Month: November 2016

The Alchemist

thealchemist_front

I enjoyed the Alchemist quite a lot! It had quite a range, both creating believable, sympathetic characters as well as creating a harsh world with pockets of tenderness. Khaim is a city on the brink of destruction in a world sliding towards catastrophe, and the daily struggle and the sense of loss is palpable. Nonetheless, people continue on as best they can. It was quite impressive how much the world shapes the societies, the societies shape characters, and the characters’ actions feed back in at each of those levels. I found the resulting scenes very impactful.

Bacigalupi handles the plot and pacing very well, although towards the last third of the story the pacing falters as the summary becomes too thin. However, the story’s climax and conclusion regain the excellence of the beginning, and also left me simultaneously horrified for and excited by the future of Khaim and the characters.

Bacigalupi’s writing is excellent. The narrator’s voice is gentle and easy to follow, the descriptions often lengthy but still sharp, clear, and vivid. The word choice was also an absolute joy.

Additionally, reading this story was a very strange experience, because I had an incredibly strong feeling that I had heard of these locations and nations and terms before. And then I connected it to Tobias Buckell’s novella The Executioness, but was uncertain until I realized what the bramble was referring to, and then I knew they were in the same world. Apparently these novellas were released together, but were listed as separate stories on my Kindle, and I happened to read this a week after the Executioness. This metafictional surprise lent a really odd feeling.

P.S. The concept of the bramble and its relationship to magic brought to mind Larry Niven’s short story “The Magic Goes Away”, a 1976 story / 1978 novella investigating the consequences of magic. I was excited to read another story that explores the consequences of magic.

Obligatory Kindle Notice!

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The Executioness

The Executioness (Front Cover)

Having read this novella a few days after A Stranger in Olondria, I must confess being predisposed against the Executioness simply because it lacked the beauty of language present in A Stranger in Olondria.

While I enjoyed reading the novella, there were parts that made me struggle to enjoy it. The concepts were compelling – the role of women in life, politics and power; the consequences of magic and the resulting political pressures; the personal cost of geopolitical struggle; tragedy as a motivating force – and I was very excited to see them explored. However, the execution of these concepts often cooled that excitement.

I found Tana’s perspective unconvincing. However, the dialogue of other characters also frequently thrust me out of the story, even though I enjoyed the characters and found them acceptable. Additionally, the story proceeds at a breakneck pace, with little description or evocation of the world. Whether that is a net positive or negative is a matter of preference for the reader, but the chosen style inhibited my ability to feel the world and be immersed and take it seriously. It also resulted in some plot hole moments. There was also a general absence of believable human reactions that struck me as quite odd in several moments.

P.S. The concept of the bramble and its relationship to magic brought to mind Larry Niven’s short story “The Magic Goes Away”, a 1976 story / 1978 novella investigating the consequences of magic. I am excited to read another story that explores the consequences of magic.

Obligatory Kindle Notice!

Directive 51

Directive 51 by John BarnesWell, now that I’ve recovered from the post-election jitters, I have four words, followed by about 400 words:

This. Book. Terrified. Me.

Directive 51 is a grim near-future science fiction thriller charting the disintegration of modern civilization, which segues into a tale of how pockets of survivors in the US draw together and how these new-born factions see their role in rebuilding the US, and what kind of a US they have to look forward to. Honestly, reading this in the early stages of the 2016 election probably made it particularly depressing, but I definitely am taking a break from thrillers and grim stories and tales of disintegration for a while. On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed this book, as uncomfortable a vision as it portrays, and hope to read the next two books in the series someday as well, partly because I want to know how it turns out on the political struggle level, and partly because I want to see how human civilization adapts technologically and societally to the post-Daybreak world.

The book is a series of scenes from many different viewpoints, both from the perspective of Daybreakers and the government agents trying to stop them. At first this was jarring, especially because the first few scenes are introductions that don’t establish a whole lot, but after each character had had a few scenes I had settled into it.

One thing that was very interesting is the depth that Barnes has put into Daybreak and their tactics, strategy, and technology. Daybreak is a fairly interesting concept for a terrorist organization, and the strategy behind it and the general strategy of the Daybreak master plan was very interesting for me. The biological science and engineering practices behind the Daybreak nanoswarm and biotes is also really interesting, and terrifying because it seems so plausible. And in general, the story has a lot of warnings about the dangers a modern globalized capitalistic society poses when it falls.

The title of the book is a little misleading, honestly. You might expect the drama to be about Directive 51 itself. In reality, most of the first half of the book is about Daybreak itself as it is enacted, the middle is about how things disintegrate, and only the very endgame of the book is about the consequences of Directive 51. Additionally, the book can be hard to stick with, as often scenes stretch on for longer than I would like. Definitely read a few pages before picking it up.

Cover Art Review: Honestly, not a huge fan. It’s very washed out, does not convey a sense of place, and it’s not entirely clear which character that is or what moment that is. But it does convey the mood of the book very well, which I suppose is the most important thing.

Six Stories: La Reine D’Enfer

Halloween Special! I recently read Kathe Koja’s Six Stories collection, all of which were  spooky or unnatural in one sense or another, and I thought that these stories would be a perfect match for the week leading up to Halloween. Then I got sick, and healthy, and sick. So: post-Halloween Special!

This story is dark and horrifying, both in a social sense of the society it depicts, and the slow simmer of underlying supernatural darkness. Pearlie is a young lad who spends days scamming drinks and trinkets off the more well-to-do in taverns and nights as a prostitute. But one night he encounters Edmund, an impresario, a gentlemen running a theater company seeking actors – and agrees to play the role of the Dark Queen in his company’s play, La Reine D’Enfer: The Queen of Hell.

