This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.
It’s fair to say that I’m not a huge vampire fan. I have read a few vampire books, I’ve seen a few vampire movies, but they’re not automatically my preference. So I acknowledge that I may not be the best judge of a vampire story. But anyway, here I go giving a review of one anyway.
Vampires, in this it’s-tomorrow story, have recently been acknowledged as existing in the real world. But unlike in Gail Carriger’s stories, they’re not making moves as a population group to be accepted by the general human population. In fact it’s not really clear what the purpose of the vampires is as a group. Which is fine, because that’s not Olson’s purpose in writing the story. Instead the story is focussed on two people: one an FBI agent who’s joining the newly created paranormal division, and the other… well, that would be telling.
Alex, the agent, is a ‘legacy agent’ – his mother was a big shot in the Bureau and he’s looking to live up to that. Well, that’s what I got from the start of the story, anyway. It was kind of ignored for the rest of the story, though, and while I can see that neither the story nor the man want people to keep harping on his past it also felt like a part of his character that just went nowhere. Overall, though, he was a competent agent and made some interesting choices.
The other character was more interesting, but I don’t want to say too much about her because that are some nice revelations that are part of the fun of the story.
This story is fast-moving and has some nice character moments. It’s clearly setting up for a sequence of stories about the way humanity reacts to those different from them, and also what consequences predators can have. I’m not sure at this stage whether I’d sign up for the rest of the series, simply because I have so many other books to read and I did not fall completely in love with any of the characters or the setting. But if you’re into vampire stories crossed with police procedural types, then this is probably just your thing.
I also want to note that I read this off the back of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, and that was a REALLY weird back to back experience.
In which all 3 of us celebrate 6 years of Galactic Suburbia with an excellent baby and variable cake. ALISA IS BACK THIS IS NOT A DRILL! You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.
What’s new on the internet?
JK Rowling, Native American “magic” and cultural appropriation.
National Geographic outlines the issues.
An open letter to Jo Rowling on the Native Appropriations blog – why indigenous people are not magical creatures.
Nisi Shawl’s crash course in the history of black science fiction
A list of all the dead lesbian & bisexual female characters on TV and how they died (many spoilers).
Feminist Frequency crowdfunding at Seed & Spark: a series of films about historical women.
Tansy’s “Lamia Victoriana” story from Love & Romanpunk, podcast at GlitterShip.
Also, Tansy’s upcoming superhero story at Book Smugglers – “Boy’s Own Superhero Bingo Card.”
Defying Doomsday coming soon too!
Listen to the end for the GALACTIC SUBURBIA GIVEAWAY – win a copy of The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower by Kate Forsyth, a unique non-fiction collection presenting Kate’s extensive academic research into the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale, alongside several other pieces related to fairy tales and folklore. Available soon from Fablecroft.
AND, although we forgot to mention this in the show, it’s time to nominate for the Galactic Suburbia Award! We want to honour activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction – so if you’ve got someone or something that should be nominated for 2015, let us know!
Five narratives, loosely connected by brief snatches of conversation between a schoolkid and their tutor on history. Each story different – thematically, stylistically – each story offering different perceptions on humanity and difference and survival.
I’d read “Souls” before – I have it as an Ace double with Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” The Abbess Radegunde is a remarkable woman – highly educated, linguistically talented, devoted to God and her flock of nuns – and then one day the Vikings come a-raiding. And things change, but definitely not in the way the Norsemen were expecting. How can you judge the people around you? What are you willing to sacrifice? How do you know who you are? I love that this story seems like one sort of story and then KAPOW it’s a very different one.
