12 November 2014

Something New: A Review of The Best Of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord

I read something new, something that I have yet to discover in science fiction, something that has left me befuddled. Never quite smitten with the labels which books are slotted into, even finding the nuances of genres somewhat intrusive, even arrogant, I try to minimize my review descriptors.  Who am I to proclaim something speculative, historical, militant, dystopian? The Best of All Possible Worlds does not quite fit into any science fiction type albeit being very sci-fi. How should I approach this review when so many words inaccurately describe it's uniqueness?

Karen Lord's second novel is difficult. A love story, encased within a tragic space operatic genocide staged all upon the homestead planet of Cygnus Beta. The book is reminiscent to an anthology, almost a therapeutical diary of one women's journey to love but at the very same time something much more. It dances upon the very idea of what a science fiction book should be. 

I can only speculate that having written your first book to high-acclaim, an author might struggle with their second novel, despairing somewhat in doubt and fear that all that was said about the first is a merely a one-hit-wonder. So could be the case with Redemption in Indigo, a raving success for this new author. And while I have not read Karen Lord's first book, nor in any way sure that she had such doubts, I feel it is unsuitable to compare the first book to her second, especially since it appears that the second is so very sci-fi and the first so very fantasy. 

I realize I am being vague but there is a subtle art to reviewing without divulging too much and jumping into the spoilers lake of doom. Reviews that are primarily plot synopses provide little pleasure and indeed, have me moving on not bothering to discover the opinion of the reviewer. Reviews that are plot-centric are for the eighth grade. And while I am thankfully, no longer locked in the despair of teenage junior drama, a little revelation is the perfect persuasive tool. I want you to not only read The Best of All Possible Worlds but draw conclusions, contribute to the debate and discover why I find it a frustratingly fascinating SF novel.

As mentioned, the drama plays out on the world of Cygnus Beta, an immigrant world, open to all looking for a planet to call home. The protagonist, Grace Delarue, is an assistant biotechnician assigned to work with a team of Sadiri, commissioned over a span of year to genetically trace their roots. The novel opens to the near genocide of the Sadiri and the complete destruction of their home planet. The Sadiri, a race of intellectuals who having mastered their psi abilities and manipulability of time and space are portrayed as the the altruistic political leaders of humanity. With the Sadiri reduced to mere 100s, their status in the universe is questioned with they themselves trying to maintain not just their cultural identity, but their very survival. Finding suitable partners to continue the species becomes an all important mission with Cygnus Beta being a mecca for ta'Sadiri, the genetically and hopefully sociologically compatible future mates who immigrated decades, even centuries in the past to this very planet.

There is a claim the novel is nothing more than a love story amongst bureaucrats. The Best of All Possible Worlds is far from that, delving into deep issues of immigration, of war, and of survival. Because the viewpoint is through the first-person narrative, it can appear simplified. This is not a fast-paced space drama. The story begins with the annihilation of a planet. Instead of concentrating on the sensationalism of that dramatic event, the story is the minutiae of daily life. I find this extremely interesting while tedious to read. I grew weary of Grace's world-view, wanting to pull away from her mundanity, wanting to explore the larger political theatre that was purposely veiled.  

Science Fiction loves the large scope. Maybe it takes a new author on the scene to shock us out of what is expected from a sci-fi novel, someone who reminds us what it really means to read science fiction. I want a book that will push the parameters of the genre, testing and questioning how I perceive humanity. The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a complete success, parts left me waning but it is worth your read. You wouldn't want to miss the next big thing would you? 

3 November 2014

Sixes and Sevens: A Review of The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

Upon occasion I dabble in the odd mystery or ten. The random sprinkling of murder insulates me from sci-fi burn-out from which I experienced only a few years back. Indeed, the first year of Thank the Maker was one of over-extension, reading far too much SF for the sole purpose of having on-hand a pool of resources for review purposes.  Not surprisingly, I experienced an epic mental explosion resulting in a three month reading black-out. Eventually I nursed  myself back to health with heavy dosages of good ole' Agatha's and PD James plot twisters. 

This past month has been quite epic simply for the amount of books I managed to get through. Because my library-only policy is still in effect I am completely dependent on what books are in. Gleefully this October saw all my holds arriving at the same time, resulting in a towering stack to work through. And so having learned from my past, I ensured that midway I had something a lot less 'spacey' and a lot more 'detectively' to pull my attention from my tower of SF power.  Really more for research, I put on hold the much discussed new Hercule Poirot mystery even though I have never been a fan of authors reviving a series or much-loved character once the author has died.  With my skepticism firmly in my pocket I read The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah.  Because this blog is mine, I am going to break my self-enforced SF rules kinda like I did here and here, and finally here  to review the art of murder. 

Years ago I realized that while I spent most of my teens reading Agatha Christie books I really had not explored her books beyond Hercule Poirot. With this awesome mission I started to collect omnibuses conveniently published by decade. Agatha Christie had a wonderfully long writing career that spanned over six decades. Christie beyond being a brilliant story-teller, created entertaining suspenseful adventures soaked in atmosphere indicative of the times. Her books are time capsules; archeologically preserved nuances of how people spoke and maintained a sense of self from the 20s up into the 1970's.

For the record, The Monogram Murders is not an Agatha Christie novel, it is Sophie Hannah's and therefore is doomed from inception.   While I give Hannah some credit for convincing the Christie estate for the rights to use Hercule Poirot, this should not be considered part of the official cannon. It rather irks me that Agatha Christie is more prominently displayed on the jacket cover, giving a very distinct impression that we are to assume that it should be classified as a novel by Dame Christie herself or at least sanctioned by her. 

I found quite a bit at fault with this book. The plot twisted so much that by three quarters through I found myself skimming paragraphs just to locate the denouement. Hercule Poirot is one of the best known detectives in literature, readers feel as if we know him and know him well. If this was my first introduction to Poirot I would never read him again, as the portrayal found in The Monogram Murders is not in the least flattering. Finally the great flaw is the lack of atmosphere. The book unsuccessfully painted a clear picture of space and time. I could not discern what decade I was in nor believed it when sprinkles of idiomatic language were drawn on. Using "sixes and seven's" does not make for a period piece, it takes much more technique to capture a time from which an author has not lived through.  

The question is, should you read it? Frankly, if curiosity is driving you batty as it did with me, go for it but if you want to read a real mystery pick up The Mysterious Affair at Styles and see how it all began.