coraa: (house mouse)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien

When Mrs. Frisby's frailest child, Timothy, comes down with pneumonia, the doctor insists that he cannot be moved—cannot be taken outside—must remain safe and warm indoors. This presents a problem, though, because Mrs. Frisby is a fieldmouse, and the entire family must move house from the garden to the stream banks soon, lest their home be torn apart when the farmer plows the garden. Mrs. Frisby's quest for an answer leads her to a crow, an owl, and finally the mysterious rats who live beneath the rose bush... and who have an unexplained connection to Mrs. Frisby's late husband.

Oh, I adored this book when I was a kid. I read it for the first time when I was eight? nine? and then again every couple of years until I was in high school. This was my first re-read in a long while, though, and I was pleased by how well it stood up.

In a lot of ways, it's really a remarkable little book. If you leave aside the fact that Mrs. Frisby is clearly too intelligent to be a 'normal' fieldmouse, there's no magic in the book at all. Mrs. Frisby achieves everything she does through courage and fortitude, and the rats do their part through wits, intelligence and good planning (as well as a dose of bravery of their own). And, while the book does include unusual, even superhuman (superrodent?) characters, the heroine is a quite ordinary fieldmouse, a mother, sensible and kind and determined, and while there are other remarkable characters she remains central throughout. (Although I confess, I had a confused little cross-species crush on Justin. I still kind of do.)

Another thing about the book: there really aren't any villains. Even the humans who appear as antagonists are more like forces of nature than "bad guys," which makes perfect sense given their roles in the lives of the animals on the farm.

I think those two things are why I never really could love the movie The Secret of NIMH. On its own, it's not at all a bad animated film—and I'm not a stickler for accuracy in conversions of book to movie; I know that what makes a good book doesn't necessarily make a good movie. But The Secret of NIMH added both magic and a villain, and, to me, that took away a lot of what had made the book special.

Anyway. This is quite clearly a middle-grade book, but if you can see past that, I think it holds up quite well. I just reread it in one gulp, one sitting, one long bubble bath, and I'm glad I did. Highly recommended.

There is one way in which the book dates itself: the rats have gender roles, and the males seem to be in charge. I think the strength of Mrs. Frisby's character (in both sense of the word—she's as well-rounded, and as courageous, as anyone in the book) makes up for the implied gender inequity among the rats, but mileage may vary.
coraa: (bookworm)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.
coraa: (girl with book)
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games), by Suzanne Collins

This is the third (and final) book in the "Hunger Games" series, and as such it's difficult to talk about without spoilers for Mockingjay, and almost impossible to talk about without spoilers for the prior books. So I'll keep the outside-the-spoiler-cut brief: I still think this trilogy is worth reading, but this final book left me feeling curiously deflated. I won't say it was a bad book, or that I didn't enjoy it, but I really, really wanted to love it and I... didn't. Couldn't. I liked it okay, but after the lead-up, it left me feeling disappointed.

Spoilers leave the arena behind )
coraa: (ed reads)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson

When Jenna Fox awakens from a year-long coma, her parents reassure her that everything will be fine, and her memories will return. But even from the start, Jenna knows that something is wrong. Why can she remember recent history with textbook precision, but know nothing of her best friends? Why did her family move abruptly from Boston to California—leaving behind not only careers and friends but also most of their possessions? Why can her grandmother not stand even to be around her?

If you're irritated because you've figured out the twist from my summary, have no fear: I figured out the twist within the first ten pages, and I'm terrible at figuring out plot twists, so you're not spoiled in any meaningful way. This isn't a book where figuring out the mystery is the key: the mystery is revealed before the halfway point. It's a book where it's not the secret but the crashing aftermath of the secret's revelation is the point.

This is a book for you if you've ever read Gift of the Magi and thought, "Okay, so she doesn't have her hair and he doesn't have his watch—what does that mean for their lives, their relationships, their self-definitions?"

