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Dune: House Atreides

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Although I genuinely enjoy Frank Herbert’s original novels, these 2nd generation novels furtive attempts at capturing the essence of his universe lack finesse as well as grace (at least this one does). Having grown up reading Kevin J Anderson, I know him to be a strong writer with a firm grasp on characterization and form. I can only surmise that he deferred too much steering of the authorship to Brian, who I will refer to by his first name rather than his last to denote that he in no ways live up to Frank Herbert’s legacy. While the various plot points do manage to solidly encapsulate the evil vindictiveness of the Harkonnens and the Corrinos, the book is fracturous, with too many points of view in too many places with little connectivity, too few of which are female. In an effort to set the stage for the latter two books in the trilogy, a great many characters are introduced. While some lose their POV after the first couple chapters, other characters are given a great deal of time to develop. The three characters that one would hope would have the most consequence, both from being original Herbertian characters, as well as figuring as protagonists on the buildup toward their birth rite novel, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Duncan Idaho and Leto Atreides are all varieties of static. The Baron is given no valid reason for his early viscous attitudes, although Brian cleverly fashioned the impetus for his eventual bloated suspensor-assisted treachery. I considered labeling the Baron as an antagonists because probably anyone who's seen Dune would say that he is, except in this case everyone is an antagonist--virtually all of the book's characters are hedonistic, self-righteous and seek to sabotage everyone else (except for Pardot Kynes). Duncan Idaho wins the hand-wave grand prize for being a completely unbelievable pre-pubescent lone, cunning, planet-hopping soldier based solely on the death of his paper-pusher parents. To claim this character is “larger than life” would be ironic and ridiculously understated. Unnaturally lucky, 8 year old Duncan manages to thwart seasoned Harkonnen hunters and cross multiple hemispheres of a planet with no resources. Leto Atreides, raised by a doting much-beloved king in a wholesome fishing monarchy not unlike Scandinavia, comes off as sadly both stupid and weak willed. Leto’s naiveté and regurgitation of his mother’s rhetoric paints him as useless during a planetary revolt, forcing his business-minded hakoiri musume playmates to orchestrate their escape. This book does little if anything to set Leto up as the eventual martyred hero, though it should be noted that for this book Jessica hasn’t been born yet—the claim could be made that her influence changes him irrevocably…Yet, these three are still given far more development than any of the female characters. A possible love interest for Leto, Kailea, is given one brief scene to introduce her personality as haughty and profit-driven, seemingly devoid of girlish fantasies and friends. Afterwards she fades into the background, apparently since her goal of joining court in the Imperial planet Kaitain is no longer viable. Although it’s not clear if Leto actually has a crush on her, if so it’s difficult to understand why. But speaking of women connected to Leto, his mother is also quite the puzzle. Helena is possibly the worst choice to marry Paulus. Frigid, aloof and Orange Bible-thumping, Helena barely shows any warmth for her son and is constantly concerned with appearances. Leto doesn’t understand her, and the reader isn’t given the chance to. The one female narrator Brian offers us for more than one chapter is the Bene Gesserit Gaius Helen Mohiam. Helen comes to as something of an unwilling participant in the Landsaard. We understand that she has a great many powers to control her physical being and that she willing follows the edicts of the Bene Gesserit. Beyond that the only part of her personality that the reader really sees is her taking pleasure in seeing Baron Harkonnen undone. Clearly Brian doesn’t understand enough about women characters to write them with any contributing value, a huge a disappointment since he is probably the only one who will ever be able to publish in the Dune universe. Why Kevin J Anderson, a writer who has proven he can work with strong female protagonists didn’t fight harder for their inclusion is mystifying. The one aspect of House Atreides that appeals to the reader is Brian’s land and mindscapes. Doubtless Brian recognizes and tries to duplicate the use of the acid trip in his father’s work, which is definitely an important touch. Additionally, Brian paints beautiful vistas such as the cavernous stalactite city of Vernii, obviously an homage to D’ni (they even rhyme) and some descriptions of Arrakis, Kaitain and Caladan. The setting Brian paints isn’t always complete and it could stand a little improvement, but it does set the