Books read, January 2011

I’ve decided I want to experiment with the kind of book-log posts I see some of my friends making. No promises as to how long I’ll keep this up, but since I’m looking forward to actually reading some fiction for the first time in forever, it’s satisfying to track how much of it I’ve devoured in the last month.

The Game, Diana Wynne Jones. Short — a novella rather than a novel — and so I could say things here about how I wish the ideas had been developed out more or whatever. But the truth is I will read anything of hers you put in front of me and be pleased by it (and she may be the only author in the world about whom that is true for me), so whatever. I was pleased by it.

Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones. Longer, though not terribly long, and highly amusing in that distinctive DWJ way. She does quirky characterization so well; I very much enjoyed the interactions between Andrew and the Stocks, to the point of laughing out loud more than once. Quibbles here were that 1) I would have preferred it if Andrew and Aidan’s names didn’t begin with the same letter or else that the pov didn’t slide so unobtrusively between them, 2) once the focus of the conflict became clear I really expected the ubiquity of the name “Stock” to become relevant, and 3) the final confrontation was not her most memorable. But it’s Diana Wynne Jones, which means I read it and was pleased by it.

Act of Will, A.J. Hartley. Started off very well, with an engaging narrator, but it flagged as the story went on; I think it was trying to show something like a D&D adventuring-party story from a different angle, but when the momentum faltered it lost its feel of originality. Also, it never became clear (in this volume; it’s the start of a series) why the author chose to put the invented setting in an academic frame from our own world. (Possibly it suffered by comparison to Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash.)

The Immortals, Tamora Pierce.
Wolf-Speaker, Tamora Pierce.
Emperor Mage, Tamora Pierce.
The Realms of the Gods, Tamora Pierce. Re-reads, and probably for the last time. They are perfectly fine Tortall books, but not my favorites. I think I like the group dynamics that come packaged with the knight-oriented books (Alanna’s and Keladry’s), and I wanted more of the Daine/Numair romance. (Providing that latter, of course, would have required Daine to be older from the start, and I have a whole host of unformed thoughts about the technical and philosophical problems involved with a romance where the older, usually male, character has known the younger female character since she was a child. Daine isn’t that young when Numair meets her, of course, but it’s still a tricky path, and I find myself wondering how you would write its progression from his perspective.)

A friend’s novel in manuscript. About which I will not say anything, except that I enjoyed it and hope she gets it into shape for submission soon.

Translations, Brian Friel. A short play rather than novel, which I read on a friend’s recommendation (actually, the same friend as above) so as to better my command of Irish-English dialect before I did the copy-edits on With Fate Conspire. It takes place in Ireland during the 1830s, when the English government sent over surveyors to map and “standardize” (read: translate and/or Anglicize) all the place names. Deeply depressing in a lot of ways, especially with the way it keeps ostentatiously NOT looking straight at the violence and tragedy going on around its edges.

With Fate Conspire, Marie Brennan. Copy-edits don’t count.

Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold. On advice, I began here. I agree with those who said it’s weak; having read the afterword — Baen’s ebook dump of the series is all in omnibus form, though I’m counting the component novels individually — I think I see why. Not only was it early work, she talks about how the plot kept growing and complexifying, until she lopped off what became Barrayar to be its own book, and this one feels a bit like I can see her trying to get that later narrative in gear. Writers talk sometimes about how basic craft includes learning to get the entire story out of your head and onto the page; certain bits of this one seem to have stayed behind in Bujold’s head. I didn’t mind the story, but it was as if I was reading A, B, C, E — wait, what happened to D? oh well — F, I, etc.

Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold. Noticeably stronger than its predecessor, thanks to several years and novels of practice in between. (I’m reading by internal chronological order, which means I’ll be ricocheting around the compositional order.) The entire alphabet is here this time, and it welds the personal and political together quite well. I really enjoyed the byplay with Koudelka and Droushnakovi — Cordelia’s turns as the Baba are hilarious — and am sad that they haven’t appeared again in the later books I’ve read. Bothari . . . I’m not sure what I think about him. I don’t have as much sympathy for him as the narrative seems to want me to, and I think it’s because I don’t believe in his insanity; IANA psychiatrist, but he feels fictionally insane to me, rather than realistically. I could be wrong about that. But his psychotic turns don’t ring true to me, either in this book or the previous. (I did like his scene with Cordelia, though, about the bits he remembers. His comment about how her not being his victim doesn’t make him any less of an offender was very much appreciated, given how many authors would have used that moment to try and absolve him of responsibility.)

