Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

It took me a few weeks to come to terms with this novel, but I finally did and this is what I decided: despite the hype about Station Eleven, or perhaps because of the hype, the book turned out to be a huge disappointment for me.

About :

It starts off brilliantly with an actor’s onstage death that, while seeming both tragic and horrible to the cast and fans, also feels right—this is an elderly actor, surrounded by his favorite people, doing his favorite thing amidst the glorious fanfare of playing King Lear, dying a completely natural death. Sad, but, in a sense, also normal and even enviable. The way a person wants to die. (This scene made me want to go pick up King Lear, immediately, which is a bonus. I love being inspired to read classics by reading modern books.)

Then, as the acting cast meets afterwards in a bar to take in the death of their lead, we get this line:

Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on a road out of the city.”

Whoa, what!? This compelling line introduces the coming apocalypse—which, we soon learn, will be in the form of an epidemic that causes collapse of human civilization. The actor’s death is indeed a happy mercy in comparison. The perfect prose sets up the drama of this revelation perfectly.

Unfortunately, the prose is the only thing I enjoyed about the rest of the book. My interest died fairly soon after that amazing intro, after which we find ourselves following a cast of narrators connected in distant and basically meaningless ways. The revelations about those character connections are supposed to somehow give the novel structure, but the strategy doesn’t really work. It just reads like a bunch of character sketches set against a relatively static “post-apocalyptic” background. We see the fall of humanity through the eyes of these characters, which is sort of interesting, but…

Thoughts :

For me, two problems killed the character-driven premise of “examining the individual and collective human response to apocalypse.”

First of all, the cast is boring, completely average and largely unchanging. These are normal people who make huge mistakes, but never redeem themselves. The two characters who do change only do so in flashbacks: the actor, imo the least sympathetic character, and the vaguely-Protestant-sounding cult leader. Although Mandel attempts to give the story structure by following the arcs of the actor and the cult leader, both are snoozeworthy. I’ve read so much more interesting and illuminating portrayals of religious nutsos (see Hazel Motes in Wiseblood or St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre or even Kelsier in Mistborn!), so this kind of religious stereotype completely bores me.

Second, Mandel wrote Station Eleven almost entirely from the viewpoint of non-religious peoples of European descent. A little more diversity would have gone a long way toward creating a more compelling cast. The lack of sane religious people in particular seems like an odd disparity in a post-apocalyptic population. So, in regards to religious people, either: (1) ALL of them are nuts; (2) ALL the sane ones died already; or (3) ALL the sane ones were raptured!

‘What about the post-apocalyptic setting?’ you may be wondering. Well…it’s largely static, like the characters, unfortunately. [Highlight to view SPOILER: After the initial fall, we just see everything collapse again and again through the eyes of the cast, and that’s where it stays. Nothing else happens, no clues about the future. Maybe that’s what Mandel is saying: the future remains static forever. I guess you could interpret it that way, but it’s boring and relatively hopeless and in conjunction with everything else I didn’t like about this story? MEH. ]

To end on a high point: several members of the cast belong to a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling through the wasteland, and Mandel uses them to share the redeeming power of story. I enjoyed that theme, even if it is apparently the exclusive source of meaning and hope characters find in the world of this novel (which is just silly. I love my books, but I don’t base my identity and hope in them, and I certainly wouldn’t do so in the case of an apocalypse. That, in addition to the apparent Theophobia??, made it difficult for me to find myself anywhere in this novel). Still, imaginary bonus points for the lit love.

Overall :

Dull, dull, dull. I’ve read literary fiction that accomplishes all of this with far greater success, so I really don’t understand why people loved this one. There’s just such better stuff out there. For a much more compelling character-driven and literary post-apocalyptic novel, I would recommend Arslan by M. J. Engh. Happily, I just reviewed it two days ago and it’s fresh enough that I’ll guarantee a much more thoughtful reading experience than Station Eleven can provide. Still not much plot, but the characters are way more interesting PLUS they’re unreliable narrators, which, I mean, bonus points, right?

So I gave Station Eleven 1 star for the prose, 1 star for the terrific intro and a half a star for a half-way decent cast. But I rounded down because I was so disappointed.

2.5/5 STARS

Recommended To:

If you super-love post-apocalyptic fiction, you might still enjoy Station Eleven, especially since it’s so mainstream and popular now. It will likely come up in conversations about literary sci-fi, and sometimes it’s just fun to take part in a popular sci-fi fandom. My library is giving away free copies of it this year for the Big Read, which is really a big deal for a science fiction novel!

Station Eleven is adult post-apocalyptic science fiction authored by Emily St. John Mandel and published September 9th 2014 by Knopf. Hardcover, 336 pages. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

‘The woman is a danger…What she does is an abomination.’”

About :

Shai is a MaiPon Forger in a country that despises Forgers as abominations. When she gets captured during a routine palace art theft, she scrambles for an escape plan; but before she gets the chance to spring herself from prison, her captors change the game.

‘She is a valuable tool. This woman can save us. We must use her.’”

They visit her prison cell and demand that she complete a job for them, a job so secret that Shai knows she will be murdered at its close: reforge the emperor’s soul. The Emperor’s Soul is a Fantasy Novella written by Brandon Sanderson and published October 11th 2012 by Tachyon Publications. Hugo Award for Best Novella (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fantasy (2012).

Thoughts :

This novella opens with the emperor’s staff debating the fate of their captive Forger, and this first layer of cultural tension immediately intrigued me: What is Forging? Why do they hate it? And why must they use it to save the country?

Nearby in prison, Shai desperately seeks a way out of her cell before the next day’s scheduled execution, and her technique introduces readers to the unique Asian stamp magic of the novella:

To Forge something, you had to know its past, its nature.”

At this point (on like page four), the cultural tension and the magic already have me intrigued. Then the emperor’s councilors arrive and explain the situation to Shai and to readers: the emperor has been attacked and needs a new soul to survive.

Whoa. What?

