Karen Lord

Book Reviews: Lord & Brennan

The Best of All Possible WorldsTwo more book reviews, starting with The Best of All Possible Worlds [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Karen Lord. I received a copy of this one, along with The Galaxy Game, at ConFusion earlier this year.
I loved Lord’s debut novel, so I was very much looking forward to what she did next.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

This is not whiz-bang, robots-and-lasers-and-spaceships-and-explosions science fiction. It’s a very thoughtful and well-written story of cultural displacement, interplanetary refugees, and the struggle between compromise and preservation of culture.

The Sadiri are described as “the epitome of morality and tradition, savants too absorbed in their mental exercises to succumb to base urges.” They arrive on the colony of Cygnus Beta after their homeworld is attacked and destroyed. Here, they set out to find settlements of genetically and culturally compatible humans, hoping to preserve as much of their ways as possible.

The narrator is Grace Delarua, part of the diplomatic party helping the Sadiri on their search. This sets up a somewhat episodic framework where we see different settlements and cultures, while at the same time learning more about the larger world and events, as well as getting a gradual romantic storyline between Grace and one of the Sadiri.

It’s a powerful book, exploring so many “what if” ideas — mental powers, time travel, planetary settlement — while at the same time being intensely relevant to our own world. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth reading.

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Voyage of the BasiliskI also recently read the second and third of Marie Brennan‘s Lady Trent books: The Tropic of Serpents [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] and Voyage of the Basilisk [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. In some respects, these are similar to Lord’s book. They aren’t action-heavy sword-fighting quests, but thoughtful explorations of culture and science, presented as memoirs by Isabella (Lady Trent), who became the world’s foremost expert on dragons.

From the publisher:

The Tropic of Serpents: Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

Voyage of the Basilisk: Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

One of the things I love about this series is the protagonist’s passion for science and knowledge. We talk about sense of wonder, and Isabella conveys that wonder, not about big flashy magic or fancy special effects (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but about discovery. She repeatedly risks her life, her reputation, and more for the chance to learn. She’s wonderfully and at times foolishly driven.

Like Lord, Brennan has developed a rich world. Brennan’s is based more closely on our own, drawing on cultures and countries from Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and more. (Brennan’s background in anthropology helps a great deal, as does her intense research habits.) Over the course of the three books, we’ve seen much of that world and its people, but we also see a larger story about the progression of science and knowledge, and ongoing political conflicts.

One such story arc involves the preservation of dragon bones. Like birds, dragons have very light bones, but those bones are incredibly strong — so long as the dragon survives. Upon the animal’s death, the bones become fragile and crumble away into dust. Back in book one, Isabella and her companions discovered a way to preserve those bones, a process with many potential implications and uses … and one that has serious impacts on the hunting of dragons, not to mention the political fallout. Watching that knowledge spread, seeing the technological changes and Isabella’s struggle, is one of several wonderful storylines.

And of course, the books have great covers as well as internal illustrations, ostensibly by Lady Trent herself (with help from artist Todd Lockwood).

I look forward to the next!

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

Karen Lord is one of this year’s nominees for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I interviewed her here earlier this year. Having read Redemption in Indigo [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], I can see why she’s on the ballot.

The official description:

Karen Lord’s debut novel is an intricately woven tale of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit. Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi—who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.

Lord mentions that chapters two through four are loosely based on a Senegalese folk tale, and the entire book has that same feel. From the very first page, Lord creates the illusion not of turning the pages, but of sitting back and listening to a master storyteller, one who has no compunctions about addressing the audience directly. It’s a voice that works perfectly for Paama’s story.

I loved this book, and to be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about it, beyond the fact that Lord consistently made choices in her storytelling that I didn’t expect, but that felt right when I read them. None moreso than the way she ended things, which I can’t talk about without spoiling the whole darn book. Sigh.

I will say that if you’re looking for a traditional Western/American fantasy about an orphaned farmboy who vanquishes the evil overlord with a magic doohickamabob, this isn’t the book for you. Lord’s story challenges such tropes from page one, questioning everything from the nature of evil to the assumption that the only heroic choice is to fight and defeat your presumed foes.

