Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking back on 2010

I've seen a number of these posts go up already on other blogs. As usual I was still busy reviewing. I really wanted to get the review of Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard done before the end of the year. That book brings the total number of works I've read in 2010 to 91. Which is actually 2 less than in 2009. I reviewed 90 of them however, which is 11 more than last year. Of these, 88 can be found on this blog, the other 2 were written in Dutch for Fantasy Realm. Not a bad total but I'm still not quite living up to my ambition to average two reviews a week. There's definitely a challenge there for next year.

Of the 91 works 66 were written by men, 19 by women and 6 contained the work of both men and women. Still a bit of gender bias there I suppose. There were 76 novels on the list, 7 collections/anthologies, 7 pieces of short fiction and one non-fiction work. According to Goodreads my reading in 2010 totalled 35,213 pages, or about 96 pages a day. I don't have a reliable total for 2009 but I am pretty sure the 2010 total would be lower if I bothered with a thorough count. Of the 91 works 31 were published in 2010, one will be released in 2011 and the rest is older, sometimes considerably older.

So what are the best books I've read this year? As always a difficult question. I won't limit myself to the book released this year. This are 10 novels that stood out among what I've read. They are listed in the order I read them in.

Platinum Pohl (2005) by Frederik Pohl. A wonderful collection of short fiction spanning much of Pohl's long career in science fiction.
The Prefect (2007) by Alastair Reynolds. The most recent novel in the Revelation Space setting. Combines noir with space opera.
Under Heaven (2010) by Guy Gavriel Kay. Historical Fantasy based on Tang dynasty China right before the An Shi rebellion. Kay is worth reading for the prose alone but the rest of the novel is outstanding too.
Ship Breaker (2010) by Paolo Bacigalupi. His first attempt as YA fiction is a resounding success.
Alien Earth (1992) by Megan Lindholm. Takes a bit to get going but turns into a surprisingly good Science Fiction novel by the author also known as Robin Hobb.
The Dervish House (2010) by Ian McDonald. Wonderfully complex SF novel set in near future Istanbul.
The Radio Magician and Other Stories (2010) by James van Pelt. He produces some of the best short fiction is SF today.
Soul Catcher (1972) by Frank Herbert. His only mainstream work. Somebody please bring this back in print.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell. I'm totally biased by the choice of topic of this novel.
The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Classic Science Fiction, I don't think it gets much better than this. I really ought to read more of her work.

Traffic has been inching upwards during the year. It's still not a whole lot but I seem to have a nice group of regulars. Hopefully it'll continue to increase next year. The ten most popular review in 2010 were:
  1. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  2. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  3. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  4. Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson
  5. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  6. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  7. The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. Rise of the Terran Empire by Poul Anderson
  9. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  10. The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
The top book is certainly surprising. I had never heard of Roadside Picnic until it was suggested to me. Apparently there are not that many review s of this book online, Random Comments does very well in Google searches for this title. Towers of Midnight will most likely overtake it in the future but it fished the year at the top of the list by a fair margin. The other title on this list that surprises me is The Lucky Strike. I suspect someone is using this book in a history or literature class somewhere because I keep getting hits from people looking for a summary (it's a forty page text, shame on you!) or trying to Google the answer for what look like textbook questions. Last year I had some Dutch language titles in the top ten. This year the first, Ziel van de Duivel by Adrian Stone can be found at the 20th spot.

My plans for next year are a bit vague. I hope to review a few books more than this year. I also want to finish a couple of long running project. Beginning with finish reviewing the collection of Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization being published by Baen at the moment. There are two volumes left. I ought to be able to tackle those next year. I also want to continue my reviewing of Frank Herbert's non-Dune books. There's quite a few left. I don't think I will be able to fit all of those in 2011. My project to reread Kim Stanley Robinson's work seems to have stalled a bit. I hope to continue that next year as well. Quite a few books left there as well. There's a few other series I want to continue and a whole lot of books I look forward to in 2011. Too many to list and most likely too many to read. I mean to finish Elizabeth Bear's Edda of Burdons, finish the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, read some more Erikson and tackle another of Edward Rutherfurd's monsters among other things. We'll see how things go.

Hope to see you all around here next year. Best wishes for 2011!


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Harbinger of the Storm - Aliette de Bodard

I read Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard's début novel and the first book in the Obsidian and Blood series, in January and it was one of the most interesting books I'd read in a while. Not that many people write a novel in a second language and manage to get it published. I'm always mildly envious of people with that kind of language skills. De Bodard's work (this is her second novel but there is lots of short fiction) usually features non-western cultures, something not that many writers take on, making Servant of the Underworld an unusual novel. I enjoyed her depiction of the pre-Columbian Mexica (Aztec) empire a lot. Harbinger of the Storm is the second book in the trilogy and thankfully publisher Angry Robot was kind enough to send me an advance copy. This book was high on the to read list for 2011.

