The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 5
Worldbuilding: 5+

An astonishingly spectacular book! So many superlatives! This is not my typical reading material – my son has been trying to get me to read this for two years (literally) but I’ve been dragging my feet (it is REALLY long). Still, once started I was completely sucked in and could not put it down (luckily I’m retired and have plenty of time).

You could say Sanderson’s books are like Game of Thrones without all of the sex – but I found more interesting differences. While there is plenty of action and political intrigue, there were strong themes of leadership, righteousness, nobility, morality, and living by a code of ethics in the face of multitudes who are not. Sanderson has invented an entire world in meticulous detail from descriptions of the geography to the minutia of daily life in the multiple cultures that populate it. Entire histories and the mythologies that predate the written history are embedded in the current issues facing the characters. These highly complex sets of cultures, practices, and codes are delineated through individual stories so you absorb the culture by becoming part of it.

We follow three major characters tackling their own problems, all of which are part of the larger context of a world on the edge of disaster. Kaladin – with exceptional skills for soldiering and healing but somehow marked with a slave brand and trying to survive as one of the lowest classes of men – those who carry bridges for soldiers to use to cross large chasms in battle. He is driven by a desperate need to protect, but continually faces odds that don’t allow him to do so. Shallan is a young girl sent to steal a Soulcaster from the King’s sister, Jasnah, in order to save her family’s fortunes. However, she falls in love with scholarship and the burning questions on which Jasnah is focussed (in this world, men are warriors and women read and write and are the primary scholars!) Lastly, Dalinar is a high prince and the epitome of the noble warrior. He is beset by disturbing visions that make others assume he is losing his mind. He is proud, honest, and strives to live by a strict code of conduct that values life. These characters learn and grow throughout the story, something I find rare in typical adventure tales. The three stories weave together to explore what is happening in the world and how it relates to the mythologies of the past and the forebodings of the future.

I felt bound to the characters in this book and cared about them. The novel’s end provided closure (no cliffhangers) and yet set up the next in the series beautifully (there are five planned, three available now). Fascinating and skillfully described lessons on morality, ethics, and leadership via character’s reflections on their own struggles with these concepts. Some of the scenes literally made me cry because of the power of the nobility they expressed. I will say that there were too many battle scenes for my taste and I did have to skim some of them – carefully because within the battle scenes there was a great deal of character exploration and strengthening. But other than that, a top read for me. I need to catch up on some other reading first, but then will leap into book two…

Educated by Tara Westover

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4
Disturbing in places

A remarkably level headed tale of the “education” the author received growing up. The youngest of seven children born to an ultra strict Mormon, survivalist, anti-government, and probably bipolar man and his wife in rural Idaho, Tara Westover never went to school, never saw a doctor (even for life threatening illnesses and accidents), and was not allowed to wear a seat belt. She was called a whore if skin showed accidentally or if her father or older brothers determined she was acting in a “whorish” fashion. When she wanted a birth certificate, the family could not even agree on the day that she was born.

This memoir takes her from birth through receiving her PhD from Cambridge at the age of 27. Her PhD topic: “The Family, Morality, and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890”, including a chapter on Mormonism as a social movement. The story is gripping, both in the details of actual events and in her reflections on how to become the person she is meant to be when there are such strong voices in her head telling her about government plots, whorish behavior, and false history. Homeopathic remedies, work in a scrap metal business, Y2K scares, some physical abuse and the lies people build around themselves – all told in a matter-of-fact style that lays is out without over-emotionalizing.

Great for fans of Jeanette Walls or Jill Kerr Conway.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5
World building: 5+

“The student wouldn’t stop doing her homework, and it was going to kill her” – a great first line in the best SF book I’ve read this decade!

In 2144, Property is king, bots run the gamut from carpet cleaners to fully conscious beings capable of love, people and bots are subject to indenture laws, and bio technology can keep you alive and young if you can afford it. Enter Judith “Jack” Chen, an IP pirate who has always dreamed of doing “Good Science”. She reverse engineers drugs from Big Pharma in order to finance giving anti-vitals and gene therapy to those in need. Unfortunately, her last money-maker, though correctly reproduced, is killing people and now the International Property Coalition is after her and they have a license to pursue using any means at hand.

That’s the story line, but the novel is so much more. The two agents sent after Jack are a human (Eliasz) and an advanced military bot (Paladin) with an embedded human brain. Throughout the chase, as Jack tries to engineer a fix and Eliasz and Paladin try to follow her tracks, we are plunged into a fabulous and yet utterly plausible world of the future.

Gender issues, love between different kinds of beings, what it means to be conscious, to have privacy, to be autonomous – these are issues that are explored in depth using the context of a society that has developed AI based beings and legislation to both protect and yet somehow further enslave them. I love when Paladin explores what actions stem from her programming and what from her conscious decision – so applicable to humans as well!

