July 2010

This book is part of the following collections: Dragon Variation omnibus, Korval’s Legacy Collection, and Pilot’s Choice.

First off, the central conflict is a romance. There’s a mystery as well but that’s clearly a subplot and doesn’t begin until halfway through the book. Also, the heroes aren’t detectives and are definitely not trying to solve the mystery.

The hero is an alien a Liaden who looks like a human except that he is shorter and has golden skin and violet eyes. However, the customs of the aliens, called Liadens, are somewhat different from humans. Most of their relationships revolve around Melant’i which is the status of the person at any given time. Every Liaden is also part of a clan and is expected to be extremely loyal to one’s clan. The heroine is a human Terran woman.

Er Thom yos’Galan is a Master Trader in the prestigious but small clan Korval. His mother Petrella is determined that Er Thom should start producing children to the small clan and has arranged a contract-marriage for him. Even though the contract-marriage lasts only as long as the child is born (and the child is apparently put into a foster family) and then the partners can go their separate ways, Er Thom is strongly against it. He can only think about one woman: the human linguist Anne Davis who was his lover three years ago. So, he decides to return to her so that he can finally put her out of his mind.

Scholar Anne Davis works in a university as a linguistics professor. Her plate is pretty full: she has her classes and her research, and on top of that she’s a single mother to her half-Liaden son Shan. Even though she and Er Thom had parted ways three years ago, she still misses him and thinks about him often. So, when Er Thom appears on her doorstep, she’s at first delighted. However, Er Thom is shocked and dismayed to meet his son whom he didn’t know even existed. He insist that the head of the clan Korval must see Shan and take him into the clan as is proper. Anne is reluctant to travel to Liaden where she would be the only human on the planet. Oh, and she has brown skin.

Their romance is quite different from what I’m used to and I really liked that. Both are adults with their own commitments and duties. They already know each other and now have their child to consider, too. They genuinely like each other and aren’t a bickering couple at all. (For once!) Some of their problems are cultural misunderstandings instead of simply not talking about their problems. Anne is also very honorable and she doesn’t want to be a burden to Er Thom. She knows that having a Terran wife could damage Er Thom’s career and personal standing. Also, the Liaden value pilots and apparently every person has to be a pilot before he or she can marry. Anne isn’t a pilot even though her mother was.

Er Thom is enjoyably different from most romance heroes: he’s polite, thoughtful, considerate, and very affectionate towards Anne and Shan. He tries his best to see things from Anne’s perspective. He’s also very loyal to the head of the clan who is also his foster brother and best friend. But when it’s called for, he can make quick decisions and stick with them. He’s in fact the first romance hero I’ve read about whom I wouldn’t mind dating in real life.

The clan head Daav is another interesting character. He seems to be quite unorthodox in his ways and many of the more conservative members of his family, such as his mother, aunt, and sister, pressure him to follow traditions. He’s also not married and has a pleasure-love instead.

I liked all of the characters. Yes, even Er Thom’s grouchy old mother who pushed for the contract-marriage and didn’t even want to meet her only grandson. What’s a story without a villain? 😉

The Liaden culture seems to be highly hierarchical. Everyone has his or her place and is expected to behave accordingly. Even the five-years-old boy we meet bows, speaks softly, and walks instead of running. They also have healers and wizards but we don’t get to know much about them. The healers can take away painful memories but only do it with the consent of the person involved. However, Er Thom’s mother wants to send him to the healers so that he can forget about Anne and marry properly.

It still seems to me that the Liaden culture is designed to make many people miserable. The children are reared in foster families and contract-marriages can apparently be imposed on by other people. Both Er Thom and his bride-to-be were against the marriage. On the other hand, being a pleasure-love didn’t carry a stigma at all, which was a pleasant surprise.

The Liadens have two types of marriage: the contract-marriage which lasts only as long as a child is born and lifemating which lasts beyond death. Alas, a lifemating bond reared its ugly head here. However, it’s apparently not the usual kind (imposed on the unfortunate couple by fate, gods, magic, whatever even before they are born) but instead it’s a product of choice by both of them. I still found it quite cheesy, though.

