Books I've Read Recently
This is a partial listing of books that I've recently read and enjoyed. Click any title to jump to that book's listing on Amazon.com. (If you buy the book through my link, I get a commission!)
- StreetLethal by Steven Barnes
Reviewed March 2001
- I was interested in checking out Steven Barnes' work since I heard him speak at WorldCon (the annual World Science Fiction Convention) in summer 2000. I thought he seemed like an interesting guy, and frankly it doesn't seem like there are a lot of black people writing science fiction, so I wanted to check him out.
Streetlethal is a futuristic tale that takes place in the early or mid 21st century, after an earthquake (The Big One) has hit southern California. It follows the trials and tribulations of Aubry Knight, a trained fighter and general badass. Lots of bad stuff happens to Aubry, and he gets by mostly because of his strength and agility. As the plot progresses, he learns that he's become embroiled in a larger situation, involving a powerful gang and a newly created drug. He hooks up with some "good guys" to foil the evil plot.
I enjoyed this book, although at times it drags, and the English Chick in me can't help trying to edit it. I believe this was Barnes' first novel, or at least an early one, and the language is a bit rough in spots. One ailment he particularly suffers from is the unclear referent -- he uses the word "he" or "she" a lot and sometimes it's hard to figure out which character is being referred to. He also switches perspective a lot, showing the action first from one character's point of view and then from another's without much transition. (He also writes that after the Big Quake, most business in the L.A. area has moved to Santa Monica, which I find hard to believe. After the Big One hits, I'm pretty sure Santa Monica will all be underwater!)
But those are quibbles. The plot, such as it is, tends to meander, but is interesting enough to keep you reading anyway, and most of the plot threads do end up getting tied together. There aren't any plot twists that really make you go, "Whoa, I didn't see that coming!" but where the plot is a bit formulaic, it still has enough emotional power to hold my interest.
This is a very dark book, with a lot of death and violence. It portrays an image of the not-so-distant future that is fairly depressing, but not hard to believe in. The main character, Aubry, is no saint, but Barnes gives him a core of decency that makes the reader continue to sympathize. I'm interested enough to seek out some more of Barnes' work; from what I understand, he has written other books about Aubry Knight, as well as some unrelated stuff.
- Frontier Earth by Bruce Boxleitner
Reviewed March 2001
- You may be familiar with Bruce Boxleitner as an actor on the 1980s show "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" or on the 1990s sci-fi show "Babylon 5." I normally don't read books written by actors, because frankly I've found that they usually suck. But I had heard good reviews of Frontier Earth so I gave it a try, and I wasn't sorry.
The plot concerns an alien who crash-lands on Earth in the Wild West era (circa the 1880s). He looks human, but because of the crash he can't remember who he is or where he came from. He stumbles into Tombstone, Arizona, in the midst of the frontier war between the Earps and the Clantons. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and others from that historical time period appear as main characters, but the major action is centered around the mysterious Macklin, his growing attachment to a local widow, his efforts to regain his missing memories, and the brutal aliens who are trying to hunt him down and kill him.
If you read the Amazon.com review of this book, you'll see they say that Bruce Boxleitner "gives this oft-exploited scenario an organized, crisply delivered, and well-informed workout." That's pretty much how I felt about it; the plot itself is nothing terribly new, and the part that actually recounts the Gunfight at the OK Corral is fairly predictable to anyone who's seen the many movies about it. But the emotional tensions evoked by the narrative style make it stand out. The descriptions, not only of physical surroundings and action, but also of the characters' reactions and feelings, are well-done. There's also a fairly creepy sense of foreboding that permeates the narrative, since you know that the evil aliens are Bad, but any information about their actual appearances, abilities, and intentions is given out very slowly, letting the suspense build until you just know something terrible is going to happen, but you're not sure what.
The book ends on a somewhat unresolved note, leaving it wide open for a sequel, which has indeed been written (but I haven't read it yet). For a first-time novelist, it's quite good, and definitely worth a look.
