Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saturday Post, 8/11/2012

                                           "Let me 'splain. No, is too much. Let me sum up..."

Ok. Two weeks of reading. I'll give you the highlights.

Dave Duncan - The Reluctant Swordsman

Wallie Smith enters a hospital here in our world, suffering from something brain related - a tumor? I forget. Anyway, he wakes up in a fantasy world, in the body of a barbarian swordsman. He is expected to do amazing things, because he is a seventh level swordsman - the best of the best. He is approached by a god, or a godlet (perhaps), who tells him that his job is to save the world...

In another author's hands, this book could have been mindless fluff. Duncan, however, does some amazing things here, and offers us a deeply philosophical text on the nature of free will. The pre-literate society that Wallie has found himself in is corrupt from the top down - and the top is the gods. Duncan gives us some delightful relationship parallels: Wallie and the gods (where Wallie is inferior and has no free will [at one point Wallie says something like, "what if I don't want to do what you want me to do?" and the godlet says "but you do want to do what we want you to do." and Wallie says, "yes, I do want to do that."]); Wallie and his apprentice (Wallie is superior due to skill, but the apprentice can be and is elevated to Wallie's level); Wallie and his love interest (she's a slave. Wallie is socially superior, but tells her she isn't a slave anymore. Does she have free will? Ahhhh. Wallie says she does, but she doesn't act as though she does - until she says "no" to Wallie, she is still acting as a slave, even if Wallie treats her nicely. IE, if Wallie wants her to eat dinner with him - elevating her to his social status - and she does it to please him rather than because she legitimately wants to, then she is still acting as a slave, even if she benefits from the exchange.) So, what does free will mean? And how do you save a world which is run by corrupt gods? Alas, unless I find the second and third books in some paperback sale somewhere, I'll never know - this is one of the few drawbacks of using a library.

Wait! A contest suggests itself! I'll make a separate post - watch this space.

John Scalzi - Redshirts

This book opens as a parody of classic Star Trek, shifts into a pastiche, and ultimately grows into it's own thing, a humorous yet deep musing on the nature of humanity, life, death, and (as with Duncan), free will. Unfortunately, I can't really say very much about the book without spoiling the plot twists that are a critical part of what makes the story great.

Here's what I can say. It's about a ship in the Universal Union - the starship Intrepid. Ensigns on board the ship have learned that when they serve on away teams with certain members of the command crew, their chances of survival are statistically very very low. A group of ensigns get together to figure out why, and what they can do about it.

There are some other things I can say about the book. One, I found it delightfully funny; biting in places, but over all a pleasure. However, I like Scalzi's style of dialogue and character description. If you don't, then you might find the book somewhat difficult to read. Two, the best best best part of the book is the short stories that serve as "codas" at the end of the book. There is more heart and character development per paragraph in the short stories than in the novel they are codas of (and there's a lot of heart and character development in the novel) But you can't read the stories without the context of the bigger novel. Still, Mr. Scalzi, in the unlikely instance that you are reading this, write more short stories!*

A last thing. I didn't like the very final twist - it felt a little cheap. Not enough to seriously affect my enjoyment of the novel, but still.

*A note on short stories. Charles DeLint suggested (somewhere, and I'm not going to hunt it down right now) that short stories are actually quite dangerous for authors. They take almost as long to write well as a novel, but they don't pay out nearly as well, and you need to accumulate several before you can actually do anything with them. And yet, sometimes you have no choice but to write them. Thus, DeLint contributes short stories to collections, and periodically he releases a collection of his own short stories - he does this for his own amusement. Still - more short stories! Everywhere!

Alex Bledsoe - The Hum and the Shiver

Speaking of Charles DeLint - this novel is reminiscent of DeLint's work. A truly amazing work of mythic fiction which mixes sweet with bitter, and offers a collection of really strong characters, centered on a powerful female character (which, you know, I love).

