review: Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the kingdom of Raine, an abandoned baby is found and raised by the Royal Librarians of Raine. One day the girl, Nepenthe, is given a mysterious book written in a language with an alphabet of letters shaped like thorns. It turns out to be an epic poem documenting the conquests of the emperor Axis and his sorcerer Kane, “the Hooded One,” three thousand years earlier. The young queen of Raine and her mage Vevay also come into the story.

I reread this for the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club here on GoodReads and I don’t quite know what to say about it. The Axis & Kane story was much more compelling than most of the Nepenthe story. And there are too many points of view in the latter; the female characters were consistently more interesting and maybe McKillip should have kept the focus on them. And the ending seemed a bit rushed. If you have not read McKillip before I would recommend The Forgotten Beasts of Eld instead.

Some bits I liked:
“She could not see the sky, only green and shadow woven thickly above her, yielding not a scrap of blue. She breathed soundlessly. So did the wood around her, she felt; it seemed a live thing, alert and watching her, trees trailing wisps of morning mist, their faces hidden, their thoughts seeping into the air like scent. It was, she thought, like being surrounded by unspoken words.”

“Epics are never written about libraries. They exist on whim; it depends on whether the conquering army likes to read.”

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Minireviews: The Drawing of the Dark/Haroun & the Sea of Stories/Hyperion/The Einstein Intersection

This is a repost from 8/26/20 since it somehow got eaten when I transferred to WordPress

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers *** 3 stars

This is one of Tim Powers’s early novels and the first of his secret histories: several books with the shared premise that something supernatural is going on behind the scenes of history as we know it. It is set before and during the 1529 Siege of Vienna. Irishman Brian Duffy is working as a “bouncer” at an inn there when the siege begins. The first few chapters really drew me in, but the middle drags a bit (it is much shorter than Declare but doesn’t feel like it) and the book as a whole didn’t really come together for me. I might give The Anubis Gates another try (I didn’t finish that one) and I want to try The Stress of Her Regard at some point. I was much more impressed with Declare (my review).

 Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie *** 3 stars
A reread of a book I first read in 2012. I probably won’t read it a third time but it was fun to revisit this. Haroun & the sea of stories begins in the country of Alifbay in a city ”so ruinously sad that it has forgotten its name.” Haroun is the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, and one day his father gets up in front of a huge audience, opens his mouth, and finds that he has run out of stories to tell. Harun sets out to fix that and discovers that the source of all stories is endangered by the villain Khattam-Shud, the Arch-Enemy of All Stories. 

Hyperion by Dan Simmons *** 3 stars

A Hugo Award Winner (1990) about six people on a journey to the planet Hyperion. In the style of the Canterbury Tales, each character tells a story explaining why they are going to Hyperion. I liked the scholar and the poet best I think. And maybe the detective. The soldier’s tale is the only one that didn’t really do much for me. The book has frequent allusions to John Keats, including the poem Hyperion, which is based on the lost epic poem the Titanomachy, which is about the struggle of the Olympian gods to overthrow their predecessors the Titans. That gave me a hint about some of the things that happen in the book. I don’t like it enough to read the sequel right away but I will probably try it at some point.People disagree about whether to stick with the first book, stop after the second book or read the whole series. 

I think I liked the other Delany books I have read better (Babel-17 and The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star).
Here is what Neil Gaiman said about it in The Sandman Companion:“My original plan [for The Song of Orpheus] was to do the equivalent of a series of jazz riffs, all on Orphic themes, spinning off of stories precisely like The Einstein Intersection. It would have been much weirder and more interesting than what I ended up writing.” He says he kept hearing that people weren’t familiar with the original story, so the story he wrote for Sandman was a more literal retelling.
Huh. Now that I’ve read The Einstein Intersection I can say that knowing the Orpheus story ahead of time (I finally read Metamorphoses in its entirety last year) didn’t help. I will probably read something else by Delany someday (maybe Tales of Nevèrÿon but I am not a huge fan of his so far.
I listened to the audiobook read by Stefan Rudnicki from the library service hoopla digital. This book won the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2014)

A man visits his childhood home after many years away. His old house is gone but the farm at the end of the road is still there along with its pond. He remembers an eleven year old girl named Lettie Hempstock who lived there, and who had claimed that the pond behind her house was an ocean. He met her when he was seven years old and had since forgotten how they met and what happened when a sinister woman named Ursula Monkton came to look after him and his sister while their parents were away. Everything he has forgotten starts to come back to him.

I listened to the audio this time (read by the author) and really loved the narration. I ended up listening to it twice. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

“Nothing’s ever the same,” she said. “Be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

“Peas baffled me. I could not understand why grown-ups would take things that tasted so good raw, and then put them in tins, and make them revolting.”

