October 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

I guess you could call me a utility reader; if it’s needed, I will bend the book enough to read it comfortably. My paperbacks’ spines tend to be somewhat bend after even one reading. On the other hand, that makes the book look like someone has read it and enjoyed it instead of just put it on the shelf to “look good”.

I used to dog-ear books but now I use bookmarks. I have no desire to tell others how they should treat their books.

“Just because they are really out to get you doesn’t mean you aren’t paranoid.”

Issola is another very good and much too short Vlad Taltos –book. This time an old acquaintance approaches Vlad while he is sleeping in the woods. Vlad is fleeing from his own noble house so he doesn’t like to be awakened that way. Even if the person turns out to be Morrolan’s greeter Lady Teldra who is one of the few people who seems always glad to see Vlad. So the grumpy Vlad lays down to sleep again. In the morning Lady Teldra tells him why she has sought him out: both Morrolan and Aliera are missing and can’t be reached by mental communication. Vlad agrees to be teleported to Dzur Mountain and to Sethra Lavode to hear more about it.

Sethra suspects that very powerful people have kidnapped both: the Jenoine who are, in short, enemies of Dragaeran, humans, and gods. Verra the Demon Goddess and the other gods protect both humans and Dragaerans from them. The hatred goes back to the times before humans came to this planet.

Anyway, Vlad’s Spellbreaker manages to find Morrolan’s sword Blackwand and so Vlad and Lady Teldra step forward, and right into the windowless and doorless room where the duo is imprisoned. The four people don’t have much time to wonder about the situation before the Jenoine themselves appear. Only Lady Teldra can speak their language and she informs Vlad that the Jenoine want a little something before they will release Aliera and Morrolan: they want Vlad to kill Verra. They even give him the dagger to do it with.

This is one of my favorite Vlad books. It has a very fast pace, lots of banter, we learn more about Dragaeran society (their views about gods), and about the background of the whole world. We also get to know Lady Teldra a little and she seems very likable for a Dragaeran. Once again I have only one complaint: too short!

The third of the novellas in “Borders of Infinity”.

Here Miles is undercover on Cetagandan prison camp on Dagoola. The prisoners are Marilacans whom Centaganda has attacked. ImpSec has sent Miles to recover just one man out of the 10,215 prisoners.

The prison is a large dome which is artificially lighted all the time. The Cetagandas monitor everything that happens inside but don’t interfere with anything. Prisoners can be beaten to death or raped if they don’t find some way to protect themselves. Many of them have indeed divided into groups: women are the largest group but there are smaller groups of men as well. Some few are on their own. Their only source of food are highly nutritious ratbars which are dumped at irregular times and places inside the dome all at the same time. Yet, at the same time Cetagandans are keeping to the letter of how to treat prisoners of war: the prisoners have access to their own medical personnel (although not to medical equipment), they aren’t kept in darkness, and they are fed.

When Miles is put inside, he is promptly beaten and robbed of any of his meager possessions: clothes, a sleeping mat, and a cup. Miles survives and meets the resident preacher, Suegar, who has a random piece of paper which he has started to think of as a scripture after three years of imprisonment. Miles can’t bear to leave the prisoners here and instead wants to free them all. However, he has to think fast and furious how to get these disparate groups working together and how to keep himself alive long enough to succeed.

This is a very intense novella. The prison environment is all too believable as are the cruelties done both inside the dome and outside it. As you might expect, the majority of the characters aren’t likable, though.

However, this is set only two years after “Cetaganda”. This means that at least some of the prisoners where already in the dome during the events of that book. Yet, the people of the Marilacan embassy didn’t seem bothered by having Cetaganda hold their soldiers in a POW camp.

Booking Through Thursday

Monica suggested this one:

Got this idea from Literary Feline during her recent contest:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like–sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’s just me.”

I also have lots of trouble having just one favorite of anything: a movie, a book, a book series, a color, a food… and luckily I don’t have to!

