June 2009: Hellspark by Janet Kagan

July 25, 2009 at 10:50 pm (science fiction)

Hellspark (published in 1988) is one of my favorite thinky science fiction novels, and one that I re-read periodically.  It combines a murder mystery with a tricky first contact situation and, most interestingly, a wide array of cultures and languages – and a lot of discussion of them.

Exactly how far into the future this is set is left entirely unstated, but it must be a *long* way, since the various cultures involved are as different as, oh, Mayans and Scandinavians.  Or possibly even more different.

The main character, Tocohol Susumo, is what is known as a Hellspark trader – people who specialize in languages, cultures, diplomacy and trade.  It’s not clear whether they have a home planet, but they do seem to have an affinity for some other cultures.

Anyway, to understate the plot complications a bit, her job is to figure out whether a certain species on the planet Flashfever (which is, incidentally, a fascinating place where a lot of the life forms are electrified) is sentient.  To do so, however, she may have to prove that some of them murdered one of the research team.

I particularly enjoy all the cultural and linguistic stuff.  But to me, another of the most fun parts of the book is the existence (and importance) of professional serendipitists: people who have an inordinate amount of luck, and are paid to hang around and attract positive coincidences, discoveries, etc.  I happen to know someone who could apply for a job like that.

This is not an easy book to get a copy of, but if you see one and you like thinky SF, try to grab it!


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ARC Reviewed: Dark Time by Dakota Banks

July 23, 2009 at 10:57 pm (ARC Reviews, fantasy, negativity, urban fantasy)

This book could actually be worse, if the basic sentence-level writing wasn’t competent.

This is only my perspective, of course; the book may be much more appealing to people other than me.   I have never, for example, been a fan of bed-hopping characters of any gender – so that’s a reason for me not to like it right there.  Your mileage may vary.

But there’s a lot more to disapprove of in this book than that.  Indeed, as I slogged through to the end (only actually throwing it across the room once!), I began trying to think of it as a manuscript handed to me by a friend.  A friend I’d like to keep.  So this review should be seen as a round of constructive criticism, insofar as it’s possible to offer such a critique of an already-published work.

Especially an already-published work by a pseudonymous author who has previously had six (!) books published under a different name.  And here I thought I was reading a first published novel.  I suppose I should have known better – first published novels are generally much better than this.

Seriously, Dakota – your editor has let you down.   Your agent, too.

To begin with, facts are important.  Even in a story loaded with impossible fantastic and pseudotech elements, the details about the real world need to be correct.  Why?  Because you never know which incorrect fact will, for any given reader, strike a swift, sharp blow at your story’s credibility and even your credibility as a writer.

Nor do you know exactly how many of these errors it will take for any given reader to start questioning every potentially dubious detail – and/or start complaining about your horrible fact-checking to all of her friends.  Break the reader’s trust in your reliability and you’re halfway to losing her entirely.

Sooo, you say, what facts are you talking about, Text?  The big one is a really big one, since it deeply involves the protagonist’s entire reason for being in this book.

See, the demon got a hold on our multiply-renamed protagonist because she’d been burned as a witch (even though she wasn’t one, and was pregnant to boot) – in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts.  Dakota, honey, the number of witches burned in New England is zero.  They were hanged.  Furthermore, the likelihood of a 17th-century English justice system executing a pregnant woman is approximately zilch.  The English regularly postponed executions due to pregnancy, for offenses up to and including piracy on the high seas.  There was even a term for it – “pleading her belly.”

You can see, I think, how this undermines nearly everything about Protagonist’s initial motivation.   The fact that she miscarried the baby before her execution is immaterial – she was convinced, against all reason, that they would’ve executed her even if she’d still been pregnant. So, the entire first chapter needs to be re-worked.  I’m sure you can think of other reasons for Protagonist to be so embittered she threw her lot in with a demon.

The fact that caused me to throw the book across the room (and start questioning everything) was actually a minor detail in a flashback about Protagonist’s time in Brazil.  As part of the effort to add depth and color to the scene, Protagonist recalls that the man she’s going to see still lives in this crime-ridden favela because he’d been there back when it was still a “respectable neighborhood.”   In reality, Brazilian favelas are shantytowns on the edges of major cities that have never been respectable.  Fascinatingly, some of them have gradually achieved a sort of respectability over the years, but they are not good neighborhoods gone bad.  Happily, this fact problem is more easily fixed than the other one.

