Monday, August 31, 2009

David Falkayn: Star Trader - Poul Anderson

David Falkayn: Star Trader is the second in a series of seven books collecting the writings of Anderson in his Technic Civilization universe. Publisher Bean has decided to publish them in order of internal chronology, which is not the order in which they were written. In the first instalment, The van Rijn Method, we see humanity's first exploration of the universe, the origins of the Technic Civilization and the formation of the Polesotechnic League, a mercantile organisation that soon acquires vast fortunes and political influence beyond that of a mere government. In this book the Polesotechnic League is at the height of it's power. The seven works collected in this volume mostly deal with the exploits of members of the league. Most notably Nicholas van Rijn and David Falkyan.

Territory (1961), the opening story of the collection, sets a pattern we'll see throughout this book. It is set on a planet where van Rijn sees trade opportunities. Van Rijn has taken it upon himself to investigate thee situation on the planet and finds a colony of idealists from the planet Esperance already there, trying to guide the rather primitive population into the modern age. For some reason the creatures take offence and attack. Van Rijn and one of the Esperancian Joyce Davidson have to find a way to survive long enough for help to arrive. Of course van Rijn won't settle for mere survival, he is in the game to make a profit and, as usual, understanding the alien culture is key to achieving both these goals.

Like many van Rijn stories, we get to see the man through the eyes of another character, in this case Joyce. These stories show us that neither van Rijn nor Falkayn are very sympathetic characters. Van Rijn is loud, rude, at times condescending and a sexist. That last quality is something he shares with Falkayn, who seems to think he is James Bond. Women in these stories are usually somewhat helpless creatures, irresistibly attracted to Falkyan or to a lesser degree van Rijn. This is one of the things I didn't like about these stories, especially since this shallow portrayal of women is present in just about any story featuring either van Rijn of Falkayn. Territory is worse than most in this respect however.

The Trouble Twisters (1965) is one of the longer stories in the collection and introduces us the regular crew of Falkayn and his ship Muddlin' Through. Again they are on a planet trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the largest empire around when Falkayn takes it upon himself to rescue a damsel in distress (how typical). This act may seem noble but it does lead to series trouble with the empire they are trying to negotiate with. Soon Falkayn finds himself up to his eyeballs in political intrigue. Not a very profitable situation. He will need all his skill as well as the help of his crew mates Chee and Adzel to find a way out of this mess.

This story clearly shows that the Polesotechnic League is not above a little arm twisting. There is no such thing as a prime directive, whether the culture is in the stone age or on the brink of leaving the planet, as soon as there is a trade opportunity, the merchants move in. Even in The Day of Burning (1967), where Falkayn is trying to convince a primitive alien culture to prepare themselves for the effects of a supernova in their neighbourhood that threatens to wipe out their civilization, a profit is still required. That is not to say these cultures are helpless however. Another major theme in these stories is (not) underestimating the capabilities of a primitive culture. More than once the characters find themselves in very difficult situations because of an unexpected and in their minds irrational outbreak of violence.

One such outbreak is documented in the story The Master Key (1971), in which van Rijn hears the report of one of his crews on recent events on a planet that might be profitable. Although initially everything went fine and attack by the natives forced the party to return. In the conversation between the crew and van Rijn, the master merchant works out what provokes the attack. It is this ability to work our such matters than makes van Rijn so successful as a merchant. It is also by far the most interesting part in these stories. Anderson gives the environments in which he sets them and the cultures the traders encounter a lot of thought.

It's an ability he is going to need in Satan's World (1969), the only novel length work in this collection. It features both Falkayn and van Rijn. Looking for new trading opportunities they consult Serendipity Inc. An corporation that trades in information is such a way it is seen as strictly impartial. Their policy is such that people are willing to sell it information that they would otherwise keep secret. The universe has become so large that keeping up with even the smallest detail of it, has become impossible. Serendipity Inc. uses huge databases and computers to find and analyse information that may be useful to their clients. Sounds a bit like Google avant la lettre. They soon discover that maybe the company is not quite as neutral as it pretends to be. This story intrigued me early on, but later it fell into the pattern of the other stories, figure out the motives of an alien culture and how to make a profit out of it. The story does show the first cracks in the Polesotechnic League however. Falkayn at least is beginning to see there is more to the universe than profit.

A crack that is widened in Lodestar (1973), the final story of the collection. I am skipping A Little Knowledge (1971) here, a story that again is based on underestimating a less advanced culture, good read but not all that interesting. Lodestar is a van Rijn story that introduces his favourite grand daughter (and as far as I can tell the only (human) female in any of these tales with a decent brain). It is clear that van Rijn is up to something but we don't find out what until the last moment. Throughout the story we get hints that the Polesotechnic League is becoming more and more ruthless in it's operations, not shying away from violence, torture and murder if need be. Van Rijn still sticks with them however but we get to see in this story that Falkayn has decided to do things differently.

At the end of this book we near the end of the League phase of Anderson's future history. The next volume, Rise of the Terran Empire, will introduce the next phase in Technic History. Dominic Flandry, the main character in most of the stories from the Terran Empire period will not show up until part four however. I think this change of scene will be good for the readers not familiar with Anderson's work. The stories in this volume are starting to feel like repetitions and at times van Rijn's East India Company mentality annoys me tremendously. Anderson has shown he is not blind for the risks of an organisation like the Polesotechnic League however, it will be interesting to see what it's fate will be and what follows this era of uncut capitalism. This books has its ups and downs but Anderson's future history intrigues me none the less. I'd say the downs do not outweigh the ups in this volume, overall I liked it slightly better than The van Rijn Method.

