April was good, reading-wise, and I have read several books that rated a solid WOW. Let's start with the less than good news, though:
I'm currently busy (<- this is what an understatement looks like) organising a conference that takes place during the last week of May. This would usually mean that I'd get maybe two or three books done this month. Sadly I started "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnemann on May 1st and now, a week later, I'm about 25% in. So let's just confidently call off the May book blog post, and you'll get a nice long blog post for the books I'll read in June. Deal?
Great, now let's see what we've got for March:
Tales from Earthsea & The Other Wind
I've officially finished Ursula K. le Guin's Earthsea saga of six volumes as of this month. What a ride! This is definitely some very nice fantasy – as always with Ursula's books, there are some parts that I utterly love, and then some parts that are just meh to me, so it usually balances out to "this is good?".
Tales from Earthsea is a collection of Earthsea short stories. I enjoyed that all of them involve a character or aspect of Earthsea we met before, but focus on something completely different. That's a clever way to expand our view of Earthsea, and it makes the whole world feel more tangible and like a home.
The Other Wind explains things about several previous story arcs that I didn't realize needed explaining, which is always nice. Also, Ursula continues her pattern of role reversals when compared to classic fantasy – Ged, the previous hero, stays at home and takes care of the house and the goats, while his wife and daughter more-or-less save the world. This, and her very thoughtful descriptions of role and power dynamics made the book really cool.
Imago is the third and last volume of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series. A bit predictably, perhaps, we get yet another view on the interaction of humans and aliens, now from the point of the unexpected third generation of the mixed children of humans and aliens. I thought it nice how more in-depth understanding is provided for the alien culture, which was previously described in a way that made it sound positive, but never understandable. Apart from that, the story wasn't really groundbreaking.
Kill the Dead & Aloha from Hell
The second and third volume of Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series have an interesting pattern: They start out in a way that screams "cheap action splatter pulp novel", with all the violence and banter, and then after about two thirds they turn around and introduce yet another element that hints at a much larger and well-built story and world (also, good twists and dialogue). I mean, we get a new falling angel and actual interaction with God. I'm still not sure what to think of this series, but the books are always a nice change of pace, so I'll just keep at it.
The latest, second volume in Charlie Stross's Empire Games series is totally awesome. This is my review. "Totally awesome". It's a good follow-up on the first volume, with even more parallel universes, character development, creepy spying governments, cultural juxtapositions. We get new promising characters (woo the Princess), and then we get an evil horrible cliffhanger dropped on us. Yeah, I'm going back to 70s scifi, where a cliffhanger is about as long as it takes to open the next book.
Parable of the Sower
Now that I've finished Xenogenesis, I'm starting the next Octavia Butler series, Earthseed. I'm a bit thrown off by the mysticism included. But otoh, it drives characterisation, and both the story and characters are great. At this point, a USA descending into chaos and disorder has been done so often that it's hard to convince with this setting, but "a girl grows up in a USA that has been in chaos and disorder for 10 years" really works. Everything feels real, and scary, and broken, and not like some fantasy author decided they could do dystopia, too! (Hunger Games, sorry, but …) I'm really looking forward to the next one.
The State of the Art
Yes, I'm still working on Iain Banks and his Culture series. The State of the Art are short stories, and like always, short story collections are a hell to review. I liked some more than others, what else can I say? But really, there are some novellas in there that show us more aspects of known people, but there are also some incredibly hilarious semi-unrelated shorts. If you read the Culture novels, you know that Iain can do amazing deadpan jokes in all situations, but this is different – there are outright comedy short stories in there. It was great.
Oh boy. Lois McMaster Bujold and her Vorkosigan Saga continue to impress the hell out of me. As the previous volume, this one doesn't really mention the series protagonist Mike Vorkosigan. Instead we get a the Quaddies (humans with arms instead of legs), as seen and told by an Engineer, capital E. It's awesome, and it's got everything you'd wish for: a new culture, social implications, lots and lots of economic and corporate implications (I see where Charlie got his Laundry File bureaucracy from), and the cultural implications as well. Also, very sweet and cool characters all around, and funny af. Leo Graf, the protagonist, is just ♥. How is Lois McMaster Bujold not one of the first authors to be recommended to people starting scifi?
Remember how I loved the first Imperial Radch book and was worried that Ann Leckie might not be able to deliver a second volume in line with the first? I needn't have worried. Ancillary Sword is very different from Ancillary Justice in many ways – its pacing is slower, for one, and the storytelling is way more linear, and focused on character development. I liked this a lot, and I think it's a solid strategy for second volumes overall. I liked how the multi-focused storytelling is now employed to provide parallel views on the same situation from multiple sides – this made the deep exploration of the Imperial culture (and of course our protagonist) very enjoyable. Where the first book gave us a lot of quick glances at a huge culturally diverse imperium and somebody up against it, we now get to see how real life in there works, and what being a ~human means for our protagonist. Loved it, and I'm looking forward to Ancillary Mercy.
The second volume of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota is a bit lower on the 18th century France presumptiousness spree (but adds in some more Greek history to make up for it). Where the first volume developed the complex world, we now see how it works on the brink of collapsing. I enjoyed it very much, and I think it is a great second volume. Terra Ignota will consist of four volumes in total (last one comes out next year), and two will each be grouped together, so that Too Like the lightning and Seven Surrenders are a complete story arc.
I still maintain that I understand why people would dislike these books, but for me they are great scifi by the simple measurement of "I keep thinking about this world". The social, political, and economic structures of Earth are so well-told and intriguing that I find myself thinking about the implications and how I would live in this world days and weeks after I've read the book, and I can't ask more of a book.
Planet of Exile
Planet of Exile is part of the Heinish Cycle by Ursula le Guin. I definitely liked this one more than the previous volume, World of Rocannon. It shows us two alien cultures as seen by the opposite culture, and their interactions. It's short and simple, and its narrative arch is not very impressive, but it's okay or even good scifi, hands down. Also, I always enjoy cultural divergence, and a human colony on an alien planet that got left there (either forgotten, or their civilisation lost a space war) definitely qualifies for that. We get to see (only a bit of) the battle of "let's preserve who we are" and "we're not that anymore, we need to change".
In the second volume of Subjective Cosmology, Greg Egan continues to play with the rules of perception and what perceiving a thing implies, only this time we go on a trippy trip to parallel universe central, launching of (and off) parallel universes as we go, dropping through thousands of years and more, and "failing" (in one universe, and what's one universe at this point) in the end because the aliens we created have a more solid and coherent perception of reality than we do. I just felt the whole time that Greg made up all the rules fairly arbitrarily and could change them whatever way he wanted at any time, basically making up both the argument, and the winner. This may have been due to me not understanding the premise deeply enough (and is a feeling shared by Maria, one of the two protagonists, at least). Regardless, it's definitely solid, cool scifi that thinks new and weird thoughts all the way through (and then some).
None in April, but I'm sure in two months I'll have new short story hotness to link here.
- The Last Starfighter is a book that was written after the movie. It's … not very good. The writing is just all over the place, and it kind of reads like Ender's Game, only here and now and with less moral implications. I'm sure the movie is noticeably better.