Making Jenna sympathetic is quite a task, because she starts out blank: an amnesiac with no idea who she is. And I'm not a big fan of blank female characters. (Confession: Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion bugs the snot out of me, because there's no there there. And she's a fan favorite, but I can't... give me shouty Asuka any day; at least she's got something going on inside her head.) But, although Jenna starts out pretty blank and remains pretty helpless, I liked her a lot because she was smart and determined to figure out what was going on, and acted within her very limited circumstances to change her future. Which I appreciate a great deal.

The rest I have to say is spoilery, so, cut.

Spoilers behind the cut )

Recommended. And if you get impatient with the fact that you figure things out before Jenna, remember: that's not the point.
coraa: (bookses)
Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre (Link points to ebook at Book View Cafe. Book appears to be out of print in paper format.)

Snake is a healer traveling on her proving year, along with her three serpents. Mist is an albino cobra, and Sand is a diamondback rattlesnake; both have been modified so that, when fed the proper catalysts, they can produce medicines: vaccines, antitoxins, antibiotics. Grass, by contrast, is a dreamsnake, an alien serpent whose bite produces dreams and relieves pain. Snake's three snakes are medical laboratory, pharmacy, and hypodermic all in one. But when Snake heals a child from a desert clan of a cancerous tumor, she neglects to realize that the only snakes they are familiar with are the deadly sand vipers, whose bites result inevitably in a lingering, painful death. And so when she leaves their child unattended with Grass, they, ignorant of Grass's healing purpose, kill the snake to protect the child. Unfortunately, dreamsnakes are rare—they are difficult to clone and even more difficult to breed, their alien biology confounding even the healers—and Snake cannot be a healer without one. So she sets out on a search for atonement . . . and for another dreamsnake.

I read Dreamsnake for the first time years and years ago, when I was in high school. I read it at the time because it had won the Hugo and the Nebula (actually, as I understand it, it won the Nebula twice, once for the original short story "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," and then again for the full novel). But most of all I read it because it had a strong female protagonist, one with valuable skills and who set out to solve her own problems. I reread it, when I saw that it was avaliable on Book View Cafe, because I had very fond (if dim) memories of having read it when I was fourteen.

Interestingly, although Snake was the reason I read the book, I actually feel that I know less about her than many of the other characters. She is very proud and very reserved; I feel like I spent the book seeing through her eyes but not, necessarily, into her mind. Indeed, because Snake had an incisive grasp of other peoples' characters, I often felt that I understood the other characters better than her: the prospectors Jesse, Merideth and Alex; Gabriel, a haunted young man; the scarred and abused Melissa; Grum, the caravan leader.

I've mentioned before that I read for character and worldbuilding first, plot next, and idea last. So when I say that the characters and worldbuilding are fantastic in this book, you will understand why I love it. Though Snake is difficult to understand, it's obviously for a reason: she really is proud and reserved, and that comes through very clearly. And the other characters, major and minor, are sharply and clearly realized like cut gems. The worldbuilding also delighted me—while it's clearly a far-future setting (indeed, it seems to be far-future post-apocalyptic Earth, though I wouldn't swear to that), it's clear that physics and mechanical sciences have taken a nosedive, and biological sciences have taken predominance. Hence the ability to use snakes as portable chemical factories, as well as the fact that 'biocontrol' (a biorhythmic manipulation to control fertility) is expected as a basic skill that every adult should have.

The book isn't flawless, of course. The major flaw is the fact that it doesn't hang together as a single novel very well: it's extremely episodic, with Snake moving from one group of people who she must help to another. Her quest for more dreamsnakes is the thread that ties them together, but most of her stops don't have much to do with that. This doesn't bother me much, since plot isn't my first concern, but it might bug someone who cares more about a smooth or fluid plot than I do. Similarly, I didn't quite... buy the romance; while it was obviously an important part of the book, I didn't understand why those particular characters were so taken with one another, given how little time they spent together. (This is partly not the fault of the book but the result of my own fictional romance preferences; I prefer long-developing romances a la Crown Duel or Graceling, and am dubious about love at first meeting.)

There's no serious spoilers under the cut, I don't think. I'm mostly cutting for length. (Too late, I know!)

