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Hot Off the Press: Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleWhere I got it and why: From the library, as soon as I heard it was out. I love China Miéville.

Recommended? Absolutely. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Kraken – I adored Kraken – but like any good Miéville book, this positively blows the top off your head.

Summary: Avice Brenner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a small settlement tucked in the corner of a large alien city, out on the edge of known space. The aliens – the Hosts – can speak no lies, and know no symbolic language: everything they say must be true. When she was a girl, she was made into a simile, so that the Hosts could talk about things that are like the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. Then she became an immerser, a sailor of that vast unknown that allows travel between distant worlds. When she married a linguist, she went back home to Embassytown.

Now that she’s an immerser, she’s a person of some little importance. She makes friends with the Ambassadors, the only people who can speak with the Hosts. But when their colony’s home world sends out a new kind of Ambassador…well, they had no idea how badly it could go.

Review: Well, China Miéville’s done it again, yet another ridiculously original, mindbending book about the possibilities inherent in the things we use every day. This time it’s language: words and similes and metaphors, communication and understanding. And, ultimately, fiction, that miraculous act of telling truth with lies.

Embassytown reminded me much more of the Bas-Lag books than the newer this-world Kraken or The City & The City. Perhaps it’s just that it’s set on an alien world, with fantastical alien creatures, but I think it’s also that Embassytown is a little more allegorical than Miéville has been lately. This is not a criticism, by the way; it’s definitely not one of those annoying allegories that makes you roll your eyes and wonder what the point of all that was. No, this is more subtle, with lots of twisty turns and plenty of opportunities for alternative interpretations. But it’s hard not to start drawing parallels when you’ve got a story about a war started by political maneuvering by people who clearly had no idea at all about the situation on the ground.

There’s a time jump in the middle of the book that really threw me off, a section that skims over some fairly important events, but aside from that the pacing is excellent, with a nice long introduction to get you accustomed to the world and its people before it starts throwing things at your head. I found that the balance of exposition was just right – the narrative will go along cheerfully without you, letting you scramble to keep up with new characters and ideas, and just when you start to feel overloaded, there’s a chapter’s worth of explanation. This makes the first few chapters kind of tough going, but hold on, it will all make sense soon.

By the end of the book, I was reminded of a comment Jo Walton made on her reviews of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, that they were like Tolkein in that very few people will create a fantasy universe only to destroy the unique magic in it. Embassytown does something of the same thing, although in a very different way, and with very little patience for the melancholy that goes along with the way Tolkein does such things. The world changes in Embassytown, permanently and certainly, and no one really knows whether or not that’s a good thing. It is simply a thing that is.

Embassytown by China Miéville was published on May 17, 2011 by Del Ray. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

Saturday Shorts: “The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold

In addition to loving books – and you know I do – I also love me a good short story. Short stories, especially in science fiction and fantasy, seem to be where some of the most innovative, interesting stuff comes from. They’re also a great way to find out about new and upcoming authors, or to try out an author you’re not familiar with to see if you want to invest your time in their novels. Lucky for me, and for you, there are huge numbers of really excellent short stories being published for free online, and I’ve decided to run a weekly feature, Saturday Shorts, highlighting some of the short fiction I’ve found.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster BujoldFor my first Saturday Short, I’ll be highlighting Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Mountains of Mourning,” available from the Baen Free Library. I had a sudden desire to read some Miles last week, and since I had too many other books going to start a reread of the whole series, I turned to this novella.

If you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and would like to see what all the fuss is about (books in the series have won four Hugo awards), “The Mountains of Mourning” is a great place to start. Although the content of the plot is not very much like the rest of the series, in many ways this story represents the emotional core of the books.

Ensign Miles Vorkosigan has just graduated – improbably – from the Imperial Military Academy. Born with severe physical deformities in a world so scarred by nuclear attack that physical perfection is idolized and “mutie” is the worst insult that can be thrown at someone, young Miles was nonetheless determined to carry on his family’s tradition of military service to the empire, and prove to his judgmental (and deceased) grandfather that he could take his place as one of the Vor military caste. (Not to mention he has to stand up somehow to his father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most powerful and respected men on the planet.)

