Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Dragonhaven
December 4, 2008, 1840
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinleyMost readers know Robin McKinley best for book-length fairy tale retellings and the Damar novels, which are a more traditional type of heroic fantasy.  More recently she ventured into modern vampire fiction with Sunshine (2003), followed by a contemporary fantasy about a boy with the dilemma of illegally raising a dragon hatchling in Dragonhaven (2007). Numerous other authors have taken this basic plot idea for a ride: see also the works of Anne McCaffrey, Jane Yolen, and Mercedes Lackey for examples. This piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to see how McKinley would deal with the story of a boy and his dragon.

Set in an alternate contemporaneous United States, the world has always had dragons and they are still around, though they are limited to nature preserves with enforced borders. Scientists debate what a “real” dragon is, and generally believe that since no one has seen the “real” dragons, they may even be extinct; park rangers know differently even if they rarely ever see one. Then Jake happens upon a dying mother dragon whose last surviving hatchling will die without his assistance. Of course, he takes in the dragon despite the  questionable legality of the situation (one is neither allowed to kill or to directly save the lives of dragons in this world). And to make matters worse, the mother dragon killed a human in her own defence.

Jake and Lois’ shared growth is written as a retrospective from a twenty-something Jake’s point of view in 1st person narrative. Since the prose tends towards the frenetic, this didn’t really jive with me as the character’s voice; it reminded me more of a ten year old on a sugar rush:

I was tired, and hungry myself, and my head really hurt, and I was all wound up about what had happened, and about the fact that I had landed myself with an orphan dragonlet that I hadn’t a clue how to take care of, and how it was all going to be my fault when it died and I already felt as if everything that had happened was my fault–even though I knew that was stupid–and when it died too I’d never forgive myself and go crazy or something (52).

Whew–that’s enough to take the gusto out of the rest of my night. Good thing I wasn’t reading this one aloud to someone! Because of the discordant narrative style and consistent run-on sentences with stumble-over-the-next-word-to-get-there-fast-enough rhythm, I admit it took me a while to get into this book. Normally I’m able to relax into Robin McKinley’s prose almost immediately, but this story took a little time. I also wondered if the author’s own voice outweighed the character’s voice at times, given the similarity of flow McKinley has when blogging.

If you’re a stickler for logic there are a couple things that might cause hang-ups for you. First up: the non-interference clause preventing people working in Smokehill National Park, the US dragon preserve, from healing/helping dragons even though there are “lesser” dragons being cared for in a zoo setting. The contradiction here just makes my head hurt. Then there’s the debate about what a “real” dragon is, the general taxonomic politics, and how problematic this seems to be for the park. Taxonomy is one big debate about categories, and academics eat it up with a smile–look at the human species’ fossil record alone and you’ll realise we can’t manage anything certain for a relatively well-studied population. I just can’t believe the lack of research done on dragons even with political interference and controversy.

However, if you can suspend enough disbelief and want a story that closely follows character development and discovery of New Things (ie, dragons, which I might add are done believably) then you will really enjoy Dragonhaven. The journey is a slow one, but the moments that forward the plot itself are worth seeking out. Five years after the dragon discovery Jake writes an “epilogue”, and it includes the majority of character development and plot movement in the novel, but takes 288 pages to get there. Earlier parts of the novel could have benefited from some judicious editing, but on the other hand, the journey was worthwhile.

Dragonhaven is not the best book it could have been, but it was good nonetheless. It definitely has a coming-of-age feel to it, and McKinley put an interesting spin on the boy & dragon plot by giving it a modern and somewhat more political setting, even if the politics languished in the background. In the end, Robin McKinley has some interesting things to say about growing up, bridging understanding, the involvement of politics in knowledge production, assumed obligations, and sacrifice. For those messages, Dragonhaven is definitely a worthwhile read.

McKinley, Robin. Dragonhaven. New York: Ace Books, 2007. 338 pages. $8.99 (Canadian), paperback.

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Camp Concentration

Camp ConcentrationGiven that WordPress has now eaten my review for the second time for no apparent reason when it has never done this before, I’m starting to get extremely frustrated. So, I’m going to go after a somewhat different, more compressed, format, since I’m getting sick of typing out the same damn thing over and over.

