Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lucky Strike - Kim Stanley Robinson

Earlier this year Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Galileo's Dream was released in the UK (the US release is next month). Robinson is one of my favourite authors so I jumped on that book and read it in three days. Shortly after I found out there has been another recent publication, although the stories it contained had been published before. The Lucky Strike is a novella length booklet in the Outspoken Authors series by PM Press. Outspoken is surely something that applies to Robinson. It contains his novella The Lucky Strike, the short story A Sensitive Dependence On Initial Conditions and a lengthy interview with the author parts of which have recently appeared online.

As the title of the series suggests, the topic of this book is controversial.The Lucky Strike deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In Robinson's alternative history the crew of colonel Paul Tibbets crashes during a training exercise, another crew is selected to deliver the bomb. Captain Frank January is the man who will be responsible for dropping the bomb on target. After the briefing he begins to have doubts about the necessity of the raid. Frank clearly understands the enormous damage to bomb will do. Surely a demonstration of America's new powers should suffice. Shouldn't it?

The debate about whether or not the dropping of these two bombs was necessary to end the war or a war crime still rages. Personally I think the appalling damage these two weapons did, and they did know enough in advance to know how bad it would be, should be answer enough. That has not discouraged people from debating the what ifs that accompany this decision. In Robinson's version casualties are minimal yet the end of the war is achieved. This story will be enough to enrage those supporting the decision to drop the bomb I am sure. If you strongly support that position reading this story will no doubt result in a fine rant on historical revisionism. All I can say to that is keep in mind it is a work of fiction.

Something of which Robinson himself reminds us in A Sensitive Dependence On Initial Conditions which explores the possibilities to describe history as a set of physics like laws and the problems one encounters in such an attempt. It's a complex but very interesting piece, one of his more philosophical writings. The story mixes history with quantum mechanics, chaos theory and the processes in the human brain (among other things). To illustrate his ideas he proposes a number of different scenarios of the future if the bombing raid on Hiroshima had turned out differently with wildly different results. As the title suggests, he finds that predictions of the future are highly sensitive to initial conditions. In other words, the choice is ours. Science fiction writers all over the world will be pleased with this conclusion ;)

The last part of the book is taken up by a thorough interview titled A Real Joy to be Had with questions by Terry Bison. It covers all stages of his career and many of his novels. Reading the entire thing is much more rewarding that the pieces that have been put online. The part in which Robinson discusses infodumps and his dislike of that word was probably the most amusing bit. He is frequently accused of infodumping in his books and, whether or not you use that word for it, he is guilty as charged. It is in fact one of the reasons why I loved the Mars trilogy.

Outspoken is certainly applicable to Robinson in this book. He gives us an awful lot to think about in a mere 120 pages. I very much enjoyed reading it and will no doubt reread is a number of times in the future. Robinson is way on the left side of the political spectrum and he makes no secret of it. This book is provocative and meant to be that way, something to keep in mind while reading it. While reading The Lucky Strike I realized I have only read a few of Robinson's short stories. Fortunately there are plans for a best of collection to be published sometime next year. I am definitely going to read that.

Book Details
Title: The Lucky Strike
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: PM Press
Pages: 123
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60486-085-6
First published: 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vuurproef - Bianca Mastenbroek

In my ongoing search to find speculative fiction of quality written in Dutch I recently came across the small publisher Books of Fantasy, it appears to be an offshoot of Pure Fantasy Magazine, one of the few magazines in the Netherlands dedicated to short form science fiction, fantasy and horror. Their catalogue offers a number of interesting titles. I picked Bianca Mastenbroek's début novel Vuurproef based on a short story by Mastenbroek I read a while ago in the collection Time Out. Her story Versteend Verlangen was one of the stories that impressed me in that collection. Vuurproef turns out to be something of an odd duck in the Books of Fantasy collection. It is a historical novel dealing with a witchcraft trial, without any fantasy elements added to is.The title of the novel translates as "Ordeal by Fire", one of the methods used to determine someone's guilt. By the time this story is set the practice had been abolished but it does make an effective title.

Vuurproef is set in Heezop, a (fictional) town in what is today the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, in the year 1595. A new Lord by the name of Vaillant has recently taken over control of the region. Influenced by his new legal advisor Master Fabri, Vaillant has placed the extermination of witchcraft high on his agenda. His campaign is not without results, at the opening of the book Anna van Asten, the main character of the book, is forced to witness the burning at the stake of Heezop's first witch. A poor old woman named Jenneke de Grauw. Generally disliked, the village is glad to be rid of her. Anna argues that this does not make her a witch but Vaillant and Fabri claim to have obtained a confession.

