Tag: elizabeth bear

Books books books

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In which I catch up to a lot of books. You’ve been warned (yeah. The snakelet got mobile and my spare time got a lot… busier).
The Very Best of Kate Elliott: an extensive collection of Elliott’s short fiction as well as four illuminating essays, this is utterly wonderful. They’re all very strong stories, focusing on people (mostly women) dealing with war, magic and various other conflicts. The clear highlight for me was “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine”, which has the best woman protagonist *ever*, and manage to make a number of pointed remarks about the invisibility of older women and working-class people, but they’re all worth a read.
Glorious Angels, Justina Robson: “glorious” is about the right word for this. Set on a planet colonised by humans a long time ago, and where an intriguing mix of science and magic dominates, this focuses on the Empire, a loose confederation of cities ruled by Empresses who control their subjects through pheromones. But the Empire is enmeshed in a deadly war; and trouble might soon come from within… There’s so much in this–tremendously inventive world building done matter-of-factly, a kickass family (Tralane and her two daughters are just awesome), and mysterious and deadly beings in the shape of the Karoo, creatures who absorb each other to gain knowledge. And an ending that is both satisfying and immensely frustrating (aka I want to know what happens next!).
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson (ARC from publisher): if you’re not in the mood for brutal and depressing, this is probably not the book for you. It’s been a long while since I read something that was pure tragedy–you know exactly what this book is building up to, and yet you still turn the pages and hope against all hope that there will be a happy ending. (also, the focus on economics and war is really interesting, even though I wasn’t 100% sold on some of the politics). I did find myself wanting to argue with it, at length, after I’d finished it; but I suspect you’re meant to do so.
Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky, Elizabeth Bear: I’d read Range of Ghosts, the first volume of the Eternal Sky a while back, when it first came out, but I hadn’t had a chance to check it out until now. Set in a fantasy version of the Silk Road (featuring analogues of Persia, Mongolia and China among others–more as loose inspirations than the actual historical setting), this is a breathtaking epic fantasy with very strong set pieces (and horses! OMG Bansh and her foal), political intrigue and realistic characters (while I love Temur, my favourite is Samarkar, the wizard who was once a princess, and her relationship with Edene, Temur’s fiancée). The ending is heartbreaking and wonderful.
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (ARC from publisher): epic fantasy using Ancient China as its foundation. A cross between the Iliad, Three Kingdoms and Lord of the Rings. But it’s also very adult and very modern in its handling of power–who gets it, who is worthy to handle it and how you cling to it. And very very cynical and dark in some ways (the violence is always drily factual, but I’d argue that makes it even more horrific)
It does some amazing things with narration–and one of these is showing how everyone has a story–this might be the tale of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, but everyone in the cast ends up feeling very, very human and yet larger than life. It’s a neat trick. Again, I love the cultural foundations of this–scholars and filial duty! Confucius (well, Kong Fiji)! Kites and fireworks as weapons.
I do have one reservation, though, and it’s the same issue I have with Three Kingdoms. Because this is a universe where men do the fighting (and women, with notable exceptions, don’t), and because this is a story of war, women end up being relegated somewhat to the back burner. The story is very aware of it, and aware of how women try to gain power (and there’s subversion going on, more or less subtle), but I still ended up… a bit frustrated? There’s awesome women fighters, and some court intrigues in the last third. (and it looks like book 2 is going to be more about the building of peace and rivalries at court, therefore will remedy this)

NB: the fact that this last one has a longer review doesn’t mean I loved it more than the others! Just that I typed this one when I had a little more time than now, when the snakelet wasn’t mobile yet…

Recent reads

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-Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret, and The White City. A series of linked short stories and a novella, all set in an alternate history where the English Crown still has the colonies, and where magic works. It’s very effective urban fantasy, both drawing on the stereotype of the vampire as the ultimate seducer (vampires have groupies who only live for the pleasure of providing the ecstatic gift of blood, and are drawn into various relationships with humans–that run the gamut from patrons to abusers, from friends to walking pints of blood), and it just hits so many small details in a fashion that had me nodding along: for instance, at one point, one of the (rather long-lived) main characters reflects that churches are becoming unfriendly places because religion has changed beyond all recognition, compared to what he remembers from his childhood, and this is SO true. And it has Bear’s usual pretty writing, which flows along effortlessly (even though I’m sure the actual process of couching it onto paper involved blood and sweat); and wonderful and deep characters that refuse to become established stereotypes, and feel very much like real human beings with their flaws and frailties, but also their wonderful capacity for quiet heroism. I’m very much looking forward to the last book, Ad Aeternum.

