The Spirit of Dorsai – Gordon R. Dickson

“–But these old sci-fi books, they’re not very pro-women. They don’t have very many strong female characters.”
“That’s not actually true. I think what most people are thinking of when they say that is like the old school pulp stories. Those are like: hero good, villain bad, girl pretty, pew pew pew, and then hero saves the day. And for those kinds of stories, having nuance and subtlety isn’t a selling point. So you want to not let other characters be strong because you don’t want to take the spotlight away from the hero. They’re stories that are meant to be very simple, they’re meant to go a certain way. So, the hero is always going to get the girl in the end, and the hero is always going to defeat the villain. And it has to be the hero who defeats the villain, and the heroine has to be someone you want the hero to end up with. Those are like the rules you have to work inside of.”
“Yeah, and the rules say that the women are like damsels in distress.”
“Not necessarily. Like, it’s pretty common to have the damsel have a dagger, or have a blaster, and pretty common for her to actually be able to at least get a stab in, but the main thing is that you just don’t want to show up your hero too much.”
“I don’t know…I just want to see more empowered women.”
“Oh, no, if you’re like looking for the actual female characters in science fiction who are like really cool, who are either straight-up asskicking badasses or just, y’know, strong-willed and take no [redacted], there’s lots of those.”
“Well, yeah, like in Aliens–”
Aliens is like the go-to example, but that’s only because people are uncultured idiots who don’t read books. Mil-SF particularly has a lot of women soldier characters. There’s Honor Harrington. There’s Herris Serrano….there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan…there’s probably a lot more that I don’t know about because I don’t read a whole lot of Mil-SF.There’s a lot, OK, because once you’ve got power armor in your universe, there’s no real reason to keep women out of combat.”
“No, for real, that makes sense.”
“So, yeah, there’s lots. The thing is: you have to read the books to read of them…There’s even like this one book–it’s a short one though, it’s more of a novella–about this one woman who is ninety-three years old and is appointed district commander when her planet is being invaded. Amanda Morgan.”
“Yeah, and so she’s ninety-two or ninety-three and the men are off-planet, which is why they’re being attacked, so she plans so the battle is fought–and won–by the elderly who have to stay home and then the teenagers. And, it’s a short story, so it’s not all that in-depth, but my point is: there are plenty of heroines in sci-fi.”
“…”
“Yeah, so I’m a nerd. Sorry. I’ll tone it down in the future.”
“You’re like a mega-nerd.”
“I’m going to shut up and go away now.”
“You don’t have to!”
“I got books to read!”
Rated: Stone are my walls–and my roof is of timber–but the hands of my builder are stronger by far.

Lost Dorsai – Gordon R. Dickson

“What is your series? What are you reading, right now?”
“Well….a couple of different ones. The main one I’m working on right now is the Dorsai books. Those are like…well, in the future, mankind has spread out to different planets, and because they’ve spread out, they’ve also diverged. So like, because the planets all have different specialties, and because the people who go there are selected, it becomes like we’ve evolved into different sub-species. So there’s like the religious race, there’s the merchant race–or planet, really–there’s the mystic race who like, have psi-powers–there’s Old Earth, which is like the seedstock. And then the Dorsai are like the warrior race and they’re the main protagonists, because this is mostly Mil-SF.”
“Ok, and they like take over?”
“No, they’re mercenaries. There’s not really enough of them to take over, probably. The one I’m working on right now is about one of the Dorsai who goes through the Academy and gets commissioned and all that, and then realizes that he’s a pacifist. He’s a complete pacifist. He absolutely has decided that he will not take life, he will not engage in violence.”
“So the others reject him because he won’t fight.”
“No, because the Dorsai are very individualistic. So he’s free to go his own way and everybody respects his decision. But the problem is that he’s kind of at a loss, because the Dorsai are also very….they’re like: you pick your path and then you stick to it. So when he started off as one thing–he joined the military–and then he abandoned it, he’s lost his way. He’s Lost Dorsai. So he doesn’t know where he fits, and they don’t know where he fits. Because a Dorsai goes all the way with whatever he does.
“So the story itself is about how he and the other characters have been maneuvered into a situation where it seems that the only possible way is to fight their way out. And, fighting is going to kill them–and not fighting is going to hurt everybody else in the long run. It’s complicated. Also I keep skipping the, like, political parts.”
“Oh, heh. So, what happens in the end?”
“So, in the end, he finds a way to be a Dorsai and save his friends–and his world–and not use violence to do it.”
“So, like, the point is: you don’t have to use violence to win?”
“Well, if you’re willing to die to be a hero…”

Notes & Observations

– If it weighs more than you do and is carnivorous, don’t pet.
– If it weighs more than you do and is omnivorous, pet cautiously.
– If it weighs more than you do and is herbivorous, also pet cautiously, because being stepped on can hurt.
– If it weighs less than you do and is omnivorous but also has claws, do not pet.
– If it weighs less than you do and is herbivorous, pet if it wants to be petted.
– All injuries incurred by exotic animals are equivalent.
– Cleaning the intern habitat is no excuse to avoid work.
– Work is no excuse to avoid cleaning the intern habitat.
– It’s the logistics part of disposing of a body that’s the hard part, but don’t mention that to the bereaved.
– The floggings will continue until morale increases.

