The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie WillisTitle: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 9 July 2013
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the most likeable short story collections I’ve read. Usually I like half to three quarters of the stories, or I have to go back and skim over some before writing my review because I’ve already forgotten what they were about. But I enjoyed almost all the stories in this collection, and I hadn’t forgotten them by the time I got around to writing the review.

They’ve all won a Hugo or Nebula award (or both) and they’re all on the lighter side of science fiction and fantasy, focusing on the characters’ relationship and personal dilemmas with just a touch of something speculative. Each story comes with a few comments from Willis. She admits to being wary of commenting on the stories, as that could spoil them in the same way that a magician’s trick is ruined once you know how it works. But having taken into account the potential for her comments to undermine the story, I think Willis managed to make them insightful without being detrimental.

And the stories themselves are great reads. In a speech transcription at the end of the book, Willis talks about why she reads:

But when the interviewer asked Beatrix Potter what her greatest wish was, she said, “To live till the end of the war. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s how I’ve always felt. It’s why I started reading in the first place: to find out what happened to Cinderella and to Peter Pan, to find out whether the twelve dancing princesses got caught and whether Peter Rabbit made it out from under Mr. McGregor’s flowerpot and whether the prince was able to break the spell.

I think this captures the appeal of Willis’s stories as well – they’re enjoyable because they hook you by making you want to know what happens. You could argue that this is the case for all stories, but I often find novels and short stories appealing for other reasons. Sometimes it’s the writing that grabs me, or I want to follow a quirky character. Sometimes I already know what’s going to happen but I want to see what spin the author will put on it. Other stories are about the ideas rather than any plot. These things all have their merits, and they apply to Willis too, but mostly I enjoyed her stories because they had that good old-fashioned storytelling appeal that just never gets old.

In “A Letter to the Clearys”, a young girl returns home with her dog after picking up a letter at the post office. It seems fairly mundane, except for odd hints at the dangers she faces while walking and the increasingly disturbing implications of this letter from family friends.

“At the Rialto” gives you the first taste of Willis’s wonderful humour. It’s set at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood, where a group of physicists are trying to have a conference on quantum physics but can’t get the model-slash-actress at the front desk to do anything useful, or find the right rooms for the lectures. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the whole experience functions as a reflection of quantum physics itself, with it’s counterintuitive nature and weird paradoxes.

“Fire Watch” is set shortly after the events of Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel story where history students are sent back in time as part of their studies. In this story, a student who has been training to travel with St Paul learns that he’s actually going to St Paul’s Church to work with the fire watch during the London Blitz of World War 2, putting out incendiary bombs when they hit the building. I didn’t love The Doomsday Book, so I wasn’t too excited about this story, and it left me a bit alienated because I’m hopeless when it comes to history and had never heard of St Paul’s or the fire watch. That said, I was almost in tears by the end, all because of two simple words. Any author who can have that effect on me immediately wins my admiration.

“Inside Job” was one of my favourites and the most compulsively readable story for me. It’s about Rob, a journalist who debunks New Age therapists in Hollywood. He works with Kildy, a gorgeous actress who defies all the stereotypes of being stupid and superficial, although Rob has never quite grown accustomed to the idea that she’s really as intelligent and as interested in his work as she seems to be. Kildy finds a new mystery for them to investigate – a trendy new spirit channeler who seems to be unintentionally channelling a ghost who shares Rob and Kildy’s scathing opinions of the channeling and other New Age crap. But the whole idea of channelling a ghost who doesn’t believe in channelling involves a rather troubling paradox and Rob faces the problem of not believing in something he might actually want to believe in while finally being forced to address his doubts about Kildy.

Admittedly, my other favourites were actually the ones with less emphasis on plot, and more on humour. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a delightfully absurd story about the poet Emily Dickinson, written as a parody of an academic paper complete with footnotes and references. The paper argues the theory that Dickinson chased away the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. After her death. It’s utterly ridiculous and loads of fun.

“Even the Queen” is also delightfully crazy, set in a world where women have done away with menstruation except for reproductive purposes. The narrator’s daughter joins a pro-menstruation movement – the Cyclists – that emphasises the essential femininity of doing things naturally. The best part of the story is a hilarious lunch meeting with a group of women and a representative from the Cyclists.

After “Even the Queen”, the collection took a bit of a dip and the last three stories were good but not great. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is a personal mystery about a man travelling around the London Underground, where he keeps getting blasted by terrible foul-smelling winds that leave him filled with fear. He and his wife are visiting London for the second time, and although they have much more money this time around, they just can’t find the same sense of fun and adventure that they enjoyed before. I liked the mystery and personal struggles at the start, but after a while it became a story about a man using the tube, and the final reveal was disappointing.

“All Seated on the Ground” is, quite surprisingly, a story about how violent and disturbing Christmas carols can be. A group of surly aliens lands on Earth, but they don’t do anything except glare disapprovingly at the people who try to talk to them. People lose interest in them as all efforts at communication continue to fail, and the most recent committee is a hopeless hodgepodge of random specialists trying whatever ludicrous thing they can think of. A journalist, Meg, finally gets on the right track when the aliens respond to a Christmas carol, and she notices how the aliens have the same disapproving gaze as her aunt.

“The Last of the Winnebagos” ends the fiction on a stronger note. It’s quite a sad story set in a world where dogs are extinct and hitting an animal with your car is a criminal offence. The narrator is travelling for work when he sees a dead jackal on the side of the road, bringing back tragic memories of the death of his own dog in a car accident, while also getting him tangled up with a somewhat authoritarian animal-protection society.

The only story I didn’t like was the surreal “Death on the Nile”, about three couples on a rather miserable trip that takes them through Europe to Egypt. The narrator has elected not to say anything about the glaringly obvious fact that her husband is sleeping with one of the other wives, one husband is constantly drunk, another always sleeping, and the third woman is always reading to them from guide books. The premise sounds fine, but I found the unpleasantness of the trip too discomfiting to read and the increasingly surreal nature of the characters’ experiences just didn’t do anything for me.

