Saturday, December 31, 2016

[Book Review] The Emperor's Soul

The Emperor's Soul / Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul is a novella about a thief and a Forger, her last operation betrayed, now awaiting execution for her crimes.  Then instead she is offered the challenge of a lifetime, re-Forge the Emperor's soul, re-imbuing cognizant life into the damaged vessel of the Emperor's body.  A challenge beyond most Masters, even with the proper time and equipment, Shai must complete her project in an impossible amount of time and figure out how to escape before her use to those otherwise in power comes to an end.

I went into reading this with no knowledge or familiarity with Sanderson's Elantris.  I obtained a copy several years ago through an ebook bundle (either via Humble Bundle or StoryBundle), but never got around to reading it.  I was finally prompted to read it when a friend recommended it as a book club pick, so I slotted it in as a short end of year read.  I'm going to assume that were I familiar with the larger world setting there would be little details I'd notice in connection, but The Emperor's Soul stands out as its own story.  Definitely worth reading, and a good pick for the often chaotic end of the year.

Discussion Fodder
  • What are the connections between soul and creation in this book?  Between art and Forging?
  • What is the role of history in the present?
  • There are several types of practicioners, Forgers, Bloodsealers, Remembers.  How do they differ, how are they similar?  Is a Forger "an artist who painted with human perception"?
  • Who does a work of art belong to?  Who has the right to destroy it?
  • Shai refuses to give a backdoor to controlling the Emperor, but changes him on her own.  Did she do the right thing, regardless of the intent and outcome?
  • Have you read anything else in the world setting by Sanderson?  How does this fit in, how does it differ?  If you haven't, do you think you will?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 6

The arrival of the Rohirrim does change the tide of battle, but in more ways then simply changing the numbers the army besieging Gondor faces.  Things get a little metaphysical here.  "The darkness was breaking too soon, before the date that his Master had set for it."  Read that again, think about what it might imply that the darkness was breaking "too soon" before the planned date.

Villains don't necessarily think of themselves as evil or opposing good.  Opposing the status quo or the reigning power,yes, but that doesn't mean they're trying to make the world a worse place.  Sauron is the Opposition, but much of what fostered this rebellion was resentment and frustration.  The orcs themselves were born out of an attempt to re-create the elves.  Some of the armies flocking to Sauron's banner are doing so out of feelings of alienation and isolation.

For all that this chapter is prose, it reads like a battle lay as Theoden leads his Rohirrim into battle against the armies of Mordor.  Whole sentences that would not be out of place in verse.  Just read the first few paragraphs and imagine someone reading this as if giving theatrical oration.

And of course we get Eowyn's feminist moment.  Yeah, LotR is a bit of a brofest, with about as many named female characters as I can count on one hand, but Eowyn, when she's not being needlessly saddled with a romance plotline, stands out proud.  We've been seeing it throughout the chapters, where she nails the feminine mystique.  Now she laughs in the face of the Lord of the Nazgul, standing between him and the armies of her land, striking doubt into Sauron's right hand.

It is perhaps the King's role to die for the land, and for the type of heroic narrative arc, Aragorn doesn't suit for the sacrifice.  Perhaps since he is uncrowned his sacrifice is to live.  And I guess it falls to the hobbits to save the day in small and often unintentionally overlooked ways.

The second favorable turn of battle comes from a unlooked for source.  Not the Corsairs of Umbar arriving signaling the fall of strongholds and the influx of troops against Gondor, but instead allies thought lost to the Paths of the Dead.

Visually, we get grandeur in this scene.  One of the stories from the 'behind the scenes' of this movie is the discussion of the flail the Witch King wields.

It's not exactly a realistic battle, but it is a heroic cinema battle none the less.  Fantasy films (ok, most films) rarely give us realism in pitched battle... but then that's not really what they're trying to sell us.  The overall battle progress is more broken up as well, giving us the field, our friends within the walls of Gondor, and the Dead Army all intercut.  Eowyn is less heroic and defiant throughout her face off, more scared but determined until the moment she takes off her helm, but then this isn't the first time I've knocked the films for lessening Eowyn's power (nor the first time I've knocked them for the ways in which they've decided to highlight the few women visible).

As a teen, I thought the counting of kills hilarious.  As an adult it feels more like a trick to keep momentum and engagement.  More powerful to me than the battle is the aftermath.  Gandalf stepping through the fallen, Aragorn releasing the Dead, Pippin finding Merry.

Friday, December 23, 2016

[Book Review] The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen / Joan D. Vinge

The Snow Queen reinvents the well-known fairy tale into a far flung future, combing elements of science fiction and fantasy together into a textured space opera.

