Sunday, May 31, 2009
The options are:
J.V. Jones - A Cavern of Black Ice
Catherynne Valente - The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden
Laura Resnick - In Legend Born
John Varley - Titan
Tim Powers - The Anubis Gates
Which one do you want me to read and review sometime in June?
This morning I did finish my May book (hard science fiction), The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It took a long time to get going and I almost put it down a few times, but once it got going it was good and I ended up glad I stuck with it. I need to do some laundry and make a birthday cake so I'm not sure I'll get to review it today, but hopefully I'll get to review it sometime over the next week.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Here is the book description from the Simon and Schuster website (where you can also purchase The Wolverine Files if you absolutely can't wait to find out if you won a copy):
This book is a top secret compilation of all known facts about the mutant called Wolverine (a/k/a Logan, Weapon X, Patch, the Runt). This report, generated by the concerted effort of SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law Enforcement Division) agents, is intended for the eyes of SHIELD personnel only, and is not to be copied, distributed, disseminated, or in any other way leaked to the general public due to the delicate nature of the information herein. It details Wolverine's origins, career, friends, allies, in all manner of specifics.
Be aware that representatives from Simon & Schuster publishing have been sniffing around, endeavoring to obtain this information through the Freedom of Information Act. We cannot begin to imagine the tremendous, even incalculable damage that would be sustained by both Wolverine and by our information-gathering forces should this report wind up for purchase in local bookstores. Let us hope such an event never comes to pass.
If you would like to enter, just send an email to fantasycafe AT novomancy dot org with the subject "Wolverine." Please include your name and mailing address so the book can be sent to you as quickly as possible if you are fortunate enough to win a copy. The giveaway ends on Thursday June 4.
Monday, May 25, 2009
by Jacqueline Carey
352pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.89/5
The people feel as though they have been abandoned by God in Santa Olivia, which lies between the United States and Mexico. First, a deadly illness swept through it. Second, rumors abound about the threat of the Mexican general El Segundo. Soon after that, Santa Olivia was occupied by the army, walled off from the rest of the world, and declared Outpost No. 12, no longer a part of the United States of America. The only way out of Outpost No. 12 is to defeat the General Argyle's champion at boxing. The general is obsessed with the sport and has promised that anyone who wins the match can leave and choose one person to take with them.
Carmen Garron, a woman with a young son by a deceased soldier, met Martin, a mysterious man she believed to be a deserter. In spite of this, she finds herself strangely drawn to him and invites him to say with herself and her child Tommy. Eventually, Carmen discovers Martin is actually one of The Lost Boys, children who were experimented upon since they were about 8 years old and made into wolf/human hybrids. Not only is Martin stronger and faster than humans, but he also does not to feel fear of any sort. He and Carmen fall in love, but sadly, Martin is forced to flee soon after Carmen finds out she is pregnant.
Carmen has a baby girl and names her Loup, the name Martin picked out for the child. Like her father, Loup is faster and stronger than normal and she has to be taught to think carefully before she acts since she does not have the natural instinct of fear. When Loup is ten years old, Carmen dies and she and Tommy are sent to separate places - Loup moves in with the other orphans at the community church and Tommy lives at the gym where he continues to train as a boxer, more determined than ever to get himself and Loup out of Outpost No. 12. Meanwhile, Loup and her fellow orphans become angered by the acts of some of the soldiers and decide to use Loup's special abilities to provide some vigilante justice, all under the guise of the child saint Santa Olivia.
The only other novel by Jacqueline Carey I have read is Kushiel's Dart, a dense dark fantasy book with a very intriguing alternate Europe. Santa Olivia is very different from this novel, and I am impressed by Carey's diversity. This urban fantasy is much shorter and more concisely written - while Kushiel's Dart took me 2 weeks to get through, Santa Olivia took me only 2 days to read in its entirety. The new novel is set in modern times and is confined to one basic area instead of the sprawling world in Kushiel's Dart. Language used in dialogue is much more modern with quite a bit of profanity.
While the writing style and world are very different, there are some basic similarities between Kushiel's Dart and Santa Olivia. Both main characters are different from everyone else and each struggles with these differences, particularly when it comes to love. Carey is not easy on the main protagonist in either story, although Santa Olivia is overall less dark than Kushiel's Dart. There is some focus on religion, although the town of Santa Olivia has Catholicism as opposed to the religion based on 'love as thou wilt' in the Kushiel's Legacy series.