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Reviewed July 2001
- I first heard of this book on Amazon. As you probably know, Amazon tries to recommend new books to you based on your prior purchases. In the past I've bought Harry Potter books and books by Philip Pullman and Diana Wynne Jones from Amazon, and I guess they thought Artemis Fowl was similar to those. I saw it in the library and thought I might as well check it out.
Artemis Fowl is similar to the Harry Potter books and the other books I mentioned above in some ways: the main (title) character is a preteen boy, and there's magic involved. In some ways, it's also similar to the works of Donald Westlake, who, as you may know, writes mystery novels where the criminals are the protagonists. In Artemis Fowl, the title character is a 12-year-old boy who heads an international corporation and is a talented thief. When he decides that he wants something from the mystical beings known as fairies, he spares no expense and is fairly ruthless in attaining his goal. Meanwhile, the fairies, led by a female cop named Holly Short, are determined to keep their secrets, well, secret. The story blends magic and technology in cool, fun ways, as Artemis uses a computer to decode secret messages and the fairies use high-tech equipment to defend themselves.
Although the writing style and plot are engaging, this book lacks a few significant things that the other works I mentioned above have going for them. (Bear in mind that I've only read one of the Harry Potter novels.) The plot, such as it is, is fairly uncomplicated and contains few real surprises. The question of why Artemis wants the things that he wants is never really explained to my satisfaction. It seems that, unlike Harry Potter or the child-protagonists of the other stories I mentioned, Artemis gets what he wants too easily, with not enough obstacles or challenges presenting themselves to him. Also, although I don't want to give away too much of the plot, the book ends on a slightly inconclusive note, leaving the continuation of the story for a sequel which, I'm sure, will be coming out soon. Personally, I prefer a story to wrap up at the end, a little more definitively than this one. Still, it's a good read and would probably be a decent choice for a kid who is having trouble passing the days until Harry Potter #5 is published.
- Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle
Reviewed March 2001
- I picked up Celestial Matters for the same reason I picked up Street Lethal: because I had heard the author speak at Worldcon and was interested. And I'm glad I did, because it's a very interesting tale.
As you may know, the ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. In their model, the sun, the moon, and the seven planets (they didn't know about Pluto) were each affixed to a crystal sphere, which spheres were embedded one inside the next, with the Earth at the center. They also, of course, had no notion of Newtonian physics; they believed, for example, that if you throw an object in a straight line, it will continue moving in that direction forever until acted on by another force (of which gravity and friction don't count because they hadn't conceptualized these). And they also didn't know about the vacuum that is outer space.
Celestial Matters postulates an alternate reality where all of the above are true. History proceeded in this universe the same way it did in ours, up until the reign of Alexander the Great. In our universe, Alexander died fairly young before his armies had a chance to conquer the whole world as he had hoped. Then the Graeco-Roman empire fell, paving the way for the advent of Christianity. In Garfinkle's universe, however, Alexander lived to a ripe old age and conquered all of (what we think of as) Europe and Africa, as well as parts of the Middle East. The thousand or so years since his death have been consumed by the everlasting war between the Delian League (the union of Athens, Sparta, etc.) and the Middle Kingdom (which is basically everything we think of as Asia). Technology, of course, has progressed, but not exactly in the same ways as it has in our world -- they have the capability of space-flight and to create food animals from manure, but they don't have telephones or TVs, for example.
Our hero is a scientist by the name of Aias, who has come up with a plan to take a spaceship to the sun and chop off a piece of it (the sun, that is), which can then be used to power spaceships and bring weapons to the heart of enemy country. Aias is placed in co-command of a spaceship, along with a military commander -- everything in the Delian League is done with two leaders, one military and one scientific. But Aias is already beginning to question the value of having science wholly subservient to war; and as their mission gets underway, assassination attempts and other stuff lead him and his co-commander to believe that there's a spy and/or a traitor on board. So, much of the story is taken up with the various attempts to identify the spy, while still working on the mission. Eventually, things go disastrously wrong, as they are wont to do. But by the end Aias has managed, not only to salvage the mission, but also to make a discovery that has the potential to end the war by bringing the two nations to a better understanding of each other. (That sounds hokey, but it's really not.)