scene well. The obvious answer to the question of why House Atreides fails to impress is found in its nature. Being the first part of a trilogy that seeks to setup all the behind the scenes plot devices and innuendos for Dune, House Atreides obviously has a great deal of ground to cover. Yet, some things appear totally superfluous, such as Mohiam’s giving birth to one child that didn’t measure up to the Bene Gesserit expectation from Vladimir Harkonnen. Thus the reader has to revisit the distasteful “sexual” encounter between her and Harkonnen again, supposedly to show how serious the Bene Gesserit are about their breeding program. Beyond which it seems to contribute nothing and wastes the reader’s time. In any film adaptation (which hopefully will never exist), these two scenes would be merged but perhaps Brian found something compelling in that scenario that isn’t at first obvious.Brian also skillfully uses another homage to help the story past its built-in handicap of no faster-than-light communication between worlds. No doubt suggested by Anderson, in one case a character is given an acid trip vision of an incredible invention that he afterwards goes about creating. This device allows him to gestalt his telepathic abilities (the reader is expected to buy into his telepathic abilities since he was a candidate to be a Guild Navigator) across the light years to connect synchronously with his twin brother. The concept is lifted from Anne McCaffrey’s Talent and the Hive series (and perhaps from other places) and in addition to its nostalgic factor, the idea plays on the edict of from the Great Revolt of the Butlerian Jihad to develop the human rather than the machine mind… although its execution in story is another rudimentary hand wave.In conclusion, House Atreides, taken by itself, does little to live up to the precedent of highly sophisticated science fiction novel writing set by Frank Herbert. For the purposes of fairness, House Atreides' numerous stomach-churning bouts of amoral behavior shouldn't be wholly foisted on Brian for inheriting such a series, but too few of his characters are capable of taking the moral high ground and those that are could still benefit from further characterization. With a multitude of shallow characters, the reader is left with a bad taste and the beginnings of a search for science fiction that centers around a few characters with actual development.
Rebel Angels (Part B)

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Gemma reminds me of so much of a Tori Amos song. She is incapable of repression—a juggernaut of willpower and righteousness. The only problem is, Gemma’s too young and naïve in the ways of the world… but not for long.Unlike its predecessor, Rebel Angels allows the girls of the Neo-Order to really grow and flourish into cunning, unafraid young women. While Gemma finds herself squarely situated as the heroine in the tempus immemorial never ending struggle between good and evil, the reader finds herself falling fast into a yin yang bittersweet journey. Felicity, or as I will heretofore refer to her as that “Railing Maleficent Oddity” (thank you Ms. Bray for causing several embarrassing bouts of uncontrollable laughter on the bus) is one of the best fleshed-out supporting characters a young adult novel could ask for. Though often petulant and decidedly stuck in a Victorian England (ie. devoid of Spice Girls) chamber of etiquette horrors with her reprehensible mother, Felicity blossoms into a loving, compassionate sister at arms (both literally and figuratively). Ann Bradshaw (AKA Fukuzawa Yumi) delivers a joyful rejoinder to the uppity bourgeoisie caste-sensitive aristocracy. Ann’s super-sleuth moonlighting brings out a much-needed Holmes to Circe’s Moriarty; possessing a quicksilver clarity that strung-out Gemma lacks, Ann is worth more as a cleric triumvirate than as a sister-in-law (no, this is not a spoiler--I am merely extrapolating). As sequels go, Rebel Angels holds its own. Tantalizing, yet dour; frightening yet vindicating, surreal and then some; treated to a healthy amount of author research and schema coaxing, it is no less fulfilling than its antecedent with just the right amount of tapestry stark. You go girl! However, I was more than a little disappointed with Kartik. The reader has even fewer reasons to like his character in Rebels than in Beauty, and his personal motivations are bland (if it indeed they even exist). As a love-interest Kartik is a fickle childish prude with zero development (albeit taking a backseat in this installment to the imho far more interesting but base Simon Middleton) and even less imagination (“I give unto you this pocket knife of protection…”). It’s obvious to everyone he’s destined to marry Gemma and thereby overcome the low-birth adversity that denied his older brother Mary (an educated guess, not a spoiler)… but I don’t have to like him or buy into him.All-in-all, Rebel Angels is a diverting pleasure to read/devour and a gripping surreal jaunt for the senses (disclaimer: not for a weak constitution).
