Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Paradox Series—Rachel Bach

When I'd first decided to leave the army and look for a private mercenary contract, my grandmother had warned me not to sign with any of the bargain companies. You couldn't trust people who treated life cheaply, she'd said, because they were the ones who'd sell you out for nothing. (Honor's Knight, 243)

"I see a bunch of cowards hiding behind us and saying their lives and happiness are worth more than ours because they've been alive a long time. That our deaths are justified because your lives are more important. But they're not. You might live in the oneness, but it doesn't belong to you."
Foolish child, the lelgis hissed. You would destroy the infinite to save those who are already doomed to die?
"That's the thing about infinity," I said. "You can't destroy it and you can't control it." (Heaven's Queen, 320)
Fortune's Pawn was the main pick for Vaginal Fantasy during the month of March, and I loved it so much that I continued on and completed the trilogy—Fortune's Pawn, Honor's Knight, and Heaven's Queen. (It's a good thing I loved the main, because the alternate was campy in the most awful way.)

In Fortune's Pawn, we meet Devi Morris, a space mercenary who is trying to create her own path to joining the Devastators, the group on her home planet of Paradox that protect the Sacred King. Although it usually takes at least ten years to get to be a Devastator, she wants to expedite the process, so after a tip from a friend who works in the government, she joins a trade ship as security—her friend assures her that a stint on this ship is a quick way to join the Devastators. The ship, the Glorious Fool, has a reputation for bad luck, but that doesn't even come close to the real story. Plus there's a bit of romance along the way.

As we go, Devi encounters invisible monsters and black, scaly creatures the likes of which she's never even heard of before. She learns about symbionts, humans who have essentially had their DNA spliced with that of the xith'cal alien race. Spoiler alert: Rupert is a symbiont.

I loved the definition of Devi's armor, the suit of which she calls the Lady Gray. All of her individual weapons also have names. I basically pictured her as a female Iron Man. I appreciated how strong and no-nonsense she was. As a take-charge kind of lady myself, I felt like Devi was a kindred spirit...only like a thousand times more badass than I am.

I also felt really attached to all of the ancillary characters. Devi's roommate Nova reminded me of a space-age Luna Lovegood. Even though I knew there was something suspicious about Rupert and Caldswell, I still was on their side. In addition to the characters, I thought the world building was excellent. As some others in the Vaginal Fantasy forums suggested, it reminded me very much of Firefly, so I was on board with the world pretty much from the very beginning.

There was also a point where the ship's doctor Hyrek, one of the xith'cal aliens who most resemble lizards, responds to Devi's question about his gender. Hyrek tells her that xith'cal can determine their own gender, and Hyrek decided to be neutral. Devi then proceeded to ask how she should identify him—a move which mirrored the changes that we are seeing these days with encouraging and accepting people to self-identify—and Hyrek responds that "he" is fine because: "Humans are a backward sort of species that puts one gender before the other. Seeing this, I've found it's much easier to be thought of as male rather than female, especially looking as I do. And since designation is meaningless to me, I don't see why I shouldn't take the easier choice." (219) This response reminded me of a bit in a Louis C.K. standup where he talks about how he would re-up as a straight white male every year given the opportunity because of it essentially being the lowest difficulty setting in life.

The big point of contention in the Vaginal Fantasy forums was that Rupert wipes her memories at the end of the first book, and the result that this book is not really a standalone. While I don't think that it's necessarily the best plot device to completely wipe a character's memory, because I knew that I still had two more books in the trilogy, and because I was already well-acquainted with Devi's stubbornness, I knew it would be resolved before too long.

In Honor's Knight, the audience starts out knowing that Devi has had her mind wiped, but she has absolutely no idea. She thinks that she has memory loss from head trauma after a battle at the end of the first book, during which her fellow security officer lost his life. Devi gradually gets her memory back and realizes that during a mission, she was exposed to a virus that allows her to see the invisible "monsters" they encountered, and in fact even kill them. As such, the group that operated the previous defense against the monsters wants to study her and use her as a weapon. Understandably, Devi is not super stoked about that plan, and she tries to run.