Early on in the novel, Aias is assigned a female bodyguard. This woman, a Spartan named Yellow Hare, kicks ass. :-) I suspect Garfinkle may have watched a few too many episodes of "Xena" before writing this. But I'm not complaining, because I really like the way Yellow Hare is portrayed, and the conflicts between her military mindset and Aias's scientific one -- sort of a microcosm of one of the overarching themes of the book.
I suspect I would have enjoyed this book even more than I did, if I knew more about the history and science of the nations involved. I certainly get the sense that Garfinkle has done his homework, although he also doesn't bog his story down with excess technobabble -- he gives you just enough to figure out that there is a logic to it, but not enough to bore you. Also, the Greek gods figure heavily in the narration. Almost any time a character experiences an emotion or has an idea, s/he is portrayed as having been "touched" or "visited" by the relevant god. In several instances, rites of sacrifice or prayer to the gods figures in the narration; also, the planets are of course referred to by their Greek names, not their Roman ones (i.e. Aphrodite instead of Venus, Ares instead of Mars, etc.).
Garfinkle does a fair job of characterization on the main characters, although most of the more minor characters come across a little two-dimensional. One thing I particularly disliked, however, was the use of foreshadowing in the form of "Little did I know that..." and then giving away a major plot point. I would have preferred it if he had let us find this out at the same time the narrator does -- especially since, in most cases, they were things that the discerning reader had already begun to suspect anyway.
The beliefs of the Chinese -- specifically the meaning of the Tao and the ways in which the Chinese (or "Middlers" as they're called in the book) conceptualize science, which differs vastly from the way Aias was taught -- are given a fair amount of play, although of course since the narration is first-person, it can only be presented inasfar as he understands it. I would have liked to see a little more of this, but I guess there wasn't a really good way to work it into the plot.
I really enjoyed the story overall and would recommend it. It does suffer slightly from the common problem of spending too much time setting up the story and then resolving it too quickly -- but the ending is satisfying and provides a lot of food for thought.
- Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed July 2001
- I picked up Midnight Robber at the library as part of my planned project to read all (or most) of the Hugo-nominated novels this summer. (The Hugo is the highest award given to a science fiction story, sort of like the sci-fi version of the Oscar.) This is a fascinating book, very different from the kind of thing you usually find on the Hugo nomination list.
Author Nalo Hopkinson is partly Jamaican, and this shows up in the story. The book centers around a girl named Tan-Tan, who at the story's opening is a child of about six or seven. She lives on a version of Earth where everyone has nanites (miniature artificial intelligences) implanted in their brains to give them advice and keep track of them. Tan-Tan's father, Antonio, and mother, Ione, are two very flawed people who fight constantly and use their daughter as sort of a pawn between them. When their fighting crosses the line, Antonio is banished, and he takes little Tan-Tan along with him. Together they go to a place called New Half-Way Tree, which is apparently an alternate universe or dimension where all criminals from their world are sent.
All this takes place in the first quarter of the book. The rest is spent on Tan-Tan's life in her new home, as she grows up to become a young adult. Although her life is fairly difficult and fairly typical, it's enhanced by her fantasies of herself as a character called the Midnight Robber, who steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights the injustices of humanity all over.
Woven in with the narrative -- which is told in a patois that may be difficult to grasp at first, but which I find very rich and compelling -- is a series of fairy-tales or stories being told about a different Tan-Tan, one who really is the Midnight Robber. Who is narrating these stories, and who is listening to them, we don't find out until the very end.
It's difficult to describe this book in a way that will do it justice. It's a type of narrative and a style that I don't often see in science fiction. By taking standard themes right out of daytime soap operas -- infidelity, child abuse, first love, adolescent growing-pains -- and transferring them into her fantastical world, Hopkinson lifts them out of the realm of the mundane and displays them in all their beauty and pain. This is really a beautiful book, and I highly recommend it.
- Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross
Reviewed June 2001
- I recently re-read this novel and have started to reread the rest of Kate Ross's novels featuring the character of Julian Kestrel. Unfortunately, she passed away recently, so there won't be any more. :-(
Kate Ross's murder mystery series takes place in the late 1800s in Europe. The main character is a young man named Julian Kestrel, who is a dandy with a sharp wit and a way with the ladies. But unlike most such playboys of the era, Julian actually has a brain, and cares about more than who's wearing what, who's courting whom, and which horses to bet on. In the first novel, Cut to the Quick, Julian stumbles into a murder investigation when he discovers a dead woman in his bed while he's a guest at a wealthy family's country home. Julian quickly discovers that he has a talent for detective-ing, and by the end of the novel he has identified the mystery woman and figured out who killed her. In the three subsequent novels (A Broken Vessel, Whom the Gods Love, and The Devil in Music), he continues to develop his detective skills.
What I like most about these books, aside from the careful attention to detail and historical accuracy, is the way the plots unfold. My complaint about many mystery novels is that the author pulls the resolution out of a hat -- that is, when you get to the end and find out Who Dunnit, it uses clues that the reader was never given. I like it better when all the clues are subtly worked into the story, so that the reader can begin to figure it out along with the detective character. Kate Ross does an excellent job with this. All the clues are there, and at the end of the story you're left going "Damn! I could have figured that out!" Her writing style is also very readable, making the characters come alive with action and emotion. I'm really sorry that she's no longer with us.
- Calculating God by Robert Sawyer
Reviewed July 2001
- As with Midnight Robber (reviewed above), I picked up this book because it is nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I have to confess that after reading Midnight Robber, I was pretty skeptical that any other book could deserve a Hugo as much. So I was pleasantly surprised by Calculating God.
Calculating God opens with the arrival of an alien spaceship on modern-day Earth. In a fun twist on typical science-fiction themes, these aliens are not here to enslave humans; rather, they're scientists in search of paleontology experts. The main alien, named Hollus, is quickly paired up with the book's protagonist, a human scientist named Tom who works at a Canadian museum. Within a few pages, we learn that the aliens believe science has proven the existence of God -- and they're pretty surprised that we humans haven't come to the same conclusion! Bear in mind that these aliens are not a lot more technologically advanced than we are. They don't have any magical knowledge that we lack; all the arguments they make in favor of the existence of God involve scientific concepts that Tom is familiar with.
Further complicating the plot, the reason the aliens have come is that they're seeking information about certain events that happened in the galaxy in the distant past. This is why they want to study Earth's fossil records. The middle part of the novel is mainly concerned with the interactions between Tom and Hollus as they conduct their research, get to know each other, and debate the existence of God and the interpretation of science at great length. Sawyer does an excellent job of making the science both complex and understandable. I don't have any advanced physics knowledge, and it's been a long time since I took high-school physics, but I was able to follow everything he talks about in the book.
I won't give away the ending, but let's just say that the scientists follow their line of reasoning to its natural conclusion. The ending, although surprising, is fairly satisfying and makes plenty of sense if you're willing to suspend your disbelief for it.
The one quibble I would have with this story is the treatment of gender issues. When Tom finds out that one of the aliens he's been working closely with is female, he's surprised, and then he says that he's going to continue referring to that alien as "he" anyway. It's only when he finds out that that alien has children, that he starts thinking of her as "she." I find this somewhat offensive, and it's jarring in the midst of a narrative that otherwise strives to be completely "politically correct" throughout. Also, the author's treatment of Tom's wife is fairly two-dimensional. Susan is rarely given any motivation or opinions of her own, except where it's convenient to provide a counterpoint to Tom's beliefs; and her quick acceptance of Tom's momentous decision at the end of the book is a little hard to buy.
However, I can overlook those faults in a story as fascinating and thought-provoking as this one. It's rare these days to find a "science fiction" story that really contains as much science as fiction (this type of thing is sometimes referred to as "hard" science fiction). Sawyer clearly knows his science and has spent a lot of time thinking about it, and the conclusions he draws make a lot of sense. If you can read this book without stopping at least once to say, "whoa, I never thought of that," I'd be pretty surprised. (However, if you prefer your science fiction to be heavy on the metal-bikini-wearing women and flashy spaceships, and light on the actual science, this isn't the book for you!)
