Prescient and Hopeful: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Talents

It’s probably not a good idea to read post-apocalyptic books when the very real-world pandemic has just passed its first anniversary but if you do, make sure you choose Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic books! Having read and loved the first book in the Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower, recently, I knew this would be dark and I knew I would like it anyway. Much like its predecessor, it manages to be both terrifying and hopeful.

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Hardback: 410 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 26 minutes
Series: Earthseed #2
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: They’ll make a god of her.

Octavia Butler tackles the creation of a new religion, the making of a god, and the ultimate fate of humanity in her Earthseed series, which began with Parable of the Sower, and now continues with Parable of the Talents. The saga began with the near-future dystopian tale of Sower, in which young Lauren Olamina began to realize her destiny as a leader of people dispossessed and destroyed by the crumbling of society. The basic principles of Lauren’s faith, Earthseed, were contained in a collection of deceptively simple proverbs that Lauren used to recruit followers. She teaches that “God is change” and that humanity’s ultimate destiny is among the stars.

In Parable of the Talents, the seeds of change that Lauren planted begin to bear fruit, but in unpredictable and brutal ways. Her small community is destroyed, her child is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by sadistic zealots. She must find a way to escape and begin again, without family or friends. Her single-mindedness in teaching Earthseed may be her only chance to survive, but paradoxically, may cause the ultimate estrangement of her beloved daughter. Parable of the Talents is told from both mother’s and daughter’s perspectives, but it is the narrative of Lauren’s grown daughter, who has seen her mother made into a deity of sorts, that is the most compelling. Butler’s writing is simple and elegant, and her storytelling skills are superb, as usual. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in what promises to be a moving and adventurous saga.

If, like me, you thought Parable of the Sower was depressing and hopeful at the same time, then prepare yourself for more of the same, except, you know, different. Unlike the first book, this one isn’t told just through Lauren’s diary entries and her Earthseed verses. You still get those, but they are framed by Lauren’s daughter’s first person narration as she reads her mother’s diary and the Books of Earthseed. Interspersed among those are a few written words from Bankole as well, turning this book almost into a little family history.
I immediately liked the mixture of new perspectives with the familiar narration of the first book, especially because the audiobook narration was done really well by all three narrators. (I went all out for this book, getting the gorgeous hardback copies of the duology plus the audiobook for this one.)

But that’s where talking about this book stops being easy. Much like the first book, it deals with many dark themes and comes with a lot of trigger warnings!
Lauren Oya Olamina and her now husband Bankole have been living in Acorn for over five years, the community they built with like-minded people. They support each other, they grow their own food wherever possible, they live together in trust and friendship. And of course, they live by Lauren’s religion Earthseed which has grown a lot over the years. In other parts of the country, people even know about Earthseed as “that cult”. Althought things aren’t exactly idyllic, life is mostly good for Lauren, Bankole and their surviving friends. It doesn’t stay that way…

I will say very, very, very little about the plot of this book. Not because there are so many mind-blowing twists or surprising moments that I don’t want to spoil, but because this isn’t the kind of book where the plot is all that important. Things do happen (and fast!) and they are exciting and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and everything you can imagine. Reading this book for the plot alone will not disappoint you, but that’s not the heart of this novel or, I imagine, any of Octavia Butler’s novels.
In Parable of the Talents, a politician is running for office with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine already, this will: Some of his followers are wannabe Super-Christians who call themselves the Church of Christian America and of course they hate everyone and everything different from their own, narrow world view. Ring a bell? Remind you of anyone? Anyway, add to that a splinter group or a supposedly small, independent part of these Super-Christians, that isn’t satisfied with simply thinking and saying bad things about people of different beliefs, but who actively go after them, beat, rape, enslave, and kill them. It was incredibly chilling, reading about this Church of Christian America and how they try to justify terrible acts (which I can’t imagine any god would condone) in the name of keeping their country “pure”. It would have been chilling at any time, but in the current political climate, it was even worse, simply because what happens in this book doesn’t feel far-fetched at all! We may not have special technology electroshock collars that we use on people to enslave them, but we do have people in this world who believe everyone who doesn’t fit into their own narrow idea of personhood, doesn’t deserve to live. So this may be shelves as science-fiction and near-future but it didn’t really feel like it.