Santa Olivia was one of those books I could hardly put down because I just had to read the next chapter... and then the next... and then the next one. The beginning about Carmen was interesting and well-written, but I felt that the novel did not really start hooking me until Loup became the main character. Looking back at the earlier chapters, most of the background on the town and its transformation to Outpost No. 12 and Carmen's life before Loup added a lot to the story and set the tone of the desperate lives of the citizens. (The first chapter about the change from Santa Olivia to Outpost No. 12 had me riveted but I started feeling like Carmen's history was dragging after that unless it involved Martin.) So I think I was just being impatient about getting to the meat of the story, but reading about Loup was still the best part. Even the parts about boxing kept me glued to the book, and I've always thought a sport that consisted of two people beating each other up is pretty stupid. [Ed: as opposed to reading about duels, massive battles, and schemes to kill? Gotcha.]
My favorite parts were definitely anything where Loup and her friends sent a message from Santa Olivia. I loved seeing what they came up with and the reaction to the visitations. The orphans would carefully plan, scout locations, and use everyone's skills, not just Loup's strength and speed. The smarter children would write the messages from Santa Olivia and do their best to make sure everything worked without a hitch. It was still always risky, but it always seemed at least somewhat believable that they managed to pull it off and even more so that the people would want to believe in the saint's intervention. In a town that felt abandoned by God, it gave so much hope to think that Santa Olivia had not forgotten them and was looking out for her people.
The dialogue is very well-written - sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and it says a lot about the characters in a book that never really gets very deeply into anyone's head. Loup tends to be calm and controlled, Jane is always snarky, Pilar is sweet and flirty, and Sister Martha and Father Ramon cracked me up with lines such as:
It seems Santa Olivia and her basket of plenitude has turned into an ass-kicking masked avenger. (Father Ramon, p. 114)This was a book I read more for the plot than the characters, but I did love Loup, her brother Tommy, and Miguel. Of course, Loup is the star - so sympathetic since she was so different from the other teenagers she grew up with and knew so little about her genetics. She had to be careful not to reveal she had some abilities other humans did not and this was something she had to learn without fearing anything. They sometimes viewed her as a freak anyway, but she also found that anyone who paired up with her found kissing her felt very weird.
Let the rigid stick of self-righteousness be dislodged from her very uptight ass. (Sister Martha, p. 127)
Santa Olivia is a well-written novel, at times touching and at other times tragic, about hope, love, growing up and being different. While it didn't resonate with me personally as much as the gorgeous world of Kushiel's Dart, it was still very enjoyable. Highly recommended.
Read Chapter One
Saturday, May 23, 2009
On Tuesday (the 26th) there will be a book giveaway! For those of you who love free books (and who doesn't?!), be sure to keep an eye out for that.
Tomorrow I plan to get started on that Santa Olivia review. For reading, I have a partial plan for next month and the end of this month (if I happen to finish The Mote in God's Eye before then - it's longer than it looks and I'm only three chapters in so I may not). I was going to squeeze the second of the new Wild Cards books, Busted Flush, in this month if I had time and if not read it next month. Also, I want to read The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie before reading my copy of his Best Served Cold (it's a stand alone set in the same world as the First Law books but I have heard it gives away the ending of the trilogy, which I have already read 2/3 of). Other than that, I'm not completely sure what I'll read next month. A friend is sending me some books and she only told me what one of them is but said I must read it soon so that one will most likely be on next month's list (Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover). I think I might just pick something that's been sitting on my shelf unread for a long time for my challenge book of the month.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
by Laini Taylor
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.32/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.51/5
Long ago, the djinn captured all the devils, sealed them in bottles, and threw them into the water. Their magic kept any creature from being able to release the devils back into the world - at least until humans came along. Ever since the "mannies" appeared, they've been causing trouble by opening the bottles and letting the devils loose, especially after a particularly crafty one granted one of the humans three wishes. Magpie Windwitch, a young (approximately 100 year old) faery, travels the world with her clan of crows and hunts these devils. One day Magpie and the crows find an empty human ship containing a bottle bearing the seal of the Djinn King himself. The faery uses a memory spell to see what the last thoughts of the humans was and only gets a frightening sense of hunger and darkness.
