Review: Hostile Takeover

November 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm (science fiction, space opera)

Hostile Takeover
Hostile Takeover by Susan Shwartz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more, but the future world portrayed by Shwartz pissed me off so much that I had to set it aside repeatedly so I could cool off.

It’s actually a typical extrapolation-from-the-present near-future SF world, in which financial-services veteran Shwartz contemplates what would happen if the whole world were dominated by that industry. More than it is now, that is. So much so that people are divided into three classes: the poor, stuffed into crime-ridden crowded “insulae” with only the thinnest thread of hope of escape; the wealthy, insulated from (but not immune to) financial risk; and the middle class, who live in fear of losing a job, falling into debt, and being shipped off to the asteroidal colonies in cryogenic suspension and to indentured servitude (or even involuntary organ donation).

The protagonist, CC, escaped from poverty into the middle class and lives in that fear (waking up multiple a week in sweating, terrified nightmares). The inevitable result of these circumstances, in which even a brilliant and creative analyst like CC could easily wind up on the garbage heap, is that the middle class salarymen behave pretty much like ferrets tied up in a sack. Apparently they are not really paid all that well, making it very hard for them to stay out of debt (and unable to save up for large expenses?), their credit ratings are monitored constantly for imprudent discretionary spending, and their behavior is expected to fall within rigid but unwritten lines at all times. Otherwise they get “downchecked” and if their fiscal and social credit ratings get too low, they’ll suddenly become unemployable.

As I said, terrifying and infuriating. Shwartz makes CC’s terror and determination very real – as well as her intelligence and serious research addiction (which endeared her to me considerably, of course).

The plot revolves around CC’s audit of questionable activities at Vesta Colony, various attempted murders of CC, and eventual discoveries that were great to read but don’t add much to the spectrum of SF ideas. It’s the setting that does that.

Pay no attention to the cover, by the way. It should’ve been a representation of CC’s 3D data matrix, not a ridiculous intimation of physical combat that didn’t happen.

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Review: A Brother’s Price

November 23, 2013 at 12:27 am (fantasy, science fiction)

A Brother's Price
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A person’s favorite books can be – are – intensely personal. A favorite book may not have the most amazing writing or worldbuilding or plot or characters, and yet be just the right book for certain readers. For such a book and such a reader, a review is rather pointless. Which is why I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of this book until now, even though I usually re-read it a couple of times a year.

Consider, for example, the worldbuilding here: it’s muddy. Is this another planet? A post-apocalyptic former United States? An alternate history of some kind? There’s no way to know. I’m inclined toward the post-apocalyptic US, because of some of the names (“Renssellaer” just shouts familiarity with New York state to me, though it’s spelled a bit wrong) and because the uneven tech and science levels suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to a smattering of “ancient texts.” A date in the 1500s is mentioned at some point, suggesting that it’s been a very long time since a new calendar was started, based (I suspect) on the teachings of seven prophets of a pantheon headed by Hera. But there’s absolutely no way to be sure; it’s completely irrelevant to the narrative, and none of it’s actually explained. This is the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to drive a certain segment of the f&sf reading public absolutely nuts, so if you’re one of them, I wouldn’t suggest trying to read it.

On the social plane is, of course, the conceit emphasized in the book: that for some reason, at some point in the past (and continuing to the present), live births of males cratered. As a result, 95% or more of the population is female, and they have line marriages – one man marries a family of sisters, and also takes on what we would consider a female role. Males are also considered property, and the “brother’s price” of the title refers to the money a batch of sisters can get for their (usually one, if they’re lucky) brother, if they don’t swap for another family’s brother so they can have a husband. This, a topic of great relevance to all the characters, gets quite a bit of attention in the narrative.

The plot is actually a rather simple one of problematic romance between Jerin Whistler, a farmers’ son, and the princesses of the boringly named “Queensland,” with a side order of high-level intrigue, treason, and murder. (Plus steamboats, for those who are interested.)

What I like about the book is, I think, actually two things. First, most of the characters have thoughts and opinions about their own society, not all of them positive or happy; the inherent problems of such a society are out in the open and sometimes discussed, just like the inherent problems in our own society. Second, the themes of love for and responsibility toward one’s family that run through the book. Jerin doesn’t like the risk of being married into a family he won’t like, but he also knows that his sisters really need a husband and the money his marriage can bring.

And there’s a third thing: the way the Whistlers see some of the things that happen as what they call “a shining coin”: a chance for brilliant success or even just survival that they can have if they only reach out and catch it – and are lucky. I see it as the thing that ties the whole book together, and for intensely personal reasons, is probably the real reason why I love this book.

