July 2012

My newest review: Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’s Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel.

This was a weird book. I throughly enjoyed the first half of it but during the latter fourth, it felt a bit too long and I had serious problems with the ending.

Three stars from five.


1)      Pratchett has done some lavish setting descriptions by now, notably the Post Office but also rooms at Unseen University, and other places around Ankh-Morpork.  What’s your favorite one?

The university had been my favorite until now but the Post Office is now my favorite, with its sea of undelivered mail threating everyone’s health and life.

I also like the witches’ cottages.

2)      In Chapter 7, Moist waxes poetic about the personal nature of letters versus clacks.  This could easily be looked at as email and other on line communication versus paper letters.  Do you agree with Moist, or does he exaggerate?  And just for fun, what’s the best piece of paper mail you ever got?

When we’re talking about print letter/email, mostly I don’t agree. After all, neither have the tone and facial expressions we get when talking face to face (Skype is more personal than an email). Print letter does have personal handwriting which can be either a good or a bad thing (or illegible) so it feels more personal but the sender has to write the email, too.

Yet, on the other hand, if we’re talking about a stock email or email written by a secretary, then of course it’s impersonal. But so are stock print letters. So, the medium doesn’t really make it more or less personal, it’s the content that counts.

I guess I feel that clacks are more like telegrams than email. There you have the clear word count and someone else sending it.

Best piece of paper mail… I love all of the letters and postcards I’ve received from abroad.

3)      Share your favorite quotes and moments from this section of Going Postal.

The moving sea of mail, when Moist is trying to climb up and the glimpse into the past. Those descriptions were just great and lovely.

Since I’m reading the Finnish translation, these are more like paraphrasing back to English:
“Hey buddy, want to see Vetinari’s behind?”

“Mr Hobson, nobody rides out of town faster than I.”

The second book in a duology of dark SF books. The first is Darkland.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 292
Publisher: TOR

Bloodmind has four point-of-view characters who are all written in the first person. They are all women and on different planets. I think Vali is in her thirties but the other two are much older. So, I’d call this book quite a rarity among SF.

Vali Hallsdottir is on her home planet Muspell and her story starts right after Darkland ended. She’s just returned to the headquarters of Skald, the intelligence organization she works for. She’s a assassin for Skald. Someone has just brutally killed Idhunn, Vali’s closest friend and the leader of Skald. Then a Darkland organization called the Morrighanu conquers the Skald’s headquarters. Along with everyone else, Vali is taken prisoner. The Morrighanu probe her mind, essentially mind torturing her. With the help of the selk, Vali escapes. The selk take her to Darkland where the selk want Vali to team up with another Darklander whom we saw in the previous book. The Darklander has his own reasons for helping Vali but doesn’t tell them just yet. Vali agrees, reluctantly.

On Mondhile, an old warrior woman feels that she’s near death and so she leaves her clan for the wilderness. She’s hoping that she will find her long lost sister before she dies and she’s also visiting the Moon Moor. When she was young, she went to the Moon Moor and found a strange, high-tech cave underneath it. The Mondhile clans don’t know much technology and the clans ofter fight each other.

One point-of-view characters simply refers to herself as “I” and the chapter headings don’t give any clue to her identity. She thinks herself as a weapon.

On Nhem, men have genetically engineered their women to not be sentient. However, some women manage to awaken and escape their brutal live. They live away from the male dominated cities, in a small colony called the Edge and from time to time, other women manage to escape and travel there. Sedra is the oldest woman living there and the others treat her as their unofficial leader. She’s starting to feel her age because she can’t do anymore some of the things she used to do.

About four hundred women live in the old city. They don’t know who built it or why the builders left but the city is full of images which might depict tall women, and the current settlers call them the goddesses. They don’t have much technology or medicines and the land isn’t fertile, so living is hard.

The Nhemish women are all short, dark haired and dark eyed. One day, a woman with fair skin and hair comes to them. She has made the same dangerous trek as all the others. Sedra briefly fears that she might be a spy but she is still welcomed to the community.

