Among Others by Jo Walton

I’ve written on many various occasions that reading books about books is one of the most incredible things ever in this world. Doing so never fails to put a smile on my face or send me to a world of where unicorns and magic really do exist. All of these things happened as I read Among Others. Even aside from just a visceral OMG!HAPPINESS! response, this book is beautifully written and carefully constructed, all of which it makes it one of the loveliest, not to mention heartwarming, books I’ve read this year.

The story draws on many events and circumstances of the author’s own childhood and teenage experiences, lending a semi-autobiographical aspect to the story. Still, this book is very much about Morwenna, a Welsh teenager in the 1979 who can see and talk to fairies and perform magic. Mori’s mother is mad and a witch, and an attempt to stop her from gaining more power results in the death of Mori’s twin sister and the crippling of her leg. Afterward, Mori is placed in the care of her father whom she’s never met and sent to an all-girl’s boarding school in England. Living in new, unpleasant circumstances, Mori’s love of science fiction is what keeps her sane. Still, Mori is tempted to use magic to give her a place and group of people with which to belong to, and her mother remains as an ever-present threat.

The book is told through Mori’s diary entries, which were written in a detailed manner without losing their diary-like quality. Certain thoughts or explanations aren’t included because Mori doesn’t want to write about them, which gives the entries a personal feel that many books written in a diary format don’t have. Mori herself is a withdrawn person, set outside and apart from her home and the family she lived with and grew up among. Her intelligence and sensible nature set herself apart from her new classmates, as does her crippled leg. Combined with the fact that she considers many of the social conventions she’s expected to follow to be ridiculous and her somewhat dodgy family history means she is, effectively, a complete outsider. As such, her view and understanding of the world is wildly different from that of everyone around her, which adds to the personal nature of the diary entries. She’s prickly and cold on the outside, but her love for books and her loved ones know no bounds. There were times when I thought Mori felt too cold and detached, which made her less sympathetic, but on the whole I loved reading about her and admired her bravery and her determination to make something out of her situation. I wish I could be as brave as she is, especially when it comes to voicing my own opinions in a public setting.

Of course, a big reason why I loved Mori was because of her love of speculative fiction and her avid consumption and ponderings on the books she’s read. A really cool thing is that she includes all the names and authors of the books she reads, which led to the creation of another “books to look out for” list. I’m not well read in old school SF (the only authors whose books I’ve read extensively are Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley), but I would like to become better acquainted, particularly with books that aren’t hard science fiction because those put me to sleep. Integral to the entire book are a love of science fiction and fantasy and a love of reading. Anyone who has grown up with books as constant companions and for whom reading influenced their childhood in a way little else did can find something to identify with in this book. One of my favorite quotes is about libraries, of which she uses both the one in the school, the town, and the interlibrary loan system:

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”

As a regular library user since I was nine, I absolutely agree.

This book falls more under the “magic realism” label than pure fantasy, and magic here works through logic used to explain religious belief and the concept of fate. Magic does not work directly, but manipulates events and people so that the desired effect occurs. For instance, Mori does magic to bring together a group of people that she can belong with. However, it is easy for other people to brush off whatever occurs as coincidence or as predetermined by multiple other factors. In this case, magic is like fairies. You believe in it or you don’t. The fairies themselves are just as difficult to fully pin down. They exist, but have no identifiable origins, desires, or motivations, and they can only work magic through human assistance. It’s a quiet magic system, and it took some mental adjusting to get used to, but it meshes well with reality, and if magic did exist in our world, I think this would be the most probable form it would take.

I’m having a really hard time writing this. I’m trying to show why this book is as amazing and wonderful as it is, and I feel like I’m doing poorly. I raced through it in two days, even though I wanted to slow down and savor it, but I couldn’t help myself. The story is deeply personal, and it’s that aspect, combined with the writing, content, and Mori herself, that make this book as terrific as it is. It has books, it has magic and fairies and growth and love and sex positivity and a whole lot more in between. Just… just read it. I can’t explain myself anymore than I already have.

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Reading contemporary novels, particularly YA contemporary novels, is always an interesting exercise, as I have realized that I have this tendency that I don’t have with fantasy novels to compare myself or what I would have done to the actual character and their actions, and this tendency gets worse when I start recognizing traits that we both share. Maybe because I somehow translate “contemporary” as “relatable” in my head? I don’t know, my brain works in mysterious ways. All I know is that the result is I end up getting a lot more pickier about the book in question as opposed to a fantasy book, and that’s precisely what happened here.

