Jumpdrives & Cantrips

The Outback Stars
April 26, 2008, 2344
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

The Outback StarsThe Outback Stars has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen for a long time on a science fiction book. However, while good artwork sells books, good story sells them better, and that’s something Sandra McDonald understands. In fact, she wrote a solid enough debut novel that it warranted a nomination for the Compton Crook award. She also understands what she’s doing with her book: the tag-line she uses is “Love. Duty. Really big spaceships.” Which is probably a decent summation of some of the big ticket items in the book, if a very brief one.

Made up of military science fiction and space opera genre-wise, The Outback Stars is the story of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Sergeant Terry Myell. There’s a lot going on in this book, but if you expect space battles you won’t find them here. Jodenny has won a medal of honour for her conduct on her last ship, which ended in a fiery blaze. She escapes from her recovery period by forcing her posting on the Aral Sea as a supply officer. She gets the dubious honour of “reforming” Underway Stores, where what she doesn’t know can hurt her. With possible smugglers on board, she must deal with surviving her last ship and navigate alien transportation systems not designed for human use.

While the novel begins slowly, the pace builds with numerous subplots juggled together, scaffolding effectively into higher tension. McDonald excels in looking at the valour found in the everyday military actions during peacetime, and the ship politics that result from it. The ordinary becomes oddly fascinating, mostly because the writing makes it that way. Word choice is deft, and character portrayal is both consistent and complex. Jodenny is no cardboard cutout, and she certainly isn’t perfect.

For Jodenny and Terry, space is not the final frontier. Maybe it’s love in this particular book, or possibly the mysterious and alien Wondjina technology. Either way you slice it, the mixture of larger themes balanced with details of prose and story work well together. Terry’s intermittent gecko, Koo, was probably one of my favourite characters in the book. The details of supporting characters made for a nuanced balance, especially when Jodenny deals with some of the malcontents in her division in, er, creative ways. The interactions between characters are where McDonald shines; sometimes the unspoken is more important than what was actually said:

“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She was thinking there was no such thing as easy sex, no matter what people said. Not on a spaceship and not when the person was someone you worked with.
“I’m thinking this is just what the doctor ordered,” she lied.
Rokutan eased her back and began unbuttoning her blouse. “Is that all I am to you? A prescription?”
Jodenny touched his jaw. “A panacea.”
“A substitute for the real thing?”
“That’s a placebo,” she said (p. 250).

The mixture of alien and Aboriginal culture in The Outback Stars is fascinating, and a welcome change from the norm. Tying these two themes together bridges into the colonial nature of space, and I’m interested to see where this part of the story goes in future volumes. While this volume focuses mainly on interpersonal politics, my hope is McDonald’s next installment, The Stars Down Under, will take a broader political view and add depth to Jodenny’s world. More back story would satisfy my curiosity of how Australia became a major player in space, but it was also nice not to have the requisite info-dump when it really wasn’t required to understand the story.

One of the few weaknesses I noted was a lack of description of surroundings: it was difficult to know whether I was imagining what the author had in mind visually. Much of the Underway Stores department used specific equipment (the DNGO retrieval units were a particular highlight though I was waiting for a baby-eating joke that never came), but I wasn’t really sure what they looked like mentally. Sometimes I found myself getting distracted from the story because it was frustrating trying to situate things, and I was a little uncertain of the ship’s actual structure.

However, these are minor complaints, and overall The Outback Stars worked for me as a reader on a very basic level. These are characters who are everyday people dealing with their lives and their careers in ways that make sense to them, and the grounded nature of the story pulls the speculative into a reality that is all too rare in science fiction. I’m definitely looking forward to more from Sandra McDonald, and getting my hands on The Stars Down Under.

McDonald, Sandra. The Outback Stars. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 376 pages. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: Fantasy Debut’s coverage, plus Tia’s interview with Sandra McDonald, and Sci-Fi Weekly’s review.

