The Fionavar Tapestry #1: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 12 June, 2016

Back before I had to be careful to avoid horder status, I would peruse the book section of my local thrift stores and pick up anything with an interesting cover. That’s how I ended up with three copies of The Summer Tree.

Despite circling the book in this way for a few years, it kept getting deprioritized for reading because, as the back cover puts it, it’s “an epic adventure written in the rich tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” Has a less appealing sentence ever been written?

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy having read that sort of high fantasy. The problem is that I don’t often enjoy the actual reading of it, in the present tense. I love the ideas, I love learning the lore, but it takes itself too seriously. It’s too pretentious.

And The Summer Tree does fall into that trap, but at least it’s only for 323 pages. I can endure anything for 323 pages.

Despite the claim that the book is like Lord of the Rings, I found it reminded me much more of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Or, perhaps, it would be more proper to say that The Wheel of Time reminded me, retroactively, of The Summer Tree, now that I look up the publication dates. I wouldn’t call plagiarism, but some similarities are rather striking at times.

The tone is a bit of a weird mix. This is a portal fantasy, so you have the high fantasy thees and thous and highfalutin language, and then you get the informal modern speech of the protagonists. It might possibly be funny if the trope hadn’t already been done to death and the rest of the book didn’t take itself so seriously. But as it was, it just felt awkward and jarring. It’s hard to see what Kay might have done differently, though, once he’d locked himself into the portal plot. I think the lesson here is to just avoid the portal plot.

I did have a rough time getting into the book. Part of that might be that I was in a car (and therefore had to keep taking breaks to avoid tossing my cookies all about), part might be that I was just coming down off the very different writing of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Either way, the first fifty or so pages felt like real drudgery. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these take place in the “real world” (which, in this case, is Toronto). After that, however, I found that the characters grew on me. I was invested in them (well, some of them – enough of them).

It helped that the pacing is consistent, with the exposition mingled with action. Given just how much exposition had to be covered (and covered again, as the protagonists are rarely together and must learn the backstory separately), that’s pretty impressive.

My big complaint about the book is its treatment of women. Of the four named women who are dead before the start of the story, three died for men (one to stop her lover from doing more evil, one out of grief because her loved died, and the third out of grief/shame because her lover was exiled). The fourth’s only function in the story is to be dead so that a male character can have an angsty backstory.

Of the living women, we have a princess and future queen whose only role in the plot is to be tricked into sex in a scene played for comedy. We also have one of the five “real world” characters whose only role seems to be to get kidnapped and tortured by having her body (and, specifically, her nipples) pinched (SPOILERS: and then be raped).

There are a handful of other female characters, but their roles are nearly as passive. They do a few things, make a few decisions, but it is the men who go out and have adventures and fight the baddies and carouse. I lost track of all the women the main male characters have sex with, but the only female characters getting any action are coerced into it.

And it just seems so… unnecessary. What is the point of pushing women to the sidelines like this? Of denying them agency and personality? Of raping and killing them, over and over again, to serve the plot? Maybe these books are a product of their time, or maybe the fantasy genre’s conventions make these nasty attitudes difficult to see and avoid. I don’t know, but it’s frustrating and unappealing to see authors view people like me as not really human, and certainly not capable of being interesting. We are sprinkled in because even Tolkien couldn’t write a world that is completely free of women, but we are the mothers, the lovers, the unruly daughters – our pain matters only insofar as it causes men pain, our struggles matter only insofar as they further men’s interests, our agency matters only insofar as it threatens men. It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing.

I will read the second book in the trilogy, and I’ll give Kay a chance to fix his thoughtless parroting of tropes when it comes to his female characters. But every book I read like this makes me less inclined to bother with male fantasy authors in future. We can do better.

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    We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

    Read: 6 June, 2016

    The Sinclairs are tall, beautiful, and athletic. They are old money Democrats, and they spend their summers on Beechwood island. They are liars.

