Friday, February 3, 2012

Review: Eolyn, by Karin Rita Gastreich

Release Date: 2011 (this book is eligible for nomination for the Nebula and Hugo awards)

Genre: Fantasy

Eolyn, the debut novel by Karin Rita Gastreich, is an epic fantasy adventure with rich worldbuilding and a strong romance subplot, and the eponymous story of a girl who is the last remaining maga (trained magic-user) of a long tradition of women’s magic in a world which has brutally purged and repressed that tradition. She survives an attack on her village, takes refuge in the ancient woods with an old crone who has also survived the purges, and is trained in the arts of magic. While growing up, she meets a mysterious boy in the woods who comes and goes; he too is learning magic. They become friends and as they grow, begin to have inklings that they could be more than friends to one another. But when Eolyn undertakes her final training in High Magic, their paths must part, though both swear to see each other again.

Eolyn’s mentor dies and leaves her alone, so that she must leave the forest that has sheltered them and go out into the world. She meets and joins up with a troupe of performers led by a mage, all the while hiding who she truly is. But secrets can’t be kept forever and the forces of rebellion and civil war begin to swirl around her and her companions. Eolyn must make tough choices and stay true to herself and her commitment to her magic, even when she discovers who her childhood love has become: the powerful Mage-King of this country who has systematically destroyed women like her.

As a reader, there are certain topics or themes I really like in a book, certain tropes I particularly love no matter how many times I encounter them. Eolyn has a great many of my favorite fantasy tropes: innocent girls with good morals and big destinies, strong women surviving in and subverting an oppressive system, love of forests and the natural world, wise mentors, star-crossed lovers, dragons, circus performers, tough decisions, sacrifices for the greater good, bad guys who think they’re doing the right thing, complex magic systems...I could go on and on. The thing that made this book a joy to read and not just another familiar, commonplace fantasy novel is that each of these tropes were thoughtfully and deftly handled by Gastreich, often tweaked in satisfying and unexpected ways, and not just invoked as trite clichés that don’t offer anything new or interesting to a reader. The characters were dimensional and sometimes flawed, and they and their motivations generally felt realistic (even the villains had justifiable-to-them reasons for doing what they did, which I appreciate). Even the setting is an enjoyable, thorough, well-thought out, realistic and richly detailed version of your standard medieval European fantasy world. It made me want to explore it more and find out more about some of the things that Gastreich only offers tantalizing hints about in passing.

I especially appreciated the feminist themes and questions of this book, which echo real life themes and questions in our world. (And isn’t that precisely what good speculative fiction should do?) In the context of this particular fantasy world, Gastreich comments on sexism, sexuality, autonomy and personal choices, work vs. relationships, our relationship to our bodies and the natural world, and more. Her romance between Eolyn and the Mage-King feels true in its messiness and difficulties, and not just like a stereotypical fairytale.

The only trope/part of the book that wasn’t fabulously successful to me was the part where we discover that Eolyn’s brother—whom she thought dead—is the one leading the rebellion against the Mage-King, and the inevitable pitting of her loyalty to her brother against her loyalty to her new friends, her loyalty to her magic, and her feelings about the man she thinks she loves. To me at least, the brother, Ernan, wasn’t quite as dimensional or interesting of a character as the others, and thus I felt less engaged in Eolyn’s choices around what to do and whom to do it with. Because the whole rebellion seemed to spring up quickly and without a lot of buildup, I also felt a little rushed into the last part of the book, with its epic battle scenes and heroic trip to the underworld (even though they were beautifully written). Considering that this feels like “epic” fantasy, it’s actually a relatively short book—I would have liked to spend a little more time in this world and with these characters before getting to the big climax.

Overall Impressions: 

I very much enjoyed this book. As I said before, this book really “hit my buttons” as a fantasy reader, and if you like well written epic fantasy, romance, and the same tropes I like (innocent girls with good morals and big destinies, strong women surviving in and subverting an oppressive system, love of forests and the natural world, wise mentors, star-crossed lovers, dragons, circus performers, tough decisions, sacrifices for the greater good, bad guys who think they’re doing the right thing, complex magic systems, etc.), you’ll like it too.

Chick Points:

[We award "chick points" from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each book we read. Point awards are of course totally subjective, but we hope they at least give a flavor of where a book stands on specific feminist subjects.]

