Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 23, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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If you asked me I’d say I wasn’t really a Bujold fan, but a glance at my web page reveals I’ve read almost all of her books. So maybe I’m a fan, but compared to her extremely vocal Internet cheering section I’m quite indifferent. She’s become a wonderful character writer, but she never lets her characters endure anything very bad or participate in a story where there’s any real uncertainty over the outcome. All my complaints about Curse of Chalion, the book to which Paladin of Souls is a sequel, are valid for Paladin, only more so in most cases. The main character is never particularly tested and the events of the novel are extremely predictable. This time, the scope of the novel is smaller (and thus there’s not a lot of import to the proceedings) and the protagonist changes only a little bit and this change isn’t handled very well at all. Meanwhile, the principal action of the book is rather unsatisfying, since like most magical systems in fantasy, the relgious magic Bujold has created does not benefit from close inspection, and the mechanics of it prove central to the story. If you haven’t read Curse of Chalion, you should read it before reading this. If you didn’t love Curse than give this one a pass in any case, because it is just more of the same, but watered down further.

Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

December 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Back when I was plowing through most of the available Miles Vorkosigan books, essentially the only thing Lois Bujold published before Curse of Chalion, I used words like “light” and “fun” to try to convey the low-impact nature of the books. Bujold was not trying to dazzle the reader with amazing ideas, postmodern style, or gutwrenching emotion, she was just spinning a fun story. Some of the series’ later books flirted with emotional resonance. I hoped that by leaving Miles and indeed SF itself behind, Bujold was going to aim a little higher.

Well, no. Chalion is technically fantasy, but as I categorize things it is an intrigue novel. There aren’t a lot of swords and sorcery, just schemes and plots. If you like such things, this might be good beach reading. It’s competently written and ruthlessly predictable. The Evil characters are utter caricatures. The Good characters are so blandly good, perhaps so as not to offend any possible reader, they threaten to bore. The world building is kind of standard…the only feature of the world that approaches being unusual is the religion, which is extremely simple.

Thinking after I finished, I decided that Bujold is a character author. She has a genuine liking for her protagonists. Too much of a liking to put them through anything truly difficult. To be sure, the main character, Cazaril, has a relatively interesting backstory. He’s not of the sword-swinging school (although, infuriatingly, Bujold succumbs to the temptation to make him a skilled fighter regardless) and though a member of the nobility he has no direct power. Instead, he has a hand in great events by working for others. In that sense, the book reminds me slightly of Hobb’s Farseer books. I say slightly, because those books might as well be in a different genre. Hobb is a much better writer (this is no slight on Bujold, who–aside from her earliest work–is solid, it’s just I consider Hobb to have about the best technique fantasy has to offer) but more importantly she writes very hard books. By hard, I mean she pulls no punches emotionally. Her characters face genuinely terrible situations and suffer enormously. Because Hobb is such a good writer, the reader empathizes and suffers too. So while I think the Farseer books are great, I must concede that at times reading them is like going to the dentist. It’s good for you, but it can be hugely uncomfortable at times. I say all of this by way of comparison because compared to those sorts of books, Curse of Chalion is a confection. It is utterly painless. Though the characters go through privation and even seem despairing, none of it ever seems serious and sure enough, it passes quickly. Even though this book was a much easier read than the Farseer trilogy, I’ve already reread the trilogy once and expect to do so again. I don’t think I’ll read this book again. I recommend it if you enjoy intrigue, really like fantasy, or really like Bujold’s other work. If you don’t like the idea of a painless confection, give it a pass.

