Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tritcheon Hash - Sue Lange

I first noticed Book View Cafe in 2008, as one of the more interesting attempts to deal with the upheaval the introductions of large numbers of e-books in the market is causing. It is a consortium of authors that publishes backlist works to which the authors have retained the rights for e-books or which are out of print. Some new work has recently appeared in their catalogue as well. Book View Cafe offers a range of high quality, reasonably priced, DRM-free e-books in multiple genres of which the largest possible share go to the author. It's a project worth checking out. Tritcheon Hash by Sue Lange is one of those books that has appeared in a dead tree variation before. The original publication is by Metropolis Ink in 2003 and some paperbacks of this edition may still be floating around. I read the e-book, a copy of which was provided to me by the author.

A thousand years from now, the universe looks a lot different. Centuries ago, women have decided they've had enough of testosterone driven violence and decided to pack up and leave. Apart form the occasional baby exchange, contact between the two halves of humanity is non-existent and in general, the galaxy likes that just fine. The women have built a cosy, stable society on a planet far away from earth, leaving the men to wallow in the mess they made of the planet. Recently however, men have requested reunification and people on both sides are beginning to wonder if, perhaps, this might be a good idea.

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Lange has taking this idea quite literally by separating the sexes. Tritcheon Hash is a satire. It pokes fun at all manner of gender stereotypes in very interesting ways. The long separation seems to have made both sexes regress to the point in your life where boys/girls are stupid and you'd rather have nothing to do with them. Most people grow out of this in our world but in this novel, such behaviour has been elevated to policy, even law. It makes for a whole lot of little, often very childish details that drive the message home that members of the other sex are not in fact alien beings. One fine example of this is Tritch reaction to seeing a man's domicile:
The place was orderly—surprisingly so, in fact. No socks draped on heat disseminators, no dirty underwear hung on the back of a chair. Last week’s beer-bash flotsam was not floating about in knee-deep water. The room appeared not only neat, but also tastefully decorated: curtains matched throw pillows, furniture covers had been chosen in stylish auxiliary colors, and a big rug tied everything together. No animal heads were mounted anywhere.

Tritcheon having a close look at living conditions on Earth - Chapter 7

Another way Lange plays with perceptions genre is with her main character. As you will probably have guessed, Tritcheon Hash or Tritch for short, is a female fighter pilot. Although nobody in the female planet is quite sure what they actually need an army for, a small force does exist. Tritch is a woman who can fly just about anything currently in use (or to put it in terms more suitable to our society, she's got parallel parking down to a T). This aptitude for piloting is far for the only characteristic that are often perceived as 'male'. She is a risk-taker, a bit of an adrenaline junkie,  impatient with safety protocols and brash in her communication with people around her, including her superiors.

Language is another tool Lange uses to great effect to emphasize the separation between the sexes. Everything to do with male-female relationships and procreation is described in highly technical terms (a penis for instance, is referred to as appendage and the function of it,  is a bit of a mystery to most women), adding to the comical effect of many of these passages. Tritch herself, although fairly direct in her communication, uses a lot of slang, which can be quite challenging to the second language reader. It also produces some very funny misunderstandings when talking to the men in the book.

The novel does not float entirely on satire. Although a lot the novel is a bit over the top, another part deals with the effects of the mission Tritch is sent on and the trouble her marriage is in. The tragedy and sense of loss that Lange works into this character make this story into something more than a light funny read. Within the constraints of her somewhat over the top setting, the author manages to create a character of surprising depth. Balancing these two aspects of the story must have been a challenging bit of writing.

After finishing Tritcheon Hash one of my first thoughts about it was that it is probably a love-it-or-hate-it book. Not all readers will appreciate the satire or be able to see past the more illogical aspects of Lange's creation. Technologically it can't be too hard to make sure no male babies are born for instance, but no rationale is given for not just phasing out men altogether. That kind of logic is not what the novel is aiming for. It is meant to show how silly some of our preconceptions about the genders really are and it manages to do so without making the the main character into a caricature. That, as far as I am concerned, makes it a fine piece of writing.