Read more... )
coraa: (bookses)
(Yes, I'm going through these at a rapid pace. I've got a backlog to post.)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

In Mary's village, all life is focused on two things: preserving a vestige of humanity within the fence, and keeping the Unconsecrated -- the vicious, shambling dead -- out. To that end, life is extremely restricted, and each villager knows his or her role well, and follows the instruction of the religious Sisters who rule the village.

Mary, though, dreams of something else -- something beyond the village. So she chafes at the restricted possibilities for her life, dreams of the ocean... and is fascinated when someone arrives from outside the village.

This book had a lot of promise, which is, I think, why the flaws made me pull my hair out. I could see how great the book could be, and so I winced all the more when parts of it fell flat. It really was a page-turning read, with a lot of intriguing ideas, and so the holes in it frustrated me.

First, the good things: the book was written beautifully. Ryan has a lush, lilting voice, and that meshes well with the wild dangers outside the fence and with Mary's dreamy, searching-for-the-horizon personality. It read so easily and so enjoyably that, even with its faults, I'd be happy to read the next book.

I also liked some of the things that were done with the worldbuilding. It was enjoyable to read a zombie book that was so quiet and personal, and one that was set so long after the unspecified disaster that caused the zombies to appear. (I think it's actually several generations after.) I liked the details of how the villagers worked to slowly increase their protected village, and I was intrigued by the Sisters and by the stranger who arrived at the village. The book definitely kept the pages turning.

The biggest problem was the characters, which is a big problem for me because characters are the number one most important thing in a book for me -- and a big problem because this is a very character-centric book. Mary (the first-person narrator and definitely the main character) was well-characterized enough, but not terribly unique: she was a young woman who felt stifled by the options available at the village and who wanted to see the world. Not bad, and a character motivation that I, in general, like and am sympathetic to, but a fairly recognizable type. That would have been okay if the other characters had been more fully-rounded, but they weren't. The book focused on a core of, let's see, seven characters (eight if you count the dog), and unfortunately each one of them is defined only by their relationship to Mary. One is Mary's best friend and envies her; two are boys who are varying degrees of in love with her; one is her brother, who resents her; one is her brother's wife and has really no traits at all besides being her brother's wife; and one is a kid. The only desires and motivations they express are either a) related to Mary, or b) "not getting eaten by zombies." I really wanted one of them to have a goal or a desire or a response to something or anything that didn't have anything to do with immediate short-term survival or Mary.

The second big problem is that the book gets me intrigued by a lot of mysteries and secrets and then... never really explains them, or explains them in ways that don't make much sense. But I can't get specific about that without spoiling, so, cut for discussion and some flailing.

Spoilers venture beyond the fence )

Despite all my flailing, I'll still be reading the sequel, partly in hopes that some of the unexplained things will finally be explained, and that Mary will get a bigger goal. I'd still recommend this, especially if you like zombie stories and/or smooth, pretty prose, but it's not as highly recommended as some of the other things I've recced.
coraa: (girl with book)
This was a good book, and I think I would have liked it better if I hadn't loved The Hunger Games so much.

It's also basically impossible to talk about this without spoiling The Hunger Games to some degree, so if you're really strictly spoiler-phobic, you should probably scroll on by. I don't think any of the spoilers outside the cut are book-killers, though; all the major spoilers for either book will be behind the cut. Anyway, past this paragraph there are spoilers -- mild ones, but still spoilers -- for the end of The Hunger Games, but all serious spoilers for either book are behind the cut.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, and Katniss is in an awkward situation. Because of the way she survived the Hunger Games, the oppressive, totalitarian government of Panem and the Capitol have it in for her. In order to prove that she was not a deliberate revolutionary -- and, therefore, save not only her life but the lives of her whole extended family -- she has to convince them that she was young, foolish, and desperately in love, rather than sharp-minded, clever, and a little bit ruthless, as she actually was.

To make matters worse, the other Districts -- inspired, largely, by her -- are fomenting rebellions, and the Capitol is, shall we say, not happy.