Ava wants a change. She can’t wait to start Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence where she can set herself apart from her ultra-radical, ultra-feminist parents, as well as her equally radical and feminist girlfriend, Chloe. There, she can wear pink clothing, do her schoolwork without being told she’s Submitting To The Man, and maybe even see if she likes boys or not, because although she loves Chloe, she’s not sure that she’s really and fully a lesbian the way Chloe is. Although she fantastically screws up her audition to the school musical, she joins the stage crew to spend more time with her new, popular friends, even though the stage crew is filled with misfits and “freaks”. What then occurs is a series of mishaps and realizations as Ava tries as hard as she can to be “normal”, and keeping all her separate worlds and identities from colliding and slowly realizing that boxes and normality hurt more than they help.

First off, there are a lot of things about this book that make me smile, most notably, the stage group kids, who call themselves the Screws. They’re each derived from certain character tropes, but they interact and joke in a way that reminds me so much of all my friends, both in high school and college. I loved how they all bonded together over the many things they loved and through those good times,  mutual respect and friendship grew as well. Also, there were some well-placed shout-outs to nerd-dom and even Tamora Pierce that made me smile.

I also liked how Ava’s curiosity as to whether she liked boys wasn’t cast as though she thought she was a lesbian, but really, she might be straight. She knows that she’s attracted to girls, but, to her, being a lesbian means hanging out in dark coffee shops and liking obscure poets and films. Ava basically attaches a certain culture to being lesbian, one she feels she doesn’t entirely fit in with, and because she likes typically feminine things, she thinks that might be an indication she might like boys as well. It was somewhat disconcerting that the words “bisexual” or “bisexuality” were never mentioned even once, but I still liked how the result was that, even for sexuality, labels aren’t always important to categorize how you feel for someone, particularly when it comes to gender. If you like someone, you like someone.

Ava herself was a lot harder to like and there were many times I wanted to reach in and smack her silly because her actions were not in “stupid” territory as much as they were in “I have my head completely up my ass” territory. All her life, she’s never really been her own person. First she adapted her parent’s ideals and followed their wishes. When she met Chloe, she became the person she thought Chloe would love the most. At Billy Hughes, she has to juggle being both a “popular” person and a part of the Screws. Each gives her something she wants, but she can’t put all those pieces together to become her own person because she so desperately believes she needs normality, and lesbianism and stage crew aren’t part of that realm. This desire, of course, causes her to be extremely insensitive and even manipulative at certain points as she tries to arrange other people’s lives to fit her expectations of what is “normal”. It also causes her to be ridiculously silly when it comes to Ethan, the guy her new popular friends convince her to get involved with. The dude can’t even remember her name, and yet she’s convinced he remembers her and is interested in her!

Part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that Ava was spending so much time placing herself in a box rather than asking what it was she liked to do, what were her beliefs? Throughout the book, both of those things were derived from the people whom she happened to be around at the time. Eventually she and other characters are able to reconcile the various boxes they fit or want to have fit, but I kept wanting more from Ava.

Also, there was one section on page 152 that was pretty racist, when one of the Screws spills some brown paint and they’re cleaning it up, and one of them pretends to be a Native American and says, “How… I am Paints With Hands.” It was honestly shocking to read that, as the entire book is about how no one fits into specific boxes with regards to any characteristic, including race. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, and Ava then says he’s being childish, but that’s not a rebuke for the actual racism inherent in what he said. That whole section seemed to be written callously and without thought that it perpetuates a harmful stereotype.

On the whole, Pink was a mixed bag for me. Ava was an extremely difficult protagonist to root for, but she managed to figure a lot of things out in the end. The Screws were probably what made the book for me, because they are the kind of people I wish were more visible in the world than they currently are. The writing was very engaging and I whipped through the book in a single day. Like I said, there’s a lot to like, but there’s also some elements that will turn at least some people off. Peoples’ mileage may vary.