The Dancers of Arun

The Dancers of ArunNot all that long ago I wrote about Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Watchtower, the book that won the 1980 World Fantasy Award. It was also the first book of The Chronicles of Tornor, and The Dancers of Arun is the second volume of the trilogy. Trivia: both books were nominated for the 1980 World Fantasy Award. If you go in search of this book, there are many versions of it–but for whatever reason, the same image keeps popping up. Inevitably, it includes a dancing (mostly) nude man under the moon in a forest. This isn’t a key moment in the novel, so its persistence puzzles me.

Lynn follows the story of Kerris, an orphan living in his uncle’s keep, and Kel, his older brother who practises chearis–a dance-related variation of aikido. Kerris has been linked to Kel’s mind most of his life, and then one day Kel comes with a group of friends to Tornor to take Kerris to meet his Southern family. You can think of The Dancers of Arun as a coming-of-age sort of book: comparatively not much happens beyond character growth. It’s the purpose of the book, and by golly, it sticks to its purpose well.

Kerris’ coming-of-age involves acceptance of his newly-explained powers, which are desirable in the “witch town” that he and his brother travel to. More centrally, though, Kerris’ emotional and sexual maturation are a large part of the novel. He also must integrate his family into himself (I’m tempted to make a tasteless joke here involving him and his brother, but will opt not to), learn to live with lacking an arm, and decide what exactly to do with his life. Kerris vacillates between different levels of maturity, which can become annoying at times, yet true to making the transition to adulthood.

The Dancers of Arun deals with gender and sexuality issues, including modes of sexuality beyond hetero, as well as incest. Out there on “the internets” I noted many complaints about the so-called gratuitous homosexual erotica, but I found that the sex itself was depicted tastefully and wasn’t graphic at all. Lynn focuses more on the love–sexual and otherwise–experienced by the two brothers, and treats her topic with more depth than in Watchtower. Lynn refrains from making statements of judgement, but offers consideration. For example, the gradients of sexuality scattered in the book have no morality attached in the world of Arun; they just are.

Lynn forces her readers to consider sameness: in gender, families, sex matches, cultures, thoughts, perceptions, and so on. Kerris and Kel, while definitely not alike in many ways, functionally mirror each other. One serves as a balancing point and context for the other within the novel’s structure. The themes of relativity and “comparative comparativeness” in this book form an exploratory route rather than a focused one. This necessarily reduces the importance of plot, instead focusing on social interactions and mundane actions.

In this book, the writing improves by increasing the detail present in Watchtower, with a continuation of the same sparseness and simple prose. I felt The Dancers of Arun flowed better than Watchtower did, though Watchtower had more plot to unpack than this volume. Despite the improvement, I do have some complaints. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the resolution between the village and the nomads, which seemed more simple than it should have been. Also Lynn’s voice as a writer sometimes conceals more than it reveals: by this, I mean her tone overrides the characters’ individuality, and everything (characters, places, etc.) merges together to create a mostly-uniform environment.

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not the ideal writer for someone searching out the “grit” found in today’s de rigeur fantasy novels. Her writing makes for a definite break from the current stylistic mode, reminiscent of family sagas of the Icelandic tradition. The Dancers of Arun is a social fantasy, one wherein character development is the story and love is interwoven with all actions, violent or otherwise. While the Tornor series is not your standard epic fantasy trilogy, it looks more at change to differing people over time, taking a historic view of a culture, and with it, a philosophic view of society.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. The Dancers of Arun. 1979. New York: Berkley Books, 1980. 275 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), bought used.

The First Betrayal

The First BetrayalI’ve got to admit, Patricia Bray‘s The First Betrayal was one of the books on my pile o’ shame ever since my dad–also a fan of SF/F–insisted I borrow his copy. He rarely ever recommends books, so it went on the TBR pile. And there it stayed for some time, until now.

The First Betrayal begins slowly with Josan, a scholarly monk who has been exiled to a distant lighthouse to regain his health after suffering a debilitating fever that garbled most of his memories. Take note: Prince Lucius has been missing and presumed dead since Josan’s mysterious fever. This is a little like the gun on the mantle mentioned in chapter one of a mystery novel. Josan realizes he and Prince Lucius share Lucius’ body, but not before he gets recognized and plunked in the centre of a conspiracy plotting a bloody revolt as addendum to the failed revolt some years ago.

