Books: If We Were Villains

30319086If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Published April 11, 2017
star-4-half
As a former English major who developed an appreciation for the Bard not through high school courses but because of an excellent Shakespeare undergraduate course taught by an enthusiastic professor, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of If We Were Villains. Although it’s not without its flaws, I wholeheartedly loved the book and it has definitely made me want to dive back into a collected edition of Shakespeare (or as I liked to refer to the Norton Shakespeare in university due to its immense size, the murder book) and read my heart out. M. L. Rio’s stunning debut is a love letter to Shakespeare that can be enjoyed by both devotees of the bard and newcomers to his works.

Told from Oliver Marks’ POV ten years later, If We Were Villains is the story of seven fourth year drama students at the exclusive Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where actors perform only works by Shakespeare. Each student in the close knit group plays the same roles offstage and onstage. Bold, larger than life Richard plays leaders, kings, and tyrants, handsome studious James takes on heroes and lovers, delicate Wren is the ingenue, while beautiful and seductive Meredith plays confident temptresses, and Alexander the villains. Oliver and Filippa fill in the gaps, playing the leftover roles. But when the instructors decide to mix up the casting, the balance of power begins to shift and cracks appear in the group dynamic until, a few months later, one of them is dead. Oliver Marks is convicted of the crime and serves ten years in prison, but after he’s released he is persuaded to tell his story to the police detective who arrested him, so long as his conditions are met.

Oliver is one of the most oblivious fictional characters I have ever encountered, which makes him a fascinating choice of narrator. I always find unreliable narrators intriguing and Oliver is no exception. In this case, although Oliver claims to be telling the whole story to Colborne, the police officer who arrested him ten years earlier, and even sets out conditions before he begins to relate the tale, I had to wonder how accurate his version of events is. After all, Oliver is a former drama student who trained to lie for a living, and proves over the course of the narrative just how far he’s willing to go to protect those he cares about. But even if Oliver believes he’s telling the truth, he’s such a naive character that he routinely seems to miss what’s going on around him, even amongst his closest friends, so I wondered if he was unwittingly not providing the whole story.

Rio’s prose, peppered liberally with Shakespeare quotes, can be pretentious and takes some getting used to at first but, as the author herself says in the afterward, she was assured that it’s absolutely how some drama students talk and I completely buy it, particularly in the secluded environment of Dellecher.

I found all of the characters really interesting, but I do have some gripes. I wish we had spent more time exploring Wren, who is so thinly written at times that I assumed she was a red herring and there would be more from her later in the book. Similarly, although there’s more of Meredith in the story and she does have layers, it would have been nice to see more of her vulnerability. In general, the female characters are really interesting… I just wanted more of them!

I also got the impression that some of what the author wants to convey doesn’t quite come across in the text. Reading Rio’s explanations on her tumblr account for things such as the abrupt change in one character’s behaviour and turn towards violence, as well as the seemingly dismissive treatment of Oliver’s sister’s eating disorder, everything made sense, but I missed some of this meaning in the book itself. Since both of these cases could also be seen as plot devices to move the action forward in particular ways, it’s a shame that more motivation for these events wasn’t offered within the book itself.

Despite these flaws, I LOVED this book. The Shakespeare productions described sound so complex and interesting that I wish I was able to watch them come to life (especially the masque), and unlike The Secret History, which If We Were Villains is frequently compared to, most of the characters were very likable. My favourites were definitely Filippa, who is unruffled and enigmatic even in the face of tragedy, but also protective of her fellow actors, who she sees as her family, and James, the kind of person you’d probably want to hate because he’s wealthy, handsome, and talented, but you can’t because he’s also such a good friend and works so hard for his success.

I really didn’t expect to be as moved by this book as I was. I guessed some of the plot twists before our oblivious narrator, but the novel is still so well-crafted, the prose so perfectly fitting, that it brought me to tears anyway. The ending may not appeal to everyone, but without spoilers I have to say that I absolutely adored it  and thought it was a very fitting end for a book about Shakespeare. If We Were Villains is an original, highly intelligent, and well-written read that should appeal to just about anyone, whether you’re a casual Shakespeare fan, an enthusiast, or only have a passing familiarity with his work. Certainly the enthusiast will get more out of this book, but as a casual fan, I greatly enjoyed it, even if some of the references likely went over my head. Highly recommended for all readers.

