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30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Four

Day 24 – Best quote from a novel
Aral Vorkosigan’s advice to Miles in A Civil Campaign. It’s a whole scene, not just a quote, but I think I can extract the essence of it with judicious ellipses.

“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. … There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That’s soul-destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating.”

Miles stared away for a minute into the middle distance. “So what you’re telling me boils down to the same thing Galeni said. I have to stand here and eat this, and smile.”

“No,” said his father, “you don’t have to smile. But if you’re really asking for advice from my accumulated experience, I’m saying, Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.”

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of attitude. For one thing, it allows you to tell the difference between embarrassment or shame that really matters and the kind that’s just uncomfortable. And it does so while acknowledging that the uncomfortable parts are not good — they’re just less not good than the other kind. I would like to be as wise as Aral Vorkosigan some day. Then again, I would hate to go through everything he did in order to get there…

(The joy of ebooks: I was able to search, copy & paste that in less than two minutes. Okay, they do have their benefits. But I’m buying the hardcovers, anyway.)

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A Book of Tongues, The Broken Kingdoms, Atlantic, Misery

Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues
I grabbed this book after just glancing through it at the public library’s new book shelf, and now I’m buying a copy and preordering the sequel. This is awesome, guys. Supernatural Old West, magic-wielding Confederate ex-Reverends, and a heavy dose of Mayan mythology to top it off. Also, gay characters who are a) main characters, b) not demonized (for being gay, anyway), and c) likely to survive to the end of the series and possibly even get a happy ending. Obviously it’s a trilogy and that last one is far from certain, but I’m thrilled at just the possibility right now.

N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms
The sequel to the excellent Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of last year, and you know, I think I liked this one even better. It seems to hang together better; the book feels a little more solid. I’d have to reread the first one to explain exactly why. (Oh the horror! *dramatic hand to forehead*) It seems, interestingly enough, that the main recurring characters in this series are the gods, not the mortals, but the POV characters in both books so far are the mortal women they deal with. I like that a lot, actually.

Simon Winchester, Atlantic
Finally, I have finished this book! This was another ARC I picked up at ALA in June, and I have been trying to get through it for months. It purports to be a history of the Atlantic ocean, but for large portions of the book it seems much more to be an excuse for the author to show off his superior knowledge of history and his extraordinarily exciting life as an investigative journalist. I was somewhat offended to find that the latter sections, while unbelievably pretentious, were also the most interesting parts of the book. Maybe he should have just written a memoir instead.

Stephen King, Misery
When did Stephen King stop being this good? No, really. I picked this up again after reading Learn Writing With Uncle Jim, where Jim MacDonald recommends it as a novel about how to write a book. And not only does it work on that level – spectacularly well, particularly the scene where Annie makes Paul burn his Serious Manuscript – but it’s also frequently tense, disturbing, and downright scary. I haven’t felt that way about any of the newer Stephen King books at all.

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.

Book of the Month: The Unicorn Evils by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull

I looked through the books I’d read last month, and it turns out that this was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s not a traditional book, you won’t find it in a library or a bookstore (at least not yet), but it is the latest installment in one of my favorite new series.

Followers of fantasy & speculative fiction should know Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull already. Bull basically invented the genre of urban fantasy with her 1987 War for the Oaks, and Bear has been churning out revolutionary work for the past several years. (Her latest, Chill, is finally out!) Together they are two of the co-creators of Shadow Unit, a free online fiction project that combines an interesting new use of social media for storytelling and some really, really good writing.

Shadow Unit ScreenshotShadow Unit is a little hard to describe, although it makes plenty of sense if you just dive in. (Start with the Getting Started page — the homepage lists the most recent works first.) It’s kind of like a fake TV show: each large installment is an “episode,” and there are deleted scenes posted as “DVD Extras” in between episodes (and sometimes as hidden links within them). At the same time, some of the characters maintain personal blogs on LiveJournal — but the LiveJournals are contemporary with the current date, while the episodes are often dated a year or more in the past, so although the characters don’t discuss plot points explicitly before they happen, these things will influence their conversations (and give readers plenty of hints to drive themselves crazy with while waiting for a new episode).

The Unicorn Evils is one of several novel-length episodes of Shadow Unit, the premiere of the third season, and a stellar example of serial storytelling done well. Over the previous dozen episodes and hundreds of LiveJournal posts we’ve grown attached to these characters, come to know them and feel for their problems, and now they’re beginning to take it all apart. (Both Bear and Bull tend to be horrible to their favorite characters, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of their other work; Shadow Unit is no different.) This isn’t an episode to start with, but it is one to look forward to. While Shadow Unit is a crime procedural (in the spirit of Criminal Minds rather than CSI), and there’s a great deal of grotesque fun in cataloging serial killers, the real heart of the project is the characters. Oh, it’s a terrible cliche to say it, but it’s true — I could care less about the plot of the next episode (I know it’ll be good), but I want to know if Reyes and Chaz are getting along this week, how Sol is taking retirement, how much Daphne’s improved at taking herself seriously in the field.

I know it’s hard for libraries to collect digital works: they don’t go through the same kind of quality control process that print does, and they’re not listed in catalogs or purchasing orders. If a library wanted to start collecting online fiction though, or was just interested in more intense, thoughtful speculative fiction with plenty of racially, sexually and gender-diverse characters, written by award-winning authors, they could do a lot worse than by starting with Shadow Unit.

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