Vorkosigan Saga #2: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 28 August, 2017

I am so grateful to the people who finally convinced me to give Bujold a read. Her short stories were fun, but Mountains of Mourning shook me rather deeply. And here, we have a full novel with that same intense emotional impact.

Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the Quaddies. Well, with Claire and Silver, anyway. Claire is a bit of a goodie-goodie, but I really connected with her through her interactions with Andy. And Silver… well, Silver is just wonderful.

And then Bujold started putting these two wonderful women through hell. Page after page, I had to read through a cringe as some of the worst things I can imagine happen to them. I’m fairly desensitised to violence, I don’t feel it when characters are shot, or hit, or fall. I just see it too often in media, and it doesn’t really mean much. But the things Bujold put these two poor characters through really twisted my stomach.

Leo Graf was a bit bland as a protagonist, but he worked well enough as a reader-insert. He struck that good balance between being the outsider through which the reader can experience the story, and being an active agent within the story. Even so, I liked that Bujold didn’t fall too deep in the “white guy saviour of the child-like natives” trope, despite how very strong the temptation clearly was.

Van Atta was a great moustache-twirling baddie. He made me squirm. Worse, I’ve known people like him, and Bujold wrote him perfectly to set off all my warning bells. I can understand complaints that he was fairly one-dimensional, and it’s true that he really was just irredeemably awful, but it worked. And even without complexity, he still rang very true – making him all the more frightening.

My only complaint about the book was the love story. It felt tacked on, and it really wasn’t necessary. I feel like the story, as well as the two characters involved, would have been quite a bit stronger if they could have just been friends. I would like to see a man and a woman work together to achieve a goal, suffer together, trust each other, respect each other, and not have to be lovers by the end. It’s just overdone.

But that was a very small part of the book. The rest was fantastic. And reading all these reviews declaring this book one of the weaker books in the Vorkosigan Saga is making me so very excited to read on!

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Aliens by Mark Verheiden (art by Mark A. Nelson)

Read: 19 August, 2017

Rendered non-canonical by Aliens3, Aliens takes up the story of Newt and Hicks, several years after their return to earth (due to legal issues, Ripley is inexplicably absent).

Aliens, the movie, struck a chord for people because it wasn’t just about the action – it was about the characters. When shit hit the fan, viewers cared because we had come to know and like the people it was happening to (except for Paul Reiser’s Burke – he was terrible). And in the end, we loved the little family Ripley had made for herself.

That’s what Aliens3 got so very wrong. Ripley’s whole arc, the whole process of building a new community while surrounded by the cold, machine-like xenomorphs, all got tossed out of the airlock when they killed Newt and Hicks in the opening credits. The movie failed on many other levels, too, of course, but destroying the bonds formed in Aliens right off the bat would have doomed it regardless.

Aliens makes the same mistake. Newt and Hicks are alive, of course, but the opening finds Newt in a mental institution and Hicks back in the army, and they don’t talk. They’ve come back to earth and gone their separate ways and that was that. There’s some bit further in where Hicks decides to save Newt because he did it before so why not, but that’s really about it.

These are two traumatised people with experiences that are literally out of this world, and no one can possibly understand what they’ve been through except each other. Why wouldn’t they have stuck close to each other?

Apart from what they’ve done with existing characters, the story itself is fine. It hops around too much, and there’s this whole weird bit where the xenomorphs suddenly have psychic powers for some reason. The bit about the religious cult forming around the aliens was interesting, but the story keeps jumping around too much and I never really got a grasp on who the preacher was or where he got his information from (except for the psychic communication stuff, which just came off as silly).

As much as I loved getting to see Newt again (and her arc was a decent one once it actually got started), I think the comic would have been better served by narrowing its focus. It could have focused on the preacher, or focused on Newt, or focused on Hicks, and any one of those would have made for a much better story. But, instead, the strategy seemed to be to throw as much at the reader as possible and hope that something sticks.

Which is another lesson the comic didn’t learn from Alien and Aliens. Both of those are very simple stories – xenomorph appears, Ripley survives. There are vague bits and bobs about shadowy corporations, but all the other content comes from just spending time with the individual characters – getting to like them, getting a feel for their motivations. Whatever is happening off-location is not part of the story.