Friendship sort of couples:

Vlad and his familiar Loiosh from Steve Brust’s books. They make quite an formidable pair.
Cutter and his “brother in all but blood” friend Skywise from the Elfquest comic book.
Storm and Kitty Pryde used to be great friends during Claremont’s long run on the X-Men comic.
I’ve also enjoyed the respect and friendship Captain Picard had with his first officer Will Riker. (There has been so many books written about the various Star Trek incarnations that I feel the need to include them here.)
Data and Geordi LaForge have also a great friendship.

Romantic couples:
Miles Vorkosigan and Elli Quinn from the Vorkosigan series.
Cutter and Leetah from the Elfquest comic.
Skot, Krim, and Pike; a three-mating of elves as they are called in Elfquest
Redlance and Nightfall; an Elfquest couple where the woman is the fierce hunter and the man is the gentle nurturer.
Phédre No Delany and Josclin from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series.

The second of the novellas in “Borders of Infinty”.

This time Miles is in his cover as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. He has been sent to get a scientist who wants to leave his current employer and run to Barrayar. The scientist is supposed to get on board the starship Ariel under a false name and then the ship should take off. Clean and simple, right?

The place where Miles is going it Jackson’s Whole, this universe’s “wretched hive of scum and villainy”. The place is owned by, essentially, Houses of robber barons who do anything for a price – money laundering, weapons, genetic engineering, slaves, clones… Miles isn’t thrilled about being there but it’s a job.

Both Miles and the Ariel’s Captain Bel Throne, who is a hermaphrodite from Beta Colony, are invited to a reception at Baron Fell’s place. There, Bel is instantly attracted to the musician Nicole who is contracted to work for the Baron. Nicole is also a quaddie, a being who has four arms and hands, and no legs. She plays her instrument in zero-gee provided for her and in normal gravity she moves around in a float chair. Bel, Miles, and visiting Baron Ryoval exchange some insults and then Miles and Bel are thrown out, although politely. Later, Nicole contacts Miles and wants him to smuggle her out. She hadn’t realized what she was getting into when she signed the contract. Miles agrees if she manages to be very discreet. After all, they would be leaving very soon anyway.

However, the scientist insists on meeting Miles first and so he goes down to the planet where the scientist insists that he has to get some tissue samples with him and he’s not going to leave without them. The samples have been injected into an experimental being who has just been sold to the House Ryoval. Miles fumes but can’t do anything else except take his commando team inside the House Ryoval.

This is quite exciting story full of twists and excellent characters. Miles is in full gear in his Admiral Naismith cover and it’s very good to see more of Bel whom I like quite a lot. At the same time the story also sets the stage for Mirror Dance and gives us another recurring character.

The novella is tightly plotted and yet Miles’ character drives most of the action. I really like the fact that he thinks first but his fragile bones and short stature do force him to be smart. I loved the interaction between him and Taura.

On the other hand, I would have loved to see more about the Jackson Whole society. That seems to be a common complaint from me. 🙂

This was written somewhat later but in the internal chronological order it’s the third of Miles Vorkosigan’s adventures.

This time Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril have been sent as the official envoys to the funeral of the Dowager Empress of Cetaganda. Cetaganda is a galactic empire which spans several planets and it’s also near Barrayar in the galactic way of measuring things. They tried very hard to invade Barrayar and Miles’ grandfather was one of the heroes who fought the Cetagandans off Barrayar. The diplomatic relations between the two empires are still coldly cordial at best and on the verge of war at worst.

Miles and Ivan land into a shuttle bay which is strangely empty and promptly meet a man which seems rather desperate to do something. He wrestles briefly with Ivan and manages to escape leaving behind a deadly nerve disruptor and a puzzling but pretty rod. Miles decides that they aren’t going to volunteer anything to the Cetagandan security and they keep the items. Shortly, they are shown to another bay where the Barrayaran ambassador greets them. Much to Miles’ surprise, Cetaganda’s security doesn’t seem to know about the mystery man.

