Nominator: Bridgett T.
Ethan of Athos is a fun little novel set in Bujold's Vorkosigan universe. It isn't the sort of book to win grand honors, and I doubt it inspired any award winning academic papers. It is a stand alone space opera with the sort of cover illustration that makes me want to buy one of those quilted purple flowered contraptions people hide risque romance novel covers with. But this is just the surface.
Ethan of Athos examines issues such as homophobia, ethics involving donated reproductive material, and the value of parenthood. Though most of the action is set on a space station, the glimpses we have of life on the all male planet of Athos are intriguing. Bujold does an excellent job of fleshing out this utopia, even though it is not really central to the action oriented plot.
Ethan of Athos also features one of the Vorkosigan series' strongest female characters, Elli Quinn. Quinn is a kick butt warrior woman who is both intelligent and resourceful. When Quinn meets the naive Athosian Dr. Ethan Urquhart, hilarity follows.
In one of the book's funnier scenes, Quinn rescues Ethan from a bar room brawl. Relieved to find an area free of women, Ethan enters the pub and issues a general invitation to emigrate to Athos. Coming from a planet where homosexuality is normative, Ethan is dismayed by the reactions of the homophobic bar patrons. Here and throughout the book, serious issues are examined with a levity which is refreshing.
Ethan of Athos isn't the type of serious, provocative literature usually discussed by the Book Discussion Group. On the other hand, it is one of the few books available featuring an all male utopia. Though we have many visions of female utopias in science fiction, our visions of the male utopia seem nearly absent. What would a male utopia look like? Would it really look like Athos, where parenthood is valued above all else?
I think this could be an interesting discussion.
Carey, Jacqueline: Kushiel's Dart
Nominator: Christine E.
My second nomination is Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. I'm nominating this one because a while ago someone on the list asked about books about prostitutes and this is one of the books that loosely falls into that definition. Though, the main character is not a street walker but a high end prostitute.
The book did make one of the top choices in the Windling, Datlow Years Best Fantasy and Horror. However, Windling points out that some of the subject matter is distasteful. (see below for reasons)
From Publishers Weekly:
This brilliant and daring debut, set in a skewed Renaissance world (people worship Jesus-like "Blessed Elua" but also demigods), catapults Carey immediately into the top rank of fantasy novelists. In the character of Phèdre nó Delaunay, "a whore's unwanted get" sold into indentured servitude in opulent Night Court, the author has created a particularly strong and memorable female lead, and has surrounded her with a large and varied cast, from nobles and priests to soldiers and peasants. An engrossing plot focuses first on court intrigue and treachery, then, in a surprising shift, on high adventure, travel in barbarian lands including Alba (England) and war. Two demigods rule Phèdre: Naamah, for sensual love; and Kushiel, for sado-masochistic pain, his "dart" being a blood spot in Phèdre's eye. Not everyone will go for Phèdre's graphic if elegantly described sexual encounters, which usually involve the infliction of pain, whether from lashing, branding or even cutting. Phèdre, however, is no clichéd sexpot but a complex character motivated by religious zeal. In one amusing scene, a group of sailors on the march chants: "Whip us till we're on the floor, we'll turn around and ask for more, we're Phèdre's Boys!" At the end, the heroine reminds one of an equally strong-minded sister whose home was Tara. No mere feminist novel, this is an assured and magnificent book that will appeal to both male and female readers. (June 4) Forecast: With blurbs from Delia Sherman and Storm Constantine, plus major print advertising both genre and mainstream, this first novel could rack up impressive sales.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From an Amazon reviewer:
What I love about this book is its protagonist. Phèdre is witty, sensual, cultured, and haughty, and although she enjoys being bound and tortured during sex, she's by no means a subservient character. Indeed, that's a theme of the novel, repeated several times--- "That which yields is not necessarily weak." She may play the servant at need, but she's always looking out for her own interests, and those of the people she loves. She can be downright ruthless, frankly, and she manages to bring about the downfall of a number of powerful people.I also love the sensuality of this book. This is a world where all of the whores have spent years studying the erotic arts before they ever lose their virginity; they even have a textbook. And Phèdre knows every technique in it. Phèdre's assignations are sometimes described in tactful but powerful detail---not crude or pornographic, but clear enough that the reader sees both how much pleasure she gets from the act, and how she wraps her patrons around her little finger in the process. It's not always pleasant, and those who are repelled by sado-masochism or bondage might find some scenes disturbing. There are also some scenes when Phèdre is forced into unwilling slavery to a Nordic lord, and is raped (although because of what she is, she enjoys even this---and hates herself for it). But overall there are more than enough good scenes to make up for the not-so-good. Including several homosexual encounters, as a warning to those with more limited tastes. Phèdre has no preferences, and her greatest lover/adversary happens to be a woman. (That's another thing I like---there are very few weak women in this novel.)
