Tuesday, February 21, 2012

[Lisa’s Take] Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I don’t remember how I originally got a hold of a copy of Ender’s Game, but I do remember that it came into my possession when I was 13, in eighth grade. I read most of it during stolen moments on a team-building retreat for school, and I finished it on the bus-ride back to civilization after a few days in the woods.

It was the first book that I finished, turned over, and immediately restarted.

After my second read-through, I think I managed to go about a month Ender-free. Then I read it again. The cycle repeated over the next 5 years; I read that book 13 times between 8th grade and my freshman year of college. When Ender’s Shadow came out, I read Shadow and then sat the two books side by side and read them in tandem to see how the pieces fit together. At some point I tried to read the other sequels but never got into them; I just kept reading Ender’s Game over and over.

Being busy with class finally broke off my frequent re-reads, and then suddenly it was 10 years later. Saturday night I sat in my living room chatting with friends and out of the blue it came to me that I hadn’t read Ender’s Game in a full ten years.

Sunday morning I got up and immediately pulled my favorite old copy off the shelf. It is easily my most-loved book; the edges of the pages are soft as velvet, and the corners are completely worn away (making each page look like paper out of Battlestar Galactica). I curled up with coffee and brunch, and I didn’t look up until 2 hours later. As always, I made it to page 120 (Locke and Demosthenes) before I was jolted out of my reverie; that chapter has always broken up the flow of the narrative for me. I think on my first read-through it took me longer to get through that one chapter than it did the rest of the book combined. I picked the book back up Monday morning and finished the remaining 200-odd pages on the plane to Baton Rouge.

This is hardly a real review – surely the fact that I’ve read Ender’s Game 14 times, and the fact that it is one of the most renowned pieces of science fiction out there should stand as reason enough that I think it’s fantastic and worth reading. I did, however, want to get some thoughts about it written down now that I’ve read it with an adult perspective.

First and foremost – in 15 years, I have never before taken the time to read the introduction to Ender’s Game. I wasn’t interested the first time I read the book, and then every subsequent re-read I was too eager to get into the story to stop and read the introduction. This time I read it and was pretty entertained – I had no idea that Card was so inspired by Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. He comes across as a bit arrogant at times, but it was an intriguing glimpse into his mind and motives.

My second observation was how much more I was engaged by the adult-exchanges at the beginning of each chapter (between Graff, Anderson, and whomever else). When I was a kid the exchanges just seemed sinister; as an adult I found humor (and sometimes wistfulness) that I had never detected before. I was also much more attuned to Graff’s state of mind throughout the book – I had never before noticed his weigh/stress issues and never really understood the legal repercussions of his actions.

The last big difference between this read-through and when I was younger was how much more I questioned the skills, intelligence, and capability of the children in the book. When I was 13 I was very nearly of an age with them, so it did not seem at all out of the ordinary that they spoke and acted like adults (as I perceived myself to do at that age). The mindset stuck with me through all my subsequent re-reads. This time, looking on it with a critical eye, I found myself more doubtful and skeptical as I compared them to children in my life – my 6-year-old twin sisters, or JD’s 8-year-old nephew. In some ways I still found the childrens’ depictions realistic; especially their energy and sponge-like minds, and also their cruelty. But every time I tried to frame their focus and intellect in line with “would my very precocious sister ever manage that?” I found myself answering no. It was interesting what a difference 15 years can make in my mindset.

If you read and loved Ender’s Game as a kid, I definitely recommend giving it another read as an adult. Of course if you have never read it – shame on you; you need to remedy that right this minute.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

[JD's Take] Under Heaven (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Every time I read a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, I become more solidly convinced that he is perhaps the most talented living author of fantasy that I have had the pleasure of reading. It is true, that I have in no way read the entirety of his oeuvre, and it is also likely that I have been cherry-picking his best works as I work my way through it. But the rest of the books are going to have to really suck to outweigh the brilliance of Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven.

