Saturday, December 18, 2021

Dan Reviews Books, part 7

Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Been a year to the day since the last one of these, and that won't do at all.

Beowulf, trans. Thomas Meyer

A very freeform translation, and I welcome the break from the stoic and implacable impenetrability of more literal or traditional ones that I have read. The sequences of "let me tell you a story about someone who has no bearing on what we are doing but confusingly has the same name as a character that does" that are the bane of students everywhere are much easier to get through this time - the formatting reinforces that these are stories being told within the story, and thus much easier to keep track of.

Certain sequences shift to Grendel's point of view, where the words deteriorate into a whirlwind of violent emotions and pain before dissolving into incomprehensibility - fitting for the mental state of someone whose arm is getting torn off.

Cordelia's Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

A duo book of the first two Vorkosigan Saga novels (Shards of Honor and Barrayar), containing the story of how the main character (Miles)'s parents (Cordelia and Aral) met and the circumstances of their courtship leading up to his birth.

There is a sort of timelessness to it, likely because Bujold cares a lot more about the character dynamics than the science that serves as the backdrop. There are some unfortunate 80s moments (oh look it's the Depraved Bisexual straight from tvtropes dot com), but on the whole it's a few steps ahead of its time (ex: takes into account what ubiquitous uterine replicators would have on family structure). Our leads and their dynamic remain a highlight throughout, which is really all you need.

Major props to the one plot thread where Cordelia, after returning to her homeworld after her initial encounter with the Barrayans, is shuffled around as a talking point for a war effort and repeatedly gaslit by her government to that end. I was not expecting something like that and props to Bujold for including it.

Pandora's Star, Peter Hamilton

DNF 40/758 pgs

A remarkable book, in that whatever glimpses of an interesting world I could see were drowned under a singularity of bland. It's an unpleasant read; bloated, meandering, spinning its wheels right at the beginning. Save me from "it gets good 300 pages in" as a writing technique. Looking at other reviews I think I am dodging a bullet, as every one that isn't five stars brings up nigh constant sexism as a downside and I've got no time for that. You can feel how 2004 this is, how clunky and dated and awkward it has become in just 16 years compared to books decades older (written by more perceptive authors, such as the ones directly above and below this entry).

Invader and Inheritor, CJ Cherryh

Cherryh found a formula for returns with this series. Something bad happens. The next book deals with the fallout of that bad thing happening. The next book reaches the climax brought about by the series of interwoven bad things concluding them and giving us a break to catch our breath before the next trilogy. It works, though the cost of it working is that after a while it did begin to feel samey. Still, it was enjoyable to watch the continued efforts of a man trying to keep his head above water in the middle of space drow politics. With this second and third book we get more into the human side of the equation, with the arrival of spaceborn humans at the end of the first book and the planetside human government trying to send over their own agent to fuck around with things.

Keeping the narration very limited to the main character means that there is a lot going on that we the audience don't know about until the trap is sprung, which occasionally looks like things coming out of nowhere, and there's a decent amount of "sitting around and talking about plans dependent on the plans of other people." The endings are also quite sudden, without any denoument whatsoever. Denoument is for the beginning of the next book.

If you have ever wondered " what if drow, but good" Cherryh has you covered with these novels.

The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Chabon has made his living on writing about things that he loves, and boy does he love superhero comics. That specification is important, because it's not the superheroes themselves - it's the reason why there are superheroes, the life that is brought to them by their creators. It's easily my favorite piece of superhero media to exist, precisely for that reason. The Escapist is invented to be the hero that frees people from their bondage, and regardless of the editorial flanderizing that is to come, the simplicity of that moral underpinning still shines through. Chabon knows what the hell is up. I'd watch his adaptation of Superman.

Our two leads are dropped into the golden age of New York comics alongside the names we all know, with such care for reality that sometimes I would forget that they aren't real, thanks to the metafictional aside (footnotes! if you want to pander to me, a healthy amount of in-universe footnotes will do it.)

It took a bit for me to get a grip on Chabon's cadence, but once that settled in it proved to be a swift, dense, and meaningful read. It's a special book in ways I can't really adequately say in the amount of space I permit myself here. There is a constant sense of unreality that leaks through, where the strange and unlikely are treated with the same eyes as the mundane, elevating the whole of the world.

