Halethorpe, MD, United States | Member Since 2010
Wow. What an unexpectedly great read. I was hoping for some basic fantasy that might be a little bit different since this novel was originally written in Russian. The Scar is indeed basic fantasy — basic, solid fantasy with no great innovations in worldbuilding or ideas, nothing that fantasy readers aren't thoroughly familiar with — but the writing, the descriptive details, and the character arcs that drive the story, are all so deft and evocative that The Scar is like a shiny, perfect apple sitting in a cart full of apples of acceptable but clearly lesser quality.
I would compare The Scar somewhat with Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, not in terms of style or story, as the Dyanchenkos' writing is quite different from Rothfuss's, but in the way it takes a story that's old hat, old school fantasy and still makes it new and interesting. Part of this is the writing, which was particularly delightful since translations are always a bit iffy, but while of course I can't compare it to the original Russian, there was a ton of evocative imagery, descriptive detail, and strong emotions conveyed in prose that pushes this book into something of true literary quality.
The story is mostly about Egert Soll, a brash, philandering swordsman who's basically every jock bully writ large: he steals his friends' girls, he bullies and brags and treats the world as his playground, full of mud puddles that exist to be splashed in other peoples' faces, and he gets away with it because everyone loves him.
Then he kills an innocent student in a duel that's murder in all but name, the ultimate act of jock-on-nerd bullying. He leaves the student's fiancee bereft and heartbroken.
This is all the set up for Egert's oh-so-very-well-deserved smackdown. His comeuppance is delivered by a mysterious mage called the Wanderer, who goads Egert into a duel and inflicts a magical scar on Egert that curses him with cowardice.
While this has the feel of a traditional fairy tale (or perhaps a Russian folk tale), it's Egert's curse that makes the story. Until that point, Egert has been a completely unlikable schmuck, someone you can't wait to see get dirt rubbed in his face. And when he kills Toria's fiancee, you figure he's passed the moral event horizon and you can't possibly feel anything but disgust for him and a desire to see him suffer.
And suffer he does. And pretty soon you are feeling sorry for Egert Soll. The curse soon turns him into a feeble husk of a man, a hollowed-out shell of his former self who can't even take his own life. And as things get worse and worse, a remarkable thing happens: not only does Egert become sympathetic, but he becomes likable. By a cruel and ironic twist of fate, he is brought face to face with Toria again, the fiancee of the student he killed. And Toria, who also feels nothing but disgust for him initially, comes to feel sympathy for him as well.
By the time the fate of their city, and of Toria, hangs on Egert's ability to overcome his curse, you are not just rooting for him, you're cheering for him. The climax is both epic and again resonant of traditional fairy tales: Egert is given very specific instructions as to what he has to do to get out from under his curse, and of course things do not turn out quite the way he expects.
On the surface, this is a swords & sorcery novel, but the sorcery is treated the way sorcery should be, as something vague and mysterious and not usually seen, a plot device rather than a suit of powers. And there are only a few swordfights, and each one serves a very specific and dramatic purpose in the plot.
So, this isn't really a swords & sorcery novel at all, though it has all the trappings. It's a very psychological novel about egotism, courage and cowardice, grief, and redemption. It's a heroic epic and a romance, and a dark Russian fairy tale with shades of Rothfuss, Wolfe, and Dostoevsky. There's some action and a little bit of magic, but the character arcs are more important than the plot arc.
Apparently the Dyanchenkos are very popular fantasy authors in Russia, yet this novel is the first one to be translated into English. I hope more follow. While this book may not appeal to you if you have no interest in traditional fantasy, I highly recommend it for all fantasy readers, and I'd argue that it has a psychological depth that transcends its genre.
Warning: This review contains spoilers for book one, Bitter Seeds.
This is one epic, high-stakes alt-history series. After reading "Bitter Seeds," I thought book two would pick up where book one left off, at a turning point in World War II. Instead, it skips forward two decades and we're now in 1963 and the height of the Cold War.