Published in: on June 22, 2011 at 6:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If I were to describe this book in one word, it’d be “hilarious”. Other words I might use would be “astute”, “intelligent”, and “plain good fun”. Honestly, a part of me wishes this were an actual gospel, because then the Bible would be a lot more interesting than it is now.

Lamb is Biff’s story as Jesus’ (otherwise known as Joshua, since that’s what he’d actually be called in Judea) best friend. The angel Raziel has been charged to raise Biff from the dead and have him write his own gospel of Jesus’ life to go along with all the ones previously written by the other disciples. Biff’s gospel does include a portion of Jesus’ preaching and sermons, leading up to his crucifixion, but the majority describes their collective childhood and growing up, as well as their adventures travelling through Asia.

As such, the book pokes gentle fun about Jesus’ story and all the various deeds and miracles Jesus is said to have performed. It’s satire, but it’s not biting, nor is it done with the intent of exposing any hypocrisy or shortcomings of Jesus or Christianity as a religion. It’s more like a top-notch comedy act and, as such, everything is fair game for being mocked or exaggerated for comic effect. If anything, I am impressed at how the author included depictions of four separate religions and twice as many different ethnic and cultural groups, and none of them were caricaturized beyond the confines of satire.

For me, the best thing about this book is Joshua himself. Biff, being Josh’s best bud, isn’t in constant awe of his abilities to heal the sick and wake the dead. More often than not, Josh acts like an idiot and Biff isn’t afraid to tell him when he’s being stupid. Even so, Josh has known from the beginning that he’s God’s son, and throughout his life, he worries over whether he has what it takes to be the Messiah and what exactly it is he’s supposed to do. Josh’s unwavering dedication to his belief that love and kindness is the most important path is written in a way that feels sincere without being overdone or making him look like a transcendent, holier-than-thou saint. To sum it up, in Biff’s gospel, Jesus is human, with human hopes, dreams, curiosities, and foibles.

Biff, on the other hand, is definitely trope-derived character. If this book were a sitcom, he’d be the well-meaning sidekick who’s always tripping over things, losing his pants, and falling in love with every female he meets (which Biff does do). What’s cool about Biff is that he, in some ways, saves Josh from himself. A funny example is that Jesus refuses to tell a lie, even to save the two of them from danger. As such, he needs Biff around to be the sensible one (as much as Biff can be sensible) and navigate their way around the various people they encounter. I did think that his goofy sidekick persona was hammed up too much in how he was almost constantly thinking about sex, or having sex. Biff was definitely the more one-note of the two main characters for most of the book, but he gains some depth in the last portion when Josh begins spreading God’s word and becomes even more invested in Josh’s safety.

I do wish that Mary Magdalene (nicknamed Maggie) had more of her own story as well. In this book, she’s a childhood friend of Josh and Biff’s, but then she’s forced to marry a jackass Pharisee who hates Josh, and she stays with him for several years, finally leaving him once Josh comes back and tours all over Judea with him as he spreads the word of God. Josh forms an intrinsic part of both Biff and Maggie’s lives, but Biff gets to have adventures and learn kung fu. Maggie has none of that, and it’s even more infuriating because the author wrote Maggie as a multifaceted character who was enjoyable to read about, but she was severely underutilized in my opinion.

What surprises me most after finishing this book is how much my estimation of Christianity has risen (no pun intended). It’s  hard not to be cynical while observing how the Religious Right in the U.S. is working hard to dismantle every safety net the government has in place. I know this is a big “duh” moment, but the core message of Christianity is a really good one. A religion based on love and loving everyone is nothing to laugh at, and that makes it even more rage-inducing that so much of Christianity, both historically and in present-day, has been subverted by so-called Christians who have decided to dispense with the “love thy neighbor” part and focus on the “fuck everyone who isn’t like me” sentiment, which, correct me if I am wrong, is not part of the New Testament in any way. In all seriousness, this book helped to remind me that there are many aspects of Christianity that are worthy of praise and Christianity, as practiced by many people, does act a positive force in many peoples’ lives.

On the whole, though, this book is meant to be fun, and it definitely is that. I mean, Biff defeats an evil demon. He, Josh, and Maggie have a hysterical encounter with a statue of a Greek god. And Biff and Josh begin the tradition of eating Chinese food on Josh’s birthday, something still done by many American Jews today. It’s silly and ridiculous, but the author writes it with such a straight face that you can’t help but take it at face value.  It does help to be familiar with the Old and New Testament to some extent when reading, but it’s not necessary. I had a ton of fun reading this book and I’m only sorry I wasn’t smart enough to listen to my friend Noah when he recommended I read this book ages ago.