After following the devil's trail to a murdered Djinn in Rome, Magpie decides she must visit the Magruwen, the Djinn King himself, to find out just what kind of evil could have such great power. She and the crows then fly to her birthplace at Dreamdark, determined to defeat the creature that would unmake the entire world. What Magpie does not yet realize is that she herself is the only hope for preventing this destruction from happening.
If I were to use one word to describe this book, it would be "enchanting." The writing is lovely, the characters come alive, and the history of the world is full of mythology. The plot may feel a little familiar and predictable (a special young person - or in this case, fairy - is the one hope the fate of the world hinges upon) but it didn't matter to me one iota. It still felt fresh, and Taylor did an excellent job of making me feel a sense of wonder at the world she created in this novel. In addition, there are some illustrations of a few of the characters by the author's husband and they are very nicely done. They actually fit the characters as they were described in the story well unlike many pictures or cover art (ahem, Wheel of Time). Fans of maps should rejoice for there is a 2 page map at the very beginning. (Apparently, fans will also find this book tasty - it says the Library of Congress has catalogued it as 1. Faeries - Fiction 2. Magic- Fiction 3. Fantasty. Get out the butter, salt and pepper.)
The prose flows very well and can be descriptive but not so detailed that I wanted to say, "Yes, very pretty words, now get on with it." In particular, I found any section about the world and its history very beautifully written. It is very full of mythology from the creation of the world, to the current state of the Djinn, to the origin of the devil that threatens to unmake the world. Although it was not always original, it had a very well-developed backstory with a definite fairy tale feel, and I loved the little details such as how men released the devils because one of them granted a man three wishes.
Throughout the course of the book, many characters are introduced from the fairies to some imps to the crows. My favorites were easily the faeries - fierce, determined, loyal Magpie was very easy to love. Her friend Poppy, who could talk to plants, and the prince Talon, who was born with stunted wings and wanted nothing more than to fly, were also very endearing. The crows were fairly interchangeable but still very likable with their strong inclination to protect Magpie. In a book with so much that is lovely, there was one character who was very much the opposite - the imp Batch, who always had his toes up his nose or was doing something else disgusting. My one complaint about the characters is that they are very clearly good or evil. Magpie and her friends are very brave, selfless, and intent on saving the world. The non-devilish villain is haughty and despicable (and it was very gratifying to see what Magpie accidentally did to her hair at their first meeting). This isn't a huge complaint since I enjoyed the book anyway, but it was very obvious who was on which side and gave an otherwise lively cast of characters less depth.
The characters had a distinctive dialect, which was really very consistent and well done. I will admit it annoyed me at first, but I have that experience any time I read a book that uses dialect (yes, I am anal and like to read proper English grammar). In this case, I did get over it, and felt it really added personality to the characters once I got used to it.
Overall, Blackbringer was a very engaging story even though the basic plotline was a bit familiar. The characters were not overwhelmingly complex but were very vivid, the writing flowed well, and the details of the world added a lot of beauty to the book. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Sins & Shadows
by Lyn Benedict
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.33/5
Sylvie Lightner has decided to close down Shadows Inquiries, her business as a private investigator of cases involving the supernatural. Her assistant and friend was recently murdered before her eyes, she is constantly watched by government agents, and although she won't admit it aloud, her worst fear is her darker side. At this point Sylvie has only killed monsters but she worries that eventually she will end up killing people if she continues in this line of work. So she packs up the office and tells her remaining employee and good friend Alex that she is no longer employed and nothing can change her mind.
That is, until she gets a visit from the God of Justice and the Eumenides. The not-so-godly-named Kevin Dunne says he needs Sylvie's help with finding his lover, who has disappeared. At first, Sylvie resists, but after seeing ample evidence of his godhood and learning that the mortal realm will bend to the god's will until the missing man is found, she reluctantly agrees to work on his case. The deal is sweetened when Sylvie learns Dunne fully intends to compensate her for her services and can offer her more than money - vengeance against those who murdered her assistant.