But it's a very different Cold War. In Bitter Seeds, Britain unleashed the power of the Eidolons, vastly powerful demonic beings who live in the cracks in time and space, in order to stop the Third Reich and their supermen. When we last saw Klaus and Gretel, two of those Nazi supersoldiers, they had been captured by Soviet troops.
The Coldest War begins twenty-two years later. Britain won the war, but at a horrific cost. While the nation has completely bought into the myth of "Britain's finest hour" and how the brave people of England beat back the Nazi hordes with sheer determination, people like Raybould Marsh and William Beauclerk know better. Britain beat back the Nazi hordes by sacrificing thousands of innocent people to pay the Eidolons' blood prices. Following the collapse of the Third Reich, the USSR spread uncontested across Europe and now controls the entire continent.
Now the Soviets are trying to kill off Britain's warlocks while preparing to take over the world with their own army of supermen. If Britain can no longer summon Eidolons, nothing will stop the USSR from swallowing the last bit of independent Europe.
(Where is the U.S. in all this? Pretty much off-stage. Nixon is President and there are mentions of race riots, but Americans apparently played no part in World War II and play no part in this book.)
The alternate history here is interesting, and the book is rife with moral dilemmas. Pretty much everyone does horrible things for what they perceive to be the greater good; some have an easier time living with their conscience than others.
Ironically, Klaus, the former Nazi assassin (though he was never really a Nazi, just a tool raised and used by the Nazis) is one of the most sympathetic characters. He realizes he just wants the "normal" life he's never had, and is willing to engage in heroics to get it.
But his sister, Gretel, is the dark heart of this book. Gretel is a mad genius who can see the future, with an accuracy that verges on omniscience. No matter what anyone does, it turns out to be something Gretel planned. So the big question looming over the course of the last two books has been: what is Gretel's long game? She let Germany lose the war, she let herself and her brother be captured by the Soviets, and it looks like she's going to let the world end.
At the very end of this book, we find out what Gretel's game has been, and the pieces on the board get rearranged in a big way. I am ambivalent about what to expect from the next book: in a way it seems like a cheat. But this is a brilliantly plotted story arc, with elements of alternate history, time travel, and of course, "superhero" battles and eldritch horrors. Characterization gets more attention in this book, but the action is still fast-paced and violent.
Highly recommended: sci-fi/fantasy adventure with spies, super-soldiers, warlocks and demons in a grim alternate history.
Warning: This review contains spoilers for "Feed," the first book in the series.
The second book in the Newsflesh trilogy picks up where Feed left off. Feed introduced us to George (Georgia) and Shaun Mason, two bloggers in a post-Rising world in which the Kellis-Amberlee virus means zombies are now an everyday part of life, and have reshaped society accordingly. People huddle in enclaves, road trips are for heavily-armed truckers and the borderline suicidal, and you can't go from point A to point B anywhere without sticking your hand in half a dozen blood testing units, and people are always standing by to shoot you in the head if any of those tests indicates you are positive for infection. Much of book one was a commentary on this post-Rising world in which people have allowed fear of the walking dead to take over their lives, curtailing their freedom of movement, autonomy, and privacy.
Now, while I think that was a valid point to make, I also think the author and her characters really failed to offer any alternatives. I mean, if the entire world now has to live with this highly-contagious virus that in minutes can turn anyone into a mindless flesh-eating zombie, and any large gathering of people is a potential bloodbath if just one thing goes wrong, of course everyone's life is going to change and heavy security measures are going to make them a lot less free than we are in our zombie-free world. That's kind of unavoidable.
But in book two, Mira Grant expands the scope of this zombie apocalypse, and addresses one of the other weaknesses of book one, the cartoonish villainy of Vice Presidential candidate Tate, who was apparently evil for the sake of evil. In Deadline, we learn the conspiracy was much bigger than him, and there are people who want the virus to keep people living in fear, with the government telling them what to do.
