Apparently everyone is in a science fiction mood right now–or at least two of my favorite stores! Powell’s is celebrating Geek Week with a sale on science fiction/fantasy games and gifts, and Out of Print is running Book Madness with a sale on science fiction/fantasy shirts and accessories (I have the Wizard of Oz shirt and absolutely love it). I recently finished Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, and am currently halfway done with the second book in the series.

Cordelia's Honor

Cordelia’s Honor

I’ve read several fantasy books by Bujold, but this is the first sci fi book I’ve read despite owning several of them so I was really excited for this one. Cordelia’s Honor is actually two stories in the Vorkosigan Saga, Shards of Honor and Barrayar (which won a Hugo Award for best science fiction novel), and follows a few years in the life of Cordelia Naismith. Cordelia is captain of a spaceship and comes from a very technologically advanced planet called Beta Colony, but has never seen the ocean or even a lake because her world mainly exists as underground cities.

While on a mission, her team is overwhelmed by a group from the rival planet of Barrayar (a planet so “backward” they don’t have electricity and computers in every home). Soon only Cordelia, a wounded member of her group, and the leader of the other group, Aral Vorkosigan, remain to make the trip back to a base to be rescued. Like any good love story, two very different people thrown together in stressful circumstances naturally fall in love…except Cordelia and Aral will do most anything to avoid admitting they feel anything but hate toward the person who should be the enemy. Yet when life back on her home planet becomes unbearable, Cordelia manages to escape the military to join her love on his strange planet.

And while Barrayar may have many similarities to Earth, it’s the strangest thing Cordelia has ever seen. She struggles to understand their political system, their food (instead of “protien packets” they eat animals, something not seen on Beta Colony), and the way marriage and sex works on this planet (they don’t have birth control, and arranged marriages are common). And when Aral becomes Regnant to a child Emperor orphaned in a bloody civil war, Cordelia barely manages to survive this strange new world.

Obviously this book has an exciting story line, and I love most anything to do with space travel. The true highlight of the book, however, is Cordelia and the contrast between women on Beta Colony and women on Barrayar. In Cordelia’s world women can fill any position in the army, control their own love lives, and live like independent modern women. In Aral’s world, however, women aren’t allowed in the army and they don’t hold political office. What appalls Cordelia most of all is the lack of medical technology–on Beta Colony pregnant women can transfer the fetus to a robot-like incubator so the pregnancy and birth don’t disrupt their lives, while on Barrayar it’s rare to even have a doctor perform a C-section!

Cordelia is an intelligent, funny, and passionate woman. Her crazy antics never seem out of place because she truly believes in everything she does, and I hope those traits continue into the rest of the series.

I’m always slightly embarrassed to admit how few of the great classics I’ve read. Sure, I read all the required and suggested readings for every  English class I took, but nothing can convince me that Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick are worth getting more than a quarter through (trust me, I’ve tried). But when my then new family-in-law wouldn’t stop talking about how great Les Miserables was, I felt that it was only fair to read the book one of my favorite musical soundtracks was based on. And with the movie out now, a better reason to read the book couldn’t be found.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

The copy of Les Mis I read was hardback, and given its size basically impossible to take anywhere since it couldn’t fit in my purse. Because of this, it took me several months to read and I often got frustrated with my slow pace–but I never got frustrated with the story, because it was amazing. Taking place during a turbulent period of French history, Les Mis follows the story of convicted felon Jean Valjean. Placed in a prison work camp for 17 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, Valjean eventually escapes while on parole and creates a successful life for himself. He is constanly hunted by Javert, an officer, and must keep his real identity hidden. It’s during this secret life that he meets Fantine, a woman with a tale as tragic as his own. As a young woman she fell in love, but the man was gone before she realized she was pregnant. Afraid to go back home and unable to find work as a young unwed mother, Fantine leaves her child, Cosette, in the care of an inn keeper and his wife; once her past is found out, she looses her factory job and turns to prostitution to pay for Cosette’s care. To honor Fantine’s dying wish, Valjean promises to adopt Cosette and raise her in Fantine’s place.

