Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

4 Comments

This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

6 Comments

For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

Leave a comment

The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Leave a comment

This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

6 Comments

This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

9 Comments

This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is fantasy, Kuang’s debut novel, runs 527 pages and was published by Harper Voyager. This review contains spoilers.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a dark-skinned peasant girl, orphaned as a toddler and taken in by a family of opium dealers. They plan to give her in marriage to the disgusting, old village import inspector to improve their business opportunities. Rin frantically studies for the Keju test and scores high enough for admittance to the elite Sinegard military academy. With her tutor’s help, she leaves the village and travels to the school. As a backward peasant girl, she has to work harder than most, and she makes both enemies and friends among her new classmates. After the first year, she finds a master in the strange lore master Jiang, who teaches her meditation and tells her she has the ability to channel the gods and become a great shaman. Her studies come to an abrupt end as war breaks out between the Nikara empire and the nearby Mugen Federation. Students at the academy are conscripted and given posts within the military, and because of her studies, Rin is sent to the Cike, a small, disrespected division of warriors with shamanistic powers. The commander of the unit dies, and Altan Trengsin, a recent graduate of the academy, moves into his place. Can this motley crew of shamans save the empire? Or will Rin lose her soul instead?

This story is written in two parts. Part I starts off as a great adventure story set against some excellent world-building. Rin overcomes prejudice because of her complexion, her gender and her poverty, and through hard work and determination gets on track for a successful military career. She makes a non-traditional choice for a master, and with Jiang’s help, goes on to explore her heritage and her unusual talent for channeling magic. Then in Part II, the Third Poppy War and a lot of bad politics interferes in Rin’s life, leaving her struggling in a world she doesn’t understand. For anyone familiar with Asian language, there are some interesting associations in the names Kuang chooses. There are also some good descriptions of the military strategy and martial arts study. In Part I, I thought the theme was going to be success against adversity, but later in the story it’s trending more to ignorant misuse of power.

On the not so great side, Part II is full of gross inconsistencies in the characters, their powers and the progress of the war. The story degenerates into a Disneyesque state where Rin, instead of applying discipline and intelligence, screams at everyone, can’t carry her weight as a shaman because she’s blocked by a ghost, and makes a series of emotion-driven choices in defiance of all warnings. What happened to all that study at the academy? Didn’t she learn anything at all? The action line starts off well in Part I, but in Part II the author tries to raise the ante through detailed descriptions of torture and atrocities committed in the war. This book got really unpleasant, and the ending didn’t resolve anything at all. Presumably all the hate and self-destruction will continue into an upcoming sequel.

Two and a half stars for the gross inconsistencies.

Thoughts on the new liberalism

12 Comments

FeatherPenClipArt
The last time I looked at social trends here, I was urged in the comment section to look at third-wave feminism as a disruptive force in the SFF community. However, I’m thinking the issue is broader than that, as the New Left also seems to incorporate elements of race and class in its platform.

Checking around for other thoughts on this, I came up with a couple of interesting articles. The first is “The Big Uneasy” by Nathan Heller and published in the New Yorker. Heller investigates at Oberlin College, an elite school where student demands were recently rejected by the college president and ridiculed by alumni. He does a good job of covering both sides of the issue, interviewing both students and administrators.

Heller notes that this group of activists has come of age during the Obama administration with expectations that we have achieved social and racial equality in the US. However, when you look around, it’s easy to see this hasn’t happened, so students are now making demands that reality match the ideal they’ve been raised to expect. This, of course, leads to social conflict. That’s the easy part—Heller’s interviews also expose something else that’s harder to reconcile, which is that these students have badly misconceived how power and wealth really work. Running up against this has left them disillusioned, where one interviewee has already dropped out of school and another says she will leave the US when she graduates because she thinks it is “a sinking ship.”

Oberlin is an elite school. Graduating from this college is expected to open doors, giving students the background and contacts to join the elite in the power and wealth structure—all they have to do is absorb the values and conform to what’s expected. Like many universities, the school has tried to encourage diversity, pursuing bright and talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the most interesting thing that comes out of this article is that the interviewed students have rejected this privilege, apparently finding that “capitalism” doesn’t fit their worldview.

This is a paradox. How can you diversity the elite if minorities reject the worldview?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: