Books: 2018-02

What do you do in winter? You go home and curl up with a good book, or, in my case this year, a good bookshelf. I may have overdone it a bit. Here are all of the books in February: those I liked, a section for the short stories (most of which linked and available freely online), and those I can't recommend.

The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore

Part 2 and 3 of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. Both of these are part of the original Earthsea trilogy, and I enjoyed them very much.

The Tombs of Atuan has a very restricted setting, and we get to see the protagonist of the first volume, Ged, from the outside, at the peak of his power. I missed the deep involvements with different concepts that the first volume had a bit, but I enjoyed the protagonists struggle against her restrictive upbringing and environment. Also, we don't segue into a "happily ever after" once the primary conflict is over, but get to see how Ged and the protagonist deal with the aftermath.

The Farthest Shore was even better. We get a classical saga of a fight against evil, but with relatable characters (again, Ged seen from the outside). It was really weird to read a book that has no woman in it. At all, except for unnamed wives providing food or something. It's more honest than token women having some sort of unwarranted speaking role for appearances' sake, but it's still weird. Mrs Le Guin commented on this later on (and indeed, the next book in the series, that appeared 15 years later, remedies this issue). The story of mentorship, and life and death, is still great, and well-told.

The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest

Both Stories are part of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. And what a pair they make.

The Dispossessed is … great. It really is. It's depicts an anarchical society, and contrasts it with its capitalist parent society (which it diverged from about a hundred years earlier), without painting one as purely good or bad. We get relatable characters on all sides. We see both struggles of societies and of individuals. We see individuals get to grips with themselves and the societies they want and have. It's magic.

The Word for World is Forest is less spectacular in contrast. It's pretty much what the title says: A world where the forest is central for the humanoids living on it, their society, and their culture. It's contrasted with the colonising humans, which goes about as well as you'd expect. I'd have liked a deeper exploration of the alien society and culture because the pieces offered were fascinating and really cool. Also, we get to see human society as the ansible (instantaneous communication between planets) overtakes human exploration, which is a cool concept.

In Calabria

Peter S. Beagle does the unicorn thing again! (He's the author of The Last Unicorn). This … novella? I think? plays in Italy, though. I've never felt like a grumpy old Italian farmer before, and I wouldn't want to miss this experience. Also, there was a very touching romance in there: no-frills, no-nonsense.

The Player of Games

Part two of Iain Banks' Culture series.

I put this one off for quite a while since my first Culture novel (Consider Phlebas) was very boring. The Player of Games could not have been more different – fairly fast-paced, interesting, and funny. Totally not what I expected. A great exploration of a very foreign society by an amusingly unwilling Culture agent. The novel managed to combine action, wit, deep considerations of society in a very entertaining mix.

Dawn and Adulthood Rites

The first two parts of the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler.

Dawn was my first novel by Octavia Butler and I found myself wanting more. It explores a post-apocalyptic scenario of comparatively few humans who were rescued by aliens after the Last War. We get to explore the alien (very alien) culture, their goals, motivation, and society through the eyes of the protagonist, a black woman from the US. The protagonist is very likeable, and her story is exactly what I'm looking for in scifi: alien cultures and societies, integrating with or changing around other societies (in this case, the humans). Very recommended. (Bonus: The aliens identified the combination of intelligence and hierarchy as the fatal flaw of the human race.)

Adulthood Rites gripped me a bit less, because it didn't explore as many new and exciting concepts as Dawn. It was still very interesting as it tackled new challenges by way of a new generation. The protagonist was sufficiently alien to be interesting and sufficiently human to provoke empathy, which is basically also the point of the novel. While Adulthood Rites was not as awesome as Dawn, I'll put it down to suffering Second Book Syndrome, and I'm looking forward to the last book in the trilogy.

The Wind Through the Keyhole

Stephen King returns to his Dark Tower series with this novella (well, by his standards of book length). You don't need to know Dark Tower to enjoy it, though it adds a layer of recognising people and places. I enjoy nested stories a lot, and this one does keep up with the high quality of Dark Tower in general. It felt like coming home, and listening to an exciting tale told by family, and what else could I ask for.

Sandman Slim

If you're a fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is for you. It's faced paced, action packed urban fantasy, with a gunslinging protagonist, a consistent mythology we clearly have only seen part of yet, and a bit cardboard-ish yet fun side characters. I'm lookig forward to the rest of the series – it's not fancy, it's not food for thought, but it's entertaining.

The Warrior's Apprentice

In contrast, the second part of The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is both food for thought and very entertaining. Leave off the first volume if you haven't read it yet, it's comparatively boring, and not required to read the second volume.