Each chapter starts with a quotation that often illuminates Liaden customs, relations between Liaden and humans (whom the Liaden consider to be very crude), or some point in Liaden history. For example:

Melant’i – A Liaden word denoting the status of a person within a given situation. For instance, one person may fulfill several roles: Parent, spouse, child, mechanic, thodelm. The shifting winds of circumstance, or ‘necessity,’ dictate from which role the person will act this time. They will certainly always act honorably, as defined within a voluminous and painfully detailed code of behavior, referred to simply as ‘The Code.’

To a Liaden, melant’i is more precious than rubies, a cumulative, ever-changing indicator of his place in the universal pecking order. A person of high honor, for instance, is referred to as “a person of melant’i,” whereas a scoundrel—or a Terran—may be dismissed with “he has no melant’i.”

Melant’i may be the single philosophical concept from which all troubles, large and small, between Liad and Terra spring.
—From “A Terran’s Guide to Liad”

The book has several POV character: Anne, Er Thom, Daav, and a few others.

I hope the other books don’t succumb to more traditional romances, though.

Booking Through Thursday

Which fictional character (or group of characters) would you like to spend a day at the beach with? Why would he/she/they make good beach buddies?

From comics side I would pick Prince Namor: he’s great to look at in trunks, is a great swimmer, and the ruler of Atlantis.

From books, it’s a bit more difficult but I’d take Amelia Peabody and her family. They’re great company and would bring the parasols and food.

This bar travels through time and space, and possibly dimensions, as well.

Billy is a banjo player in an Irish music band which performs in Cowboy Feng’s Bar and Grill. Once again, a nuclear bomb has detonated near the bar destroying pretty much everything. Except the bar which has again jumped through space and time to a human colony which is not on Earth. The first jump was from London to the Moon, then to Mars, and again to Venus. Billy and his friends don’t know why or how they are jumping around. They haven’t stayed in one place long enough to find out. However, they might be long enough in New Quebec to do some research. Like who is blowing up all those places?

This is short an amusing read but pretty light. Alas, I also guessed the twist ending beforehand and I usually suck at that. There’s a lot of humor and the characters are pretty cynical as is usual for Brust. However, this time they might be a bit too cynical. It’s pretty hard to understand why they haven’t looked into all of the weird happening before this. After all, they come from mid-1980s and didn’t have Lunar colonies back them.

Each short chapter starts with a couple of lines from different folk songs. The narrative is full of music and food. Half of the characters are the band who tend to practice and perform. There’s a short Intermezzo between almost every chapter. The first one is a dialogue where it becomes clear that someone has built and sent the Bar and Grill, and that someone is trying to blend into the 1980s culture. Other interludes are short character studies from different characters’ pasts. Frankly, I liked those more than the main story.

Then, suddenly the action starts and it’s very violent. The change what pretty weird. On one page, they’re a band and pretty normal characters. And on the next page, they’re cool gunslingers. Except for Billy, he doesn’t even carry a gun. In fact, Billy reminds me strongly of Vlad Taltos: the thinking type and unlucky in love.

This time Ramses Emerson gets involved in international spying effort while making girls of all ages swoon left and right.

The long-suffering editor has once again added Nefret’s letters and snippets of Ramses’ manuscript in the third person in the middle of Amelia’s first-person narrative.

The book starts with a brief prologue where a young boy sees a woman and a boy walking among snow. The boy’s step-mother refuses to help them and instead tells the boy that the woman in the snow was his dead father’s mistress. The boy is still determined to help them but his stepmother locks him in.

The main story is set in 1914-15 in the middle of World War I which affects not only the characters but the atmosphere as well. Women are giving white feathers of cowardice to young men who aren’t in uniform. Ramses refuses emphatically to take part in the war and has gathered quite a few of them. His best friend David has been arrested and his young wife, the Emersons’ niece Lia, is pregnant. Cairo is under martial law and many people are suspiciously looking for enemy spies even among their friends. Amelia is convinced that the Master Criminal is enjoying such a paranoid atmosphere. Meanwhile, Emerson has been given license to excavate in Giza and is determined not to let mere war stand in his way. Nefret is now a doctor and runs a clinic for Cairo’s prostitutes.

