Posts Tagged With: Literature

“Mind of My Mind” by Octavia Butler

“Mind of My Mind” is the second book in Octavia Butler’s Patternist series (chronologically, at any rate).  It works as a standalone, so don’t sweat it if you pick this one up first.

In Wild Seed, we were introduced to Doro, a mutant immortal who survives by jumping from body to body.  He was born in ancient Egypt, and ever since he realized what he was, he’s been bringing people together to try to genetically engineer a race of beings like himself.  Normally he doesn’t succeed, and his descendents just end up going crazy.  Generally people come into their psy powers around the age of 17 or 18, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.  It sucks to have telepathy if you can’t control what emotions you pick up, and so many of Doro’s breed end up killing themselves because they can’t handle all of the negative feelings that surround them.  It’s a pretty grim reality, and Doro doesn’t have any feelings of guilt about it.

“Mind of My Mind” is the story of Mary, one of Doro’s children.  When she reaches her transition, she becomes Doro’s first success.  Rather than going crazy, she ends up building a mental web of telepaths, with herself at the center.  Mary is the complete version of what Doro should have been, and as such, Doro feels as if Mary’s existence is a threat to his own power that he has accumulated through the generations.

One of the things that I found fascinating in this book was the way that Octavia Butler focused on the points of view of each of the original characters caught up in Mary’s pattern.  We get to see and understand a little bit about each of them and how their feelings evolve over time as they adapt to being a part of something larger than themselves and beyond their control.

I’ve read two of Octavia Butler’s novels before, Wild Seed and Kindred.  Both of them focused a lot on the concept of slavery.  “Mind of My Mind” did use power as a central theme, but this time the focus was on the proper use of power, and the fact that it can be used for good as well as for evil.  On one hand we see Doro, who uses his power without compassion solely to pursue his own ends.  His progeny are essentially his slaves, and if he doesn’t use them for breeding, he uses them as new host bodies.  On the other hand, we have Mary, who is more of a mother figure, despite the fact that she is telepathically linked to her Patternists in a position of power.  She brings people into her web because it helps them to deal with their own emotions and abilities, giving them a more peaceful existence.  And of course, Octavia Butler manages to smack you over the head with the implications of both Doro and Mary’s existences.  That’s one of the things that I love about Octavia Butler.  Even after three books, she’s still continuing to shock me.

I’d recommend Octavia Butler to anyone looking for sci-fi that explores racial and gender themes.  The Patternist series provides a fascinating glimpse into a society of telepaths, and “Mind of My Mind” is a gripping and fast-paced continuation.  I had planned on posting this review during the “A More Diverse Universe” event, but the week just slipped by before I could get to it.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“Among Others” by Jo Walton

Over the past few months, many of you have recommended that I read “Among Others” by Jo Walton, both because of the magical and ethereal atmosphere and the numerous references to science fiction and fantasy novels.  I borrowed a copy from the library and loved it every bit as much as you all said that I would!

The story is set largely in a boarding school, which made me reminisce about the books of my childhood.  Stories like A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, and even Harry Potter captivated my imagination, and to this day I associate boarding schools with a vaguely sinister sense of magic and wonder.

The protagonist is a teenage girl named Mori.  Her mother is a witch, and she talks to fairies, but it isn’t what you’d expect.  The story takes a slow and meandering pace, mostly focusing on Mori’s struggles to fit in with her peers and her daily trials and tribulations.  She feels like she’s an outsider, and takes solace in reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy.

Think of this as a memoir.  Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class, and creed from the way they’d made everybody think.  I have the opposite problem.  I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal.  Fiction’s nice.  Fiction lets you select and simplify.  This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story.  But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story.  It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.

The real magic of “Among Others,” to me, is that Mori reminded me of my own teenage self.  She would have been a kindred spirit.  Of course, I gravitated to philosophy rather than sci-fi at the time, and spent my afternoons in the company of Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, but the sentiment remains the same.  Many of you probably had similar experiences, and like Mori, used books as a form of escapism to survive your teenage years.  The fairies take a backseat to this overarching theme, but that’s okay, and I wouldn’t have wanted the story to play out in any other way.