Those familiar with the work of Lane Robins will find many similarities in this book, although there are some differences. The modern setting is very different from her fantasy world, but this book still has dark tendencies and the theme of godly influence. While her fantasy novels contain made-up gods, this urban fantasy revolves around a couple of different real-world mythologies and focuses on gods familiar to us - the Greek gods and the Christian one. Also, the prose style is not lush and "purple" like her fantasy books - it's more straightforward and what you'd expect from the typical paranormal mystery variety of urban fantasy.
I'm in no way well-read in urban fantasy of this variety having only read the first three Mercy Thompson books, the first Rachel Morgan, and Blue Diablo, but this one definitely stood out as different from the others I've read. There were no vampires or werewolves (the latter were referred to but did not appear) but plenty of Greek mythology - from Zeus and some of the other gods to the Furies and sphinxes. It was more serious in tone and took more risks - the ending is not 100% happy and wrapped up neatly with a nice little pink bow embroidered with smiley faces. There is actually a devastating consequence that I did not see coming. Then when it did happen, I expected there to be some sort of easy way out (there are gods involved, after all). To my surprise, there was no reversal, though, and it played out the way it should have.
This was one of those books where the plot, the supernatural characters, and mythology made the story for me because I was not particularly emotionally invested in the main character. The story was told from the third person point of view of Sylvie, who was the usual tough, mouthy heroine but she was also less likable than the others I've read about - her fears about giving in to her darker side are not unfounded. She's not all bad and does truly want to protect her friend Alex, but she certainly doesn't show she cares very often. I found learning more about Sylvie's background and struggles against becoming the murderer she feared interesting, but I never grew particularly attached to her as a person. It's not that she lacked depth and believability; it's that she was often cold and pragmatic, which made her hard to relate to at times. I certainly didn't dislike her and even liked reading about someone a bit more cold-hearted, but I also can't say I loved her even though she did have some difficulty with doing what needed to be done. Her character worked, though, and I did like what Benedict ended up doing with it in the end. (Unfortunately, I can't explain more about what I mean without giving away too much.)
Fortunately, in spite of my tendency to read for the characters, I found I didn't care that much about not loving Sylvie. Some of the minor characters did appeal to me more, and I do love reading books heavy on mythology. Gods are an added bonus, too, especially if they are powerful yet flawed with some human aspects to their personalities. The gods involved do have limitations to their power and their presence does not mean they can simply make everything better. For instance, Sylvie's first request for Dunne's compensation is that he raise her assistant from the dead (but not in an animated corpse sort of way). Dunne says it might be possible, but that depends on if he was killed by another god or belongs to another god. The man was killed by humans but was very Catholic, so Dunne cannot raise him, saying "He's been taken to the light god's hands, and He is a most jealous god."
Although there is a relationship involving the main character in this book, it is not a paranormal romance. The romance is not at the forefront of the story (and the love triangle plot that comes up so often is absent, too).
This has been a hard review to write because I feel like I'm rambling on without giving many examples. There were a lot of plot twists and revelations that I don't want to spoil and much of what I liked about the book and its characterization occurred toward the end, so I don't want to say too much about that, either.
Sins & Shadows is a dark, gutsy urban fantasy filled with mythology. The main protagonist is not the most lovable character ever written, but it is still well worth the read for its story and other characters. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.
Read more about Sins & Shadows on Lane Robins website
Monday, May 11, 2009
Sins & Shadows (it is supposed to be coming soon, though!). I finished it yesterday and it was very good - dark with lots of mythology, mostly Greek, and it contained a lot of the same themes as her fantasy books. If John hadn't stolen my laptop for most of the night, I'd probably be halfway through the review by now, but I decided to be nice and hand it over since he turned in his last gigantic paper of the semester today after staying up all night finishing it.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Kings and Assassins
by Lane Robins
368pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: Not Yet Rated
Goodreads Rating: 4.5/5
Maledicte has disappeared and left behind Janus, the current Earl of Last and the king's nephew. Ivor, the prince of a foreign country and Janus's mentor, invites Janus to play cards with him and the foppish Lord Blythe, who ends up losing a lot of money to the far more clever Ivor and Janus. During the game, there is a commotion outside and a bell begins to ring. When the curious Ivor does not leave the game to see what the fuss is about, Janus realizes that whatever is going on, Ivor is behind it. Janus finds King Aris with a gaping hole in his chest, murdered right before the eyes of Lady Last. He's even more shocked when his wife accuses him of killing the king before all present.