Books: The Love Interest

31145148The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
Published May 16, 2017
star-2-half
I really wanted to love this book. For starters, the concept is fabulous – a subversion of the traditional YA triangle that sees the two love interests (the nice boy-next-door type and the bad boy) falling in love with each other instead of with the girl. The cover art is gorgeous too and there are some great lines spoofing the trope and genre that made me laugh out loud, but ultimately The Love Interest fails to deliver on its potential, making for a fairly disappointing read.

I suspect the fault lies with author Cale Dietrich, who doesn’t seem to know what he wants the book to be. At times The Love Interest seems to be going for a straightforward satire of the YA romance genre, but at other times it builds its own dystopian world and story, a rather dark imagining where boys are groomed from childhood to be “love interests” for potentially important people and two boys somewhat inexplicably (there’s a quick hand wave explanation about the chosen girl being more likely to make a decision when two men are competing for her affection) are selected to compete. The winner gets the girl, and spends the rest of his life spying and reporting any secrets and important information she has. The loser, well, dies.

Dietrich tries to accomplish both a satire and an original dystopian story, but the result of trying to do both is a novel that doesn’t do either well enough to be considered a success. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely fun (I’d give it 3 stars for pure enjoyment and 2.5 for execution) and worth checking out, especially since the book can be finished in a couple of hours, just don’t expect logic or deep thoughts from this novel.

For me, the main issue was that some of the in-story takes on YA tropes don’t make sense within the context of the world. Take for example the simplistic Nice vs. Bad formula where each boy is trained and groomed to fit into one of these rigid types and one Nice and one Bad are sent after each chosen girl. Straight out of the CW playbook to be sure, and it works as a send-up of the trope, but there’s never any explanation offered within the world for why these types have to be adhered to.

I found myself asking why a lot while reading this book and not getting much in the way of satisfying answers.

We’re told this is the world’s most powerful spy organization, with enough power to put its spies at the right hand of just about every powerful person in history, including multiple Love Interest first ladies (does that make Jackie O a Nice and Marilyn Monroe a Bad?). But if the organization has these resources, enough to have rooms full of boys who may or may not be chosen, and enough to seemingly kill off those who aren’t chosen by the girl, why wouldn’t they devote some of their wealth to creating parent spies, etc. instead of sticking the Love Interests with reject parents? Surely some of the important ‘Chosen’ girls would judge a guy based on his parents/connection with his family. Even if Caden’s parental stand-ins are as bad as it gets, when the Love Interest is supposed to spend the rest of his life with the Chosen, won’t the parents/in-laws have a role in any normal couple’s relationship? Why not create better adult spies?

And while I certainly get retaining tight control of these Love Interests, isn’t it risky to give them absolutely no experience, even controlled environment experience elsewhere in the world, but to throw them in directly out of the compound? What if their reactions to things give them away?

I was also unsatisfied with the lack of information provided about the coaches, who act as relationship counselors, providing advice, scripts, and an in ear voice to the Love Interests. How do they fit in? Are they fully-fledged spies? Are they devoid of emotion? How else would you deal with the sort of job that means you have a 50-50 chance of losing the person you’re coaching?

This review sounds negative, but there really are a lot of things I enjoyed about the book. When it does hit the satire, it does so really really well. We are introduced to the (male) protagonist describing their physical appearance and flaws in a clear reversal of female YA protagonists, and the fact that the character quite literally has no name and no identity except as a love interest is fitting.

Caden’s internal response to Juliet’s casual remark that every girl falls in love with a gay guy at least once, it’s a rite of passage, is also perfect:

“I don’t exist to teach her a lesson, and it irks me that she thinks labeling me is okay now. Like, by liking guys I automatically take on that role in her life. That I’m suddenly a supporting character in her story rather than the hero of my own.”

Also, there are gems like this:

“There is one thing that’s always bugged me,” I say. “I’d like to know why the LIC is so focused on pairing us in high school. Like, wouldn’t it be better to send us in when we’re a bit older? No one finds the love of their life while they’re a teenager.”
“You haven’t read any YA novels recently, have you?”

