Review: This is How You Lose the Time War

Well, I don’t really know how to review this one.  This is How You Lose the Time War is a unique experience, and I think most people will either love it or hate it.  I was kind of in the middle: I was able to appreciate a lot of things about it, though it didn’t completely work for me.

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The premise is fairly simple: two time-traveling operatives on opposite sides of a war fall in love through letters.  Red works for the Agency and Blue for the Garden, and while the letters start as some slightly bored taunting between rivals on missions, they soon turn into something more and eventually they must decide what is more important: each other, or the time war.

The novella itself is a bit more complicated, however.   About half of it is epistolary, consisting of the letters from Red and Blue; the rest is the set up for the letters, describing the tasks these agents are performing on behalf of their respective groups.  A lot of details are left vague.

The style of the writing is what makes it unique.  The best way I can describe it is that it reads like it’s a short story, just at novella length.  This makes sense because the authors are noted for their short fiction, but for me it made it hard to get into (the beginning especially felt a bit choppy and repetitive).  It was awhile into the story before I could really differentiate between Blue and Red; while that may make sense thematically, it is a bit confusing for the reader. There are also many cultural references, everything from that Eiffel65 song to Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”  Many readers will enjoy the wry humor of these, but I wonder if the story becomes confusing if you don’t get the references.

Overall, the story is very philosophical, exploring what it means to be human, in spite of the fact that one main character is a kind of android and the other was grown in a pod.  

The Garden and the Agency each seem to represent one side of several dichotomies of human nature: natural vs. artificial and artistic vs. analytical. Even in terms of time, the Garden seemed to be more of the past, and the Agency more of the future, although that is just my impression.

I do love the trope of characters falling in love through letters; some of the things Red and Blue write are really touching.  Even though I am not a time-traveling spy, I was struck by how universal is the vulnerability that comes with falling in love. Falling in love is always a risk, though the stakes may be lower for us than for Red and Blue.

While I found the story thought-provoking, I did struggle a bit to get into it.  So if you like fast plots and action, I would suggest you skip this one. If you enjoy a clever turn of phrase, atmospheric settings, and a lot of thinking in your sci-fi, this one might be for you.

Spring 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

Here are some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading so far this year.

Wayward Children series

Seanan McGuire

25526296The Wayward Children series consists of four novellas, starting with Every Heart a Doorway, which is set in a boarding school for young people who went through various magical doorways to other worlds and then came home again (shades of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, but with less whimsy and more therapy.)  The other novellas tell a bit more about the adventures of the various characters in the other worlds.  

I tried reading the Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway a year ago and had trouble getting into it because I felt it was too dark.  But it’s really not all that dark, considering that the plot revolves around murder and mutilation of corpses (also I was post-partum at the time and reading at odd hours of the night).  It actually has a really nice ending with a theme of being true to yourself. It has a great cast of characters, including several LGBT+ characters, which really adds an extra dimension to the themes about self discovery and belonging.  I’m reading through the rest of them now, and I’ve been enjoying picturing Jack, one of my favorite characters, as looking like Moonbyul of the K-pop group Mamamoo.

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I couldn’t find any pics of Moonbyul wearing gloves. But lots of her in suits!

 

Heartstone

Elle Katharine White

31290944This book is billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and that is exactly what it delivers. In fact, it starts out as a beat-for-beat retelling of P&P (same characters, scenes, conversations, etc.), which was a bit boring, but as it continues it deviates further and gets more interesting.  Its strength is its world building of dragons (and dragonriders) and other creatures. 

I’m waiting for the sequel Dragonshadow on hold at the library now.

The Other Einstein

Marie Benedict

28389305This was a book I wanted to like more than I did.  On the surface, I was thrilled to read the story of a female scientist, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, the first wife of Albert Einstein.  But I struggled with several aspects.

I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of recent historical figures as the focus of a fictional novel.  I applaud the author’s intent to shine light on Mitza, but I personally would have chosen another way to do it. (This is the kind of thing that alternate history fantasy was made for.)

The book wants to treat Mitza like a Madam Curie figure, when in reality she failed her undergraduate final exams, never achieved a degree, and never worked professionally as a scientist. I say this not to disparage Mitza, who was clearly a brilliant woman (also dealt a bad hand by society), but to emphasize that the book is fiction.  Though she undoubtedly collaborated with Einstein on his early works, there is precious little evidence that Mitza had a significant role in formulating the theory of relativity.

It makes for a good story, though.  It very nearly reads like a tragedy, but the book injects some hope right at the end.  There was nothing particularly beautiful about the prose, but it did have a good sense of drama.

I realized partway through that I would rather have just read the letters between Mitza and Einstein; the author helpfully provides the link to them here: https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/. (You can in fact read all of Einstein’s papers and correspondence.)

Also, have you noticed a trend in historical fiction covers recently?

Vengeful

VE Schwab

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I was very excited to get my hands on this sequel to the supervillain revenge story Vicious, which I loved last year.  However, I hit some roadblocks in that until recently, my library only had the audiobook, not the ebook, thanks to a targeted campaign by the publisher (my library did not happen to have a print copy either).  I have been trying halfheartedly to get into audiobooks, and I did not think this one was great. The narrator sounded perpetually wistful, and I was not impressed with his female voices (though his accents were good).  It is also not a linear story, so I didn’t like that I couldn’t just skim back a few pages to the chapter break to check where in the timeline I was.

The story itself however was nearly as good as the original, just maybe not quite as tight.  It went in a different direction than I expected, and I enjoyed the journey. Victor and Eli’s roles are a bit switched in this one, plus there are some great new female characters including the powerfully ambitious mob wife Marcella Morgan and the mysterious June.  The book once again has a satisfying ending but with enough threads left hanging that there could be another installment (yes, please!). So if you really like grey characters or stories that make you root for sociopaths, I highly recommend this series.

What have you guys been reading recently?

No ebooks for you

As I have mentioned recently, the majority of my reading is currently done via ebooks on my Kindle.  And though I do buy some ebooks, mainly indie titles or during sales, my primary source is my local library via the Overdrive system.  And since my primary genres are sci-fi and fantasy, I ran into an unexpected issue recently; I’m kind of uncertain how I feel about it and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

After reading VE Schwab’s Vicious (you can read my glowing brief review here), I was eager to pick up the sequel Vengeful, which came out September 25, 2018, published by Tor Books.  However, when I went to place a hold on it on Overdrive, I found that there was only an audiobook copy, no ebook to be found. I thought that was strange, so while I waited, and waited, and waited months for the audiobook I did some digging.  

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Last summer, sci-fi/fantasy publisher Tor, a division of Macmillan, announced a test wherein they would only sell ebooks to libraries after a four month waiting period.  They suspect that library lending is cutting into their sales, so by restricting the digital copies they sell to libraries they hope more people will buy their ebooks. Here are some are some articles with more detail from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

I had vaguely seen this in passing last year, but for some reason had not expected it to affect me.  I have to admit, once I discovered why I was unable to get a library ebook copy of Vengeful, it had the exact opposite effect on me.  I had briefly considered buying a copy instead of waiting for it, but after finding out about Tor’s plan I absolutely refuse to buy it.  Maybe that’s just me being stubborn, but I really dislike feeling almost like the publisher is manipulating me. I personally buy most books only after having read them from the library first; you can argue whether that’s fair or not, but it’s a strategy that I am comfortable with.

Of course plenty of other people are upset about Tor’s plan also.  The ALA issued a press release on it, and John Scalzi (a Tor author) wrote a very fair-minded response to many fan complaints.  (Among other things he points out that Tor was one of the first to abandon DRM on their digital books, and that the four month delay does not apply to print copies.)

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Ebook between paper books by Maximilian Schönherr

I understand that Tor is running a business, but this move does not seem designed to foster goodwill with their customers.  I am certainly less inclined to buy any of Tor’s books right now.

Presumably my library will be able to get an ebook copy of Vengeful on January 25 (they don’t have a print copy right now either for whatever reason).  Maybe I’ll be able to read it at some point after that, or maybe I’ll just move on to other books (my to-read list is certainly long enough). Tor did express that this was a test, but there’s no information on how long they expect the test to go on (it’s “open-ended”), nor have I found any updates on how their sales have been since last summer.

Have any of you run into this same issue with Tor ebooks?  What are your thoughts? Should I just suck it up and get used to sci-fi audiobooks? 😀

Christmas Songs Book Tag

I absolutely adore Christmas music (though I only listen from Thanksgiving to New Years haha), so I was excited to come across this tag on Madame Writer’s blog.  It was originally by The Artsy Reader Girl.

1. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Favorite bookish couple.

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I have a lot of favorite book couples, including Lizzy and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and Eowyn and Faramir from LOTR.  But this said “bookish,” which makes me think nerdy, so I’m going to go with Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables.  Among other things, their relationship is built on academic rivalry.  This image is from the marvelous 1980s Canadian TV adaptation starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie.  One of my favorite scenes is where Gilbert gives Anne a standing ovation after she recites “The Highwayman.”  He’s always so proud of Anne’s intelligence and her hard work.

2. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Name a book where a character is away from home (school, vacation, etc.).

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Jane, Unlimited is a unique speculative fiction story that relies on a classic premise: an orphan travels to a strange mansion.  Very gothic!  Jane is visiting Tu Reviens, the large and intriguing island home of her friend Kiran, where everything from art theft to alternate dimensions may be happening.  The premise is reminiscent of Jane Eyre as well as Rebecca, but spins off into an interesting type of choose-your-own-adventure story.

 

3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Name your favorite “little” book (children’s book, short story, novella, etc.).

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Ella Enchanted, a classic middle grade Cinderella tale, is one of the books that inspired my love of fairy tale retellings.  It is on the bookshelf next to my bed, along with 101 Great American Poems, which I think was a gift from my mother about fifteen years ago when I was in high school.  I have read both countless times, and they are great for when I want a quick, satisfying read before bed.