The collection ends with three short speeches – Willis’s 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech, and two Grand Master acceptance speeches. In these she speaks about her love of books and reading, and the writers that inspired her. They’re nice pieces for tugging at the heartstrings of booklovers, but I personally would have preferred something a bit more academic. The speeches must have been wonderful to listen to on the occasion, but on the page they’re a wee bit fluffy. One would have been enough for the collection.

The one downside to this collection is that, unlike other sff, it’s a bit short on ideas. Only the Emily Dickinson story and “Inside Job” really have an sff-ish idea driving the narrative. In the other stories ideas are just vehicles or catalysts for character-based stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since sff readers often look to short stories for interesting ideas and experimental writing, some might find this a tad disappointing.

I didn’t though. It might not be the most thrilling collection but it’s got a lovely congenial sort of appeal and I think most of the stories are going to stay with me.

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The Republic of Thieves read-along part 5

The Republic of Thieves

And so we come to the end of the read-along. Our finale is hosted by Allie from Tethyan Books. I’ve had a great time, getting into in-depth discussions with equally enthusiastic readers, although keeping up with all the comments has been a challenge! I’d hoped to leave comments on more blogs, but sadly I didn’t always have the time. Another challenge was finding the willpower to stop reading every time I came to the end of the scheduled chapters for each part. The Republic of Thieves was a fun read and without a good reason to read slowly and carefully, I would have rushed through it in two or three days.

But it was worth taking my time, and as usual that means I’ve got lots to say, so on with the Q&A.

In Espara…

1. The Republic of Thieves:  It’s the first and final performance!  What did you think of the play?  Were you entertained, or eager to get on with the rest of the story?  Also, how do you feel about how the play fits in the novel, in terms of the story and the characters who play the parts?
I didn’t love the play itself, but I like the Espara story as much as the Karthain one (if not more) so I was keen to see the performance. At the beginning of this venture I thought there’d be several performances (and then all the trouble started). The Sanzas had an excellent opening, and I like that Amadine kills herself rather than have her fate decided by the two men. Sabetha doesn’t seem the type for dramatic suicide, but the feminist ethic suits her very well.

I thought the play drew a parallel with Lies – a plot to infiltrate a society of thieves and take down their leader, with lots of blood spilled along the way. Sabetha’s role could be a bit of wish fulfilment for her, as she plays the leader of the thieves. The sorcerer’s role and his influence on Aurin’s life is also similar to Patience’s role in Karthain – she’s partly responsible for bringing them together, and then drives them apart again.

Aurin and Amadine’s star-crossed love and Locke and Sabetha’s real-life relationship is the only thing that I noticed carrying over from this plot into the Karthain one. It would have been great if they’d also used the theatre experience in the election game – putting on some kind of performance to win the favour of a large group of people. But, well, yeah…

2. The Other Performance:  Of course, the GB and company had another important performance to get through—the one that ensures none of them end up hanged!  What was your favorite part of this scheme?  Do you agree with their plan for dealing with Moncraine’s treachery?

Umm, nothing really stands out for me, but I loved that bit where Gloriana gently scolds the Camorri for assuming that she’d never had to hide a body before 🙂 I liked the scheme as a whole though – hiding the body among the props, Donker posing as Boulidazi and taking a bow on stage, Sabetha playing the “giggling strumpet” again while Moncraine voices Boulidazi.

However, I thought it was dangerous to tell Ezrintaim that Boulidazi’s friends had taken him to a physiker after he hurt his ankle though. If she looks into that she’ll figure out very quickly that they were lying. But they didn’t have much time to think it through. Hopefully the case will seem simple enough after they were able to make it look like Boulidazi was murdered by Moncraine, and no one will notice that Boulidazi’s face was never seen again after he went upstairs at the inn.

Moncraine’s treachery was very convenient, giving them an even better explanation for Boulidazi’s death. And yeah, I think it’s fair to lay the blame on him, since he was willing to leave them broke and doomed to hang.

In Karthain…

3. The Election:  It seems Lovaris was indeed the final trick, and the election is over. Are you satisfied with how things turned out? Do you wish that the election had focused more on the political problems of Karthain, or are you satisfied with the mudslinging and pranks that went on between Locke and Sabetha?
Last week I wrote about how dissatisfied I was with the election, and my feelings haven’t changed. There’s no clear understanding of how Locke, Sabetha or Jean influenced the election at all, except to convince Lovaris to become neutral once he was elected. Would the votes have been any different if they weren’t involved? There was a game, but we never really see how it’s played.

As I mentioned in one of my comments, Locke’s previous schemes involved assessing the behaviour, desires and expectations of a mark, and using that in elaborate or at least entertaining cons. That’s partly what made his plots so clever and interesting. We got none of that in this election. We never found out what the Karthani voters want from their politicians, and never saw Locke, Jean or Sabetha use that to their advantage. The pranks were fun, but where is the big con? I know this might sound dull, because yeah, politics bores the shit out of me too, but Lynch could have made it interesting. The series has involved plenty of light politics. The Secret Peace is political.The rise of Capa Barsavi was an underground political endeavour that led to the revenge of Capa Raza/The Grey King. The Austershalin Brandy Scheme was founded on the unstable politics of Emberlain. Half the plot of Red Seas was political, with the Archon trying to force Locke and Jean to recreate the war that put him in power.

None of that was particularly complicated, nor did I find it boring to read the very long conversations or info dumps where these schemes were explained or enacted. I’m assuming that most if not all readers who made it to book three liked it as well. Why couldn’t Lynch have done something similar here? The Karthanis are pretty comfortable, they probably don’t have complex politics anyway. There could have been just one major issue to hook them, and Sabetha and the Bastards could have played to that. Their theatre experience would have helped them address large crowds, with their pranks functioning as parts of a larger scheme. That would also have made the Espara plot more relevant.

I know none of it matters at all because it’s just part of a distraction that allows Patience’s faction to kill the opposing mages, but when considering the election game in itself, I find it pretty lame.

4. The War: Do you have any speculation on what specific issues might have escalated the two Bondsmagi factions rivalry into this kind of violence?  What do you think the surviving Bondsmagi will do next, with all their gathered money and knowledge?
I assume it’s about the conflict between the Exceptionalists and the rest of the mages. Earlier in the book Locke asked why the Bondsmages, with all their power, haven’t tried conquering the world. Patience replies that most of the mages aren’t interested in that, in the same way that an ordinary person isn’t interested in ruling over a farm full of animals. But there are Exceptionalists who feel differently and the Falconer was an important figure among them. The rest of the magi presumably want to focus on whatever force did away with the Eldren, and feel that the Exceptionalists are a dangerous impediment.