There are sparks of brilliance here in these lines and a few others that made me laugh out loud or that I found especially moving, but the effort is inconsistent and the worldbuilding lacks some logic and depth. The worldbuilding is the kind of thing I could excuse in a straight (pardon the word choice) satire, but in a novel that’s trying to be its own story, it just didn’t work for me.

I generally liked the characters, but felt that they weren’t explored enough or given enough depth. The Chosen girl, Juliet, is a gifted scientist (a nice change to see a girl be important because of her talent for science), and she has a good group of friends who are also interesting, but I didn’t find Caden interesting enough to carry the narrative on his back. The Bad Love Interest, Dylan, is more layered, particularly given his insecurities hidden behind friendly confidence, but we don’t see enough of him to make up for Caden and, without spoiling anything, there’s an unnecessary plot reveal here that really rubbed me the wrong way before it’s resolved at the end.

Ultimately it’s an enjoyable enough light summer read, but there’s a lot of unrealized potential here, and it’s disappointing that the novel couldn’t do justice to the terrific concept.

Books: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

25150798The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Published March 21, 2017
star-4
Lisa See is an author who has been on my TBR for a long time, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. When a stranger arrives seeking a rare tea, Li-yan, as the most educated girl in her village, is tasked with translating for the stranger, whose arrival marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha. Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence, and when she gives birth to a daughter while unwed, she brings her child to an orphanage in a neighbouring city and abandons her, rather than submit to the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed. While Li-yan’s intelligence and education enables her to move into the modern world, she never forgets about the daughter she gave up. Meanwhile in California, her daughter Haley is raised by loving American parents in a privileged home, but wonders about her origins.

See’s grasp on the setting and the rich historical and cultural detail she provides is deeply immersive and I learned a great deal about the Akha, an ethnic group I knew absolutely nothing about, as well as about the process of farming, brewing, and selling tea. In fact, I was so fascinated by the description of the rise in value of Pu’er and its potential health benefits, that when I was in a tea shop this weekend I bought a sample of Pu’er tea to try!

Admittedly at times the immersive quality of the setting and culture was difficult for me to encounter because it clashed so wholly with my western sensibilities. It helps that even Li-yan, raised within this culture, is upset by the killing of healthy twin babies, in one of the novel’s most shocking scenes. As Li-yan’s midwife mother explains,  “only animals, demons, and spirits give birth to litters. If a sow gives birth to one piglet, then both must be killed at once. If a dog gives birth to one puppy, then they too must be killed immediately.” This explanation may help to understand why the Akha believe what they do, but it is still difficult to accept. Other examples are less drastic, but the idea of whether or not two people are a good match for a relationship being decided by their day of birth, is still hard to accept.

See writes beautifully, with prose that makes you feel like you were there. She provides enough detail to paint a picture and is informative without the writing and historical context ever feeling dull. Although I can see why other readers might not enjoy her choice to include awkward terms, like “doing the intercourse”, which I assume is a close translation of words the Akha’s language would actually use, this decision didn’t affect my reading experience and it’s infrequent enough that I enjoyed the terms as a marker of authenticity.

Undoubtedly my favourite things about this book was Li-yan. She is one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Compassionate towards others, even when they wrong her, strong in her ability to get through hardship, and intelligent. Li-yan sees education as her way forward and as a means to escape the life that has been planned for her, to follow in the footsteps of her midwife mother. She is a character I cared about deeply. Her successes in business and in life brought me joy, and more than anything I wanted her to be happy. On the other hand, I felt the stab of betrayal from her former friend and, later in the book, the hole in her otherwise idyllic life left by her abandoned daughter.

I wish See had spent more time on Li-yan’s daughter Haley and her story, because I found it really interesting to read about her experience in the group therapy she undergoes for Chinese adoptees. Haley describes herself as ‘grateful but angry’, grateful to be adopted into a privileged home with parents who love her, but angry at being abandoned by her birth parents. I loved both the unique methods of presenting Haley’s experiences, through letters, essays, and even a transcript of a therapy session, See uses and the sentiments that are expressed by Haley and other Chinese adoptees of not fitting in, of being subject to stereotypes, and of the conflict they each have with their origins.