Which is a metaplot that, again, the author delivers with not a lot of subtlety, and maybe the logic holes were a little more noticeable to me this time around. That said, I really liked Deadline, just as I liked Feed, because what it has, and a lot of it, is Plot and Pacing. Something horrible is always just around the corner. A new twist, a serious complication, or another near-death experience. And as is par for the course in any zombie story, you know not all the characters are going to make it to the end and you're kind of laying mental odds on who survives and who doesn't.
At the end of the last book, George died. The author gets around this by having Shaun be "insane" in this book; George is constantly talking to him, and sometimes he even sees her. His friends are used to him talking to his dead sister, albeit a little disturbed by it. George's voice sometimes even tells him things that supposedly he shouldn't even know, which made me wonder if there was going to be some bizarre twist in which it turns out that George somehow really is inside his head.
I did get kind of tired of Shaun and his angst over his dead sister. I mean, yeah, it's tragic, she was his sister and best friend, but seriously the degree of closeness and his inability to live without her started skeeving me out a little. When, for the first time in two books Shaun actually shows interest in another female (I was wondering until then if he was a virgin), he ruins it by... saying George's name at a very inappropriate time. Now that was creepy. Seriously? This guy has problems, and hearing his dead sister's voice in his head is not the worst of them.
Notwithstanding the one-dimensional Shaun "I can't get over my dead sister" Mason and his deathwish vengeance crusade, this book did cook along, a little improbably at times, but with so many thrills and twists that it was never boring and I had to know what would happen next. Mira Grant even makes all the virology infodumps interesting. In Deadline, we learn that even in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, things can indeed always get worse.
That said, the BIG twist at the end? I totally saw it coming. But nonetheless, I have to read book three, and soon.
This is an endearing light fantasy series, like a Disney Princess adventure for grown-ups. Although billed as "the darker side of fairy tales," Jim Hines doesn't really get dark-dark, he just takes traditional fairy tales and treats them as stories about adults in a fantasy world.
In "The Stepsister Scheme," we were introduced to Danielle Whiteshore, aka "Cinderella," newly married to Prince Armand and just learning that her mother-in-law Queen Beatrice has a predilection for collecting girls in trouble with unusual gifts. Hence, Snow White and Talia, aka "Sleeping Beauty," both of whom come from their own tragic real-life fairy tales. The three women go forth to rescue Armand from malevolent faeries, and a buddy team-up fantasy series is born.
In book two, the threat is mermaids. Hines adapts the tale of The Little Mermaid this time. Lirea, the mermaid who fell in love with a human prince, has subsequently gone mad, killed her own sister and her father, and has taken over her tribe and is leading the Undines (merfolk) in a war against the humans. Danielle, Snow, and Talia discover trouble brewing on a diplomatic mission to the Undines that goes badly wrong. Lirea is apparently hunting for her surviving younger sister, convinced by the voices in her head that her little sister (and everyone else) is trying to kill her.
Hines is definitely writing in response to, though not in imitation of, the Disney versions we are all familiar with. Lirea is no Ariel (her sister is a little closer), but we do get a Sea Witch, far more complex than the Disney version (first she's evil, then she's not, then she is) and a more complicated version of the "mermaid and her human prince" story (they were in love - no, he was a cad who used and abandoned her - no, he was actually in love with her - they were married - no they weren't). There's also a lot of magic treated with some complexity as well, as the details of what really happened to Lirea, what her grandmother the sea witch is really up to, and how Cinderella, Snow, and Talia will save the day all depends on understanding how certain spells work.
Snow White and Danielle both "level up" a bit in this book, while Talia is still the same butt-kicking ninja she was in the first book, but what she gets more of is character development. We learn a little more about her background — specifically, how she came to the Kingdom of Lorindar and wound up under Queen Bea's protection — and her love for Snow, revealed in the first book, is revealed to more people in this one. I am not sure where Hines will go with this, since so far, Snow seems pretty heterosexual, constantly flirting, and, it's strongly implied, going well beyond flirting, with anything in trousers. I suppose for many fans it would be a "happy ending" if Snow reciprocates Talia's feelings, but an unrequited love seems more likely.