Emshwiller, Carol: The Mount
Nominator: Petra M.
Link: Book Page Review
Riding herd on the human race
REVIEW BY BECKY OHLSEN
Reading The Mount is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, experience. Author Carol Emshwiller expertly forces readers to identify with a narrator who is shrouded in ignorance and stubbornly resists being coaxed toward enlightenment. Like the best sci-fi, the novel uses a fantastical setting to illustrate a painfully realistic internal struggle.
Charley is a mount, a member of the human race on an Earth that has been invaded by small, weak-legged aliens the humans call Hoots. Hoots have used their superior senses and intellects to enslave humanity, training and riding them as we do horses, keeping them in stables, even breeding them to produce specific characteristics. Charley's a Seattle, the breed engineered for superior strength and stamina. He's also a Tame, i.e., born in captivity. Escape has never crossed his mind. As the mount of the Future-Leader-of-Us-All, a baby Hoot called Little Master, Charley enjoys every luxury: a comfortable stall, good shoes, plenty of playtime, plenty of food. The only thing he lacks is something that, as an adolescent, he hasn't yet learned to value: his freedom.
When Charley's father -- a Tame who escaped and now runs with the Wilds scattered through the nearby mountains -- leads a raid on the village and frees Charley and his young rider, the teenage mount is resentful. Why should he give up his comfortable home just to run around in the mountains where there are no shoes, no racing trophies, not enough food and a bunch of Wilds who aren't even purebred Seattles? On top of that, he doesn't like his father -- partly because he's a giant of a man who can barely speak, thanks to the scars left in his mouth by the spiked metal bit he wore as a Guard's Mount, but mostly because the pure-blooded patriarch is in love with a lean, lanky Tennessee, not a Seattle. If his father and the Tennessee had a child, Charley frets, it would be a "nothing," neither Seattle nor Tennessee, and no Hoot would want to ride it.
As Charley struggles with his conflicting emotions -- devotion to his Little Master, desire for prestige in the Hoot world, pride in his breeding, a growing admiration for his father, inexplicable fondness for a "nothing" girl -- the foolish bigotry, misplaced loyalty and other trappings of his upbringing slowly fall away.
Emshwiller is a much-admired writer in the genre who won the World Fantasy Award for her short story collection, The Start of the End of It All. Her new novel is a beautifully written, allegorical tale full of hope that even the most unenlightened soul can shrug off the bonds of internalized oppression and finally see the light.
Reader comment at Amazon:
An Incredible Multi-Faceted Vision of the Future, October 13, 2002
Rather than write another synopsis of the novel, I would instead comment on the number of different themes which present themselves in this incredibly imaginative tale. I see themes of Whites and Black slavery, the relationships between parents and children, the universal process of coming to adulthood, the idea of dominance and submission in relationships, and our treatment of the other creatures on this earth which we call "animals." If we were not the "dominant" species on this planet, would we be treated like the mounts in this story? I believe that we would. And I wonder about something else: If horses could speak, what would they tell us? This is a disturbing story which does what all great literature does. It changes us forever.
Gearhart, Sally Miller: Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women
Nominator: Bridgett T.
It's considered a feminist classic, but it has yet to be officially discussed by the Book Discussion Group. That seems like a great reason to nominate Sally Miller Gearhart's Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women.
Originally published by Persephone Press in 1978, Wanderground was reissued in May 2002 by Spinsters Ink. The reissue of this classic coincided with the publication of The Kanshou, the first book in Gearhart's new Earthkeep Series. (The second book of the trilogy, The Magister, is due to be released this month.)