They grant Shai a stay of execution for the next hundred days, during which she must create the soulstamp—a task that will involve a huge amount of complex, untested magic.

Her ambitious artist’s soul longs to create the perfect soulstamp, but she knows she must prioritize one thing over this primal urge toward faultless creation: she must escape before those 100 days are up or she will never leave the prison alive. The 100 day countdown heads each new section, and I totally felt the squeeze by the end of the novella.

Over the course of the story, Shai uses her magic in a variety of ways: transforming her room, making various stamps to reforge the emperor’s personality and history, etc. But a constant war rages inside her between the need to create a perfect soulstamp and the need to escape with her life. Her escape plan is just one more layer of mystery that kept me reading.

The final layer that got me fully invested in the story relates to the characters. In order to escape, Shai knows she’ll need to do something that makes her cringe: she’ll have to manipulate the elderly Arbiter Gaotana who visits her cell to test the soulstamps.

Gaotana seems to have the most integrity of all those palace staff, as he alone regrets the need to forever silence the young Forger after she completes the stamp. So when he criticizes Shai’s choice of profession—thief, Forger, abomination—Shai feels his disappointment keenly.

Why? Gaotana thought again. Why would someone capable of this artistry, turn to forgery?…Why not be a true artist?”

Aarcanum-unboundednd now she has to trick him—just to escape with her life? It made my heart hurt just thinking about it!


I love the human psychology and the theme of cultural misunderstanding in The Emperor’s Soul. And, of course, I love the Asian-inspired stamp magic. It ties in with the “form” type magic present in Stormlight Archives, I think, too—or it sounds like it does, anyway. In fact, I love the format and pacing and characters and everything about this story! I’m so happy it was included in Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection, even though it was published previously. I kinda wish we could hear more about Shai because her potential as a heroine is limitless; but I understand that Sanderson wants to finish a few series before starting an entirely new one, haha.

Recommended To:

Although the novella is set in the same universe as Elantris, the reading order doesn’t matter. In fact, this might be a great introduction to Sanderson’s work, if you’re not ready to jump into The Way of Kings. There’s no fat to trim.

*****5/5 STARS

The past becomes a continuous future, unless you break the Change…No further analysis!

About :

Arienrhod, the Snow Queen, rules over the planet of Tiamat. She won the right to rule during Tiamat’s 150 year winter cycle, and she stays young and immortal on the blood of the dolphin-like mer. No one understands the immortality, but clues point to remnants of the ancient “Old Empire”…

Unable to explain the mystery, Arienrhod embraces eternal life and has decided that her own rule really should extend beyond the planet’s winter cycle and further, into the summer years. Several of her potential plans to that end appear to be bearing fruit.

If only that troublesome police chief, Jerusha, would stay out of her way. If only Arienrhod’s clone, Moon Dawntreader Summer—a Summer native, raised to understand and eventually manipulate the naiveté of Tiamat’s technologically-backward Summer natives—would heed the Winter queen’s call to the great royal city of Carbuncle. If only Moon’s cousin and pledged, Sparks Dawntreader Summer, would love her, or at least both of them…

One way or another, the Queen is determined to rule this planet forever. And the Queen always gets what she wants. The Snow Queen is classic hard sci-fi authored by Joan D. Vinge, originally published in 1980 and republished several times since. First of a series. Won Hugo Award for Best Novel (1981), Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1981), Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1981).

Thoughts :

Coming in at 536 pages, The Snow Queen is a monster of ambitious character- and worldbuilding, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. While the novel takes time to come into its own, its depth becomes clearer as the clues gradually unfold to reveal the full picture of The Snow Queen Cycle universe. Two of the main narrators—The Winter Queen and her young clone, Moon—have information unknown to the other, and the large cast of characters (including Moon’s lover Sparks and the police chief Jerusha) adds other pieces to the puzzle. With patience, I found myself quite taken with the universe.

Moon and Sparks are cousins, pledged in their Native sort of “marriage.” The young lovers have committed to spending their lives together, no matter what, and to Moon, this means they will both become sibyls of their Native goddess, the Lady of the sea. But to their joint dismay, only Moon is chosen, and Sparks leaves both her and their home for the royal city of Carbuncle, hurt and confused about his own future.

Sparks is not wholly Summer Native. Though he never knew his Offworlder father, he spent his childhood dissecting technology that other Summer Natives of Tiamat reject in favor of simple lifestyles. On Carbuncle, he quickly finds that his naiveté will make life difficult…until he draws the attention of the Winter Queen herself.

Meanwhile, Moon learns the art of the sibyl, connecting with the unearthly reservoir of knowledge that can perfectly answer any question (which she assumes is from her goddess, the Lady…). But when the Queen summons her to visit her cousin and lover, Sparks, on Carbuncle, she determines to make the trip.

Along the way, she is kidnapped and taken Offworld, an act that will banish her from ever returning to Tiamat—by law, and by physics. Soon, the season will change into Summer, when all technologically-savvy Winters will leave their colony and travel back to their homeworlds–and the stargate to Tiamat will close. And anyway, once “Offworld,” sibyls aren’t allowed to return to Tiamat, for reasons that not even the queen knows all about…So now Moon must stay on this colorful new planet of Kharemough, forever, or so say her kidnappers. But Moon won’t give up on Sparks that easily.

As Moon plans her return to Tiamat, the Winter Queen, who mirrors Moon with perfect physical precision, slowly poisons young Sparks with her power-hunger. Eventually, she corrupts him into breaking his pledge to Moon and hunting out the mer blood for her immortality. Reveling in her success, the queen hatches a plot to live forever with her newest consort.

I was able to settle in and get swept away by the vision of the book, although it did take some time for me to feel committed and interested in the plot and characters. Partially, this is due to Vinge’s slow pay out of answers to our many questions. We’re also following quite a large cast of characters, so the desire lines can be difficult to follow and slow to develop in urgency.

