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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Burndive, by Karin Lowachee, Warner Aspect, 2003, $6.99.
Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins, 2003, $24.95.
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, Berkley, 2003, $23.95.

IT PROBABLY won't come as a surprise to many of you that I love this job. It's kind of like perpetual Christmas, and when this month's books crossed my threshold in their admittedly plain bubble packages, the whole neighborhood could hear my shriek when I opened them. Luckily, my neighbors all have children, so they're used to loud noises. Unfortunately for me, the chance to actually read the books came far later than I would have liked, and they were pried from my stiff and resisting fingers by my friends and family while I worked—both at the store and at home—preparing for the Toronto WorldCon. Working at a specialty store with too few staff during a convention I attend as a writer is a bit on the stressful side; it was fun, but it was manic fun.

And, as so often is the case, my galleys came straight afterward. And. Well. So did the requisite crash and burn post-con illness.

You know you're too ill to read when you open up any one of the three novels above and can't follow a single sentence from beginning to end.

But the wonder of modern medicine saved me from that continued torture, and what's left was pure pleasure, from start to finish.

*     *     *

Karin Lowachee's first effort, Warchild, was nothing short of fabulous. But this is a second novel, and a second novel is its own special nightmare. You see, no one actually cares how long it took the author to write the first book—it could have been years in the making, or possibly decades. The second novel is different, because that one is expected a year later. And many an author, if they're going to misstep, will misstep on book two precisely because of that scheduling.

I'm delighted to say that Lowachee has somehow managed to keep that struggle from affecting the book itself. Burndive, on the surface of things, is not as structurally daring as Warchild. But in many ways, it's the more subtle book. Ryan Azarcon is the son of Cairo Azarcon, the most notorious captain in the fleet that has successfully fended off the alien strits in their war with EarthHub. He defines the term maverick; he makes what he sees as the most cost effective choices, distant bureaucracy be damned. If you've read Warchild, you know him; if you haven't, you meet him in an entirely different way—because Ryan Azarcon is no spaceling, no marine, no soldier. He's the son of the somewhat estranged Songlian Lau, a rich woman with a talent for handling the media, and his life to date has been the life of a stationbound boy, sent to Earth for schooling. He's seen his father a total of three times in his life, and although communications have crossed space at appropriate moments, he doesn't feel he knows the man, and he resents his absence, as all children must.

Ryan is much closer to a contemporary normal person than Jos Musey of Warchild was. His life isn't shattered by pirates, his family isn't murdered before his eyes; he wasn't raised by aliens. He's been well off, somewhat spoiled, and certain of food, shelter, and education: in short, he's as close to us as we're likely to see in Lowachee's rich and complicated universe. And he's a young man laboring under post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression, drifting through life. Because his family is so prominent, he has only one friend whom he trusts: his bodyguard, Sid. He had a girlfriend, but she left him after the incident. And the incident—a terrorist attack that he was almost in the middle of—has left scars and a sullen, walled silence that can't be breached.

Lowachee's ability to paint cause and effect gives the violence a very human face; the consequences carry out throughout the book, and they feel real. This is what we would face, were we right there. She doesn't dwell on detail; Ryan certainly tries not to. Instead, she dwells in the currents of his emotions, his resentments and his fear. So does he—until the moment his life almost ends at the hands of unknown assassins.

It would seem that someone doesn't like the peace talks being held between Azarcon, his admiral, and the alien strit—and they want to make the point to Cairo Azarcon as clearly as possible. Cairo's response? To reenter the life of his son with a vengeance.

There is not so much that obviously surprises here as there was in Warchild, because Ryan is not as broken and shattered a person as young Jos Musey was. The aliens, for Ryan, remain alien. But Ryan is, in his fashion, fighting. The terrain over which he fights is more subtle; the weapons he uses simple words, simple conversation, and cold—or furious—silence. But readers of the first book will be happy to see Jos and his jets again, even if they look entirely different through the filter of Ryan Azarcon.

Lowachee does once again use structural viewpoint shifts to great effect. Although most of the book is written in tight third person, the last third is written in first—and it suits the tone and the growth of young Ryan as he slowly comes into his own. This is an excellent addition to an admittedly small canon of work, and I recommend it without reservation. But as a reader, I want more. More of the Macedon, of the Azarcons, of the jets—more of every aspect of the world. And in a genre of tired sequels, this is high praise indeed.

*     *     *

Monstrous Regiment is, on the surface of things, a Discworld novel. But it has, in tone and texture, much in common with Small Gods; it's a darker work for Pratchett. Oh, it's not devoid of his trademark wit, his sly humor, and his affectionate cynicism. But Pratchett is tackling an issue here, and if he does so with his inimitable style, he has a few things to say nonetheless. Borogravia is a kingdom that is constantly at war. It's at war with everyone, and for not a lot of reason. It's a religious kingdom as well, but God seems to have gone a little south in the sanity department, and even the devout are beginning to realize that calling rocks an abomination in the eyes of God is a little on the…difficult side.

