Thursday, January 30, 2014

Blood Pact, by Dan Abnett

As some of my readers are probably aware, I'm a very big fan of the Gaunt's Ghosts series set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and follow the adventures of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First-and-Only. However, all of my adventures with the ghosts so far have been in omnibus form that contain three or four books that I'll read in more or less one go. Blood Pact is the first book I decided to read by itself and while I certainly found it enjoyable I found it rather short as well. However, I think that's simply because I read it as a stand-alone novel rather than as part of an omnibus and I look forward to more of Gaunt's adventures from Abnett.

The basic plot of Blood Pact is in a very broad sense a retelling of the previous Ghost book Traitor General, and this is rather explicitly mentioned by the characters as well. However, instead of Gaunt and a small Imperial team on a Chaos-held world looking to eliminate a rogue Imperial General before he can spill his secrets to the enemy, a small Chaos team of Blood Pact land on an Imperial-held world to eliminate a rogue Chaos general. While the book is definitely reusing an idea, Abnett manages to tell the stories in new and interesting ways. In addition, the use of warp witchcraft by the Chaos strike team frustrates communication among the Imperial forces and leaves Gaunt relying mostly on his wits and combat training to evade the kill team. Despite the feeling of brevity I thought this book as rather good and I'd recommend it to 40k fans as a good action sampler.

The other thing that I found very interesting was the fact that the planet Gaunt and the Ghosts were based on, Balhaut, was a secure Imperial world well behind the front lines of the Crusade. While many troops would welcome the opportunity for a nice, quiet garrison duty and the Ghosts initially enjoy their stay, they quickly find themselves bored with the absolute tedium of garrison life and are become restive, which presents an issue for Commissar Viktor Hark who has taken over many of the disciplinary issues of the regiment. In addition, a number of the senior staff cadre are beginning to feel the twelve years of campaigning the Ghosts have experienced and the regiment is beginning in some respects to feel old. This is definitely a good subject to cover but I feel like it wasn't really fleshed out in this book. My hope, however, is that it will definitely be fleshed out in later books in this series.

Overall an enjoyable read and highly recommended.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, by Kim Harrison

Now I'm sure my readers will be a little surprised that I decided to return to this series. In my review of the first book of the series I had raised considerable doubts about very big issues I had with the book. Specifically the topic of vampire rape which does surface again. However, in my first review I had said that the book was still entertaining and fairly well-written so I figured I could at least try the second book and see if the series gets any better. Unfortunately this book is much, much worse than the first one and it's not because the book is mechanically broken, Harrison is a competent writer and I will give her credit for that. This book simply does not work for me because of the characters' actions and how the author handled the subject of rape, which is a really big issue that can make or break a book for me. Clearly there are a lot of people who like her books and more power to them, but I still think there are a lot of really big issues with this series and I'm definitely not going to read any more of it.

Warning! I will go into several spoilers about this book to specifically address my issues. You have been advised. 

I want to begin with the big issue of rape, both as we know it and in the vampire form which exists within Harrison's universe. All of my readers are probably aware that rape, rape culture, and sexual violence are all very big issues which deserve their own posts and people who can articulate the issues much more clearly than I, so I'll just have to ask you to accept that it is an issue and if you want to know more please read and get informed. That being said, as I mentioned in my review of the last book there are a lot of innocuous things that turn vampires on and want to make them rip your throat out and drink your blood in a very violent and sexual fashion akin for all intents and purposes to rape. Furthermore there are powers that some vampires have to make their victims more willing, although even a hard no certainly won't stop a determined vampire. And throughout the book it's stated that it's not the vampires' fault that they're this way, it's just hardwired into their DNA and they're just going to occasionally violently drain someone of blood against their will. And quite frankly I find that to be bullshit because vampires have free will in this series and are therefore in control of their actions, just like people. People are genetically hardwired to have sex and ensure the continuation of their DNA in the species, however we do not give in to the slightest impulse to mate and say it's not our fault, it's our biology. Society assumes that people will maintain control of their biological impulses and only act upon them in a legally acceptable manner. The same thing should go for vampires. I can accept it and perhaps even be supportive if you need blood to survive, however vampires could probably get blood donated voluntarily at a blood bank much more easily than from a screaming and fighting victim, to say nothing of the moral superiority.

