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review 2017-09-17 23:30
Review: In the Night Garden (The Orphan's Tales Book 1 of 2)
In the Night Garden (The Orphan's Tales, #1) - Catherynne M. Valente

I thought this was a very clever and unique book.  At least, I’ve never read anything like it.  It tells a lot of stories, I couldn’t say how many, but definitely more than a dozen.  However, this is not an anthology.  It’s layer upon layer upon layer of related stories nested inside each other. 

 

The framing story is about a lonely girl who people shun because they believe she’s a demon.  A curious boy approaches her and, over the course of a few days, she tells him two stories.  Each of the two stories takes up about half of the book.  Within each story, some of the characters tell other stories.  Within those stories, somebody tells another story.  These stories often tell the backstory of a particular character, so you’re sort of gaining more and more history, going backwards in time as you go forward in the book.  Periodically, the book returns to the higher layers to continue those stories, and then it possibly goes back into the same lower layers to finish incomplete stories there, or else it starts a new inner story with a new set of layers.  Some of the different branches were only moderately related, but there were lots of little connections here and there which were fun to watch for.

 

Sound confusing?  It really wasn’t.  The first main story never went more than 5 layers deep.  The second main story went up to 7 layers deep a couple times.  When I first realized the structure of the book, I was a little worried that I would get confused, so I started checking myself each time the story went into a deeper layer, recounting to myself the steps that had led there.  I was always able to do so quickly and without confusion, and I think that process helped me keep it all straight in my head.  I could see where some people might find this book disorienting, though.  For me, it may have helped that this type of thought process is part of my day job as a programmer; I kept making comparisons to it while I was reading.  Reading this was kind of like keeping track of the call stack while reading or debugging a program as it progresses forward and backward through layers of subroutines. 

 

The stories all borrow heavily from fairy tales.  This was especially noticeable to me since I had read through The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales earlier this year.  It really isn’t a retelling of any of those stories, but there were lots of little nods, sometimes with similarities and sometimes with twists, and with the tiniest hint of satire.  Unlike many of the Grimm’s tales, however, this book was internally consistent, the characters’ actions made sense, and it never felt silly. 

 

I do still have a little bit of Fairy Tale Fatigue from the Grimm’s book though, so that might have impacted my enjoyment of some of the stories.  Some layers were more interesting than others, so the book didn’t always hold my interest, which is the main reason I’m not rating it higher.

 

Next Book

In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente, the sequel to this book.

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review 2017-09-04 13:08
Review: The Urth of the New Sun (The Book of the New Sun Book 5 of 5)
The Urth of the New Sun - Gene Wolfe

This was the last book in the series The Book of the New Sun.  For the most part, I really liked it, and I might even have rated it higher than the four stars I’ve consistently given the other books in this series.  However, I thought it went off the rails a bit toward the end.

 

It gave me the answers I was looking for in terms of what happened after the end of the fourth book, and I enjoyed the story it told.  Then, without giving anything away, it shed new light on many of the events from those first four books, and gave more meaning to them, and I also really enjoyed that.  Some things were spelled out, but others were quite a bit more subtle, and I enjoyed catching the various references.

 

My problem was that I thought the author went too far with it by the end.  Just as I was admiring the cleverness, he took things a few steps further.  I felt like, in an attempt to keep things twisty and complicated, he robbed it of some of the meaningfulness.  Kind of like a cook who can’t stop tweaking his recipe until it doesn’t taste quite right anymore, or a painter who keeps adding “just a bit more” to his design until it’s no longer quite as pleasing to the eye.

 

A smaller complaint I had with the series in general is that, since the story centers around Severian, there are some characters who play a large role in the series but for whom we don’t get much closure because their paths diverge.  There was one character in particular that I really wanted more follow-up on, especially considering how often he was remembered and referenced in Severian’s narrative.

 

Over all, though, I enjoyed this series quite a lot.  I liked that it wasn’t simple or straight forward, and I liked its unique (in my experience) blend of some of the best elements from both science fiction and fantasy.  For now, there are many other authors and books I’m interested in trying, but I’d like to cycle back around to give Wolfe another try sometime down the road.

 

Next Book

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.  This will be my first time reading Heinlein and I’m not too sure what to expect.  I have a variety of nebulous impressions based on comments I’ve seen here and there, but now it’s time to find out for myself.

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review 2017-09-01 20:53
Review: The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun Book 4 of 5)
The Citadel of the Autarch - Gene Wolfe

This is the fourth book in the series The Book of the New Sun.  There’s still one more book, but this was the conclusion to the main story arc that our main character, Severian, has been telling us.  This review is therefore more of a review of the first four books as a whole than it is of this fourth book in particular.

 

I’ve enjoyed this series quite a bit.  It’s an interesting mix of genres.  It was clear from early on that this was really science fiction, and that becomes increasingly apparent as the series progresses, but the setting feels more like a fantasy setting and the story-telling method makes it feel more like an epic fantasy story.

