December 5, 2017

October/November Reading Recap

It's time to catch up with a double batch of reviews! Over the last two months, I read some excellent science fiction and fantasy, and also some other books.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon: Aster is a skilled healer and scientist from the lowdecks of the ship Matilda, which fled the Great Lifehouse 300 years ago and has traveled through space ever since. Life is never easy for lowdeckers, with imposed shifts on the field decks and frequent abuse from guards and overseers. Following a rash of unexplained blackouts, harsh energy rationing has made lowdeck conditions even worse, while the upperdeckers continue to enjoy their many comforts. For Aster, the blackouts also resurface questions about her mother, who committed suicide during the last series of ship-wide power outages, on the day Aster was born. When political events reveal information that appears connected to her mother, Aster begins searching for answers about her mother's life and death, and what she discovers has huge implications for Matilda.

I have been recommending AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS since I started reading, and my enthusiasm only increased as I got farther into the book. This engrossing, intense novel contains so many pieces that excite me. The world of the generation ship is intricate and often unexpected, and I only wish the story allowed room for Solomon to share even more of the tantalizing cultural elements they created. But the plot had to keep moving, and it's a great one, with secrets and power struggles and a mystery involving science. Every character is a complicated individual, and I cared deeply for Aster, her friends, and all the wonderful fierce inhabitants of the lowdecks.

Solomon's debut is ambitious and satisfying, and I look forward to their future novels!

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie: Ingray was adopted into a rich, politically powerful family, but she grew up knowing her brother was their mother's favorite and would be named heir. Still, she can't stop hoping to win favor, so she's traveled to a distant system and spent all her money on a wild plan that may impress her scheme-loving mother, or at least humiliate her obnoxious brother. When Ingray's plot immediately goes wrong, she's forced to return to her home planet with nothing besides a reluctant co-conspirator and an even more far-fetched scheme. It might have worked, too, if not for those meddling aliens -- plus some unanticipated police involvement and an interplanetary dispute over historical relics.

PROVENANCE is a exciting, twisty story, as gripping when the characters are undertaking tense exploits as when they're facing off over long-held resentments. I loved these nuanced, messy characters and their complex family dynamics and friendships. As always, Leckie has built a fascinating world where numerous cultures come into contact and don't understand each other, which is sometimes funny and sometimes thought-provoking. The story explores identity, social customs, power, justice, and gender, all in the course of a plot that speeds right along.

This novel takes place in the same universe as Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, and some political activity in the background is a result of events in the trilogy, but it's not necessary to know about (or remember) those to understand this standalone book.

THE OBELISK GATE by N.K. Jemisin picks up Essun's story where THE FIFTH SEASON leaves her, coping with the implications of the continent-shattering disaster that's destroyed the Stillness. There's a chance Essun can make the world right again, but first she's going to have to learn a lot more about her orogenic powers and discover the skills of others who may be able to help.

I was happy to return to the world of this trilogy (nice place to read about, wouldn't want to live there!), spend time with the characters I'd grown attached to, and meet new ones. This installment includes a lot of great, exciting developments, with a good mix of tense action and quiet character moments. Many of the story's mysteries start becoming clearer as Essun gains knowledge and power, but there's still much I'm eager to find out about, and I'm curious to see how tightly the various pieces will connect by the end of the final book.

ARTEMIS by Andy Weir: Jazz grew up in Artemis, the city on the moon, a tourist destination for wealthy Earthers and those who've saved for the vacation of a lifetime. She earns an honest, modest paycheck doing one of the jobs that keeps Artemis running, but she makes her real money smuggling contraband items, like flammable materials. When a rich client offers Jazz a fortune to commit a few additional crimes, she can't say no. She conceives and executes a plan that involves such complicated, risky steps as welding in the moon's vacuum while wearing at EVA suit. Of course, a few things go wrong, then a few more, and soon Jazz and her friends are facing the wrath of organized crime, the law, and the laws of physics and chemistry.

This is a fun story with a plot that moves along at a fast pace, except when it stops to deliver scientific information or to stumble over characterization. The science breaks are a feature of Weir's fiction rather than a bug, and I enjoyed learning about things that work differently on the moon and how a moon colony might function. The character moments were more of a problem, with a lot of reflections and interactions that I found clunky or implausible.

In many ways, Jazz's narrative voice isn't too different from Mark Watney's in THE MARTIAN, which by Weir's admission isn't too different from his own personality, and that mainly works fine. Where the character and the author diverge, it seems Weir sometimes thought too hard about it and sometimes not enough. Since Jazz is a woman, as she strips to her underwear to put on an EVA suit in front of someone, she assures us she's not pausing to be shy because he's gay -- rather than because she knows him well or because they're in the middle of a time-sensitive, dangerous crime. But while she's a Saudi Arabian native who grew up speaking Arabic with her father in an international city, she constantly mentions characters speaking English with an accent and only notices races when they aren't white. These are small details, but they add up to a voice that doesn't ring true and kept throwing me out of the story. I wish Weir or an editor had worked harder to smooth out these issues, and I especially wish someone had removed the line "Okay, you can stop pretending you know what a niqab is," which makes very alienating assumptions about the audience of this book. If you're willing to overlook these flaws for an entertaining romp on the moon, then go ahead and read this book, but if you expect your blood to boil, protect yourself from exposure.

GEORGE AND LIZZIE by Nancy Pearl: Lizzie meets George while she's reeling from a breakup with Jack. The three months with Jack were the high point of her young life, and she's sure she'll never get over him abandoning her and disappearing. In fact, she never really does, even as she dates and then marries George and years go by. Lizzie searches relentlessly for Jack, without ever mentioning him to George. Nor does she reveal the other big secret of her past, her high school project to methodically have sex with every starter on the football team. Over time, this secrecy strains their already passionless marriage.

Lizzie is a deeply troubled character, which was interesting to explore at times, but much of her behavior struck me as implausible and insufficiently explained. The other characters are mostly very good or very bad people, without much nuance beyond some sections of backstory that provided some of the novel's strongest scenes. Since this book is sparse on plot (my summary covers most of it), it's relying on well-executed characters and dialogue to carry the story, and I found both lacking. Odd pacing choices especially made it hard to connect to George and Lizzie. For example, the first eight months of their relationship pass without a mention, and then pages and pages are devoted to the details of their Christmas preparations.

I remain an admirer of Pearl's work spreading her love of books, but alas, this novel was a disappointment.


Jed Sabin said...

Andy Weir's writing voice bugs the crap out of me. I liked the science-driven plot in the book version of The Martian and I liked the characters in the movie version, but neither one got the other thing remotely right. (Not that the movie had particularly bad science, just that it wasn't well-explained or connected to the relevant events for the audience.)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, the movie of The Martian has so much more going for it in the character department, I've said to people that if they saw it, they don't need to bother with the book -- unless they're someone who would especially appreciate all the details of the science that the movie couldn't convey.

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