This is basically a trickster tale told in a space opera. The story is incredibly entertaining and fast paced. Space, different alien cultures, space battles, it all is just a setting for Miles to carry off the most daring schemes, mostly without being entirely clear on the consequences. You're constantly thinking "Did he really? But he can't … Oh WAIT!". Pure, undiluted fun and action.


Part one of the Rifter series by Peter Watts.

I didn't like the book, but I'd still like to recommend it. The book shows how a group of outsiders reacts to a very challenging setting, being put in a deep sea station with technology allowing them to move outside, on the ground of the ocean. It didn't match my personal taste in near future scifi thrillers, but it's still a very good book. Watts knows how do develop characters, describe settings, and build a plausible world, both in terms of society and technology, and people involved. None of those people appealed to me in any way, but that's more my problem and less his fault.

The Princess Bride

The book by William Goldman that inspired the movie.

I haven't seen the movie, and I knew nothing about it or the book going into it. This book is just pure fun. It makes fun of stereotypical Cloak and Dagger books (it even name drops Alexandre Dumas), and provides one with added meta commentary at the same time. All of the characters are ridiculous and lovable, the story is unbelievable in the best sense, and everything … just fits. It's a book to re-read when life seems to dour or sad, or if you're in danger of taking yourself or your life too seriously.

Short Stories

  • And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker: A great long-ish short story on parallel universes. One Sarah discovers a way to traverse the Multiverse and does a SarahCon – inviting about 100 other Sarahs of different walks of life. As the title (a wonderful Agatha Christie reference) indicates, they witness and have to solve a murder. Everything in this story was enjoyable. Utterly great sense of humor, weirdness, you name it. Go read it!
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (pdf) by Ursula K. Le Guin: It's old, and short, and I read it when I saw it referenced for the fifth time in some online discussion. While it's a bit on the nose with its symbolism, the storytelling is very solid, and even when it's obvious that and what it wants to tell us (which I usually dislike), it grew on me and stayed with me. I found myself randomly thinking about it weeks later, and if that's not good, I don't know what is.
  • The Sword of Good by Eliezer Yudkowsky is a short story that's just very enjoyable in making fun of fantasy books' tendency to paint things in black & white.
  • Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker impressed me a bit less than And Then There Were (N-One), but it's still good scifi. This short story takes us aboard a multigenerational space ship and highlights intergenerational conflicts and cultural shifts.

Don't Recommend

  • By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benét: A post-apocalyptic short story from 1937. I'm sure it was new and ahead of its time when it was published, but by now its setting, theme, and general outlook has been done over and over and is basically a staple of scifi. I respect it for being written on a post-A bomb apocalypse before the first atomic bomb had been dropped on a city, but it still didn't work well for me.
  • Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: Published in 1905, it reverses the gender roles in an Arabic country. Very, very daring for the time of publishing, but only of historic interest to me currently.
  • Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue by Charlie Jane Anders: Being forced into a body of a different gender ought to be nightmare material, but this short story failed to grip me. I'm not sure if that's due to the style of writing, or the cardbord-ish characters, but it just didn't work for me.
  • The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch: This part of the Peter Grant series wasn't particularly bad, it … just wasn't particularly good, either. It feels like Aaronovitch is just following the pre-established pattern of the series. Yes, the pattern involves a lot of wit, but it's still very much a pattern, similar to the rather early Disc World books I guess. So if you like the Peter Grant stories a lot*: go ahead. Otherwise you're wasting your time.
  • The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula K. Le Guin: Basically a prequel short story to The Dispossessed, it felt meandering and a bit pointless. I assume that I'll feel different about this in thirty years when I'm closer in age to the protagonist.
  • Abhorsen by Garth Nix is the third part of the Abhorsen series, and the first time I've thought I may be too old for YA stories. Or maybe the story is just not for me – it felt way too predictable, even though the characters and the storytelling were both good.
  • A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean just wasn't for me. At all. I got about half through the book and nothing in there interested me.
  • A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle: It's a childrens' book, and pretty good – world-roaming fantasy, magic, self-exploration. It was a lot of fun until it decided to randomly add in Christian religion by way of adding ethics. I'm kinda allergic to this. If you want books for kids/YA that have fantasy and magic and still speak about ethics without forcing Christianity down your throat, go for Diane Duane's Wizards series instead.
  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin tells the tale of the protagonist, who's dreams come true, changing history retroactively, and his psychiatrist, who's using that power to his and humanity's advantage. Maybe it's just my high expectations when starting a book by Le Guin, but I was a bit disappointed with the pace and the characters and the story arch. It's not bad, and if the premise interests you, you should definitely read it, but don't expect to be overwhelmed by a great book.