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

I first became interested in this book after viewing and reading the both equally unique cover and premise. After reading the author’s three short stories about the circus that were published earlier (here, here, and here. The latter especially is so beautiful), I was even more excited to get my hands on the book, and when I found a copy in my college bookstore, and twenty-five percent off to boot, I wasted no time in making that book mine. And now here I stand, after having finished reading the book and feeling pretty impressed, and also feeling somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that while I appreciated many aspects of it, I didn’t connect with the novel as well as I did with the short stories

The entire land is a warzone, and has been for maybe hundreds of years, no one knows for certain. Towns are built and obliterated within a week of each other, and all anyone has ever known is war, scarcity, and death. In the midst of all this is the travelling Circus Tresaulti, which provides the only form of known entertainment left in this world. Led by Boss, the powerful and secretive ringmaster, the circus is composed of multiple acts, many of whose performers have been magically altered by Boss. She has exchanged portions or all of their skeletons with copper bones, giving them advanced abilities, with potentially dangerous consequences. It is this magic that, in more ways than one, keeps the circus together and allows them to survive the harshness and brutality of the world they live in.

In my opinion, it is on a technical level that the book shines. The story is written in a very bare-bones style (no pun intended, honestly), and the author describes only what is needed immediately for the scene at hand. The origins of the war, its subsequent history, specific affects on various inhabitants, and hosts of other world-building questions aren’t addressed because those details aren’t necessary. Similarly, chapters are extremely short and the author often makes use of parentheses to include facts or explanations that can’t be derived just from the description of a scene itself. The result is a carefully constructed story that author invites the reader to see how words, sentence, and chapter structure are used extremely precisely to build the story the author intends to tell. In a sense, the story is all bone with little excess fat. On page 99 when Boss muses about all the ruined cities and destroyed buildings, and she thinks, “That’s what happens… if no one cares for the bones of a thing.”

Similarly, Boss’ ability to create and fit the circus performers with magical, copper bones is what makes the circus the entity it is. Because the bones are sturdier and made to accentuate and make easier the performers’ acts, they need not worry as much about wearing out their bodies, not when Boss is there to fix them when they break. Boss herself is the backbone (again, structures!) of the circus, her particular abilities are what created the circus in the first place and is why the circus has continued existing for as long as it has. The circus routinely generates the magic of illusion to entertain and astound their audience; Boss has taken another step forward so that the circus itself is true, magical entity.

Because Boss is so intrinsically tied to the Circus Tresaulti, she is, for me, the most interesting character, largely because she still maintains a sense of her history, which continues to have an impact on her present. I was disappointed that Panadrome, the barely-human musician, whose short story I loved, played such a minor role in the book.  The aerialist Elena’s portions were also intriguing to read about, but otherwise, I felt more of a “take-em-or-leave-em” attitude towards the characters, including Little George, who is the closest thing there is to a narrator.

I guess my main reaction to the book is that I appreciated it rather than enjoyed it, as I would use the word. I read it more to see how the author wrote the story rather than for the story itself, which is what I usually do when I read. Also, it took a while to set up the plot, as the first portion of the book is largely back-story of the members of the circus themselves and what their relationships are to the circus. I already knew a good deal about the circus from the three short stories, so I was less interested in that section as I might have been otherwise. This shouldn’t be a problem for other people if they come to the book without having read the stories.

Also, the plot, a lot of which revolves around two of the performers’ fascination and desire for a pair of magical wings Boss built for someone a long time ago, didn’t quite work for me. I understood why people were enamored with the wings when worn by their previous owner, but I never really got why the performers were desperate to have the wings themselves. Because they signify freedom, maybe? In any case, I wasn’t particularly interested or vested in these two characters’ obsession with them, nor with the various scheming they continually engaged in, all to better position themselves to being able to obtain them.