However, Ramses turns out to be a secret agent for the British Intelligence. This, of course, means that he must use a variety of disguises when he talks with the criminals of Cairo and play a role even when he looks like himself. He does his best to keep his activities a secret from his parents and Nefret. His cousin and childhood nemesis Percy Peabody is also in Cairo and is trying his best to get his revenge on Ramses.

This book ties up many loose threads from the previous books. Almost all of the familiar characters return which is always a delight, and the book is as full of humor and snappy dialogue as the previous books. Parts of the book are quite depressing: Evelyn and Walter’s sons are serving in the war and so always in danger, the arms dealings that Ramses is trying to solve, and the general gloomy atmosphere during the war. Ramses’ disguises seem a deliberate effort to bring humor to the book.

The focus is now firmly on Ramses, and his parents (whom I like more than Ramses) are only sidekicks in his exciting adventures. Egyptology is also a subplot at best.

However, there’s a scene between Amelia and Ramses which stopped me from continuing for awhile. She tells him that when a woman says “no”, she means “yes”. Unless I’m reading this wrong:

“And without wishing in any way to condone the usage of physical force there are times a woman may secretly wish… Let me think how to put this. She may hope that that the strength of a gentleman’s affection for her will cause him to… forget his manners.”

Is she really saying that Ramses should just rape Nefret? Oh, Amelia, no!

This is apparently the last Peabody audiobook on Audible which is available for us non-USAsians. Strangely enough, the Finnish library system has a few copies but the name of the book was apparently too weird for the poor librarians because is our system the book’s name is “Thunder in the Sky”.

This is short book (my copy has less than 200 pages) which came out in 1969. Apparently a painting of the same name was an inspiration to the story.

The main character Francis Sandow was born in the 20th century and is now over a thousand years old. He own his own planet, Homefree, which he has also worldscaped in the home he wanted it to be. He was one of the first human space colonists and so had survived in suspended animation for some centuries. Now, he’s one of the 100 wealthiest men in the galaxy.

He’s content to live on Homefree with a contracted prostitute but someone is send him pictures of people who have been long dead. Some of the people in the pictures Sandow loves, such as his first wife, and some had been his enemies. However, Sandow wants to believe that the pictures are fakes. Then, Ruth, of his oldest friends, sends a message that she’s in trouble and Sandow leaves to the planet where she lives. But he finds out that Ruth had been kidnapped and a message had been left to him. The message says that Sandow should look for his women from the Isle of the Dead and it’s addressed to Shimbo. Shimbo, the Shrugger of Thunders is an alien god and he’ bound to Sandow.

Then Sandow learns the people in the pictures might be alive in a manner of speaking. All of them had memory records made at the moment of their death and the records are now missing. Someone could clone them back to the land of living. Of course, Sandow has to travel to the Isle of the Dead.

Once again Zelazny puts a lot of content into less than 200 pages. This is very much a space opera world where humanity has settled many planets outside Earth (though Earth is apparently one of the richest ones) and “seventeen other intelligent races, four of whom I consider smarter than men and seven or eight who are just as stupid”. The Pei’ans are one of the more wiser aliens. When Sandow realized how far into the future he had come, he sought out a Pei’an as a mentor. After thirty years of Sandow became a worldscaper and bonded to one of the the Pei’an gods, Shimbo.

The worldscapers are all bonded to a Pei’an god. Does this make them gods? Sandow admits that he thinks that the bond is just a mental exercise that lets out his own natural powers even though he has to call on Shimbo to be able to shape the planets. Sandow is the only non-Pei’an who has been allowed to become a worldscaper.

Sandow thinks that his money is financing atrocities which he never sees. To his credit, he tried to stamp them out when he was younger but humans just found different ways to commit crimes against each other. That’s a pretty bleak view of humanity.

Women in the story are, once again, just pawns. All the women mentioned in the story have been Sandow’s sexual companions and are now just victims, alive only to spur Sandow to action.

The world was interesting but the story was a bit too short to really get involved in it.

First things first: the main character Chess Putnam is a drug addict and she has no intention of stopping. She had a horrible childhood: she doesn’t know who her parents are and she drifted from one bad foster family to another. She really wants to forget that time. She doesn’t trust anyone and pushes away anyone who tries to get close to her. Also, she has a very low opinion of herself. The Church saved her from that life and she serves it gladly.

