Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Title: The Hum and the Shiver
Author: Alex Bledsoe
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

The Tufa are a community of people who have lived in what is now east Tennessee for hundreds of years – they were there before the arrival of Europeans to North America, yet they aren’t Native American. No one knows quite what they are, actually, but the Tufa keep to themselves, and do what they do best: play music. Their music is more than just music, though. They use it to encourage the crops to grow. They use it to heal from injury. They also use it travel the skies along the night wind.

Bronwyn Hyatt is a prodigal Tufa daughter who has returned home to Cloud County, Tennessee, from Iraq after becoming a war hero. Bronwyn was a wild child growing up and joined the army to escape the pressures of home, like her good-for-nothing ex and the obligations of being the First Daughter of a Tufa family. However, now that she’s returned, those problems seem more pressing than ever – especially since signs and omens have been showing up marking her mother for death.

Now Bronwyn must heal from her war wounds and regain her lost musical skill in time to inherit her mother’s music before she dies.

One of the best things about The Hum and the Shiver is the care with which the Tufa people have been created. Bledsoe has found some particularly ingenious uses for the Tufa’s magic – for that’s really what their music is, at  heart. For example, to discourage reporters from hounding Bronwyn, her family bakes a batch of brownies and distributes them among the press scrum. The brownies, being somehow magically enhanced by Tufa music, fill the reporters with shame and empathy, and encourage them to disperse.

One reporter escapes the shame-by-brownie route, however, and his story forms a compelling sublplot to Bronwyn’s. Don Swayback is a has-been journalist whose apathy has caused him to slowly descend the corporate ladder. He also happens to be part Tufa, and his employer sees this fact as the perfect gambit to secure an exclusive interview with Bronwyn upon her return to Cloud County. Now Don has been given an ultimatum: interview Bronwyn, or find a new job. In his attempts to enter the Tufa community and gain Bronwyn’s family’s trust, he learns more about his previously buried heritage. It’s during a key exchange with an outsider (who provides a convenient infodump) that he learns the truth about what the Tufa really are.

Fairies.

Honest to God.

The Tufa (a corrupted pronunciation of tuatha) were a splinter group of fairies who travelled across the ocean and settled in Cloud County hundreds of years ago. Their music is a manifestation of their power, which, aside from making shame-brownies, also allows them to grow wings and travel along the wind. One of the best scenes of the book is when Don and Bronwyn both do this, albeit separately, and regain crucial lost parts of their identities.

Fairy-flight aside, though, things are not perfect. This being eastern Tennessee, highlighting the insularity of the Tufa community requires the insertion of some casual racism into the mix. In this case, it comes from Bob Pafford, the local state trooper.

This particular highway patroller and Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, Dwayne, are the closest things this book has to antagonists, and while they fulfill those thankless roles well enough, they’re a bit too one-dimensional to work. Pafford is a despot lording over his little fiefdom of the back roads, while Dwayne is your typical redneck/sociopath. Ultimately, both are disposed of in one fell swoop in an event that seems a little too pat.

This points to one of the biggest problems I had with the book: the way it handles the deaths of the major characters. As it turns out, the signs and omens of death surrounding Bronwyn’s family pertain not to her mother, but to her older brother, Kell.

However, not only does Kell’s death happen off-screen (so to speak), but he actually doesn’t die at first – Bronwyn has a chance to hear he’s injured and see him at the hospital, whereupon he tells her that he feels perfectly fine. It’s only after she leaves the hospital to confront his attacker  – I’ll give you two guesses as to who – that he dies of sudden internal bleeding. While this gives Bledsoe a chance to insert some lovely lyrics of Tufa mourning into the mix, it also feels like a huge cop-out.

Despite this, the entire concept of fairy magic and music in the southern US seems mighty interesting. This is the first book in an entire series about the Tufa – the next one, titled Wisp of a Thing, will be released in 2013.

I’m going to keep my eye out for the rest and see how Bledsoe juggles the other narrative balls he’s thrown into the air, like the rest of Bronwyn’s family, the Methodist preacher who’s fallen in love with her, and even a very special painting in a local library. There’s a lot of ornamentation around the edge of The Hum and the Shiver, and it will be interesting to see how Bledsoe fills everything else in.

Up next: The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words – it would be a surprise if I weren’t an introvert!

However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.