I raced through this book, not wanting to put it down. Usually I enjoy a good bittersweet ending, or even a sad ending, but with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I was desperately afraid that after all the trials of Li-yan’s early life she would not get her happy ending. This feeling intensified when she seemed to be in a happy relationship mid-way through the book and I feared there was too much of the book left for the author to not introduce additional drama. I also worried that the reunion with Haley might not occur. Ultimately though, he story is brought to a gratifying end.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a very moving tale of love, sacrifice, and hard work, that features a protagonist you will root for and interesting glimpses at a little known ethnic minority and the process of making and selling tea.  I would highly recommend it and I look forward to reading more of Lisa See’s work in the future.

 

 

Books: The Dark Forest

23168817The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published August 11, 2015
star-2
In the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-nominated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a secret military project sent signals into space to make contact with aliens. The signal was captured by an alien race on the brink of destruction, who formulate a plan to travel to Earth, a trip that will take four centuries, and stage an invasion. The Dark Forest continues this story. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted sophons, subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. Only the human mind remains a secret.

As a result, the Wallfacer Project is formed, a plan that grants four selected individuals almost unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies, which are to be hidden from both Earth and Trisolaris through misdirection and deceit. Most of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but Luo Ji is a wildcard. A Chinese astronomer and sociologist of seemingly little consequence, he is baffled by his new status, and yet he is the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris fears.

Is there some pay-off at the end of the book? Yes. Is it enough to justify slogging through 500 pages of this? Not even close.

I was acutely aware that the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, was not my kind of book (see my review here), and yet I was capable of admiring its merits and understanding why it had been so acclaimed. Not so with The Dark Forest. The book suffers from a bad case of Second Book Syndrome and manages to not only be dull and devoid of interesting characters, but also uncomfortably misogynistic throughout.

It is clear that characters are not a strength of Cixin Liu’s. Most of his characters have so few distinguishing characteristics that they all blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. His women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. This may be a realistic stance. Given the state of the world today I suspect men would be chosen, based on the assumption that they have a stronger background in both scientific accomplishments and strategic warfare, and yet I can’t help thinking how much more interesting the story would have been (in the hands of another writer that is) if a female perspective and plan had been included.

I could have put aside the lack of main female characters if the minor characters had been three-dimensionally written, but there are problems here too. Multiple women (again, from a small cast of female characters to begin with) betray their husbands, enough to make me wonder if the author has some unresolved issues. Additionally, The Dark Forest opens with its womanizing main character’s latest fling being killed in an attack on them both and the main character initially can’t even remember her name. When he does, the author never reveals it.

But the most offensive portrayal of women comes from the main character, Luo Ji, falling in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created. Far from being told this is abnormal, the doctor tells him he doesn’t have a sickness, he just has natural literary talent in creating a character so real the writer is unable to control them. “There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned,” says the doctor. It’s a scene made particularly ironic by the fact that Cixin Liu’s characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to imagine any of them having a mind of their own.

Luo Ji is so infatuated with this non-existent women that it destroys his one close relationship with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal in order to save the planet, he uses them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing the woman to his bodyguard and asking him to find her and bring her to him. The imaginary woman is described as:

“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality.”

“She likes to wear-how would you put it?-simple, elegant clothing, a little plainer than other women her age.” Luo Ji nodded dumbly, over and over, but there’s always something white, like a shirt or a collar, that contrasts sharply with the dark colors of the rest of her outfit… Finally, she’s not tall, one hundred and sixty centimeters or so, and her body is…well I guess you could say slender, as if a gust of wind could blow her away.”

In a particularly unbelievable turn of events, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji, and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together. The impending alien invasion is easier to believe than this ridiculous plot twist. After they’ve been together for a few years, long enough for her to produce a child, the woman (Yan Yan) is quite literally fridged! She’s put into refrigerated hibernation along with her daughter, effectively held as hostages to ensure that Luo Ji does his duty as a Wallfacer by producing a strategy! If this wasn’t disturbing enough, Yan Yan herself is infantilised, described repeatedly as innocent, trusting, and childlike (all of the following quotes come from just five pages):

“Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.”

“She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces.”