Strong Female Characters: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
In addition to Eolyn, who is a very well drawn and strong female protagonist, there were many other intriguing and powerful women in this book (I really liked Eolyn’s mentor Ghemena as well as some of Eolyn’s fellow performers in the Circle. In fact, I wish Gastreich would write a book just about the Circle so I could get some more backstory and more of the interactions between those women.)

Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
This book explicitly took on issues of being a woman in a man’s culture, and what it felt like to have your own reality and power denied and repressed by the culture. I could have happily entertained even more explicit treatment of these issues during the book, but respect that Gastreich was balancing philosophy with plot needs and that too much philosophizing would have slowed the book down.

Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)
The cover features Eolyn as a young woman, pausing on her way traveling out of her woods and into the rest of her life. I like the artwork, and appreciate its realism (no impossibly-posed, big-boobed women with swords here), even down to the dirt on her bare feet. However, it is a contemplative scene, and she appears very small in relation to the rest of the artwork. I would have preferred something that showed Eolyn more active, more alive and impressive. 

BUY THIS BOOK: Eolyn, by Karin Rita Gastreich

Friday, January 27, 2012

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I grew up at a crafts school.  Our house was filled with people who talked about art, who were thrilled with making things; famous artists visited and taught, poets came to read, musicians played.  It was an unusual childhood.  I grew up to study costume and fashion; I got an MFA in fine art.

So reading Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, a Jane-Austen-inspired novel of Regency-era England, was like coming home.  Here is a book written by a person who understands the tactile enchantment of the creative art process.  Certainly, like Austen, she brings us misguided romances, unmarried sisters, eligible bachelors, ridiculously hysterical mothers, and an intelligent, plucky heroine with both good sense and awareness; there are plot twists and intricate turns of betrayal and forgiveness, and like Austen, a cuttingly clear view of how people tick; but there is more here, not least of which is the introduction of magic into the mix.  For among the accomplishments a young woman in this world of manners and mores is expected to learn, making glamour is as important as music, drawing, and good conversation.  Since the heroine, Jane, is adept at creating elegant effects, whether in the living room of her house or as part of the entertainment at parties, we are allowed into her perceptions of how it's done.  And it's fascinating stuff.

Ms. Kowal, a professional puppeteer since 1989, knows how to make things.  She understands not only how it feels to hold and fold fabric, stitch things together, and stand back to see its effect; she understands the thrill of making an illusion work, of drawing an audience or a viewer so far into that illusion that they forget themselves.  Throughout the book, the joy and anguish of creation, of trying and failing and trying again -- when your eyes can see what's wrong but your fingers aren't quite up to it -- shines through.  Jane is a gifted amateur, modest about her achievements but enough of an artist to want to know more about how glamour works than she can learn in her sheltered environment; when she meets the impenetrable Mr. Vincent, a celebrated glamourist, she is fascinated by the techniques he uses to make his art. Along the way, we get real insights into artists, the making of illusions, and the difference between dabbling and serious art.

This insight into the workings of artists' processes is surprisingly rare, at least in novels, much less novels as enjoyable and readable as this one.  It is difficult for word-people to capture the interiority of art-making, the specific kind of focus required -- a sort of plunge into the materials, a losing of oneself into the moment and movement of it.  But Ms. Kowal has clearly thought carefully about this, because glamour in her world is made from folds and stitches and tyings-off of aether, and requires the same dexterity and awareness of draping that fabric entails; the end effect is one of illusion -- and when it comes to illusion, Ms. Kowal is an expert.

Despite the story's attention to social and historic detail, it doesn't allow itself to become bogged down in the trivialities of manners and society.  As readers, we care about the characters, and we believe in their passions, and to the purity of the historically accurate narration, Ms. Kowal adds a drop, just the tiniest smidge, of a broader, more contemporary awareness.  At the climax, for example, where a father confronts the man who wronged his daughter, the author manages to carry off the complexity of a modern thriller while still nurturing the characters' Regency morals and motivations.  And the dark angst of Mr. Vincent smacks of a character from a Henry James novel: real, fraught, difficult, even tragic, but whose leanings toward disaster are happily kept in check by the enforced tidiness of an Austen-like plot.

Ms Kowal very adeptly manages the old-fashioned language, and uses the formulas of Austen's novels to good avail as a skeleton on which to hang the deeper story: that of an amateur finding her art.  And the love story here is a true one, as well, with the pain and self-doubt of the heroine a nice foil against the satisfyingly difficult male lead.   There are times, just a few, where the story suffers from the mere fact that the author is not, like Jane Austen was, suffering the same specific tribulations as her characters; but this is not really a fair comparison.  Mary Robinette Kowal knows her stuff -- her characters, their art, and the times they lived in, intimately and well.  And that's what matters.