Clashing religions and political unrest aren’t the only themes in this book, however. This is still Lauren’s story and with a baby entering her life, things are about to change. Because we experience the book through flashbacks, we know that Lauren’s daughter grows up to be at least old enough to read her mother’s writing. What we don’t know is whether Lauren herself survives long enough to see her dream of an Earthseed society fulfilled.
I loved how Parable of the Talents approached the theme of family, both blood family and found family. I’m a sucker for found families and the entire duology is pretty much about that, on a large scale. It may start with Lauren building a small community that lives by what Earthseed teaches. But her plan is to convince the entire world that Earthseed is truth and that humanity’s future lies among the stars. Big dreams for a young woman, you may rightly think, but this book tells the story of how such dreams could be realized. Lauren’s approach to teaching her beliefs changes throughout the years and I really enjoyed watching her evolve as a person. I can’t say I always understood or agreed with her, but she is one hell of a fascinating protagonist to read about.

As for the writing style, I enjoyed it as much as I did in the first book. The three narrators each had distinct voices, which was even more obvious in the audiobook than in the paper copy because they were actually narrated by three different people. But I believe if I opened my book at a random point and read a few lines, I could easily tell whose narration I was reading.
I also appreciate how Octavia Butler describes the horrors that happen in her story. It might be tempting for a writer to go into gratuitous detail in the torture or murder scenes, just to elicit emotions from the readers. But Butler went a different route. In fact, the most terrifying events, aren’t described very much at all. They are mostly stated as fact, something that happened, but that we don’t want to dwell on. Considereing this is Lauren’s first person narrative, it makes even more sense to do it that way, because who would recount a traumatic event in vivid detail when they are still under shock?
That said, the sparse descriptions of the various horrors doesn’t lessen their effect at all. I may even have been more shaken by the simple statement of “Yesterday, my friend was raped.” than I would have been if some long-winded description had foreshadowed it. But be aware when reading this book, that although Lauren has a support system now, that doesn’t mean her life gets easier.

The ending of the book came a bit fast compared to the rest, but I found it very fitting and believable. Just like in real life, some things work out the way we hope, and others don’t. Some plot strings lead to nowhere, others aren’t quite resolved, yet others lead to a completely different destination than we had expected. And since I have to stay vague in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that I found the way this story wrapped up altogether satisfying. It kept the tone of these books perfectly, showing us that this is an imperfect world with many, many problems, but that there is always hope. And hope can start as the smallest thing. Like a thought in the mind of a young girl, written down in her diary, and tended to until it grows into something so big it might just change the world.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Depressing and Hopeful at the Same Time: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower

After the amazing Kindred, I knew I had to read more Octavia Butler books this year. I had steered clear of the Earthseed duology because… well, I had heard that it is depressing and lots of terrible things happen in it. But I also got myself a gorgeous hardback edition of these two books this year and it was picked as a book club read for the Sword and Laser podcast. What I’m saying is I had no more excuses.
And it turned out that, while a lot of bad, bad things do happen, the book didn’t actually leave me feeling depressed but rather filled with hope.

PARABLE OF THE SOWER
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1993
Hardback: 332 pages
Series: Earthseed #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: I had my recurring dream last night. 

Parable of the Sower is the odyssey of one woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of “Paints,” people addicted to a drug that activates an orgasmic desire to burn, rape, and murder. When one small community is overrun, Lauren Olamina, an 18 year old Black woman, sets off on foot, moving north along the dangerous coastal highways. She is a “sharer,” one who suffers from a hereditary trait called “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel others’ pain as well as her own.

Parable of the Sower is both a coming of age novel and a road novel, set in the near future, when the dying embers of our old civilization can either cool or be the catalyst for something new.

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her family and their neighbors work together to protect themselves and each other from outsiders. Because outside the walls, chaos reigns. The poor are constantly looking for opportunities to steal food or water – an expensive commodity – and the new drug “pyro” makes people light fires everywhere because watching them gets them high. Lauren’s life is mostly safe and she loves helping her mother out teaching at their little neighborhood school. But Lauren knows that life can’t go on like this forever. Always worried, constantly vigilant, going outside as little as possible… there’s no future in that. In her diary entries, she writes down these feelings she has, along with her unfocused ideas for a better society and how to find god in such a miserable place.

