Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Book review: R. F. Kuang "The Poppy War"

I liked this book more than most other fantasy books I read this year. It drew me in from the beginning. The story is not exactly light-hearted, but -- at least at first -- it didn't lack in humor. The heroine Runin's (Rin for short) situation somewhat resembles Harry Potter's: she is an orphan with unusual talents growing up in an adopted family that mistreats and undervalues her. The family wants to get rid of her as soon as possible by marrying her off as a teen. But her talents, persistence, and cunning lets her escape her family and the looming marriage, and achieve a future that no one of her social class could dream of.

Hopefully this is not too much of a spoiler, because this happens relatively early in the book. Rin is admitted into the nation's top school, where, despite some teachers' attempts to derail her, she persists and gains exclusive, esoteric knowledge that's unattainable even for the elite students of that school. All throughout that, the book has a Harry Potter'esque "wizard school novel" feel, except that Rin is more like Hermione than Harry. Clever and doggedly stubborn, she outwits the stodgy adults that consider her unworthy of being there and thwart her at every step.

But the tone of the book completely changes in the second chapter, about a third into the novel. It changes so much that I wondered whether the first chapter and the rest of the book were initially separate novels featuring different protagonists, and only later for some reason were fused into one. The humor of the first chapter is gone, and the book takes a dark turn. The country is at war, and Rin is now a member of a small squad called the Cike, which is roughly a roving band of wizards. The Cike have supernatural powers. In this book, magic comes in a form of connecting to a god (in this nation's pantheon there are several) and asking them to do the dirty work for you. Often the practitioners of "lore", or magic, need to take consciousness-altering drugs to connect with gods.

Their magic powers, however, don't make the Cike superheroes. For all their formidable abilities, they still are unable to stand up against the vicious aggressor armies. This is part of what I liked about this book. It shows the limitations of magic very clearly. And it shows how the wizards' superpowers can lead them down a tragic path. They can't help but spiral into the ultimate arms race. Since the very beginning, Rin's old lore teacher -- the one who taught her to connect with the gods -- tells her that she should not under any circumstances try to "weaponize" them, i. e. call on their powers in a war. What the gods will unleash on Earth will be far more terrible than the damage done by war, he warns her. And, as you might expect, the Cike -- who are in their teens and early twenties, and have knowledge, but not much wisdom -- quickly get drawn into the cycle of aggression and revenge. They pull the gods into the war to exact worse and worse punishment, which, in turn, provokes more aggression from the invading army.

The dilemma is presented in the book very vividly. The aggressor is so horribly cruel that in the reader's mind there is not even a doubt that it's worth calling upon gods to destroy them -- until a wise man like Rin's teacher Jiang makes a case that maybe you really, really shouldn't. The reader gets to see the points both pro and con, and those are not strawmen arguments. They are weighty and well-balanced. True, the brutality of the enemy army can seem so excessive that it's at times ridiculous, but it's probably nothing that hasn't happened in some part of Earth at some point or another.

Being forced to choose between different evils, when it's hard to even tell which one is bigger, makes for a good tension source in a book. I liked that this book didn't have a happy ending. At most it had an ending that could be described as "not the worst possible".

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Book review: C. J. Cherryh "Foreigner"

It was a slow-paced book, and I was afraid I wasn't going to finish it -- I no longer force myself to finish books that don't sufficiently appeal to me -- but I finished it because, despite the slowness, it had some indescribable satisfactory quality. Perhaps because it was a book you could watch unfold before your eyes like a movie. Sometimes you read a book where every sentence falls apart into a pile of words as soon as you are finished with it, without adding up to an image in your head. This is the opposite. This book is highly immersive. Just for that quality you might like to continue reading it even when the plot is not very compelling. But those who like fast-moving narrative might not find it to their taste.

The main character, Bren is an ambassador of sorts to an alien race, called atevi that lives on a planet where humans are guests. Or perhaps he is more like a translator between humans and atevi. His official title in atevi language is paidhi, and that's how he is referred to throughout the book. He lives in the royal court of one of the planet's several kings, or aiji. Humans are permanent, though unwanted, guests on this world, because they ended up there by mistake and can't get off of it. Humans live in just one continent, maintain a truce with the atevi, and have been slowly trickling out their technologies to the atevi. At present they brought the local technology up to roughly the level of early 21st century Earth. The locals are civil to the humans, but (as behooves aliens) inscrutable.

One day someone attempts to assassinate paidhi Bren. In response to that, the king / aiji quickly orders him whisked away to a remote corner of the country. It's done under the guise of the paidhi's protection, but it quickly becomes clear that it's more like imprisonment. He is exiled to a place where he is completely isolated and has no way to contact any humans.

This happens fairly early in the book, and then for the next 300-something pages neither he, nor we, the readers, know what was the true reason of his abduction, or where all this is going. The book slows down as Bren tries to figure out where he stands with his captor-protectors based on short, fragmented conversations he has with them.

He is not sure where their loyalty lies. Are they loyal to him? He strongly suspects not. Are they loyal to their employer(s), such as the aiji, or other organizations and alliances? Nor is he sure whether it is useful to them to keep him alive. He knows (but is not sure if the natives known) that the atevi can't use him as a pawn to extract something of value from the humans, because if his life is threatened, the human government will let him die. They said so from the start and he took the job with the full understanding of this. So, in this situation, he knows there is nothing protecting his life but his captors' whim.

He tries to probe their minds via short, fragmented conversations, but those conversations always skirt the essence of the topic. Yet they occupy the next 300-something pages of the book. Those talks are fraught with misunderstandings, some of them absurd, but not in a funny way. For example, the atevi can't fathom that the word "like" has many meanings, and that to like a food is very different than to like a person. This seemed rather unLIKEly to me. Bren even speculates that the locals don't have feelings. At the same time, it is obvious that they have feelings of dignity and pride, and that pride is rather easily wounded by a foreigner asking the wrong kinds of questions.

Those conversations don't go very far, and three quarters into the book we still don't have a clue who Bren can or cannot trust. So we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is to say we are waiting for this low-grade suspense to lead to a huge revelation. There are so many minor shoes dropping throughout the book that you can never tell which of them is "the real thing" as opposed to random incident. Then, finally, around 3/4 into the book, his situation goes from merely uncomfortable to much worse. Only then the key point is revealed, and we find out the real reason he is kept captive. The pace of the book picks up after that.

I didn't understand what conclusion he reached at the ending either. Maybe I need to reread it. It seems like he was faced with a hard conclusion that humans were not welcome on this planet, but found a way to negotiate with atevi that could lead to permanent peace. But if there was an a-ha! moment in this book, it was rather subtle.

To summarize, this is a book for those who like science fiction with lots of psychological nuance. I personally like it too, but this wasn't the kind of nuance I could relate to. But then I'm known to be a robot. If you can tolerate the plot advancing very slowly, and if you are intrigued by characters trying to figure out what another character meant by their every utterance or gesture, with cultural differences thrown in, then it may be a book for you. I have to say, for me, the character's ruminations supplied just enough intrigue not to put the book aside, but ultimately did not add to something satisfying.