I don’t really have any guesses as to what will happen next, given that I don’t even know what the threat is. However, the fact that they’re willing to kill seventy mages so they can focus on a specific threat suggests that there’s something colossal threat. The way the Falconer was so interested in those lights beneath the Amathel seemed important. Patience discouraged his curiosity so maybe it’s related?

Anyway, I think they will disappear for a while, and the plot of the next book will focus on something else while the Mage issue simmers.

5. Patience: Given the final revelation that Patience does hate Locke for what he did to the Falconer, what do you make of her behavior towards Locke throughout the book?  Do you think her plan of vengeance is well suited to Locke?  What do you make of the Black Amaranth story now, as well as the prophecy she threw on top?
Gods damn it, this complicates matters. I preferred it when I could just assume she was mostly telling him the truth about Lamor Acanthus. I liked that story. Now I realise she may just have been messing with him. Still, I’m not inclined to think that she was. It sounds like she really cared about Lamor, so I don’t think she would have made up a story like that just to taunt Locke.

I don’t know if it’s a great revenge for though. Locke knows who he is, and he’s got this devil-may-care attitude that will allow him to shrug it off. What’s more devastating for him is that Sabetha has left him again because Patience implied that Locke’s love for her isn’t a choice, it’s a remnant of the Bondsmage’s persona. Throughout the book she’s insisted on love being a choice, not an inevitability, so I can understand why she’s left now.

I think Patience/Lynch has also been really cruel to the reader – are we ever going to learn the truth?!

The prophecy though – I believe that. Yes, that’s how I also felt about the Lamor Acanthus story, but whatever. Plot-wise, it’s a nice setup for future books. And maybe it’s a prophecy specifically designed to con Locke. I’ll make a note and see how it turns out.

6. The Epilogue: Speaking of vengeance, do you think the Falconer’s vengeance against his mother was merited or excessively cruel, given the circumstances?  On that note, how do you feel about the Falconer’s transformation and possible status as a continuing villain?

Ok, now that was an awesome ending. The previous two books ended with Locke dying and headed for unknown shores; a bit dreary. But this… I absolutely loved what he did with the dreamsteel  – were those of you who were intrigued by it early in the book satisfied with this? It’s terrifying how powerful he is. After three years in a coma he crawls out of bed, un-handicaps himself, and then murders his mother with a feat he’d never matched before being mutilated. Who knows what he’ll do later?

The way he killed Patience was excessively cruel, but that’s what I’d expect from the Falconer. He’s a psychopath and he’s loathed his mother since childhood. Also, she tried to get him killed. I’d be pissed of too.

The only thing I don’t like about this is that it could be a set-up for that stupid “Chosen One” plot, where only Locke has the power to stop the Falconer, especially if there’s more to the Lamor Acanthus story. Lynch has avoided that kind of plot thus far, and I really don’t want to see the series fall into that cliche. But I trust Lynch to do something more interesting.

7. Wrapping up:  Thus ends the third book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence.  How do you think it compares with the first two?  In the end, do you prefer the Espara storyline or the Karthain storyline, or did you like them both equally?
For me, each book has had a very different feel to it. Even though the plots are closely related, they’re quite varied, and I like that. The series is showing some major progress, but I’ve always enjoyed the characters, the stories and the writing.

However, I will say that I find the election to be a major flaw of the kind that I didn’t find in the other novels. Given that it ends up being completely irrelevant, I can understand why Lynch may not have had cause to make it more political, and I’m sure that most readers won’t be bothered by it either. But I’m still left with the sense that the game was never played properly, and the pranks look pathetic when compared with the cons we saw before.

What I enjoyed about the Karthani plot was the development of Locke and Sabetha’s relationship, the role of the Bondsmages in the world, and the future of the Mages in books to come. The election just felt like an excuse for that.

I don’t know if I enjoyed the Espara story more, but I think it’s a bit better plotted. It had so much more tension in different forms, as well as more classic cons. Also, we got to see the beginning of Locke and Sabetha’s relationship, which was great.

In her email for part 4, Andrea mentioned that the whole idea of Locke as a reincarnated Bondsmage had polarised readers. In addition, Locke and Jean might not go back to the kinds of schemes we saw in books 1 and 2, especially since the next book is set in Emberlain, in the midst of civil war. A war might be a great time for the right people to make piles of money, but things are definitely changing. So is there anyone who doesn’t want to continue with the series?

I’m a little bit apprehensive, but at the same time I’d like to read book 4. Now, if I could. *sigh* I don’t often read series; how do you deal with the wait?!

See what the rest of the Lynch Mob had to say
Tethyan Books
Over the Effing Rainbow
Lynn’s Books
Genki na Hito
Little Red Reveiwer
Dab of Darkness
Theft and Sorcery
Coffee, Cookies and Chili Peppers
Joma’s Fantasy Books
All I am – a redhead

The Republic of Thieves read-along part 2

The Republic of ThievesI’m loving The Republic of Thieves, so it was no problem at all to catch with the schedule for this read-along. If anything, it’ll be harder to slow down now that I’m on track.

The read-along is being hosted by 5 bloggers, and for part 2 we’re in the lovely company of Over the Effing Rainbow. Head over to her blog, and from there you can hop to the others and join the conversation. I’ll also provide links at the end of this post.

The chapters of part 2 were very satisfying to read, and I had so much to say about them – particularly the details of Locke and Sabetha’s relationship – that I should not waste any more time on introductions. Here are the questions:

Blood And Breath And Water: Patience tells Locke that the ritual to save him is serious business. She wasn’t kidding… What did you make of this scene, and do you think any of it might (perhaps literally) come back to haunt Locke?
 
Orphan’s Moon: Back to the childhood of the Gentlemen Bastards, and here we get another ritual, this one in service to the Nameless Thirteenth. It looks as though it might be Locke vs. Sabetha, round two – but this time Locke seems to be a little slow on that uptake… Who do you think deserves to be given the final oath? Locke or Sabetha?
 
