Tag: culture

Wulf’s Yarn

WulfsYarn_All.jpgWulf’s Yarn is a slowly unfurling ribbon of a tale which orbits the plot, casting illumination here and there as it drifts from character to situation to the storyteller’s notes: after all, the book is titled Wulf’s Yarn for a reason, and Wulf is an interesting storyteller indeed. Wulf tells the story at its own pace, providing necessary context, rearranging events, quoting from others, and the result is a sedately paced, rich, detailed view of an atypical universe. The characters and institutions are well developed, and I found the religious background to the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos is particularly unique and captivating.

Beyond the unusual character of the world in view of its characters and institutions, the story felt unique as well. The story of Senor Confrere Jon Wilberfoss is a great tale about facing challenges, failing at those challenges and the suffering and trauma that results, and recovering from that trauma and the form that recovery takes. This is a topic that feels rarely touched upon in the science fiction and fantasy media that I read, or indeed in American society today in general. The story is slow, deep, and enveloping, with a lot of interesting and important themes and sub-themes, such as vanity, character flaws, the nature of religion, the intersection of religion and history, the coexistence of different cultures, the nature of humanity / artificial intelligence / non-human intelligence, to name a few.

Cover Art Review: I am digging the title font and color, and the color scheme is good overall. But the ship itself is disappointing to me. While the surfacing itself is nice, the ship’s design is not particularly attractive, and it’s not clear if it is even the entire ship. However, the man whom I presume to be Jon Wilberfuss is very well illustrated, and matches my impression of him during his time aboard the Nightingale.

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is a book I started reading months ago, put down after the first few chapters, and picked it up again recently and started over from the beginning. I am glad I gave the book another shot. The first few chapters are sad and overwhelming. Much more important than the tragedy that opens the story, though, is Vince’s moving depiction of how memory, grief, and the need for continued survival can all coexist and drive a recovery. The characters are our main lenses into the societies of Heaven Belt, and as flawed and unlikeable as some of them are, they feel tangible and believable.

Betha and the Ranger’s role as outsiders from Morningside fallen into the chaos of Heaven Belt sets up the inevitable comparisons between the three main societies of Heaven Belt: The Demarchists, The Ringers, and Lansing. Each society has adapted to the fall of Heaven Belt and their new-found vulnerability to environmental threats in different ways. This felt incredibly strong, especially given how each society’s available resources and territory guided their differential responses. One weakness is an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. There are some examples where Vince directly shows the culture in action, such as the mediamen circus on Betha’s arrival in the Demarchy, or where Vince uses characters behavior to get at social norms, for example Shadow Jack’s treatment of others, and these scenes are very effective. Scenes where characters spend a paragraph describing their culture and explaining how it’s different to the other feel more contrived.

One key aspect to each society is how they protect their women from cosmic radiation, and thus ensure the continuation of their society with a new generation of healthy children. None of the cultures fare very well by the standards of current Western society, but what makes this especially interesting is how these societies are confronted by an ‘alien’ ship captained by a woman, visibly challenging their beliefs and shaking their conviction. An explanation of why men are not similarly prized against the radiation is less convincing, although at one point a character explains they can freeze sperm, but not ova, which seems reasonable enough.

Confusingly enough, the ending was simultaneously utterly contrived feeling while also feeling perfectly reasonable and believable. Still not entirely sure how that’s possible.

COVER ART REVIEW: I love it! The gas giant and the teeny planetoid in the bottom right corner caught my eye as being particular awesome, and the ships are gorgeous. A great example of vintage cover art.

The Star Fox

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The Star Fox is suffused with an eclectic, vibrant atmosphere. Whether it’s Vadasz bursting into singing and strumming, Gunnar Heim’s cursing, shouting, and plotting, Uthg-a-K’thaq’s crab accent and practical nature, or the ardent French patriotism that is the cornerstone of Heim’s voyage, there is always a character full of life on the stage, pushing the story onwards with their pep and vive. I have read some stories with a similar plot concept – hero figure acts outside the law in order to prevent an alien menace from overwhelming Earth humans – but Anderson brews a feeling of real import and urgency behind Heim’s journey.

