Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Doubleblind by Ann Aguirre

J Young wrote on "Sirantha Jax is finally on Ithiss-Tor, feeling way over her head as an ambassador for the Conglomerate. The Conglomerate needs her to bring the bug-like aliens, the Ithtorians to their side because they need an ally against increased attacks by the Morgut (a species of violent, frenzied eaters that see everyone as food). The Ithtorians are the only species the Morgut have ever respected. A "jumper" and former party-girl, Jax doesn't feel in her element as someone responsible for such an important task, and March, who has always been at her side isn't himself to help her."

That's a nice graph-long summation of the third book in Ann Aquirre's Grimspace series, which began with Grimspace, moved on to Wanderlust and has progressed to Doubleblind.

I enjoyed the first two books in this series mainly because of the extraordinarily well drawn characters and the warp-speed plots that Aguirre crafts effortlessly. My only problem with the first two books were the amount of horrific bloodshed and the swearing, which are mercifully trimmed to a few flashbacks in the third novel.

In Doubleblind, we find Sirantha Jax at a disadvantage, as she's on an alien planet surrounded by giant bugs who find humanity crude, ignorant and disgusting. Add to that her "mouth off and hit first, ask questions later" attitude, and you can almost hear bookies around the universe taking bets on how long before Jax gets herself and her crew incarcerated, exiled or killed.

Fortunately, Jax is at her best under pressure and underestimated, and she comes through in her ambassadorial duties with amazing sang froid. Meanwhile, the love of her life, March, is suffering from a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder, and can't seem to reconnect with Jax at all. Due to her "all or nothing" view of love, however, Jax manages to fix her beloved, just in time for him to be arrested by the Ithtorians. Mayhem ensues, and once again, Jax finds the real perpetrator and saves the day. However, we're left on a cliffhanger that had me yelping "Oh no you didn't!"

I won't spoil it for you by telling you what happens at the end of the book, but suffice it to say that I read this page-turner of an SF novel until the wee hours of the morning, hoping that all the loose ends would be tucked up neatly and I could stop worrying about the fate of the universe. But no, instead I was treated to what can only be described as a hasty retreat. Now I have to wait at least a year for the next installment to find out what happened! Frustrating! Yet for Aguirre and her fine cast of space-faring misfits, I am willing to rein in my impatience and wait. But just this once, Ann! Do you hear me! Get cracking on that manuscript, amiga!

I highly recommend this novel to those who have read Grimspace and Wanderlust. Be prepared to sacrifice your meals, exercise regimen and sleep to finish Doubleblind, is just that good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Magic to the Bone and Gwenhwyfar

This past weekend I finished reading "Magic to the Bone" by Devon Monk and "Gwenhwyfar" by Mercedes Lackey, mainly because they're library books and I want to get them back as fast as possible for the next person in the hold line to enjoy.

