Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reading Notes: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, and a note on Throne of the Crescent Moon

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at the last two the five nominated novels: Lois McMaster Bujold's Captain Vortaptril's Alliance, and briefly at Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon.

There are few pleasures in life to rival the excitement  of discovering a wonderful author, new to you but well established and possessing of a deliciously inviting long backlist. It's like being a kid in a candy shop, thinking about all the reading pleasures in store, and knowing you don't have to wait for them, because look! the books already exist!

That sentiment captures in its entirety why I loved Captain Vorpatril's Alliance disproportionately to how good a book it is, if considering it as a single text. Oh, independently of context, this is still a really, really enjoyable book - great characters, a lighthearted but not trivial plot, plenty of colour and movement, and a sure, steady hand with pacing - but the reason I fell head over heels for it is the knowledge that there is a whole universe of Vorkosigan books out there, many of them even stronger than this one (so I am told by Vor enthusiast friends), within which Ivan Xav's story plays out.

In essence, Bujold gives us the story of how Ivan Xav Vortpatril, amiable if slightly bumbly aide de camp, meets, rescues, becomes embroiled with and eventually falls in love with his wife, the Jackson's Whole aristocrat Tej. That's the meat and potatoes of the plot, but it's set within a vibrant, fully realised spacegoing future, with the Vor empire (Russian-derived) on Barrayar transposed with the different cultures of space outpost Jackson's Whole, the technologically and socially advanced Beta, and the genetic tinkerers of Cetaganda.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I don't really like romance stories, but this book, although clearly both science fiction and humorous, also has an undeniably romantic and whimsical feel to it - yet I loved it. The strange thing is that I didn't love it in spite of the Ivan / Tej plot trajectory; I loved it because of it, and was barracking hard for the two of them to reach their happy place intact as the storyline increasingly descended into chaotic farce around them. Perhaps what I've learned from this is that actually I am OK with romantic stories, provided they are a) funny b) not soppy c) have a good enough overall plot and d) have great characters who I can really like. Bujold pulls this off with the casual mastery of a seasoned writer who writes awesome work. I can't believe I've somehow managed to miss her before now, but I will most definitely be making up for lost time now!

As for Throne of the Crescent Moon ... This is a book that I made three attempts to get into but failed each time. I found the writing style remarkably hyperbolic and overheated, and if there is one thing I dislike more than gratuitous romance in a book, it's gratuitous torture, especially as an opening gambit. No, you don't convince me you're really serious and dark and whatnot by dismembering someone alive on page 3; you just convince me you're trying to make shock do the work of engagement. That said, I can't write a fair review on this book, because I never got past chapter 5. Suffice to say, it wasn't for me, although I know others have liked it.

So, with 4 of the 5 novels read and one abandoned because I didn't like it, I'm prepared to pick my winner.

For me there were two clear front-runners: Redshirts and Captain Vortpatril's Alliance (the first and last books I read, as it happened). I thought 2312 was extraordinary in many ways but also quite dense and difficult, with insufficient pay-off; and while I enjoyed Blackout for what it was, and think it's streets ahead of usual thriller fare, it didn't quite rise to the heights of enjoyment, twistiness and humour of Redshirts, or sheer affection that Captain Vorpatril inspired in me. As for Throne of the Crescent Moon, it was just not at all my cup of tea.

If I was picking a winner based on which book I feel the most affinity for and attachment to, I'd go with Captain Vorpatril - now enmeshed in reading all the Vorkosigan books, I can see, with great happiness, that I'm going to enjoy it even more on subsequent readings. However, on balance, I think Redshirts is a more complete achievement, and I admire the self-contained nature of it immensely in a genre addicted to long series fiction. So, my novel category winner would be Redshirts, but I would not be sad if Captain Vorpatril pipped it either.

This brings to an end my Hugo journey. I am conceding defeat on the novelettes - I am now embarked on my Man Booker reading challenge, and also have three other books to get read and reviewed, not to mention my happy journey through the Vorkosigan universe. However, I didn't do too badly - all the shorts, all the novellas and the novels is a pretty good effort! I will check out the results with interest in September.

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