Big surprise, I’ve fallen behind on my “Women of…” reading challenge reviews! Time to catch up, so here’s three reviews for you in one post.
First, my April fantasy review. I’ve been much better about keeping up with the fantasy challenge than the sci-fi one, but I recall thinking I was only interested in about half the sci-fi ones anyway. In my previous post, I reviewed May’s book, War for the Oaks, so now I need to backtrack a little and do April’s, which was Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest. Priest has been making it big in the SFF book world with her more recent steampunk books, Boneshaker and Dreadnought, but Four and Twenty Blackbirds was her debut novel. Wikipedia tells me it was originally released in 2003, but I appear to have read the 2005 revised and expanded version, which in turn kicked off a series. (Being perverse, this is the only Priest novel I’ve yet read, so I can’t really compare it to her more famous works.)
The book in a nutshell: Southern fiction meets dark urban fantasy. Our main character, Eden, is a young woman of a mixed-race background, who grew up first poor and then rich in Tennessee, giving us the requisite racial and socio-economic tensions. We also get the classic Southern fiction screwed up family dynamics, with the main character having been raised by her cool young aunt after her mother’s death, and all kinds of skeletons in the family closet that get revealed over the course of the novel. None of this qualifies the novel as fantasy, though.
The fantastic elements come in right at the beginning, when Eden reveals that she has always been able to see and hear a trio of ghosts, murdered sisters who are very angry. She learns quickly to deny that they’re there, after her elementary school teacher’s poor reaction to a picture she drew of them, but eventually it becomes clear that even more than a story about Eden’s own mysterious origins, this is the story of the three ghosts. The ability to see these particular ghosts runs in her family, and may well have been the death of her own mother. As Eden begins to track down her own family history, the story gets bigger and bigger, and her family much weirder than she’d ever suspected. It all keeps coming back to who murdered the three women, (and how, and why,) and it’s up to Eden to finally lay them to rest, in very climactic fashion.
I was a little surprised to learn that this was the first book in a series, because it can definitely stand alone. At some point when I’m not trying to read all the Hugo nominees, I may get the other two books, but it’s kind of nice to not feel like I have to.
Now for the sci-fi catching up. For these, I have to go all the way back to February! In part, this is because the library didn’t let me have the book until March, but also because I’ve needed to do a lot of processing. February’s book was The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. I was happy to read this one, because I’d just come off of reading two not-so-great fantasy books for the other challenge, and if there’s one thing I can trust Le Guin for, it’s good writing. Not easy writing, though. Definitely not that.
Summary: Shevek is a revolutionary theoretical physicist on the moon/planet Anarres, which was founded as an egalitarian utopia centuries ago by a splinter group from Urras, the planet Anarres orbits. He runs into a great deal of political backlash in his attempts to complete his research on Anarres, though, and flees to Urras. There he hopes to complete his research in peace, but finds himself at the head of a new revolutionary movement.
*As a note for people who like linear storytelling, I should warn you that the book does alternate chapters between the present day from when Shevek leaves for Urras, and Shevek’s life before that, from childhood on. So if you want to know what inspires Shevek to have to flee to Urras in the first place, you basically have to wait until the end of the book to find out why the very beginning of it even happened. This is not really an airplane book.
While the book can be read as very Cold War-era utopian/dystopian sci-fi and there’s a definite communism (in a very pure form) vs. consumerism comparison going on, what ends up being the truly important message is what it actually means to be “revolutionary.” It shows how easy it is for people to sink into comfort with the status quo, and how subsequently easy it is to lose the will as well as the right to truly think new thoughts and freely follow new ideas. At least, that’s what I seem to have gotten out of it at this point. I had the misfortune of reading this book at the same time my grandmother was dying, and I confess I wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved. I was left at the end with the overwhelming feeling that I’d just read something important, but hadn’t really gotten its full meaning. It’s worth reading. I hope I get to read it again someday.
Then I skipped March and April’s sci-fi selections; March’s because I’ve read other stuff by that author and wasn’t particularly impressed, and April’s because I’ve read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book before. (I did actually intend to reread it for the challenge, but when April came around, I searched all over the house and couldn’t find my copy, and I remain very annoyed about this. Read it. It’s good.)
So that brings us up to May’s selection, Mappa Mundi, by Justina Robson. Because I’m starting to get lazy at this point in the post, a synopsis from Booklist, via Amazon:
The living human brain has finally been mapped, and there is software in development that can read and write to living minds. Psychiatric psychologist Natalie Armstrong sees in this an opportunity to help people with depression and other mental disorders. The military sees it as an opportunity for good old-fashioned mind control. FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, on the trail of a cold war criminal with his fingers in every imaginable pie, and Natalie are thrown together after Jude’s sister is nearly killed in what appears to be a test of mind-control software. Jude seeks Natalie out for answers, and they wind up working together in a race to keep the technology out of hands that will abuse its more sinister possibilities. Robson’s take on the problems associated with anything that can rewrite a human personality is a complex one, and also a solidly written, entertaining story.
So. This book is kind of mixed for me. It took me a while to get into it at all. The beginning of the book is a series of vignettes about the main characters’ early lives, which is probably really useful for the author to have written for herself, so she can really understand her characters and all, but for the reader who hasn’t met the characters at all yet, and doesn’t know why they should care? Not so much. Once the real story, as summarized above, actually started, things moved along pretty well. Natalie and Jude turn out to be interesting adult characters, and the reader can really care about them. Maybe the vignettes would have been better as flashbacks later in the book? I dunno. But I have to tell you, if I hadn’t been reading this for the challenge and felt some obligation to finish it, I never would have made it past my overwhelming feeling of “meh” about that whole section.
Overall, I think this book has some interesting ideas in it. The technology being discussed that can map and change the human mind clearly had a lot of thought behind it. As I said above, the characters are decently interesting as well, if one reads more for the human interest parts than the technology parts. But in the month or so since I finished the book, there hasn’t been anything that’s made me think about the book again or stuck with me in a particular way.* I read it. I finished it. I didn’t hate it. But I’m not sure I really liked it either, so I can’t say I’m ever really going to recommend it to anyone.
*Okay, not strictly true. I remember being unreasonably annoyed about language style. The character Natalie is British, (as is the author.) All the parts with her in it, and with Jude coming to see her there, are understandably in British English. But then Jude, an American, goes back to the US and is interacting with his American partner and boss all the time, and is these out-of-place Britishisms still pop up! It wasn’t just an issue of British spelling being used throughout, because that’s a publishing thing, but American characters talking to each other using completely non-American conversational words? Do not like.