The story was published in the mid 1960s (1964 by Signet Books, of The New American Library), which in practice means that to me, the language, descriptions, and environments all feel delightfully “retro futuristic”. However, this comes with its problems – the characters who actually go out, do things, know things, and have long conversations about politics and science are mainly manly male men. Female characters are there largely to be admired, woo’d, captured, or to confuse men, or to serve as minor advisory characters. The book also spends a fair amount of time on Gunnar Heim’s romantic life, where he largely is agonizing over his romantic life, rather than actually having a romantic life. I found this was actually a good vehicle to delve into his character, as well as being generally entertaining. However, moving on, the novel does a particularly good job at not only showing Earth’s unified World Federation and how its constituents from different places and backgrounds work together, but also showing the cracks in unity resulting from the different views and opinions of its members. It is also interesting to me in that it is particularly European-focused.

There is an oddness to the plot pacing and structure. The story flows at a fluid pace for the first 40-ish pages, jetting through days and weeks of time. Suddenly, the story becomes mired in a particular stretch of days. After this, the story skips ahead several weeks once again, before finally settling into a more sedate pace that favors scene over summary, until it finally skips one last time. Additionally, many of the obstacles and difficulties Heim and his crew encounters have little to do with his actual goal, but with the random obstacles encountered on the way, and much of the voyage and the actual enacting of the plan is skipped over in the process. It’s a little disappointing, as the novel led me to believe we were going to have a story focused heavily on the execution of Gunnar Heim’s plan, and then it ended up with that mainly being the driver for other conflicts to unfold. Still, I greatly enjoyed reading The Star Fox, as the bulk of the plot was gripping and I enjoyed the style and the characters. If you enjoy retro-feeling futurism, this might be a book to check out.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am pretty sure that the Star Fox looked nothing like a giant floating head, nor did any of the character’s heads have giant fins and booster engines on them. However, I do like the coloration of the planetoids, especially the hatching fade-to-black effect. Also, I am torn over the advert for Ian Flemming’s The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s great period dressing, and hints that the book you’re getting may be more action-y than science fiction-y, but also detracts from the feel.

OBLIGATORY BRIDGEDNESS QUOTE: This book is complete and unabridged.

The Straits of Galahesh

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I really enjoyed nearly all of this book, but the climax of the book soured much of it for me. I have not read the third book, the Flames of Shadam Koresh, and I am sure once I read it I will change my mind, but it feels like the ending for this book was pure artifice and that everything should have ended in the climax here.

I’ll dive into what aggravated me. In the last ¼th of the book, one of the major antagonists suddenly was revealed to have an unstoppable super power that no one could defend against, until suddenly someone could defend against it. It felt like a lazy way to get everything to happen that the author needed to happen for the final scene, as if characters being driven by their actual motivations / flaws weren’t enough to get exactly what the author wanted, so they just pulled the strings, moving the puppets around jerkily such that it becomes clear they’re puppets and not characters. That breaking of suspension of disbelief really hurt the ending for me.

Phew, now with that aside, the first ¾ of the book were on balance pretty good, although I do admit to enjoying Atiana and Nikandr’s chapters more than Nasim. I found the writing and point of view more engaging. I did have a problem with the sheer amount of twists, turns, betrayals, and reversals. The first third of the book had some very well done plot twists, but after that the density seems to just increase, and even though well done, simply due to the density of them, they just become tired. So when something dramatic and unexpected happens in the climax of the book, I didn’t go “WOAH WHAAAAAAAT HOLY CRAP”, I thought “Huuuuh. Neat. Well, I bet something will undo what just happened within 20 pages.” There is also a problem with the protagonists implementing  straightforward and reactive plans, while the antagonists are the masterminds with plans that have wheels spinning within wheels. As a result, anything the protagonists do is usually either “part of the villain’s plan,” or reacting to something irrelevant and so anything they achieve will be either undone or rendered irrelevant within 50 pages. As a result, the investment you have in seeing characters succeed is lessened, as it’s like Charlie Brown and the football. You just know that little girl is going to pull the football away and he’s going to stumble and fall.

