Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book review: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Not much of a plot summary to provide for this one, since it’s a re-telling of classic Arthurian legend, but from the perspective of the women. And if you’re unfamiliar with Arthurian legend, get thee to Wikipedia, or Cliff’s Notes, or something.

The three main perspectives we get in the novel are that of Igraine, wife of Uther Pendragon and Arthur’s mother; Morgaine, known more commonly as Morgan le Fay and half-sister of Arthur; and Gwenhyfar, more commonly known by the non-Welsh spelling of her name, Guinevere. Igraine’s narrative provides the first part of the book, where we learn how she was more or less manipulated by her sister, Viviane, into marrying first Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and then Uther Pendragon, destined to be High King. Though it doesn’t take long for Igraine to feel what she believes is love for Uther, she is still suspect that she has been spelled into her feelings. This first section sets up two recurring themes that are of chief importance in the novel: first, much of what the traditional narrative frames as masculine conquest and male power is actually equally influenced by the machinations of women (particularly those at Avalon); secondly, much of this influence goes unrecognized by the world outside of Avalon, so the primary importance of women still seems to be, to most people, producing an heir.

The majority of the book is a third-person narrative that focuses on Morgaine, though we do get periodic chapters from Gwenhyfar’s angle. Because Morgaine/Morgan le Fay is usually classically portrayed as an evil sorceress, Bradley’s take on her here is an attempt to fill in the second side of the story. Usually, the motivation ascribed to Morgan is that she wants to dethrone Arthur and torment Guinevere; here, we see that her struggle is less about who the High King and Queen are, and more about preserving the Celtic paganism that is being increasingly eradicated in the face of a seemingly militant and oppressive Christianity. The paganism is friendly to and inclusive of women and, indeed, worships a Goddess, while Christianity appears how we’re familiar with it in that time: overly pious, concerned with sin, and overtly patriarchal. Given Morgaine’s view of how Christianity treats women, it makes sense that she would be wary of a High King that increasingly allows this religion to dominate the land and cause Avalon, one of the last remaining vestiges of pagan worship, to disappear into the mists.

Gwenhyfar is the counterpoint to Morgaine’s perspective, as the Christian Queen who grew up first with a negligent/borderline emotionally abuse father and then was placed in a convent. Exceedingly pious, she struggles against what she feels are sinful thoughts and desires. She is chiefly instrumental in the slow but eventual conversion of Arthur and his Court to Christianity, despite his loyalties being previously pledged to Avalon.

From what I saw on Goodreads, it seems like people either love or hate this book. Personally, I liked it a lot, but I won’t say that it was easy or quick to get through. It was kind of a daunting assignment to give myself during a speed read — I had to pick up several shorter books while in the midst of reading this to re-energize my mind. It’s a long (~900 pages) and rather disheartening account, since giving the women back their voices doesn’t, unfortunately, give them happy lives. I liked the humanization of Morgaine and the real talk about how oppressive Christian doctrine can be, so even though I knew it was coming, it was still depressing when Avalon eventually receded out of consciousness, taking its paganism with it.

The Mists of Avalon is basically considered a modern classic at this point. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of Arthurian legend and/or feminist literature. I’ve seen some weird discussions on whether or not this is actually feminist because the female characters aren’t all exactly liberated and don’t have a ton of agency, but to me those criticisms miss the point. Though Bradley takes some liberties with the myth, I don’t feel that the point was to write a whole new story were Morgaine, Igraine, and Gwenhyfar were, like, the Warrior Women of the Round Table, or something. It just seems like a nice shift of the conversation to actually engage the women, rather than have them as cheerful background baby-makers and off-set seductive sorceresses.

Book review: Ghost Planet by Sharon Fisher

Goodreads summary: Psychologist Elizabeth Cole prepared for the worst when she accepted a job on a newly discovered world—a world where every colonist is tethered to an alien who manifests in the form of a dead loved one. But she never expected she’d struggle with the requirement to shun these “ghosts.” She never expected to be so attracted to the charming Irishman assigned as her supervisor. And she certainly never expected to discover she died in a transport crash en route to the planet. 
As a ghost, Elizabeth is symbiotically linked to her supervisor, Murphy—creator of the Ghost Protocol, which forbids him to acknowledge or interact with her. Confused and alone—oppressed by her ghost status and tormented by forbidden love—Elizabeth works to unlock the secrets of her own existence. 