Instead of a grilling by security officers, the two men attend an informal reception at the Marilacan embassy. They meet a lot of people and Miles gets to see a vast metal sculpture up close and personal. While inside it he also gets a huge jolt through his leg braces. Miles is convinced that this was a deliberate attempt to at least embarrass him if not outright kill him. In a society where people have been genetically engineered to be beautiful, his physical deficiencies make him already very conspicuous. Lord Yenaro is the unfortunate young Cetagandan who designed the thing and Miles is determined to find out who Yenaro works for.

Later, Miles, Ivan, and the Barrayaran ambassador attend a dress rehearsal of the funeral rites. During the waiting, Miles is called away by the mysterious haut lady Rian Degtiar who wants back the rod Miles confiscated earlier. He also finds out that the mystery man at the shuttle bay wasn’t a man at all but a ba; a sexless and genderless servant of the Emperor and those closest to him. After a baffling and brief conversation, Miles returns to his place in the rites only to find out that the late Dowager Empress’ most faithful ba has cut its throat at the feet of it’s dead lady. Well, that’s the official version at any rate. Miles doesn’t believe it and sets out to investigate the mystery rod, Lord Yenaro, and the murder of the ba. All without telling his superior officer who would surely stop him.

The Cetagandan society is fascinating. Superficially there are two layers of power: the military ghem-lords and above them the hedonistic, artistic haut. Apparently, the society is, once again, intensely patriarchal or at any case I haven’t been able to deduce what the vast majority of both ghem and haut women do except go to parties, spend money, and dabble in arts. Of course, that’s also what the vast majority of haut men seem to do as well while the ghem men are soldiers. Also, all the haut women have been genetically engineered to be stunningly beautiful. How come the haunt men aren’t stunningly handsome? Some of it might be explained by Miles being the POV character and he’s straight but even then I think he should have noticed some of the haut men to be even good looking. Apparently, there aren’t any female ghem-Generals who are issued haut men as rewards?

Otherwise, the Cetagandans have a fascinating culture: children are done in a test tube and then put in artificial wombs. Their parents don’t necessarily ever even meet. Also, because everyone lives for a very long time, the young or even middle-aged ghem can’t expect a higher status or any sort of inheritance. The older men are respected and so the young men gray their hair artificially. Of course, here we see only the cream of the society and not the ones who do the actual work. I’d love to see a story with a Cetagandan MC!

This is also the first book where Ivan appears through out the book. In previous books, we’ve seen just glimpses of him. Here he acts fully as Miles’ foil and the occasional voice of reason although Miles can persuade him to go along with all of his crazy schemes. Understandably, Ivan tries to make Miles confess everything to their superior officers but in vain.

The only downside here is, really, that the Dendarii characters don’t make appearance. In just two books, the mercenaries have become very interesting and three dimensional characters and I missed them.

By Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen

This is a very quirky comic and probably not to everyone’s tastes. However, I did rather enjoy it. It plays with some of the most better know superhero traditions in quite tongue-in-cheek way.

There are five heroes: Monica Rambeau (from the Avengers, and incidentally one of my personal favorite Marvel heroes), Machine Man, Elsa Bloodstone, Tabitha Smith alias Boom-Boom previously from X-Force, and the Captain. Of these characters, I’m quite familiar with Monica (previously Captain Marvel and after that Photon) although I think I haven’t managed to track down every comic she appears in. I’m also somewhat familiar with Tabitha and I’ve seen Machine Man in a one or two comics. As far as I know, they’re all in character here.

These five heroes were employed by H.A.T.E, Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort, which is funded by the Beyond Corporation. However, the heroes soon discovered that Beyond itself is actually researching weapons for terrorists. These weapons are, naturally, called Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction. The heroes didn’t like it, especially because the future terrorist weaponry is tested on US soil. So, they promptly stole a list of the soon-to-be-tested weapons, stole a H.A.T.E aircraft, and set out to foil the villains.