Miles is taking his home leave with his parents at their country estate before heading back to the city for his first assignment when a woman comes down from the impoverished hill country, demanding her legal right to present her case before the Count. Her husband has murdered her baby girl, she says, because the baby was a mutie. No one in her village will listen to her, but she has a right to take her grievance before her Count. She wants justice for little Raina. Count Vorkosigan agrees – and he sends Miles to be his representative, to determine what happened to baby Raina, and to mete out justice as necessary.

This is a story about justice and family, about tradition and modernity, about truth and perception. Mostly, it’s a story about responsibility, bearing it and choosing it and refusing to ignore it. Miles is a wonderful character, and more than that, a wonderful person, and this is a great way to get to know him.

New to Me: Review of Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell

Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)

Where I got it and why: as a free audiobook from podiobooks.com. You can get it too! My dad has been recommending this series to me for a while, so when I finally got sick of listening to the radio on my half-hour daily commute, I loaded this onto my mp3 player. I’m glad I did.

Recommended? Sure, especially if you like character-driven narratives.

Review: Sometimes you just need a book where the fate of the world isn’t at stake, where people are not exceptional superheroes, where you can just kick back and hang out with some fun characters. This is that book.

Ishmael Wang’s life has been turned upside-down: his mother has just been killed in an accident, and since she was a company employee on a company planet, he now has thirty days to either become a company employee or vacate his company apartment. There are no company jobs available, so good luck! At a loss for what else to do, he heads down to the union hall and signs on for a quarter-share berth on one of the big solar freighters, and his new life begins.

Quarter Share is the story of Ishmael getting settled in to his new life on the Lois McKendrick, a solar clipper moving goods from one planetary system to another. He’s assigned a berth in the galley, and quickly makes friends with Cookie the chef and Pip Carstairs, the other quarter-share in the galley. (Berths are rated by the share of the profits they take: the lowest rank is quarter-share, up through half-share to full-share and then into officer country.)

This is an incredibly laid-back entry into the Hornblower In Space genre. Really, it’s not very like Hornblower at all – although it’s clearly derived from that kind of series, these are traders and merchants, not battleships. The plot revolves around the development of Ishmael and Pip’s trading ventures, and the most external conflict you get is a mugging and a bar fight, neither on screen.

It’s not boring, though. Ishmael, Pip, and Cookie are fun (if somewhat unbelievably good-natured: no one ever gets cross or impatient with one another), and there’s a fine cast of secondary characters that grows throughout the book. As a narrative, the book has some of the flaws of the serial format it was released in, with people being properly introduced much later than you might expect them to be and a fairly clumsy handling of foreshadowing, but it’s not too bad.

While Quarter Share and the sequel Half Share are now being released in print, I think I’d still prefer them as audiobooks. The author reads it himself, and he has a wonderful reading voice, very soothing and well-matched to the style of the narrative. Cookie’s accent changes dramatically about halfway through, which is a little disconcerting, but overall he does a great job with the variety of characters.

Overall I really enjoyed this slice-of-life story of life on board a solar clipper, full of appealing characters and actually very accessible discussions of profits and trading. There are six books in the series, and I already have Half Share loaded up and ready to go. If you’re interested in checking them out, the author has a website for the series, with all the books available for free download, at SolarClipper.com.

White Coat, Black Hat; The Little Sister; Among Others; The Nine Tailors

Carl Elliott, White Coat, Black Hat
Another medical industry expose. I appear to be addicted to them. This book is primarily focused not on any particular travesty – although he is fond of blaming Big Pharma for most of the problems with contemporary medicine – but on the overall shape of modern medicine, with all its capitalism and competition, as a problem itself. As Elliott points out, science is based on trust; scientific discoveries have to be shared in order to make new discoveries rather than wasting your time making the same discovery someone else already has. But with the profit-driven pharmaceutical and medical industries, sharing means losing your patent and your profit margin. It’s just not a good way to run a system that’s supposed to be saving people’s lives.

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
I like the beginning and the end of this book, but the middle leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are a couple of scenes where Marlowe has these…confrontations with women he’s trying to help, where the overwhelming sense of the scene is “why won’t these bitches be appropriately grateful?” Appropriately is the key word there; it isn’t that he wants to sleep with them (I still think Marlowe is gay) but that they’re throwing themselves at him and he’s repulsed. It’s a nasty kind of misogyny, and I don’t like it. The end, though, is classic Chandler and extremely satisfying, particularly in the way that Marlowe clearly doesn’t quite understand what’s going on here.

