Thursday, May 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky is the sequel to a book I mostly enjoyed (The Calculating Stars) but my enjoyment of this Hugo award-winning novel was leavened with some qualms and niggling concerns. While I liked getting to know the main character Elma York and was thrilled with the prominent appearance of mathematical concepts like the Fibonacci series and prime numbers, there always seemed to be “something off” about the ethos of the first book. The premise is very clever: suppose the Space Race started a decade earlier due to an external animating force caused by a cataclysmic event which makes the necessity of humanity colonizing the solar system more urgent because the Earth will become increasingly more inhospitable in the next century. This time shift means that the social tensions based around race and gender that actually happened in our 1960s and 1970s occur in the book’s timeline of the 1950s in the context of the Space Race.

The  main character, Elma York,  is a white Jewish woman who is something of a mathematical savant. She and her husband Nathaniel get jobs with the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC). She becomes a celebrity as the “Lady Astronaut” and thus is given leeway to break barriers and violate cultural mores without repercussions someone of her status would be expected to suffer.

In the first book it was somewhat titillating to see these issues addressed (even awkwardly and somewhat ineptly) in the context of a speculative fiction novel but on further reflection I don’t think the overall result is positive and this becomes increasingly clear in the second book.

The problem for me with both The Calculating Stars  and The Fated Sky is that in most social situations the reader is more aware of the racial or cultural implications than Elma is. This device of Elma’s cluelessness is one that the author uses to demonstrate the illogic of discrimination and animus repeatedly to the reader.

I would argue that while the author uses the device effectively she also repeats and frequently re-inscribes racist and sexist tropes (inadvertently, I think) while trying to illustrate how wrong these are to the reader.

In The Fated Sky there are numerous examples of this problem. For example, Elma is on a ship to Mars with 4 men and 3 women when she finds a (used) condom. Of course she assumes that one of the men (probably the captain, whom she has a very difficult relationship with and is a known philanderer) is forcing himself on one of the other women (both of whom are women of color). It doesn’t even occur to her that it could be evidence of sexual activity between two of the men! But there are numerous problem with this scenario. 1) (why) would 2 (presumably straight) men having sex on a 3-year space journey be using condoms (especially in an era where contraception was basically illegal and HIV/AIDS didn't exist)? 2) why would an allegedly intelligent astronaut not know to not throw a condom away in the toilet and  cause a disruptive plumbing incident? 3) why would the author later kill off one of the gay characters in a freak accident? Does the author not know about the vicious trope of the doomed homosexual who always dies before the end of the story? Despite revealing society’s homophobia through Elma’s cluelessness the author has reproduced it through her treatment of the two male characters who loved (in multiple senses of the word) each other. While it is true by martyring one of the gay characters she raises the profile of the remaining gay character but there's no way to dispel the conclusion that by having a freak fatal accident occur to one of the gay characters is a re-enactment of the "doomed homosexual" trope.

There are (many) other examples of how the author does this in The Fated Sky  with both gender and race (Elma is sometimes quick to notice and call out patriarchal/sexist behavior but then some of her favorite and most lauded activities involve her prowess in the kitchen!) One interesting aspect of the book that is a highlight, is the portrayal of multiple Jewish celebrations (even in space!). The sensitivity by which a minority religion is portrayed is incongruous to how ethnic and racial minorities are depicted. For example, race is the primary fault line in the time being portrayed in the books but as I have said before, the author uses the main character's outsider status to illustrate to the reader how ignorance/unfamiliarity with the lived experience of others can highlight the salience and pervasiveness of racism and sexism. But the problem is that these encounters are only ever presented to the reader through Elma's perspective, which tends to marginalize the agency of the characters who are racial (and ethnic) minorities.

Overall, I was somewhat dubious about reading the second book in the series after reflecting more on the deficiencies of the first (which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel). But the large number and the high average Goodreads ratings of both books convinced me to give it a try despite these misgivings. It's unlikely I will make that mistake with the third book!

Title: The Fated Sky.
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal.
Paperback: 384 pages.
 Tor Books.
Date Published: October 1, 2018.
Date Read: April 21, 2020.

★★  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, May 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Shorefall (Founders, #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Shorefall  is the second book in an magical fantasy-adventure trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett called “The Founders.” The first book was titled Foundryside and introduced the majority of the primary characters in the series and the setting of the story.

We are in Tevanne, the major metropolis of this continent. Tevanne is controlled by several powerful families, who rule the city (and it is implied, the rest of the world) through their superior technology. Except in this case their technology is “magic.” Except Bennett has picked a magic system which is well-defined and has scientific undertones. The magic system is called “scriving” and it involves being able to use special symbols called “sigils” which can be used to rewrite physical reality (like changing the weight of an object so it can float, convincing wheels they want to turn in a particular direction, etc). Not everyone, can scrive; it is considered a special, almost divine skill that only certain “advanced” people can do. (Any comparisons to coding and software is completely unintentional, I'm sure!)

The main characters in Shorefall  (and Foundryside) are an interesting, diverse group, starting with Sancia, a former slave and current thief who discovers she has surprising powers. Sancia is an unusual choice to be the main character of a fantasy series: she’s a lesbian with non-white skin in a world where being male and pale are often signs of power and status. The other important characters are Clef, a magical (scribed) device which for some reason appears to be able to communicate telepathically with Sancia and has very special powers of his own; Gregor, a large, muscular former soldier who happens to be the scion of one of the most important families in Tevanne; his mother Ofelia Dandolo, the longtime head of House Dandolo; Orso, the head scriver of House Dandolo and Berenice, Orso’s assistant and (eventually) Sancia’s love interest.