Anna's sharp tongue and her questioning of Lord Vaillant's actions soon turn against her. Women are not supposed to be that outspoken. Anna has learned to think for herself, she can even read and write, hardly the image of an obedient and god fearing wife. In short, in Lord Vaillant's eyes she is a prime suspect. Anna finds herself accused of witchcraft and arrested by Vaillant's men. To her astonishment and that of her husband Henck, the village is willing to testify against her. While Anna faces Vaillant's questioning, Henck embarks on a mission to save his wife from a fiery death at the stake.

The events Mastenbroek describes are based on a series of witch trails held in 1595 in the town of Asten (note the main characters last name). Names and places have been changed though. The town of Heezop, as far as I know, does not exist. The name appears to be a combination of Heeze and Geldrop, two towns in the region. Lord Vaillant is not a historical figure either but it does not take too much imagination to figure out who he is based on. The process of a witch trail is described in detail in this book and that is probably where the most historical material is added. It clashes violently with our own sense of justice but many involved in such trails back then probably genuinely believed what they were involved in was justice and not a lynching. Many but not all, the author does hint at possible ulterior motives in several chapters. This view into the trail itself was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me.

Part of the procedure is of course the interrogation of the witness. In particular the painful examination. Mastenbroek gives a number of detailed descriptions of how one went about obtaining a confession in those days. She does not go to the extremes we sometimes encounter in fantasy (I'm thinking Goodkind here for one), but the degrading and excruciatingly painful scenes can be pretty horrific nonetheless. She manages to evoke this reaction without resorting to gory details but focusses on the successive phases of desperation, determination and hope of the main character instead. A very fine piece of writing.

The author alternates chapters seen from the point of view of various characters in the story with brief glances at the life of Anna's daughter Jutta. She is torn between fear and disbelief as the evidence mounts against her mother. Brief snippets of Jutta's writing add a very distinct and at times touching perspective to the overall story. She writes this in a (psuedo?) old fashioned spelling of Dutch. I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary but it does have a nice effect. Unfortunately she drops the style in a letter Anna has written to her husband towards the end of the book. It would have been a pain to write the entire letter in the style she uses for Jutta but it would have been consistent.

There are two things I would like to have seen in this novel that would have lifted it from very good to excellent in my opinion. The first is a bit more insight into the motivation of the main villain in the book Valliant. He is mostly portrayed as sexist, impatient, cruel and perhaps a bit perverted. Mastenbroek hints at a failed relationship with a woman that fires his current rage. We never find out exactly how or why this woman angered him enough to take it out on the local population. As a result Lord Vaillant remains a bit one dimensional. He is clearly the villain of the tale without any redeeming characteristics. Another question that remains is how he came under the influence of Master Fabri. He's quite a shady figure, the dynamics of his relationship with Vaillant could have been interesting.

The second point is somewhat related and has to do with the point at which Mastenbroek opens the story. Right at the beginning of the we witness the execution of the first witch in Heezop. At this point a lot must already have happened inside this relatively small community. These people have known and tolerated each other their entire life yet they choose to execute one of their own. The question of how a community gets caught up in mass hysteria is one that the author does not explore at all. We get to see how they, in all practical terms, ostracise the van Asten family but at that point the process is well under way.

Vuurproef is a dark book, given the theme it could hardly be otherwise. The author is taken a piece of local history and turned it into a tale of desperation, hope and love. As with the previous short story I was impressed with Mastenbroek's writing (just go easy on the exclamation mark) and characterization. There is room for improvement but Vuurproef is a very good first novel by a promising author. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work, short for or long, in the future.

Book Details
Title: Vuurproef
Author: Bianca Mastenbroek
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
Pages: 207
Year: 2008
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-808244-9-2
First published: 2008

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scion of Cyador - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The second part of my recent random Recluce reread. Scion of Cyador is the direct sequel to Magi'i of Cyador and chronologically the earliest books in the series. I read Magi'i of Cyador a while ago and I couldn't suppress the urge to read the sequel any longer. This book is a little less focused on battles and a bit more on politics, especially the second half anyway. Modesitt is very good at letting the reader see all the little signs of change and what they add up to. It's one of the longer Recluce books but well worth the read.

After his excretions containing the Accursed Forest Lorn is sent to the port city of Biehl. Generally considered a quiet outpost where chances of getting involved in skirmishes with the barbarians are minimal. By now Lorn is an accomplished battlefield commander but this assignment requires a completely new set of skills. Soon after he arrives the corruption of the local enumerators becomes clear and Lorn is forced to act. As it turns out, this is but the first of a series of pre-emptive strikes necessary for Lorn to survive. Corruption and barbarians are not Lorn's only enemies though, what is happening on the home front may have an even greater impact.