Your mileage will probably vary. But that’s okay. Wen Spencer obviously wrote this book specifically for me.

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Review: The Raven Boys

November 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm (fantasy, teen)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finishing a book with a resigned feeling of “Oh, of course, it’s a trilogy” is not a good sign. In fact, it’s a real shame in this case because I could have really liked this book, but instead I feel, well, resigned about it. The ending was clever and well done, and the climax actually succeeds at being credible by having been set up, invisibly in the background, for quite a while. But.

But what?

The book strives for mythic sweep while also containing a gleeful jumble of psychics and pseudoscience made real, among other elements that ‘twould be spoilery to discuss. (I will say, however, that the subplot about Noah was excellent.) But to my mind, the scope of the tale is too small for multiple volumes. It is set up – or at least that’s how it came across to me – to be the story of a Tragic Hero, not an Epic Quest. Think Orpheus, not Odysseus. No doubt the Tragic Hero thinks he’s the hero of an epic quest, and perhaps his author does too, but as far as I can see, all that’s at stake is the personal fate of him and several people close to him. That’s not epic.

So what I wanted was for the book to end with the tragic death foretold at the beginning. As I remarked while reading it, I like the Tragic Hero enough that his death would be tragic, but not enough that I want him to live. But it didn’t happen. The story veered off to become a the story of Sacrifice and Redemption of one of his friends, instead. And while that was a good story, certainly, well-done and well-characterized, it was not the story that the book appeared to be setting up in the first third, or even half.

So this book is quite good, but muddled in execution. Perhaps eventually the Tragic Hero will die, but I have doubts.

I also found the prose annoying in spots, because it seemed like every single character’s point of view contained deeply poetic insights and imagery. I like that just fine when it’s just one or two characters, or when the book is clearly written with an omniscient narrator, but in this case it just wound up feeling overdone and occasionally irksome.

I could probably also quibble about the character of Blue, the kooky magical-battery girl, but I actually like her too much as a person. So there’s that.

Worth reading, I’d say, but not spectacular and not something I’ll be adding to my personal library.

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Review: Limits of Power

November 8, 2013 at 11:34 am (fantasy)

Limits of Power
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a middle-of-the-series book that I hardly know what to say. A lot of important things happen, but very few conclusions are reached. Arvid Semmison, the character I’m most interested in finding out more about, seems to be marking time until his number comes up. Kieri keeps wandering further into the elven magic stuff but full understanding of what’s it all means stays just out of reach. Dorrin continues to work on fixing her duchy and on not being arrested, and her escaped family members still haven’t organized an attack. What are Dragon’s plans now that his progeny are taken care of? And Stammel!!!! I suspect Arcolin is closer to the important places and facts than everyone else, but he doesn’t know it yet.

In other words, I’d be much happier with this book if I already had the next volume in my hands so I could find out where it’s going immediately, rather than some time next year (hopefully).

Thing is, I still love this series, and my frustration is all about how it’s not getting to its conclusion fast enough. I’m enjoying the trip, but still.

Oh, and the other thing is the marketing for this book. The blurb and all makes it sound like the hostility to the sudden re-appearance of mage powers in random people is the main focus, but it just isn’t. It’s something that Arvid, Dorrin, and the Marshal-General spend time worrying about, but nothing truly major or conclusive happens with respect to it. That’s not the author’s fault, though, that’s just the marketing department trying to find something to say about it besides “The Story Continues!”

My recommendation is that if you’re not already addicted to the series, don’t start reading it until the whole thing is published.

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Review: Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook

November 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm (fantasy, nonfiction - cooking)

Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a gift last year, and I understand it had to actually be shipped from Britain – apparently there is no market in the US for funny cookbooks based on fantasy-fiction characters. Besides me, that is.

Anyway, I read more than halfway through it last year and then misplaced it in a pile of other books, and only re-discovered it this week. Finishing it made a great way to procrastinate this afternoon.

You have to have at least read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to get the most out of this book since most of the references to the fictional world will make no sense at all if you haven’t. Really liking the series is probably a prerequisite too, because a lot (most?) of these recipes are not things one would normally make, except maybe for a Halloween party.

I haven’t tried any of the recipes myself, because the major ingredients (flour and so forth) are given in metric weight, and since I measure by volume I don’t have a kitchen scale.

Note that yes, it’s funny, but not really for kids. Though I think the scattered innuendo will go right over the heads of kids younger than 13.

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