Across The Amathel: This chapter takes a breather for quite a bit of Eldren history, while Locke starts recovering. What do you think of the history lesson, and Patience’s ominous speculation regarding the Eldren? Is this something you’d like to know more about?
 
Striking Sparks: The gang’s off to Espara, after a bad summer and a pretty thorough dressing-down from Chains, and we finally get to the source of the book’s title – they’re bound for the stage! What are your thoughts on this latest ‘challenge’ and the reasons for it?
 
The Five-Year Game: Starting Position: The election gets underway with a party (as you do) and before it’s even over, the Deep Roots party has problems – and not just thanks to Sabetha. What do you make of Nikoros and his unfortunate habit?
 
Bastards Abroad: The gang arrives in Espara, and already they’ve got problems (nicely mirroring the Five Year Game!)… This aside, we’ve also seen some more of what seems to be eating at Sabetha. Do you sympathise with her, or is Locke right to be frustrated with her?
 
Extras! Let’s be having any random bits that amuse you, confuse you, or just plain interest you…

And here’s what I thought:

Blood And Breath And Water: Patience tells Locke that the ritual to save him is serious business. She wasn’t kidding… What did you make of this scene, and do you think any of it might (perhaps literally) come back to haunt Locke?
What I liked most was the touch of horror. Patience had already made it clear that it would be painful and magical weirdness is par for the course. But the reappearance of Bug and what that implies about the afterlife… creepy. Because he died so young and idolised Locke, I can imagine him, more than the others, becoming bitter and angry at Locke if he finds himself trapped in some kind of limbo.

Bug completely contradicts Locke and Jean’s beliefs about the afterlife, which is why Jean dismisses it all as a nightmare, but as with any religion, they’re relying on faith and with no clue as to what the truth might be. Bug could have been perfectly real. So while I agree with Jean’s insistence that you need to be rational, I also like that Locke is doubting his beliefs. Of course, there could be other, metaphorical ways to interpret what he saw.

Lynch doesn’t use scenes like this lightly, so I think it will come back to haunt Locke, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out.

Orphan’s Moon: Back to the childhood of the Gentlemen Bastards, and here we get another ritual, this one in service to the Nameless Thirteenth. It looks as though it might be Locke vs. Sabetha, round two – but this time Locke seems to be a little slow on that uptake… Who do you think deserves to be given the final oath? Locke or Sabetha?
I don’t know what’s required, and I still don’t know Sabetha very well, but I would have chosen her on the basis that she’s actually thought this through and decided that it’s what she wants. Locke is still mulling it over at the moment he’s meant to decide and he ends up being a candidate partly because he’s just standing there, thinking. His motives have little to do with the priesthood and everything to do with impressing Sabetha. But Locke, you dimwit, how can you expect to impress her by stealing what she longs for?! Did you think that instead of being hurt and angry she would think “Wow, Locke is such a super awesome thief he can rob me of my heart’s desires without even trying. He’s so hot right now…”

Honestly, it’s like Locke can’t do anything except steal. And drink. And curse. TWIT.

Anyway, back to who deserves the oath. Chains knows both Locke and Sabetha very well and he’s a wise man so he would have had good reasons for choosing Locke. Maybe he sees that Sabetha is simply ambitious while Locke might be more suitable for the role. On the other hand, Sabetha later suggests that Chains favours Locke, so perhaps he’s not entirely objective. I don’t know…I’m more interested in how thoughtlessly Locke hurts Sabetha.

Across The Amathel: This chapter takes a breather for quite a bit of Eldren history, while Locke starts recovering. What do you think of the history lesson, and Patience’s ominous speculation regarding the Eldren? Is this something you’d like to know more about?
For part one, Little Red Reviewer said she was wary of Locke’s caveat about having his questions answered, because such an opportunity typically leads to infodumping. And she was dead right. This is a very… educational chapter.

But I don’t mind Lynch’s infodumps. Infodumps can be clunky and tedious, but they can also be a simple (if inelegant) way of telling you interesting things you’d like to know, and I not only enjoyed Patience’s history lesson, but all the info and insights into Magi’s political workings. It’s also the first time we see what a deep and pervasive influence the Eldren have had on the world, beyond the Elderglass they’d left behind. The mystery of their vast power coupled with their total absence is what informs the existence of the Bondmagi, their decision to destroy Therim Pel, their monopoly on magic, and their acceptance of work contracts. Without the Bondsmagi’s suspicions about the disappearance of the Eldren, the Falconer would not have been part of the Grey King’s plan and the events of Lies would have been very different.

So yes, I want to know more. Much more. Infodump all you want, Mr Lynch.

Striking Sparks: The gang’s off to Espara, after a bad summer and a pretty thorough dressing-down from Chains, and we finally get to the source of the book’s title – they’re bound for the stage! What are your thoughts on this latest ‘challenge’ and the reasons for it?

Well, I enjoyed Chains’s send-off. One moment he’s apologising for having failed them, the next he throws a bag of money at them and tells them to fuck off because he can’t stand them anymore. I particularly liked the bit where he took out the pin that he’d brought for the occasion and dropped it into the silence he’d caused 😀

The challenge itself immediately made sense to me, because as master thieves, they need to act all the time. Their best schemes are like elaborate stage performances. I don’t see this as just a challenge, but as crucial training.

I also like journey plots, especially since they typically present opportunities for personal development. And I was not disappointed; as soon as they join the caravan, Locke finally starts talking earnestly with Sabetha.

The Five-Year Game: Starting Position: The election gets underway with a party (as you do) and before it’s even over, the Deep Roots party has problems – and not just thanks to Sabetha. What do you make of Nikoros and his unfortunate habit?

It was quite a wtf? moment to see Nikoros drugged to the eyeballs! He’d been the definition of professional until  that point. There’s something very odd going on here, and I suspect that Sabetha’s also dealing with all sorts of weirdness on the Black Iris side, all because of the Magi. I’m not going to speculate any further, but I’m highly intrigued.

Bastards Abroad: The gang arrives in Espara, and already they’ve got problems (nicely mirroring the Five Year Game!)… This aside, we’ve also seen some more of what seems to be eating at Sabetha. Do you sympathise with her, or is Locke right to be frustrated with her?