“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naive expression was one he had seen on her countless times before.”

“The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence.”

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”

Putting aside the poorly written characters and sexism, there are things that keep The Dark Forest from being a complete dud. The book has less of a focus on physics and hard science-fiction, which makes it easier to understand for those of us without a science background. The translation, by Joel Martinsen instead of Ken Liu, also seems better and less clumsy this time around, although there is some purple prose that I’m not sure if I should attribute to Liu or to Martinsen.

The concept is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the parts of the novel set in the more distant future and the glimpses at technology in this world. Leaf houses, screens on every flat surface, personalized ads (including an ad for a bandage shortly after a character is in an accident) are all imaginatively rendered and created a detailed picture in my head. There are also scattered moments of humour, such as when a character is repeatedly targeted for assassination, but is informed that he will receive compensation for each failed attempt on his life. Each Wallfacer’s plan is also interesting to read about.

The Dark Forest paints a rather grim, but realistic I think, portrait of humanity and how we would react to a crisis like this. When humanity is aware that the Trisolaran fleet will be coming for them and strategies for survival are looking uncertain at best, some try to escape but Escapism is banned, as humanity can’t decide on who should be allowed to survive. Of course the most interesting part of the novel is the reason for its title. I’ve whited this out and warned for spoilers below, so scroll past if you’re considering reading this.

*SPOILERS for the end of the book/central concept*

In sharp contrast to the optimism of Star Trek with its United Federation of Planets, the author presents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens when the probability of their existence is high. The novel takes its name from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. Liu posits that the universe is a “dark forest”, which is populated by predatory species who will wipe out lesser beings. Most intelligent life forms therefore know well enough to keep quiet in order to preserve their existence, but “there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ In sending a signal to the universe, humanity has made itself vulnerable. 

*End of SPOILERS*

I’m a keen supporter of diverse voices in books and particularly in Science-Fiction, a genre which is still predominantly being written by white men, but that diversity shouldn’t come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. I wavered stubbornly over whether I should try to finish the series in the name of reading all of the Hugo award nominees for best novel this year, but reviews for Death’s End, the final volume in the series, have convinced me that this would be a waste of my time. With no one to root for and the book often demonstrating the worst of human civilization, it’s difficult to care about whether humanity survives or not. It’s a shame that the potential of The Three-Body Problem was squandered in such a way.

Books: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

25528801Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Published March 15, 2016
star-4-half
After my last few YA contemporary reads, which I really enjoyed but felt were a little fluffy and perhaps aimed at a younger audience than me, Exit, Pursued by a Bear was a very welcome change of pace and I absolutely loved it.

The novel is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and draws its title from the play’s most famous stage direction. Protagonist Hermione Winters has everything going for her. Alongside best friend Polly, she’s co-captain of her school’s cheerleading team, she has a boyfriend, and she’s about to enter her senior year, but at the team’s summer training camp, someone slips something in her drink and she blacks out. Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with the lead up to, and the aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione figures out how to move on from here.

Although Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with serious themes, including date rape drugs, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and abortion, it differs from other rape survivor stories in a few ways.

First of all, and most importantly, Hermione has an excellent support system in place that helps her through. She has parents who are protective but supportive of her decisions, who want to be there for her but also know when to take a step backwards, even when it hurts them to do so. She has a best friend who would go to Hell and back for her, who is her champion, and who will happily fight anyone who dares to so much as look at Hermione the wrong way. She has a therapist who is quirky but effective, letting her come to terms with and remember what’s happened to her in her own time and without pushing, and she has a cheerleading team who, after some initial awkwardness and a few poor decisions, completely have her back. This support system is part of what prevents the book from being a tragedy.

The rest comes from Hermione herself. Rape is often about power and control. The use of date rape drugs in particular leaves Hermione unable to remember any details about her attacker or the assault itself that she can provide the police with. Her rapist takes away her power, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear is primarily a book about taking back power and regaining agency.