The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold. Not as strong as Barrayar, but a lot better than Shards of Honor; I think it was written later, yes, though published in the same year? The chain of events by which Miles ends up ass-deep in alligators is decidedly silly, of course, but I’m okay with that. It isn’t quite as much my cup of tea as the more dramatic Barrayar; that, however, is personal taste, because this is fine for what it is. I only wish it had spent more time on Barrayar before haring off into the wild blue plot-yonder, because I like to see characters in their home environments, and it makes the foreign adventures more interesting to me. (Lack of Barrayar might be one of my chiefer complaints so far, in all the Miles books. Barrayar, of course, has plenty.)

The Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold. Yay, more actual Barrayar! <g> This one’s a novella, I think? The conflict is clearly meta-gamed by the author to be especially poignant to Miles, but I’ll spot her that bit of narrative manipulation, because the story is good enough to support it. The judgment at the end was very well-chosen, I must say.

The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold. I wasn’t entirely a fan of how she arranged for the early, Kyril Island segment to be relevant to the space-based narrative that occupies the bulk of the book, and the process of prying Miles free of whats-his-face the ImpSec guy was more than a little on the contrived side; but once the Hegen Hub plot really got rolling, it was plenty of fun. (And seeing somebody refer to Gregor as “that skinny neurasthenic git” made me grin.)

Cetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold. Yes, I’ve been mainlining these books. The omnibus format of the e-book dump encourages it, and they go quickly. Anyway, omg the worldbuilding in this one. My anthropological self loved watching Bujold cut loose on that front; Barrayar has interesting touches, but on the whole it feels moderately familiar — medievalish society with tech grafted on top — whereas Cetaganda is wildly speculative. The ghem vs. haut setup, the truly esoteric art, the etiquette and power games around the haut-women . . . I want more of this. And the plot was interestingly twisty, though ultimately its solution was less twisty than I’d been hoping for. I will admit, however, that reading in chronological order means I’m getting a whole lotta “Miles has no authority but he does something that get him into hot water so he contrives reasons for and methods of keeping things from his superiors until it all comes to a head and only he can solve it” — a perfectly fine plot structure, but one that stales a bit after repeated doses. Fortunately, the next book up is Ethan of Athos, which provides a nice break-point at which to read other things.

(Here, have an unnecessary parenthetical aside to end this section, since half the reviews have one tacked on the end.)

Books started and abandoned this month: six. Something of a high number, owing to the ongoing bout of using the twenty-page test to thin out my shelves. I’ll probably keep track of how many books I set aside, but I won’t go into detail on them; in many cases it’s just a matter of the book clearly being Not For Me, and in those cases where I put something down because of quality issues, I feel awkward about publicly critizing it based on such a small sample.

There may be spoilers for the Vorkosigan books in the comment, depending on how much people want to discuss my statements above.

0 Responses to “Books read, January 2011”

  1. mrissa

    I am very fond of Cetaganda for the very reasons you describe; it seems to be less favored among other Vorkosigan fans, though.

    Also, book post! Yay!

    • beccastareyes

      I actually liked it a lot, since it gives us a peek of a society that is shaped by its technology. Granted I like A Civil Campaign and Diplomatic Immunity for about the same reason — the connecting theme of all of ACC’s subplots is cultural change when Barrayar gets technological change for something other than blowing their neighbors’ ships up, and DI gives us some window on quaddie culture that got a lot more depth once I read Falling Free. (Kibou-dani in Cryoburn is a bit interesting, but not nearly as much.)

      I’d love to see more places like Athos*, both of which are heavily shaped by setting-modern technology — Athos couldn’t exist as it is without the biotech used.

      * We get some windows on Athos from the beginning/end of Ethan of Athos, as well as Ethan’s own explanations.