There is a bittersweet happy ending, a twist or two on the traditional ending of the Little Mermaid's tale, and generally things are wrapped up in a satisfying manner while leaving a few dangling threads (like Talia's so-far unrequited love) for the next book.
This isn't brilliant fantasy, but it's very enjoyable fantasy written with a thoroughly modern sensibility — the characters are living in a medieval fantasy world, and somehow they manage to act like enlightened people without outright spouting 21st century viewpoints. The presence of non-straight characters does not come off as gimmicky or an arbitrary checking off of diversity boxes, nor is there any hint of exploitation. And of course, this is a book with multiple strong female characters - in fact, a ton of them - but not all are in the Exceptional Woman Who Is Superior to Any Man mold. The men don't suffer for the formidability of the ladies, though they do tend to be more minor characters.
This is possibly the most annoying book I have ever listened to.
Annerte Bening is great as the narrator of this audiobook: she catches the stream-of-consciousness voices of the characters perfectly. The problem is that listening to these voices is exactly like listening to someone's interior monologue as they natter to themselves about every detail they observe going throughout their day.
I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses, but apparently the writing style in Mrs. Dalloway is often compared to that book. I can't say it makes me eager to tackle Joyce. There isn't really a plot in this book, just character studies. Clarissa Dalloway is a high-society woman planning a party; we follow her throughout her day starting with a walk along Bond Street. She meets an old flame who's just returned from India, prompting reflection about why she married her stodgy, reliable husband Richard Dalloway instead of the more interesting but less stable Peter Walsh. Then the narrative switches to Walsh's point of view, as we follow him going about London, reflecting on Clarissa and her refusal of his marriage proposal and the married woman he's now hooked up with.
The book drifts in and out of viewpoints, shifting perspectives and threads of narrative. Mrs. Dalloway is the main character whose head we get into, but we are also treated to the thoughts of Septimus Warren Smith, a traumatized, suicidal veteran of the Great War, whose Italian wife can't understand why he keeps acting ill when the doctors say nothing is wrong with him.
The prose is elegant and pretty and Woolf is quite artful in the way she gets us thoroughly into the characters' heads, telling us all about their hopes, fears, secrets, and entire life histories in snippets of rambling internal monologue. It's one of those "literary" novels whose craft I can appreciate while making me never want to read it again. I can see why Woolf is studied by graduate students, but nothing here spoke to me or interested me, and listening to Clarissa Dalloway go on and on and on and on, treating every precious thought she has like a precious little diamond, listening to self-involved Peter Walsh go on and on and on about his love lives past and present and his failure to "make a success" of himself, listening to Septimus Smith go on and on and on about his dead friend who haunts him and how detached he is from society, made me feel like someone trapped on a bus between people talking on their cell phones.
A snarkier review of this book could legitimately be hashtagged with #firstworldproblems, aside from Septimus's PTSD, which I'll grant that Woolf treated with a fair degree of nuance and sympathy for the time this was written. There's also a hint of a past lesbian infatuation and a lot of ruminating on the basic dissatisfaction of upper-class married life, which I guess is why this book is supposed to be an early "feminist" work.
It was not to my taste. Virginia Woolf may have been a genius, but I suspect you have to have your head somewhere like where Clarissa's or Septimus's heads are at to love this book. Maybe I'd have found the stream-of-consciousness prose more interesting and less annoying in print.
This was pretty good contemporary cyberpunk. Morgan doesn't have William Gibson's way with words, but his characters are more interesting and his pacing and action scenes are much better.
There is the potential for a space opera here - the world of Altered Carbon is a far future in which humans have spread to the stars, and the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, was born on another planet, but this story takes place entirely on Earth, in "Bay City" (what used to be San Francisco). That and all the Japanese names and yakuza and such seem to be conscious nods to Gibson.
