Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review - Ysabel

by Guy Gavriel Kay
2008 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

It would be the last novel that's the hardest to write about. It's not that I hate it; it's really easy to articulate exactly why I despise something. And it's not that I loved it. I just... kind of disliked Ysabel and I can't completely figure out why.

A teenager spending a few months in France encounters a mysterious man in a cathedral who warns the teenager to stay away. The teenager begins to sense things like the fact that the man is centuries old and when the teenager visits an ancient battleground he can feel the deaths of thousands. This leads the teen and his friends to become entangled in a mismatched love story that has been repeating itself for more than two thousands years and inevitably ends in bloodshed.

Part of my problem with the novel is that I didn't care about the protagonist. It might be to Kay's credit that he captures the voice of an overbearing teenager so well but it's a really unpleasant narrative voice to spend a book with. His extremely clumsy sexual advances might be accurate but they're also creepy to read about. His childishness in dealing with people is true to life and makes him difficult to relate to as an adult reader. It's a case where doing something well repelled me as a reader.

On the other hand Kay created some interesting antagonists with his ancient people trapped in a story cycle. They're all pulled by forces beyond their control and they could be friendly with the hero in the right circumstances. When the reader is feeling some sympathy for them is usually when Kay drops a reminder that they are men who did terrable things of their own free will as part of it. I would have much rather read a book about them without the teenager involved.

It didn't help that the protagonist kept acquiring superpowers over the story that weren't really clear. He can do poorly defined stuff that changes depending on the need of the story. Kay uses these powers for exposition and development rather than resolution of problems so it isn't constantly becoming a magical deus ex machina. It's clear he's trying to tie these abilities into adolecent development but that doesn't make it interesting.

I do have to compliment Ysabel for being a fast paced novel. You could almost split the book in half between the development of one mystery and the start of a larger problem and neither portion ever gets dull. Any time the plot threatens to slow down Kay throws in another confrontation.

One of the odder things in the novel to grate against me is the constant name dropping. The protagonist is quick to mention then current technology products by name and does it all the time. I understand that Kay is attempting to root the story in present day but it came across to me as a middle aged man name dropping to seem hip. It's just a little thing but it throws me out of the story to be told that the situation is like Guild Wars or what band is playing on his iPod.

One more oddity in Ysabel is the fact that it ties into Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series. A pair of characters from that fantasy triology turn up in this book. It's not necessary to read the fantasy trilogy to follow Ysabel but there are several references that knowledge of the other books will make clear.

Trying to pin down exactly what I don't like in Ysabel is rough for me. I clearly did not like the protagonist and found him both unpleasant and uninteresting. I also wasn't really drawn in by Kay's prose which feels dead to me (both in this book and others he has written). It's not a specific problem I could point to; it comes down to I don't care for how Kay writes. That means I can intellectually aknowledge Ysabel as an average novel that I couldn't bring myself to care about. I'm sure it has its audience (that's obvious from its selection as a World Fantasy Award winner) but that audience does not include me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review - Soldier of Sidon

Soldier of Sidon
by Gene Wolfe
2007 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

I mentioned when I talked about Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series that I can tell how effective a book in a series is based on how eager I am to read the rest. Even if I like a book I may not be that eager to read more. Soldier of Sidon is the third book featuring the ancient warrior Latro and it ends on an ambiguous cliffhanger. I've already ordered the first two and I'm impatient for as yet unreleased fourth.

Latro received a head injury a long time ago and since then he forgets everything within a few hours. To help him keep track of events he obsessively writes down what he can remember. The injury, however, gave him the ability to see the divine around him and that ability has made him the pawn of gods.

He awakens on a ship in Egypt that is owned by a man he rescued at the start of this record. The captain of the ship is contracted by the Persian ruler to locate the source of the Nile river and Latro accompanies him on this trip. Along with them are their prostitute-wives arranged at the start of the voyage, a worshiper of Set who has his own agenda, a scribe protected by his own god, and a woman who is not always there.