I really liked the beginning of this, and I liked elements of the whole thing. The writing and characterization remain strong, as in the first book. We got to see things that were only hinted at in the first book: the other Districts, more of Capitol politics, the growing unrest. And I liked watching Katniss deal with the aftermath of the Games while putting on a happy face for the benefit of the Capitol's propaganda machine. (She has to, on pain of her family's lives.) I liked seeing more of Gale. I liked the exploration of Katniss's romantic dilemmas. I also liked that we got to see one of Katniss's weak spots: she was extremely competent at keeping herself alive in the first book, but she's naive about politics, because she has grown up with no political voice whatsoever (even in terms of the smaller politics of her own hometown), and so there are moments where she was in over her head. I liked that: having established her as thoroughly competent, we can now see some of the places where she's not as competent, which makes her more well-rounded.

Indeed, I think my biggest problem with the book was that it felt like Collins wasn't confident enough with exploring new territory. We got tantalizing tastes of it... and then ducked back into a very similar plot as the first book. But I'll talk more about that behind the cut.

Spoilers for both books )

But I still really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who liked The Hunger Games -- and I'll be waiting impatiently for the third book.
coraa: (bookworm)
First, a note: yes, I've ready many books between now and the last time I posted. Most of them were non-fiction, because I was on a fit of not reading a lot of fiction. (I do that, sometimes, when I'm brewing a story idea.) I recently got back into reading fiction, with a vengeance -- mostly YA fantasy -- and I realized that if I went back and tried to blog all the nonfiction I've read between June and now, I'll just never do it. So we'll start with this, which I read a week ago and loved, and I may backtrack to blog some particular favorites.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I heard a lot about this book and how good it was, and, short version: everyone was right. This book is very, very good.

Long version.

Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District Twelve of Panem, a nation that arose out of the ashes of post-apocalyptic North America. Seventy-five-ish years before the story, the Districts tried to rise up against the despotic Capitol -- and failed. To keep the Districts in their place, to reinforce how utterly the Capitol owned them, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games, in which two teenagers would be drawn by lottery each year to compete. The twenty-four adolescents are set to kill one another, with only one survivor, the "winner."

This year, for District Twelve, the lot for the girl fell... to Katniss's younger sister Prim.

Katniss volunteered to take her place.

My favorite thing about the book was Katniss, hands down. She's strong, clever, resourceful, courageous, and calculating -- all without losing her essential humanity, despite the horrors of the Game. She's hard and tough and yet has her moments of sweetness and even vulnerability. And she's smart, and skilled -- because she lives on the edge of wilderness, she has unusual skills at hunting, foraging, and making shelter, and those skills are both effective and realistically portrayed. She's just, oh. Wonderful. And wonderful without being perfect -- flawed without her flaws being stupid or contrived. The book is worth reading just for Katniss.

The plot is straightforward but breakneck in pacing -- I read this book in two great gulps: one night I stayed up until I actually fell asleep on the book, and then the next morning I finished it before I started work. It really was a very compelling read.

And now I need to spoiler cut to continue discussing. )

In summary: I really, really loved this, and I have already pre-ordered Catching Fire, the sequel. Highly, highly recommended.
coraa: (bookses)
Clay's Ark, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

This was a hard book to read. It was rewarding, but oh my goodness, it was hard.

As Blake Maslin and his daughters Keira and Rane travel across the desert of California, they're stopped by armed men. This, while horrible, isn't that unusual a possibility in their dystopian future USA (the setting is some time after Mind of My Mind, but before Patternmaster): in between walled safe zones, extreme gang violence runs rampant, and traveling through those areas -- even armed, in a car -- is extremely dangerous. But the people who stopped them aren't a car family, and their goal isn't robbery, kidnapping, or murder. Instead, the kidnappers take the three back to their farmstead, where they discover what this group really is.

The farm is home to a group of people, small but growing, who were infected by an alien organism. The organism changes them -- enhances them in specifically physical ways. They're stronger and faster than normal people; they have better reflexes; they are physically tough to the point of being extraordinarily difficult to hurt; they have enhanced senses, particularly hearing and smell. But the infection also drives them to spread itself, both by infecting others and by breeding. And yet -- despite the infection that has changed their bodies and that fills them with unbearable, undeniable urges -- they're still people. They still have their consciences, and their memories, and the interests and desires they had before. Their personalities are just overlaid by a set of literally alien and very animal urges.

