Sci-Fi Tie-Ins

Having thoroughly enjoyed the novelization of the Assassin’s Creed movie, I opted to take another look at the literature of the games.  Again, I haven’t played a single one, though I have a friend who does tell me about all the crazy machinations going on behind and around the regressions.  Said friend is a bit behind, though perhaps my recent babbling may have an effect.

Anyway, the novelization advertised another book, this one in the universe of the games, also by Christie Golden.  Since I’d enjoyed her work with the one book, I opted to give her another shot and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Heresy.  It’s not the longest book in the world, so I wasn’t surprised at how quickly it flew by.

Simon Hathaway is a Templar and has just become the new ninth member of the Inner Sanctum.  His goal is to use the Animus to visit the life of his ancestor who knew Joan of Arc.  Joan was rumored to possess a MacGuffin sword, now in the hands of our favorite villian Alan Rikkin, but no one can make it function.  Simon proposes that by viewing a time when they knew the sword to work, he will be able to restore it.

However, as is par for the course in a story like this, nothing is as it seems.  There are both Assassins and Templars and nobody’s safe.  Not even in present day London where Simon lives and works.

I was greatly hindered in reading Heresy by two major factors.  First and foremost is my unfamiliarity with the games and their storyline.  There was enough information for me to piece together the data I hadn’t been exposed to previously, but this necessity robbed me of some of the easy enjoyment I had with the book.  But however interesting it might be, I am still not going to put hundreds of hours of my life into these games.  I may try again if I can find an older book, relating to or based on the original game, but I will be more careful about what sorts of novelizations I pick up.

For me, the point of novelizations is to explore a world I already enjoy in greater detail, to see the scenes that got cut and to gain a better appreciation of the characters’ perspective.  This is why the Power Rangers novelization that basically followed the same script as the final cut of the film was so disappointing.

The other major problem with Heresy is the classic self-publishing problem.  And no, this book wasn’t technically self-published…Ubisoft did it.  But Ubisoft makes video games, not books.  And boy, does it show.  Missing section breaks, extraneous quotation marks, text that should have been italicized, paragraphs starting in the middle of sentences from their predecessors, and the most blatant typo I have ever seen in my life.  No really, there’s a sentence that reads “His hands were damfvfvGabriel gasped.”  I just…ugh.  This is the sort of thing that should have been caught by an editor.  Or a beta reader.  Or better yet both.  I beta read four books for my friend and not a single one of them had anything that bad.  Hell, the only kind of spelling error I remember is an unusual word or name and asking which way she wanted to spell it because it’s stupid to use more than one.

I really do despise spelling and grammar errors in books, even though they show up in even the most professionally produced novels.  I catch them and they jerk me out of my immersion, sometimes to a point where I can’t ever regain that same closeness with the story.  Which is a damned shame, because there’s a number of books that don’t deserve to be dragged down by something so stupid.

Overall, Heresy was fine.  I couldn’t get as deeply into it as with the novelization for the above reasons, and Simon was an okay protagonist if a little bland.  I think I better enjoyed the present-day conflicts in the movie/novelization created by the protagonist being an Assassin among Templars, instead of Simon being a rather important Templar among his own Order.  I’ve certainly read worse books, although that typo really takes the cake as far as typos go.

You could say “once burned, twice shy,” but I don’t think I’m done with novelizations, nor do I think I’m done with Assassin’s Creed.  My friend pointed out how the science is utter nonsense, that you can’t use the DNA of your ancestors to experience their memories, but it’s still a cool concept.  Remember, any fictional story has a “gimme”, one fact that the reader (or player, or viewer) will accept without question and the DNA regression is Assassin’s Creed’s.  There’s some bizarre other elements, but this is what the story is based on and wouldn’t function without.

But as I intimated, Heresy wasn’t a particularly difficult book to get through and left me with plenty of time to read something else.  And the time had most definitely come to revisit something I’ve left hanging for months.  That’s right, today I finally read more Power Rangers comic books.  You may recall I was waiting to get my hands on a copy of this year’s annual, because it was listed as being part of the Shattered Grid event.  I suspected that there’d be important event-related stories in there, so I didn’t want to skip ahead.  Unfortunately, my local comic shop has been sold out and no matter how many times I’ve asked, nothing’s come in.  So, I gave up and went to ebay.  It was more expensive, but definitely better than waiting for things to come out in trade paperback.

To be clear, that means today I read Mighty Morphin Power Rangers #24-27Go Go Power Rangers #8-9, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers 2018 Annual, and the special Free Comic Book Day edition of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  That’s eight separate issues.  I read them in the order suggested by the Shattered Grid event checklist at the back of MMPR #25: 24, 25, 8, 26, Annual, 9, FCBD, 27.  And oh my goodness there is SO much going on!

First and foremost, I was rereading MMPR #24-25 and GGPR #8.  24 and 8 are prelude issues for their respective series, and 25 was the one that kicked everything off because, of course, the franchise is now twenty-five years old.  And I remember putting issue 25 down on that cliffhanger wonder, hoping against hope, and only able to wait until I finally read further.

There were two parts to that cliffhanger.  One, a character death that has some repercussions in the issues immediately following, but by the end of 27 the grief has been pushed aside in favor of some much bigger problems.  The other, the appearance of Jen Scott, the pink Time Force ranger.  We do see the Time Force rangers, in their Megazord, at the opening of the issue.  And because they are Time Force, we know they have the ability to time travel.  (Admittedly they didn’t do a huge amount of that in their tv series, but whatever.  Time travel is dangerous.)  But there’s something so exciting about a crossover, even within the same universe.  That’s why every television season since Lost Galaxy has had a team up with the previous season.  That’s why the tenth anniversary special with all ten red rangers happened.  That’s why there was footage on youtube as soon as someone in Japan decided to do a massive battle scene with every single sentai from every single season to date.