The conditions that the women used to live in are horrific. Perhaps it’s just good that they can’t remember most of their lives before they became sentient and were able to escape. One woman tells that she remembers that the man of the house (called a House Father) killed his slave woman (you can hardly call her a wife) over a broken cup and the woman’s sons dragged her body out laughing. Some years back it was forbidden by law to give girl children names; now they are named for example Boy-Next-Time and Luck-To-Come. Frankly, if the whole book had been about Nhem I don’t think I could have finished it.

On the other hand, I was fascinated by the concept of people who are sentient only part of the time. With the women in Nhem, some of them can become sentient at some point but were apparently born without it. We get a couple of descriptions of awakening sentience and it doesn’t seem to be something the women themselves do. The women are illiterate and also don’t understand language that the men speak.

On Mondhile, things are somewhat similar. Children are born without sentiense and they are left in the wilderness to fend for themselves at six months old. Around 14, they become sentient by coming near a village and the village’s technological defences somehow trigger it. Also, the Mondhile people have an ability called the bloodmind during which they lose their sentience again for a brief time. This can happen in battle but happens also during a yearly event called the masque. Most of the people don’t have any control over it.

The third example is on planet Muspell. The selk, a sea dwelling people/animals, are sentient only part of the year.

I’m not sure I buy sentience being just an ability that can be turned on and off but it’s a fascinating thought. I’m also not sure that I buy that the women of Nhem can do household chores well without self-awareness. Cooking, for example, would have to be pretty basic and mending clothing would also require knowing what you’re doing. To be fair, what we see women doing is scrubbing floors, serving food, carrying things, and being prostituted.

The atmosphere of the book is somewhat different from the previous book, Darkland, which was a more intimate story of Vali confronting her past and Ruen confronting his present. In Bloodmind, on the other hand, the focus is on the future of several groups of peoples.

The pacing is quick, as is usual with Williams, with chapters alternating between pov characters. But Vali still has time to wonder about the motives of the other characters, not to mention her ancient ancestors who started this genetic experimentation.

The ending is somewhat depressing, for me at least.

Collects Avengers vol. 1 270-271, 273-277

Writer: Roger Stern
Artists: John Buscema, Tom Palmer

A large gang of villains band together under the leadership of Baron Zemo to humiliate and utterly defeat the Avengers. And looks like they are going to do it!

However, the collection starts with a different tone with people demonstrating against Namor joining the team. Some people remember when he led his Atlantean army against humans while to others he’s still a hero from WW II. But Namor has to leave in the second issue and doesn’t come back, so that subplot is left open.

Baron Zemo recruits a lot of villains who want to wipe the floor with the Avengers: Mr Hyde, Titania, the Absorbing Man, the Fixer, Yellowjacket, Moonstone, Blackout, Wrecker and his crew. However, from the start Moonstone is challenging Zemo’s leadership and throughout the story Zemo has to be paranoid about his own crew. Most of the other villains are interested in just physical battle, though.

The Avengers have quite a smaller line-up: the Wasp, as team leader, the Black Knight, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Hercules. Namor leaves in the second issue and a couple of reservists join later. Marvel is obviously the most powerful Avenger and Zemo has plans to neutralize her. She also explores her powers and we see her traveling to the Moon in just a few minutes. Apparently, there’s a romantic triangle between the Wasp and the Black Knight, and a new character, a mercenary called the Paladin. Zemo is able to use that to his advantage. Also, Hercules resents the Wasp’s leadership so the Avengers bicker as much as ever. This time, the Wasp is a decisive leader which is a huge change to her small role in the Kree-Skrull War trade.

The story itself is pretty basic without any extra hooks or depth. However, the pacing is good and it’s entertaining.

This is a good trade for new readers because it doesn’t rely on previous stories. Of course, the characters are different from the movie.