That’s the situation where the comic starts. H.A.T.E.’s director Dirk Anger lives up to his name while chasing the heroes. Director Anger is, besides angry, also on the verge of a mental breakdown and is just as much comic relief as a threat.

The team battles bravely the dragon Fin Fang Foom, Broccoli Men, and other menaces to society.

Excellent dialog, awesome villains, side-tickling action. What more can you want?

The second book in the internal chronological order of the Miles Vorkosigan –series.

Miles has just graduated from the Barrayaran Military Academy and is looking forward to his first assignment. Much to his dismay, he is assigned to be the weather officer on Kyril Island – which is the most remote posting he could possibly have. An island full of intense cold, harsh winds, and bigoted solders. The soldiers there are also infantry which is the worst possible place for Miles with his brittle bones and short stature. However, it seems that Miles’ superiors have noticed that Miles has some problems with being a subordinate which probably is because Miles’ father is a tactical genius who was the Regent of the whole Barrayaran Empire while the Emperor was a child and is now the Prime Minister. So, Miles got accustomed to seeing generals and Counts and admirals at his parents’ house all the time, and has a problem obeying more ordinary men. The fact that he’s very intelligent doesn’t help.

So, Miles has been assigned to Kyril Island in order to show that he can be follow orders and “keep his nose clean” for six months. If he can do that, there will be a place him on the Prince Serg which is the biggest spacecraft Barrayar has ever built, and naturally every young ensign’s dream. Glumly, Miles packs his bags.

He doesn’t get a warm welcome; aside from the frosty weather, the soldiers resent both his peculiar looks and his high social status as a Vorkosigan. Also, he manages to make a very unfavorable first impression on the military base’s commander General Metzov and his immediate superior officer is drunk most of the time.

Thanks to a prank by a few of the other soldiers, Miles manages to screw up big time. In punishment he has to clean up drains from the camp area and has to even do a bit of forensic plumbing. Things don’t look too bad, though, and Miles is starting to think that he just might earn his place on the starship. But then there’s a fire and tanks full of mutagenic gas need to be removed to a safer place. The men, however, fear the gas and refuse to touch it. General Metzov decides to teach the young techies a lesson in obedience by letting them freeze nude in the snow and Miles can’t help but to get involved. In the end, they are all arrested.

However, Miles doesn’t get a trial but a far more private hearing and then detainment. In the end, Emperor Gregor decides to make Miles useful in his own way and puts him into the Imperial Security. The Dendarii Mercenaries, which Miles founded almost by accident in Warrior’s Apprentice, have been mixed up in a situation which is rapidly becoming politically delicate. So, Imperial Security’s boss, Simon Illyan, sends Miles to see that the Dendarii go away. Miles gets a secret identity and two babysitters to keep him out of trouble: Sergeant Overhault who is Miles’ bodyguard and their superior officer, Captain Ungari. Of course, the two barely even slow Miles down.

This is the book when I really started to pity anyone who had Miles as a subordinate. Miles is so used to dealing informally with the very highest rank of Barrayaran military and nobility that any ordinary man just isn’t going to impress him. He’s also usually far more intelligent that his boss. Poor Ungari! Poor Illyan! Of course, good for us the readers!

Vor Game feels a bit more disjointed than the previous book. It almost seems like the first part on the Kyril Island could be a novella on its own and just a precursor to the rest of the book. However, it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the book. We get to visit old friends from the previous book which is always enjoyable to me since I prefer a large cast of secondary characters who have lives of their own.

But it’s another very fast-paced adventure and full of quirky characters. This is my third read-through

Booking Through Thursday

Okay–here was an interesting article by Christopher Schoppa in the Washington Post.

Avid readers know all too well how easy it is to acquire books — it’s the letting go that’s the difficult part. … During the past 20 years, in which books have played a significant role in both my personal and professional lives, I’ve certainly had my fair share of them (and some might say several others’ shares) in my library. Many were read and saved for posterity, others eventually, but still reluctantly, sent back out into the world.