These are the two errors that particularly stood out for me (other readers may find different ones).  The latter error, especially, suggests a regrettable level of carelessness with detail.  It drastically heightened my level of skepticism about everything in the story, though to be fair, the initial witch-related error made me more inclined to be suspicious anyway.

And then there’s this other thing – not so much an error as a mind-boggling omission.  Seventeenth-century Massachusetts Protagonist never thinks about her (Christian) God.  Never prays to Him.  Is never shown jettisoning her faith in light of the cruelty being imposed on her by her own religion and justice system.  This makes no sense – and really, the whole thing would be more affecting if she did go through the faith wringer in this chapter or the next one.  But nothing of the sort occurs.

For that matter, almost no one in the novel ever mentions God or Jesus (even in the too-common meaningless interjection form).  Apparently the only real supernatural powers in this world are ancient Sumerian demons and their absentee overlord god, Anu (infodump, pp. 31-32).   And I’m not really comfortable with that, personally.  But in addition, the response of the characters in the novel who learn of this seems to be, “Oh.  That explains everything!”  Or something of the sort.  Nobody, it seems, has ever been to Sunday school, or had to struggle with such a direct contradiction of their traditional faith.  It’s incomprehensible.  This issue needs to be given a lot more thought, and dealt with directly.  It’s a novel with a demon in it, after all.  That ought to loom a bit larger than it does.

Next, the name thing.  For the first fifty-one pages, Protagonist is consistently referred to by her original name – Susannah Layhem.  At the opening of Chapter Nine, she’s renamed herself Maliha Crayne – a decision that took place some time after Chapter Eight: a decision already accomplished, and thus tensionless and relieved of any particular narrative significance, despite a fairly lengthy (action-free) pause to describe her current circumstances.  I think the multiple time frame shifts of the preceding chapters have a lot to do with why this important change falls flat, but more on that in a moment.

Several chapters later in the book, it’s revealed, indirectly, that her current public name is Marsha Winters.   Various people call her Ms. Winters before one finally mentions the whole thing.  Even though, back in Chapter Nine, it was revealed that she was earning a nice living writing popular trashy crime novels, this pen name / “real name” is not mentioned at that point.  This is needlessly confusing (though at least she never thinks of herself as Marsha).

In addition, if she never uses this Maliha Crayne name, why did she bother to adopt it at all?  And stating that she felt she needed to change her name isn’t the same as showing why it was so important to her.  This whole name change concept needs rethinking, or a better portrayal.  I know the symbolism of changing one’s name is powerful, but it isn’t shown powerfully, and the addition of the Winters name dilutes whatever effect it might have had.  But at the very least, put something about the Winters name in the same scene as the reveal about her novel-writing, instead of playing all coy with it, please.

The fact-checking and names problems are perhaps not the major issues that the number of words I’ve just spent on them might suggest; they are, however, symptomatic of the larger problem with the novel, which is a fundamental lack of coherence.

The book just doesn’t seem to know what kind of book it is.  Most of the time, after page 51, it seems like it’s being a techno-thriller; at other points, it has definite overtones of a semi-humorous caper story.  Early on, there are strong elements of supernatural horror / redemption story, but these pretty much vanish, aside from technical details, after page 51.   Starting on page 55, Maliha is being stalked by a really nasty and unnamed guy, so maybe it’s actually a crime novel.  There’s some romance mixed in, too, which doesn’t jell particularly well with all the other elements.

Oh, and there’s a quest – if Maliha can acquire the Tablet of the Overlord and the seven shards of the Lens to read it with, she’ll probably be able to destroy her personal demon (Rabishu) and his six siblings.  In fact, she does acquire the Tablet – in a flashback.  And she finds one of the shards – in the course of a minor side plot.  What’s up with that?  Why the focus on the would-be techno overlord / terrorist, instead of the big quest?  Of course, there is her ongoing quest also – under the escape clause in her contract, she needs to save as many lives as she can (why taking more lives in the life-saving process doesn’t affect the outcome is not discussed) in order to escape eternal torment.