Now, someone might counter that it's simply just in the vampire's nature and we shouldn't criminalize it, just as we don't criminalize a grizzly bear for eating people. At the same time, however, the bear does not have the free will which makes it an equal member of society. This is also why we safely keep bears in zoos where they won't eat people and where people and bears coexist in the wild we take measures to keep the bears from wanting to eat us. At the same time, if we know there's a bear out there that is actively eating people and can't be stopped, then we go out and kill it to remove the threat from themselves. Now I'm aware I've sort of gone off on a tangent but this is connected to the book because I kept thinking about this when I was reading the book. If vampires have no self-control when it comes to taking blood and they always want to take it in a violent and sexual manner, then that makes them no better than wild animals. You clearly have no self-control and cannot be considered an equal member of society. I kept saying to myself, "Come on you humans, werewolves, and witches! You outnumber the vampires and they're a threat to you all! Wipe them out, lock them up in cages! If they can't control themselves than make sure they can never harm you again!" Obviously I went to the very extreme of wiping out every single vampire from the face of the earth, but if that's what it takes to keep them from eating people than so be it.

As a last rant about the issue of vampires and rape, the main character Rachel's roommate, Ivy (the vampire that I mentioned in the last book) is both sexually and vampirically raped by an elder vampire. A little later in the book the issue of consent gets a little fuzzier and turns into a he-said-she-said but that is one of many real issues that victims of rape and sexual violence experience. The important thing that I took away from this is that Ivy got raped by a powerful male figure and she and Rachel had very few options available to them because he was extremely influential in both regular society and the criminal underworld and so they simply couldn't go to the police and have him arrested. The fear that they won't be believed by law enforcement is a very real issue for victims of rape and prevents many victims from coming forward. This would have been a very good opportunity for Harrison to talk about these issues and use her fiction to encourage victims of rape and sexual violence to come forward to law enforcement knowing that law enforcement is on their side and want to help. Unfortunately the actions of Rachel simply reinforced the message that victims of rape are on their own and will have to cope as best as they can. I don't know if this was intentional on Harrison's part but it was an opportunity not only missed by shamefully squandered.

Aside from the rape issues, which as you've probably guessed by now make a huge part of my issues with this book, I realized that most of the characters are kind of idiots and I can't find myself to like them. Rachel is a good example. In the first book I thought she was pretty cool, thinking on her feet and just trying to survive the death threat that her former employers had put on her head. She couldn't rely on plans because she simply didn't have the time to formulate a good plan. With the death threat gone she's got the time to plan appropriately for the jobs she has to pull, but always seems to go into situations utterly half-cocked and as a result her half-baked plans always go awry. This ranges from stuff as simple as failing to consider every fine detail of a disguise she uses on one of her simpler jobs, to impulsively doing the exact opposite of what the police ask her to do at a crime scene out of spite risking the legal status of the evidence and the whole case as a result. And don't even get me started on her attempt to take on a several-hundred year old vampire with nothing but a bag of charms and some righteous indignation. A heavily armed SWAT team would have been useful, but I digress. Rachel even openly states that she relies more on intuition than logic and there is a way to write a character like that well, but almost always Rachel's intuition is wrong which makes me wonder why she even relies on it in the first place. I basically came to the realization that she's not very good at her job because she makes impulsive decisions based on her own prejudices and intuitions that turn out to be ill-informed or just plain wrong more often than not.

The other character that frustrated the hell out of me was her boyfriend Nick, who keeps dabbling in demonology despite the fact that both he and Rachel admit that it's very dangerous and downright stupid. In fact Rachel tells him multiple times to stop mucking about with demons but he just keeps on doing it. For those of you unfamiliar with why making deals with demons is always a bad idea, let me just say that demons are usually (and are in this series) masters of temptation and you may think you hold the power in the relationship but the demons always hold the power. Eventually they'll tempt you with enough to get your soul and you spend all of eternity in anguish in hell or some sort of hell-analogue. Simple version, don't do it because it's never worth the risk or the ultimate cost. And yet despite knowing it's not the best idea, despite being told by his girlfriend to stop and told of the danger, Nick continues to mess around with demons. To return to the bear analogy, it's like you tell someone to stop taunting the bears and sticking their head in the bear's mouth. Eventually you just have to accept that if they're not going to listen it's their own damn fault and they deserve to get eaten by the bear. Maybe that's callous but it makes me less supportive of the characters because of their constant poor judgement.