The artwork is fine. I found that some of the key characters lack definition, so I had some trouble telling them apart. This wasn’t helped by all the plot-jumping. It’s in a realist style that isn’t really my bag of cats, but it does the job. I did appreciate all the detail put into each panel, which gave it some of that crowded, dark, mechanical atmosphere that the movies do well.

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Mass Effect #1: Redemption by Mac Walters

Read: 16 August, 2017

Redemption follows the search for Commander Shepard’s body, taking place after Shepard’s disappearance at the beginning of Mass Effect 2.

I’d venture to call myself something of a Mass Effect fan, and it’s the story and characters that have always drawn me to the series (as well as BioWare’s other big’un, Dragon Age). Unfortunately, this comic doesn’t have much of either.

The plot follows Liara T’Soni in her search for Shepard’s body, but she isn’t alone. Cerberus and the Shadow Broker are both looking for it, too. Helping Liara is Feron, who seems to be sometimes working for Cerberus, sometimes for the Shadow Broker, sometimes for himself. As the comic puts it, he’s “a double — no, a triple agent”. Pro tip from someone who has never written a comic: You can’t have a triple agent in a 100 page graphic novel. You can barely have one in a 700 page prose novel.

So that’s the whole story – the reader is given whiplash as we’re given a guided tour through some of the games’ set pieces, we get to see a few of the games’ characters, and every couple pages gets punctuated by a shocking twist.

Who is Feron, anyway? What, in the end, does he stand for? *shrug*

I realize it’s a little odd to complain about how Liara is presented here, since the games are pretty bad for sexualizing their female characters. But at least in the games they have some personality. Here, she just reacts to stuff while she models her skin-tight outfits in a series of spine-snapping poses. The closest Liara gets to arc is the hint we get from the title and a throwaway line toward the end – that she feels bad about leaving Shepard to die alone, and wants some kind of redemption by finding the commander’s body. Okay…

There’s a cutesy little gag toward the end about Shepard’s body being so disfigured by the blast that it’s “hard to tell if it’s even a man or a woman”. It’s an obvious joke, but I’ll admit to having a bit of a chuckle.

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Dreamweaver’s Dilemma by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 15 August, 2017

The book contains three of your standard “what if this weird thing were to happen in the real world?” stories, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, two science fiction stories (both set in the Vorkosigan Saga universe), and a collection of essays.

The Adventure of the Lady on the EmbankmentAdvertised as a “never-before-published Sherlock Holmes pastiche,” this story was quite a shock for me. I had picked up this book after multiple people recommended the Vorkosigan Saga, and I had read that Dreamweaver’s Dilemma comes first chronologically. I had no idea that this was going to be short stories, and I was even more surprised when I started the first story to find Sherlock Holmes!

As I read, I kept expecting aliens to land, or the titular lady to be revealed as a time traveller. Something. But no, this plays it straight as a Sherlock story. And despite my confusion, I really enjoyed it. I grew up with Sherlock Holmes, and it was nice to revisit that world.

Barter: This is about when I realised what I was really in for with the book. Finally, here was some science fiction – albeit of more the “weird tales” variety. The story itself isn’t too memorable, except for the very amusing unrestrained self-indulgence. As a mother with writerly aspirations, it’s hard not to sympathise with the main character – nor with the author who dreamed her up.

Garage Sale: Another cutely self-indulgent piece. I don’t think this story would have worked without context (in this case provided by it following Barter). It lacks Barter‘s obvious genre markers, so the story twists very suddenly into absurdism. As it is, I found it entertaining (albeit a little horrific at times).

The Hole Truth: Many of these stories share an amusing sense of humour. In this case, we get this lovely pun to kick off a fairly run-of-the-mill “reap what you sow” story.

Dreamweaver’s Dilemma: This is where the book really picks up. It was clear from the Sherlock story that Bujold has an interest in mysteries, and this reads like a hard boiled noir. While the three “weird tales” stories were mostly about situations, Dreamweaver is about people. The characters are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the future-tech is a well-integrated part of the story.

The Mountains of Mourning: This story really hit me. It was thick with details, and all the details interconnected meaningfully. The characters are vivid and complicated, and the moral problem at the centre of the story is a truly difficult one. And maybe it’s just the PMS talking, but I found the ending absolutely heartbreaking, albeit satisfying.