      • Marie Brennan

        Should I make sure to read Falling Free before Diplomatic Immunity? (I wasn’t sure whether I would spend time on that one, because of its tangential position, and I seem to remember hearing mixed things about it.)

    • ckd

      I think it suffers a lot, for me, for having been read between Mirror Dance and Memory; this is one of several good arguments for reading the series in internal chronological order rather than publication order. (I’ve been stuck with the latter for two decades, since by the time The Vor Game came out I’d read all the extant Miles stories.)

      • cofax7

        Yeah, that was my problem with Cetaganda: I wanted more Naismith, more Mark, more of the forward-momentum of the characters, and instead Cetaganda took me backwards to a relatively self-contained story that didn’t advance the characters at all. So I was much less inclined to be charmed by the world-building.

        I wish I had that excuse for my dislike of Diplomatic Immunity… (Still haven’t read Cryoburn.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Makes sense. It’s like when a TV show does ongoing metaplot during a season, and then late in the season they hare off for a stand-alone episode. Even if it’s a fun stand-alone, part of you is going “ARGH get back to the part I care about dammit!”

    • alecaustin

      My thing with Cetaganda was that it felt like there were threads of Chinese imperial culture being deployed there that never quite cohered or became credible to me. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the faux-Japanese culture of Kibou-Daini in Cryoburn, but while I liked the book well enough, the world-building stuff wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that the characterization and emotion wasn’t in the same league as Mirror Dance or Memory.

      • Marie Brennan

        Interesting — I hadn’t pegged it as Chinese. (Most of my knowledge of China ends with the Western Zhou, because it came via an archaeology class.) Now that you say it, I can make some educated guesses as to which threads are the ones you mean, but it didn’t come across as being Future Chinese the way Barrayar is Future Russian. Probably because it the names are not, to my eye at least, obviously Chinese- (I should say Mandarin- or Cantonese-) derived. But anyway, because I wasn’t expecting it to conform to any existing model in my head, what’s on the page was quite fun.

        I’m glad to hear, though, that your complaint is about the characterization and emotion being sub-par for the later series; they aren’t bad by any means, but that stuff is what I most adore out of fiction, and these books haven’t yet scratched that itch for me.

        • alecaustin

          Yeah, it’s not nearly as explicit as Barrayar or any of the ideologically-derived worlds (Komarr, Beta, Jackson’s Whole), but there were things about the Imperial structure and culture (plus the quasi Beijing-opera face paint that showed up on the cover of the edition I read) that got me going in that direction. And it’s not that my default imperial system is Chinese either (it was Roman when I read it) – whether it was deliberate or not, there were threads in the culture that seemed reminiscent of the Mandarinate.

          The names are definitely more French/made-up Euro than Mandarin derived, though, so it’s possible that all of this is interpretation rather than authorial intent.

          Barrayar is more typical of the later series books in terms of characterization and emotional connection than anything else you’ve read so far. I don’t feel that Bujold’s characterization ever gets *deep*, exactly, but it does accumulate, so that the bits I find most painful to read in Memory and A Civil Campaign also seem totally unavoidable given the personalities involved.

          • Marie Brennan

            I quite liked the notion of the face paint; it’s one of those worldbuilding touches that doesn’t seem to have come out of the usual Authorial Starter Kit.

            Accumulated weight of characterization can serve many of the same functions as more rapidly-built depth, yes. TV shows often work off that trick, for me; after a few seasons of learning how certain characters behave, watching them do stupid or reckless things for utterly inevitable reasons is simultaneously wonderful and horrible.

    • Marie Brennan

      I didn’t do book posts initially because I used to do book reviews — including slamming on books I really didn’t like — but then I started being published, and I felt self-conscious about the fact that I might meet those authors in person, so I switched over to doing my book recommendations instead. But since I only recommend books I feel quite positively about, it was hard to come up with enough of those to keep that schedule going, so I stopped doing that either. We’ll try this for a while and see how it goes.

  2. mllelaurel

    I’m not sure I’d agree with the ‘medieval’ assessment for Barrayar culture origins. More like pre-revolutionary Russia, I’d say, which is what Bujold was going for, and which seems, from my knowledge of Russian history and cultural quirk, to be pretty spot on. (And you get a nice bilingual bonus, if you know what the word ‘vor’ actually means in Russian.)

