Posts for March 2005

2005-03-05: Jenna Starborn

Review: Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: April 2002
ISBN: 0-441-01029-6
Pages: 369

I must admit to an embarassing flaw in my classical education and experience as a reader, one that makes it difficult to write a useful review of this book. I've never read Jane Eyre.

See, Jenna Starborn is a retelling of Jane Eyre in a science fiction setting, and by retelling, I don't mean that it takes the same basic story and explores it from a different viewpoint or with different sensibilities. I mean that the plot is a nearly exact copy of the plot of Jane Eyre from beginning to end, most of the characters are renamed but otherwise identical, the culture has been tweaked to be very similar to that of the mid-1800s, and the issues the book raises are pretty much exactly the same. If you have read and remember Jane Eyre, very little here will surprise you.

Therein lies my dilemma. I found Jenna Starborn to be a charming, easily readable romance novel. I liked the title character a great deal, I enjoyed the romantic banter, and the writing was engrossing and well-paced. I just have no idea whether there's any point in reading this book rather than just reading Jane Eyre, or whether I would find Jane Eyre even better. Certainly, this is a painless way to learn the story, better than Cliff Notes any day, but if you're better read than I, you may toss it aside in disgust as an inferior version of an old favorite. At some point, I'll have to read the original and find out.

What I can say is that this isn't really a science fiction story, even if I'd have to classify it there and I'm sure it would be shelved there. The conceit is a telling of Jane Eyre in a far-future world, with various appropriate substitutions of skills, political situations, and personal backgrounds, but the science fiction setting stays firmly out of the way and has been heavily tweaked so that the story doesn't have to change. Future politics have been carefully rigged to produce concerns and sensibilities remarkably close to Victorian England. The title character is a generator technician rather than a governess, but she falls into a remarkably similar position in the household. There are other substitutions in the area of religion, location, and method of insanity, but the background never loses its feeling of being artificially designed around these characters who aren't naturally central to it. This is, in some ways, a feature, since Shinn is clearly having fun working out how to justify the story and the reader can play along.

This is, therefore, a romance novel with some gothic overtones given an SFnal coat of paint. If you know that going in and that's the sort of book you're looking for, I think it's a pretty good one. It has much of the appeal of a Regency romance, most notably a abundance of banter, while featuring a considerable reduction in the parade of clothing descriptions, fewer mind-numbing titles, and a world that, as an SF reader, feels more familiar and predictable than the Regency period. All in all, an enjoyable bit of fluff.

If you've read Jane Eyre, remember it well, and read this book, I'm curious what you think of it. If, like me, you haven't, I'm not sure whether to tell you to go read the original or recommend this book, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. There may only be a few of us who like an occasional witty romance but would rather that all the old English trappings be replaced with a stock SF setting, but for however many of us there are, this is a book targetted directly at us.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-03-07: Latest haul

I was once again unable to resist the lure of the on-line bookstore, and finally all the packages have arrived (but one, which is coming from the UK). I was proud of myself for having held out for a whole month. *heh*. Heavy on non-fiction and graphic novels this time.

Kelley Armstrong -- Bitten (sff)
Brian Michael Bendis, et al. -- Ultimate Fantastic Four (graphic novel)
A.S. Byatt -- The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (sff)
G.K. Chesterton -- The Man Who Was Thursday (classic)
Neil Gaiman -- Adventures in the Dream Trade (sff & nf)
Neil Gaiman & Yoshitaka Amano -- The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (graphic novel)
Anthony Grafton -- The Footnote: A Curious History (nf)
Nicola Griffith -- Slow River (sff)
Douglas R. Hofstadter -- Godel, Escher, Bach (nf)
David Langford -- The Silence of the Langford (nf)
Ursula K. LeGuin -- The Telling (sff)
Stanislaw Lem -- Solaris (sff)
Scott McCloud -- Understanding Comics (nf)
Scott McCloud -- Reinventing Comics (nf)
Sean McMullen -- Souls in the Great Machine (sff)
David Mitchell -- Cloud Atlas (sff)
Michael Moorcock -- Wizardry & Wild Romance (nf)
Chris Moriarty -- Spin State (sff)
Robert Reed -- Marrow (sff)
Keith Roberts -- Pavane (sff)
Kim Stanley Robinson -- Green Mars (sff)
Theodore Roszak -- The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (sff)
Karl Sabbagh -- Dr. Reimann's Zeros (nf)
Dan Simmons -- Ilium (sff)
Dan Simmons -- Worlds Enough & Time (sff)
Jeff Smith -- Bone: One Volume Edition (graphic novel)
Robin Wilson -- Four Colors Suffice (nf)

