WoGF Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This is my twelfth and final book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I’ve seen and heard so many glowing reviews of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie that I can’t possibly have anything really new to say but it’s worth repeating.  This book is fantastic, the most original thing I’ve read all year, and a debut novel to boot.

The main character, Breq, is especially intriguing because not only is she Breq, she’s also the ship Justice of Toren and all the ancillary soldiers that belong to the ship.  In this unique perspective, you get such sentences as “My bodies sweated under my uniform jackets, and, bored, I opened three of my mouths, all in close proximity to each other on the temple plaza, and sang with those three voices.”  Or this: “The tech medic went swiftly to work, and suddenly I was on the table (I was walking behind Lieutenant Awn, I was taking up the mending Two Esk had set down on its way to the holds, I was laying myself down on my small, close bunks, I was wiping a counter in the decade room) and I could see and hear but I had no control of the new body and its terror raised the heart rates of all One Esk’s segments.”

She has different scope at different points in the story, and it was fascinating to see how Breq was not the same as One Esk, but plausibly a part of it, just as One Esk was not the same as Justice of Toren, but also a plausible part of it.  Despite the seemingly barbarous practice of taking bodies and replacing their original personalities with someone else’s, I never felt like it was Breq’s fault, and I enjoyed seeing the way she didn’t think twice about it for herself, but was always aware that she made other people uncomfortable.

The other intriguing bit of world building is the Radchaai erasure of gender differences.  Breq is incapable of distinguishing between the sexes, and uses “she” as the default pronoun for everybody.  It was fun at the beginning to see her struggle, knowing she could get into trouble by calling non-Radchaai by the wrong pronoun, but always just guessing and hoping she got it right.  Later, though, there was a mind-blowing moment when a non-Radchaai starting talking to her about characters we’d already met and referring to them as “he” instead of “she.”  It was jolting and revelatory, how much I had been thinking about them as women even though I knew Breq didn’t mean it that way; and then, after the initial shock, realizing that it didn’t make a bit of difference.  Turns out individual character traits actually are more important than gender.  I heard an interview with the author where she said that for a lot of the characters, she didn’t actually know which gender they were, which seems perfectly fitting.

Of course, the book is more than just an original character and a gender-blind society.  It’s also a really great space opera, and once all the pieces of the backstory are revealed, the plot just barrels full speed ahead, keeping you guessing all the way.  Don’t get me wrong; this is by no means an easy or mindless read.  But it made me care, made me want to know, and any work on my part was well rewarded.  There are two more books on the way, and you’d better believe I’ll snatch them up the moment they hit the (internet) shelves.

WoGF Book Review: Divinity and the Python by Bonnie Randall

This is my eleventh book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I believe the publisher calls Divinity and the Python by Bonnie Randall a paranormal romantic thriller (note: not paranormal romance, which is a related but different corner of the genre).  I’d have to agree.  It’s sexy, it’s spooky, and the tension keeps ratcheting up all the way to the end.

Our heroine is Shaynie Gavin, a carpenter—an artist, really—who’s making money tending bar at the Python while fixing up Divinity, an old morgue, to be a Tarot parlor and New Age lounge.  While the romance is great, the most important relationship in Shaynie’s life through most of the book is with Divinity.  Like it says on the cover, all things have a soul, and Divinity is most definitely a character.  For those not open to the paranormal, Divinity’s interactions give off a creepy vibe, but for Shaynie, Divinity is protection, friendship, home.  From the sound of the furnace to the well-timed unlocking of doors and switching of lights, Divinity is imbued with personality.

Shaynie herself is great.  Though I don’t believe in it, it’s nice to see a Tarot-reading character who absolutely believes and whose belief permeates every aspect of her life.  The Tarot descriptions are subtle, and the only time the fortune-teller-fraud or flaky-new-ager clichés show up are when Shaynie is bracing herself to face them.  I found it interesting that while the Tarot may have helped Shaynie stay on her guard, it also nearly ruined her romance.  I suppose whether you believe or not, a Tarot reading is really about knowing yourself, and even the most self-aware of us has blind spots.

The dialogue sparkled, the looming threat sent chills up my spine, and I got some serious shivers when the romance started to heat up.  The obstacles keeping them apart were very real, nothing that felt like it could be waved away with a single conversation.

Two big thumbs up, and I’ll be looking for the follow-up in 2014.

WoGF Book Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is my tenth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin is a lovely book about the character from Virgil’s Aeneid.  The setting is not so much historical as mythological, and our narrator tells us right up front that there may be a real Lavinia out there, but this one was created by her poet.  Where she was scanted in the epic, here she is brought fully to life.

The storyline jumps around in time, giving us glimpses of Lavinia after the events of the story, and from late in the story, all threaded through the progressing tale.  In a way, it mirrors the way Lavinia lived her life, getting glimpses of the future through her dream conversations with the poet.  So for many key events, we know the outcome—and it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story one bit.  I’ve never read the Aeneid, or even heard the CliffsNotes version, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations for spoilers is up by now.

One of my favorite things about Lavinia was the rich portrayal of the culture, and the way it differed from how we would think of Roman culture (this is, of course, set before the founding of Rome).  When the poet is telling Lavinia Aeneas’s story, she doesn’t understand his personification of Juno.  To her, juno is a woman’s innate power, not a goddess at all.  The Latins worship many gods—the Penates and Lares of storeroom and city, Vesta of the hearth, the gods of nature and place—but they are not people.  Lavinia knew no stories about gods off fighting and loving and meddling in human lives.