Harbinger of the Storm is set about a year and a half after events in Servant of the Underworld. Worrisome events have taken place in the Mexica empire. The Revered Speaker, the link between the world of the living and the god Huitzilpochtli, their shield against the deities who are aiming to end the fifth world and make it anew, has passed away and left the people unprotected. Selecting a successor is no easy matter. The council from which a new Revered Speaker is to be elected is hopelessly divided. Time is pressing though, with each day that passes the pressure on the spiritual defences of the empire grows. The terrible star-demons are waiting for their chance to rip the empire apart.

Acatl, High-Priest for the Dead, once again finds himself caught up in the court intrigues he so much despises. Although most of the council members are aware of the treat to the empire and the need to restore their link with Huitzilpochtli, all of them are too busy expanding their personal influence to really care. To make the situation even more volatile a council member is murdered shortly after the Revered Speaker's death. Acatl is called in to investigate the death and finds out that someone is not ready to wait for the star demons to arrive. They summoned one to do their dirty work for them. The empire is in even more danger than Acatl assumed.

In the previous volume Acatl tries to stay clear of politics, something he does not entirely succeeds at. This time there is no escaping it. Serving Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Death, he has a part in the funeral ceremonies for the departed Revered Speaker. This makes Harbinger of the Storm a lot more political than Servant of the Underworld. De Bodard goes into quite a lot of detail on the downright Machiavellian politics some of the priests and military leaders of the empire practice. Some of the shameless manoeuvring by the priests who ought to be busy preventing a very real supernatural disaster is worthy of the Borgias. It thoroughly disgusts Acatl, who is... perhaps not entirely naive but a bit too unwilling to accept that not everybody will put the common good before their own interests.

The succession de Bodard describes is a very curious one. It often wasn't a father-to-son affair like one would expect. Often brothers and even cousins had a good shot at the position as well, making the succession uncertain. The author uses this to great effect in the novel, creating a struggle for the throne put under an immense pressure by the need to provide the empire with a link to their patron god. The peril the empire is in, is made very clear by the appearance of a number of supernatural beings, Aztec mythology does not seem to have a shortage of scary figures. Not everybody may like their historical fiction (or is it historical fantasy?) with this much supernatural influence but I think the author does use it cleverly to build the tension.

Servant of the Underworld was a bit more contained to the city of Tenochtitlan, with the city itself as historical background, not so much the characters and events. In this volume we get to see a bit more of the way what we think of as the Aztec Empire was organized. It mentions the alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan and a lot more of the lay out of the city than the previous book. The departed Revered Speaker Axayacatl is a historical figure, as are a number of other characters in the novel. From what I can tell the historical details on the succession, or even the events in that particular year are not that well documented, giving de Bodard some leeway to tell her story. The book does not pretend to be fully historically accurate but it thought it was nice to see a bit more of the historical context.

The book is written from the first person and I think it restricted de Bodard a bit. The novel involves a lot of political intrigue, all of which we get to see from the point of view of a character neither particularly skilled nor very interested in the process. Acatl's pretty good at telling when he's being lied to but motivations often elude him. Some of the finer point of what is going on in Tenochtitlan's ruling council might have benefited from another point of view. That's a personal preference though, one could just as easily argue that since de Bodard started the story in the first person, she should stick with it.

I found Harbinger of the Storm to be a worthy successor to what I consider to be a very successful début. The emphasis in this book has shifted a bit from a murder mystery to political intrigue but the setting hasn't lost any of its appeal in the process. The novel zooms out a bit to allow room for more religious and political aspects of Aztec society to slip into the story. Despite my preoccupation with the historical aspects of the novel, Harbinger of the Storm is mostly a race against the clock to deflect a supernatural attempt to end the empire and the world. De Bodard manages to work a great sense of urgency into the story, making it a very fast read. She has once again managed to deliver a very interesting book. I'm looking forward to reading the third, as of yet unnamed, book in this series.

Book Details
Title: Harbinger of the Storm
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 384
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-85766-075-6
First published: 2011

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wild Cards I - George R.R. Martin

Recently, Tor released three new books in the long running shared universe Wild Card series, Inside Straight, Busted Flush and Suicide Kings, collectively known as the Committee Trilogy. A fourth standalone volume, Fort Freak, number twenty-one in the overall series, is expected sometime next year. Tor is the fourth publisher to take on this series and pretty much everything from the previous three publishers is out of print. That means that a lot of the back story of this series is only available second hand, sometimes at very steep prices. Fortunately Tor has now reissued the first Wild Cards novel, originally published in 1987 by Bantam Books, in a trade paperback format.

The original edition was edited by George R.R. Martin and written by a collective of New Mexico writers. Howard Waldrop, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milán, Edward Bryant, Leanne C. Harper, Stephen Leigh, John J. Miller and Martin himself contributed to the writing. In the Tor editions tree new sections were added, written by David D. Levine, Michael Cassutt and Carrie Vaughn. I understand Tor also has plans to reissue the second and third books in the series, Aces High and Jokers Wild, but so far I haven't seen any information on them except the original announcement.