Hermione is a wonderful protagonist. Intelligent, popular, and courageous, she is determined not to be defined by what’s happened to her and to move forward with her life. Although she does have trauma to work through and the attack does change things for Hermione (she stays off of social media, is triggered by the scent of pine, etc.) she is also determined to keep living. Hermione continues her cheerleading, she plans to go to college and live in residence away from home, she doesn’t fall apart. There is nothing wrong with stories where the victim does fall apart, these stories are every bit as valid as Hermione’s in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, but I love that this is a story about strength, about support systems, and about a girl who takes back power and does so in her own time.

This is not to say that the book sugarcoats the assault or the aftermath. Johnston doesn’t dance around the slut-shaming and victim-blaming that initially follows sexual assault, but much of this is shut down early in the novel. The overall picture I got was one that shows the pain, the helplessness, and the fear Hermione feels and, importantly, the impact that Hermione’s assault has on those around her (from her parents, to the friends who blame themselves for not spotting what was happening, to the inexperienced police officer whose career path she influences), but that also shows the bravery of the main character and the excellent support system she has in place.

I also loved the way the book ended, putting the power back in Hermione’s hands in a way that is more than just symbolic. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is an insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma after an assault, and features a protagonist and other characters who I cared about deeply. I highly recommend it to all.

 

 

Reading the Hugos: Ninefox Gambit

26118426Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published June 14, 2016
star-3-half
Ninefox Gambit marks a couple of personal firsts for me. It’s the official start of my challenge to read all of this year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel (I read The Three-Body Problem, the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, earlier this month but its the final book that is nominated this year for Best Novel). It also marks my first venture into the military sci-fi subgenre. I had my doubts about the subgenre, wondering if the battles waged would be detrimental to the development of interesting three-dimensional characters, but as it turns out, I worried for nothing. Ninefox Gambit is an enjoyable and completely unique read, although not always easy to understand.

When Captain Kel Cheris bends the rules, using heretical tactics to save her teammates from death, she is disgraced and her team disbanded. However, Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself by taking part in a plot to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics. To do so, she must ally with the undead Shuos Jedao, a tactician who has never lost a battle and may be able to successfully besiege the fortress. However, Jedao is remembered for going mad in his first life and murdering two armies, one of them his own. And he’ll be in Kel Cheris’ head the whole time.

The one issue I had with this book was that I felt it desperately needed either an extra paragraph in the synopsis that said something about the world, or a glossary to keep track of the character names, factions, and even maneuvers Yoon Ha Lee throws at the reader with limited explanation. Ninefox Gambit is one of those books that throws you into the deep end and hopes you can swim. Now this isn’t something that puts me off a book (I am a Dorothy Dunnett fan after all!), but it can make things difficult in a science-fiction setting where the reader is left to concentrate not just on the story but also on trying to figure out the make up and rules of an entirely new world with limited guidance.

Here’s the context I wish I had known when I started this novel. It’s set in the hexarchate, a far-future society that relies on advanced mathematics to produce a shared calendar that is more than just a measurement of time and that shapes everything. The large volume of people all adhering to the high calendar and celebrating the same holidays produces exotic effects that seem almost magical. However, the effects only work as long as everyone follows the same calendar. Since most of the hexarchate weapons and technology are exotic, dissidents can cripple hexarchate technology by changing the calendar and therefore the math that underlies reality. Dissidents, seen as heretics, are punished severely by the empire, destroyed whole planets at a time, so the hexarchate is perpetually at war.

The world has six different factions (hence hexarchate), including the technology-oriented Nirai who have knowledge of mathematics, the warrior Kel who routinely carry out dangerous and sometimes suicidal military missions, and the cunning, amoral Shuos who carry out intelligence and are responsible for strategy and tactics. If you’re interesting in reading Ninefox Gambit, I recommend checking out the author’s faction cheat sheet, published on his website by reader request, which looks really helpful for keeping the factions straight!

The world building is evidently really unique and well thought-out, I just didn’t feel like I had the context to grasp it all and it did detract from the reading experience for me. There is a lot to love about Ninefox Gambit though, especially the main characters.

Cheris is an instantly likable character. A mathematical genius, she has the ability to be one of the Nirai, the technology-oriented faction, but chooses to join the military Kel faction because she wants to be part of a team. Aside from being a female math genius and a skilled warrior(!), Cheris has a signifier, the Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, that means she’s very mentally stable, she is a mediocre duelist, and she unwinds by watching ridiculous dramas.