Janus is the king's closest living relative other than his son, a mentally disabled boy who will never be able to run the kingdom more than in name only. It is said that when people die, Janus profits, and this has been proven true in the deaths of the rest of the Last family. In this case, suspicion could lead to giving Ivor what he wants more than anything - the country of Antyre for himself. Janus must make sure that doesn't happen while contending with his wife's recent possession by Haith, the god of death.
Kings and Assassins is a political/court intrigue focused fantasy with battles of wits and the occasional exciting swordfight. The setting is not medieval times as there are pistols and new technology such as cannons is being developed. There is no actual magic other than the occasional curse, and the main fantastic element in this series is the role gods play in the world. In both this book and Maledicte, events are influenced by human possession by a god or goddess.
As with the previous novel, several characters are very flawed, but there a couple of more agreeable ones to balance them out. Janus himself was the most unpleasant character in Maledicte, and although he is still far from angelic, he is more human and likable in this book. I was a little worried that if he had any redeeming qualities at all it would not seem fitting after reading about him in the previous book. However, it did work with the absence of Maledicte since the two of them seemed to be feeding off each other's more evil tendencies. Janus truly does want what is best for Antyre and that is admirable, but he is also arrogant enough to think his way is always the right way, even if others have more experience than a boy who grew up in the slums. He's rash, quick to anger, and he has no issues with callously removing those who are in his way. Through the course of the book, Janus does undergo much growth as a character, though.
Janus was my favorite to read about, but I also enjoyed reading about Ivor, Delight and Psyke. Ivor is another cold-hearted politician who will do anything to get his way. Janus probably knows him better than anyone else in court and had this to say when Delight asked if the prince was as terrible as he had heard:
"Ivor? He's everything charming," Janus said. "Right up until the moment he steps away from your corpse."Delight is one of Janus's engineers along with his twin brother Chryses and is one of the more sympathetic, kind-hearted characters in the book. Both brothers were removed from court when Delight dressed as a woman and pretended to be Chryses's date so they could look at the women at an event only open to courtesans and their escorts. Delight's father disowned him, but Delight has worn women's clothing ever since to spite his father for doing so.
Although I didn't find her quite as compelling as the others until later in the book, Psyke is another character who is generally good that one can feel for. Her entire family has been killed and now her king has joined them. When the king died, she was possessed by Haith like one of her ancient ancestors before her and now sees ghosts, including the shade of the woman who killed her relatives. She's always felt undesirable to her husband, who only had eyes for the controversial courtier Maledicte.
This novel felt a little tighter and more believable than Maledicte, which I loved but thought suffered from an end that wasn't as good as the strong beginning and middle. Kings and Assassins was equally good from start to finish, but I felt it was not as engaging and fresh as Maledicte and its story of love and vengeance. Maledicte was a more dramatic tale with the court's reaction to Maledicte and Janus and the conflict between Janus and Gillie (whom I absolutely adored and missed in the sequel). Both novels featured possession by a god/goddess and reading about how this affected Maledicte was more interesting to me than how it affected Psyke. Maledicte is more memorable - it's been over a year since I read it and I've found it has stuck in my memory as one of the more intriguing books I've read in the last couple of years in spite of a somewhat weak ending.
Nevertheless, Kings and Assassins is an entertaining fantasy novel that should appeal to fans of darker characters and political maneuvering.
Reviews of other books in this series:
Friday, May 8, 2009
by John Marco
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.85/5
Goodreads Rating: 2.86/5
Moth, an orphan, is cared for by Leroux, a sickly former Eldrin Knight who tells crazy stories about the land beyond the Reach. On Moth's thirteenth birthday, Leroux tells him he has a very special gift for him that he will tell him about after his party. That night Leroux reveals that Lady Esme, his pet kestrel, is not actually a bird at all but rather a woman from the land beyond the Reach who was transformed by the Skylords. Leroux loved Lady Esme and has unsuccessfully tried to find a way to turn her back. Now he tells Moth he must use his gift to do what Leroux could not - take Lady Esme to her homeland, find the wizard Merceron, and turn her back into a woman. Moth eventually agrees to get Leroux to stop ranting and raving but dismisses the information as yet another one of the elderly man's tall tales.
