover of 2312

More from the Nebula Award Review series!  2312 is up for best novel, and I can see why – it’s amazing.  This is not a book to whiz through while you’re in a hurry, or tired, or bed-ridden with the flu.  2312 requires your full concentration, but it’s worth it.

As you may surmise from the title, 2312 is about the future, when the Earth has been severely impacted by global warming.  Humans continue to live on Earth, but they have also set up colonies in asteroids and on other planets.  When a city on Mercury is attacked, Swan, Wahram, and Inspector Genette have to figure out who was behind the attack.

This is a fascinating book, but it’s not focused on character or plot.  Really, it’s a travelogue and a catalog of ideas about what the future might look like.  It’s fascinating reading as it goes into great detail about how each planet and asteroid is terraformed or otherwise adapted, and how humans have changed as they’ve lived away from Earth.  Here’s an example of what the writing is like, taken from the first paragraph of the prologue:

The sun is always just about to rise.  Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do.  Many have made this a way of life.  They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day.  Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they inoculated earlier with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium.  But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.

The book suffers from having Swan as its main character.  She is over a century old and yet she seems trapped in some sort of permanent adolescence.  She was interesting, but you can only stay interested for so long in someone you have no reason to care about.  This is a book about ideas, not people.  That’s a hard sell for me, because I tend to focus on characters, but I couldn’t deny that the ideas were fascinating.  I’m glad I read it, but I have to admit that I’m ready for lighter stuff.

Review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

Hundred Thousand Kingdoms CoverThe Nebula Review Series continues with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.  For such an amazing book, I don’t have much to say about it, except – WOW.

The Hundred is about a world in which Gods are trapped in mortal form and forced to serve humans, frequently in horrifying ways.  The leading group of humans, the Arameri, rule from their city of Sky.  The book is narrated by Yeine Darr, who is half Arameri, half Darre.  Yeine is ordered to Sky to be named as heir to the throne – news which comes a shock to her.  It quickly become evident that she is supposed to serve as a sacrificial pawn in a power struggle between Arameri elite, but Yeine has other plans.

Every thing about this book is remarkable but I’m not sure how to describe it.  I love the world building and how it expects the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on without a lot of exposition.  I loved the relationships, whether tender, bizarre, or loaded with malice.  I loved Yeine’s struggle to assert some kind of personal power and autonomy over a situation that she knows she can’t survive.  I loved the racial diversity in the world – it’s not all about a group of blond people.  Yeine describes herself thusly:

I have Amn eyes:  faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty.  Otherwise I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.  Because I find it unmanageable otherwise, I wear it short.  I am sometimes mistaken for a boy.

This book is full of text and subtext about the corruption and cruelty of colonialism, racial and class inequities, and slavery.  Above all, it’s about power, and how to be “empowered” without becoming vicious.  A question Yeine is constantly asked is whether or not she is a true Arameri, and although she is adamant that she is not a true Arameri, with the callous disregard for life and suffering that being Arameri implies, she is shocked at how far she will go to protect herself and her people.

This book is a must-read for fantasy fans.  For fans of fantasy romance, there is a love story.  In fact the whole book revolves around several love stories – Yeine’s mother left the Arameri to be with Yeine’s father, the Gods have all kinds of tortured love stories amongst themselves, and Yeine has a love story that is…different.  However, I would say this book is much more about questions of power and identity than about love – even though it’s made clear that love, in all its forms, is part of what forms identity.  I’m not entirely sure about everything that happens in this book, but I’m Team Yeine, all the way.

Review: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Cover of Drowning girlMy Nebula Review Series continues with The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

The Drowning Girl is certainly not a romance, and yet within its pages a quite touching romance unfolds, almost without the reader noticing it.  The overall tone is one of menace and confusion and dread, but the resolution involves healing and love, and healing because of love (and a lot of therapy and medication and art and research – there’s nothing trite about the story).

The plot is hard to describe because a lot of the story is ambiguous.  India, also known as Imp, is a writer and painter who is living with schizophrenia.  She is able to control her symptoms with a complicated regimen of medications and therapy.  One night Imp sees a naked woman walking down the side of the road, and she picks her up and takes her home.  This woman’s name is Eva, and she becomes an object of obsession for Imp.

As Imp goes on and off and on her meds, she doubts her own perceptions of what is happening.  In one version of her story, Eva comes to her in July, and her function is that of a siren.  In another, Eva arrives in November, and her function is that of a wolf.  How many Evas there are, and whether they are mermaid or wolf, and what they want from Imp, are mysteries Imp struggles to solve as she wrestles with her mental illness.