Ambition and personal power are two thematic threads that Bray emphasizes throughout the novel. While Josan/Lucius serves as an example of attempting to resolve inner conflict and competition, Lady Ysobel looks to cause conflict on an international level to benefit her homeland, Seddon. As a foreign trade diplomat, she was sent to aid a revolt to disrupt Ikaria’s trade, leaving additional ports ripe for new trade agreement with the Seddon Federation. Her communiqués and intrigues (she first notices Josan and brings news of him to Ikaria’s capital) move the novel along while Josan/Lucius is swept along by other people until the very end. Because of this I found pacing sketchy in parts and the story’s ups and downs never absorbed me enough to keep my attention fully.

Before getting into the fantasy groove, Patricia Bray wrote regency romances and a need to understand character motivation and emotions informs her writing. The First Betrayal is a story of political interactions on personal levels told by multiple characters, some who inhabit and contest the same body. She deftly describes the inner aspects of her characters, though at times the book suffered from telling more than showing. This came up especially in relation to the co-conspirators and fleetingly with Ysobel, though this was only a minor irritation and potentially a stylistic choice.

Unfortunately at times I found the voices of different characters merged with Bray’s own voice, overriding the characters’ individuality in the multiple POV format. While it’s a great thing for a writer to have a strongly developed voice, Josan the peaceful scholar and Lucius the arrogant prince muddled together when differentiation struck me as the intended effect.

Bray uses many common plot devices from fantasy to good effect, and I was impressed that the ending was not the requisite heroic coup. Instead, Josan/Lucius maneuver into a sacrifice for the greater good that is really the result of being backed into a corner. I want to know what happens next, though I’m hoping Josan/Lucius take on more personal impetus in further volumes, as here they don’t really do all that much. Those who want a nice heroic finish will not be impressed with the ending of The First Betrayal, but I suspect (hope) things will pan out differently over time with the next two books.

The First Betrayal never manages outstanding, but overall, Patricia Bray tells a good story. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon, especially if you want more intrigue than swords, and more inner conflict than magic. For some reason I kept getting flashes of Robin Hobb while I was reading–more to do with content than style. In any case, I certainly recommend this series as a tangent to epic fantasy, nicely contained in smaller portions than the mega-tomes that seem so common these days.

Bray, Patricia. The First Betrayal. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2006. 343 pages. $9.99 (Canadian).

Magic Burns
April 11, 2008, 2233
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Magic BurnsMagic Burns by Ilona Andrews is one of the fastest reads I’ve had in a while. This urban fantasy book is the second in a series (following Magic Bites) featuring kickass-heroine-with-a-sword™ Kate Daniels. “Ilona Andrews” is actually a husband and wife writing team, and they are currently contracted for a novella and two more books in the series according to their site. Which I’m happy about, because they’ve hit on something good here. Magic Bites was a nice read, but not outstanding. Magic Burns is a definite improvement.

In Magic Burns, Kate Daniels shares time as a Guild Mercenary and a member of the Order (think of them as oft-magical knights with swords, books, sometimes guns, and an interest in helping people). Rampant gods, weres, vampires, undead, witches, and other magical sorts show up as Kate tries to protect a young street girl with a rare magical talent. And figure out why a disappearing crossbow-bearing thief keeps stealing the Pack’s maps. And find the missing witch coven. And survive the magic flares.

…And pay the bills.

Kate is nothing if not pragmatic. She’s not a genius, but she can figure things out with persistence and she has street-smarts. I love this, because it always annoys me when characters figure things out for no apparent reason. She is tough, and much as in the first books, her big mouth and impulsive nature gets her in frequent bouts of trouble. While she is far from perfect–especially emotionally speaking–her fighting ability and super-human ability to wield magical Words of Power sometimes seemed a bit much. Kate’s mysterious magic-laden past gets some air-time, but only teasers so we never really find out her full history.