Steam-Powered 2, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft (review copy). I’m probably not in the target audience for this, because I’m not particularly fond of romance in general, and a lot of steampunk leaves me cold (the “mad adventure and costume” side doesn’t appeal overmuch to me). And, indeed, the main problem I had with this anthology was that I could predict a lot of the endings: if a story only has two women on stage, and it’s in a book of lesbian steampunk, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen… On balance, I thought that the best stories in the book were those that moved away from the stereotype of two women falling in love, and dealt with other aspects of the relationship: either further along in time, like Nisi Shawl’s “The Return of Cherie”, or by questioning its power dynamics and putting it into a colonial framework (such as Stephanie Lai’s “One Last Interruption Before We Begin”); or by eschewing the mad adventure steampunk altogether and focusing on much smaller-scale events (Alex Dally MacFarlane’s awesome “Selin that Has Grown in the Desert”, by far and above my favourite story in the book). I also enjoyed those stories with a very different setting and mindset: “In the Heart of Yellow Mountain” by Jaymee Goh is reminiscient of Chinese fairytales and adventures stories, and has a very unique vibe; “Not the Moon but the Stars” by Shveta Thakrar is set in a wonderfully recreated India that brims with lovely cultural details; and Zen Cho’s “The Terracotta Bride” takes Chinese Hell as its setting, deftly dealing with issues of power between the haves and have-nots (your status in Hell being, very appropriately, determined by how many children you had, and whether they’re still burning funeral offerings for you). Overall, even though I didn’t enjoy everything, the book as a whole is definitely worth reading. (and I suppose it says something about me that the stories I enjoyed most didn’t follow the brief of “independence, romance and adventure”, and tended to be written by people outside of the US, or by US POCs *sigh* I’ll go hide away now, promise).

Quick weekend update

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(yes, lest you wonder why I’m online so early: I’ve taken my Friday afternoon off, and am currently in a train, headed for a weekend break. Ah, holidays…)

So, what’s up. Not been doing much: writing Master of the House of Darts pretty much wiped me out; so I took a 2-3-week post-novel break, wherein I did nothing much but read Agatha Christie novels. Which, incidentally, are wonderful things. Very relaxing–purely intellectual puzzles with very little violence. I hadn’t appreciated till now the need for a quiet space, and if you’d told me a few years ago that I was going to read Christie for fun and relaxation I’d have laughed at you. But there’s something infinitely soothing about her books–partly, I guess, because they’re about an idealised bygone time that cannot possibly concern me except in the remotest of senses; and partly because they’re puzzles more than thrillers, which means there is little stress and little incentive to GET THE ENDING NOW. Now I know where my tendency for dialogue-and-interviews-as-plot comes from…

I also read Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, the first volume of her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, and fell in love all over again. It’s a blend of Arthurian mythos, Zelazny’s Amber, and Bear’s awesomely lyrical and mythic language. Think backstabbing family politics, on a generation ship. With swords and knights and angels, except everything is slightly askew, and there’s a peculiar weight to having all that mythology–a generation ship is pretty much a self-contained universe, and it’s interesting to see how the inhabitants are shaped by their ancestors’ belief systems and foibles (in many ways, it also reminded me of Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which also has SF with mythic tropes, the tropes having been set by the original colonists/passengers in order to establish a system by which they could profit). Very good, with cool characters. I thought two of them were under-used; but then I got my copy of Chill aka book 2, and I saw they were going to be the protagonists in that book. What more could a girl ask for? 🙂

Next up is revising MHD, and starting up work on the next project, on which I have very vague ideas–thinking of a Chinese/Vietnamese generation tale on a space station, but it’s all very nebulous. Before I commit to any plot, I need to reread Dream of Red Mansions, which I intend to use as my model for this. Should be interesting.