I almost feel as though I prefer the author’s stories about the circus when they’re written in short format because that way, the starkness of the writing is even more apparent and, as a result, the stories are more concise and pack more of an emotional punch.  This isn’t to say that I think the book isn’t powerful in its own way, but the effect does feel diluted, simply because it’s more difficult to remain engaged with the writing style for multiple pages because of its extreme sparseness. This was somewhat overcome in the latter part when the action picked up and people started acting and reacting to the situation around them and the reminiscences and musings that were frequent in earlier portions of the book were less present here.

I don’t know. Mechanique is a well-written book with an extremely unique story to tell and a different kind of writing t o go along with it. It’s objectively a “good” book in that respect, but there are certain aspects in which it is not a “me” book, and that’s alright. It’s ok to not enjoy everything you read, even when you feel like you should with a certain book and you feel like a twit when you don’t. I also feel like a twit when I enjoy books other people think are stupid. Everyone is different, just like every book, and Mechanique is certainly that.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 11:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

Chime by Franny Billingsley

This was such an excellent book. After reading the Book Smuggler’s review, I knew that I would probably love this book as much as they did too, and I’m not surprised to find that I was right, and now I want to read everything else the author wrote, and soon.

Briony is a witch. Not only that, but she is extremely wicked and deserves to be hanged. She informs the readers right at the beginning that this is who she is. Because she is a witch and wicked, she is responsible for her stepmother’s death, her sister Rose’s mental illness, and a host of other wrongs. Her powers come from the swamp and the Old Ones who live there, and she has promised Stepmother never to set foot there again, lest she be the cause of more suffering and death. When an intriguing young man by the name of Eldric begins living with Briony’s family, her fascination with him leads to the development of a friendship that prompts Briony to ask questions about whether she really is as wicked as she believes and whether or not she is capable of being a force for good.

The most distinguishing feature of the book is the writing and language used, both of which I loved. It’s seemingly straightforward, but then it twists slightly, in a sort of quirky shape that reflects the out-of-shape nature of Briony’s thoughts and the landscape itself. Everything about the language was so evocative and conjured up a modern day world overlaid with a richer, more magical one that not everyone can fully see. An example is how, at times, the language reflects the atmosphere and nature of the swamp, such as the abundance of words beginning with the letter “s”. While I liked the English countryside location for the swamp, a small part of me was wondering how awesome and different this story would have been if it had taken place in the American Southeast, like in the Everglades. The town atmosphere and collective thought-process would have been changed completely, but so many writers have written great horror stories in American swamps that I couldn’t help but be a little curious. In addition, I loved the swamp mythos the author created and all of the different types of Old Ones and spirits, particularly the names they had, such as the Boggy Mun and Mucky Face.

Briony was a wonderful protagonist and her first-person point of view was a joy to read. She believes deep down that she is a witch, capable of doing nothing but evil, but still she has sworn to look after and care for her twin sister Rose, whose mental illness Briony believes she is the cause of. Threaded throughout Briony’s story is her complicated relationship to her deceased Stepmother, the one who first told her that she was a witch. While there isn’t much of an overarching plot, Briony’s struggle to come into her own and consider herself capable of love and worth loving was great all on its own. There were a couple of places where it got a bit tiresome to hear her repeatedly saying that she was a witch and therefore wicked, and look at how wicked she was, but for the most part, it was done well. No matter that she thinks she’s wicked, she still has a sense of superiority over those whom she deems not worth her time. Even as she presents a pleasant, polite face to the world, underneath she’s teeming with all sorts of sharp, sarcastic observations and retorts to everything that’s going around her. She’s incredibly smart and she knows it, but her deep-seated belief in her own wickedness causes her maintain a distant, emotionless front she believes is necessary, lest she be discovered and hanged.

I also really liked Rose, who seemingly has the mind of a child and has practices and statements that no one really understands, but still manages to see and reveal some terrific things. Even though it is Briony who looks after Rose, Rose’s love for Briony shines through strongly as well. She was strong in her own way, and I admired it a good deal.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the relationship between Briony and Eldric, the new boy who comes into town at the book’s beginning. Right away, Briony compares his looks and energy to that of a lion, and she slowly begins to trust him and they become great friends. This isn’t really a spoiler, because it’s kind of really obvious, but they fall in love. What makes this budding love so wonderful to read about is that it is Done Right. The two first become friends, found a secret brotherhood for the honor of all “bad boys” everywhere, and Briony and Eldric take their time falling in love over the course of the entire year. In short, their relationship and how it progressed was realistic and deliciously sweet to read about. At the end when Briony explains to Eldric how and why she loves him… that resonated so much with me that it almost made cry, if I cried from happiness, which I don’t.