In fact, there’s just too much going on here.   A lot if it is really interesting stuff, actually, but it just doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative.  Some of it has to go.

Part of the problem is the flashbacks – I’ve mentioned those already.  The novel zig-zags through time at intervals that make very little sense to me.  Not only are there flashbacks to crucial moments in Maliha’s progress from assassin to ex-assassin (plus the one about getting the Tablet), but each of her good buddies gets his own flashback showing exactly how they met – even though the narrative already briefly explained that, sometimes many pages before the flashback.  In fact the only one who doesn’t get one is her best girlfriend; what’s up with that?  Anyway, this zig-zagging only exacerbates the problem of figuring out what kind of story this is supposed to be.

Now, there are some good, powerful scenes in this novel, especially in the first fifty pages.  There are also events that make no sense at all (how, exactly, did she sneak onto the plane sitting on the remote runway in broad daylight?).  There are random things that annoy the heck out of this particular reader (she drives a McLaren F1?  Seriously?   Including on trips to break into two different corporate HQs?). But with some judicious pruning and alteration of plot lines – and I have to recommend playing up the quest at the expense of the the techno-thriller plot, because it’s a lot more central to the character’s purpose in life – the pretty good book that’s in here could be liberated.

I’m not sure it would be all that much to my taste even then, but it wouldn’t be such an almighty trial for me to get through.  The average Clive Cussler novel isn’t much more believable, in a lot of ways, but the man does know how to plot and I can read his books without repeatedly going, “What?  No, that makes no sense.  We’re going where now?”

I mean, I know this book is not meant to be Great Literature.  But in its present state it isn’t even a “good read.”  And, Dakota, I have a couple of things to say in this regard, which may be a little hard to take:

First, if you really, truly believe this is the best you can do, then you’re not trying hard enough to get better at what you do.

Second, if you believe this is the best you need to do – and even if that’s actually true – why aren’t you trying to do better anyway?

I could offer some more remarks on structural elements, not to mention the flat characters, but 1900 words is more than enough for a book review.  And, well, it’s already been published, and I think I’ve made my point(s).  Fin.

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Acquisitions: Anniversary Trip

July 14, 2009 at 7:18 pm (Book buying)

Yes, our idea of a great way to celebrate our anniversary was to mount an expedition to the best used book store in the state.  The take:

A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony (discarded from our collection a while ago, but we thought we might try it on Text Jr.)

A Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Ultra Thriller: Time Bomb by “Franklin W. Dixon” (1992.  Come on, you’re staring at that title in horrified fascination too!  And it was only $1.00!)

High Stakes and Slayride by Dick Francis (two of the three or four we didn’t already own)

A Traitor to Memory by Elizabeth George (writer of doorstop-sized mystery/thrillers of extraordinary quality)

Mainspring by Jay Lake (how could we resist a steampunk novel set in New England?)

Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester (a book I’ve been hoping to acquire – score!!)

The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald (our own personal copy, at last!)

Once a Hero by Elizabeth Moon (a volume we’re missing from this series)

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper (one of my favorite, but most strenuous to read, writers)

I *think* we sold them about nine discard books of our own, so we came away with three fewer than we started with …

Disappointments:  At least six different works about T. S. Eliot, but no volumes of his actual poetry.  Sheesh!  Also, the history section yielded nothing – either the good stuff is for sale online, or we’re just keeping the place picked clean.

And I’m not sure where I’m going to stack all this – my TBR pile has not gotten any smaller, especially since I’ve been having trouble settling to any one book and I’m partway through about eight of them.  So much for the Treatment Program …

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ARC Received: Dark Time by Dakota Banks

July 10, 2009 at 2:34 pm (ARC Received)

Actually I think it’s a copy of the actual paperback (seeing as it doesn’t say Review Copy on it anywhere), but close enough.

First impressions:  Urban fantasy.  “Three hundred years ago, she sold her soul to a demon.  Now she wants it back.”   Volume 1 of Mortal Path.  Could be good, or really bad – we’ll see.