The bulk of the book is about their conflict, between the undeniable impulse to spread 'their' kind and their desire to remain human, and to avoid spreading the infection to the rest of the world. And that's the most terrifying thing about it: the bearers of the disease, the agents of this change (and indeed of the kidnappings that keep it going) are so sympathetic, they're trying so hard to stay themselves. What hurts the most is watching them fight and fight for their humanity, even as it slowly erodes.

Before going into the spoiler cut, I will say: this book is very depressing, and it's also brutal in places. Horrible, violent things happen; the violence is never glorified, but it also isn't glossed over; it was very difficult going. I warn not because I think people shouldn't read this, but because I was glad of having been warned myself. I think I would have found it impossible in places if I hadn't been prepared for it.

Spoilers below the cut. )

I'd recommend this one, too. But I lined up a comfort reread for after I finished, and I think that might not be a bad idea for others.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 16
Fiction: 5
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 5
coraa: (book woman)
Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

Mary is a young woman who is part of an... unusual community. Her father is Doro -- sort of; her father is capable of switching bodies at will (and possessing a body kills its original 'inhabitant'), and he was wearing her biological father's body when she was conceived. (He's wearing a different body now, having switched through many in the interim.) Her mother, Rina, is a latent telepath who retreats into drugs and prostitution to deal with the overspill of human emotion she can't block out. Her grandmother slash nanny slash keeper is Emma, who is nearly as powerful in her own way as Doro -- and who doesn't approve of Mary. And Mary is having ever-increasing problems blocking out the emotions of people around her, but clings to Doro's faith in her, that she will be able to come through a true telepath, unlike the hundreds of failed latents that make up most of Doro's scattered 'family.'

Mind of My Mind is about a breeding program to develop people with psi powers, a breeding program run by the enigmatic Doro. And because it's a genuine breeding program, and one that has gone on for countless years, it's not just an experiment but also a family: a sprawling, wildly dysfunctional family. Butler depicts a 'telepathic family' that's about as dysfunctional as you can get: most of the telepaths Doro has been able to create are able to feel the thoughts and emotions of others, but are unable to shield them, making it a torment to live among other humans -- and yet they have also been bred with a desire to find and bond and mate with others like them, which means that they are subject to the hedgehog's dilemma times a thousand. (The Hedgehog's Dilemma: you need to be with others like you to survive and thrive, and yet getting too close to others like you means that you get a painful faceful of sharp spines.) Doro has built a community of people who are extremely powerful and yet deeply unstable and full of pain.

And he's unrepentant: to circumvent the problem that his people can't abide one another for long enough to successfully breed, he simply takes over one half of a pairing for long enough to ensure that the other half becomes pregnant.

And the culmination of his breeding program thus far is Mary, who is extremely special because... because what? Doro isn't saying; Mary doesn't know; and if Emma has an inkling, she also isn't saying.

The books is pretty clearly Mary's story, even though it's told from many points of view, because Butler uses a fascinating POV technique: there are many points of view, but only Mary's is in the first person. Thus Mary's point of view is considerably more intimate, and -- for me -- easier to empathize with. Mary's is the viewpoint that I find myself sympathetic to, if not completely agreeing with, and her own very closely-described confusion and lack of agency regarding her own fate, which is intimately and somewhat terrifyingly described early on, is very compelling.

Spoiler cut for discussion of what Mary is, and does )

Mind of My Mind is a fascinating science fictional look at the development of a telepathic society -- emphasis on 'society.' It's not a book about independent individualist telepaths: it's about how you have more than one telepath, without them competing each other out of existence. It's about the struggle to have a society of semi-equals... and the way that varying power dynamics complicates that significantly. Recommended. (But again, I do recommend that the Seed to Harvest quartet be read in order.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 15
Fiction: 4
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 4
coraa: (bookworm)
Patternmaster, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to the "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

This was the first book of the Seed to Harvest quartet by publication date -- and the last one by internal chronology. I read it first for two reasons. One, unless I get a strong indication otherwise, I tend to read things by publishing order -- partly because I like to see the author develop, but also partly because there's more a guarantee that they make sense in that order, because they were presumably written to make sense to people who were reading them as they came out. (Unless they were very bad books indeed, but I don't expect that from Butler.) Two, because my general inclination was reinforced by other people, who said that they read better in publication order. And having read all four books, I think they were right, and I too would recommend that you read them in publication order rather than internal chronology.

