Thursday, 30 April 2015

#CBR7 8: The Martian, Andy Weir

I am so far behind on reviewing that I've started to forget what I've read, although I recall a three day Courtney Milan marathon so Malin and Mrs Julien will be happy when I get round to reviewing them. First though, the best SF novel I've read since Anathem.

Mark Watney is one sixth of the third manned mission to Mars, and it turns out that third time is not, in fact, the charm: during evacuation six days into the mission, he is left behind, presumed dead. Fortunately, he's dead clever, not dead dead, and he diaries his struggles to survive on our inhospitable and barren neighbour. His diary entries are interspersed with the activities of the many people who work to rescue him, once they realise he's alive.

"What must it be like?... He's stuck out there. He thinks he's totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man's psychology?"
Log Entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They're mammals! Makes no sense.

I had to take a little break after reading that last part, until I could breathe again and I'd stopped tearing up with laughter, and it's by no means the only funny bit, just the one I remember the most. Watney was a wonderful character, his humour and sarcasm his only real defence against crushing despair, and the supporting cast is really well fleshed out and pleasingly varied. The pace is relentless and the plot is gripping, with all of the setbacks and disasters and triumphs one would hope for and expect in an action novel.

The science in the book is superb, with enough technical detail for me to be all nerd happy, but enough narrative explanation for it to make sense to someone without a general scientific grounding. (I think. I have one, so it's hard to tell. But the bits I didn't know all made sense so I'm presuming the rest of it does too.) Watney's survival never feels guaranteed either, which is quite a feat.

The humanity of the book is its real tour-de-force though, as the reader empathises with Watney's first-person diary entries, whilst watching the practical and ethical concerns of the team on Earth unfold. This dual narrative keeps reminding the reader of the wider concerns beyond just the survival of one man. I always cheered for him, but it made me think hard about what might happen in the real world, and what arguments would be used.

5 out of 5. This book shines as bright as Jupiter in the night sky, and has a heart as big as the Great Red Spot. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I'm even going to recommend it to my dad, that's how much I love it.

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

CBR7 7: The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black

I have given up thinking about reviewing the other two books in the Bishop series, because I think they might end up increasingly hysterical rants and no-one seems to agree with me, and I am moving on the the excellent and reliable Holly Black again.

Hazel and Ben live in Fairfold, a small tourist-trap town with a bunch of fairies living in the forest nearby. Once, they were as close as two siblings could be, but their relationship has fractured over the years as the weight of secrets and misunderstandings lies heavily on it. In a glade in the forest, a horned prince lies sleeping in a glass box, as he has done for generations. One day, the box is shattered, and he is gone. As the pair begin to resume their old roles, they quickly find out that they are running out of time, because the monster at the heart of the forest is on the move, and is hungry for the town.

Ben is a great main character - desperately romantic, cursed/blessed with fairy magic which he struggles with on a daily basis, and deeply in love with the idea of the horned prince. His journey is lovely to watch unfold, and it's easy to read as both an analogy for the trials of any gifted child, and as an analogy for coming to terms with one's sexuality.

Hazel, though, is inspired. She is complicated, makes bad decisions for bad reasons, and occasionally bad decisions for good reasons, and is a true Knight Errant in the old Romantic style. The gender reversal of the pair is mentioned briefly in the book, but it never feels strained or pushed. Hazel is jealous, and angry at herself for that jealousy, and lives her life with the terrible intensity of a person who tries to feel something, anything to make her forget the weight of the truths she is hiding from everyone. Her journey is hard to watch. It is painful and spiky and everything that I remember late adolescence being. It is beautiful.

There are many themes investigated in the book, and I suspect that everyone who reads it will take different things away. For me, it was family, the sacrifices we make for our siblings, the obliviousness of our parents, the intense bond that develops and sometimes sours. It was the weight of expectation versus the weight of one's own heart. There's a lot more in there that I could English Lit about, but I'm not going to, because I want another cup of tea and I didn't make any notes, and because you should read this and find them out for yourself. Also, I want to play more Pillars of Eternity there I said it I hope you are happy now.

5 stars: will play with the fairies in the wood again. (When I've stopped playing PoE.)
Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.