In the morning, Leroux is dead, having finally succumbed to old age. Moth goes to visit a neighbor then comes home to find the apartment being ransacked by Rendor, the governor and a great inventor. Rendor leaves without finding what he is looking for, and Moth finds a place to hide out where he is found by Lady Esme, who brings him a strange device. Moth decides to go to the the land across the Reach and his closest friend Fiona, the fourteen year old daughter of Rendor, insists on accompanying him on his quest to free Esme.
Starfinder is a short, quick read containing lots of short paragraphs and dialogue. The writing did seem choppy at times with somewhat short sentences that didn't flow together well, especially toward the beginning. As I got further into the book, I didn't notice this quite as much, although the writing does remain more simplistic than the average young adult novel I've read.
The story moves at a good pace and is entertaining. The main characters do not have an overwhelming amount of depth but they did not seem completely shallow or lacking in individual personalities, either. The two main protagonists balance each other nicely - Moth is a dreamer and an optimist who wants nothing more than to fly while Fiona is hot-tempered and has a more pessimistic outlook on the world. The two children were the more believable characters in the book (and not just because some of the others were birds who used to be women). There were a couple of characters who had a change of heart or turned out to be different than they had initially seemed and I found the way they were handled rather unconvincing.
Starfinder combines steampunk with a more traditional fantasy setting. Calio, the city in which Moth and Fiona live, is on the cutting-edge of technology with the invention of the dragonfly and other flying machines. The land the two children end up in on their quest to rescue Lady Esme from her fate contains mermaids, centaurs, dragons, and of course the Skylords.
If I were a young adult, I believe I would have loved this novel. It's still an enjoyable tale, but the combination of the overly simplified writing style and the feeling that it doesn't stand out from other books read before may make it appeal to older readers less. Starfinder combines elements that will feel very familiar to someone who has read a lot of fantasy - the quest, a magical object that can only be used by one person, the mythical world thought not to exist is real, orphaned children play a large role in events in a fantasy world. There were some parts that reminded me of fantasy books in general and there was one section that immediately made me think of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. However, I do think Starfinder would be a fantastic book for
Starfinder is an entertaining adventure story reminiscent of many other fantasy stories. Its may not be as engaging to an adult reader due to its average characterization, very simple writing, and overly familiar plot elements, but it is a great book for a younger one.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Right now, I'm reading the new Lane Robins book, Kings and Assassins, that came out toward the end of last month. I really enjoyed her previous novel Maledicte and I'm also really enjoying this one. It's definitely for people who like characters who aren't always pleasant people, though.
Last week I visited Lane Robins's blog and I discovered she actually had two books come out last month - she also wrote an urban fantasy under the name Lyn Benedict called Sins & Shadows. I hadn't heard anything about that but ever since then I've been dying to read it, so I got a copy today and am planning to read it next.
After that, I plan to read Blackbringer by Laini Taylor, and then if I don't chicken out I'll attempt to read a book containing hard science fiction with my personal challenge book for this month, The Mote in God's Eye. I'm hoping to have time to squeeze in Busted Flush, the second book in the new Wild Cards trilogy after that, but if not, I'll read it sometime next month. (Last Argument of Kings will probably be one I review next month, too, since even though Best Served Cold isn't a sequel I'd like to read that one first. And I desperately need to procure Santa Olivia, the new Jacqueline Carey book that is coming out the end of this month.)
So what are you reading/hoping to read soon?
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The Last Hawk
by Catherine Asaro
My Rating: 9.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.85/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.86/5
When Kelric's ship is attacked by the Traders, he is forced to land on the planet Coba before his vessel's last engine fails. The inhabitants are frightened to discover the nearly dead man is not from their world since they do not want to be part of the Skolian Empire and have convinced Imperial Space Command to mark them as a restricted world. If Kelric were to return home, the news that there was no reason not to incorporate Coba into the empire would spread and their society would be ruined. Although they feel threatened by his presence, two of the most powerful women within the matriarchy are intrigued by the handsome stranger so he is cared for and his ship is destroyed.