Unfortunately, the characters grew on me very slowly, although I loved the awesome police chief, Geia Jerusha. I wish we could have spent more time with her. However, almost every character does have complex, grey-scale morals and motives—even the strong, well-developed secondary characters—so even if it can be hard to like them, they are interesting to read about (and watch tumble into the dark depths of their ambition, muahahahaha!).

The writing itself has little feel or atmosphere, although it does reach literary heights in several places. I found it difficult to connect with, during a lot of the book.

But even with its slow-burn plot, difficult characters and remote writing, The Snow Queen is a hard sci-fi you can get lost in. I’ve been preoccupied by its exploration of colonialism, sexism, feminism, technology and religion in the days since I finishing it; I would certainly be interested in exploring more “Offworld” planets, whose politics and technology I found very interesting. I’m not in a hurry, at the moment, but perhaps in the future.

Overall :

Despite my difficulty in connecting emotionally with this book, The Snow Queen is hard sci-fi you can get lost in.

Recommended To :

The Snow Queen reminded me very much of Julian May‘s Pliocene Exile saga ( The Many-Colored Land ). They read similarly in many ways, although the latter moved slightly more quickly, with its killer premise. I would recommended The Snow Queen to hard sci-fi fans looking for a complex, grey-scale space opera.

****4/5 STARS


‘All of my life,’ she said, ‘I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender myself to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow that live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

Vasilisa Petrovna has “the sight.” All around her she sees creatures from Pre-Christian folklore, known as “chyerty” by the villagers and “demons” by the Catholic. But in medieval Catholic “Rus,” having the sight is a dangerous; so she hides her gift and seeks her own way in the world.

Her way does not include marriage. Every other girl may marry or go to a nunnery, but Vasya refuses, preferring to talk with her creature friends and ride horses in the wild woods around her village.

Everything changes when her father remarries to a Catholic stepmother. Vasys’s idyllic—if never easy—life in the woods shifts from difficult to miserable. The oppressive atmosphere over the village bodes ill for Vasya and her chyerty friends. She has no idea that the Winter king watches her, just as his brother, the devourer, watches. But she slowly begins to realize that her village may depend on the very gifts it scorns. The Bear and the Nightingale is Historical Fantasy/Russian Fairytale written by Katherine Arden and published January 10th 2017 by Del Rey.

Thoughts :

I actually requested The Bear and the Nightingale thinking it was adult fiction, but I quickly realized it could easily be considered crossover, with the way the whole narrative revolves around the young heroine. So it was with pleasure that I read about the two girls who see the “demons” and soon become family by marriage. I thought, “Oh, how good Anna will be for Vasya! They can talk about their visions. They can be friends; they’re not so far apart, and Vasya desperately needs a friend.”

Clearly I didn’t read the book description very thoroughly before starting the book! I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say nothing turned out like I hoped. Anna’s marriage into the family begins all the troubles for Vasya and her village. Why?

Because Anna is a fearful, superstitious Catholic. She assumes the harmless house creatures to be demons; and from then on out, the whole village slides into the clutches of the enemy: the one-eyed man, brother of the Winter King. He is,

Appetite…Madness. Terror. He wants to eat the world.”

He gains more and more power, thanks to the fear-mongering, misguided Catholics, whose belief system is entirely based on a misunderstanding of the reality of Pre-Christian Russian folklore. God, Satan and demons? They’re all just misunderstandings. So they misinterpret the the harmless domovoi as demons and the one-eyed man as both God and the devil, at different times, and they lead the village into danger.

‘You are the devil!’ whispered Konstantin, clenching his hands.

All the shadows laughed. ‘As you like. But what difference is there between me and the one you call God? I too revel in deeds done in my name. I can give you glory, if you will do my bidding.’”

Thankfully for the villagers, Vasya understands that fear feeds the one-eyed man and that the domovoi help protect the households against him. She heroically and sacrificially turns the other cheek as everyone gathers against “the witch,” saves the bumbling priests again and again (as they, of course, fall head over heels in love with her), and finally rides out to save the day.

I don’t want to make light of all the things I truly enjoyed about The Bear and the Nightingale, because the story reads beautifully, despite its problems. I loved Vasya, as a truly strong female protagonist, and I sympathized with her plight of making the village see reason. But we spend a lot of time in the head of a Catholic priest who is led astray by powers he misunderstands, to the folly of the entire village. We also spend a lot of time pitying Vasya’s situation as a woman, as she is forced to choose between either the marriage bed or the nunnery. Arden did Vasya a disservice by turning everyone against her, to the point that it felt overdone and melodramatic. When Vasya misses a certain funeral because she’s out slaying the village upyr, this is the response she gets:

Witch-woman. Like her mother.

[Highlight to view SPOILER: Dunya ] loved you like her daughter, Vasya,’ [her father] said, later. ‘Of all the days to play truant.’”

C’mon. She just spent 24 hours nursing this dying woman into her grave. This is just obnoxiously melodramatic, and it happens again and again throughout the book.

I dreaded posting this review, knowing that my opinions would be different from most of my friends; but I just have to say that good Fantasy authors know how to respect the mythology and beliefs they interact with. Jim Butcher and Max Gladstone come to mind- they don’t pick and choose winning and losing faiths, among the devout of their fantasy. There are good guys on every team. Katherine Arden didn’t get the memo on this. Her handling of medieval faith, while sensitive in the way of characterization, is drastically biased in many other ways. I’ll leave it at that.

With less emphasis on the human and religious drama and more on the fairy tale elements—which are, I suspect, why most of us pick up this book—I would have loved The Bear and the Nightingale enough to give it five stars.

This is obviously just my opinion, but I think this could have easily been children’s fiction to rival Elizabeth Enright’s. Which is…amazing! I loved reading about Vasya’s life in the woods and the fairy tale aspects from Russian folklore. Here, she’s breaking in a young horse, after a period of convalescence:

Vasya eyed the stallion’s tall bare back. She tried her limbs, and found them weak as water. The horse stood proudly and expectantly, a horse out of a fairy tale.

‘I think,’ said Vasya, ‘that I am going to need a stump.’

