Wednesday, April 30, 2008

2008 Clarke Award Winner

It has been announced that Richard K. Morgan's novel Black Man/Thirteen (UK title/American title) is the winner of the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Award. This award, originally funded by Clarke himself with the intention of popularizing science fiction in the UK, serves as a means of selecting the best novel in the genre released in Britain during the previous year. More information on the award and past winners can be found on the official home page.

What to read next?

I'm having a problem deciding what to read after I finish my current book so I added another poll for which book to read and review next. Plus seeing what people choose is fun!

There are 5 fantasy books to choose from since I've been on a science fiction kick lately and I don't want to annoy you all by reading too many non-fantasy books on a book review blog that claims to be about fantasy.

The options are:

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (#2 First Law Trilogy)
Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear (#1 Promethean Age)
Calenture by Storm Constantine (stand alone)
Hood by Stephen Lawhead (#1 King Raven)
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (#2 Mistborn)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Guest Review of God's Demon

Wayne Barlowe's God's Demon is a lengthy response to a short, though complicated, question: is redemption possible for even those who have committed the worst sin imaginable? In order to answer this question he presents a sort of case study of a being whose sin goes far beyond any action of which a mere human is capable. God's Demon is the story of Sargatanas, a seraph who joined Lucifer's rebellion against God and was cast down into Hell alongside him when the rebellion failed.

Following his Fall from grace Sargatanas's former status as a seraph granted him the station of Demon Major in Hell, a sort of feudal lord of the damned. He spent millenia carrying out the divine instructions that demons, sent to Hell as punishment, were to in turn punish the lesser human souls who followed. But Sargatanas never had the enthusiasm that many of his kind showed for torture. Rather than embrace his new position, he recognized how wrong he was in rebelling against God and sought to return to Heaven.

This desire was far from unique, but instead of allowing his loss and frustration to become bitterness and hatred Sargatanas tried to create as much Heaven as is possible while living in Hell. His city, Adamantinarx-Upon-the-Acheron, is modeled after the cities of Heaven. Over time, he even begins to feel sympathy for some of the souls under his command--though it doesn't keep him from treating them as literal resources to be consumed in the construction of his city, which is built of human souls compressed into infernal bricks. When he meets a soul who asks why she was condemned to Hell because she killed in a just war "against a ruler who neither understood nor cared for me" these feelings come to a head and Sargatanas decides he will either return to Heaven or be destroyed in the attempt.

So begins Sargatanas's war of rebellion against Beelzebub, regent prince of Hell, and the all the demonic legions, dead demi-gods, and soul-constructed war machines he commands.

Remember Dante's Inferno? Wayne Barlowe clearly does. Though the view of Hell that he puts forth in God's Demon is very different from Dante Alighieri's, Barlowe's scope and detail of description certainly bring to mind the seven hundred year old poem. Hell is not a setting in this book; it is an environment, and it just happens to have a story taking place in which the reader might be interested if they have a moment to spare. Peter Jackson's fascination with New Zealand has nothing on Barlowe's fixation on Hell. Appropriately for Barlowe, who is mostly known as an artist, this book is like reading a painting...certainly not a pleasant painting, but one that is incredibly vivid and detailed. Some of the very lengthy descriptions would make anyone from Hieronymus Bosch to Dave McKean squirm in their chair.

But while the environment of Hell shows a great deal of thought and planning, the actual story being told leaves something to be desired. And that is an intentional phrasing; the book is not bad or poorly written, but a background and plot of this scale demand more depth than Barlowe has created. Former angels, condemned to an eternity in Hell for taking part in Lucifer's rebellion but now focused on returning to Heaven should have a myriad of internal conflicts. A feudal political structure thousands of years old give birth to shifting alliances, loyalties, and betrayals. Even the demons themselves are disappointing as their power plays are almost entirely based on straight-forward physical or magical power, only rarely displaying the cunning or deception one would expect from, well, a demon.

The overall plot and construction of the story shows a similar lack of depth.
Sargatanas starts his war because he wants to return to Heaven, but he never really gives an explanation for how he expects the war to accomplish this goal. A key subplot, Hannibal Barca's attempt to lead the human souls as warriors in Sargatanas's army (think Lincoln allowing ex-slaves into the North's army during the civil war) never really comes together despite a promising start. Even the main plot is extremely linear, without the sort of diversions that appear when characters are trying to find their way through a difficult situation; the characters all know exactly what they want, can think of one way to get it, and will try as hard as they can to make it happen. Luckily, the plot is only about 40% of the book, and the 60% that is lush description distracts you in the same way that outstanding CGI can prop up a summer blockbuster. You won't realize how little actual story there is until you've finished the book, and that makes God's Demon a good read despite a lingering feeling of missed potential.

