Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Cordelia's Honor" by Lois McMaster Bujold

Hello again, everyone! Ready for book review number two? I promise I won't keep an obsessive count of all of these. Who would want to get three years into this and hear, "Ready for book review number three-hundred and fifty six?" Indeed. We'd all be tired of it by then.

I have recently just finished "Cordelia's Honor" by Lois McMaster Bujold, one anthology of many in The Vorkosigan series. It is comprised of two parts: "Shards of Honor" and "Barrayar", neatly and smoothly packaged up into one thick book. I was first introduced to these books by a friend and have been ravenous ever since. Though the anthology reaches 590 pages, this isn't a book that will take you three months to read. I think it took me about a week on top of all my other class work. It is one of those books that caught me thinking "Oh, I'll go to bed early tonight, I have a test tomorrow, yes, I'll be good and sleep.....but....I'm almost done....maybe just a little bit...."

And nearing one in the morning I realize that my eyes are crossing and I have to put the book down. Yes, people. One of *those* books! Sleep is for the weak in the face of this novel!!

This anthology is technically a science fiction novel (I know I know, I'm supposed to be reviewing *fantasy*). But, my friends, this is a book that even the most anti-science fiction among you will enjoy! Unlike some Asimov and Clark, you won't feel like you have to peel apart your brain in order to wrap it around some of the deeper physics of space travel and laser refraction, which has its own inherent attraction for those of us who like that sort of thing. In any case, for those of you who are straight up fantasy buffs, you simply have to try these books.

Following the family Vorkosigan and the inhabitants of the planet Barrayar, the novels are located in a post-colonization, space-travel era. Earth has long ago sent out its scientists and colonies, and interstellar travel as well as worm hole jumping is the main means of transportation between planets. Barrayar is one such planet, but here is where some of the fantastical humors come from. The society and customs of Barrayar are set back into a twist of futurism and an Earth-like Middle Ages. Due to a collapse of the worm hole that led the colonies to Barrayar, the planet experienced a Time of Isolation where they were forced, literally, to start from scratch, cut off from all the other planets in the systems-- Beta Colony, Cetaganda, Jackson's Whole, Athos, Escobar, among many others in between.

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most brilliant writers I have come upon in a long, long time. Her characterization and construction of identity, down to the last tidbit and hormone, is so incredibly flawless that you don't even realize she's doing it until you've become so incredibly invested, attached, and related to her characters that you literally can't put the book down. There is a beautiful flavor to her books-- you might hear me talk about books being like food often. A good, hard science fiction novel is for me like a rich, chocolate torte: decadent, but only truly enjoyable in small portions at a time. A really good fantasy is like a fragrant, full-bodied tea. And these books from Barrayar are very much like a savory, saucy meal...add in whatever sounds incredibly appetizing there, whether it be eggplant or tender chicken or both. And imagine you're starving. And imagine it's your birthday. And you just won a million dollars. Am I getting ridiculous yet? Good.

I have read one other anthology in the series, "Young Miles" which comes after "Cordelia's Honor". It doesn't matter what order you read these two in, I've found, but I really enjoyed reading "Young Miles" before its prelude. There are some delightful links between the two that I think are even more voraciously appreciated when the light bulb comes on after the fact. But by far, "Cordelia's Honor" is even better than the book that comes after it. Every page in this book is seeped with emotional power, whether it be charming warmth from the perfectly bizarre Lady and Lord Vorkosigan or hysterical misunderstanding between other lovers in the tale...or fierce, heart-wrenching fury, pain, action, and retribution. There is not a single main character in this book that is not either well-loved or well-hated by the end, but don't worry, there are plenty of side character to take the strain off your emotional well-being.

And each one of them is incredibly believable. Not one of the heroes is that overly perfect knight in shining armor, and the villains in their blackness are still incredibly human. Some people have mixed feelings about mixed characters, and in these books there is one who jumps to mind that may cause confusion: Sergeant Bothari. How you interpret his being is entirely up to each individual reader, but this strange character has got to be one of the tenderest, most thoughtful, ruthless madmen I have ever had the extreme pleasure to read about. See? You're interested already!! I'd go to a bookstore or check out about now if I were you.

I literally have nothing bad to say about this book. I only wish I could tell you more, but I dare not give away even one ounce of delicious plot. The length of each segment is neither too long nor too short, there are no page after page-long battle scenes with yawn-worthy descriptions of how metal twisted this or that way-- in fact they're realistically short. Death comes in an instant, and Bujold does a masterful job of describing a full battle in as much time as it would actually take while still packing in enough description and emotion to make it realistic. The characters are brilliantly sketched and fleshed out, each one hooking you deeper and deeper into the tale, and every word is a bead of water to thirsting lips.