The pricked ears flattened. A stump.

‘A stump,’ said Vasya firmly. She made her way to a convenient one, where a tree had cracked and fallen away. The horse poked along behind. He seemed to be reconsidering his choice of rider.”

This is what people loved about The Bear and the Nightingale! The writing and atmosphere are truly, breathtakingly lovely, and the characters, though dark and often tiresome, are clearly imagined with care and love. But the books’s flaws are big enough that they did largely ruin the book for me.

Overall :

Gorgeously wrought fairy tale with a few major flaws. They won’t be fatal flaws for everyone, although they are for me.

Characters: 3/5 Stars
Worldbuilding: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 Stars
Writing: 5/5 Stars

***3/5 Stars

Recommended To :

A lot of readers enjoyed this story based on the historical detail, the strong characterizations and the perfect atmosphere. And no wonder! I suspect most readers won’t feel the way I do about it, so I say go ahead and try it. You’ll probably like it a lot better than I did. (Which is to say 3+ stars at least!)

Thanks so much to Katherine Arden, Del Rey and Netgalley for my review copy of The Bear and the Nightingale.


Premise :

Dresediel Lex had been built between desert and sea by settlers who neither expected nor imagined their dry land would one day support seventeen million people. Down the centuries, as the city grew, its gods used blessed rains to fill the gaps between water demand and supply. After the God Wars were won (or lost, depending on who you asked), the corporation took over for the fallen pantheon. Some of its employees laid pipe, some built dams, some worked at Bay Station maintaining the torturous Craft that stripped salt from ocean water.

Some, like Caleb, solved problems.”

And Caleb has a big problem to solve for his boss, the Red King. Someone has been attacking the Red King Consolidated corporation, and the King orders Caleb to investigate the matter. The list of potential vandals is long. Not everyone in Dresediel Lex is happy that corporations like RKC have taken over for the gods; Caleb’s own father, a priest who still believes in the old gods, is among them.

But when Caleb begins investigating the matter, he finds a mysterious, beautiful cliff-runner who calls herself “Mal” at the scene of the crime, and he’s immediately smitten.

As Caleb learns more about Mal, it becomes clear to him that the God Wars did not end sixty years ago. Adult Urban Fantasy, published October 29th 2013 by Tor Books.

The fast-paced, clever and morally grey-scale Craft Sequence books stand out, in my mind, for their explorations of complex controversies, such as religious vs. corporate control. This particular installment, which is set in the Aztec-like desert city of Dresediel Lex, explores hero-ethics and such startling topics as human sacrifice with thought-provoking subtlety. The varied cast has conflicting views on these issues.

First Impressions :

Listening to the audiobook, the startling imagery sucked me in immediately. I started to lose interest as the plot coalesced around the lust-story of Caleb and Mal, neither of whom I found as inherently interesting as the characters in book I, The Parts Dead; but around 35%, Caleb finally begins to find out more about Mal. She appears in his work meeting, representing a rival corporation, and water demons hail the signing of an agreement between her company and his. It was at this point that I began to take a real interest in the book.

The world held mysteries more worthy of their fear than human craft.”

What I Loved :

(1) The voice, as usual, kills. That was never in question. Dialogue, description, everything about the writing itself is fabulously inventive.

The meat arced toward the reservoir. Beneath, water bulged and reared—a wiggling, viscous column rippled with reflected stars.

The water opened its mouth. Thousands of long, curved fangs, stiletto-sharp, snapped shut upon the beef, piercing, slicing, grinding as they chewed.”

(2) I love the unique worldbuilding of Dresediel Lex and the magic system of “the craft,” which I described more in my review of book I. (3) I love the depth of the conflict that defines the God Wars. There’s no easy solution, and when Caleb and Mal finally acknowledge how deeply their own conflicts run, I was hooked. I love how Gladstone manages to be objective by juggling the very subjective perspectives of his characters. Objective subjectivity is already an art, but managing it in a short, Aztec-influenced, fast-paced urban fantasy full of witty banter is a recipe for, at the very least, a four star read.

My Two Complaints :

(1) As mentioned above, I found 10%-35% a really boring stretch, until I found out more about Mal. But that doesn’t have to hold you back—just know that things get more interesting when Mal’s secrets begin to surface. (2) It would be hard to create a character as lovable as Abelard, the chain-smoking priest of book I’s city of Alt Coulumb. Nevertheless, Gladstone spoiled me; the characters in Two Serpents Rise don’t appeal to me quite as much as the cast of Three Parts Dead.

Overall :

Still, this was a fantastic second installment to the Craft Sequence. I’m definitely going to read the next book, Full Fathom Five.

Recommendation :

Urban Fantasy lovers. As with book I, I recommend it to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

4.5/5 STARS


“Snow and ice, miles and miles of treacherous wilderness…Let’s be honest—it’s not the scenery that has every citizen in the Spire clamoring to see the Continent. It’s the war.”

Premise :

Vaela Sun is going to the Continent. Citizens of the Spire, a peaceful federation of nations, rarely get a chance to visit the mysterious Continent, but it is the focus of much curiosity and speculation, for it is home to a curious anachronism of the past: warfare. On the Continent, two “uncivilized” societies engage in bloody battle, and Spirians are drawn to witness the barbaric pageantry.

“Living in the Spire is like looking at the world from behind a veil—we don’t have a true sense of what things are like. Not really. I just want to see something real.”

Soon, Vaela and her parents set off on the tour and find themselves marveling both at the landscapes and the foreign spectacle of the savages at war. But Vaela is wholly unprepared for the tragedy that brings her face-to-face with the violence of genocide. YA Alternative History/F/SF. Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Harlequin TEEN.


No book is perfect, but this one comes pretty close to “genre perfect.” Crossover appeal will be limited by a few elements, but the book will find many eager readers among the YA, Alternative History and Fantasy crowds. I suspect fans of Veronica Rossi’s wonderful Under the Never Sky trilogy will love The Continent.