What's really magnificent in Soldier of Sidon and has made me pursue the other books is how well Wolfe uses Latro as an unreliable narrator. The reader only sees the records that Latro has written down and we don't know what he has forgotten or obfuscated. In addition it is uncertain how much he knows at any given moment since he doesn't always review his writing. Wolfe's narrator gives the reader a bewildering confused view and as a result I was much more involved with the story.

I have to mention how Wolfe makes the narrative a scattering of disjointed notes. He often jumps into something in media res as Latro has to write down the important details quickly before he forgets while not being able to recognize what could have been important elsewhere. On top of that Latro's moods shift as the journey progresses and how he reacts to his lack of memories and the tone and style of the writing change as a result. We're viewing the story through a filter that has to be read carefully. Soldier of Sidon features exceptional storytelling due to this.

The book dedicated to Richard Burton and opens with a quote from Herodotus. Wolfe does a spectacular job living up to those inspirations. The cues from Burton include the trip to the source of the Nile and from Herodotus he took the explorations distant, near mythical lands. Soldier of Sidon takes advantage of the history of Egypt and Wolfe drew me into the period.

With an unreliable narrator it's hard to judge how the characters behave but I was interested in what they would do. Given the situation I always has to consider the possibility of hidden agendas and false identities when Latro spoke of someone (that's part of what makes the cliffhanger so ambiguous). Latro himself is rewritten every time a new chapter begins so it is impossible to get a grip on him.

It is the writing that carries this book and Soldier of Sidon was one of the best written fantasy novels I've ever encountered. Since the narrative is about a man with no memory the fact that I have not read the first two books in the series made no difference in the story to me. I can't recommend starting at the beginning until I have read them but I strongly recommend reading this book; it is exceptional.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review - "The Spacetime Pool", "Pride and Prometheus", and "Trophy Wives"

I can't say I was particularly excited with the winners of last night's Nebula awards. There's two works that I think are interesting efforts but not really that great and one that made me wish I had taken up another hobby. Like stabbing myself in the leg repeatedly.

"The Spacetime Pool"
by Catherine Asaro
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I was almost half-way through "The Spacetime Pool" before I remembered who Catherine Asaro was. The Quantum Rose was so bad that I had completely suppressed it and here is Asaro making another assault on the mental stability of anyone who enjoys fiction. I can't say it rises quite to the level of The Quantum Rose but there is a bondage scene that makes me think we're seeing Asaro's fetishes put on the display.

A hiker in the woods is suddenly teleported to a psuedo-medieval kingdom by a handsome prince who informs her that she is part of a prophecy. She will marry either him or his evil brother and whoever she marries will kill the other sibling. Predictability ensues.

Let me offer this general tip for people: if you are in the mountains one thousand miles inland and suddenly find yourself on an ocean beach with no mountains in sight it is not a movie set. Asking the person who tells you that you're part of a prophecy before instantaneously transporting you from mountains to seashore makes you seem pretty stupid. Unless your name is Thomas Covenant there's no harm in just going along with the scenario until you either wake up (either in your bed or the mental institution) or become as confidant in the reality of the situation as you can be. To continue in a state of denial for things you are directly experiencing makes you seem particularly stupid no matter how much the narrator tries to present you as smart.

That's a fairly major problem with Asaro's writing: she says things as exposition and then never deals with the consequences of it. There's no confrontation that gets the hiker to realize she's no longer in Kansas; she just drops it eventually. The mathematicians on the new world apparently have the same names as those in ours but that apparently is just a massive coincidence (especially since the other world's mathematicians would have been Arabic). English is like Latin on this other world and only the Handsome Prince knew it well in the initial group but everyone later on speaks informal English perfectly (unless they have to slip into some bad faux medieval dialog). And despite all the implications in the story she wasn't transported to the future and it's not even a plot element (those were the tip of the iceberg); it's like Asaro was writing it one way and then changed her mind but forgot to remove all of the set up. Because that "introduce and ignore the consequences" writing is so common you can't even start to string up your disbelief before its cut down again.