Jen gets to be exposition girl and explain that something is breaking – shattering – the grid of reality.  We can easily guess at who is responsible based on what’s happened thus far, and our guesses are borne out.  We see attacks on the Samurai rangers, on Ninja Steel, Jungle Fury, Dino Thunder, SPD, RPM, Space…and more.  Sure, there are some seasons I haven’t seen yet but am keeping an eye out for like my favorite Lost Galaxy and Mystic Force, but I have no doubt that they’re coming.

There are glimpses and stories and twists and turns galore as Shattered Grid turns the world as we knew it upside down, and I am loving it.  I also noticed that even the inside cover of Go Go Power Rangers is shattering, even if it’s Angel Grove High School’s seal and not the ranger diamond pattern.  There’s just so much attention to detail and I love it.  I love that this was all created by people who love Power Rangers every bit as much as I do, if not more.

In fact, all the crossovers almost make me want to go and watch those series I never touched.  Almost.  That’s no small time commitment (time that I could better spend reading) and frankly…a lot of episodes are dumb and obnoxious.  Every season has its filler, and some are worse than most. Part of that is the target audience’s age, but part of that is the fact that Power Rangers has always been fairly wholesome television.  I just don’t choose to sit through innumerable half hour episodes to pick up two or five minutes of plot here and there.

I will mention that the Free Comic Book Day issue is the one that actually touches on the first time Zach, Kim, Billy, Trini, and Jason became Power Rangers, offers a brief summary of current events, and some food for thought about the future.  It seemed like a rather long FCBD entry, but then I remembered that so many of those freebies actually contain two stories, the better to entice money out of consumer’s pockets as they pick up more than one series.  But there’s only the two Power Rangers series at this time, so Boom! Studios was able to use all of that space to hook readers into not only their more limited number of series, but also to plunge them right into the Shattered Grid event.

I’m still not thrilled about that change in art style between MMPR 24 and 25, but I didn’t take too much more notice today, absorbed as I was in getting through all eight issues and finding out what happens next.  I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to the world(s) of Power Rangers once the event resolves, but I am certain that it’s taking the franchise in a direction that could never have been envisioned twenty-five years ago.

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For Union

In 1981, C.J. Cherryh changed a small part of the world with the publication of Downbelow Station.  She took some notions further and changed tactics to relight the minds of her readers with the 1988 Cyteen.  And then, in 2009, she returned to give closure to the events of that second Hugo winner with Regenesis.

Cyteen is a complete story.  It’s the tale of how a powerful woman died, a young girl was born, was forced to grow up too quickly, but was able to become what she had to in order to survive.  However, the plot, the politics, the very world in which this took place was at something of a cliffhanger when Cyteen concluded.  That’s why Regenesis picks up less than two months later; to continue that story to a natural conclusion, tie up loose ends, and to finally answer the great mystery that’s plagued us from early on in Cyteen.

Let’s be honest: Cyteen is a much more difficult read than Regenesis.  It’s much more technical and interested in the science of psychogenesis; of taking a person’s clone and raising them to become that person in truth, something some parents have always wished for.  It’s fascinating, but not the easiest reading out there.  Especially when you consider how many of the characters are Specials, extremely intelligent individuals whose minds are protected by Union law.

That science isn’t tossed out the window for Regenesis, it would be incredibly sloppy in a direct sequel, but it’s not the most important part of the book.  This novel is about actions, realizations, and reactions.  It’s about righting wrongs, some of them very old, and doing what’s best for the whole.  For Union and humanity.  It’s got all the hallmarks of an epic, set in the heart of science fiction.  And yet, it’s not quite got the raw power of Downbelow Station, if only because it has to live in its predecessor’s shadow as a later book of the Alliance-Union universe.  Also because both Cyteen and Regenesis are focused exclusively in Union and while these events will affect the Alliance and Earth and could be influenced by those two entities, that will only come after the fact.  Regenesis is Union coming to its own internal tipping point and having to decide which way it will go.

I find Regenesis to be a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Cyteen.  I feel that we see our main characters grow and change as we’d like, and come to a point that makes us happy.  Proud, even.  You can argue that Cyteen had that, but this one is even better.  It’s like…when the movie X-Men first came out and it was the biggest superhero movie in theaters in years.  Possibly decades.  Oh sure, it had its issues, but it was very enjoyable despite that.  Then they released X2 which is probably my favorite movie in the franchise.  X2 was able to take what the first movie did and build on it in such a way that not only added more depth to the world, it somehow managed to be better than the first and make the first that much better just by existing.  Regenesis does the same here.

To be completely honest, I hadn’t really looked at all the comparable publication dates before.  Yes, I knew when Downbelow Station was published.  And I knew that Cyteen was old enough that it was originally released in three volumes, because a six hundred eighty page book was too physically big to fit any of the available formats at the time.  And I knew my copy of Regenesis was newer than my 1995 reprinting of Cyteen (complete in one volume!).  But, with popular books by popular authors, it’s not unheard of for there to be multiple print runs, even today.  And I’m not always up on what’s new or current with authors I haven’t followed for years, so why would I take note of a publication date for a book I’m not eagerly awaiting?