I got to chapter 5 in this book and was feeling incredibly frustrated and confused and intrigued all at the same time. Thank goodness it wasn't released as a serial or something because I would've gone nuts.

There was more commentary in this book about gender and identity when Devi has a talk with the pilot, an alien that looks like an oversized bird. (I kept picturing Big Bird...) I appreciated that again.

We learn more about some of the medical advancements in this book, which I found spectacular, one of which was the portable spray skin grafting. Spray Cans: Not Just for Paint and Plastic Cheese Anymore.

I feel like Devi's experience getting the virus is like a metaphor for life. You may have this grand plan for how you think your life is going to go, and you work hard and you think you're on the right track. But it just takes one thing to make everything go to shit. Isn't that reassuring?! It even happens to space mercenaries.

In Heaven's Queen, we finally see the resolution. Devi is visited by a gaggle of small phantoms, that form into one large phantom in order to communicate to her that they're really not trying to hurt anyone; they're trying to get back to their universe, which they can't do because the door they came in is being blocked by Maat. She finds that out in this particularly touching exchange:
I could actually see the light vanishing before my eyes, but I didn't understand why. It had formed itself out of smaller phantoms, hadn't it? Why didn't it break apart again? Cut off the sickness and go back to how it was?

But the phantom did no such thing. It just hung there, its blue eyes watching me even as they succumbed to the dark, and I couldn't do a damn thing but watch as the phantom died.

'Home.' Its booming voice was thin and brittle now, but the word was clearer than ever as its last glowing tentacle, the last light of its entire body, reached up to point at my face.

I met it on instinct, grabbing the offered tentacle with both my hands. I didn't even have a name for the emotion tearing through me. No word seemed big enough. I hadn't understood before, but I knew now on a deep, primal level that this phantom had given up its life so that I would believe. It had sought me, found me, grabbed me knowing that I was death so that it could show me the truth. Even now, I could feel its longing, the phantom's--maybe all phantoms'--desperate need to go back, and as the last of its light faded, I swore. (Heaven's Queen, 232)
Devi resolves to help Maat, the original daughter, die by giving her the virus, thus opening the door for the phantoms to leave her universe, resolving the issues that they were all inadvertently causing. What ensues is the struggle to make that happen, despite all obstacles.

There was a kind of small moment where Rupert tells Devi not to do something, no matter what happens. She says she was tempted to ignore him, "But I didn't. Rupert told me to stay away, and that was exactly what I planned to do. I wasn't about to be the idiot who got herself killed ignoring basic safety instructions because she couldn't take the noise. So even though the screams seemed to be getting worse by the second, I climbed back into the captain's chair and stayed put..." (78) FINALLY!! Even though she's a warrior, Devi knows when to listen to what other people have instructed her to do. I'm so sick of specifically female characters getting injured during conflict because they just don't listen, or because they decide to shout at the exact inopportune moment.

Throughout all the books, Devi is sassy and sarcastic, which I appreciate as a smartass myself. Here's a quote that I flagged that exemplified this for me: "He let me go before I could tell him to get his claws off me, which was absolutely what I'd been about to say, even though the phrase forming on my tongue had felt more like I'm glad you're okay, too. But that couldn't have been it, because I wasn't saying that sort of thing to Rupert anymore." (Honor's Knight, 321)

The overarching plotline of the trilogy was poignant to issues that we consider today, and which also stymied philosophers of old: Which is more important, the greater good or the individual? When Devi discovers what is happening with Maat and the daughters, she automatically rejects that these girls should lose their lives merely because it keeps the rest of their universe safe. Caldswell is so certain that the survival of that universe is more important. This also correlates to current events, with everyone so certain that they are right and the other side is wrong, to the absolute exclusion of considering something from an alternate point of view. (I've been there myself sometimes, I'll admit.) It was fairly subtle social commentary within a completely realized space trilogy. Along with this, there really were no characters who were just senselessly evil. Everyone was just trying to do the right thing, as they saw it. You don't see this kind of development often, since it's so much easier to have a villain who is a caricature and heroes who are clearly heroes.