Oh, Sabetha. All this time…

Up until that crucial conversation in Bastards Abroad, I’d been getting frustrated with Sabetha’s character. She’s too serious, so focused on her training or a job. She doesn’t laugh and joke and drink with the other Bastards. She’s not as fun as they are. She’s clearly aware of Locke’s infatuation but she won’t address it. And most importantly, she doesn’t seem like part of their brotherhood. So disappointing…

I blamed Lynch. He’d failed his character. He didn’t include her in the beginning for god’s knows what reason, and now he’s trying to manhandle her into the plot and SHE DOESN’T BELONG.

And then… and then Sabetha finally explains herself to Locke and everything makes sense and I’m not mad at Lynch, instead I’m impressed because WOW, that might just be my favourite scene in all three books so far, and it’s certainly had the most emotional impact, thank you for writing another great female character, and OH SABETHA…

So, ahem, yes, I sympathise with her, almost completely. Locke unwittingly usurped her, but this didn’t just topple her leadership; it’s also the start of her detachment from the Bastards. Jean came along, became Locke’s best friend, and the Bastards are divided into two pairs – Calo/Galdo; Lock/Jean – with Sabetha as a bit of a fifth wheel. Being the only woman must have made her feel even more like the odd one out. In addition, she is never taken as seriously as Locke, as demonstrated with the Sanzas. It all adds up and I can empathise with her frustration.

This scene and their earlier conversation also made me realise that Sabetha is very much the object of Locke’s affection. He’d throw himself under a cart for her her, but it hasn’t occurred to him to try understand what she wants, that what he’s trying to do for her isn’t what she wants from him. She says

“Why do you assume it’s something you’ve done, and something you can undo at will? I’m not some arithmetic problem just waiting for you to show your work properly Locke. Did you ever think that I […] might have warm-blooded motives of my own, being as I’m not an oil painting, or some other decorative object of desire-“

And Locke has been treating her like an equation or a machine – he thinks that if he just get the numbers right, if he can just push the right buttons, she’ll be his. Even if he fails hopelessly time after time, he still sees himself as the one in control believing that his actions will determine the outcome, depending on what he gets right or wrong. As we all know, Locke hates not being in control. I love that Sabetha points out this great flaw in his towering romance. He’s so shocked when she suggests that she might be “actively contributing” to their awkwardness or that she might prefer girls.

Absurdly, even the crass Sanza twins have been more respectful of her feelings in this regard. Locke on the other hand, only thinks about Sabetha from his dim perspective. He thinks that if he keeps proving himself better than her, she must therefore admire him. Or that if he doesn’t back down she must admire him. She’s an equation. He doesn’t think about how she might feel when he beats her at something or, as Jean points out, how pathetic he looks when he allows her to abuse him. Jean, being more sensible and sensitive, is at least trying to consider things from Sabetha’s POV. I thought one of the most ridiculous parts of Locke’s plea was to tell her how wonderful it would be for her to see herself through his eyes, which would even further diminish her subjectivity, making her an idol rather than a person.

I’ve wanted to whack Locke over the head for being unable to notice any of this, but he’s young and stupid, and Sabetha hasn’t been open about her feelings. In fact, we seldom see any of the Bastards talk openly to each other about their personal feelings; it’s all joking and scheming. However, you could assume that the Sanzas or Locke and Jean might open up to each other off the page; who would Sabetha talk to?

Like Locke though, Sabetha’s also very arrogant. If she wasn’t so determined to be the leader, then her relationships with Locke and the other Bastards might not have been so fractured. So I’m on her side, but with reservations. And I think Locke has one very good reason to be frustrated now – after suddenly dropping the very complicated truth in his lap, she expects him to come up with a “good answer” for how they should proceed. And clearly Locke is no good at intimate personal relationships.

But Sabetha’s young, she awkward, she doesn’t know how to handle this, she seems to have feelings for Locke, but she resents him too. She mentions two or three times that she chooses not to be charmed by Locke, and I think this is key. Chains, Jean and the Sanzas could not help but be charmed by him, and that’s how Sabetha ended up in this position. She doesn’t want to fall for the same charms that have caused her so much anguish. But she likes Locke anyway. It’s… complicated. I could talk about it for ages.

Extras! Let’s be having any random bits that amuse you, confuse you, or just plain interest you…

– I found the ritual in Orphan’s Moon a bit silly. Too theatrical, and some of the recitations reminded me of being in church. *snore*

LOLz
– Chains on the Sanzas’ promiscuity: “You two spend more time in bed than invalids.”
“False names are fun,” said Caldo. “Call me Beefwit Smallcock.”
“These are aliases, not biographical sketches,” said Galdo.

– Does Locke feel at all betrayed that the Sanzas each made a pass at Sabetha, or does he just dismiss this as part of their increasing vulgarity?

– The Thorn of Camorr: Dear god, as if Sabetha hasn’t been hurt enough. The grand name is her idea, and she wants one for herself. Then the Sanzas tease her about it before making up a name for Locke, essentially stealing her idea and handing it to her greatest rival, who doesn’t even want it. We all know how important the name will later become, making this all the more poignant. Sabetha’s silence at the end of this scene actually pained me; I could imagine her trying not to cry or scream at them.

– For part one, Dab of Darkness suggested the possibility that Locke and Sabetha never actually had a sexual relationship. This had never occurred to me, but it seems possible now that Sabetha’s cracked and revealed some of her feelings. Could Locke have been agonising over a failure instead of an intimate relationship this whole time?

– Locke doesn’t respond well to losing control. Could this be why his relationship with Sabetha didn’t work out? Or is it because he never comes to understand Sabetha’s desires and ambitions?

– It’s become very easy to see why Sabetha chose to compete with them in Karthain. She and Locke have been competing since they met, and Locke defeats her even when he’s not trying to. However, they wouldn’t have had that rivalry if she wasn’t at least as good a thief and con-artist as he is. She might be even better, and Karthain gives her the chance to show it. I don’t think she needs to do it for Locke though; it’s for herself.

