Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Review, 7/22/2011

Before I review my two books this week, I would like to make an observation. Right now, in most of North America, it is damn hot. Damn hot varies, depending on where you are, but, here in Upstate New York, not a place known for being sweltering, it has topped 100 F (that's 38 C, for those of you in the civilized world), and that's damn hot.

Many people do not have the luxury of air conditioning when it is damn hot outside. Heating in the cold is far more common, and generally viewed as a human necessity, but air conditioning is a luxury. My family has decided that, since we only really need A/C two or three days a year, we aren't going to buy a window unit for the house, so I am part of that group of people who does not have A/C when it gets damn hot. One of the places people like me go (and take their kids to) when it gets damn hot is the library. Because it's free. Because it's full of books, and we like to encourage our children to read. And, obviously, because most libraries are air conditioned - it's good for the books if a fairly steady heat and humidity is maintained in the library. This is a good reason to support your local library - it provides a shelter from the heat for folks who don't have or can't afford air conditioning when it's damn hot.

Ok. Book reviews.

This week, I re-read a book which I've had on my shelf (or in a box somewhere) for at least ten years. It's an older book, but it's really good, and you've probably never heard of it.

Julie Czerneda - In the Company of Others

Ten years ago, give or take, my wife and I were running a small student convention in Virginia for the second year in a row. We had decided that we would invite authors that we were interested in listening to, since we could only really guarantee that the two of us would show up for the panels. In our hunting, we discovered Jule Czerneda. Her background intrigued us - she had hard science credentials, and everything about her books suggested that she took a very hard science approach to her science fiction. Also, she had co-authored a middle school curriculum which used short works of science fiction to teach students basics of science. So we invited her. And she was awesome; both as an author and as an author guest. If you are running a convention, I seriously recommend her, she's lovely.

In the Company of Others had been released fairly recently prior to the convention, and was, I believe, nominated for a Nebula award or a Hugo - I'm not sure. Either way, she chose to come to our convention rather than attend the award ceremony. Others was her fifth book, and her first stand alone novel - the previous four were parts one and two of two separate trilogies. It's a serious slab of a novel as well, and it realistically took me about a week to read - it's dense.

The plot. At some point in the distant future, humanity has terraformed several distant planets to relieve crowding on Earth. Before settlers can put down on the planets, however, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong - advance scouts die suddenly. The sudden death is traced back to the presence of Quill on the planets - a non-sentient creature which deep-space explorers like to keep as pets. Quill are ribbon like critters that bond somehow with a specific person and cause them to remain calm, or tranQuill, hence the name. The Quill bond with a specific genetic pattern - once bonded, they cannot be given away, except sometimes to a direct child of the owner. Prior to the terraforming, they were regarded as expensive (because difficult to get) novelties, but not dangerous. After the terraforming disaster, they become monsters.

Complicating the situation is the fact that Earth released settlers to orbiting way-stations before the planets were ready to receive them, and are now unwilling to accept the settlers back on Earth. This results in severely over crowded stations, and a great deal of hostility from the station dwellers towards Earth.

A generation has passed since the initial disaster. Our hero, Aaron Pardell, lives on one of the stations. As our book begins, a science vessel from Earth has arrived - the head of the mission, Dr. Gail Smith, is looking for Aaron. Aaron thinks he knows why - he has an odd medical condition. If people touch him, both he and the other person experience extreme pain, often to the point of unconsciousness. I think that's all I can say without offering spoilers.

Stuff I liked - the science is really hard here. Scientists engage in science, not technobabble.

- The people are real, too. They react in reasonable, and sometimes unreasonable, ways, and basically behave like real people. Czerneda presents characters in considerable depth, both as individuals and as a collective - secondary, tertiary, even unnamed characters in the book have personalities. This is clear - in the end of the book, Czerneda includes a cast of characters. There are names for people who do not even have "speaking" parts in the book - people who, in the movie credits, would be "third man from the left in the lab scene." Czerneda gives them names, and the care she takes there shines throughout the novel, which is one of the reasons it so dense.