Koja does an amazing job at building the atmosphere of the setting’s time and place – London or any such bustling British city in old Victorian times. The characters feel spot on, and varied, a convincing jumble of temperaments, and speaking in convincing accesnts and dialect, with evocative idioms and slang.

There is also a lot going on at the thematic level as well. What struck me most, was how Pearlie transitions between  different forms of acting, from scamming and whoring to theater. From minor manipulations to striding on the theater stage manipulating the emotions of the entire audience, and to conversing with spirits, acting and power over reality are tied.

Obligatory Kindle Note: Read this on a kindle!

Six Stories: Far and Wee

Halloween Special! I recently read Kathe Koja’s Six Stories collection, all of which were  spooky or unnatural in one sense or another, and I thought that these stories would be a perfect match for the week leading up to Halloween. Then I got sick, and healthy, and sick. So: post-Halloween Special!

This is a story that is on point for the entire duration, and has an amazing ending. But I don’t want to spoil it, obviously, so I will do my best to talk around it.

The story follows a farm boy who has made the long trek in from the countryside to the city, to find work in the theater. It is hard work, but our narrator is honest and hard working, and he slowly gains the trust of the theater actresses, actors, stagehands, and the owner-operator, Master Konstantine. At least, until an unsavory visitor named Pytor drives a wedge between the narrator and the rest of the theater.

The atmosphere is exquisite, and established very skillfully through the details of the narrator’s story, his manner of storytelling and speech, and his impressions of the other characters.

Obligatory Kindle Note: Read this on a kindle!

Six Stories: Ruby Tuesday

Halloween Special! I recently read Kathe Koja’s Six Stories collection, all of which were  spooky or unnatural in one sense or another, and I thought that these stories would be a perfect match for the week leading up to Halloween. Then I got sick, and healthy, and sick. So: post-Halloween Special!

Today’s Six Stories story diverges from the creepy and spooky into a more mundane, if not happier, topic. Ruby Tuesday is a story about a high school teenager, and her interest in the film “Ruby Tuesday.” After a night at a local social phenomena, “Ruby Tuesdays at the Film Theater”, she becomes enthralled by the film’s power to draw audiences and immerse them in the world and story of the film. The source of her interest in the power of this escapism is tragically sad, and devastating to consider. It definitely triggered reflections on processing loss, grief, and the stress of life for me, focusing on the role of stories and media in that process.

Additionally, there is an interesting collision of reality and fiction here. I was curious, and after a quick online search, was not able to find a movie named Ruby Tuesday, but I did find an actress named Ruby Tuesday. While the films this Ruby Tuesday starred in have similar titles to the films assigned to the actress in the story, they don’t match up. There’s also the metafictional aspect, where Rikki is telling her story and analyzing the film Ruby Tuesday, pulling apart how that film’s story draws and attracts viewers at the same time we’re reading that story. Do Rikki’s thoughts and conclusions on the art of film apply to the written form as well, and how completely?

Obligatory Kindle Note: Read this on a kindle!

Six Stories: Remnants

Halloween Special! I recently read Kathe Koja’s Six Stories collection, all of which were  spooky or unnatural in one sense or another, and I thought that these stories would be a perfect match for the week leading up to Halloween. Then I got sick, and healthy, and sick. So: post-Halloween Special!

Remnants tells a story of someone living on their own in an abandoned house, crafting a world out of detritus and cast-off junk. The story felt much more spooky than creepy, with creepy describing the previous two stories, At Eventide and Baby. To me, the difference rests with the fewer hints of dark, supernatural wrongness. Instead, the prevailing mood is one of diminishment, sadness, and forgetfulness, buoyed by a touch of enchantment. There is still the mystery of exactly who the narrator-character is, what they have gone through, and how they came to their current state of affairs, and though this is not precisely revealed, enough information is presented for the reader to understand the current situation and make strong guesses at their background. And this ambiguity actually strengthened my sense of sympathy and sadness, in how much this person had lost so much that they cannot even recognize that loss.

The city inspectors’ visits show a clear difference between the view of most people in western culture and the point of view of the main character. A distinction between an enchanted, imaginary world, and the common view of material reality which ignores the beauty to be found in these scenes.

Obligatory Kindle Note: Read this on a kindle!

Six Stories: Baby

Halloween Special! I recently read Kathe Koja’s Six Stories collection, all of which were  spooky or unnatural in one sense or another, and I thought that these stories would be a perfect match for the week leading up to Halloween. Then I got sick, and healthy, and sick. So: post-Halloween Special!

Baby is pretty creepy. It is much more “nightmare fodder” than the previous story, albeit less so as the story winds towards the end, but dolls are just kinda creepy and uncanny. So a doll of a baby with unnatural powers and that can move and communicate its desires, and that hungers? That is super creepy.

That said, I really enjoyed and respected the resolution for several reasons. It was unexpected, simultaneously hopeful and touching but uneasy and potentially threatening. The ending also looped into the beginning of the story extremely well, and used the thread of history of the doll to seal the past and open the way for the protagonist’s future.

This is more of a note about Six Stories than any individual story, but the collection felt like a well-composed album rather than just a collection of similar stories. For example, the contrast between Baby and the previous story in the volume, At Eventide, contributed positively to my experience reading the stories. Structurally, At Eventide is two narratives interweaving, aiming towards a single point in time, told exclusively in third person, distant. Then Baby opens with the protagonist speaking straight to the reader, and the story isn’t a series of structured vignettes of the past as much as a fluid stream of experience and relived memories. Both stories are written skillfully, and share similarities in general tone and content, but are different from each other such that they feels fresh and distinct.

Obligatory Kindle Note: Read this on a kindle!