In the capital Cyad in the mean time, the situation is slowly becoming unstable. The ageing emperor has still not appointed an heir, the Magi are loosing the the chaos driven tools that are their basis of power (and that of the entire nation) one after another, the merchants are clamouring for change and lower taxes and the military is worried about the prospect of facing increasing numbers of barbarians without the Chaos charged firelances the Magi'i will no longer be able to provide. Change is coming to Cyad and everybody is manoeuvring to be in the best position to take advantage of it.

The loss of irreplaceable technology brought from the stars by the Demons of Light is a major driving force in the novel. Modesitt employed this idea before in Fall of Angels (before in publication order, Fall of Angels is set some four centuries after Lorn's story), where the crew of a crashed spaceship has to survive in a hostile environment with less and less hi-tech resources. This time the technology supports an empire however. The course of an empire is harder to change than that of a handful of marines. Modesitt describes all the forces that have a hand in this turning point in Recluce history in detail. It's a change that has the seeds of the empire's eventual demise in it but on the other hand prolongs it's life by centuries. I think these two books have the most intricate plot of all the Recluce novels.

While I enjoyed the intricate plot of this novel a lot, Lorn's character development seems to stagnate a bit. In the previous book he changes from a talented but slightly rebellious boy to a noted battlefield commander, in this book Lorn learns a thing or two but his basic view on Cyador doesn't change. Based on his experiences he thinks that Cyador is the only state that has been able provide the consistent level of prosperity for it's citizens he is used to. He is not blind to his nation's flaws, but likes the alternative less. This strikes me as bit short-sighted of him, his experiences outside Cyador are very limited and most of his reasoning is still done from his position in the upper classes of society. The order of society is something he does not really question in this book, only the relative strengths of the dominating parties.

Scion of Cyador is the last of four books from the Chaos perspective. Modesitt definitely gave the series a new start by this change in perspective and it resulted in four of the best books in the series. He has since returned to the Order perspective for the next four books, five after the publication of Arms-Commander in January 2010. While I am curious about Arms-Commander, I would very much like the see the author try his hand at another Chaos oriented book. I think we have seen enough of the young, or in the case of Kharl, not so young, exile and budding Ordermage for now. It will be interesting to see if he can steer the series in a new direction in the next book.

The concluding volume in Lorn's story may be a bit too heavy on political intrigue to please some. On the other hand, it is not short on military action and Cyad is just a wonderful setting. The feeling of an ageing and decaying empire permeates the entire story. With both intricate plotting and clever manoeuvring as well as decisive action Modesitt has written a well balanced book. I like the Cerryl books (The White Order and Colors of Chaos) a shade better but this book is among the best in the series.

Book Details
Title: Scion of Cyador
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 720
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-812-579126-2
First published: 2000

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humans - Robert J. Sawyer

Humans is the sequel to Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer's Hugo award-winning opening book of the Neantherthal Parallax. Hominids raised a lot of interest because of the concept of a parallel earth where not our ancestors, but the Neanderthals survived to build an advanced society. It was a very strong concept indeed, but I thought the book leaned too much on it to be really exceptional. In Humans Sawyer continues the story of these parallel earths. We get a more in depth view of the Neanderthal world as well as a lot more science and speculations on Neanderthals, the rise of consciousness and our own ancestry.

Adikor's rescue attempt at the end of Hominids enables Ponter Boddit to return to his own universe. The brief connection with his world is closed. For Mary Vaughan it is time to get back to life as usual and return to her job in Toronto. A new college year is about to begin after all. Shortly after her return she is approached with a job offer from an American think tank that is simply too good to refuse. It seems Ponter's visit has gotten her more than 15 minutes of fame and an abruptly terminated relationship after all.

Ponter in the mean time, is arguing for re-establishing the connection to Mary's world. He thinks there is simply to much to gain from contact to ignore the possibility but he soon finds out the conservative Neanderthal elders hard to convince. They see some serious security concerns and there is the question of Ponter's motives. Does he really think the possibilities outweigh the risk or does he just want to see Mary again? After some discussion the elders reluctantly agree to renewed contact and a formal ambassador is appointed to accompany Ponter on his next trip. A trip that will prove eventful for all those involved.

I thought Hominids has a few problems but not enough to distract from the reading experience. Unfortunately Humans amplifies these problems. I love the speculative part of this book but I nonetheless have a major problem with one key plot element. Sawyer speculates that Neanderthals have a much better sense of smell than we do. As I understand it there is some evidence to support that. Ponter seems to possess the sense of smell of a top narcotics dog however, and that raises some questions. Does such a huge increase in a sense of smell not necessitate a larger area of the brain devoted to it? Wouldn't that go at the expense of something else? This increased sense of smell is supposed to be a side effect of the large nasal capacity of a Neanderthal, developed to warm up cold ice age air before it reached to lungs. Would a side effect really increase the sense of smell to such extremes without a clear ecological benefit? I'll admit to not having done any research on it but somehow that doesn't seem likely.