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Review: Four Weird Tales

Four Weird Tales Four Weird Tales by Algernon Blackwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Algernon Blackwood (14 March 1869 – 10 December 1951) was an English novelist and short-story writer best known for his stories of the supernatural. Many of his stories are in the public domain and online. I have previously read The Willows and The Man Whom the Trees Loved (online and as Librivox audio recordings). This is another Librivox recording:… I started the collection John Silence but decided not to finish it at least for now; maybe I will try it some other time.) The readers are pretty much professional quality and I highly recommend it. All four stories are variations on a theme: the protagonist sets out to discover the secrets of the universe.

The Insanity of Jones — A man seeks revenge for injustices suffered in a past life. Or maybe he’s just crazy; take your pick.

The Glamour of the Snow — My favorite! A fine ghost story. Like The Willows this story deals with the terror and awe of the natural world. one of my favorite bits:
The world lay smothered in snow. The châlet roofs shone white beneath the moon, and pitch-black shadows gathered against the walls of the church. His eye rested a moment on the square stone tower with its frosted cross that pointed to the sky: then travelled with a leap of many thousand feet to the enormous mountains that brushed the brilliant stars. Like a forest rose the huge peaks above the slumbering village, measuring the night and heavens. They beckoned him. And something born of the snowy desolation, born of the midnight and the silent grandeur, born of the great listening hollows of the night, something that lay ‘twixt terror and wonder, dropped from the vast wintry spaces down into his heart—and called him. Very softly, unrecorded in any word or thought his brain could compass, it laid its spell upon him. Fingers of snow brushed the surface of his heart. The power and quiet majesty of the winter’s night appalled him…

The Man Who Found Out — A man discovers the secrets of the universe and then wishes he hadn’t. This one fell a bit flat for me. But there’s a good post about it as part of The Lovecraft Reread, a project at about HP Lovecraft, writers (like Blackwood) who inspired him, and writers who were inspired by him.…

Sand — The protagonist travels to Egypt and joins two other travelers exploring the desert. This is the longest story in the collection. I liked the beginning, but I think this one is a bit too long and slow. It drags a bit.

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Review: The Stone Sky (reread from 2018)

The Stone Sky The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**reread 9/5/2020** Hmm. . . I thought I would have more to say about this conclusion to the trilogy when I reread the series. It was definitely worth rereading, and The Stone Sky certainly makes up for my slight disappointment with The Obelisk Gate. But contrary to what I was hoping for when I started this reread (June), I don’t have much to add. I was more emotionally invested this time because keeping track of the plot didn’t take up so much of my attention, so that was satisfying.

Here are some of the highlights:
“Say nothing to me of innocent bystanders, unearned suffering, heartless vengeance. When a comm builds atop a fault line, do you blame its walls when they inevitably crush the people inside? No; you blame whoever was stupid enough to think they could defy the laws of nature forever. Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”

“What he offers, and what she has finally realized she needs, is purpose. Not even Schaffa has given her that, but that’s because Schaffa loves her unconditionally. She needs that love, too, oh how she needs it, but in this moment, when her heart has been most thoroughly broken, when her thoughts are at their least focused, she craves something more… solid.

She will have the solidity that she wants. She will fight for it and kill for it, because she’s had to do that again and again and it is habit now, and if she is successful she will die for it. After all, she is her mother’s daughter—and only people who think they have a future fear death.”

“There isn’t a single evil to point to, a single moment when everything changed. Things were bad and then terrible and then better and then bad again, and then they happened again, and again, because no one stopped it.”

“But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them – even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.”

**review 9/19/2018** I suspect these books would benefit from rereading. It would be interesting to read them again knowing what’s going on and how things resolve, but at the same time I don’t know if I loved these books quite enough to want to reread them. Now that I’ve finished the trilogy I think The Fifth Season is probably the best of the three. There’s just a lot going on in these books, and the first book is the one that does the best job of balancing the focus on the characters with other aspects of the story, I think. In the other two I felt less connected to the characters, but I still definitely recommend reading the whole thing. I don’t read very many series, but this barely feels like a series to me because the books are so closely connected.

So I’m left a tiny bit unsatisfied, but still — as someone who rarely reads epic fantasy (or post apocalyptic sf — and these books are a little of both) I am very impressed. I haven’t read anything else quite like this.