One of the best aspects of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don’t have a specific reason for being there, or don’t know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I’m comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.

Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.

Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.)  Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you’re vigilant, you’re wary, which means that you’re probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.

Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don’t we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don’t we value independence and intense focus?

Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it’s a question I’ve thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.

Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of “introvert cultures” and “extrovert cultures” and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: “Western” society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but “Asian” society is an introvert culture.

What’s bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What’s worse is that she treats “Asian” culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don’t show up in a massive majority of the world’s population.

All that aside, in many other ways the book’s information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain’s descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I’ve felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.

Up next: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW
Rating: 2 out of 5
Format: Print

Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl growing up in Africa – Sudan is implied – after an unnamed apocalyptic event. Onyesonwu is not just any girl, though – she is an Ewu, a child born of rape between an Okeke (black) mother and a Nuru (white) man. Her pale skin and freckles act as an indicator of her outsider status, and she and her mother are pariahs within their desert community of Jwahir.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Okeke have always been poor and bound to serve the Nuru. So it says in the Great Book, which claims that the Okekes’ pride and greed caused the world’s original collapse, and that the Nurus are the ones tasked with reversing this grave error. This devotion to the Great Book has turned deadly, though, as a series of coordinated attacks by Nuru people (led by one powerful Nuru sorceror in particular) have led to entire Okeke villages being slaughtered, and to the systematic rape of Okeke women.

As Onyesonwu grows up, she realizes that she has special powers – another trademark of being Ewu – including shapeshifting and communing with supernatural spirits. Eventually, she realizes that it is her destiny to end the war that the Nuru people are waging on the Okeke. Also, in the ultimate example of the political becoming the personal, she learns that the Nuru man who raped her mother is none other than the sorcerer leading the Nurus’ campaign of genocide.

Part of why I dislike the book is that being an outsider is one of Onyesonwu’s few defining character traits. In Jwahir, Ewu children like her are outcasts, and the elders of the city refuse to teach her about magic because she is a woman. In addition, in an attempt to become accepted by within her community, she undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy only to find out later that the knives used to cut her flesh were bespelled so that she and other women would be unable to enjoy sexual pleasure outside of marriage.

So, she’s hated because of her dubious parentage, she’s kept in ignorance because of her gender, and she’s prevented from exercising her sexual agency. This is a trifecta of things guaranteed to piss off a Women’s Studies major like me – but the fact that it’s there is just a tad too on-the-nose. As I read the book, I kept on thinking I get it, Onyesonwu is an embodiment of epistemic privilege. Can you stop now and finish with the righteous outrage, please?.

The thing that’s really confusing about her enforced ignorance is that her tutors know she’s the central figure in a great prophecy to change the world. Why refuse to teach her, then, if so much depends on her mastery of magic? What’s more, it turns out that the prophecy is well-known, although most others think that the central figure it refers to is a Nuru man, not an Ewu woman. Why exactly her tutors know the truth when few others do – and then refuse to act on this knowledge – is a huge plot hole that’s never fully explained.

On top of that, the pacing in this novel is incredibly off. Onyesonwu journeys across the desert with a small group of friends to fulfill her destiny and stop her father’s genocide. However, the journey itself doesn’t start until nearly halfway through the book, and its salient feature is the sexual frustration her friends feel. Conveniently, Onyesonwu has the ability to grow back her cut-off flesh because she’s a shapeshifter. Even more conveniently, her failed attempt to heal a severely deformed woman (somehow?) imbues her with the knowledge to restore the cut-off flesh of her friends. Because obviously, the most important problem to solve in the midst of genocidal ruin is making sure your companions don’t get bitchy because they can’t have sex.

As the book’s fractious friendships, arguments, convenient revelations (Oh, so it turns out that Onyesonwu’s mother was also a sorceress? You don’t say!), and shifting sexual liaisons continued, the final page kept drawing closer and closer, and I had no idea how there would be enough room for a satisfying showdown between father and daughter.

Short version: There isn’t.

Long version: She meets with her father and attacks him, but doesn’t manage to kill him. She then manipulates her body in such a way that the resulting magic kills all of the men and impregnates all of the women in the surrounding environs. She then finds the master copy of the Great Book whose teachings are the source of the Nurus’ hatred for the Okekes, and magically rewrites it to prevent that hatred from ever forming. She then gets stoned to death by the remaining Nuru populace for her trouble.

