Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Goblin Emperor is such a treat!

The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Goblin Emperor is a delightfully refreshing fantasy novel replete with rich world building and a unique backdrop of gender and racial division that paints a poignant image of our own world’s challenges. Maia, the protagonist of mixed Elven and Goblin descent, becomes emperor when his father - who never communicates with him - and brothers are assassinated. Maia’s life is clearly in peril, the more so because he comes to court unacquainted with the political movers and shakers.

Rather than give spoilers I will concentrate on what I found rewarding about the story. First, Maia is a wonderful character with whom the reader becomes enchanted. It’s not the cute ear movement or his trustworthy nature (he is not naive because his cousin has been cruel to him since his mother died, guaranteeing that he knows everyone despises him for his goblin nature). No, the best part of Maia is his heart and faith in getting good outcomes by being just. Whether it’s entertaining the designs of engineers or his treatment of the other heirs, Maia has an excellent moral compass. Simply put, he needs a good heart more than cruel calculating mind to navigate the tricky political waters.

Another thing I loved in the story that will probably make many tear their hair out is the richness of the constructed language and the other aspects of the world building. It’s a unique place. There are elements of steampunk mixed with decidedly “low” high fantasy with blurry lines between intermarrying elves and goblins. The reader might assume (this one did) that the elves were delightful nature lovers full of song and magic à la Tolkien where the goblins are sinister creatures with hammers and swords for your babies in their cribs, but Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) rises above the trite and makes the reader determine the merits of each individual not on their racial background, but their unique qualities as individuals. This works really well and it’s a big deal that she uses her voice to make this vital point.

Women in Maia’s world are fully repressed. They are essentially birthing modules for the next generation, vehicles by which political alliances are formed. Maia seems to accept the status quo at face value, while undermining it as he can. Again, it adds to his character to be so enlightened and also forces the reader to reflect on other fantasy worlds and how the gender divide is navigated.

What about the story? Again no spoilers, because if I tell you that everyone dies in the end, will you like the story more or less. It’s the path to the end, not the end itself, and the company you keep along the way. In The Goblin Emperor, you’re in good company.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson is a wonderful tale!

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist, #1)The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Absolutely delightful. This is a story about Joel, the son of a deceased chalk maker whose mother is a cleaning lady in an expensive famous school. Part of the school is also dedicated to teaching Rithmatists, magicians who can animate chalk figures. Joel wants to be a rithmatist more than anything, but his one chance for induction into their exclusive community was thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. Even so, he is a gifted student, a genius in fact, with many talents and more challenges. This is his story.

I love the characters, especially Fitch, Joel, his mother, and Melody. I like the setting - seems like an impending disaster between the Rithmatist haves and the commoner have-nots until you realize that being a Rithmatist may not be so wonderful. The plot is snake-like and the story ends in a great cliffhanger that makes you want more. Clearly Sanderson will return here.

Aside from the characters and the plot, the magic system is very intriguing. Sanderson does a good job of explaining the geometry of the different formations and by the end of the story, you might be drawing figures yourself (I was). Aside from that there is the alternate history of the United Isles and doubts about whether the war against the wild chalklings is justified. What are wild chalklings anyhow? What is their nature? Why are they being held in the tower?

It's all a ton of food for thought and it will linger with you long after the story is complete. This to me is a sign of a great tale. The Rithmatist delivers a concise simple tale at the surface with a hidden depth that will keep you engaged long after the story is complete - a solid win!

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising, #2)The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Dark Is Rising, the second novel of The Dark Is Rising Sequence, a set of five novels of speculative fiction and fantasy published from 1965 to 1977, is a lot more sinister than the first novel of the series: Over Sea, Under Stone. The setting is Christmastime in the English countryside some 50 years ago where Will Stanton is turning 11 years old. Will learns on his birthday that he is an Old One, one of the magical beings that are able to step through Time and alter the universe in a myriad of ways. He also learns about the great moral war between the forces of Light and Dark, which are first presented in the earlier novel.