This book follows Lauren as she grows up in a broken world where she nonetheless inhabits a relatively safe place. As you can imagine, things don’t quite stay that safe but rather get worse and worse. Lauren is forced to leave the only place she’s ever called home and venture out into the dangerous outside in search of a better future. As water is supposed to be cheapter up North, that’s where she goes. Along the way, she picks up a handful of companions from the many, many people walking the roads, trying to survive. But even though the people who come with her appear to be friendly, nobody can be trusted when people are starving and stealing is often the only way to live through another day.

I’m not going to lie, this is a damn bleak book. For a long, long time, nothing good happens at all. One tragedy follows another, misery strikes in every chapter, and I would have understood if Lauren had just given up at some point. But that doesn’t make for a good story and it also doesn’t fit who Lauren is. Despite her hyperempathy – a condition that lets her feel other people’s pain – she stays brave and always tries to do what’s right. Even if that very thing is considered madness. Like sharing your food with a mother and her child simply because they need it. This is not the kind of world where people share, this is the kind of world where you hide what you have so nobody robs and kills you at night to get that one apple you’d been saving. But Lauren quickly learns that there’s strength in numbers. When you have people you can trust you can watch each others’ back, you can set up guards. And boy, are the guards necessary.

This book comes with a ton of trigger warnings. Physical violence, rape, cannibalism, murder… it’s all there. And while Octavia Butler doesn’t describe any of these things gratuitoulsy, they add up to the general level of dread the characters feel. This is not a comfort read, it’s not a book that’s fun or relaxing. Much like Lauren, I was constantly worried that something terrible would happen, that they would come across a group of looters, that the children among them would be kidnapped and sold as prostitues, that their guns would be stolen and turned against them.
Strangely enough, despite these very uncomfortable emotions, I always looked forward to picking the book back up. Because Octavia Butler managed to somehow describe the worst possible world with the worst, most selfish people in it, and keep a shimmer of hope on the horizon.

Lauren’s diary entries are mostly straightforward recounts of her days. She spends little time on making her language sound pretty because that’s just not practical. This is a story about survival, about finding a family when everyone has lost theirs, about growing up constantly afraid, and about learning to love nonetheless.
I didn’t find the Earthseed aspect of the book to be particularly religious in nature, although that’s what it appears like at first. Lauren has these ideas that she’s putting into verse (and which we get to read at the beginning of each chapter) and they usually have to do with the nature of god. But the message of these verses is clear and simple: This is how humanity should be if it wants to continue; this is the future! Earthseed is a slowly growing rule book for how the world could work, how humanity can survive, how a sliver of happiness can be found even in these dark and dangerous times.

There were so many intriguing ideas here, starting with Lauren’s hyperempathy. Just imagine having to shoot at someone to protect your own life and feeling that person’s pain as the bullet hits them! So Lauren is always in more danger than everyone else because even self-defense could knock her out and leave her helpless and unprotected in the street.
I also found the idea of company towns quite interesting, although the story doesn’t go into too much detail about that. I suspect they will come up in the second part of this duology. The same probably goes for the drug “pyro” and the supposedly safe and water-rich areas up north. I had to remind myself that this was published in 1993 because it feels so contemporary at times that it hurt. Octavia Butler clearly had a keen eye for humanity and its flaws and she spun a tale of the future that we should try to avoid at all costs.

While by the end of this book, the bigger story of Earthseed  is far from finished, I did find the conclusion satisfying. This chapter of Lauren’s life is finished and there is hope for another, better one. One with less death and loss, one without so much fear, maybe even one where the ideas of Earthseed take root and help a new society to grow. I’ll be sure to find out.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

 

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but  Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noemí’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books. Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read. Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. 🙂

The Horrors of Slavery Through Modern Eyes: Octavia E. Butler – Kindred

I’m participating in the Octavia Butler Slow Readalong, a two-year project where a group of people read thorugh the works of the late great Octavia E. Butler. Having read only one of her books before (Wild Seed), I had certain expectations for this one. I expected a tough, slow read with heavy topics and a focus on character development. And while the topics are definitely tough to read about – this is about slavery – I found myself flying thorugh the pages of this book in no time at all.

