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EmilyMB has commented on (5) products.

Servant of the Underworld: Obsidian & Blood, Book 1 (Obsidian & Blood) by Aliette De Bodard
Servant of the Underworld: Obsidian & Blood, Book 1 (Obsidian & Blood)

EmilyMB, March 1, 2012

Servant of the Underworld is an engaging historical mystery set in pre-European contact Tenochtitlan. The setting alone is a refreshing change (unless you live in an alternate universe where every other historical mystery is set in the pre-contact Americas, in which case I'd like some of your used books). It's also sort of fantasy (at least to non-Aztecs), in that it depicts the Aztec religion as entirely real: for instance, you really can go down to Mictlan and talk to the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, or fight underworld demons. You probably don't want to, though, if you can avoid it. Unfortunately, Acatl can't.

Acatl, High Priest of the Temple of Mictlan, is summoned to investigate the disappearance of a priestess by apparently supernatural means. Her room is drenched in blood, and the only other person there is... Acatl's estranged - and now blood-stained - brother, who doesn't remember what happened but swears he didn't do it. Uh-oh. To make things worse, it looks like the perpetrator used a jaguar spirit, which narrows the suspect pool to... anyone born on the day of the jaguar, ie umpteen thousands of people. So that's not much help.

Things go downhill from there, as you might expect. Lots of fun.
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1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies
1421: The Year China Discovered America

EmilyMB, October 9, 2011

My main thought while reading this book for the first time was, "I want the adventure novel RIGHT NOW." Because the tale of the Chinese fleet splitting up to explore the whole world, including the Antarctic, would make a great novel or movie.

The scholarship is another story. Now, there are plenty of good pieces of evidence presented in this book (the Chinese definitely did make it to India and East Africa). I'm just not sure they're as definitive as the author presents, and think he took a few too many leaps from Point A to Point K without making sure all the dots in between connected. Quite a few of his pieces of evidence are essentially described as "possible Chinese junks/artifacts/etc., pending excavation." If we haven't looked at it properly yet, it's suggestive, but not nearly as strong a piece of evidence as we'd wish.

There are several instance where he doesn't give enough information about a particular bit of evidence he presents for readers to be able to evaluate it. I'll give some examples:

- The Vinland Map has been tested and debated over for decades in an attempt to authenticate it or prove it a forgery. Menzies mentions the debate, mentions that one point in contention was the presence of anatase in the ink (not usually found until the 1920s), and then says that someone found some anatase in another definitely authentic medieval map, so that argument can be dismissed. In fact, the anatase issue is much more complicated than that, let alone the other questions about the map he doesn't even mention. He doesn't give the reader enough of a summary of the issues to evaluate the arguments of either side, or even know that there are as many questions as actually exist. He makes it look disingenuously simple.

- He mentions that some other studies found that two villages in Peru and the Navajo elders about a century ago understood Chinese. He does not say which dialect of Chinese, which would be an important point - many are mutually unintelligible. He also does not attempt to explain how it is that language populations separated for five centuries and surrounded by other language groups would somehow remain mutually intelligible. (I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's a major issue that needs to be addressed.) He doesn't even say whether the original studies he's citing addressed these issues.

And so forth. It's certainly suggestive, and Menzies's thesis may turn out to be essentially correct, but I'd want a lot more examinations of the evidence before accepting most of it. However, the book is also a fun ride. For less speculative accounts of the voyages, you can check out books like When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes or Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 by Edward Dreyer.
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Acacia, Book One: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham
Acacia, Book One: The War with the Mein

EmilyMB, October 5, 2011

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Acacia has a large, prosperous empire in which many people live pretty well - but there's a serious dark side: the secret trade of slaves for drugs the empire conducts with a distant, largely mysterious nation. The king abhors the trade, but is himself addicted to the imported drug; he endeavors at least to try to clean up some of these problems before his children come to power, for their sake. All Acacian plans go out the window when the Mein arrive on their quest for vengeance and conquest.

The story has some familiar epic fantasy elements - I could compare it to A Song of Ice and Fire - but Durham puts enough twists in that it feels fresh and exciting again. One bit I particularly loved is what he did with the old trope, "Oh, our ancestors want us to take vengeance, so what can you do?" When the Mein say this, they mean it literally: their ancestors are all stored up in a big sacred warehouse, and they are most definitely capable of giving their descendants orders. I also liked that for the conflict near the end (trying to be vague here); I honestly could not guess who was going to win.
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Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman's Trilogy His Dark Materials by Tony. Watkins
Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman's Trilogy His Dark Materials

EmilyMB, September 30, 2011

Watkins gives a brief biography of Pullman and summarizes his works before the HDM trilogy, which serves as background material for his analysis of the major themes of HDM. This section is pretty straightforward. The book gets meatier when he analyzes HDM itself, investigating themes such as truth, innocence and experience, growing up, authority, and the natures of God and consciousness as portrayed in the books. There's also an interesting sidebar about the demons in HDM where Watkins goes through the process most readers have of trying to figure out exactly what Pullman's demons are; I found his comparison of HDM's tripartite human (body/demon/ghost) to the Holy Trinity especially fascinating.

One problem, though: Watkins chides Pullman for misrepresenting the Church and various Christian doctrines (implying more that Pullman hasn't learned enough about them to understand properly rather than that he's deliberately lying). Yet he blithely asserts that a material universe without a higher power can only be deterministic, with no possibility of free will, and that morality can only come from a wholly good God. This ignores the many, many works in which atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers have argued the contrary. If Watkins is aware of these, he ought to have mentioned them even if only to dismiss them. It seems he may also be guilty of misrepresentation.
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Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Brown Girl in the Ring

EmilyMB, September 29, 2011

This was a really fun book. Post-apocalyptic (well, kinda - it was a slow, economic apocalypse) Toronto is a vivid and interesting setting, from the drug-dealing gangs to the nice old couple selling squirrel meat in the park to get by. The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is a young woman tough enough to survive here, but still overwhelmed and uncertain about things as a lot of young people are. She keeps forgiving her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend when she probably shouldn't, is stressed about the new baby, and her relationship with her grandmother Gros-Jeanne is complicated by Ti-Jeanne's wanting nothing to do with her grandmother's Caribbean religious practices. (Her mother Mi-Jeanne has been missing for years.)

Then a politician living outside the Burn, in a nicer area of Toronto, decides a porcine hear transplant just isn't good enough for her and tasks a gang leader with fetching a nice, fresh human one - no questions asked. Unfortunately, he turns the job over to one of his dealers, Toby, who happens to be Ti-Jeanne's ex-boyfriend. To shake things up even more, Ti-Jeanne starts realizing that the loa her grandmother worships are real, and they want something from her...
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