Also this concept of killing the phantoms (what they call the invisible monsters), even though they don't really understand them, because of something that is ultimately outside of the phantom's control. Devi can be against that, because she can actually somewhat understand the phantoms. This is another metaphor for life and history. There were a lot of people who just decided to destroy things that they didn't understand because they somehow felt those things were a threat to them.

I would strongly recommend this series to anyone interested in sci-fi and strong heroines.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Matched Trilogy—Ally Condie

Can I trust this boy who writes in the earth? 
Someplace deep within me—Is it my heart? Or perhaps my soul, the mythical part of humans that the angels cared about?—tells me that I can. (175)

On the ride to City Hall, I keep my head down. There are too many places I can't look: at the seats where Ky used to sit; at the floor of the air-train car where he set his feet and kept his balance, always making it seem easy, natural. (334) She can't look at the floor because HE SET HIS FEET THERE ONCE?! OH MY GOD, KILL MY NOW.

That pretty much sums up my feelings of the whole series. I had such high hopes for this trilogy. I am a total sucker for dystopian stories, which is great for me because they're all the rage right now. First and foremost, it is essentially The Giver. (Which I re-read recently, and was not as impressed with it as I was when I first read it in 5th grade.) There's even a hilarious Goodreads review based on the fact that it's almost a carbon copy of The Giver.

Cassia lives in the Society, which makes all of her decisions for her. They tell her what to watch, what to read. The Society is limited to "100" of each of the cultural items we consider commonplace: 100 Paintings, 100 Poems, 100 Songs. Anything outside of that doesn't exist; all the remainders were disposed of years ago. The elderly are lovingly euthanized at age 80. Cassia is pleased when Xander, her best friend, is shown as her Match at her Matching ceremony. She'd never dared dream, because usually Matches are from different geographical areas. But then, when she goes to look at the disc that contains the information for her to begin getting to know her Match better, for just a split second, the face of another boy comes up. Another boy that Cassia knows. And it's all downhill from there.

Beyond that, I liked all of the details, all of the specifics, the things that were actually different from The Giver. And then Cassia, the protagonist, turns into this whiny girl OBSESSED with this boy that she doesn't know at all, basically BECAUSE she doesn't know him! I wanted to punch myself in the face all the way through. Cassia turns into Bella from Twilight in one of the most irritating ways, basically deciding that there's no reason to exist without this boy she wouldn't have taken a second look at the day before had it not been for a "glitch" when she goes to look at her Match's information. (See quote above.) Here's another gem: "Somehow I've run out of fear; I feel lethargic instead, which is almost worse. Why care about a flat planet populated by flat people? Who cares about a place where there is no Ky?" (329)

To be sure, there's something to be said for teen angst, and the general feeling that you'd rather die than be separated from the person you love. I mean, it's the basis for some of literature's most famous teen lovers, like Romeo and Juliet. But come on. I can't take them either. I think honestly there's a danger that comes with that "you are my everything" mentality.

It seems very clear that Condie was attempting to create a character like Katniss or Tris (even though Divergent was published after this one; it's obvious that's the entity she's aiming for) but she just misses the mark. Cassia is much too angsty. Too much Bella, not enough Katniss. I almost rage-quit the book at least three times, but managed to power through due to my completionist nature. But it was a close one.

I also really didn't appreciate the all-encompassing nature of Cassia's love for Ky because it made her treat Xander like a lacky. There's even a point where Xander tells her that he knew a particular secret about Ky, and Cassia takes from this that Ky was vulnerable once and isn't that sad, not that Xander is a great guy who has kept a secret for someone else for years and years at possible danger to himself. Xander even says to her, "I came up on the screen, too, Cassia, but he was the one you chose to see." To which Cassia is like, "I'm sorry, I can't hear your rationality over the sound of my obsession."