Kovacs is your basic bad dude ex-commando killing machine with a tortured past. He used to work for "Envoy Corps"; in this far future, the U.N. is apparently the interplanetary government and it trains super-soldiers as "Envoys" to go do all the usual killing and pacifying for what turns out to be corporate interests and rich people. Same as it ever was. Kovacs gets disillusioned and turns rogue, and the book opens with a criminal enterprise he and his girlfriend are running going very badly. This is how we are introduced to the most interesting technology in this world: "resleeving." Basically, human minds can now be digitized and transferred ("sleeved") in new bodies. People convicted of crimes can be sentenced to virtual "storage" — your mind goes into a data bank for some period of time (potentially centuries) and in the meantime, someone else can buy the right to walk around in your body. Mix this with artificial intelligences and virtual worlds and you can see the possibilities for cons, grand schemes, and cunning plans is enormous.
Kovacs winds up on Earth, freed from his virtual sentence following his botched enterprise in the prologue, because a very rich "Methuselah" (someone who's been resleeved repeatedly for hundreds of years) wants him to do a job for him. Mr. Bancroft died, violently, a few days ago, and upon being resleeved from his backup storage, he of course has no memory of what happened prior to his last backup. The police say either he killed himself or his wife killed him. Bancroft refuses to believe either scenario, and wants Kovacs to find out who actually blew his head off and why.
This is where Altered Carbon crosses cyberpunk with a hard-boiled detective novel. Kovacs has to go looking for clues, and of course runs into all sorts of people with conflicting interests all of whom threaten him or bribe him to do what they want. The way in which he eventually uncovers what's really going on, gets caught up in an extensive web and snagged on multiple hooks and conflicting obligations, was quite skillfully plotted. He eventually unleashes bloody vengeance as is typical for this sort of story, and of course he runs up against multiple dangerous dames with whom he has a lot of graphically and sometimes laughably-described sex.
If you are fond of the "hard-boiled lone wolf bangs babes and carves a swath of bloody vengeance" genre, then Altered Carbon is the book for you. The whole digitized humans angle contains no ideas that haven't been floating around in cyberpunk for decades now, and certainly other cyberpunk novels have been written with a noir feel to them, but this is the best of the lot I have read recently.
There were some authorial indulgences (the sex scenes, the Jimi Hendrix AI-run hotel, and a whole lot of prostitutes) which are characteristic of a freshman SF novel (though I kind of liked the Hendrix). But overall, this paid tribute to its predecessors while not being wholly derivative, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, and wouldn't mind seeing a little more extra-solar SF next time.
I wanted very much for this to be better than it was. But while it was not bad, neither was it particularly good. It's a Big Mac of a space opera, a perfectly average, standard, processed serving delivering a pleasant if unexceptional taste but no nutritional value. Mike Shepherd seems to be trying to imitate David Weber or Lois McMaster Bujold, and since I am not particularly a fan of either of them (I know, sacrilege), this story did little for me. It was entertaining enough for the time I spent listening to it, but I don't really care about Kris Longknife and her future military career and whatever political shenanigans will continue through the next few books, nor was I even lured by the promise of the aliens repeatedly mentioned in this book but never seen.
Kris Longknife is a daughter of privilege in this far future where Earth is a corrupt, decadent old world at the center of a union spanning hundreds of colony worlds. Her father is the Prime Minister of Wardhaven, and he's been a cold, political creature since Kris's little brother was killed following a botched kidnapping when she was ten. Kris, following years of guilt and a bit of teenage alcoholism, was inspired by her war-hero grandfather to join the Navy, much to her parents' horror.
In the first part of the book, we are introduced to Kris as a boot Ensign in charge of a bunch of space marines who are on a rescue mission to save a little girl who's been kidnapped by terrorists. Of course this dredges up all of Kris's issues, and already she was trying me, because the whole time it was "OH, the angst! I'm coming, Tommy! I won't let this little girl die like you did! Oh, how can I focus on the job when I keep remembering my dead little brother angst!angst!angst!"
I'm sure something like that will haunt you for your entire life, but it happened when she was a kid, and now she's an adult and a naval officer. One would think she'd have developed some coping skills by now. But saving the little girl was clearly meant to be the point where she finally is able to put her brother to rest.
