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Book review: A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #1)A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why on earth have I not read this series before now? Because anyone who’s checked out my Goodreads shelves or followed my blog knows that I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series–and when I dived into Book 1 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, I found a lot of similarity with the Amelias. Basically, A Natural History of Dragons felt to me like what you’d get if you took the Amelias, made them a secondary world fantasy instead of a mystery/adventure series set in our world, and had the heroine passionate about scientific study of dragons instead of Egyptology.

I was already drawn to reading this book for the “heroine wants to do SCIENCE!” angle alone, but once I actually started reading it, the overall Amelia-like flavor appealed to me greatly.

But of course since this is its own series, there will be differences as well. Our heroine, Isabella, starts her story as a young girl instead of the well-established lady of means that Amelia Peabody is at the start of her adventures. Isabella’s attempts to gain her father’s approval in her interest in sparklings leads into her need to find a husband who will do the same, and soon enough she meets and weds Jacob Camherst. All of this will probably feel very familiar to anyone who’s read historical romances with heroines interested in science; the society Isabella grows up in is very akin to what you’ll see in countless Regencies, where a woman must conceal her bluestocking inclinations if she wants to land a husband. Or, as Isabella puts it, her tendency to be an ink-nose.

Fortunately, that part of the story is fairly short. Matters really take wing once Isabella convinces her husband to not only join an expedition to study Vystrani rock-wyrms, but to take her with him as well. And this is where my love of the Amelias really came into play, because here’s a couple interested in science, and going off to have adventures as they do so. Huge fun.

Moreover, with my author hat on, I was rather impressed by the worldbuilding in general. The story is presented as an elderly and now world-famous Isabella telling her memoirs, and so the narrative throws around multiple names of nations, laying down a worldwide scope and the clear expectation that Isabella expects her readers to understand what all these nations are. With those tidbits come all sorts of tasty little details to start sketching in what the reader “should” already know, and which whetted my appetite to visit these other places even as we follow Isabella, Jacob, and the rest of their party off on the adventure in this book. I particularly liked the intriguing hints we receive about the Draconeans, and the ancient history–or is it mythology? Or both?–involved with them.

With my reader hat on, I appreciated not only the Amelia-like flavor of the story, but also the juxtaposition of fantastic creatures and scientific inquiry, in a world on the brink of coming into its modern age. I likewise appreciated that the Isabella telling us her story is cognizant of her younger self’s shortcomings, which encourages me to want to see how the younger Isabella grows and matures.

What else? I liked the explorations of culture clashes between Isabella’s party and the people of the village where they have the bulk of the action, particularly when Isabella deals with Dagmira, the young woman who winds up acting as her maid. And artistically, I very much appreciated the illustrations scattered through the story as well. This made reading the book in digital form a bit tricky, as the paragraphs sometimes wrapped strangely around an illustration. But the pictures were captivating enough that I promptly went out and bought a print copy of both this book and book 2.

Because yeah, I’ll want print copies of these as well as digital. And I’ll be having a lot of fun plowing through the rest of this series. For this opening installment, four stars.

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Book review: La Rivière des morts, by Esther Rochon

La Rivière des mortsLa Rivière des morts by Esther Rochon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s tough for me to review this novel properly. My French isn’t good enough yet to have truly understood the majority of what I read here–and it didn’t help either that certain aspects of Mme. Rochon’s style here made it difficult for me to follow the action.

One, I did at least figure out that the book’s divided into a section involving protagonist Laura Fraser as a young girl, and a section involving her as an older woman (post-menopausal? Again, my French isn’t that solid yet, so I wasn’t able to nail that down for sure). It baffled me that the book changed tenses between these two sections, from first person in the earlier part to third in the latter. That was a baffling decision, one beyond my meager French to properly understand; it may well have made much more sense to Quebecois SF/F readers, I don’t know.

Two, in both sections, there was a certain distinct detachment to the action. In the first part, Laura tells the reader a lot of her history, along the lines of “this happened to me” and “I felt such-and-such a way”, with very little of what was going on actually played out directly. The same held true in the second part, although at least there, there were a few more scenes of direct interaction between Laura and other characters, notably Valtar and Sirwala. This made it a lot harder for me to feel engaged by any of the characters.