One of the things that I enjoyed here was the way that Jo Walton describes magic.  It’s a subtle idea, and is treated as the causative force behind coincidences.  At several points in the story, I wondered if it was all simply in Mori’s head, and that she was inventing the fairies to reconcile herself with a difficult childhood.  I changed my mind as the novel progressed, but the fact that magic seemed so normal and almost dismissible made it even more special to me.  It makes you feel bad for the people who are unable to recognize it.

As a brief forewarning, “Among Others” is the kind of book that will make you want to read more books.  Be prepared for that.  It will make you want to spend your evenings curled up with Silverberg, LeGuin, or Zelanzy.

I would recommend this to you if you spent your childhood exploring the worlds found within books.  It’s not for everyone, obviously, but I get the feeling that most of you reading this are the type of people who would love it.


I read this as part of the Award Winning Books Challenge, as “Among Others” won a well-deserved Hugo award several weeks ago.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Magical Realism, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

“Digital Rapture,” edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel

I received an advance copy of “Digital Rapture” from the publishers at Tachyon in exchange for an honest review.  Tachyon puts out a lot of wonderful books by some of my favorite authors, including Charles de Lint, Patricia McKillip, and Brandon Sanderson, and the fact that there’s a press named after a theoretical particle makes me happy.

“Digital Rapture” is the type of anthology where the order of the selections conveys a greater meaning.  The book explores the concept of Singularity, or the idea that humanity might one  day be replaced by robots, taking the idea of evolution to a unique but still logical conclusion.  The book is broken into four distinct sections:  The End of the Human Era, The Post Humans, Across the Event Horizon, and The Others.  Each section explores the idea of Singularity in greater depth and at a later point in time.  It was interesting to be able to see the progression of the idea of Singularity, beginning from the notion that superhuman intelligences could exist and culminating in “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe.”

As with any anthology, there were stories in this book that I loved as well as some that were rather “meh” or just went over my head.  I’m going to talk about some of my favorites in the collection.  It was hard for me to decide which to discuss here because so many were excellent!

“The Last Human” by Isaac Asimov is written in Asimov’s typical style.  Rather than focusing on specific characters, we see the progression and exploration of an idea as different humans throughout history ask a computer whether entropy can be reversed.  I loved the ending.

“Thought and Action” by Olaf Stapledon is a selection from his larger novel entitled Odd John.  The story explores whether beings with superhuman abilities will be bound by the same morality that we are.  In this story, John rationalizes committing a murder, and we see that he truly doesn’t believe that it was wrong.

“Sunken Gardens” by Bruce Sterling is set on Mars.  Humans have taken several different evolutionary paths, and each sect has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Small sections of Mars are terraformed in a competition in which different offshoots of humanity are in the running for an elevation of rank for their entire faction.  The protagonist, a woman named Mirasol, must think outside the box in order to achieve victory.

“The Cookie Monster” by Vernor Vinge begins as a mystery.  A new tech support staffer named Dixie Mae gets a message containing information that should theoretically only be known by her, causing her to start asking questions about where it came from.  She begins to realize that she’s not real, but rather a conscious simulation in a larger computer program.  This story fascinated me because we got to see in detail how a computer could evolve consciousness and yet maintain the patience to communicate with itself after a multitude of life cycles and re-boots.  This was one of my favorites in the collection.

Another favorite was “Cracklegargle” by Justina Robson.  Also a mystery of sorts, it tells the story of a man who enlists the help of a post-human gargoyle creature to help him find his missing daughter.  One of the ideas present in the story is that strong emotions leave a tangible mark on the world, but our own perception is so limited that we can’t see it.  The idea of material consciousness was intriguing, and I liked the way that the story played with the kind of ideas found in ghost stories and translated them into sci-fi.