Wanderground is described by Amazon.com Top 500 Customer Reviewer blissengine as:
<<a classic utopian story of interconnected tales, as well as a potent novel about the power of women as a group. With a force equal to such feminist classics as The Handmaid's Tale and Woman on the Edge of Time, Wanderground inspires us to envision a world lived in harmony with each other and with the world, and shows us the possibilities of reward in such an environment.>>
But Wanderground is about more than just a feminist utopia. In her essay, "Single-Sexed Utopias and Our Two-Sexed Reality", Susan Stone-Blackburn discusses the ending of the book:
<<What follows takes readers who participate in the feminist movement, male and female, back towards their own reality. Though plot is as secondary to this poetic text as it is to Russ's postmodern one, what there is climaxes in the story "Meeting the Gentles," where some women's doubts about the advisability of granting any men, however well intentioned, credibility equal to women's are placed in conflict with the trust in them other women feel. Some readers will feel an affinity with women on one side of the conflict, some with those on the other; some will connect with the men who are being doubted. It appears in this story that the women can never withdraw entirely from the miseries of the City into the pleasures of their own society, because their strong presence in the City is necessary to keep the effect that controls the violent men working. Now, with the credibility of this 'effect' shattered, one is more likely to read the 'effect' as a metaphor for ecofeminist work in our society which creates whatever possibility there is for women to realize their potential in safety and the ecosystem to survive. It also appears that to be most effective, the women need the Gentles' cooperation, so they are faced with the question: are those who distrust all men right or are those who believe some men capable of true respect for women and seek their support for achieving feminist goals right? This is so familiar an argument among feminists that few readers will miss the real-world implications.>>
The full text of this essay can be found at:
More information about Sally Miller Gearhart can be found many places on the web, including our own site and Sally Miller Gearhart's homepage.
The book is less feminist oriented then the other nominees but the focus on novel is on two women and one man. You should know that one of the women is really a female fox (No, its not like Watership Down) Below are plot summery and reviews from Amazon.
Johnson, Kij: The Fox Woman
Nominator: Christine E.
In Western fairy tales, we've got the werewolf, the man who changes into a wolf. But in the East, it's the fox who does the changing, into a man--or, more often, a sensuous, seductive woman. In her skillful debut, Kij Johnson takes this classic Japanese myth (based in large part on a Royall Tyler translation of a particular story) and spins it into a luminous, lyrical tale, a tender and whisper-quiet study of love, desire, joy, and the nature of the soul. The Fox Woman follows two families, one of foxes and another of humans. The restless Kaya no Yoshifuji fails to receive an appointment in the Emperor's court and, distracted and seemingly unfazed, decides to relocate to a rural estate to pass a pensive winter, accompanied by his wife Shikujo and son Tadamaro. But a young fox named Kitsune and her brother, mother, and grandfather have set up their den in the run-down estate, and soon the fate of both families becomes intertwined; Yoshifuji becomes bewitched by the foxes, and Kitsune in turn falls in love with him, much to the distress of all others involved, especially Shikujo. Johnson tells her tale in measured, intimate passages, through Kitsune's diary, Yoshifuji's notebook, and Shikujo's pillow book. The rich, truthful depiction of the Heian-era setting, punctuated by exchanges of poetry and steeped in emotive descriptions of both the fox and human worlds, establishes a still, meditative, and rewarding pace. With her thoughtful ear, Johnson offers a mature and knowing first effort. --Paul Hughes
Based on a traditional Japanese fairy story and steeped in medieval Japanese culture, this literary tale has a mannered pace well suited to its theme and subject. Alternating narrative point-of-view between Kitsune, a young female fox who falls in love with Japanese nobleman Kaya no Yoshifuji; the nobleman himself; and his long-suffering wife, Shikujo, Johnson poignantly explores the tangled web in which the lives of the three characters are bound. When Kaya fails to get a spring court appointment, he and his family retire to their country estate, where he suffers from severe depression and the sense that he is trapped in a drab existence. Enter Kitsune, who, with her grandfather's help, works the magic that makes her a human woman and lures Kaya into a completely illusionary life. All three protagonists are forced to face reality and truth and to make their own worlds out of the best of all he or she has experienced. The haunting novel may appeal more to mainstream fiction readers than typical fantasy fans. --Sally Estes
A beautiful book..., February 8, 2001
Reviewer: Sarah Calkins (see more about me)
I have to admit I wasn't expecting much of this book. Being an avid fan of Japanese culture, I've read too many books set in Japan that are too modern and/or too Western. This one, however, pleasantly surprised me. While you can tell that it was definitely written with a Western audience in mind, beautifully captures the feeling of Japan during the Heian era. And more importantly, it beautifully captures the experiences of the three main characters and the other people (and foxes) who get caught up in the paths of their destiny with the perfect mix of casual observation, high drama, simplicity and beautiful poetry.I also have to admit, though, that the ending didn't quite sit well with me. It was the perfect ending for this book, but that doesn't mean I can't wish it all ended differently. I was hoping for a little bit of a less poetic and more Western ending, but that's all right. And if Kij Johnson's next book is anything like this one, you can be sure I'll be picking it up.