And then there's the characters: take my plot description and drop in the biggest cliches you can and you have them. The Mary Sue... er... protagonist is beautiful, smart, brave, and completely lacking in faults. The handsome prince is kind, considerate, and a just ruler. The evil brother goes around murdering and torturing and is completely without redeeming qualities.

I can't stop without mentioning the single most over-the-top ludicrous portion of the story. Once our heroine is abducted and forced to marry the evil brother (like I said: predictability ensues) he locks her in a tower. Before going he taunts her by giving her a math problem where the solution is the combonation to the lock.


I honestly spent the first half of the novel wondering when the subversion would start that would take this trash to a level that was worthy of Nebula consideration. When I remembered who Asaro was I had to wonder about what blackmail photos she had. This was a dreadful story and if I never encounter Asaro's work again it will be too soon.

"Pride and Prometheus"
by John Kessel
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I bet John Kessel grinds his teeth anytime someone mentions Pride and Prejudice and Zombies around him. Here he was doing it first and doing it better while someone who made a kludge of a joke novel is raking in the cash. Okay, he's not really "first", but he was the most recent Austin/horror mash-up before someone struck the gold mine.

Life has gone on after the end of Pride and Prejudice and Mary is still unmarried. She's effectively given up on seeking a husband when she bumps into a visiting gentleman from Switzerland at a party. He's left his country to try to make peace with something terrible that he has done. This gentleman is hesitant to become involved with Mary both because of a fiance in Switzerland waiting for him to complete his tasks and a threat hanging over him. A set of social misunderstandings ensue that lead to complications in both of their lives.

What Kessel has essentially done is worked out a timeline where both Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice occurred at the time of their publication and this story is an insert into the middle of Frankenstein. Since the story is an insert Kessel does not play with the plot of Frankenstein and can only really expand on Austin's novel. I can't help but wonder if the story would have been more effective if he just took the themes of the novels and had fun with them rather than pushing at Austin's.

This story fanfiction though in this case it is of high enough quality that we can pretend it isn't by slapping the "homage" label on it. Kessel has the concepts down and the liberties he took didn't grate on me. I just wasn't as excited by the end result as I was with the title. I guess it has that in common with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well.

“Trophy Wives”
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

On a planet with a very regimented social structure a pair of mentally linked women encounter a woman on the run from a would-be husband. This husband wants to put the bride on display, locked in an isolated bubble for the rest of her life.

I'm left with a lot of conflicting emotions about this story. There's quite a bit to like and at the same time there's some things that put me off. I find myself wishing that it was significantly longer since there are concepts touched on in the story that could be more effective if they were developed further and at the same time I don't know if Hoffman's writing could sustain a longer story.

In fact with reflection that is exactly what is wrong and what is right in the story at the same time. Hoffman throws out a lot of interesting concepts and themes but never managed to make them join together into a coherent form. It's a squiggle of a short story and if she took it out to five times its length then that squiggle could be part of a work of art or just a large mess.

The characters are intriguing but not fully formed. The setting is intriguing but not fully formed. The plot is intriguing but not fully formed. The prose is not intriguing; it's decent enough. The story either needs to be stripped down to a more narrow focus on its core themes of status or expanded to let these ideas grow. As it stands it is an interesting effort that just doesn't come together for me.

The 2008 Nebula Winners!

Here they are, the 2008 Nebula Awards:

2008 Nebula Winners
Novel - Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
Novella - "The Spacetime Pool" by Catherine Asaro
Novelette - "Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel
Short Story - “Trophy Wives” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Script - WALL-E by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon and Pete Docter

All of the short fiction is currently available on the web and the links will take you to them so you can check out the stories yourself.