One of my favorite moments in the book is when the djombi threatens to harm Paama’s family unless she returns the Chaos Stick … so she immediately hands it over. It’s instinctive. She doesn’t crave power, and she refuses to risk her loved ones over some ridiculous need to maintain face or appear defiant.

And of course, topping everything off, there’s a trickster spider character. How can I not love the trickster spider?

Let me put it this way. I read most of this one in the airport on the way to Kentucky, and I was happy my flight was delayed, because it meant I had more time to read.

Discussion is absolutely welcome, as always!

Campbell Interview: Karen Lord

Today we have the fifth and final interview with the finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You can read them all by clicking the Campbell Award tag. Please welcome Karen Lord, who writes about trickster spiders and is therefore extra-awesome.

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1) In exactly 26 words, who is Karen Lord?

Lover of paradox finding dreams in reality and reality in dreams, freedom in rules and order in chaos and now, as a writer, play in work.

2) Tell us about the kind of fiction you write, and where we can find some of it!

I write speculative fiction, by which I mean fiction that contains elements of science fiction and or fantasy. My debut novel Redemption in Indigo is mainly fantasy. The US edition was published by Small Beer Press and the UK edition by Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus. There is also an audiobook by Recorded Books beautifully narrated by Robin Miles (also on Amazon’s Audible.com, Barnes & Noble, etc.) A list of bookseller and publisher links is available in the sidebar of my website.

My second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, is mainly science fiction and it will be published in February 2013 by Del Rey and Jo Fletcher Books.

3) What has been the best moment of your writing career thus far?

Winning the Frank Collymore Literary Award for the second time, two years running. I’d been terrified that the first win, which was for the Redemption in Indigo manuscript, had been a fluke. Hearing my name announced again for The Best of All Possible Worlds was a real ‘this is it’ moment. This is it, this is when I call myself a writer, without excuses or equivocation.

3b) And if you’re comfortable sharing, what was the worst?

There are always challenges, and while there have been one or two bad moments, it’s when several slightly bad moments pile up in a heap that I really stumble. It’s hard to be creative in the face of many small crises happening all at once, even more so when a portion of your work consists of thinking, which can too often resemble doing nothing to the untutored observer.

4) You won’t be at Worldcon this year, which makes us sad. Give us your best, most outlandish and creative excuse for missing the convention…

Sadly, the most outlandish and creative excuse I could give is that I’d be relaxing on a beach, sipping a cocktail and watching the sun sparkling on the waves of the Caribbean Sea. It could happen so easily, and it won’t. I’ll be closed up in my office chasing deadlines and forgetting that the beach even exists, as usual.

5) As a writer, where would you like to be in ten years?

Surprising people, including myself. I’d like to keep challenging myself and improving as a result. I want to try different forms of storytelling, varying the length, the style and the medium. I hope I will always be able to keep the ‘play’ aspect of writing in whatever I do and however long I do it. I think that’s where the core of my creativity lies.

6) A review of REDEMPTION IN INDIGO mentions the presence of trickster spiders. I’m very much pro-trickster spiders! Could you tell us more about these spiders and the other magical characters in the book?

A trickster spider, yes … also a godhorse, a ladybird, a beetle and various other insects! They’re disguises for the real troublemakers. Should we call them magical? They’re hard to explain or understand, certainly, and even harder to predict. Some are playful mites, easily swatted, and others are implacable forces. They belong to that part of the world which lies beyond the ken of our five senses, and at times they like to interfere in the part that we call ‘reality.’ That’s what creates the tension, the complication and the resolution of the story.

More on my Trickster – a nancy story deserves an Anansi character, and mine turns up early in the book – drinking in a bar (why not?), fooling two minor characters (of course!), and then weaving his way lightly in and out of the story until he gets himself tangled up a bit more than he expected.

Jim C. Hines