    The really sad part is that situations like the one in The Mountains of Mourning are still pretty common, in rural areas of Russia and Ukraine.

    I should disclaim that I’m in no way a professional historian, but I was born in Ukraine (and lived there for nine years,) and have taken a couple of classes on the history and culture.

    I’d say Bujold starts breaking her formulas hardcore around Brothers in Arms (though the remaining novellas – Labyrinth and Borders of Infinity – still use them to one extent or another.) You’ve seen it already with the difference in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, but the way she develops as an author as she goes is pretty awesome.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, medieval Russian, I should have clarified, though even there I’m still doing the sloppy thing I usually growl at where “medieval” stands in broadly for a whole swath of pre-industrial European history. What I meant was that Barrayar at the end of the Time of Isolation doesn’t seem to have had the trade/exploration/discovery vibe of the Renaissance going on, nor the markers I associated with the classical Mediterranean, etc, and so it comes across as matching a lot of fantasy-reader mental defaults, with regard to local overlords, peasants, etc. Cetagandan society, on the other hand, was less predictable to me in its shape.

      (What does “vor” mean? Looking it up on Wikipedia gives me the “thief in law” construction; is “vor” the thief part of that equation?)

      I expect the formula will break, yes. It’s just that reading six Vorkosigan novels in the space of less that two weeks meant I got the formula in quite a concentrated dose.

  3. sartorias

    Not so much medieval as feudal Russian for Barrayar, but yes!

    And I adore Cetaganda.

  4. akashiver

    Huh. I began and ended that series with Shards of Honor. Maybe I’ll go back and read more of them now.

    • Marie Brennan

      You mean you read that one and quit? In that case, definitely try more. Had Shards of Honor been the work of some random author I didn’t know much about, rather than “this is Bujold’s first book but everybody says she’s awesome,” I very well might not have finished it. I stuck it out because of Bujold’s reputation, and even the weakest of the books I’ve read since (which is probably The Vor Game) is a visible improvement over the first.

  5. shakatany

    There’s hints of some unfinished business between Miles and the Cetagandan emperor that I hope LMB will address one day – maybe in the Ivan book or the one after that.

    Don’t worry you get some really in-depth Barrayar novels once you hit “Mirror Dance” which is followed by “Memory” and “A Civil Campaign” (with Komarr in between).


    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, I fully expect consequences from that. (Hell, Giaja makes sure there will be some.)

      I thought I might get more Barrayar later; what I would have liked was more Barrayar sooner. I have a decent sense of the society from Cordelia’s pov, but I haven’t seen much of Miles in his home environment, and I like having that to give context to the stuff that happens elsewhere.

  6. marycatelli

    Have you heard the story that Shards of Honor was originally a Star Trek fanfic, featuring a red-haired Federation officer (female) and a Klingon stranded on a planet?

  7. marycatelli


    Those of you who liked it should try Ivan Morris’s World of the Shining Prince. You will find it in the history section.

  8. carbonel

    You might be interested in a fanfic novel by . Vorkosigan’s Dog is a retelling of the events of Shards of Honor — the Escobaran war part, at least — from Illyan’s point of view. It’s really, really well done.

  9. zunger

    If you’re reading the book set which came with Cryoburn, be warned that it’s missing Memory due to some sort of production snafu.

    And rest assured, there will be plenty more of Drou and Kou later on, especially in the romances. Their bits in A Civil Campaign are great.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, I noticed the absence of that one. (As I understand, Bujold specifically wants it not stuffed into an omnibus, because of its pivotal position.) Remind me where it comes in the sequence, by internal chronology?

  10. Anonymous

    you’ve probably already read Sherwood Smith’s INDA series, but I thought I would check in just in case–I am SO caught up in it right now, and since we have other, erm, preoccupations in common (read: WoT) I figured this would be up your alley.

    (Not that they strike me as similar series at all.)

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s on my never-ending list of Book What I Should Read. (Which I may finally make some inroads on this year.)

      • alecaustin

        FWIW, I second the recommendation. The cover copy on Inda kept me from reading it for a while, and after I did, I felt foolish.