Chess is a witch who works for the Church of Real Truth. When people claim that their house is haunted, Chess is one of the Debunkers who are sent to find out if the haunting is real or fake. If the ghost is real, Chess banishes it.

About a twenty years ago, ghosts rose and attacked living humans. The religions and authorities at the time couldn’t do anything. The Church of the Real Truth was the one who was able to banish the ghosts and protect the people. Now, the Church is the only authority and the only religion based on Facts and not Faith. The Church is pretty fascist; they want people to spy on their neighbors and even on their families for signs of crimes such as trying to contact the afterlife on their own. The Church also keeps a tight grip on what people can know about the past.

The book starts with Chess doing her job: banishing a ghost. However, because of her drug habit she almost blows it. Also, Debunkers are paid more when a possible haunting turns out to be fake so this time she didn’t earn a bonus which she really needs.

Then, her drug dealer Bump extorts her. She has to agree to banish some troublesome ghosts from an abandoned airport which Bump intents to open for his own business. He sends his enforcer, Terrible, to the airport with Chess. There Chess finds out that the ghosts are stronger than she thought so the job wouldn’t be simple after all. When she gets home, a sexy rival drug lord Lex kidnaps her. Lex doesn’t want the airport opened and tries to bribe Chess with free drugs to tell Bump that the ghosts are too strong for her. She doesn’t quite know what to do. To make matters worse, she is soon tangled into a plot against the Church itself.

The plot is fast and intense and excellently paced. Most of the characters are interesting, if not likable. Chess herself is quite a contradiction: on the one hand, she loves the Church but on the other, she betrays the Church’s ideals by being a drug user and being only barely able to do her job. Most of what she does is motivated by her desire to get more drugs.

The alternative reality drugs seem to work differently than real world ones. Here, Chess is able to better do her job when she’s high, which is most of the time. When she isn’t high, she starts to shake and can only focus on getting her next fix.

Terrible is a significant secondary character. He’s a big and ugly man and know how to threaten people. He’s also an expert in violence but he seems to use violence only as a tool and not really enjoy it. He opens up slowly during the story and turns out to have a variety of interests. Even though Chess at first is somewhat repulsed by him, she later starts to be attracted to him.

Lex is the other romantic interest. He seems to be more violent but he’s quite tender and even caring towards Chess. He flirts shamelessly and calls her Tulip because of one of her tattoos.

While many people were apparently disturbed by Chess’ drug habit, I was more disturbed by her love interests. Lets face it, drug dealers and their enforcers aren’t the nicest people ;). Then again Chess aren’t exactly nice herself either, and her past and present experiences are likely to make it difficult for her to maintain any close relationships.

Chess lives in a poor area called the Downside close to Bump’s place. This gives the story a bleak atmosphere combined with the themes of drug abuse and a fascist rulership.

Each chapter starts with a short quotation. Often they are from the Book of Truth but some of them are from other books such as Careers in the Church: A Guide for Teens. They are a good way to illuminate the world without infodumps. I really liked them.

I found the world to be fascinating. Even though all of the magic is centered on ghosts, there are still a variety of things it can do such as possessions and banishings. The magic rituals are also well described.

The first chapter is available at the author’s website and you can also download the first five chapters from there, too.

My UF summer continues with Amazons.

Melanippe Saka is an unusual main character: she’s an Amazon, a tattoo artist, and also a single mother. She runs her own tattoo business with four employees.

The Amazons have a very strict culture away from the rest of the world. They move around often and they can’t talk about themselves to any one else. They use men only to get children and when a male child is born, he’s killed or given away.

Mel’s second child was a boy and she realized that she wanted to keep him. Unfortunately, according to Amazon traditions, that was not possible. He was a stillborn. However, the Amazon women are strong; the women and the infants don’t die in childbirth. Mel refused to believe that her son was the first exception. She believed that the high priestess had killed her son and so, she took her daughter Harmony and left. Mel’s warrior mother Cleo and priestess grandmother Bubbe joined her in her self-imposed exile.