I’m having a hard time writing a real review for this one, but here are some longer reviews that I thought were insightful.… (a very good discussion with only minor spoilers)… (major spoilers, don’t read if you haven’t read the book)

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15 Books of Summer update


I read: 

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller 

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner I may not get around to reviewing these sorry 

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (reread) review

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell  finished this in August still need to review it

The Lais of Marie de France review

The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin (reread) review

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie review

Hyperion by Dan Simmons review

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers review

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (reread) I’m not sure if I will review this one but it will get a review eventually – maybe next time I read it

Bartleby the Scrivener  by Herman Melville – I still need to review this

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel Delany review

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson review upcoming

13 of 15 books read

Review: The Lays of Marie de France

The Lays of Marie de France The Lays of Marie de France by Marie de France
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Lays of Marie de France are a series of twelve short lays (narrative poems) in Old French. I read this translation as a library ebook, but it turns out that it is also available under a Creative Commons license:…

The translator, David R Slavitt, writes:
Marie who? A number of suggestions have been proposed for the identity of this wonderful twelfth-century poet. Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury, the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet and half-sister to Henry II, King of England, is a plausible
candidate, but Marie, Abbess of Reading, Marie I of Boulogne, Marie, Abbess of Barking, and Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot, are all possibilities. There were a lot of Maries, after all, but only a few who could read and write in English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman French. It is not inappropriate, however, for her to be a bit mysterious and even emblematic as the author of these strange, suggestive, and intriguing poems. One important thing we do know about her is that she also translated the Ysopet, a collection of 103 Aesopic fables, which could have influenced the Lais but at least suggest something about her taste in literature. There is a fabulous quality to these poems, which are at one and the same time childish and very knowing, innocent and sophisticated.

From the first tale:
A good story deserves to be
well told. My gracious lords, Marie
understands her obligation
on such a fortunate occasion
when an interesting story
presents itself. And yet I worry
that any show of excellence
invites envy of women’s or men’s
achievements. Slanders, insults, and lies
attend me. Everybody tries
to sneer at whatever one composes —
they joke and even thumb their noses.
They are cowardly dogs that bite,
mean, malicious, and full of spite.
But I refuse to be deterred
as, line by line and word by word,
I do my best to compose my lay,
whatever the jealous critics say.
I shall relate some tales to you
from Brittany that I know are true
and worthy of your attention. In
a friendly spirit, let us begin.

The highlights for me were Bisclavret (one of the earliest werewolf stories!) and Lanval. Lanval is (I think) the only one set in king Arthur’s court and I think I will want to come back to it after I have read Malory. Arthur holds a feast for the knights where he gives them all rewards for their great deeds but he forgets about Lanval who later sets out on a journey. He is wooed by a fairy lady who makes him rich, and must promise not to reveal her existence. I’m sure you can guess that a promise like that is going to cause problems for him down the road, but that would be telling! Ultimately it’s a fun reversal of the traditional damsel in distress tale where a knight rescues a lady, but I’m not saying any more than that. Just read it.

There’s also a very short lai concerning the romance of Tristan and Iseult. This one is so short that it was a little unsatisfying, but it made me want to read the longer version/s. I’m not sure when I will get around to it.

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Review: Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (repost from GoodReads 2017)

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great adventure story – funny, dramatic, and bittersweet – and my favorite SF novel that I’ve read this year. The old-fashioned tone is completely convincing and switches easily between humorous moments and serious ones. The exposition is really well done, in such a way that it’s probably quite accessible to people who don’t read much SF (although it doesn’t seem to be well known enough to get much of that readership).

Set a century and a half after a combination of peak oil + disease + economic collapse reduces modern civilization to Civil-War-level tech, this book takes place in a future North America where Canada is part of the United States, the presidency has become dynastic and is ruled by the Comstock family, and true political power is in the hands of the religious authority known as the Dominion. The post-apocalyptic society in the book emulates the 19th century, but it has all the American 19th century’s flaws, without some of its key virtues; the actual 19th century was a time of overall progress, while the society in the book is clearly in decline. Oh, and the United States is at war with the Dutch over control of the Northwest Passage.

The narrator, Adam Hazzard, is a young writer. Adam makes friends with the president’s nephew, Julian Comstock, whose life is loosely inspired by the life of Julian the Apostate. They get conscripted into the army while Julian is hiding his identity. Eventually Julian becomes a war hero and at the celebrations that follow, his actual identity is disclosed.

This review says that “Wilson himself described it by saying he was reading a US Civil War memoir called “Frank on a gunboat” and thought that was good as far as it went, but it would be better if it was Julian the Apostate on a gunboat and that’s what this book is.” Like the historical Julian, his goal is to reintroduce earlier traditions, but in this case, that means reimposing separation of church and state as public policy. Also, he wants to make a film about Darwin.

Along with Eifelheim Michael Flynn and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis this is one of the better science fiction books I’ve read that deals with religion although this one is coming at it from the other (irreligious) side. I loved everything about it and I will definitely read it again someday. 

“You must not make the mistake of thinking that because nothing lasts, nothing matters.”

