The Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, but very much as a standalone novel. Humanity is scattered among dozens of worlds. The planet Gethen, also known as Winter, was colonized by humanity many thousands of years previously. Contact was then lost and has only recently been re-established, with the Ekumen, a sort of federation of worlds, sending an envoy to bring the world into the fold. It is through the eyes of this envoy that most of the story is told. The humans on Gethen show curious sexual characteristics, spending most of their time as androgynous non-sexual beings, then entering a period of estrus once a month, at which point they become either dominantly male or female. This changes gender politics entirely, in fact eliminating them completely. On Gethen, people are judged on ability, with gender not entering into the equation.
While the premise is interesting, the novel has two problems. First and foremost, it may have been rather progressive when it was published in 1969, but nowadays the exploration of the human sexuality issue that is at the core of the novel is both dated and non-subversive. The world has moved on and the novel has aged badly because of it. Secondly, it is rather dull. I never felt that I cared either way for the envoy or his mission, or if the two depicted nations on Gethen would go to war. The characters are dull and the world is dull. The stakes are nominally high, but the setting is washed out and feels dead to the reader. I gave up about a third of the way in.
After consolidating through the North Atlantic hurricane season, Wolf Squadron moves on to capture Guantanamo Bay and liberate the Marines trapped there. Our heroes then mow through a few Caribbean islands in search of vaccine production materials, a quest which eventually leads them to an unlikely place.
New Marines means Shewolf has to convince new people that her way is the correct way. Unsurprisingly, taking orders from a thirteen year old Second Lieutenant is hard for those who have not seen her in action. Unfortunately, interpersonal issues, and the organizational tangles stemming from them, take up too large a portion of the book. There are some very interesting discussions on leadership but they too often take the form of infodumps from senior officers, who always seem to have more knowledge than any average person. Having said that, this is Ringo and as usual with him the novel is a page turner, especially the last third where the action really picks up. The humor, also as usual with Ringo, is dry and hilarious.
The narrative in A Dance with Dragons runs in parallel with the one in A Feast for Crows, this time mainly following Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion and Ser Barristan Selmy. Several other semi-major characters also feature as viewpoints, including Quentyn Martell and Theon/Reek. Daenerys must deal both with her dragons, and with the untenable situation in Mereen. Tyrion continues his travels eastward. Jon makes tough decisions regarding the defense of The Wall. Ser Barristan broods over his duty.
Unlike A Feast for Crows, this fifth book contains the juicier protagonists, and indeed the juicier bits of story. While the byzantine plots of King’s Landing are reasonably interesting, the real action is around Slaver’s Bay and The Wall. While the prose and characterizations is as good as in the previous book, the narrative events of A Dance with Dragon make it a treat. Things are rapidly going downhill in many ways, and a possible conclusion to the saga can be glimpsed. If you squint…