The Finnish edition (which came out a couple of months ago in hard cover) has also issue 272 where Namor asks the Avenger’s help to free Marrina who is being held hostage by Atlantis’ current ruler, the ruthless Attuma. The Avengers of course want to help him but they are worried that Namor will use them as a way to get back his throne. However, once they free Marrina, both Namor and Marrina swim away and aren’t seen in this collection again.

The first in a duology of dark SF books.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Page count: 424
Publisher: TOR

The book has only two POV characters and one of them is in the first person, Vali Hallsdottir. The chapters with POV characters alternate. It’s set in the far future where humans have colonized many planets and have done genetic engineering on both the alien plants and animals, and on themselves.

Vali is a spy and assassin for the Skald, an intelligence organization of (mostly) women on the planet Muspell. Vali’s from the North and she’s a tracker in addition to the skills the Skald taught her. At the start of the book, she’s on an undercover mission on the planet Nhem. Nhemish society centers on a religion which states that women are animals and filth. They also have a breeding program and genetic engineering program which are trying to make women not sentient. Meanwhile, the women have to wear covering clothing and men can’t even address them directly in public, or private presumably. Therefore, a woman is the prefect choice to assassinate Nhem’s sadistic leader, the Hierolath. Vali has to endure a rape to get to the Hierolath but she kills him. After that, the problems start. She came to the planet with a male partner but he’s not in the agreed upon place and her pick-up ride is also late. She barely makes it off the planet. Then, she hears that the male partner was not who she thought he was; he’s Fray, Vali’s former lover and mentor but, disguised in such a way that she didn’t recognize him.

Vali had a bad childhood; her brother raped her and her family refused to talk about it. When she was working as a tracker, Fray engaged her as his apprentice, and his lover. Unfortunately, he also broke her mentally and it has taken Vali a long time to heal. Now, she has to confront Fray again.

Meanwhile, on planet Mondhile a young man Ruan hears a human cry from the forest and decides to investigate. He finds a mysterious and seductive young woman. She visits his room one night and has sex with him, although it seems that she does it more out of desire to control Ruan than any desire. Afterwards, Ruan is determined to find her again even though the clan elder warns him to stay away. Ruan is injured but the mysterious woman and her brother rescue him and bring him to a tower built in the middle of a pool of dark energy. He knows that he should leave the tower and the woman but he just can’t.

Darkland has clashing societies and ponders the use of sex as a weapon. The societies are quite different from each other. On the planet Muspell, there are actually two societies which seem polar opposites of each other. Darkland, on the southern hemisphere, seems to be a society based on oppression with men holding the power. Vali’s homeland seems to be more equal and their intelligence service is run mostly by women. The Skald also seem spiritual; through meditation they are able to control an inner power called the seith through which they can sense others and have mental shields. The Darkland agents we see seems to use genetic engineering to get their powers to persuade and affect other people.

In contrast, Ruan’s culture seems quite primitive; they are hunters and keep herd animals. At first the culture doesn’t seem very different from a hunter/herder society (although that seems a bit weird for a spacefaring society) but then we find out that it is different. Very. It’s also a more gender equal society where women appear to be the primary hunters.

Vali used to be a confident woman before she met Fray. Now, she sometimes doubts herself especially with anything to do with Fray. However, she’s determined to get past Fray and live as she wants to. She has also lost one eye and has deep scars because a fenris attacked her. She’s convinced that no man will ever want her because of the scars.

Idhunn is Vali’s mentor in the Skald. Idhunn is a older woman whom Vali can confide in and talk matters over with. I really enjoyed their friendship which is pretty rare in books, let alone in SF.

This is an intense, if dark, book with damaged main characters who try to deal with their mental and physical wounds. There’s rape and torture but it’s not gratuitous.

There are a few dangling plot lines but except for the epilogue, this could be read as a stand-alone.

The first part in the Going Postal read-along:

1) For those new to Pratchett or Going Postal, what are your first impressions?  For re-readers, is anything striking you this time that you didn’t notice on a first read?
I’ve read Pratchett before but I haven’t read this book. First impression: chapters! A Pratchett book with chapters! The book also has only two prologues, so it goes quickly to the point. Hangings aren’t usually funny but Pratchett can clearly make them so.