  11. Marie Brennan

    “Out of sequence” rarely improves a story, no. And I can easily imagine that its pacing suffers under the delays imposed by piecemeal publication.

  12. starlady38

    Translations! That is a wonderful play. Of course, I had the good fortune to read it more or less in situ, which gives my memories of it a certain pizzaz.

    • Marie Brennan

      I have trouble with reading plays, as opposed to seeing them performed; my brain is not terribly good at inflating the two-dimensional words on the page up to a three-dimensional rendering of how the actors might deliver them. (Possibly because I haven’t watched a huge amount of theatre.) But there were a number of very good touches in Translations, yes.

  13. rachelmanija

    Ethan of Athos is really, really funny, in a somewhat similar way to Cetaganda. I would skip Falling Free – it’s not very good and set about a hundred years before anything else (and not anywhere we ever see again.)

    I like The Vor Game more than most people, mostly because Camp Permafrost is one of my very favorite self-contained stories in the series. It does feel like two stories awkwardly jammed together, though.

    • Marie Brennan

      Camp Permafrost was pretty good, but I wanted it to be more; if there had been other small conflicts leading up to the showdown, said showdown would have carried that much more impact. But the story had to get on to the actual plot, and so Miles kind of got rushed in and out.

  14. diatryma

    Daine and Numair bother me, but I don’t like Realms of the Gods that much anyway. Generally, if a book drags characters away from the context of previous books, it is not going to impress me, and I quibble with a lot of fictional gods. But the dynamic between Daine and Numair, not just the ages– that can be handwaved some with relative maturity– but that she has always been his student, that bugs me. And Tamora Pierce, too; I believe she’s said that she would do it differently today.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, it’s the same problem HP7 had; once you get used to a series being framed in a particular context, taking it away is awkward. And maybe that’s my problem with the Immortals series as a whole: the first book was about the Riders, the second was off in that valley, the third went to Carthak with the embassy, and the fourth was mostly in ~Heaven. Daine never really got a firm context the way Alanna or Kel do.

      As for the romance, I think it could have been made to work better — but it would have required a lot more wordage, and a much more central place in the story. (Though now I wonder if the general sidelining of it is a product of the author’s uneasiness, as well as a cause of the romance’s lack of success.)

      • diatryma

        I thought about Daine’s lack of place when I wrote the comment, but most of the action takes place in the human world, at least. I agree that she doesn’t have a lot of grounding at any point in her books.

        I’m not sure when Tamora Pierce realized the underlying creepiness of the romance. I’m basing this on half-remembered comments from Alpha, but I think it was well after publication. There may have been some unconscious discomfort with it, but it’s only recently that she’s had the space to explore that within a book.
        Which is definitely Imaginary Tamora Pierce there.

        • Marie Brennan

          but it’s only recently that she’s had the space to explore that within a book.

          Do you mean one of her more recent books explores it? If so, I’d be curious to know which one. As I said, I have lots of unformed thoughts about this, and reading more stories that mess around with it would probably help me form them more distinctly.

          • diatryma

            No, I don’t think any of her characters have teacher-student romances, but Realms of the Gods felt really short even when I read it the first time. Her books are getting longer now, but I can understand not having the space to dig into the romance aspect with Daine. Then again, what would have fixed it for me is to have an entire book with no Numair, or as little Numair as possible, and Daine very clearly an adult on her own.

          • Marie Brennan

            That would help — but personally, I would also need more screen-time for Numair, because I feel like the narrative holds him at arm’s length where the romance is concerned. If I had his pov (presuming it was non-skeevy), that would help a lot, too. But yes, that would require a longer book, and you’re right that she’s only been able to get away with greater length more recently.

  15. strangerian

    From the shapes of her earlier books, it looks to me as though Bujold’s storytelling worked in novella-length arcs. The first few books published seem like two novellas more-or-less smoothed together to make up a novel, and several stand-out stories like “Mountains of Mourning” and the three in Labyrinth are novellas without apology. And, I’ve liked all the Vorkosigan books enormously, whatever their structure.

  16. Anonymous

    Happy birthday!

  17. Anonymous

    Next time, then!

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