Book Details
Title: David Falkayn: Star Trader
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 492
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4165-5520-9
First published: 2009

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blood and Iron – Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron is the first book of Bear’s Promethean Age series. Until now, four books out of a dozen or so planned novels have been published. I can't find anything on a possible fifth installment at the moment. This massive series chronicles a conflict between the Fae and mages that has been going on since Elizabethan times. Bear claims the books will be independent reads but I decided to start at the beginning anyway. A while ago I read her excellent novel All the Windwracked Stars, the first in a trilogy book books based on Nordic mythology in a post apocalyptic setting. It was one of the best books I have read in 2008. Based on that experience and some of her short fiction my expectations were quite high. Blood and Iron is an interesting novel but it did not quite live up to those expectations.

The series is not published in chronological order. Blood and Iron is set in the autumn of 1997, partly in New York City. This is where we meet our main character, Elaine. She has given up that name hinks of herself as Seeker instead. Seeker is bound to one of the Fae courts and is tasked with finding humans, often of Fae ancestry to abduct back to the Fae realm. She is opposed in her work by the Prometheus Club. A group of human mages organized along the lines of a secret society, trying to rid the world of Fae influence. In our modern society they have almost succeeded. Iron, the bane of the Fae is just about everywhere. The Fae are not to be underestimated however.

After a successful mission during which Seeker managed to bind one of the wild Fae, she is told by the Queen that a Merlin walks the world again. The appearance of a Merlin heralds the coming of a new Dragon. A time of strife and warfare is on them but also a time of opportunity to the Fae. The Merlin’s power is terrible, it would strengthen the Fae enormously if they managed to win the Merlin for their cause. The Merlin is human however, and the human mages of the Prometheus Club, most notably the mage Matthew Szczegielniak (I have yet to figure out how to pronounce that name) are not going to give her up without a fight. And then there is the fact that the Merlin has some peculiar ideas on how to handle the magic a Merlin embodies as well. Things soon descend into a very complicated political game between the various Fae factions, the mages and a number of rogue characters thrown in the mix.

As this synopsis makes clear the author bases the story for a large part on Celtic mythology. One of the main concepts in the book is that of geas (or geis), as I understand it a curse that either obliges or prohibits someone to do something specific (okay, okay, it's a bit more complicated than that). It compels a great many characters to do certain things in certain ways or see them done, usually at high cost. Seeker is one of the characters who is less than free to do what she wants. She is bound to the Mebd, the Queen of the Daoine Sidhe and can simply be ordered to perform the kidnappings the Queen requires. Some carry a more subtle geas of course but the fact remains that a lot of the (Fae) characters spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get away with not doing something the really, really don't want to do, or the other way around. There's also a fair bit of guilt involved when they (almost inevitably) fail. The Fae do of course provide a rationale for not being guilty.

These are older rules and even the Mebd must abide by them – that in life one may be bound or bought, but in the end you go to judgement naked, clad only in what you are born with and what you have earned, lessened only by what you have sold or given away. That which is taken by force, for good or ill, goes unconsidered.

The Dragon Mist talking to Seeker – Chapter 2

I thought the author overused this particular device a bit. Some of the characters seem to think they have very few choices of their own. Guilt is a powerful emotion of course and something well worth exploring in a character but it turns into too much of a drama before the characters figure out how to use the wiggle room they have left. The opposition also seems to be a completely blind to the arguments of the other party. Most of the mages have lost at the hand of the Fae and it has made them willing to great violence in return. Reasonable is not a word any of the sides is familiar with.

Bear manages to put a very interesting twist on the Fae story. It’s been extensively used and overused in fantasy but I must admit her perspective is refreshing. The sense of the slowly fading Fae world is very strong in this book. You can tell they are near the breaking point that the opening of the book. I very much liked they way Bear weaves in all manner of modern accomplishments that limit the power of the Fae. One example of this is a reference to the golden spike, the joining of two railroads to create the first transcontinental connection in the US in 1869. In the view of the Fae a band of iron spanning a continent. There are a lot more of these of course but I thought this was the most striking example.

Apart from the interesting use of Celtic mythology, Blood and Iron is stylistically very well done. The concept of a war between the Fae and the mages certainly has potential beyond this first book. The plot however didn't really appeal to me. If you like Bear's writing and the subject she takes on here, this book will most likely be one of your favourites. I am not entirely convinced yet but I certainly liked it well enough to try the second Promethean novel Whiskey and Water.

Book Details
Title: Blood and Iron
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 431
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-451-46217-6
First published: 2006

Saturday, August 29, 2009

River of Gods - Ian McDonald

Earlier this year I read Cyberabad Days, a short story collection set in the same universe as River of Gods for BSCreview. Cyberabad Days was not light reading but I was so impressed with McDonald’s writing that I immediately ordered copies of Brasyl and River of Gods. I read Brasyl a while ago and now that I have finished River of Gods I think it is safe to say that McDonald is very much under-appreciated as a writer. His work is stunningly imaginative. As with the previous two books I have read, River of Gods deeply impressed me. Ideas almost jump off the pages in this book.

The story is set against a background of India in 2047. A century after its independence was declared India has split up into a number of different states. Our story focuses on the nation of Bharat and its capital Varanasi (this city is also known as Benares). The nation faces huge problems. It is stricken by drought after the monsoon has failed three years running. This has lead to a conflict with the neighbouring nation of Awadh over a dam in the holy river Ganges they are building. With their most important reliable source of water controlled by the enemy tensions rise rapidly. Internally there are problems too, in particularly in the form of a Hindu fundamentalist politician shaking up things. Internationally there is pressure on Bharat too for not having ratified the international agreement on the licensing artificial intelligences. Although higher level ‘aeais’ are vigorously hunted, the nation is a haven for the illegal trade and manufacturing of such software.