Read more at:
Dab of Darkness
Over the Effing Rainbow
Tethyan Books
Little Red Reviewer
Lynn’s Book Blog
Genkinahito’s Blog
Just Book Reading
Joma’s Fantasy Books
Theft and Sorcery

 

The Republic of Thieves read-along part 1

The Republic of ThievesSo, Andrea at the Little Red Reviewer has organised a read-along for The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. I recently read and reviewed The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies just because I got a review copy of book 3. Luckily for me I’ve really enjoyed the series so far so I’m eager to read Republic, where we FINALLY get to meet the infamous Sabetha. I’ve never participated in a read-along like this, so I’m looking forward to it.

If you’re interested in participating in the read along or just lurking, check out the reading schedule.

I spent most of October away on holiday, so I missed the start and I’m behind for part 2, but luckily the schedule is fairly relaxed and the book is very readable, so I finished all of part 1 yesterday, covering everything from the Prologue through to the end of Intersect 1. This discussion is hosted by the blog Dab of Darkness, so you can head over there and then blog hop to the other participants. Note that if you haven’t read the first two books, you’re going to encounter major spoilers all the way.

Here are the questions for part one:
1) We get to reminisce with several old friends in this section – Calo, Galdo, Chains. How did you like this? Bitter sweet or happy dance?
2) Finally, the infamous Sabetha makes a physical appearance, albeit in Locke’s reminisces. What are your impressions? How do you think the romance, if there is to be one, will play out?
3) After trying absolutely everything to save Locke, Jean still won’t give up. What did you think of that little pep talk he gave Locke concerning Patience’s offer of healing?
4) Locke has a few caveats to working for the Bondsmage. Wise or just Locke grasping for some control over his life? What would you ask Patience?
5) At the end of this section, we see that all is not as Patience laid it out. How much do you think Patience knows of the plot to off Locke and Jean? Do you see it interfering in the rigged election?

And here’s what I thought:

1) We get to reminisce with several old friends in this section – Calo, Galdo, Chains. How did you like this? Bitter sweet or happy dance?
Happy dance, but I’m probably not as overjoyed to see them as most. Before I read Lies, I saw a meme stating that Scott Lynch was more brutal in killing off his characters than J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. I don’t think this is true regarding Martin, but it made it obvious that Calo, Galdo and Bug were going to die, so I didn’t get that attached to them. Chains dies of old age off the page, so his death didn’t have any real emotional impact. As a result, I don’t really miss any of them.

That said, they’re all wonderful characters who work wonderfully together, so I enjoyed reading about them again. At first, the return to Locke’s childhood training seemed dull, but it picked up with Sabetha around. We also see nuances of Locke’s development that aren’t shown in Lies, like when he tentatively tries to swear the way the adults in his life do (of course he becomes an expert later on). And the combination of fatherly affection, guidance and strict training Chains gives Locke and the other children makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

2) Finally, the infamous Sabetha makes a physical appearance, albeit in Locke’s reminisces. What are your impressions? How do you think the romance, if there is to be one, will play out?
Yes, AT LAST! Her absence in Lies felt very odd, and in Red Seas Jean explains that he never talks about her because Locke is so absurdly sensitive about the topic. A bit of a feeble excuse for the reader, in my opinion. Now I feel like Lynch has to try a little too hard to put Sabetha into the narrative when she should have been there all along. At the very least, Locke and Jean should have spoken to or about her regarding the massacre of the other Gentleman Bastards. Even if Locke doesn’t want to talk about her, there’s nothing stopping Jean from thinking about her in sections written from his POV. And now we learn that Locke became obsessed with Sabetha at Shades Hill but somehow this major development is never mentioned in book one? Awkward. Very awkward.

But I’m glad to finally see her, although she’s still too enigmatic for me to form an opinion. In the Shades Hill chapter I was disappointed that I didn’t get a demonstration of the skills that earned her a higher rank among the thieves. Locke is infatuated with her because of her pretty face, her implied skill, and a certain je ne sais quoi. I don’t particularly like this sort of infatuation-at-first-sight plot, especially since Locke is only 5 or 6 or 7 years old; I would have preferred it if Locke was merely intrigued and became infatuated after a taste of her personality, intelligence and skill. He comes to appreciate that later, but for now I don’t feel like I know Sabetha very well. I find her mysterious but not beguiling.

As for a romance? Well clearly those two have some issues to sort out first. And although I don’t know yet what exactly happened between them, Sabetha has a seriousness that suggests she won’t be falling into Locke’s arms, even if she wants to. My guess is she’ll approach him with caution and consideration, influenced by her role in the plot.

3) After trying absolutely everything to save Locke, Jean still won’t give up. What did you think of that little pep talk he gave Locke concerning Patience’s offer of healing?
Absolutely wonderful. One of the things I enjoyed in Red Seas was the way Jean developed some independence as a character, openly criticising Locke and becoming more than just his sidekick. I also liked seeing Locke undermined a bit, with his flaws on display. His vulnerability brings me closer to his character, making him more human.

This scene does that again, but with even more heart, given that Locke is on the verge of death and Jean recently lost Ezri. I love seeing Jean criticise Locke for his bullshit and his arrogance, while offering an interesting interpretation of his emotional problems. No doubt Locke will have to face this issue again in the future. Jean also lays out his own feelings about Ezri and loss, so that Locke finally understands how much others have done for him, and how selfish it would be to throw his life away. He might be the star of this series, but he can be such a dick; Jean is the person I’d prefer to hang out with.

4) Locke has a few caveats to working for the Bondsmage. Wise or just Locke grasping for some control over his life? What would you ask Patience?
Both. I find it hard to believe that anyone with such power can be trusted (as previous powerful characters have proved) so Locke is wise to try and take some control. I don’t think his requests are unreasonable either. Demanding that Patience answer all his questions is particularly important  for him to do a good job. However, I have very little faith in Patience’s promise that they will sever all ties with him once he’s fulfilled his contract. Maybe she’s trustworthy; we’ll have to see.

I don’t know what I’d ask Patience. No doubt a crucial question will pop up later when Locke and Jean desperately need the answer.