I read an excerpt of Magic to the Bone in a sampler paperback that my friend Renee Stern picked up at a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention last year. Then, a Facebook friend of mine, Phil from the UK, reviewed it favorably on Goodreads, and that was all it took for me to grab a copy from the KCLS web page, ASAP.
Here's a summation of the story:
Allie Beckwith, the estranged daughter of a ruthless and wealthy businessman, lives in a Portland, Oregon that is rife with magic and mayhem. It seems that Magic has 'come out of the closet' and is now regulated and used by everyone for everything from 'influencing' business deals to remaining young looking when past their prime. The problem is, as Allie puts it, "Using magic meant it used you back. Forget the fairy tale, hocus pocus, wave a wand and bling-o, sparkles and pixie dust crap. Magic, like booze, sex and drugs, gave as good as it got."
When anyone uses magic, the price is exacted from the user unless they can offload the cost to someone else, usually an innocent. And the price can range from painful bruises to memory loss, migraines and worse.
Which leads us to Allie's profession; she's a 'hound' or a person who tracks down illegal offloading of magic by identifying the spell caster's signature and then tracking them down and bringing them to justice.
Unfortunately, Allie finds that a young boy has been offloaded nearly to death by her father, or someone duplicating his magic signature, and, once her father is killed, she has to track down the forger and the killer before she herself is 'hounded' to death by a rival hound.
Having been to Portland more than once, I found that I enjoyed reading about a place where I was somewhat familiar with the environment, however, as this is 'urban fantasy' the author focuses on the seedy, ugly and impoverished parts of Portland, and its gritty inhabitants, leaving the reader to think of Portland as a frightening ruin of an urban landscape, which is far from the truth, from what I have seen of the city.
Allie meets up with a man named Zayvion Jones, who is initially hired by her father to keep an eye on her, but becomes her friend and lover as they work together to solve the mystery. I really enjoyed their relationship, and their sharing of power during intimacy. I sincerely hope that Jones and Allie stay partners and keep their relationship going in further books. I found the plot to be well paced and full of turns that I didn't see coming, plus I thought the prose was gritty and workmanlike enough to suit the earthy characters in their tough urban landscape.
The only real problem I had with the book is the same problem I have with Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse. Monk, like Butcher and Harris, puts her protagonist through the mill, nearly getting her killed at least twice and leaving her battered and bruised at the end of the book. Sadly, Allie also loses memory after she uses magic, and she loses a great deal of her memory of her relationship with Jones, and by the end of the book tries to reboot their relationship after her recovery. That just seemed more than a bit cruel to me, and I wonder if the aforementioned authors have a masochistic streak in them, to allow such noble and good characters to be beaten and bloodied so often. It's as if all three authors are saying "No good deed goes unpunished" or "Those who fight the good fight do not deserve any reward but to still be alive at the end of the fight." I feel these characters deserve more than that, they deserve a happy relationship, time without the weight of the world on their shoulders and more than one or two friends who believe in them and are willing to stand by them during times of crisis. In short, they deserve a break.
Still, I would recommend this urban fantasy novel to those who read Sookie Stackhouse and Harry Dresden novels, as they will find much the same rebelious and heroic protagonist herein, who is stubborn, brave and foolish enough to risk their own lives to save others much less deserving.

Mercedes Lackey's latest foray into the Arthurian legend is also a book about a strong woman warrior who attempts to triumph over the forces of darkness to aid her realm.
Gwenhwyfar is taken from the Welsh legends that say that there were actually three women of that name who wed Arthur, King of the Britons, and that all three ended up in different places after Arthur died of wounds given him by his bastard son, Mordred, or Medraut, as he's called in this version of the tale.
This book tells the story of Arthur's third wife, Gwen, who is a trained warrior, raised as the daughter of a king who was considered a giant, and a mother who was possibly one of the "Folk" or Fae people of Briton.
Gwen has an evil little sister, also named Gwen, but spelled Gwenhwyfach, to signify her status as a year younger than Gwenhwyfar. Though identical in appearance, little Gwen is the darkness of selfish evil to her older sisters bright and honest character.
Little Gwen falls in with Morgana and Morgause and learns to use spells to her advantage while good Gwen becomes a capable commander and soldier in her fathers army.
The knights of the round table come to respect her, and Gwen finds herself falling in love with Lancelin (Lancelot), a relationship that is only consummated in the final chapters of the book.
Though I enjoyed the re-telling of this timeless story of love and loss and a kingdom where justice and fair-minded values reigned, I found that Gwen's own love story taking a backseat to the machinations of the evil characters off-putting, and I wanted more time for the relationship with Lancelin to flourish before it was burned down like a useless building. I also didn't get much of a bead on Arthur as a man or a king, he seemed to be a background character in this tale, though he's supposed to be at the forefront, as it's his legend that remains strongly in the collective unconscious. I realize that in telling the story of the three Gwens, Lackey was trying to highlight the lives of these fascinating women and how they effected the kingdom and the king, but leaving the king as a two dimensional character that doesn't even speak until the final chapters is not giving the story its full due...we can't see why even one Gwen would fall in love with him, let alone three.
Yet again, I would recommend this book to those who enjoy Arthurian legends, though I'd have to warn them that there is precious little about Arthur or Merlin in this book.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Great Idea

"Why do they always name schools after politicians and movie stars? Why
don't they name a school after a teacher?" the late Frank McCourt often
asked. Now his wish may come true. New York
magazine reported Mayor
Michael Bloomberg "is expected to soon announce the creation of the
Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism and Literature, an
application-only high school to open next fall on West 84th Street."

Shortly before his death, McCourt was told that the school project might
happen. According to Tom Allon, a former student, now a teacher, "I
said, 'It's looking very good, Frank, and there's a lot of good will
about it.' He said, 'What an honor. What a great thing that would be.'"

I think this is a great idea, to name schools for writers, but at the same time, I fear that there will be no jobs for those students once they graduate, as journalism is a dying art/skill/career.