    This was a particularly interesting read for me because, like Gat, I have spent several summers with a similar family in their “summer compound.” I’m the same age as the cousins, and we get along well, but I’m still conspicuously not a cousin (not that they’ve ever done anything to alienate me – it’s just that they have a history with each other that I don’t share). Lockhart did a fantastic job of capturing the sense of idyll, those summer friendships, the surreal bliss of spending all summer reading books in a hammock stretched over the water, as well as how those feelings change as we get older and begin to notice the cracks and politics.

    The strength of the story is definitely in the characterization – and the island itself is absolutely a character. The downside is the plot. SPOILERS: The trauma induced amnesia, the characters who are perceived as real but who are actually just figments of the main character’s broken mind, etc. It was all fine, but it’s just been done so much that I’m not sure it can be saved by even the best execution. As it was, it felt like a cheap way to jerk a few tears for the ending. Ironically, I feel like I would have been far more moved if Cadence’s illness were physical, if there had been a real accident (perhaps one that Gat was involved with and felt guilty about), and we saw her being forced to choose between between her love for Gat and her love for her family. Or even if it just explored the grandfather’s death and the mix of grief and relief that would come from it.

    Despite the novel’s downside, I did enjoy it. It’s a short and relatively easy read (in terms of the mechanics of reading – the plot is, of course, rather brutal), perfect to be consumed whole in an afternoon. Essentially, this is the perfect summer book. It’s a solidly written novel with strong characters and a strong sense of place.

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      Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

      Read: 3 June, 2016

      Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

      Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

      There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

      The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

      SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

      Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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        Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

        Read: 22 May, 2016

        In this book, Mary Roach explores the weird science and history of space exploration. As with Stiff, the writing is absolutely delightful – full of humour, interesting factoids, and tangents in all the right places.

        Roach always seems to be able to guess just what sorts of follow up questions I might have, and is always ready with either the information I’m craving or perfectly suitable substitute joke.

        It’s so hard to write a review for a book that is so flawless. Packing had me in stitches – it’s the kind of book you read around other people so you can interrupt them all and read out passages. And the best part is that no one will even be annoyed!

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          Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

          Read: 21 May, 2016

          In the period after the Death Star’s destruction, Rebel pilot Norra returns to Akiva to find her son. Of course, things go awry – specifically, remnants of the Empire’s leadership happen to have gathered on the planet to decide the fate of the galaxy now that it’s emperor is dead.

          Right off the bat, the writing style is very sub-par. It took me a long time to get into the story enough to (mostly) ignore, but then it would just jab at me with awkward or inefficient phrasing. Things like: “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”

          Yeah.

          The characters themselves were fine. They were pretty stock and didn’t exactly have emotional range, but I figured that was something that didn’t evolve in the Star Wars universe until after the events of the original trilogy anyway (with a few very rare sparks here and there).

          For the most part, the characters have Backstory and Function, and then are otherwise left to just fulfill the needs of the plot. Which isn’t a terrible thing if the plot can carry it and – for me – it did. Not that it was spectacular or anything, but stuff happened, there were fights, there was action, there were explosions… I wasn’t exactly expecting a Star Wars version of McEwan’s Atonement.

          One thing I really liked – and loved in the recent movie as well – is that the galaxy feels much more full than it did with Lucas at the helm. With the original trilogy, all characters (with the very welcome exception of Mon Mothma) are male unless the role demands otherwise. This left men as the default, and women as the sex slaves, maternal figures, or the love interest. Lucas seemed to try to fix this in the prequels, but fell quite short of success.

          With the recent franchise, women have been much better distributed. They pop up in the background, they lead Stormtroopers, they’re around. It’s been so refreshing to finally, after thirty years of being a fan, to see the galaxy have room for someone like me.

          Aftermath does the same, but takes it one step further – it writes women back into the original trilogy. Norra, our main character, was a pilot in that final battle – a pilot who was never onscreen but, now, has a story and a place. And I am willing to overlook quite a bit for making me – finally – feel welcome in a franchise that I’ve adored my entire life.