I cannot wait to get my hands on another one of these anthologies. The next to come include "Miles, Mystery & Mayhem", "Miles Errant", "Miles, Mutants & Microbes", and "Miles in Love". As you can probably guess, the majority of these stories center around the being of Miles. Who is Miles?'ll just have to read and find out, now won't you?

Until next time, and next book. I believe on the horizon looms...vampires! And no, we're not talking Twilight here. Sheesh...


Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Memoriam

It was a very sad thing when I read that on February 5th, 2011, renowned author and storyteller Brian Jacques passed away. Upon reading the news, there were really no words. None whatsoever.

Brian Jacques has always been able to endear his readers, young and old, with his heroic, comical, and sinister characters. His baddies are bad, his victors are real, his descriptions vivid and textured. The red stones of the Abbey were something I imagined I could feel under my fingers, the great depths of Mossflower Wood a haven I often found myself wandering through, the vast oceans and plains and the great Badger Lords' mountain, Salamandastron, all new worlds that wide-eyes were never tired of looking upon. I cried when the heroes died, even when some of the more tragic villains died, like Veil. I bit my lips and cringed when the villains got too close to the heroes, or when they overcame them, and I bounced up and down in delight whenever the good guys triumphed. And who didn't drool whenever there was a great Redwall feast held? I wanted to eat Deeper'n'Ever Turnip'n'Tater'n'Beetroot Pie, strawberry fizz, Hot Root Soup, breads, cheeses, Skilly and Duff, scones, turnovers, Meadowcream, crystalized fruits, tarts, puddings, muffins, cordial, oat cakes...the list goes on and on, and even though I don't like some of the things in real life that were mentioned, I wanted to try them all nonetheless!

I first picked up a Jacques novel when I was in elementary school. Having exhausted the books at home-- including my father's massive, leather-bound "Complete Works of Jack London", which all of the other students thought I was mad to be lugging around, much less reading-- I was slowly working my way through my school library, from The Unicorn Chronicles to The Bobbsey Twins to The Arkadians to anything else that I could put my hands on (except, of course, for the huge, green-bound novel that I initially came upon in excitement at its size only to turn away in disdain when I discovered it was about baseball...) Finally I found the 'J' section, to the right of the entrance, at the very bottom, and there were the Redwall books. Not all of them, mind you, but some of the first few, including Redwall, Mariel of Redwall, Mattimeo, Mossflower, Marlfox, and The Legend of Luke. I don't remember which one I read first, but it didn't matter. I was hooked from there on out and began pouring through them, purchasing the books whenever I had the money or whenever a new novel was released.

I liked Mattimeo and The Legend of Luke extremely well, but Taggerung was always my favorite. I got the book just about as soon as it came out: sleek, hardcover, with its gorgeous cover art of Tag in full villainous splendor wielding his knife in the river. I don't know why, exactly, but the strange tragedy and power behind the story captivated me like none had yet. And the main character being an otter was even greater cause for my cheer-- the otters were always my favorite, other than the squirrels and the hares and the foxes.What makes this book so special to me even today, however, is a certain signature on the inside cover.

I don't even remember when-- if I was still in middle school or already in high school at the time-- but at one point before I moved up to Atlanta, Brian Jacques himself came to my little home town of Peachtree City and held a signing and storytelling at the local Books-A-Million. He had such a big, vivid personality, even while being so gentle, and his stories were hysterical and free-flowing. I remember he told us a childhood tale of his own when he and a friend sneaked a cat (and themselves) into a movie theater, only to have the cat go berserk in the middle of the film, revealing their hidden presence. Then we all stood and went in line for him to sign our books with a flourish and a cheerful joke that at the beginning of the day he had nine-dinitis, and at the end of the day he'd have eleven-dinitis (instead of tendinitis, you know? Get it, get it?) I remember he commented on the fact that my book already had a name signed in it-- I was still at that point in my life in the habit of writing my name at the top of all the inside covers of my books, seeing as how I lent them out so often and was adamant that I get them back. And even though I only met him once, he left a big impression on me.

Brian Jacques' books will always be a treasure to whoever read them. Their magic and marvel will be something that I will share with young people I know until I am no longer around, and if I have children, I will pass down my own, well-worn novels for them to enjoy. I was recently inspired to revamp my collection, to fill in the spots that were books my sister had and I did not, and to buy all the newer volumes that I never purchased or read since my interests turned around the time of Triss. It is definitely on my list of in-process to-dos, and I look forward to reading High Rhulain, the first 'new' book to come into my possession since beginning that project.

