Friday, May 29, 2015
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
3.5 stars, actually.
First off, let me say that I'm a huge fan of Ms. Novik's Temeraire series (His Majesty's Dragon, et al) or I probably wouldn't have read this one. I'm not a fan of the "hocus pocus" school of magic - where one must learn the proper way to pronounce some sort of gimmicky spell, as in Harry Potter. (For a treatment of magic that I find more acceptable, read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.) And as this book started, I was afraid I'd have to grit my teeth through such spell-casting for the whole book. Thankfully, our heroine developed a more mature way of spell-casting that Ms. Novik described beautifully, and was really quite intriguing. Also, by this point in the book the action had picked up dramatically, so I was sailing along pretty well, pulled by the great storytelling.
This book is very much like a long, involved fairy tale. The basic premise is that there is an evil wood that is encroaching on villages, and it often "takes" unwary people and animals and they are either never seen from again, or are released, but are "corrupted" by the evil and must be put to death. One wizard, known locally as "the Dragon" lives near the wood and has been holding it at bay for decades. Every ten years he chooses a young woman who lives near the forest to come and serve him. After their time with him, these young women never return to their home villages, but go off to live elsewhere. No one really knows what actually happens to them during their time with the Dragon. Our protagonist, Agnieszka, ends up being the chosen one, despite everyone thinking her best friend - who is much prettier and more capable - would be chosen.
The first part of the book is all about the Dragon trying to teach Agnieszka simple magic spells and her failing miserably. It seemed a bit predictable - it's obvious from the dust jacket summary that she'll learn more powerful magic - but it was interesting to see how she finally learned it. In this section the Dragon is pretty one-dimensional, but I suppose that's appropriate, because that's how Agnieszka sees him.
Once she learns "real" magic, things start happening fast, and the rest of the books is about the pitched battle between good and evil (with some politics thrown in to spice things up.) This section of the book had me pretty spellbound (no pun intended), as it moved from action to action. These scenes, with the magic spells, were really quite captivating. I liked the fact that it wasn't easy to overcome the evil in the wood, and I especially liked what Agnieszka did afterward. And the relationship between the Dragon and Agnieszka was well-handled.
So, yes, I liked this book. Not as much as the Temeraire books (they have REAL dragons, after all!) but still I enjoyed the story. Ms. Novik knows how to tell a good tale! Harry Potter fans looking for something a bit more developed will eat this up.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Neal Stephenson writes in many different genres - historical fiction (The Baroque Cycle Collection), crime thrillers (Reamde) and cyberpunk (Snow Crash). My favorite of his is Cryptonomicon, which defies classification. Seveneves is pure hard science fiction.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
The book begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon by an unknown "agent" leaving it in large chunks. A scientist (clearly based on Neil deGrasse Tyson) determines that the subsequent creation of rocks caused by repeated collisions of the chunks will cause devastating meteor showers, eventually wiping out the earth. He sets the time frame for this at two years. This announcement sets into motion a desperate attempt to save the genomes of earth and its people. They build on the existing International Space Station, and select certain people to be saved by rocketing them there. Part one of the book deals with this effort.
Part two is what happens after the earth is wiped out, and humanity struggles to survive in space. This is where Stephenson explores a lot about politics and human motivations. It's almost exasperating to see humans perpetuate their little 'empire building' power trips, but it certainly seems realistic.
Part three is 5,000 years later, as humanity has spread out in orbit around Earth, and has started terraforming and colonizing the planet once again. This part was less exciting to me, as it seemed to just be an excuse for Stephenson to show off his 'cool' technology ideas. Don't get me wrong, they were cool ideas, but there was only minimal plot to move this section along.
Stephenson writes with great clarity, and the science used in the story is more than plausible. I was riveted by the first two parts of the book, despite all the technobabble. My only quibble with part one was the lack of societal breakdown caused by the impending doom of the world. He had people going to hotels and eating in restaurants during this time. You mean to tell me that housekeepers, chefs, waiters, and dishwashers would keep on going to work, day after day, knowing they'd all be dead in less than two years? There was a bit of unrest around those who were selected to be saved in space, but there was a real lack of the chaos I would expect under the circumstances. Part of this may have been a plot choice - adding additional chaos on earth would have slowed down the main story - but since all the science and politics seemed so realistic, this lack was pretty glaring for me. However, this is a minor quibble, and I would still recommend this to any science fiction fan, or those who like post-apocalyptic fiction.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love Ivan Doig's writing! He captures Montana like no other writer I've come across. This book is slightly different than the others I've read in that it's kind of historical fiction. It's set during the depression, when the WPA decided to build a dam on the Missouri River, in northeastern Montana, at Ft. Peck. But in typical Doig style, it's also the story of a family, the Duffs, whose lives are entwined with the building of the dam. The father, Hugh, is a farmer along the river, upstream from the dam site. He's barely eking out a living, but when told he has to move because his farm will be flooded, he doesn't take it well. Part of his enmity toward the dam is the fact that his oldest son, Owen, is one of the primary engineers for the dam, and they have an estranged relationship - probably stemming from the fact that Owen didn't want to be a farmer like his father, and went off to college. The book follows what happens to the family, as they all end up working at the dam site.
The story is told as a sort of flashback/flashforward, centering on the mystery of a naked man and woman found drowned in a truck in the reservoir. It mostly centers on the Duff clan, all of whom end up working at the dam site, in one capacity or another, including Hugh's brother, Darius, a communist/unionist from Scotland, who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the already tangled relationships of the family. Doig's characters are all wonderfully fleshed out. They are all very believable and Doig is able to make them recognizable as typical Montana folk, without being stereotypical. I felt as if I could bump into any of them in any small Montana town. The twists and turns of their relationships lead to the final reveal of the mystery, which is quite plausible.
The characters alone are only part of this book. Dominating and driving the plot is the dam. It's practically another character. It was the largest back-filled earthen dam in the world (may still be), at four miles long. Building it was a major achievement of engineering and manpower. Over 10,000 workers helped to build it. Part of my enjoyment of the book was reading about how it was designed and built, and the obstacles they had to overcome to do so. It was absolutely fascinating and never bogged down the flow of the narrative.
The title of the book comes from a saying that is used to describe what happens when the sun is setting or rising and is just on the horizon and blinds you, but you keep on driving (or doing whatever else you're doing) regardless of the danger. We see this played out explicitly with one of the characters driving back to Ft. Peck one evening, but we also see this metaphorically, as characters are blinded by their fears or desires, yet keep going forward anyway, heedless of what might result. It is this blind progress that causes the conflict among the characters. An apt metaphor, indeed.
I highly recommend this book to anyone from Montana, to history buffs, and to mystery lovers. I don't think you'll be disappointed.