Stil, twenty-one years is a long gap of time between books, especially when the new one is a direct sequel starting the month after its predecessor ends.  It’s not the longest gap I’ve read, as anyone following my blog this month alone can attest, but it is a notable gap.  Cherryh wrote numerous other books in the Alliance-Union series between 1988 and 2009, all over the timeline, so it’s not like the series itself was idle for two decades.  And, of course, she wrote other books in other worlds during that time, because she has far more than just this one series available.

In my experience, the next closest author I can think of is Barbara Hambly, who has revisited multiple of her worlds at the remove of a decade or more.  She continues to do so in the form of short stories published electronically.  (I aim to read many of these at some point, but my issues with e-readers are a genuine problem with this.  Also the number of stories I want can run a fairly notable sum all told.)  I was impressed when I realized how far apart some of Hambly’s publication dates were, especially because I had noticed no significant changes in character voice, in overall tone, in writing style on either side of the gap.  Which is amazing and wonderful.

As for how Cherryh managed revisiting characters after twenty-one years…I’d say she did equally well.  The biggest difference I noted at this time was, as I said, less scientific theory and more plot and character.  This became apparent to me as I easily laid Regenesis down last night some two-thirds through, whereas Cyteen was a bit of a struggle just getting to the halfway point the first night.  Remember, I was able to read all three books in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive in just a week because the plot virtually carried me along.

So, there you have it.  Regenesis, the direct sequel to Cyteen.  A satisfying conclusion to the Union-centric set of books.  Sure, I could talk about – or reread – 40,000 in Gehenna, a book that examines some Union ideas in Alliance territory, and whose existence is directly touched upon in Cyteen, but that’s not one of my favorite books.  Nor do I feel any need to read it at this time.  Especially not when amazon has so conveniently delivered a book I am most definitely starting next.

Onto Cyteen

Let’s talk Cyteen.  It was written seven years after Downbelow Station and is also a Hugo winner.  Most of the books Cherryh wrote concerning and following the Company Wars were centered on the Alliance or on Earth and its solar system.  Cyteen takes us to the other end of human space…and Union.

In many books, Union is the enemy.  It’s a big, faceless representation of the Beyond. It’s the home and source of the birth labs, of mass-produced humans who are weirdly perfect and obedient.  It’s strange and different from everything we know.  Which is part of what makes it so fascinating.  And one of our two main characters is Ariane Emory, a Union scientist whose name has popped up here and there in other books happening earlier on the timeline.

Most of the people who come from the Union birth labs are azi.  They are real people who can think for themselves…but they’ve been conditioned since birth to obey certain rules, to do certain tasks.  Azi aren’t quite the same as slaves or servants…but they can certainly serve those roles.  Azi can acquire citizenship too, but not all do.  It’s a complicated subject, with confusing ethics.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what makes Union and what makes Reseune.

Reseune’s not a name familiar to those outside of Union.  In the days of the Company Wars, it was people whose names were known.  But Reseune is no small thing.  It’s an Administrative Territory, legally the same as a planet, even though it actually occupies part of Cyteen’s surface.  Reseune created the azi, still has legal rights over any azi, and the only rights to create new programming tapes for azi.  If you want to commission a person, azi, child, expensive clone of yourself, it’s Reseune you go to and pay out the nose for the privilege.

That’s what this book is really about.  Growing and programming people.  What happens when tapes with problems get out, and how do they interact down the generations?  Politics, murder, mysteries, guilt, innocence, sex, and science.  But not the kind of hard science that makes you glare at the page.  This is psychology and sociology, the same sorts of things you’d get from any book on this kind of scale, but with a lot more theory right up front.  Both main characters design tapes, and so it permeates throughout.

This is another book with one of Cherryh’s favorite protagonists; a broken seventeen year old boy.  I know she likes strong female characters and broken male characters, but it’s a little obvious to go from seventeen-year-old Fletcher Neihart in Finity’s End to seventeen-year-old Justin Warrick in Cyteen.  Admittedly, this book covers decades and that one covered less than a year.  There’s a point where someone from Reseune is talking to another Bureau about the time-dilation.  The second conversant thinks he understands because he’s spent time in space, where you can and do miss weeks of time in jump.  But Reseune deals with people, and people don’t spring full-grown from the ground.  Instead of weeks and months, Reseune deals in years and decades.  Generations even, because they have to plan for the future.  It’s time dilation on a massive scale and even with rejuv letting people live fourteen and more decades, experiments take time, and the old guard is running out of it.  Fast.

Cyteen is a powerful book, and it’s easy to see why it won a Hugo.  There’s so much going on…but it also makes you think.  Take another look around you.  Make you question your own psychology behind a given decision.  Union created the designation of Special for particular geniuses whose minds are so fertile and necessary to the growth and power of their interstellar power that they are protected by law.  Ariane Emory is a Special, one of three at Reseune.  And that Special status can be a gift…and a burden.

It’s a hard book to read, not only because it’s a brick of nearly seven hundred pages.  I don’t find it quite as challenging as some of the Tanith Lee books I struggled through, but it does demand a high level of thought throughout.  The scenarios and sciences Cherryh proposes don’t come out of nowhere – they begin in our own world and can come closer to home than you might care for.

Someone told me recently that Downbelow Station and Cyteen were among their favorite books ever.  I don’t rate either of them quite so highly personally…but I would never discount their power.  They’re well-written and I recommend them.  They’re just not the books I would choose to read over and over again.  I do reread them, but it’s been a couple years.