If the writing and characters hadn’t already won my heart, the story also contained many meta asides about the power of stories (which, as we all know, is my kryptonite). The Old Ones and the creatures in the swamp depend on Briony for writing their stories and Briony constantly refers to how the situation would have gone if it had been a story, but stories are never like they are in real life, many tend not to reveal the messy and ugly parts that real life is so full of. Also, a huge part of this book is the stories we tell about ourselves and that others tell about ourselves that shape who we are. Stepmother managed to rewrite Briony entirely and thoroughly altered her story. The ending shows Briony struggling to destroy those brain paths and rewrite new ones, using different thoughts and words she would never have said or described herself with before. I loved that, because I identified with it so much. Looking back now, I can see how many of the statements and sentiments I heard repeated over and over again, even if not directed at me specifically, shaped who I became and who I am now, as I’ve either kept them or realized they didn’t fit and so discarded them.

However, one aspect I did not like was that the two main ”villains”, Stepmother and Leanne were, in my opinion, one-dimensional with regards to their evil deeds. All of the male characters that acted abominably were three-dimensional characters whose behavior, while not excused, was explained and given motivation for. Stepmother and Leanne, on the other hand, are Old Ones and are portrayed as seductresses who are believed to woo only (artistic) men in order to feed on their talents. As a result, their “evildoing” is a result of their nature, and nothing else. Stepmother, in particular, feels like she’d fit in quite well in a traditional fairy tale, where wicked stepmothers are abundant. My issue isn’t that Stepmother and Leanne are “evil” or female, but I can’t help but think about how their characters fit in with a larger tradition of having EEEEEvil women, particularly stepmothers, be scheming, seductive sirens who use their beauty and sexual allure to pray on men and children that aren’t their own.

Aside from that issue, Chime is a truly excellent book. I will admit, it’s not for everyone. Some might be turned off by the writing style, some by Briony herself. She’s definitely not the easiest person to like. Still, this really is a beautiful book, and if anyone is even slightly intrigued, I urge you to find a copy of the book and read it. When I finished it, I hugged the book to my chest and silently thanked the author so much for giving me a story that was a joy to read, a protagonist I could invest in, and a romantic couple that I could actually believe in. What more could I ask for?

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

I here present my first non-positive review, which is a shame because I was looking forward to a good, earlier science fiction book (if 1981 is old enough to count as earlier). It was a case of where I could see how all the different pieces were supposed to come together and create a cohesive whole, but the execution didn’t work out quite so well.

The book is admirably impressive in scope and alternates between the viewpoints of multiple different characters and juggles the interests of multiple factions of power. The story largely takes place in the world of Tiamet where two different groups of people live, the tech-loving Winters and the rural, hunter-gathering Summers. The technologically sophisticated offworlders of the interplanetary Hegemony that controls Tiamet’s economic and technology level are about to leave and take all of their tech with them, leaving Tiamet to revert to a pre-tech existence. The Winters currently rule over Tiamet, but once the Hegemony leaves, the Summers will replace them. The ruthless Queen Arienrhod, a Winter, will do whatever it takes to prevent that future from occurring, and has created a clone of herself that will assume the throne after her reign ends in order to prevent Tiamet’s backward slide. Her clone, Moon Dawntreader Summer, grows up to be a sibyl, and then journeys to find her cousin Sparks whom she loves and feels like she has let down. Along the way, she discovers what sibyls really are and what their capabilities are, and so realizes she has a destiny on Tiamet she never realized she had, and works to free Tiamet from Arienrhod’s obsessive desire to retain power

This is an extremely simplified plot summary, and included in the book are the viewpoints of Arienrhod, Moon, her cousin and lover Sparks, police inspector Jerusha, her partner Gundhalinu, and a dock worker named Tor. Each viewpoint is distinct and fleshed out, and the majority are enjoyable to read about. However, the least enjoyable is that of Moon’s, which is unfortunate, as it is on her shoulders that the story largely rests upon. She kept coming across as extremely young, and constantly blamed herself for everything that went wrong, which was extremely annoying. Furthermore, she has practically no flaw and everyone loves her. Everyone. In short, she was boring to read about.