I strongly recommend Calculating God, and will be very interested to see how the Hugo awards turn out.
- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Reviewed February 2002
- I picked this book up mostly because I heard Connie Willis speak at last year's Worldcon and she was very funny. (She was presenting a Hugo Award at the time.) Once I had picked it up, though, I had trouble putting it down!
It's hard to explain exactly "when" this book takes place, because it's a book about time travel. The main character, Ned, is a historian from Oxford University in the 22nd century. In Connie Willis's version of the future, historians have control of time-travel technology (called "the net"), but they are, like academics everywhere and everywhen, at the mercy of wealthy benefactors. So when the story begins, Ned is in WWII England, searching for an artifact at the behest of a rich and annoying lady of the 22nd century.
Ned returns to his "home" timeline, suffering from a condition that affects people who do too much time-traveling. The cure is rest, so in order to get him away from the rich taskmistress, Ned's bosses send him back in time to 1888. On the way, they give him one last minor task to perform. Unfortunately, Ned is so addled from his time-lag that he fails to understand exactly what that task is! Uh-oh! ;-)
Arriving in 1888, Ned goes bumbling around acting on a bunch of erroneous assumptions, and meeting up with a variety of natives, to say nothing of the dog. He eventually meets up with a fellow time-traveler, who tells him what his task was, but it's too late. The two of them then spend the majority of the book running around trying to fix the mess they've made of history. It's a comedy of errors as they constantly think they know what is supposed to happen, and try to make it happen, only to find out that they were wrong all along. In the end, of course, everything gets straightened out, the right people marry the right people, and everyone lives happily ever after (or at least until the next interfering time-traveler comes along).
This is a highly literate and entertaining book, filled with wit and scholarship. Be warned that it's one of those books that presumes a high level of intelligence on the reader's part! If you like to have everything spoon-fed to you, this is not the book for you. The author makes dozens of historical and literary and cultural references, many of which are just mentioned in passing, so if you're the kind of person who needs to fully understand every reference, you might want to have an encyclopedia handy. Personally, I like it when the author doesn't spell everything out, so I loved this book! I highly recommend it and will be picking up another of Willis's novels very soon.
My Favorite Books
The following are some of my favorite books (or series) of all time. Click any title to jump to that book's listing on Amazon.com. (If you buy the book through my link, I get a commission!)
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Plaidder and I have a theory that everyone who likes Jane Eyre hates Wuthering Heights (written by Charlotte Bronte's sister Emily) and vice versa. I don't know if this is true, but at least for me, I like Jane Eyre and dislike Wuthering Heights.
Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman who is orphaned at an early age and is raised by her aunt and uncle. She gets no love as a child, only ridicule from her aunt, uncle, and cousins. Because of this, she misbehaves, and they send her off to a horrible boarding school. She eventually grows up, finishes school, and goes off to be a governess to a child who's being raised by the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Jane ends up falling in love with Rochester, and he with her, but an unbelievable amount of bad stuff happens before they're finally able to be together.
Like most Gothic novels, this is a dark and depressing tale. Almost nothing good ever happens to poor Jane, and even when she falls in love, it's a source of pain and anguish because she's a lowly governess and the object of her affections is a nobleman. But the story appeals on some level to those of us who hate injustice and want to see the "good guy" win out in the end. It's painful for anyone who was beaten up or teased as a child to read the parts where Jane's cousins taunt her, or the parts where her aunt blames Jane totally unfairly for stuff that isn't her fault. It's equally painful to see that, even once she escapes her aunt's house, the boarding school is just as bad. But throughout the whole thing, you know that Jane has enough strength of character to stick it out. She doesn't let anyone or anything kill her spirit, no matter how much bad stuff happens. And she persists in her belief that if you're a good person, you deserve to be happy, even if you're poor and an orphan.