The two most important technical components of this book are voice and imagery.  Imp is the book’s narrator.  Listen to this incredible passage, from a period when Imp is deeply obsessed with Eva and has stopped taking her medication:

All our thoughts are mustard seeds.  Oh, many days now.  Many days.  Many days of mustard seeds.  India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad, sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for two strangers who would not, could not stop for me.  She, she who is me, and I creep around the edges of my own life afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds.

And here’s a more lucid passage, in which she talks about the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood:

 Anyway, even with the happy ending, the story terrified me.  For one thing, I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs, and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf.  So I suppose I saw it as a werewolf.  When I was older, and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen the wolf, in my mind’s eye, made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves.  Especially if you’re a wolf, or a little girl.

I read Drowning because it’s nominated for a Nebula Award for best novel.  I expected something dark and scary, not anything romantic.  So it was a delightful surprise to find that the love affair between India and Abalyn is quite beautiful and vital to the rest of the story.  Abalyn is Imp’s lover and roommate.  In a story in which characters are always changing their identity, Abalyn is the only character who seems completely sure of who she is.  Abalyn is a male to female transsexual, and despite the altering of her physical form, she is very clear that she didn’t “change her sex” – she was always female.  Abalyn is also Imp’s link to the rest of the world and her tether to sanity.  Even though the focus is on other things, I grew to adore Abalyn, and her relationship with Imp is what allows Imp to move through the obsession with Eva and heal.

I recommend Drowning Girl to anyone who has an interest in revisionist fairy tales, in psychological horror, or in books with a strong narrative voice and an unreliable narrator.  It’s prose was lovely and horrifying, and although neither I nor imp is completely sure of what happened, it’s nice to know that love, as well as a very good therapist, helped things get to some sort of a happy ending.

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Welcome to the first of my Nebula Review Series.   I’ll be attending the Nebula Awards in May, and am reading the books that have been nominated for best novel in preparation.  This year has a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy and male and female authors, and a surprisingly high romance content in the books, which I just love, of course.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy novel beloved by everybody.  It’s been nominated for both a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award and is getting great reviews everywhere, and I can see why.  It’s a story with a vibrant fascinating setting and interesting characters.  However, I was frustrated by the pacing, which is oddly slow considering the plot elements.

Throne revolves around Adoulla, an aging ghul hunter who is feeling his years, and his assistant Raseed, a young man who is beginning to question the black and white morality of his Dervish training.  Adoulla and Raseed partner with a shape-shifting woman who seeks to avenge her tribe, and a magician and his wife, in an effort to defeat a sinister and darkly magical foe.  Along the way they become caught up in the political maneuverings of the Falcon Prince, who is trying to overthrow the corrupt and cruel Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

There are so many things to love about this book.  For starters there’s the setting.  It is a gorgeously rendered world straight out of The Arabian Nights.  The city of Dhamsawaat is huge, chaotic, and marvelously rendered – in the sense that it’s described with great technical skill, and in the sense that it’s full of marvels.  The smells and sounds and tastes and traffic jams and gardens all seem so exotic and so real at the same time.  You can see why some of the characters love it passionately and other find it exhausting.

Speaking of characters, they are the real high point of the book.  All of them go through profound and believable changes.  All of them are struggling with different life stages.  I loved that some characters were dealing with the realities of aging while other were dealing with the realities of young adulthood. Every character was a person, not a type.  They are funny, they are annoying, and they are moving.  Although it’s not a romance, there is a lot of romance going on, and I liked it that the love stories that involved older people were just as compelling, if not more so, than that between the cute twenty-somethings.

I did get very impatient with the pacing.  Maybe I was just having a weird week when I read this, or maybe I’ve been damaged by reading too many science fiction novellas in which people meet, have sex, save the world, have sex again, and declare eternal love for one another, usually in that order, in about 30,000 words.  But I have to say that considering the massive amount of carnage contained in these pages, there sure is a lot of chitchat in between battles.  Rasheed and Zamia are constantly saying things to the effect of, “The heck with all this research, let’s go kill something!” and eventually I started to agree with them.  I found this book easy to put down, even when I was only a few chapters from the end.  

Throne is the first book in a planned trilogy, and probably that’s why so much of it felt like set-up.  It ended well, on an emotionally satisfying note, with plenty to write about in the future but a resolved enough conclusion to enjoy as a stand-alone.  I certainly recommend it to fantasy fans, but be prepared for a startling amount of both gore and conversation.