In Over Sea, Under Stone, the forces of Dark are somewhat bungling, overbearing adults who manage to become threatening during the course of the novel despite their shortcomings. Eight years later, Susan Cooper’s villains are a lot nastier, and the stakes are higher. Merriman returns from the first book, but is not the gay Gumerry who is engaged in carefree exploration of the world. This Merriman is presented as a complex character with blemishes, including a mistake (Hawkin) that puts Will’s life in jeopardy and makes one question whether the motives of Light are inherently good and just. There are other occurrences that raise the same concern, and the reader’s certainty is challenged.

I love how she paints settings. Whether it’s inside the manor or trudging in the snow in the countryside, the descriptive nature of her language is rich and flavorful. You can smell the dung and see the expressions on the faces of the characters. One area of weakness is the time travel aspects of the story where there is some hand waving (credit to her for bring it up through Will’s questions) about the inevitable ramifications of altering the past.

My largest criticism is that the plot seems predictable, because Will is on a quest to collect six signs that are presented in a poem. The six signs are wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone and collectively they represent the power to repel the Dark. Thus, the simplified plot becomes “Will the Sign-Seeker, 7th son of 7th son, collects the signs and defeats the Dark”, which is forecast early on in the story. Will overcomes a ton of obstacles along the way, and the end battle is colorful and filled with uncertainty, but the gist of the story follows Will on his journey and there are no surprises. Another constriction is that the time allotted is small, essentially the time from Will’s birthday through the 12th day of Christmas.

Even so, the story feels expansive and the war between Light and Dark, an ongoing war since the beginning of human civilization, is compelling. The reader is well rewarded for suspending disbelief. The characters feel fuller than Over Sea, Under Stone, and the question of Hawkin makes Merriman enormously more complex than Gumerry of the first book.

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Over Sea Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising, #1)Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first novel in the Dark Is Rising sequence, a five book seiries published from 1965 to 1977, is perhaps the story most directed to younger audiences. The principal characters in the story are Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew. Their family is visiting a fishing village in Cornwall called Trewissick where they are meeting their great-uncle Merriman Lyon, renowned for his puzzling behavior and reputation for outlandish explorations. They are lodged at Grey House, and while exploring they find an old drawing, which they later decide is a treasure map. Barney, who is obsessed with Arthurian tales, discovers a relationship between the map and those old legends. Much of the novel deals with the mystery of how the map is solved.

Meanwhile, they also stumble into a war between two opposed powers: the Dark and the Light. The Dark is a widespread network of evil agents who are trying to destroy order in the universe, replacing it with regimes where power is achieved by force instead of reason. Opposed to the Dark are the forces of Light, who seem weaker, but are victorious when allied with courage and positivity. Their Grand-Uncle Merry, or Gumerry, is an agent of Light, and the village is crawling with dangerous members of the Dark who also desire the treasure to which the map leads. Thus is the lives of the Drew children put into jeopardy and the fun begins.

It is a lot of fun really. The innocence of the children and their inherent goodness endears the reader to them, and there is never any question whose side you should favor. For this reason, if you are looking for complexity and character moral conflict, you will find this story somewhat lacking. There are no gray lines here. Dark and Light are absolutes of Evil and Good. You could quibble and follow the logic of the Dark that attacks Merriman’s character (his actions are mysterious and his motives are perhaps more complex than he lets on), but the Drew children never falter. Anyway, my point is that this is far more like Tolkienesque absolutism than Westerosi relativity.

One thing I really liked were the characters. The children were very believable. I love Merriman too and the Vicar (one of the villains). The plot is relatively straightforward as you would expect given the audience. The moral conflict becomes a question of how bravery can overcome the forces of terror.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Is she coming first even if she is cumming first?