As in Magic Bites, one of the main pleasures in this book is the world-building. Magic returns to the world after humans push things to the technological end of the spectrum (Andrews describes it as a pendulum in the book), but it flares in unpredictable waves that knock out some technology as this change occurs. Sometimes the magic works better, sometimes the tech does. But the magic keeps getting stronger. This makes for a neat plot device and also adds tension. The story takes place in a magical yet crumbling Atlanta. It has an apocalyptic feel, peppered with ruined skyscrapers and slums in areas with unstable and dangerous magic.

Two other things grabbed my attention. Most notably: the witty banter between various characters. It was paced well and often warranted at least a chuckle. The second is Kate’s love life, or lack thereof. Kate is a loner, and while she has hormones she is definitely afraid to listen to them. The well-constructed sexual tension between Kate and her main love interest, who just happens to be the Grand High Muckety-Muck of the Pack, is thick enough to plunk into a Jello mould and save for dessert. Which, in a way, makes me hope it doesn’t get consummated because it is so delicious.

However, while the book was a quick read, it kept speeding up in terms of action and events. It was as though there wasn’t enough time to unpack everything that happened in the last portion of the book. I understand some of the story needed to be cut for length, but I found things flying too fast and furious–except for an odd section that dragged as Kate tried to elicit a plot-turning gift from another character. I suspect the flow would have benefited from a slightly higher proportion of description to action in some parts to break up the action. I also would have liked to see more of other characters, especially Julie, the girl Kate spends her time protecting, and Kate’s colleague Andrea.

The fight scenes didn’t parse well for me; the flash and shine in the words felt as though it concealed a lack of knowledge and detail. For instance, Kate (who is kickass™ and all) suddenly decides to wield two swords instead of one, and I’m not sure she’s that kickass. From my limited experience wielding one sword is plenty hard enough to do without chopping off your own leg, much less two, and using both would be a lot more tiring if Kate doesn’t regularly train for it–which is something we never see as a reader.

Despite its faults, the words fly by and Ilona Andrews presents engrossing characters in a fascinating world. Magic Burns really caught my attention and held it despite the lulls. This is one urban fantasy series that pulls the scattered mythos of urban fantasy together into a cohesive mosaic. I’m curious to see where this series takes Kickass Kate™.

Andrews, Ilona. Magic Burns. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 260 pages. $6.99 (Canadian).

Law of Survival

Law of SurvivalTime for another dose of Kristine Smith‘s Jani Kilian! As you may recall, I recently reviewed the first and second books in this science fiction/mystery hybrid series. Law of Survival is the third book revolving around documents examiner and newly-made civilian Jani Kilian. My favourite part-human part-alien (idomeni) heroine moves on from the same conspiracy she’s been dealing with for the previous two books to new territory.

Jani has taken up residence in a posh condo and is taking commissions as a diplomatic advisor and a documents examiner. And of course, if all went well it wouldn’t make for a very good plot, would it? So Jani’s patchy and questionable history has been put into report form and distributed to upper level government officials, idomeni and colonial contracts cause much conflict, her idomeni mentor Nema/Tsecha gets strong-armed out of his ambassador position, Jani’s parents arrive in town, and Jani gets a botched assassination attempt. If that’s not enough Jani starts to suspect that intelligence agent Lucien, her lover, has been playing more people than she thought–perhaps even her.

Law of Survival bears out the transitioning in the second book nicely, and we’re treated to a whole host of new characters, as well as revisiting older ones in new ways. Because of this, one could read Law of Survival as a starting point in the series, but some of the encore appearances don’t receive much backstory. I found it was a little harder to keep track of all the characters and they became vaguely confusing and occasionally interchangeable (frequent thoughts while reading: “Who the–oh yeah, one of the hoity-toity officers…”). Having viewpoints limited to Jani and Tsecha/Nema also flowed together better than having more POVs as in previous books, which helped to mitigate some of the confusion, and also improved pacing.