Psychogenesis.  Now there’s a fancy term.  And it could be the alternate title to Cyteen.  If Cherryh wanted.  I’ll probably come back to this next post.  Because I am not at all done with Alliance-Union yet.

Not an End

Well, I gave into the temptation.  And then I pushed myself.  Yes, I can finish a book of over five hundred sixty pages in a single day if it moves fast enough, if I love it, and if I don’t do much else.  But I think it was well worth it.

Finity’s End takes place roughly twenty years after the conclusion of Downbelow Station.  Probably more like eighteen, but dates aren’t that important.  Mazian and his pirates are still out there, in the dark, but the rest of the world is moving on, towards real and genuine peace.  It may have started by ending the Company Wars, but it’s the merchanters who now have to step up and make sure it lasts.  And stuck in the middle of all these big, political backdrops is one Fletcher Neihart.

Seventeen years old, all he’s known is Pell station and, briefly, Downbelow.  But he’s a Neihart, born to the crew of Finity’s End and no more than a ward of Pell.  And his ship wants him back.  Finity is the oldest merchanter ship still in operation, and they have been the backbone of the Alliance’s militia since the War ended.  But now Finity’s gone back to trading and, as such, says it’s time and past to pick up their lost son.

You can imagine that seventeen year old boy is not going to take such a thing calmly. He was born on Pell, his mother died on an overdose of jump drugs, he’s been through numerous foster families and psychiatrists, as well as lawyers, and just when he finally got what he wanted, now he’s being ripped away from all of it.

By his family.  His real, blood family.  Nevermind how high Finity stands among the Merchanter’s Alliance.  Nevermind that these are the people who look like him and are willing to love him unconditionally simply because he shares their genes.  He may be done with puberty but he’s still more than young enough to take offense at change for the sake of change and the important choices of his life being out of his hands.

Like Downbelow StationFinity’s End is about the ending of an era, seen through the dual lenses of Fletcher and JR Neihart.  JR is in charge of all the juniors on and off the ship.  He’s Captain James Robert Neihart’s heir, and the person most directly in charge of Fletcher.  Fletcher’s story is mostly about learning how to reconcile the two disparate eras of his own life while JR is watching policy formulating change.  The micro and the macrocosms coinciding, all on a single ship.

It’s a skilled bit of storytelling, on reflecting.  Authors often use framing devices to tell the same story multiple times and ways within the span of a single novel, play, movie, etc.  They say you’re supposed to repeat important information three times, to make sure the audience understands but also to keep it from being overkill.  There’s a difference between making a point and drawing the reader’s attention and bashing them on the head with heavy-handed symbolism.

Finity’s End is not nearly as epic as Downbelow Station, but it doesn’t need to be.  The Alliance-Union universe already exists.  We’re just now seeing a change from the mess left after the one book into a brighter future.  In fact, there’s not a lot of books that take place in Alliance territory past this point on the timeline.  Because, frankly, peace is boring.  Conflict is what makes for engaging and fascinating reads.  But that’s no bad thing.

There’s just something I find appealing about Fletcher’s journey to understanding his place; in the crew of Finity’s End, in the Alliance, in the universe.  It’s a satisfying read, even though there’s all those teenage outbursts that often end up in fistfights.  To be completely honest, I take much less issue with Fletcher’s angst than I do with Harry Potter’s in Order of the Phoenix.  Part of that may be that Fletcher’s got two years on Harry at that point.  Part might also be that we’ve got JR’s viewpoint to give us a break from Fletcher.  And maybe Fletcher’s just a more interesting character.  He’s no Chosen One, just a poor kid who’s been pushed and pulled from so many quarters to the point where he retreated inside himself with a spikey shell to keep everyone else away.

I guess I relate to Fletcher.  Sure, I was older than seventeen when I first found a copy of Finity’s End, but many of his problems speak to a variety of ages.  And his solutions and revelations show that everyone’s important.  Dirty jobs still have to get done, and everyone can take a turn and lend a hand, and it doesn’t lessen anyone’s dignity or importance.  Nor does it make people respect you less.  After all, the ship is Family.

I could still go back now, reread RimrunnersTripoint, or Merchanter’s Luck.  But I remember what I need to from them, and none of them is quite on a level with Finity’s End, certainly not up to Downbelow Station.  Those books are perfectly good, sure, but they’re not epics.  Just good stories that help flesh out Cherryh’s universe.

So yes, I’m reading Cyteen next.  Which means it’ll be a bit longer between posts because not only is that an oversized paperback, it’s a hefty brick.

Space Epic

When I refer to a book as an epic, I usually envision something at least seven hundred pages long, usually fantasy, with world-spanning effects and consequences. But epicness isn’t about length, it’s about setting, scale, and what you do with it.  So even though it’s not much more than four hundred pages, C.J. Cherryh’s classic Hugo winner Downbelow Station is as epic as anyone could ask for.  This book alone is the root of the Alliance-Union universe.

I specifically have an oversized reprint from 2008 that I read from, with a 2001 introduction talking about getting the book published for the first time.  And yes, you read that correctly.  I also have a first edition mass market paperback with the original DAW yellow spine and everything, but I would never read from it when it’s not going to stand up to as much abuse as the larger copy.  Plus the newer version has the introduction which tells, among other things, how the 1981 novel was the first DAW published in a larger size category, because it was just too good to cut down.

