Friday, 21 November 2014

Blast From the Past: The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Before I started reviewing books online I loved rereading my favourite SF/Fantasy books.  Since I don’t have time to do that anymore, this column is a trip down memory lane, where I’ll rave about books I love to read.  And then read again.  These aren’t reviews, as I won’t necessarily mention criticisms, they’re my chance to fan girl about books I love and hopefully garner some interest in some older titles.

In retrospect it’s a bit odd that I picked up the Death Gate Cycle.  I’d read, and had a wildly negative reaction to, their Darksword trilogy and while I really enjoyed the Legends trilogy I thought the Dragonlance Chronicles were simply ok.

But I found myself in a Coles store at my local mall as a teen and they were having a buy 3 get 1 free promotion.  And there on the shelf were 4 books of the Death Gate Cycle.  I was tired of waiting years for follow-up books, so this was perfect.  I’d get all the books, one free, and not have to worry about waiting to read the end of the story.  

It turned out to be a good thing that I bought those books together because I enjoyed the first book, Dragon Wing, but didn’t love it, and found the second one, Elven Star, kind of boring.  What I liked about Dragon Wing was the banter between Alfred and Haplo, the two protagonists.  Well, they don’t meet up in book 2, in fact, Haplo’s the only character to carry over from book 1, so it didn’t feel like a continuation of the story.  But I’d bought all 4 books and I was going to read all 4 books, so I picked up Fire Sea.  

Fire Sea not only brought the protagonists back together it did so in the most interesting setting, a lava filled world of stone where in order to fix the depleted population, those remaining started resurrecting their dead.  With horrible, unforeseen consequences.

From that book on I loved the series.  I whipped through Fire Sea and Serpent Mage only to discover… that there would be more books in the series.  I didn’t even know how many books, just that the story wasn't done, because while Dragon Wing and Elven Star had decent wrap ups, both book 3 & 4 ended on cliffhangers.

So, I ended up waiting 3 years for the series to finish.  At the end I loved the complexity of the series, how things brought into books 1 and 2 became important in books 6 and 7.  I loved the interplay between Alfred and Haplo, the idea that you have to make decisions for your own life and then stand by them and accept the consequences, good or bad, for those decisions.  I liked that the bad guys had actual grievances and that the so called good guys didn’t necessarily have the best interests of others in mind.  The protagonists had to make some very difficult choices.  The world-building was pretty awesome too.

It’s a series I’ve reread numerous times and I’m still impressed by how the authors pulled it all together.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Shout-Out: Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Review: The Genome by Sergei Lukyanenko

Pros: interesting & diverse characters, solid world-building, some thought provoking philosophy

Cons: several highly disturbing (though not graphic) scenes, Lolita style relationship

Five months after a devastating accident that physically cut him in half, Alexander Romanov is released from the hospital.  With little money and no plans, he encounters a young girl nearing her spesh metamorphosis and - due to the programming inherent in his pilot spesh - has to help her out.  He takes a job as a ship captain to help pay for the treatment she needs and, once she’s done her metamorphosis, assembles a crew for an unknown mission.

The book is split into three sections.  The first section introduces the characters, the second deals with the fallout of discovering their mission, and the third revolves around a mystery.  While I really enjoyed the first two parts, the third got irritating as two of the characters claim to have solved the mystery but refuse to explain what happened, presumably so the reader has time to put the clues together.  It felt artificial, though there is a reason given for their delay in the text.  The resolution was interesting as it referred back to several of the philosophical questions the book as a whole posed. 

The world-building in this book is solid.  There are four groups at play: 1. Natural, unmodified humans 2. Speshs, people whose parents decide before birth what specialized job their child should have, and are then genetically modified physically and psychologically to do the work and enjoy it.  3. Clones.  And 4. the Others, several alien races that have interactions with humans.  You’ll also encounter human politics, with a child Emperor, various religions (and religious extremism), numerous branches of racism, etc.  Different planets have different specialties, atmospheres, and customs, while travel between planets is done using hyper-tunnels and takes a surprisingly short amount of time.

For the most part I liked all the characters, at the beginning at least.  The captain’s a great POV character.  I love his demon tattoo (and what it does for him), and the way he analyses his world, questioning the way things are, even when he’s ok with the way things are.  Kim’s a great character, though I did have issues with her… relationship with the captain (and others, as her being 14 and having sex with people significantly older wasn’t something I’m comfortable with, even if the characters - for the most part - considered it normal, or at least, not unusual).  Her specializations made her self-assured, despite her lack of experience.  Janet was my favourite character until the half-way point when her upbringing came to the fore.  I liked that she’d taken charge of her life, getting several specializations and was willing to be a mentor for Kim.   

The one character I didn’t much like was Puck.  His antagonistic attitude and desire to prove that a natural human could be just as good as a spesh made him kind of irritating.  I did, however, appreciate that he was gay and that his being natural showed off the prejudices of his crewmates.

This is a book that makes you think, though some of the scenes that open the way to philosophical discussion are disturbing to say the least.  While nothing’s particularly graphic there are mentions of rape, slavery, and war.  I could easily see this being put on university reading lists and/or used for book clubs, as there are some very interesting essay and discussion topics brought up, particularly around genetic modifications and freedom.  So, for example, as disturbing as I found the hunting scene, I did appreciate the questions about class, ethics and humanity that the captain ruminated on that arose from it.

In addition to her relationships, I had a few issues with what happened to Kim at the end of the book (dealt with in the spoiler section).