And yet, I kept reading, and grumbling aside, enjoyed what I read. Putting aside the plot, the amazing worldbuilding was still there, and the character development was also very well done. Nearly every Duchy character we saw in the first book has changed drastically in the five years since the Winds of Khalakovo, and in ways that are believable, logical, and true to the characters’ nature. That feels rare to me, and to see it done so well was really great.

The magical metaphysics were still unclear to me, as I am still not clear whether there is any clear explanation for all the various the times a character arbitrarily cannot summon a hezhan when it would be very useful to do so. And while it is unclear how the Al-Aquim can do seemingly unique magic, their status as the Al-Aquim kinda grants them a pass!

Oh, and the glossary – it froze my kindle with its awesomeness! Once I got it rebooted, it was great to have all the terms in one place, not because I needed to look up any of them (again, Beaulieu is great with providing enough context to understand the functional use of a term, letting you build connotations from the sound of the word and its associations), but just to glory in it all.

One thing I really liked about the worldbuilding in the first book was the the cultural bent of the Cyrillic-feeling Duchy relative to the more Arabic Aramahn and the Maharrat cultures. The Straits of Galahesh does one better by throwing in Yrstanla’s Turkish-inspired culture, and seeing the geopolitical counterbalance between the Grand Duchy’s internal struggles and the external struggle with Yrstanla was really great.

For now though, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, I will take a breather to read some lighter fare, and then dive into the Flames of Shadam Koresh after the weekend.

COVER ART REVIEW: I definitely checked this out before reading the book, and gotta say, this kind of thing happens a lot in this book! I like the green coat and the walrus-bone powder shells on the bandolier, and the composition is great, but I wish the background colors were more muted. The jumper’s hair, eyebrows, and mustache-goatee in combination also made me snort.

 

The Winds of Khalakovo

 

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I really enjoyed The Winds of Khalakovo. The story unfolds on Khalakovo, an archipelago of seven islands, one of nine island kingdoms in the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, all wracked by famines, a wasting plague, and a guerrilla war against the Maharrat. The world is incredibly detailed and incredibly fascinating without being expository, the drama is gripping, the characters are well realized, and the stakes feel real.

The worldbuilding is very dense, in that Beaulieu is not afraid to just go and use characters, concepts, places, social classes, kingdoms, faction names, and professions without any explanation or introduction. This sounds like it should be bad – but it’s not! Beauliu uses the terms in context quite well, so I figured out the functional use of the terms well enough, and I quickly built connotations that helped me figure out the cultural meaning of the terms as well. For example, Landed terms are usually Cyrillic, while the Aramahn and Maharrat use much more Arabic-sounding terms. For example, the characters know what streltsi are, what a sotnik is, what a havaquiram is and how it relates to havahezhan, what ethnic groups Landed and Landless refer to, how the Aramahn fit into Khalakovoan society, etc. On the other hand, figuring out what the Maharrat are up to is something both I as the reader and Nikandr the character struggled with together.

On one hand, the plot often feels harsh, with some overly vindictive, petty characters and willfully blind characters. On the other, the Greek tragedy feel of some moments lends a lot to the feel, with a mixture of the characters’ motivations and flaws driving them to their actions. The plot also has lots of twists, turns, and mysteries, both in terms of the characters figuring things out as well as the reader figuring out the world as they read. Some of the assumptions I made make early on were wrong, and realizing that and reassessing everything on the fly was both somewhat frustrating and really interesting.

One negative aspect of the worldbuilding is that it can be hard to pin down everything that is happening, as there are so many characters, factions, terms, and concepts in play. Since much of my knowledge of the world’s magical physics and political balance was inferred from context and scraps of explanation, often a new phenomenon would upend my understanding. This might be something you are looking for (exhilarating, thrilling), or it might not be (confusing, jarring, disorienting).

Cover Art Review: I actually did not see the cover art until writing this review. (Kindle. And this book actually had the cover art in the .mobi! Not sure how I missed it.) Which is a shame, because I really like this cover art! It nails the windships – a lot of the scenes make a lot more sense having seen this, and as one thing I missed was environmental description, seeing some of the landscape is really nice too.

The Braided World

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By Kay Kenyon

There is a lot packed in here, and in a good way: varied, believable characters who change as the story goes on; a deeply disturbing culture that is quite plausible; a mystery of a galactic scale;  a first contact situation; power struggle politics; love and romance; mutinies; etc etc etc.