Jo Walton, Among Others
The library copy I got was shelved in the general fiction rather than the science fiction section. I cannot for the life of me imagine why, because I’m not sure I see the point of reading this book unless you’re at least a little familiar with science fiction and fandom. Also, there are fairies. Not metaphorical ones, real ones, that are arbitrary and helpful and thoughtlessly cruel. Wonderful fairies. If you are at all fond of fairies, or science fiction, or Wales: Go. Read. Now.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors
Well, I was on a detective novel kick, and I hadn’t read any Lord Peter yet, and anyway it was this or Poirot at the Cross Plains library. Also Mor was talking about Peter and Harriet in Among Others. No Harriet in this one, but I am now thoroughly fond of Lord Peter and shall be seeking out the rest of the series as quickly as possible. (Omnibus edition is on its way as we speak!)

Religious Literacy; Miles, Microbes and Mayhem; Cryoburn; Strange and Secret Peoples

Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy
Prothero’s basic argument is that Americans, although they profess to be extremely religious, actually know very little about religions — their own or anyone else’s — and that this is an extraordinarily dangerous way to walk around in the world and pretend you know something about what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t argue with him on any of those points, but the book annoyed me a little anyway. He opens with a history of how Americans stopped learning about religion, and in doing so he presents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a kind of golden age of religious literacy, mentioning only once that the religious literacy in question was a specifically Protestant literacy involving no knowledge at all of even Judaism or Islam, and a pretty warped knowledge of Catholicism. (And when he does offer this caveat, he gives it only a clause — not even a full sentence, never mind a paragraph.) I was a little bit filled with rage when he mentioned that “even blacks and Native Americans” were learning their Bible, with nary a mention of the fact that both African slaves and Native Americans had their own damn religions before they were forced to learn the Bible instead.

I’m not sure about his proposed solutions, either — that all high school students should have a mandatory religious literacy course and an elective Bible studies course, and that all college students should fulfil a religious studies requirement before graduation. At the college level, that’s fine, but I don’t have any faith that high school religious studies classes would be worth the time spent in them, or that Bible studies classes would be at all nonsectarian. (I do not speak wholly in a vaccum; I grew up in a pretty religious area, and when I took a religious studies class in high school, we spent two class periods dealing with students who didn’t believe in the Council of Nicea.) I wholly applaud his basic principle — we need to stop pretending that all religions are somehow the same, and learn about what makes them different — but I’m not sure American culture is ready for that at the high school level. But there will be more on that subject when I finish his other book, God is Not One, which I have from the library right now.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Microbes and Mayhem
Including Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity. Well, and Labyrinth, but that’s been in two anthologies already, I just ignored it. I’ve been reading these books in chronological order for the most part, but Falling Free is an exception, set a full hundred years or more before the beginning of the main series. It details the origin of the quaddies, genetically engineered humans with four arms instead of the usual two arms/two legs arrangement, designed to live and work in zero-gee environments, who have suddenly been made obsolete by the development of artificial gravity. The corporation that developed them — that owns them — wants to just get rid of them somehow, but Leo Graff, an engineer hired to teach the quaddies the trade, and a handful of the quaddies band together in a truly epic escape attempt which eventually (this is not a spoiler if you’ve read any Vorkosiverse books at all) results in the founding of Quaddiespace, a network of zero-gee space stations inhabited almost entirely by quaddies. Diplomatic Immunity takes place in Quaddiespace, hence the logic of putting the two books together, and features Miles’s old friend Bel Thorne, a former Dendarii Mercenary; the politically incorrect shenanigans of the Barryaran military; a quaddie ballet based on the romance of Leo Graf and Silver; and the kind of elaborate genetic treason that could only be committed by a Cetagandan. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the early Naismith books, considering that it’s also the book where Miles’s first children are born. Maybe it’s a last hurrah for the little admiral? (Or Miles is just terminally immature. Also possible.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
And now I am caught up! Huzzah. This was a fairly lightweight book, as the Vorkosigan series goes — more on the level of Cetaganda than Memory, but delightful for all that. (Except for the last three words. Oh god, the last three words.) In addition to Miles’s point of view, we get the POV of Jin, a street kid on Kibou-daini, where Miles has been sent to poke at the local economy and figure out what kind of game they’re trying to pull. You see, on Kibou-daini, when people are close to death, rather than just dying they’re cryo-frozen for a length of time, until someone comes up with a cure for whatever they have or their contract runs out, whichever comes first, and White Chrysalis, one of the major cryocorps on Kibou-daini, wants to expand into the Barryaran Empire. There’s a lot of poking around, and political protestors, and shady corporate dealings, but Miles doesn’t really have a lot at stake for most of the book. Until those last three words. Oh my god, those last three words. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried.