River of Gods has quite a complex plot. There are no less than nine characters that get a point of view. A criminal looking for a new source of income, a cop looking for the ultimate enemy, a civil servant looking for political power, a journalist looking for her identity, a scientist looking for her mentor, a professor looking peace, a nute (genderless person) looking for love, a comedian looking for an audience and a wife looking for a place in society. Each of their stories ties in to the overarching theme somehow but what ultimately drives their story is kept hidden until the last part of the novel.

The sheer number of important characters may be something of a challenge for the readers. With so much going on in the background, and the politics of the India McDonald creates really is fascinating, it is quite difficult to keep track of what a certain character was up to by the time they get another chapter. I thought the author created a diverse and interesting group of characters however. It certainly takes a while to get the story going this way, but that investment paid off at the end of the novel. I thought Mr. Nandha, the cop, he reminded me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix for some reason, was particularly well done. The huge amount of pent up anger the man carries around makes him an unpredictable character. You keep expecting him to explode (or have a heart attack).

McDonald divided his novel in five parts, each with Hindi titles for the reader to figure out. Each of the first four parts is divided into chapters named after the point of view character. Part five, where all the stories converge is more or less one big chapter. By that point the events unfold too fast and the story lines intersect too much to separate them. The author throws in a lot of the local lingo in. There’s an eight page glossary in the back of the book with explanations of (mostly) Hindi words. I didn’t really use it a lot, quite few things can be figured out from the context so it does, in my experience, not interrupt the flow of the story. It does give the story an air of authenticity. The author did quite a bit of research on this novel. So much so that another ignorant western guy such as myself could just believe it has been written by a local. It would be interesting to know what someone from India would make of it though. McDonald certainly put his head on the chopping block by obviously attempting a high level of accuracy in describing Indian society as an outsider.

There is also a very speculative side of the story of course. McDonald puts in quite a bit of technological advances. Information technology has progressed to the point where news is continuous and instantly accessible though a device known as a 'hoek'. It sends information directly into the mind of the user. Bharat is also the place where India’s domineering soap ‘Town and Country’ is produced. A show completely acted by aeai actors who achieve fame and status like any movie star of our time. Their live outside the show is as closely followed as the show itself. In physics the progress is considerable as well. Progress in quantum mechanics is particularly relevant to the story, quantum computing in particular. There’s also quite a bit about artificial intelligences and the nature or reality. As the show ‘Town and Country’ shows the lines between artificial intelligence and natural persons becomes pretty blurred for much of the population. This raises some interesting philosophical questions.

River of Gods has just about everything you can possibly expect in a good science fiction novel. There’s a plausible but above all fascinating future history, there’s great characters, interesting technology and a good plot. It is easily one of the best books I have read this year. It is also one of the more challenging reads, there is almost too much put into this novel to take it all in. Pyr has recently reissued a number of McDonald’s novels and put some stunning cover art by Stephan Martiniere on them (I love the elephant detail in the lower left corner of the River of Gods cover for instance). I can highly recommend all three I mentioned in this review. A copy of McDonald’s first novel Desolation Road is on the way, I look forward to reading that one as well.

Book Details
Title: River of Gods
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 599
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59102-436-1
First published: 2004

Friday, August 28, 2009

Witches Abroad - Terry Pratchett

People have been telling me to read Prachett’s Discworld books for age but I was always a bit intimidated by the sheer number of books he has produced. If I am not mistaking number 37, Unseen Academicals, is appearing later this year. Sometime last year I decided to just start reading them in publication order. I have advanced to Witches Abroad the twelfth book in publication order and the third book featuring the witches. At this point Pratchett’s got me firmly hooked. The Witches are not my favourite set of characters, I consider Guards! Guards! The best Discworld novel I have read so far, but I enjoyed this particular book a lot.

The book opens with the Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Grammar Brevis and Old Mother Dismass, discussing the recent death of their colleague and fairy godmother Desiderata Hollow. There don’t seem to be enough Witches around today and it is not sure who is going to replace her. They many not be able to provide a successor but Granny and Nanny are both intend to get their hands on Desiderata’s wand, an item that should not fall into the wrong hands. That is to say, any hands but their own.

As it turns out, Desiderate has already made arrangements. The wand is delivered to Magrat Garlick, with a note containing some rather cryptic instructions on what to do with it. It seems that in the distant city of Genua a young girl is in dire need of a fairy godmother. Ironically, Magrat’s instructions are to prevent the girl from marrying the prince. Magrat is to go alone but of course she is unable to prevent Granny and Nanny from joining her. Magrat may not know why the girl is not to marry the prince, Granny has a pretty good idea however. Soon they are on their way to derail a fairytale. Or several of them.

Where the witches faced a number of famous plays in their previous appearance, Pratchett’s theme for this novel is obviously fairy tales. He works in more of them than the brothers Grim ever put on paper. Everything from little red riding hood to the wizard of Oz features in the story. The witches, Granny in particular, have their own ideas about the value of fairy tales and the power of stories. To put it in Granny’s words:

‘Listen, happy endings is fine if they turn out happy,’ said Granny, glaring at the sky. ‘But you can’t make ‘em for other people. Like the only way you could make a happy marriage is by cuttin’ their head off as soon as they say “I do”, yes? You can’t make happiness...’

Granny explaining things to Magrat.