I think the main thing that bugs me about the story is that a particular plot point revolves around the fact that Moon is Arienrhod’s clone, and therefore they are “supposedly” the same person because they have the same mind. When Sparks believe he’s lost Moon forever, Arienrhod has no problem convincing Sparks that Moon is “technically” her, so it’s ok for Sparks to love her instead. That is not how cloning works, and even though other characters later on said the same exact thing, I didn’t like how that argument was what propelled the story along and was part of what corrupted Sparks and turned him into the bitter, ruthless advisor to the Queen. It made even less sense that once Moon came back, Sparks almost immediately reverted back into his old self and remembered that oh yeah, it was Moon and not Arienrhod he loved.

Also, the writing kept throwing me off for reasons I can’t clearly identify. The book is 469 pages long and has small print, but it constantly felt like I was missing something, like certain sequences would start or end too quickly. There were multiple plots, and while they all managed to coincide more or less by the end, the timing in which it happened felt messy. Also, I thought the climax occurred too quickly, the resolution is almost completely glossed over, and the rest of the ending was protracted unnecessarily.

I did really like Jerusha because of her dedication to her job as a police officer and constant struggle to do her job and have the police be a source of good when Arienrhod herself is doing everything she can to make sure she fails. She was a realistic character with good intentions, but up against numerous obstacles determined to wear her down and break her. Arienrhod, Sparks, and Gundhalinu were also enjoyable to read because of their numerous flaws and the assaults they suffered to their pre-existing conception of the universe. In short, I liked reading the viewpoints of anyone that wasn’t Moon. In books, human flaws are actually good things!

The time in which the story takes place is one in which there used to be a huge Empire with vast amounts of technology. When the Empire collapsed, a lot of it was lost, and the Hegemony has reclaimed a good portion of it, but their power is limited because the worlds under their influence are separated by black holes that close up for certain periods of time. Some of the story did take place on Karemough, the center of the Hegemony, but I felt like the history of the Hegemony and the different worlds under its influence were skimmed over. For example, why exactly do the Summers and Winters on Tiamet have to alternate leadership? Why are Winters, seemingly by definition, attracted to tech and the Summers aren’t? How Tiamet society and various cultures worked was not explained satisfactorily enough for me. Also, I disliked how Joan D. Vinge tried to exemplify cultural differences between people by slightly changing the syntax of Sandhi, the language of the Hegemony. It felt silly.

This book is the first in a short series, so I might read the rest, because there were characters I enjoyed, it’s that the story didn’t coalesce into a solid whole. This book won the Hugo Award in 1981, so obviously a number of people really liked it. I do feel that if I had read this at a different age, maybe when I was fourteen and really into Anne McCaffrey, that I would have gotten more out of it than I did. Ah well.

Sidenote: After lurking on a number of sf blogs over the past three years, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to cover art, and this particular piece is beautiful. I love the details of the crown and the blue background.

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 5:48 PM  Leave a Comment  

Am I Queer? Only If I Say So

This post is largely a response to the internet debacle of whether asexual people have the “right” to say they’re queer or whether they’re co-opting the term because asexual people don’t experience the same type of prejudice as gay/bisexual/pansexual people do. Besides the fact that that particular argument is ridiculous and completely erases asexual people who are homo, bi, or panromantic (in which case I guess, people consider them to be “closeted LGBP people”. Hmm, wonder where I’ve heard that before?). As an entire whole, I think the identities and definitions of asexuality, demisexuality, gray-A sexuality, and anything else related to those identities are inherently queer because they all share one important point in common: they are not the same thing as heterosexuality.

However, when it comes to labeling myself as queer, I pause. After all, I’m asexual, but I’m also heteroromantic. As a result, I have a lot of passing privilege. If/when I’m in a relationship with someone, I will not have to worry about being denied legal or health benefits, finding or maintaining a job, getting harassed or beaten just for being seen holding hands with my significant other, or any of the other forms of active discrimination and harassment faced by people who are gay or bisexual. According to a couple of friends of mine, there were people who thought I was a lesbian in high school, but for the most part, I “look” straight, and so won’t be judged to be gay, bi, or pansexual based on my appearance, and so avoid a lot of the discrimination and harassment mentioned above.

