Thursday, November 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter’s Orbit is an unusual read for me. It’s a debut novel with a story that straddles two genres: fantasy and gay male (m/m) romance. The story apparently started life with the title “The Course of Honour” on a website better known for fan fiction (Archive Of Our Own) in the original works section. Eventually Tor Books agreed to publish Everina Maxwell’s story reworked as a space opera with a queer romance (instead of the original which is apparently primarily a queer romance with some SFnal elements). I’m generally not a huge fan of romance, but I am gay, and gay male romance is something I very rarely choose (mostly because I think it will be cheesy). That said, I was completely devastated by the m/m romantic themes in Madeline Miller’s A Song for Achilles when I read it earlier this year. Plus it’s also rare for a book in one genre to overlap with another, so a m/m romantic space opera is very rare, like finding a Black, gay mathematician (oh, wait…).

Winter’s Orbit has received significant acclaim for its insightful writing and emotional resonance. The central plot revolves around the tried-and-true romance trope of the “fake-dating scenario.” This is when the two protagonists have to demonstrate for external stakeholders that they are a romantic couple when in reality they are complete strangers to each other. Of course, the two strangers get to know each other better as they spend copious amounts of time together in order to bolster the verisimilitude of their fake relationship and (inevitably) romantic sparks fly in reality. It’s another iteration of “Love Conquers All.”

In Winter’s Orbit the main characters are Kiem and Jainan. Kiem is a grandson of the Emperor and has the title of Prince. Jainan was married to Kiem’s cousin Taam, another Prince. The Jainan-Taam marriage also served the diplomatic purpose of uniting the two worlds of Iskaat and Thea, respectively. However, when Prince Taam is killed (which may or may not have been an accident) the Emperor asks (read: commands) Kiem to marry Jainan in order to maintain the appearance of good positive relations between Iskaat and Thea. This is important because the decennial review of the treaty that Iskaat has with a galactic superpower called The Resolution that provides interstellar communication, trade and travel is upcoming and political stability and domestic tranquility are factors the Resolution will consider during the treaty review process.

The emotional resonance of Winter's Orbit is primarily provided by the clash of personalities of the two main characters. Kiem is a fun-loving, n'e'r-do-well who was one of the more scandal-prone members of the extended royal family. Jainan is a very studious (he has an Engineering doctorate) foreigner to Iskat from Thea who takes duty and fidelity very seriously. They are both hunky but don't think the other will find them attractive. (Kiem because he thinks Jainan is too smart and serious, and Jainan because he knows from the celebrity  rags that Kiem has had LOTS of prior short-term relationships with others guys). Seeing the two reconcile with their arranged marriage and working through the misconceptions they have with each other and learning from (and getting over) their pasts is one of the central plots of the book.

Structurally, the author provides access to the inner thoughts of both primary characters (Kiem and Jainan), which primarily allows the reader to see what the two think about each other. That’s how we the reader knows that each of them is misinterpreting the words and (in)actions of the other. Because both Jainan and Kiem are essentially public figures, their marriage is first and foremost a diplomatic act, and is made available for public consumption. But of course this makes any private moments more fraught between the two.

In addition to the romantic plot, another key feature of the book is the political intrigue storyline. Both Kiem and Jainan represent their individual nations in their diplomatic and marital union, and they are pressured by representatives from their countrymen to demonstrate their loyalty in different ways. These political concerns play a role in what and how decisions are made, especially by the Emperor and the partisans from Thea and Iskaat.

One aspect of Winter’s Orbit that I really appreciated was the complete absence of homophobia. There’s never any stigma or questions about the fact that the royal marriage is between two men. This is extremely refreshing; it’s lovely to read a book where one’s existence and/or worldview as a gay man is not up for debate.

Overall, although I liked Winter’s Orbit and I enjoyed the same-sex romance storyline, as a space opera I was underwhelmed. In my opinion, the science fiction element of the book was under-developed. The good news is that even though the story in Winter’s Orbit is very self-contained, there are enough loose ends that a sequel would be reasonable. I would be interested in reading a sequel, which in some sense means that even though my overall reaction to Winter’s Orbit is muted, the book was a success since in the end I am open to reading more.

Title: Winter's Orbit.
Everina Maxwell.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published:  February  2, 2021.
Date Read: October 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, November 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

I have been hearing about China Mountain Zhang on Goodreads for so long that I finally decided to break down and read it. China Mountain Zhang is famous for being the debut novel of Maureen McHugh that was nominated for many of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction: the 1992 Hugo Award, the 1993 Nebula award, the Locus Award for Best First Novel (1993), the James Tiptree, Jr. Award(1993), and the Lambda Literary Award (1993) and winning several of them (Tiptree, Locus and Lambda).

China Mountain Zhang is also well-known for its unusual structure: it is a mosaic novel, i.e. a collection of intertwined stories, all set in a 22nd century United States (and world) dominated by China, and featuring a character named Zhang Zhong Shan, which contains two of the most famous names in the Chinese language, akin to being called George Washington Jones. It so happens that Zhang, the title character, is a guy with multiple secrets. He’s a closeted gay man in a culture rife with state-sanctioned deadly homophobia. Even though he appears to be ABC (American-Born Chinese), in actuality he has a Latino father, his mother named him Rafael and (illegally) provided him with spliced genes that give him his Asian appearance that aligns with his public identity as Zhang.

The reader learns about the world of the twenty-second century through cleverly curated details provided in the stories. For example, we know that the United States is no longer a capitalist democracy because Zhang has to go to a special government office to obtain a new job when he loses (or leaves) the first job we see him have in an early chapter. (This indicates that even in New York City there appears to be a planned economy.) Socially and culturally, China appears to be the zenith of society in the book, and going to China is what most people we meet in the stories aspire to do.