Pratchett’s kind of humour is absolutely hilariously at times but over the series its become more subtle as well. There are number of memorable scenes in this book. The one that had me laughing hardest was Granny facing the card sharks on their trip downriver. Another one that is absolutely hilarious is Granny telling the woodcutter exactly how they are going to take care of an old lady living alone in the woods from now on. And what happens if they don't. Granny’s no nonsense Headology and Nanny’s permanent curiosity and optimism (and amazing tolerance for alcohol) work very well in this book.

I think Witches Abroad is a stronger book than the Witches previous adventure Wyrd Sisters. Perhaps this is because I don’t share the English literary world’s obsession with the plays of Shakespeare. My expectations about this book where not that high after the last witches book, but I must say Pratchett delivered a fine entry into the Discworld series. It's a good thing I have book number thirteen, Small Gods, already lying around somewhere near the top of the to be read pile.

Book Details
Title: Witches Abroad
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 286
Year: 1992
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13465-1
First published: 1991

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls - Jane Lindskold

Originally released in 1994 by AvoNova, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is Jane Lindskold's first published novel. She is better known for her Firekeeper books and her collaboration with Roger Zelazny but this book was popular enough for Tor to reprint in in 2006 (and providing it with some decent cover art). Her more recent work is considered (urban) fantasy but this book strikes me as more of a near future science fiction novel. Like in a lot of her novels, there is a strong connection between animals and people, although not quite in the way the title seems to suggest. The utter strangeness of the main character and the first person narrative make this book a very interesting read.

At the opening of the book, our main character Sarah is staying in the Home, to most outsiders known as the nut house. Sarah is indeed a special girl, she speaks only in quotes, has conversations with a two headed, rubber dragon and is thought to be autistic. Her stay in the Home comes to an abrupt end when Dr. Haas visits. She is looking for patients ready to leave the Home, after a brutal cut in fund, the institution cannot keep all of the residents on. Sarah is one of those Dr. Haas deems fit to make their own way in the world.

Once on the streets, Sarah is picked up by The Pack, a group of thieves, beggars, drug dealers and prostitutes who's social structured is modelled to that of a pack of wolves. The law is hard, simple an strictly enforced, everyone must contribute in some way, hangers on are not tolerated. To avoid being turned into a prostitute Sarah partners up with Abalone, a cyber-criminal mostly involved in car theft. She settles in well with the Pack and becomes one of the favourites of Head Wolf. At the Home in the mean time, someone seems to realize they sent someone with a unique talent away. They are looking for Sarah and want her back badly. Neither Sarah nor Head Wolf is about to let that happen.

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is a fairly short novel, it reads quickly. It is not without it's challenges though. Sarah cannot choose her own words and communicates with other people by quoting whatever was read to her in the past. She has a nearly flawless memory as long as she can attach some meaning to the quotes. Many of her favourite quotes are from famous plays (Shakespeare in particular). The title of the book is verse from the book of Job, the Bible is another prime source for Sarah's quotes. Lindskold wrote this book entirely in the first person so we read her thoughts, which are not so different from that of another human being, as well as conversations. The reader often witnesses her frustration at not being able to express herself properly. Because of the way Sarah responds to questions, the dialogue in the novel is often quite cryptic. Lindskold eases the reader into it by the way she introduces Sarah though. It takes a few pages before the reader can put a finger on what exactly is different about the girl. I thought this aspect was very well done.

The plot of the novel is not quite as thrilling as the main character. Sarah and her wolf pack attempt to stay out of reach of the people trying to find her and figure out why they want Sarah so badly. The answer to this question also sheds some light on Sarah's past, something Sarah herself does not seem to remember too much of. Although she is made to seem younger, Sarah is in fact in her thirties by the time we meet her. Lindskold uses a slightly futuristic setting in an unnamed metropolis for this book. Futuristic in 1994 that is, in 2009 not everything she wrote has become reality but most things certainly within the realm of possibility. I thought her description of Abalone's cyber-crimes particularly interesting.

With her attention mostly on main her character, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is not the most balanced novel by Lindskold I have read. The setting and plot are not memorable and the climax of the novel is rather predictable. Still, her unusual main character and the first person narrative, I admit to having a weakness for books written in that style, make up for the novel's flaws. I thought Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls a very good and quite unusual read. Lindskold took on a risky project for her first published novel, but as far as I am concerned the risk paid off. I'm surprised this book didn't receive more attention.

Book Details
Title: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls
Author: Jane Lindskold
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 287
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-31481-9
First published: 1994

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Price of Spring - Daniel Abraham

The Price of Spring is the concluding volume of Abraham's highly praised Long Price Quartet. I absolutely loved the first three books and so far I have been unable to pick my favourite among them. An Autumn War, the third book in the series has one of the strongest endings I've read recently. Abraham set an equally high standard in the rest of the series, especially his choice of characters and the characterization in general appeal to me. In this book Abraham maintains his high standard but while this final book is certainly a very good novel I can't help but feel the real climax of the series was indeed An Autumn War.

The Price of Spring opens some fifteen years after the events in An Autumn War. Maati's failed binding of the Andat Sterile has left the female population of Khaiem and the male population of Galt unable to have children. The two enemies are condemned to each other if they are to survive. But common sense is the last thing on the minds of these old enemies. Fifteen years after the war no children have been born in either nation and they are slowly fading. Something needs to be done to prevent both nations from disappearing or being overrun by neighbouring states. Both Otah and Maati have their ideas on how to deal with the crisis.

Otah, emperor of the Khaiem since the war, has travelled to Galt to propose an exchange of (fertile) men and women between the two nations. The men of Galt, robbed of their manhood (or so they seem to think) oppose the deal but in an inspired bit of negotiating Otah manages to get some of the more influential women behind his proposal. To seal the agreement a marriage between Otah's son and a daughter of one of the high ranking Galts is arranged. Otah has failed to ask one of the most important pieces in the agreement for her thoughts on the matter and he will pay for that mistake.