Rating: 7/10

Other opinions:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Review of Cordelia's Honor

Cordelia's Honor contains the first two chronological novels in Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. These books could also be viewed as prequels to the series since they are not actually about the life of Miles but instead tell the story of how his parents met and how Miles came to be disfigured before birth. Shards of Honor is Bujold's first published novel while Barrayar was released 5 years later after other books in the series had been written. The latter is a direct sequel to the former and completes the story begun in the first book, some parts of which Bujold had originally wanted to include in Shards of Honor before she realized it was too long. While the first half of the story was certainly enjoyable, it did lack polish and Bujold's extra writing experience shows in Barrayar, which is a much tighter novel and the winner of the 1992 Hugo Award.

In Shards of Honor, Commander Cordelia Naismith from Beta is part of an astronomical survey expedition until she and her crew are disrupted by a military force of their enemies from Barrayar, who claim they found the planet first and insist the Betans surrender to them. Most of Cordelia's party escapes, leaving her and her botanist, whose mind was destroyed by a disruptor fired by one of their foes, stranded. The commander meets and is taken prisoner by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, infamous as the "Butcher of Komarr." This knowledge does not stop Cordelia from being openly hostile to Vorkosigan, but soon she begins to see that he is an honorable man even if his society's beliefs are very different from her own.

Barrayar continues shortly after the marriage of Cordelia and Aral and Aral's appointment to the position of Regent of Barrayar. Cordelia's former expectations of a quiet life with her new husband are turned upside down as their lives become more dangerous due to conspiracies to take the throne. Aral is already unpopular with many on this very harsh, political world due to his liberal views, and now he is a very clear target for those who desire to replace the regent and the five year old emperor.

The slower-paced Shards of Honor contains romance, adventure, an exploration of the concepts of duty and honor, and an illustration of the cruel Barrayarans and the compassionate but misguided Betans. The science fiction elements are in the background - although the story takes place in a world where space travel occurs, technobabble and heavy-handed scientific explanations are not present. The characters of Cordelia and Aral are likable with a dry humor that emerges at times and personalities that are clear from their words and actions. It was not always a tight story and the aftermath chapter at the end in particular seemed to come from out of nowhere and not tie in to the rest of the tale, but it was an entertaining book that made me eager to read more.

Barrayar is much more tightly plotted and faster paced than its predecessor with adventure and political scheming galore. The headstrong, independent Cordelia is still a pleasure to read about. The characters besides her and Aral are also better written and there are new ones introduced as the heroine settles into life on Barrayar. This also allows the society to be examined more as well as the political division between people like Aral who believe change is necessary and those like his father who are set in the old ways and abhor the idea of changing them. In the afterward, Bujold states that the book is "about the price of becoming a parent," but the theme that stood out for me was that people often viewed as being without worth by others, like the crippled Koudelka and disfigured child Miles, were still human and could be perfectly useful and valuable in spite of their shortcomings.

Cordelia's Honor comprises two novels of varying quality and complexity but both of these have one thing in common - they are worth reading for interesting characters and entertainment.


Nebula Award Winners Announced

This year's Nebula Award winners have been announced on the Science Fiction Awards Watch Blog. The following is a list of the winners:
  • Novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union - Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, May07)
  • Novella: “Fountain of Age” - Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Jul07)
  • Novelette: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” - Ted Chiang (F&SF, Sep07)
  • Short Story: “Always” - Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov’s, Apr/May07)
  • Script: Pan’s Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro (Time/Warner, Jan07)
  • Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J. K. Rowling (Scholastic Press, Jul07)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Guest Shameless Retroreview Plug: The Beggars Trilogy

Nancy Kress's Beggars Trilogy (Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, and Beggars Ride) is an exploration of the world she created in her Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella, also called Beggars in Spain. All three books are among my favorite reads of all time, full of interesting ideas and unique characters, but I don't believe they always get the recognition they deserve in the science fiction community. This trilogy follows the path of a near-future United States--and by extension, the rest of the world--as it deals with the economic, social, and philosophical upheaval brought on by advancing technology. Kress's understanding of human gifts and frailties, both as individuals and communities, results in a view that is simultaneously frightening and hopeful; perhaps that is why I find the course they plot so plausible. I highly recommend that any fan of science fiction, or even simple student of the human condition, read these amazing stories.