Cooking-wise, not much–it was a decidedly Vietnamese week, with phở, green mango salad (gotta work on the salad dressing though), and xá xíu (what can I say, I had 1.1 kg of pork, a big oven dish, and rather too much time on my hands. Good thing the thing freezes easily. Also, the H likes xá xíu). I really need to get down with the caramel recipe and work out how not to fail dismally at it, but the week was rather too busy for that…

And on the non-ranty side

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Books read recently:
Unseen Academicals: the latest Terry Pratchett about the wizards of UU playing football. A lot of the pleasures of the Pratchett books currently is the reccurrence of the main players such as Lady Margoletta, Sam Vimes, Rincewind and the witches, and this one is mostly the same. There’s a couple of hilarious set pieces (the chicken-powered computer is awesome), and the new characters are nice, though not all are memorable (I loved Glenda, wasn’t such a big fan of Juliet, who’s too good to be true, though I got it was the point).
The Sea Thy Mistress: Elizabeth Bear was kind enough to provide me with an ARC of this one, and I leapt at the chance. The Edda of Burdens is one of my absolute favourite series out there: All the Windwracked Stars had this awesome meld of technology, magic and post-apocalypse, and By the Mountain Bound has all the gravitas and sense of impending doom of the Norse epics. The prose is always a pleasure to read, and there’s a couple of really strong characters (the wolf Mingan, and Muire, the least of the waelcyrge, who learns that she can grow and come into her own). Short, non-spoilery version: the book is made of awesome, and you should go read it and its predecessors. It’s available for pre-orders now; I think it’s not out until Jan 2011.
(more spoilery discussion under the cut)
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Books read

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  • The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko: part of the book swag my sister gave me for my birthday (belatedly, since she isn’t in Paris currently. Russia is underpinned by another world, that of the Twilight, and its children, the Others. Wizards, sorceresses, vampires and were-tigers stalk the streets of Moscow, divided into two sides, the Dark and the Light. Those sides once fought each other, but have now signed a truce in the interest of survival. The truce preserves neutrality: every act of magic by an agent of the Dark gives an agent of the Light the right to perfom an act of similar intensity. The Night Watch is the Light entity which watches over the Dark to make sure that it doesn’t break the rules, and the Day Watch, made up of Dark field agents, does the reverse.
    Anton is an agent of the Night Watch, a minor magician recently assigned to field work in order to catch rogue vampires. But when he meets Egor, a young, unaligned Other on the verge of change, and Sveltana, a young woman under a powerful curse, he has no idea his life is about to change…
    The Night Watch is made up of three semi-independent stories, each focusing on Anton, his relationship with his powerful boss, Boris Ignatievich, and his growing awareness of how both sides manipulate their own pawns for their gain. It’s urban fantasy, Russian-style, but very refreshing both in its setting and in its attitude: Anton isn’t a kickass hero (and, indeed, his kindness and human judgments end up much more useful than his magical abilities), just a man trying to make sense of what is around him and gradually coming to question his role in the organisation. Though there are clear sides, you can’t really say that one is better than the other, since they both have a tendency for ruthlessness. Both sides will cooperate to chase rogues, which makes for interesting scenes when they’re all bickering together. The characters are great, each pretty well-drawn, from Anton to were-tigress Tiger Cub, to young mage Yulia. Pretty strongly recommended. I’m definitely going to check out the other books in the series.
  • All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear. Thousands of years ago, Ragnarok occurred, leaving only three survivors: Muire, the last of the waelcyrge (Valkyries), the war-steed Kasimir, reborn into a thing of metal and hydraulics, and the Grey Wolf, the betrayer, the one who swallowed the sun. Now the city of Eiledon is all that is left of the human world, dying more slowly than the rest of the poisoned land. But the Grey Wolf has come hunting again, to bring about the second end of the world…
    An awesome mix of postapocalyptic SF, Norse myths and steampunk. I love Bear’s writing style, and this book did not disappoint. It also had a very cool plot and a cast of interesting, flawed characters I rooted for easily (the Grey Wolf is made of awesome, but Bear has always been good at doing mysterious and dangerous, like Whiskey in Blood and Iron). Again, I’m looking forward to picking up the sequels.