The primary plot of Shorefall  involves the return of one of the ancient Founders of Tevanne, the most powerful of them all, who happens to also have been the creator of Clef. His name is Crasedes Magnus, “the First Hierophant, Destroyer of Empires, Sacrificer of Millions,” and yes he’s as scary as the name signifies he will be. (People die horrible deaths clawing out their own eyes if they see him face to face.)

If you think to yourself, “oh here we go again, Sancia and friends have to save the world as we know it” (which was basically the plot of Foundryside) you’re not wrong, but Bennett writes with verve so we can enjoy the ride. However, one of my issues with the sequel is even though there are definitely new elements, the element of surprise (or sense of novelty) is not one of them. That can mostly be made up by the development of an interesting depth to Sancia’s relationship with Bernice, Orso and Gregor, which all take turns that are MOST definitely surprising. Bennett is excellent at writing action-packed sequences, and there are plenty in Shorefall. Being the middle book, it mostly resolved the tension of this book, while setting up a major showdown for the third and final book. The books in the Founders series are not as self-contained as the three books in Bennett’s excellent Divine Cities trilogy.

Overall, I would say that Shorefall is definitely worth your time and effort to get into (it’s not a quick and light read), especially if you enjoyed Foundryside. And if you admire stories about quick-witted, profane lesbians who can wield near-magical powers, you’ve come to the right place!

Title: Shorefall.
Robert Jackson Bennett.
Paperback: 493 pages.
 Del Rey.
Date Published: April 21, 2020.
Date Read: May 10, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, May 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Girl (Maeve Kerrigan, #3) by Jane Casey

I love Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series (as you can see from my reviews of The Reckoning and The Burning)!! The Last Girl is the third book in this British police procedural murder mystery series with a strong but definitely not perfect female protagonist. As I have said many times, what makes a strong genre book in my opinion, in addition to a compelling main character, are interesting and well-rounded secondary characters. We know it’s a genre book; there’s gonna be some horrific crime (usually a violent murder or three) and our hero is part of a team who is trying to catch the perpetrator or perpetrators while surviving/avoiding/managing interpersonal dynamics of the team members or familial/relationship drama (or both!). We return to these genre books not for the crime-of-the-week but because we are engaged with the characters due to our familiarity with their foibles.

Casey gets it. Her DS Maeve Kerrigan is at times frustratingly obtuse (especially when it comes to the relationship with her boyfriend Rob, another policeman) and is also very good at her job, despite her boor of a boss/partner, DI Josh Derwent. But as the reader we can both root for and rail against Maeve (sometimes in the same chapter!)

The mystery/crime in The Last Girl is particularly heinous. A mother and teen daughter are viciously attacked and killed in the living room while the daughter’s twin sister swam in the pool. The father was attacked (not fatally) in the upstairs bathroom. It turns out the family dynamic was a nightmare, starting with the father/husband who is a defense attorney whom the police had come across before in multiple cases and is a huge *ssh*le. But, that doesn’t mean he’s guilty, does it?

This third book in the series has a relatively surprising ending with a fair number of red herrings tossed in front of the reader for good measure. The longer arcs (Maeve’s increasingly serious relationship with Rob, the return of her dangerous stalker/peeping Tom, Maeve's professional career trajectory at the London Metropolitan Police Murder Squad) are becoming more significant than the resolution of this book’s crime. But that just makes me want to spend more time with Maeve, in the next book. Soon!

Title: The Last Girl.
Jane Casey.
Paperback: 384 pages.
 Minotaur Books.
Date Published: May 21, 2013.
Date Read: April 13, 2020.

★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, May 07, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Light of Impossible Stars is the third and final book of the Embers Of War trilogy by Gareth L. Powell. A nice feature of the series is that although each book advances the overarching story, they are also readable on their own with each having self-contained plots. Even so, they should still be read in order (because Powell is ruthless about killing off major characters): Embers Of War, Fleet of Knives and Light of Impossible Stars.

In the third book we are introduced to a new major character, Cordelia Pa, and her brother Michael Pa (among others). It’s an interesting choice to have the third book in a trilogy revolve around a new character that didn’t appear in the first two books. Happily, Cordelia is a great character so it’s fun to spend lots of time with her.

The central character of the trilogy as a whole is Trouble Dog, the sentient spaceship that is used to transport the other main characters: Sal Konstantz (the captain of the ship) and Druff (the many-limbed alien who is the primary engineer/mechanic on the ship) among others. The other main character is Ona Sundak (a former space ship captain who ended an interstellar war by committing a horrific act of genocide).

The overarching narrative tension in the entire trilogy is between Sundak’s vision of the future and Konstanz’s (and Trouble Dog’s) opposition to this vision. It takes awhile but eventually we find out what role Cordelia Pa plays in resolving the conflict.

Another feature of the books in the trilogy which is also readily apparent in Light of Impossible Stars  is that they are fast-paced and action-packed. They are also fun to read and great diversions, exactly what good science fiction should do. Additionally, Powell is able to include a diverse cast of characters and present thought-provoking situations for the reader to ponder and reflect on, even after the book is over.

Overall, I would strongly recommend the series as a whole, even though I don’t think the last book is the strongest entry in the trilogy. That said, Light of Impossible Stars is a fun and exciting read in its own right.

Title: Light of Impossible Stars.
Gareth L. Powell.
Paperback: 400 pages.
 Titan Books.
Date Published: February 1, 2020.
Date Read: April 4, 2020.

★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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