August 2007


I really liked the Dispossessed. It’s a non-linear book about a scientist called Shevek and the worlds he lives in. At the start of the book, he is transported from Anarres to Urras and a lot of people on Anarres are mad about that. Anarres is a gender-equal anarchist planet that hasn’t got a central government. In theory, anyone could do any job anytime. In practice, it’s more complicated than that (isn’t it always?). Nobody owns anything and even the need to own something is seen as bad. Urras is pretty close to our own world with the owners and the owned, the have-lots and have-almost-nothings, and women are seen as not as intelligent as men.

Anarras is pretty isolated place without much contact to any other planets. The only things that they know about Urras come from a few propaganda films which were made when the anarchists were exiled to their planet 150 years ago. Shevek is a brilliant scientist and he wants to know more about Urras and even about other planets. He is invited to Urras by one of the biggest governments on the planet and expects eagerly to be able to talk with other scientists. However, things on Urras are very different from what he has lived with and somewhat different from the propaganda films, too.

The book is structured so that every other chapter deals with Shevek on Urras and every other is a flashback to his youth and life on Anarras. The chapters have thematic similarities as well to each other. The plot moves fairly slowly but there’s a lot to absorb and learn about the planets and to think about, so a faster plot would have been a disservice to the themes and structure of the book.

Le Guin doesn’t give any easy answers or any answers at all. Neither of the systems are shown as clearly superior. Each are just as confining in their own ways but differently. While the Anarrians don’t acknowledge marriage and some of them even disapprove of committed pair-bonding, on Urras the only way that at least upper class women are able to survive is with a marriage to a (wealthy) man. People on both systems can be frustrated but for different reasons. Not owning enough or not owing the right things vs. need to know the right people and belong to the right groups.

Anarres’ people are shown to be more community oriented but then the disapproval of the community is shown to be just as effective as laws on Urras. When you must depend on other people for your very survival, the approval of those people is, indeed, very important. The employees on Urras depend on their employers’ approval in much the same way.

In the end I think that the societies on Anarras and Urras are too different. I don’t think that someone who grew up on one place could be really happy on the other. The limitations on either are just too severe.

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There are a lot of things in the book which in the hands of a less skilled writer would have made to book sink into angst and Mary Sue-dom. McKinley manages to avoid them quite stylishly. Even though the book doesn’t contain the kinds of porn (both sexual and violent, both equally unnecessary and explicit) that today almost every (fantasy) book needs to be labelled adult, I’d still hesitate to call it a YA. There’re no real teenager-growing-up bits.

Aerin could have been a whiny Mary Sue: she’s the daughter of the king’s second wife who is whispered to have been a witch and therefore she isn’t accepted by anyone except by her father and her cousin who happens to be the second highest born male in the country. Because the people won’t accept her, the king can’t make her an heir even though she’s his only child. So she grows up almost friendless in the confines of the castle. Her only real friend turns out to be Talat, the king’s maimed warhorse.

McKinley manages to make her a sympathetic character and during the most of the book I got a feeling of melancholy from her. True, she is first special-in-reverse because she can’t do the magic that all the other nobles can, and there are a couple of bully characters out to get her, but they don’t really feel annoying. Her, uh, speciallness was starting to grate a tiny bit towards the end of the book but it still felt totally in-character and fit in the world. Although Talat is more than a bit more intelligent than a horse can be.

The book starts with a few chapters in the present where the king and his men are preparing to ride to confront demonic mischief in the North and Aerin wants to join her. She’s taunted at being the Dragon-Killer and denied a place in the war party. Then we get a bunch of flashback chapters of her life and then the story proceeds from the current time.

While I’m not a fan of flashbacks, the structure worked quite well in this book. I quite liked the end and Luthe, too.

Oh yes, the dragons. Almost all of the dragons in this book are knee-high vermins who can breathe fire. Their killing is not a glamorous work and therefore Aerin is basically called rat-killer. That’s the first time I’ve seen that kind of dragons. Of course, there has to be at least one big dragon but that it’s to be expected. That was handled very well, too, and I especially liked what came afterwards because very often in fantasy books the aftermaths of battles are nonexistent.

I read this one a while ago but don’t really know what else to say except that I liked it, mostly, but it had also some rather irritating fantasy clichés.

Harry is young noble woman who loses both her mother and father. Since she can’t inherit anything as a woman, she has to go to her brother who’s an officer in the army. Harry has to travel from the lush green forests from her childhood to a barren desert. While many newcomers don’t really fit into the hot climate, she grows to enjoy it. She loves horses and rides daily with a couple of other officers’ kinswomen.

The setting for the story resembles 19th century India with the native Hillfolk who live in the desert and are famous for their horses, fierceness, and survival skills. On the other hand, there are the newcomers, Outlanders, who have conquered much of the surrounding lands with their guns and have outposts near the desert.

Harry is unhappy and waits for something or someone else to change her life and someone does: the king of the Hillfolk kidnaps her and takes her to his tribe. The Hillfolk are facing a desperate fight against inhuman forces and the king hopes that Harry can help him unite the tribes and give them some hope of victory.

This is one of the best growing-up stories I’ve ever read. There are some, rather small things, that irritated me, but I did really like this book. The setting was good and unique (as far as I know) in fantasy. The magic was rather low-key but in the end central and necessary for the tale.

7/10

This is the second collection of Leiber’s short stories. It has ten stories which are all shorter than in the previous collection. The tone of these stories seems to me to be more light-hearted and more roguish because here we see the duo plying their trade as adventures and thieves and taking advantage of every opportunity they can get. However, in many of the stories the narrator follows just one of the pair and leaves the other wondering what is going on or as a prisoner.