Book Details
Title: Tritcheon Hash
Author: Sue Lange
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Pages: 184
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61138-103-0
First published: 2003

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bonehunters - Steven Erikson

The Bonehunters is the sixth book in Erikson's sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen series and the only one I haven't reviewed yet. Like the previous five books, it is absolutely huge. In fact, it may be the biggest book in the series up to this point. My mass market paperback contains well over 1200 pages. It wasn't a favourite of mine when I first read it in 2007, hemmed in as it is between Midnight Tides and Reaper's Gale, two of the stronger books in the series. It is a pivotal moment in the series though. Erikson is spinning events away from the Malazan Empire and heading for the continent that will be the setting of the finale of the series. In the wake of this book, he also leaves the space that will be filled by Ian C. Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard. You'll definitely want to have read the Erikson's series up to the sixth book before tackling that one.

This novel follows up on events described in House of Chains. The Whirlwind rebellion has been put down and the 14th army, commanded by Adjunct Tavore Paran is chasing the last remnants, a force lead by Leoman of the Fails towards Y'Gathan, a city where they are expected to make their last stand. It is not a random location, Y'Gathan holds bad memories for the Malazan Empire. It is the place that saw the downfall of one of it's greatest heroes, Dassem Ulthor. Plagued by bad omens and uncertainty regarding their leader, the relatively inexperienced 14th is heading for what looks like a difficult assault. Rumours of a plague rapidly approaching them force the Adjunct to decisive action. There is not time to starve out Leoman, they will have to take the city quickly.

The military element of this novel is actually quite small compared to some of the other books. The outcome of the battle is a forgone conclusion, only the way the Adjunct handles it is of import. Erikson moves on to a number of other things he needs to set the stage for Reaper's Gale and the final two novels of the series, Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God. We see the empire waste the last of its human capital and finally gain a bit of insight in Laseen's desperate bid to stay in power. I've always thought it was an interesting choice to leave the internal politics of the empire behind in later books as he focusses more on the upheaval taking place among gods and ascendants as well as events in Lether.

The war among the gods takes centre stage in the middle part of The Bonehunters in particular. Ganoes Paran, now Master of the Deck, has sanctioned the House of Chains, opening a whole new phase in the struggle between the Crippled God and the forces that oppose him. Ganoes is very active exercising his power in this novel. He does a lot of things that could be considered rash, stuff that has major consequences. It makes him one of the more interesting characters in the novel. He may have been in constant trouble in earlier novels, in this books he is clearly someone you don't want to mess with. As a number of supremely powerful beings find out.

Where Midnight Tides had a closer look at the dangers of unlimited capitalism, religious fanaticism are an important theme in The Bonehunters. We see a number of examples of fairly extreme religious practices and just how easily they can turn to large scale violence. It's something Erikson has been pointing to in the earlier books as well but this novel really drives how the way the relationship between gods and mortals is a two way street and that neither is safe from the other. It is absolutely one of the things that sets this series apart form most epic fantasy. The gods are at war and in a way mortals are caught in between. The gods had better beware who they mess with though.

Another notable figure in this novel is Karsa Olong. His conversations with Samar Dev on the nature of civilization are fascinating. Karsa mostly is of the opinion that civilization just brings the misery it says to raise people out of to ever larger numbers of people, while to Dev it is something one ought to strive for. The entire novel is full of references to to disappeared, failed civilizations. There appear to have been countless examples of this since the fall of the First Empire. Corruption, war and environmental degradation often causing their demise. In this respect, some of the comments of Laseen in the final chapters of the book, on the state of the Malazan Empire are very interesting. She is clearly a woman used to keeping her thoughts and emotions to myself but in these remarks a measure of desperation can be found. Which makes it all the more surprising that Erikson lets go of the eventual fate of the Malazan Empire. I guess the comments on the rise and fall of civilizations and those on burning up natural resources in particular can also be seen as a commentary on the state of our world. Either way, it is food for thought.

After this reread I still consider The Bonehunters something of a bridge between two stages of the story. As a novel, it is not quite as successful as the neighbouring volumes. That being said, it still contains the complex narrative, the huge cast, military heroics and tragedy, a overarching story of divine conflict and many more elements that makes the Malazan Book of the Fallen series stand out among epic fantasy. As with previous parts I've reread, I discovered a lot of detail I missed the first time around, making it even more obvious that this series is unrivalled in the genre. Especially the last of the four books the novel is divided into, contains a lot of interesting bits of information. I'm almost tempted to to reach for Reaper's Gale and reread that one as well.