Chick Points:
[We award "chick points" from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each book we read. Point awards are of course totally subjective, but we hope they at least give a flavor of where a book stands on specific  subjects.]
Strong female characters: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)
The main character, Jane, is wonderful.  In one desperate scene she is being treated with condescension by a man she loathes while trying to get somewhere, and she reacts in exactly the way she should have.  It is such a stellar example of what is wrong with those men who think they are being helpful while treating you like you are stupid -- we all know the type -- that it endeared me forever.  Some of the other characters were allowed to remain true to type without too much tinkering -- Jane's mother, for one, whose puffy hysteria is perfectly reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennet's mother in Pride and Prejudice -- but overall, they are exactly as they need to be for the concept to work.

Treatment of women in the book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
This was a difficult one, as the book is of necessity about the lack of power women had in Regency society.  But Ms. Kowal does what she can with it, to very satisfying effect.  The fact that, when emergency strikes, Jane's father is willing to help his daughter, even if it means throwing propriety to the winds, made me happy.  The unconventional romance that develops is also resolved in a nice way, true to both modern sensibilities and the requirements of the story.

Appearance of women on the cover: N/A
The Regency style portrait on the cover is entirely appropriate and elegant.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Review: Finder, by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Release date: November 2010

Genre: Fantasy

Set in a richly imagined, Middle-Eastern flavored fantasy world, Finder is at heart a complicated, decades-long love story between Ethen and Zihariel, two star-crossed lovers from very different backgrounds. Ethen is the eponymous hero with a special power: he can “find” any sort of objects or people just by concentrating on them. During the course of the book he transforms from a streetwise urchin to a rich and relatively respectable middle-aged man. Zihariel is a beautiful woman with an amazing power all her own: an incredible gift for music. She begins the book as the pampered, sheltered slave of a rich merchant (her people have been systematically “purged” from Ethen’s native land and turned into slaves), who shows her off like a prize songbird for others’ pleasure—but Zihariel finally runs away, and Ethen is hired to “find” her.

Ethen tracks Zihariel down, but once he finds her, he also finds something totally unexpected: love. He no longer wants to fulfill his Finder’s contract, but what can they do, where can they flee? Nowhere seems safe for an escaped slave. Together, they set off on a series of adventures that bring them to the mighty city of Bosbana. Once there, just when things seem to finally be going right and we begin to hope that the lovers can craft a life together, both Ethen and Zihariel each independently decide that in order to keep their loved one safe, they’ll have to leave that loved one behind. This leads into the second half of the book, eighteen years later, when both have grown and changed and yet through the whim of fate, they meet up again and have to fumble their way back from pain and sorrow and distance to rediscover the connection and love they once shared.

Yes, there’s a plot here too, involving (among other things) illegal spice trafficking, blackmail, forbidden relationships and tangled politics, and it’s deftly handled even when we start to see the reveals coming before they happen; but the core of this book is a true-feeling and moving love story complicated by culture, time and individual psychology.

I loved the world-building of this book, and its beautiful Middle-Eastern feel (a refreshing change from the more frequent generic European medieval fantasy setting we all know and love). DeFino is terrific at throwing in interesting names and details (even down to food and drink) that add flavor and a sense of place without having to go into big explanatory info-dumps about the way things are.

I also enjoyed the way that DeFino used a love story to address complex, significant issues like slavery and freedom, trust and betrayal, family and loyalty, loss and sacrifice, self-worth and self-determination. This was a book that took a good clear look at some of the big obstacles we encounter in relationships, and did so in a compelling, honest way.

DeFino’s characters are also people I enjoyed coming to know and empathizing with. No one is perfect, everyone has their flaws, but overall their hopes and fears and desires and motivations felt realistic and reasonable to me. I especially liked Ethen and Zihariel, of course, but I also thought the author did a great job with her supporting cast (lots of interesting people in this world!) It was a rare treat to experience within the course of one book the way that characters grow over time and change as a result of their choices—I thought DeFino handled this well.

On a personal note, I also always appreciate characters who are artists of some sort—I thought Zihariel’s relationship with her music was fascinating, and I really felt for her when she lost her music and celebrated with her when she got it back.