So people tend to pray to the Duchess, a Queen Victoria-like character whose picture hangs on every wall in every room in the Kingdom. She's not a particularly pretty woman, and she's not—according to some—particularly alive. But that doesn't really matter to the army, and it's to the army that young Polly is determined to go. Religious issues make women who wear men's clothing an abomination—and women aren't allowed to be soldiers…but Polly's beloved brother, her slow, dim painter of birds, was swallowed by the army, and marched off never to return. She wants him back, and short of joining, what other option is there? So she cuts her long, fine hair, shunting aside petticoats and aprons for a feminine view of male swagger, belching and farting as she swears an oath to fight and die for the Duchess.

She ends up in a unit led by Sergeant Jackrum and Corporal Strappi, the latter a mean bully with a penchant for self-righteousness that makes him one of the few people Pratchett treats without any fondness at all. But she also ends up with a troll, a vampire, a religious loon, a pyromaniac, and a psychotic for comrades. And on her way toward the worst of the fighting, she learns about the value of a properly placed sock, an overly idealistic officer, and her own resourcefulness.

Which would be par for the course in a Pratchett novel—but there are dark edges to this one. He doesn't really turn away from the atrocities of war, and there is a particular section that is devoid of humor in every possible way. I won't spoil it. I also won't spoil much by saying that Polly isn't the only person who's come to the army for a reason—but even here, Pratchett's minimal attention to the hopeless lives of women who live in a man's society is pointed, spot on, and again, without humor.

Having said all that, I loved this book. I am one of the few readers for whom Small Gods did not work, because I felt the lack of things Discworldian—in particular Death—to be almost too heavy-handed. And yet, for me, it works here. Possibly because religion didn't inform or deform my early life in the same way as gender issues did. Possibly because I have a known weakness for books that deal with gender issues—and make no mistake, Monstrous Regiment does that. But it does it well, and with honesty; Pratchett is no one's apologist, and no one's drum beater. If you aren't a Pratchett reader, but you do read genre gender books, this one is more than worth your time; if you are a Pratchett reader, don't wait another second.

*     *     *

The McKinley book came with the flag "erotic," a word that often sets off alarm bells for me. Why? Because so little that is tagged as erotic is erotic. But I shouldn't have worried; erotic, in this particular case, is marketing speak for vampires. And yes, there are vampires in Sunshine. In fact, there are other odd creatures as well—McKinley seems to have stepped into Laurell Hamilton territory with her newest novel. But on completion, the book feels like it's been blended with some subtle air of a de Lint novel instead.

At the outset, Sunshine seems to be set in contemporary America, in a small town. And Sunshine, birthname Rae, is a baker at Charlie's Coffeehouse, a popular café that serves, among other things, the cinnamon buns for which Sunshine is famed. Sunshine's father, Onyx Blaise, disappeared when she was young, in the war that vampires started. Sunshine's mother married Charlie, and her daughter, who loves to feed people, drifted into the kitchen, and worked there as if it were natural. She met Mel, her boyfriend, made friends with the Special Ops who deal with vampires, among other things, and made a life for herself—a life that has paled with time. Restless, desiring isolation, Sunshine retreats to the lake at which she spent so much time in her childhood.

And this turns out to be a bad choice, because there are vampires at the lake, and no one survives vampires. But Sunshine is part of a game between two vampires, and instead of dying instantly—and horribly—she's left shackled as food in a cabin with one other occupant: a vampire named Con.

This vampire is different, as Sunshine herself is different. He does his best not to devour her, and in turn, against any sane sense of self-preservation, she saves his life, helping him out and into the sunlight that should be his instant death—but isn't.

Sunshine's heritage is magical in nature—and she comes from an old, old family, the Blaises. She proves herself to be part Blaise, even if she doesn't know what that means, and her rescue of Con propels her into a world that she was certain existed—but only for other people.

From there on in, things get stranger, and the solid grounding of reality that makes Sunshine—both the novel and the protagonist—so appealing, gives way to the fantastic. The vampires live forever, and they have a lot of money; they want to own the world, and while they don't mind cattle, they'd prefer if their food didn't kick up a fuss and kill them. Things are bad, much worse than the insular Sunshine even dreamed of; there might be a century left before vampires control the world.

Is this a departure for McKinley? Yes. But McKinley's readers will still find much to love in the book; her trademark graceful prose, her quiet insight into outsiders, her love of growing things, of domesticity. These form an anchor for Sunshine that grounds the book in a solid emotional reality that never gets lost.

My only complaint is that there is so much that's started in the novel that is left unfinished and unexplored by its end—and I'm hoping that McKinley has at least another book—or more—that follows Sunshine's passage into the dark, and beyond it.

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