If there was ever a literary embodiment of “nasty, brutish, and short”, the ending of Who Fears Death is it.

Throughout, I never felt a sense of wonder or awe when I read this book. I fail to think of a single sentence, image, or paragraph that stopped me cold with its eloquence, or sent shivers up my spine with its beauty. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the single most damning thing I can say in this review.

I really wanted to like Who Fears Death. For one, it’s written by a woman of colour featuring a female protagonist who is also of colour. I’m aware of the ways in which speculative fiction has marginalized non-white, non-male voices, so I’ve been making an effort to counteract that in my reading choices. Besides that, it tackles a variety of topics that our society either doesn’t talk about or tries hard to avoid discussing, including female genital cutting, genocide, and rape as a weapon of war.

Ultimately, though, I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Who Fears Death, and read it mainly because I wanted to be a Good Feminist and assuage some of my White Liberal Guilt by reading about something depressing but politically important. Depressing as the subject matter was, I still hoped for at least a little bit of grace, but never found it.

Up next: Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Tor
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

Russian folklore is not an aspect of Western/European mythology you come across much in modern fantasy – the only other example I can think of is a side story in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – so it’s nice to see Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless getting their due.

Deathless is a modern retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set during the turmoils of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter enchanted me with its fairy-tale-like repetition, and the writing style throughout reminded me of Silently and Very Fast, another work of Valente’s that I’ve enjoyed.

This is mere no fairy-tale, though, as it recasts Koschei – typically an antagonist in Russian folklore – into a flawed hero fighting a futile war against death itself. Marya Morevna, originally his beautiful young conquest, becomes his bride, and eventually a general in the battle against Viy, the Tsar of Death.

Wise readers will note that the crux of this war takes place at the beginning of World War II before and during the siege of Leningrad, and even wiser readers than I may speculate that the entire story could stand as a metaphor for the ideological changes that Russia underwent both before and after the war. However, as I am not an authority on Russian politics, I will have to settle for Baba Yaga and house imps reciting socialist political theory instead.

One of the book’s key themes is the idea of control or rulership – specifically, can a mortal woman like Marya gain the upper hand as the wife of Koschei, who is immortal? Ultimately, she can and does by adopting his methods and becoming as casually cruel as he – but such growth takes a long time to occur in the novel, and until then she remains frustratingly passive. I get the sense that this is deliberate on Valente’s part though; in one pivotal scene, Marya attempts to seduce another man using food the way Koschei seduced her, and the man in question doesn’t submit as easily to her overtures as she did to Koschei’s. Sometimes, you just have to be quiet and let a starving man eat.

Marya’s passivity is more than made up for by the other female characters in Deathless. I loved Baba Yaga and Madame Lebedeva, a magician who forms part of Marya’s coterie upon her entry into Kochei’s realm. Both women are intelligent and calculating, and understand how to wield power properly. Lebedeva in particular is a delight because she combines her magical skill with theatricality and refinement, yet manages to do so without becoming the insufferable sort of Mean Girl we expect of a beautiful woman who places great import on her appearance. Read the scene of Lebedeva and Marya in a magical cafe where Lebedeva holds court while very ostentatiously not eating the meal she has ordered, and you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a master storyteller.

Other images in Deathless are similarly vivid. Great attention is paid to colour and form, especially where Lebedeva is concerned. But beyond that there is the silver gleam that symbolizes the land of Death, and the deep red of garnets and pickled beets, and the gold and black of butter and caviar slathered upon fresh bread. Like Marya, Deathless casts its readers into a world of unexpected depth and luxury.

Up next: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Publisher: Prime Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

For someone who claims to enjoy science fiction, I have read surprisingly few full-length sci-fi books this year. First there was the retro superhero novel. Then there was the space opera. And now we come to another esteemed subgenre within sci-fi: Steampunk.

The Alchemy of Stone has few of the traditional trappings of steampunk – no goggles, no airships, no overwhelming sense of can-do Victorian optimism – but it does have an automaton. Mattie, to be precise: An emancipated automaton who was given independence by her creator, Loharri, after learning the skills of alchemy. This is unusual in that Loharri, as a Mechanic, is politically and spiritually opposed to the work done by the Alchemist’s guild, of which Mattie is now part. The Mechanics and the Alchemists have recently been at odds over the direction that their city’s growth should take (think of the Industrial Revolution), and this dispute has come to a head with dangerous results: Civil war is inevitable.