There were a few things I got impatient about as the book progressed, because I’d already guessed how things would play out or who certain people were, but I didn’t mind too much because I was enjoying the journey even if I was pretty sure I knew the destination. And there were some good plot twists that surprised me too.

Overall Impressions: I very much enjoyed this book, and would certainly recommend it. If you like love stories and you also like well-written, imaginative fantasy worlds peopled with interesting, sympathetic characters, this is a book for you. I hear there’s a sequel in the works and I am looking forward to it!

Chick Points:

[We award "chick points" from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each book we read. Point awards are of course totally subjective, but we hope they at least give a flavor of where a book stands on specific feminist subjects.]

Strong Female Characters: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
Even though the main character of this book was Ethen, there were many other strong, well-rounded and interesting female characters in this book, including of course Zihariel.  I also really liked Augnesse and Cesilee.

Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
This book certainly did touch on women’s issues and women’s roles, and did so in a satisfying and realistic way, even if ultimately women in the societies in this world have many of the same issues of inequality and lack of power or respect that they have in our own. But these inequalities were, if not confronted, at least not taken for granted, and I appreciated that.

Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: N/A
Only Ethen appears on the cover, so this doesn’t really apply. I would have maybe liked to see both Ethen and Zihariel on the cover, but really it was Ethen’s story so I’m ok with him being the only one on the cover.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows

Release date: January 31, 2012

Genre: YA Fantasy

18 year old Ana has grown up in a world where she is unique: the only one of a million souls who is a “newsoul,” a brand new spirit born into a world where everyone else has been reincarnated, lifetime after lifetime, for more than 500 years. Into each incarnation the reincarnated souls bring their knowledge and experience of past lives; what they do forget is easily refreshed by the journals they leave behind in the public library. But Ana represents a fresh start in a world where new souls have become not only improbable, but impossible. And her life represents not only the new and strange of an uncharted existence, but also the permanent loss of another soul who will never be reborn because Ana lives.

Incarnate is Ana’s story, and follows her quest to find out who she is and why she is a newsoul. More than that, Incarnate is a coming-of-age story, a romance, a story of recovery from abuse, a story of hopes and dreams and questions of faith, science, and reality.

When I first picked up the ARC of Incarnate, I had certain preconceived notions and expectations. For the past couple of years I have been on a YA dystopia reading binge, so I assumed that this novel would be in a similar vein: future dystopian society based on utopian ideals, in which the main character questions society and sparks a rebellion. As this, like so many other YA novels of late, is written in first person, I also had certain expectations about the character’s voice and maturity.

From the first page, all of my expectations were blown away. First and foremost, this isn’t a dystopian society. Incarnate is set in a fully realized fantasy world with its own culture, religion, social structure, and history, and this world is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I struggled a bit at first with some of the creatures and worldbuilding, until I realized that I was trying to fit this world and society into my preconceived notions about this world and my knowledge of traditional fantasy worlds. Once I let go of my expectations, I really enjoyed exploring Ana’s world, which is completely fresh and engaging. And that’s what I loved most about this book: a new world to explore and a plot that I could not predict.

Ana herself is an interesting heroine. Although there are certain elements of her character that feel like a modern stock YA heroine (I think the choice of first person doesn’t help differentiate her voice much), Ana’s background as an abused child makes her personal journey to discover who or what she is much more challenging and engaging. She is strong, yet she is flawed, and has to overcome some of her trust issues in order to move beyond her upbringing and join society. I did feel Ana lost some of herself and her independence when she became romantically involved with a certain character; her focus also seemed to shift from the mystery of her existence to more trivial matters of “who’s in love with whom.” However, once the action kicked up and the stakes became greater, Ana became a better blend of strength and vulnerability and avoided the pitfall of becoming a moony Bella Swan who thinks of nothing more significant than her love interest.

While the action and pacing were excellent for the most part, I was slightly disappointed in the end for a couple of reasons: first, the book doesn’t really end. Like most YA novels these days, this is the first in a trilogy, so the reader is forced to wait for answers to many of Ana’s most pressing questions. Second, the climax of the novel seemed to lack finesse. Characters only hinted at for most of the novel appeared out of nowhere to take part in the action, answers became new questions, and I ultimately felt that some elements of the story created unnecessary confusion, especially since readers will now have to make a long-term investment for those questions to be answered. Still, the finale did work overall, with lots of great action and suspense, and the loose ends didn’t distract me enough to destroy my overall enjoyment of the novel.