Rumor has it that the next one is an Ivan book. (More than rumor, really, since there are a couple of scenes that Bujold has been doing readings of floating around the interwebs.) I cannot wait.

Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples
This was one of those delightful coincidences — just as I was thinking about starting to work again on that faerie novel I had begun a couple of years ago, someone recommended this book in a blog I read. It’s a history of Victorian attitudes toward and uses of fairies in literature, folklore, and analysis, and it was enthralling. Fairies were a big part of what was basically Victorian pop culture, and Silver cites examples in everything from folklorists’ writings (which were also pretty big at the time) to Dickens to Blake. Plus there were a lot of references to the works of the Romantics which the Victorians were riffing off of, which will be wonderful for my novel.

Borders of Infinity, Miles Errant, Memory, No Plot? No Problem!, The Leper of Saint Giles, Miles in Love

At last, the final list of books from 2010. And a happy new year to you all! May 2011 be an improvement in all ways.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Borders of Infinity
Three novellas in the Vorkosiverse, “Labyrinth,” “The Mountains of Mourning,” (both of which I read in their earlier omnibus volumes) and the titular “Borders of Infinity,” in which Miles really does start out with not so much as the clothes on his back and end up performing the most dramatic prison break in history. All with the frame story I always love, the “you’re running drastically over budget, what the hell” complaint. What, someone has to foot the bill for all these shenanigans.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant
MARK! Er, I may be very fond of the new character introduced in this set, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (with “Borders of Infinity” again). Basically, a crazy Komarran terrorist made a clone of Miles to use to assassinate his father. But remember, Miles is somewhat physically deformed due to a prenatal assassination attempt, so in order to make them interchangeable, Mark had to undergo a whole lot of fairly unnecessary surgery. While being lectured on all of Miles’s amazing achievements. Talk about sibling rivalry. Mirror Dance is basically the book in which Mark becomes a human being, and I love it deeply, as strange and traumatizing as it is. I may have read most of it at work simply because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for eight hours at a time. *shifty eyes*

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
Now this is a work of staggering genius. I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious — or maybe I’m just more paranoid than Miles — but I adored the character development in this book. It’s Simon Illyan’s book, really; he’s been lurking in the background since the beginning of the series, but here he becomes a person. A fragile, failing person in a lot of pain. The general consensus online is that the most tragic line in the book is, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” And I might have to agree.

Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
And then in the middle of all this I read the NaNoWriMo book. Yes, in December. It was checked out of the library all through November. I actually came out of this liking the whole concept of NaNoWriMo much more than I did by the end of November, when I’d barely scratched 35,000 words and had completely lost the thread of my novel. The book is very big on finishing something by the end of the month, where I had just set my goal as having the word count. I think next time I’ll shoot for actually finishing the story in a month, even if that means having to write whole chapters in two-sentence paragraphs. (After all, the original point of NaNo is to become a Novelist, so you can go to swanky parties and impress people by talking about your manuscript.)

Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles
It took me forever to get through this Cadfael, what with all the Miles books I also had to get through. This is one of the ones, too, where I’d seen the adaptation, which was very true to the book, so there were no real surprises. I enjoyed it, even though it was a little boring what with knowing everything that was going to happen. More Cadfael on request from the library as we speak.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love
Komarr and A Civil Campaign. I actually liked Komarr much better, possibly because I really like Ekaterin and enjoyed spending all that time in her PoV. One of the things that actually got me to read this series was the commenters at Making Light talking about how awful and awkward the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign is to read, so I was expecting it to be horrible, but I found I actually enjoyed it. I usually don’t like embarrassment comedy, but I apparently have an exception for when the person being embarrassed really, really deserves it. And hey, at least Miles learns from his mistakes. Eventually.