For nearly 150 years Winter has ruled over the planet of Tiamat, a world in a solar system with two suns which revolve around a black hole.  During Winter the planet is accessible to interstellar travel via a black hole gate, but during Summer the system's orbit isolates Tiamat from other planets and the Hegemony that rules them.  As the last years of Winter wane, the Winter Queen sets plans in motions to retain the throne and power through the transition, even at the expense of genocide.

I discovered The Snow Queen through Women in Science Fiction, with Vinge as one of the many incredible female SF authors who's been unfortunately forgotten.  It's a 1981 Hugo Winner with a whole lot going on in it.  I put in as the November Virtual Speculation pick based on that stumbled upon review and I'm really I discovered it.

Discussion Fodder
  • From the very start of the story the split in myths and technology is present.  Moon is upset by the 'unthinking arrogance that came into his voice' when Sparks gives explanations that she knows in response to her enjoying a myth.  What other ways are the two systems at odds, and are there ways they are in-sync?
  • Traditionally sibyls were oracles.  How does that apply to the sibyls in this universe?
  • How are the different civilizations similar or different?  What traits about them stand out to you the most?  How feasible do the planet-wide civilizations seem (over say country or continent wide civilizations)?
  • The Snow Queen is a retelling of a story of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson.  What do you think of this reworking?  Where does it succeed, where does it fail, what reminds you of the original, what is missing?
  • Sparks changes over the course of the book.  How much of that do you think was directly due to Arienrhod and how much do you think was there all along? 
  • What are the mers?  What do you imagine them to look like?  What is their role?
  • How does the story address racism, sexism, and issues of tribalism and alienation?
  • What symbolism can you find behind the names used in the story?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Coming up for the new year: Romance Bingo

Not sure how many of these I will hit since it's genre rooted, but I do read a fair amount of romance (or close enough to romance) mixed into my regular reading.  Also, Jan is my month off from Virtual Speculation.  Romance Bingo 2017 is run by Obsidian Blue and Moonlight Murder over on Booklikes.

Regardless of how much I complete, I'm loving the categories.

Now to decide if I should hold off on a few books for 10 days!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

[Book Review] The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action

The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action / Kieron Gillen, Matthew Wilson, Jamie McKelvie

When I reviewed the Book One hardcover edition (volumes 1-3) I commented that "After the Persephone incident I'm not sure where the story will go, who the story will gravitate around the most.  And there is so much more to tell in this story."

Well... let's just say there was more than shown in the aforementioned "Persephone incident."

Everything has gone to chaos.

Laura, or at least Persephone, is still alive.

Baphomet is being framed for a rash of highly visible death and destruction among civillians and dieties, and Anenke is playing her own game, steering events to a specific fate while feeding her own version of events to those under her influence.

I previously said of the series that:
The Wicked + The Divine is a vibrant and engaging rock and roll journey through dreams, aspirations, lust, murder, and celebrity. Whether you believe they are gods or not, whether they actually perform miracles, they burn hard and bright and the world cannot take their eyes off them.
If before now the story was rock and roll, in Volume 4 it goes into heavy metal.  The stakes are higher, lines drawn, and the Destroyer lives.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Image Comics in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 5

A short post for a short chapter.

Prolonged rides into battle are no fun, and for Merry it is perhaps harder than for most.  Those that know who he is know of his affiliation with the King, which sets him apart.  Those that don't are likely to overlook him if they notice him at best, and his best-friend is besieged in a city. 

To some extent the Wild Men remind me of the elves.  The have not the imbued light that burns away the dark, nor the long lives, but they share a desire to exist in the woods separate from the wider world of men.  They give aid, but almost reluctantly, even though the outcome of this war could mean their end.

While riding an entire army to another country takes time, this chapter is particularly short, and is basically non-existent in the film.  Chapter 5 takes us to the point where Chapter 4 ended, with the Rohirrim coming to the aid of Gondor, bringing two of the split story arcs generally back together.  Jackson goes largely counter to Tolkien's representation of the Wild Men, if we get them at all.  We possibly get them as raiders and frustrated antagonists, provoked and set against Rohan by Saruman back in the last film.  Which stands a bit starkly opposed to a culture of men who not only want nothing to do with the war, but show the Rohirrim a major shortcut so the bothersome Orcs can be eliminated.  The only actual presence of this chapter shows up as the Rohirrim line up and then charge into battle, and that is done with more pomp and circumstance than written.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