Review: The Bridge of D’Arnath – Carol Berg

The Bridge of D’Arnath – Son of Avonar – Carol Berg.

Boredom plus tiredness, plus lack of internet access equals I started another alphabetical trawl, this time through my 10,000 Sci-Fi and Fantasy ebooks bundle from *cough* a totally legitimate source of sci-fi and fantasy ebooks. It…took a while. Ann Logston was a bust. Brian Thomsen’s Tales of Ravenloft kind of sucked and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be about. But at Carol Berg we hit an unexpected load of paydirt.

This book was really quite good. A few notches below “excellent”–it had potential which it didn’t live up to, and most of its high concept plotwork boils down to standard fantasy tropes–you know, Capitalized Letters for stuff like Doom, The Catastrophy, the Enemies, names with random apostrophes (D’Arnath, D’Natheil, J’Ettaine, e’tcetera). The boringly basic nature of the fantasy elements is compounded by having it all be delivered via infodumps from various characters. My eyes glazed over two lines into the first of these, and I flat-out skipped the rest of them. And, since I’m listing complaints: the climactic reveal is kind of….well…kind of hard to swallow. Nevertheless, it’s woven back into the plot satisfactorily, and there’s a more or less happy ending, so, that gets a pass.

And in any case: the worldbuilding is resoundingly solid, the characterizations are strong, intriguing, pleasingly deep, and the plot is engrossing, meaningful, and well thought-out. Parts of this book actually reminded me strongly of Angelique, which is a good thing: that also had distinctive characters and good worldbuilding.

Plot: Seri–once Lady Seriana of Comigor, a nobleman’s daughter, the sister of the King’s Champion, once considered a potential bride of the King himself–has lived in self-imposed poverty and exile for ten years, ever since her husband was burned at the stake for sorcery and her newborn son was killed. By her own brother. Fear of sorcery runs deep in the kingdom of Leire; it did not matter that her husband, Karon, was a Healer, that he has only ever used his talents to help and uplift people, or that there were a number of foolhardily brave witnesses at the witch trial to testify as much. Death is the only answer for those who use magic. Seri herself was paroled rather than executed, and has lived a peasant’s life in a secluded village ever since.

So right off the bat, this is a strong premise. We start off with our heroine as someone who has had had seriously interesting, active, and tragic life–someone with experience, perception, and information about the world and how it operates. More importantly, she has a defined personality and distinct reasons for what she does and how she thinks. Seri is reluctant to trust men in positions of authority (which is a bit of a double-edged sword), knows that she has few real friends, and treasures the ones she does have (which is another thing…)

Seri is going about her business, weeding her garden, when visited by a figure out of the past–her brother’s aide and trusted retainer, Darzid. Darzid is looking for someone, but, being the heroine, it is Seri who finds him unconscious in the woods nearby: a handsome young man with no memory, magical powers he cannot control or use, no ability to talk, the instincts of a long-trained warrior, and the impulses of a particularly spoiled, bratty aristocrat. He’s the titular Son of Avonar–D’Natheil, heir of D’Arnath, prince of e’tcetera, Duke, Champion, and so forth, and he’s supposed to be saving the world.

He can’t actually tie his own shoelaces, and the Guide he’s been sent with is even worse–he’s a cook.
And there is little time before some sort of Doom or other arrives. I’m not sure what. Seri, therefore, has her hands full, trying to get the party from Point A to Scholar B to McGuffin C to Clue D, etc, while dodging the men with empty eyes, the Sheriff, and so forth. All you really need to know is that yes, they get there in time. And yes, the world gets saved or the Bridge gets opened, or whatever.

I’m not sure I want to read the rest of the series–but you know what? This would make a kickass jiang hu TV show of 30-50 episodes. You’ve got the strong but wholly feminine heroine with the incredibly tragic past, the implausibly handsome and skilled but bratty hero, the sympathetic antagonist, the brutal actual villains, the interesting and talented side characters and sidekicks, the flashy combat, the complex and brutally tyrannical setting, and so forth.

Rated: Petty good book!