On the other hand, things get complicated on a personal level, and there is where I lose many privileges I might have had. If I date someone who’s sexual (and the odds are pretty likely that I will, considering the fact that the asexual community is still extremely small), I will have to navigate both his expectations about sex and sexual activity in a relationship and my feelings about what I feel comfortable doing and what I will never do, no matter the circumstance. As mentioned in a previous post, I can’t even kiss people without having to do mental gymnastics. Is it even possible for me to be in a relationship with someone who’s sexual and get away with not kissing them?

I’m worried about telling a potential partner and having them completely dismiss my identity and tell me I’m lying or that I’m confused. No matter what sort of relationship I’m in, I tend to put a lot of trust in that person, and I realize that I, personally, am extremely susceptible to pressure and coaxing from a friend or a significant other because of the trust I gave them, and I’ve had the experience before of one friend taking advantage of that trust time and time again. In short, I am extremely worried of letting myself do things I don’t want to because it’s easier not to protest and harder to actually convince someone that what I am is real and valid. And that can lead to assault.

I’m worried about spending my entire life alone. Because our society says that people who aren’t in relationships (presumably in the form of marriage) are unhappy, lonely, and will never, ever be fulfilled. I don’t mind living my life without a partner. I mind the prospect of having everyone I love and care about entering partnerships of their own and potentially rearranging me in their lives such that I don’t have the same importance to them that I used to. Because, according to most people, friendships almost always fall short of romantic relationships, sexual or not. This is most likely an even bigger concern for people who are aromantic than it could ever be for me.

I’m worried about telling my parents. I’m almost certain that if I tell my mom, she will make it a medical issue and say that it’s because I’m still suffering from anxiety issues and that my sexuality is just another thing that I’ve become anxious about. Either that, or she’ll say that I’ll probably grow out of it. She wants me to be married someday, specifically so that I can have grandkids so that she can have descendents. And while I feel sorry for her that it’s probably not going to happen, still, tough luck for her.

Still, since I first started identifying as asexual, I have been extremely lucky. All of the friends I have told have believed me and supported me, or at the very least, they’ve believed me and not cared. For the past semester, I’ve lived in a dorm with a friend of mine who’s asexual, and knowing she’s there means I feel less alone, no matter where she is or I am. Yes, there have been times when I’ve told people and they’re pretty much ignored me and moved on. That hurt. It also hurts when I hear people use the word “asexual” in casual conversation, not even knowing what it really means and how they’re using it in such an offensive way. It hurts when I hear people who do know about asexuality and still say things about it that make it clear that they still don’t understand what they’re talking about.

And yet, because of the fact that the people I am romantically attracted to are male, part of me feels like I don’t have the right to call myself queer. Because, on the surface, I pass. However, just because I don’t face the same types of prejudice doesn’t mean I don’t face any at all. How many people have even heard about asexuality, much less fully understand what it actually means for the people who identify as such? People today can still point to the DSM as an explanation for asexuality, just like they used to be able to with homosexuality. There is very little in either intellectual or popular media or discussion that gives any indication that asexuality even exists, much less deserves to be paid attention to and taken seriously.

I have to constantly fight that part of myself that says I’m not allowed to identify as queer, because I do have that right. Even if I didn’t have the worries I just said, even if everyone in the universe knew what asexuality was (and I really hope that one day, that becomes reality), I still have the right to call myself queer. Because I am not heterosexual and I have never been heterosexual. Trust me, I would have known if I was, and throughout all of middle school and high school, even when I fell in love with someone who was male, there was no time when I could say out loud, and mean it, “I am heterosexual”. Because I was never sexually attracted to anyone. Because I am asexual.

Yes, I have and experience privilege that comes from being romantically attracted to men. I would never say that I didn’t and I try to keep that in mind whenever I talk about sexuality. However, just as no one has the right to tell someone who identifies as gay, bi, or pansexual what it means to identify with that label, no one has the right to say what is or isn’t my identity as an asexual. No one has the right to identify me or not identify me, except myself. There is no “checklist” for being queer. Hell, I’ve technically been “queer” for the last eight years, simply because I have never identified as heterosexual.

I have the right to identify as queer. Whether I do so, or will do so, is a question for another day.

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 10:06 PM  Leave a Comment