The universe quickly establishes itself as a sort of “alternative Victorian.” No magic, no monsters and no huge tech changes (except, perhaps, a heavier reliance on steam than on other sources of energy). There are two main changes: (1) the worldwide peace treaties that boast 300 years of success (excluding the Continent, of course) and (2) the general land formations and their ethnic distributions.

What I Liked :

(1) The storyline is perfectly set up and paced. Literally, by 5%, Vaela is climbing on board a “heli-plane” for her tour, and before long, she’s mapping the Continent from aerial views, feeling horribly transfixed by the violence and tramping around on the actual terrain.

During this period of further setup, readers spend a lot of time with Vaela’s very Victorian sensibilities and her rapturously loving and proud parents, and nothing terribly exciting happens. This will irritate some readers; but I was never bored, even during quiet periods of setup and recovery, because I knew Vaela’s happy, naïve existence would not last. Drake foreshadows the tragedy in store for this rich Victorian heiress, so I knew her happiness was temporary.

And when the tragedy comes, at exactly 20%, it’s just as shocking as if I hadn’t been expecting it. Certain details enliven the setup and the twist and make it far more engrossing than it would have otherwise been. [Highlight to read spoiler: I was so shocked when Aaden took the escape pod!!!!!!] It begins to highlight the theme of the work—that savagery and nobility can be found in any society.

(2) I was engrossed in Vaela’s point of view and character arc, as she matured and interacted with other characters throughout the book; I love how she overcomes the Victorian attitude that exertion is unladylike. She becomes a much more confident, capable woman.

“’You would stay Noro’s hand in defense of a man who knowingly slanders your honor?’ ‘Oh, honestly, you Aven’ei!’ I say. ‘My honor is intact, whether Shoshi slanders it or not. I don’t need his good opinion to know myself.’”

(3) It surprised me to find that the warring tribes of the Continent were of an Asian-like culture, and I enjoyed the Asian-flavored details, like the dance of manners and the languages.

You May Not Like This Book If… :

Readers of fantasy and historical fiction might find a moving read in The Continent, depending on what they’re looking for. The main reason I say “crossover appeal will be limited” has to do with the 300 years of world peace. How did it happen? The Continent never really explains the history of the treaty. The book gives most of its attention to the characters and their reactions to seeing, experiencing and coping with violence for the first time, instead of developing the worldbuilding history. As with many novels, good writing can help suspend disbelief, and I was hooked once the story took off toward the Continent; but some readers will not be satisfied with this.

In addition, readers who require complicated, well-detailed milieus may be disappointed, as the book focuses much more on humanity than on how the world itself works. For example, the solution to the war, in this book, makes war seem overly simple. Also, the world displays an utter lack of religious development. Nobody swears or prays or does anything remotely religious (or irreligious), during the whole book, even before going to war and even though Asian cultures often have strong religious components; it’s as if the book is sanitized from anything controversial. Perhaps the insinuation is that religion has been eradicated right along with war; but in that case, at least one of the warring tribes would be religious, wouldn’t it?

Finally, I would not recommend this book to readers who value a tactically complex plot or riveting action over emotionally complex work. They might find this book rather boring. There are few battle scenes and no quick-thinking, clever plot fixes.

Recommendations :

If you like YA, READ THIS BOOK. I recommend it, in fact, to anyone who enjoys emotional complexity, even at the expense of plot complexity. Vaela is a fabulous heroine finding her way in a world that has suddenly thrown her the king of curveballs. I love every word of her journey and I can’t wait to try the audio version!

4.5/5 STARS

Thanks you so, so much to Keira Drake, Harlequin TEEN & Netgalley for my review copy of The Continent.


Update 11/12/2016- On the recent controversy criticizing this book as “racist”: My original thoughts still stand. Portraying racism does not make a book racist (see Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Earnest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying), especially when the point of the book is about overcoming cultural assumptions and superiority. Young people need books that help them understand racism; shielding them from racist thought does absolutely no good.

The Continent is no Huckleberry Finn, but I think it’s an important pop culture read for teen girls. The heroine’s inner journey repudiates the racism portrayed earlier in the book. Please consider reading the book before you make judgments about the content.

Update 11/16/16- For those who are saying the “white savior” trope makes this book racist, I don’t buy it. If Vaela were any color but white, no one would be complaining about her saving the world. I’m all for multicultural heroines, but that includes white heroines as well.

My personal reviewing policy is to give credit where credit is due and to be honest about a book’s weaknesses. Therefore: This book uses the “teen girl saves the world” trope, which is among the most common in YA; that is part of why I took away a half star–it’s unoriginal and unrealistic. It makes the war plot seem overly simplistic. But that’s a relatively small fault for a beautiful character-driven allegory.

The reviewer outcry against this book frustrates me. Many reviewers just seem to be shaming this author because it’s popular and easy to do.

*Update 5/11/17: Thanks to clearer heads and the rise of more coherent, helpful discussion from authors and others, I finally understand why the original ARC of The Continent frustrated readers:

In The Continent, two cultures are at war with each other for reasons of genocide or material gain. (Wars have been fought on these bases, of course, but it’s certainly unflattering for the cultures described in The Continent.) Although this is a fantasy book world with allegedly fantastic races of humanity, these two warring civilizations closely resemble colonial Native American and medieval Japanese cultures in certain descriptions. The other main culture in the book (there are lots of cultures, but only three are directly involved in this novel’s plot) is a white Victorian England-ish culture, and it has somehow inexplicably made peace with all other nations except these two warring nations, who refuse to participate in the alliance with the other multi-colored nations.

Put as such, I can see why readers may feel the the skin color distribution unintentionally implies white racial superiority. I’m grateful to those who took pains to explain this carefully, instead of jumping on the bully-train and muddying the waters without actually bothering to understand the issue.

I personally still think the outrage is over-the-top because the author is clearly not a racist, but we’re all allowed our opinions.