A Great and Terrible Beauty

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Among the best young adult fiction I’ve ever had the privilege to read, Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty stands atop the mountain of post-Harry Potter YA fantasy, breathing hard. Perhaps it isn’t of the same “can’t put it down, must read 800 pages in one sitting” caliber as the overwrought breadwinner. Yet where it lacks in grip, it makes up for in lace. Always possessing a compelling setting, with esoteric and sometimes obsequious details often embellished, A Great reads like a 21st century gothic (minus the cloying Hot Topic-wannabe Goth). Bray’s characters are vivid, though not all truly come to life in the narrative. The structure is solid, with more than enough mystery teasing at the edges of the otherwise stodgy Victorian girl’s school. Though somewhat possessing of the intolerable “good vs. evil” trope, its allegories are nevertheless compelling and treated with far more shades of sepia. Best of all, our heroine is allergic to convention and both Gemma and Felicity are endowed with a raucous feminism to keep a smile on my face.What did I like? Almost everything; it’s easier to describe what I didn’t like: Gemma’s romantic attachment to Katrik is pathetically contrived and thoroughly lacking in reality. In truth, Bray could take a lesson or two from Anne McCaffrey when it comes to writing romance in a fantasy setting. I didn’t like the fact that Gemma repeatedly stood in frozen horror and watched events slip out of control when she was obviously capable of doing something (though I admit this is also more life-like than the alternative, I just didn’t want to like it). I didn’t like how short the chapters were and the fact that the reader was never offered a view from the adults’ perspective. And I thought it really couldn’t have killed her to have a Victorian England with a teensy bit more Steampunk. Yeah that’s about it... everything else was simply marvelous. The diction, the tone, the melancholy, the ennui, the clever tricks and the omniscience and the fantasy being laid together piece-by-jigsaw puzzle-piece to make for a truly great though admittedly occasionally terrible magnificence of a story.
Affinity

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Tonight I will sleep fitfully, haunted more by a young spiritualist than by her spirits. Artfully crafted, using imagery that springs to mind so vividly one would think it a memory, Sarah Waters has fashioned yet another masterpiece.The year is 1874. Selina Dawes, a mysterious and powerful young spirit-medium is imprisoned in a monstrous and daunting women’s gaol, Millbank. Jailed after a botched spirit-communication lead to the death of her patron, Selina is visited by no one but her spirit friends until a local mistress comes to visit the prisoners.The visitor, Margaret Prior, is a young lady of London, highly educated and brought up as assistant to her late father, an arts professor. Despairing his absence from her life, Margaret travels about in something of haze—looking for something she knows not what. When she encounters Dawes, Margaret is simultaneously scared witless by the girl and entranced by her power. The women’s relationship builds with Margaret learning more about Dawes from newspapers and first hand accounts, than from her fleeting and bewildering encounters with Selina.Interspersed with short journal entries from Selina’s days as a burgeoning spirit-medium conducting séances, the story follows Margaret’s research as she seeks to uncover the mystery of Selina’s past, her powers, and why she is so affected by her. Although the reader is not privy to Selina’s current thoughts, her journal entries, coupled with her unexplainable powers and knowledge of the spirit realm make her enticing and irresistible. In stark and painful contrast to her exciting prison visits, Margaret’s everyday life unfortunately is constantly rearing its ugly head. Her sister is getting married and the preparations fill her days with a dreary stupor.Although Affinity could hardly be called frightening, it is nevertheless haunting. Descriptions of landscapes, buildings, rooms, etc. feel so intensely ominous that they end up being far scarier than accounts of the spirit encounters. Affinity’s characters can be trusted to illicit your empathy, pity, sorrow, hatred, wonder, love and lust (and in my cast jealousy). Being at once a tale of impropriety and youthful indiscretion between girls, and a bildungsroman of Margaret’s spiritual and sexual development, one cannot but feel compassion toward its struggling young lovers.
