Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Published: Tor, 2000
Series: Book 6 of the Saga of the Skolian Empire
Awards Won: Nebula

The Book:

Kamoj Argali is the young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet. To keep her people from starving, she has agreed to marry Jax Ironbridge, the boorish and brutal ruler of a prosperous province. But before Argali and Ironbridge are wed, a mysterious stranger from a distant planet sweeps in and forces Kamoj into marriage, throwing her world into utter chaos.” –

I read the first novel of this series, Primary Inversion, about fifteen or so years ago.  Since then, I have read Catch the Lightning (I think not long after it came out), and have wandered away from the series since. My tastes have diverged from science fiction romance, but I figured the 2014 challenges were a good opportunity to check out the Nebula Award winner of the series, The Quantum Rose.

The Book:

The novels that I’ve read of the Skolian Saga seem to stand alone fairly well as independent stories, but I believe it helps to be already familiar with the universe. In the case of The Quantum Rose, the mysterious stranger explains the lay of the galaxy to his young bride, so it is possible to understand the wider political situation without having read previous novels. All the same, I think it would help to already be invested in the situation between the Skolian Empire, the Traders, and the Allied Worlds of Earth.  While most of the story is driven by a romance on a backwater world, there is a return to interplanetary politics in the latter part of the novel.

Most of the novel is driven by a pretty conventional fantasy-style romance, where some of the science fictional elements enforce various romance clich├ęs.  For instance, the physical beauty of the lead characters—as well as the submissiveness of the heroine and the dominance of the male villain—are the result of genetic engineering.  There are also other standard romance elements to the story: a love triangle, a heroine who feels compelled to marry for the good of her people, and a traumatized hero in need of sexual healing. On an interesting note, though, the interactions of this particular love triangle mirror quantum scattering theory, which is explained in more detail in an essay after the novel. I thought that was a neat idea, but it didn’t help the fact that the romance was extremely predictable.

The novel was definitely a light read, but there were things I enjoyed along the way.  The main characters were fairly likeable, and the plot moved along at a nice clip.  Along with the romance, there was also a fair amount of action (occasionally involving Kamoj being kidnapped).  In the setting, I thought it was fun seeing how Kamoj’s home world had adapted old concepts into new social constructs, where they no longer really understood the original meanings.  I think this novel would probably be more suited to the tastes of romance fans (or science fiction romance fans) than it was to mine, but I still found it to be a pleasant story to read.  

My Rating: 3/5

The Quantum Rose tells the story of a young female ruler on a backwater world, who is swept off her feet by an off-worlder telepath of the Skolian Empire’s ruling family.  I think The Quantum Rose stands alone well enough to be read outside the series (though it does contain spoilers of previous novels), but some familiarity with the general setup of the universe would come in handy.  The story is mostly a conventional sort of romance, so I think it would probably fall more into the tastes of romance fans.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
Published: Simon & Schuster/Sidgwick & Jackson (1980)
Series: Book 1 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: World Fantasy and BSFA
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, and Locus F

The Book:

The Shadow of the Torturer begins the 4-volume story of Severian, who we meet as an apprentice torturer on a decaying world called Urth.  His orderly life takes its first unexpected turn when he has a chance encounter with the revolutionary Vodalus.  It is changed forever when a small act of mercy towards a ‘client’ causes him to be exiled from the Citadel that was his home.

Severian begins his journey to become the local carnifex (executioner) of the distant city of Thrax.  As it turns out, he is able to follow his path only to the city outside the Citadel, Nessus, where many encounters and complications delay his passing.” ~Allie

This is the first Gene Wolfe novel I’ve read, and I plan to at least finish this tetralogy.  I’ll likely read more of Wolfe’s work, depending on how I enjoy the complete series.  I’ve heard a lot of praise for these novels, so my expectations are high!

