Thursday, April 9, 2009

Review - Ombria In Shadow

Ombria In Shadow
by Patricia A. McKillip
Tied for 2003 World Fantasy Award Winner

I have become convinced that Patricia McKillip ranks among the greatest authors in the world. That's not because Ombria In Shadow is a brilliant novel; I just found it to be interesting. It's not because I'm impressed with her body of work; I've only read her World Fantasy Award winning novels. It's not even any particular aspect of her writing. The reason is simple: twice she has over the course of a book taken me from something I hate to something I enjoyed.

Here's the arc I followed when reading Ombria In Shadow:

Starting out: Generic fantasy? Ugh... this is going to be terrible.
Half way through: Well the novel's skillfully done but it's not really my thing.
At the end: That was pretty good.

Any author who can do that to me twice is brilliant.

Ombria is a kingdom in chaos. It's old ruler died leaving a child as his heir. An ancient witch has worked her way into power and is acting as the regent. Those who care about the child have been separated from him: the old ruler's mistress dumped into the harsh streets of the decaying city and a bastard who might have shielded the child has been threatened into inactivity. There is a legend of two Ombrias existing, one in shadow and one in light, and when the kingdom is broken they switch places.

There are two things I found effective in that story that managed to win me over. Neither of those was the setting which was yet another psuedo-medieval thing. In fairness to McKillip she kept the focus narrow enough that I was constantly rubbed the wrong way by modern concepts in her setting. At the same time it wasn't drawn in great detail at the broadest level. So I wasn't pushed away but neither was I pulled in.

Similarly McKillip's villain isn't really villainous for the bulk of the novel. People talk about her like she's a monster but this is a novel of intrigue. What people say could simply be rumors, deception, or general dislike. The villain does turn nasty at the very end of the book though for the majority of the book I was wondering why everyone hated her.

What worked for me were the rest of the characters. In McKillip's previous World Fantasy Award winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld I was impressed with how well her characters were developed. She has continued that in Ombria in Shadow where the majority of the small cast was effectively developed. The protagonists in particular are exactly what I appreciate: they're flawed, they grow, and most importantly of all they are interesting. An illigitamate son divided between his desire for peace, an offer for the throne, and family loyalty is inherently interesting and McKillip plays up the conflicting drives. While I had no doubt as to what would be done in the end the journey was interesting because of how it was internalized.

The other thing is McKillip's prose. She has an interesting style that pulled me along. Occasionally I found it be obscure; "Was that metaphorical or not?" and then I'd have to reread that section a few times until I worked it out. That just emphasized how well McKillip did with the atmosphere of the novel. Her world is an uncertain hazy thing and this style emphasized the magic in the setting.

I can't say that I'd seek out more books by McPhillip. She writes novels that as a rule I shouldn't like and the subject matter doesn't interest me. So with Ombria in Shadow I'll depart on good terms, appreciating the book and recommending it. Perhaps someday our path will cross again and I hold out hope that when happens that I am once more similarly impressed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Review - The Other Wind

The Other Wind
by Ursula K. Le Guin
2002 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Earthsea. I can't believe I'm back in Earthsea.

The first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is an exceptional piece of fantasy and a tight story. The next two sequels aren't quite as good but have their charms. And then there was Tehanu, a book about how all men secretly plotted to destroy women. That wasn't subtext; it was overtly stated repeatedly and at length.

After Tehanu I never wanted to see anything by Le Guin and particularly Earthsea related ever again. And yet here I am with The Other Wind. I considered dodging it and just pointing to the Tehanu review but if I can muster the will to read a second book by Robert J. Sawyer I can manage to fight through another Earthsea book.

My diligence was... well I can't say "rewarded" since it wasn't really a good book. How about, "My diligence did not condemn me to a painful literary hell."

A young man who has some natural talent in the ways of magic is left in perpetual mourning after his wife dies in childbirth. He begins dreaming each night of the division between life and death where the dead are pressing against the barrier and begging for release. The dreams haunt him and he is driven to seek help from Ged, the former archmage of Earthsea who lost his power when he repaired the barrier between life and death. At the same time dragons are entering Earthsea and terrorizing its inhabitants and the return of dragons may be tied to the dreams.