KINDRED
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Headline, 2014 (1979)
eBook: 306 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland—a very dangerous place for a black woman—the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.

This is such an amazing book! I don’t expect to be forming a lot of coherent sentences in this review, not least because my perspective is that of a White woman living in Europe and slavery, while taught at schools, has never been a topic that’s been much discussed in my life. We have our own dark history here in Austria that’s featured much more prominently in schools but this doesn’t keep me from wanting to educate myself and learn more about humanity’s past as a whole. And because fiction has always been my best teacher, I picked up Kindred.

Octavia Butler doesn’t waste much time before beginning with the story that’s promised in the synopsis. Dana, a young Black woman, lives in 1976 with her White husband Kevin, and is suddenly yanked back in time, only to find herself in an unknown place where a little White boy is in the process of drowning. Naturally, she helps him and saves his life. Then she just reappears in her own apartment where her husband says she vanished for a few seconds and randomly popped up in a different part of their home. Neither of them can quite believe what has happened, but these strange events are far from over. Dana jumps through time again, this time to meet a slightly older version of Rufus, the boy she saved. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that this boy is her own ancestor and while his father is a slave owner and exactly the kind of despicable you’d expect, Rufus is still young and can maybe be taught kindness yet. It is also his fault Dana is being drawn back in time whenever his life is in danger. Not that he knows how he’s doing it, but whenever his life is threatened, Dana appears and does her best to save him.

Things start going really wrong when Dana takes her husband Kevin with her on one of those time jumps. On the one hand, having a White man by her side to protect her from a decidedly hostile society is a good thing. On the other hand, her and Kevin have to integrate enough into that society so as not to be suspicious. So they pretend to be slave and slave owner and although it’s just make-believe, that doesn’t keep Dana from being treated like a slave, or Kevin from pretend-talking like a slave owner… And then there’s the problem that Dana never knows when (or if) she is going to return to her own time. All she knows is that she has to touch Kevin in order to take him back with her.

That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the plot, but there is much more to come after that. I found this book incredibly fascinating for many different reasons. The most obvious one is of course the way Butler talks about and has her characters deal with slavery. Dana is a modern woman who knows about slavery but of course, it’s quite different when you’re suddenly living it, seeing it firsthand, watching people you’ve come to befriend suffer terrible hardships without a chance at ever gaining their freedom. Which leads me to the other thing I found so impressive.
While you could call this an “issue book”, one that deals with Black pain, Butler’s use of language almost works against that classification. Neither the words she chooses to tell the story nor her protagonist ever feel like they’re falling down into a depressed spiral, lingering on the suffering of of the people in this book, or using the terrible things that happen for shock value. If you’re looking for torture porn, you’ll have to find a different book.

I loved Dana, who goes from knowing in theory what slavery was like to actually understanding it over the course of this book. Compared to the other slaves on the Weylin’s plantation, Dana has it pretty easy. With Kevin as her companion, she doesn’t have to do hard physical labor but is rather employed as a teacher for young Rufus. But that doesn’t keep her from seeing how the other slaves are treated, how they bear the scars of endless whippings and beatings, how they are hunched over from a lifetime of gruelling work. Again, Octavia Butler doesn’t deliver these facts with particularly shocking language. She just lets the story talk for itself and it is utterly heartbreaking. This book comes with trigger warnings for racism (many uses of the n-word), violence, and rape so it’s not exactly an easy book to read when it comes to its content.

But the language itself flows so beautifully that I couldn’t stop reading. Actually, I listened to the audiobook, but you know what I mean. Having read only one other of Butler’s books before, I had expected the language to be more difficult, the atmosphere to be more sinister, but somehow it wasn’t. It was Dana’s narration, her calmness throughout all the horror, that turned this into a book which only unfolds completely in your own mind. We may experience being whipped alongside Dana and while these descriptions are chilling and Dana’s in great pain, she doesn’t linger on it as an event. Instead, her experiences in the past slowly change Dana’s character from a rather carefree young woman to someone always on the lookout for someone who might mean her harm. She watches what she says, she doggedly does her work in order not to stand out, rather than risk another beating – and she comes to understand that it’s not as simple as “just band together and rise up against the White slavers”.