Jane Eyre is one of those classic novels that many of us were forced to read in high school and therefore feel compelled to hate. But if you managed to escape high school without reading it, you should give it a try now, from a different perspective. I think you might find it worthwhile, especially if you know there's not going to be a quiz. :-)
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
- I know that in this day and age it's almost considered un-PC for a science fiction fan, especially a woman, to say that she likes Heinlein. Well, too bad. Heinlein was my introduction to the world of science fiction writing, and he remains one of my favorite authors despite his many failings.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is my favorite of all Heinlein's works. I read it so many times that my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. It takes place in the future, on the moon. In this tale, the moon was originally colonized as a prison camp, for Earth to send its convicts there so they would be out of the way. Before the action of the book begins, this has begun to change, and now most people on the Moon are just regular people, but there's still a stereotype of the Loonie (moon dweller) as a criminal.
In the story, our main character is a regular guy named Manuel. He fixes computers. One day he discovers that the moon's main computer has "woken up" -- that is, become self-aware. The computer names itself Mike and becomes Manny's friend. Eventually, they formulate a plan to overthrow the Earth's government and make the Moon an independent nation. They begin recruiting other people to join the fight, and end up basically at war with Earth.
Like many of Heinlein's novels, this one spends a lot of time discussing theory -- describing the hierarchy of the resistance movement, the physical setup of the Lunar cities, and so forth. But unlike a lot of his books, this one doesn't get bogged down in that stuff. It fits in with the plot, and works pretty well. Also like a lot of Heinlein's work, this book involves non-traditional marriage arrangements. Manny is involved in a group marriage with several other men and women. Several of the women in his family become closely involved with the resistance movement, and in this way, the book is rather more woman-positive than many of Heinlein's other works (in which the women are just wives or sisters or secretaries).
The main plot is also extremely interesting and engaging, and it comes to a very satisfying end, although not without a few sad parts. The book's other strength is the relationship between Manny and the computer Mike, and the way their bond evolves as Mike becomes more and more self-sufficient. It's an all-around excellent read and I highly recommend it.
- Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
- This is a very interesting book which is difficult to categorize. It's part mystery, part fantasy, part historical novel. It takes place in an alternate version of ancient China and is narrated by a young man named Number Ten Ox. Like Brutha in Small Gods, Ox is not the brightest candle around, but he's a decent guy, and when the children in his village become mysteriously ill, he sets out to find a wise man to cure them. He teams up with a very old and mischievous wise man named Master Li, and together the two of them have adventures, traveling around China and encountering a variety of foes in their quest to solve the mystery before all the children die.
This book is written with a lyrical, evocative style that perfectly captures the way most of us think about ancient China -- as a place where even the most ordinary of conversations is spoken in flowery, effusive language, where everyone is polite even when insulting each other, and where your wit is measured by how elaborately you can express yourself. The action is pretty much non-stop, and fully engaging all the way through to the climax. I highly recommend it, as well as the sequels The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen.
- The Holmes/Russell Series by Laurie King
- This series consists of (in publishing order) The Beekeeper's Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, The Moor, and O Jerusalem. The books are written from the perspective of a young woman named Mary Russell. In the early part of the 20th century, Mary is a teenager in England, an orphan. She runs into an aging Sherlock Holmes and he becomes her mentor and teacher. Together, they roam around Europe solving crimes and having adventures.
After I read the first two books in this series, I was inspired to go read Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes tales. I've read almost all of them now, and gained a great appreciation for Laurie King's talent. She expertly captures the personality of Holmes and imagines what he would be like in the latter part of his life, and she draws the character of Mary very realistically, integrating her original character with the Holmes character in a totally believable way. It's also clear that she has done a lot of research into the time period she's writing about -- as well as into the topic of Jewish history and biblical studies, which are particular interests of the Mary Russell character. There's also a definite feminist slant, because of course in the time period King is writing about, women were not supposed to do things like investigate crime, go undercover, fight, and so forth. Mary encounters prejudice and harassment quite frequently, and King does an excellent job of portraying her reactions and Holmes'.
I can't praise this series enough, and I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the next installment. If you like mysteries, or if you like historical novels, or if you like Sherlock Holmes, you must read these books.