The writing itself is lyrical, well-paced, and pulled me through the story. I had a hard time putting the book down and finished within a couple of days; the combination of good storytelling, lovely writing, intriguing worldbuilding and good pacing pulled me through to the end. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys strong worldbuilding and thought-provoking fantasy that introduces complex questions of religion, rebirth, and existence. I’m already looking forward to the sequel!

Chick Points:

Strong Female Characters: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)

Ana’s vulnerabilities and trust issues could make her weak and whiny, but she doesn’t waste time moping about her history; instead, she actively seeks out the truth behind her existence, even when her quest proves dangerous. She does risk losing her recently discovered self for love, a message delivered far too frequently to young girls in our society. However, she pulls out of it, and manages to find a working balance between indulging her affections and focusing on her quest.

Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)

For the most part, the women are strong, engaging characters. But what I found especially engaging was the author’s treatment of love, gender and sexuality overall. People in this book aren’t always reborn as the same gender, and characters who continue to love each other over the course of lifetimes sometimes end up born as two people of the same gender. Their love is natural and accepted by all members of society, and makes perfect sense in the context of the novel. Most of the main characters are also in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides, which leads to well-rounded characters of all genders.

Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)

The image of a beautiful young girl in a butterfly mask is striking, and connects well with the butterfly/ metamorphosis recurring theme of the novel. The expression on the girl’s face is an interesting choice, though, as she seems fearful and not strong or questioning , which is more how I view Ana. Still, it’s a lovely, striking cover that will serve the novel well for marketing purposes.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine

Astounding feats of ACROBATICS
the World has ever SEEN
~ No Weapons Allowed ~

As the story opens, you find yourself in a circus, with the lights, the ticket decorated with a golden griffin in your hand.  The show is on, and the world outside is drifting away.  As you read on, you begin to realize that for the performers in this novel, the outside world is a vague place, a world where boundaries go unseen and where things beyond the confines of the traveling Circus Tresaulti have no meaning and no reality; it is a world of sliding time-spaces; as a reader, you are always certain where you are, but that location is constantly changing.  The story runs like a long passageway, with rooms off it that we explore, as we wander down its length, and can take place at any time during the history of the Circus Tresaulti.  The combination of these two qualities  balance out: the claustrophobia of the close-knit community of the circus, the delicate balance of the social structure -- and sometimes sanity -- of its members are weighed against the looseness, the cobweb lightness of the narrative's billowing timeline and the cloudiness of the surrounding environments through which the circus travels. 

The center of the narrative, the string which we follow past all the sideshows of the many small histories, is Little George, rescued from a war-torn world when he was only a child so that he could run all the small jobs of the circus: the poster-pasting, the ticket-taking, the message-running.  At the heart of Circus Tresaulti, on the other hand, is Boss, the woman who sculpted each of its members from broken, or even dying, people; with her copper pipes for bones, her clockwork mechanisms to replace muscles, lungs and even a heart or two, the members of the circus are able to fly higher, perform more brightly and, in the end, become more than human.  But there is a price: they become detached from the rest of the warring world, existing only within and for the circus, devoting their lives to it.  Once changed, they cannot leave; they are tied to it, and to Boss, and to each other, forever. 

There are power struggles in the world beyond the walls of tents and trailers, however, and someone is bound, eventually, to notice them as something more than performers; when the safety of one of their members is threatened, the rest of them have to decide whether to come out into the world in a rescue -- and become something different, something more connected -- or to see the circus broken apart and, possibly, meet their own eventual ends.  Along the way, the loose cobweb of a narrative narrows and focuses, drawing itself ever tighter and more steely -- like the ribs of a cage, or of the metallic performers -- until you find yourself stuck to the book, gripped by the net of the story, uncaring of the hour.

The only things which even slightly interrupted my slide down the smooth slope of the narrative were a few things were left unsaid.  It is clear that the performers have strong needs and emotions, but it is not always clear what they are feeling, or why.  I found myself rebuffed from the glowering embers of Stenos' hatred, or the gleam of Bird's madness, merely because so many of their interactions were wordless exchanges of unreadable emotion.  But this is a small thing, easily forgiven in the flow of story.

Here are some things I find surprising in this book: 

That the world outside is nothing but a series of endless wars, leader followed by dictator followed by junta, endlessly destructive, endlessly violent, and all alike, blurring into a single, continuous centuries-long event.

