SF Book Review, Part 9: Mistressworks Edition

So last year, someone noticed that the SF Masterworks, a series of books highlighting the classic science fiction novels, was somewhat lacking in female author representation. I'm not a big fan of identity politics and I don't want to take this post in that direction, but one of the good things that came out of the whole meme was a site highlighting people's favorite SF books by female authors called SF Mistressworks. I'm always on the lookout for interesting SF, so I picked a few books from their list and added a few of my own, and so here are the last five female-authored books I've read:
  • A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright - In the distant future, humans have spread out into space, establishing two major empires and a Guild of Webbers that run the spaceships and thus control travel and trade between the two empires. Rafe is a talented Webber (basically someone who can interface with the computers who run spaceships) who is suffering from amnesia... but this isn't just a cliche, it's actually an indication that Rafe is an "oath-breaker", basically someone who has betreayed his respective empire and had their memory wiped as punishment. But, as it turns out, Rafe is more important than anyone realizes, and the two empires fight to retain him. His new crew gets caught in the middle of the fight. Wright has crafted a surprisingly dense universe here and populated it with traditional SF competent men and women that are generally a likable bunch. The worldbuilding is done mostly in the background - you pick things up as you go, rather than wading through long chapters of exposition. Sure, there are some info-dumps, but you have to put a lot of things together for yourself as well, and Wright strikes a good balance. The story itself isn't really exceptional, but it's a well executed space opera and well worth reading (unless you're a homophobe, in which case you'll be freaked out by some of the relationships in the book). The ending does feature a deus ex machina, but it fits well enough with the story, and Wright manages to wring enough suspense out of the finale. It's not really in print anymore, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a penny (alas, no kindle version either). As far as I can tell, this was Wright's only fiction novel, which is a shame, as I'd certainly be interested in more from her...
  • Polar City Blues, by Katharine Kerr - Basically a traditional murder/mystery thriller story with a science fictional setting. Some of this setting doesn't really work for me. Kerr's characters all speak in a weirdly constructed version of English (for instance, a character will say something like "I no get it" instead of "I don't get it") that only really serves to be distracting without providing any real depth or flavor to the story. Fortunately, Kerr has crafted a complex, twisty little mystery for us, so I can give the linguistic stuff a pass. Polar City Police Chief Al Bates has a nasty problem brewing, with a psyionic killer on the loose and a trail of dead bodies in his wake. He teams up with connected smuggler Bobbie Lacey to investigate and quickly becomes enmeshed in a complicated tale of assassination, mysterious alien artifacts, and a new, unknown disease spreading throughout the city. Solidly constructed mystery with some added flavor from the science fictional elements and some neat role reversal in the book's romantic subplot. It took a bit to get going for me, but I ended up enjoying this enough to recommend it. Unfortunately, this is another book that's currently out of print, but again, Amazon has lots of cheap used copies. Kerr is probably more known for her Fantasy works, but this was an interesting effort.
  • Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh - My least favorite book in this post, I found this one a bit of a slog. It starts off promisingly enough. Twice, even. But the two thrilling prologues prove to be a tease. After those exciting false starts, the story proper almost immediately bogs down. Lots of repetitive whining and miscommunication for the sake of plot (which isn't very complicated, but it's played that way due to the fact that everyone only says cryptic things). A user on Goodreads hit the nail on the head with his "brief fantasia that illustrates" Cherryh's style in this book:
    Bren was extremely worried about the assassination attempt and was quite annoyed that his freedom of movement had been compromised. A worrisome Bren couldn't believe he had to suffer an escort everywhere! "I really am awfully worried that I can't phone home", said Bren, as he huffily realized that his ability to buy canned meat alone was no longer possible. "This really bothers me, I can't even leave my apartment without an escort!" notes Bren, as he paces his apartment in frustration. It was driving him crazy with annoyance and worry that not only had an assassin tried to kill him, now he couldn't travel alone anymore. He could not leave his apartment alone. After all, an assassin had just attempted to murder him. An actual assassin! Trying to murder him! It was all so worrisome. And as if the assassination attempt wasn't enough, now he couldn't even leave his apartment unaccompanied. "This is really very annoying and I feel awfully compromised, so much so that I am genuinely worried," reflected Bren.