Another interesting aspect is Dana’s relationship with her husband. Due to the circumstances of their time travels, their marriage has to deal with way more than they had planned. Racism from their own families they can deal with, racism in the past they’ve expected. But how spending time in the past, living alongside its people, changes them is something they don’t know how to handle. And let’s not forget that these time jumps don’t happen parallel to the present. When Dana is in the past for a few hours, a few minutes may have passed in her time. She may spend months in the past, only to appear in 1976 again, just a day after she disappeared. This complicates matters even more when she and Kevin are separated, one waiting for the other, with no means of contact or knowing when (or if) they will ever be reunited.

I’ve rambled on about this book for a while now but I still don’t think I got across just what an emotional impact it had on me. I found myself crying quietly to myself several times, not even necessarily during the scenes that were the most brutal, but rather during the quiet conversations Dana has with other slaves, who tell her matter of fact that their children were sold away and they haven’t seen them since they were babies, or how two Black people in love can’t get married and if their master doesn’t like their love, they can just separate them and sell one of them off. These things are mentioned almost by the way but they have lingered in my mind, as much as the brutal phyiscal treatment of Dana and the other slaves.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed this book. But I did! I enjoyed how it made me think, how it showed a period of history through the eyes of a fictional heroine I can feel with, how it made history that much more real, even though the characters are all invented. I may not have enjoyed the plot because I came to care for the characters and wanted them all to be okay and happy, and of course that’s not a realistic hope for slaves during slavery. But I loved how Octavia Butler nudged my mind to look at this topic from different angles, how she included multi-layered White people, how she showed that slaves don’t all agree with each other, that there is envy among them as well as love. I wish I had the ability to express properly how amazing this book really is. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This one will stick with you!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Monthly Wrap-Up: November 2013

Happy first of December everyone! This year’s Christmas frenzy marks the spot where I finally got back to normal reading speed. I finally found the time to read more again and discovered some great books on the way. In other geekiness, my boyfriend and I have been watching Doctor Who non-stop for the last week (“our” first doctor was Matt Smith and we wanted to see what the others were like) and we are loving it.
Starting today, I am participating in Carl’s 2014 Sci-Fi Experience, a two-month celebration of all things science fiction. My first book for the Experience is almost read (I’ll spoil: It’s Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao) and because it is so much fun, I can’t wait to read more science fiction during December and January.
But now, on to the books I’ve read in November and how I liked them. As always, click on the title will lead you to my full review.

Books read: 7
Pages read: 2398
Series started: Tao, Paradox, Patternist
Series continued: Discworld
Series finished:

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THE BEST

Octavia E. Butler – Wild Seed  8,5/10

wild seedAs a science fiction and fantasy lover, I’m surprised it took me this long to discover Octavia Butler. But the internet didn’t lie – she truly is amazing. This is the story of two immortals, Anyanwu and Doro. Doro is a tyrant who uses humans for his own breeding program, Anyanwu is the only other immortal he has ever met and has powers of her own.
Apart from the gripping story, I was deeply impressed and taken with how these two characters balance out and how they wage an emotional war against each other.  I can’t wait to continue reading the Patternist series and find out what becomes of Anyanwu.

Rachel Bach – Fortune’s Pawn  8/10

fortunes pawnThis was so much fun! Devi is a mercenary who is hired as security on a space ship cursed with bad luck. Not only does she have to deal with the sexy cook, she tumbles into a mystery much bigger than she ever expected. Space ships, aliens, fantastic action scenes and a bit of romance – you will find all of this here. Fortune’s Pawn is a light, fun, action-packed read with an endearing heroine who knows what she wants, who is clever but kind. I almost regret reading it so soon. The publication of the next volume (February 2014) seems very far away at this moment.

Terry Pratchett – Men at Arms  8/10

men at arms1I know, I know. My blog is beeing flooded by Terry Pratchett love but I can’t help it. I dare you to find your way into Discworld and stop reading after a book or two. Being a fan of the witches, I kept one last novel in their sub-series to look forward to and started reading the City Watch books instead. Commander Vimes is gruff but good-hearted, Carrot is too good to be true (but you just have to love him. All of Ankh-Morpork does, too!) and I particularly liked the new recruits, first and foremost Angua, the werewolf. I loved her right from the start and I think she makes a great addition to the Night Watch, not just because she is a woman, but because she adds a layer of complications to the entire sub-series.