But her quest for answers lands her in a tug-of-war between powerful interests, and she soon finds herself a pawn in the struggle for control of the planet…a struggle that could separate her forever from the man that she loves.

This book was the April selection for the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, so I picked it up expectantly… and literally didn’t put it down until about 9 hours later once I’d read it completely. Thank god I work in an isolated space, because I am ashamed to admit that I took a holiday at my desk yesterday and was completely absorbed in this book. Sharon Fisher, I blame you for rising workplace delinquency! Kind of.
Anyway, let me get a few nitpicks out of the way, with the acknowledgement that for some people who have been discussing Ghost Planet on Goodreads, they are more than minor nitpicks. I did feel that the worldbuilding was a little lacking — the planet is described as having taken on ecological characteristics similar to Earth in order to be pretty recognizable to the colonists. In one sense, this is a nice shorthand, since we can fairly easily imagine a less populated, less polluted Earth. On the other hand, it functions to deprive us of what could have been some more thoughtful descriptions of the planet and the process of that adaptation, and more detail about the settlements that the colonists live in. Another related issue, which may be more due to its ‘sci-fi lite’ status than to a unique deficiency of this book, is that outside of the special attention paid to Elizabeth’s particular research (which I’ll get to later,) the futuristic technology which enables the colonization of this planet (e.g. space travel, any terraforming concerns?) and that which is used by the colonists (flat-reader) is given no description practically at all. If I had to guess, a “flat-reader” is a tablet computer, but why not just call it a tablet, unless it’s actually a futuristic descendent of a tablet? In which case, what makes it so? Anyway, little things like that make the sci-fi geek in me wish there was a little more in the way of techie detail.

At the end of the day, though, if an original concept and a well-paced plot that do that concept justice are set in front of me, I am going to completely forget about other minor concerns and just love the shit out of a book. And that’s basically what happened. I loved the main character, both as a personality and as a scientist. I read a lot of doom-and-gloom dystopia that tends to paint scientists as misanthropic megalomaniacs with unethical aspirations toward human purity or genetic cleansing, so it was refreshing to have a protagonist who is as empathetic as she is pragmatic. She actually explicitly employs the scientific method, which is pretty darn cool: she has a hypothesis, gathers data to support it, but also considers other possibilities and doesn’t reject them until she has absolutely enough evidence to do so. Not surprisingly, a character like this reasons well with others and builds a totally believable team of support, both from secondary characters and from me, who really wanted her to succeed in love and life!

I really highly recommend this. It was addictive and a great mix of psycho-biological drama and romance, and a really promising debut novel from this author.

Book review: Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey

Goodreads: “We are not alone.

The alien protomolecule is clear evidence of an intelligence beyond human reckoning. No one knows what exactly is being built on Venus, but whatever it is, it is vast, powerful, and terrifying.

When a creature of unknown origin and seemingly impossible physiology attacks soldiers on Ganymede, the fragile balance of power in the Solar System shatters. Now, the race is on to discover if the protomolecule has escaped Venus, or if someone is building an army of super-soldiers.

Jim Holden is the center of it all. In spite of everything, he’s still the best man for the job to find out what happened on Ganymede. Either way, the protomolecule is loose and Holden must find a way to stop it before war engulfs the entire system.”

This sequel to Leviathan Wakes picks up some time after that book leaves off, following the same central characters and adding a few new ones. I had really enjoyed the first book, and I have to say, I think I like this one even better. Any criticisms I have of this book are essentially the same as those that I had of the first: namely, that it could have benefited from a bit of editing for length and that the dialogue was sometimes a bit pedestrian. Otherwise, I think that the story here moves even more quickly than it did in Leviathan Wakes, even considering the addition of  three more character POVs. Part of the improvement in pacing, I think, comes from the fact that the interspersed character stories, though starting out in different places, were more apparently related right off the bat and converged more quickly.

Our new friends are Prax, a biologist, Avasarala, a UN bigwig, and Bobbie, a Martian foot soldier. Avasarala and Bobbie, particularly, provide insight into the upper levels of the political drama and intrigue of the “inner planets” (Earth and Mars) that was only hinted at in the former novel. These perspectives added complexity to the overall galactic drama by indicating that there are more opposing factions than just inner vs. outer planets; rather, as one might expect, there are groups within the governments on Earth and Mars with their own secretive agendas.

I don’t know that I have too much else to say about this one, because despite it being great, it is a sequel, so I probably have to sell you on Leviathan Wakes first. And then if you like it, definitely pick this one up!