Cold Magic

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Ephemeral are the ties that bind. Kin and kinship are not what they used to be. Not since the X-Files has a protagonist had better reason to trust no one. These and other shadowy portents can be found cleverly woven into every page of Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic. Though situated in the (by this point) quite familiar mid-Nineteenth Century Industrial Revolution (what would be Victorian England in another novel), everything else about the story’s setting is bereft of familiarity. Europa has been split into two (and soon to be three) warring factions: the princes and royal lineage aristocracy, and that of the mage Houses, who rule by threat of annihilation. While the princes rule through standing armies, each mage House wields its own arsenal of magisters, djeliw and mansa (the equivalent of mages, clerics and sorcerers). After centuries of power plays the war is coming to a head as a third group, the rebellious proletariat made up of serfs, slaves, sweatshop workers and trolls (who’ve recently emigrated from the Western continents) enter the fray. Into this maelstrom steps our protagonist, Catherine Hassi Barahal, an orphan brought up in her aunt and uncle’s house in a city called Adurnam. Catherine is Phoenician, their seafaring empire having fought Rome to a standstill in this universe, and has their mercenary training in swordsmanship. Despite her otherwise unremarkable college life, Catherine soon finds herself embroiled in the ongoing war when a magister from one of the mage Houses appears and absconds with her after a shocking blackmail her aunt and uncle were willing participants to. Now Catherine must live on the run, under fire from all sides and seek to uncover her true heritage and her connection to the mythical spirit realm.Whew. Although I normally would never write a plot synopsis as part of a book review, I find it nearly impossible to discuss Cold Magic without preamble. As our author explains in her afterward, Cold Magic is a mashup of disparate cultures and ideas from far flung places and eras (such as the Celts, the Mande, Phoenicians and medieval serfdom). It seems somehow appropriate that Elliott should choose the European Industrial Revolution as the nexus for a jumble of hodge-podge ethnicity and religion. To be sure, the unreal and surreal are ever-present in the “spiritwalker” universe, and Elliott effectively marries abstraction to the trials and tribulations of an unconventional spitfire young woman. Ironically however, magisters and magic have been given too great a presence in Cold Magic. Though the plot points do not necessarily resemble HP, by giving magic and whirlwind adventure too great a presence in the novel, Elliott undermines her lovely anthropological construct. In her own words, Cold Magic is an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoencian spies and intelligent descendents of troödons,” and one has to believe that anthropology factors greatly into the book’s makeup. Sadly the reader is swept along at such a breakneck pace, jumping from one death-defying near miss to another with barely a bowl of soup and a change of clothes (and no tea time) in between, one may fail to take notice of the prominent placement of ancient religious and cultural elements. Cold Magic might have the power to inspire young people to visit archaeological museums, but the story itself is far from an ethnography. Historical events and peoples have been often renamed and repositioned and unless a teenager already has a keen interest in world history, she would have a tough time recognizing the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte in the story, let alone Gadir, Tyre, Carthage, Iron Age Celt, Mali, the list goes on. My fervent hope is these peoples were sufficiently present and enigmatic in the book to force a reader to keep a browser open to Wikipedia, but then again such research could be easily sidestepped in favor of illusions and cantrips and well-dressed guys being chivalrous. Apart from its excellent ethnographic elements, I greatly enjoyed Elliott’s lifelike characterization, excellent foreshadowing and occasional couplet. Cold Magic is truly an enjoyable slipstream fantasy with a lovable female protagonist, fascinating locales and a penchant for blurring the boundaries of friend and foe. I love that Cold Magic brings into question the extent of kinship and loyalty under mortal duress and forces the reader to constantly question what’s real and what’s illusion (though I would be ecstatic to see this element pushed in later novels). I was tickled by the occasional use of steampunk, but Elliott was right to leave it behind in favor of her own more compelling mythos. Though decidedly heteronomative, Cold Magic reveres unconventional thinking and questioning the validity of the status quo. The use of ice and the natural world favorably juxtaposes the very real dystopia of the Industrial Revolution, child labor and arranged marriage.In short, although Cold Magic brings to mind silent edifice, dusty tombs and archaeology, it’s far less boring than those things. Recommended for any who enjoy storytelling, realistic magic and unafraid young women of destiny.