Beggars in Spain follows the life of Leisha Camden, one of the first of a literal new breed of humanity. As the favored daughter of a powerful data industrialist she is given every possible advantage, which in this world includes in utero genetic engineering. This includes exceptional physical appearance and intelligence, freedom from any genetic defects, and even a newly developed modification: the ability to live without sleeping. Because Leisha's father begrudges his body the few hours a night it demands from him, he ensures that his daughter will never have to give in to such a fundamental frailty.

As Leisha grows into a young woman, though, the doctors and geneticists tracking the development of her and the other Sleepless discover that the effects of their tinkering reach far beyond their intent. The biological advantages these children were granted are so great that they stretch the definition of human--or at least, the limits of what unmodified society is willing to accept as human. In a capitalist society that is predicated on the notion of competition driving advancement, the Sleepless are simply so much better at competing that their only real competition is among themselves. And, as with other times in human history when great economic power is held by those without the political or physical power to hold it, lawful competition must eventually be set aside in favor of a more effective means of redistributing wealth.

These big social concepts are almost entirely explored through Leisha's relationships with the people around her. Most important is the strained bond between her and her unmodified fraternal twin sister, Alice. Alice is, both by biological reality and conscious choice, everything Leisha is not, and she provides a proxy through which we can see how Sleepers deal with their new reality as an inherently inferior race. Alice's counterpart among the Sleepless is Jennifer Sharifi, as intentionally inhuman as Alice is human, and a leading voice in Sleepless internal politics. The other loves, rivals, and simple acquaintances in Leisha's life all play a role in shaping her personal philosophy and vision of how to bring together a society that is dangerously, perhaps irreparably, fractured. Finally, to close the circle, a new generation of SuperSleepless are developed that are as far beyond the Sleepless as the Sleepless are beyond the Sleepers. 10/10

(The following two books will be discussed in less detail to try to minimize spoilers, but some may still slip through.)

Beggars and Choosers is the follow-up to Beggars in Spain, and in my opinion is the weakest book of the trilogy due to some pacing issues. Sleeper and Sleepless society has entered into an uneasy truce, though as with most truces it is largely an excuse to prepare for the next battle.

In the meantime, however, life goes on for the unmodified humans that no longer live on Earth so much as inhabit it. Beggars and Choosers tells the story of the Livers and their Donkeys, the regular people who have been made economically obsolete and the upper class that controls society and 'works' for the Livers by providing them the food, shelter, and leadership they need. Most of the book deals with these lower classes trying to discover the machinations of the elite Sleepless and almost godlike SuperSleepless by following Diana Covington, an agent of the Donkey government, as she infiltrates a Liver community. This particular group of Livers has a story about a magical place they call Eden which Diana believes is a key to unraveling the wheels-within-wheels plans of the Supers.

A key parallel plotline is narrated by Drew Arlen, Leisha's adopted son. He is, if anything, even more human than Leisha's sister Alice, physically and emotionally crippled but possessing a talent for creating holographic stories that touch their viewers at a subconscious level. Arlen's self-pitying attitude is put to the test when he meets a group of humans who, though they are not disabled as he is, face even bigger challenges because they are social and economic outcasts in the Sleepless-dominated society. Rating: 8.5/10

Beggars Ride shows the final outcome of the social transformation begun in the first two books and returns to the outstanding quality of Beggars in Spain. The truce that held in Choosers is very definitively over and the subsequent conflict can only be resolved by changing the way in which both Sleeper and Sleepless society functions, and the only guidepost available for mapping out the future of human civilization is that what we've done in the past can no longer work. Rating: 10/10

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review of The Mirador

To my great chagrin, The Mirador, the third book in Sarah Monette's The Doctrine of Labyrinth series, is the last book in the series currently available. The fourth and final book Corambis has a projected publication date of sometime in 2009. The first two books in the series wrapped up a complete story arc and this novel takes place approximately two years after the end of The Virtu. While this book is slower-paced than either of its predecessors, it is a very enjoyable followup to the first two books.

