Saturday, April 16, 2011

Research Week Trashy Book Friday Review, 4/15/2011

First up, I believe today is my first blogaversary. I'd like to thank all of my readers from all over the world - according to m stats (which I check far more often than is strictly healthy), I have had viewers from every continent except Antarctica, which is very cool. I would like to say that I will give the first confirmed viewer from Antarctica something amazing, but I fear this would create undue competition. I would love more comments, though!

Next, I've spent most of a week in Norfolk, VA, at the MacArthur Library, reading Douglas MacArthur's official mail from 1943 through 1952. Well, parts of it. When I take research trips (as I may have mentioned earlier) I like to read "trashy" books, to clear my mind of the serious stuff I'm working on. I also like to use public transit as much as possible in order to a) not have to drive and b) have time to read trashy books. The public transit I got to use this week was pretty spiffy - a ferry across the Elizabeth River - but not very long, only about 10 minutes each way, so I didn't get as much reading done as I had hoped. However, I am planning a further trip for the end of June (not back to Norfolk), and hopefully a further trip in July, so I should be able to do further reading then. At any rate, of the stack of books I packed, I only managed to finished 2 and 1/4 of them. Reviews are as follow.

Faith Hunter - Bloodring

This is the first of the "Rogue Mage" series, of which there are 3, all 3 of which I had with me. Of the books I read this week, this was my favorite. I could easily have carried on and read all three of them, but I decided that it would be better to spread my trashy reading out across a wider genre spectrum. I do these things for you guys, the readers! It's because I'm noble and self-sacrificing that way.

The premise in these books is interesting. They are set post-apocalypse; the Biblical apocalypse. 150 years prior to the beginning of the books, angels and devils appeared on Earth and duked it out for all the marbles. The angels won, but God didn't show up, and so the angels have been more or less in charge since then. And the angels are kinda dicks - but still better than the devils.

In the midst of the Last War, a group of people appeared/evolved (it's not really clear); neo-mages. They could do magic. They fought on the side of the angels. At the end of the war, the neo-mages were rounded up and put into Enclaves, where they were given licenses and allowed to operate, in a limited sense, in the general population. They are not trusted, their services are expensive, and they cannot operate without the official sanction of the Seraphs (they never call themselves angels). Officially, the Seraphs state that mages do not have souls - they are not "human." This gives them certain leeway, such as the ability to call on aid from Seraphs when deeply injured (among other things).

Thorn St. Croix is an unlicensed mage, living outside of an Enclave (because, it turns out, after the death of her twin sister, living in close proximity with her fellow mages makes her crazy), hidden from her neighbors by powerful talismans. She is only partially trained, and largely cut off from her community, both the community of mages and the community she has chosen to live in. She works, along with a small group of friends, as a stone cutter, making fairly expensive jewelry, of which she sells enough to make a living and maintain a shop and living quarters.

When the daughter (and extended family) of her ex-husband are threatened by an unknown demonic force, Thorn finds herself drawn into the action, even though it may destroy her cover, putting her, and the people she loves, in danger from their neighbors (unlicensed mages are illegal, subject to death; either quickly if the official authorities catch them, or slowly and painfully if the mob does).

The plot is not particularly dense - Thorn gets drawn into fights with demons, she skirts the edges of the law, there is a happy ending - or at least a Happy For Now ending - it's not hugely complex. The world building, however, is entirely delightful. Hunter doles out little snippets of background throughout the book, avoiding entirely the standard info-dump type passages, and leaving the readers guessing for much of the book about what is actually going on with the world. For instance, there is some speculation that the reason God never showed up is that these are not really devils and angels, but rather some advanced alien beings who decided to play with a dominant cultural trope for their own ineffable purposes. Hunter does nothing to resolve this debate, and this is all to the greater narrative good - I was ready to read the next book immediately, not so much to see what happens to Thorn next, but to get a broader understanding of the world that Thorn lives in.

Other things I really liked - Thorn is competent at her day job, Hunter discusses the making of stone (and other) jewelry in some detail, and Thorn's enjoyment of the craft she pursues is realistic and enjoyable. It is not hard to believe that Thorn would regret in the extreme giving up the job of making jewelry in order to be a super hero. The cover art is good - unlike the discussion of the Brigg's covers, Thorn's description of herself matches well with the image on the cover (at least, Thorn's description of herself in full battle gear - we don't get an image of her working as a jeweler). The supporting characters are nice too - Hunter includes a very pleasant gay couple, and a variety of well realized, believably competent other characters of various genders. Thorn is not the only competent figure in the book, surrounded by an army of idiots - this is important, because a) it makes the book more believable and b) it makes Thorn's competence more impressive.

