One of the hardest things is trying to balance the books I discover for myself–for love of discovery–with the books I should read because everyone should read them, and has already read them, and I’m the only one in the world who hasn’t.
I come to the latter kind of reading quite reluctantly, and am rewarded by not only the virtue of what I felt to be a tricky chore completed, but also by becoming (in my own estimation) a shave more professional and an ingot less ignorant. “Yes, now I have read this book. I too can geek out about it on the Interwebs!”
Lately, after finishing a book I’ve determinedly set out to read, I’ve been struck with a keen sensation of, “Ah! Now, this would be a good book to read near or about the same time as this book.”
I don’t think of it as the whole Amazon/Kindle/Library E-Zone suggestion thing of, “If you like X book, you’ll probably like Y book too! Because it’s pretty much exactly the same book formulaically, only the names are different, and instead of a werewolf and a vampire, it’s an ANDROID and ALIEN, but the protagonist is plucky and first person present tense and a real CIPHER, with no distinguishing personality traits to distract you, you’ll get right in her head right away, and come away thinking you were she the whole time!”
No, I think of it more like a perfect wine pairing with a certain sort of dinner.
Really, I don’t know from wine. Sometimes I don’t even think I know from books, or pairings, or what. Except I know what I like. And what it is like when I come away from a book full satisfied.
So I will tell you about two books I like. (Like is such a paltry, pale word in cases as these. Such a Facebook word.) The first book I just finished today. The second I’ve read probably twenty times since first discovering it, and will probably read another fifty times before I die. Then… I’ll give you a bonus at the end just for reading that far!
The first book is Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie.
I dislike recapping, having an abundance of chronologically challenged enthusiasm and a bad spoiler habit, so here’s the back blurb:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
First of all…
HOLY CROW, ANN LECKIE! You have a frikkin first person protagonist who A.) is 2,000 years old, B.) USED TO BE A STARSHIP, and C.) is even MORE INTERESTING now that she ISN’T!!!
You have a plot structure sort of like that starship with its ancillaries. The reader is in the present, but she is also in the past. You have two linear story lines on two different parts of the timeline, dreadful and compelling and entertaining and doomed, without ever once being predictable, and not only a world but a whole universe so solidly constructed you can almost taste the swamp water and recycled air, or smell the incense offered to Amaat, or feel your own wrist breaking. Or your heart.
I cannot begin to tell you how wholly riveting is this character, how fierce and how focused, and yet sometimes strangely oblivious to her own personality, since she doesn’t consider, necessarily, that she has one. Her kindness to children. Her love of music. These are things she does not regard. She doesn’t deny her own emotions, but they are the emotions of an ancient AI; it upsets her when she takes actions that make no sense to her logically.
Then there’s the intricate political plot. The gender bending. The social cues. The religions. The interpersonal relationships. The blessed lack of a central romance. Oh, I could just KISS THIS WHOLE BOOK. It had me. Completely.
Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold.
The first thing I say about this book is, unfairly, “It is the best book I have ever read with the worst cover I ever saw.”
I feel like apologizing to the cover designer for that. I’m sure the design is somebody’s aesthetic. It’s just not mine. And when you read a book twenty times, it is so clear to you that it deserves the best of everything (at least what is, in your opinion, the best). Ivory palaces. Crimson velvet couches. Fine crystal. A bathtub of pink champagne. Someone like a Donato or a Palencar or a Picacio or a Lauren K. Cannon all up on my favorite roan-haired protagonist’s place on a front cover…
Cordelia Vorkosigan of Cordelia’s Honor is one of three fictional characters in the world whom I’ve met and want to be like when I grow up. (One of the others in Tiffany Aching, circa I Shall Wear Midnight. The third keeps changing.)
Maybe one of the reasons I’d pair Ancillary Justice with Cordelia’s Honor is because I think the latter maybe defines “space opera” (at its best) and the former redefines it. I could say they both have powerful female protagonists, except… Except I don’t really conceive of Breq as female, partly because she’s Radch, and Radch don’t gender people the way, for example, I might. It’s almost like she’s female because she’s a ship, but she’s definitely more ship than female, if you get my drift.
Cordelia, on the other hand, self-identifies as a woman, and being a woman of a planet like Beta Colony is problematic when she ends up in a place like the planet Barrayar. Wherever she is, she’s a woman worth knowing. And trying to emulate. I mean, she’s a scientist, and explorer, an ex-pat, a soldier, a mother, a Countess. She is all the things. And she does it all, but not without getting dirty or tired, not without being worn down by the allness, but with a grace that others (characters in the book and those of us reading it) witness even when she herself is oblivious to it.
The sense of vastness and history and pinwheeling galaxies is just as back-of-skull blowing in Cordelia’s Honor as in Ancillary Justice, as if black letters on a white page rearrange themselves to forge new constellations and then back into words again. In both books, you get the definite sense of something tremendous beginning. That you’ve crossed the first threshold either of a “gateway” (Ancillary Justice) or “wormhole nexus” (Cordelia’s Honor) that will jump you through to a whole other section of sky. One that you yourself could never have dreamed of, but can, in reading these books, dream in.
In the case of Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor jumps you right into the Vorkosigan Saga, and you’ll never have more fun reading a sci-fi series, or love a slew of characters more. In the case of Ancillary Justice, well… Let’s just say the words “Imperial Radch, Book 1″ on the spine did NOT escape my notice!
Now that’s I’ve gone all binary book system on you, here’s a third to throw into the mix. Ha!
Empress of Mars, by Kage Baker. I will say no more, only that if you’ve trusted me this far, you might as well go all the way.
I will see you again some other Sunday soon, with another book pairing. Until then…
…I am jealous of you for getting to read both of these books for the first time. But I’m a little smug that I got there before you too.
Ancillary Justice was written by Ann Leckie and published by Orbit on October 1, 2013. It is 416 pages, priced at $16 in trade paperback and $7.99 for the digital edition. Cover by John Harris.
Cordelia’s Honor was written by Lois McMaster Bujold and published by Baen Book in November 1996. It is 596 pages, priced at $7.99 in paperback. There is no digital edition (get more info at the publisher’s website). The cover is by Gary Ruddell.