Cold Fire

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An interesting, if disappointing sequel. As it's name so eloquently proscribes, Cold Fire is a luke-warm continuation in a genre buried under an avalanche of such sequels. Elliott quite effectively draws the reader into her ever-expanding ethnographically laced fantasy yet again. Adventure fans will enjoy Cold Fire’s rousing thrills, while romance lovers will feel Catherine’s loneliness and surcease. However, fans of Cold Magic’s mystery, intrigue, steampunk, slipstream and mosaic ethnography may be let down (at least I was). Although I admit many of these elements are still present in Cold Fire, it is an altogether different book. I agree with the decision that Cat had to grow up, but I found myself less and less interested in her as the book progressed. In the first pages Cat is fearful and threatened and looking for an escape, and by the last pages she has undergone complete metamorphosis and challenges powerful mages to defy her on a whim. I’m not saying this change is unbelievable or even all that unnecessary for a girl living her life (ie. she can’t stay a girl forever…), I just was not overly taken with the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque locale Cold Fire finds itself mired in. I understand why Elliott chose the Antilles as she puts it, I just wasn’t as excited as I might have been if she’d picked an Inca or “Cathay” locale. Maybe it’s a little harder to disassociate the Caribbean mentality from the Antilles mentality than it was for Europe. At any rate I’m starving to see where Carmen-I mean Catherine will pop up next. To compound matters I’m having trouble understanding why Cat falls for the love interest. He doesn’t come off as particularly charming or sensual but I guess the term “cute” applies. Probably my difficulties lie in the fact that I haven’t been through any death-defying saves or world-bending adventures lately. Those things will change a person. Anyway, it was difficult to be swept up by emotion in Cat’s narrative. I was happy for her, but… I’m not sure that I would have been satisfied in her shoes. My own personality is so similar to his that it’s difficult to find anything all that redeeming about it. My other biggest problem with Cold Fire rests squarely in its zombies. Zombies, like vampires, have been done to death and introducing them for the simple fear element they provoke feels like a copout. If you’re a fan of the genre then you’ve probably encountered zombies all too frequently in the last few years. It’s not even that Elliott’s zombies were poorly executed or believable; I just gave it a huge yawn. Fortunately we still have some incredibly awesome characters in Beatrice and Napol-cough-in Camjiata. There’s something wonderful and comfortable about the way Bee is portrayed that I really treasure. In a beautiful homage with just the right amount of slipstream, Bee took on the role of a Pernese Queen’s Rider and tried valiantly to protect her clutch. *sniffs for the dearly departed* I was also very fond of Luce and Kofi, both feeling very real somehow. I didn’t get a strong grasp on the antagonists and their motivations were not very noticeable. In fact, it actually feels like the reader was robbed with the nameless Sire’s introduction. It was haphazard and obtuse at best. I also wish we had gotten more interaction with the erudite trolls (also a wonderful aside) but I have a feeling they’ll make another appearance in the last book. I think that I would like Rory… but for whatever reason the reader doesn’t get more than a handful of conversations with him, proving his incomparable loyalty to Cat, though why that should be isn’t really explained. I think it’s a testament to Elliott’s ability to weave a rich tapestry of description and turmoil yet, leave the reader wanting more after 480 pages. I can’t wait for the conclusion (where Andevai finally becomes likeable?). As a side note, Cold Fire was the first full-length novel I've read exclusively on my Sony ereader!