Mildmay has been involved with Mehitabel Parr, who is now an actress in Melusine. One night after a performance, Mehitabel is visited by a man from her past who blackmails her into spying for the Bastion, an enemy of the Mirador. Afterwards, Mehitabel takes out her rage on Mildmay when he comes to see her, letting it slip that sometimes he confuses her with his long-dead girlfriend Ginevra. This causes Mildmay to return to the Lower City against Felix's will to seek the truth about who leaked the information that got Ginevra killed. Meanwhile Felix and Gideon are still together in a rocky relationship and a lot of angst ensues.

There was less plot advancement in The Mirador than the first two books in the series with even more focus on internal conflicts than the previous books, but it was still so absorbing that I did not even notice until I tried to write a plot summary in my head. A lot happened at the end giving it that "middle book" feeling in which it is largely setting up the next book. The end was filled with tension, dark and disturbing, and has the most shocking conclusion of any of the three books.

Mehitabel joins Felix and Mildmay as a point of view character. I would have preferred if the whole story had been told from the perspectives of the ex-thief/assassin and his wizard half-brother. Mehitabel's character played the role of the observer for the most part and she simply didn't hold my interest as a person - she was too well-grounded for a story that is largely appealing for the conflicted and troubled people. There were some advantages to reading from her perspective, however. It was at times interesting to see Felix and/or Mildmay through someone else's eyes and Mehitabel did become entangled in some court intrigue that allowed us to see glimpses of Shannon and the Lord Protector in a new light. Although the main characters in this series are exceptionally well-written, all the minor characters have always been rather flat and Mehitabel's viewpoint did show them with more depth than the previous installments.

In spite of these insights into some of the minor characters, I would trade them for more of the main two characters any day, particularly since there was not enough Felix in this book. Most of the book alternated between Mildmay and Mehitabel. While I love reading anything about Mildmay and thought Monette did a fantastic job of developing him further in this book, I find Felix's character fascinating and really missed reading about him as much as in the first two books. He is not the nicest character even though he is not intentionally spiteful, but he is so tormented and intriguing.

Another aspect of this book that was a little disappointing was that Felix and Mildmay spent so little time together in it. The two brothers largely avoided each other and became involved in their own side stories. I was going to say that their relationship was not explored in this book, but I changed my mind since it certainly was developing their connection and in character for both of them. Neither of them likes to talk about anything with great meaning and are private people when it comes to their inner thoughts; the two are so different yet in many ways so similar. It makes perfect sense that the close link of the obligation dame would drive them even further apart eventually. It was still frustrating to see them both so distant still after two years, but the fact that it is so upsetting just shows that Monette is a masterful writer to make you care about what happens to these people so much.

In spite of a few quibbles, I very much enjoyed this novel and found it difficult to put down, although it did not enchant me as much as The Virtu. Those who enjoyed the atmosphere and world-building aspects of the earlier books more than the characterization may be disappointed, as well as the few Felix fans who exist. Yet the resolution shows definite promise for a return to the elements that made the former book a personal favorite and I eagerly await the release of the next installment in what is now one of my favorite series of all time.


Read the first chapter on Sarah Monette's website. The first four chapters of The Mirador are available, as well as the first four of The Virtu.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Review of The Virtu

Note: There may be spoilers for Melusine in this review.

The Virtu
, the second book in Sarah Monette's The Doctrine of Labyrinth series, picks up where Melsuine left off and ties up all the loose ends from the first book. The series could have been brought to a satisfying conclusion with this book, but I am glad there is one more book out and one more yet to be published since the character of Mildmay has become one of my favorites of all time and Felix is not too far behind him. As much as I loved Melusine, I thought this book was even better and this was the book that secured Monette a place as one of my favorite writers.

Upon reaching the end of the journey begun in Melusine, Felix is enjoying his restored sanity and Mildmay is recuperating as much as he can from the curse of the Mirador, which left him with a permanently crippled leg. While Felix fits in easily and is quite popular with the people, Mildmay is an outcast due to his lack of refinement and the widespread belief that he mistreated Felix. Mildmay, as usual, keeps his feelings on his hatred of the place to himself, but Felix eventually realizes it must not be easy for his brother to be looked down on all the time. Driven by a desire to repair The Virtu and return to his former glory as a wizard of the Mirador in addition to the this, Felix decides it is time for them to return to the city of Melusine.

Since the curse of the Mirador's activation exposed Mildmay as a murderer, he cannot simply go back to his old life in the Lower City of Melusine. He refuses to leave his new-found brother, whom he cares for a great deal, so he asks Felix to take him under his protection through an ancient ritual, regardless of the consequences.