Rules of SurvivalIn this particular book we get to see more of Jani’s emotional range, which is always welcome. What with reuniting her with her family, dealing with more guilt (from actions in this book and not nearly two decades ago), and the potential betrayal of her lover, we get to see more of Jani’s “feeling” headspace than before. Jani also must deal with her feelings about her hybridization and how she accepts herself–and sometimes doesn’t. In fact, if the last book was about accepting her past, this book started to look at Jani’s future and her lack of acceptance of it. Smith really does some great character development within these first three books of the series, and I hope it continues on.

As a side note: while I’m glad Jani is no longer throwing up and having stomach cramps all the time as part of the hybridization, this seemed to get replaced with knee pain of all things. This was odd considering Jani regenerated miraculously from near-death at full tilt in the previous book. With all of the advanced healing technology, no one can do anything about a piddly little sore knee? OK, I’m done being nit-picky now.

This book takes some of the colonial vs. Earth and human vs. idomeni politics that were always present and brings them more into the forefront. Specific events are given situating contexts, and the flow of plot between all three books gets tied in together. Smith also frames her world better than it has been before; places from the previous books get put into better context. The idomeni Haárin caste–those who lose their souls through profane human contact, but provide profit and information–also takes more overt political steps in this book. The situation between all the vying parties promises much future story fodder.

While idomeni and human for the most part remain distinct, I was impressed with Smith’s demonstration of each of the cultural groups learning from one another. The physical hybridization taking place through Jani also points to a social hybridization occurring despite the wishes of either group. Far more realistic than many writers’ takes on human/alien relations, and also thought provoking that such ideas are not as common as they might otherwise be in a genre fraught with representations of “the other.”

The Jani Kilian books consistently get better. I think I’m stuck: I’m a Kristine Smith fan.

Smith, Kristine. Law of Survival. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 629-980. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.

March 24, 2008, 1843
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

ReBodyCitiria Publishing contacted me to review Clive Warner’s ReBody and it wasn’t what I would personally pick up off the shelf. I figured maybe I would find some hidden merit. I was wrong. I barely finished ReBody. It has a convoluted plot, unlikable characters, inane logic, trivial quotations for every chapter, and prose dotted with errors that should have been caught long before publication.

Hugh Toffle is an English professor (or a history professor as per the last part of the book) whose head gets cryogenically preserved, only to be thawed and stuck onto a glorified cleaning machine in 2373. The story includes cats and dogs represent opposing political philosophies, with some rats and primates along for the ride. Hugh’s head gets grafted onto an orangutan body, and later his consciousness gets transferred to a robot. The story perseverates with the conflict between animals and with robots, AKA the destroyers of mankind. It culminates in Hugh leading a gloriously useless onslaught against the robots.

Now, Hugh (as in, Hugh-man, get it? Get it?!) is a character I just can’t find it in me to care about. It doesn’t help that Warner tells the story in first person present tense, but that isn’t what really irks me. For some reason, random things segue into Hugh’s penis. He spends the majority of the book thinking with his genitals, or just not thinking and letting every other entity around solve his problems.

I was uncomfortable to find all the women in ReBody were sex objects. There’s a lot of ogling and explicit daydreaming involving pert breasts and see-through clothing without any purpose in the story that I can delineate. Warner also mistakes having a potty mouth as being humourous. A sample: “A powerful smell of ripe poo overlays the ammoniacal pee, and I hear the growling, snarling, snapping, chomping, sound of the dogs, not far behind.” (p. 138). I’m not sure if Mr.Warner is writing this particular oeuvre for 5-year-olds, but the language fits.

I get the sense that this work was supposed to be a satire of the science fiction genre. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Good/Bad Continuum, satire must be crafted skillfully and if the subject matter is bad, then it must be so bad that it cycles through to good again. ReBody lacks the skill needed for satire, and the subject matter never becomes campy, ironic, or witty enough to qualify. If there’s an ideological point to be had, it’s stuck in an inconsistent and boring story.