Eventually Zhang goes to spend a difficult 18 months near the North Pole in order to get credit that he can use to finance an education in China that will provide him with engineering and architectural credentials that will allow him much more job flexibility and earning potential in the future. (There are multiple references to communism and Mao Zedong but individual ownership of property does not seem to be outlawed in the United States, although collectives appear to be popular and socially favored.) In my opinion, Zhang is the most important (and frequently appearing) character in the book and his stories are the best passages; it makes sense that he’s the title character.

Overall, although I’m glad that I have finally read China Mountain Zhang, I was not really that impressed with it. Having an openly gay character in 1992 (was and) is definitely ahead of its time, but being unable to realize that societal homophobia (even in a world dominated by Chinese culture) might have abated was not a possible future the author envisioned. So my overall takeaway from the book is that it produces a vision of a downbeat, if not dystopian, future. Of course, not all books need to be upbeat but my hope is that in most books I read the story will be engrossing or engaging to the reader in multiple ways, either in wanting to know how the story ends (here since the book is a mosaic there is no “plot” per se, so this is not a factor) or depicting characters or the setting in a way that cause a visceral connection with the reader (neither really worked for me here although I was curious about how exactly China came to dominate the United States but that story is not fully given). So in the end I view China Mountain Zhang as a creative but not compelling read; it’s suitable for sci-fi completists but probably not for casual aficionados of the genre.

Title: China Mountain Zhang.
Maureen McHugh.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 321 pages.
Publisher: Orb Books.
Date Published:  April 15, 1997 (March 1992).
Date Read: October 17, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, November 04, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a classic work of science fiction written by Daniel Keyes published originally as a short story in 1958 and a novel in 1966 that was adapted into the award-winning 1968 movie Charly starring Cliff Robertson. Both the book and the movie are known as tearjerkers because of the sympathetic nature of the depiction of the main character, Charlie Gordon, who is a mentally challenged 32-year-old man (with an IQ of 68) who participates in a radical experiment that results in a large and rapid, but temporary, increase in Charlie’s intelligence. The titular character of Algernon is a laboratory rat who undergoes the experimental treatment first and who Charlie closely identifies with, especially since he eventually realizes that the trajectory of his intellectual life is going to follow Algernon’s.

The story in Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of vignettes, described as progress reports written by Charlie. Keyes cleverly uses the text of the reports (grammar, word choice, spelling) to demonstrate to the reader how Charlie’s intelligence changes as the book progresses. In the early parts of the book, the reports are riddled with errors and have a very simplistic voice, reflecting Charlie’s diffident and oblivious personality. After the procedure, as Charlie’s IQ soars by over 100 points, the writing in the progress reports becomes more sophisticated and the voice is more confident as Charlie begins to understand the world around him.

Although many things change as Charlie’s status changes from dunce to genius, some things remain the same. In the beginning, Charlie clearly has difficulty determining the motives of people and is easily tricked. In some sense, ignorance is bliss; he thinks his coworkers at the bakery he does deliveries for are his friends, when really they play cruel tricks on him that he doesn’t even understand are happening. After the experiment, Charlie still misinterprets (or imposes his own interpretation for) the reasons Dr. Jason Strauss and Professor Harold Neymar are pursuing this research. Charlie has feelings for Alice Kinnian, his teacher at the Beekman Center for Retarded Adults, before and after the procedure. In both phases he doesn’t know how to articulate or express his views to her. When he becomes “smart” he doesn’t realize that his intelligence is intimidating Alice and he’s unaware of how self-centered his behavior around her is. Despite this, she still agrees to a romantic relationship with him but he’s unable to go through with it.

One of the more interesting aspects of Flowers for Algernon is it’s setting in New York in the early 1960s. The reader gets to see a slice of how New Yorkers lived at the time. Keyes also depicts the conservative social mores of the time in Charlie’s social interactions between many of the important people in his life, such as his employer, Mr. Donner (the bakery owner); Alice Kinnian, his teacher and love interest; Fay Lillman, his neighbor, friend and eventual lover.

Overall, Flowers for Algernon is a tragedy and a cautionary tale whose moral is “be careful what you wish for.” In the beginning, Charlie most heartfelt wish is “to become smart” because he think it would repair the relationship between himself and his mother, who abandoned him to the Beekman Center once his younger sister grows old enough to be jealous of (and shamed by) a big brother who is older in age but younger in intellectual development. He also has absorbed the societal value that “smarter is better” and thus wants to be smarter and better. But as Charlie’s intellectual prowess grows he becomes more and more obnoxious to be around and his interpersonal relationships all suffer. His conceptual capacity grows enormously (he can read and speak multiple languages and he understands at expert levels many different unrelated subjects) his emotional capacity seems to diminish. He’s contemptuous of college professors (and students) for their interest in (and inability to focus on more than) one intellectual discipline at a time. Eventually he breaks with the people who conducted the experiment, annoyed by their treatment of him as a source of study instead of as a contributing partner. The tragedy is that it’s Charlie himself who figures out that the extraordinary increase in intelligence is actually temporary and that he will eventually lose all the gains and be back where he started from. That he knows it’s going to happen and that it does is absolutely devastating for the reader to watch. All of the milestones he achieved as a result of the experiment: writing fluent and correct prose in the progress reports, leaving his menial job at the bakery and living independently all get reversed as the story continues. And Flowers for Algernon ends with Charlie not really remembering who Algernon was, but that he was a good friend of his who he wants to honor, so he asks his friends to remember to put flowers on Algernon’s grave after Charlie is committed to a state home for the mentally incapacitated.

Title: Flowers for Algernon.
Daniel Keyes.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 219 pages.
Publisher: Mariner Books.
Date Published:  December 1, 2007 (April 1959).
Date Read: October 1, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

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



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