Understanding Comics is to replace a copy I gave to a friend a long time back. The one-volume edition of Bone is, um, huge.

2005-03-21: Consider Phlebas

Review: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 1987
ISBN: 1-85723-138-4
Pages: 471

Feeling a bit bogged down in Little, Big, I decided to take a break with some space opera and started on the Banks I'd not read. This is his first SF novel and the first book set in the Culture universe, a far future of universal prosperity and machine intelligences most notable for its wonderfully named spaceship AIs and its look at what one does when one can do anything.

This book, though, isn't set in the Culture directly. The events of Consider Phlebas happen around the edges of the Culture's war with the Iridians, a race of fanatically religious, biologically immortal, and very loud creatures whose belief system is never particularly well-explained. The viewpoint character is a spy and mimic working for the Iridians against the Culture, mostly because he deeply distrusts the power the Culture has given to intelligent machines. Skulduggery, untrustworthy characters, dramatic escapes, and impressive mass destruction ensue, building up to an extended set piece involving trains, radioactivity, buried command bunkers, and an excess of personal weaponry.

In short, it's a space opera, and a reasonably enjoyable one, although I do have some quibbles with the pacing. Most of the book moves along fairly well, but the plot then comes to a screeching halt before the last three chapters and meanders about while tension is painstakingly built and people are moved into place for the repeatedly foreshadowed set piece finale. To add insult to injury, said finale ends up being rather unsatisfying; it was apt, and added an interesting bit of depth and a nice epilogue, but still I couldn't escape the feeling that the universe let out a long breath and said, "Well, now that's over with, on with more interesting business."

Maybe I've been spoiled by having already read Excession and Look to Windward, but Consider Phlebas had the feeling of a collection of interesting ideas that failed somehow to come off completely. Partly I think that's because it had a bit of a staged feel to it, with the characters moving from one unrelated setting to another. There were always solid plot-related reasons for their actions, of course, but however impressive the locations seem oddly disjoint and often irrelevant to the conclusion of the story. The island inhabited by a bizarre and utterly disgusting religious cult, on which the hero was stranded for a chapter or so, was the most egregious example for me. The scene is memorable mostly for its horror, but looking back on it from the end of the book, it was extraneous to anything else that happened and had no thematic connection or character development reason to have happened. Maybe I just missed something.

That being said, some of those unrelated settings contained great ideas and memorable images (I loved the card game), and the book as a whole was an enjoyable diversion. It satisfied my craving for space opera and managed to put a mildly thought-provoking twist on the ending (and then Banks tacked on a highly enjoyable set of appendices giving the story of the war from different perspectives). I'm very glad Banks went on to write books more focused on the bits that I find fascinating about his future world, most of which get cameo roles at best here, but this is a decent book if you're not expecting too much.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-03-26: Little, Big

Review: Little, Big, by John Crowley

Publisher: Perennial
Copyright: 1981
ISBN: 0-06-093793-9
Pages: 538

Smokey Barnable is walking to be married, a wedding to a tall, quiet girl he was introduced to by a friend. He's walking because Daily Alice, his bride-to-be, lives in an oddly unknown place in the middle of the country, some distance from the City where they met. He's also walking because that's how he was told to arrive, for reasons that were never quite clear to him, or the wedding wouldn't be right. Soon, he will join an eccentric family in Edgewood, a huge house of varying architectural styles, losing the anonymity that he's had his entire life. He will try to understand, and then simply accept, a family that shares secrets and a Tale that they would explain except that there's never quite any way to talk about it.

