book review: boxers & saints

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.

The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.

Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.

book review: the tombs of atuan

The Tombs of Atuan is one of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and I have the vague feeling that it’s one she was less than pleased with decades later, which is why the main character returns in Tehanu. I confess I don’t know exactly why I think this is the case. It’s one of those things I read out in the digital wilds, I guess.

In this story, Tenar is a young girl who is raised to be a priestess of shadowy death in a nation ruled by god-kings (who are in competition with her older and more ineffable deities). She learns the ways of power and her labyrinth domain to such a degree that when Sparrowhawk the sorceror arrives looking for treasure and blundering into their traps she is in a much more powerful position than he is. But she abandons her life in the tombs and in the end she escapes.

Reading the story, I could see why LeGuin would want to revisit it later. Politically there’s a lot of reification of colonial and patriarchical themes in this story. Her backward ways are overturned by encountering the rational mage who liberates a girl who would remain trapped for all her life if he hadn’t happened along. This is happening to a heroine who’s already had her name stripped from her. I mean Tenar is a fine character but if you’re interested in feminism she’s not exactly an aspirational model.

It still strikes me oddly that I’m only reading these books as a 30-something-year-old person. I wonder why these weren’t part of my early sf education. They should be for kids today.

book review: this dark endeavour

Kenneth Oppel’s YA novel This Dark Endeavour is a story of Viktor Frankenstein as a young man. He and his twin brother Konrad live in a castle near Geneva with their cousin Elizabeth. Though they’re identical twins, Konrad is the one who’s better at talking to people and fencing and schoolwork and bravery and all the things that get a young man attention. But when Konrad falls mysteriously ill Viktor and Elizabeth and their friend Henry turn to the forbidden art of alchemy to see if they can help him where the doctors failed.

It’s a good story. It has a clear escalating structure of finding alchemical ingredients, and the jealousy Viktor feels for Konrad is mixed with love enough that you want him to succeed even if you know he’s taking a weird self-absorbed path. Also, there’s passionate teenage declarations of love and melodrama. The weirdest part of the book was the Frankenstein family’s anachronistic liberalism. Early on there’s a scene where the family makes dinner for the servants, which helps make the upper-class family thing feel a bit more relatable for 21st century readers, but felt reductionist to me.

In any case, it worked well as a dark YA adventure story, and had some interesting discussion of alchemy, science and religion. I’ll recommend it.

book review: the rapture of the nerds

I’d read the Appeals Court part of Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross’ The Rapture of the Nerds when it was first published a few years ago and thought it was kind of meh. This version has two more stories to flesh out the story into more of a book, and the last section makes it worth reading.

I don’t know. I guess the early bits about the messenger and the being called into techno court are okay, but so much of it seems like an excuse to just toss a bunch of ideas together. I appreciated the gender-switching as Huw got incarnated differently through the story and the family relationships, but mostly the book didn’t really do it for me, until Huw had her years-long sulk in part three.

It wasn’t bad, just not highly recommended.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.

book review: fullmetal alchemist (vol. 1)

Fullmetal Alchemist is example of another of my forays into the teen manga realm, and it’s pretty good. It’s about two brothers who are alchemists, who broke the rules and had their bodies transformed when they were trying to bring their mother back to life. Now they’re vagabonds, sort of under state employ. The stories in this volume included them busting up a religious charlatan, restoring justice to a mining town where the prices were exceedingly high and fighting a bunch of hostage-takers on a train. It’s all pretty fun steampunkish adventure, and I can see how the characters would be good to follow through umpteen volumes. I’m not as big a fan of it as Planetes, but I can see why people like it.

book review: the mirage

Matt Ruff’s alternate history novel The Mirage is about a world where the United Arabian States are the global superpower, America is a factionalized bunch of small countries with dysfunctional despots in charge (including LBJ in America and the Bush clan in Texas) and Israel is in Berlin, far from the Holy Land. The idea is that back on 11/9/2001 Rocky Mountain extremists flew planes into a couple of towers in Baghdad and the UAS launched a War on Terror. It’s an interesting world and a lot of the fun in reading the book comes from the exposition handled through pages from the Library of Alexandria, the user-driven encyclopedia.

Plot-wise we’re following a couple of Homeland Security cops from Baghdad who are investigating some Christian extremist attacks and come to think there’s another topsy-turvy world out there where America is the superpower. Senator Bin Laden wants something out of that other world, and is trying to use our hero cops to get it. The plot isn’t the point here except as a vehicle for the setting.

My main gripe with the book is that the characters seem a bit too willing to believe they’re in an unreal reality. Otherwise it’s a fun puzzle to read through as you see Lebanon as the UAS’ version of California, and Britain as the Iran-analogue. It feels different, less science fictional and more Tom Clancy/fantasy-ish than The Years of Rice and Salt, but they have a number of similarities. Good book and a light read.