The Flow, the sole means of traveling faster than light, is shifting away from the human occupied worlds of the Interdependency. Can the heroes wrangle competing factions to save humanity? The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi has the beginning of the answer. (What do you expect from the first book in a series?) A fast paced space opera, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read with some serious issues (mainly I have major nitpicks regarding the world building).
The Collapsing Empire is fast paced. Amazingly so. The reader zips through the story wanting more.
The plot is fun. Reading how the protagonists work their ways into position to start the process of saving humanity against entrenched political corruption, sociopathic ambition, and endemic structural weakness is, honestly, a joy.
The main protagonist is Cardenia Wu, or, as she is formally styled, Emperox Grayland II. The bastard daughter of the previous emperox, she finds herself thrust into saving humanity from a position of power she never wanted.
Supporting her are Kiva Lagos, from the wealthy Lagos Guild, and Marce Claremont, a flow physicist on the run who has key information on the Flow’s shift. A foul mouthed force of nature, Kiva comes close to stealing the book. All three major characters are fascinating, but standard space opera character types.
(The villains, again, are standard character types. And very obvious.)
The biggest problem with The Collapsing Empire is thinking too hard about the world building. And the scientific process.
The Collapsing Empire takes place, at the least, in the 3500s. The Flow has been the fundamental bedrock of human civilization for over a thousand years. The Flow has shifted at least twice, stranding two worlds (one of them Earth) from the rest of humanity. In all that time, and with the home world of humanity lost, the Flow is still little understood? Really? Come on. The Flow should be far more understood than it is within the context of the novel.
An added complication to the study, or lack thereof, of the Flow is the obvious problem with the scientific method and peer review presented in the novel. Peer review is mentioned twice in key moments. One character is criticized for not peer reviewing her findings. The chastising character even references the fact that he, himself, needed peer review to prevent himself from making the same mistakes. But, he is satisfied with his work being peer reviewed by only one other person and treats it as sufficient. Should not peer review be more extensive (and therefore alleviating some of the political problems that arise in the novel)? Then again, that would kill the plot.
(To be fair to Scalzi, a lot of space opera, and science fiction in general, have serious problems when it comes to actual science.)
Humans, again, are vastly more advanced in 3500 than they are in 2017. Even in the harshest environments, humanity should be either able to terraform their new home worlds or adapt themselves to their new environments. The fall of the Interdependency should not result in humanity eventually dying out except for those on End, the only world humanity occupies that is in any way similar to Earth.
These world building problems are necessary for the plot to work, however. The immediacy of the collapse of the Interdependency is lessened if the coming shift in the Flow is widely known about. And, again, the economic structure of the Interdependency makes it impossible for humans to survive on their own even if humans should be able to adapt to their new environments.
Clearly, the world building bugs me to no end. I wish it did not. But it does. And consequently, my enjoyment of the novel is lessened by asking these world building questions. The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. But can it escape the collapse of its world building? For me, it cannot.
We all know what a portal fantasy is, even if we’ve never heard the term. The Chronicles of Narnia. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Magicians, etc. We all know the beginning of the adventure. We all know the adventure. But what about after? What happens to the boys and girls who go on impossible quests and return, irrevocably changed? That is story Seanan McGuire’s short novel Every Heart a Doorway seeks to answer.
Nancy Whitman is the newest student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school/ sanitarium for children who have disappeared and returned claiming to have been whisked away to another world. In Nancy’s case, she has returned from the Halls of the Dead where all but five strands of her hair have turned white. She is desperate to return, though return is a very rare thing. But the desperate often turn to extreme measures to get what they want. Even murder.
I want to like Every Heart a Doorway. I really do. But while the short novel has a good central idea, there are too many flaws that suck out any real enjoyment I have.
The writing is flowery and literary in a young adult style. It works for readers who like that style, but for readers who are not terribly fond of the young adult style, the writing can be off putting.
