Saturday, July 18, 2009

Toll of the Hounds - Steven Erikson

Toll of the Hounds is the eight book in Erikson's massive Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The ninth book, Dust of Dreams, is scheduled for release in August 2009. Until now is have always waited for the paperback release but after reading Toll of the Hounds, with the end of the series in sight, I am considering changing this policy.

Writing a synopsis of one of Erikson's books is always a pain. Like the two previous books, The Bonehunters and Reaper's Gale, this book is absolutely massive. My mass market paperback has 1295 pages, that does include the 25 page prologue of Dust of Dreams but it looks like Toll of the Hounds is the biggest book in the series so far. The reason why this book requires so many pages is the huge cast of the novel. The Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the book includes over a hundred characters that are to some degree important to the story. I'm not even going to try to write something coherent summary, let's just say Erikson is working up to one of his infamous convergences again, with the city of Darujhistan at the centre of it. A smaller but still significant part of the book is devoted to events in Black Coral, the city the Triste Edur settled after the loss of Moonspawn.

I suppose it is only fitting the parts of this enormous book that are set in Darujhistan are narrated by the very character who is plagued by an incurable case of verbosity. Without Kruppe the various seemingly unrelated stories of the Darujhistan characters would probably have driven the reader to despair as to where Erikson is taking all this. Slowly the pieces of this intricate puzzle fall into place as we approach the final chapters and a confrontation between a number of big players in the series. If Kruppe is he narrator, Anomander Rake, the ancient leader of the Triste Edur is probably the central character in this story. He is involved in both major story lines in the book. While he seems to do a lot of brooding and biding his time, when he does get moving the consequences are far-reaching, in fact he shakes up the Malazan pantheon quite a bit.

As I mentioned before there is not large military campaign at the heart of this novel. That is not to say there isn't quite a bit of violence of course, the events in this book take their toll among ordinary people, ascendants and gods alike. Without a military confrontation, a big battle at the end if you will, to look forward, the direction the book is taking takes a bit longer to be revealed. Given the size of the book, a bit longer is quite a long time indeed. Some readers might think the book takes too long to get to the point. On the other hand, if you followed the series for this long, and there really is no point in reading this book without having read the previous seven, it should not be an obstacle. As usual the climax of the novel is worth the wait.

In previous books I had my doubts about whether the story justified the page count. In this the story needs is. Where many fantasy stories are oversimplified, with one or relatively few characters able to cause major changes or achieve great goals Toll of the Hounds strives to look at the events leading up to final confrontation from just about every viewpoint. From the lowliest inhabitant of Darujhistan to the most powerful deity in the Malazan pantheon. One has to marvel at Erikson being able to keep track of all those individual strands in his story. I must admit quite a bit of my time spend reading this novel went into figuring out where we've seen this or that character before. I seems I am definitely up for a reread.

So how do we rank this effort in Erikson's Malazan series? Opinions are going to be split on this novel. It is probably the most intricately plotted novel Erikson has delivered yet, on the other hand it does miss the rush of a military campaign and large scale battles. Personally, I think Reaper's Gale and Memories of Ice are better reads but not by much. Part of that is probably the return to the location where the story started. With much of the city set in Darujhistan, where much of Gardens of the Moon is set, puts the reader on familiar ground. Where Erikson likes to throw the reader right in the middle of the story without much in the way of an explanation this book felt familiar to an extend. Until you realize half just how large the cast actually is anyway. Toll of the Hounds is a very interesting read, I'm looking forward to finding out how Erikson means to wrap things up in the last two novels in this series.

Book details
Title: Toll of the Hounds
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 1295
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-81319-7
First published: 2008

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hominids - Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids, the first book in the Neanderthal Parallax and a novel that won Sawyer a Hugo award, is probably one of his best known works. I had this one lying on the to read stack for more than half a year now and ended up reading a more recent book, WWW: Wake, first. I very much liked WWW: Wake so my expectations were rather high. I guess this is one of those love it or hate it books. It has the potential to piss off just about every person on the planet of for one reason or another. If you manage to keep your anger in check however, there is a very interesting novel underneath. It does lean a bit too much on ideas though.

In Hominids an experiment with quantum computing by two Neanderthal scientists goes awry. One of them, a man named Ponter Boddit, is transported to a parallel dimension and ends up in our universe. He needs to rescued from the Sudburry neutrino observatory by a number of perplexed scientist. He did after all, emerge in a closed room. Geneticist Mary Vaughan is soon called in to determine if Boddit, is indeed what he appears to be, a living breathing Neanderthal man. In the mean time Ponter's partner, Adikor Huld, has his own problems. He faces charges for the murder of Ponter and this is preventing him from figuring out where his partner disappeared to.