The book then skips ahead several years, and Cosette has gone from a young child to a teen. Valjean is still running from Javert, and Cosette has fallen in love with a young revolutionary named Marius. The inn keeper family who took in Cosette, the Thénardiers, are also back in town trying to extort money from Valjean. There are many minor characters in this section and the book switches focus much more than it did in the first half, but Eponine, the Thénardier’s daughter, is one of my favorite characters so I really enjoyed the second half of the story as she joins Marius and the other students in staging a revolution.

While the plot line of Les Mis covers many years and follows many characters, its greatest strength lies in the detailed themes that carry the book. Victor Hugo constantly finds new ways to introduce his themes in a way that feels organic to the story, especially the idea of religion/belief. Valjean meets an old priest while he’s running from Javert, and that meeting prompts him to create the successful life he had; Javert has many moments of personal struggle, and his moral code guides his difficult choices, and Jaljean and Cosette spend several years hiding in a convent. The idea of wealth is also explored through the many life stages of the characters, and I found it fascinating to see what life was like in 19th century France for those living in poverty. The Thénardier family constructs elaborate cons to get money just to keep a fire burning in the winter and food on the table. The street children beg and steal, and create elaborate stories to distract themselves from their terrible lives. The student revolutionaries that Marius befriends are well off enough to afford an education, but the goal of their (failed) revolution is a better quality of life for all the poor people in Paris who have been ignored in previous revolutions. And of course, there is a strong undercurrent of governmental legitimacy (or lack of legitimacy) in every passage about the students and flashback to Napoleon’s rule.

A book this long with such serious themes may seem intimidating, but I cannot express how much I loved this story. The writing was smooth, despite being an English translation, and the characters are so engrossing it was impossible to put the book down for long. I loved the insider’s look it gave into French history with the many tangents to explain important battles and the history of Paris.

I also loved the recent movie version, and someday hope to see the stage version. So please, share your thoughts! Have you read the book, and did you love Eponine (and dislike Cosette) as much as I did? Have you seen the stage version, and how does it compare to the movie?

I’ve become known as the book person at my work, since I seem to be the only person who reads on lunch break instead of going out to run errands or pick up food. My coworker, who is also a big reader, said she had a book I absolutely must read and I never turn down a book recommendation! So big thanks to Emily for lending me The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, for the last few weeks.

The Magicians

 The Magicians follows the depressing life of Quentin Coldwater, a teenager in New York who still believes in the magical world of Fillory from a book he read as a child. Unfortunately for Quentin that belief doesn’t makes his life at a school for gifted teens, his flaky and absent parents, and his unrequited love for his best friend, any easier to bear. While he’s wishing for a magical ram to summon him to Fillory, everyone else in Quentin’s life is waiting for him to pick an Ivy League college and a career path. Until the fateful day his college interviewer is found dead, and he’s transported to another place by a mysterious EMT, Quentin believed his life would continue along this path picked by other people while he wished for something more exciting.

The beginning of the book is one of the few times things “magically happen” in the book, which makes it unique for the magical fantasy genre. The place he’s transported to is a school for learning magic, and much to Quentin’s dismay magic is just memorization of dead languages and strange hand movements. While at school Quentin starts to realize that getting everything you dreamed about (magic, a new start to reinvent yourself, a girlfriend) may not actually make your life perfect, and even once he’s given a chance to enter the world of Fillory he is still the same depressed person he always was–just with more magic this time.

I’ve written before about my dislike for forced happy endings and uber-upbeat characters. Quentin is deeply depressed for most of the book and when he makes stupid decisions he pays for them, and he is one of the most lovable characters I’ve read in a long time! When it comes to portrayals of the challenging transition from teenager to adult (the book follows Quentin for six years, starting when he is 17), Lev Grossman is amazingly realistic. Life isn’t all sunny and awesome when you’re encouraged/forced to pick a life path at 17 and later realized you picked wrong, and things can get complicated instead of happy when you finally get the things you’ve dreamed about for years. I know this makes the book sound depressing, and it certainly isn’t the most uplifting book ever, but this honest look at the struggle to become an adult (with a little magic thrown in for good measure) was incredibly refreshing.