Book Details
Title: The Bonehunters
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 1231
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-81315-9
First published: 2006

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kushiel's Chosen - Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel's Chosen (2002) is the second novel in Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series. This series started with what is arguably one of the most successful débuts of the decade and one of my personal favourites, Kushiel's Dart (2001). The ninth and most recent volume, Naamah's Blessing came out in June. It's been six years since I last read Kushiel's Chosen and back then, I wasn't nearly as impressed with it as I have been with the first novel. Kushiel's Chosen relies even more on intrigue and does not rely on an outside threat. My taste ran more towards epic fantasy at that moment, and I guess you could say Kushiel's Dart is decidedly more epic than its sequel. I appreciated the book a bit more the second time around, although I still think the first novel is the stronger of the two.

Phèdre has been well rewarded for her role in turning the Skaldic invasion of Terre D'Ange. She has been made Comtesse de Montrève and owns a modest and quiet county estate some days from the capital. She spends her days researching the myths surrounding the Master of the Straits and the lost book of Raziel, trying to find a way to free her childhood friend Hyacinthe. Her old enemy Melisande Shahrizai sends here a sangoire cloak, a shade or red, typically reserved for an Anguisette. From that moment on, Phèdre knows that their game is not over. Much to the dislike of her lover Joscelin, she returns to the capital to take the service of Naamah again and try to figure out where Melisande is hiding. The trail, it appears, leads to La Serenissima.

As I mentioned earlies, Kushiel's Chosen depends a lot on court intrigue. The unsolved mystery of Melisande's escape, make a lot of people suspicious. She must have had outside help and whoever helped is likely influential. Phèdre gathers clues the way Delauny taught her to, which leads to a number of inventive erotic scenes early on in the novel. Although the dark eroticism of the series no doubt attract some readers, I think this first section of the novel is rather slow. It takes Phèdre forever to begin to see the shape of the conspiracy and it is not until the half way point of the novel that Melisande's gambit becomes clear to her. The observant reader might figure it out a bit sooner but probably not by a lot.

The second half of the novel is quite a contrast to all the manoeuvring and scheming in the first part. Once Melisande's plans become clear to Phèdre, things move a lot faster. This section of the novel involves lots of travelling, learning a new language (the eight or ninth I believe, if only it were that easy), lot of live threatening situations and of course a final confrontation with the villain. I consider myself a fairly patient reader but by the time I reached the halfway point of the novel I thought Carey needed to get on with it. In terms of pacing this novel is one of the poorer ones in the series.

In terms of world building Carey does a lot better. La Serenissima, her version of Venice, is particularly well realized. Carey pays a lot of attention to the republican politics of the city state, which I rather enjoyed. We also visit Illyria, which in our world would probably be Dalmatia, a region heavily influenced by Venice in the renaissance period. Finally Phèdre pays Kriti (Crete) a visit. That place had a bit of a Minoan atmosphere about it, although other parts were more clearly classical Greek. It made me wonder if the Thera eruption happened in Carey's time line.

Another thread woven into the story is the troubled relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin, once her bodyguard, now, having broken all but one of his vows, he is her lover. Understandably he is not amused when she decides to pick up her old trade, even if it is in the interest of the nation of Terre D'Ange. It is one of the overarching story lines in these novels that I liked least, mostly because I think Joscelin is acting like a complete idiot. Not that Phèdre doesn't do her bit to make things impossible but I have serious trouble understanding Joscelin's responses and motivations. I guess it is to an extend the reflection of the problematic position of the (celibate) Cassiline Brotherhood in a society that has 'love as thou wilt' as the highest commandment but the tug of war between Joscelin's perception of honour and duty, which are clearly still Cassiline, and his feelings for Phèdre don't make all that much sense after the point he has decided to break his vows. Remorse I could understand, but there seems to be very little of that.

All in all, I didn't think Kushiel's Chosen was a great book and certainly not as good as Kushiel's Dart. That being said, I liked it a bit better than the first time I read it. The intricate plotting early on in the novel may test the reader's patience a bit, but I have to admit, there is a very rewarding climax to this novel. One that is certainly worth showing a bit of patience with the book. It is also quite clear that Kushiel's Chosen is the middle book in the trilogy. Carey ties up all the plot lines relating to the immediate threat to the realm but also clearly indicated the direction the next book will take Kushiel isn't done with Phèdre yet.