I found “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” quite hard to come to grips with, and even on reflection it’s still not entirely clear. Partly this stems from language: someone refers to the narrator as an ‘invert’, and I wasn’t entirely clear what that meant although I knew it had insulting sexual/gender overtones; I’m still not clear whether the speaker intended it to mean homosexuality or cross-dressing. In the context, probably either-or. Anyway, the story is written by the titular young man, as a series of letters although we don’t know who the recipient will be. He’s travelling across the Atlantic with a young Spanish girl pretending to be his niece, and there’s a nosy doctor and a few other passengers. Like I said I’m still not entirely sure what was going on here – whether the young man was rescuing a girl like himself, where both of them are like Radegund from the previous story? Maybe. Despite my lack of complete comprehension I did still enjoy the story in a very Russ-type way: it challenges ideas of gender and sex and sexuality and identity and appearance and how much information you need for a story, anyway. Also what sort of stories ought to be read by young women.
“Bodies” goes well into the future and was probably the most opaque of the five stories, for me (possibly not helped by reading while camping, but anwyay…). This is also written as a letter, but this time we know who is being addressed – James – and the writer is reflecting on the time when they met (after he had been pulled from the past/resurrected/ reconstructed) and the immediate aftermath. It’s also concerned with sexuality and gender identity – James has had a bad life because of his, and adjusting to a future where he is actually allowed to be himself is difficult. In some ways I was put in mind of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in terms of how hard it might be a for a 20th-century mind to cope with something approaching a utopia (especially someone who has been oppressed), because we’re suspicious and guarded.
“What did you do during the revolution, Grandma?” is a bit Greg Egan and a bit Ursula Le Guin and a bit James Tiptree Jr. What if our universe exists on a hypersphere and the point where we happen to exist is the point where cause and effect happen to equal 1? Which means there are other universes where cause and effect does not equal 1… and then what would happen if you could access those other places? What would humans do? … it’s a pretty weird story. I am intrigued by the conceit although I don’t think Russ plays it out as much as she might. Again she goes in for human stories rather than the maths looking at cause and effect in humanity, and love and sex and confusion.
Finally, with “Everyday Depressions”, I nearly cried. It, too, is epistolary – it opens with “Dear Susanillamilla” – and it’s about the letter-writer hashing out the plot and characters for a novel she (I presume) is thinking of writing. The bit that made me cry was when the heroine’s mother is named Alice Tiptree, of the Sheldons of Deepdene. The entire collection opens with a quote from Alice Sheldon:
“I began thinking of you as pnongl. People” – [said the alien] “it’s dreadful, you think a place is just wild and then there’re people – “
I can’t help but see similarities in the way Russ wrote to Alice Sheldon in the style of these letters, and in Sheldon’s letters back. The development of the gothic novel the writer is proposing to write also just makes me ache, in knowing the Russ/Sheldon connections – and also of course Russ’ own discussions about the gothic story. This little story is an absolute gem if you know those connections, and still amusing and lovely even if you don’t.
Theodora, Empress of Byzantium
I’m really conflicted by this book.
On the one hand, how awesome to have a biography of a woman who was so influential in her time and who has continued to be so, intermittently, in art and so on for the last 1500 years! (I know there are other bios.)
On the other hand, Cesaretti has written what would be better described as a “biographical novel” than a strict biography. Partly this is due to necessity – there is little information about Theodora, and much of what we do have comes from a rather prejudiced source; Procopius appears to have despised her. So while I appreciated a lot of the work he did to put Theodora into context, there is a lot of fleshing out that I felt involved a wee bit too much license.
On the plus side, Cesaretti appears to have done a lot of research into what else was going on around the Byzantine empire, and does provide a lot of context for Theodora and her political and religious positions. Obviously this is a woman who cannot be understood without that context, especially around the question of Monophysite v Dyophysite (Christ having one or two natures, versions of which debate wracked the early Christian world for quite a while).
On the negative side, Cesaretti’s style sometimes really bugged me. I have no idea whether this is an artefact of translation, either of words or of Italian style, but I found his repetition of words and ideas unnecessary – it made me quite impatient.