The second book, Crossed, is told in alternating chapters from Cassia's point of view and Ky's point of view. Essentially nothing happens in this book, other than crazed preoccupation masquerading as love. We do learn two plot-driving points in the span of 450 pages, so that's something I guess.

The final book is told in alternating points of view again, but throwing Xander into the mix. The rebellion has finally begun, the Society is falling, but it's because the rebellion has basically poisoned everyone. Yay revolution! I really only read this one to appease the completionist inside of me. Spoiler alert: everyone ends up happily ever after, with Ky and Cassia being together, and Xander (Cassia's original Match) hooking up with the old girlfriend of the kid who died with Ky in the second book. Isn't that neat?!

I would suggest staying far away from these books if you want to keep your sanity. I'm barely clinging to mine. (See all caps yelling above if you don't believe me.)

Poison Fruit—Jacqueline Carey

Call me crazy, but I just don't get the whole concept of a war of choice. I mean, war's awful, right? I guess at some point there's a choice involved in everything, but when it comes to war, it seems to me it should be the absolute last resort. And it's a choice that should only be made for majorly compelling reasons, like defending your loved ones, or at least a grand humanitarian cause, not some trumped up excuse to carry out a political agenda that turns out to be totally ill-conceived. 
But hey, that's just the opinion of one lone hell-spawn. Humanity's been waging war against itself since the dawn of recorded history, so maybe I'm missing something. All I know is I'm glad it's a choice I'd never have to make. (28)

Warning: As always, there may be spoilers.

I LOVE this series. Is it going to go down in the annals of history as a modern age classic? Well, probably not because it's urban fantasy. Is it well written, laugh-out-loud funny, and thoughtfully constructed? Absolutely.

I read the first two books in this Agents of Hel trilogy, Dark Currents

and Autumn Bones with Vaginal Fantasy in October 2013. (I also just recently finished Carey's Kushiel's Dart, which is a whole different beast and series but just as fabulous. Vaginal Fantasy read it somewhere towards the beginning of the club, before I was reading along with them.) Anyway, this third book came out last fall. It just so happened that it was suggested as an alt alt book for Vaginal Fantasy for December, and coincidentally my hold came available at the library after what seemed like an eternity. I feel like I waited forever, but it ended up being perfect timing.

The basic premise is this: Daisy Johanssen is a hell-spawn who serves as Hel's (the Norse goddess of the underworld) liaison to the human community in small town Pemkowet, Michigan. Pemkowet is one of several areas in the world which has supernatural and paranormal beings coexisting with humans, and Daisy essentially helps keep the peace, allotting justice as needed. The strange happenings in the first two books finally come to a head in this final installment of the story, including the culmination of the love triangle. (Daisy is being wooed—I use that term loosely—by two eligible gentleman: Cody Fairfax, member of Pemkowet PD and secret werewolf, and Stefan, the charming and ageless ghoul.)

After a year since I'd read the last one in the series, there were a couple of things that I had forgotten about; mostly, I'm speaking of Daisy's tail. As a hell-spawn, she looks mostly human on the outside, with the exception of the half-foot long tail that she occasionally tucks between her legs and which swishes back and forth when powerful emotions emerge. That's not to say that I don't appreciate Daisy's tail; it was just something I had forgotten about.

One thing I really appreciate about this series is the pop culture references. There are fairly regular references to Gilmore Girls, as Daisy and her mom have a very Rory/Lorelai kind of relationship...with the exception that charming Christopher on Gilmore Girls has been replaced with a creepy, predatory demon. There are also several references to Game of Thrones.

Daisy also doesn't take herself too seriously. There's a moment in this book where she says that she feels like she's having a very Mary Sue moment in her own life. (If you don't know what a Mary Sue is, read this.) I liked the acknowledgement of that: a time when things seemed to be working out too well or she was trying to have too much of a "normal" time with supernatural beings.

I'm disappointed that the series is over, because it was quick to get through, which was good because once I picked up a book, I couldn't put it down. But I thought the ending was a great resolution that served the series well. Plus, I'm not ashamed to say the end battle brought a bit of a tear to my eye.