Overall I'm just utterly frustrated with how the author handled rape and the sheer stupidity of the main character. Ivy and Jenks would make much more interesting characters, as well as Captain Edden and even Trent Kalamack. I'd much rather follow around someone who thinks before they leap and considers the consequences rather than just jumping in like Rachel does. Ivy could even be sympathetic because she actually struggles with resisting the urge to drink blood and overcoming her vampire heritage. That at least is a vampire who's trying to be a good person rather than using the "I'm a slave to my biology" card all the other vampires seem to be using. I certainly will not be reading this series in the future.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan

All right, so I know I'm going outside my usual bailiwick here and reading a book that's sort of historical but has nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. It's very much set in the real world and dealing with the real-world problems that the characters of Ruth Young and her mother, LuLing have to deal with. And yet, despite it being not my usual pulpy fare I really enjoyed this book. What initially motivated me to pick up this book, aside from it being in the dollar-bargain bin at the used book store, was the fact that I had read another Amy Tan novel, The Joy Luck Club. Again, The Joy Luck Club deals with rather mundane, and sometimes extraordinary, problems and how mothers and daughters deal with those problems and make sense of their lives. Despite it not having any spaceships or marines in power armor I really enjoyed it, so I decided to give The Bonesetter's Daughter a read.

The plot of The Bonesetter's Daughter is divided into three sections, the first follows Ruth Young and the issues she has with a mother who is suffering from increasing memory problems. The first section also goes through the challenges Ruth faced growing up with her mother and helps explain why there is a barrier of communication between the two of them that goes beyond one growing up speaking Mandarin and the other growing up speaking English. In addition to her challenges with her mother, Ruth faces challenges with her long-time boyfriend Art and his two daughters and feels that an emotional wedge has been growing between them. All this finally leads up to Ruth deciding to get her mother's memoirs translated so that she can better understand her mother's past. I felt like this plot was very applicable to people of my generation (Generation Y/ the Millennials is what we're being called right now, by the by) although this book felt like it was written very much for members of previous generations. The book tackles the issues of dealing with aging parents with memory problems such as Alzheimer's, a growing concern considering our increased longevity and graying population, as well as the challenges of finding yourself unfulfilled as an adult. Although the Millenials are still entering adulthood and trying to find their place in the world, the advice of previous generations and trying to learn from those mistakes is always a valuable lesson.

The second portion of the book involved LuLing's memoirs of her life growing up in China, and the challenges she faced including World War II and the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. Obviously these challenges are much greater than the day-to-day challenges that many of us with the luxury to be reading this today face. I generally don't have to worry each morning if a nearby army is going to accuse me of spying and then kill me. However there is a strong nobility in how LuLing tackles the challenges placed before her and her eventual arrival in the United States. I actually enjoyed this part the most because it gave me a window into life in China in the early twentieth century, an area I am sadly lacking in all but the most general history knowledge. Even if it's historical fiction, it gives me an insight into the lives of people that I know very little about and the day-to-day challenges that they faced. I found it both very informative and enjoyable.

The final part of the novel focuses on Ruth and LuLing's reconciliation after Ruth finally reads her mother's memoirs, and how that manages to give Ruth the strength to put her life back together. While I was glad that everyone got a happy ending, I was a little frustrated because I felt like it was all tied up far too neatly into a pretty bow. The reason I say this is that this book was grounded in real life and the real life challenges that people face. Very often in real life we don't get everything tied up neatly before the end and everything works out okay for everyone. Real life is messy and chaotic and you'll never know for sure how things are going to end up going. Obviously it's a work of fiction and Tan's allowed to finish her book however she wants, and I frankly prefer happy endings myself, but it brought me out of the realm of "this could be someone's life" into "ah, okay, this is a work of fiction". Otherwise it's a really good book.

