the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for July 2015

speak easySpeak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente

publishes August 31, 2015

Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Subterranean!)

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Speak Easy is a jazz age retelling of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (a tale you’re familiar with if you’ve read Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at The Kingfisher Club).  Told in a series of vignettes that follow the residents of the hotel Artemesia, we watch as they each see something they want, and are lured to go after it. The final twist, however, involves a magic far older than the Brothers Grimm originally imagined.

The words that best describes this novella are sculptural and musical. The short chapters are titled with the room numbers in which the characters reside. It’s as if, with each vignette, with each character introduction and peek into their lives, Valente is carving the story, word by word and room by room out of a massive, hotel shaped slab of marble. It’s like those ancient temples that have been carved out of stone or into cliff faces. Someone had to carve out all those rooms. Just like Valente is carving out the rooms of the hotel residents. One of the first rooms we visit is the infamous 1550, home of Zelda Fair, Olive Bay, Opal Lunet and Oleander Coy. Four women who live by their own set of rules, share their apartment with a pelican, and keep their own secrets.  Although Speak Easy is an ensemble piece, Zelda quickly becomes the celestial body that other characters orbit.

I also mentioned the word musical,didn’t I? It’s the voice of the narrator. Confident, cheeky, and bordering on scat singing, the narrator is having a conversation with the reader, luring you in, teasing you with slang, entendres, and bawdy jokes. The narrator can tell you who in this hotel is sleeping with someone they aren’t married to, wouldn’t you like know what other juicy secrets she might be enticed to share?

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illusion paula volskyIllusion by Paula Volsky

published in 1992

where I got it: paperback swap

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If Robin Hobb wrote a mash-up of Les Miserables, Downton Abbey, and Memoirs of a Geisha, she might end up with something like Paula Volsky’s Illusion. Magic meets a society in turmoil, in which a bloody revolution is followed by chaos, all told from the point of view of a incredibly sheltered young woman.

 

Raised in wealth and privilege in the outer provinces, Eliste vo Derrivalle knows she’s above the common people. Because of course she is, she’s Exalted. A class above the wealthy and prosperous, the Exalted have a natural magic, and naturally, all other people exist to serve the Exalted. It’s not Eliste’s fault she’s been raised to believe this. Not only is it the culture in which she was raised, it is the culture of the entire Kingdom.

 

Shortly after the opening chapters, Eliste and her maid travel to the capital, where she is to live with her aunt and learn the finer qualities of being a noble lady. She’s been chosen to be a lady in waiting (of sorts) to the Queen. Being a lady in waiting is more along the lines of servitude, and accepting gifts and favors usually requires something in return. Eliste is so damn naive and in denial of what’s happening around her, that it is nearly tragically comic.

 

While Eliste is enjoying champagne and leftover pastries for lunch with the other ladies, a revolution is brewing. The second half of the novel takes a very dark turn, with a revolutionary leader whose fervor for a new world is only matched by his paranoia, and magical mechanical creatures that no one can control.

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slow bulletsSlow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

published June 2015

where I got it: purchased new

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After a few sluggish, slow reads, it was such a pleasure to pick something up and be sucked in right away. At just shy of 200 pages, Slow Bullets is a fast read, and paced absolutely perfectly. Not a moment feels slow, nor does anything feel rushed.  Other than the first segment, Scur is telling her story to someone, someone who knows how her story ends. It’s as if she’s an aged grandmother telling the neighborhood kids about what happened once upon a time. The person she’s talking to knows the sordid details, but the reader will have to wait until Scur gets to those details in her own time. Don’t worry, she will. Eventually, she’ll tell you everything.

 

Scur was a soldier in an interstellar war, and just as a ceasefire is being announced she’s been captured by the opposing side. Captured by a sadist, he shoots a slow burrowing bullet into her leg. When it reaches her heart, she’ll die.

 

Instead, she wakes up on a prison ship. The situation is pretty bleak – one crew member is still alive, the ship’s AI has gone wonky, and no one seems to be in control.  Remember the cult sci-fi movie Cube?  The first half of Slow Bullets feels quite a bit like that – with people asking what they did to deserve being on the prison ship, trying to figure out where they’re going, trying to find out if they will ever see their families again, trying to understand how to fix the ship’s computer.

 

So, what are a few hundred bloodthirsty soldiers aboard a prison ship to do? This is a ship with no captain, no functioning navigation, and they planet they are orbiting doesn’t look familiar.

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this alien shoreThis Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman

published in 1998

where i got it: paperback swap

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I’ve been hearing about C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore for a number of years now. Thanks to paperback swap (which sadly is no longer free) I was able to get a copy.  At over 500 pages, this book is not a fast read. It’s not a fast read for other reasons, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

 

I loved the premise of the novel. Earth has developed deep space travel, allowing us to colonize as many planets as we can find. But there’s a price. The travel changes our DNA, causing certain genes to reassert themselves, giving entire colonies what many Terrans define as physical and or developmental birth defects. At a time when Earth glorified genes that were free of any type of defects, we learn our path to the stars is rife with them. Contact was cut off from the colonies, forcing the newly planetbound to survive if they could.

 

This Alien Shore takes place hundreds of years later.  Many of the colonies have thrived, turning genetic concerns to their own advantage. Called “variants”, the story is populated with “aliens” who are humanoid in shape, but physically, mentally, and socially completely alien to Terrans. It lets Friedman have fun aliens without having to worry about what an alien looks like. One such genetic defect allows humans to pilot through the dangerous subspace ainniq. Their secrets are held close, allowing their Guild to hold a monopoly over space travel.  Earth is seen as a backwards and ignorant backwater.  (maybe it’s just me, but I fould it impossible to avoid comparing this novel to Dune. I hear “space travel guild that holds a monopoly over travel and holds the secrets of their travel abilities secret”, and all I can think is Spacing Guild!)

 

There are two intertwining plot lines in This Alien Shore – a shiny loud one that thinks it is the main plot, and a quiet one that isn’t interested in your attention but in the end is the more interesting.  Let me unpack that a little, because my reaction to how these plotlines are treated was actually more interesting than the actual plots.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.