This is not a book to read when looking for a light-hearted, easy story. It's often harsh, melancholy, and haunting, though it is interspersed with humor that keeps it from being excessively dark. It is somewhat angst-ridden but it also has the most forward-moving plot of any of the books in the series thus far.

Like Melusine, the story alternates between the first person point of view of Mildmay and Felix. As with the former book, the characters are the strong point of the story, but they shine even more brightly in this novel. Each point of view character has such a strong, unique voice and you could easily tell which character you were reading about without seeing the name attached to the section.

Since very little was seen of Felix as a sane person in the first book, more of his personality is revealed in The Virtu. He is one of those wonderfully flawed characters. Most of the time he is charming and manipulative and he tends to hurt everyone around him, yet there are glimmers of humanity when he displays kindness toward his brother. Although Felix's point of view is more self-centered than Mildmay's, I still find myself sympathizing with him and feeling like he's not that bad when reading about him. In fact, I even find him rather likable most of the time.

Mildmay is certainly the more sympathetic of the two brothers and perhaps one of the best written characters in fantasy. He certainly has his flaws - a devotion to his older brother that often gets him into trouble, insecurity, and an inability to let go of his past - but they tend to be shortcomings that are endearing rather than the despicable imperfections possessed by Felix. Mildmay's point of view is always infused with a intelligent insights and a dry sense of humor that make him nearly impossible not to love.

I would recommend The Virtu to anyone who has read and enjoyed Melusine. It is necessary for completing the story arc begun in the first book, and it is more of the same dark story with well-realized characters as the first book but improved. This is one of those rare novels that sticks with one long after putting it down and you know you will have to reread it multiple times.


Read the first chapter on Sarah Monette's website. The first four chapters of both The Virtu and its sequel The Mirador are available.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Center Stage: George R. R. Martin

Barnes and Noble's Center Stage Book Club is currently featuring George R.R. Martin. This means fans get to ask him questions and he tries to answer as many of them as he possibly can. The main focuses for questions are the new Wild Cards book Inside Straight, writing for television, and his books (which of course mostly consists of questions about the A Song of Ice and Fire series).

If you haven't heard of Center Stage (I only first heard of it a couple of weeks ago myself), it features one author per week and gives fans the chance to converse with that author. This should be interesting, as Martin is one of my favorite authors and a master at writing complex, gray characters.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

For Fans of Signed Books

DreamHaven Books currently has a fantastic selection of signed books by authors who have recently appeared there. These writers include Sarah Monette, Lois McMaster Bujold, Alastair Reynolds, Patrick Rothfuss, Charles de Lint, Jim Hines, Kelly McCullough, Christopher Moore, Elizabeth Moon, and Lyda Morehouse. If you scroll to the bottom of their home page you can see the complete list of authors who have recently signed books. It's a very tempting selection.

Also, if you are in the area (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Lois McMaster Bujold will be answering questions and signing books there on April 22. I'm very sad it's so far away; authors rarely do book signings where I live.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review of Grimspace

Grimspace is the first novel in the new Jax series by Ann Aguirre. Even though this book just came out in February of this year, Wanderlust, the next book, is scheduled for release on August 26, 2008. While this romantic space opera could work perfectly well as a stand alone book, I was glad to see the next one is coming out so soon, as I am looking forward to reading more about Sirantha Jax's adventures.

Sirantha Jax is a rare carrier of the J-gene, which allows her to jump a ship through space (grimspace) while jacked in and mentally bonded with her pilot. The monopolizing corporation she works for isolates Sirantha after she is the sole survivor of a crash in which many important people were killed, including her pilot and lover Kai. Since there is a gap in her memory, Sirantha is unsure about whether or not the crash is her fault. However, she is sure that something terrible is going to happen to her if she remains there and decides to take her chances when a mysterious man named March sneaks in to her room to steal her away from them.

After meeting the rest of the crew she is now supposed to work with and learning of their plans to study the J-gene and recruit jumpers from various planets, Sirantha feels as though she may not be better off with these strangers after all. They are in constant danger and Sirantha actively dislikes half of her new companions - a rather snarky lesbian mechanic, a peaceful alien slave, cold-hearted March, and a kind-hearted doctor. She and March in particular grate on each other's nerves and are constantly bickering.

