Monday, July 18, 2005

The Ruins of Ambrai, by Melanie Rawn

Yarg! Reminds me of Celia Dart Thornton and her unending dictionary descriptions of irrelevant rooms, only here it seems to be pocket 1-dimensional sketches of completely irrelevant characters. I swear I've been introduced to 200+ characters by name, almost none of whom I remember or care about because they're mostly walking stereotypes anyways. In fact, I was remarking on this very fact to myself just before reading the following line from the book:

"Veller Granfallin, for instance, figured as a villain in all the histories, but was never portrayed any more deeply than a layer of dust on the tabletop"

This, in addition to being a great example of the ridiculously over-the-top metaphorical language that seems to be required of modern fantasy, perfectly describes most of the forgettable characters in the book.

Which is a shame, really, because unlike Ms. Thornton, Ms. Rawn actually appears to have a story to tell. There is an interesting world here with an intriguing matriarchal society and some interesting political twists in an otherwise run-of-the-paper-mill evil wizards taking over the world story.

Or perhaps I should say there would be an interesting world and political twists if only the details held together at all, which they mostly don't. For example, the government is a representative democracy, but its leader has taken over enough power single-handedly to completely destroy one of the 15 member-states, apparently wihtout comment or protest from any of the others. So shes really an absolute dictator with a puppet government, right? But no, mere chapters later she is scrabbling for votes in council and not doing things because they might be perceived badly. Hello? You just had every single man, woman, and child in California executed and every building in the state burnt to the ground, and you're pushing for votes in Congress about tax laws? Do whatever the hell you want; they obviously can't stop you. Which reminds me; she has the state of Ambrai invaded by the army because they attempt to thwart her. Ambrai was apparently one of the biggest economic and cultural centres on the planet and yet apparently every single person who lived there was killed or driven off, and noone even came back to loot the bodies - much less re-settle - for 17 years. That is so fantastically wildly improbable - both the efficiency of its destruction and the lack of resettlement - that I hadn't gotten over it before some refugees finally wander in and start living off the food left lying around 2 decades before! And in a world where we continuously get it pushed down our throats how poor and downtrodden the average peasant is!

It goes on (people risking their lives based on the assumption that an ancient nursery rhyme about pigs refers to a particular (modern) toy store; a matriarchy of Victorian-era sexism reversed, but with over a third of its prime governmental body males - and almost all of the members of the cult of bad guys; a Muslim-like stricture against males going outside with their heads uncovered... which is apparently followed by every other male in the society except all of the main characters; etc...) but I'll stop. The worst thing is that half the time the contradictory details weren't even necessary to the story - just leave them out and you're fine!

But I persevered, because I did at least want to see how the few more interesting characters got along, and see what happens with their little rebellion, and to find out how the evil baddie gets it in the end. Wish I hadn't bothered. The baddy gets eaten by the Ghost of Christmas Past (or some other previously unmentioned spirtual Deus Ex Machina plot device, I forget,) the baddy's henchman turns to good apropos of nothing and his daughter forgives him his extensive list of brutal butcheries on the basis of blood ties she didn't even know existed 5 minutes before, and the rebellion happens off camera with the good guys just turning up and shouting "Hurrah! We won!" The interesting characters? They fall in love and get married in direct contrast to everything they stood for up to that point - but thats fairly standard grade-school hair-pulling romance, and so the most believable thing by far about the end of the book.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

This was excellent.

Moon takes us into the head of an autistic man who is coping with life through treatment and therapy. His work takes advantage of his superior autistic pattern-matching skills and Moon explores both the possibilities and moralities of such a situation. At his work he deals with other autistics, and his interactions with them, seen through his own eyes, shows them as real people with different likes and dislikes, instead of lumping them together into a stereotype. And at work and in his hobbies we see how he interrelates with "normals" - how some people fear him, some pity him, some like him for who he is, and - most interestingly - some feel portions of all three. And finally, our character is presented with the possibility of a cure, and we get to see that from his point of view a cure is a terrifying choice; to gain access to worlds he doesn't quite understand at the risk of losing all that makes him who he is.

Moon paints a detailed picture full of deep, multi-faceted characters who feel real. I strongly suspect she has someone autistic in her life, because her insight is striking. Definitely come back to this one for another read.

The Serrano Legacy, by Elizabeth Moon

Hunting Party
Sporting Chance
Winning Colors

Interesting little collection of space operas. Unlike most of the sort, these aren't (at least so far) to do with gigantic galaxy-spanning events of universal importance. Half the first book feels like a day-in-the-life-of travellogue of a space captain without any real hint of plot whatsoever. Thats part of the charm of the books though; it makes some of the nitty-gritty of running a space ship feel real. The regular "rich kids off on adventures" subplots don't ring as true to me, but Moon does develop some interesting complex politics, and really has a think about the effect that living forever would have on society. Well worth the effort, I thought.