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THE WORST

Yay! No bad books this month.

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THE REST

Terry Pratchett – Guards! Guards!  7/10

guards guardsThis was a re-read for me (or rather: re-listen) because I first read the book 10 years ago and didn’t remember much about it. Because the Night Watch books are next on my Discworld reading schedule, I thought I’d remind myself of who is who. Captain Vimes was never supposed to be the hero of these stories (Carrot was) but he steals the show wherever he goes. This drunk, depressed Captain of the Night Watch has low self-esteem and doesn’t really know why he’s doing his job anymore. But when a dragon shows up and devastates Ankh-Morpork, somebody has to step in. And believe me, it’s wonderful when Vimes and his guards do.
Not my favorite Discworld novel and, because it is one of the earlier ones, not as subtly clever as the later books, but still great fun and silliness. And it has Errol, the swamp dragon, which gives it a couple of brownie points.

Stephen King – The Shining  7/10

shiningI started reading this on Halloween because everybody needs a bit of creepiness around that time. As with so many Stephen King books, the monsters didn’t get to me that much. But the humans did! I will never understand how people dismiss King’s books. Few other authors do characterisation as well as he does. His characters come to life and, because they feel so real, the things they do seem all the more disturbing. I felt especially sorry for Danny, the child, and will try and read Doctor Sleep soon. Whatever happened to that kid after the events of The Shining, he must now be one messed-up man…

Jodi Lynn Anderson – Tiger Lily  7/10

tiger lilyI have an obsession with Peter Pan. Retellings, spin-offs, sequels and prequels are judged extremely harshly by me because how dare anyone ruin one of my favorite children’s stories ever? Anderson takes a look at one of the side characters who don’t get much attention. Tiger Lily had a life before Peter Pan and Wendy. It was the life of an outsider, in a village filled with prejudice and fear. Considering how quiet a book this was, there was a lot going on. We do get to see Peter (although he is nothing like the original) and the pirates, but we also get Englishmen trying to convert Tiger Lily’s tribe to Christianity and all that this ensues.
My favorite part was that Tinker Bell narrates the story. Her personality (again, very different from the original) is what kept me going, her emotions got to me and made me read on. This is not a riveting adventure story. It is a character study and a coming-of-age tale that, and while I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, I enjoyed it.

Susan Cooper – Seaward  6/10

seawardHere’s a rare occasion. A book I read but didn’t review. At first I thought, I have nothing to say about this, how can I write a review that’s more than 20 words long? Now I feel that I do have some things to say about it. I didn’t love it. But I didn’t dislike it either. What bothered me the most was how fast things happened. There was no time for exploring the repercussions of the events, everything happened bam-bam-bam without room for emotional growth. But all things considered, it is a beautiful children’s story. Meh… maybe I’ll end up writing more about it during the holidays.
At this point, I think I should have read this as a child to fully appreciate it. As an adult, it didn’t quite convince me.

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WHAT I’M READING IN DECEMBER:

  • Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao
  • Mark Helprin – Winter’s Tale
  • Terry Pratchett – Feet of Clay
  • Space Opera (one of these:)
    • Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas
    • Timothy Zahn – Heir to the Empire
    • David Weber – A Beautiful Friendship

Octavia E. Butler – Wild Seed

This year’s Women of Genre Fiction Challenge has led me down many new paths. At first, I was only looking for female SFF writers that I hadn’t read before. One name kept coming up: Octavia Butler. Later, especially with events like A More Diverse Universe happening, I looked into SFF writers of color. Again, Octavia Butler was mentioned probably more than anyone else. So, once again, I have the internet hivemind to thank for discovering an amazing writer.

wild seedWILD SEED
By Octavia E. Butler

Published by: Open Road, 2012 (1980)
Ebook: 320 pages
Series: Patternist #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of his seed villages.

When two immortals meet in the long-ago past, the destiny of mankind is changed forever
For a thousand years, Doro has cultivated a small African village, carefully breeding its people in search of seemingly unattainable perfection. He survives through the centuries by stealing the bodies of others, a technique he has so thoroughly mastered that nothing on Earth can kill him. But when a gang of New World slavers destroys his village, ruining his grand experiment, Doro is forced to go west and begin anew.
He meets Anyanwu, a centuries-old woman whose means of immortality are as kind as his are cruel. She is a shapeshifter, capable of healing with a kiss, and she recognizes Doro as a tyrant. Though many humans have tried to kill them, these two demi-gods have never before met a rival. Now they begin a struggle that will last centuries and permanently alter the nature of humanity.