          Unfortunately, the writing style is pretty terrible. With all the money and resources at their disposal, I sincerely wish that Disney had selected a better writer to handle this book. In most other ways, they seem to take the franchise seriously, and to want us to take it seriously as well. They seem to want to mainstream Star Wars fandom on a level that it hasn’t been before. But I think that the first step needs to be to give these books to authors who will be able to tell the stories with the care they deserve.

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            The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

            Read: 17 May, 2016

            This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

            It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

            The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

            The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

            I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

            Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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              Wool by Hugh Howey

              Read: 18 April, 2016

              Wool has been on my radar for a little while – at least since Hank Green mentioned it in one of his Stanley Parable videos. Every so often, I’d go to the book store with a little spending money and check a few sections for it (is it fiction? is it science fiction? is it… fantasy? mystery?) and always left with something else instead.

              After at least a year of this, I finally looked it up. Apparently, Wool isn’t sold in stores. You have to buy it online. Well, that’s nice, I got it from the library.

              A lot of the buzz surrounding the book is that its world is immersive (as Justin Cronin’s blurb on the front cover has it: “You will live in this world”). And that’s certainly been my impression. The location does feel very tangible, even if there were a few fuzzy areas. Namely, that each level seemed to be very single purpose, but surely that must mean that some levels are much smaller than others. Would a nursery floor (what the maternity wards seem to be called – the practice of segregated nurseries seems very odd and out-dated) be as large as the farming floor? Are there apartments beyond the nursery? Do people trying to get home after a shift have to walk through the nursery in order to reach their homes?

              But the fact that I spent so much time trying to envision the silo and how it’s supposed to work isn’t really a strike against the book. It means that the silo felt real enough for something fuzzy to stand out.

              There were a few weak moments in the book. One was with the characterization of Jules – I found it difficult to really grasp her. When she’s first introduced, she’s completely uninterested in the outside. She can’t be bothered with it, she can’t understand the obsession with seeing the screens or cleaning the sensors. She’s happy in Mechanical, and she urges other characters to focus on the silo, not on the outside. But then, soon after she takes over as the POV character, we find out that she used to pour over children’s picture books and dream of the outside. Right from childhood, she is described as having been a dreamer for the broader world. This is a detail that doesn’t come up again. It is merely brought up, out of the blue and contrary to the character we’ve been getting to know up until that point, and then dropped.

              This grasp of characters may be a bigger problem. I noticed it with other POV characters, like Jahns and Holsten. They seem distinct when we first meet them through the eyes of a different character, but once they slide into the control chair, they all start to seem very much alike. Jahns becomes very much like Holsten, and Jules becomes very much like them both. By the end, where the narrative bounces back and forth between two primary POV characters, they are largely indistinguishable in voice.

              I also found that the narrative loses a lot of focus near the middle. There are a few chapters there (I noted this observation on p.282 in my copy) where the writing quality drops very suddenly. Throughout that portion, characters seem to be acting based on authorial need (like when Jules doesn’t wonder how the plants could be growing in pitch dark – since the author knows that the silo does in fact still have power), rather than their own drives.

              But these are relatively minor gripes. The world is compelling, and the mystery carries the story quite well until the characters grew on me. There were times when I found myself reading almost breathlessly, desperate to see how the characters get out of the latest jam. Setting up a few POV character deaths early on, combined with some flash forward trickery, raised the stakes. I couldn’t trust that the main characters would survive, and had evidence to believe that they wouldn’t. It made reaching the end quite thrilling.

              Where the book suffered, it seems to have been a victim of its publishing history. The serial aspect of it, combined with the lack of an editor, would explain the variations in quality and occasional lack of consistency. But I am, of course, being nit-picky, as usual.