This novel is driven by ideas and I must say the concept of a man from an advanced Neanderthal society appearing in our own appealed to me. Sawyer has managed to create a very interesting Neanderthal point of view in the novel. Their society is about as different from ours as you can imagine. This is also the source of lot of criticism on the book. Especially the unusual way in which male/female relationships are organized and the fact that all Neanderthals are in effect bisexual will strike many readers as unrealistic. On top of that Neanderthal society has implemented a system of anti-crime personal surveillances than would make Big Brother jealous. All of the characters seem to be very convinced this system is uses to serve justice, with the data only being made available in case of a suspected crime, but it certainly gave me the creeps. As it turns out, it is not so infallible as many Neanderthal seem to think.

On top of this unusual society Ponter, once in our universe, challenges just about anything we take as a given. From the Big Bang theory to religion, from our judicial system to the minimum age to vote, from population control to our sexual morale, there doesn't seem to be much we do agree on. These challenges are what makes the concept of this book absolutely brilliant. Ponter forces you to rethink everything. If you are overly attached to a particular item he challenges that may cause some readers to dislike the book. Personally I think the necessity to rethink certain ideas is one of the things that make science fiction interesting. This novel contains more challenges than your average science fiction novel so don't say I didn't warn you.

Sawyer has, as usual, done his homework on Neanderthals. There is a lot of speculations about this species still. Scientists don't agree on whether it is a sub-species of Homo Sapiens or a species in it's own right, the don't agree on what caused their extinction, whether they could speak and had language, if they had a religion or even how intelligent they are. There's a lot of research being done so some of the things Sawyer refers to are no doubt out of date already. He's also had to make some choices about what theories to use and which he considers the most likely. The science dealing with our ancestors (or cousins, as seems to be more likely in the case of the Neanderthal) is full of often contradicting theories. On top of that there is also the image of the dumb brute of a Neanderthal dragging his woman (whom he fist clubbed in some sort of mating ritual) in a cave by the hair. Science may not agree on a lot when it comes to Neanderthals but this idea surely is outdated. Sawyer manages to navigate this minefield of perhaps, maybe and inconclusive evidence skilfully to create a scenario that is not unlikely given the knowledge available at the time of the writing. His thorough research notwithstanding, he'd probably be the first to tell you that in a decade the picture might look different altogether.

If you consider science fiction the literature of ideas, you can't get much better than this book. Hominids is so full of ideas and interesting theories than one reading is probably not enough to catch them all. I think it did go at the expense of the story itself though. As you can see I used one paragraph for the synopsis where I usually need two or even three. I felt I couldn't write more without giving the entire plot away. The story is a bit thin. I hope Sawyer manages to create a bit more depth in the following two books in this trilogy. Saywer injected some very interesting ideas but the way his characters deal with sexuality and the choices them make in that respect made me cringe at some points. Hominids is a very good read but from a literary point of few it leaves a few things to be desired. That surprised me a little given the fact that the book won one of the biggest awards in the genre. Still, it is well worth reading. I am most certainly going to dig up the next two book on my next visit to the (online) book store.

Book Details
Title: Hominids
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 444
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4500-4
First published: 2002

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dragon Keeper - Robin Hobb

After writing thee books in a different setting Hobb returns to the Realm of the Elderings in Dragon Keeper, book one of the Rain Wilds Chronicles. The book connects to the Liveship Traders trilogy mostly but events in the other two trilogies set in this world play a part in the story as well. She intended this book to be a single volume but the first draft was considered too lengthy so the decision was made to spit the book. Reviewing this book is not going to be easy. We only get half the story, Hobb leaves us with something of a cliffhanger. This book weighs in at 553 pages, I guess it would have been enormous if they had published the whole story at once (even if we take the rewriting to make it two books into account) but I for one wouldn't have minded reading on after this first serving.

The book opens some time after the ending of Ship of Destiny. The sea serpents have reached their cocooning grounds in the Rain Wilds and are ready to begin the transformation to dragons. They are in poor condition though, malnourished and too old to survive the process. They have also arrived to late in the season to be ready to emerge the next spring. The dragon Tintaglia is worried and her fears turn out to be justified when the next summer the young Dragons emerge. They are small, unhealthy and not fully formed. Many die quickly. In true dragon spirit Tintaglia abandons the creatures who are in her opinion not fit to live.