Grimspace is an entertaining and fast-paced adventure containing a nice blend of character interaction and rapid plot advancement. It is not terribly original, nor is it a novel that will blow your mind with profound insights and deep characters, but it is a lot of fun from the first page to the very last page. The pace is rather fast, sometimes too fast even, as I felt the ending was a bit rushed.

The story is told from Sirantha's point of view and is all in the present tense. The language is very modern and the prose is nothing special, but it certainly works for an enjoyable tale. Most of the time Sirantha's thoughts are quite amusing.

Although they are not astonishingly well-written, Sirantha and March are interesting characters with dark pasts with room for more revelations in the future about how they came to be the people they are. Sirantha is one of those badass women who says exactly what is on her mind no matter what the consequences, often leading to trouble. There is a lot of snappy dialogue and tension between the two characters who have a bit of a love/hate relationship.

I have seen a lot of comparisons between this book and the TV series Firefly and I can see the resemblance. This book also reminded me somewhat of Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion, although it is less reflective and scientific.

Grimspace is a novel worth checking out if you are a fan of strong female leads, adventure, and romance. It's a quick read that will not challenge your world view, but it certainly can be challenging to put the book down.


Other opinions:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Review of Melusine

Sarah Monette's stunning debut novel, Melusine, is the first book in The Doctrine of Labyrinth series. The next two books in the series, The Virtu and The Mirador are currently available, and the fourth and last book Corambis is scheduled for release in 2009. This book and its successors are exactly the types of books I like and have become my favorites I have read so far this year.

Felix Harrowgate is a powerful wizard who is part of high society in the city of Melusine. When at a party with the Lord Protector and other important people in the city, Felix's enemy Robert reveals a dark secret about where Felix came from and his former profession. Shunned by the others after this revelation, Felix visits the one person who knows about his past - the wizard Malkar who found Felix and became his mentor in wizardry. Malkar controls Felix against his will, harnesses his great magical power, and uses it to break The Virtu, a magical item that has been around for ages and contains spells to protect the city. Once his diabolical scheme has come to fruition, Malkar casts a spell on Felix preventing him from being able to tell anyone the truth about who actually broke The Virtu that drives him completely insane.

Thief and assassin Mildmay the Fox is approached by a beautiful young woman named Ginevra who would like to use his stealth to retrieve some of her belongings from her former lover's house. Mildmay soon becomes romantically involved with Ginevra and entangled with her dealings with the infamous blood witch Vey Coruscant. Tragedy leads him into stupidity which puts him in the hands of a wizard who believes Mildmay will lead him to Felix, a key player in gaining revenge against the mage's old foe.

Although it is thoroughly enjoyable, Melusine is the most flawed of the books in the series. The beginning is a bit abrupt, and Felix's connection to Malkar has not been fully revealed so the control the old wizard exerts over him does not make as much sense as it does in later books. Felix and Mildmay do not actually meet until later in this book, which is the point where the story begins to come together.

The story is told by alternating between the first person point of view of Felix and Mildmay. The changes in perspective are abrupt, but it did not bother me at all. If you do not like one of the characters, it will not be too long before you get to read about the other, and if you love them both, it will not matter which one you are reading about.

The characters are certainly the highlight of this book and Monette did a fantastic job of giving both Felix and Mildmay very distinct voices and personalities. Mildmay's heavy use of incorrect grammar and invented lower class slang annoyed me a bit at first, but eventually I got used to it and it's hard not to love his character's sense of humor and honest bluntness. Very little is seen of Felix in this book when he is not out of his mind, but his insane perspective was handled quite well and I enjoyed reading his sections, too.

This is dark fantasy at its best - gritty without being bloody and more about the characters themselves and the world around them than violence and swordfights. The suffering of the characters is heartfelt without being overwhelmingly depressing. Mildmay's way of looking at the world around him can lighten up even the darkest of situations.

Those who would be offended to read a story containing bad language, rape, sexual content, and/or homosexuality should avoid this book, however, since all those elements are included. It's handled so naturally, like its a part of everyday life and that's just the way things happen sometimes and does not feel like it is intended for shock value.

I highly recommend Melusine to anyone with a penchant for character-driven, non-cliche dark fantasy that comes alive off the pages. It certainly contains some flaws but the characters are so realistically written that it does not really matter.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinth

Warning: The following is not a coherent review. It is just the ramblings of someone who has discovered a new series to add to the favorites list. (However, it is spoiler-free.)