Happily, the book itself is a quite lovely object. I have a hardback version and when I took the slip cover off I discovered the cover itself was white with the design shown above. It has a lovely map (at both the front and back – not sure why you’d repeat it) showing how far Theodora’s husband, the emperor Justinian, expanded the Byzantine empire, and it has quite a few pictures throughout, many of them specific to Theodor or Justinian.
Sadly, getting back to the Procopius issue, it felt like Cesaretti couldn’t quite figure out whether he mostly believed Procopius or not. While Cesaretti keeps pointing out how Procopius denigrates Theodora, especially around her sexuality and her lowly beginnings as an actress (coughprostitutecough, says Procopius), Cesaretti seems to accept the stories of her having sex with lots of men but tries to put a happier spin on it somehow. There’s not really a discussion about how maybe these stories were a way of undercutting her power (because how else to decry a powerful woman than to talk about her getting it on with dozens of men). Now maybe there is reason to think she was promiscuous… but Cesaretti doesn’t outline that case. He just tries to consider her sexuality in a broader context. Which, fine, maybe she really liked having sex. Whatever. But when the information about that is from someone with an axe to grind? Colour me dubious.
I’m not sad I read this book; I did read the whole thing. I think Theodora is an important woman to understand and my understanding of the Byzantine empire more generally is woeful (did you know they invaded Italy to try and take Rome back from the Goths? Me neither). But I probably wouldn’t recommend this to someone who didn’t have a fairly hefty dose of skepticism in their bones.
The Dark Labyrinth
You know that thing where because you read so much of one genre, you keep expecting non-genre books to follow the same conventions?
I know the Durrell family from having read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell at school, and then reading several more of his memoirs off my own bat. It’s quite funny to realise that the moody older brother Gerald remembers turned into, apparently, quite a well-known author.
I think I took this off my parents’ bookshelves many years ago and I’ve never got around to reading it. I have finally done so as part of a concerted effort to get through my to-be-read pile, which I started… last week.
This was published in 1947 (my copy is from 1969). I kind of feel like I need to better understand post-war Britain before making claims about this novel… but actually that’s not the case. Certainly I think Durrell is making some pretty specific comments on British society of the time; but he’s also making comments about humanity more generally that are still applicable today.
The story: a bunch of random people, some with tenuous connections and other not, come together to go explore a labyrinth on Crete as a day-trip from their Mediterranean cruise. The first chapter is written in the aftermath, so we know right from the start that there’s been an accident and some people haven’t survived – I was surprised to see this narrative technique in a box written 70 years ago, to be honest, and was quite confused initially (it’s one of the aspects I now love about it). The rest of the novel gives some background to most of the characters, and then details their experiences within the labyrinth.
I should stop here and say I really loved this book. Occasionally the style made me impatient – some sentences were a bit too opaque for my tastes, and I couldn’t quite figure out whether Durrell is being serious in his misogyny or whether he’s being ironic, since I think both options are equally plausible. But this book is staying on my bookshelf, since I can well imagine rereading it (also my mum might be sad if I ditched it).
Durrell himself said the novel was
really an extended morality but written artlessly in the style of a detective story. Guilt, superstition, The Good Life, all appear as ordinary people; a soldier on leave, a medium, an elderly married couple (Trueman), a young unfledged pair, a missionary…
(in a letter to Henry Miller). The variety of characters – yes, many of them tropes – is of course what allows him to explore different attitudes and ideas and problems. The main character, or at least one of two who gets the most airtime, is a mediocre poet-cum-wannabe-critic who has just been drifting for years. Born to some money, never really had the inclination to hold down a job or be properly the starving artist in the garret; not great to his wife; and so on. In contrast, the other character with the most time is Baird, who has come to Crete to try and lay some demons to rest – the difference between the two men is stark. The other single men of the group – the medium mentioned above and an arrogant artist – provide some colour. There are two women: the missionary, who is severe and generally angry and disapproving, and an uneducated young woman trying to better herself. The “elderly” married couple – and it hadn’t even occurred to me that their name is Truman! – are really a package deal throughout the novel and may be my favourite part of the whole story. Certainly their eventual story is the most captivating. They are generally looked down upon by the artists and “better bred” members of the group (they won the opportunity to go first-class on the cruise) but there are simply wonderful moments that make them incredibly real. Like someone walking past their room one night and hearing her crying, and him saying “There, Elsie… I know things would have been different if it hadn’t died.” And then there’s no further explanation.