If everyone’s IQ was suddenly quintupled, how would our values and behaviors change? Poul Anderson’s slim novel, Brainwave, poses this question by sending the earth spinning into a new region of space that allows for uninhibited intellectual advancement. 1953. Included in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction vol II, ed by Anthony Boucher.

What I Liked: I picked up this anthology from a library booksale for $1 and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed Brainwave. It follows several characters of varying mental capacity and shows the effects of their skyrocketing IQs on their individual spirits and souls. As it explores these individual impacts, it also imagines how the country—and other countries—as whole cultures are affected. One of the especially fun (and frightening) aspects of the novel is how the increased intelligence affects animals and their relations with humans. (Let me tell you, pigs are not happy about their destinies.) Some reviewers complained that they would have liked the story to be longer (so that it could more fully explore the worldbuilding), but I actually liked the length—short and sweet! It covers everything of interest to me, although I, like others, might have enjoyed seeing how the “brain wave” affected countries beyond our borders.

The ideas are all much more scientific than my review is making them sound, but I was far more interested in the psychological effects, so that’s what I’m focusing my review on.

What I Didn’t Like: One aspect dampened my enjoyment: The hero patronizes his lover, a brilliant female scientist named Helga, and she just accepts his disrespect. She’s just an afterthought, a tool to serve the main guy’s needs, and she doesn’t seem to mind. The hero is really pining after his sweet, beautiful, docile and stupid wife Sheila; but she, unlike his brilliant female scientist lover Helga, can’t handle the increased brain capacity. So he chooses Helga as next-best girl.

The author wasn’t saying, “Look at this poor pitiable woman. Even though she’s a brilliant female scientist, she doesn’t have the self-respect to demand better treatment from her potential lover.” No, the author seems to hold this up as ideal—look how sweet and patient she is with the tortured hero! That makes her a heroine, in spite of her general lack of Sheila’s beauty and naiveté.

No, thank you. I don’t align myself with the feminist movement, but this irritates me. (It irritates me equally when female authors treat male characters with similar disregard.) From what I hear, this is a common problem with early sci-fi—the women characters are, to put it nicely, cardboard.

However, the author does develop the first wife, Sheila, quite substantially and considerately and even gives her a complete character arc. His careful portrayal of the brain wave’s effects on Sheila’s delicate makeup—in conjunction with the intricately-imagined developments of animals and often-overlooked populations such as the mentally handicapped—by far make up for the indignity of the female scientist’s treatment. Helga was a minor character and her story didn’t often come up in the scheme of the book, so I didn’t have to fume over her all that often.

Overall: Other than the one complaint, I LOVED this story. I loved the idea, I loved the worldbuilding, and I loved the characters (mostly) and their individual adventures. I can see why the story was included in the treasury of great sci-fi. Great stuff.

Recommendation: I think anyone who wants an intro to sci-fi would enjoy this one. It has that certain bracing optimism that I love about speculative fiction. I think the character-development will generally please character-driven readers like me.



About: A new generation of pioneers seeks sanctuary from our dying earth in a mission to a new planet. Only the patient, whole-minded Quakers have worked out the challenges to turn these theoretical missions into a reality. This literary hard sci-fi follows the takeoff, the problems encountered during the mission and the effects of those challenges on the very human community that rises to meet them. Published 1998, Adult Sci-fi. Awards: 1998 Oregon Book Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist). A NYTimes Notable Book.

The Short of It: This book will appeal to a certain kind of reader, certainly, because of its carefully crafted tech details, people and atmosphere. I care about two of the three (people and atmosphere), so I liked it. The complaint I hear most often (and agree with) is that the plot moves very slowly.

What I Loved: (1) The setting and descriptions work with other elements to create pitch-perfect tone in this novel of “the new frontier.” It’s beautiful and bleak, a real gem. (2) Molly Gloss slows down each moment so you can understand the psychology of each moment, sensation and act of humanity—grief, adultery, lust, fear, etc.—and you grow to care for these flawed people because you see yourself in them. (3) I also loved the cultural vision and authentic feeling of the Quaker meetings, both the personal and collective experiences of them. They feel very genuine, neither sentimental nor unfeeling. Having attended small religious meetings all my life, I was tickled to recognize the characters in the Quaker meetings: the elder, the blah-blah-er, the gossip, the elderly, etc.

What I Didn’t Love: (1) A few things didn’t ring quite true—such as when a God-fearing person refers to humans as animals. Maybe futuristic Quakers will accept a completely naturalistic explanation of life, in which humans are considered animals; but I doubt that this will ever be a majority opinion among spiritual communities (although I have very little familiarity with Quaker theology). I think the reverence for our humanity, the thing that separates us from animals, is too great for that sort of casual comment. It sounds like agnosticism trying to mask itself as theology.

But those moments are comparatively rare. Gloss got the important thing right, namely that for all the truthful, searing human folly present in every character, there is also a certain peace about the community that rings just as true.

(2) The plot is a bit of a snore, although the tension in the writing still kept me reading. The structure and purpose of the book were better formed than they are in your typical character or plot driven novels. This novel was more “idea-driven,” or, as Orson Scott Card might have put it in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, “milieu-driven.” The wandering plot feels designed to mirror the wandering quality of a Quaker’s movements in the spiritual realm—waiting for the spirit to speak through them to the community at large. Waiting. Listening. Then, perhaps, speaking.

Other Comments: There is some very technical jargon about the ship and the theories of survival. I don’t really understand or care about those, but I thought I’d mention them in case they matter to someone else.

Recommendation: For adults who love thoughtful, literary sci-fi and for readers wanting an intro to hard-sci-fi (because the book is rather short).

***3 stars for character, atmosphere and cohesive vision.

Favorite Quote: “When people are feeling the weight of their own lives, they want to see the life other animals are given, and there is something mysterious and revealing about the discarded machinery of birds’ lives. In abandoned flakes of eggshell, emptied seed cases, the hollow stems of cottongrass, in the delicate attenuated backbones of fish and the teeth of desiccated crustaceans, you can sometimes glimpse the bare and intricate structures of God” (239).