Like his other works, Under Heaven takes place in a fictionalized version of a historical setting. This one is much more thinly disguised than the others I've read; it is impossible to mistake this setting for anything other than historical China (specifically, the Tang dynasty). In fact, I'd say that it's the least fantastic and most historically linked of his books that I've read. The story follows a man named Shen who... ah, I hate summarizing books when I review them, and I feel like any attempt would fall short. So I'm deleting what I had and skipping that part.

The book sparkles with Kay's usual adept characterizations and clever integration of fantastic elements with historical lands, customs, and cultures. The writing is generously sprinkled with poetry, and that helps lend the whole thing a sort of... thoughtful atmosphere. I became wholly absorbed with this book in a way that I haven't had happen in a very, very long time. I read all 600 pages of it over a single weekend (an unheard of feat for me) and was genuinely sad when I had to turn that last page. This was one of those books that had me reading the author's notes at the end just because I was loath to admit the story was over.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the story was the focus of it. Shen becomes involved with politics at the highest level, and tremendous, society-shaking events begin to happen around him. Despite the eventually revolution, the start of a decade-long war, and a fundamental shift in the country's society that happen during the book... they are never the focus of the story. This is the story of a man with a burden unasked for, a story about dealing with family and lovers and danger and your own smallness. It is not a story about war and revolution and blood and sacked cities and high politics, those are simply things that happen in the background of this one man's struggle and when that struggle finally ends... so too does the story. Long before the end of the war, without telling us much (if anything) about the large-scale events that we saw start. There are hints though, intriguing morsels narrated to let us know that his story isn't over... but THIS story is. It's a hard trick to pull off (and a hard effect to describe! Read it yourself and see what you think) but it is done masterfully here.

In short, this book is brilliant. I have nothing bad to say about it... at least not now, several weeks after putting it down. Instead, I find myself missing it like an old friend that I haven't talked to in too long.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

[Lisa’s Take] The Void Trilogy (Peter F. Hamilton)

I kick-started my book list for 2012 by shotgunning all three books in Peter F. Hamilton’s Void Trilogy: The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void, and The Evolutionary Void. This netted me a whopping 1973 pages in a little over 3 weeks. I’m pretty sure the last time I consumed that many pages from a single series back-to-back-to-back was either when I first got my hands on George R. R. Martin at Christmas 2003, or maybe the Kusheline Trilogy in 2006. Either way, it’s been a damn long time since I was compelled to read so much so quickly.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of literature that can be classified as “massively multi-genre.” Tad Williams and China Mieville are high of my list of favorite authors due to their ability to produce works that break out of the typical genre stereotypes. When I picked up The Dreaming Void, I was expecting good old-fashioned hard sci-fi, softened up with a bit of decent character development – you know, pretty much what I had come to expect when I read Hamilton’s Pandora Star and Judas Unchained.

My expectations were met for about a hundred pages. I was enjoying the story and the characters, and I was tickled pink to see a lot of familiar faces from his previous duology. I was finding the technology a little less accessible that that of Pandora’s Star; the story is sufficiently far in the future that technology has progressed to the point of “sufficiently advanced as to seem like magic.”

Then all of the sudden I started a new chapter and the book went from hard sci-fi to medieval fantasy.

I was… baffled, to say the least, but I greedily enjoyed the change of pace, expecting it to be a one-off occurrence. It wasn’t. With increasing frequency you start to get glimpses into the fantasy-esque world inside the void, and see how that ties in with the sci-fi world outside. I loved the juxtaposition, and honestly felt myself more attached to most of the void characters than anyone outside. At the end of the second book I was literally choking and crying on the plane. I’ve never read a sci-fi classified book that moved me so much.

I can’t recommend these books enough for fans of either sci-fi or fantasy. If you’ve never dabbled in sci-fi as a genre this might be an ambitious start, but anyone who enjoys the genre (or wants to be convinced that the genre can be enjoyable) would be well served by picking up the Void Trilogy. My books for the rest of the year are going to be hard-pressed to live up to such an excellent start.