I should have liked this book a lot, based on the subject matter. It is about a 13-year-old girl, Mia, who lives on a spaceship. The ship is vulnerable to overcrowding, so to hold down the population, every child on the ship must go through a Trial shortly after their 14th birthday in which they get dropped on a wild and/or hostile inhabited planet and have to survive on their own for one month. Those who survive come back to the ship as official Adults.
There were several reasons why this book fell flat for me, though. One is that I thought the Trial was going to be more difficult than it was. It really didn't seem hard enough to warrant all the fanfare it got, and was no harder than any of the challenges she faced on the ship when she was younger. Her Trial was like a G movie where you're nervous for about 2 minutes and then everything works out. I realize that not everybody can go through Frodo's journey but I think Trials should be difficult enough that you feel wrung out reading them - like in Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s The Healer's War or Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.
Another reason I turned against the book is that the lessons Mia learned were predictable. Before she went through the Trial she was prejudiced against "Mudeaters" - people who lived on planets. After she came back, she could see that some planet-dwellers were kind and she shouldn't lump them all together. Who didn't see that coming? And there wasn't enough interaction with the Mudeaters for me to really buy the ship-people's prejudice in the first place.
And finally, I didn't really get the political rivalries of this universe. Mia's father was the president of the ship's council, a position of great power. Sometimes he seemed like a wise, benevolent leader, and other times he would pop off with prejudices of his own that seemed inconsistent. I didn't know enough about him to understand his complexities. And it was very hard to get strong ideas of what the divisions were and where people stood and why they acted the way they did. It helps when political divisions between ship people and planet people are clearer and more believable, as in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station.
I really enjoyed this book. It's set in a sort of Middle-Ages-type world, with kings and queens and noblemen and handmaidens, but it's on another planet. The main character, Ista, has been depressed, which was identified as madness in her community, so she’s been penned up in her house for a long time and is going out of her mind with boredom. She goes on a trip, which she disguises as a religious pilgrimage but is really just a way to get the heck out and alleviate the suffocation of her home town. On this trip, naturally, she winds up in the middle of a war and also in the middle of a weird family situation in which a dead man keeps himself alive by temporarily borrowing the life force of his brother.
One of the best things about this book is the belief system Bujold set up for these people. Spirits and demons are present everywhere in the waking world, but Ista is one of the only people who can see them. Demons inhabit creatures from bugs to humans; when they finally are able to get into a human's body, they're really a terror. There are five deities - the father, the son, the mother, the daughter, and the bastard – and everybody is aligned with one of them. The deity that you're aligned with determines to some extent your outlook on the world – for example, people who are aligned with the bastard tend to be somewhat looked down on by society; they are skeptical and cynical and into science.
On a recent frigid evening, Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds and I journeyed Pizarro-like via the 91 bus to Somerville's Union Square to check out a Peruvian eatery, the Machu Picchu. It turns out that little old "Summahvuhl" has twice as many Machu Picchus as the entire continent of South America, as there are actually two separate locations in Union Square with this name.
We wound up at the smaller and more casual of the two restaurants, which both appear to be under the same ownership. The menu here was oriented toward char-grilled chicken and meat.
We were initially disappointed that there was no Pescado a lo Macho, or any other seafood for that matter, on the menu, so I decided to take solace in a bottle of beer: Cusqueño,"El Oro de los Incas," according to the advertising placard. I guess los Incas are running a bit short on their oro, because the bottle only contained 11.2 ounces of cerveza, rather than the standard 12. It was a handsome bottle, though, with a raised "stonework" detail around the midsection which made for a sure-handed grip. Cthulhu meanwhile ordered a "glass of purple corn drink," which was sweet and comparable to bubble tea in that it had giant kernels of Peruvian corn nestled at the bottom of the glass.
For a starter we both really enjoyed the yuquitos arepiqueños, or fried yucca wedges. Similar to french fried potatoes, but quite a bit denser, in a good way, both in consistency and taste. They were served with a mildly spicy ocopa cream dipping sauce.
The char-grilled chicken came with tacu tacu (which means "scrambled" in Quechua; in this case it meant seasoned rice and beans). Both were done just right. The enormous maize tamale was stuffed with olives, egg, and pork, which gave it sort of a breakfast burrito aspect, but it was mighty tasty. And the cold salad, consisting of cooked quinoa—a grain-like crop native to the Andes—along with queso fresco and more enormous corn kernels, plus lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, avocados, and an aji amarillo (yellow pepper) paste, was really hearty.
For dessert we shared the combinado o classico, a half-n-half bowl of purple corn pudding on one side and rice pudding on the other. True to form, Cthulhu refused to eat the little raisins that come with the rice pudding, so I had to take that one for the team.
The service was terrific, the premises were spotless and no expense was spared on the up-to-date interior design. I even snagged some brochures from the Peruvian travel bureau. The only thing left to do is to return to Union Square to check out the larger, fancier Machu Picchu Resturante Turistico, with its much more extensive menu, which is just down the street.
So why only four stars? The soundtrack. During our one-hour sojourn, we were subjected to three complete play-throughs of an album of treacly Christmas songs—plus "I Have a Little Dreidel"—all performed by a purportedly traditional Peruvian flute band. It was enough to make me pine for Downtown Crossing, where on warm afternoons a coterie of poncho'ed floutists crank out "El Cóndor Pasa" upwards of 50 times a day.
P.A.'s Lounge: Low-maintenance exterior, high-maintenance booking policy. Each band member is allotted one (1) "drink ticket good for a Free Draft Beer." Wow! Don't let your accountants find out, P.A.'s Lounge!
Joe Haldeman 1974 Awards: Nebula & Hugo Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ –
This book is about a massive war between Earthlings and aliens that goes on and on and on across time. Earth sends its soldiers out on anti-alien missions through hyperspace and, because time slows down when they travel at the speed of light, it is often hundreds of years later back at home when they come back. During the soldiers' deployments, the balance of power with the aliens switches back and forth and the reasons for the war keep changing. Soldiers keep getting sent on mission after mission until it is thousands of years after they were originally deployed and nobody on Earth remembers why it started and the main character finally decides the whole thing is ridiculous.
This book was inspired by Haldeman's experiences in Vietnam and it did give me a sense of the futility and senselessness of a war like this.
Neil Gaiman 2001 Awards: Nebula & Hugo Rating: ☆ ☆ – – –
The core idea behind this book is very cool: gods from different cultures appear on Earth in human form to have a showdown. I very much liked the way the gods-as-humans have personalities or physical characteristics that correspond to their deity attributes. It is particularly fun when we meet Egyptian gods like Osiris and Anubis. The main character is Odin; he is aggressive and warlike and obnoxious, but also quite charismatic.
The trouble for me was that the plot didn't live up to the creativity of the initial idea. As I got bored with the story line, the god-as-human premise started to appear less clever and more gimmicky. It reminded me a little of a Saturday Night Live skit where the original idea was good but they just work it to death.
If you want a better book about gods who appear in human form to create trouble, I would recommend Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light instead.