 

The story is a bit complicated.  Maybe complicated is the wrong word, because it really isn’t difficult to follow or understand, but there are a lot of little bits and pieces that we’re introduced to separately.  We have to weave some of those pieces together for ourselves to understand the bigger picture, and we have to be paying attention once the narrator finally weaves some of the other pieces together for us.  I’ve seen several people say the series improves with re-reading, and I can definitely understand how that would be true.  I felt like I grasped most of it, but I’m sure I missed more things than I realized and would understand other things more deeply if I ever read it again.  This isn’t a series to pick up if you’re in the mood for a light read, but it’s a good one if you want something you can sink your teeth into. 

 

Despite my above description, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a twisty series.  On the one hand, the story ended very, very far from where I ever would have guessed based on its beginning.  On the other hand, the foreshadowing is pretty blatant.  There were surprises, but nothing shocking.  Severian, our narrator, gives us small hints here and there, and he also flat-out tells us some things in advance.  In other cases, he recounts conversations in which somebody gives him answers, but he somehow fails to grasp what he's told because it’s so contrary to what he believed to be true.  So he ignores what he's told and continues to carry on as if his own beliefs were true.  Then, later on in the narrative when he “discovers” the thing he had already been told and recounts it to us, he acts like we the reader should be as surprised as he was.  Severian claims a few times that he’s not particularly intelligent, and I frequently agreed with him. :)  Still, while he exasperated me a few times throughout the series, and occasionally did things I disliked very much, he also grew on me and I mostly enjoyed reading his story.

 

This book wrapped things up pretty well, although not in a neat bow for sure.  Severian himself speculates about explanations for some of the things he never found definite answers for, and sometimes his speculations made me question things I had thought I knew the answers to.  There’s also a pretty big “What happens next?” question at the end, as Severian’s life has recently taken a brand new twist and he has an upcoming task that sounds pretty interesting.  I might have been a little exasperated if this had been the last book, so I look forward to reading the fifth book to hopefully find out where things go from here.

 

Next Book

The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, the fifth and final book in this series.

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review 2017-08-28 01:48
Review: The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun Book 3 of 5)
The Sword of the Lictor - Gene Wolfe

This is the third book in the series The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.  I don’t have too much to say about it, but I enjoyed it at the same level as the previous two. 

 

The previous book had a couple things that drove me nuts, and this book did not.  Even Severian’s constant harping about his perfect memory is toned down to a more tolerable level.  The story also held my interest pretty consistently all the way through.  On the other hand, there really weren’t any secondary characters in this book that I felt attached to like I had in the previous book. 

 

I have one very spoiler-ish thing to talk about in spoiler tags:

I did really like Little Severian and the brief period in which our Severian takes on the role of his father.  The boy’s death really caught me by surprise.  I guess it was supposed to be ironic that at one point Severian muses that he isn’t sure which he was more worried about losing, the boy or his sword, when he’s climbing up mountains with both on his back.  By the end of the book, he’s lost both.

(spoiler show)

 

This book continues to create more questions, but it also answered or hinted at answers to quite a few things.  On to the fourth book!

 

Next Book

The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe, the fourth book in this series.

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review 2017-08-26 20:17
Review: The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun Book 2 of 5)
The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe

This is the second book in the series The Book of the New Sun.  I liked it at about the same level as I liked the first.  I was particularly wrapped up in the story for the first half or so, but my interest started to fade a little toward the end.

 

One of the sections near the end that I really had trouble getting through was the play.  There’s a fairly large chapter in which we’re given the script for a play that is performed.  I’ve never been crazy about reading things in that format to begin with, and it didn’t help that I wasn’t prepared for it and that I reached that point in the book last night when I was exhausted after my 19th straight day of work.  I ended up putting the book down, going to sleep, and then backtracking a few pages to read the play from the beginning this morning.  I was able to follow it better after some sleep, but I still didn’t particularly enjoy it.

 

One other thing that got on my nerves was Severian, the narrator, continually reminding the reader that he doesn’t forget anything.  I wish he could just remember how many times he’s told us that and stop telling us!  If the reader doesn’t understand the implications of this by now, they’re never going to, so please stop torturing the rest of us.

 

Really though, I did enjoy this book, despite a few annoyances.  I particularly enjoyed one of the characters who was introduced near the end of the previous book and played a large role throughout much of this book.  I’m hopeful we’ll learn more about him as the series progresses.  There were some interesting hints and revelations about him throughout this book.

 

Things got really strange at the very end, so hopefully the next book will pick up with that and clear things up.  However, the second book left a gap after the end of the first book and that gap is only vaguely filled in as the reader progresses through the second book, so I’m not particularly optimistic that I’ll get any quick answers.  It’s an interesting series, though, with a pretty unique style.

 

Next Book

The third book in this series, The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe.

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