I’m not sure I would want to read it again, but it was an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable, book to read.

*** Spoilers***

I had a serious issue with one aspect of the ending, Kim’s rape by the murderer.  Apparently, based on a throw-away line by the geneticist, Alex determines that Kim has some sort of anti-rape mechanism that will help her incapacitate the murderer.  Ignoring the fact that this isn’t a deterrant, she has to be raped for this ‘ability’ to come into play, the fact that part of Alex’s plan depends on her being raped is horrific.  

I’m surprised that the detective would agree to sell a 14 year old girl a comatose body for unknown reasons.  She also seems pretty assured that her 2-3 days of employment entitle her to a decent severance package from her now bankrupt employer, and that the company will be able to pay it.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Shout-Out: Rudolph!: He is the Reason for the Season by Mark Teppo

We've got our first snowfall sticking to the ground here, and I'm thinking about Christmas.  Which means it's the perfect time to do a shout-out for Mark Teppo's newly released novel.

Rudolph! is a first-person account of the behind-the-scenes workings at the North Pole. Narrated by Bernard Rosewood, one of the elves of the North Pole Consortium, the story begins with Santa's realization that a young girl's request to get her dad back for Christmas isn't going to happen. Dad, you see, died in a car accident on a snowy road shortly after Thanksgiving. The NPC can do a lot, but they can't do miracles. Enter Rudolph, who has been hairless, cranky, and perpetually irradiated since the unfortunate malfunction of the Nuclear Clock in 1964. Rudolph is a survivor of the worst accident in the 400-plus years of NPC delivery, and if there is anyone on staff who believes in miracles more than jolly Saint Nick, it's Rudolph. Bernie, in a valiant effort to keep Christmas from going off the rails, is swept up into a Heaven-storming, Hell-crusading, Night of Bad Musical Numbers adventure to ensure that every child wakes up with presents on Christmas morning.
Rudolph! is a funny and fast-paced reaction to fifty years of world-weary cynicism, technological advances, and post-millennial ennui since Rankin/Bass brought a stop motion reindeer into our living rooms.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Space Scene Card

*** ETA  Whoops.  This is the problem with having 2 blogs, you sometimes forget to check which one you're posting on.  Luckily this post has an actual SF connection, so I'm leaving it up.  Card crafting is my biggest time sink after reading. ***

Since I posted a space card yesterday I figured I'd post another one today.  I made this card for a science fiction fan I know using Stampscape stamps and techniques.

I used a piece of glossy cardstock to stamp on, so I could blend the different inks.  I started off by stamping the astronaut, then I masked an area off to be the planet and stamped the satellite (so part of it would be behind the planet, making it look further away.

I stamped the astronaut and satellite again on scrap paper, which I fussy cut out and sprayed with repositional adhesive so I could use them as masks.

With the figures masked, I masked off the sky and started inking the planet using different shades of red and black.  I used a marker for the black spot.  I then masked the planet and sun and inked in my background space in shades of blue with black at the edges.

After removing the masks, I inked the sun and gave it an aura of yellow glitter glue and added some grey marker to the satellite and astronaut.  I then stamped in some meteorites to show that space isn't empty.

I mounted the card on black cardstock and added 2 mini spaceships die cut out of metallic cardstock.

Creature Feature: Yakka

In this column I talk about some of the more unusual fantasy creatures and/or creatures it would be cool to see in books.

Yakka, or yakseya, are Sri Lankan demons.  They’re ruled by a king who forbade the killing of humans and so they curse them with diseases instead.  Yakka can assume the form of any animal, including humans and are appointed a specific time of day in which they can afflict someone who enters their domain (generally a dark, inhospitable place, like a cave, hollow tree, or abandoned building).

Exorcism is required to cure the victim, or the demon can be appeased with numerous prayers from the victim’s family.
Mask of the demon Maha Sohona Yakka from Ambalangoda Masks Museum (Sri Lanka). It is used in the Tovil healing ritual (the taming of the demons). - Photo by Jan Benda via Wiki Commons.
For a more specific example, the mask above is of Maha Sohona, which Wikipedia states

is a demon (yaka or yakseya) in Sinhalese folklore, who is said to haunt cemeteries. The name Maha Sohona means "great graveyard demon" or "demon of the cemetery" in the Sinhala language. It is one of the most feared demons in Sri Lanka. Originally a giant who had been defeated in a duel, Maha Sohona has had his head replaced with that of a bear since he lost his head in the duel. He is believed to kill people and afflict them with illnesses. Traditional exorcism rituals are performed to repel the demon in such cases. Sri Lanka Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units are popularly known as the "Maha Sohon Brigade", named after this demon.

I have to admit that the information I found on this creature is a bit contradictory depending on the source (I used the Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Michael Page & Robert Ingpen, p.84) and Wikipedia for the information at the top of this post).  I’d recommend further research if you wanted to use this creature, as you don’t want to misrepresent one culture’s beliefs in a fantasy novel.

The best use of demons I’ve seen recently is Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle books.  And while he hasn’t shown much of demon culture, how the humans have react to them - their fear, their precautions, the people who have to deal with wards and travelling without warded walls - is fascinating.  

It would be cool to see more types of demons used in fantasy books, not just the more common western ones associated with hell and Satan.  Demons are pretty universal, but not treated the same everywhere, nor do they look the same everywhere.  A shape shifting demon who passes along diseases… now that’s interesting.