Mattie doesn’t care for political machinations, though, as she’s been requested to tackle an extremely unusual assignment – the gargoyles, the supernatural founders and protectors of the city, want her to use her alchemical skills to somehow transmogrify their stone bodies to flesh. This is no easy task, and she relies on an unusual network of outcasts to arrive at a solution: The soul of the now-deceased alchemist formerly given this assignment, the soul-smoker who houses that soul within his own flesh, and a refugee alchemist who uses the power of blood to weave her spells.

Out of context, all of these elements – automatons, magic, gargoyles, souls, revolution, etc – sound like an unusual mixture. Unfortunately, they also fail to cohere within the book itself. The most interesting narrative choice is which points of view are used in the story; most of it is told from Mattie’s perspective, but a series of smaller portions set in italics are told from the perspective of the gargoyles themselves, and they speak in first person plural to convey their thoughts as a collective. The gargoyle passages are quite lyrical. However, they feel removed from the main political friction that drives the rest of the narrative forward.

One major problem is that this political friction doesn’t have a sense of urgency. Half-hearted mentions are given to refugees taking jobs from city-dwellers and of people being sent off to nearby mines to die as slave labour, but this never feels fully rooted in the history of the setting. It’s telling that I keep on calling the location of the story itself “the city” instead of a definite name. According to the copy on the back cover, the city’s name is “Ayona” – but I had to rely on the book cover to know that, as I can’t recall the name “Ayona” being mentioned anywhere in the text itself. That should be a warning sign when reading any sort of speculative fiction.

This lack of historical context within the book is odd because in other respects the worldbuilding of The Alchemy of Stone is excellent. In particular, I loved the idea of a “soul-smoker” – the book’s equivalent of what we would call a sin-eater. These are people who go to houses haunted by ghosts, and then lure the ghosts down with a wad of burning opium; when the ghost is tempted down from the rafters by the smoke, the soul-smoker inhales the smoke, ghost and all, through a pipe. The ghost then inhabits the soul-smoker’s body, and can communicate mentally with its new host. Given the abundance of souls within the soul-smoker’s body, living people treat the soul-smoker as a pariah out of fear that prolonged close contact with him or her will cause their own souls to vacate their bodies and join the other souls congregated inside the smoker. As Mattie technically doesn’t have a soul, she has no fear of him, and their relationship provides mutual comfort and support. I would enjoy a book devoted to just the two of them talking together.

It’s Mattie’s relationships with other people in the book that I have more of a problem with. In particular, she falls in love with a secondary character in the novel, a rough and uncouth man she barely knows. This sudden realization of love makes little sense considering their limited contact. Secondly, on at least one occasion when they meet, he attempts to physically assault her and is prevented from doing so only by the sudden intervention of the gargoyles. Finally, their relationship culminates in what has got to be one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever read – maybe I’m a prude, or not particularly progressive, but it was weird to read about a human and an automaton consummating a relationship, especially when the latter party doesn’t have… ahem… all of the “parts” required.

This is nothing compared to the troubled relationship Mattie has to her creator, Loharri, however. Although he emancipated her, he refuses to relinquish the final hold he has on her: The small piece of metal used to wind up the cogs and gears in her chest that is – quite literally – the key to her heart.

It turns out that not only does he prevent her from attaining true freedom by keeping the one key that keeps her gears in working order, but he also 1) builds a mechanism in her brain that causes her to undergo system failure if she thinks about consulting him but does not do so, and 2) uses her to spy on her Alchemist colleagues without her knowledge. Their relationship is an unhealthy one in every sense of the word.

There are few other things I could mention about why this book troubles me so, but I’ve gone on long enough. If this is the case, why am I still giving the book 3 stars out of 5? I’m willing to give it a pass because of the quality of the prose and because of its worldbuilding. In other words, it’s got great skin – it just needs a better set of bones.

Up next: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Title: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Author: Michael Lewis
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I am not a financial expert. I understand the underpinnings of the financial crisis that started in 2008 well enough, but all of the cogs and gears within that unholy machine – the CDOs, the ratings, the tranches, the hedge bets – are a bunch of mumbo jumbo. One of Michael Lewis’ gifts is bringing the obscure workings of the financial markets into clear (if hideous) focus.

