SF Book Review, Part 14: WoGF Edition

I recently ran across the 2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and thought it sounded like fun. The rules are simple: “read 12 books – 1 each by 12 different women authors that you have not read before including 1 random author selection – in 12 months”. I’ve started this a bit later in the year than I’d like, and I’m beding the “that you have not read before” rule a bit on at least one or two selections, but still, I’ve actually made pretty good progress. Halfway there, actually. Alas, I’ve found my selections to be a mixed bag.

  • Among Others by Jo Walton – Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for best novel, this one was already in the reading queue, and I was quite looking forward to it. Unfortunately, this is a book that struck all the wrong chords with me. It’s about a young girl named Morwenna, who was badly injured, and her twin sister killed, when they foiled their mother’s nefarious and abusive use of magic. Sound exciting? Well, that’s all happened before the story begins and is only referred to obtusely (details are generally unclear). As the book opens, Morwenna (having successfully escaped her abusive mother) is being sent to a boarding school by her father. Cool, so this is going to be one of those magical boarding school stories, right? Well, no, nothing really happens at the boarding school except that Morwenna is unpopular. On the one hand, I can respect what Walton was going for here, and she has turned many genre conventions on their head. Indeed, I love the way magic is portrayed in this book. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, only with magic, there doesn’t appear to be any connection between the two events. Want to shut down a Phurnocite factory? Drop some flowers into a lake. In a month, the factory shuts down, citing unprofitable margins. Did the magic work? Or was it simple economics here? In Walton’s world, there is little distinction. Magic works, but at weird angles. It’s great! Unfortunately, there’s not really a story to hang all of this on, and the boarding school stuff is just a rote high school story. It may not be common in SF/F, but it’s common enough in general culture.

    It’s more of a character sketch than anything else, as we follow Morwenna through her first school year. She’s friendless at first, and takes solace in reading SF/F books, eventually making friends with librarians and a local SF Book Club. This book is absolutely filled with SF/F book references, and I suspect that anyone who grew up in the late 70s or early 80s (when this story is set) will delight in the nostalgia of those references (personally, I found the discovery of new books and authors interesting, as it’s very different in the age of the internet than it was back then (or even in the early 90s, when I was dipping into SF/F). I liked the book club scenes, but little comes of it. There’s a confrontation of sorts at the end of the book, and there is some personal catharsis for the protagonist, but in the end, what I got out of this book is basically this lesson: people who read SF/F are, like, totally awesome. Which is true, I guess, but I already knew that!

  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes – Now this is more like it. It’s a serial killer story with a little science fictional twist of time travel. There’s a house that exists outside of time, and when a twisted guy named Harper stumbles upon it in the depression era, he is compelled to use it as a base to launch his serial killing campaign across time against girls who “shine”. In the present day, we’re following Kirby, a damaged but spunky survivor of Harper’s shenanigans who is attempting to use her newspaper internship to research serial killings. Along with her reluctant partner, old-hand crime reporter Dan, Kirby eventually stumbles upon details of killings that don’t make sense. Harper likes to leave impossible mementos when he kills his shining girls, like a baseball card from the future. This is not a perfect novel, and is actually a bit disorienting at times (you are often introduced to a shining girl, only to see her die quickly, which leads to a lot of character introductions, even relatively late in the book), but I was taken enough with the style and cleverness of the plot. As time-travel thrillers go, there’s a lot to like, and everything is internally consistent, but it doesn’t really have quite as revelatory a structure as I was expecting. Still, this book is well worth reading if the premise interests you.
  • The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett – Recognize the author? Yep, she was one of the screenwriters for The Empire Strikes Back, but she actually had a long history of SF/F writing behind her at that point. This seems to be her most famous work, a tale of aliens and humans on Mars. At this point, these stories are pretty well defined, but this seems to be a particularly well constructed version, and Brackett’s prose seems to be a step above her contemporaries. The story follows an Indy Jones prototype named Matt Carse, a gun-slinging archaeologist who stumbles onto the long lost tomb of the Martian god Rhiannon and is subsequently plunged into the distant past… for adventure! It’s a fun little adventure tale, short and sweet, definitely of its time (published in 1953), but again, the style seems to be a step ahead of her contemporaries. Definitely worth checking out for genre completists.
  • vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby – This is a generally well done science fiction story… that didn’t really strike a chord with me. The premise, following a few von Neumann robots that go on the run from various enemies, is all well and good, and the characters are fine for what they are. There’s an excessive focus on family and especially parentage here, to the point where I wonder if people who have kids would get more out of this book than I did. As it was, there seemed to be weird tonal differences from page to page, and I sometimes found myself confused as to what was actually going on. I should mention that I actually listened to this on audiobook rather than reading it, and to be honest, I was not impressed with the voice work here, though it wasn’t particularly awful or anything (I’m not sure if it’s the book or the reader or some combination of both, or perhaps a weird negative feedback loop of some kind). Some interesting ideas here, but this book was just not for me.
  • The Ship Who Sang Anne McCaffrey – McCaffrey is probably better known for her fantasy novels, but I thought this one, about a human brain implanted into a spaceship, sounded interesting. And that premise is indeed pretty good, though the book essentially amounts to a series of mostly disconnected stories. This episodic nature means it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole as much as I’d like, but each story was relatively well done and interesting on its own, and there are some repeat characters, etc… Again, I didn’t feel like this was really ringing my bells, but it was certainly an enjoyable short read as well (I enjoyed it much more than Among Others or vN). This is apparently the first among many books, but while I enjoyed this one well enough, I don’t see myself reading any of its sequels, which I guess says something as well.

So yeah, I really enjoyed two books, was a little meh on one, and didn’t particularly care for another. I actually didn’t mention Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, which I loved (significantly more than any book in this post), because I thought I had written about it before, but it turns out that I didn’t. That one also bends that rule about not having read the author before, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to really finish off this reading challenge by year’s end (especially if I keep choosing books that don’t particularly inspire me, like some of the above). That being said, I’ll be giving it a shot. If you have any suggestions that seem more my speed, feel free to leave a comment…