Maati on the other hand, is not willing to let go of thousands of years of history and tradition. He is working on a way the recreate the Andat, this time not using the male grammar that has been used for centuries, but by gathering a group of young Khaiem women around him and train them to become poets. When the emperor's daughter Eiah, who feels her father is abandoning his female subjects by importing Galt brides, decides to support him, his chances of rebinding the Andat look good.

Driven by guilt of their part in the disaster, the two former best friends are on very different tracks to solving the problems facing the Khaiem and Galt. A clash between these two visions seems inevitable but without either of them succeeding there will be no spring for their people.

In this book Otah and Maati are in their sixties. They have lived, lost and seen the world as they knew it move on. In other words they are not a happy couple of main characters. Both feel that their time to make peace with the world is limited and both feel very tired. They are a long way from the hot-blooded young men in A Shadow in Summer or even the more mature men in A Betrayal in Winter. Neither makes for a very sympathetic character in this book to be honest. Maati have become a very bitter man, unable to see or admit how ethically dubious binding an Andat really is, and ready to repeat the mistakes of the past. Otah spends a lot of time complaining about the burdens of being emperor. The choices he's faced with are not easy but at some level you have to agree with Eiah, he's willing to give up on large groups of people a little too easily.

The book is fairly slow paced, I guess that suits the main characters just fine. We're slowly rumbling towards to final confrontation, alternating between Otah's luxurious court life and Maati's existence as a renegade. Only in the last part of the book does the tale pick up speed. The Price of Spring contains some great bits of Realpolitik and carries a deep sense of loss for the world of Otah and Maati's youth. The portrayal of these two elderly man is very convincing. Despite that I can't help but feel that Abraham is done with the series. Tying of the stories of Otha and Maati's life makes for a satisfying end to the quartet but The Price of Spring did not strike me as the great tragedy An Autumn War was. Or any of the previous books.

The Price of Spring is a moving tale, and a fitting ending to the quartet. Fans of the series will absolutely want to read this. Although I am impressed with the quality of Abraham's work I must admit the tale didn't quite grab me like the previous books. Still the Long Price quartet is some of the best fantasy written in recent years. The Price of Spring and the entire series are highly recommended. Abraham has recently signed a contract with Orbit for a more classic epic fantasy series. I am very curious to see how that will turn out.

Book Details
Title: The Price of Spring
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 348
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1343-0
First published: 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Grand Opening of Random Comments

If I may call it that :P

I've been tinkering on this blog for a while now. Until recently most of my reviews were posted at BSCreview, there's about a 100 reviews of mine in their archives. I very much liked working for fantasybookspot and later bookspotcentral/bscreview but as all websites, this site evolves constantly and recently it evolved into something I am not comfortable reviewing for. Earlier this month I made the decision to move on.

The remainder of my reviews was posted at my personal livejournal. Livejournal is a nice blog site but it does have some disadvantages. I also didn't like the idea of mixing the book stuff with more personal posts, which is one of the reasons why I haven't been writing many of those.

So, a new blog it is.

What can you expect here? Let me first tell you a little bit about myself, for those of you who don't know me from either BSCreview or Livejournal. My name isn't really Val, it's Rob Weber. Although chances are I will respond to Val too. I've grown rather attached to my internet alias. I'm a thirty something guy currently living in Almere, the Netherlands. My first language is Dutch but I can also make do English (so ignore the mistakes, my English is as good as it is going to get). During the day I have an office job, which probably explains the escapist tendencies of what I read. At the moment that is mostly science fiction and fantasy, although I do throw in the occasional historical novel or even a bit of non-fiction.

About the name... allright, I admit I st.. er.. borrowed it. Simply because I am not very good at coming up with good names and the ones I like have already been taken. Random comments will do though, my writing is not always the most coherent. I will write about what strikes my about a book and completely ignore other areas. It may certainly appear random. I will try to make it less so.

It took me a while to get over my hesitation to start a new book blog. There's a million of them out there of varying quality and I don't pretend to be able to offer something new. I'm not even going to try to keep you updated on what is going on in the speculative fiction field, who is winning what award, who is topping the best-seller list and who said nasty things about this writer or that. I consider that filler and more often than not, it is not even interesting filler.

On the other hand, it is pretty hard to create enough content to keep a blog going without these things. I read about a novel a week (in the 250 - 300k words range), with a noticeable increase during my vacation. The best I can hope for is about 70 books a year. That's not a whole lot of posts but it will have to do.

What I am going to do here is tell you what I think about the books I read. It's my totally biased opinion devoid of any knowledge about the actual writing process. I read a lot, that is as far as my expertise goes. It most likely won't be the most recent of books either. I don't have any contacts in the publishing world to speak of, so chances of receiving advance copies are remote (if you have the means to change that, do send a message at valashain [at] gmail [dot] com). If I do come up with something book related worth writing about I will of course put it up here but most of the content will be reviews and I strive for a review of every book I read.

This blog is very much a work in progress, there's quite a few things I still want to do (review index for one, probably some links, figure out how to get some rudimentary stats, tinker with the lay out etc.) All of which will be realized in good time. I am too impatient to wait getting this thing started until I figured all that stuff out.

I put up the reviews I wrote in the past six weeks or so. There will most likely be a new one later in the week. I have just finished reading The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham. Enjoy reading and don't be shy about commenting.


Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey

When I read Kushiel's Dart in 2005 I was very much impressed with the mix of history and fantasy Carey put into her story. Unfortunately none of the subsequent Kushiel books managed to reach that level (although I haven't read her latest effort Namaah's Kiss yet). Earlier this summer Santa Olivia, novel that is not related the the Kushiel series, was published. It is in fact quite different from everything else Carey has written. Santa Olivia is a fairly short novel set in a near future town of the Texan-Mexican border. I was very much impressed with style in which this novel is written. It's the best book by Carey I have read so far.

The cause of the situation that the town of Santa Olivia finds itself in remain unclear in the novel. What we do know is that Mexico is highly unstable, violence and disease kill large numbers of people. The US government decided to close the border entirely. The inhabitants of Santa Olivia are given the choice. Head north to the US or stay and end up in a no man's land, guarded by a large military base in the area. Many people have nowhere to go and so they remain in the town. Cut off from and forgotten by the rest of the US the town is entirely dependant on the military base for supplies. Electricity becomes scares, cars can't be maintained, air-conditioning becomes to expensive to run, education is reduced to the very basics, in short the town is slowly falling apart. Many dream of escape but to prevent the condition of Santa Olivia becoming well known, nobody is allowed out.

In this town Carmen tries to raise her two children. Tommy, son of one of the soldiers of the base who like so many of his comrades has a local sweetheart, and Loup, daughter of a military man on the run. Part of a genetic experiment he's part wolf much stronger than a normal man and is incapable of feeling fear. Traits his daughter will develop as well. Both Carmen's children turn out to offer the town hope of release from their situation. The odds they face are overwhelming however, the deck is stacked against them. When Tommy finds out how far the commander of the base will go to keep the secret, Loup is left behind alone and more determined than ever to beat the odds.

There's an awful lot to like about this novel. It's surprising in many ways. You'd expect a fairly conservative community but the people of Santa Olivia display a very high level of pragmatism. Society does not break down, no fights erupt about the scarce resources. The threat of military intervention should riots break out keep the town reasonably save. Many people do the best they can even though they are not strictly speaking qualified for the job. Where many stories that display this level of post apocalyptic events see society fall apart completely, Santa Olivia maintains a sense of community that keeps society running on a basic level.

The language Carey uses is fairly direct, with a lot of dialogue and riddled with profanity, a great deal different from the flowery speech of the D'Angeline characters in the Kushiel series. It suits the main characters, who never had much of an education, pretty well. The book is written in the third person but you could almost believe it being their narrative. This style keeps the book, that is set over a period of several decades, moving at a fast pace.

Carey also does some very interesting things with Loup. She does not feel fear and therefore responds quite differently to situations than we would. Fear is not a consideration in any of her actions and while Tommy did his best to make sure she considers the consequences before she acts, Loup still does things we wouldn't even consider. The most interesting interaction that shows Loup's lack of fear is her relationship with Miguel Garza. As the son of one of the more powerful characters in the town, Miguel is used to bully and intimidate. None of which works on Loup. It exposes a side of Miguel's character not many people get to see. Carey also uses her inhuman strength and fearlessness as a contrast with the patron saint of the town, the child Santa Olivia.

Carey obviously chose to write something different from what she's know for and the result turned out very well indeed. Santa Olivia is book that is very hard to include in a genre. I've seen it called science fiction or urban fantasy, some drew a parallel with superhero comics and others even wondered if it was meant to be young adult (given the content I'd say no). Personally I think it has a distinct post-apocalyptic flavour. Whatever genre you put it in the result is a great read. Do not expect the rich, erotic fantasy of the Kushiel series however. I certainly hope Carey will keep on writing other books besides Kushiel. While I see the (economic) appeal of keeping that series going, a fresh start in a new setting obviously did her writing a world of good. This book may well end up on my best of 2009 list.

Book Details
Title: Santa Olivia
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 341
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-446-19817-2
First published: 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Swarm - Frank Schätzing

A while ago I came across this very cheap hardcover copy of Frank Schätzing thriller De Zwerm (original title Der Schwarm). I don't read a lot books in Dutch at the moment but since this book was originally written in German I thought I might as well make it easy on myself. It is available in English translation under the title The Swarm and there is even talk of a movie adaptation. I have a few issues with the Dutch translation of the book but I won't bother you with those since most of you will never read the Dutch version. As for the novel itself, I wasn't thrilled by it. The plot itself is very far fetched and while this is not unusual for the genre, I think it could have done a better job of convincing me.

At the opening of the book a number of strange, seemingly unrelated incidents shake up things along the world's coastlines. In South America fishermen go missing. On the west coast of Canada, scientist Leon Anawak witnesses unheard of behaviour in the whales he is studying. In Norway maritime biologist Sigur Johanson is asked to study a strange kind of worm that worries the local offshore oil and gas industry. Huge numbers of highly poisonous jellyfish are spotted near the Australian coast and the world's shipping is seriously disrupted by all manner of strange events on the oceans. Not until a huge landslide in the North Atlantic causes a tsunami to hit the north sea countries, the idea that these occurrences may be related is taken seriously. By then, the world is in grave danger.

Soon after this disastrous event, an American lead task force is already analysing the reports and trying to work out a solution to the ever worsening situation. Scientists from all over the world are flown in to study the phenomenon that threatens to destroy humanity with a combination of biological warfare and natural disasters. Their opinions on the origin of the threat differ however and the ever present US security agencies contribute their own special blend of paranoia and suspicion into the already heated scientific debate.

I'm always a bit careful about picking up books with strong environmental themes. On the one hand they attract me, on the other most authors will not let science get in the way of a good story. After studying environmental science for eight years, messing up the science part can be a bit of a let down for me. Schätzing obviously put a lot of research on the various biological and geological components of his environmental nightmare. There's a couple of noticeable glitches (as far as I know methane is odourless) but nothing major that I am aware of. Somehow he still manages to combine these various elements into an incredibly unlikely scenario. The persistent use of alien to describe deep sea creatures also annoyed me. We all share the same planet.