These Amazons are a different race from humans: they live hundreds of years, are stronger than males, and all have one of the four gifts: a warrior, an artisan, a priestess with power over the four elements, or hearth-keeper. Mel is an artist and she does her best to try to blend into human society. She hasn’t even told Harmony about her heritage. Bubbe is some sort of scam artist/fortune teller but Cleo seems to stay away from humans.

When someone leaves a second dead Amazon girl on Mel’s doorstep, she’s near panic. She can’t take her body back to the Amazons because they would instantly draw the wrong conclusion and think that Mel’s the killer. At first, she just moves the body far away for the police to find it. However, she starts to think that Harmony could be in danger. Also, even though she doesn’t much care for the Amazons she wants to warn them that they might be in danger. So, she tries to warn them subtly. Instead, the local tribe turns up in her doorstep. Dozens of angry warrior women are determined to find out the killer, especially if the killer turns out to be Mel. They are lead by their queen Zery who used to be Mel’s best friend.

The police are also interested. A handsome detective Reynolds is asking difficult questions.

Even though Mel has left the Amazons, she still harbors a lot of prejudices toward males. So far, she’s only hired women but when a handsome and talented tattoo artist Peter Arpada applies for work, Mel decides to try to overcome her upbringing and hires him. When the Amazons camp in her home, she almost regrets her choice.

I found the Amazon culture interesting. They have a highly structured society where the warriors are the elite and the queen apparently always comes from the ranks of the warriors. The heart-keepers are the ones who cook, clean, mend, and do all the other boring chores, and just like in the patriarchal mainstream society, they get the least amount of respect. The women also don’t choose their class; they manifest their talents during puberty. They all have their power animals and belong to one of the twelve tribes. They are nomadic people by tradition but have some safe houses where they gather.

Mel’s grandmother Buppe is five hundred years old. Mel muses that it’s common for Amazon women to start having kids in their eighties. If so, it would seem that many of the Amazons would be in the 200-300 age range. Yet, at least the tribe that we see here is very quick to jump to conclusions and judge others based on prejudices and without any evidence. They’re also resistant to change and openly hostile to Mel for not sticking to the traditions. They also don’t seem to make any plans for future. This sound to me like young and inexperienced people.

The characters are entertaining but not very original. Most of them remain also quite distant. Despite the seeming closeness of Mel’s family, both Cleo and Harmony remain distant characters. Harmony, especially, almost functions as a plot device to spur Mel to action. Mel herself is quite stubborn even though she is occasionally open to new ideas, such as hiring a man into her business. Unfortunately, I don’t really like the whole “I don’t tell you anything for your own good”-thing. In fact, here it could have put Harmony in direct danger when she doesn’t know what is going on. Otherwise, Mel is a sympathetic character who is trying to escape a “cult” so to say and make her own way in the world. Although, for a small business owner, she did surprisingly little work. 😉 (I’m self-employed…)

Zery and her very hostile lieutenant where the most fleshed-out Amazons. Mel’s and Zery’s relationship was kind of touching; they had clearly been close but Mel had left ten years ago. Mel had been hurt that Zery hadn’t supported her when she left and Zery had been hurt by Mel leaving. It’s not easy for them to trust each other anymore. Later in the book, we are introduced to Dana who is a hearth-keeper and quite a contrast to the warriors. Unfortunately, her storyline isn’t resolved here.

Aside from Peter, the other employees were only seen at the start and then the sort of faded away.

There were some repetitive parts but all in all, I rather enjoyed the book. The pacing was good and I enjoyed the twist near the end.

Wow! I was one of the winners of the Dragon Variation omnibus ebooks by Lee and Miller!

Hopefully, the heat wave will pass soon so that I can bear to read ebooks on my computer.

The book contains three novellas or short stories: Victoria, Hottentots, and Walt and Emily. It’s alternate history written in humorous style and has no respect for historically real people.

The first story, Victoria, is about young, rich inventor Cosmo Cowperthwaith. He inherited his wealth from his deceased father and uses it for all sort of scientific experimentation. His parents died in an accident involving a uranium-powered train.

Cosmo dabbles in biology. For example, by mixing growth hormones from newts and humans, he managed to grow a newtwoman whom he calls Victoria. He tried to educate her but much to his disappointment, she turned out to nearly mindless. Cosmo had no choice but to put her into a bordello where she services mostly upper class men.