Before I go I want to complain about one aspect of this book which, though hugely obvious from the get-go, might be considered a spoiler, so if you haven’t read it and plan to do so, you might want to stop reading. Towards the end, two characters (keeping this vague in case of wandering eyes) have a fairy tale romance. That’s fine, but the man is in his mid-thirties and the woman is twenty. Now there isn’t anything technically wrong with this, and certainly in a faux-midieval world it would be common, but I felt this was rather dubious on the part of the author. Somehow, I get the feeling the author felt the ending wouldn’t have been as happy if the character had had a fairy tale romance with a woman his own age. Or, god forbid, a woman fifteen years older. Since the author is a woman herself (not to mention middle-aged) I can hardly accuse her of the male wish-fulfillment that still pollutes science fiction and fantasy, so I’m rather perplexed. My only explanation is she wants to make the ending as satisfying as possible for the reader and figures male readers consider the ending much better if the guy gets paired off with a young woman. This lack of faith in the readers, while probably justified, is kind of dispiriting.

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 28, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is, like Komarr and Cetaganda, a somewhat “light” Miles book. In fact, the genre is really romantic comedy. If the idea makes you squeamish, well, if you like the Miles books, there’s more than enough here to make this a great book for you. In a rather unusual move for the series, Bujold uses a narrative with many viewpoints. From a plot and character perspective, nothing really happens (that wasn’t obvious from the end of the last book, at least), but it’s thoroughly well written and enjoyable. Like Memory there is a bit of intrigue half-heartedly tacked on at the end, and it doesn’t entirely work, but it doesn’t really matter. As with all the Miles books, the standard disclaimers apply: if you didn’t like the Miles books, you won’t like this one. If you haven’t read any Miles books, start elsewhere. I recommend Warrior’s Apprentice.

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 26, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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In books, movies, and other forms of popular art there are works which are nauseatingly popular. I don’t know how well the Miles books sell (but they are all in print, I believe) but with the Internet’s chattering class they have armies of fans. Approaching extremely popular work for the first time, I am always cynically predisposed to not liking it. What does anyone else know anyhow? Depending on why something is popular, of course, I am often won over anyway. Such was the case with the Miles books. When I first read Shards of Honor and Barrayar I was unimpressed. Then I read the first Miles books and was finally won over. Her writing, I felt, improved so that I didn’t mind it (although I still don’t see why it is so often exalted), and Miles truly is a very likable character. I read a couple of the books, not quite addicted but not really stopping for anything else either, until I bounced off Mirror Dance.

My reviews for those earlier books generally go something like, “Well, it’s a Miles book, so it’s a good lighthearted romp.” My reasons for giving up almost immediately on Mirror Dance are a matter of taste: I really don’t like watching characters slowly get themselves into ever-deeper trouble, as happens at the beginning of the book. This sort of empathy with fictional characters is a somewhat embarrassing reason for not liking a book, so I decided to come back to it.

The fact is, I was halfway through Mirror Dance when I realized what was really bothering me was a matter of expectations, for it is not light like the previous Miles books were. In fact, for long stretches it is very serious, with only occasional winks to Bujold’s fan club. I still feel the writing is clunky at times, but these times are rare enough they can be overlooked. But what surprised me was in taking Miles seriously there really is a lot of interesting material. I saw his alter ego as wish fulfillment before, but now it seems to be about a lot more. It’s someone who through force of will bends the world away from what it really is into what he imagines. It’s someone who plays two roles and isn’t sure which one he really is.

Although Mirror Dance goes into these themes in more detail than the previous books, the ramifications of Miles’ life are not new, so perhaps some fault lies with me, the reader, for not having noticed it earlier. Still, Mirror Dance forces the reader to confront the realities of Miles’ various personas. To my mind it is the first of the Miles saga to really aspire for something more than engaging reading. That it is not wholly successful in its psychology is not a huge problem, nor is its disappointing shirking of some of the military ethics issues that earlier books in the series admirably faced (in particular, I felt the ethics of medical triage by rank…a crucial plot point…needed a bit more examination than just one or two characters mentioning they had vague bad feelings about it). People who liked the previous books, and that should be most people, will find much to like here and maybe some deeper themes besides. Readers new to Bujold should, in my opinion, start with Warrior’s Apprentice.

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 5, 2004 at 12:01 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Another Miles book. While at times it feels a little mindless, Bujold isn’t afraid to ground her light, often humorous stories in a little bit of ethics. That–well, that and the overall quality of the writing–is why I enjoy the Miles books far above the usual stuff from this subgenre.

Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 5, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is a book that reviews itself. If you haven’t read any of the Miles books, start with Warrior’s Apprentice and see what you think. If you don’t like them, probably you should give this a pass. If you do like them, definitely read it. Let’s face it. The Miles books are pretty boilerplate stuff. So far Bujold has been remarkably consistent in mixing together decent characterization, clever writing, and some fun tropes. It’s not Faulkner, but I like it. I’m a sucker for secret identity stories done right, and Bujold is very good. These stories (it’s three stories collected under–I’ll say something negative at last–a cursory and redundant framing device) are a little bit darker than what went before, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary. Miles remains the supreme con artist with a conscience. Fun, light reading.

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 12, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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A decent book, I suppose. In concept it is sort of Ursula Le Guin-lite at first glance, but actually the concept plays a remarkably minor role in the book. The concept, of course, is of an entirely male society where reproduction takes place using ova banks. Children are raised with a loose two-parent system and homosexuality is the only sexuality. In fact, all knowledge of women is suppressed and considered sinful. Reading the first 30 pages I wasn’t feeling too hot on the book since it seemed clear where it was heading, but I was wrong. The typical strategy with a book like this is to bring an outsider into the society to tour around and look at it from every angle and meanwhile have culture clash etc. See Brin’s Glory Season and Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Instead, Bujold takes her main character from the society in question and moves him completely out of it, so its a fish out of water tale instead. And there’s not really that much flopping around. The real main character is Elli Quinn, a character from the Miles series, and she does her best Miles impression. So after a 50 page head-fake towards doing a sociological book it settles in to a typical Bujold ode to the art of BSing. As such it is decent but nothing special. Recommended only for Bujold completists.

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

May 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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fter writing what despite its many unique elements is a surprisingly traditional military book in Warrior’s Apprentice and a book that blended the military aspects with conspiracy in Vor Game, Bujold goes entirely to the conspiracy in Cetaganda. Really this is a detective novel which happens to have a space operaish SF setting. There are pros and cons to this, of course. The eugenics-based society of Cetaganda is an interesting one, although the people living in it are somewhat disappointingly normal. This makes the somewhat inevitable connect-the-dots nature of this and most detective novels a fun read. This is the best writing I have seen from Bujold, with the possible exception of the short story “Mountains of Mourning” (also a detective story). However Miles is wearing a little thin. I don’t buy his height at all…4’9″ is just ridiculously short. He is referred to as being shoulder high, but this seems awfully charitable to me. I’ve decided the books are best read with Miles around 5’3 or so in the mind’s eye…it makes it more believable that he would be taken seriously and makes up for the many sloppy uses of terms like “someone was at his shoulder” or “at his elbow” and so forth. That is a minor issue. The major issue is Miles is a jerk. He’s nice to people, but a jerk towards his own country, which is even less forgivable, especially in light of the values Miles himself claims to hold. In previous books his constant going-it-alone was played down, but here he does it himself expressly because he wants to be a hero and get promoted. Ugh. My sister has told me he doesn’t get away with this forever, but I’m wondering if it is worth it. Miles is so carefully drawn as a nice, smart guy I’ll probably feel bad if he gets the crushing he deserves, but infuriated if he doesn’t. At any rate, Cetaganda is a textbook example of good light reading.

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

March 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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More light SF on the militarist model. As with Warrior’s Apprentice it is as enjoyable as it is unbelievable. The difference between the Miles books and other military science fiction is Bujold has very little interest in military tactics. Hand to hand fighting gets a brief description and space battles are almost entirely offstage. Quite different from the Honor Harrington series or Drake’s books. The Miles books revolve around relationships…Miles wins because he can convince the right people to be on his side, and is smart enough to figure out in very broad terms what he should be doing. This makes for more compelling characters and an easier to understand narrative. It’s worth noting that the book is very disjointed and episodic, but it doesn’t really matter given the subgenre.

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