Warner describes ReBody as a combination of I, Robot, Animal Farm, and Planet of the Apes. Those three works do not combine well, and ReBody never manages to enter that level of literature. You can always go try out the first chapter and see for yourself.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for SF satire with preserved heads, pick up Futurama instead.

Warner, Clive. ReBody. Monterrey, Mexico: Citiria Publishing, 2007. 269 pages. $19.02 (Canadian).

Rules of Conflict

Rules of ConflictIt wasn’t all that long ago that I reviewed Kristine Smith‘s first book in the Jani Kilian series, Code of Conduct (read it here). Rules of Survival is a similar style of story–science fiction with an investigative focus via the all-important people in any bureaucracy: the paper pushers. These folks control reality in retrospect, and have the know-how to get to the core of power in a media-driven politically-unstable society. Rules of Conflict ties up many of the dangling threads left from Code of Conduct and explores the intrigues of a document-driven conspiracy.

Jani Kilian is a document examiner whose body, experimentally reconstructed using the alien idomeni as genetic fodder, is failing. Fresh from being exposed anew after hiding from her government nigh on 18 years, she tries to fade into nonexistence again–only her body requires emergency medical treatment that identifies her. Instead of disappearing, the military reclaims her as someone with expertise in the now rapidly destabilizing human-idomeni interactions, but classifies her as mentally unstable. We soon discover Jani ia a pawn in a larger political machination that goes all the way back to her early service days and the idomeni civil war.

While Jani does even less travelling than in the first book, her increased personal freedoms make for a less claustrophobic experience in reading. She has her faults (survivor guilt, a stubborn nature, and a certain amount of disregard for others top the list), but these function to make her depth as a character fascinating and lends more credibility than other cardboard heroines. Smith’s portrayal of Jani’s illness/transformation is a major portion of the book, though Jani’s coping  in this book is limited to the physical realm. Thankfully the book’s science makes sense in a peripheral way and refrains from unneeded medical commentary.

In total this volume probably has less action in terms of “fight scenes” than its predecessor, but the suspense is better constructed and has more even pacing. The exception is the sequence of chapters focusing on Evan, who is under house arrest and in the midst of legal proceedings continuing from the first book. While Evan’s intermittent revelations have importance in the broad political forum eventually, I found he had little relevance as a character other than to sum up data presented elsewhere in a more digestible format. His scenes generally slowed the pace for me, but on the other hand, this functioned as a way to organise the political motivations of others in a less confusing manner than in Code of Conduct.

One of the real gems in Rules of Conflict are Jani’s hallucinations of Neumann, the commanding officer she killed eighteen years ago. He provides some delectably dark humour during Jani’s moments of stress and turmoil as he torments her (or as she torments herself, depending on one’s perspective). Unfortunately, I suspect Jani’s compatriot Lieutenant Pascal is supposed to provide some comic relief in obvious flirtation, but I found his antics as a character to be tiring and not edgy enough to provide enough surprise to function in a similar manner.

Overall, Kristine Smith writes of the need for closure with past trauma, and the need to acknowledge and incorporate changes in the self to an individual. For Jani the past is not left behind her, and is something she must deal with rather than escape from, as she had hoped to do. Smith further opens this up from the individual level to a societal level with the idomeni-human dialogue that takes place in the book, and the tangential mention of reparation. It is a testament to her skill as a writer that the idomeni fully enmesh in the world and retain their alien sense of being “other”. I feel that the idomeni are probably one of the better constructed alien races in military sci-fi and space opera, and will happily read more.

The book itself focuses more on character and suspense in this volume, but forgoes plot to an extent. It feels as though Rules of Conflict functions as an addendum to Code of Conflict–which had enough of an info-dump to require more unpacking. In that sense, it is a transitional novel in the series but succeeded in keeping my attention for the duration of the shift.

Kristine Smith did not drop the ball in her second novel, and I felt she improved on what made Code of Conduct appealing. The flaws in Rules of Conflict are negligible viewed in context of the series itself, and I can see how an omibus edition has definite advantages compared to single volumes in this particular storyline.

Smith, Kristine. Rules of Conflict. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 307-628. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.