AtlasShrugged atlasshrugged4

Adult Fiction; Dystopian (Sociological Sci-Fi); Published 1957

Premise: The world is falling apart around Dagny Taggert and Hank Reardon as they struggle to save their beloved industries from their strangely powerful, pervasive enemies. But who, exactly, is their enemy?

About: Part of what makes this book so interesting is that it’s part novel, part philosophical treatise. I really enjoyed the novel and learning about Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. While I don’t agree with the moral part of her philosophy, I agree with a lot of the economic part. However, I can’t say that even the economic portion was quite thorough enough or correct enough to say, “Yes, I approve.” I hear that her non-fiction work is more thoroughly developed, as far as philosophy and theory, although I haven’t read any of it for myself, yet.

BEFORE YOU READ ON: I generally try to avoid spoilers, in my reviews; but this review is going to contain a lot of spoilers about Ayn Rand’s political position and the point she makes in Atlas Shrugged because it’s pretty much impossible to critique these things separately from the book. (It is a VERY political, VERY polarizing book.) I really hope that if you’re considering reading this book, you’ll skip the “What I Liked” and “What I Didn’t Like” sections until you have read the book for yourself. Discovering Rand’s perspective was a huge part of the fun—for me, at least. Do please, however, skip down and read my “Overall” and “Audiobook” sections of the review, if you’re interested.


What I Liked: (1) This novel kept me up at night. It’s a study in slow-burn tension. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (2) It introduced me to libertarian thought, something I was almost completely unfamiliar with. (3) It breaks down the idea of economic centralization and shows, with examples, why it might harm an economy, if implemented as irresponsibly as the Jim Taggarts of the narrative did. It also strongly conveys the conservative argument that socialism takes incentive away from businessmen, inventors, workers, etc. (4) It interested me in politics by giving me a new perspective on the confusion that is contemporary American politics. I didn’t know where to begin, before reading this book, so I have to thank it for helping me forward. (5) It provides a very pro-American viewpoint that is lacking in the public schools I attended. I had absorbed a very negative view of America by the time I went through public high school and my first two years of college. But this book—among other things—showed me that things aren’t as black and white as my teachers (or other people in my life who would disagree with my public school teachers) would have me believe. (6) The book is just so…triumphant. A lot of the book feels like the best moments in other books, when your hero kicks the antagonist’s booty. Oh, here’s a slightly spoilery Catching Fire example: when Peeta drops the baby bomb on live television, and the capitol citizens end up calling for a halt to that year’s unpopular hunger games. At that moment, you’re just like, HAH TAKE THAT, PRESIDENT SNOW! GO PEETA!! That’s what reading Atlas Shrugged felt like, to me. There are so many great moments, particularly from Dagny and Hank.

What I Didn’t Like:

(1) Its portrayal of socialists is flawed. It simply is. I don’t believe all socialists are like Jim Taggart. I think a lot of self-described socialists honestly believe that economic centralization is the answer to world poverty. That doesn’t make them evil, bloodsucking moochers. It means they are compassionate people who, I believe, rely too heavily on the government for social salvation. In fact (just to throw in one ideological disagreement I have with this novel’s message), I like some “socialist” practices and policies because I think (a) the policies can work to benefit the poor, if done right, and (b) that individuals do have some obligation to the community. To give one small example: free lunch for underprivileged school kids. I would vote for that, in my community, as long as the policies made sense. Why? Because, using my brain and heart to think this through, I decided that these kids are doing their part by going to school and it will only help the community to have them being properly fed, if they aren’t getting the right nutrition at home. I wouldn’t vote for laws about this on a federal scale because I think the specifics of the policies should be kept local–the local communities know what their kids need better than the federal government does. It’s simply of matter of “Which way does it work better?” But I don’t think that’s a bad tax on our community’s hard workers, as long as the majority of voters approve. (And yes, I realize that unions and other organizations passed important standard-of-living controls on corporations.) So basically, my complaint is that Rand does not honestly portray the protests of her opposition, in this book. Either that, or she just didn’t understand her opposition. I would have to read her nonfiction to know whether or not she understands the heart of socialist thought.

(2) And, for another ideological disagreement with the novel: Unlike Rand’s heroes, I don’t think that all taxes should be abolished. I believe the government needs some taxes to keep running and doing its primary job of protecting us from our enemies and ourselves. I don’t think a completely free market would provide safe service in every realm (such as law enforcement. I don’t see how law enforcement could safely and successfully be privatized, although I admit I’m new to libertarian thought and haven’t read all of their ideas on the subject). (3) Another thing: making money is not the highest virtue. Sorry. Frugality and hard work certainly are virtues, but making money is not the highest of callings. I truly believe that some Americans—e.g. wounded veterans, physically and mentally disabled, and many mothers, who work more often than not on unofficial “jobs” like keeping house, keeping children and keeping sane–cannot and/or should not have to be monetarily self-sufficient, as Rand seemed to believe. (4) The marriages. Marriage, in this book, is a horror zone. That’s not surprising, considering Rand’s ridiculous string of affairs, but I’ll leave it at that 😉 (5) ALL HUMANITY MUST WORSHIP THE HEROES OF INDUSTRY OR THEY SHOULD JUST DIE (nope, sorry).


Overall: Fabulous novel with some flawed philosophies and portrayals. Despite my qualms with it, it’s been a long time since I loved a book this much.

Audiobook: Scott Brick is freaking fantastic. Great narrator. Loved the audiobook.



Characterizing Quotes:

“I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money” (a hero of the book, 96).

“No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy” (798).

“Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness—not pain or mindless self-indulgence—is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and result of the loyalty to the achievement of your values” (1059).

“If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, of his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment of your help. But to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the grounds of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need as a claim—is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values” (1060).

Genre: Dystopian near-future Sci-Fi. Published: 1949.