The biggest problem with Every Heart a Doorway is that McGuire tries to condense a significant amount of ideas into too small a narrative space. Part of the story is orienting Nancy to her new school. The majority of the story, however, deals with surviving a serial killer running loose in the school. Neither story thread gets the space it needs. The orientation provides only sketches of characters save for the eventual (spoiler alert) antagonists. The horror story is very predictable. Ultimately, everything falls flat.
(A part of the problem, I think, is that Every Heart a Doorway is trying to be a literary fantasy, which focuses primarily on explorations of character and character growth, but cannot escape the fact that it is a fantasy and must have a more exciting plot than portal fantasies being nothing more that living metaphors of the individual’s psyche).
Another major problem with the story lies with representation. The main character is asexual, although said asexuality had to told to the audience rather than shown in a very clumsy scene that also revealed one of the four boys in the school as being transgender (transforming the scene into the young adult equivalent of Jerry Springer after the fact).
Furthermore, the explanation as to why there are only four boys out of a school population of forty is deeply problematic. And I will leave it at that. (Though if any one wants to comment with their interpretation, please do so. Just remember to be respectful and not abusive or bullying).
In conclusion. I found the story to be deeply unsatisfying and poorly constructed despite the good ideas. Perhaps if the story had been split into two stories of nearly two hundred pages each, I might be writing a far different review.
The books I have bought recently have started to pile up. Therefore, I need to sort them and put them in my bookshelves. While I’m doing that, I thought it might be fun to list all the books I got recently.
From the book sale nook at West Waco Library:
Dr. No by Ian Fleming
Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
From Golden’s Book Exchange:
The Mirror Prince by Violette Malan
The City in the Glacier and The Destiny Stone by Robert E. Vardeman and Victor Milan
Miss Marple Meets Murder by Agatha Christie (an omnibus that includes: The Mirror Crack’d, A Pocket Full of Rye, At Bertram’s Hotel, and The Moving Finger)
Finally, from Amazon, I picked up:
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Hero by Perry Moore
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun
The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
An impressive haul, if I do say so myself. I’m aiming for my next haul to come in April after I’ve hit Golden’s during their bimonthly half off sale.
February has been another disappointing month in terms of my reading. On the whole, it was better than January, but not by much.
Again, a part of my problem is I am still using a TBR list that I made when I wanted to read more literary fiction. And I don’t want to read literary fiction.
Anyway, here is what I read this past month:
I started the month with The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. I wanted to like this collection. But beyond a few poems, I found myself uninterested.
Another book of poetry I read was Amiri Baraka’s Transbluency. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling with Baraka’s homophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. Baraka is an important poet, but his early work is hard to get into for contemporary readers.
The first novel I read this month was Kindred by Octavia Butler followed by The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. I didn’t particularly like either of these books. I struggle with Butler’s work. And I am disappointed I didn’t like Naylor’s first book. I really enjoyed her novel Mama Day.
I attempted Paul Austers’s 4321. This book is bad. Just bad.
I also attempted Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer. I really wanted to like this book. I really did. The world building is awesome. The plot has potential. But the protagonist is weak. I love Unar’s ambition. But the plot directed stupidity she routinely displays makes the novel ultimately disappointing.
The second to last novel I read this month is Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman. This novel is wonderful. It is beautifully written. Almost poetic. But it is also boring at times.
The final novel I read this month was Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. This novel is a marked letdown from Leviathan’s Wake. Avasarala is a nice addition to the POV roster (indeed she steals the book). But I can’t say the same for the other new POV characters. This novel struggles, I think, to hide the cultural problems of the world building and some problems with the plot. (I want to write more on this after I’ve read more books in The Expanse.)
The best things I’ve read this month, actually, have been collected volumes of superhero comic books. I read: the first two volumes of Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Totally Awesome Hulk by Greg Pak, Scarlet Witch by James Robinson, and Thor by Jason Aaron. I loved all of them. Though my favorite must be Scarlet Witch and Thor. The reveal of Thor’s identity and her motivation is amazing. She is what a true hero is. And Scarlet Witch is all sorts of awesome.