Three, instead of getting much in the way of action and character dialogue played out directly, we get a lot of lengthy paragraphs of Laura being introspective about assorted things that trouble her as a girl (mostly “the French speakers think I’m weird because I have an English name, and the English speakers think I’m weird because I speak with a French accent, and I HATE ALL OF THEM and I’m going to go dream about being a spider now”), and later, assorted things that trouble her as an adult. Later, when she does actually have direct interaction with other characters (mostly Valtar), each paragraph of dialogue is likewise very long. On the one hand, I regret that my French was not up to the task of following much of this, because I’m certain I’d have engaged with Laura as a character much more if I could actually understand most of what the text was saying. On the other hand, even as an Anglophone reader who’s barely able to dip her toes into Quebecois SF/F so far, I kept feeling like the lengthy, expository nature of the dialogue was forced. I’d be really curious to know if it reads that way to Quebecois readers as well, or if this is just a matter of my being a beginner at French.

So far, the one other Quebecois SF/F novel I’ve successfully read was significantly different stylistically, and targeted for younger readers as well–so it was much easier for me to follow. This one, I’ll straight-up admit, was a hard slog. So for now I’m going to have to give it two stars. But I’ll want to try it again later, as my French improves, and see whether my reading experience is different.

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Book review: Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ancillary Sword, book 2 of the Imperial Radch series, is not quite as awesome as Ancillary Justice–but that’s not actually a bad thing, since “not quite as awesome as its Hugo-winning predecessor” is still pretty freggin’ awesome.

In book 2, we’re picking up pretty much right where book 1 left off. Our protagonist Breq has been handed a Mercy and its crew, and has been tasked to protect the Athoek system. While doing that, she has to juggle dealing with a new lieutenant who’s not the baby-faced young officer she appears to be, the potentially hostile officers and crew of the larger ship Sword of Atagaris, making peace with the sister of one of her slain officers from when she’d been Justice of Toren, class conflict on the space station and planetside–and the risk of angering the alien Presger when one of their diplomats is killed. And all of this is happening under the shadow of the threat of civil war across the Radch–by which we mean, war between the factions of the Lord of the Radch herself.

There’s certainly no shortage of action, to be sure. At no point in this story was I ever bored. However, by comparison to book 1, I found Breq’s jumping around from event to event in this plot less focused. There’s no one particular big problem she has to solve in this story, and this gives everything a definite “middle book of a trilogy” feel. Given how book 1 ended, I came out of this one with an overall impression of the Lord of the Radch having just shunted Breq off out of the way, and a hope that the real action would pick up again in book 3.

So is this one Hugo-worthy? Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. It’s really good, but that’s not quite the same thing. It doesn’t really break any new ground that Ancillary Justice hadn’t already covered, and the lack of specific focus to the overall plot detracts from this book’s ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor. Still, though, I enjoyed this immensely and will be eager to snap up Ancillary Mercy once it comes out later this year. Four stars.

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Book review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I continued my sweep of reviews of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel–and in particular, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, I had to go back and get caught up on Ancillary Justice. And wow, am I glad I did. I’m very late to the game on this book, but I can see why it won ALL THE THINGS last year. Much has been said already about what Leckie pulls off with this novel, not only with the gender-agnostic society occupied by the main characters, but also with the dual plotline involving our protagonist, Breq. But I do have some thoughts on both.

Re: the gender-agnosticism of the Radch, this didn’t strike me as quite the Revelation(TM) as it might have done if I hadn’t read Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. But I have, and so the notion of people referring to one another as “she” no matter what their actual physical gender wasn’t particularly startling to me. I did appreciate how the worldbuilding allowed that even if the Radchaai’s language was gender-agnostic, the people themselves still had physical gender; the author has herself described that the Radchaai are after all humans, so yes, they do still have actual physical gender. This is supported in the text, when non-Radchaai react to gender cues that Breq has to work to actually parse.

That said, I’m of two minds about it. Half of me certainly delighted in being able to read a story wherein, if I so chose, I could imagine every single character as female. The other half of me wishes that Leckie would have gone further and used truly neutral pronouns–while at the same time, with my writer hat on, I can understand how that might have made her book harder to digest for the vast majority of readers. We do, after all, live in a still predominantly two-gender society, and furthermore, one which still considers “male” the dominant gender. There are factions of SF readers who have trouble admitting that women can star in SF novels–never mind write them. Heads already explode at trying to handle that. Asking them to handle people who don’t fit so easily into a gender binary is probably asking too much. (Though yeah, I’d like to see it happen anyway.)