If you're looking for something different and are interested in Chinese culture then I'd definitely recommend both this and The Joy Luck Club. Both books have very similar themes but I found them very enjoyable and meaningful in their own ways. Even if there weren't any space ships.

- Kalpar  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber

As my readers are no doubt aware I raised a significant concern in my review of the first book of the Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, yet despite my issues with Honor's backstory I decided that this series in general and Honor in specific were well-written enough to merit me sticking with the series in spite of its faults. The Honor of the Queen has honestly left me with mixed emotions because on the one hand I feel like it fell into one of the biggest pitfalls of sequels, doing the same thing but with a slightly different twist. At the same time Honor of the Queen expands upon the Honorverse and continues to build for the eventual conflict between the People's Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore. This novel also tackles sexism, albeit in an almost crude way, but the effort is appreciated.

To first explain my concerns with this novel, at certain points I felt like Honor of the Queen and On Basilisk Station were beginning to repeat themselves with certain key plot elements. To avoid any specific spoilers let me just say that the climax of this novel very closely mirrored the climax of On Basilisk Station with a desperate struggle between starships. Certainly there were plenty of differences in the situation and how the climax was resolved, but the conflict felt eerily similar to the previous novel. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but it certainly feels similar. In addition, Honor finds herself the only Manticoran authority within the star system and with no support available from home for some time. As a result she has to face the situation on her own and the ultimate decision comes down to her. While I certainly am not opposed to Honor being an action space captain who kicks ass and takes names, in fact I quite enjoy it, it's sort of like in Star Trek where the Enterprise is always the only ship in the sector for some reason to handle whatever situation is at hand. Obviously Honor is the main character and I quite like following her around, but a lot of the other characters, especially the bad guys, feel like part of a much larger plan while Honor seems to be doing her own thing in the universe. While the loneliness of Honor's position worked well in On Basilisk Station, it tied into the fact that she'd been dumped there by the Royal Manticoran Navy as a "reject" and so she truly wasn't part of anyone's larger plans. As a decorated hero of Manticore and commander of a squadron escorting a diplomatic mission Honor is truly part of a larger struggle now and her being on her own simply doesn't work as well thematically.

At the same time, The Honor of the Queen certainly expands the scope of the galaxy, moving us outside the borders of Manticore and introducing us to the first of what will certainly be dozens of star systems that will become part of the eventual Haven/Manticore war. Personally I like learning about the different histories of these various star systems and I hope to encounter more rich histories, backstories, and cultures as Honor continues her adventures. In addition we shifted closer to that oncoming conflict which I'm sure will come to dominate later books. We also got to see some full-scale space battles with multiple ships involved which gave me a lot of the pulp action I crave and a hint at how utterly crazy some of the later space battles will be.

The main plot of this book is Honor has been attached as a military escort to a diplomatic mission to the nearby planet of Grayson in the Yeltsin system. Economically Grayson is incredibly poor and has a military that is centuries behind both Haven and Manticore in terms of technology and strategies. However, the planet is located strategically between the two powers and makes a likely avenue of attack for Haven into Manticore. As a result Manticore seeks a military alliance with Grayson and rights to establish in the Yeltsin system. The challenge to this whole mission is that Grayson was established by an extremely fundamentalist religious sect which viewed women as inherently inferior to men. As a result women can't vote, can't hold property, and certainly can't serve in the military, which causes a considerable amount of friction between the local male leaders and the very female starship captain Honor Harrington. It certainly sets up an excellent opportunity to talk about sexism but I feel like it was done in a ham-handed manner. Obviously no one is saying that women shouldn't have the right to vote or hold property, well almost no one. We live in a society where we are very fortunate that blatantly overt sexism like that is fairly rare. However, the absence of blatant, overt sexism has lulled many people into thinking that sexism no longer exists when it is still an ongoing issue within our society. Not many people may say that women are too irrational to vote, but there are plenty of people who say women are "naturally" good at raising children and being nurturing and that women have a far wider range of emotions than men. By establishing a society that is blatantly sexist and which we can all (or most of us can all) agree on is inherently wrong, it makes it easy to dismiss other ongoing issues as small potatoes by comparison.