There’s an interesting interview with the author here.

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Review: 2312 (repost from 2016 on GoodReads)

2312 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2312 is a future history in which new habitats have been created throughout our solar system, on Mercury, Venus, Mars, several of Jupiter’s moons, Saturn and its moons, and inside many asteroids. Much of the plot revolves around the mystery of a series of terrorist attacks in the solar system, but the book has a very meandering pace and spends a lot of time focusing on other things. The book is a slowly developing romance between Swan Er Hong, from Mercury, and Wahram, from Iapetus, one of Saturn’s terraformed moons. (Robinson is having some fun with personality types here, as Swan is a mercurial character and Wahram is, well, saturnine… Swan was a hard character to like at times, but they’re both interesting and I loved reading about them.)

2312 takes a pretty balanced view of the future, and avoids the extremes of apocalyptic pessimism or shiny techno-utopia. The regular chapters are interspersed with various lists (written by Swan) fake nonfiction extracts that describe the colonization of the solar system, and stream of consciousness sections. I loved it; there aren’t a whole lot of writers who can make exposition a pleasure to read, but Kim Stanley Robinson is one of them.

The descriptions of the settlement of the solar system are extremely detailed and clearly well researched. Much of the book takes place in Terminator, a moving city on Mercury. Terminator moves around Mercury on train tracks at the speed of the planet’s rotation, never staying in one place long enough to be scorched by Mercury’s dawn. The opening chapter describes the sunwalkers who come to Mercury to watch the sunrise.

Besides the colonization of space, the book examines body modification, the potential future of AI, and environmental issues. Swan has undergone several modifications of her body and brain, including having parts of animal brains implanted in her head so that she can whistle like a bird, implanting a quantum computer in her head, and modifying her reproductive organs so that she can both mother and father children. She has also ingested alien bacteria discovered in the oceans of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. (The AI developments in this book provide background for the more advanced quantum computer AI in Aurora.)

Earth is almost an ice-free planet but the terraforming techniques used off-planet usually won’t work on the already inhabited Earth:. “no slamming comets into it, for instance. So they bubbled their ship wakes with surfactants to create a higher albedo, and tried various levels of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere, imitating volcanoes; but that had once led to disaster, and now they couldn’t agree on how much sunlight to block… no, Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with, as Alex had said, or nothing done in space was real.”

I will definitely reread this book (and Aurora) but I want to read some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s other books first, especially The Wild Shore and its sequels The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge.

my favorite quotes:

“… as the sunwalkers stand on their points and watch, it’s not uncommon for devotees to become entranced by something in the sight, some pattern never seen before, something in the pulse and flow that snags the mind; suddenly the sizzle of the fiery cilia becomes audible, a turbulent roaring— that’s your own blood, rushing through your ears, but in those moments it sounds just like the sun burning. And so people stay too long. Some have their retinas burned; some are blinded; others are killed outright, betrayed by an overwhelmed spacesuit. Some are cooked in groups of a dozen or more. Do you imagine they must have been fools? Do you think you would never make such a mistake? Don’t you be so sure. Really you have no idea. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance.”

“To simplify history would be to distort reality. By the early twenty-fourth century there was too much going on to be either seen or understood. Assiduous attempts by contemporary historians to achieve an agreed-upon paradigm foundered, and we are no different now, looking back at them. It’s hard to even assemble enough data to make a guess.”

“[The sky] looked like a blue dome flattened at the center, perhaps a few kilometers above the clouds — she reached up for it — although knowing too that it was just a kind of rainbow made it glorious. A rainbow that was blue everywhere and covered everything. The blue itself was complex, narrow in range but infinite within that range. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it — one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you!”

“Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes…”

“Sometimes I think it’s only post-scarcity that evil exists. Before that, it could always be put down to want or fear. It was possible to believe, as apparently you did, that when fear and want went away, bad deeds would too. Humanity would be revealed as some kind of bonobo, an altruistic cooperator, a lover of all.”

“All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it. It is our world, and its beauty is entirely inside our heads.”

“Io, the innermost moon of Jupiter, a big as Luna. They yellow slag world, awesome upchucking of a moon’s guts, regurgitation overland over until everything more volatile than sulfur has long since burned off. Sulfur, sulfur everywhere, and nary a place to stand. Four hundred live volcanoes bursting through the slag like angry boils, geysering sulfur dioxide hundreds of kilometers into the air… The hard crust on its surface, cooled only by contact with the chill vacuum of space, is so thin that in many places it would not support a standing person. Some early explorers found this out the hard way: walking too far away from their lander, they plunged through the sulfurous ground into red-hot lava and disappeared.

We think that because we live on cooler planets and moons, we live on safer ground than that. But it is not so.”

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