Premise: In the wake of a full scale atomic war that followed WWII, “The” political party, IngSoc (which stands for “English Socialism”) has taken over Oceana. But Winston, an outer party member living in London, knows to his bones that everything is wrong. Can life always have been so unbearable? The constant propaganda, the shameless “rewriting” of the past, the continuous war and concomitant rationing? He also knows something else: that he hates Big Brother. And this means he is just walking dead—because Big Brother always finds the thought-criminals.

In A Nutshell: Taut; a smart political (and philosophical) thriller; a warning for the ages; still relevant today. I began reading this book because I was studying socialism, and the premise seemed fairly anti-socialist. (I didn’t know Orwell’s political stance, before reading.) I had originally read the book in high school, but the political implications largely escaped me, as I was mostly concerned with Winston’s arc at that time. This time, I raced through the pages to find out what had gone wrong with IngSoc, and what Orwell proposed as the solution. But Orwell ended up sharing a very different conclusion than what I first expected: [highlight to view spoiler: that IngSoc is not socialism at all; that true, democratic socialism, unlike its corrupted strains (aka Communism and Fascism), could actually save humanity. He didn’t exactly explain how, but he said that with all the technological advancement, democratic socialism could eradicate the problems of inequality and poverty. The leaders of Ingsoc parade as socialists, but they are, instead, power-hungry life haters. (Their motivations are more than a little mysterious, to me; but I’ll go into that later.) So instead of improving everyone’s conditions, Ingsoc brings everyone to the same level of near-poverty, so they’re all “equal.” But, Orwell proposes, it doesn’t have to be like that. Socialism can save the world (END spoiler)]. I disagree with this conclusion, but that’s beside the point. He did a marvelous job teasing me along until I was practically begging for his thesis.

What I Liked: (1) Exactly what I just said- that I couldn’t put this book down until I knew what Orwell was trying to tell me. Although some have complained that the book is too much like a political essay, I completely disagree. I was very interested in the stories of Winston and Julia. (2) I like how he points out, through concepts such as “doublethink,” that totalitarian/fascist/communist countries are not the only countries that need to worry about Big Brother. If America and the UK are not careful, we could easily slip into the dumb herd mentality which facilitates the rise of a totalitarian leader. One of Orwell’s biggest messages is that we must never censor thought or speech, even if we disagree with one another. We must not be afraid to share divergent opinions, lest we become like the hapless characters controlled by IngSoc. (3) I also like that Orwell assumes the existence of a human nature, in opposition to some relativist thought.

What I Disliked: (1) That he assumes humanism is the only way to fight against doublethink, automaton-like behavior and evil itself.

“‘There is something in the universe, I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.’ ‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’ ‘No.’ “Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’ ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man’” (222). “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable” (222).

If humanism were our only defense, our outlook would be every bit as grim as Orwell portrays. So, in that sense, I compliment his realism. The human heart, alone, can certainly be overcome by these powers. But I don’t think humanism is our only, or best, defense. (2) In the end, the true ideology of IngSoc seemed unrealistic, to me. It felt just slightly “off,” like the antagonist’s ideology in Atlas Shrugged. Like, “I’m sorry, but nobody believes that.” (I must add that the anatagonist’s motivations in Atlas Shrugged seemed much more realistic, to me, than the motivations of IngSoc in 1984. I couldn’t quite penetrate the mysterious motivations of Ingsoc. They kept slipping through my mind like sand.)

Recommendation: Despite (and, really, because of) its grimness, I would recommend this book to anybody ready for a really creepy Dystopia. It was a little over my head at seventeen, but now, at twenty-three, I’m very grateful for Orwell’s brilliant, mindful work. As Erich Fromm put it, in the afterword, it presents a “mood” prevalent during the aftermath of WWII and amidst the growing fears about nuclear war with Russia. It’s a priceless peek into the mind of a mid-twentieth-century secular humanist and democratic socialist on the growing problems facing humanity in the nuclear age.

****4/5 STARS

[Highlight to view spoiler: The book quotes about the human spirit (quoted in the “What I Disliked” section) became very intriguing, to me, after I read 1984’s afterward by Erich Fromm. Orwell and Fromm were both democratic socialists and secular humanists. While Orwell clearly warns against the communist and fascist tendencies toward thought-control, Fromm points out that concepts such as “doublethink” should come as a warning to Western “free” nations, as well. Weak minds, lacking the ability to think critically, can easily succumb to power such as is wielded by IngSoc. Fromm seems to interpret the book as Orwell’s fears that new, modern generations of “automatons” could lead the free West into just such horrible states as are found in 1984. Fromm also says that greedy capitalism is the cause behind this problem, and that very well might be a part of Orwell’s message. (I don’t recall seeing any textual support for that; but since Orwell was a democratic socialist, I suppose he may have felt that way. I just don’t know for sure because I haven’t read enough of Orwell’s other writings.) At any rate, Orwell clearly agrees with Fromm in the opinion that whatever the cause of this frighteningly “automaton” like malady of the young generations, humanism is the cure. (Winston says as much in the quotes above.) Humanistic values such as courage and love could help the new generations avoid the pitfalls of Oceana, Eurasia and Eastasia.

I recently read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis discusses the very same observations about humanity; but he attributes the symptoms to a different disease with a slightly more complicated, if similar, cure. First of all, capitalistic greed isn’t the problem: a complete disregard for religious thought is the issue. (His “religious thought” refers to early religious texts dating from the Bible backwards, including Eastern and other ancient texts, such as Hammurabi’s Code.) Youngsters are being taught, in school, that virtue is a fairytale. How can we expect the results to be anything but awful? Lewis’s solution is similar to the humanistic one, because it also advocates a return to the virtues that distinguish man from animal. But his solution is different in that he points not to humanism, but to religious thought as the remedy. Lewis contends that religion is the only true source for the values Orwell attributes to human nature. I just thought I would share that as an interesting counterpoint to the grim Orwellian perspective. Lewis was just as fearful of the consequences of a generation of spineless, virtue-less automatons; and both Lewis and Orwell find hope in the power of virtue; but Lewis points to a source beyond simple humanity. Click here for my review of The Abolition of Man. (END spoiler)]