5) At the end of this section, we see that all is not as Patience laid it out. How much do you think Patience knows of the plot to off Locke and Jean? Do you see it interfering in the rigged election?
Being in her position, she must surely know that this sort of thing is possible if not likely, at the very least. More so given the Bondsmagi’s unusual elections. Initially I would have said that Patience doesn’t know the details of this particular conspiracy, but the question made me think of alternatives – that she know but is secretly letting the conspiracy play out so she can keep an eye on it, or that she’s spearheading it herself as part of a larger plan. Mind you, I’m more interested in the conspiracy itself than Patience’s role in it.

And now on to part 2, which begins at chapter 3. Obviously Patience is going to save Locke, but how harrowing is it going to be?

In the meantime, you can do a blog hop and check out the other participants’ answers if you like:

Over The Effing Rainbow
Dab of Darkness
Lynn’s Book Blog
Tethyan Books
Just Book Reading
Genkinahito’s Blog
Book Den
Theft and Sorcery
Many A True Nerd
Joma’s Fantasy Books
All I Am – A Redhead
Coffee, Cookies and Chili Peppers
Rose’s Thingamajig
Books Without Any Pictures

Up for Review: The Republic of Thieves

I’ve read The Lies of Locke Lamora and I just finished Red Seas Under Red Skies. I am so ready to join the Gentleman Bastards in The Republic of Thieves, where I can finally meet the Locke’s mysterious love, Sabetha.

The Republic of ThievesThe Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Del Rey)

NetGalley blurb (slight spoilers for book 2):

With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. But Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all.

Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body—though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring—and the Bondsmage’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival.

Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha—or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

The Republic of Thieves will be published on 8 October by Del Rey in the USA and 10 October by Gollancz in the UK.

Links
The novel on Goodreads
The Gentleman Bastard series on Goodreads
Del Rey (Random House)
Gollancz (Orion)

About the Author
I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on April 2, 1978. I’ve lived in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area my entire life.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, my first novel, was bought by Simon Spanton at Orion Books in August, 2004. Prior to that I had just about every job you usually see in this sort of author bio– dishwasher, busboy, waiter, web designer, office manager, prep cook, and freelance writer. I trained in basic firefighting at Anoka Technical College in 2005, and became a volunteer firefighter in June of that year.
In 2007 The Lies of Locke Lamora was a World Fantasy Award finalist.
In 2008 I received the Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer Award from the British Fantasy Society.
In 2010, I lost a marriage but gained a cat, a charming ball of ego and fuzz known as Muse (Musicus Maximus Butthead Rex I).
My partner, the lovely and critically acclaimed SF/F writer Elizabeth Bear, lives in Massachusetts. – nicked from Goodreads with slight edits.
Website
Blog
Twitter
LiveJournal
Interviews: Fantasy Faction | Mythic Scribes | Orbit

Up for Review: The Best of Connie Willis

Another exciting short story collection and a chance to acquaint myself with one of the principal names in sf.

The Best of Connie WillisThe Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories (Del Rey)

NetGalley Blurb:

Few authors have had careers as successful as that of Connie Willis. Inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and recently awarded the title of Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Willis is still going strong. Her smart, heartfelt fiction runs the gamut from screwball comedy to profound tragedy, combining dazzling plot twists, cutting-edge science, and unforgettable characters.

From a near future mourning the extinction of dogs to an alternate history in which invading aliens were defeated by none other than Emily Dickinson; from a madcap convention of bumbling quantum physicists in Hollywood to a London whose Underground has become a storehouse of intangible memories both foul and fair—here are the greatest stories of one of the greatest writers working in any genre today.

All ten of the stories gathered here are Hugo or Nebula award winners—some even have the distinction of winning both. With a new Introduction by the author and personal afterwords to each story—plus a special look at three of Willis’s unique public speeches—this is unquestionably the collection of the season, a book that every Connie Willis fan will treasure, and, to those unfamiliar with her work, the perfect introduction to one of the most accomplished and best-loved writers of our time.

The Best of Connie Willis will be published on 9 July by Del Rey.

Links
Goodreads
Random House
Connie Willis and the Spooky Magic of Shirley Jackson: an interview at Suvudu

About the Author
Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis is an American science fiction writer. She is one of the most honored science fiction writers of the 1980s and 1990s.
She has won, among other awards, ten Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards. Willis most recently won a Hugo Award for All Seated on the Ground (August 2008). She was the 2011 recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA).
Willis is known for her accessible prose and likable characters. She has written several pieces involving time travel by history students and faculty of the future University of Oxford. These pieces include her Hugo Award-winning novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog and the short story “Fire Watch“, found in the short story collection of the same name. – excerpt taken from Goodreads

There is no shortage of online content about Willis and her writing, but here are some basics:
Website
Blog
Goodreads
Wikipedia

Review of The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen LordTitle: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author:
 Karen Lord
Published:
 5 February 2013
Publisher:
 Del Rey
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

In The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord displays a very elegant talent that I wish I could see more often in speculative fiction – the ability to build worlds with character, dialogue and plot, rather than relying on infodumps. Infodumps can be very interesting (especially when you’re reading Neal Stephenson), but most of the time they appear like bland concrete blocks offloaded into the natural landscape of the story. With Lord however, entering her world is like strolling into a beautiful shady forest until you find yourself surrounded by vibrant life.

The only downside to this is that it takes a little longer to understand the world as a whole, since you haven’t been given the incongruous textbook introduction. For the sake of clarity then, I’ll start my review with a little bit of background to the story.

Lord’s galaxy contains four sub-species of human – Sadiri, Ntshune, Zhinuvian and us, the Terrans. Each race has some kind of psionic ability, except for the Terrans, who are standard humans – “the chicken stock of every human genetic soup in the galaxy”, as the narrator Grace calls us. Terra – Earth – is the youngest planet, but although some Terrans have been able to become part of the galactic society and Terran pop culture is widespread (Indiana Jones is a much-loved cliche here too!), Terra itself is under embargo. We don’t learn much more about this, and Lord never states what time period this is set in, as it’s not relevant to the current story.

Of the four human races, the Sadiri are the elite. They “consider themselves to be the pinnacle of human civilisation” and have formed “the backbone of galactic law, diplomacy, and scientific discovery for centuries”. Their considerable telepathic powers are focused and strengthened by a culture of mental disciplines which enable the Sadiri to control their thoughts, emotions and urges. This has given them a reputation for being impassive and haughty. “Judging other humans and finding them wanting is what the Sadiri do” says one of Grace’s friends.