Downbelow Station starts with a history lesson, explaining how humans came to expand beyond Earth and how the Company Wars started.  (The Company Wars is the alternate title for this book.)  It’s important to understand this past because this is the story of how the Wars ended, and how the Alliance was born.  Cherryh explains in the introduction that originally, she wanted to write a shorter story, but she wanted to set it in a world, a universe that could be the setting for numerous other tales and not just a one-shot.  So, before she began Merchanter’s Luck, she wrote Downbelow Station.

It’s so easy to see why this book won a Hugo.  Sure it’s space, and it’s war, but it’s hardly military sci-fi.  It’s a story about refugees, about desperation, about politics, about ambitions, about hope, and about dreams.  It’s a human story, as Cherryh says.  About the best and the worst we have to offer.  Downbelow Station is the heart of the Alliance-Union universe, the book that explains the setting and lays the groundwork for everything that happens before and after its events on the timeline.  I am glad it was the first book in the series I ever read, and I would recommend that any other prospective reader start there.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot of Downbelow Station is the final days of the Company Wars.  Pell is, aside from the mothballed Hinder Stars, the closest space station to Earth.  Further stations like Esperance, Pan-Paris, Mariner, and Viking have had troubles…and the warships of the Fleet are guiding refugee convoys to Pell, the last toehold standing against Union and the Beyond.  The Earth Company, representing the mother planet, is trying to reassert authority over all humanity living in space…with few, if any, results.  And on Downbelow, the life-supporting planet with native intelligence below Pell Station, the humans and hisa can only do their best.  It’s a tense time, and a time of change.  History is being made, and it’s a bloody, horrifying slice of time.

I picked up Downbelow Station several years back because of a song, “Signy Mallory”, on a miscellaneous CD of songs written by Mercedes Lackey.  It’s a compelling song, describing Captain Mallory of the Norway, one of the key characters in this book, and a woman whose reputation is known far and wide.  Like other books I read because of this unsubtle recommendation from an author I trust, I have no regrets.  I often think that buying Magic, Moondust, and Melancholy was one of the best choices I ever made, because if I hadn’t been exposed to songs which directly related to so many classic books by other authors, I might never have picked them up.  I might not have started frequenting used bookstores.  I might not have met so many friends.  I might not have begun going to conventions.  It’s amazing how far back you can trace a string of events to a single root cause.

On another note, I’ve been reading an awful lot of books this month.  Me being weirdly interested in numbers, I do actually take a look at things like how many posts I make each month, how that month compares to others, etc.  And I’ve built up a massive string of consecutive days finishing books this month, as well as being on track for this to be one of my biggest months for posting.  But, I don’t want this blog to be the primary motivator on the books I choose to read.  I could absolutely make a post every day in a given month.  I could even make sure that I was finishing a book each and every day that month.  But that shouldn’t be how I pick my books.  I like to read books based on what I find most appealing when I’m browsing my shelves.  I don’t want to back myself into a corner and force myself to read something that I just don’t find interesting at that moment.

So I have a choice to make.  I can follow the Alliance path from here and reread Finity’s End, which has been somewhat on my mind, along with RimrunnersMerchanter’s Luck, and Tripoint.  Or I could go for the Union path with Cyteen and Regenesis.  Those who’ve been following this blog may find those Alliance books familiar, as I have read and posted about them previously.  The Union books were last touched before I started the blog.  Oh, and I guess there’s also Earth books.  But let’s be honest, most of those aren’t as good and the ones that are I still don’t reread too often.  And they also have posts here already.

I guess that means Cyteen‘s probably next, and thus that my next post will take a bit longer.  But I’m very tempted by Finity’s End, so who knows.  But if I do take the time to reread the shorter book, it’ll be because I want to reread it, and not because I want to potentially post again tomorrow.

A Gimmick

When I am reading a book and for a variable amount of time after, it’s everpresent in my head.  Not just what I’ve read thus far, but the entire book if it’s a reread.  And the entire series as I know it for books connected to others.  And sure, I can use a refresher now and then…but not nearly as much as you might think in many cases.  I have a good memory for details, which is not a bad thing.  Most of the time.

However, today I have plans that will work best if I can keep my head clear of any books, or even any movies or series that would bring a flood of miscellaneous and unnecessary information into my waking mind.  Which, I thought, would mean I couldn’t read a thing until this evening.  However, as I was wandering around trying to occupy myself, my eye fell upon the perfect sort of book for today.

This is The Brick Testament: Stories from the Book of Genesis by Brendan Powell Smith.  If you’re unfamiliar with this book or its website, let me break it down plainly.  This is a book of bible stories as told with photos of Legos.  The text is straight-up from some English translation of the bible (not sure which offhand because I don’t study this in depth) and all Smith has done is create Lego sets and scenes and photograph them.  It’s a very silly concept.

I picked this book up several years ago in the MCA gift shop.  That’s the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is right near Water Tower Place and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.  Not a particularly large museum, but certainly a quality place to visit.  They tend to have more creative modern works than the Art Institute of Chicago, and feature artists who push the boundaries of art further.  More of their gallery space is devoted to rotating exhibits than the Art Institute, with a fairly small display of their permanent collection.  I’ve seen some brilliant and horrifying pieces there, and some truly ingenious installations.  And their gift shop, like that of any good art musuem, is eclectic.