Things I did not like - mages go into "heat" in the presence of Seraphs and the offspring of Seraphs. Thorn manages to control herself, but, seriously, heat? Because they are somehow subhuman? This, I think, is something that will have to be addressed over the trilogy as Thorn becomes increasingly convinced of her own humanity - I can see the series going in that direction, and I think I will be disappointed if it veers off that particular path. Another minor thing - it's not clear on any of the books (or even, and this surprised me, within any of the books) which of the books is the first one. (This is the first one. Amazon confirms it) - each book references the other two books on the cover, and each lists the other two books on the flyleaf (do paperbacks have a flyleaf? I mean on the page between the copyright page and the title page). Trial and error were needed - I had originally picked up the second book, and was lost within a couple of paragraphs - not a trilogy to read out of order, at all.

Kathleen Bacus - Calamity Jayne Rides Again

So, I went from "dark fantasy" to modern romance. This is the second of the Tressa Jayne Turner books by Bacus - and you can totally start here, no problem. Tressa (Calamity) Jayne is a ditzy blonde from Iowa, living in a trailer on her parent's farm, working a couple of jobs, and accidentally blundering into crime solving. This book is set at the Iowa State Fair, where Tressa helps staff her uncle's ice cream concessions. The crime in this book is vandalism of the concessions, presumably in an effort to convince Uncle Fred to sell out and give the prime locations he has held for several years to someone else. Tressa, with a cast of kooky relatives and a pair of competing love interests, blunders her way through the mystery.

This is a mystery novel more than a romance novel - Tressa is far more involved in the solving of the crime than she is in securing a Happily Ever After for herself - I'm not sure that this book even has a Happy For Now ending, really. She starts the book conflicted about the guy she has a love/hate relationship with (an old friend of her brother's, she has discovered that she kinda likes him, because he's good looking, and a good kisser - and that's as far as it's gotten since the last book, where he saved her life). She ends the book torn between Rick (the old guy) and Patrick (the new guy - an Iowa State Trooper who seems more inclined to accept Tressa as she is, and less inclined to try to change her "for her own good"). I think it's fairly obvious that Tressa will ultimately end up with Rick, at least temporarily - but it doesn't happen in this book, and it's going to take at least one more book to resolve one way or the other. The key, I think, is how much Tressa is willing to compromise, and how much Rick is willing to compromise. That book, where they explore each other's feelings more than they explore an unfolding mystery - that book will be a romance. This one was not.

Stuff I liked - Tressa is irrepressible. I enjoy irrepressible characters. Her clan is kooky, and I like kooky too. The book is set at a State Fair, and I'm partial to State Fairs. A lot of the secondary action takes place around fair food - I like fair food. The mystery did not involve a murder - this is highly refreshing.

Things I didn't like - Tressa is entirely too ditzy. When I say she blunders her way through the book - she totally does. She really earns her nickname. This is part of the whole schtick of the book, so it's unavoidable, but it grated a little. Tressa is self deprecating, especially in regards her weight and her eating - this is believable, but mildly depressing. I'd like a confident heroine who eats what she wants and doesn't worry about her weight - especially since Tressa also describes herself as petite, wishes she had bigger boobs - ok, I get that this is intended to be realistic and Everywoman, but I'd rather it wasn't - that is, I'd rather that either a "realistic" Everywoman would be less concerned about body image or that less effort had been taken to make Tressa a realistic Everywoman.

I might read another of these; I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to avoid one, but I'm also not going to rush out to find the next one.

Steven Kent - The Clone Elite

I only got 1/4 of the way into this book. If I had not been trapped on a ferry with nothing else to read, I probably wouldn't have gotten that far. I'm not going to finish it.

The bad news - in the future, people no longer fuck. They speck instead. What I mean to say is, Kent has the members of a united human military cursing thusly - "mudder-specking mudder specker, I'm going to get you!"  Ok, I exaggerate for effect, but not by much.