Then we get more family background, Kris takes a lot of flak from fellow officers because of course she's one of "those Longknives" and everyone knows she's a rich girl who decided to join the military for whatever reason. She is assigned to a humanitarian mission on a nearly-abandoned colony world where people are starving and facing floods and plagues, and since she's so exceptional, she manages to whip the green, bottom-of-the-barrel unit she's assigned to into kick-ass troops who beat off bandits and save the starving farmers, etc.
In the meantime, there's some kind of plot where political enemies of her family are trying to set her up to be killed, which introduces the main bad guys and a dubious romantic interest for future books.
The "mutiny" of the book's title does not take place until nearly the end of the book, and like all the things Kris does, it's an act that requires a certain amount of bravery and competence, but no hard moral choices — throughout the book, the reader is never left in doubt that Kris is absolutely doing the right thing and anyone who opposes her is wrong.
If you really like military SF and female protagonists, this may be worth checking out, but I'm unlikely to pick up the rest of the series unless I'm starved for something better.
I also cannot recommned this narrator: Dina Pearlman put far too much "sneer" into the sneers; whenever a character spoke with sarcasm, or worse, an accent (there is a Scottish Highlander regiment in the book), it became a bit painful to listen to her, and honestly, I have listened to many audiobooks and found men can do women's voices well and women can do men's voices well, but in Pearlman's case, I could never forget that it was a woman trying to voice a man's lines, and it kept throwing me out of the story.
This is good old-fashioned hard SF space exploration yarn. The first interstellar colony ship, first people on a new planet, you've read this before — colonists figuring out the climate and ecology of a new world, improvising all the things they couldn't bring from home, having fatal encounters with the native fauna, etc. Coyote is not terribly original, but lots of people like very specific genres that make no attempt to deviate from the standard tropes - how many urban fantasies or Regency romances or mysteries truly stand out as different from the rest? Well, that's Coyote — you want a sci-fi novel about colonists settling another planet, you get a sci-fi novel about colonists settling another planet.
Lest I sound too lukewarm in my praise, Coyote is quite good. The first third of the book takes place before the ship — The Alabama — leaves Earth. It is a near-future dystopia in which a right-wing United Republic of America, a single-party police state ruled by the Liberty Party, has replaced the old USA and is now building a starship as a monument to itself, to guarantee its own immortality. What they don't know is that Captain Robert Lee is planning to steal it, and replace its loyal Liberty Party crew and colonists with freed "Dissident Intellectuals" — political prisoners.
The story of how he pulls this off is the first part of the book, and was originally published as a short story. The rest of the book hangs together pretty well as a single novel, but it's clearly a composite of several short stories stitched together into a linear narrative. This is a hard SF novel, so there is no FTL travel — the colonists travel 42 light years in cold sleep. The first complication is when some URA soldiers are trapped aboard when the ship launches, and go into hibernation with the colonists. Obviously this causes tension when they arrive at Coyote, knowing that they will never see Earth again and that the government they left behind is now history, centuries in the past, but they are still divided between loyalists and dissidents/"traitors."
There are other complications, of course, and enough interpersonal conflicts to keep things cooking along. The second half of the book becomes more of a YA adventure when a group of teenagers, for various reasons, take off with a couple of boats and decide to explore Coyote. It's a stupid, reckless, ill-fated adventure, exactly the sort of thing teenagers would do. But it demonstrates dramatic character growth in two of the young main characters, and leads into the novel's final act, when another starship arrives at Coyote.
Coyote is, perhaps, not an epic, but deserves to be regarded as a mid-level SF classic, or maybe a sci-fi "comfort read" if you will. Don't expect anything daring or unprecedented, but the writing is more than competent, the story has plenty of hooks and turns, and the characters make you care whether they'll survive. This is the first book in a series, and clearly there are loose threads left dangling, and I enjoyed it enough to put the next book on my list.
I wasn't too fond of the narrator, Peter Ganim, who spoke in an almost robotic monotone at times, though his voice was clear enough. The parts of the book narrated in first person by Wendy Gunther, one of the teen protagonists, had a female narrator (who doesn't seem to be credited in the book description); I was glad they used different narrators instead of having the male narrator read those parts.