It starts with The Circle Curse which basically describes Fafhrd and the Mouser’s wandering after they left Lankhmar city.

In The Jewels in the Forest they are hunting a treasure with a map. According to the map, the treasure is in a deserted house in the middle of forest. Well, they get more than their bargained for…

The third one is Thieves’ House were they once again butt head with the Thieves’ Guild. Fafhrd is taken prisoner and the Mouser uses disguises and secret passages in an effort to free him. But something even more magical is afoot.

The fourth one sets up most of the rest of the short stories. In The Bleak House, the duo has an eerie encounter and they have to travel to the edges of the earth. The rest of the stories tell the tales of when they try to get back.

My favourite is the Howling Tower which I’ve even GMed as a short adventure between places A and B. The villain of the story still strikes me as very insane and scary. When I read the collection for the first time years ago, I had nightmares about this one.

All in all, I liked these stories. If I hadn’t such a huge to-read-pile waiting for me, I would continue with Leiber since I have the rest of the collections. I went in expecting these to be very sexist but much to my amazement they aren’t. Oh, they certainly aren’t paragons of feminism, but what women there are in the stories are competent and intelligent.

McKinley has a very beautiful writing style. Even though “Beauty” is longer than “the Blue Sword” or the Hero and the Crown, it doesn’t feel like it. Indeed, Beauty feels quite short considering that there aren’t any adventuring or swashbuckling in it, just a love story.

As far as I can tell, “Beauty” follows the fairy tale closely. I’m tempted to say that who-ever wrote the screenplay for the Disney version, must have read this book a couple of time for the self-moving plates and teapots. But I haven’t actually read any earlier versions of the tale, so I can’t really say.

Even though the main character Beauty is said to be only 17, her narrator-self seems rather more mature. Of course, she is telling the story afterwards so the feel can be intentional. The only thing that really seemed teenaged about her was the way she considered herself to be not-attractive.

The MC Beauty is the youngest of three daughters and she considers herself to be plain compared to her beautiful sisters. Even her name starts out as ironic. She has a huge war-horse Greatheart whom she has taken care of since he was a foal. When her merchant father loses him fortune and has to move into the countryside, Beauty can keep her beloved horse.

war-horse Greatheart whom she has The book is really a girl (and her horse)-meets-a-boy story just like the tale. On the face of it, it’s a beautiful love story. However, there are some other things below the surface.

The age difference between the girl and the man creeped me. He was 200 and she 17? The fact the at the end of the book she notices that she has GROWN during the time she spent in the palace, made it all the more creepier for me. Dude! She’s still a growing girl! Ewww.

The whole “suddenly I’m tall and beautiful” thing? Sigh. Some of us are short and plain, and even we would like to feel like the heroine just once. This was a huge letdown even though I suspected it at the start. For a while I sort of hoped that it might be just “clothes make a girl beautiful” thing but of course not.

Separating a girl from everyone else to make her love you? That sounds more like Stockholm syndrome to me and a justification for a kidnapping. it at the start. Do like the s that tss, it’ and

But all of those came to mind later. I rather enjoyed the book while I read it.

7/10

In the second Shadow book our lovable elvan trickster heroine in accused of stealing a ruby from the temple that she had a run-in with in the first book. Oddly enough, Shadow didn’t take it. She has somewhat settled down in her half-way respectable life and is, justifiably, irritated that she’s being blamed. Shadow has worked out that the only one who could have done it and profited from it is the powerful and old mage who enchanted to gem in the first place. So, after the priests beat Shadow senseless, her best friend goes out to confront the mage and save her friend. Naturally, Shadow tries to protect her friend and also hits the road, too.

Since our lovable rouge is more a lover than a fighter, so she recruits a tough ally; namely the deadly assassin Blade from the previous book. The powerful mage is the reason the Blade’s life is pretty miserable so she’s ready to get revenge. The strange duo hits the road.

This book is really a buddy book and a road trip book, and so it’s while the writing style is the same as in the previous book, Shadow Hunt is thematically very different. The book focuses on the way that the paranoid Blade starts to slowly trust Shadow and form a friendship with her. Or does she? There’s also a shorter subplot about the difficulties Shadow’s friend lady Donya and her guard encounter.

 

The interesting thing, to me at least, is that Logston manages to make this all exciting. To me buddy movies have always been, well, boring. The outcome is always sure and the people, places, and plots are never as cute or clever as the producers seem to think they are. I’m sorry, if this offends someone but Thelma and Louise is the only buddy movie I’ve managed to watch without dozing off. But Logston manages to pull it off. Of course, the whole “talking about one of my favourite things (elven culture)” helped as did as did deadly marches. (Maybe the book format is better for me, too. Lots of books have the buddy format, after all. Then again I didn’t even notice the whole buddies on the road -thing until I started to write this.)

Err, anyway, great characters and a good book. The tone is more introspective than in the previous book.

9/10

The last book in the series. Mostly, I liked it but not as much as the previous ones. Keyes continues to have good characterization and the setting continues to be interesting. The big fight at end went on for far too long and most of the time the good guys won battles through lucky coincidences and sheer determination. There weren’t any skill and very little thought involved which irritates me hugely. The ending was also a bit too happy. If you have a huge battle some main characters should suffer.

I really liked his handling of Red Shoes but talking about it would be a huge spoiler. Also, I thought that is was ironic when he apparently either quotes or rewrites the US Declaration of Independence in the end. The male characters talk about freedom while they keep the other half of the human race limited and dependent of themselves.

Overall, the series is really good with exotic alternate history, magic, science, good characters and tight writing.

7,5/10

The whole series get a solid 8/10.

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