More bad news - in the future, the United States will dominate extra solar-system travel, and will translate that domination into world domination, taking over the globe, and then abandoning everything noble about the political traditions of the US while retaining the most annoying and damaging cultural behaviors. So, democracy dies, but cultural chauvinism survives.

Further bad news - the galaxy is being invaded by giant glowing Space Angels who travel in a nimbus of light. They land on a planet, "sleeve" the planet in what the United Alliance scientists call the "ion curtain," through which no communication can pass, and then move onto the next planet. It is assumed that all the humans on the planet perish in the process, although it has been impossible to confirm this assumption.

Some good news - the United Alliance has a small army of well trained clones with which to confront this threat. The clones don't know that they are clones, and, if alerted to the fact of their cloneness, will instantly die - this seems like a serious design flaw in an army. You could defeat the army with a set of loudspeakers - "think about it for a moment - does it make sense that you are the ONLY natural born human in an army of clones? Ask your neighbor what they think about themselves, go ahead, do it!" and the whole army collapses, dead, on the spot.

This is not the only weakness in the army - the leaders seem to lack any sense of logic, or strategic planning. Our hero (and I use that term loosely) and his fellow clone grunts are the only competent portion of the army - anyone above 1st Lieutenant is clearly superfluous. (This is a common feature of a lot of milfic - the front line grunts are all heroes, and the officers are all REMFs - Rear Echelon Mudder Speckers). A key point - the strategy to stop the Space Angels - defend the next planet in their path. Using 1 million soldiers (imagine Dr. Evil with his finger here). Look, at the end of World War Two, the United States alone had 8.5 million soldiers in the field, defending not the whole planet, but only a few small strategic points. 1 million soldiers, even armed to the teeth with fancy weapons, is not enough to defend a planet - it's not even enough to defend a good sized country. Nonetheless, this army is presented as massive - a huge force, entirely formidable and totally sufficient to stop any alien force coming in from wherever. There's an easy fix here - two, in fact. One, you have someone ask if 1 million soldiers is really enough to do the job, and have someone else say "not really, but it's what we've got left" - this seems to be the tenor of the book anyway, they're recalling clones in their 50s and 60s, but no one ever questions that 1 million soldiers is a lot of soldiers. Two, you have someone, possibly the narrator, comment that 1 million doesn't sound like a lot, but given the current technology - armor, weapons, etc etc, the force multiplier makes 1 million soldiers more like 1 billion, or something of that nature. Less satisfying, but also acceptable. Neither is explicitly stated, but either would fit here. The thing is, the officers are either good natured idiots with no sense of strategy, or ill natured assholes who just don't care - and there is no other option.

A final piece of bad news, and the one which really made me put the book down and take pictures instead, is that, due to UA government colonization policies, race has been eliminated - everyone is white (except for one guy, who is part of a colony of Neo-Baptists, who are, of course, all black) - this is explicitly stated. One of the soldiers says he doesn't trust Freeman, because Freeman is black, and race is supposed to not exist anymore. Oh, except for this neo-Baptist colony, and apparently some of the Catholic colonies still have Italian priests, and there was this one colony of Japanese who were evacuated back to Earth and given the Japanese islands by the UA government - except for those folks, race doesn't exist (which means everyone is white, naturally.)

The premise had potential - the clones could have been metaphors for minorities (like several of the vampires were during Vampire Month), the book could have explored modern issues of warfare in a realistic but comfortably distant way, the Marines could have sworn like Marines.* None of that was true.

I didn't finish the book. I'm not going to finish the book. I was already cheering for the Space Angels, and that's not a good sign in a book like this, because it's fairly clear they're not going to win - Waylon Harris and his buddies will figure out how to kill them after the Specking officers are all dead and everything comes down to the heroic grunt clowns. I mean clones. Unless, of course, the Space Angels get a set of loud speakers; then we're all doomed.

*There is, of course, a long tradition of military fiction in which the soldiers swear without swearing, starting with Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, where the soldiers all said "Fug", and culminating in Farscape's "Frell" and Battlestar Galactica's "Frack" - but all of those were instances of avoiding censorship. Kent is writing in a market and for a medium where it's entirely acceptable to have soldiers say "Fuck," and not get censored - if the books get made into a popular TV show on a network other than Showtime or HBO, then you can come up with some cute alternative. Until then, it just sounds silly.