That’s what The Big Short is all about. However, instead of a rote retelling of why things went pear-shaped in 2008, he instead tackles the mirror image of that financial disaster: The story of the small group of Wall Street professionals who saw the mass of subprime mortgages for what it was and decided to bet on the whole house of cards collapsing.

One of Lewis’ greatest strengths is his ability to help us remember who the “good guys” are in the narrative – those who saw the system for what it was, as opposed to those who upheld the status quo and so allowed the financial crisis to happen. Considering the extent to which the financial industry relied on jargon and regulatory laziness to stay afloat, this is no small feat.

My only complaint about The Big Short is that one of the principals in it, Steve Eisman, sounded so different from other traders that I wanted to learn more about how he developed his personal philosophy. Alone among the traders profiled in the book, Eisman realized the social and class implications of the subprime mortgage crisis. His perspective is similar to that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I want to know more about how he gradually realized that the actions of the financial industry were hurting those in the lower and middle classes.

Up next: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for this year’s Hugo award for Best Novel

Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don’t understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton’s Among Others. Mor is aware that she’s isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor’s isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.

Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What’s more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor’s circumstances – the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read – is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.

Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for “Morganna” and the other being short for “Morwenna”), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.

Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a “dark queen” – to quote Lord of the Rings – and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.

Now she’s been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father’s overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s – books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.

The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:

  • It establishes the time period: Mor’s diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
  • It makes the narrator’s voice feel natural: Mor’s opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she’s an adult, she’ll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
  • It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.

This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic – the consequences of which often scare her – that it’s much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.

However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton’s consistency – magic in books isn’t like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? – it’s not psychologically satisfying.

Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it’s also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book’s critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre’s canon.

As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of “Wasn’t sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?” nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it’s going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.

With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another.

Up next: The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Author: Charles Duhigg
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

In many ways, habits define us – the routes we take to work; the things we eat, drink, or inhale; the ways we interact with others. But a bad habit is one of the hardest things to get rid of, no matter how much we may want to change. Thus, Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit promises to appeal to people (like me) who read self-help books, non-fiction, and books about psychology or medicine.

At this point, it’s best to use Duhigg’s own words to explain how habits work. Here’s an excerpt from his fascinating piece in the New York Times, which was in turn what spurred me to read the book:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.

In the book, Duhigg reviews behavioural psychology research and analyzes individuals, corporations, and social networks that have used the principals of habit formation to their own advantage. However, while this approach is fascinating, it does have its flaws.

For one thing, it takes some stretching to fit several of the case studies into the three-step model at the centre of the book. Showing how Target analyzes shopping habits to improve sales and take advantage of buyer psychology is one thing. Arguing that it was Rosa Parks’ social habits – her weak and strong connections across several layers of society – that galvanized Montgomery into organizing such a successful bus boycott is another thing entirely. Social interactions are much harder to boil down into the “habit loop” than the book implies.

The most successful sections deal with personal attempts to change habits, and corporate/institutional attempts to do the same. The chapter on Target – much of which is included in the NYT article above – is possibly the most engrossing yet simultaneously frightening thing I’ve read in a while. Things like Target’s “pregnancy prediction database” make you realize just how thoroughly we’re monitored every day.

Likewise, I appreciated the opening section that talked about Lisa, a woman who overcame multiple bad habits – poor diet, lack of exercise, financial irresponsibility – and turned her life around completely through the simple act of setting one goal for the future.

But it is precisely these two halves of the story that point to The Power of Habit’s biggest flaw. Was Duhigg trying to write a self-help book or a piece of long-form investigative journalism? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the chapters are separated out to highlight this division. The prologue with Lisa’s story and the final chapter of the book sound like self-help writing, but the chapters on Target, radio stations, football teams, and Starbucks fit into the mold of other non-fiction books established by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.

It’s an interesting read, but it left me feeling strangely unsatisfied. Instead, try going with the New York Times article he wrote – it’s definitely got bang for the buck.

Up next: Among Others by Jo Walton

Book Review: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt

Title: Briarpatch
Author: Tim Pratt
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Darrin’s life has taken an awful turn: Within the space of one month, he lost his job, his car, and his girlfriend, Bridget, who walked out of his life with no explanation. Six months later while wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, he encounters Bridget for the first time since she left him – only to see her jump to her death off the Golden Gate bridge.