Sex is another issue with this book. There is of course no escaping the question whether or not Neanderthals left their DNA in the current population. This question seems to fascinate both anthropologists and the general public. Based on Ponter's DNA Mary discovers early in the book Neanderthals are a separate species, which puts her relationship with Ponter in a different light for her. It does little to discourage her however, she continues to regard Neanderthals as human. What felt wrong about the relationship between Ponter and Mary is how Ponter is pictured as an ideal man. Both manly and then some but on the other side sensitive and caring. Ponter's society has put sever restraints on violence, it is considered too dangerous given their great physical strength, but does that really suppress aggression or competitiveness of any kind that much? In combination with Mary coming to terms with being raped early in the first book it seems a bit too much.

What I did like about the book was the snippets of Ponter's talks with his personality sculptor (shrink) in which Ponter confesses a crime that is revealed in the final stages of the book. Along the way they also discuss the differences in world view between the humans and Neanderthals. Despite his better judgement Ponter is not entirely convinced the belief in an afterlife and a God that judges all our actions are a fallacy. Personally I lean more towards the Neanderthal view of things but the way Ponter discusses his doubts and how it motivates his actions is very well done.

Humans is quite a fast read and one you'll probably enjoy if you liked Hominids. That being said, it is far from flawless and with the new and exciting concept of modern Neanderthals established in the first book, it does not manage to make up for these flaws as well as Hominids. I liked the scientific speculations Sawyer put in, I liked part of Ponter's character development but there are a number of elements dealing with sexuality and religion that strike me as extremely unlikely. All in all not a brilliant book but good enough to stay on board for Hybrids, the final volume of this series.

Book Details
Title: Humans
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4675-9
First published: 2003

Friday, November 20, 2009

Asking the Great Oracle

Google appears to be the internet oracle of recent years, completely dominating all other search engines on the web. I've been keeping an eye on the statistics for this blog since early October and search engine hits show a steadily rising line. Over 90% of these hits are from Google. Perhaps not all that surprising given the fact that both Blogger and my statistics watchamacallit are Google products.

What strikes me most about these search engine results is the fact that some people actually pose a question directly to Google. Now I won't claim to understand how Google actually finds stuff but I am pretty sure that unless you tell it to look for a particular phrase it ignores things like "the", "to" and "of". Some examples:

what does perdido mean in english
This person at least omitted the question mark. Google provided a link to the Perdido Street Station review which does not actually state the answer. I wonder if that book prompted the question.

what ship first picked up prendick at the beginning of the story?
This one is my favourite. Its a hit on The Island of Dr. Moreau, a book that can't be much more than 40,000 words. The answer is in the first chapters. Actually doing your homework and reading it would have been faster. Again the review did not contain the answer.

did galileo's work advance their society
A hit on Galileo's Dream. Poorly phrased question, who do you mean by "their"?

is the gathering storm disappointment
Should be obvious what this person was looking for. Given the reactions I have seen so far I would say the answer is no.

when is dust of dreams out in paperback?
I have no idea. Probably summer/fall 2010. Personally I thought not waiting for the paperback was worth it.

where can i find the book "the songs of distant earth"
One of Arthur C. Clarke's later books. As far as I know it is no longer in print so I would suggest a second-hand bookshop.

I looks like Google has some work to do before it can accurately answer questions such as these. Then again, it is designed to find webpages, not answers. People may want to remember that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick

Time for another read in my project to get better acquainted with the science fiction classics. This book is part of Gollancz' SF Mastworks series, a collection in which Dick seems to be a bit overrepresented with fourteen out of a total of seventy-three titles. The 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is generally considered one of Dick's best books and the title intrigued me, so when I came across this copy on my last visit to the book store I couldn't resist. It's the first book by Philip K. Dick I have read so I didn't quite know what to expect. It is not a happy read but it does contain a number of thought-provoking ideas. I can see why this book is mentioned as being on of the highlights of 1960s science fiction.

In 1992 the world has been thoroughly destroyed by nuclear warfare. Life on Earth has become scarce, many species are now extinct. In response to this crises a large part of the remaining population has opted for life in one of the colonies elsewhere in the solar system. Not everybody has left of course. Those deemed to be too damaged by radiation are excluded from emigration and there are a number of less affected people who have elected to stay. To entice people to emigrate to the new colonies androids are made available to them for free. The androids used to be quite primitive but recently have progressed to the point where they are very hard to distinguish from normal people. Androids have no rights whatsoever, they are property. Once in a while one rebels, kills it's owner, runs away and makes it back to earth. It is the job of men such as Rick Deckard to protect the general public and 'retire' these renegades.