Acorna: The Unicorn Girl

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I was in some ways impressed and tickled by Acorna, and in other ways unimpressed and chagrined. Being an avid reader of Anne McCaffrey since I was in junior high school, there are many traits that I’ve come to enjoy in her writing: tying mythical beasts and the paranormal to modern and future settings, abused and neglected children’s retribution against a world that would not have them (a facet of literature that I later came to hate with the mediocrity of Harry Potter), and her talent to develop characters into romantic chess pieces. Although I now feel that I am older and wiser in regards to romantic settings (and McCaffrey’s stance on homosexuality being little more than effrontery to me), I still find her universes complex and interesting. The Talent/Pegasus series has always been a favorite of mine and I am constantly rereading Damia and To Ride Pegasus for their science fiction/romance blend. In Acorna’s case, we have a book that is ostensibly young adult literature, set in the far future, while incorporating elements of the unicorn mythos. Since I’ve never taken the time to read up on unicorns from a mythological perspective, I feel as if I have earned an insight into their makeup that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. Additionally, a great many science fiction and science non-fiction made up a tremendous part of this story and it was all composed and inserted well and aptly.However, one could argue the dynamics of Acorna stop there. The plot is, to say the least, confusing. If the reader is to take the three miners as the story’s protagonists, the book should have ended when they reached Kezdet. I had actually been under the mistaken assumption that Acorna was going to feature… oh I don’t know, the character named Acorna? Instead, so many characters are introduced, their stories overlapping well, that one quickly loses sight of just who and what Acorna really is. One reads Dragonsong because they identify with and become empathic to its protagonist. One reads Damia because of her vivacious personality. Why is it then, that a book just called Acorna, doesn’t feature really any personal growth for the character. It is fitting that this book brings us from her infancy into her young adulthood with nary a stop along the way, because that is exactly how I feel her character was developed through out. I felt as if I was reading an abridgement of her story. I kept holding out hope for the text to become feminist or at least sympathetic to Acorna and her plight. I guess that would have required her to have a plight.I am really upset that I didn’t enjoy Acorna more. I have recently acquired the other books in her series, and I’m quite sure they introduce some interesting characters and funny scenarios, but… I don’t know if I’ll be able to muster up the will to read them. The question of whether or not the books begin to actually center on Acorna and who and what is unsettles me because I’m afraid I’ll never find out. I have to question the wisdom of having a female character-driven series begin with an episode-driven, masculine trio. What sense I do get from Acorna is that she has little regard for social niceties, a traint I do find appealing. Yet, I am also stymied by her utter lack of interest in the opposite sex (no doubt this is due to McCaffrey/Ball’s wish to make her a “late bloomer” as the story closes on her being all of three years old). As McCaffrey has rarely used homosexuality in her books, I find it highly unlikely that she would choose to make Acorna one (although I will look for fanfics to that end). Instead, I see Acorna becoming like Nimisha—a soul searching for something she knows not what and is willing to settle for the mundane and take on stereotypical female maternity roles in anti-feminist fable. Given that side characters have already recognized Acorna as being motherly, I have to wonder if Acorna will ever morph into a Lessa-like character that truly controls the fate of the story. I do not attempt to posit that motherly characters are anti-feminist or even that they don’t make good protagonist: I merely wonder if Acorna does.
But She Is My Student

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Interesting... if extremely cryptic. Despite being modern day, this story was all but completely incomprehensible to an American English major. I guess that goes to show you how much we actually know about English. Remind me to never send my child, gay or otherwise, to a school in the U.K.
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