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When I picked up this book, all I knew was that it was going to be the first Octavia E. Butler book I would read and that I liked the cover (my entire basis for choosing this one over her other novels). I didn’t know I would come out at the other end full of emotions and wanting more.

It’s hard to sum up what I thought about this book, but I believe it is, at its core, the story about a war between two people – and a love story. And how close the two can be related. Anyanwu and Doro’s conflicts are amazing in how they change over time. Doro starts out as a tyrant, using people like cattle, to breed and dispose of at his pleasure. Anyanwu is the human counterpart to his cold planning. She cares about people, she wants her children safe, and wishes to be master of her own life. Through all of this, there is one thing I kept reminding myself of: That these are the only two people (that they know of) who are immortal and thus the only constants in each others lives. Children grow old and die, yet Anyanwu and Doro remain. Their power struggles were vivid and engaging to read, and sometimes made me want to rip my hair out.

Doro’s first act as Anyanwu’s “owner” (that’s what he thinks at least) is taking her across the ocean to the New World. The culture shock of being brought to America is nothing compared to what Anyanwu gets herself into with Doro once they’ve arrived at his village. Inbreeding at Doro’s command, losing children and grand-children to the whims of the very man who made her have them, sometimes even fathered them, and coming to terms with a new culture, new clothes and foods, a new language and people treating her like dirt because of her skin color. The way Anyanwu takes on these challenges – in addition to the pain of her outliving any of her children, even if they are not killed by Doro – makes her one of the toughest, most interesting characters I’ve come across in SF.

On another level, the clash between Anyanwu and Doro’s respective immortality, was brilliantly done. Anyanwu is a healer and can simply take care of the most minute part of her body that seems to be ailing or getting older. She controls every cell, can change her appearance, even shapeshift to take animals’ forms. Doro’s way of staying alive – and this is revealed in the very first chapter – is much more cruel, yet I cannot hate him for it either. He needs a human body to inhabit, and whenever that one is spent, he must find another one. The fact that he takes pleasure from this necessary killing makes it easy to hate him in the beginning. But over time, his side of the story grants him depth and some humanity.

Whether it is Anyanwu’s method or Doro’s, their ways of staying alive offer fantastic opportunities to explore race and gender. Anyanwu does have one true form, the way she actually looked after her transition (when her powers came under her total control), but she frequently changes herself into men, even marries a woman at one point. She could be black, she could be white, male or female, but she would always remain herself on the inside. Doro takes a much more practical approach and mostly chooses white male bodies because it makes life a whole lot easier for him. But obviously gender, for these two creatures, is a ridiculous and malleable thing – they even have sex once with Anyanwu in a male body and Doro in a female one.

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Once I got over my shock and wonder at Doro’s cruel breeding of humans with complete disregard of their feelings, his character became more and more interesting. As I understand it, the Patternist series (also known as Seed to Harvest or Patternmaster Series) was not published in the order I’m reading it. Wild Seed is the first book chronologically speaking, but was the fourth in the series to be published. But even had I read the three previous novels, I couldn’t get over the fact that in this story nobody ever asks Doro why he tries to breed people with special abilities. Or what his ultimate goal is. He says he wants to create children that will live, like him and Anyanwu, forever, so they won’t have to watch them die, but I somehow don’t believe that’s the whole truth.

On the other hand, the book was so gripping that I really didn’t care much about the Why. With characters this absorbing and small lives ripped apart so heartbreakingly, who needs to see the bigger picture? That doesn’t mean I don’t want to find out more. What I mean is that this book, the way it is, without having everything resolved and every question answered, is stunning. I wouldn’t change a bit. For hungry minds, there are three more volumes in the series.
I’ll see you again after I’m done with Mind of my Mind.

RATING: 8,5/10  –  Excellent!

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The Patternist Series:seed to harvest

  1. Wild Seed
  2. Mind of my Mind
  3. Clay’s Ark
  4. Patternmaster