The book makes the reader ask themselves what quality, if any, is unique to a human being. The sophisticated androids Deckard is hunting are very hard to recognize. He is very good at picking up the subtle signs but he still needs the aid of a test based on empathy and involuntary reactions of the human body to be certain. Ironically, given the nature of the questions there is a good chance you and I would fail it. His experiences with the latest model of android are making Deckard question the morality or retiring these beings. In a world were life hangs on by a thread, where owning a real live animal is a status symbol, killing is the ultimate crime.

The novel captures the psychological pressure on Deckard very well. With his ability to detect androids pushed to the limit and the accuracy of his test in question, he gets slightly paranoid halfway through the book. Dick cleverly puts Deckard and the reader off balance on at least two occasions by making us guess if a character is an android or not. To contrast the near-humanity of androids Dick introduces the minor story line of John R. Isidore, a man who is so severely affected by radiation that he does not pass the IQ test required to be allowed to emigrate. He is special, or, in less flattering terms, a chickenhead. Barely regarded as a human, he is very much abused by the few people around him and almost smart enough to realize it. The way society treats the alien but hard to recognize androids and the obviously human but looked down upon Isidore is another stab at our own humanity.

In a way Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very much a novel of it's time. It explores ideas, moral issues and consequences of advances in technology but does not really excel at character development. If you're used to more recent science fiction it may be hard to care for any of the characters. They serve a function in the novel, illustrate a point, but it is hard to really identify with them. What makes this book special is the way Dick uses that emotional distance in the book, Deckard suspects he may not be in prime psychological health. His lack of emotion when killing androids is very much part of the way the author makes the reader question his humanity.

I guess it comes down to whether you can appreciate Dick's point without easy to identify with characters to hold on to. He managed to drag me in to the story by creating a very paranoid atmosphere early on in the book and it didn't let me go. That may not work for everybody though. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a pretty quick read, in a way Dick makes his point efficiently. I can see why Hollywood saw a good movie in it, although the amount of rewriting that went into producing a script for Bladerunner seems a bit excessive given the source material. This book quite convinced me to add some more of Dick's books to my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 210
Year: 1999
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-813-0
First published: 1968

Saturday, November 14, 2009

By the Mountain Bound - Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Bear's Edda of Burdens trilogy. The first part, All the Windwracked Stars, was one of the best books I've read in 2008 (mind you, a lot of reviewers disagree with me on this one) so I was looking forward to this one. Bear had the questionable honour to have her book released on the same day Tor chose to release the new Wheel of Time book The Gathering Storm. Whoever came up with that brilliant idea owes Bear an apology. Of course I couldn't help my self and put this book down after a hundred pages when I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan's latest. I probably didn't give this book that attention it deserves so while no apology from Tor may be forthcoming, for what it's worth, I do apologize.

Where most trilogies are more or less in chronological order, Bear chooses to write a prequel. At the opening of All the Windwracked Stars we find a distraught Muire, the Historian and the sole survivor of the battle at the end of the world. By the Mountain Bound tells the story of how this particular end of the world came to be. Since it's creation five centuries past, the immortal Angels of Light have lived in relative peace in the world. Most of them where born from the sea at the moment of creation but several have come form Midgard, the world than has come before and is now dead. Among them Mingan, the Wolf, although he does not remember the death of Midgard.

On day Strifbjorn, the Warrior, finds a nearly drowned woman washed up on the beach. The woman, Heythe or the Lady, arrives with tidings of war. An army of giants is about to descent on them and the Einherjar need to prepare. Soon the first rifts in the unity of the Angels of Light become apparent. Heythe's methods are not acceptable to a large group of the Angels. War seems inevitable, but one against giants.

Where All the Windwracked Stars had a science fiction/steampunk element to it, By the Mountain Bound dives even deeper into the Norse mythology that inspired much of the story. This book will probably be considered more of a fantasy novel. Like in the previous volume, Bear does not believe in explaining all the strange words she uses, so unless you are well versed in Norse mythology (or a master of the Google search engine) you are going to miss an awful lot of references. This combined with Bear's rich, poetic use of language means one needs to pay close attentions. At 318 pages it looks like a fast read. It isn't.

Bear divides her chapters into three points of view, the Wolf, the Historian and the Warrior and uses a different style for each of them. The Wolf is fittingly written in the first person, present tense. The Historian is also a first person perspective, but not surprisingly, in the past tense. The Warrior is a third person perspective. Bear switches between these three, sometimes several times in a chapter. While I appreciate the care and skill Bear put into writing this, the constant switching between these styles is taxing on the reader.

Bear invests heavily in her characters in the book. Most notably the villain from All the Windwracked Stars Mingan. His roll in the end of the world is a complex one. I must admit I was not entirely convinced by Mingan's actions. The cycle of guilt, violence and resignation he goes through, makes him appear very fatalistic. You'd think that a few centuries of living, or in his case probably millennia, would give him a bit more insight in the character and motivation of his fellows. On the other hand, the tense relationship between Mingan and Strifbjorn does add dramatic touch to the larger conflict. Unfortunately Strifbjorn also seems quite ready to embrace death. As clever as manipulation on Heythe's part may be, a bit more free will in those characters would have been nice.

