There are some books I read where I get to the end and I am sad that I finished them because I love the characters and I don't feel like I've heard enough about them, and while that's sort of a fun feeling it can also be annoying because then I finish the novel and feel sort of bittersweet and melancholy about it. Carnival isn't like that. Bear did a great job wrapping the story up in such a way that it feels like a complete package and I can let it go the way it is, and you know, that makes me happy.
I had some problems with the book. It took me ten chapters to really differentiate the two protagonists, which isn't good. Even beyond that I had to sometimes pause and think, "Wait, he's the one who is trying to do XYZ, right?" just to make sure I hadn't confused them again. By the end of the book the two were distinct in my mind but for a large portion of the story they seemed interchangeable which led to some discomfort. I had an easier time remembering the differences between the other, minor characters -- but I guess that's because they were often painted with much broader strokes.
Carnival is science fiction, a book of diplomacy and espionage and relationships on an Earthlike planet inhabited by humans living in a matriarchal society where men are treated as chattel, within a larger context of a coalition of worlds largely controlled by a central government and inhabited by a mostly patriarchal society. It's a fun conceit to play with, and Bear certainly spends plenty of time discussing these differing societal norms and none too subtly making points about our society and culture in the real world.
The first half of the book is almost entirely concerned with the diplomacy and establishing the rules of the society and the various intrigues going on, and can be a bit plodding at times. It took me a week or so to get through the first 200 pages, and that was me trying to push myself to read more. The second half of the book I read today alone, which turned out to be easy because Bear seriously ramped up the action. Granted, all the exciting stuff in the second half really depended on the culture and relationships she'd set up in the first half, but it was a breeze to read, and I really didn't want to put it down.
Recently, Bear wrote in her LJ (matociquala) "I sometimes wonder if my own particular gifts as a writer are not suited to being a brilliant pioneer of science fiction." Thankfully, brilliant pioneering isn't required to write and sell books that are good reads. While it definitely takes a certain type of person to invent truly groundbreaking new ideas, that's not necessary to write good SF; like I said, I (and probably lots of other readers like me) only read a handful of books a year, so even if all your ideas are basically cribbed from other authors, if your book is the first time I read them, it'll look brilliant and pioneery to me.
From reading Bear's LJ for the past few months, I feel like I've gotten to know her as a person and as a writer, and in reading her novel I could detect her voice and style quite clearly. It felt comfortable and familiar, which was a pleasant change. Most books I read are by authors I know very little about, and as a result the stories feel somewhat isolated to me. This was more like being told a story by a friend. I'm looking forward to getting to say hi to Bear next weekend at Boskone, although I most likely won't get to go to her signing session, since I have a lunch date elsewhere in the city that I'll need to be leaving for at that time.
Carnival does what I want from an SF novel: shows me a society and culture that's alien and different, but in such a way that it makes me think about my own society and culture; shows me potential future technology that sounds really great and isn't so far-fetched that I dismiss it as impractical out of hand; and tells me a great story that keeps me going along for the ride. Screw pioneering: this is good writing, and that's all I need.