Though I’ve read that Dreamweaver and Mountains take place in the same universe, I’m not sure how that will play out. There are similarities – largely in contrast with the other stories in the book – but they are few and rather superficial. I suppose this is a “backwoods vs developed centre” issue, and all will make sense as I explore the saga a little more.

The essays at the end of the book are all interesting and worth reading, and I appreciated the Vorkosigan trivia appendices.

I had some trouble ordering this book within Canada (though listed on Amazon, I was getting emails every few months to inform me that they couldn’t find the copy they thought they had until, eventually, they simply told me to go look elsewhere), so I took a gamble on the strength of recommendations I’ve received for this author and special ordered it from the US. I spent a fair bit more than I usually do for books, but I don’t feel cheated in the least. Mountains, alone, would have made the whole book worthwhile, but I enjoyed my time with each and every one of the stories.

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Paper Girls, vol.2 by Brian K. Vaughan

Read: 16 May, 2017

I’d love to start this review with a plot summary, but I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.

The story isn’t making much more sense, but the weirdness is starting to become familiar.

As are the characters. I had a little trouble in the first volume because everything was happening so fast that I never got a real grasp on the characters. But they’re starting to differentiate for me, and I’m getting a better sense of who they are.

The artwork is great, and the story is certainly compelling (if rather confusing).

But now I have the same problem I had with Saga – I have to wait several months before the next instalment comes out.

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Paper Girls, vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Read: 7 April, 2017

This was recommended to me as “if you like Stranger Things…” And I can see the comparison. It’s set in the ’80s, it’s about a group of young kids (in this case, 12 year old girls) who come upon some sort of mysterious monster shenanigans.

The storytelling is very good, with a strong sense of pacing. It makes the setting details clear (such as the date) without explicitly spelling them out. As for the mystery, it makes just enough sense to keep me from feeling lost, while still remaining mysterious enough to be compelling.

The main characters seem solid and are interesting as a group, but I’m having a little trouble getting a sense of them each as individuals. I’m assuming that this is a space issue and that we’ll get to know them better as the series wears on.

The artwork is great. It’s very expressive and stays stylistically consistent even while it increases or decreases detail depending on the needs of the panel.

Overall, I quite liked the first volume of Paper Girls, and I’m intrigued enough to continue the series. Of course, there’s still 30 people ahead of me on the library waiting list for volume 2…

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Imperial Radch #3: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Read: 4 April, 2017

In this conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy, Breq’s efforts to bring universal justice to the Athoek system begin to unravel.

It’s difficult to review a book (and series) that I enjoyed so thoroughly. I loved everything, and whatever small flaws might have popped up were drowned by the tsunami of awesome.

In particular, I love Leckie’s ongoing theme of identity – what does it mean to be self? what does it mean to be separate from others?

In this book, we have Presger Translator Zeiat to make some of the questions explicit. Her playful identifying of cakes and her reaction to someone’s injury are the perfect mix of humour and mindblow.

I was a bit worried when I only had about 50 pages left and the plot didn’t feel even close to being resolved, yet Leckie somehow managed to leave me feeling completely satisfied. There are loose ends, of course, but they make sense.

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Imperial Radch #2: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Read: 22 March, 2017

Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, now in command of her own ship, as she tries to protect the planet Athoek from the brewing civil war.

My mind was thoroughly blown after Ancillary Justice, so I had to stop reading. I knew it’s a trilogy, but it was just so good that I couldn’t imagine how the story could possibly move forward without being a huge disappointed. Since Justice‘s resolution is so satisfying as is, I was ready to stop right there. Yes, you read that correctly – I was ready to abandon the series because it was just too good.

But after a year, a review convinced me to give Sword a try and, peeps, it totally holds up.

In some ways, I even liked Sword a little better. For one thing, the main players and context are already established, so there isn’t that “new fictional universe” disorientation. It also does away with Justice‘s time hopping.

In other ways, I didn’t like it quite as much. More characters are shown to be single-faceted – baddies to be defeated. Raughd, in particular, was rather disappointing.It worked at first, to have this super charming, socially privileged, universally liked person putting people down in private and destroying their sense of self worth. There was a lot there to explore. But then Raughd started to play out more obviously, and became more of a caricature, and she became less interesting because of it.

But this is an extremely minor complaint. I still have one book to go, but I feel comfortable enough to recommend this book whole heartedly. It is mind blowing, thoughtful, well written, and absolutely fabulous.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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