Short Reviews #13: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (11 titles)

HYPERION (Hyperion Cantos, book 1) by Dan Simmons

Genre: Science Fiction

Liked it?: Very much, yes.

Thoughts: Hyperion is one of those novels that defies explanation when it comes to what I liked about it. I’m going to chalk it up to how different the book is in terms of the narrative style. Not that the style is overwhelmingly unusual, but having six different personal stories described within the framework of one overarching story is reasonably atypical, and not as linear as I’m used to.

Before you say “it’s like Canterbury Tales,” let me say that I know that and, no, I haven’t read Chaucer in its entirety, though I’ve read excerpts. But of all the things that I wish I had known more about before reading Hyperion, it isn’t Chaucer. It’s Keats, actually. Or poetry in general, but there are a lot of references to Keats. Despite a general dislike of poetry (with the exception of Yeats, for some reason), I may very well go out and read some of his work just to assimilate some of it, post-Hyperion.

Beyond that, I liked all of the characters, with the exception of Martin Silenius, who was wholly dislikable. I also had a peculiar dislike for Siri–I found her incredibly annoying. The individual stories were compelling and the science fiction concepts were intriguing. If anything, I could have done without the long sexual descriptions because, really, I just didn’t care about those and they felt a bit over-the-top. But beyond that, the stories were satisfying.

One other thing of note is that there are scenes in Hyperion that are truly violent and visceral. The kind of scenes that make you stare into space, gaped-mouthed, because holy cats, they really did just describe that. These scenes are extremely well-placed and effective, more so because they’re rare.

The ending, of course, is another matter–unresolved, but intentionally, it seems, with an iconic walking down the yellow brick road scene. That just leaves me with a need to purchase The Fall of Hyperion so I can find out what’s happening with the Shrike and the Time Tombs (and, wouldn’t you know, the bookstore didn’t have it when I went to buy it).

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA (Earthsea Cycle, book 1) by Ursula K. Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy

Liked it?: After about the middle, yes.

Thoughts: This is a curious little book that I, perhaps, expected more from, but I’m not entirely unhappy with what I received instead. While reading it, I felt as if I had seen all of these things before in other books and, of course, I had. That’s why this book is a classic and one of the foundational stories of high fantasy, but since I didn’t read it before any other fantasy novels, it felt like I was plodding through a mash of “seen it already” moments up until the middle.

I really didn’t like the main character at first. Sparrrowhawk (or Ged, as he’s truly named) is arrogant and easily angered–he’s a child, and more than one person makes this observation in the story. On top of that, since his original teacher, Master Ogion, essentially tells him that he’s going to become one of the strongest–if not the strongest–wizard ever, the child ends up with an ego of massive proportions.

Of course, all that ends when Really Bad Stuff happens because of that ego, and that’s where things start to get interesting.

What’s tricky about this book isn’t the story, however. It’s the writing style. While reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I constantly felt as if I should be hearing this story orally, having it told to me by someone else, rather than reading it off the page. The narrator feels distant–like a third omniscient being. No doubt this is partly due to the constant references to far future events that Ged would face, but it’s also because there was so little dialogue and interaction within the narrative. Most of the story was exposition. I’m not saying that it was dull, only that it sometimes lacked that immersive quality of more interactive fiction. The pacing was also a little unusual, as sometimes years would pass in a jump, and sometimes a few hours would be drawn out over pages.

All in all, this would have been a good candidate for a story to experience via audiobook.

Sparrowhawk’s battle with the Shadow and with himself, however, is undoubtedly the most interesting portion of the story. Having read to the end, and knowing (thanks to the narrator) what some of Sparrowhawk’s other adventures include, I’m curious enough to read the second book in the series.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia

Liked it?: Yes

Thoughts: The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously terrifying and captivating. There’s so much that could be said about it, but I’m not going to attempt to broach that level of interaction with the book in this micro review–I’m sure many other people have done it better and with a greater body of referential material at hand.

What I will say about this book is that Atwood’s writing is phenomenal. I would and will read her work again, if this is an indication of what her other novels are like. She uses time and mystery to her advantage. She’s subtle and skilled with words and imagery. There’s nothing about this novel that I didn’t find impressive. Moreover, she uses what I call the “total immersion” method, wherein the reader is not given mounds of exposition to mull over at the beginning of the story. She simply begins as if it were another day in this world, without providing any immediate help, and the reader is left to put together the clues himself. I love that style of writing–prefer it, in fact–and was very happy that Atwood made it possible to figure out all of the important details, though some things were, perhaps, still intentionally vague. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, considering that even the main character isn’t fully aware of how or why things have happened in her world the way they have.