Newitz’ writing flows with such clear descriptions of the physical and networked environment that you slip into the world with no effort, learning a whole new language without struggle. Her characters feel real – each has complex motivations and desires, and each is trying to both survive and do something important in the world into which they have been born. They don’t easily fall into the typical “good guys” and “bad guys” so prevalent in most SF works.

Neal Stephenson says “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet” and I have to say I agree with him. There are plenty of analogies to our social issues but with the extrapolation to a future populated by bots at various levels of consciousness – it’s very hard not to give everything away I’ll stop here and just say – go buy now!

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4
Environment / World Building: 5

Tom Hazard is 420 years old and looks 30. He was born in March 1581 and “suffers” from a condition that causes him to age a single year for every fifteen years that elapse. Having these kinds of “powers” during the 1600s does not always attract the right kind of attention and Tom is forced to separate from family and friends on more than one occasion. At some point he discovers he is not alone – there is a “society” of people with the same condition – he joins this society, hoping it will be a kind of family to help ward off the incredible loneliness that comes from consistently outliving his loved ones, but there are certain rules one agrees to when joining which are not always easy to follow.

Tom serves as our narrator in this rich tale exploring the psychological and physiological ramifications of a life lived more slowly than average. The story moves back and forth from the present to various times in his past (each carefully labeled to avoid reader confusion – thank you!). We travel to London in the 1600s, the 1800s, and the present (as well as other places and times) and experience each as a first person memory.

Haig (clearly a well-read man!) brings in philosophy, poetry, music, and an incredibly vibrant sense of history as experienced and synthesized by a man who has literally lived through it all. The quotations (from the likes of Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Dickinson, Dr. Johnson, etc.) are meaningful, concise, and on point. The historical figures (William Shakespeare, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, etc.) are vividly presented as live characters as seen through the subjective lens of our narrator.

I enjoyed most of the writing – particularly where Haig focuses on sympathetic characters and areas such as music, history, and philosophy – the prose in these sections just flows beautifully. There are a few parts where the writing becomes a little stiff and blocky, particularly around some of the less sympathetic characters. I was pleased with the ending – without giving anything away I thought it was realistic – not particularly uplifting and certainly not depressing but completely plausible and not contrived. A very enjoyable read infused with both perpetual nostalgia and hope for the future. As an aside, I spent some time looking up some of the historical events, language, and characters and found every one to be completely accurate – nicely done!

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4
#YA #mystery #romance

Breakfast Club meets Big Little Lies but then gets a lot better. I started off unenthusiastic but then literally could not put this book down – read it in a day, extending past my bedtime (and leading to a nasty crick in my neck from reading in bed – oh well).

Five Breakfast Club style teens are sent to detention for an infraction that none of them admit to committing. Before detention is over, one of them – a Hedda Hopper style school gossip columnist – is dead and only one of them could have done it.

Simple enough premise but the twists keep piling up and the relationships between the remaining four, their families, other students, the media, and the police are really well done. McManus manages to avoid stereotypes while subtly illustrating the way people are treated differently depending on their gender, group identity (jock, brain, etc), or sexual orientation. I found the characters multi-dimensional and was completely surprised by the way the story played out. My only complaint might be that the initial characters reminded me so much of the Breakfast Club that I had a hard time not seeing Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez every time their mirror characters came up – could be worse 🙂

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5
#uplifting #historicalfiction #epistolary

chilburyI love British WWII novels that focus on home front life and this novel is a perfect example of the type. The story of a group of women who make the decision (against conventional wisdom) to continue singing in their choir once all of the men have left is told through the letters and journals of the main characters: Mrs. Tilling, a somewhat timid widow and bulwark of the community; Kitty Winthrop, the 13 year-old daughter of the Brigadier, a bully who needs a male heir to hold on to the family fortune; Venetia, Kitty’s beautiful older sister; and Edwina Paltry, a midwife whose morals may be easily deformed by the offer of cash.

Just the right amount drama, romance, and action to keep you reading. The story has many interesting plot twists (some of the problems are solved a little too easily in my book but not egregiously so). Timely descriptions of issues of the day make appearances in the form of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, a dying homosexual soldier, and a variety of pregnancies. The writing is excellent. Really pleasant read – a great story with characters I would have loved to meet.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

New word: Mickle (archaic scottish) means large

It’s been awhile since I’ve actually finished a Neal Stephenson book – I loved Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon but haven’t been able to complete anything since. Did make it through this one – a convoluted, action-packed, story of witches, time travel, the military-industrial complex, and romps through history.

Interesting characters – Melisande Stokes, a classical scholar who jumps at the chance for a real salary when approached by Tristan Lyons, who needs a translator for a giant pile of ancient documents all of which mention witches; Erzsabet Karpathy, a Hungarian witch who has kept herself miserably alive for 150 years in order to help bring magic back once it dies completely in 1851; and the Odas – Frank (MIT physics professor) and his wife Rebecca.

Frankly a little more action than I care for (I get bored), but great plot twists and scenes of modern characters traveling through history and historic characters (anachrons) experiencing the modern day.