While both Mingan and Strifbjorn play important parts in the unfolding drama, Muire's role is more subtle. Not known for her prowess in battle, Muire is more of a witness. This does explain quite a bit about her actions in All the Windwracked Stars. I suppose some people will find the downplaying of her strengths and importance annoying but I rather liked he subtle influence.

I must admit that without the steampunk and post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the previous book, By the Mountain Bound did not appeal to me quite as much as All the Windwracked Stars. That being said, it is, certainly in a stylistic sense, a very good book. One I plan on giving my undivided attention sometime before the third book, The Sea thy Mistress, is released next year. If you enjoyed All the Windwracked Stars you'll want to read this.

Book Details
Title: By the Mountain Bound
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 318
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1883-1
First published: 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

And here it is, four years after the eleventh book Knife of Dreams and two years after Robert Jordan passed away, a new Wheel of Time novel has found it's way to the book stores. The Gathering Storm is without a doubt one of the most anticipated book this year. I've avoided reviews until I finished reading it but as far as I can tell the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Picking this series up so close to completion and trying to meet the expectations of Jordan's massive fan base must have been an enormous challenge for Brandon Sanderson. I think we can all lay our fears that he would not be up to the task to rest. Sanderson succeeds admirably. I would go so far as to say this is the best Wheel of Time book since Lord of Chaos.

Before I really get going, I refuse to discusses the monstrosity Tor put on the cover of this book. Darrell K. Sweet's Wheel of Time artwork has ranged from atrocious to decent throughout the series, I think it is quite clear where on this scale this particular cover belongs.

A plot summary is always a bit of a problem for these books. I won't discusses it in too much detail to avoid spoilers. Most of the main characters make an appearance with the notable exception of Elayne but the story is for a large part focussed on Rand and Egwene. Rand is trying to tie all loose ends in preparation for Tarmon Gai'don. His chief aims are to reach an agreement with the Seanchan and pacify the war torn nation of Arad Doman. Egwene is still in the hands of the Aes Sedai faction in control of Tar Valon, busily undermining what remains of Elaida's authority. A slow and painful process. Mat and Perrin also make appearances but their stories do not progress as much those of Rand and Egwene.

Robert Jordan believed he could wrap this story up in one more book. I think he was the only one on the planet who actually believed this could be done. I am not convinced in needs to be three books, but one was obviously not feasible, especially given the almost glacial plotting in the later books in the series. The series picks up some speed in Knife of Dreams, Jordan and Sanderson pick up even more in this The Gathering Storm, mostly in the final part of the novel. Don't get me wrong, this is a massive book, it does contain some slow chapters and with so many story lines there is still an awful lot left unresolved, but by Wheel of Time standards the authors are getting things done.

One of the questions I had before reading the book is how much of it was actually written by Robert Jordan. It's hard to tell but I suspect quite a lot of it is actually Sanderson's work. Sanderson doesn't attempt to copy Jordan's style, the book has a slightly different feel that the previous books. That being said, the writing appears pretty consistent throughout the novel. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint the difference. A slight difference in vocabulary? I am pretty sure Sanderson introduces the word aristocracy in the Wheel of Time. There's less emphasis on dresses and braid tugging. That's one for sure. Maybe Sanderson is a bit more willing to clearly reveal motivations and long running mysteries than Jordan was. He certainly does provide more insight into who is serving the shadow in this book.

There are some differences and it would have been foolish to expect otherwise. I am going to need a reread to really pin them down so they can't be that obvious. What's more important, they didn't bother me in the least. Yes , you can tell another author than Jordan had a hand in this book, despite that it is still very much Wheel of Time. Sanderson, or perhaps I should say Team Jordan, managed to create a novel that is true to the spirit of the series without forcing Sanderson's skill and enthusiasm into too narrow a channel. Given the pressure resting on this project that is a real achievement and testament to their dedication to bringing the series to worthy final chapter.

The novel is something of a turning point for the characters of Rand and Egwene. In previous books they struggle with their tasks and often triumph but are frequently reminded of their humanity and faults by the people around them. Both Rand and Egwene set themselves up as larger than life in the quite dramatic climax of this book. An extremely dangerous course of action for both of them, with Rand slipping further into madness and Egwene on the brink of being blinded from obvious dangers outside the Tower by her determination to overthrow Elaida. I very much liked the way this process was handled. All this attention to Rand and Egwene obviously goes at the expense of some of the other characters and if your favourite character is not one of those two, that may be a bit of a disappointment. I think the choice to put the emphasis on these two was a good one.