Some people say this book is partly inspired by Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, a theory which states (insert gross oversimplification) that the biosphere and various physical components of the earth interact in series of intricate feedback mechanisms to keep the world in balance (or homoeostasis if you want to use scientific lingo). With this thought in mind it the step to hypnotizing humanity is unbalancing the system by our large scale reshaping of the world in a way Gaia can't compensate for and that, once we reach some critical point, Gaia will not be able to restore the current equilibrium. In the events in The Swarm could be seen as Gaia's response. Without giving away the whole plot, Schätzing gives Gaia a shape and humanity has to come to an agreement with her or suffer the consequences.

Personally I have always felt that while the Gaia theory had a certain appeal, (Daisyworld is still one of the best ways to explain a particular ecological principle for instance) but it is not without it's critics, and probably rightly so. We know the earth's environment is not stable on geological time scales. The feedback mechanisms that provide some stability to certain aspects of Gaia certainly exist but it seems unlikely to me a system is in place to regulate the entire system. Much of it's appeal is in the almost religious consequences of accepting Gaia, something I'm sure the scientist Lovelock is not entirely happy about. Schätzing does not imply in his book that The Swarm is in fact Gaia's last warning but there are certain parallels.

Apart from an unlikely plot the book suffers a few other flaws as well. It is in dire need of an editor's attention for instance. I will admit the book contains a lot of scientific ideas not all readers will be familiar with but Schätzing takes too much time elaborating about them. I wouldn't particularly disliked reading it if it hadn't broken the flow of the story at several points in the novel. He also seems to enjoy describing the effects of the various disasters that hit the world in detail. Schätzing employs a very large cast and as a consequence not many of them manage to gain any real depth despite the novel being 700 pages long. The American president and his right hand in dealing with the troube lieutenant general Li strike me as particularly stereotypical.

The Swarm is a book with an unlikely plot in serious need of editing and dose in depth characterization. It was clearly not what I hoped it would be. On the other hand I never seriously considered putting it down at any point in the novel. It's not a particularly demanding novel and if you manage to suspend your disbelief long enough, it's a very good book for when you have a lot of time to kill. Maybe I should have postponed reading it until my vacation later this month. In short, The Swarm didn't bore me but I still think this is a one read only book.

Book Details
Title: De Zwerm
Author: Frank Schätzing
Publisher: A.W. Bruna
Pages: 704
Year: 2008
Language: Dutch
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-229-9443-6
First published: 2004

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle - Manda Scott

It's been a while since I read any historical fiction so I decided to give this book another go. I bought it six years back in Wageningen but back then I didn't get past the first fifty pages. I finished it this time but I am not really impressed. Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is the first in a series of four books on the life of the Eceni queen Boudica, who lead a major rebellion against the Roman in in 60-61 AD. Very little is know about Boudica except what the Romans (most notably Tacitus and Cassius Dio) wrote about her and the rebellion. This lack of historical detail makes this first book almost entirely fictional.

The story starts in 32 AD when the girl Breaca is eleven or twelve years old. In the prologue we see a glimpse of he attack on the village in which her mother is killed. Breaca makes her first kill in that attack. Although she wants to be a dreamer it is quite clear right from the start she is destined to become one of the great warriors of her age. In the first chapter, set in 33 AD we meet Bán, Breaca's eight year old brother (who as far as I can tell is entirely fictional). Unlike his sister Bán does have a talent for dreaming, which manifests itself early on in his life.

We follow both Bán and Breaca in the events leading up to the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, when parts of Britain where conquered by the Romans. Bán's and Breaca are separated and believe each other slain in a battle with one of the neighbouring tribes more heavily influenced by the Romans than the Iceni are. Bán's capture at this battle leads him into Roman slavery in Gaul, while Breace moves on to the religious centre of Mona, present day Anglesey in Wales. Each of them will play their part in the unavoidable invasion of Britain by the Romans. A conflict in which Breaca will earn a new name, Bringer of Victory: Boudica.

The cultures of pre-Roman Britain where based on oral traditions and storytelling. Most of these stories are lost in time and what little remains is usually not a good source of history. Not even the spelling of the name Boudica seems to be certain. Scott has to make up almost all of the story, the only firm bit of information we do have about the period is what the Romans wrote about Britain, although the Roman historians were not without bias themselves. Some people consider this a problem. I don't. It is historical fiction after all, the author always has to make choices and too much historical detail can get in the way of a good story as well.

What I am not really impressed with, is the way Scott uses this quite large amount of freedom to tell her own story. A lot of the book is waiting for the storm to break. The Britons know that the Romans are going to try and finish what Caesar started with his invasions of 55 and 54 BC. They are obviously undecided about the desirability of such an event, it raises the tensions between the various tribes a lot, but rarely to the point of outright hostility. Because of these different interests there doesn't seem to be much in the way of preparation for resisting the invasion going on either. Most of the characters seem to be brooding and biding their time. And when that time comes it takes something like 40 pages out of well over 500 to wrap up the book.

It doesn't help that Scott's style is rather descriptive too. There are lots of lengthy passages about the various rituals, day to day activities and characters reflection on events. I won't say this book is boring, I got to the end without problems on this second try, but it certainly is well padded. What I also didn't like about the book is that the main characters frequently have to be stopped by their surroundings from doing something suicidally stupid when things go wrong for them. Bán in particular seems to be afflicted with this, being genuinely disappointed when doing something stupidly brave doesn't get him killed. Of course their culture seems to encourage such behaviour to an extend but Bán overdoes it, and usually in places where his people will not take notice of it anyway.