Most of the time when I’m in a gift shop, I’ll buy something.  It’s just how I am.  I do try to make sure it’s something worth spending my money on, and sometimes I will say “look, this is just too much money” and pass.  So, spending $15 on a hardcover, if silly, book circa 2005 wasn’t the worst decision I ever made.  Even though it’s mostly to own a silly thing than because I love Legos or really needed another copy of highlights from Genesis.

Let’s be real, I have two Torah scrolls – a dinky one that I got from kindergarten consecration in Sunday school and an eighteen inch one from the b’nai mitzvah tour of Israel I was on in 2000 – and a Plaut.  That last one is a nice, big hardcover copy of the Torah that includes the Hebrew text (with trope, for chanting), the conventional English translation, and commentary.  On every page.  Not to mention a fair bit of other supplementary text for each parshat (weekly portion) and book (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).  Although I could be really dorky and refer to all the books by their Hebrew names; Beresheet (don’t talk to me about spelling, transliteration means “however you think you should spell it in a diferent alphabet”), Shemot, Vayikra, Bemidbar, and Devarim.  There’s also Haftarah in here, which is poetry reflecting on the text, and pretty much means that this book is all you need to prepare for a Torah service…minus the standard prayer book but you know what I mean.  I think.  Look, I have a half shelf that is all prayer books and Torah and other miscellaneous religious things.  I know a bit more about my religion than some, but I’m no expert.

Anyway, The Brick Testament.  It’s literally just ten stories from Beresheet.  I’d say ten of the most famous, but I feel like Genesis in particular is the most famous portion of the text, and people are far more familiar with it than Deuteronomy, for example.  Rereading it today, I’m not a huge fan of the fact that Smith chose to use the exact translation he laid his hands on (remember, the Bible was translated into multiple languages before reaching English) instead of adapting the text to be less formal and more comfortable for his audience.  Sure, part of my dislike is the fact that fifteen years ago, gender and sexuality issues were not as big a part of people’s consciousness, and so there would seem to be less reason to adapt the text to be less unkind to women.  But I just feel like someone who would think to create a version of the Bible with Legos would be more on the fringes of society and therefore more open and empathetic?  Well, that’s what I want to think, but I do know that is a naive hope.

Overall, it’s a cute idea, but didn’t go far enough to become more than just a gimmick.

Such a Letdown

So I guess it was a trilogy after all.  Even though there’s absolutely no marketing as such, nothing in the titling or descriptors to indicate it, this is still a trilogy, ending with Hollow Earth: The Book of Beasts.  Still by John and Carole E. Barrowman.  And frankly, I am less than pleased.  I think this is an example of authors who are either inexperienced, or who think their audience isn’t intelligent enough to put real effort into their plot holes and tying up loose ends.  There was potential here and the books just…fall so short.

Let’s talk about the big thing.  Time travel.  Yes, The Book of Beasts takes place in two different times; the present and the twelve-sixties.  But time travel only works in certain circumstances and you can’t have it both ways.  Earlier in the series, a character thinks that they have to go back in time because they already did so.  But if that’s the case, there wouldn’t be a tapestry in the present remaking its images because what was going to happen already happened.

For example, let’s look at the Dragonriders of Pern.  Lord Jaxom of Ruatha rides Ruth, the white dragon, and when all the dragonriders are working together to drop the colony ships’ fuel tanks onto the Red Star in order to change its orbit, Ruth actually leads two groups back in time, where their actions cause the two Long Intervals between Thread Passes.  Jaxom and Ruth have to do that, because it already happened.  Time-travel is predestined because history isn’t malleable.

Now, you can have time travel where the future is changed by altering the past.  But generally the future is unaware of how its changed, save for the traveler(s).  So, if what the tapestry shows has changed, it has to be the person or people who went back to make the change that notice the differences, because no one else in the present would be aware of it.

Ugh, this is frustrating me and making my head hurt.  And this is why I really, really hate time travel.  As I keep saying, it’s so easy to screw it up, and it’s just not worth it.  But that’s not the only thing I dislike about The Book of Beasts.

Really, my biggest complaint aside from time travel is that everything feels rushed and compressed.  Things happen so quickly it’s hard to keep track and things don’t develop as naturally.  We’re told that Em has been sneaking out at night, but we’re only shown the last time.  Henrietta, the twins’ grandmother, makes her entrance in this book out of absolutely nowhere.  Oh, and we never get any resolution with Sir Charles Wren and the Council that we saw at the beginning of the first book.  There’s a few plot elements like that, introduced, pursued a little, then forgotten.

The story is just all over, or it spends too much time focusing on some parts and not enough on the rest.  I think part of the problem could be resolved by changing the narration.  Instead of a third person omniscient narrator, make it a limited perspective.  If we can only get into Matt, Em, and Solon’s heads, we can’t be aware of what Henrietta, or Malcom, or any of the adults are doing away from the kids…but then we also don’t have to worry about leaving those parts of the narrative hanging because they wouldn’t exist.

On reflection, I’d say Bone Quill, the middle book of the trilogy, is probably the strongest.  Which is weird, because second books tend to be the weakest, the books where authors have to get from their strong start to their epic finale and somehow fill the space.  But Bone Quill benefits from having all of the excess characters and side plots stripped away, allowing readers to focus on the important events at hand.  I’ve talked about how Hollow Earth was somewhat interesting, but I wouldn’t have continued the series if I didn’t already own it.  Whereas Bone Quill made me actively want to continue reading, having made me much more invested in the story.  Which is why The Book of Beasts is such a letdown, since I was expecting so much more.