Reviewer: Tammy M. Kelso from Anacortes, WA USA
This lyrical allegory is a must for anyone who has ever tried to be someone they are not in order to gain love, for anyone who has had to choose between two loves, for anyone who has had to fight to save their love. Written in a beautiful, poetic style reminiscent of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Fox Woman captures the reader from the moment it begins.
Kij Johnson tells this love story entirely through the diary entries of the three main characters; each with their own unique perspective and voice. One would think that by doing this she would risk redundancy, and yet the overlaps are few and natural, serving only to connect the characters to each other and to the storyline.
Besides the unique, mystical vehicle she has chosen to deliver this allegory, Johnson's strength lies in her imagistic detail. Here is an example: "The rain has stopped, but the eaves still drip. Overhead, the spiderweb glistens in the moonlight that filters through the eave openings. The gossamer lines are almost too fine to see as anything but a lightening of the darkness."
Her language is exquisitely beautiful and yet also accessible. This strength, combined with the universality of the topic, is what makes it possible for the reader to leave their world and enter fully into the story; and in making that possible, Johnson weaves a fox magic of her own.
Lethem, Jonathan: Girl in Landscape
Nominator: Petra M.
As far as I know Jonathan Lethem writes each time a completely different books, thereby he doesn't restrict himself to one genre. There were so many positive reviews of this book, I had a hard time to pick one.
From Kirkus Reviews
An ingenious and unsettling dystopian romance from the surrealist wnderkind who has in a scant five years produced five aggressively original works of fiction (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.). The story begins on Earth--in Brooklyn, in fact--in a future transfigured by some unspecified (seemingly nuclear) catastrophe. The ozone layer is only a memory, people travel underground in private "subway cars," and beachgoers can tolerate the sun only when enclosed in protective portable "tents." These and similar phenomena emerge in some brilliantly managed expository scenes focussed on teenaged Pella Marsh and her two younger brothers as they endure the loss of their mother to a brain tumor and their removal (by father Clement, a defeated politician) to another planet. Arriving at a "new settlement" on the environmentally friendly Planet of the Archbuilders, the Marshalls gradually assimilate into a society of fugitive earthlings who coexist uneasily with their mysterious hosts. The Archbuilders, seemingly equal parts human, animal, and vegetable, pose a disturbing riddle: Are they benign protective beings evolved beyond humans (some of whom argue that they're only the "rubble" left behind by their more adventurous interstellar-explorer counterparts)? Or are these passive "aliens" a variety of lotus-eaters whose resignation to their stripped-down "planet" lulls their human neighbors into inert compliance with its norms? The possibilities are cleverly explored through a pleasingly melodramatic storyline that satisfies our expectations without overexplaining, and through a profusion of grimly comic details picturing life (or the imitation of it) in this bizarre new world. And Lethem's people are fully as real as his locale seems unreal. The protagonist Pella, a sturdy girl-woman altogether equal to the tests she undergoes, is especially memorable. Wonderful stuff. One waits eagerly to learn where Lethem will take us next. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP.
SF Site Review by Lisa DuMond
Excessive Candour by John Clute
McHugh, Maureen F: Nekropolis
Nominator: Petra M.
SFSite Review by Lisa DuMond:
Maureen F. McHugh is one of those rarest of things: a genuinely important author. Everything she writes is important. Why? Because McHugh never takes the easy way out; she tackles tough subject matter and she does it brilliantly.
In Nekropolis she tackles the touchy subject of life in a fundamentalist theocracy. Gender bias, genetic bias, and ancient traditions combine for a society that leaves little room for personal preference, and no chance of forgiveness. Hariba, at the young age of 26, has seen her life and future shattered by her brother's illegal actions. Her lesser-of-two-evils choice is to be "jessed" to submit docilely to a form of slavery that will comprise the rest of her life.
As a jessed menial she is at the lowest level of society; equal only to the bio-engineered harni who also serves her master. Harni are not considered human, but Hariba finds herself hopelessly in love with Akhmim, and in her own beaten-down, timid way she means to have him. Whatever the costs.
