Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ex Libris: June Books

As usual, this review is late as always. However, I can admit June was such a heady month for me in terms of books. I managed to finish four books (out of five) and half of them were fantastic reading.

To start with, I read the first book in Paul Park's take on "adopted girl finds out she's a princess" in A Princess of Roumania. Like Gene Wolfe and his Wizard-Knight opus, Park tries to re-imagine the concept of the alternate-worlds being visited by people from our world. In this case, teenager Miranda of our world discovers she's a real-live princess of Roumania (notice the spell change) and the center of a power-struggle between different factions and governments.

There are definitely shades of YA in this book but the story is kept interesting even for adults, being well-written as well as fast-paced. However, unlike Paul Witcover's Tumbling After (which limns the coming-of-age tale with dark undertones), Park keeps things clean by limiting the intrigues to political rather than sexual. On the other hand, Park also tells a more straightforward story, foregoing the first-person narrative experimentation of Wolfe's own re-telling of the fantasy tale.

So does it work? It did for me though I know [identity-protected] didn't. However, I figured that Parks tried to balance solid world-building with the narrative so by the time the last page is turned, the story is just hitting its groove. Likewise, as with the Wolfe, I'd like to keep my judgment for a while until I read the follow-up books.

The second book I read for June was Midori Snyder's The Innamorati and the beautiful TOR trade paperback I bought a long time ago from Booktopia was worth every cent. In an alternate history Rennaissance Italy where magic seems possible, a veritable carnivale of characters journey to the mysterious city of Labirinto where a magical maze is hidden to seek their heart's desire (or douse their heart's aches). This book has so many subplots that its hard to cite just one though Snyder's writing is so evocative that I could envision the fantastic touches of Commedia dell'Arte with their lovely masks and the flourished bows and...

Basta. If ever there was a book that I loved this year, it's this one. Go get your own copy and read it. (Definitely nominated for my Best Read Book for the Year.)

On the other hand, I couldn't get into J. Gregory Keyes' Newton's Cannon, the first book in his Age of Unreason series, about alternate history where alchemy held sway over physics. Unfortunately, that makes this 2 out of 3 of Keyes' fantasy series that I've given up (the other one being The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone). It was weird: while reading it, my mind was chaffing to do other things-- a probable sign that I was bored. Ah well...

On the other hand, I've already mentioned Feeling Very Strange, the slipstream anthology edited by John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly and how well it samples what slipstream is all about. As the editors proclaim, slipstream is the literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness and the stories here are all very strange, ranging from Benjamin Rosembaum's meta-fantastical "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality', with Airplanes" to Theodora Goss' well-written fairy tale re-telling "The Rose in Twelve Petals" to M. Rickert's strangely-written paranoid-infused "You Have Never Been Here." Though not all the stories hit the right spot, there are no weak stories here.

Having been treated with some rather fantastic literary reads, Richard Morgan's Broken Angels was refreshing for me with its non-stop, slambang action. Likewise, Morgan brings home the point in that if no one really dies in a dystopian far-future, what will be the new ways of war in order to kill someone? The assassin-turned-detective Takeshi Kovacs, a previous character in Morgan's first book Altered Carbon, is offered a deal of several lifetimes: an ancient undiscovered Martian starship. However, the former spec ops soldier finds that he can't trust anyone in a world where cleaning up means dropping a thermonuclear device in the area.

What's amazing about Morgan's books is the handy balance between the fast-paced action reminiscent of Jerry "I like to blow things up" Bruckheimer and some introspective debates on the (in)humanity of man. And Kovacs makes an interesting protagonist: a sociopath, he is the ultimate killer. But given how technology has made everyone almost immortal and killing is now state of the art, Kovacs tries go past his nihilistic outlook to go the other way: to be an empathic human. All in all, if you want to read a book where you won't even notice beach or wonderful scenery around you, this is the perfect vacation read.

The reads for this month ended on a bit of a weak note for me with Jeffrey Thomas's SF-horror tale, Monstrocity. Thomas' concept of a haunted city, at first, was a winner: given my penchant for city stories, what's not to like about an alien city touched by the Lovecraftian gods? However, the human colony of Punktown on the planet Oar-- despite its mixture of human and alien population-- seems to feel more like the transposition of a regular human city with aliens added. (And the aliens are too humanoid for me to feel any strangeness at all.) Of course, reviewier Claude Lalumiere notes that Thomas does this intentionally, that this alien city is supposed to reflect modern life, even with all its ambiguities and distortions. He may be right but for me, the city-not-city only confuses my senses and not in the best way.

Given that, Thomas' story of a man trying to stop the possession of the city by dark gods straight out of Al-Hazred's Necronomicon-- and Thomas' study of the literal universality of the dark mythology is fascinating-- is not so bad. Lots of potential here, if one doesn't expect too much.

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