“True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum intrigued me, but at the same time was difficult to understand.  The story focuses on three primal forces, Beebe, Demiurge, and Brobdignag.  Each of those entities is capable of running simulations of the others, and each also contains multiple smaller beings that are capable of self-replication.  The story focuses on those self-replicating beings, and how different iterations of the prima donna Nadia, the philosopher Paquette, and Alonzo, the man that they both love, interact with each other.  If it sounds complicated, it is, but it was also fascinating, and may merit a re-read or two so I can understand it better.

Overall, I enjoyed this “Digital Rapture” tremendously.  It was the kind of anthology that could entertain, but at the same time made me think and ponder the possibilities that the future could hold.  I recommend it.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

Today is the release date of The Mirrored World, a novel which tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who became a holy fool and is revered for her charity to the poor.  I had the opportunity to meet Debra Dean at a book signing while at BEA, and I am delighted to be able to host an author interview with her today.

What inspired you to write “The Mirrored World”?

I was researching my first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I stumbled on the story of Xenia, this 18th century woman who gave up a life of relative ease to become a holy fool. I wondered, what kind of person becomes a saint? And just as importantly, what would it be like if you cared deeply for this person and you saw her turning onto such an extreme path?

What made you choose to write about Russia?

I can find no logical explanation for it, beyond the fact that Russia has amazing stories. I’m not Russian, I don’t speak or read Russian, and prior to completing The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Have your personal experiences impacted your writing in any way?

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that nothing in your life is wasted. Everything that happens to you – all of it, even the miserable stuff – can be put to use.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to my life than the 18th century Russian setting of The Mirrored World, but there’s at least a little bit of me in all those characters. For instance, like Xenia and Dasha, I am a compulsive collector of feathers and pretty rocks and shells. We have feral peacocks in our neighborhood, and every time I find a feather, I feel like I’ve won a little prize.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

For me? Making the time, and then having the courage to show up when I do have the time.

What are some of your other interests?  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a lot of interests, but I’m afraid most of them get thrown under the bus in favor of whatever book I’m working on. That said, I still squirrel away a little time to practice yoga and to see friends and cook them the occasional dinner.

What are some of your favorite books?

The answer will change depending on what day you ask. Today, what comes to mind are Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson; James Salter’s Light Years; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Those are a little older. More recent books: I love Luis Urrea’s Hummingbird’s Daughter and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Oh, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I like reading slowly, so I gravitate to books that are image-rich and masterful in their use of language.


Debra Dean is the New York Times Bestselling author of “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and the award-winning short story collection “Confessions of a Falling Woman.”

Categories: Author Interviews, Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N. K. Jemisin

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N. K. Jemisin tells the story of a young woman named Yeine Darr.  After her mother is murdered, she is summoned to Sky, the capital of the Arameri, by her grandfather, who is the ruler of the world.  The Arameri are renowned for their cruelty and have maintained absolute power through the enslavement of powerful gods known as the Enefadeh.  When Yeine arrives in Sky, she learns that she and two of her Arameri cousins are contenders for her grandfather’s throne.  Yeine allies herself with the Enefadeh, who are as dangerous friends as they are enemies, as she becomes wrapped up in a plot that could threaten her very life.

The story is told through Yeine’s voice, but uses flashbacks to both childhood memories and religious stories to accomplish worldbuilding.  It’s mostly told in the first person, but sometimes Yeine breaks the fourth wall and speaks to us directly.  The style worked for me far better than a giant infodump would have, and allowed relevant details about the setting to be introduced as they become meaningful to the story.  However, it’s the sort of thing that isn’t for everything, and my prediction is that readers will either love it or hate it.

One of the major themes throughout the novel is the difference between the way that children perceive their parents and the way that they really are.  Yeine keeps asking questions about her mother while trying to reconcile herself with her murder, only to find that her mother wasn’t always the kind and gentle person whom she remembered, but rather a scheming Arameri woman who didn’t shy away from using torture or sex to achieve her own ends.  Her mother was a complex character with a variety of motivations, and Yeine’s memories only portrayed one facet of her character.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jemisin’s writing is the setting.  Most fantasy novels take place in some permutation of medieval Europe.  This one doesn’t.  “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” features a large and diverse group of nations that are overseen by the Arameri.  For example, Yeine’s home nation of Darre is a matrilineal warrior society.  On a similar note, this isn’t the type of fantasy world where all (or almost all) of the characters are white.