Thomas M. Disch published Camp Concentration in 1968. Timing-wise, this places the book in the midst of a) political upheaval and both internal and international conflict in the US, b) the New Wave movement in science fiction literature spear-headed by Michael Moorcock, c) a time when several other prominent SF authors wrote books with Faustian references. This last point amuses me in a general sense; authors include Phillip K. Dick (in 1969) and Roger Zelazny (in 1966).

Plot summary available from Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with it.

Narrative structure is journal format, divided structurally into two books. Our records-keeper is Louis Sacchetti: poet, conscientious objectioner (“conchie”), obese man, Pallidine-carrier, and unreliable narrator. Why? Well, I would be unreliable too if I knew the director of my newfound prison and his pet military researcher running the experiment received copies of my journal as a daily newsfeed.

Did I like Camp Concentration? No, I did not. Not only does Disch align the reader with those holding power over Sacchetti by giving us the same “gaze” that they have–we join the heads of Camp Archimedes as the journal’s audience–but also creates a separation between us and Sacchetti with this same practice. I could not fall into the narrative per se, and further to that, with all the name-dropping literary-referencing madness-tinged-discourse-inserting it was just too much work for a payoff I didn’t even want by the end of it. Disch writes in a dense, compressed style that packs a lot of punch with a low word-count: his poetic leanings win out in his prose, which makes it a work-heavy read that necessitates interpretation.

What do I think of Louis Sacchetti as the main character? Hard to tell, since he censors himself as a record-keeper. This is something that bears analysis, and to be honest, I didn’t like the book enough to read it over 2-3 more times to put every single piece together of a complex, unlikable, and unsympathetic character. For example, it takes Sacchetti until the end of the first book to acknowledge he has been infected by Pallidine: is this denial, inability to connect the dots, or purposeful concealment of his knowledge from his captors? I could not tell you.

That said, what do I think of Camp Concentration? It’s a book that espouses ideas more than characters. What is the nature of genius? Is genius book knowledge, self knowledge, power over the natural world, or ability to exact what you want from other people? Is it genius, or an illness, or something else? As Sacchetti muses near the end of the novel: “I exist without instincts, almost without images; and I no longer have an aim. I resemble nothing. The poison has had not two effects–genius and death–but one. Call it by which name you will.” (p. 184).

It also brings into question the ethics of biological warfare and human test subjects, rampant government control, and war in general. Throughout the course of the book identity, the nature of science, and the regulation and politics of knowledge production are hot-button issues, as is a hard look at the compromises made for meeting one’s goals. Disch provides us with a large amount of commentary on social control relating to the government, the separate groups of prisoners (more so in the latter half of the book), and religious beliefs within this context. Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, though character certainly plays a large role in the book itself.

The ideas? Fascinating. Worth the read if you like to consider big questions, but if you are a completist and feel a need to look up and search out context for various quotations and references, you can spend an awful lot of time on Camp Concentration, which is relatively short. Really, the title itself gives one enough pause: allusion to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, within the bounds of the story there is Camp Archimedes itself which promotes concentration and study within the camp, and the concentration required from the reader. Imagine what you could pull out of 184 pages packed with multiplicities of meaning, if you are so inclined.

If anyone out there is looking for fodder for a scholarly study, this book would be a grand topic. It might not be your cup of tea for an engaging, escapist read–though I suppose that depends on what you like your escape to be. Although certainly a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration will never be a favourite of mine.

Check out the Blogger’s Book Club discussion hosted over at OF Blog of the Fallen for some other thoughts and reviews!

Disch, Thomas M. Camp Concentration. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. $17.95 (Canadian), but likely at your local library, trade paperback.



Ha’Penny

Ha’PennyJo Walton‘s Small Change series started off on solid ground with Farthing, a murder mystery “with fascists” set in a very different WWII era United Kingdom, and continues in her 2008 Prometheus Award winner Ha’Penny. Walton’s writing has always had a historical bent, first evident in The King’s Name series as historically-tinged fantasy, and more so in Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with dragons. Writing alternate history therefore isn’t much of a stretch, and her talents in creating period mood in prose certainly shine in this series.