The Sadiri we see in the novel however, have fallen very far from these grand heights. In the opening chapter, we learn that their home planet, Sadira, was destroyed, their race faces extinction and they no longer have any high ground to stand on. The survivors are mostly men, because in their gender-imbalanced society, it was mostly men who worked off-world and escaped the disaster (Lord based this on a similar phenomenon that occurred among the coastal communities affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004). A tiny colony of survivors is set up, leaving an excess of males who are sent to Cygnus Beta, “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees”. Cygnus Beta is not wealthy but it’s colourful, with a mix of humans from all over the galaxy. The juxtaposition is somewhat satisfying – this proud, monocultural race must humbly approach the people they looked down on for help, and find a way of preserving their culture in a culturally diverse land.

The people of Cygnus Beta empathise with the Sadiri’s tragedy, having experienced similar things themselves. But all welcomes wear out, and when the younger Sadiri start acting out with the local women, our narrator Grace Delarua is asked to have a word with one of their leaders, a man named Dllenahkh.

Grace is a biotechnician and has been working with Dllenahkh for some time. She’s “kind of a language nut” and quickly picks up “a smattering of Sadiri”, so she’s the ideal liason. Grace has also come to understand the Sadiri and their culture more than other Cygnians, for which Dllenahkh is deeply grateful:

I understand that on Terra gold is considered a rare and precious metal. To be golden is to be special, cherished. […] To me, your eyes are golden, because they have perceived who we truly are.

Grace sees the problems with the ways in which the Sadiri have been trying to rebuild their society (some of which stem from their arrogance), and she suggests a more structured, co-operative approach. This gives rise to part of the main plot – a research team, including Grace and Dllenahkh, sets out to explore some of the very varied homesteads on Cygnus Beta, looking for Diaspora Sadiri. The goal is to find women with a high level of Sadiri genetics (and preferably cultural practices too) and invite them to help form a Sadiri homestead and rebuild the dying race.

It’s not the typical story of painful culture clashes, as Jeremy L.C. Jones argues in an interview with Karen Lord for Clarkesworld: “The Sadiri and Cygnian cultures do not come together with armies and space ships, guns blazing; they come face to face as individuals trying to comprehend and adapt to new lives.”

It’s a story of cultural interactions and the plot is laid out as a series of vignettes, as the research team travel from one homestead to the next, encountering a wide variety of semi-Sadiri peoples, even a group of ‘elves’ who have based their society on Terran folklore. These encounters are interesting in themselves, but don’t really build on each other; instead, this aspect of the plot serves as a vehicle for character exploration and development, which is another of the novel’s strengths. In fact, your impression after reading this might be that it’s character-driven sci fi, as they are all so very vivid and skilfully written.

Grace in particular is just wonderful – smart, humorous, outgoing, a tad temperamental and a little bit snarky. She feels far more like a real person than most characters I come across, and has a casual, cosy tendency to address the reader directly every now and then. Her friendly manner contrasts nicely with Dllenahkh’s clinical control, and much of the story concerns their attempts to understand each other, learn from each other and form a lasting bond. This goes beyond the normal human interaction of course – getting to know Dllenahkh also means understanding his telepathic abilities, the physical effects this has on the Sadiri, and the mental disciplines they practice  Grace turns out to be unexpectedly gifted, displaying interesting empathic abilities thanks to her Ntshune heritage. In keeping with their scientific culture, some of the Sadiri on the team study and experiment with Grace’s abilities, which in turn brings her closer to all of them as she finds out that their impassivity is only a stereotype.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is Grace and Dllenahkh’s love story as much as anything else, and this is where my review will, sadly, turn a shade of negative. I don’t like romance. Sometimes I find it sweet or sexy, but in this case I found it cheesy. The novel moves very slowly, which was fine when it was all about culture, science, and other ideas, but I got bored when it started to become a slow-moving romance. Most of the time, this is at least mixed up with other plot strands, but by the very end it’s just a montage of tedious sentimentality.

I don’t generally like melodrama, but in this case I thought the novel could have used a dose – a few striking scenes to replace the ponderous ones and prevent the romance from dragging along the way it does. I also think other parts of the novel could have been more dramatic, although for different reasons. The narrative is very relaxed and understated, and for the most part, this is a good thing. However, there are some more serious or exciting events – an attempted murder during a stage play, a noble sacrifice, some life-threatening scenarios – that suffer from being downplayed. You know that something more intense has happened, but you don’t always feel that intensity in the story because the pace doesn’t change. The unfortunate result is that, despite all the excellent things about The Best of All Possible Worlds, it made less of an impact on me than it could have. A bit like ordering a cocktail and then finding out it’s a virgin.

But criticisms aside – this is still an incredibly elegant, meticulously imagined piece of sf. It manages to be funny, tragic and hopeful all at once, which is to say, it’s very lifelike. I’m now far more interested in Karen Lord than in some writers who offer all the drama and entertainment I thought this novel needed. Those are the easiest things to find in sff; class is rare and should be cherished.

I’ve got one last point to discuss – the title. The meaning isn’t made explicit, but the philosophical idea that it references is a means of explaining the existence of evil in a world supposedly created by a perfectly good and loving God. Gottfried Leibniz argued that some level of evil is beneficial, because it gives rise to virtues, like courage. Thus, the ideal world would have some evil in it, and God, being God, created a world with the perfect balance of good and evil – the best of all possible worlds. There are some very obvious issues with this idea, which I won’t bother getting into. What I thought it might refer to in the novel is the way characters and societies strived to make the best possible world out of the one they have, having survived and learned from the terrible things that have befallen them. Cygnus Beta is a world that was founded in genocide, and is populated by people whose histories are marked by great tragedy. The Sadiri are in the very situation where evil can be beneficial – is has humbled them, and brought them closer to the rest of the human race.

There a great deal of room here for a sequel. Lord has left many questions unanswered (not in a bad way) and there are mysteries for the characters too, particularly the question of Terran Diaspora. So if she writes another novel set in this universe, I’ll read it. Actually, I’ll read any novel of hers.