February was disappointing. I hope March will be better.
Friday, I had a cozy reading night. The idea for cozy reading nights comes from the booktube channel “Lauren and the Books.” This was my first cozy reading night. I enjoyed myself. But I also discovered a few things.
A cozy reading night needs to be an event. There need to be snacks. There need to be drinks. There could be soft music or a fire whether real or artificial. There needs to be a comforting atmosphere.
One person alone does not make a party. Okay, one person could make a party. But I think I would have had more fun if I had visitors to read with me. A reading party if you will.
I read from seven to ten. I took on two novels and a short story. The short story was David Brin’s “Temptation” (from The Space Opera Renaissance) and the two novels that I started were: Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman and Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. I enjoyed all that I read but I did realize something.
I don’t like to switch between multiple books. Rather, I like to sit down and binge an entire book. If I don’t like it, I will put it down, dnf it, and move on to the next. So I think I will pick a selection of possible books and pick one to read for the duration of my next cozy reading night.
My first cozy reading night was fun if not as successful as I hoped. But it did reveal somethings about myself. Mainly, I need to get out more.
I’m not happy with my January reading.
I wanted to start the year reading more literary fiction. I wanted to start the year off with a Margaret Atwood binge. Nadine Gordimer got in on the binge. I wanted to try Louise Erdrich. And I decided that I finally needed to complete a T.C. Boyle novel (after failing to finish Water Music and The Road to Wellville). ( I also added a few other books here and there. Too many honestly).
I started off with LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I read fifty pages. The novel started strong. I liked what I read. But gradually, an emotional dissonance in the narrative and a sojourn in 1839 (compared to the 1990s setting) threw me out of the novel.
From that defeat, I moved on to Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This is a difficult novel about a young woman who has devoted herself to her parents’ political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. I really should try this novel again when I am in a mood for difficult and great literary fiction.
As far as Margaret Atwood is concerned, I tried to read Cat’s Eye for the second time (and was not into it) and The Handmaid’s Tale (which I will not get into- not a fan of dystopia).
I also tried Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes and really did not like it. Which is a shame.
As far as literary fiction is concerned, I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. It is a powerful story about violence and what drives people to violence. I would give it a solid four stars. But the novel is not without flaws. I feel that Sarah, whose story starts out strong, falters as the narrative progresses, becoming little more than an appendage to Adam/ Colter’s story.
I also reread Wislawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand. I first read this selected collection over ten years ago and loved it. But this past reread has cooled my passion for this collection of poems. To say I am frustrated should be obvious.
The problem, I am sure, is that I allowed a form of unintentional peer pressure to create a desire to binge read too much literary fiction. Which ultimately put me off of the whole thing.
In addition to the above books, I also read three comic book volumes. I first read Midnighter volume 1 (“Out”) by Steve Orlando. The book was okay. I enjoyed it. But the art is disappointing, the narrative is disjointed (and not in a good way), and the final confrontation with the villain is beyond disappointing (I expected so much more from Prometheus). I later read Thor volume 1 (“Goddess of Thunder”) by Jason Aaron. I really liked this volume. I am sold on Jane Foster as Thor. I want to see what happens to her. But, I feel Thor is too good too fast. She can do things her predecessor never did without any training. And every damn villain is a straw man misogynist. I also read Doctor Strange volume 1 again by Jason Aaron. I hated this comic book. Aaron not only rips himself off (the plot is basically Doctor Strange’s “God Butcher” arc) but also attempts and fails to capture Loki magic by imitating Gillen and Ewing. And the art is terrible.
Finally, as I wandered around my favorite library, I checked out Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I hated Angelmaker. And fell in love with Leviathan’s Wake on my second attempt.
I love this book now. Leviathan’s Wake is wonderfully written and exciting and enjoyable. I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to see them succeed. I yearned to see the mystery of Julie Mao solved. A solid four and a half stars.