Tintaglia leaves the Trades with the problem on deciding what to do next. They made a bargain with Tintaglia, one that forces them to take care of the creature. Several years later less than twenty of the creatures remain. They have become restless and a heavy burden on the Rain Wild community. Hidden agenda's and manipulation abound as a relocation is proposed. An expedition mounted to find a lost city in the Rain Wilds, one that the dragons remember vaguely in their ancestral memories. An unlikely collection of people gathers to take part in this ill advised expedition and guide the dragons to their destination.

Like the Liveship Traders books Hobb uses a multiple point of view, third person narrative for this story. That may well be the reason that the book turned out as long as it did, there are quite a few point of views in this book. There's river barge captain Leftrin, the dragon Sintara, the heavily Rain Wilds marked Thymara, the Trader's daughter and dragon scholar Alise and her chaperone Sedric. All with their own secrets and desires. Set in the conservative and in some ways repressive Trader milieu, Hobb managed to create a cast with enough potential for drama to fill a Jane Austin novel. Pride and Prejudice with Dragons. She may be on to something here.

Much of the novel deals with the restrictions in society imposes on their relationship. Themes such as marriage of convenience, suppressed homosexuality and taboos regarding the physical disfigurements causes by the Rain Wilds environment are strong themes in the books. Like in the Liveship Traders books it looks like the dragons are a catalyst for social change rather than the focus of the book. I always liked the way Hobb handles the fantastic elements in her books. Carefully dosed they never overshadow the character development in the books. Her well drawn characters are the strength of Hobb's writing. Dragons are a fantasy cliché, a popular theme that needs to be handled carefully the novel stand out. They are much more present in this book than the the Liveship Traders trilogy but not so much so that the book turns into a Pern novel (can't help it, I don't like those).

There is an awful lot of back story for this book. I suppose you'd understand the story well enough without having read the previous volumes but you'd miss a lot of references to events in earlier books. I wouldn't recommend readers for starting here, the actions of the dragon Tintaglia wouldn't make much sense if you did, just to name one example. Hobb's Elderling books are best read in order of publication. For established Hobb readers this is a book that will most certainly create a hunger for more however. In Dragon Keeper Hobb begins to answer one of the major questions the reader is left with after Ship of Destiny and she does so in style. Yes, it is half a story and there will be quite a wait for the next part. I understand Voyager has Dragon Haven scheduled for a spring 2010 release. If you can stand the wait for the conclusion however, Dragon Keeper is a great read. I don't think they handled the splitting of the books in two parts very gracefully, it felt rather abrupt, but based on the story presented in Dragon Keeper things certainly look promising for Dragon Haven.

Book Details
Title: Dragon Keeper
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 553
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-727374-4
First published: 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Lees of Laughter's End - Steven Erikson

The third of Steven Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. Chronologically it is set between Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead. There is a UK publication that combines there three novellas in one volume and I understand Tor is publishing one for the US market later this year. I kinda like the Night Shade Books version though, even if they are pretty expensive. The Night Shade edition was delayed for something like six months, it was supposed to be released in December. I must say it was worth the wait.

We pick up the story or the unlucky Emancipor Reese, servant to the two necromancers sometime after they left the city of Lamentable Moll by ship. The crew is decidedly uneasy with their passengers, especially after all the ship's rats disappear. After a series of horrific and hilarious events it turns out that the necromancers may not have been able to outrun their pursuers entirely but the real danger to the ship and crew is of an entirely other nature.

I consider these novellas to be Erikson light reads. The stories are brief and very contained compared to his enormous sprawling novels. They do have that same dark atmosphere but focus much more on the humorous side of Erikson's Malazan work. Mind you, even his humour is dark, it is not something that everybody will appreciate. I think it also helps if you have read at least up to A Memory of Ice, where Bauchelain and Korbal Broach play their part in the siege of Capustan, if you want to get the most out of them.

I must admit I liked The Healthy Dead a bit better but the it still made me laugh out loud in several places. Bauchelain's eloquence when discussing hideous matters is absolutely hilarious, as are Reese's attempts to deny he has any idea what is going on. His attitude helps Mancy the Luckless get into the strangest situations aboard the ship.

The novella has a open ending. It is quite clear that whatever it is the necromancers are trying to outrun isn't going to give up. Erikson has announced there will be three more Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. I am already looking forward to them. Let's hope Night Shade is a bit quicker with their edition next time.

Book Details
Title: The Lees of Laughter's End
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 120
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-144-7
First published: 2007

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Absolution Gap - Alastair Reynolds

Absolution Gap is the final part in a series of three linked novels set in the Revelation Space universe. Reynolds has written two other, standalone, novels as well as a bunch of short fiction in this universe. Those can be read independently but it is essential that you read Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap in that order. This novel wraps up the story began in Revelation Space in a quite unexpected way. It seems the Revelation Space universe holds many surprises.