It’s her push and pull interactions with Shuos Jedao, the shifty imprisoned immortal General, that make the book for me. The relationship is one of necessity and mutual dependence. Cheris needs his tactics to stand a chance at her nearly impossible mission to retake the fortress, while for Jedao it presents an opportunity to to escape his immortal imprisonment in the bleak black cradle for a time, but does he have an ulterior motive? Cheris’ internal thoughts as she tries to determine how much she can trust this man and how much he is keeping from her are really interesting.

I really enjoyed Ninefox Gambit and I will definitely be hunting down the second book in the series, The Raven Strategem, which comes out in June. Part-way through the book I remarked that it was a cross between Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and I hold to that, although I think there’s a dash of The Traitor Baru Cormorant in there as well. It adds up to a totally unique concoction and now that I’ve familiarized myself with the world, I can’t wait to see what Yoon Ha Lee does with it next! Recommended if you like your sci-fi political, smart, and sometimes complicated, but also a lot of fun.

Books: The Upside of Unrequited

30653853The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Published April 11, 2017
star-3-half
Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso has had twenty-six crushes and no relationships. Fearing rejection, Molly never puts herself out there, because fat girls have to be careful. But when Molly’s willowy blonde flirtatious twin falls hard for a new girl, Molly fears losing her sister and being left behind. Fortunately Cassie’s new girlfriend has a cute hipster best friend named Will who might just be crush material. There’s just one problem, she might be falling for her co-worker Reid, an awkward fantasy fan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, instead.

When Molly’s family and friends were first introduced, I worried that all of the wonderful diversity was an attempt to tick every box but wouldn’t be fleshed out into three-dimensional characters or explored in any meaningful way.  Fortunately I was wrong. Each of the characters are well-written and have flaws and personality quirks that set them apart.

One of my favourite things about this book is the rare positive depiction of parents in YA, and not just parents but gay inter-racial couple parents! Patty and Nadine are obviously loving mothers who care deeply about their family and each other. They successfully walk the line between being friendly with their teenagers and knowing when to lay down the line about inappropriate behaviour or intervene as needed. In fact, if I had read this book at the beginning of the month, they definitely would have made my Top Ten Tuesday on Favourite Moms in Literature!

I also loved that there was such a focus on women and on their relationships (platonic, romantic, and familial). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many different types of relationships between women in a single YA book before, from sisters Cassie and Molly, to engaged couple Patty and Nadine, to young love, to Molly and Cassie’s other friends, their cousin Abby and their friend Olivia.

But while Albertalli plants the seeds for these fabulous relationships, I think the novel is so short that some of them remain under-developed. With the exception of their first meeting, most of Cassie and Mina’s relationship develops off the page. This decision does mean that the reader, like Molly, feels isolated by the lack of detail about the relationship and how Cassie and Mina interact as a couple, but it means we never fully understand Cassie’s motivations in shutting her sister out, and she comes across as a fairly unlikable and selfish character as a result.

As much as these people all care about each other, I appreciated the fact that not everything is perfect. Grandma means well but makes racist comments and comments negatively on Molly’s weight. Nadine’s sister is homophobic, and the sisters and parent-daughter relationships experience strain over the course of the novel.

Admittedly the miscommunication sometimes made me cringe, but I think it’s an indicator of just how well Albertalli writes realistic teenage characters. Teenagers with crushes can be stupid when it comes to first relationships, prioritizing their boyfriend or girlfriend over their siblings and friends, and I think the awkward does he/she like me or not reads as very true to life as well.

I think there’s been some criticism over the obsession with boys and the desire to have a boyfriend that comes through so strongly in The Upside of Unrequited. I can see the merit in this and I’m usually quick to critique an overabundance of romance, but I also (vaguely) remember what it’s like to be sixteen or seventeen and to wonder what it would be like to have a boyfriend, and to have such a bad crush on someone that you walk into a door frame because they talked to you (yes, that has actually happened to me). Add to that Molly’s sister being in a serious relationship and the fear that she’ll lose Cassie to the girlfriend and yes, I understand the boy crazy in this book.