But there is also a category of titles that I’ve clung to for years, as they survived numerous purges, frequent library donations and countless changes of residence. I’ve yet to read them, but am absolutely certain I will. And should. When, I’m not sure, as I’m constantly distracted by the recent, just published and soon to be published works.

So, the question is his: “What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?“

Many. Many many. For example: Le Morte d’Arthur; I’ve started it a couple of times but always been distracted. Some Forgotten Realms -books that I’ve lost interest in. Some fairy tale books.

This is a space opera -style science fiction complete with many, many sentient alien species and romance between members of different species. If I’d found this book when I was in my teens, I probably would have loved it. Alas, today it’s not quite to my tastes.

Cherijo Grey Veil is a human doctor who has been born and raised on Earth which has forbidden entry to almost all aliens. The exceptions are pilots which are needed for trade with other planets and species. Her tyrannical father, and only parent, is a respected doctor who sent Cherijo to medical school and later set up her own practice.

Cherijo has found out something horrible about her father and has decided in essence to run away. She has volunteered to work for FreeClinic on a faraway planet habited by aliens. She packs her bags and her cat, finds a shuttle which leaves Earth quickly and soon lands on Kevarzangia Two. The place is a real culture shock to the young doctor who has never before met a real alien. She makes a few enemies and a few friends, and goes straight to work.

Apparently, all sentients are very much alike inside because Cherijo doesn’t need any special training. Instead she can start immediately operating on dozens of different aliens. Some are insect-like and some are reptilians. Some look like slugs.

Cherijo has to also battle prejudices both in aliens who don’t like or trust humans and in humans who think that other sentient beings shouldn’t be allowed to live. She starts to build friendships with some of the nurses and other doctors and especially with one handsome, blue-skinned male alien. Unfortunately, her boss hates her from the very start and she managed to insult one of the other doctors who starts to hate Cherijo and does his best to make her life miserable. Then there’s also a tall, dark Chief Linguist who seems to be unnervingly interested in Cherijo. In fact, the Linguist has strong telepathic abilities and has decided to use them on Cherijo, whether she wants to or not.

The setting is very much reminiscent of Star Trek and Star Wars and if you just want a fun romp in such a world, the book is quite enjoyable. I did have a few quibbles, though.

First off, it was absolutely wonderful to have a setting which had automatic translator devices and yet also had linguists. I though that finally someone realized that even if you have a language bank that had “perfect translations” of words in different languages (you know, languages where words don’t have different meanings based on the context, jargon, social setting, tone…) languages do change over time and so you’d have to have a horde of linguists frantically reprogramming the new and shifted words and meanings into the master translator program. But no! The Chief Linguist is there to just program the new languages into the main frame…

Secondly, I was a bit dubious of the idea that if you have studied human physiology, you could treat any and all species with just minor adjustments. Apparently, even the slugs are warm-blooded mammals…

Thirdly, I feel a bit put down by the fact that the aliens are just rather conservative Western humans in funny masks. There isn’t even one atheist among them.

Some laws were very peculiar. For instance, there are some quite powerful telepathic characters but apparently there aren’t any laws about when and on whom you can use the powers. There are some apparently quite stringent criteria on who does and who doesn’t merit being called a sentient with full rights. A few of them were told in the book and I found them to be quite weird because they have been clearly designed to keep slaves species slaves without a possibility of being declared sentient.

Lastly, the books had unfortunately one apparently long enduring genre romance triangle: a woman has to choose between a handsome, understanding, loving man and brooding, moping, violent asshole.

Cherijo herself is willful, abrasive, opinionated but also open to new experiences and people. She’s no victim or wilting flower despite the fact that all her life she has done what her father tells her and hasn’t even formed friendships with her fellow students. But here, in the frontier, she quickly grows a back bone and is very capable of looking after herself.

The ending wasn’t a cliffhanger but quite open.

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