As with the previous books Absolution Gap contains three, converging, story lines set apart by decades at the beginning of the novel to take space travel at relativistic speeds into account. The first story line opens in 2675 on Ararat, where the crew en evacuees of Resurgam have made their found refuge. They know it is only temporary though, and after nearly two decades of relative piece, the first signs of Inhibitor activity in the system are being seen. Scorpio, who has taken on the day to day management of the colony, knows their reprieve is over. He goes out to get their leader, the ancient rebel Conjoiner, Nevil Clavain back from his self-imposed exile.

Decades earlier, in the system 107 Piscium, the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension is looking for trade opportunities. In particular the remains of an advanced but now extinct civilizations. Alien artifacts still fetch a good price in some parts of the galaxy. In their recent exploits they've been guided by the opportunist Quaiche. His results have been disappointing however, and now the captain wants results. To ensure Quaiche's best efforts his lover is being held captive in a torturous device called a scrimshaw suit. Fortunately for Quaiche he spots promising signs of possible alien artifacts on a moon of one of the gas giants of the system. Quaiche decides the investigate the place and takes his ship in closer. A decision he will come to regret.

More than a century later in 2727, the moon Quaiche named Hela is populated by a large groups of humans. Most of the economy is fueled but the trade in alien artifacts as well as the strange religion that has sprung up on the moon. In one of the remote settlements a young girl grows up. When Rashmika was about nine years old her older brother left the family to work for one of the churches as a demolition expert. The experience upset Rashmike since she was sure her brother was being lied to during the recruitment interview and contact with him has been very limited ever since. In the following years Rashmika has studied the alien culture that once inhabited the moon. She is intelligent and spots the flaws, unlikely doctrines and outright lies in the churches' teachings. She feels herself compelled to seek out the religious leader of her world and find out what happened to her brother. But equally important, or perhaps more so, she wants to know the truth about her world and the gas giant it circles.

Reynolds got himself into a bit of trouble at the end of the second book. The heroes of our story seem to be almost out of resources and their foe is almost unbeatable. The conclusion that they need outside help seems justified. But where in a universe that has been systematically cleansed of all intelligent life do you find something that can take on the Inhibitors? And do you dare let them loose on an unsuspecting universe?

To answer the first question Reynolds throws in another batch of exotic physics. Brane cosmology. I must admit I hadn't heard of it before reading this book but it ties in with some of the theories he mentioned in Redemption Ark. On the whole Absolution Gap is a lot lighter on physics than Redemption Ark, which definitely does not hurt the book. I must say the use of Brane cosmology did give the book a bit of a deus ex-machina feel but Reynolds solves that neatly in the final chapters.

The second ties into the story of Scorpio. Scorpio is a Hyperpig, a genetic experiment that gave pigs almost human intelligence and a more human like physique. I always have a Muppets moment when he appears on the stage, but despite that strange connection in my brain Reynolds has made Scorpio into something special. Intelligent or not, Hyperpigs are not very appreciated in human society and Scorpio in particular has suffered a lot of abuse. At one point his life mainly consisted of violence and other crimes. Clavain however, showed him that not all humans are as cruel as his former master. Despite his limited ability for long term planning Scorpio is one of the most respected pigs and community leaders on Ararat. But he's still a pig. Not only the humans see him as such, Scorpio is constantly trying to prove to himself he is not the criminal he was when the Conjoiners found him in Chasm City. Every major decision he takes is contested, which results in some interesting power struggles.

At some points the story dragged a little. At well over six hundred pages in Gollancz's extra wide format this book takes a while to finish. I think it could have been a bit tighter written, especially in the Rashmika's sections where Reynolds pays a lot of attention to the geological features of Hela and the technical challenges of living is such an environment. In a way it reminded me of some passages in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. In those books the struggle between those who want to keep Mars pristine and those who want to terraform is a major plot element. In Absolution Gap we could have done with a little less.

That being said, Absolution Gap is a very satisfying conclusion to the the story that began with Revelation Space. Where the first book in the series shows Reynolds' inexperience at some points, by the time he hits Absolution Gap he is writing space opera at its best. Reynolds creates a great story on the largest canvas possibly. If you like this kind of story, Reynolds is a must read. I'm very sure I will end up reading more of Reynolds' stuff in the not too distant future.

Book Details
Title: Absolution Gap
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 662
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-575-07557-0
First published: 2003