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…

WoGF Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

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

I really enjoyed Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.  Much more than I should have, given that so much of the bones of the book was built out of such well-worn tropes.  Our hero is a foundling (I’m still waiting to find out he’s a lost prince) who gets in trouble because of his magic, and is whisked away by a wise old mentor to a school for magic on a tropical island.  Not only is he an excellent swordsman, but it turns out that he has more and stronger magic than just about anybody and ends up saving the day after hardly any training.

To top it all off, the reason his magic got him in trouble?  There’s an evil, thinly-veiled, not-quite-Catholic church to stand as a beacon of hypocrisy, backwardness, and suppression of knowledge.  As in, “ye shall suffer not a witch to live.”

Despite all that, the story drew me in.  The characters were fully fleshed out beyond their archetypes, and the prose was engaging.  The plot didn’t follow the cookie-cutter shape of the tropes, either; for one thing, the protagonist was twenty, not twelve or sixteen, and he had a pretty traumatic past, so there was a lot more skepticism and frustration and less wide-eyed wonder than usual.  Perhaps also because he was older, the story didn’t get bogged down at the school with endless scenes of lessons, but instead focused on the relationships he formed there and just enough of what he learned to move things forward.

And then there was the music.  As a musician, I love seeing magic systems that involve music, and it was that music that caused me to pick the book up in the first place.  I made the mistake, though, of reading Peter Orullian’s “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” (from the anthology Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman) immediately after, and before writing this review.  It truly has a musician’s magic system, replete with technical descriptions of resonance and harmonics, musical notation, the mechanics of throat and mouth, and even how to rebuild a broken instrument.  Songs of the Earth has none of that.  Its magic is much more wild and fluid.  It’s a lovely metaphor, actually, the energy of the earth as music that can be accessed and channeled as magic.  I’ve always thought music was rather magical, so it makes perfect sense to me.  The descriptions are beautifully poetic, evocative of nature and emotions in the same way as music—exactly as it should be.