In all, a beautifully written book with a heavy dose of thoughtfulness that should give any reader something to think about.

CURTSIES & CONSPIRACIES (Finishing School, book 2) by Gail Carriger

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Steampunk

Liked it?: Yes

Thoughts: The second book of the Finishing School series was, possibly, even more entertaining than the first. Sophronia is turning out to be a true spy-in-training, even if her skill in social graces is sometimes lacking. Nevertheless, she’s managing very well and, as usual, getting into all sorts of hijinks as a result of her keen observational skills and choice of friends.

When reading the first book, Etiquette & Espionage, I remember being very skeptical about the story and style of writing, but it has since become something I enjoy very much. The writing is whimsical and humorous, never intending to take itself very seriously, and is just outright fun. The characters are quirky and sometimes unpredictable. And while I don’t always understand the technology that Sophronia and Vieve frequently discuss, or it’s relation to outside events, I don’t mind watching them get into trouble over it.

In general, a fun and engaging series for someone who wants a lighthearted read and enjoys intentionally ridiculous situations that couldn’t possibly succeed in reality. Knowing that it’s in the same universe as Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, I’ll have to try and read the first book in that collection again. Especially if Lord Akeldama will be in it. He was in Curtsies & Conspiracies for all of five minutes, and, in all his outrageousness and implied infamy, somehow became my favorite character. Figures.

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson

Genre: Horror/Science Fiction

Liked it?: Yes

Thoughts: I think most people are familiar with the Jekyll and Hyde story, even if they haven’t read the source material. Frankly, I’m shocked that it took me this long to get to it. I suppose I foolishly thought that all of the retellings I had seen were even remotely accurate. Particularly the musical, which my first boyfriend enjoyed playing incessantly.

But I was wrong. The Jekyll and Hyde story isn’t like any of the retellings I’ve seen so far. In fact, it’s a fairly contained story with a limited number of characters, and the viewpoint isn’t even Doctor Jekyll’s even though, for some reason, I always thought it would be.

I think the most interesting thing about this story is how the Hyde character is described. In most of the portrayals of the character that I’ve ever seen, Hyde is a big, hulking guy. Sometimes he grows considerably, to the point that he’s much larger than your average human. In other versions, he stands taller and more upright, whereas Jekyll is usually hunched in on himself from shyness.

In reality, the story describes Hyde as being shorter and smaller than Jekyll, if perhaps thicker in musculature, with a vague sense of deformity about him. It is Jekyll who is tall and lithe, not Hyde. Jekyll is also portrayed as a friendly and sociable type of person who later becomes a recluse due to the struggle he begins to have with unexpected changes into Hyde. The meek, withdrawn Jekyll is something that I, apparently, made up in my head as a result of various other film versions of the character.

Also of interest is that Jekyll and Hyde don’t have a contentious relationship until toward the end of the story, when the spontaneous changes begin happening. Jekyll was ready to transfer all of his belongings to Hyde should something ever happen to him, and when his lawyer protests, he assures him that Hyde is a good person, and so on, and not to worry about it.

Then, of course, there’s a murder, and all that falls apart. But hey. . . .

Oh, and guess what. There’s no romantic interest in this story. I always thought there was something happening with a woman or with prostitutes or some such. Nope…not a thing. Apparently I had Jekyll and Hyde mentally mishmashed with Jack the Ripper. I blame the musical.

Overall, what I liked most about reading this (very short) story was learning how the tale was originally told. It’s quick and interesting, and I honestly feel for Jekyll’s struggle, even though he was terribly arrogant to be playing with this crazy concept in the first place. Ah, science.

PROMISE OF BLOOD (The Powder Mage Trilogy, book 1) by Brian McClellan

Genre: Fantasy

Liked it? Not very.

Thoughts: That I didn’t really like this book truly surprised me. It has received praise and accolades on numerous blogs, and usually has a four-star rating on any site. Bloggers whose opinions I respect and generally agree with all enjoyed it, so why could I never get into the story?

Well, I still don’t know the answer to that question. There are a couple of possibilities, one being that I wasn’t in the mood for military fantasy, and another being that, rather than reading it, I listened to it as an audiobook, which is an unusual format for me.