My Thoughts:

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first novel of a tetralogy, and it definitely feels like the first quarter of a larger work.  The novel is described as a document translated from a future language into current English, and it tells the story of Severian, who lives in a far-future dying ‘Urth’. Since the story is set far from modern-day, the narrator’s vocabulary includes a number of unusual words, some of which are taken from non-English languages and other which are derived from words in currently existing languages. I thought this was a neat touch, and it made it easier to work out the meanings of many of the words. The story is a memoir told by an older Severian, so it is shaped around events that he wants to relay, skipping over ‘unimportant’ events.  Severian also occasionally digresses a little from the story to discuss particular topics in more detail. My idea of what events were important did not always seem to match up with Severian’s, but I’m guessing that some seemingly minor events in the story will grow in importance as I gain more information throughout the series.

Severian’s world feels mostly like a feudal fantasy scenario, but there are also occasional pieces of advanced technology, as well as references to or relics of a technological past. At this point in the story, the distinction between fantastical and science fictional doesn’t seem to make that much difference, but I’ll be interested to see if and how this changes in the future volumes.  This atmosphere does allow for some really creative scenes, which are probably technology-based, but sometimes seem magical. For instance, Severian is at one point challenged to a duel—to be fought using poisonous flowers that are collected from the banks of a lake that preserves the bodies of the dead. For this and many other interesting scenes, no explicit explanation is given, so it rests in an ambiguous place between science and magic.   

The way the story drifts from one of these strange events to the next gives the feeling of wandering through a dream.  Severian’s response to the things that happen around him intensifies this feeling, since he approaches everything with a very passive, detached, and incurious attitude.  Like a dreamer, he seems to just accept everything that happens to and around him with little question. At first I found the way the story was progressing to be frustrating, since Severian didn’t really seem to be getting anywhere in terms of his stated goals (such as going to Thrax).  Once I got used to the style, though, I was better able to appreciate the interesting aspects of each event as it occurred. I expect that many of the events of this novel, and characters introduced, will play some greater role in the novels to come.

Though Severian’s detached personality helped set the tone of the story, I really disliked him as a character. He was raised to be a torturer, and he takes great pride in the proper execution of his craft.  He does not care for the guilt or innocence of his ‘clients’, but only that the proscribed sentences are carried out smoothly.  Given his upbringing, I think his amorality and lack of compassion make a lot of sense, but understanding the origin of these traits doesn’t make him any easier to like.  He also has an unfortunate view of women, which colors how the female characters are treated and act in the novel.  Some of his musings betray that he has some pretty disturbing opinions on sexual violence.  I don’t get the impression that any of these character traits are likely to change, or even to be treated negatively in the text.  Given this, I think I can just accept that I will never approve of Severian, and continue to enjoy the creative story.  

The novel ends abruptly, and it seems clear that the novel is meant to be read as the first quarter of a larger work. In the end, Severian’s adventures in Nessus seemed more like a string of events than a single cohesive story.  A few of the subplots are resolved, in a way, before the end of the novel, but most of them leave many lingering questions. I have actually already started reading the second novel in the tetralogy, because I think I really need to continue while all the details are fresh in my mind.  Based on my experience so far with the second book, I feel pretty sure my opinion of the first novel will be changing as I progress through the series.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first quarter of the Book of the New Sun, and it definitely feels like a piece of a larger work.  Very little is resolved by the time one reaches the abrupt end of the novel, and I’m sure many of the subplots will play a larger role in the future novels.  The story seemed to wander from scene to scene in a dreamlike fashion, which was intensified by the detached, musing style of the narrator and protagonist, Severian of the guild of torturers.  The individual scenes were often delightfully strange, leaving me more interested in the world than in the story’s amoral main character.  I’m curious to see how this series will turn out, and how my opinion of it might change as I learn more about the world and larger story!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Never Let Me Go, Book and Film

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Published: Faber and Faber (2005), Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (2010)

 This review is going to be a little different from my usual pattern, since I’m simultaneously reviewing the novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the movie adaptation Never Let Me Go, by director Mark Romanek.  The focus will be on comparisons between the two representations of the story, so I will have to discuss the content of the story in some detail.  This means, there will be some spoilers of Never Let Me Go, both book and movie version, in this review. 

