Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Read: 9 July, 2018

I’ve read a few of the Star Wars books now, and I haven’t been overly impressed. For the most part, the books are fine, but I wouldn’t read them if they weren’t Star Wars.

This one, however… this is the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for.

Both main characters – Thane and Ciena – start off believing in the Empire. They willingly enter the academy, even working hard to get there. They fight on the Empire’s side. Throughout, their reasons are believable. Even when Thane becomes disillusioned, Ciena stays on, making excuses for the bad side of the Empire, and overemphasising the good. Even when the evil of the Empire becomes more visible and personal, Ciena’s reaction is so recognisably human.

It’s so timely (perhaps it’s always timely) to see how good people can serve evil power structures, and how interlaced their reasons can be.

I enjoyed seeing the major events of episodes 4-6 again through new eyes. Finally, we get a frank discussion of the Death Star, and the moral calculus that went into destroying such a powerful weapon at the cost of so very many lives.

I would have enjoyed Lost Stars without it being set in the Star Wars universe. As it is, that only makes it better.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) by Claudia Gray

Read: 26 May, 2018

This is a prequel to A New Hope, giving us a glimpse of Leia’s journey into the resistance.

I had a little trouble getting into this book, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the book’s fault. The tone was so very much like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’d just finished reading Mirror Dance, that I found it very disappointing. But if I judged all science fiction/space operas on the Bujold scale, I’d just be condemning myself to a life of disappointment.

As it was, the book is fine. Absolutely fine. Doubly fine for YA. Once I was able to get over the fact that this wasn’t written by Bujold, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.

I liked the bracketing of the story – the whole plot happens in between the ceremony where Leia announces the challenges she will undertake to prove herself as heir to the throne, and the ceremony where her challenges have been completed. Integrating Leia’s coming of age into her actual coming of age ceremony was a nice little touch. It worked for me.

Leia in A New Hope was kickass. She was the regal princess, she was the composed diplomat who could stand up to Tarkin, and she was the fighter who could hold her own with a blaster and didn’t hesitate to jump into a garbage compacter. She was everything (#LifeGoals). This book did a pretty good job of getting her to that point. We see her working hard to become that badass, and her motivations always struck true to the character I got to know in the movies.

Holdo was a tantalising character in The Last Jedi. The movie made it clear that she was close with Leia, and that the two women trusted each other, yet we got so little else about her. So it was neat to see so much more of her here. I also found that her attitude toward danger and fighting for justice added some weight to her actions in the movie. I’m looking forward to it coming to Netflix so I can watch it again, this time knowing so much more about her character.

Reading this as a prequel added a great deal of subtext. There was a certain fatalism to reading the descriptions of Alderaan, knowing that the planet – and everyone on it – will soon be gone. In particular, I found it difficult to read about Leia’s relationship with Kier. I know he isn’t in the movies, so I was just waiting for him to either betray her or die (or both). And, of course, the eventual destruction of Alderaan added so much to weight to Leia’s disagreement with Kier about protecting the planet (and to Leia’s choice to sacrifice the planet in A New Hope).

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I weren’t already invested in the characters. I’m glad for the insights, such as they were, into Leia and Holdo, as well as the Star Wars universe as a whole, though I would have liked a little more substance.

Vorkosigan Saga #14: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 9 May, 2018

This is the first time since Barrayar that we’ve had a book that focuses on the Vorkosigans but not on Miles. We met Miles’s clone/brother in Brothers in Arms, but there wasn’t much to him – he’d been conditioned and trained to imitate Miles, and had never been given much space or encouragement to develop a self of his own. At the time, it was so significant just for Miles to give him a name.

So it was really quite a joy to see the birth of Mark as a real, distinct person. Bujold has done a fantastic job of showing that split between the two of them, while also showing us the aspects of them that remain very similar.

I normally find the series to be very comedic – largely driven by Miles’s deadpan commentaries. But without Miles, much of that comedy was missing as well. Combined with a rather uncomfortably long torture sequence, this was the hardest book to read in the series. Still enjoyable, but boy did it ever get dark.