And, re: the dual nature of the plotline in this book: yes, we’ve got a non-linear plot here, but one which has a coherent structure nonetheless, jumping back and forth between “present” time and a point twenty years prior. Once you get into the rhythm of it, you can follow along pretty clearly, even without obvious markers in chapter headers or anything of that nature. I appreciated that the book expected me to be clever enough to keep up.

But all of the above pertains to worldbuilding and plot structure. What about our protagonist? I loved Breq/One Esk Nineteen/Justice of Toren, and the entire notion of her being one segment of an entire ship’s consciousness. The book does a wonderful job at portraying what that multiplicity is like, even as it throws strong implications at you about the horrifying practices that make ancillaries for Swords and Mercies and Justices in the first place. But Breq in general is an awesome character, both as a ship and as the now-sole ex-ancillary bent on killing the Lord of the Radch. Breq’s body may be human (and there are hints that that body’s original personality might be recoverable), but her consciousness is not. Yet there are little quirks and nuances throughout Justice of Toren’s portrayal that tell you that the Ship has had literal centuries of time to absorb personality traits from all of its ancillaries. And to be sure, I’m particularly partial to how Justice of Toren liked to sing. Often with multiple mouths at once.

I do have to admit that despite the gender-agnosticism of Radchaai society, I kept looking for cues as to the genders of characters–notably, Seivarden, but others as well. I caught myself doing it, and in fact tried to force myself not to once I realized what I was doing, because I think that was part of the book’s overall point. Though in Seivarden’s case, gender cues are in fact explicitly called out early on, and it’s obvious that Seivarden is in fact male. (And now, writing about that character, I find myself actively torn between saying ‘her’ and saying ‘him’ because HA YES I see you what did there, Leckie.)

Plot-wise, I found the whole thing very focused, honed to crystalline clarity, with the dual plots ultimately leading to an intriguing and explosive resolution. Breq’s grudging caring for Seivarden is an excellent counterpoint to the drama that unfolds on Shis’urna, and Justice of Toren’s eventual destruction, with One Esk Nineteen as the only survivor. Overall, it was a distinct pleasure to read, particularly as preparation for going straight into Ancillary Sword. Five stars.

(Editing to add: and OH YES, I totally forgot to mention: in the Ancillary Justice Movie In My Brain, Breq is totally played by Summer Glau.)

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Book Log, Other People's Books, Writing

Book review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into PrintSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers got recommended on the Facebook group for the Northwest Independent Writer’s Association, of which I am a member. So I decided to check it out. By and large, I’m glad I did. I’ve now written and released five novels, and I’ve worked with a couple of different editors. And a lot of what I see in this book lines up pretty well with what my best editorial experiences have taught me about my own writing.

Because yes–whether you’re planning on querying to traditional publishers or going indie, your work will require an edit pass. Probably multiple edit passes. And if you can’t afford to hire your own editor, and/or you don’t have handy immediate friends with editing skills in your social circle, you will have to do that editing yourself. This text could do you well as a how-to guide for tackling the job.

Here are some of the things the book discusses that I’ve learned about in my own editorial experiences: minimizing dialogue tags, and when you actually do need one, it’s okay to use ‘said’, really; minimizing use of dialect for effect, and techniques to capture the cadence of a character’s accent without making him or her unreadable; using action beats instead of dialogue tags to convey who’s speaking, and how; and all the various ways to think about handling point of view.

There are a lot of exercises in the various chapters as well, on which you can practice. I skipped those, just because I’ve actually gotten in a fair amount of editing practice at this point, working with my own stuff. But if you haven’t edited yourself or someone else’s work before, you might try those and see how valuable they are for you. Me, I’ll be buying myself a copy of this for reference, now that I’ve read the library checkout copy. Four stars.

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Other People's Books

Book review: The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson

The Dark Between the StarsThe Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson

I tried to give this book a fair shake, I really did. Regardless of what there is to say about the Hugo Awards politics this year, this novel did actually make it onto the ballot, and I wanted to make an effort to try to read it fairly despite those ongoing politics.

But by the time I made it to Chapter 24, about nineteen percent through on the ebook, I’d just run into too many things that unfortunately just did not work for me as a reader.

The two biggest issues I had were extremely short chapter lengths, coupled with a high number of point-of-view characters in plot threads that had no immediate connection to one another. The narrative jumped around between these points of view with scarcely any time to show depth of characterization, and so I was fairly overwhelmed with a barrage of characters that had no time to gain my sympathies.

