Review of Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip

SFFaudio Review

Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillipOd Magic
By Patricia A. McKillip; Read by  Gabrielle de Cuir
Audible Download – 11 hours 33 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2009
Themes: / fantasy / wizard school / monarchy / herbalism

I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but Od Magic is one of those books I was immediately drawn to solely based on its whimsical cover art of bright pastels and its equally playful blurb.

Brenden Vetch has a gift. With an innate sense he cannot explain to himself or describe to others, he is able to connect to the agricultural world, nurturing gardens to flourish and instinctively knowing the healing properties each plant and herb has to offer. But Brenden’s gift isolates him from people and from becoming part of a community – until the day he receives a personal invitation from the Wizard Od. She needs a gardener for her school in the great city of Kelior, where every potential wizard must be trained to serve the Kingdom of Numis. For decades the rulers of Numis have controlled the school, believing they can contain the power within it, and have punished any wizard who dares defy the law. But unknown to the reigning monarchy is the power possessed by the school’s new gardener, a power that even Brenden isn’t fully aware of, and which is the true reason Od recruited him.

Od Magic shines brightest when it delivers on the promises of that introduction. Unfortunately, it’s also bogged down by lukewarm political intrigue and half-baked supporting characters.

Brenden Vetch has learned much from his plants. He’s even found a cure for the plague that swept through his village. Unfortunately, his discovery came too late to save his parents from the epidemic, and he has lived a lonely life in his childhood home with their ghosts ever since, refusing to leave even when his brother departs to seek brighter fortune elsewhere. Only when the giantess wizard Od invites him to tend the magical plants of her school in the royal city of Kelior does he pull up roots. Brenden’s story is emotionally potent, but sadly McKillip fails to capitalize on the possibilities for character development which it presents. Vetch’s grieving process is barely mentioned, and he develops very few meaningful relationships in Od’s school.

The cover summary is misleading in that it suggests that Brenden serves as the focal point of the novel. While he is indeed a pivotal character, the book’s focus widens to introduce other magical inhabitants of the city of Kelior. Contrary to the rigid belief of King Galen, Od’s school does not hold a monopoly on magic in the kingdom of Numis. Travelers from neighboring kingdoms, from commoners to nobles, have brought their own strains of magic into the land. Much of Od Magic deals with the resistence on the part of the king and on the part of Od’s school towards embracing these diverse magical traditions. In this sense, McKillip’s work provides an interesting anthropological examination of the exchange of cultural ideas, patriotism, and xenophobia.

Though part of Od Magic is set in a wizard school, the novel should not be seen as a Harry Potter or A Wizard of Earthsea imitator. The students remain at the periphery of the tale. There’s only one teaching scene reminiscent of the “student wizard” genre. In fact, only one, a brilliantly talented boy named Elver, appears regularly, and he’s an atypical sampling of the student body.

The novel’s stand-out performances are both suggested by its title. The giantess Od appears infrequently, as she takes a hands-off approach to running her school, preferring instead to roam the world offering aid to wounded beasts. Her enigmatic appearance and demeanor–she’s depicted with birds nesting in her hair and animals burrowing into her clothing–and her lyrical, poetic mode of speech elevate the few scenes in which she appears into high art. The magic itself as it manifests in the novel is similarly strange and delightful. Though characters allude to the dark potential of magical power, the magic in the book is playful, whimsical, and, yes, odd. In this sense, Od Magic presents a nice respite from the dark, gritty, and violent magic that populates many postmodern fantasy novels.

Gabrielle de Cuir’s narration of Od Magic captures the playful essence of the novel’s best passages. Her performance of Od’s dialogue chimes in the ears like a tinkling stream, and she carries the emotions and idiosyncracies of the other female characters comfortably as well. A male narrator might have better embodied the persona of Brenden Vetch, but since the magical gardener appears all too seldomly in the novel this is not a serious shortcoming.