This book will appeal to some readers. The topic is interesting enough and Scott certainly researched life in pre-Roman Britain well. Especially in the first chapters where Breaca and Bán are introduced Scott creates a very realistic atmosphere of what life might have been like back then. After 43 AD history has a little more to say on Britain. In the next couple of books Scott may be able to put more of a historical backbone in the story and hopefully give a bit more direction. Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is not a particularly strong start to the series however. I am not tempted to seek out the second book Boudica: Dreaming the Bull any time soon.

Book details
Title: Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle
Author: Manda Scott
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 542
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-593-04878-4
First published: 2003

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hyperion Omnibus - Dan Simmons

In an effort to make a dent in the stack of unread books in the house I picked up this book two weeks ago. It has been gathering dust since I bought it at a discount almost two years ago. It's the first book by Simmons I read. His bibliography includes books in several genres but the science fiction novel Hyperion is one of his best know works. This Omnibus edition collects the novels Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion, two books in a four book series known as the Hyperion Cantos. Both are books or fair size so the omnibus is a huge tome. Taking this book on is quite a project but definitely worthwhile. Stylistically the books couldn't be more different. The skill the author displays in these books in impressive.

Much of this book is influenced by a number of classic works of literature. Hyperion for instance takes the same approach to telling a story as the Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims leave for the planet of Hyperion named after an unfinished epic poem by John Keats. Hyperion is the focal point of a large interstellar conflict, the causes and precise nature do not become clear in this first part of the omnibus yet. What the pilgrims do know, is that they are to face a dreadful creature known as the Shrike (I can't help but think of him as Edward Scissorhands' older brother for some reason). The creature seems to drive people away from the mysterious Time Tombs on the planet. A region in where time seems to flow in the opposite direction. Nobody has figured out what the Tombs contain but they appear to be on the verge of opening.

Hyperion doesn't really delve into the larger conflict but explores the reason for six of the seven pilgrims to join the expedition. While on their way to the site of the Time Tombs to face the Shrike they tell each other their story. Their stories are bloody, violent, dramatic and often heart wrenching and slowly an understanding between the pilgrims of what makes them join what is by most of them regarded as a suicide mission emerges. As the company nears it's destination, despite their differences, a bond between the pilgrims is forged.

The book is divided in six part, one for each loosely related story, with a few snippets of the adventures of the pilgrims on the road in between. Simmons manages to create a distinct voice for each of the six story tellers, partly by using different styles. Much of the Priest's tale is written in a series of diary entries for instance, while the Soldier's tale is told in the third person and the Detective's tale in the first. The risk with this technique is of course that not all stories will appeal to the reader in equal measure, thus creating parts of the books that will be a struggle for some readers. Hyperion opens with the Priest's story, which in my opinion is the least interesting of the bunch. This section is some 70 pages long, made it hard for me to get into the book. After that, as we launch in the more action packed soldier's tale, the book really got going for me, steadily working towards the best tale of the six, the consul's tale. I very much like the way the consul uses a non-linear structure for his story, especially since time and time debt (as Simmons put is, think time dilation) plays such a large part in his tale.

Hyperion is not an easy book to like. While the pilgrims' tales are engrossing, the reader's view of the overarching story remains hazy. Simmons drops a lot of hint and sets things up that will not make sense until you have read Fall of Hyperion. You have to appreciate this book for it's style, the individual stories and the unique voices Simmons creates for his characters but don't expect a conclusion of the overarching story. After the first fifty pages I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it, after reading the Consul's tale I absolutely loved it.

The nice thing about this omnibus is that you can dive straight into the next book. Right from the start it becomes clear that Fall of Hyperion is nothing like Hyperion. Simmons introduces new characters and points of view and switches his tale of the pilgrims' confrontation with the Shrike and events in the decision making centres of the Hegemony, an interstellar federation that rules most of the planets colonized by humanity. In this book Simmons delves deeper into the overarching conflict. An interstellar war is about to break out between the Hegemony and the Ousters, a space faring faction of humanity that mostly has come into conflict with the Hegemony before, with Hyperion as the first battlefield. Of course the conflict does not turn out quite a simple as it appears at the start of the book. As the conflict escalates more layers of intrigue, deceit and planning are uncovered and it soon becomes clear that human liberty and the very survival of the human race are the real stakes in this war.

Fall of Hyperion has much more of a Space Opera feel to it that Hyperion. It deals with some classic SF-themes such as star travel, artificial intelligence, colonization and terraforming of alien worlds and of course interstellar warfare. The structure of the book is more conventional than that of Hyperion as well, although Simmons continues to use various styles for various characters. Fall of Hyperion is not a book that is likely to provoke the either very positive of very negative reactions that Hyperion does. Personally I don't think Fall of Hyperion is any less of a literary achievement than the previous book though. It's Byzantine plot and interesting characters make it a very good read. I suppose Severn/Keats is meant to steal the show but I liked Gladstone better.

These two vastly different looks at the same conflict make the books almost inseparable in my opinion. Putting them in one omnibus edition makes a lot of sense. Without the in depth looks at the motivations of the pilgrims Fall of Hyperion doesn't work well as a novel. On the other hand the ending of Hyperion is rather abrupt. There isn't really any sense of conclusion at the end of the book the see what the sacrifice the pilgrims are making is all about. I rarely read two books that are so different yet so much interlinked. Each of these books has its merits but it's the combination that makes it a great work of science fiction. Do not start on Hyperion without a copy of Fall of Hyperion at hand.

Book details
Title: The Hyperion Omnibus
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 779
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-575-07626-7
First published: 1989/1990