The Other Wind could have been retitled Earthsea: Wrapping Up Loose Ends. It's mainly a mashup of left over plot threads from the previous few Earthsea books. This isn't the first time that an author has returned to their creation much later to wrap things up for fans and like the vast majority of those The Other Wind is only going to appeal to people who are already fans of the series. It's not a novel that stands on its own; it cuts corners in both plot and characterization due to its connection with the previous books.

The initial plot line vanishes suddenly in the middle of the book so that Le Guin could pick up storylines from earlier books and give other characters resolution. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing but it feels clunky in the novel. It's like several short stories were welded together and the reader can see the seems between them since characters wander in, suddenly become the center of a large chunk of story, and then vanish off stage only to be mentioned in passing.

In the novel's favor the "All men hate women" theme is almost completely absent from The Other Wind only arising in one character's thoughts. Men as a whole are not portrayed at patronizing jerks (though one character does learn a valuable life lesson about it) and there aren't even villains who are out to get women just for being women.

Which isn't to say that The Other Wind is completely lacking in philisophical zaniness. There's a digression in the middle on politics that is so disconnected from human nature it left me boggled. It doesn't overwhelm the book but it is exactly the kind of thing I hate in speculative fiction: the author positing a "perfect" social structure where the real world analogues are dysfunctional.

I do have one more nice thing to say about this book. It had a decent conclusion that wrapped up Earthsea in a pretty bow. Given the number of long running series that have conclusions that leave the reader more annoyed than satisfied I have to compliment Le Guin on ending the series well.

As I said this book is only for people who are already fans of Earthsea. If you haven't read at least all of the other novels then you won't be able to understand The Other Wind. It's dependent upon the reader already having an emotional connection with the characters rather than establishing one of its own. So I can't recommend The Other Shore, though if you're already deep into the novel series then you might as well finish it off. You won't find anything horrible in the series conclusion either.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review - "R & R" and "The Girl Who Fell Into the Sky"

Something I found interesting about the Nebula winners this time is that neither story would win any awards for their daring style. On the other hand they both take familiar themes and tell their stories very well.

"R & R"
by Lucius Shepard
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

A near future war in the jungles of Central America has turned into a quagmire. Three soldiers in this desperate situation are given a week of R & R. They hold to a belief that if they keep repeating the same behaviors from the first R & R they took that they will survive to see the next one. This time things feel more desperate: one soldier wants to desert, another is unusually restless, and the third is told by a woman with psychic abilities that she has foreseen his death. The madness of war spins around them in a week that changes everything for them.

So it's another story about the horrors of war and how screwed up the soldiers are. This time I found it to be effective mainly due to how well Shepard drew his characters. So when a very ugly secret about one of them is discovered, for example, I react with confusion like the protagonist.

Instead of being shallow stereotypes the characters are conflicted in every regard. Shepard plays with that tension between fleeing and staying, cowardice in ambiguous combat and bravery for friends, superstition and reason. Even one of the ugly events that are used to demonstrate the horrors of war gets a justification that leaves things more muddied.

Perhaps that's part of why "R & R" works so well: it's not judgmental. Instead of spending his time preaching at the reader it's a story about people who are living in the situation. The terrible situation is presented as a matter-of-fact rather than as a grotesquery for the reader.

"R&R" is a common story but exceptionally told. It's well worth checking out.

"The Girl Who Fell Into the Sky"
by Kate Wilhelm
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A lawyer who is estranged from his wife is sent to the back ways of rural Kansas to pick up a player piano for his father. The player piano was the property of his father's friend who has passed away and the owner's relatives will soon show up to inventory the remote farm where he lived. The lawyer is supposed to make an offer on the piano before they have a chance to remove the possessions.

When the lawyer arrives he finds an attractive woman already at the farm examining the ruins of a commune that is hidden on the property. At night they hear the piano playing on its own despite not being functional in years.

So it's another ghost story with a haunted farm in the middle of the prairie. And just like the previous story Wilhelm makes this stand out by drawing some interesting characters. She also takes the story itself to a few different places than one might expect. The relationship between the main characters does not develop along the usual lines.

The history of the farm itself plays on the contradiction in expectations. Wilhelm's set up prepares the genre savvy reader for something big but she keeps bringing in the focus. By the end there are a few minor supernatural elements that persist but the story was a mundane one.

That's "mundane" as in lacking in fantasy, not that the story itself isn't terrific. I found it to be evocative and intriguing and I appreciated that Wilhelm could subvert my expectations so smoothly. I definitely recommend reading this one.