She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a WomanShe Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman by Ian Kerner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been a while since I've read a non-fiction book about sexuality (the last was the excellent Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex), and because it is an area of intense interest where actual breakthroughs are few, I thought I'd give Kerner's book a chance. I'm embarrassed to admit that I believe I'd read it before and forgotten, so take my comments with that in mind.

The overwhelming theme of the book is that a woman's pleasure is the most important aspect of sex, for it rewards both partners. This is not a revolutionary idea in 2015, nor in 2004 when the book was published, but the proportion of informed lovers to bedroom clods seems to change only slowly - much to the detriment of women everywhere. Part of this is our society that teaches about sex in the wrong way and, as Kerner points out, a lot of misconceptions are spread from pornography. As such, in this alone I applaud his message. Compounded with the suggestions for good wine, iambic Shakespearean sonnets traced upon the vulva, and good side stories (the one about Jackson Pollock is priceless), and the book's worth is unquestionable.

The prose is clinical. Even when describing the most delectable parts of a woman's anatomy and how to stimulate them with the tongue & fingers, the tone is professional and the level of erotic engagement almost reaches the level of the instructions for assembling Ikea furniture. The actual information is both interesting and, in some cases, at least questionable. The illustrations, too, or non-erotic. If you want to see gleaming genital frenula, you still have to go to dodgier places. On the positive side, though, you can read She Comes First in the library without feeling perverted.

The book's intention is to inform about a woman's sexual anatomy, redesign the sexual encounter by changing the focus of the moment from intercourse to "coreplay" (which is mostly cunnilingus), and create a plan that can be followed to bring a woman to orgasm using these techniques. There are even cheat sheets. On the surface this seems like a positive plan. The problems appear in the execution however.

The author rolls the labia (both sets), frenulum, front commissure, mons pubis, perineum, and the fourchette (along with the actual clitoris) into parts of a clitoral system, basing his redefinition on work by Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. This might be overly pedantic, but shouldn't we just keep the word 'vulva' instead? The erogenous zone known as the G-Spot becomes a part of the clitoral cluster (sorry Dr. Gräfenberg - your time was short, but sweet). In any case, the book proceeds to document the best way to stimulate each element. Here alone was the zeal - in the execution of different techniques - and I began to have a nervous feeling (after the suggestion of leg restraint without - except in the appendix - any discussion of safe words and so forth) about the conditions of the research. The thought could best be expressed is "was the purpose of giving her orgasms for her benefit or his?" which could be recast is "is she really coming first even if she is cumming first?" Let's move away from that dark corner though and focus on another problem, which I think runs even deeper and is fundamental to the entire issue about books like these.

One thing I have learned is that women are not problems to be solved. They aren't also something to be generalized such that a user manual of techniques must be employed to leap from floundering to satisfaction. That really is just another form of objectifying them and a list of steps to bring your lover to orgasm misses the entire purpose of making love - the devotion to the spiritual moment that supersedes all terrestrial considerations. It's axiomatic. Lose yourself together and you'll find yourself together again at a peak.

The final complaint I have is the idea that men are responsible for a woman's orgasms. That's a very outdated way of thinking, still bordering on quaint in 2015, but getting lots of mold on the edges. Sex is a participatory endeavor and the results rely on the skillful execution of both parties.

All this being said, there is enough in "She Comes First" to recommend the book, especially to someone who doesn't have much world experience (or does but is misguided in thinking that his orgasm is the main event). I also think it's a decent book for women to read to understand their anatomy better, though my gut feeling is that most thinking women have already figured all of this out already.

Werner's side stories were the most endearing parts and I'm not going to spoil any of these, but I promise they're worth the price of admission. I also applaud his intent to focus on female satisfaction, but wonder if - even in 2004 - he was behind the curve. It doesn't really matter though. It's the outcome that matters. Right? Outcomes. Climaxes. Or is it the journey?

Perhaps that's a better question to ponder the difference between men and women's sexuality.

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