Thursday, November 20, 2008

Omega Games by S.L. Viehl

Omega Games is a continuation of her StarDoc series, only two books after she made the main character undergo a major change. Personally, I'd recommend reading the series from the beginning if you haven't because it's pure space opera candy, with some medical science tossed in. And the things that make you question the handwavium? They're actually resolved within the text of the later books. StarDoc is fun with the focus being on Cherijo, a headstrong medical doctor who manages to get mixed up in absolutely everything and is being chased across the galaxy for somewhat valid reasons. (Can you tell I like them? ;))

Anyway, specific to Omega Games, besides being a wonderful read, the way she's changed Cherijo's character really comes through in this novel. It opens a new dimension to her nature that I enjoyed experiencing. She's a bit less head strong, but just as stubborn, and her priorities are shifted so that it keeps the reader...and poor Duncan, her husband...on less firm ground. With Cherijo old style, I'd come to the point that I could predict what she would do and how she would react. This didn't mean she was predictable in a negative sense because there's a world of ways she could use the triggers, but more that her characterization was solid, consistent, and reliable. With the new Cherijo, there are unexplored depths based on her experiences when suffering from full amnesia and her experiences now when faced with people who expect her to be someone she doesn't completely remember being. It's a fascinating counter play that leaves me just a bit off-balance, right there alongside all the other characters that had come to know Cherijo very well.

Which makes it sound like this is a huge character fest without the tumultuous disasters that characterize the series, an impression as false as expecting the new Cherijo to be a carbon copy of the old. There are spaceship fights, divided loyalties, kidnappings, and more to round out the character experiences, making Omega Games a wonderful combination of the space opera candy I've grown to love and something with a little more to chew on. As usual, there's something going on that isn't what it seems, so talking specifics will lead to spoilers. It's enough to say that I really enjoyed reading this novel and it bodes well for the continuation of the series.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

The pile of books on my desk has finally reached a height that is threatening my view of my monitor, a desperate state indeed. This means I need to make some comments and get them safely off into a shelf of books I've actually finished. However, this state is a good sign, not a bad one. It means I have been reading a lot. When I read very slowly, the odds of time to slip in a review grows higher with every day. When I'm reading a lot, it's the pile of to be reviewed that grows while the backlog of to be read shrinks a bit (though not much since I keep adding to it.

Anyway, I think I'll write about the book on the top, simply because it is there, in closest view. This is not to say that this book doesn't deserve a review though.

There are few books that I read before college that linger in my memory, and often when I've reread those, I've ended up learning more about myself at that point in my life than about an excellent novel. The one exception I knew of was Pride and Prejudice. And now I add another to that list, one that isn't even a novel.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie is an interesting book for me. I read it as part of a summer reading list along with James Michener's The Source, and fell in love with the book. It influenced my understanding of European history more than any other text, and as I discovered while rereading it, is most likely responsible for some of my oddest traits, like the way I taught my boys to respond to a whistle as a more effective/less intrusive way of getting their attention in public. (Not the police whistle type call, but a melodic one.)

So, imagine my surprise when I started in to this influential novel only to discover it's not a novel at all. This is a biographical account complete with scholarly asides, quotes from papers and diaries, and even quotes from later-day interviews of those present in these momentous times. I remembered the story it told, the loving detail of how these people lived and what were their struggles. I knew it was "based" in real history, but believed it to be a fictionalized account simply because of the strength of that story.

Kudos to Robert K. Massie. This isn't a narrative retelling. This isn't a fictionalized account. It's a scholarly text complete with speculations, primary sources, time jumps, and everything else one would expect in trying to piece together one of the greater tragedies of the European world. This book is a strong education in the political, societal, and religious influences of the time; in the interaction between the remaining monarchies and those countries struggling with new political structures; in the push and pull of a ruling class that were pretty much all related by blood; and the deadly impact of that little known disease, hemophilia.

I can't say enough about this book. Really, I can't. If all history were written/taught in this manner, more would thrill to the moment history turned up on their schedules. This book has the same appeal as the narrative retellings offered by the History Channel in an effort to educate a public trained to think of history as dull.

Nicholas and Alexandra has all the romance of a romance novel, the tragedy of a tear-jerker, the politics of a political thriller, and more. But when it comes down to the end, when you understand the path of unrelated circumstances that led to their final moments, it hurts to remember that these aren't just fascinating characters composed of ink on a page, but that these people lived, loved, ate, slept, and died just as any of us...well, except for the last part. There's a reason the myth of Anastasia (recently put to rest by DNA evidence) persisted despite all evidence to the contrary, why those few relatives of the Tsar felt compelled to meet pretenders and why young women convinced themselves they could have been one of that tragic family. Massie brings that feeling to life in a compelling historical document. The book moved me, captivated me, in my early teens, and it has no less power now.