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is the first novel in the Inheritance Trilogy, but it can function as a standalone.  The two novels that follow it each focus on different characters at different points in history who have their own self-contained story arcs.  I was very happy to see that Yeine’s storyline was resolved, and I was quite pleased with the ending.

You might not like this one if you have a weak stomach; the torture scenes here make the ones in Scott Lynch’s novels look tame by comparison, and they always caught me by surprise.  Jemisin doesn’t shy away from violence or the darker sides of human nature.

I’d recommend “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” to anyone looking for fantasy set in a world that’s refreshingly different from the norm.  If  enslaved trickster gods and a devious inbred ruling class sound appealing, then this one’s for you.


I read this book as part of the Award Winning Books Challenge hosted by Gathering Books.  “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” won a Locus Award in 2011, as well as being a Hugo and Nebula nominee.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Do You Read in the Bathtub?

By Bruno Cordioli from Milano, Italy [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsIf you’re a bathtub reader (like myself), someone’s probably asked you at least once,  “You’re not taking a book in there, are you?  Aren’t you afraid you’ll drop it?”

I’m a fan of bathtub reading, albeit with certain rules.  The book has to be something lighthearted and not too serious.  It can’t be so big that it can’t be comfortably held in one hand, which rules out Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin, and any other large tomes you might have lying about.  It also has to be something that isn’t irreplaceable in case of an accident, which for me generally means nothing that’s signed, out of print, or hasn’t been released yet.  Oh, and positively no e-readers!  That’s just asking for trouble, even if you did put it in a watertight ziplock bag.

What about you?  Do you read in the bathtub?  What are your preferred bathtub-reading books?

Categories: Other | Tags: , , | 28 Comments

“Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler

I received a review copy of Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” from the publishers via Netgalley.  The book was originally written in 1980, and is being re-released as an e-book by Open Road Integrated Media.

Before I get into my review in which I gush about how awesome Octavia Butler is, I’d like to share this video which is a mini-documentary (it’s only about two minutes long) about her life and writing.  It features Samuel Delaney and N.K. Jemisin talking about her books, and it makes me very happy.

“Wild Seed” is the first book in the Patternist series, but it was the last one published.  It’s one of the C. S. Lewis type deals where the books don’t go in the order that they were written, and I’m okay with that.  Apparently Butler didn’t like “Survivor,” so it hasn’t been reprinted since the 70s.

If you’d like to read the series chronologically, it goes:

  1. Wild Seed
  2. Mind of My Mind
  3. Clay’s Ark
  4. Survivor
  5. Patternmaster

“Wild Seed” describes a power struggle between two immortal mutants, Doro and Anyanwu.  Doro was born in ancient Egypt, but he is able to switch from one body to another at a whim, killing the person whose form he takes.  He is obsessed with trying to find others who could share his longevity, and so he begins a breeding program, gathering up psychically talented individuals in the hopes of creating a race of gifted mutants.  This quest takes him to a small village in Africa, where he discovers Anyanwu, a shape-shifting medicine woman who has been alive for three hundred years.  Anyanwu is lured by Doro’s vision and the hope that she could have children who would not die, and agrees to come with him to the New World, where she begins to realize that she has become his slave.

So, there’s the obvious slavery theme.  Octavia Butler whacks you over the head with the realization of the emotional and psychological impact of slavery, not just in the moment that it happens, but also the way that it shapes future generations.  She’s not gentle about it, and it comes with a bit of a shock.  She makes sure her readers get it.  She’s a very special writer because she is able to explore topics like slavery, race, and gender in her stories in such a way that she perfectly captures the dynamics of different relationships, but at the same time she’s not preachy about it.  Her messages are organically woven into the story, and it’s brilliant.

“Wild Seed” is a mix of alternate-history/historical fiction/sci-fi.  One of the things that I enjoyed was the way that Anyanwu’s powers were described; she has the ability to rearrange the molecules of her body to cure sicknesses or take different forms.