[Book Review] I Love You Subject to the Following Terms and Conditions

I Love You Subject to the Following Terms and Conditions (Contract Killers #1) / Erin Lyon
In a world where marriage doesn’t exist—only seven-year contracts—you don’t marry, you sign. You don’t divorce, you breach. And sometimes, you just expire.
Kate is struggling to find her footing. She gave up a career she hated to pursue the law, and now she’s buried in debt and unemployed. At least she’s signed to an amazing guy—hot, sweet, and committed. 
Enter the contract killer, the man who pursues only signed women. No commitment, no hassle, all the fun. But Kate has enough fun on her plate… until her partner doesn’t re-up their contract. 
After an epic but well-deserved meltdown, Kate gets practical. She accepts a job with her uncle’s law firm, practicing signing law—the one type of law she swore she’d never do. And the contract killer? Now that Kate is single, she’s no longer his type, but he still wants to be friends. Yeah, that’ll work. Kate may be heartbroken, but she’s not impervious to this sexy, smart, and complex man. But hey, it looks like he may not be impervious to her either—signed or not. 
With biting wit and charm, I Love You Subject to the Following Terms and Conditions is hilariously relatable, for the millennial set.

I have a confession to make. I totally didn't realize what this book was when I requested it. I saw Macmillian Tor/Forge listed as the publisher, read the description, and got in my head some sort of Science Fiction assassin/romance plot line going on in my head. After all, I strongly associate Tor with a number of amazing SF/F authors.

This book did not involve science fiction nor assassins. I'd be upset, except it was honestly a well written romance novel without falling into many of the genre traps that make me want to beat my head against the wall. In fact, the book calls out various types of behavior as highly inappropriate! The main love plot line was predictable, not just because the book blurb tells you they're not so impervious to each other's charms as they'd like to think. But the characters were relatable, and the Contract Killers, for all their flaws, don't dive into full-on Pick-Up Artist territory.

The actual gripe I have with this book is that I feel this love story could have been told in a single book instead of ending at a dramatic social break. A little trimming here and there, maybe one or two fewer potential suitors (if I'm reading things correction, there are one or two flagged for the next book), and we'd have a tighter story that maybe could be told in a single book.

Definitely a fun read, and I plan on reading the next installment.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Macmillian Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 4

What the last chapter foreshadowed, this chapter brings to the door.  Literally in one case.

With the movies in mind, it's easy to forget earlier observations that Merry and Pippin are actually quite observant of the world around them.  Not that I don't love Dominick and Billy in those roles, but they are shown on screen as more immature characters that grow into adults as the story goes.  The growth happens here in the book too... but they start as inquisitive and relatively world-aware (for hobbits) and grow into something else.  For all that he is new to the environment, Pippin's intuitive reading and awareness of the situation is incredibly well tuned.

This also makes one of the few times we see Gandalf overtly use magic.  Very little of the magic we see in Middle Earth is overt, rather it tends to be an aspect of innate or imbued nature.  The elves by and large are not 'magical' but rather in Middle Earth creatures of Good and Light bear that as a force in itself.  Most of the veneration goes to their wisdom and its applications.  It's only a few individuals that stand out as workers of the arcane, and often that results in fears and rumors.

The meeting between Denethor and Faramir is gut churning, tainted with Denethor's anguish, suspicion, and anger.  I can't help but see the source of Boromir's character flaws in Denethor's attitude and mannerisms.  Thank the powers that be that the Ring never came near Denethor, I don't think he would have held out nearly as well as Boromir against it's influence.  I also cannot help but see a reflection of anti-intellectualism movements in Denethor's disgust at Faramir's manner, "your desire to apear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle."  As if Faramir's desire to be a good person is a character flaw.  Part of me wants to credit Denethor's near rejection of Faramir as a symptom of grief, but that he sends his remaining son to expected death makes it hard for me to give that credit and instead reflect on what must be broken beyond grief inside this man.  What ever was previously broken broke further when Faramir came back mortally wounded.

The only light in this chapter is the help come in the eleventh hour, the arrival of the Rohirrim.

For various reasons, and quite possibly to the benefit of the film, much of this chapter has been trimmed down.  Largely trivial details are worked in casually elsewhere (such as the arming of Pippin), while the emotional moments such as Gandalf telling Faramir "Your father loves you, Faramir, and will remember it ere the end" resound strongly.  Similarly rearranging when Pippin is asked about singing to after Faramir goes on a suicide mission and adding his singing over a mix of images of Faramir riding to battle and Denethor eating is beautifully done.  On a larger view, these scenes are intercut with the mustering of Rohan as the chapters are in the book, albeit with slightly different ordering.  Jackson has a far different type of narrative momentum going at this point.

In some ways I prefer the grief-filled madness of Denethor that Jackson portrays, no matter how horrible and misguided it manifests, with the exception of it turning into a comedic moment with Gandalf beating him down with his staff (also, a staff to the face like that would cause a bloody nose at least).  I'm sold on the emotions he presents on the screen.  Seeing the funerary preperations however makes me wonder that no one registers Faramir's continued life except Pippin.  Even with nigh undetectable breath, dead bodies do not fever or sweat.