Bronwynn Hyatt returns to her tiny Tennessee town from Iraq with a badly injured leg and the adulation of a grateful nation. Hyatt is a hero, but she doesn't remember why - something to do with killing a bunch of Iraqis who were trying to kill her. (The structure of Hyatt's moment of heroism seems modeled on Pvt. Lynch) Anyway, that's not really central to the novel. Hyatt is a Tufa, a member of a secretive people which lives in the hills of the American South, and which is rumored to have certain powers.

The book is about coming home to a place you missed, and learning that you don't fit as well as you thought you might. It's about the duties of family, and about your identity within the family. The plot is a small one - no sweeping narratives about saving the world or foiling a grand scheme to kill the president or anything like that. Bronwynn struggles with herself, and with the petty powers in her local community. She falls in love, perhaps. She learns who she is, and how she fits into her world. And Bledsoe packs so much heart and character into the book that it feels like a much much larger work. Then, he wraps the whole thing up with mountain music so vibrant you can hear it - there's a lot to love about this book.

Trigger warnings, however - there are some scenes of violence that are a little raw; in particular a scene of animal cruelty. Also, there are some strong implications of rape, or at least rape ideation.

Harry Turtledove - Supervolcano: Eruption

Oh my god, this book was so awful! I'm a Turtledove fan, and I'm a fan of disaster novels, and neither of those things outweigh the fact that this was not a good book. How was it bad? Let me count the ways:

1) It's a book about the eruption of the supervolcano which is under Yellowstone National Park (an actual thing, I assure you). The title is pretty clear about that. And yet, for the first quarter of the book, characters wonder if the heroes are right about the possibility of the volcano erupting. That's right - the volcano doesn't erupt until nearly a quarter of the way through the book.
2) All of what happens before the volcano erupts is pretty banal. There are several descriptions of what Colin, one of the heroes, is eating for dinner. Nothing happens!
3) The eruption itself is somewhat anti-climactic. Almost all of the principle characters are well outside the danger zone. The two who are not escape fairly quickly. No long descriptions of devastation - everything is at a remove.
4) Speaking of which - there's a bit, about 3/4 of the way into the book, where Iran launches a nuke at Israel. The rationale is that since the American warheads are largely in the midwest, and since the midwest is covered by a heavy layer of volcanic ash and dead animals, the US can't retaliate in defense of Israel. Fair enough - a bit of a stretch, perhaps, and faulty logic on the part of the Iranians, because the Israeli's have nukes of their own, which they use. The problem is, this all takes place in a couple of paragraphs, is conveyed third-hand (a character watches a report on CNN about the event), and is Never Mentioned Again. A nuclear war. Well, skirmish. In the Middle East. Never mentioned again.
5) Most of what the characters do after the eruption is pretty banal as well. Nothing happens! I guess the point is that human beings basically keep on doing what they were doing - falling in love, getting married, having babies, playing music, taking classes - but the description of the book says this: "Those who survive find themselves caught in an apocalyptic catastrophe in which humanity has no choice but to rise from the ashes and recreate the world..." And there's none of that. There is no apocalyptic catastrophe (food shortages and extreme global cooling are beginning, but they are SLOOOOOW), and there is no rising from the ashes and recreating the world. Perhaps in later books? But I will never find out, because I have no desire to read later books.

There were a few scenes with real impact. There's a plane crash which was solidly well written. I liked the relationship between Colin and Kelly. That's about 50 pages, perhaps - a short story, maybe?

Ok. Those are the high (and low) points. I also read:

Andrew Blum - Tubes: A trip to the center of the Internet - interesting book, as much history as geography. A good way of looking at the infrastructure of the internet. A little dry - I took a break and read Redshirts.

Tanya Huff - The Heart of Valor - third book in the Valor's Confederation series. Good solid book, nice twists and some pleasant character development. A quick read.

Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer - Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Magic Chocolate Pot - The first of Wrede and Stevermer's epistilary series. I've read them before, but there's a third book in the series that is new, and my wife agreed that we needed to re-read before advancing. This is a fun series; lots of little jokes. Wrede and Stevermer clearly had fun writing it, but the later books are better.