Picture a U.K. that made peace with Hitler’s Germany after the Blitz in 1941: this is Walton’s world, several years later with a British populace manipulated into complacency. Ha’Penny focuses on two characters: the actress Viola Lark, blackmailed into participating in a scheme to assassinate the leaders of both the Third Reich and Britain, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, whose homosexuality opens the door for Britain’s leaders to blackmail him into participating in their political maneuvering. Carmicheal also played a major role in Farthing, and mostly due to his recurring presence and fascinating character development, I  recommend not starting the series with Ha’Penny–as well you may miss some political subtleties.

Ha’Penny, like Farthing, hinges on the familiar both in plot and content. Plot-wise, Farthing used the murder mystery, while Ha’Penny follows more of a suspense/thriller format. While Ha’Penny doesn’t deliver a page-turning potboiler in the traditional sense, it delivers a politically-charged character driven view of what might have been that reflects on current political tensions. Walton’s use of familiar, comforting structure and setting serves as a lull to amplify the danger and contrast with more subtle political violence. The real story and Walton’s own agenda paddles along frantically beneath a calm surface.

Carmichael, reluctant though he is to aid the government, has made the choice before to acquiesce to the demands of those in power for his own safety and comfort. Viola’s first person narrative of wakening to action serves to contrast his more removed and stoic internal third person narrative. She begins the novel as an actress who must work for a living, though born into privilege and willingly removed from the political arena, who becomes strong-armed into a plot she sees no purpose in. Walton uses her role in Hamlet to mirror her character, especially in the latter half of the novel. Viola’s revelation and change in character at a society event with the leaders she plots against packs a softened, yet wounding, blow:

“What about Germany?” I asked. “That they wanted the war? But they didn’t, did they, no more than we did, that’s what the Farthing Peace was all about?”
“No, about the camps.” Lord Ullapool drained his wineglass and stared off at the dancers, but I don’t think he was seeing them. “Anything you’ve heard about the work camps on the Continent, about enslaving the workers and confiscating their property, about working them to death, about gassing those who can’t work, it’s all true.”
I’d never believed it before, not when Siddy mentioned it in the Lyons, not even when Malcolm was giving me facts and figures, but hearing it now in this gentle old man’s quiet voice I couldn’t doubt it. (p. 238)

I usually do not read alternate history because the ideas behind it frequently overwhelm the characters, but Walton places character development in the forefront, hinging the novel on this. While written with an agenda, the reader must decide whether there really is a “good” or “evil” in this story, and where they sit amid shades of grey. This is part of the source of the power in the novel’s message; readers who choose to engage in the novel in this way are forced to look within to know where they might stand, which is not so simple in a world where complacency and ignorance can be so easy and potentially rewarding, even inadvertently, as the culmination of the novel demonstrates.

Ha’Penny is an excellent piece of literature that makes me wish I had more grounding in both Hamlet and WWII history; since I have only smatterings of the two, I can only say that the book is deftly engaging and eerily plausible in the current political atmosphere we live in today. I’ll definitely keep a watch for Walton’s third Small Change book, Half a Crown, which will be released near the end of the month in hardcover.

Walton, Jo. Ha’Penny. New York: Tor Books, 2007. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.



Odds & Ends

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and take a nice leisurely stroll through the world of blogs. I figured I’d put up some of the highlights of the last little bit. It’s a start anyway, as there’s so much else out there that’s newsworthy, but will have to wait a little longer. In any case, here’s a few odds & ends for your perusal:

I’ve finished reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s third Sharing Knife book and Nalo Hopkinson’s recent-Aurora-winning New Moon’s Arms, and hope to get reviews up shortly. Wish me time more so than luck 😉



Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersFor a first exposure to Robert A. Heinlein, I sure picked a doozy. Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of Heinlein’s “juvenile” science fiction era and garners a fair amount of controversy to this day. Do a cursory search online and you’ll see what I mean–there’s a lot out there. This book also helped to kick off military science fiction as a subgenre, along with placing powered armour in the spotlight. Let’s not forget it also won the 1960 Hugo Award, which Heinlein followed up with Stranger in a Strange Land, leading to another Hugo.

Starship Troopers is a densely-packed, brisk-paced novel narrated by Johnnie Rico, who enlists in Earth’s military as a member of the Mobile Infantry upon his graduation. The book follows him through basic training with the MI, into combat with the alien “Skinnies” and “Bugs”, and officer training. Johnnie’s training and his own thoughts on the military are in the forefront, with only brief instances of combat scattered throughout the story.