There is a sequel to The Magicians, but I don’t know if my coworker has the book and it’s not one I’ll seek out on my own (I enjoyed the slightly sour note the book ended on). On its own, however, I found the book to be thought provoking and entertaining while making me incredibly grateful I’ve mostly outgrown my angst-y adolescent period!

I’ve fallen a bit behind in reviewing Butcher’s Codex Alera series, since I’m now working on book five! Epic fantasy has always been one of my favorite genres, and I love story lines that include personal, political, and military conflicts. As I mentioned in my author crush post a few days ago, I think Jim Butcher does this style of writing wonderfully and Academ’s Fury doesn’t disappoint!

Academ’s Fury

Starting two years after the events in book one, Academ’s Fury follows Tavi to his promised studies at the university. While not having furies of his own does hold him back in some training, his fierce determination and years of self-preservation in the Calderon Valley make him an idea candidate for secret Cursor training (training to become an elite spy for the First Lord). Tavi has also made some wonderful friends, including my favorite character Max. Max is the illegitimate son of a high lord, and Max and Tavi quickly bond over their lives as exiles. That friendship, along with help from other Cursors-in-training, will come in helpful as Tavi is faced with the impossible task of saving the First Lord, and all of Alera, from a mysterious old enemy quietly invading the realm.

The book does start out slowly, establishing Tavi’s place at the university. He’s picked on by the older kids with strong furies, works long hours as a page for the First Lord, and hasn’t seen his family in ages. The adventure really picks up several chapters in when Doroga, a Marat tribe leader, comes to warn Bernard and Isana that an enemy the Marat call the Vord has attacked. The Vord are an ancient race that can shape shirt and mind control their victims, and they kill everyone in the area once they attack. Isana, already on her way to the capital for a winter festival, agrees to ask the First Lord for additional soldiers while Bernard and Amara stay behind to help Doroga fight the Vord.

And because things are never simple in a Butcher book, while part of the country is fighting the Vord, the first Lord is fighting to protect the coastal cities from relentless fury-born hurricanes. While preventing a war between to High Lord houses that could plunge all of Alera into a bloody civil war. And dealing with hostile enemies in the capital, the Canim, a breed of fierce wolf-like warriors. And as his page, Tavi has been thrust into the middle of all these conflicts!

We also start to slowly piece together the story of Tavi’s parents, as more of Isana’s past is explained. She is extremely secretive, so even as we’re learning tons about Tavi, Bernard, and Amara, Isana remains a slight mystery. Having read the third book, I promise that her story, and her past, are completely worth the two book wait!

Jim Butcher has quickly become one of my favorite authors because of his Dresden Files series. His ability to write snarky, sarcastic characters in a way that actually come across as sarcastic instead of mean or flat is something I’ve rarely seen in other authors. So when I saw that another series by Butcher was on my NPR 100 Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy list, I was excited to try something new by a good author!

Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon is the first book in the Codex Alera series. In this unique world of Alera, humans have bonded with the elements as a way to combat their strong enemies. These bonds, called furies, allow people to use nature to enhance their strengths  watercrafters can read emotions better and heal people; earthcrafters are stronger, and windcrafters can use the wind to “fly.” The world is divided into small local farms ruled by Steadholders, which report to a regional High Lord, who in turn reports to the First Lord who runs the country.

The book follows the story of Tavi, a young teenage boy growing up in the rural Calderon Valley. Tavi lives with his uncle Bernard, a strong steadholder in the community, and his aunt Isana, a powerful healer. Along with being an orphan, Tavi is the only person in Alera to not have a fury. Growing up on a farm, his lack of furycrafting has been a constant struggle–he can’t use a water fury to help heal people, he can’t use an earth fury for help traveling in the forest, and he can’t use a metal fury to make and repair farm equipment. And at 15 years old, Tavi has a secret dream to escape his remote village to attend a major academy where he would be judged on his mind, not his lack of a fury.

The other major character is Amara, a female student on her final exam before becoming a Cursor (a knight for the First Lord, who travels throughout the land taking messages and information to people). While Tavi and his family are isolated from the rest of the world in their village, Amara has thrown herself right into the middle of everything. She is currently trying to sneak into a dangerous camp of rogue soldiers and High Lords who are threatening to attack the First Lord and remove him from power.