There are some flaws. Miller is, perhaps, too much of a hard boiled dick stereotype (down to falling in love with the subject of his investigation). Julie Mao is a woman in a refrigerator who I feel could probably have taken over Miller’s role. But on the whole, I really like the novel.
So that is what I read last month. Again, I’m not happy with it. I want to read more. And finish more books. And like more books for that matter.
Hopefully February will be a better month.
January has been a very busy and stressful month. So, I haven’t been able to blog as frequently as I wanted to. I’ll try to post when I can. But I don’t think I’ll be able to post anything with regularity until the end of February.
2016 is near its end. It has been, personally, a rather miserable and unproductive year on a number of fronts. It has been terrible in terms of reading. I procrastinated creatively. I post once in a blue moon it seems. And don’t get me started on all the celebrity deaths we’ve had. And the election. The only bright spot is- I have a new nephew. So, with any luck and a whole lot of effort, let 2017 be a much better year.
In the new year, I want to post more. I am not going to be foolish and attempt to post every day, but I do want to get back on a regular schedule with multiple posts a week. I want to focus more on books (in terms of my reading, library, and reviews), science fiction and fantasy, my writing, topical issues, and any other subject that strikes my fancy.
I want to be more engaged with what I read. And I want to be more analytical. Which means lists and writing down my reactions to what I read.
I want to be more active in the science fiction and fantasy community. I’ve been a lurker for far too long. It is time to get out there and engage.
I need to finally settle down and pick a damn project to write and finish. I must not allow myself to be distracted by nagging worries and, at the moment, more attractive projects that need more work.
Will I manage to achieve my goals and resolutions? I don’t know. But I am determined to try. If nothing else, I want to try and make 2017 a good year.
Is Earth big enough for two epic fantasies? Right now, I am asking myself this question because I am sorely tempted to set both the super hero project and the magic project in same fantastical version of Earth. Given precedents in both novels and comics, I think it is possible to have multiple epic narratives running at the same time (or nearly at the same time). But, perhaps most importantly, do I want fantastic Earth to be a core setting in my work?
I want to write an epic fantasy dealing with super heroes. If one reads super hero comics from Marvel or DC, one will quickly realize that there are numerous epic stories running nearly concurrently. So, my own super hero project will best be served by keeping in mind that a super hero’s story is lurching from one epic crises to the next with a brief respite in between (if he or she or they are so lucky). And yes, I do want to put my creations through that wringer.
Rick Riordan’s mythology inspired works are all set on the same fantastic version of Earth. Each series has its own developing epic story that succeeds one another, though not always interacting. I am not familiar with Riordan’s work, but I do think this is the general gist of it.
So, it is possible to have multiple epic stories in the same setting. But is that really what I want?
That is the kicker, isn’t it?
Part of me is super excited to use a fantastic Earth for the bulk of my creative endeavors. It cuts a huge amount of time out of world building. I can focus on the fantastic stuff without having to invent everything whole cloth.
But, as readers of this blog will note, I do have serious reservations about using Earth, no matter how fantastic I remake it, as a core setting.
I am, perhaps overly, concerned with getting things right. If I have a hero who is a scientist, I, therefore, should know a bit about his area of expertise (and not fall into the trap of having a hero scientist prattle on in areas that aren’t his field). If I have stories dealing with realistic crime, I want to do the proper research. Wanting to get subjects right is a good thing. But it can also cripple an author who gets bogged down in the minutae of research.
Another concern, which I haven’t written about, is the contemporary temptation to be overly referential to earlier works. Referring to earlier works is okay. But I am not interested in turning my work into a metafictional commentary on fandom or transforming my characters into annoying fanboys and fangirls. I want to approach the story more seriously than that.
(This is my problem with the Young Avengers and one of my problems with The Magicians).
So, is fantastic Earth going to be a core setting? I am going to try it and see where it leads me. And if it doesn’t work? Back to the drawing board. Or writing journal/ keyboard and computer screen.
(By the way, how does fantastic Earth sound as a reference for Earth as a setting for fantastic stories?)