The story itself is simple, but Heinlein’s writing drew me in. However, I finished the book and was left thinking that not all that much really happened. Outside the military aspects of the story, there really isn’t all that much other than dialogues regarding moral and philosophical issues, which is interesting and provoking, but doesn’t do terribly much for character development. The relationships seem oddly skewed: there is no romance despite a date, and Johnnie’s father ends up as his platoon sergeant–which in and of itself seems inappropriate within a chain of command.

The political and moral philosophies espoused in the book are polemic, and the centre of many a debate. Heinlein held many controversial opinions about communism, nuclear weapons, and so on, but he isn’t really the focus of this specific review since he isn’t the book (if you are interested though, see these links where Michael Moorcock and Spider Robinson take different views on the man and his philosophy). The book itself is based in a world where to earn the vote and full citizenship one must serve in the military, where corporal punishment is accepted as a means to teach moral behaviour, and where aliens are all uniformly enemies. I seem to recall sometimes they are also the enemy of Earth’s enemy–that is, other aliens. Starship Troopers takes a strong us vs. them position and certainly the imagery is there to see “the Bugs” as a representation of a hive-mind communist society, circa America’s cold-war.

Unfortunately there’s so much background in the world left open to interpretation that it confuses the context of the philosophical arguments; we don’t have any evidence as to what sort of government Earth has, what its policy or motives are for space expansion (reacting to attack, or attacking first?), or anything else beyond Johnnie’s limited viewpoint. In fact, at times his vantage of his world is so narrow that I wondered if he really knew much of anything upon graduation.
In this respect, the construction of the future Earth in Starship Troopers is both thought-provoking and frustrating because of the obvious holes left in the story. Because of this, it’s difficult to build a well-structured argument about the book without relying on information about Heinlein himself, which is a questionable practice regardless.

I noted some interesting conflicts in the writing in terms of portraying gender and ethnicity. Women in the military mostly end up as Navy captains, reportedly in part because of their superior math skills which puts them in a position of power. However, they are almost completely absent from the infantry and seem to exist within cocoons of military protection for the most part. Ethnicity seems to be implied by name and what language the person speaks, which seems a little presumptuous to me. But if you accept that along with minor stereotyping of minor characters the book has a multi-ethnic cast, with the implication that since Johnnie speaks Tagalog he is Filipino.

It seems as though Heinlein perhaps was wanting to break out of the thought patterns of 1950s America, but couldn’t quite set his existing ideas aside. Or who knows, perhaps there was an editorial hand in this somewhere that made the book more “acceptable” for mass consumption, whichever direction the stereotypes were pushed towards. I doubt the political aspects of the book were massaged, as they are pretty explicit. Taken in context of the human-alien conflict, Heinlein makes an interesting commentary on conceptualizations of “the other” between cultural groups of one species and differing species, and certainly one influenced by when it was published.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good read, and should not be missed due to its controversial nature and its influence on the military sci-fi subgenre (including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero). Regardless of the flaws in this novel, I found I enjoyed it quite a bit and had lots to chew over in my head, which if nothing else, I’m sure Heinlein had fully intended.

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959 [1968]. 208 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), used.



Out Flat
May 7, 2008, 0742
Filed under: Misc | Tags: , ,

In the interests of keeping you up to date, lack of recent content is related to a) a week of me being sick and too exhausted to even read for extended periods, b) the family pet dying, and c) a brief rise in hours required at work.

However, I have reviews of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Witness by Bill Blais, and another book coming up in the near future.  And things should be picking up again in the near future, so hang in there!

Plus, I’ve had a request to review some George R. R. Martin. Any other requests out there?



Grimspace
April 27, 2008, 1200
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,
GrimspaceWritten as a guest reviewer at Enduring Romance for Kimber An. Go check out her lovely, lovely review blog!

I’m curious to know how the name Grimspace came about. While the title obviously comes from the name of the space humans with special J-genes “jump” into to traverse the universe, it fails to capture the joy and addictive ecstasy jumpers get from grimspace itself. Be aware that Ann Aguirre‘s debut science fiction novel pulls romance into the fore, though its romantic nature doesn’t displace any action. The romantic overtones aren’t a shock considering Aguirre has written romantic fiction in the past under a different name.

Grimspace is a change from the run of the mill space opera, though, in its tone and perspective. It uses first person present tense narration that brings a kick in the pants along with it, pushing the action into the forefront. It also puts the focus directly onto Sirantha Jax, who is a heroine with loads of attitude.

We first meet Jax right before she’s about to escape from a psych unit with the help of mysterious man March. With her lover and former co-pilot dead, Jax must now make a run for it and make the first jump she has made since that time with a pilot she has never met or bonded to. Soon we’re introduced to the ship’s crew, who want Jax to start a rogue training program for other jumpers so their rebel group can reduce the monopoly her former employers, the Farwan Corp., have on space transport. To do that, they have to find other people with the J-gene. Along the way, Jax must deal with herself, her relationship with her telepathic co-pilot March, save a sentient baby lizard, escape a pirate space-station breeding programme, and dodge an extremely polite shape-shifting bounty hunter.

For a novel like this to succeed, it really requires a likable main character, and Sirantha Jax is that. She’s strong, and someone who acts with loyalty and caring despite herself. And she’s the longest living jumper out there, which speaks to her stubborn nature. I didn’t believe the psychosis that the character kept proclaiming (read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or even Sarah Monette’s Mélusine if you want crazy done convincingly) and wondered if this was a symptom of Jax’s lack of self-knowledge. Her relationship with March overlaps with her grief from losing her last love, and their relationship grows with each argumentative exchange, fraught with physical attraction and their need for each other. Aguirre’s use of Jax’s voice is almost mesmerizing at times, and is what makes the novel speed forward so quickly.

And I’m aware of his hands on the controls as I never have been. I could almost fly the ship if I had to, because we’re not him and me, we’re…we, and then I sense his astonishment, sharing my mind’s eye as we gaze outward to grimspace.
Maybe I gave him some sense of it before, but this time, he sees completely and I know he does: the glory, the colors, and the almost-manifest monsters that writhe along the hull. The Folly ploughs through liquid fire; the world without is a conflagration of possibility, ideas and dreams barely conceived and waiting to be given form.
But March and yes, it’s the March-me spinning my mind’s eye away from the beacon. He’s doing it and I didn’t even know this was possible. He’s trying to show me—
Shit. There’s a ship coming up fast behind us (p. 148).

Grimspace was clearly designed as a “non-stop thrill ride” of action and romance, and Aguirre accomplishes that goal very well. Its rapid plot turnover helped make my nit-picky science-oriented self back off from the book’s logical inconsistencies. Most notably, a swamp planet that had planet-wide seasonal change and an ice planet with an unsustainable ecosystem without humans–who were not native to it (and seem to willingly live there despite creatures that go crazy at the scent of ANY human blood). Though there is speculation here, it’s more of the social type than the hard-science type, so don’t wrack your brain too hard.

The speed of plot elements hit a wall in the last third of the novel: the story moved too fast, and pulled too much in at once while eliminating some characters in not-so-meaningful ways. The media broadcast moment at the end struck me as too simple a solution, and something that Farwan conceded to far too easily. I have to say that the last couple of paragraphs just smacked me in the face with a corniness that seemed out of character for the novel as a whole and really disappointed me.

That said, the book takes an interesting spin on feminine-masculine power relationships, both in relationships between characters and in the societies that Jax and her fellow crew visit. “Mother Mary” is the expletive of choice, which ties into the reproductive politics explored, and the idea of exploiting women for their reproductive power. Though religion remains a mostly unexplored depth for Sirantha, she dips in her toe. It seemed to me as though later volumes have the potential to go somewhere very interesting with themes of genetic and reproductive politics entering the fray, especially if religion is bound into it all.

Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is the kind of book that you can kick back with and enjoy the ride, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It’s got enough humour and action to preoccupy you for a few enjoyable evenings, and its sequel, Wanderlust, is due to hit shelves in August 2008, with two more books in the series currently contracted. I’m looking forward to them.

Aguirre, Ann. Grimspace. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 326 pages. $7.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: selected reviews by Grasping for the Wind, Fantasy Café, Dear Author, and FantasyBookSpot.