One day, William Lamb, the Prime Minister and lover of the young Queen Victoria, meets Cosmo with troubling news: the Queen has fled her responsibilities to parts unknown. Lamb wants to keep it a secret and so wants to have a replacement on the throne until the Queen is found. Lamb wants the mindless, yet sex-crazed newtwoman to be that replacement. Cosmo agrees. However, Cosmo also thinks that he has to search for the Queen. He and his stalwart, if eccentric, American-born manservant Nails McGroaty set out to search the underbelly of Victorian London. Unfortunately, the silver-nosed (his nose was shot off in a duel and replaced by a silver appendage) Lord Chuting-Payne hates the royal family and is determined to find the young woman first!

I did rather enjoy this story although not without reservations. The Lord’s name was a hoot: I hope I’m not the only one who pronounces it as Shooting Pain. He and his Indian manservant were great! I also enjoyed McGroaty’s lengthy speeches even though they were a bit hard to understand at times.

On the other hand, I really disagreed with Cosmo that the only two uses for a woman was as a whore or an educated upper-class woman. Also, I felt really dubious about where the Queen had gone and why. I haven’t yet seen that a man has to go through the same before being fit to rule!

Hottentots is set in America where the Swiss-born Professor Louis Agassiz and his team are studiously examining the wonders of nature. Agassiz is ambitious and wants to climb high among the American men of science. He resents the black people whom he considers barely sentient. One night, to his horror, he receives unexpected company: the South African Jacob Cezar (who has a pronounced accent) and Cezar’s black wife Dottie. Cezar tells Agassiz a wild tale about a magical object which is now being hunted by several people. The object is currently held by a Hottentot shaman who intends to do mischief with it in America. Reluctantly, Agassiz agrees to pursue the object with Cezar.

This could have been great fun. Agassiz has to go to extraordinary lengths (for him) to get to the bottom of the mystery and has to go through a variety of unpleasant ordeals which are funny to the reader.

Unfortunately, his character is really not likable. He claims to be a man of science who investigates everything. Yet, he constantly denies even seeing the extraordinary animals and people around him. He is really racist and defends slavery with circular logic and constantly puts down Dottie. He’s horrified by Cezar’s and Dottie’s marriage. He’s convinced of his own superiority and claim for fame.

Otherwise, the story has rather enjoyable characters: Maurice Desor, a Socialist who wants to work for Agassiz while he tries to rouse the professor’s employees into a mutiny against the capitalist oppressors, Agassiz’s second Edward Desor who is trying to usurp the professor’s place, the loyal Dottie, and of course the villains who are rather maniacal themselves.

Walt and Emily is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Emily’s brother Austin is determined to find a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He met the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy who claims that she can not only communicate with the dead but also transport the living into the land of Death, called the Summerland. This she does with liquid called ideoplasm which comes from her breasts. The journey is supposed to happen on a boat drawn by ostriches.

The usually withdrawn Emily is intensely interested in Whitman. Even though she’s skeptical of Madam Selavy’s talents, she agrees to hear her out and even to participate in a séance.

Whitman is a curious character with a booming voice and disdain for Victorian conventions. Emily is almost his opposite. Madam Selavy has two main companions who are convinced that they are doing science. Again, the characters are great and many things in the story are ridiculous. The story contains some poems from Walt and Emily.

Is it steampunk? It has more occult, things inspired by Lovecraft, and pseudo-science than science.

All in all, these are mostly good parodies of Victorian times. No doubt, people who know more about the times can get far more out of the book that I did. I did know, for example, that Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister where not lovers, though.

Booking Through Thursday

Well, folks, I don’t know about where you are, but right here, it’s HOT.

So … when you think about “hot reading,” what does that make you think of? Beach reading? Steamy romances? Books that take place in hot climates? Or cold ones?

Yep, the weather’s still very hot here.

When someone says “hot reading” I think of erotica. However, if you mean reading inspired by hot weather, I think of easy, light reading. Although apparently some people like to save challenging reading for their summer vacation which I fully understand.

However, my reading doesn’t really change by season. This year I’m trying to read as much as possible from my to-read-pile so, that’s what I continue to read. But it was a nice change of pace to read a book set in the middle of winter when the weather was really hot.

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