I don’t think there’s any way to talk about the story without giving away the central mystery of the plot, which seemed fairly obvious from the beginning, in any case. Never Let Me Go portrays a society in which human clones are used as organ donors, to support the health of ‘normal’ people.  The story is a personal memoir from the point of view of Kathy, a woman who grew up in a kind of boarding school known as Hailsham, with her friends Ruth and Tommy.  Kathy builds her personal story slowly out of handfuls of the memories that are in some way significant to her.  They are mostly moments that in some small way define her, the people close to her, her relationships, and her understanding of the world and her role in it.

While I enjoyed the subtlety of this method of revealing the story, I think it’s understandable that this doesn’t exactly work in a film. The film stayed relatively true to the events of the novel, but it seemed to streamline the plot by centering it on the love triangle between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.  The romance element was definitely present in the novel, but I don’t think it had quite the same prominence.  Some details in the novel, such as the significance of the fictional song, “Never Let Me Go”, were changed to fit more into the romance angle.  In the novel, the song and its cassette had several different meanings to Kathy and others throughout her life, and I would have liked for a little more of that to have made it into the movie.
Never Let Me Go, Song
“She's not thinking about a boy, honest.”

While Never Let Me Go was not an incredibly long novel (288 pages), there was still much more story than could be shown in a 103 minute film.  The novel hit most of the major points of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's lives, but I felt like there was often not quite enough to give the scenes the context they had in the novel.  This seemed most apparent to me in their early lives, possibly because their early days at Hailsham shaped so much of their future. For instance, Hailsham culture, and the extreme importance the students and teachers placed on ‘being creative’, was a huge influence in the development of the good-natured, easily angered Tommy.  Missing the full sense of how his lack of artistic ability stressed him early in life, I felt like something was missing from the understanding of Tommy as a whole.

Never Let Me Go, Hailsham
“A happy home for happy future donors.”

In terms of the other main characters, I thought Ruth’s personality translated fairly well to the screen, but the story lacked some of the moments that showed her personal vulnerabilities. I was a little puzzled by the portrayal of Kathy as a shy, socially awkward girl.  It’s possible that she just seems very different when viewed from inside her head than she does when viewed externally.  I would have described Kathy as quiet, extremely observant, compassionate, and good at parsing social situations. I think it makes sense for the movie to take a different, simpler approach to the characters than the novel, though, and I think the acting really helped to bring the movie’s version of the characters to life.

 The darker themes may have seemed to take a backseat to romance in the movie, but they were definitely not entirely absent.  The story still pointed to the parallels of the clones’ experience of life to our own, and it also explored the different reactions the characters have to the inevitability of their early death throughout their lives.  It may also seem strange, at first glance, that there was no grand clone rebellion or escape plan, but I think this is because Kathy and the others are simply like ordinary people. They had a relatively comfortable life, it had a purpose, and it contained everyone and everything that they knew and loved.  I think that there are many people who wouldn't risk leaving a familiar life, even if it didn't promise them a long life-span. In the case of the clones, their community was also pretty closed, such that they had almost no interaction with those outside of their situation.  The internal culture of their community, and their unfamiliarity with the outside world probably contributed to keeping them quietly imprisoned. This mindset is not one I have often encountered in science fiction, and I felt that the sense of it was portrayed with eloquence, particularly in the novel.

Kathy and Tommy
“An expressive face can be worth a thousand words”

In both romance and other aspects, Never Let Me Go is an emotional, introspective story, and it is a credit to the actors that they were able to bring so much of that across onscreen.  I enjoyed the quiet expressiveness of the actors, and I think that the effectiveness of the story was enhanced in many places by the human connection afforded by telling the story in film. I read the novel before watching the movie, and in this case, I think it improved the experience of both.  I’m glad that I read the novel first, because knowing too many details in advance might have made me impatient with the slow discovery of Kathy’s life.  While watching the movie, my knowledge of the novel filled in the gaps with the details that weren’t included.  Altogether, I think the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of a profoundly sad, but thought-provoking novel.  I would recommend interested readers or viewers to experience both versions, but to read the novel first.