In a hopeless, forgotten place like the Nekropolis where Hariba has spent her life, there are costs for every decision and reactions to every action. In a place like Nekropolis, the price is almost always far in excess of the worth. A fact that Hariba has learned time and again, but has never really accepted. Soon the threat of retribution is not enough to keep Hariba from defying law and reason to get what she wants. But is what she hopes for anything like the truth?
For Hariba, though, ignoring reality has become a way of life. Eye open, but averted, and mind closed is how she has survived thus far.
Nekropolis is a masterwork of tension, faith, and despair. It is a look forward into a time we all would like to assume will be better for everyone, but don't quite believe in. History is too pragmatic a teacher. McHugh has a clear eye and portrays the possible future with unflinching honesty. Fans of her work know not to expect Hollywood-happy endings; McHugh writes to explore truth and reality, even if that truth doesn't exist quite yet.
Life in fundamentalist countries is virtual slavery now for women. What will happen when you add artificially created human beings into the mix? What rights will these creatures demand? And what will they actually get? When you live your life in a subservient, subhuman existence, will you be ready for freedom if it comes?
Nekropolis asks an even more troubling question. Is it what we, the majority, want for people that matters? How can we know what is best, when we don't even understand the ones we are trying to liberate? Perhaps we should listen more closely to what the objects of our sympathy are saying and not what we are hearing.
Always expect the very best of Maureen McHugh; she delivers every time -- even if it isn't the package we envisioned.
Copyright © 2001 Lisa DuMond
The novel has been generally praised. So far I only know China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh that was very good.
Murphy, Pat: The Falling Woman
Nominator: Jennifer K.
I'm a big fan of Pat Murphy and this is a great story. The characters are compelling, and the story is magical. I think this group would enjoy the strong female characters, both past and present. I remember a fierce edge to the priestess. There are bits of this story that have stayed with me in the years since I read this; one in particular was a vivid description of Waters seeing ghosts of native people while walking over a bridge on the UC Berkeley campus. Now every time I go there I look for the ghosts, but alas I have no such special talents.
Here's the Amazon.com review:
"Elizabeth Waters, an archeologist who abandoned her husband and daughter years ago to pursue her career, can see the shadows of the past. It's a gift she keeps secret from her colleagues and students, one that often leads her to incredible archeological discoveries and the realization that she might be going mad. Then on a dig in the Yucatan, the shadow of a Mayan priestess speaks to her. Suddenly Elizabeth's daughter Diane arrives, hoping to reconnect with her mother. As mother, daughter and priestess fall into the mysterious world of Mayan magic, it is clear one will be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. The book won the 1988 Nebula Award."
Schulman, J. Neil: The Rainbow Cadenza
I think this book would have a number of themes for interesting discussion, a very thought-provoking and disturbing book about the future, the co-opting of feminism and gay/lesbian activism, and a chilling portrayal of "political correctness" gone mad - considered a libertarian classic, it won the 1984 Prometheus Award.
The book's female protagonist lives in a future Earth world where women are "free". The 'People Who Care' have remade the earth in their own image, humanity is joined together under a popularly elected world government, gay marriage is a normal institution, (and politically advisable for those who wish to advance their careers), and the First Lady, a lesbian, is Head of State.
But who are the new underclass of criminals called 'Touchables', and why are they legally hunted for sexual sport? Why are clones treated as inferior, despite the equal status of all citizens? In an age of "freedom", why do men outnumber women 7 to 1? And why are all women at age 18 drafted into government service for 3 years?
The female protagonist of the story is Joan Darris, a brilliant young artist in the medium of laser concerts, and we follow her life experiences from childhood through many experiences until she escapes Earth and flees to the space station colonies - which are presented as a utopian liberal contrast, a rainbow of hope, relative to the dystopian earth. Like Huxley and Vonnegut, The Rainbow Cadenza uses black humour to show a chilling future.
The 1999 re-released edition also includes an appendix of a number of commentaries by other contemporary authors and journalists etc - several of which hail it as having a "strong feminist message", but in some feminist fora it is denounced, or not even considered for discussion. Does libertarianism as espoused by this author offer a truly feminist 'vision'? Is any form of government always doomed to corruption?
Personally, I found the dystopian vision chillingly disturbing - very real & plausible - despite some patches of poor writing - similarly chilling to the dystopia displayed in The Handmaid's Tale. I also did not think the book had a 'strong feminist message', except inasmuch as giving warnings of the anti-feminist nature of libertarian rhetoric. But I suspect many would disagree - and hence would form a good discussion topic.