Rest in peace, Brian Jacques. You'll be sorely missed. But your voice and your lands and your stories will resonate long, long into the ages. Thank you for that.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"The Bards of Bone Plain" by Patricia A. McKillip

Hello everyone! Ready for the first book review?

So...Patrica A. McKillilp is an acclaimed author of fantasy stories large and small. She's a World Fantasy Award winner and a pure chef with words. Try reading any of her books-- you can literally taste the vocabulary! (And no, it's not the same as tasting the rainbow, so put those Skittles down.) By far my favorite in her collection is "Winter Rose", a slender novel that I read every year. If you hate winter and spend the frigid season's days bemoaning the distance of spring, this is definitely a book you will enjoy. McKillip's descriptions of early spring's frothy scents, heady summer's plum storms, and darkest winter's stabbing cold are about as beautiful and accurate as you can get, filling every paragraph with such unique turns of phrase and uses of detail that I sigh with envy every time I read it. The main heroine roams the woods night and day, collecting whatever forest delicacies catch her fancy; but one day she stumbles across an open woodland doorway that she thought was closed. And someone has already come through. It's a riveting story that drags the breath and heart out of you-- a must read for any lover of fantasy. Besides, the heroine goes just about everywhere during the warm seasons in what I consider to be the best possible manner: barefoot.

Enough said.

Anyway. I have recently finished reading McKillip's newest book, "The Bards of Bone Plain." The Las Vegas Review-Journal describes it with: "McKillip creates a wonderful world...magical yet realistic, as if a door in any house could take readers into another realm created from the very best of their imaginations." The story follows a few different characters across many different realms of time and space, but the main focus remains with the young bard Phelan who is finishing up his studies at the ancient school on the hill for music. To graduate, every young bard must write a final paper. (The story of our scholarly lives, isn't it? Woe to us!) Attempting to find a topic that will be easy and short, Phelan chooses to research the mysterious legend of Bone Plain-- a magical series of trials that, should a bard attempt them, offer intense reward beyond all imagination...and crippling punishment beyond all nightmares. Along the way he will discover more about the Unforgiven bard Nairn-- one who attempted the trials and failed all three-- than he had ever imagined possible upon the beginning of his research. He will also tread on the truth in music beyond what he sees as notes and lyrics on a page-- what some students call passion and others label 'magic'.

Of course I won't tell you the ending. What would be the fun in that?

The story is surprising until the very end. If you're like me and can usually see a twist coming in a story from a mile away unless it is completely and utterly unhinted at, you might be able to tell a few things towards the middle. But don't worry-- you won't figure anything out at the very beginning unless you're either ridiculously brilliant or psychic. The characters are well developed and intriguing, some likable, some not. This is an odd novel in particular because, while I came away liking some of the heroes and definitely disliking the villains, I remained rather indifferent to our friend Phelan at the close. I think that in this case the indifference I felt was intentional, as Phelan's personality seemed to hint at that reception throughout the book. However I don't quite agree with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The Bards of Bone Plain" did not transport me or rivet me as some of McKillip's other books, such as "Winter Rose" and "Ombria in Shadow," did.

If you're wanting to read a book by McKillip, I would not suggest this as the first with which to whet your appetite. I found "The Bards of Bone Plain" to be an intriguing story but a bit weary in its layout and style. McKillip allowed herself to fall into personal cliches (remember, we'll talk about these more in depth later!), not only from her previous books but also within the pages of this particular story. Her description can be a double edged sword-- it's so brilliant that you never forget her more interesting combinations of adjective and noun, and as such every time she uses the same variables over and over again they are not missed. I thought if I read her describe music as 'melting her/his heart' one more time I might just scream; same with the notes resonating into the characters' bones. Unfortunately in some of her less brilliant stories McKillilp is prone to this quite a bit, and I found much of her descriptions over used and overly sappy in this particular tale. And while I love McKillip's stories and writing style, the plot of this novel did not engage me enough to probably add this to my re-read list.

Other books by McKillip include "The Book of Atrix Wolfe," "Ombria in Shadow," "Od Magic," "The Bell at Sealey Head," and the Riddle Master trilogy, among many others. In that list I can personally vouch for "Ombria in Shadow" and "Od Magic" as being good reads with "Ombria in Shadow" ranking a little higher in quality of story, character, and flow than "Od Magic."

That's all for now! Here's hoping to an early spring this year! *brrr!*