I did say yesterday that I thought this series wasn’t a trilogy, that it would be more than three books.  And maybe that would have benefitted it greatly.  I’ve spoken before about how it seems so many authors are conforming to trends, which say that trilogies are a big thing at the moment and everything should be written in that format.  But Hollow Earth reads more like a Saturday morning cartoon to me, something that, once you introduce the world, the heroes, and the ongoing villain, could go on for quite a while as our heroes gradually creep closer to defeating their enemy.

Now, I am not at all up to date on children’s and young adult literature, but it seems to me that such series may not be as common now as they were when I was young.  I remember reading series like Animorphs that built up over dozens of books and then had spinoffs and prequels and all sorts of extra volumes.  I remember series like The Boxcar Children where each book was a new mystery to solve that might or might not relate back to any of the previous books.  Little Critter.  Jewel Kingdom.  Saddle Club.  Babysitter’s Club.  The list goes on.  And like I said, I don’t look at those kind of books too often, so I really don’t know what is or isn’t out there right now.  But I think that could have worked to Hollow Earth‘s strengths while the trilogy emphasizes its weaknesses.

I’m not certain what’s next.  There’s more young adult on my shelf, but I think I’m going to avoid it on principle for the moment.  I’d really rather not read another disappointment next.  The easy way to avoid it is to reread something I love, but who knows.  Maybe I’ll decide to take a chance anyway.

He’s a Turd

I may be a sucker for signatures.  If not for the fact that Hollow Earth: Bone Quill prominently advertised the fact that it was signed by the author, I might not have even picked the book up.  But don’t get me wrong – I don’t go out of my way for signatures.  I won’t pay extra for them and I don’t attend conventions strictly to check one (or more) off my list.  Sure, I’ll take advantage of convenient conventions to acquire said markings, but it’s not my be-all end-all.

But let’s talk about Bone Quill.  Now, that was actually two stories – that of Solon the young monk in the 1200s and that of Matt and Em in the present day.  Solon’s tale occupied a chapter at the start of each section in Hollow Earth, usually introducing new concepts that the section would explore in more detail.

Solon’s story was no more finished at the end of the first book than the twins’.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s the truth.  And so Bone Quill not only further fleshes out the mythology and history, but also reveals so many more mysteries that we’ve only begun to touch upon.  Oh, and it wants my head to hurt.

There’s a lot of secrets going around.  Not just about Malcom Calder, the twins’ dad, but so many other things, big and little.  And Matt is a turd.  I said I had warmed to Em last book, and that was true, but Matt is just…ugh.  He’s everything I hate about adolescents, boys in particular.  Too impatient to wait for anyone else or to gather more and better information, certain that he knows best even though he patently doesn’t…Matt drives me crazy.  And now that this book ends with the twins separated, I hope Matt’s sections don’t end up like the Frodo & Sam bits of The Lord of the Rings that I like to skip over.  (Movies, books, it makes no difference.  Frodo and Sam are boring to me.)

The plot of this book revolves around the entitled artifact, the bone quill.  Not too much has been told to the reader at this point, save that it is a vital and powerful item which is absolutely necessary to possess.  Oh, and Matt has daddy issues.  But we’ve known that since book one.

THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Someone, please.  Explain to me why so many series have to involve time travel.  It’s so easy to screw up and so difficult to do well…it just boggles my mind.  And hurts it. And tends to skew my opinion of books towards the negative at this point in time.  I’ve read more than enough mediocre time travel, some of it by authors I truly love and respect, and I just…don’t need even more of it.  I don’t find it to be a great plot point in most cases and it really makes the twins feel overpowered.

That being said, I like the Malcom part of the time travel.  That makes complete sense for his character and motivations and creates a legitimate threat.  I would just prefer to see Solon and Carik deal with it instead of the twins.  The other advantage to time travel is that Solon’s parts of the book are by far the most interesting to me as a reader.  I’m not thirteen years old anymore and I don’t really relate to today’s young teens and all the tech that didn’t exist when I was a kid.  So while I have no problems reading books about adults in our modern world, children seem to be something of a mental disconnect for me.
END OF SPOILER SECTION.

At this point, I’m more interested in picking up book three tonight than I was grabbing book two last night.  I’m that much more invested in the world and the characters than I was, and there are some plot points whose resolution I’m interested in seeing.  Considering the structure I’m seeing in the books thus far, I’m pretty sure this was not intended to be a trilogy, and given that Hollow Earth was published in 2012 followed by Bone Quill in 2013, I suspect that there’s more than three books available at this moment.  If so, I may need to take another peek in Half Price.  I didn’t look too closely last time, mostly being interested in whether or not they had the first book.

At the very least, I believe I’m getting my money’s worth reading and enjoying these books.  I doubt they’ll ever be favorites, but so far I have no real regrets about buying and reading them.

A Little Younger

For her special day last month, my mother decided the whole family would go to the Milwaukee Art Museum.  It was your typical visit for us, strolling through the entire museum (it’s big enough to take up a decent chunk of the day but you would run out of things if you stayed open to close) and ending up in the gift shop.  Art museums generally have overpriced gift shops, but they do tend to accumulate real oddities and unexpected finds.

If you read the post I made then, you know I came out of that store with two novels.  They were both on sale and part of the same series.  And even though they were young adult, they sounded intriguing enough to purchase.  There was only one problem: the museum had books two and three.  The first was nowhere to be found in the whole of the store (and I looked).  However, as befits a young adult book less than ten years old, I was able to find a copy at, you guessed it, Half Price Books.