An easy test of whether you'll like this book is whether you like Gaskell's contemporaries: George Eliot and Charles Dickens are the most obvious, though the plot borrows a bit of Jane Eyre and a bit of Pride and Prejudice. Gaskell writes closer to Eliot's style, but with a bit of Dickens's social consciousness. In the end, North and South ends up a romance, but the romantic obstacle course navigated by the romantic leads is not the most compelling element.
North and South features as the protagonist 19-year-old Margaret Hale, whose father, upon having a crisis of conscience, quits his job as a country parson in idyllic southern England and moves his wife and daughter north to the industrial cotton-mill town of Milton. To say Margaret and her mother don't like their new home is an understatement — they hate it, and Margaret is certainly not enamored of the wealthy industrialist Mr. Thornton, who, undaunted by either her mannerly disdain or his mother's cold mercenary disapproval, is struck with love at first sight. (I felt this was one of the weakest parts of the book, as it's never explained just what made this prissy southern girl so irresistible to him.) He then spends the rest of the novel being in love with her despite resigning himself to not having a chance with her, and Margaret spends the rest of the novel denying that she feels anything but disdain for him, while constantly worrying about what he thinks of her.
This thread winds it way through much more compelling and illustrative social dramas: workers' strikes and grinding poverty, the bustling but harrowing rise of English industry that made many people rich and many more people soot-covered beggars. Here, Gaskell stays more refined and less comical than Dickens; her poor are not grotesque caricatures, but hard and not always sympathetic people.
Margaret is a well-educated country girl, and her mother is a typical upper-class housewife. The Hales aren't used to these northerners who speak bluntly, tell you exactly what they think of you, ask personal questions, and talk openly about money.
Mostly we see Milton and its northern ways through Margaret's eyes, and Gaskell invokes some of the social issues of the time, as when a poor family Margaret befriends gets caught up in a millworkers' strike. At first, Mr. Thornton seems like your basic hard-hearted capitalist oppressing his workers, but Gaskell slowly draws out more nuanced arguments: Thornton is a hard, proud, mercenary man, but he's upright and honorable and he's earned his fortune the hard way. And the millworkers, while legitimately oppressed, are not exactly angels and they believe some really stupid things. The tone swings back and forth between pro-capitalist parochialism and a more humanitarian saga; Gaskell writes about economics and class warfare more convincingly than most of her peers. She doesn't have Dickens's sharp edge, but she isn't writing social satire.
Honestly, I could have done without the obligatory Jane Eyre-ish happy ending altogether. And Margaret Hale, while she certainly has a voice and a personality, was a little too simpering at times (though not as bad as Fanny Price). I thought the social issues and the secondary characters were more interesting than the Lovestruck Capitalist and the almost-perfect protagonist. This was a fine novel - I'm only dinging it a star because Gaskell's writing didn't quite stand out enough to distinguish it from all the other books I've been comparing it to.
Juliet Stevenson, who does many of these classic British novels, was fantastic in this one. She handled the male characters as adeptly as the females, and her accents were perfect: she spoke with the northern burr of the Milton characters, and the southern country accent of the Hales, making the different parts of England distinct.
Mars is Ben Bova's love letter to space exploration; it's a novel-length booster for a manned Mars program. A very well-conceived and engaging (in places) novel, you should not read it expecting it to be space opera or really, any kind of adventure aside from the inevitable dangers of flying to another planet. Mars stays strictly hard SF, so even when the possibility of life on Mars arises, you can be sure it won't come in the form of ancient cities and little red men, nor hazardous beasties who need to be shot or run from.