Portents and omens played a huge part in daily life.  Any unusual occurrence was seen as such, and the king would be brought to read its meaning.  When Lavinia saw something in a dream at Albunea, people believed it.  I thought it was interesting, though, how often people chose to disregard those portents that went contrary to their wishes.  One of those ways in which people never really change.

The writing was gorgeous, the characters seemed ready to step off the page, and if you get the chance, I recommend the audio version—the narrator was wonderful.  I’ve known for years I should be reading Le Guin; now I’ll definitely have to seek out more of her work.

WoGF Review: Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

This is my ninth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Jaida Jones was my random author pick for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, so I went into Havemercy, co-written with Danielle Bennett, pretty much cold.

And I loved it.  I did have one major issue with what was missing from the book, but what was there was a helluva story.  Volstov and Ke-Han have been at war for over a hundred years.  They’ve both got their magicians, but what really gives Volstov an edge is its dragons, made of metal and brought to life and fueled by magic.

More than the war, though, or even the magic, Havemercy is really the story of our four protagonists—a magician, Royston; a tutor, Hal; a student-cum-professor, Thom; and the dragon Havemercy’s pilot, Rook—and the relationships between them.  The book opens with Royston being exiled from Thremedon, the capital of Volstov, for having an affair with a foreign prince whose culture is unaccepting of homosexuality.  I admit I had a moment of doubt, especially when this was followed up by Rook’s blatant bigotry (not to mention his misogyny), but it was handled beautifully as Royston’s, and later Hal’s, viewpoints developed.

Rook himself was both outrageous and captivating.  He thought very highly of himself and nothing at all of anyone else, excepting his Havemercy.  His egregious behavior caused a diplomatic incident at the same time as Royston’s, and Thom was sent in to teach the airmen some manners, and perhaps try to understand their psychology at the same time.  As Rook is the ringleader, that means reforming and understanding him, above all.  Their clashes throughout the book are entertaining, but also insightful.

In the midst of all the lovely character problems, of course, there is still the war, and magic, and when things go horribly wrong it takes all four of them to prevent catastrophe.  And of course, the metal dragons.

Unfortunately, my review would not be complete without discussion of the book’s major flaw.  To wit, there are no women.  All four protagonists are male, and while some minor female characters appear, none have important roles.  The most memorable are Royston’s bigoted harpy of a sister-in-law, and the diplomat’s wife who dressed so scandalously that Rook mistook her for a whore, and who never actually appeared on the page except in gossip.  A pretty abysmal showing.

Still, I know I am more attuned to that sort of thing than the average reader, and I did enjoy the book in spite of the lack.  In fact, I’m already deep into of book 2…

Operation: Polyglot

I guess I officially have a new hobby: learning new languages. I always thought it would be cool to be a polyglot, but it never seemed practical to learn.  I mean, I was fluent in Spanish at the end of high school, but haven’t used it much since, even after moving to California.  What would be the point of learning a bunch of languages nobody else I knew could speak?

Well, I finally found an excuse.  Writing secondary world fantasy, I generally don’t invent new languages to go along with the cultures, but I do need naming languages: that is, a consistent way to name characters and places within the world that will sound consistent and be evocative of the atmosphere I want to create.  If I push that a step further, though, and have more than one culture, one of the best ways to differentiate characters is through their dialogue and speech patterns—speech patterns that I can set using foreign languages as a base.

English:

English: “Arabic Language” in the Arabic Al-Bayan Script (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, over the last months, I’ve spent over 40 hours learning Eastern Arabic; ninety 30-minute lessons in an audio program that fits conveniently into my evening commute.  I have no practical daily use for the language, of course, but one of the cultures in my latest project has a language based on Arabic (the other is based on Basque, but there was no readily available audio course for that!), so I figured that would be as good a place to start deepening my understanding as any.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just last week, I finished with Arabic and began learning French. I chose it partly to give myself a break (for the record, French is so much easier than Arabic), and partly because I’ve been reading the Temeraire books aloud to my husband, and I always hated not knowing how to pronounce the French words.  I’m going to have to steel myself at the end of 30 lessons to switch to Polish, which I expect to fall somewhere in between in difficulty.  Eventually I’ll return to French to get beyond the basics, but I want to be able to converse with my Polish grandma when I visit over Christmas.

Because I already knew Spanish, I was expecting to have trouble with mixing up the two Romance languages.  What I didn’t expect was to mix up French with Arabic, not because they’re alike, but because I managed to ingrain Arabic well enough that my brain is now going to that as my default second language.  It probably doesn’t help that the audio program is structured the same for every language, right down to the narrator’s voice.  I expect (hope!) the effect will wear off after a couple weeks.

Even though I started to enhance my writing, my new hobby has had an unintended side-effect: taking up some of the brain space I previously spent on my writing.  Some of the time I previously spent living in my created worlds is now spent living in my new languages, cutting into my productivity.  In future, I will probably need to pace myself, but for now, since I’m not on deadline and I’m enjoying the learning, I think it’s worth it.

Keep a lookout for posts on some specific differences between English and the new languages I’m acquiring, and my thoughts on how they might be useful in making realistic foreign dialogue without resorting to actual foreign words or dialects.  Until then, maʿa s-salāma! (مَعَ السّلامَة)