That Ms. Valentine so seamlessly blends flesh and machine, mechanics and magic, life and death in a way that never once falls into trope.  The changed performers, while no longer exactly human, became neither godlike nor zombielike, but instead, more interdependent -- and, in an odd way, more vulnerable.

That she captures, so quickly and carefully, the personalities, conflicts, aches and desires of the people in a circus troupe, without explanation, without apparent effort, and with a deft eye for the enforced clarity and conscious lack of awareness necessary in a tiny, close-knit community.

The truth she brings to the characters: women are as real, visceral, needful and passionate as men, but totally different; and the effect of having parts of oneself become machine by nature do not pass without their imprint on the soul.

And lastly, Ms. Valentine's extraordinary power to make you sit up and pay attention to her wanderings. This is based partly in her queer and tangible subject matter, partly in her ability to weave dreams, and partly in some odd trick of words, words which lead like an old track through a meadow to secret places: you want to follow them, they intrigue you, even if the clues are faint and meandering. And then, like a fine circus act, she draws you up tight, bringing the slow and lovely performance up into a breathtaking, even painful, series of moves that delight and satisfy the reader.

Strong Female Characters: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
I liked Bird very much: the woman who is destroyed over and over and still keeps her self; and Elena is a force to be reckoned with.  However, Boss holds the keys to the circus, so to speak, and her combination of willpower and democratic leadership is worth reading about.

Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
The women in the circus are creatures of will and autonomy, who are conscious of their choices and who are as vulnerable and badass as any women we could hope to read about.

Appearance of Women in the Cover Art:  Moot (no people at all)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: Proxies, by Laura Mixon

Set in a near-future Southwest U.S. where global warming and international wars have taken their toll on both people and the environment, Proxies is a fast-paced cyber-thriller full of political intrigue, fascinating technology and complex interpersonal relationships. It is told from the point of view of three very different people: Pablo, Daniel and Carli.

Both Pablo and Daniel are “proxy” pilots. Proxies are robotic waldo bodies that look like humans but are enhanced (super strong, super fast and indestructible). Proxy pilots are humans who are able to “link” their consciousness to their waldo bodies through complicated software and an implanted jack in their skulls. Pablo and Daniel are very, very different, though: Pablo has spent nearly all his life in various proxies and is never “in corpus”, whereas Daniel has trained for piloting since becoming an adult, and is used to going back and forth between his own flesh and his proxy. Though both of them work for secret government projects that are experimenting with waldo technology, they are in different groups and have very different approaches to reality and relationships. As the book begins, Pablo is playing secret spy for “Mother”, the head of his project, and Daniel is attempting to track down a “renegade” proxy. I won’t say too much more so as not to spoil the plot, but I will say that we soon discover that Pablo is more than he appears at first, and though he and Daniel do cross paths, Daniel never really knows it.

Carli is the character at the heart of the novel, a bridge of sorts between Pablo and Daniel. She is a brilliant, recently divorced professor and scientist who early in her career discovered an instantaneous communication technology. But that communication technology was stolen from her and appropriated by a giant corporation, and due to their legal gag order, she has never been able to go any farther with her work. She is also the daughter of a powerful, wealthy senator, who is involved in the secret government waldo technology projects. As the book begins, Carli is packing up her university office and moving her things to her new office downtown, where she and a colleague have created a new research company. But things start to unravel when she meets Daniel, who has been sent to watch over her in case the renegade tries to harm her. Daniel is forced to tell her about the renegade; Carli doesn’t believe him and threatens him at gunpoint to leave her alone.

The plot thickens as Daniel continues to shadow Carli and we learn more about the renegade, not to mention the grandiose secret plan that Pablo’s “Mother” has for hijacking a spaceship. Then Carli gets kidnapped and the stakes get higher and the action more exciting right up until the end of the book, where Carli has to make an important decision about her own destiny.