For all its universality, this is a novel of its times. People are still deeply affected by the impact of World War 2. The medium, Fearmax, has had a basically reputable career as such. Notions of class, while beginning to unravel, are still very prominent (and perhaps they are still in Britain but I think it’s more pronounced here). Psychotherapy is an intriguing notion and people can’t quite figure out whether to view it as science or quackery. That doesn’t mean you need to understand 1940s Britain to get the novel; it just means that understanding these people live in a basically recognisable but actually very different world is an important thing to keep in mind. The past: they did things differently. Even in novels.
As to my earlier comment: there is no fantasy element to this story, even though it really felt like there should be, at times.
I got this after reading Robert Reed’s collection The Greatship, which consists of course of stories all set on said Greatship. This novel takes some of those stories and characters and turns them into a more complex story.
The basic idea is that many centuries ago, humanity were lucky enough to be the ones to first spy this enormous ship hurtling between the galaxies, about to encounter the Milky Way. They sent out ships and claimed it, and after a while started to allow other sentient beings to come on board too – as passengers.
When Reed says Great, he means Great. In one of the short stories the ship is described as being roughly the size of Uranus – and entirely inhabited inside, which just gives the most mammoth scale. The title gives some indication what the focus of the story is….
There is nothing straightforward about this novel. Basically, the plot goes: twist – twist – double cross – twist – surprise! – twist – twist – KAPOW. It certainly kept me intrigued.
The one real problem I had with the book is the same one I had with the short stories. With functionally immortal human characters, Reed has no compunction about stretching the story over centuries – or millennia. And my brain just can’t deal with those sorts of spans of time, it seems, when the characters are basically standing still. (Because while the Greatship is, indeed, a ship, the point is not really the journey as it is on ships in, say, Alastair Reynolds’ books that also span a long time.) So sometimes I converted the years into days, and sometimes I just blanked on the number and read ‘an awfully long time’. And the specific time doesn’t really matter too much, so that worked out.
I guess you could call this ‘hard’ science fiction because there’s some stuff about science and all. I mention this because Reed’s bio says he’s got a reputation for ‘cutting-edge hard science fiction’. But the reality is that this story isn’t really about the science or engineering aspects of the problems facing the crew of the ship; it’s about the crew themselves, and how they react in situations and how they deal with each other and others they encounter. The rest of the bio does admit that his ‘hard science fiction’ is ‘bound together by strong characters and intricate plots’ which sounds to me like trying to avoid the idea that a man can write excellent science fiction that is, gasp, character and/or plot driven rather than entirely science-centric. This is me rolling my eyes.
I got this from the Strange Horizons fundraising drive; I wanted to read more Nancy Kress because her After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was just so darned good. Also to keep up my efforts to keep reading female authors.
This is a really clever alien contact story, which like so many of the good ones tells the reader more about humanity than about any putative alien species.
Here, an alien ship arrives – apparently from the direction of Deneb, although not actually – and eventually tells the humans that the Earth is heading for a ‘spore cloud’ that will have disastrous consequences. The aliens are here both to warn the Earth and to seek answers to the problem of the spores, which will get to their planet some time later.
The story is told by Marianne, a geneticist who gets involved in the work with the aliens, and her estranged son Noah. They bring completely different perspectives to the story, of course, which are nicely complementary; they also allow Kress to explore family issues which are crucial to the story she’s telling.