Although I will be reviewing each book in the Doctrine of Labyrinth series individually when I get a chance, I finished The Mirador last night and just want to babble about it since I have no one to talk to who has read it. This is exactly the type of series I love and has moved Sarah Monette into my list of top 5 favorite authors.

This was not a fast-paced, action-packed series - it was more about the world and the characters, especially the characters. About two thirds of the way through The Mirador I realized not much had actually happened when thinking about how to sum up the story, but I hadn't even noticed (and didn't care) because the characters were so fascinating. Each book developed them further and delved more into who they were. They were very realistic and sympathetic yet rather flawed.

I may be so enamored of the characters because I could relate to them so well, especially Mildmay, whose personality is very similar to mine other than the whole assassin/thief thing. The more I read about him in The Virtu and The Mirador, the more I realized I've never been able to relate to a character as well because I've never read about a character who reminded me so much of myself.

Limiting the points of view to just 2 or 3 characters was a fantastic way for writing the series. Most of the books I've read with good characters either have one really good main character or are doorstoppers with so many characters that it is hard to keep them all straight sometimes. Monette did an amazing job of giving each character a very distinct voice, and reading their thoughts on the world and others was great fun.

I'm very glad I got the impression I would love these books from the reviews I read and bought them all in hardcover. The next book is supposed to be out sometime next year, and I can't wait for it! I haven't been this excited about a new series since I discovered Wraeththu about a year ago.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review of The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow, failed to live up to my (rather high) expectations. I had heard that it had well-developed characters, an interesting first contact story, thought-provoking commentary on religious themes, and a haunting ending that stayed with you long after reaching the final page of the book. It sounded exactly like the kind of book I love, but it just did not capture my interest to the extent I had expected, although I did not dislike it. I will most likely not be picking up the sequel, Children of God.

Emilio Sandoz, the once revered Jesuit priest, is now famous as the only survivor of a space mission to the planet Rakhat and infamous as a whore and the murderer of an alien child. The Jesuits are attempting to treat Emilio's disfigured hands and coerce him into telling them the story of what happened to him while he was away from earth. The story alternates between Emilio and the Jesuits in the year 2060 and flashbacks of the discovery of life on Rakhat, the trip to this distant planet, and the events that occurred there.

The half page long prologue introducing the Jesuit's desire to go meet God's other children had me intrigued. The first couple of chapters relating Emilio's current state made me curious about how he became such a bitter man. I enjoyed most of the parts that took place in the year 2060, but the parts about the past dragged a bit, especially in the beginning. Too much time was spent showing the relationships forged between the members of the space mission and it seemed to take forever for the plot to advance to the actual discovery of alien life and the time spent with the residents of Rakhat. Normally, I would enjoy this, but none of the characters were well-written enough that I found this particularly interesting. They were mostly too perfect or too cheesy or just too obviously meant to fit into a particular stereotype. Somehow the characters just did not appeal to me that much other than the broken Emilio in the present. The interactions between him and the other priests were far more interesting than the dinner parties of the past.

The two main alien species discovered on Rakhat were the more compelling part of the story of the previous life of Emilio, although that was unfortunately a fairly small part of the flashbacks. The less intelligent, more naive Runa were greater in number but subservient to the more vicious Jana'ata. There were the usual common occurrences for first contact stories - misunderstandings abounded between the humans and the aliens and the humans made what they thought was a minor change that turned out to be a big mistake.

After all the mystery surrounding the details of how Emilio came to be the only survivor and such a different man from the person he was when he left, the ending revelation seemed rushed and very anti-climatic. The ending failed to affect me as much as one might expect partially because I already knew what was going to happen, but mostly because I never formed any real emotional attachment to any of the characters. It failed to shock me on the level I had anticipated, and therefore the tragic end did not keep resurfacing to my mind once I had put the book down.

One aspect of this book that was handled well was Emilio's belief that the reason the obstacles that could have prevented the trip to Rakhat were so easily removed meant that it must be God's will to go to this planet. Everything seemed so perfect, Emilio felt so happy and blessed about meeting God's other children and learning to communicate with them, and relations with these aliens seemed to be going wonderfully. Then one little mistake caused the death of everyone left other than Emilio as well as the downfall of Emilio himself. The priest must deal with his guilt about convincing his friends that this mission was God's will and being the sole survivor.

The stronger points of the descent of Emilio Sandoz, the religious themes, and the alien race are overshadowed by too much time spent with weak, uninteresting characters that I did not come to care about.