But having been done with this book for a while now, I’ve begun to think that the reason I didn’t care for this novel was because I didn’t have any attachment to any of the characters. The main character, Tamas, wasn’t particularly likable, and neither were most of the characters who interacted with him, save one or two who weren’t generally main parts of a scene. His son Taniel, on the other hand, was reasonably likable, but his addiction to powder made him irritating at times, as did his attitude toward his ex-fiance. My favorite character ended up being the cook who claimed to be a god, but he was only in portions of the story.

The concept of the novel was interesting and unique, as was the magic and the lore. But events unfolded slowly up until the end, when we were left with a cliffhanger that felt incredibly anticlimactic. On top of that, the initial investigation that Tamas sets up with the character Adamat seems to come to a close early and without much being revealed. I was a little confused about that plotline to be honest, as it just didn’t seem to go anywhere.

Actually, a lot of things seemed not to go anywhere. . . .

Overall, not a bad story, but clearly not for me. I would wish good luck to whomever else decides to read it, but I probably won’t be reading the sequel.

THE RED TREE by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Genre: Horror/Psychological thriller

Liked it?: Nope

Thoughts: This is another book that I had expected to like based on the review of another blogger. That said, this isn’t a blogger whose blog I remember at the moment, which means it wasn’t one I normally visit. As a result, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that it turns out my opinion of the book is diametrically opposed to his (or hers . . . oh, gender assumptions).

I went into this book anticipating some kind of psychological thriller, and I suppose it was that, but the plot was so abstracted that I lost interest less than halfway through. We’re presented with a narrator who is unreliable in every way, a very strange problem in the form a tree that appears to be malevolent, and a secondary character who is so vapid and annoying that I can’t even describe her. The book is written as a series of excerpts from a journal that the narrator typed on an old typewriter rather than writing the novel she had contracted with her publisher. In general, it’s long and plodding, and gets progressively stranger, without ever getting to a point.

Most reviewers of this book point at the writing and the atmospheric language as part of the reason why they think this book is brilliant. I have no problem with that. The writing was good, and it did get atmospheric at times. But the lack of plot left me utterly bored, and I got tired of reading Sarah Crowe’s ramblings chapter after chapter. Moreover, toward the end, her bizarre visions and dreams frequently feature her roommate at the cottage, and since I couldn’t stand the woman, my attention was less than rapt.

That said, the book had some good moments. Kiernan has an eye for painting scenes that I appreciate. I just wish those scenes had become a whole that I could appreciate as well.

I doubt I’ll be searching out any more of this author’s work for the time being.

20TH CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill

Genre: Horror

Liked it?: Generally.

Thoughts: As usual, short story anthologies are hit and miss with me. And, in general, the horror genre is one that frequently goes over my head, as my experience with The Red Tree will demonstrate. As such, I didn’t like this collection as much as the person who recommended it to me (a friendly Barnes and Noble sales associate who said this book was his absolute favorite of all time), but I didn’t hate it, either. There were a couple of stories that I liked very much, and I would definitely recommend that fans of the horror genre give this collection a try.

Of my favorite stories, “Abraham’s Boys” is at the top of my list, no question. I doubt every other reader would agree, simply because I tend to like the least popular thing in a list. That’s just how I roll. But there were several other stories with strange and unsettling appeal, including “My Father’s Mask,” “The Black Phone,” “Best New Horror,” and “Voluntary Committal.”

One of the things that I notice about Joe Hill, based mostly on this collection and on his novel NOS4A2, which I read (or rather, listened to via audiobook) last year, is that his writing seems to focus a lot on one of two things: children or sports. If you can point out one story in this collection that does not contain either children or sports, I’ll give you a virtual dollar.

These two subjects happen to be on my top five list of things I don’t really care about, right under politics and religion, and right above . . . I don’t know . . . people who don’t like the original Star Trek. That said, I enjoyed at least half the stories in this book, and that’s doing really well for a genre that frequently strikes me as abstract (but which I still keep reading).

Overall, a good collection. Definitely for horror fans, though there are fewer actual ghosts in the stories than I would have liked.

THE UNHOLY CAUSE (Supernatural #5) by Joe Schreiber

Genre: Horror/TV-tie-in

Liked it?: Honestly, if all TV-tie-ins were as good as this one, I’d waste a lot less money.

