Aug 29, 2012

A Beautiful Friendship, by David Weber

It's rare to find truly hard science fiction written for a young adult audience, but this book is precisely that. Several centuries after humans have colonized the stars, Stephanie Harrington finds herself on a frontier planet, bored out of her incredibly intelligent mind. Though humans have lived on Sphinx for about fifty years, no one has even guessed at the existence of a native sentient species, not to mention one that loves celery! Stephanie manages to meet one named Climbs Quickly, and though they cannot communicate with each other, they share a deep empathic bond. And once the treecats are discovered, Stephanie and her family and friends must do the best they can to protect them.

There's probably a bit more explanation of scientific and political ideas than I would like, but this book does make for a very good introduction to the hard sci fi genre. Precocious teenagers will definitely identify with Stephanie, and the issues put forth in the book are ones that deserve real thought. It's the first book in a series, and while I don't know that I'll read any more of it, I would definitely recommend this to young adult readers.

Aug 26, 2012

Hide Me Among the Graves, by Tim Powers

Poetry, vampires, ghosts, prostitutes, Boadicea, Italians, Christians, and love: these are just a few of the things that make up the bizarre hodge-podge that is "Hide Me Among the Graves." The writing isn't bad, per se, in fact it's pretty good. I just can't figure out how on earth Powers thought up the story. The two main characters among a larger cast of protagonists are Edwardian poet Christina Rosetti and veterinarian surgeon John Crawford. The vampires aren't familiar to us at all, beyond their aversion to sunlight and garlic, and they are horrifying creatures that the director of Pan's Labyrinth would probably be jealous of. The book is probably twice as long as it should be - the day is saved and then lost about three or four times each - and the oddness of it is just so overwhelming that it distracts from the writing talents of Powers. At one point, someone is bitten, turns into a vampire, drowns himself, and then is saved by the ghosts of several cats. WHAT?! I've read a lot of strange books, given my proclivity towards science fiction, but this one takes the cake. It's too much, and too long, and does no justice to its author. What a shame.

Aug 22, 2012

Trickster's Queen, by Tamora Pierce

I periodically like to return to my favorite young adult fantasy author, Tamora Pierce, and it is always such a great pleasure. This is the sequel to "Trickster's Choice," a novel about Aly, the daughter of Pierce's first wonderful protagonist, Alanna of Trebond. Aly is just like her father, one of Tortall's spymasters, and she uses her skills and knowledge to great effect in the Kyprish Isles, trying to win back the country for the native raka and their cunning god, the Trickster. The plot is great fun and fast-moving, the characters are wonderful to follow, and Pierce's writing is, as usual, light, funny, and moving. I never tire of reading and rereading her books, and I hope she never stops writing them.

Aug 18, 2012

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

I have heard nothing but great things about this book, and I was not disappointed. A beautifully surrealistic novel, "The Night Circus" is about two magicians trapped in a competition that takes place inside the venue of a traveling nighttime circus. The chapters go back and forth in time, so we have a good sense of tension and foreboding throughout the book, without it becoming annoying or unbearable. The characters are subtle and lively, and Morgenstern's writing is original and lovely. I don't want to say too much about the plot because it is best discovered for oneself, and it is well worth discovering. What is even more impressive is that this is Morgenstern's first book, though it seems much more polished than many first attempts are, and I greatly look forward to reading her work in the future.

Aug 12, 2012

A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

Major kudos to Tom King for trying out something completely different; I'm just not convinced it worked. "A Once Crowded Sky" is essentially a meta-comic book. Stories within stories within stories, the novel is part gruesome action movie, part philosophical tract. It was clearly written by a man who love comic books, and who maybe is a little too smart for his own good. The topic is undoubtedly fascinating: what do comic books - with their unrealistic protagonists and simplistic depictions of good vs. evil - tell us about ourselves? King could have gone one of two ways with this: novelization and subtle discovery, or philosophical discussion. Instead, he does both, and the result is a bit of a mish-mash. Readers interested in the moral and religious implications of comic book worship will be put off by the action parts, which often last for pages; and readers wanting simply another comic book in novel form will be bored by the philosophical ramblings. What started as a fantastic idea with a great deal of imagination behind it becomes instead a lengthy exercise in determination.

Like I said, though, I appreciate King's effort to create something new. So many books seem to be endless reiterations on the same themes with the same language and the same plot. "A Once Crowded Sky" is anything but, and as such it's a welcome addition to modern science fiction. I just think it could have used a more heavy-handed editor to help steer King in one direction or another in order to create a more coherent finished work.

Aug 7, 2012

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, by Ben Loory

Many people don't like short stories, but I have always had a particular fondness for them. I believe that it takes an incredible amount of skill to craft a really good short story, not necessarily any more so than with a full-length novel, but certainly of an entirely different breed. A successful short story will often leave you breathless, as it can pack an emotional wallop that novels sometimes lack. A good short story can lay bare a writer's soul in a way that longer books sometimes cannot, because their core is wrapped in layers of plot and nuance.

Ben Loory's stories are more fables and fairy tales than anything else, and they are incredibly powerful. Absurd and surreal, they all point to our intrinsic nature and the vicissitudes of humanity. Chief among his motifs is the person who becomes utterly enthralled or wrapped up in one single thing - an idea, person, object - that it consumes them; it is only when that thing is gone, either taken or destroyed or set free, that the person realizes s/he has been missing out on the loveliness of real life. This shows how we can become so wrapped up in our own dramas that we forget to enjoy life for what it is, and sometimes when we realize that, it is too late.

These are not easy stories to read, tiny though they are, and that's what makes them such brilliant gems.

Aug 2, 2012

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

And the deaths just keep on coming...Martin's third installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series (one can almost call it an omnibus at this point) delivers more of what readers have come to expect from him. There are still plenty of terrible people doing horrible things to good people, but in this book, at least some of the latter get to take vengeance out upon the former. Arya, Jon, and Tyrion remain the most captivating characters, and there are some deaths that are truly surprising. Martin's writing remains fluid and engaging, though I am starting to tire of his incredibly detailed descriptions, something many readers have come to lovingly mock. As lengthy as these books are, they are rarely ponderous and never boring, and I look forward to continuing the series.