4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: What book(s) do you hope Santa brings you this year?

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I have a lot of books on my wishlist, and my family always gets me lots of books for Christmas.  One I’m really looking forward to is Daemon Voices, a collection of essays by the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman.

5. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Which book turned your nose red (made you cry)?

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I scared my husband when I was reading The Book Thief because he looked over to see me silently sobbing with huge tears rolling down my face.  “What’s wrong?!” he said.  Oh nothing, just this book broke my heart into pieces.  What a beautiful, powerful book.  Narrated by Death, it’s the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books.

6. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Your favorite book/kind of book to read during the holidays.

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In my Seasonal Reads blog series, I mentioned that I frequently read The Dark is Rising during December.  It’s full of both warm and cozy Christmas cheer as well as ominous Yuletide magic.  I love the whole series, but this one in particular is my favorite.  I also love Christmas cozy mysteries and Regency romances.

7. “We Three Kings”: Your favorite trilogy.

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I’m going classic for this one: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I first read in high school, right when the movies were coming out.  It’s still one of my favorite series.  Trilogies are very standard nowadays, especially for YA fantasy, and I think that can be traced back in part to LOTR.

8. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”: A character you would love to be snowed in with.

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David Suchet as Poirot

If I were snowed in, I would want Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie’s mystery series to be one of the party.  Because inevitably there would be a murder, and then we could rely on Poirot to solve it!  I’m imagining something like the premise to Christie’s play The Mousetrap, which places a bunch of guests trapped in a manor inn together.  But luckily Poirot would be there to solve the crime before any further murders take place.  Plus Poirot is just a genial guy.

9. “Last Christmas”: A book that seriously let you down.

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Sometimes I hear about YA books that are getting a lot of hype and figure I should check them out.  Spoiler alert: they don’t always live up to the hype.  That’s how I felt about Snow like Ashes and An Ember in the Ashes (maybe I should just avoid books about ashes?).  The first books in the series were fine, but nothing spectacular, and the follow-ups got less interesting so that I didn’t continue on with either series.

10. “White Christmas”: An upcoming release you’re dreaming about.

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Well, I don’t believe that The Winds of Winter will be released next year, and Peace Talks also doesn’t have a release date as far as I know, but there are a bunch of YA fantasy book by favorite authors coming out next, including King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo.  I’m also looking forward to The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (sci-fi) and A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay (historical fantasy).

 

Do you guys have favorite Christmas song?  I love all the old carols, especially obscure ones or ones in foreign languages.  And my favorite Christmas album is John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.

The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you guys are looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, check out The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix.

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Sean Bean stars as John Marlott, a London investigator tracking down the origin of a disturbing creation: a corpse that is actually an amalgamation of multiple children.  Does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, is trying to pass?  Or with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and theories of galvanism?  The show has wonderful atmosphere and suspense.  I really liked the twists in the first season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the second season, which is now available.

The science of the show is pretty hand-wavey, but that’s forgivable given the show’s strengths.  It does incorporate several real historical figures and events, including Peel, Shelley, and William Blake.  It is set about ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, which was a great choice because not only can we see the impact of the novel on society, but it also gives the show a more steampunk vibes, being closer to the Victorian era than the Regency.

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The show is clearly inspired by Frankenstein itself, and I think this interpretation is preferable to another straight adaptation of the novel.  It gives a great perspective on the monster!  When Marlott reads the novel in the show, it inspired me to finally read the classic story, which is very different than the popular conception of it.

Here are some Frankenstein Facts:

  1. This year is the 200th anniversary of its publication.
  2. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she conceived of the idea for the novel, after a suggestion by the poet Byron that he, Mary, and her future husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley each write a ghost story as a kind of party game.
  3. It is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters and journal entries.
  4. Its subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” after the Titan that helped create man, then gave them fire in defiance of Zeus (only to be sentenced to an eternity of solitary torment).
  5. It was ranked #43 on the Great American Read list.
  6. Popular conception of the story comes from the Universal Pictures 1930s series of movies starring Boris Karloff as the monster, as well as the later Hammer Films series of movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
  7. It is considered one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre.

As a novel, I found Frankenstein mildly underwhelming.  I’m not sold on the framing narrative involving an Arctic explorer writing letters home to his sister, and the prose lacks the wit of my Regency favorite Jane Austen.  However, as a forerunner to modern sci-fi, its importance cannot be overstated.  At its heart, science fiction is not about spaceships and plagues, but about society.  Frankenstein deals with scientific inquiry, or more specifically how far it should go.  Just because we are capable of doing something, should it be done?  Is it ever okay to “play God?”

In this way, the story is similar to another sci-fi favorite, Jurassic Park (#52 on the GAR list).  Holly at Nut Free Nerd has a great comparison of the two stories as part of her Classic Couples series.

 

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What are you reading and watching for Halloween?