Although the decision to split the book seemed inevitable, I must admit I was a bit disappointed when I found out it would be split in three books. Almost twenty years after the first book appeared, the series very much needs an end and splitting it in three put the final part two years in the future at least. That being said, The Gathering Storm succeeds in what it most needed to do, convince fans the end really is in sight and that Brandon Sanderson is the right choice for finishing this series. Sanderson took on the difficult task of finishing someone else's project, I don't think it the result could have turned out much better. Robert Jordan's legacy is treated with the respect it deserves. For the fans of the series The Gathering Storm is required reading, a much needed Wheel of Time fix. I have not enjoyed reading a new Wheel of Time novel so much since my first read of Lord of Chaos almost ten years ago.

Book Details
Title: The Gathering Storm
Author: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 784
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-0230-4
First published: 2009

Saturday, November 7, 2009

De ontdekking van de hemel - Harry Mulisch

I'm a little behind on my reading this week, mostly because I put a book down to start The Gathering Storm. To keep you entertained I moved an older review from my other blog. So serious literature this time ;) I wrote this in November 2006. Apart from fixing a few errors in my English it is pretty much unchanged.

This book is one of the highlights of post-war Dutch literature according to the critics and a huge success for the author. It's been published in English, French and German translation (and a few more besides I'm sure) and made into a movie starring Stephen Fry and Jeroen Krabbé. I obviously read it in Dutch but in the review I will use the title of the English translation, The Discovery of Heaven The premise of the novel is simple. God decided he's had enough of mankind's steady unravelling of his mysteries. To show his displeasure with the world he decides to recover the stone tablets containing the ten commandments and sever the link between heaven and earth. Being god he doesn't just go down and fetch them himself but let's a boy do the searching for him. Recovering the stone tablets, sounds like something Dan Brown would write. In fact, he probably wishes he was capable of it.

According to Mulisch himself, it is his Magnum Opus. I've only read one of his other works (the Assault, also made into a film, I think that one got an Oscar) so I'm not much of a judge in that respect. If by great he mean that it's a big book he's absolutely right. My Dutch copy had 927 pages. I expect it'll be a bit shorter in English. English tends to be a bit more efficient. Mulisch has been ridiculed in recent years over his, shall we say, less than modest opinion about himself. Apparently he is trying to best Goethe. Rather ambitious to say the least.

Truth be told, Mulisch is a very good author. One of the biggest names in modern Dutch literature. Obligatory almost, in every literature class over here. Which is probably why it took me so long to pick up this particular book. Mulisch is good and he likes to show it off. The Discovery of Heaven is filled with lots of facts and details on languages, places, philosophy, religion and science. He uses an awful lot of quotes in foreign languages, Latin and German being most prominent among them, which can be rather trying on the reader. Especially since he doesn't usually bother to translate them. Without a broad education one could easily get lost in the dialogues between main characters Max and Onno. I can't help but wonder how foreign readers manage without a background in Dutch 20th century history.

The book itself is mostly dedicated to explaining how the angels manipulate affairs on Earth to create the boy (Quinten) who will bring back the tables to them. In intermezzos between the main parts of the book the angels discuss how and why they manipulated affairs on earth to recover the tablets. This Deus Ex Machina theme very prominent towards the end of the book in particular. Quinten is born from a complicated love triangle between Onno, Max and Ada. With none of them entirely sure who is the boy's father. Thanks to our manipulative angels their lives are dramatic, even tragic and certainly eventful.

Many of the themes form Mulisch's previous books return. I recognized some from the Assault, even if it has been 12 years since I read it. The second world war is prominent among them of course. It's one of the reasons why I don't read that much Dutch literature. There is simply no escaping that topic and I can only stomach so many books on the war. Mulisch is of Jewish decent and old enough to remember it, so it's an obvious theme for him I suppose. Still, it is very present in the book. Max and Onno's date of conception, the location of Westerbork, Max's parents, Max's visit to Auschwich etc. Some other events that apparently deeply impressed Mulisch are the student protests in 1968 and the Cuban Revolution both of which are prominently featured. He even briefly mentions the mass demonstrations against the stationing of nuclear missiles in the Netherlands in 1981. This event was the climax of the Assault.

In a way it is quite a humorous book. I especially appreciated Onno's dry sense of humour, his sincere disbelieve at some of the strange things people do and his rather refreshing view on politics. Two other highlights of the book in this respect were the way Onno and Max find themselves on a revolutionary conference on Cuba without being invited and of course the scene where Max is close to the "discovery of heaven" and is stuck down by fire from the sky for his trouble. Max is obviously modelled after the author himself. Especially his parents and youth are too close to reality to ignore. I wonder if Mulisch intentionally chose the most unlikely way possible to kill Max, and thus in a sense himself.