As I said, the inviting cover image and tantalizing publisher’s summary really made me want to like Od Magic. I certainly enjoyed elements of it very much, enough to make me want to seek out some of Patricia A. McKillip’s other works. Overall, though, the novel’s lack of focus and cohesion leads me to endorse it only half-heartedly.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

SFFaudio Review

WWW: Wake by Robert J. SawyerWWW: Wake
By Robert J. Sawyer; Read by Jessica Almasy, Jennifer Van Dyck, A. C. Fellner, Marc Vietor, and Robert J. Sawyer
Audible Download – 12 hours 13 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2009
Themes: / Science Fiction / Artificial Intelligence / Cyberpunk / Cybernetic Implants / Technothriller / Consciousness /

I don’t normally inject personal anecdotes or experiences into my reviews. It just isn’t my style. In the case of WWW: Wake, however, I simply can’t resist. I’m legally blind, and Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel concerns itself with ways of seeing, in both the purely physical sense and in more metaphorical ways. It tells the story of 15-year-old blind math genius Caitlin Decter, whose family has just relocated from Austin, Texas to Waterloo, Ontario. She receives an email from a scientist in Tokyo who believes he can restore her sight by means of a behind-the-eye implant linked via Bluetooth to a pocket-sized transmitter and decoder which the ever-witty Decter dubs her “Eye-Pod”. Instead of seeing the real world, Caitlin initially sees only a kaleidoscope of criss-crossing lines and circles transposed on a flashing checkerboard of seemingly random lights. After some initial puzzlement, researchers determine that Decter is actually seeing the inner workings of the World Wide Web.

This premise is already intriguing enough, but add to it a nascent consciousness growing inside the raw data transmitted through cyberspace, and you have the makings of a great technothriller. Fortunately, Sawyer’s writing doesn’t fall victim to many of the clichéd tropes of that genre. There’s very little in the way of the sensationalism of films like Lawnmower Man or Ghost In The Machine. Instead, Sawyer explores the philosophical implications of a growing, learning artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, of course, Caitlin Decter must come to grips with her new “web sight”, as she calls it, in addition to facing the normal teenage challenges of adjusting to a new high school.

WWW: Wake strikes a good balance between the cerebral and the emotional. The novel stops just short of qualifying as “hard science fiction”, but it also, as I said, shies away from becoming a popcorn thriller. Decter is a complex and ultimately likable character. She’s a brilliant mathematician–in the online world she goes by the alias Calculass–and she’s confident in her mental prowess, but at the same time she faces the insecurities caused by her blindness in addition to the standard turbulence of adolescence. The supporting cast of characters in Caitlin’s life are just as three-dimensional. Her mother is loving and generous, while her father, a theoretical physicist, is well-meaning but emotionally distant. The interactions and conflicts between the characters are subtly portrayed, lending WWW: Wake a sense of realism despite the bizarre goings-on behind Caitlin’s eyes.

Is Caitlin’s blindness realistic? This is where my own personal experience comes into play. I’ve been legally blind since birth, although since I have some residual vision the comparison isn’t exact. Even so, it’s evident to me that Robert J. Sawyer has done his homework in this regard. Caitlin’s life is replete with all the trappings associated with blind life: white canes (which I just traded in for my first guide dog), text-to-speech screen-reading software, and braille displays. More importantly, Sawyer understands how the world is conceived and constructed for those of us with either no vision or limited vision. This becomes apparent as Caitlin’s sight changes throughout the novel in interesting ways, and as she struggles to pin names and concepts to the new visual stimuli that are firing down her optic nerves.

The Audible Frontiers production of Wake is stellar in its production value. As the voice of Caitlin Decter, Jessica Almasy does most of the heavy lifting, and her performance shines. Sound and voice is especially important in the world view of a character who, through much of the novel, lacks any kind of visual stimuli, and Almasy deftly handles these complex nuances. Of course, Decter is also a precocious and spunky teenage girl, and Almasy rises to the challenge of matching Decter’s dynamic character. The other narrators also do an excellent job, and Sawyer himself even lends his voice to occasional passages.

The book’s one weakness lies in its plotting. Along with Caitlin’s story and the development of the “web consciousness”, two other storylines weave in and out of the novel. While they’re interesting in their own right, they never come to a satisfying conclusion and never intersect in a meaningful way with the main story. I understand that Wake is merely the first in the WWW trilogy of novels, and that Sawyer will likely resolve them in upcoming volumes. Still, an author as talented as Sawyer should be able to bring these narrative threads to enough of a climax to maintain the novel’s cohesion.

Minor structural shortcomings aside, WWW: Wake is both an emotionally satisfying story of a blind girl coming to grips with ways of seeing, and an intellectually stimulating examination of technology and consciousness. Along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash,Wake presents a unique perspective on information technology. I eagerly await its sequels Watch and Wonder.

Update: I didn’t realize this at the time, but apparently I wrote this review on the birthday of Annie Sullivan, who taught the deaf-blind Hellen Keller how to communicate with the world. Sullivan is a strong symbolic and thematic presence in Wake. Coincidence, or fate?