The science is really a important part of the story: how scientists work, what risks they can and should take, what everyday life in the lab is like (boring). Neither more nor less important is the social aspect. How does a mother deal with children who are different from her – and how do they deal with her? How can the world deal with knowing that there are aliens out there, and that a disaster is approaching? And then there’s the politics too: this is set in a US that has become increasingly isolationist, a powerful border security force and many people wanting heavy tariffs on imports and restricted migration – and how does that play with the arrival of aliens?
At 189 pages, this is a short novel; it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and wonderfully engaging.
Galactic Suburbia: Bujold spoiler!
In which Tansy & Alex take apart the joyous wonder that is the latest Lois McMaster Bujold novel: Gentleman Jole & the Red Queen. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
The Terrible Title
The Vorkosigan Saga So Far (with particular reference to Shards of Honour & Barrayar, with plenty of spoilers for All The Key Moments involving the Vorkosigan family)
Uterine Replicators and Their Social Implications
Older Women in Space (send us your Space Grannies story recs!)
Space Opera as Social History
Triad Marriages and Alternative Parenting Models
The Changing Roles of Mothers and Grandmothers with an extended lifespan
Oliver Jole as unusual male hero: how often do we see books about men choosing between career advancement and having children?
Aurelia is the prettiest name
Is Miles ‘the man’ now? Does he represent conservative Barrayar, or is there still a healthy rebellious Betan streak in him?
Oliver & Cordelia: an “old person” romance
Bereavement & retirement as positive life turning points
Miles and Oliver: “that” conversation as climax of the plot
Miles and Cordelia: how to surprise your adult son, how to come to terms with your parents as fellow humans
The sciencey science of a colonised planet: Sergyar needs marine biologists and plumbers more than soldiers and politicians!
Reader response: what was problematic, unrealistic expectations, what does a Vorkosigan novel look like anyway?
We love you all and we love this book: only listen to this episode if you genuinely don’t mind being spoiled for all the things.
PS: Tansy still maintains that the Vorkosigan saga is just fine read in random book order. Alex is not okay with this. Follow your own instincts on this one.
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The Quantum Thief
By Hannu Rajaniemi
I’ve had the sequel to this sitting on my TBR pile for a looong time, but I knew I had to reread this first hence the procrastinating. I wasn’t delaying because I was worried, just that rereading sometimes feels so decadent…
Anyway I’ve done it now and if anything this book has improved with a second reading. I did love it the first time but remember feeling hopelessly and helplessly lost a few times. That was largely gone on this reading not because I remembered things – I didn’t because I basically never do – but because I remembered it making sense so I had confidence in it and myself. I did also remember just a few things after my memory was jolted which certainly helped.
So there’s a thief, and someone who needs help; there’s a colony in Mars where everyone has extreme privacy measures and you get to choose who sees what – plus Time is currency. There’s been serious inter-solar-system issues with humanity splitting into many different factions and there are some very serious questions about what is real and whether you can even ask that question my god you’re so baseline human urgh. Brains can be hacked and bodies can be hacked and sometimes bodies are just a costume. But seriously there’s something that needs to be stolen and that’s what matters.
Memory, reality, time, love, death. All the good bits
By SB Divya, from Tor.com in May.
This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.
Things I liked about this story:
Technology was not at an end. It’s a small thing, but often stories set “tomorrow” forget that technology keeps developing. There’s a line in here about consumer tech not being ready for something but it soon would be – and I was very happy to read that.
The family relationships were complex and largely believable.
Struggling against a new class system that is completely rigged against you.
Enhanced ultra marathons.
The story telling itself.
The different genders.
Things that I didn’t love:
Mum seemed a bit too harsh, but maybe that’s just my bias? Could be. It made me uncomfortable but actually maybe that’s the point.
There’s a discussion about “nats” – naturals I presume – that got a bit too… didactic, for the context. It made me impatient to get back to the story because it felt like it was interrupting rather than advancing the plot or the central ideas.
Overall it’s a fun, fairly compressed story.