2) We’ve started to get to know our protagonist, Moist von Lipvig, by now.  What are your thoughts on him so far?
Moist is really getting what he deserves. He takes great pride in the fact that he isn’t violent but at the same time, he thinks that the people he swindles get what they deserve. He’s even confronted with it in the fourth chapter and he clearly hasn’t given even one thought to the people his crimes have affected. He has great skills in manipulating other people, as is shown by the way he handles Stanley and later the hair salon owner. I find this fascinating because almost all of the manipulative characters I’ve read so far have been women. Of course, manipulation is far more funny that violence. Even though he’s funny, he’s always looking out only for himself, which isn’t appealing.

I strongly suspect that he will become a more upstanding citizen before the end. One way or another.

3) We’ve also met quite a few rather unusual supporting characters.  Who are you most looking forward to reading more about?
Stanley and his pins have been the funniest so far and Vetinari is always a delight.

4) What are your favorite quotes or moments from this section of the book?
I’m reading the Finnish translation so I think it’s best if I don’t give quotes but I really enjoyed the scene in the pin shop where people think that there’s something shameful about pins. And the way that Moist dealt with the hair salon owner. Oh, and the way that Groat reads from the manual.

I’m really enjoying this one!

A crossover event in the X-Men titles.

Collects X-Men: Second Coming #1-2, Uncanny X-Men #523-525, New Mutants 12-14, X-Men: Legacy 235-237, X-Force 26-28

Second Coming ends the trilogy which started with Messiah Complex and continued with Messiah War. It deals with the events after House of M where mutants were almost wiped out and no new mutants where born, with the exception of the little girl Hope. She’s called the Mutant Messiah and a lot of people want to get their hands on her. In the end Cable took her to the future and raised her there to a teenager. Now, Cable and Hope are back in the X-Men time line.

Cable and Hope return to the Xavier Institute of Higher Learning, only to find it in ruins. Hope almost gives up then, saying that everything she touches, dies. But they are attacked by masked men and the duo swings into action. Then the X-Men find Hope and Cable through Cerebro, and of course they want to bring Hope to Utopia, to safety.

Bastion and his forces are determined to exterminate all mutants and they have a terrifying plan for it. The X-Men are in for a brutal fight where three X-Men are slain and some X-Men have to kill, too. In the end, the team tears itself in two.

Hope and Cable were a great team. They fight together in a way that says that they have been doing it for years. They argue and scream at each other, and apologize. In a word, they are a family. Hope says that she’s tired of fighting but when Cable’s in trouble, she doesn’t hesitate to defend him, even against Cyclops’ orders. Cable is clearly Hope’s teacher and the only father she’s ever known, even though they aren’t blood relatives. Hope has grown up in a war torn world where mutants are hunted and killed. A few times she looks a longingly at hair products in stores they break into and we’re reminded that she’s just a teen aged girl. Unfortunately, the art makes her look like an adult, especially when Greg Land is the artist.

This is not a good starting point for new readers. A lot of the pain and difficult choices the characters go through have more impact when you know the characters and their relationships. The characters aren’t introduced to the reader beyond names and powers.

At one point, things are so desperate that Cyclops sends a team to the future. A couple of X-Men had died and some others had been seriously wounded (I’m talking about lost limbs here!) at that point and I was sure that the time travel would just erase everything back to the way they were before the fight. So this move actually lessened my interest instead of having the feeling that the stakes were raised. Boy, was I wrong! Nope, none of it was erased! One of my favorite X-Men is still dead. None of the characters are let off lightly and the story sets up many, many possible continuations.

I read this storyline in the Finnish edition and the comic was under a cancellation threat. Happily, the fans answered and the comic isn’t going to be canceled, after all. Just one look at the, er, tangled situation of the various X-Men comics in US made me happy to continue with the Finnish edition.

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