- Women On Fire by The Plaid Adder
- My book recommendations page would not be complete without a mention of WOF! The Plaid Adder is the online pseudonym of a friend of mine, and Women on Fire is actually a series of three novels -- Taken Child, Another Country, and Darkness Bright -- plus a shorter prologue novel, Better to Burn. The series is currently seeking a publisher, but you can see the WOF Website at www.plaidder.com/WOF and if you send an email to Plaidder, she'll email you the books in installments.
WOF takes place in a fantasy world called Ideire, where magic can only be practiced by specially trained women called shriias. As the story opens in Taken Child, we meet our hero, a shriia named Theamh. We learn that she has had several battles with an evil mage named Lythril, but Theamh has been forbidden to go looking for Lythril for various reasons. However, while investigating a seemingly unrelated case involving a little boy whose body has been possessed, Theamh discovers an evil plot that encompasses not only her country of Ideire but also the neighboring country, called the Cretid Nation, where people don't believe in magic. Accompanied by her apprentice Aine, and helped or hindered by a large cast of other characters, Theamh travels all over the place, having various adventures while trying to solve the mystery, locate the evil Lythril, and figure out what happened to the mysterious Istria.
If you're a fan of the typical fantasy novel format, minus the dragons and simpering stupid women, you'll like WOF. (And I say that as one who doesn't typically like that genre, so it must be good!) You'll also like it if you enjoy clever, biting social commentary mixed in with the plots. You'll also like it if you enjoy a good mystery, or if you just plain like to read about strong intelligent women kicking butt and taking names. I should warn you that these books are very long, and there are a lot of characters and plot threads to keep track of, but don't worry; they all come together nicely in the end. I can't praise WOF highly enough, probably because Plaidder is one of my favorite people, and I like to embarrass her. ;-) But don't just take my word for it, go read it. You won't be sorry.
- Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
- I have been a fan of Terry Pratchett's work for many years now, since long before he became popular in American sci-fi/fantasy circles. Pratchett is a British writer who has written twenty-five novels about a fantasy planet called Discworld. The Discworld is a flat disc that sits on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a huge turtle that is swimming slowly through space. On the Discworld, magic is everywhere, and strange stuff is always happening.
Although almost every Discworld novel is a hilarious, entertaining and completely delightful work, the one I really want to single out is Small Gods. If you only read one Terry Pratchett novel in your entire life, this should be the one. Small Gods tells the story of Brutha, a young man who is studying to join the priesthood of the god Om in a country called Omnia. Brutha is not particularly intelligent, but he's honest and he truly believes in Om. Unfortunately, it turns out that he's the only one who does. The god Om himself has been turned into a turtle, and is weakened because no one believes in him. He teams up with Brutha and together they have to defeat the evil dictators who have taken over the country.
The beauty of this novel is in its handling of the main theme, which is that many religions have become mired in ceremony and symbolism to the point where the true meaning of the religion has been lost. The people claim to believe, but really they're just following the rituals mindlessly without really taking it into their hearts. The analogy with modern-day Earth society is all too clear. But don't get me wrong, it's not a preachy story! Like all of Pratchett's work, it couches its deeper meaning in a wonderfully realized blend of humor and pathos. No character is one-dimensional, and all the plot threads blend together perfectly to form an intensely satisfying conclusion.
- Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
- Although I have read all of Stephenson's other works (including the very popular Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon), the one I always come back to is Zodiac. I have probably read this book five times now, and any time I'm in the mood for a fun read, I pick it up again.
Zodiac takes place in the Boston area, my favorite location. :) It's narrated by a guy named Sangamon Taylor, who is an eco-terrorist: he goes around exposing companies that dump toxic waste illegally. In this story, he discovers a particularly evil plot, and has many adventures trying to gather proof, while the evil company tries to stop him. Along the way, of course, there's action, romance, and lots of humor. The writing style is breezy and very funky. The plot moves along nicely, and you actually learn a lot about pollution and chemical waste in the process! (I like some real science in my science fiction, you know!) If you like non-futuristic sci-fi, and/or you're concerned about the environment, I highly recommend this book.
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