This is how Little, Big opens, and from there it sprawls out into a multi-generational family saga, covering events from the founding of the family and the building of Edgewood by Daily's great-grandfather to the life of Smokey and Daily's children and particularly their youngest son. While there are individual stories, and even moments of drama, Little, Big is more of an atmosphere than a story, a book that one lives in rather than reads through, that refuses to be hurried or give up its secrets easily. The influence and presence of fairy is unmistakable and sometimes directly present, but remains elusive. There is a certain magical logic to everything that happens, a weaving into a larger Tale and a balancing of cost and benefit, of risk and reward, but never is this accounting obvious or clearly explained. The Drinkwater family, in all of its many branches, lives on the edge of the wood, sometimes heading out into the world, misunderstanding it and changing it deeply, and sometimes wandering into the deeper woods, seeing things that are left unexplained and glimpsing patterns that are too deep to talk about.

This is a beautiful, evocative book that I found difficult to get through. I appreciate what Crowley is doing, and his mastery of language, setting, and character shines through every page. Still, Little, Big can also be frustrating and painfully slow, as events persistantly refuse to collect themselves into a clear story and the narrative rarely gathers enough momentum to build traditional suspense. It is full of ideas, images, characters, and moments, hints at something larger. Some of them seemed to slip away into irrelevance while others turned out to be very important later, and not only did I do a poor job distinguishing between the two, I'm certain that I completely missed the point of some of the apparently irrelevant ones.

This is one of those books that I feel I didn't quite get, in a way that I tend to blame more on myself than on the book. If only I were better read, if I were a little more attentive, if I had a slightly better memory, if I were a touch more perceptive.... But reading only along the surface that I followed, the plot didn't have quite enough motion and drama to carry me along. I spent much of the first hundred pages feeling confused and constantly paging back to the abbreviated family tree to try to understand what generation of the family was being talked about, and while this improves later, the large cast combined with subtle references to secondary characters and previous events remained a bit frustrating throughout. I loved the language and poetry of the story while I was reading it, but I found myself reluctant to pick it up again; reading it took three or four times longer than I normally take to read a book this length.

The atmosphere is the strongest part of this book. Crowley creates the feeling of being constantly on the edge of something huge, surrounded by ancient and wild magic, fitting into a barely perceived pattern, swept away by events that one never understands. Little, Big never gives up its secrets, never tears through that curtain that hides the other world. The ending is just as strange, haunting, and ambiguous as the rest of the book. You may find this frustrating; at times, I certainly did.

However, if one can accept the atmosphere for what it is and let one's thoughts flow with the story, the depth to both the setting and the characters is astonishing. I felt like I knew these characters, understood how they felt, what they cared about, their bafflement or acceptance of the world. There are several beautiful moments late in the book, between Smokey and Auberon among others, where subtle and nearly unnoticed character construction throughout the whole story pay off in moments of pure recognition, where the reader goes "Aha!" and suddenly a character's life and perspective makes perfect sense even if the events surrounding them are still obscure. The slow build-up is very much worth it for those moments.

If you love atmospheric fantasy, the fairy of deep woods and creatures seen out of the corner of the eye, and rules of Story that tend towards bittersweet loss, quiet balances, and the undramatic drift of time, I recommend this book very highly. Patience is required, as Little, Big refuses to be read quickly and Crowley's use of language works best when savored. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a clear plot, a conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends, or comprehensible explanations of a world, I expect you'll be frustrated. Personally, I'm torn; I loved the atmosphere but felt impatient and frustrated by the style. Still, I will remember this one for a long time.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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