In his search to find out why Bridget killed herself, he gets caught up in the web of connections surrounding the briarpatch, an interdimensional labyrinth that connects all worlds probable and improbable. And it turns out that among the the people who help or hinder his quest – his own traitorous best friend, an immortal man who wields the power of despair, a man with no sense of taste or smell, an earthy psychopath with a taste for chrome shotguns, and a man who drives the world’s most unusual car – Darrin may be most improbable visitor to the briarpatch yet.

Warning: spoilers below.

The best thing about Briarpatch is the worldbuilding. Imagine a bar that serves vampires, or a world of sentient bees that cooperate with beekeepers to produce hallucinogenic honey. That’s the kind of imagery that this book delivers with regularity. There are bridges of moonlight that could lead to paradise, and there are supernatural creatures in the shape of cars that show up just where they need to be. There are immortal people who involuntarily teleport in order to prevent themselves from being killed, and there are insane humans who shape-shift into bears.

The way the briarpatch and its effects on people are described, the more I want to visit it myself. There are moments of love and joy and despair, like the immortal man who wanted to be on the moonlit bridge so much that he nearly starved to death basking in its reflected glory – only to have his body become desperate enough to teleport him away to a riverbed so that he could avoid dying of dehydration.

However, in many cases, the plot has serious problems with exposition. The scheme of the main antagonist, Ismael Plenty, is byzantine at best: Ismael is immortal and wants to die, and feels that the only way he can do so is to enter a distant, hard-to-reach part of the briarpatch that shimmers with the light of Heaven. He is convinced that only Darrin can lead the way, because Darrin – like Ismael – is a pure, spontaneous manifestation of the briarpatch itself. Yet he’s also convinced that the only way Darrin can enter the briarpatch is to feel intense despair – which is why Ismael has orchestrated the collapse of his life. When Darrin reaches the brink of despair, Ismael plans to swoop in and offer entry to the briarpatch as the solution to his problems.

However, this plan flies in the face of Ismael’s interactions with other characters: Before he meets Darrin, he introduces not one, not two, but three of his friends to it, and they all agree, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be part of Ismael’s despair-inducing plan. If it’s so easy for him to convince Darrin’s friends about the importance of the briarpatch, why not approach Darrin himself honestly? I just don’t get it.

On top of that, there was one scene that stopped the action in its tracks, where several of the main characters met up and explained everything they knew to each other. In turn, they described in detail their interactions with Ismael and Darrin, and what Ismael promised each of them for their involvement. I understand that this scene needed to happen, but its placement in the book is disorienting: It’s in the middle, and a similar all-is-revealed scene happens right near the end. Having a climactic scene like that repeated alters the flow of the book and reduces the impact of the second version near the end.

Finally, while several of the characters are relatable or interesting to read about – Bridget, who is always yearning for new experiences; Orville, the aforementioned man without taste or smell; Arturo, who drives a supernatural being in the shape of a car with trance-inducing headlights – Darrin himself is not very memorable. He’s a reasonable, friendly every-man who likes to tool around San Fran taking unusual photographs. Yet he seems too bland and normal – not other-worldly enough – to be taken seriously as an avatar of such a surreal place as the briarpatch.

I liked Briarpatch, but I don’t think it’s as enjoyable as other stories of Pratt’s that I’ve encountered, like The Ghost of Christmas Possible or Cup and Table.

Up next: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book #1)
Author: James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Publisher: Orbit
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel

Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven’t read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.

From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.

Please note: this review contains spoilers.

It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters – the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie’s gone missing, and it’s fallen to Detective Miller – a cop on Ceres – to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie’s family.

James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden’s search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller’s search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.

First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that’s been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.

Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.

Havelock’s presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way – although Miller’s peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn’t respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.

Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he’s gotten himself tangled up in. He’s such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he’s as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book – the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller’s a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.

However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.

This is where the space zombies come in.

You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.

One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.

Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie – or what’s left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller’s focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he’s saying and asking her to do – when she realizes that she’s become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate – it’s a moment of sadness and beauty.

Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.

I’ll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go “wow” – and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn’t have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory – and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much.

Up next: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt