My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For me this is a reread, but it’s been over thirty years so basically all I remembered were the bisexuality of the people of Winter and that there was an ambassador from Earth. I wanted to reread it as an adult and now after Ms. Le Guin’s passing it seemed like the right time. I remember loving this but now I was mostly bored out of my mind. It was page 174 before I was finally interested in it, I know that because I consciously thought hey finally it’s interesting and noted the page. It is so very slow and has three view points, one of which I could have done without entirely. Mostly it flip flops between the ambassador, Genly Ai and his contact the disgraced politician, Estraven. The third pov are randomly inserted chapters that tell the folklore/mythology of Winter which for me added next to nothing.
The entire first half of the novel especially the first several chapters deal with us getting to know Ai and the politics of Winter, along with their unique biology. I hate politics so this might well be why I was bored. Ai is an ambassador from basically the Federation (called the Eukmen council or something along those lines) and he’s been sent to make first contact with the people of Winter. Estraven believes Ai to be exactly what he says he is but the King of Karthhide has been listening to others who think Ai is a fraud at worst and perhaps a delusional pervert at best. Estraven is exiled in disgrace and is under threat of death. Ai’s response is annoyance and zero guilt not making him particularly sympathetic to me. He blames Estraven for basically sticking up for him.
We learn a lot about the people of Winter’s biology in these first pages as well. Le Guin calls it bisexuality but the reality it’s what’s known as sequential hermaphroditism (I’m not sure that term was around nearly 50 years ago when this was written). We see it on Earth in fish and amphibians where they’ll change sexes. These people have no overt sexuality (which is why they see Ai as a pervert with his penis always being in play) They have an estrous cycle they call Kemmer and they enter it as partners known as Kemmerlings. If one takes on the female role the other will take on the male so most of them have both fathered and borne children. So in this way we have an exploration of how men and women in our world are forced into sexual roles transposed on a two-gendered society where such things wouldn’t exist (and for that matter there isn’t really a marriage concept either).
Ai continues to explore the cold world visiting other squabbling countries. I had trouble telling their tech level. At first it seemed almost pre-20th century then at least on par with the 20th century in terms of travel and tech. As for Ai his own starship is orbiting the planet waiting for his call and the larger ship with his people in stasis fields is a few weeks out. He meets up with Estraven again in exile and is still annoyed with him and not willing to listen to him. This ends up in deep trouble.
The second half of the novel, the more interesting half begins with this meet up and how Estraven helps Ai out of trouble and their attempt to get to a place where he can call his ship (and the idea that it took decades of stasis sleep, that Ai’s whole family is now dead, freaks Estraven out, me too for that matter). I wasn’t a fan of the ending, to disaffected and sad for me.
Mild spoilers here, I didn’t understand a few things mainly what in the hell Ai’s people wanted with Winter. It’s so cold that there isn’t much in the way of plants or animals (in fact it’s mostly a hard scrabble life for most). The people are squabbling. It’s a seventeen year travel to this place from the nearest Eukmen planet so why in the world do they want to bother? It literally has nothing to offer and they aren’t even space faring. All I could hear in my head was this breaks the Prime Directive. So if you’re wondering why did I give it four stars, for me it was three stars but it gets the extra one for the uniqueness of the people and that fifty years ago LeGuin wrote a person of color as the main character, something that still happens only rarely in SF.
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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time but never read it. I knew it was about my era, the 80s but on the other hand I’m not a fan of the living in a computer game sort of cyberpunk. Rather than read my book, I ended up listening to Wil Wheaton’s audiobook reading on a road trip (I would recommend it with the caveat of there are parts I would have dearly loved to skip, like every time he reads the damn scoreboard results) and finished it by reading the book. I have to say I almost didn’t finish this. I found the beginning a bit slow and too obsessed over every 80s detail, one or two of which was wrong, like Wade throwing Intellivision game controllers at people in Aech’s basement because those were hard wired in. I should know, I owned one and blew through about three of them because you couldn’t replace the damn controllers.
Also Wade is something of a jackass in the beginning, especially to IROC who he considers a poser. But he’s a teen and they definitely fall into cliques. (and he’ll pay for his douchebaggery later). Wade Watts is our protagonist in a near future time that could be real which makes this whole thing uneasy. James Halliday (along with his partner Ogden) were 80s gamer geeks who were also into coding and making their own games. They invented the Oasis, a fully interactive virtual reality and at this point, now that fossil fuels have collapsed as a resource, most of the world choses to live in the Oasis, in their haptic rigs while the world goes to hell around them.
Wade is part of the lowest stratosphere of society, living in the stacks, literally trailers stacked 30 trailers high on the outskirts of the city. (this part of the world building didn’t really work for me to be honest. Yes we’ll be hard hit when fossil fuel runs out but we’re already moving to alternative fuels, biofuels and solar/wind power no to mention nuclear. It doesn’t seem likely this is how it would play out. It made it very difficult for me to get into the book). Wade is a Gunter, someone who is looking for Halliday’s Easter egg.
Halliday (and Og) became billionaires from the invention of the Oasis and their corporation still generates huge amounts of money. Halliday’s will, because he was such an 80s geek is an Easter egg hunt throughout the Oasis. Whoever finds the egg will become a multibillionaire and will control the company. Needless to say this has captured the imagination of nearly everyone with enough savvy to code and game. There are lone gunters (as the egg hunters are called) like Wade and his best friend (who he’s never met) Aech, gunter clans who everyone thinks has one of the best chances of finding the egg as there are massive amount of gunters with varying skills and lastly IOI, the evil megacorporation, headed up by our villain, Sorrento, who want to get control of Halliday’s company so they can monetize the Oasis. Oasis access is free but arming your avatar is where Halliday made his money.
Wade knows he’s the least likely to win the game because in spite of his encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980s, he’s dead poor. His avatar, Parzival, is low level as a result of his real-world poverty. He lives with an abusive aunt in the Stacks who steals his food vouchers (leaving me to wonder how then is he overweight but then again, the cheapest of foods tend to be high calorie low health foods so…) He can’t afford to armor his avatar, he can’t even explore the many geeky galaxies within the oasis to find the first of the keys. There are three keys leading to three gates that will eventually lead to the egg and all most of the gunters know is that Halliday’s love of video games, music, dungeons and dragons and SF/Fantasy novels have to play a role thanks to the almanac he left behind and the first of the word puzzles they have to solve to find the key.
So Wade knows he has no chance only we know from the first pages that Wade makes history by finding the key. No spoilers there because literally that’s how this thing opens. But the expository chunks of 80s minutia are a slog to get through. I’m not sure who the audience is for this and I think that’s a problem. I guess it’s technically YA and today’s teens would need every bit of 80s trivia explained in loving detail but the SF/F fans of the day already know this. I found it very slow. If not for friends who loved it prodding me on, I might have given up there in Aech’s basement with Wade bemoaning he couldn’t afford to explore like Aech could.
Then Wade has a revelation about where the key might be hidden and is, as the opening chapter tells us, he’s right. There he meets Art3mis, a female gunter (or so he hopes as you could be anything male or female or outright alien). Once the hunt with Parzival, Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto (the first five to find the key, referred to as the high five) really gets going I was sucked in. Because at the end of the day, coding abilities and extreme social awkwardness aside I could have been Halliday. I was an 80s Dungeons and Dragon and video playing gamer girl who loves all the music and half the movies in this (but not all, I did not like War Games). This made me feel 19 again.
But once Wade has the first key and clears the first gate, things take a very dark turn with IOI who will go to any length to win this challenge. Naturally there is going to be something of a love story between Parzival and Artie that actually didn’t bother me. In a way it highlights the isolation these kids are in, they only interact in the virtual world not the real one (which we’re already seeing today). It’s disaffecting to seeing someone fall in love with someone they haven’t ever met who might be half a world away.
Wade however is smart in his real life decisions to hide from IOI (if creepy in his complete and utter isolation in never leaving his room, which has become a huge issue in some countries today) and dumb in his love life and the distraction it poses for his hunt for the egg.
The hunt is exciting (unless you hate the 80s then you’d probably hate this). The opening chapter only promises you Wade finds the first key but does he win the day, do the high five get together, or does evil with its vast monetary and skilled player resources get control of the Oasis? Read and find out. There is a bit of ex deus machine in this (especially with Halliday’s partner Og who is still alive during all of this) but in a plot that depends entirely on virtual reality it’s practically expected there would be. There’s also an interesting dichotomy between Parzival and Art3mis with what they want to do if they won the billions, Wade is such a social misfit, all he wants is to rocket away with part of humanity and start again. Artie wants to feed the masses and heal the world.
For me it was a blast to relive my teenaged years. All I can say is if I had gotten to the final gate I’d have the egg because that was MY game in the day and my movie. I’d have been hard to beat. I’ll give kudos for creating a villain I wanted to see die and at the end I really ended up caring about Wade and Artie (and the rest of the high five). However it’s huge book, longer than need be. We didn’t need every single detail down to the year things were produced (though in one case that actually DID matter). I would have enjoyed it more if it had been trimmed some.
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Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I started this one not realizing it was in the Grisha universe and mostly because it was for a reading challenge. I have to say while the characters sounded interesting (and they were) I don’t like books about criminals, just a personal thing. In the back of my head I thought I liked this universe but referring back to my reviews I read book one in the Grishaverse, gave it three stars and said I’d read another….and then forgot about it for five years so yeah I didn’t like it all that much apparently.
And honestly I didn’t like it all that much here either. I liked the overall story but the worldbuilding less so. It’s like every country is a total bag of jackasses, seething with intolerance, especially against the magic using Grisha who are literally hunted by the Fjerdan (the Vikings of the group), despised by the Shu (the Chinese) and make up the army of the Ravka. The world building was weird in this. It felt like I should already know everything and since there are three other books in the series that’s true. Maybe it would have been better had I read those but forgetting a series for years means I’m unlikely to do that.
This book has interesting things going on but is also way overly long and has some real plot issues. It surges like the tide between the present and the character’s pasts and since there are a half dozen characters that is a huge amount of backstory to wade through. Much of it is needed to make us more sympathetic to people are really aren’t that nice. It works for about half of them. Others I simply couldn’t care about.
Kaz Brekker is the second in command of a gang known as the Dregs (the actual head is an old man Per Haskel) and is the owner of a bar within the slums known as the Barrel (get it, dregs of the wine barrel wink wink, nudge nudge) He’s a teenager (they all are) probably around seventeen or eighteen (maybe that explains their piss poor plot holey ability to plan things out, lack of experience, yeah let’s go with that.) He’s also known as Dirtyhands and the Bastard of the Barrel for his ruthlessness. He has a badly healed leg and limps on a cane that doubles as a weapon. He wears gloves at all times for tragic reasons. It took a while to warm up to him, but his backstory is heart breaking.
There’s Inej, and for a while the only other character I liked, a Suli acrobat who ended up as a sex slave. Rescued by Kaz who had his boss buy out her contract, she works as his Wraith, a near silent information gatherer, and really one of the few I felt sorry for.
Jesper and Wylan are a little harder to feel sorry for. Jesper is the sharpshooter of the group and a hopeless gambler. Wylan is a merchant’s son (we don’t get his tragedy until literally the last chapters) who is good with explosives.
And there is Matthias and Nina who could have been cut from the this and I wouldn’t have missed them. Oh, in theory they are supposed to be integral in getting this heist accomplished (and for that matter no what the book jacket calls this it’s not technically a heist, it’s a jail break). They’re there mostly for the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lover crap that I could die happy if I never saw again. Matthias is Fjerdan, and they hunt and kill Grisha out of fear and prejudice, Nina is a Grisha. She claimed he was a slaver and got him arrested and that’s where we find them as Kaz recruits them by breaking Matthias out of jail. Seriously couldn’t care about either of them and I was bored with every chapter dedicated to them. The best I can say for Nina is at least she added one more female to the mix.
The plot in a nutshell is there is Shu scientist who has made a drug that boosts the Grisha’s power ten-fold but it’s highly addictive so basically, they’d be powerful slaves of whoever fed them the drug. He’s been captured by the Fjerdan who’ll probably kill him. Kaz has been hired to break him out and bring him back for millions of dollars as his prize. Of course, there are other people after this prize, including Pekka Rollins the man Kaz hates most (for good reason as we learn) and wants to destroy.
So, in theory Matthias is needed for his knowledge of the Fjerdan prison and Nina because her magic can stop people’s hearts at worst or put them to sleep as necessary. I’d have been just as happy to have had less characters, less star-crossed lover crap and had a good map and someone else with her powers but here we are.
The jail break takes forever. It’s over 400 pages and that’s because this can’t decide what it wants to be, a heist novel or a collection of short stories about these characters. The Fjerdan are simply awful people then again most of the countries in this world are simply the worst. But that could probably be said of most places real or imaginary. This is dark and overly long I would have started with trimming all the incidences of where Matthias and Nina exchange longing looks or the endless planning that goes nowhere anyhow. I do hope in the next book that we get more of Jesper and Wylan’s relationship, otherwise we’ll have another case of gay-baiting which would be disappointing. Kaz and Inej remain the more interesting couple.
It’s hard to say more without spoiling things (though I will have a few spoilers at the end, so you’ve been warned). I will say a) ending with their reward was completely expected and I can’t figure out for the life of me how that wasn’t expected by the Bastard of the Barrel and b) I loathe LOATHE loathe opening endings like this. So, if I want to see how it actually ends I have to get book two and I resent that. I’d be much more likely to read book two if I hadn’t been forced to do it.
So, let’s talk those giant plot holes so yes spoilers from here out.
1. What the heck kind of plan was this? Break into the jail and just roam around aimlessly hoping to find the prisoner. No surveillance or intel gather, just blundering in.
2. Kaz finds his nemesis but he didn’t do anything about it. This is a kid who’s murder several people on page, has his mortal enemy at his mercy and we are given zero reason for letting him live other than two set up book two. Boo.
3. Maybe I’d know this is I had ever finished the other series, but I don’t see why the Grisha are so easily overpowered left and right in this.
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