Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis

The Cipher is a Fantasy/Romance hybrid that I bought at Barnes and Noble with my gift card this past February. I have to say that the attractive cover and succinct blurb on the back piqued my interest enough to have me buy it, though I've never read this particular author's work before. But my favorite book pimp, Renee Stern, met up with Ms Francis at an SF/F convention last month, and told me that she had a great conversation with the author, and would be certain to pass on my comments to her when I'd finished the novel.
I must admit the first part of the Cipher was a bit slow going, but the plot and characters gathered steam and started chugging along at a clip by page 24, and once the author has you in her grip, she doesn't let go until the final chapter. The prose was so crisp and correct that it was almost razor-sharp in spots, which is fine in my book, because I much prefer something martial and muscular to flabby prose rife with whining characters and listless dialog in a plot that plods. The structure of the book was beefy, with plenty of action, heroes and villans and slithering subplots to keep readers fascinated and glued to the page.
The story revolves around protagonist Lucy Trenton, a redhead of surprising seriousness who is a member of Crosspointes royal family, the Ramplings. She's had a talent to suss out "majick" since she was a child, but she's had to hide that talent because it isn't appropriate for women in her social position to become majicars, or mages, and none of her relations believe her when she tells them how painful this majick-sensing ability is to her. Because Crosspointe is a seaside town, Lucy has become a customs agent, and as the waters around her town are filled with treacherous sea-monsters and sylveth, a liquid substance capable of changing humans into merciless monsters with poisoned appendages, Lucy stays pretty busy cataloging the products and trade goods washed ashore after ships run aground or break up near the harbor. Unfortunately, there are objects that are invested with sylveth and majick, called Ciphers, that are off limits to all but the vaunted majicars. But Lucy is drawn to their power, and finds herself collecting true Ciphers in secret in an almost addictive way. What Lucy doesn't know is that someone has been watching her, waiting for the moment when he can use his information on her collection of Ciphers against her. Meanwhile, a Cipher that she comes upon attaches itself to her arm, and we're lead to believe that usually when Ciphers attach they kill the person they paracite, sometimes slowly, but always painfully. Lucy meets a gambler who has made a bet with his evil brother about her, and charming but weak sea captain Marten Thorpe enters her life, and brings another thread of intrigue and duplicity to her already complex situation.
Captain Thorpe was one of the few problems I had with this otherwise fine novel. He was, to be blunt, an idiot, a compulsive gambler who never seemed to realize that his elder brother is a sadistic madman and a traitor until it was too late. Of course Lucy, having had a secret collection of ‘true cyphers’ she’s tucked away under her house, isn’t up for citizen of the year, either. But though she takes herself too seriously and needed to work on her sense of humor and ability to resist the call of ciphers, Lucy was, in general, a good strong woman who cares about others and is intelligent enough to be wary of Captain Thorpe from their first meeting. Toward the final third of the novel, Lucy weakens, though, by telling her family and friends everything, and then watches helplessly as they are all convicted of being conspirators and hauled off to a slave ship, so she is certainly not an infallible or perfect heroine, but she’s a far better person than Marten Thorpe.
The other problem I had with The Cipher was the darkness that permeated the middle section of the book, and didn’t lighten at all until the final few chapters. I am not a fan of horror fiction, mainly because I do not like being scared, nor do I enjoy reading about all the pain and suffering characters can be put through at the hands of the villain. Torture isn’t thrilling, it’s disgusting, and I’d prefer not to read about the evils that one sociopath or psychopath can perpetrate on another human being. I also abhor the gory details many authors of “dark fantasy” insist on inflicting on the reader. I realize that this is often done in the name of “realism” but to be honest, if I wanted reality, I’d watch the TV news or read the newspaper. I read novels for enlightenment, entertainment, enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. I also enjoy works that are well written, because beautiful prose is an art form to me. I love words, and I love good storytelling. But when it comes to adding ‘gritty’ reality or darkness to a novel, less is more in my opinion. My friend Renee and my husband would both disagree with me on that point, as neither seems to flinch at bloody descriptions or horrific situations.
Yet I do find that for a good story with well-drawn characters, I will skim over the horrific bits and read the novel all the way through, as I’ve done with Jacqueline Carey’s excellent “Kushiel’s Dart” series. Francis’ characters and story were good enough to keep me going through the nasty parts, though I was beginning to despair of our hero and heroine ever getting a break. Thankfully, they did, and the ending was lovely, if not a total HEA.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy dark fantasy with a romantic secondary plot, and those who find magic in general to be too easily tolerated as totally benign in most fantasy novels. Francis shows us the side of ‘majick' that can be potent and dangerous, as well as healing and helpful.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Sins to Worry About

I found this highly amusing text on one of the MediaBistro Blogs:

Apparently Ken Courtney won't have to look far for the inspiration for his next Indulgences collection. The Vatican has updated its list of seven deadly sins. Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, put a modern spin on sin in his recent interview with a Vatican newspaper, citing new, 21st century-style mortal sins that read like C. Montgomery Burns' (of the Simpsons) to-do list:

The New Mortal Sins

1. Genetic modification

2. Carrying out experiments on humans

3. Polluting the environment

4. Causing social injustice

5. Causing poverty

6. Becoming obscenely wealthy

7. Taking drugs

"I think it's to remind people that sins are not just individual," Father James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America, told NPR yesterday. "There's also social sins...sins that affect the community at large and sins that an institution can engage in." Fair enough, but we'd like to have a look at the Vatican's Netflix queue. This new list of sins makes us suspect a recent papal screening of The Constant Gardener."