Cover:  I suppose it’s an improvement over the too-common Headless Woman cover – in this case, it’s a woman’s back and her head’s dropped so far forward that it takes a second glance to realize that no, she’s not actually decapitated.  And it’s so dark that a lot of the detail is lost.  Oh well.

Maybe I’ll take some time off from enjoying the return of the Sun God this weekend to read it.

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June 2009: David Eddings

July 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm (fantasy, in memoriam) ()

Naturally, my response to the death of David Eddings last month was to start re-reading his and Leigh’s books.  What better memorial is there for any author?  I went through The Belgariad (5 volumes) and part of its sequel The Mallorean before some other book distracted me.

I own a first edition paperback of Pawn of Prophecy, his first fantasy book.  It was being discarded from the library where I was working as a page, having gotten rather battered, and I repaired its properly torn-off cover with black electrical tape.  We’ve actually acquired an omnibus edition of the first two or three volumes, but I still like to re-read the more manageable single paperback sometimes.  Physically, it’s holding up rather well, tape and all.

So, what is there to say about books one first read in high school – books that were new, imaginative, and enthralling at that time, but have lost some of their luster over the years?  The Belgariad has a second world fantasy setting and grand sweep of events like The Lord of the Rings, but a cast that was much more homey and comfortable.  The characters were all human, and a lot more like modern people than Tolkien’s.  I liked that Garion came from a happy home, even though he was an orphan; the characters’ non-stop bickering and jokes were refreshingly different.  The Prophecy – well, I’m not sure that anyone has dared to duplicate the notion of a pair of self-aware prophecies working to make sure their own predictions became reality.  It would be extremely obvious where that idea came from, I suppose.  That the genre has become littered with examples of inevitable prophecies is hardly his fault; we could blame Sophocles for that, too, but it wouldn’t make any more sense.

Similarly, I’ve heard this particular kind of story derided as “plot coupon” fantasy – in which the characters travel around, picking up the necessary information, objects, or whatever, in order to reach the foregone conclusion.  The fact is, though, that given the way Eddings structured the world of these books, that sequence makes perfect and necessary sense.  That other authors have done the same thing without supplying such a supporting structure is their fault, not his.

Still, it’s true that these books are not great literature, a fact that’s become more and more clear to me as I’ve expanded my reading over the years.  I’ve sometimes called them “potato chip fantasy” – greasy, salty, not particularly filling, but very easy to enjoy.  And so what?  Not every book has to be deep and meaningful.  Sometimes a light read is just what I’m in the mood for.

The one thing that has really disappointed me about the Eddings body of work is that David and Leigh apparently only had one story in them: a band of heroes goes on a long journey and saves the world from a great evil.  No, there’s one other thing – over the decades of their career, I detected no significant change in their writing style or approach to characterization or plotting.  We bought The Belgariad, and The Mallorean in hardcover, and their semi-prequels Belgarath the Sorceror and Polgara the Sorceress in hardcover (the latter we own in the British edition, as we were in London at the time of its release and didn’t want to wait to get home before buying it).  We bought The Elenium (in hardcover), which featured a nicely significant change in setting but not much else that was different.  But we didn’t buy the sequel series to that one, and while I read The Redemption of Althalus, that was from the library.  I haven’t even looked at The Dreamers series.  We own as much Eddings as we’re interested in owning.  We re-read them from time to time, when we’re in the mood for light fantasy that we remember fondly.

The “About the Author” section in the Eddings books we own attribute the decision to write them to interest in exploring “technical and philosophical ideas” about fantasy literature.  I suspect that these ideas might actually boil down to “Can I make a living writing this stuff?”  The answer, fortunately, was “yes.”  They are light, fun books with just enough depth of character and theme to keep from being totally superficial, solidly written and with entertaining dialogue.  I have no objection to authors making a living, whether they write books I like to read or not.  It may be that in the next decades, these books will be largely forgotten – like so many other books from the same period.  So what?  I like them.  When I want deep or gut-wrenching or really angsty fiction, I’ll just read something else.

Rest in peace, David and Leigh Eddings.  You did some good work.  Thank you.

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