Probably the strongest thing The Honor of the Queen does to counter sexism, though, is to portray Honor as an extremely competent officer and commander who is the best person for the crisis at hand. Honor is not an excellent officer in spite of her gender, nor is she an excellent officer because of her gender. She simply is an excellent officer who happens to be female, and that is how you write good female characters in fiction.

Overall, an enjoyable book and definitely for the space opera and epic sci-fi crowd. Hopefully the next books are even better.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 2, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction

A couple of months ago I wandered into a Barnes and Noble and walked out with yet another handful of books because I have a very strange and dangerous compulsion. While I was there I picked up a book published by Barnes and Noble that contains (at least according to the book) the entire collection of every fiction story written by H.P. Lovecraft that still exists. For my uninitiated readers, H.P. Lovecraft was a horror and supernatural fiction writer in the 1920's and 30's who wrote a number of short stories and novellas, a few of which have been lost because they were mostly published in pulp magazines. What Lovecraft is remembered for is his groundbreaking exploration into the then-new idea that the world was several billion years old and the possibility that other intelligent races had preceded humanity as the dominant lifeform on earth, and numerous other species would follow humanity in the future. The more memorable of his ideas which were adopted by and expanded upon by other writers include C'thulu, the concept of the Outer Gods, and that terrible tome, the Necronomicon. Lovecraft is definitely influential and has practically defined his own genre of literature. Despite his contributions to the body of American literature and its groundbreaking nature, I feel like most of Lovecraft's stories have become terribly dated and don't hold up as well to a modern reader. There were stories I enjoyed within this body of work but I found myself struggling with the vast majority of them.

Some of the stories that I really liked in Lovecraft's collection were the much shorter stories which reminded me a lot of episodes of the Twilight Zone where a situation is set up, possibly with strange rules, and at the end of the story there's a sudden twist that changes the situation dramatically. As an experienced Twilight Zone watcher and predictor of plots I saw quite a few of these plot twists a long way off, but it was still enjoyable and I had a certain amount of fun in guessing how the plot was going to end.

Really I think that Lovecraft's shorter stories are much better because he remains concise and there isn't as much of a build-up to his rather characteristic twists which prevents the story from getting boring. In some of the longer stories I saw the ending coming so far ahead that I just wanted the story to end, or I felt so frustrated with the slow pacing of the story that I didn't even care about the twist at the end, I was just glad that it was over. A particular example is At the Mountains of Madness. Many other readers consider it to be one of Lovecraft's greatest works and is certainly among his longest but I found myself utterly frustrated with the almost plodding pace of the story and the rather sudden end. I think a lot of this is just the older writing style which is something I struggle with in a lot of the older books I read. Lovecraft especially enjoys his purple prose and being rather verbose, which adds to the challenge of reading an already old-fashioned writing style. In longer stretches it became really hard to stick with Lovecraft, but I found him rather enjoyable in small doses.

Probably the most frustrating thing for me is the fact that in a number of these stories the horror is that intelligent species other than humanity have inhabited the planet, currently inhabit it, or will inhabit it in the future. Personally my response to this statement is "... and?" And really I think that's a result of me being a reader after generations of science-fiction writing. Aliens are now almost commonplace and it's not new or shocking to say that there were ancient aliens. Heck, Stargate ran off of the entire premise that many mythologies are based off of aliens visiting earth. To be fair the idea was probably groundbreaking at the time and was shocking to many readers at the time, much like contemporary advances in science had shaken long-standing assumptions about the world. Unfortunately, to a twenty-first century audience his once-groundbreaking stories are now commonplace and don't stand out except for the name of the author.

Overall I personally would recommend reading some of his short stories, generally the stuff shorter than thirty pages. I found that if the story ran longer than thirty pages the writing style made the story drag considerably and I had trouble staying focused on the book. If you like the short stories you can definitely try the longer ones, and there are plenty of places where you can read them.

- Kalpar