              Having now read the book, I’m not sure whether I will be ordering it or not. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t know if it was an enduring read – something I’ll want to come back to again and again in future, something I’ll want to lend out for others to share. That’s the trouble with novels that rely too strongly on a “mystery box” – once the answer is known, there needs to be something else for readers to come back to. I think that Wool comes close, and does try to have some profundities about human nature and such, but the ideas were too shallow, too overshadowed by the mystery to stand on their own.

              On the name: Like others, I puzzled over the name. It’s strange, and there’s no wool in the book (as far as I can tell). There is, however, the expression “pull the wool over their eyes,” which is the central theme of the book.

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                Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

                Read: 8 April, 2016

                On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

                This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

                The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

                The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

                The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

                That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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                  Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rift by Gene Luen Yang

                  Read: 4 March, 2016

                  Aang tries to recapture the past by bringing his new Air Acolytes to a festival in honour of Yangchen, the previous Air Avatar. When they arrive, however, they find that the sacred meadow has been replaced by a factory co-owned by Toph’s father.

                  While the focus in The Search was tying up an Avatar plotline, both The Rift and The Promise seem to focus more on setting up the world of Legend of Korra. Here, we get to see more of how the four nations mingled, as the factory works through the cooperation of Earth, Fire, and Water benders.

                  The Rift also sets up how the world of Korra moved away from bending toward technology, creating an environment in which a figure like Amon could rise. It’s all very ambitious and, in my opinion, very well handled.

                  I think that where The Search fell a little flat for me is that Aang didn’t really have a central struggle. His search for balance – and the ways in which he is influenced by the friends (and even the enemies!) around him – has always been the source of the most compelling plotlines. Here, he is torn between his desire to preserve the past and the necessity of allowing the future to be. We see him decide what sort of Avatar he will be – the kind who will work to preserve the world in amber, or the kind who will nurture and guide the world as it grows. And that is good storytelling.

                  The side plot of Toph seeing her father was fine, but fairly bog-standard. He is initially stubborn, then she gets to show off how awesome she is, then he comes around and accepts her. That’s nice and all, but I’ve seen that a thousand times before. It only worked because I am already invested in Toph as a character and because it wasn’t the central storyline – which is why The Search didn’t work nearly as well.

                  I’ve just started re-watching Korra with my family (who haven’t seen it before), so I’m really excited to share these bridging stories with them!

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                    Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang

                    Read: 2 March, 2016

                    In The Search, we follow Zuko’s quest to find out what happened to his mother. It’s a far more personal story than The Promise, and it doesn’t tackle issues of the same magnitude. Still, it was nice to see that plotline resolved.

                    Unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing. Much of the plot hinges on a letter in which Zuko’s mother confesses that Zuko is not actually the Fire Lord’s son. It would be strange for his mother to put something like that in a letter when she suspected that her husband was intercepting her mail, but it would have been forgiveable for the extremely compelling choices that would come from it. What would it mean for Zuko’s identity? For his loyalty and love for his father and sister? Would he have to suppress the information to remain Fire lord and keep Azula from the title? That’s all some pretty heavy stuff, stuff that is lightly touched upon as the friends carry out their search for Zuko’s mother. Unfortunately, it all turns out to have been fake.

                    You see, Zuko’s mother knew her mail was being intercepted so she lied about Zuko’s parentage because… Well, we’re never really given a reason. I suppose that’s fine since complicated people doing messy things is a big part of what the series is about, but that does seem rather beyond what might be expected.

                    But the bigger issue for me is that it takes a way a lot of what we knew about Zuko’s mother. In the show, she always seemed to be kind, wise, and loving. Her final act was to accept exile, and never seeing her children again, to save Zuko’s life. Now, however, we find out that she just had her memory erased and got to live with her true love and have a new family. I’m all for smashing up the Angel Of The Hearth narrative for mothers, but this isn’t how it’s done.

                    There’s plenty that I loved about the book. The artwork is great, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and I’m always happy to revisit these characters. But there was just so much about this story that struck the wrong note for me, and so many opportunities for it to have been something far far better.

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