It's odd that the Vatican would single out genetic modification, when nearly everything we eat has been genetically enhanced, hybridized, gene-spliced and otherwise changed from its original form about a million times since farming became industrialized. As my friend Renee Stern pointed out, the original corn plants grown by farmers were puny and didn't yield anything edible, so they mixed the corn plants with hardier versions until they got the kinds of corn we have today. Also, becoming wealthy should not be a sin. If you are a successful, visionary person, you have a right to the fruits of your labor. To say otherwise is ridiculous. Granted, it would be nice if, once you become wealthy, that you support those less fortunate, or try to wipe out disease in other parts of the world, like Bill Gates, but you are certainly not required to do so--just look at all those rich oil sheiks in the Middle East who could care less about those less fortunate.
Anyway, I'd like to see the book that some bright author makes of this new would be interesting.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Seattle is the Nexus of the Power Booksellers

I found this on Shelf Awareness, a listserve for booksellers and librarians, and thought it would be a good idea to post it here:

Seattle: Book Industry Tastemaker

"The combined power in the book industry" of, Starbucks and
Costco, "three companies that increasingly influence what America
reads," has put Seattle "in the position of tastemaker," the New York
Times writes.

Interestingly Seattle's big three have widely varying approaches to
bookselling. Amazon tries to offer every book ever printed--and then
some. Costco stocks about 250 titles at any time in its 383 warehouses.
And Starbucks has sold two or three titles in the past year.

Among points in the article:

* In the last two years, sales of books through nontraditional outlets
grew $260 million, Al Greco, master of book numbers and marketing
professor at Fordham, said.
* Starbucks Entertainment, which oversees book, music and movie
selections for the company, has been in Los Angeles since 2006.
* Amazon's seven-person editorial team is mostly in their 30s and
"constantly reviews books and recommends its favorites."
* Costco's book buyer, Pennie Clark Ianniciello, "has an uncanny knack
for leading customers to buy books, for molding their tastes," according
to Jeff Rogart of HarperCollins. The title she recommended in February,
Mr. Lincoln's Wars by Adam Braver, sold more in one month at Costco
after a Pennie pick (see her latest, for March, below) than it had sold
nationally in the three years beforehand.

The article also highlights the rise of Seattle's Nancy Pearl,
librarian, author of Book Lust and commentator of NPR.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Grimspace by Ann Aguirre

I'd read about Grimspace on Linnea Sinclair's email listserve that I recieve in digest form every day.
Sinclair and Elaine Corvidae, another author on the list, wholeheartedly endorsed the book, and recommended that we pick up a copy once it comes out in March.
I happened to see a copy at Barnes and Noble last weekend, and, as it was mass market paperback, I grabbed it, and decided to see if one of my favorite SFRomance novelists was right about this book from a new author.
Turns out Linnea's cover blurb, "A tightly-written, edge-of-your-seat read" was right on, and I couldn't put down Grimspace once I got beyond the first few pages.
Though the romance is very secondary to the science fiction in this novel, its still nicely done and there are plenty of moments when the reader isn't sure if the main characters will hook up at all. The prose is fiesty and tough, just like the protagonist, and the plot zooms along at lightspeed. There's action and adventure and plenty of wierd side characters to keep things spicy.
The story runs thus:

Our heroine, Sirantha Jax, is a young woman born with the J-gene, which gives her dark hair, light eyes and the ability to jump/navigate ships through "Grimspace" which is what the characters in this book call the corridors of space that are between regular space and planets. We meet Jax after she's been imprisoned for the crime of blowing up her ship, which contained dignitaries and her lover/pilot, Kai. She is being interrogated by sadistic Corps bullies who want to break her down enough so that she will confess that the accident was all her fault. She can't remember what actually happened, however. Into this ghastly situation strolls March, a man in dire need of a jumper to get him and his rustic crew through Grimspace, as he and his family on a rogue planet want to break the Corps monopoly on interstellar travel. They have a plan to do some selective breeding of their own, but they have to get to some distant planets to get others on board first. Of course, the gray men of the psych corps hunt Jax, and she and March's crew have to scrape through many a rough situation. Jax spends a good amount of time mouthing off and being rather nasty, but she has a right to be a bit rough-edged after what she's been through. I can't say I was happy about all the swear words in the novel, but they did make sense for her character, so I just ignored them and kept on reading.
I'm glad I did, as I loved the ending and the way that Jax stayed true to what she believed in, and that she never became a helpless, hapless woman who requires others to constantly rescue her. The secondary characters were as interesting as the main characters, and the novel had bits of Star Wars, Dune, Babylon 5 and the Matrix in it, as well as a touch of Lois McMaster Bujolds Miles Vorkosigan stories.
I highly recommend this SF/R hybrid to anyone who likes action-oriented SF and women who kick serious rump and aren't afraid to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Women who know their own minds, and aren't stupid or whiny or gullible.
I sincerely hope to hear more from Ann Aguirre in the future.