I'm going to try to refer to each one without spoilers for the others, and then I'll post about all four of the books considered as a whole, because they stand along perfectly well but gain a lot of richness and depth when you consider them in context.

So: Patternmaster.

Patternmaster is set in... I can't actually tell how far in the future, because the changes to our world are so dramatic that it could be a hundred years or five hundred. (Indeed, I initially thought that it was set on another planet, the world was so different than the one I know.) Patternmaster is set in a future in which the human species has split into two... I was going to say "factions," but really, they're actually two new, separate species: the clayarks, people mutated by an alien microorganism, who are strong and tough and fast and make and use weapons and other technologies; and the patternists, who are psionicists of varying stripes, who use mental powers (including telepathy, telekinesis, healing/biomanipulation, and the ability to store memories in objects) instead of engineering as we know it. "Normal" humans -- people like you or me -- also exist; they're called "mutes" and are servants of the patternists. (There are no normal humans among the clayarks, because the clayark disease is extremely infectious.)

As you could probably guess from the title, Patternmaster is from the point of view of a patternist, Teray, who falls afoul of the strict rules of his traditional society and the political maneuvering therein, and becomes an "outsider" (essentially, a slave) to Coransee, an extremely powerful (politically and psionically) master of a House. The book is about his struggle to reassert his independence, and it's about the way he allies with an Independent -- a patternist who isn't subject to any House master, Amber. Amber is powerful, intelligent, and tough -- she's a healer, but she subverts the 'woman healer' stereotype by also being an extremely effective killer -- and, indeed, I think she's the strongest character in the book. The developing relationship between Teray and Amber serves as both the heart and the backbone of Patternmaster

Besides Amber, the most interesting thing about this book for me was the worldbuilding and the society, which is dystopian and yet fascinating, even for me (I'm picky about dystopian/post-apocalyptic futures). I find the nature of the 'disaster' really interesting: not one but two radical changes to humanity. (Indeed, I find it particularly cool that Butler put both the clayarks and the patternists in this world -- either idea could have spawned a series, but both together creates a richness and sense of conflict that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. The patternists and the clayarks both are extremely potent, but neither is quite strong enough to get the upper hand over the other -- and yet their very natures makes it impossible for them to stop fighting.) We see only glimpses of clayark society, because the protagonists see (indeed, for their own self-preservation, kind of have to see) the clayarks as inherently inimical, kill-or-be-killed. But patternist society is extremely interesting in its own right. Patternists live in Houses, run by powerful Masters, for their own protection against the clayarks. Within the house, there's a heriarchy: the Master on top, his apprentices beneath him, outsiders (slaves, but with psionic powers) beneath them, and mutes beneath them. (The position of women is more unclear to me: it appears that patternist women, in Houses with male Masters, are wives of varying degree of status -- it's not clear whether there are any female apprentices or outsiders who are not wives. It's also not totally clear what the status of men and women are in Houses run by women, which definitely exist.)

And then there's the Pattern, a really fascinating look at the way a telepathic society would exit. All patternists are linked together by the Pattern, although for the most part, only fellow House members are closely aware of one another. People who are sympatico, who are compatible in personality and metal attitude, are said to be close together in the Pattern, something that they can feel immediately and instinctively. It's a world in which you can tell immediately whether you're likely to get along with someone -- and that immediate awareness is acknowledged, and used.

Spoilery stuff behind the cut. )

As far as recommendations go: Patternmaster is exceptional science fiction. It's not as good as the books in the series that would follow it, which in my opinion get better and better, but it's a good entry point to the series. (And I do recommend that you use it as the entry point: working in internal-chronology order rather than publication order would, in my opinion, be a mistake.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 14
Fiction: 3
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 3


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April 2013

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