The main character is Jamie Waterman, a half-Navajo geologist who is a member of the first Mars expedition. The expedition is a multinational effort, with astronauts and scientists from every country that could afford to chip in. Much of the drama in the book involves the politics of the mission — the Russians and the Americans jealously keep track of how many astronauts of each country get to join the landing party, the Japanese astronauts are hyper-conscious of how they are representing their country, and the promiscuous hottie who does every other man on the expedition deliberately drives the Russians crazy by not sleeping with them because Russians killed her grandfather fifty years ago. Meanwhile, back home the founder of the Mars project is trying to balance concerns for the mission (including the fact that his own daughter is one of the scientists on Mars) with satisfying the politicians, in whose hands rest the decision to send more Mars expeditions or not. There are politics in space and on the ground, along with dossiers on each character that add depth to their backgrounds so that we understand why each one behaves the way they do on the mission.
That said, while the characters were each fleshed out and the story is compellingly plausible, with just enough hazards introduced to make the mission more than a long walk in space, it's a little spare as sci-fi goes. The major life-threatening situation that arises — a "Mars flu" that mysteriously afflicts everyone and stumps all the physicians trying to figure out its cause — has a clever forehead-smacking solution. There are hints of Martian life that don't really develop into much by the end of the book, though they are enough to whet the appetites of scientists, and readers of subsequent books in this series. There is some political intrigue between Jaimie Waterman, his ambitious journalist girlfriend back on Earth, and the opportunistic Vice President of the United States, each of them trying to get what they want from the other to advance their own agenda.
An enjoyable if slightly dry hard SF novel that should certainly go on your "Mars or Bust!" reading list. 3.5 stars - good book, though not very exciting.
The Martian Chronicles has all the virtues and flaws of everything I've ever read by Ray Bradbury. He writes beautiful prose and he's particularly good at spooky and haunting imagery. He's in a different category entirely from other "golden oldie" SF authors — his stuff is deliberately thoughtful and crafted, and tends to be much more human-focused. Even when he's writing "hard" SF, it feels more like a science fantasy, sometimes edging closer to pure fantasy or horror. And you can read all kinds of metaphors into his work, often metaphors completely different from the ones he intended, if his reaction to interpretations of Fahrenheit 451 is anything to go on.
The Martian Chronicles is, as the title suggests, more a themed collection of short stories than a novel, chronicling humanity's exploration and exploitation of Mars. It starts with the first ill-fated Mars expedition, when the first Earthman on Mars is greeted by a Martian roused to jealousy by his dissatisfied wife's clairvoyant dreams, and continues through the inevitable follow-up expeditions and colonization effort, in which the Martians all but disappear, becoming ghosts haunting their own planet, and humanity brings its troubles and all its baggage to Mars. The final stories, in particular, after a war destroys life back on the home planet, are eerie, with vivid descriptions of robot houses on Earth still cooking breakfast for families that were long ago atomized in a nuclear war, and a few lone survivors trekking through the ghost towns and dry canals of Mars. There were parts of this book that were truly marvelous and timeless.
That said - the flaws. Ray Bradbury, like so many of his generation, writes like a cranky old white man and he always has. He seems unable to conceive of a family, a society, or a civilization that doesn't resemble Middle America circa 1950, when The Martian Chronicles was published. Even the Martians, despite their elegiac voices and physical descriptions — brown skin, copper eyes, psychic powers, and evolution into non-corporeal bodies — are first introduced to us as a bored married couple following behavioral tropes that would not be out of place in a 1950s sitcom. The Martian household is imaginatively described, with its magnetic dust to clean and its fire chariot for transportation and the mask worn by a Martian man going out to hunt, with his rifle firing bee-like cartridges, but it's essentially a Flintstones or Jeffersons-like mapping of suburban America onto an alien landscape.
That said, Earthmen behaving exactly as they did back on Earth, and trying to remake Mars in the image of Smalltown, America, was no doubt part of the point. The Martian Chronicles shows Earthmen ruining everything, like they always do, Mars being no exception.
This is a classic that deserves a good read, and there is a timeless quality about it, but there's also a datedness in Bradbury's characterization, an ability to imagine and illustrate themes beautifully but not characters, all of whom are as stereotypical and whitebread as those you'd have found on TV at the time of the book's writing.
3.5 stars for superior prose and imagination and vision, but dated tropes and characters who are simply mouths to voice themes.
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