Many thanks also go to Pandatheist, who gifted me her water-damaged but still readable Folio Society edition, which has some wonderful illustrations.

Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Reading these two in 2021 is harrowing. Environmental catastrophe, social collapse, the rise of theocratic fascism and corporate slavery-in-all-but-name - it is a blunt force trauma. It's Babe Ruth pointing to the stands with grim certainty before the first pitch is thrown, saying "oh, it's gonna get rough". And to a great extent, it succeeds. Fuck's sake Talents opens with a presidential election between an out-and-out theocratic fascist, and the dried up and hollow remains of the previous VP and...Jesus Christ.

And yet, it never felt like it was wallowing in the misery porn that has become the standard of the grimdark fad in SF-F that's sprung up since it's time of release, despite a whole hell of a lot of human horror. The roots in reality that it has provide it with enough stability to say "these horrors are not unknown. They have happened before. Time passes, things will change, for good or ill." Fitting, considering the God-is-change motif that is going around.

I found myself in a strange relationship with the main character, where I agreed with what she was doing (mostly), but I don't actually like her. That Talents features segments by her daughter, speaking from the future with many of the criticisms I had of Lauren (namely the religious trappings she gussied up Earthseed in). She (Lauren) goes around ignorant or unwilling to recognize that words have connotations, that if you call something God people have ideas about what that means that don't match yours. There were places she could have reduced friction, but she decided not to - that bullheadedness makes for a good flaw.

The ending, though, shows some obvious seams. I've heard that there was a third book that was never written, and I can see it here. The last 20 pages of Talents sweep through events at breakneck speed, wrapping up an ending that should have had another couple hundred pages. We jump from the lowest point to a tidy ending that, while deserved, was too swift to stick the landing.

Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear

I had not read any of Bear's work before, and this one certainly put his name in the "return here" pool. There's a specific joy in a sci-fi novel that is just "fun premise, explored for 300-400 pages", one I don't read nearly enough of anymore.

So, the premise: it's a sequel to Conan Doyle's The Lost World, now set in 1947 when the dinosaur craze is over and the last circus is closing. Our main character, Peter, has been roped into a National Geographic gig with his father, documenting the trip to return the dinos back to the tepui they were taken from. Adventure ensues. And it was an adventure I was invested in: Bear went the extra mile to tuck this little strand of alternate history into our own (Ray Harryhausen is one of the main cast, the political situation of post-war Venezuela is lurking always in the background), and to extrapolate his own twists with how those dinosaurs have responded to evolutionary pressures in their isolation. It's not much for plot or characters, but it is written with an amount of care I was mildly surprised to find. A good, light read.

The dinos have feathers and there are illustrations by DiTerlizzi, which is a double treat.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolf

It's Gene Wolfe, there's only one way this review can go. The man is able to inspire the sort of excitement about starting a new book that is nearly absent in my adult life. The first ten pages of Fifth Head have more substance in them than some entire novels. There is a clear and masterful intention to everything, which makes it very easy to read despite the complexity at hand. This paragraph can describe basically anything he's written so let's focus on the actual story.

It's a collection of three novellas ostensibly about the colonization of a pair of worlds and what happened to the indigenous population, and assuredly about something deeper than that which I have yet to parse. All the puzzle pieces are there to sift through, naturally, and a second reading will be needed.

It is very difficult to talk about this book with a presumed audience of people who have not read the book. If you know, you know. It's Gene Wolfe.


  1. Next ones are going to be a treat, since it's going to be Sharing Knife 1-3, Wizard of Earthsea reread, and Book of the New Sun reread

  2. I loved Cavalier and Clay, and Octavia Butler is always a treat. I've never actually read Gene Wolfe, but hey! I'll add some to my to-read list.

  3. Despite being lauded by almost every established fantasy and science fiction writer, Gene Wolfe still remains criminally obscure. I stumbled onto him when I found a SOLDIER IN THE MIST as a kid in a thrift sore and have been a fan ever since. An absolute master at work.

    1. I have a theory about this, and I think it's due to the fact that Wolfe rewards active reading, but not in the way that the general fantasy / sci-fi audience wants. General fantasy audience wants lore and subsystems and things to be clean and neat when the big revelation arrives, Wolfe flies directly in the face of that.