At the same time she is discovering dangerous political plots that will harm the entire realm, Tavi is discovering a plot by the non-human Marat, powerful hunters who have invaded the Calderon Valley once before.  Amara must take Tavi’s news back to the First Lord, but many people will kill to ensure that news is never delivered.

While I obviously can’t give away how the story ends, it was exciting and full of danger up until the very end. Amara is a powerful windcrafter and Tavi’s intelligence has been honed by years of working without the air of a fury–together, they create a powerful and cunning team that can withstand most any attack. Bernard and Isana also work to protect Amara and Tavi, and the family dynamic between Tavi and his aunt and uncle is wonderful to read (although there are many hints that there may be more to the story of his dead parents than we were originally told!). Add in some romance between Bernard and Amara, and you’ve got some wonderfully developed characters!

Furies of Calderon is as great a read as the Dresden Files, and shows that Butcher is a well-rounded fantasy author. He can write smart, witty characters, great battle scenes, and deeply moving stories of loss. Like every other Jim Butcher book I’ve read, I would recommend Furies of Calderon to any fantasy lover.

When I find a series I like, I’ll usually read all the books in a row because I hate knowing there are more books about characters I like. Since The Dresden Files is such a large series (I think there are 13 or 14 books currently out) I’ve had to pace myself a bit, or it would be the only thing I read for three months. Although I’m still behind on my reviews (major projects at work=no motivation to get back on a computer when I get home) and actually have the next three books in the series to review. My statement from the very first book of Jim Butcher’s that I read a few years ago still stands–he writes incredibly addicting, witty books I just can’t put down!

 

Summer Knight: Book Four of the Dresden Files

Summer Knight is the fourth book in the Dresden Files series, which follows professional wizard Harry Dresden as he fights crime in Chicago. Still reeling from his girlfriend becoming half vampire, Harry descends deeper into the magical world in this book by becoming increasingly involved in magical politics and prevents a civil war between the faeries. The book starts with Harry being tried by the White Court for his involvement in starting a war with the vampires, giving us some insight into how Harry was raised and became the strong (if someone confused) man he is today.

Harry lost his parents at a young age (his mother died giving birth, and his dad died when he was a child), but Harry still has a godmother–she just happens to be a faerie godmother who has a powerful hold over him. Harry was taken in by a wizard, who tried to train him in the dark arts. When Harry was forced to kill him, he was put under the custody of another wizard, charged by the White Court to keep Harry safe. This man, Ebenezar, is a delightful southern man who taught Harry the value of hard work and respect for women. Thanks in large part to Ebenezar’s defense of Harry against the White Council, Harry is not stripped of his powers or killed.

Before the trial the Winter Queen, a powerful faerie, approached him with a paying job and the promise of removing his godmother’s hold on him. Even if the task seems impossible, the Court demands he take the case: someone killed the Summer Knight, the champion of the Summer Queen (who just happens to be bitter rivals with the Winter Queen), and despite all the evidence, she wants Harry to prove she’s innocent of murdering him. Like all the magical creatures we’ve met in the Dresden Files so far, the faeries have an entire culture and world of their own–one that is determined to trick, manipulate, and control everyone in their path. And that includes each other.

What I really love about Butcher is the detail he puts into his magical worlds. The faerie court is divided into two factions–Summer and Winter. They each control the faerie world for half the year, exchanging power on the Summer and Winter Solstice; in the spring and fall the controlling side’s power begins to fade, and the murder has occurred in the few days leading up to the Winter Solstice, leaving Summer in a decidedly weaker position during Winter’s reign. The Winter Queen is suspected of murdering the Summer Knight because his death would make it easier for Winter to gain complete control of the faerie realm and not return it come spring. A minor side effect of this war would be the ending of seasons on Earth, destroying the world.