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Anathem by Neal Stephenson

SFFaudio Review

By Neal Stephenson; Read by Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, and Neal Stephenson
Audible Download –  32 hours 30 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2008
Themes: / alien invasion / philosophy / religion / alternate universe

After nearly two weeks of listening to this 2009 Hugo-nominated book during nearly every moment of my free time–getting ready for work in the mornings, sitting on the bus, tossing and turning in bed–I’ve finally finished Neal Stephenson’s latest tale of metaphysical adventure. Does the book measure up to Stephenson’s earlier work? More importantly, is it fun to read?

First, some background: Anathem is set on the planet of Arbre, a world much like, and yet unlike, our own. The tale opens in the year 3690 AR (After the Reconstitution), in the Mathic Consent of Saunt Edhar. Consents are much like the medieval monasteries of our own world, except that instead of contemplating religious matters the Mathic avout research and debate matters of math, science, and philosophy. The tale is told from the perspective of Fraa Erasmas, a young avout who has now lived at the Consent for ten years. A mysterious craft appears in the skies above Arbre, which is the driving force behind the plot, since it excites consequences and conflicts first in the Mathic world and then in the Saecular, or outside, world as well. The craft, it turns out, belongs to an alien race unknown to Arbre, and packs a significant military punch. The inhabitants of Arbre, Mathic and Saecular alike, must decide how to face this threat.

I can’t fully answer the first question, since the only other Stephenson novel I’ve read in full was his cyberpunk effort Snow Crash, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Stylistically speaking, comparing these two novels, though, is like comparing apples and oranges. The prose ofSnow Crash is taut, earthy, and vernacular, while that of Anathem is expansive, meandering, and somewhat more formal. Yet the two books share a tendency to veer into philosophical discourse that usually, but not always, has some relevance to the plot.

As to the second question, I wouldn’t quite characterize Anathem as “fun”. It certainly has many moments of intense action, wry humor, and emotional drama. These moments, however, are interspersed between long stretches of the aforementioned philosophical discourse. So one’s response to the novel largely depends on one’s tolerance for and appreciation of Stephenson’s vast store of scientific and theoretical knowledge. In this respect, as well as in its setting, Anathem resembles Umberto Eco’s equally challenging The Name of the Rose.

Those interested in such things will find here a treasure trove of insights (or “upsights” as they’re called in the world of Arbre) into the nature of reality, consciousness, and the universe. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply hint that the quantum physics principles that play such a large role in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy rear their hydra-heads here as well.

The book isn’t all dialogues and theorums and proofs. Much of Anathem‘s beauty stems from its likable characters. Fraa Erasmas is a young lad possessed of loyalty, imagination, and more heart than seems to be usual in the Mathic community. His best friend Fraa Lio, upon whom he bestows the epithet of “thistlehead”, takes a keen interest in the martial arts techniques, or vlor, of the Consent of the Ringing Veil. The cast of brothers is rounded out by the ambitious yet likable Fraa Jesry and the good-natured portly Fraa Arsibalt. Unlike medieval monastaries, Mathic consents are not segregated, so Erasmas and company are joined in their adventures by the capable but hot-tempered Suur Ala and the mild-mannered Suur Tulia. The real standout characters, though, are the enigmatic Fraa Orolo and Fraa Jad. The former has a fascination with cosmology and also with saecular speelies (read: movies), while the latter is first seen puzzling over a disposable razor from the outside world. Both these old men are reminiscent of Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series in that they combine immense knowledge with eccentricity and childlike curiosity.

For a word nerd like myself, much of the pleasure from reading Anathem is derived from marveling at Stephenson’s ability to construct a linguistically coherent alternate reality that still has resonances in our own world. Take the word saunt, for instance, which denotes a Mathic avout who has made some sort of significant theoretical advance. As the book’s glossary explains, the word is actually a contracted form of the word savant, but also immediately brings to the reader’s mind the real-world word saint. I’m fairly certain that all these subtle layers of meaning were intentionally embedded, and this is just one example of many.

While there are endless avenues of literary, cultural, and philosophical allusions to explore and deep philosophical questions to unravel, I found myself a bit weary as I got to the end of the novel. Though certainly a more-than-capable storyteller, Stephenson seems more interested in advancing his scientific explorations, and overlays the story atop them. This is similar to sme of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, in which the story is made subservient to linguistic aims. I’m not quite sure where I fall on this “story-versus-substance” spectrum, but if I had to choose I think I’d lean towards the “story” direction.