Towards the end the book gets rather heavy on metaphysics. Mulisch doesn't delay it though. Once Quinten makes up his mind he acts pretty efficient. Having seen the movie I more or less knew what to expect but the end was interesting anyway. All in all a good read. Not something to pick up in the 30 minutes before you put out the light to go to sleep but well worth the effort. Although the themes (I'm thinking of Ada's death and life in particular here) and main characters are very Dutch in a way, I'm not surprised the book did well in translation. It is quite an investment of the reader's part but very much worth the effort.

Book Details
Title: De Ontdekking van de Hemel
Author: Harry Mulisch
Publisher: De Bezige Bei
Pages: 927
Year: 2006
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 90-234-2001-2
First published: 1992

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Boneshaker - Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is my first encounter with Cherie Priest's writing. I saw an online giveaway for this book a while ago and the description intrigued me enough to enter. Didn't win of course, but the title stuck with me and last week I decided to buy a copy. It's also something of an introduction into steampunk subgenre for me, All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is just about the only novel I have read that could be considered steampunk. Boneshaker is the first of a series of books Priest plans to write in an alternate history setting called the Clockwork Century (the series has its own website). Although the novel leaned on the setting a little too much at some points, I thought it was a very interesting read. I absolutely am going to have to get better acquainted with this subgenre in general and Priest's writing in particular.

In an alternate Seatle in 1863, an experiment with a revolutionary piece of mining equipment known as the Boneshaker goes horribly wrong. The inventor, Dr. Blue, manages to wreck much of the city centre in one destructive run. Not only does he totally destroy the town, he also releases a toxic gas, leaving the city uninhabitable. Those exposed to this blight turn into ravenous walking corpses, haunting to city in search of flesh. To protect themselves from the danger, the survivors erect a wall to close off the contaminated area. Many leave, but those who choose to remain close to the wall build a new city, known as the Outskirts.

Some sixteen years later Dr. Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes is trying to make end meet and provide for her son Zeke. As the wife of the man who destroyed the city, life is hard for Briar and her son. To make matters worse, Briar's father is considered a criminal by many of the city's inhabitants for releasing a number of prisoners before the blight could get to them. He died in the process and has turned into something of a hero for the petty criminals in town. Having grown up without knowing either of the two men who, to a large extend, have determined his life, Zeke is determined to find out more about them. His mother is not keen to discuss the matter and that leaves Zeke with only one option, go over the wall and explore the city for himself.

The more traditional approach to creating an alternate history is to pick a point of divergence. A single important event going another way that it has in history as we know it. Priest rearranges history of a much larger scale in this novel. The story is set around 1880 but the civil war is still raging in the east. Stonewall Jackson managed not to get himself killed and is directing the confederate forces with superior skill. Great Britain has gotten involved in the conflict and has broken the union blockade (I must admit that one seemed very unlikely to me but I found out it was considered at one point) and Texas has grown rich on oil, which has been discovered decades earlies. Airships are widely used for transportation and military purposes, (Priest slips once by calling them Zeppelins, the man they are named after did not really get going on this project until the 1890s) and a large number of exotic, often steam powered machines (including the Boneshaker) are in mentioned in the book. She also moves the Klondike gold rush back a couple of decades to explain the much larger population of Seattle in her alternate world. In short, there's quite a bit of remodelling. Priest does not explore the what if question so much as fit the setting to the need of the story.

The story itself is not all that complicated. Briar goes in search of Zeke and both have to overcome a number of obstacles to stay alive. There are some twists and turns in the plot of course, but Priest does not complicate things with multiple plot lines or large casts. In fact, early on in the book I had my doubts if there was enough story to keep the novel going for four hundred pages. It turned out there was plenty. The setting is obviously quite important to this book but the character of Brair is what really carries the story. Priest manages to find a good mix of emotions for a woman in Briar's position. Determination, guilt, desperation and courage, Briar has it all and combined with the unanswered questions about her past, it makes her into a great character.

The good characterization doesn't stop there though, Briar is surrounded by a number of very interesting secondary characters. Down town Seattle is not as deserted as you might think. It is home to an assortment of strange people, keeping themselves alive by applying a strange mix of technologies. Lucy, Miss Angeline and the mysteries Dr. Minnericht appealed to me in particular. Their world is a dark one indeed but Priest manages to make clear why each of them is willing to accept the conditions inside the wall.

Boneshaker is a great mix of steampunk, alternate history and ..well.. zombies. I must admit I don't usually go for the monster tales but their presence does create and acute sense of danger in the story that would be hard to match otherwise. The author exceeded my expectations in weaving all these elements into an exciting novel. At first I though the plot a little light but in the last couple of chapters Priest managed to make up for that. This book turned out to be a very good read, one of the best I have read this year. I'm looking forward to finding out what other stories she has in store for us in the Clockwork Century.

Book Details
Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 416
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1841-1
First published: 2009