One of the recurring details in the book is Mark’s weight. His metabolism is much slower than Miles’s, plus he has an eating disorder. I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, I really didn’t appreciate all the characters staring at Mark’s body in disgust, nor all the times characters talk about their concern for their health (presented matter-of-factly, as though it were a scientific truth that fat=ill-health, absent other factors). Enough of that, thanks.

On the other hand, Mark’s weight is an important means for him to forge his own identity, and I did like that, in the end, he chose to remain fat and seems quite happy with his body.

I just wish that there had been some character other than Mark himself who could recognise that fat isn’t disgusting or necessarily unhealthy. And I wish that the focus of people’s shock was more on the speed of his weight gain or the difference between his body and Miles’s, rather than disgust at his corpulence.

I don’t think I’d want to spend a whole series with Mark, but I’m glad that I got to spend more time with him. And I loved the way his budding self-hood was handled. He has the typical Vorkosigan Extreme Excellence, but I really liked that it’s a very different kind of excellence from Miles.

Continue reading

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

Southern Reach #3: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 15 April, 2018

I have several friends who read Annihilation in anticipation of the movie, but lacked the stamina and fortitude to continue the series. After they found out that I was reading the second, I became the Designated Reader – in charge of finishing the series, and reporting back with a condensed summary.

All well and good, but the second was such a slog that I wasn’t particularly eager to start to the third. But with an impending move, I wanted to pack up my copy – something I couldn’t do until it had been read, lest I commit myself to not reading it until who knows when.

I liked it much better than AuthorityAuthority, I think, suffered from middle book in a trilogy syndrome – the first book’s job is to set the scene, the third book’s job is to deliver a climax, but the second book is just about moving all the pieces into position. It’s hard to make that interesting. This was made worse by the fact that Authority was so much longer than Annihilation, and chose to focus on a character who just isn’t all that interesting.

This issue is fixed in Acceptance by splitting up the narrative. Now, page time is shared between Control, Ghost Bird, the former director/Psychologist, and the lighthouse keeper. Control still isn’t interesting, but his chapters are spread out, and he’s always in the presence of Ghost Bird, who is a far more interesting character. Good choices, all around.

I really enjoyed the lighthouse keeper’s story. Flashbacks (if that’s what there were – I suspect Area X is meant to have some kind of time looping) aren’t usually a good way to resolve plot mysteries, especially when the device isn’t introduced until the third book, but I just really enjoyed the character of Saul Evans. I would have liked to see a lot more of him, actually. In fact, I think it would have worked well to give him the second book, and have it all be a flashback to S&SB and the beginnings of Area X, and then combine Control’s adventures in the Southern Reach and his journey into Area X with Ghost Bird to make up the third book. Maybe. Or just write Control out entirely and keep only characters who are introduced in Annihilation.

In between Authority and Acceptance, I saw the movie. Other than being about a biologist on a team sent into Area X, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book(s). The hypnotism is almost entirely absent (which makes the Psychologist’s scream of “annihilation” at the end entirely meaningless), and they did the same adaptation change that Stalker did – taking a story that doesn’t actually have a whole lot of action in it and adding in KILLER CROCS and KILLER BEARS and KILLER DOPPLEGANGERS.

But I was surprised by how much of Acceptance they had actually stuck in there. Not a whole lot, since the stories had diverged rather significantly by that point, but more than I was expecting. Particularly as it relates to the Psychologist.

My overview of the whole series would be that it relies a bit too much on the mystery, which wears a little thing in patches. But the narrative tone matches the themes of the story perfectly – the writing is slow, plodding, sometimes a little repetitive. It’s almost hypnotic. The mystery does sustain the first book, but really suffers in the second. The third book reveals just enough answers to feel satisfying, but not so many as to feel cheap. There’s still plenty of room for interpretation.

Some characters, like the Biologist, the lighthouse keeper, the Psychologist, and Lowrie, are very strong and interesting. But I found some, like Control and his whole family, to be utterly tedious. Jackie Severance kept popping up, and I think I was meant to perceive her as a looming menace, but she lacked presence. I never really felt like I got a sense of her as a distinct entity – she always seemed to just be there when the author needed an extra character.