Given its complexity of its language, Anathem poses a real challenge to audiobook producers. Fortunately, the narrators are up to the task. William Dufris performs the bulk of the novel, and he shifts easily from the erudite jargon of the book’s dialogues to its memorable emotional climaxes. Read by a less capable narrator, Anathem might be marketed as a surefire cure for insomnia, but Dufris brings every character to life as if they were in a speely, the Arbre equivalent of film.

Even with the few caveats listed earlier, it’s hard to underplay Neal Stephenson’s immense achievement with Anathem.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Witchling by Yasmine Galenorn

SFFaudio Review

Greetings fellow SFFaudio readers! I just thought I’d introduce myself as one of the new geeks slated to post reviews for the site. I’m legally blind, and have relied on SFFaudio for years to direct me to fantasy and SF audio, from new blockbuster releases to hidden diamonds in the rough scattered around the Interwebs. I’m therefore thrilled to be contributing to the site, and look forward to giving something back to this awesome community. Okay, that should suffice for an introduction–now on to the review!

Witchling by Yasmine GalenornWitchling
By Yasmine Galenorn; Read by Cassandra Campbell
Audible Download – 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2008
Themes: / Supernatural Romance / Urban Fantasy / Vampires / Dragons / Faeries / Seattle /

I was a little hesitant to delve into Yasmine Galenorn’s Sisters of the Moon series, since it’s generally categorized as “supernatural romance”. Yes, this shows contempt prior to investigation on my part. I’ve never read any “paranormal romance”, or much “romance” at all, for that matter. Yet from the first page, I found myself enjoying the world and characters of Witchling. The book reaffirms my belief that genre labels like “paranormal romance” have more to do with marketing convenience than actual substance.

“Urban fantasy” hits nearer the mark. The events of Witchling unfold in Seattle and the surrounding countryside, including the stunning Mount Rainier. The story follows the three D’Artigo sisters, half-human half-faerie beings from Otherworld who conduct work for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency (OIA) to keep their homeland safe. The murder of Jocko the gentle giant by a demon sets the detective-story plot in motion, told through the voice of witch Camille D’Artigo.

For the most part, the pages of Witchling are populated with fantasy staples. Delilah D’Artigo is a changeling able to transform into a tabby cat, and the third sister Menolly was changed into a vampire. Dragons, demons, and sprites also lumber, skulk, and flit about. Though these might seem trite and cliché, Galenorn lends them all enough life and originality that they seldom detract from the story. More inventive figures also make appearances, most notably the Japanese kitsune (fox) demon Morio.

Like other first-person urban fantasy books I’ve read, Witchling’s style is contemporary, witty, and laced with humor. Despite hailing from Otherworld, Camille has apparently spent enough time on Earth to learn its ways, its slang, and its pop culture references, which she uses to good effect in her speech and exposition. The sprightly writing more than makes up for the slow pacing in the book’s first half. In fact, I really enjoyed the dialogue-driven, character-based opening chapters.

While at its heart Witchling is a fun trans-dimensional detective story, it does touch, in a desultory way, on some more serious themes. Since the D’Artigo sisters are half-bloods, born of a human mother and faerie father, they face prejudice and discrimination from both sides of the race divide. Sadly, this dynamic seldom crops up in the plot, but Camille does occasionally reflect on its ramifications for her family.

And, yes, there is romance. Throughout the novel, Camille is preoccupied to some degree with her love life, and this subplot moves apace with the main narrative thread. I found Camille’s libidinous mental musings distracting from the story at times, but overall the romantic scenes and trajectory fit the book’s tone.

Likable characters, an engrossing plot, and smart, snazzy, sexy writing make Witchling an enticing read. Hints throughout the novel and especially during its conclusion reveal that the events depicted are but the tip of the iceberg in an impending battle between faeries and demons, a battle in which it’s likely that humanity will become embroiled. I look forward to exploring Galenorn’s universe further in the sequel Changeling, which it appears is told from the perspective of werecat Delilah D’Artigo.

Cassandra Campbell’s narration of Witchling is solid but uninspired. She imbues a real sense of emotion into the characters, especially the three D’Artigo sisters. The novel’s contemporary style and numerous pop culture references flow naturally into her narration. Campbell sometimes has a tendency to drift into melodrama, however, and the male villains seem particularly overdrawn. On the whole, though, Campbell handles the material well.

For more information on Sisters of the Moon and Yasmine Galenorn’s other projects you can follow her on Twitter.

Posted by Seth Wilson