(Look, I’m sorry all my books are coming from Half Price at the moment.   The bookstores in the city haven’t really had enough for me to load myself up and it’s been a few years since my friends at the con closed their book booth and I bought some thirty from them and ripped through the tower of literature in three months.  I need to find some more used bookstores to frequent.)

Today’s book is the first of the three by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman, Hollow Earth.  Our protagonists are the twelve year old twins Matthew and Emily Calder.  They live with their mother Sandie in London, and they can bring their drawings to life.  One day they do so in a museum and that prompts a whole mess of events including being whisked away to Scotland to meet a grandfather they don’t remember, their mother disappearing, and even more danger and craziness besides that.

There is an interesting framing device.  The first chapter of each of the book’s four sections chronicles events a thousand years in the past.  At first I wondered why these scenes hadn’t been collected together in a prologue, but then I realized that the authors were using them to gradually expand the reader’s understanding of the world, its history, and how it relates to our young heroes.  The chapters themselves are fairly short, the authors preferring chapter breaks over simple page breaks, which is not a bad thing for young readers.  You can read a lot of chapters easily, but you can also find a good stopping point quickly.

I do appreciate that this isn’t a story where everything is up to our twelve-year-old heroes because all the adults are idiots.  Rather, it falls on them because the adults are busy, distracted, incapacitated, or otherwise not present and able to help and it’s the kids’ own lives on the line if they fail to do anything.  And the kids themselves, especially Em, get better as characters as the story progresses.  Initially, I was planning on comparing them to some of Diana Wynne Jones’ turds.

If I had picked up Hollow Earth first, I’m not certain I would’ve been interested enough to read the other two when they came out.  Sure it’s perfectly fine and leaves some fairly major mysteries for later books, but there’s nothing truly exceptional about it.  Still, I don’t regret taking the time to read it, and I am looking forward to getting some answers and more questions in the next installment.

A Glimpse of the Future

There are two bookstores in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.  One is a used bookstore.  The other is an indie bookstore, which means whatever you think you might find in the used bookstore in a hipster area, the indie one will always have strange, more obscure finds.  It’s not just an independent brick-and-mortar store, but it’s the only place where I’ve seen shelves full of indie zines and comics, many of which are very clearly self-published and just printed at a local FedEx or some such.

Still, it’s fun to poke my head in every now and then and see what I’ll find.  Sometimes it’s a book that I never heard of before but could have found on amazon if I’d bothered to look.  Other time’s it’s something random in the clearance section in the back, where they put the used books.  It’s always worth checking out that back section.

As the owner told my friend and I when we were there two weeks ago, one of the shop regulars had died recently and the owner had bought a ton of books off the brother, which helped just get rid of things he had to go through.  And a good amount of that purchase ended up on the clearance shelves.  I’m not complaining, because the man clearly had good taste and it was nice to find some conventional sci-fi/fantasy in the indie store.  I steered my friend towards Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang as well as Silver Birch, Blood Moon assembled by my favorite editorial pair of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.  I myself found some anthologies.  Oh, and also Book of Hats, but I’ve already covered that one and it was not on the clearance shelves.

So I paid a whole dollar for Millennium 3001, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis.  I wasn’t super intrigued by it, but I’ve read Greenberg’s anthologies before and enjoyed myself, and I saw some familiar authors inside.  That, plus the price, was more than enough reason to grab the book.  And, since I’ve been on a bit of a science fiction kick, it seemed enough reason to pick it up off the Pile last night.

As I was adding the stories to my database tonight, it occurred to me that the names I selected the anthology for are ones I generally know for fantasy stories, especially in the Valdemar collections.  As I’ve said time and time again, I don’t judge or discriminate against authors for dabbling in multiple genres.  After all, there’s so many more genres today (depending on how you class things) than there were decades ago.  It’s too easy to pidgeonhole yourself, and you’ve got to step outside your comfort zone.  That’s why I still do the Book of the Month, as it encourages me to read books and genres I wouldn’t normally touch.  (Even though I’m trying to be pickier and only select books I actually find interesting enough to read because it’s a waste to get books I’ll never touch or worse, will actively despise.)  Anyway, I just thought it was an interesting fact, that I’m most familiar with some short story authors in a very different genre.

These stories run the gamut on looking at the world a thousand years in the future.  You’ve got your incredibly depressing ones, you’ve got your amazingly hopeful ones, and everything in between.  There are stories of incredibly advanced technology and stories of regression to a tribal state or worse.  And, again, absolutely everything in between.  There’s only thirteen stories total, but they’re an incredibly wide variety, to the point where I’m certain the editors did that on purpose.

There’s no stories here that I feel the need to discuss or even mention – as far as impacts go, this anthology has been fairly mediocre.  It’s probably on the same level as Bad Girls of Fantasy, although I think I had a more overall positive reaction to that anthology simply because of my general preference for fantasy over science fiction.

I just also mention the shock I got last night as I finished Russell Davis’ introduction.  John Helfers, an author whose work I’ve only encountered twice before, signed his story here.  It’s the first in the book, as I implied, and the absolute shortest.  You could say it’s one of the expected stories to find in a book looking a thousand years into the future.  Especially given the insanity in our world today.  There’s no other signatures in Millennium 3001, but I can certainly keep an eye out at conventions.

Oh, one more thing.  The title says 3001, but the book was published in 2006.  Nice idea, but it worked so much better in Power Rangers Time Force when it really was 2001.  And when Power Rangers is doing it better…sorry, but you probably need to step up your game.