What I liked
For the most part, all the characters in this book were real and nuanced, and it was easy to be sympathetic to their widely varying motives. I especially liked Carli, and really identified with her motives and choices. The near-future world that Mixon imagined was fascinating, and definitely provided that “goshasensawunda” that good SF or Fantasy should. I especially liked the way she imagined the ways that human civilization, especially in an already hot and dry place like the U.S. Southwest, would have to change and adapt due to global warming aftereffects. The politics of the time and the alternate history (e.g. the global wars over Antarctica) that she touched on lightly here and there felt real to me also. Though most of the actual science and technology parts went right over my head and I sort of skim-read whenever things got too detailed (disclaimer: I’m not one of those who reads SF for the actual science, but rather for the overall “goshasensawunda” stuff), the science and technology bits certainly had the feel of authenticity and were consistently presented. The idea of “proxies” and how they affected the people who piloted them was an interesting one to me, and I liked how Mixon explored those issues throughout the story. I would have liked even more exploration of those bits.

There were some great, page-turner climactic action sequences involving the hijacking of the spaceship and the attempted rescue of Carli towards the end of the book that I won’t spoil but I will say were really well done. J

What didn’t work for me
My main difficulty with this book was that it was one of those spec fic reads that thrusts the reader immediately into a very different world, multiple points-of-view, and a whole lot of intrigue and action, and it took me probably the first 100 pages or so before I really felt like I’d sorted out what was happening, whom to care about, and what all these strange new words and technologies referred to. Luckily, there was enough general “ooo shiny” ideas and interesting people/action to keep me going, but it was a tough slog at first, and my brain felt very stretched trying to comprehend it all at once. Some people really like that total immersion and having to puzzle out what’s going on, and they may see this book as an enjoyable challenge and fun mystery to unravel, so I’m not necessarily saying this wasn’t well done, just that it was a little bit more than I wanted. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

There were a lot of secondary characters in this book, and it took awhile for me to figure out each of their places in the book as a whole, and how much I needed to remember or care about each of them. Though all of them were interestingly drawn (Mixon has a gift for characterization), I think what was already a fairly complex and initially difficult-to-get-into book could have been considerably simplified for the reader with the subtraction of a few unnecessary characters/conflicts (e.g. Carli’s nephew Paint’s ex-girlfriend Tania, or Carli’s mom’s spiritual advisor, or Daniel’s co-workers Scott James and Leanne, or some of the scientists that worked with Pablo and Mother).

I also think (and remember my disclaimer above, so YMMV) that it would have been a simpler, more enticing and memorable read for me if Mixon hadn’t put quite so much exploration of various kinds of futuristic technology and science ideas in the book, but rather restrained herself to those that were germane to the plot. For example, at one point Carli was “floating” (experiencing by proxy) a probe mission to the sun, and that was certainly interesting and cool, but wound up having relatively little to do with the overall plot.

Overall reaction
This was a book I had to really work at in the beginning, but eventually I got into it and I was invested in finding out what happened, and when I finished I wanted to read it again because I finally understood it and I wanted to pick up the nuances I’d missed while I was struggling with immersion into the world and characters.

If you like near-future, technologically and scientifically imaginative, “hard” SF that also has well-drawn, complex characters and human relations, you’ll like this book.

Chick Points:

[We award "chick points" from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each book we read. Point awards are of course totally subjective, but we hope they at least give a flavor of where a book stands on specific feminist subjects.]

Strong Female Characters: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)

I thought that Carli was a great character, and Mother was a great believable creepy villain.

Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
Women were definitely treated as full, complex human beings in this book. Some were heroes, some were villains, but all were a good mix of flaws and admirable qualities, and all of them had clear, reasonable motivations. The other characters all treated women reasonably as well.

Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
The cover on the edition I read was pretty abstract, so nothing to complain about here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Welcome to Spec Fic Chicks!

Hello and welcome to Spec Fic Chicks, a feminist-leaning book review blog by a trio of opinionated, self-labeled “Chicks” who love to read and write Speculative Fiction. This blog was born out of a conversation we had on the way home from the 2011 World Fantasy Convention, at which we’d all attended an interesting panel about the state of women in fantasy and science fiction. In that panel, the question was once again raised about why women were published less often than men in Speculative Fiction, and the point was once again made and brought home that it wasn’t so much that women weren’t submitting as much (though that was true too) or publishing as much (though that’s true as well)—but crucially, that women authors were also not reviewed as often or in as many places. That experience, combined with the “too many books/too little time” complaints that invariably ensue from returning home from that con with yet another pile of a couple of dozen books to read, made us go “hey, what if we started a blog whose focus is on reviewing Spec Fic books by women?”

We hope the reviews you find here are interesting or useful or at least make you think. If you are interested in having your book reviewed here, you can contact Julia Dvorin at quixhobbit (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll talk.