Thoughts: So, around September or October—right after reading the Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman because, let’s face it, I was in an urban fantasy mode—I got heavily into Supernatural. By which I mean I marathoned all the seasons in about two weeks or so, caught up to the current season, and have been waiting for the show to recover from the abyss that was season seven, but to no avail. Following that, I was beset by a desperate need to have more adventures with those darn Winchesters, thus the tie-ins.

The Unholy Cause features a Civil War reenactment as a backdrop, an awesome lady sheriff named Jack, two seconds of Castiel, Judas Escariot, and a train. Because how is this collection of awesome not awesome?

I can say with complete honesty that this Supernatural adventure was loads of fun, had a reasonably good plot, and a writing style that was engaging and not particularly campy. I give props to Joe Schreiber. Rarely do I enjoy a TV-tie-in where the writer doesn’t make the characters into caricatures of themselves, with silly dialogue and such. I think Schreiber got it right, and reading this addition to the canon left me thoroughly entertained.

CARVED IN FLESH (Supernatural #12) by Tim Waggoner

Genre: Horror/TV-tie-in

Liked it?: Meh. It was okay.

Thoughts: In this book, the Winchesters go up against a death goddess and a few Frankenstein monsters—typical fare for these boys—but with a Reaper thrown into the mix (and I almost just called him a Shinigami, which is an indication that I’ve seen too much Bleach).

Interesting as that sounds, this addition to the Supernatural franchise was, unfortunately, just the opposite of The Unholy Cause. Predictable and a bit campy, I had to force myself through the non-Winchester chapters because I found the other characters boring and painful to read on their own. But when the Winchesters were around, the dialogue was a little over the top, and the characters behaved like exaggerated versions of themselves. Moreover, I found the ending not very believable for various reasons, even though being a Supernatural fan is already an exercise in extreme suspension of disbelief.

This is all well and good for a tie-in, but after The Unholy Cause, my bar was set too high.

Overall, I’d say it was decent enough if you’re into reading the entire canon, but it’s not going to be your favorite. Seriously, the Reaper was the best part, and he was barely in it.

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Genre: Science Fiction

Liked it?: Yes.

Thoughts: I just had to delete several paragraphs where I went on a tirade about how Hollywood can’t ever seem to cast Asians in any Asian literature movie adaptations and how they always remake Asian movies so there aren’t actually any Asians in them. And then that led to how Asian actors are always cast in peripheral roles, like the comical sidekick or the savvy but otherwise awkward person, in any movie that isn’t a martial arts film. Because apparently you can’t have an Asian lead if it’s not a martial arts film, because then all the viewers will be confused and wonder what they’re doing in this movie that was falsely advertised to them as being something for Americans to watch. What foolish mismanagement!

But I digress.

So ignoring the fact that one of my least favorite actors (read: Tom Cruise) is playing the lead in the film adaptation, let’s talk about the actual book.

Initially I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy this story because, a few pages in, I realized that the plot revolved around a time loop. Time loops are one of my least favorite—and I mean absolutely least favorite—science fiction tropes. The irony of this was not lost on me when I realized what I was reading. That said, I really enjoyed this book, because after Keiji’s initial shock at what’s happening to him, we didn’t have to suffer through any exact replicas of the same day (not at all like that one episode of The Next Generation).

Early in the story, Keiji isn’t the most likeable or interesting character, but as he grows and changes, he becomes much more intriguing. Additionally, I enjoyed Rita Vrataski immensely. She was a lovely combination of tough and soft that I found really appealing in a character, and as the only two people who understand what’s going on, her relationship with Keiji becomes one of specially shared knowledge as well as mutual respect.

Whether or not you like the writing style in this story is probably going to depend on how well you receive translated books. It’s a constant frustration of mine that I can’t read any of the foreign fiction I like in its native language(s), because I feel certain that it would add to the experience. Unfortunately, I’m not a language whiz, and am relegated to English, mediocre Spanish and poor Japanese. Alas, I’ve gotten used to translated material, so what other readers have described as “harsh language” didn’t really bother me at all. It was, perhaps, dry in spots, but I’ve seen much worse. And the places where the writing is good, it’s really good.

So there you are. And despite my earlier diatribe, I am going to see Edge of Tomorrow, mostly because I don’t dislike Emily Blunt, and also because I’m hoping beyond hope that it’s a good film despite my reservations.

~

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