Book Details
Title: Kushiel's Chosen
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 687
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34504-8
First published: 2002

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Things Will Be Slow This Week

I just got out of hospital where I had surgery on my foot on Tuesday. I tried to get this week's review ready on Monday but it is still only half finished. It will show up one of these days but right now, I don't feel up to finishing it yet. I expect that normal service will be resumed next week.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Valley of Horses - Jean M. Auel

Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children is one of those series of which people often say you should stop reading after the first book. I'm generally too curious about the sequel to follow that advice, so naturally I've read all six. Most of them are entertaining at some level but none of them are anywhere near as good as the first book. After the huge success of The Clan of The Cave Bear (1980), Auel produced two sequels relatively quickly, followed by three more which took her significantly longer to write. Apart from my recent reread of the first book and reading the recently published sixth novel The Land of Painted Caves, it has been many years since I've read the others. I thought it would be interesting to see how the second novel, The Valley of Horses, held up under a reread.

After being banished by the Clan, a group of Neanderthals, who have taken in and raised her as one of her own, Ayla is now forced to follow her adopted mother's advice to go in search of her own people. That is easier said than done however, in the sparsely populated steppes of what is now the Ukraine, Ayla searches for months without finding another soul. As the summer wears on, she has to make a difficult decision: continue the search and hope she'll find people or settle somewhere and prepare for a harsh winter alone.

Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, brothers Thonolan and Jondalar of the Zelandonii set out on a journey east, to find the estuary of the Danube, or the Great Mother River as they think of it. Thonolan has traveller's blood, he will not be tied to the familiar territory of his Cave in what is now France. For Jondalar however, things are more complicated. He will be drawn back to his Cave but the love for his brother and the unease of a mating everybody seems to expect, drive him on the journey. Whatever his destiny is, he will have to travel a long way to find it.

The Valley of Horses introduces a lot of the problems that would mar the later books in the series and quite a few of them are tied to the character of Jondalar. He isn't just any man, he is THE MAN. Tall, well built, supremely talented and hung like a horse, he is the dream of any prehistoric woman. If only he could find a woman who can match all that perfection. Fortunately we know of one living alone in a valley on the other side of the continent. With Jondalar, the explicit sex scenes also enter the narrative. Personally they didn't bother me, Auel could probably write decent erotica if she put her mind to it,  but not all readers will appreciate it.

To balance Jondalar's perfection, Ayla's transformation from tall, ugly and strange girl into wonder woman continues. Just about anything in this novel Ayla does, is highly improbable. The odds of surviving alone on the ice age steppes of Europe for several years are minimal, something Auel herself points out several times. Ayla not only survives, she thrives. In the process she domesticates horses, learns how to ride one and use it as pack animal, invents stitches and a quicker way to make fire and tames a cave lion. It's way too much to be believable.

Both their stories do have their strong points however. Jondalar meets a number of different people and his struggles with language, local customs and taboos are at times very amusing. The variations in the Great Mother religion, which archaeological evidence suggests was widespread in Europe at the time, are also very well done. Auel of course has had to guess what it actually entailed and later on, the details regarding human reproduction, will form another questionable recurring theme in the series. In The Valley of Horses that particular detail doesn't bother me too much yet.

Another element in this story I enjoyed is Auel's description of the ice age environment. In The Clan of The Cave Bear, Ayla lives in a more sheltered and wetter climate. In this novel she moves into the steppes that will be the setting of the next two books as well. Descriptive passages of this environment will return many times in the series and not all of them are necessary but in this novel, the environment is still new and the details on climate, meteorology and ecology are fascinating (to someone with my interest in these matters anyway). The hunt for that one large animal Ayla needs to survive her first winter alone, is also one of the stronger elements in the story. The way Auel points out just how much work hunting and processing the kill is, and how difficult it is for someone to complete the task alone and with stone age tools, lends a bit of realism to the story that the rest of the novel sorely lacks.

I guess you could say the novel has its ups and downs. Despite the copious amount of research Auel has done on prehistoric life and culture and ice age ecology, large parts of the book read like a romance novel. There are still things to enjoy in The Valley of Horses for those who liked The Clan of The Cave Bear but it is nowhere near as good. Where The Clan of The Cave Bear couples meticulous research with an emotional moving story and interesting, if not always likely, speculation on an extinct human species, this novel has to do without that special blend of ingredients, and unless you like romance novels, it does very little to replace this mix with one equally fascinating. All in all, entertaining is the best I can make of it, calling it a good read would not do this book justice.

Book Details
Title: The Valley of Horses
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Coronet Books
Pages: 588
Year: 1986
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-340-32964-5
First published: 1982