- There's a really hot love scene in which neither participant touches the other at all, and no genitals are exposed. It's steamy, yet totally understated. One of my professors back in undergrad - actually, I don't know that I ever had him as a professor, come to think of it, but he was in the department - wrote fiction. At one event, he suggested that sex scenes in novels tended to be either vulgar or farcical, I believe the exact phrase was "like a banana on the front of a suit of armor". This love scene is neither, and it's brilliant.

- Julie Czerneda is a Canadian, and she peppers her works with little Canadian references. In this book, the space craft are often named for Canadian cities - the one that comes to mind is a freighter named Mississagua, which is a city outside of Toronto, Ontario.

Stuff I didn't like - it's long? And kinda dense? And I stayed up late last night finishing it.

Final thoughts - Julie Czerneda is a fantastic person and author, and her books need a much much wider audience. If you like really good science fiction, you totally owe it to yourself to check her out.

Alex Bledsoe - Dark Jenny

While I was at the library yesterday, I grabbed this one off the new book shelf. I do this thing at the library where I let the older kid run wild wander sedately through the kids' section seeking books for herself while I sit with the baby and read part of a book I've grabbed. Sometimes, I'll pick up a graphic novel and read it all the way through, and then not bring it home (unless I think my wife would like it, in which case I'll bring it home for her).* My eldest has picked up on this habit, and she will often read the books she is bringing home before she puts them in the library bag - so she often reads her books three and four times before they go back. She's totally my kid. :)

Anyway, Bledsoe is an interesting author. This is the third of the Eddie LaCrosse novels. Eddie LaCrosse is a "sword jockey" - a guy who you can hire to do some strong arm stuff, or to look into a messy mystery type situation - a sword for hire, if you will. In short, he is a hardboiled private eye - but in a narrative setting involving knights and dragons and magic and swords and such. This particular book blends an Arthurian milleu with the hard boiled PI trope - it's very much "you got your hard boiled PI in my Arthurian romance", "no, you got your Arthurian romance in my hard boiled PI."

Eddie is at the bar on a hard winter's night when someone shows up with a box for him. Not a box, a coffin. The coffin points Eddie to an old case involving Marcus Drake, king of Grand Bruan, and head of the Knights of the Double Tarn. (Marcus is, of course, the Arthur figure.) He recounts the tale to the rest of the bar patrons, and a sordid tale it is. The story features murder, treachery, and villainy. It also features beautiful women (who aren't what they seem), strong men (who aren't what they seem), knights in shining armor (who aren't what they seem) and useless over dressed nobles (who are exactly what they seem).

There is quite a bit of violence in the book, much of it brutal, little of it really graphic, but some of it a little disturbing. Some of the violence is directed at women. The hard boiled PI genre is not kind to women - women are either dangerous man-traps or virtuous damsels in distress (and much more often the former) - but Bledsoe softens that a little. His female characters have some depth to them, and reasonable motivations for what they do. Still, I think it would be safe to argue that there's some serious misogyny in this book, and the genre in general, so you have been warned.

Something that bugged me a little that has nothing whatsoever to do with the writing - the cover has this matte coating on it that makes it feel almost like it has been rubberized. It's really odd. I don't know if that's the original covering, or if the library added some sort of coating to protect the cover - I suspect the former, but I couldn't find a copy today at Barnes and Noble (they have air conditioning too!) to confirm. Anyway, it felt really weird in my hands - I got used to it as I read the book, but every time I pick it up, it strikes me again.

The short review - It's a quick read, it's very very smart, and it's good in lots of ways, and disturbing in some other ways. It's also rubbery for some reason.

*You know what that means (besides the fact that I forgot to include the footnote last night)? That means a) I still read comics (not that there's anything wrong with that) and b), I read more books than I tell you all about. I don't know if that makes me evil or benevolent.