To complicate matters, Harry becomes entangled with a group of halflings–children with one human and one supernatural parent. They can choose which side they want, but it’s a difficult process and their supernatural half becomes more dominant the older they get. The teenagers Harry meets are desperate to find their friend who was kidnapped and is somehow involved in the murder of the Summer Knight, and Harry can’t help but identify with their fierce loyalty. So in addition to solving a murder a stopping a world-ending civil war, Harry has to find a missing girl.

My favorite part about this book is how every situation really brought to light some aspect of Harry’s personality so the reader can better understand him. The relationship between Harry and Ebenezar is the strongest and most loving we’ve seen yet, and Harry thrives under the guidance of this father-figure. The abandoned halfling children speak to Harry’s own miserable youth, and he puts himself in danger to ensure they stay safe because he knows they need all the help he can offer. When the murder case becomes incredibly complicated, he continues to work because he said he would solve the case and he is so determined he won’t stop until he’s dead. By turns Harry is gentle and loving, intelligent and intuitive, and stubborn to a fault.

I wanted to give him a hug and slap him all at the same time. Such a strong reaction to a character is always a sign of great writing, and makes Summer Knight (and the rest of the Dresden Files) a highly recommended read.

It seems like the trick to liking science fiction books is to just read more of them–the longer I go between books, the harder it is for me to get engrossed in the story (although this doesn’t apply to reviewing books, apparently! I finished this book two months ago!). Because sci-fi books aren’t written to be strong character dramas, it took until the third book in the Foundation series for me to really connect and care about what happened–but when I started to care, oh boy did the story get interesting!

Second Foundation

Despite it’s title, Second Foundation is the third book in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The series follows a colony of scientists established on the far edge of the universe, tasked with saving the world from thousands of years of war and ruin after the Empire falls. The first two books have little to do with the mysterious Second Foundation, another colony of scientists established “at stars end.” Second Foundation finally gets into some details about the role the Second Foundation has played in protecting the history of mankind, and how they maintained their secrecy all these years.

The Mule has failed to find the Second Foundation, a quest he started in the second book. His mind control is being disrupted by the Second Foundation, which gives the first insight into what knowledge they protect–mental science, as opposed to the Foundation’s physical science focus. Because the Second Foundation can manipulate thoughts, the Mule sends an Unconverted (has not been mentally manipulated by the Mule) young man named Bail Channis into space to find the Second Foundation–any behavior in mood or character would signify the mysterious foundation had messed with him and give clues to their location or spies. To keep watch over him, the Mule sends Han Pritcher, a Converted man from the Foundation. A war begins, but everyone is being manipulated by the Mule or the Second Foundation, it’s nearly impossible to know who’s on which side!

This book, along with being the most interesting, also had the first strong female character in the series. Fourteen year old Arcadia Darell throws herself into the middle of an investigation into the Second Foundation by running away from home to stow away on a Foundation ship leaving to research the Mule in a study headed by her uncle. Her father is a leading scientists, and has his own conspiracy brewing about the Second Foundation’s location. Arcadia is run off the planet because she becomes too involved in the Mule investigation, and is protected by an old farm couple who was in town to sell food and supplies. Desperate to get back to her family and let them know what she’s learned about the Second Foundation, she convinces the man who saved her to start running food to planets under siege by the warring armies–he gets to make money, and she gets to go home.

And while all of this was going on (because Asimov doesn’t seem to believe you can have too many main characters), key players from the Second Foundation are introduced. They have a school, which teaches promising young students how to control, manipulate, and protect the Sheldon Plan. The three main parts of the book–the Mule’s soldiers, Arcadia and the scientists, and the Second Foundation teacher and student–provide three distinct ways of analyzing every situation. No one side is more correct than the others, because everyone is missing critical information, but the reader has an advantage is knowing what each side is doing. But I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised at the end when it was announced who lead the Second Foundation and where they were located!

Is this book confusing, complicated, and a bit slow at times? Yes. But was it a good read? Undoubtedly! I’m always glad when books can stump me, because I’m so rarely wrong in my predictions for how the story will end. The three different plot lines don’t fit perfectly together, but Asimov’s style is much more focused on individual ideas coming together than character personalities working together. While my love for fantasy books has not been replaced, I’m glad I took the time to rediscover just how much I enjoy science fiction.