I appreciated some of the looping (Whitby’s mouse, the room with all the journals in the lighthouse, the photograph of the lighthouse keeper), but I would have liked more of that. It seemed, at times, that story elements were only added when writing the second or third book, rather than intended from the beginning. Realising that it’s a gamble to do so, I wish that more of Annihilation‘s mysteries directly related to the events and answers we got later on.

I can’t think of anyone I would recommend these books to, but if you’ve read Annihilation and enjoyed the writing and tone, it’s worth continuing.

Continue reading

Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

Continue reading

Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

Continue reading

Vorkosigan Saga #12: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I was very clever and read the “Borders of Infinity” novella before coming back to this book. While the book Borders of Infinity comes next in the chronological order, the novella (which can be found in the book) comes just before Brothers in Arms. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to read them in that order, much of Brothers in Arms is dealing with the aftermath of the story in “Borders of Infinity”, so I do think it’s best to read them in order. What I did was read all the novellas in Borders of Infinity, then come back and read Brothers in Arms, then read the framing device in Borders of Infinity.

It’s probably no surprise that I really loved this one. So far, the Vorkosigan has been a whole lot more hit than miss. I love the dissection of identity and personhood, and I love the exploration of how wartime actions and choices can keep coming back to haunt whole lineages.

We haven’t heard much about Earth so far in the series, so it was interesting to see how Bujold sees the future right here at home.

Continue reading

Vorkosigan Saga #13: Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I recommend reading the third novella, “Borders of Infinity”, before reading Brothers in Arms, as the events in the novella come up quite a bit in that book.

There isn’t too much to the framing device – Miles is back on Barrayar, getting interviewed by security chief Simon Illyan about some recent missions (and the expenses they accrued). As far as I can recall, there’s nothing that gives away key plot points of Brothers in Arms (spoiler: Miles survives), so this book could be read first, even though it comes next chronologically.

It was nice to see Cordelia again, however briefly. Since Barrayar, she’s often been a presence, though usually only off-screen. That said, I can understand Bujold’s choice. Both Cordelia and Aral are rather larger-than-life characters in Miles’s mind, so it makes sense to keep them hidden from the reader to preserve Miles’s perspective.

The Mountains of Mourning

I reviewed this in more detail in Dreaweaver’s Dilemma. It’s still a heart-wrenching novella, in addition to being a really good exploration of Miles in his home environment. It does a lot to show us the tension between the old ways and the new world that Aral (and, to a lesser extent, Miles) is trying to create.

Labyrinth

Despite the questionable romance between a 20-some year old and a sheltered sixteen year old (somewhat mitigated along other power axes), I really dug this story. I loved the exploration of humanity that Bujold did so well in Ethan of Athos, and the way it kept coming up to hammer at Miles, smoothing out his prejudices. I enjoyed seeing more of Bel Thorne, particularly the exploration of its gender fluidity. It reminded me of the romance in LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, where a gender fluid individual shifts presentation to accommodate the preferences of a heterosexual.

I also liked the theme of accessibility. It’s always around when Miles is present, of course, due to his brittle bones, but here we also see someone who requires a mobility aid. It’s just not something that many authors think to include in their stories – even in science fiction, where technology could remove so many barriers to public participation for people with disabilities or physical differences.

Mostly, though, I loved getting to see a quaddie again. I’ve been dying to find out how they’ve been getting on ever since Falling Free, and here we see one – two hundred years later, a product of an ongoing colony. I wish we could have spent more time with her, but it was lovely to get that much.

The Borders of Infinity

I just didn’t click with this one so much. Some of it is just the setting, which I don’t think would have ever worked for me. I didn’t like it in Riddick, I don’t like it here. But, also, because there’s a sort-of-twist ending, Bujold chose to hide a lot of Miles’s thinking from the reader. The joy of reading the Vorkosigan stories is in getting to see all the strategies and counter strategies that Miles comes up with – and if we don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, it just isn’t nearly as fun.

This wasn’t a bad story, by any means, but I do think it’s the weakest of the Vorkosigan stories that I’ve read so far.

Continue reading

Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Read: 18 February, 2018

After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.