The opening threw me for a loop, though, so I’ll get it out of the way here. The first thirty-odd pages are disorienting, and not in a good way: we get a scene-setting prologue, psyching us up for a first contact scene, and then a chapter title page, and THEN… it transitions into a calm scene revealing they’ve been on the planet for weeks, speak the native tongue, and established basic relations. Whaat? Then the viewpoint skips around a bit, and it skips forward in time again (though not as far), and again, and it was around there that I fell into the rhythm of the book and didn’t notice it any further.

The different viewpoint characters are well done, with each character’s view and thoughts being convincingly different without being artificially so. Nick’s viewpoint is the only one that seems too contrived. The non-viewpoint characters are also well established, with surface and subsurface & sub-subsurface layers, with corresponding motives, each colliding and allowing dynamic character development that changes as the novel goes on.

Initially, the story strikes a grim tone, with the humans’ starship threatened by a breakout of lethal plague, no sign of the high-technology culture they are seeking, and lost, alone, and inable to understand or act effectively in the local Dassa culture. The integral role that slave labor and mutilation play in Dassa society only strengthen that feeling. However, partway through that grim feeling peaks, and a more determined, resurgent feel flares up to replace it, as the characters begin to gain more agency and understanding. While the humans’ feeling of being alone on an alien world surrounded by alien cultures never fades, they begin to understand the local culture and how to interact with it.

Some may wish to steer clear of this novel, as The Braided World portrays slave labor and mutilation fairly unflinchingly. However, these traditions of the Dassa are wrestled with by the main characters and some Dassa, and raise important anthropological questions about humanity, the Dassa, society, morality, and individual characters. They also provide important motivations and conflicts, and are the basis of nearly everything in the novel. Essentially, they are handled with care. Less grimly, the first third of the book was filled with scenes that evoke that awkward feeling that arises from witnessing a social transgression, as the humans are not entirely sure how to treat the Dassa.

The worldbuilding is very well done, establishing a unique and detailed world, both in terms of the landscape and ecology, the dwellings and buildings and artifacts of Dassa cultural life, and their behavior, before slowly fading in intensity as development of the world and introduction of the characters gives way to plot action, character action, and drama.

Cover Art Review: Actually relevant to the story! Simple yet effective design! Super neat LENS FLARE! AGHHHHH I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!

Postscript: Dark matter clouds and information gradients are not a thing that sounds plausible, but- okay, okay.

Avalanche Soldier

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Avalanche Soldier
By Susan R Matthews

I started reading this novel, and about five pages in, due to something about the quality of the prose, I felt that I had read this author before. Turns out I had read, as Susan R Matthews wrote Prisoner of Conscience. Avalanche Soldiers is quite a different novel, though: where Prisoner of Conscience was tortured, difficult, and painful, Avalanche Soldier is earnest, inviting, and introspective. It is a story of two religions, the societies that follow each religion, and what happens at the intersection, where orthodox meets heterodox.

The world is fascinating, with a complicated history that is both well thought out and subject to the same issues of interpretation as real world history, with cultural, religious, and political considerations playing roles in shaping that history and how it is told. There are a wealth of terms and synonyms relating to religious and cultural persuasion, and it lends a richness to the work, although between the pilgrims, wayfarers, orthodox, Shadene, heterodox, believers, and dreamers, it can be hard to keep the terms straight at times.

I really enjoyed the viewpoint character: she was professional, capable, likeable, sympathetic, and a million other positive adjectives, all while espousing very different viewpoints from me. Her attention to the details of the natural world.

The immersion of the main character in the heterodox teaching is a great exploration of religious sentiment, how religious belief and faith functions, and was super interesting in general. That also leads into Varrick, the leader of the Varrick Teaching, and the mysteries behind her origins and motive. This is an aspect that I think was very well done: much at the core of spirituality and religion is about the mysterious, and that survives and is conveyed very well here.

Storycraft wise, the book is great. The flow and pacing are very well done, and  the mixture of scenes to summary was perfect, although there did seem to be an unusually high frequency of depicting characters lapsing into unconsciousness.