Cordelia’s Honor, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Young Miles, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor
This is actually two books as an omnibus, those being Shards of Honor and Barrayar. (I am reading in chronological order, yes.) Really, though, they don’t seem like separate books at all, and according to the afterward, they almost weren’t. I love Cordelia; she’s a wonderful character, strong in her own right without being military, willing to go to unbelievable lengths for things she really cares about (like the life of her unborn son), and completely divorced from the politics of the society in which she finds herself living. Also, I grew so attached to Kou in his brief appearance in Shards that I absolutely cheered out loud when he showed up again in Barrayar.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin J. O’Neal
Yes, I bought this when it came out and it took me this long to finish it. I got bogged down in the beat poetry section (which was pretty terrible, and I say this as someone who actually enjoyed large portions of On the Road). You know, sometimes Alan Moore is brilliant, and sometimes he’s insane, and I suspect that this book is just exactly the wrong combination of the two. It feels like it’s trying to be much more important than it is. And it’s much less fun than the first two.

Anyway, back to Miles —

Lois McMaster Bujold, Young Miles
Being an omnibus of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the short story “Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game. This is where we’re introduced to the main character of the series, Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan’s son Miles. (Elli Quinn says to Ethan in a later book, “Look for a big pile of trouble with a squiggly-minded little man on top.” That’s a remarkably good description of Miles.) Warrior’s Apprentice is, of course, named after the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it shows. It’s an insane amount of fun, one accident piling on top of another one, until Miles has accidentally acquired a mercenary navy. And then, in Vor, he acquires them all over again. And in the middle, in “Mountains of Mourning,” he’s back at home on his family’s land, working out the small (and yet simultaneously not-so-small) problems of a small hill village. I recommend the omnibus for this order as much as anything; it carries a wonderful impact.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem
Being a compendium of Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, and the short story “Labyrinth” (which I’m actually still reading as part of Borders of Infinity, shh). I adored Cetaganda for the old-fashioned sci-fi worldbuilding and the amazing political structure where women seem to have no power and yet also manage to control the empire, and also for Ivan. I’m becoming very fond of poor Ivan Vorpatril, prettier than Miles bot not as brilliant, and he knows it. Ethan is also spectacular for the worldbuilding, and I think the plot is stronger too, and boy is that laying some interesting ground for what’s going to happen in this universe in forty or fifty years. Athos is a planet without women — it’s clearly been founded on misogynistic principles, but it’s hard to call any of the men who live there misogynistic, because they have absolutely no experience with women whatsoever. I found it interesting that while the planet was founded in order to help men escape from the evils of women, in the wider universe it’s known (if it’s known at all) as Planet of the Gay, and Ethan gets beaten up over it.

One of the things I like about the Vorkosigan saga all together is it’s clearly very interested in the power and position of women in a society. There are no women at all on Athos, but there are donated ovarian cultures; on in the Cetagandan empire the highest-class women travel in opaque bubbles so they can never be seen, and are genetically engineered (by their own hands) for supreme beauty. On Barrayar women have very little power, but on Beta Colony they’re quite egalitarian (and Betan Cordelia is astounded when the Barrayan Emperor entrusts her with the education of his grandson and simultaneously tells her she’ll have no power; clearly she cannot believe that educating the future Emperor is a powerless position). Women serve in the Dendarii Mercenaries the same as men do (as well as one hermaphrodite). Miles has a tendency to want to be the Hero, rescuing the Damsel in Distress, but he’s very good at acknowledging when the Damsel no longer needs to be rescued. It’s not something I’m used to in science fiction, and I love it deeply.

30 Days of Books: Day Eleven

(This post-every-other-day thing is working for me so much better than the post-every-day thing. Live and learn, I suppose.)

Day 11 – A book that disappointed you

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis. I read this in a SF book club at our public library in high school, and I really did want to like it. I loved Narnia, I loved science fiction, surely science fiction by C. S. Lewis would be wonderful! Not so much. I can’t actually remember anything about the book at this point, except that it was boring.

I read That Hideous Strength later, in a college literature class about modern mythologies. I still didn’t like it, but at least this time I remember why: there’s just too much allegory. The character who stands in for the combination of Jesus and King Arthur is flat-out annoying, and there’s so much Meaning packed into it at times that it’s hard to get at the story. I should have enjoyed the embodiments of the planets, who basically functioned in the story as minor deities, but with all the explicitly Christian allegory that annoyed me too.

Alas, not all books are for everyone. If anyone can present me with a compelling reason to go back and read the whole trilogy, I might give it a try, but it would never be high on my priority list.

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