Comedy may ultimately be necessary to keep the audience engaged for a film (trilogy) on the scale as this, but much of its excecution serves to shift much away from the darkness of the narrative into heroics and adventure.  Rereading this what stands out so much to me is how dark and hopeless things are for all of the involved parties.  I want to feel the hope and relief, worry that reinforcements will not arrive in time, not giggle or chortle when the heroes step in.  Much of this comes I'm guessing is part of a 'family-friendly' approach, and dramatic violence kept clean often teeters into slapstick.  However the visuals, my complaint about narrative interpretation aside, are done beautifully.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 3

"Now all roads were running together to the East to met the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow."

I don't know about you, but for some reason that opening sentence hits me as incredibly strong.  This is what everything before now has come to.  To me this chapter is about the scale of war, the mass of lives it touches, the gestalt it takes to confront it, and the loneliness of facing it.  We're not even at battle and the scale is overwhelming.

Theoden tells Merry that no matter now stout his heart, there is not a place for him to ride into battle with the Rohirrim.  But I think Tolkien also throughout this book means to say that battle is no place for anyone.  It is something that must be met, but is not an occasion for joy or celebration but of duty and protection.

In the film this chapter is mixed in within the previous chapter almost as a footnote, the muster ongoing when Elrond shows up to point Aragorn at a different path. 

Of course I know the nature of Dernhelm and the film doesn't to much to hide who it truely is, but the film also significantly works to build the relationship between Eowyn and Merry.  Of course as I commented on last week, I'm all about Eowyn's retorts to someone belonging on the field or not.  Eowyn is a woman who'd totally get what Betty Friedan wrote about and was standing for none of the shit being thrown at her, but in the way most women have learned to cope, by smiling and nodding, then coming at the problem from a side angle and doing what needs to be done.  There's so much awesome to Eowyn I really wish Jackson had chosen to downplay the romance aspect rather than heighten it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Happy Crying

I went into work today to find an email that included the following:

I am in the process of planning a Diversity Summit, hopefully for next April. My first undertaking is to put together a task force to help plan the summit. I really enjoyed your presentation at NELA.

I was wondering if you would like to be on the task force?
When I recovered enough to do more than make incoherent noises, I obviously accepted.  Then I basically spent the day at work trying not to happy cry.

I was recently asked how I got into disability representation as a focused area of interest.  The short answer, personal battles with mental health aside, is my mom.  I think I've talked about this a little bit before on my blog.  Honestly, I'll probably talk about this in the future again as well.

My mom suffered from bi-lateral neuritis and carpal tunnel in both arms, with a very severe flare up when I was little.  Actual timing is fuzzy due to my very young age, but I can remember a before and an after, when her health stopped her from taking part in activities she enjoyed.  For those unfamiliar with neuritis, it is an inflammation of the nerves causing severe pain and in this case loss of function.  As the neuritis progressed the burning pain would fade from her finger tips up her arms as the nerve endings burned out.  Ultimately she was left with nearly no feeling in her hands through her forearms, with feeling gradually increasing up her arms and deeper within her arms.

Nerve damage, unlike what movies like to portray, does not simply mean you cannot feel sensations, but has accompanying loss of motor function.  I remember being the one to open all of her medication bottles, her beta-testing Dragon Dictate and trying out new adaptive gadgets.  I used to massage her arms while she read me bed time stories to help with the deep ache in limbs that had no surface feeling.

Now she was a single mother with significantly limited use of her hands and a significant illness caused employment gap... which meant no one wanted to hire her.  So she went and got her Masters and started working as a disability rights advocate.  Home conversations often swung towards human rights, ethics, assistive technology, and other topics as they related to her work.  I can't imagine access and accessibility not being important to me.

Last year I was given the opportunity to moderate a panel on disability in SF/F at Arisia.  Apparently I needed a kick in the pants to actually do something (whoever submitted the panel idea, thank you), but it also turned out I had a whole lot bouncing around in my head relating to the topic.  Since Arisia 2016, I've presented at two professional conferences, applied for a grant to create a resource highlighting disability representation in fiction (postive, negative, and in-between), will be moderating a panel again this January on disability in SF/F at Arisia, and will be presenting at another professional conference in the spring.

This diversity summit is clearly not just about disability, but it is including it, and it means so much to me that the noise I've been making has helped raise awareness and consideration.  So I'm incredibly happy at this invitation and more than getting the opportunity to present at a conference, I feel like I've achieved something.  And maybe the tears aren't completely happy, because I can't tell the person who's really the whole inspiration, but she'd be excited and proud, and I have to admit, so am I.