Sadly, the one plot thread that returned enough times to get me more detail actively put me off. Garrison Reeves of the Roamers has fled the lava mining colony he was working for, stealing a spacecraft and taking his ten-year-old son with him. Much is made over how awful Garrison’s wife Elisa is, and how she’s put her career ahead of her family and considers herself having been delusional to think she could have a relationship with Garrison. When I stopped reading, she’d just inadvertently triggered the explosion of an alien creature that left her with the distinct possibility that Garrison’s ship might have been destroyed–and she shows no feeling for Garrison at all, just some fear that her son might be dead. But then, the narrative doesn’t exactly show her overflowing with maternal love for said son, either.

(And I found the whole one-note “raging bitchqueen who puts her career ahead of her family” archetype for Elisa grating, in general.)

Plus, Anderson has a way of ending sentences in ellipses for no particular apparent reason–often in paragraphs of hastily summarized backstory for whatever new character got introduced in the chapter I’d reached, and often when describing a character’s opinion about whatever issue they were presently dealing with. Once or twice was fine, but every other chapter made it a stylistic quirk way too obvious too ignore.

By the time I bailed some action had finally started ramping up, and I will allow that by then, Anderson’s particular style of writing was suited to those scenes and made them interesting. But it was too little too late, and I had not managed to become invested enough in any of the characters I’d met so far to care when things started exploding.

Since I did not actually finish this book it would not be fair of me to actually rate it, but I’m noting my commentary here and on my blog regardless, and will be moving on to reading the next of the Hugo nominees.

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Other People's Books

Book review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I were to be called upon to provide a single phrase that sums up my reaction to The Goblin Emperor, that would be “a refreshing change of pace”.

There are a host of things I like about this book that fall into that general area. Namely:

  • There isn’t a single human in the story.
  • The goblins are not bad guys, and in fact have a level of social and cultural development apparently comparable to the elves.
  • The protagonist, Maia, is not only not a big brawny action type, he’s instead quite kind-hearted and painfully shy and insecure.
  • Even though Maia is coming out of a history of abuse, which does inform the development of his character, it’s also not a particularly big plot point either.
  • This is not quest fantasy. Nor is it “WE MUST OVERTHROW THIS CORRUPT GOVERNMENT” fantasy or “WE MUST KILL THIS BIG EVIL THING” fantasy (and as a writer who has recently finished a trilogy involving both of those tropes, I am aware of the amusement value of my saying that).
  • We also don’t get into any ideas of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, either. Maia is thrust without warning into the ruling seat of his people, and yet, he rises to the challenge of dealing with it, and his only real goal is to do as good a job as he can. I really appreciate that.
  • Addison’s taken great care to set up the languages of her society, too–I really rather liked the use of pronouns all over the book, as well as occasional clearly non-English words thrown in here and there to give you a taste of what the languages these elves and goblins are speaking would actually sound like.

At the same time, I hold back slightly from committing to a full five stars. While the language nerd in me really appreciates the effort Addison went to here, I also found the archaic-sounding dialogue a slight hindrance to my ability to immerse myself in the plot. This was not only because of the pronoun usage–all the nobility spoke of themselves in plural form, not just Maia–but also because just about all of the names were polysyllabic tongue-twisters. If you’ve read Tolkien at all, and specifically The Silmarillion, these names may well remind you of the sorts of names Tolkien gave to the ruling dynasty of Numenor, which blurred together after a while–even for me, a devoted Tolkien geek. The Goblin Emperor gives me the same problem.

Similarly, I was a little startled to discover that the vast majority of the action in the book is episodic, one incident after another along the general theme of “Maia has to deal with the next challenge dropped on him now that he’s emperor”. There’s an arc involving investigating what happened to his father and brothers–the act of sabotage that kills them and puts Maia on the throne to begin with–but that’s given surprisingly little emphasis. The story is way more character-driven than it is plot-driven, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it left me feeling like the book should have had more weight to it than it did.

And yet. I’m asking myself if I feel this book’s worthy of a Hugo, and specifically, asking myself whether a Hugo-worthy novel really requires a strong plot arc. Or, is it award-worthy all by itself to have a story that revels in language, and whose protagonist simply just has to figure out how to rule his people to the best of his ability, and to do it wisely and well? Because while Addison doesn’t really shatter any tropes here, she does rather elegantly evade them. And at the end of the day, I really did enjoy this book. Which is what’s important.

Didn’t hurt either that I kept imagining Maia as played by Elijah Wood, either. Four stars.

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