    Which is all well and good, but the book goes on like this for a solid 200-300 pages of nothing but Bren's whining incompetence. Things pick up towards the end of the novel, and Cherryh can craft some exciting sequences when she wants to, but she seems more interested in detailing the confusion of alien communication or politics. Which, again, would be fine, except that it's astoundingly repetitive and boring. And I'm a guy that's normally fascinated by this sort of thing, but Cherryh seems determined to stamp out anything interesting in the premise. Perhaps if any of her characters were likable or interesting in any way? Maybe if they didn't spend all their time petulantly whining about their lot in life? Which is all rather weird, since Cherryh certainly has a way with words. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have directed them towards any real purpose. A most frustrating novel. This is apparently the first in a long series of popular novels, and from what I gather, they're better than this book, which does set up the setting which is actually rather well thought out. Unfortunately, Cherryh explores this by way of long sequences of exposition and info-dumps that don't ever really seem relevant and are always interspersed with whining. I guess I just hate books where people whine a lot. It's fine to whine for a while - Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan frequently gets depressed or whiny - but you can't make that the entire focus of the book. Miles always parlays his whining into action and usually success, which makes for a good story arc. The characters in Cherryh's book just whine and whine, interesting things happen to them, then the story ends. Most disappointing.
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins - I got a Kindle for Christmas and wanted to read something, and this book was free to download, so I figured I'd check out what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that the premise held little interest for me. Not only is it quite derivative (see Battle Royale, The Running Man, and a few other stories with similar premises), but it's also set in something of a dystopia, which never excites me (and for the record, that's my least favorite part of the other stories of this nature as well). Indeed, the worldbuilding here is distinctly lackluster. The whole purpose of "The Hunger Games" themselves makes no real sense to me, nor does the structure of the setting. On the other hand, the plot is reasonably well executed and rockets along at a fast pace. Once you get into the actual battle, the setting ceases to matter all that much, and you get a thrilling tale of survival and cat-and-mouse stalking. The action is well staged and executed, and I found myself reading at a rather fast pace. There's a sorta romantic subplot, though it's never really clear if it was just a ploy or not (I predict Katniss will develop a nasty case of trust issues in the sequels). It's ultimately a fun book, though I didn't find much depth here. I was kinda "meh" about this book in the end, and while I don't really have any desire to read the sequels, I'll probably watch the movies. I will say that I read it in 3 sittings, so it's certainly not a difficult book to get through, I just had a lot of nagging questions that bothered me about the book.
  • Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Of course, there has to be some Bujold on the list, and this one is the ninth book in the long running Vorkosigan Saga. This installment is notable in that it's the longest of the books I've read yet (clocking in at a solid 560 pages) and it's told mostly from the perspective of a character other than Miles Vorkosigan. I won't say who, as it's a bit of a spoiler for the series as a whole, but this new character starts off the book as a pretty unlikeable guy. He's even whiny. And he screws lots of things up towards the beginning of the book. But his heart's in the right place, and unlike the characters in Foreigner, our protagonist here actually has an arc in this book, eventually even redeeming himself (reading Mirror Dance and Foreigner back-to-back really puts the latter's issues in specific relief). I have to admit that I was surprised by a number of plot twists throughout the novel, and while the absence of Miles was a bit grating at first, I quickly became intrigued by the story as it progressed. Bujold seems to do this in a lot of her books. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? The story shouldn't be going this way!, only to be consumed by what follows. I don't know how she does it, but Bujold sure can craft a wonderful story. As the series progresses, she's managed to make excellent use of her universe and supporting cast, which is large and diverse. You're always happy to see certain characters pop up, and after 8 books, Bujold has a lot of background to draw from. The story of this book has to do with a botched rescue of clones, though things quickly escalate (into spoiler territory). It's a great book, maybe in the top tier of the series, though I'd worry about reading this without the background from the previous books. At the very least, you'd have to read Brothers in Arms before this one (a lot of the books in this series have a sorta companion book, making it a series of pairs - a subject for another post, perhaps). I've already read the next few books in the series and with only two or so books left, I'm dreading the hole it will leave in my reading schedule...
And there you have it. I'll probably need to do some non-SF book reviews coming up, but the SF always returns. I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan Saga in the near future anyway...