Ultimately I really liked Molly. She’s creative and crafty, always coming up with recipes, decorations, and even dress alterations off of pinterest. Although she’s a little passive as a protagonist, Molly has a few great moments where she stands up for herself that made me want to cheer. Also the message is generally positive. A fat girl protagonist falls for a boy and he likes her exactly the way she is and falls in love with her not despite, but because of, who she is. Molly doesn’t lose weight, undergo a makeover, or change her hobbies to snag the boy, he’s already smitten. Also, Molly and Reid are really adorable together.

The issue I had with The Upside of Unrequited is the same one I had with Queens of Geek. They’re both important books with a message that provide representation for marginalized groups and I’m thrilled they exist and do recommend both of them, but they’re a little fluffy and light on plot for my personal tastes. As much as I enjoy a light read every now and then, I wish there had been more tension beyond the internal angsting of who will Molly choose and will she make a move?

Books: The Three-Body Problem

20518872The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Published November 11, 2014 (originally published 2007)
star-3

Objectively I can see why The Three-Body Problem is so acclaimed. The concept behind it is fascinating, the science is well thought out, and although the book is set during and directly following China’s Cultural Revolution, it touches on themes that are relevant today. Personally though, I found The Three-Body Problem a bit of a slog.

There are a few reasons why the book didn’t click with me and the biggest one is genre. Admittedly I tend towards the Fantasy side of Science-Fiction & Fantasy. Much like my general preference for musicals over plays when it comes to live theatre, a science-fiction novel has to be really special for it to speak to me in the same way that a fantasy book does. I’ve read some fabulous science-fiction in the past few years though, including the first two books of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and Erin Bow’s YA sci-fi Prisoners of Peace duology, so what was it about The Three-Body Problem that put me off?

Well, Liu’s book belongs to the “hard science fiction” sub-genre, which is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. To put it another way, there was too much science in this science-fiction novel for my librarian brain. Hard science isn’t an immediate no for me (I really enjoyed The Martian, I think because it was written with such a sense of humour), but it means a novel has to work harder to appeal to me, by containing a really engaging plot and/or characters who are deep and well fleshed out. I didn’t have that experience with The Three-Body Problem. Physics and math were never strong subjects for me, as evidenced by my Bachelor’s degree in English and my profession as a librarian. For many people who come from STEM-backgrounds, I expect the scientific plausibility will be a selling point rather than a detractor, I’m just not one of those people.

Across all genres, I enjoy reading about interesting, fully fleshed out characters who I can really connect with. Sadly The Three-Body Problem does not offer enough background or depth on its characters to spark a connection. I liked Wang Miao, I was intrigued by Ye Wenjie, and I appreciated Da Shi because his sarcasm and somewhat jerky behaviour at least meant that he had some personality to differentiate him from the other characters, but that was it. Without the emotional connection to characters, the most I could feel was a vague curiosity about three body and the eventual way that events will play out for the human race.

Finally, I found The Three-Body Problem really slow. I think I had read 185 pages in this nearly 400 page book before I felt like I was into it. It is the first book in a series so obviously some leeway is required to set up the world and the action, but I felt like the pacing was uneven throughout. However, it’s not all bad. There were a few things I thought the book did really well, namely:

Trisolaris. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the interludes set in the virtual reality video game world of three body. Liu creates an incredibly interesting and unique world with “chaotic” and “stable” eras, a civilization that continues to rebuild and advance in technology even after facing and being destroyed by various occurrences, and a race who dehydrate themselves in order to survive the volatile chaotic eras. These chapters were among my favourites in the book and I loved hearing about Trisolaris and its inhabitants.

Concept/Themes. It made a lot of sense to me that a character who has experienced tragedy during the Cultural Revolution and who looks around and sees the Cold War tensions of East and West decides that humanity can no longer help itself and needs outside intervention in the form of an alien race. In this day and age where the world seems to get wackier every time I check the news, the concept, while pessimistic, made a lot of sense to me (although I’m skeptical that an extraterrestrial power would be a better option).

Ultimately this just wasn’t the book for me, but I am intrigued enough to see where the story goes next. Honestly if I hadn’t committed to reading the Hugo Best Novel nominees I think I would still pick up the second book in this trilogy, but not for several months. However, I’ll be tracking down a copy and working my way through The Dark Forest in June.