While Kelric is recovering, he becomes excellent at playing Quis, an intricate game that is interwoven into Coban politics. The strongest estates on the planet are those whose managers (queens) are the best players, aided by the skills of their Calani. The Calani is comprised of the very best male Quis players, whose lives are dedicated to serving their estate through their skills at the game. These men are bound by very strict rules and must take a vow to avoid reading, writing, contact with the outside world, and speaking to most people.
After discovering the deliberate destruction of his ship, Kelric becomes very upset and attempts to escape. He very nearly succeeds at stealing one of the Coban ships, and once he is recaptured, one of the managers suggests he should be executed just in case he ever does manage to leave. Deha, the manager of the fourth most powerful estate, has fallen for Kelric and saves him by making him one of her Calani and her husband. Thus begins Kelric's role as a political pawn - and sought-ought commodity - for the women of Coba.
With many books, there is one particular strength, but I felt this one excelled on all levels. It kept a great pace from start to finish, the society was fascinating, and the characters all felt unique. The Last Hawk also had a lot of diversity and it would be too narrow to classify it as a science fiction adventure or romantic science fiction. There was politics, action, focus on character relationships with some romance, and some elements of hard science fiction.
Although this novel is told from the perspective of several different characters, the main point of view character is Kelric, the Imperial heir from an empire with gender equality where his sister could be the next Imperator as easily as he. It's hard not to love and empathize with Kelric. Not only does quiet, reserved Kelric have no freedom due to being an outsider but also due to being a male in a world dominated by females. Coba is a study in complete gender reversal from the normal patriarchy - the women make the rules and decisions, the women pursue the men, the women only want to marry virgins, and the women have certain expectations for how men should behave.
Matriarchies have been done before and just making the society function exactly like a patriarchy could make it seem stale, but it did not even though it was not very subtle. I've read many books in which the female lead is in the middle of a love triangle, but I honestly cannot think of a single book where the main male protagonist was part of one. In The Last Hawk, the man is the exotic beauty pursued by hordes of women, the one with an ability that makes him special (his mastery of Quis). By writing from the perspective of the hero, the feminist aspects never seem heavy-handed or preachy. It's very clear that Kelric is equal to the women, not inferior. Also, each woman is very different and some are more sexist than others. One manager believed all men should dress in robes and only smile at their wives, and another caused a stir by promoting a man to a position previously only held by females.
In addition to the matriarchy, the culture is defined by Quis and its role in the civilization. For centuries, everyone has played Quis, a game played with colored dice. Wars are not waged through battle but via the game. One of the strongest assets to a manager is her Calani and Calani who have belonged to other estates are particularly prized for their knowledge and the political advantage the estate ruler gains from it. The most influential Quis players put some of themselves into the game and as various rulers play with each other, the ideas spread throughout the twelve estates. Quis is also used for figuring out scientific and mathematic concepts.
At times, I did have to suspend my disbelief with this novel but it was good enough that I mostly told my brain to just shut up and enjoy the story. The main part I had to quit thinking about was how it was possible for Quis to be able to convey so much. The way it was described with dice and colors that had some symbolism and a few rules about which shapes and colors could be next to each other made it seem very simple. This was explained when Kelric was first learning the game and could be attributed to taking baby steps. It was vague enough later that I decided to just go with it, especially since I loved the concept, and after that, I could find explanations for the other parts I found a bit incredulous. Initially, Kelric's aptitude for Quis seemed believable since he had an internal computer system that helped him. Ever since his injury, this system had been malfunctioning and it was soon unable to help him, though, but he still continued to become an amazing player. It does make sense that he would be better at it than average due to his more advanced knowledge of science, math, and military strategy and would account for him being a genius at it. Also, every woman thought Kelric was beautiful, which seemed a bit over the top, but could also be explained by the fact that he was an exotic foreigner, plus his family had dabbled in genetic engineering. This also did not bother me too much since it was very much a reversal of the usual woman who is loved by every man who sees her. The aspect that I found most difficult to swallow was how willing several of these women were to trust a foreigner who seemed to have some dangerous tendencies. However, some women were more accepting than others and it was explained that Deha believed in him because she understood him from playing Quis with him. The others just wanted to like him because they thought he was pretty and it is true that people can be blinded by beauty.
The Last Hawk is one of those rare books with an entertaining story, great characters, and a fantastic culture. It's easily my favorite book I have read so far this year.