“There were things in your hand that should not have been there,” she told him.  “Living things too small to see.  I have no name for them, but I can feel them and know them when I take them into my body.  As soon as I know them, I can kill them within myself.  I gave you a little of my body’s weapon against them.”

And just like that, she gives Anwanyu knowledge of germ theory as she heals an infection in Doro’s hand.  She can make antibodies.  I can’t stress enough how cool that is.  (Not that we can’t make antibodies, but she can do it better.)  And with the ability to rearrange herself to take any form, Anyanwu isn’t helpless.  Yes, she’s being psychologically manipulated by Doro, and yes, he could kill her and take her body quite easily, but at the same time she could rearrange her molecules to give herself incredible strength and then crush him.  Doro and Anyanwu’s relationship is complicated.  There’s the slavery dynamic, but there’s also the fact that both of them have psychic powers and are relatively evenly matched.  You know that the two of them have to come to terms with each other because they’re the only immortals, even if that takes a couple hundred years for them to work out their differences and make peace with each other.

My favorite scene in the book was on the voyage to America when Anyanwu shape-shifted and swam with dolphins.  Despite the serious tone of the book, it has its share of lighthearted and whimsical moments.

Octavia Butler is a powerful writer, and I am planning on reading the rest of the books in this series.  I would highly recommend “Wild Seed” to anyone who’s interested in sci-fi that explores race and gender themes.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Shadow of Night” by Deborah Harkness

“Shadow of Night” is the sequel to Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches and forms the second book of the All Souls Trilogy.  I had mixed feelings on the first book, but I’m pleased to report that this one was much better.

I received a signed copy of “Shadow of Night” while I was at Book Expo America earlier this summer.  It was one of the longest lines that I stood in during the entire conference.

The book begins when Diana and Matthew travel back in time to Elizabethan England in order to find a witch who can help Diana understand her rather unique magical abilities which seem to defy all known rules.  They also seek the Ashmole 782, a manuscript which promises to explain the origins of witches, vampires, and demons.  Of course, living in the 1500s is easier said than done, and Diana must face many challenges in order to adapt.  This encompasses everything from dressing and speaking to dealing with Matthew’s friends from the time, most of whom are famous intellectuals.

It’s the little things that make this book endearing, such as the author’s decision to portray Christopher Marlowe as a total asshole, or the fact that my favorite old manuscript of all time makes an appearance (the Voynich manuscript, which is to this day indecipherable.  I like xkcd’s assessment).  Even though I still  had a lot of problems with the book, it was a fun read.  I love the idea of a book about an old manuscript, and the literary/historical references made me smile.

During the first book, one of the biggest problems that I saw was the repetitive description of every detail of Diana’s life.  While “Shadow of Night” still has a high level of detail, it is relevant and helps to build the atmosphere of Elizabethan England.  What was unnecessary while reading about modern Oxford works well here, and it helps to create a complex picture of the past.  I’ve always enjoyed reading about Elizabethan England, and this book was no exception.  It was neat to see it from Diana’s perspective because she is a historian whose preconceived notions about the time period clashed with the reality.

I wish that Harkness would have given a bit more explanation/thought to the topic of time travel.  You can travel back in time and even change things to a small extent, but nothing major happens as a result.  It is possible to discover the presence of time travelers based on historical anomalies, such as when a locket that Diana possessed in the past turned up in the future, or when Matthew’s father left a note in a book so that his wife would find it after he was already dead in the present.  The time travel paradox aspect of the book could have been explored in a bit more depth, as Diana and Matthew did spend a great deal of time in the past and should probably have made more of an impact than they did.  Then again, we didn’t see much of the present in this book, so maybe they did and it just hasn’t been explained yet.

If you liked the first book, then by all means continue with the second.  I think that it’s the better of the two, and I’m looking forward to reading the third whenever it’s released.  Again, this isn’t high literature, but it’s an enjoyable read if you like the idea of a story that revolves around an old book and don’t mind some cheesy vampire romance.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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