Wild Cards I is all about setting up the shared universe. The story opens in 1946, when a human like alien lands in the US claiming he's come to save the earth form a mortal treat, the Wild Card virus. By the time people start to believe him, it is already to late. Despite the best efforts of WWII flying ace Jetboy, the virus is released with devastating consequences. It kills 90 percent of those it infects, leaves 9 percent permanently disfigured and grants 1 percent a wide ranges of unusual powers. The disfigured survivors are referred to as Jokers, while those with useful, sometimes even incredible talents become aces. This volume in the series tries to cover events from the initial release of the virus in 1946 to the 1980s, right before present when the book what initially released.

Having only read the three recently released books of the Committee Trilogy, I was struck by the different approach these books take to the mosaic novel concept. The Committee Trilogy is much more a true novel, with the sections written by different authors interlocking into one story. Wild Cards I is more of a collections of short fiction. Although characters some characters show up in multiple sections of the novel, the stories can pretty much be read independently once you know the concept of the Wild Card. The book seems to aim at giving the reader an overview of how the Wild Card virus influenced the world and setting up a number of story lines that will be continued in subsequent books.

There are some very strong stories among the original entries into this series. I particularly enjoyed Roger Zelazny's entry The Sleeper, featuring an Ace who sleeps for days or weeks at a time and wakes up with different powers every time. It's not always an Ace he draws either but somehow it is never a lethal recurrence of the virus that hits him. Like many of the stories in this collection The Sleeper's life is tragic. Witnessing the release of a Wild Cards virus at a young age, he has to grow up much to quickly. The Sleeper is by no means a perfect Ace. After he looses his father to the virus he provides for his family with criminal activities, starting a life in the underworld of New York City. A rather lonely life as we'll find out later in the book. He does some very wrong things but on the other hand you can't help but feel sorry for him.

A second story I think stood out in the collection is Walter Jon Williams' Witness. It introduces the incredibly strong Ace Golden Boy, whose powers make him ideally suited for the 1950s variety of gunboat diplomacy. Golden Boy's real passion is acting however, so once his diplomatic career takes a nosedive, he heads for Hollywood. A place that is about to receive the attention of one Senator McCarthy. Williams shows us how hopelessly unprepared Golden Boy is for his life in the spotlight and how the strongest man in the world basically breaks under the strain. To make matters worse, Golden Boy does not seem to age. It's enough to make one wonder if he has indeed drawn an Ace. There is no outrunning his past for this man. Another very dark part of the collection about a dark part of US history.

Martin's own contribution, Shell Games, is a bit more upbeat. I had already read this bit, Martin included it in the massive, career-spanning anthology Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. The story introduces the Great and Powerful Turtle, an Ace with very strong telekinetic abilities. Inspired by the comic books he read in his youth, he wants to use his talents for the good of mankind, catching crooks and saving people. In a rather physical way, his friend points out that he is quite vulnerable when concentrating and so they come up with a solution that will make him unreachable for anything short of heavy artillery. His first major challenge comes when Jokertown's leading entrepreneur, a woman by the name of Angelface goes missing. Martin probably approaches the superhero comics that inspired this series closest in this tale. A damsel in distress, an ordinary fellow turning into superhero with great powers, one would almost think the story cliché. Martin also uses his story to give us a look at the dark side of New York's Joker ghetto, a setting important to many of the Wild Cards' stories.

Three new stories were added to entice readers to invest in a book they perhaps already own. For the book, I don't think it was really necessary. Sure, it tries to cover a great span of time in relatively few pages, so there are plenty of gaps to fill, but the general outline of the Wild Cards universe is introduced well enough. The book works just fine without. That being said, I quite enjoyed David D. Levine's addition Powers quite a lot. His anti-hero Ace Frank Majewski, who carefully keeps his ability to stop time for everybody but himself hidden because of McCarthy's antics in Witness, is another strong character in book. His reluctance and fear for his family, deeply rooted in what happened in his native Poland during and right after the war, are some of the ingredients that makes this story work for me. It's very much at odds with the image of some of the more public Aces. This story also an interesting take on the events surrounding the crash and capture of U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960.

Wild Cards I contains a lot of snapshots from post-WWII history. It is not yet a fully integrated set of stories, but more of a sandbox where each of the contributors do their own thing. The result is a very interesting book and the start of an unusual series, but it also leaves us with a lot of loose ends. It will be interesting to see if Tor goes through with publishing more of the back catalogue of the Wild Cards series, this book certainly whets the appetite for more. As a reader relatively new to the series, I very much liked this opportunity to go back to the origins of the series. Judging from what I have read so far, the series seems to have developed a lot over the years. Wild Cards I was not quite what I expected but it surprised in a good way. If, like me, you have only read some of the later books, this book is really a must read.

Book Details
Title: Wild Cards I
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 493
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2615-7
First published: 1987

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Early Birthday Present

My birthday isn't until the 27th but my birthday present arrived yesterday. A couple of people pooled resources and bought me a very nice e-reader. For those of you familiar with such devices, it's a Sony PRS-600. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, right now it is still busy charging the battery, but it looks very pretty. Looks like I may get around to reviewing some of the stack of e-books waiting on my hard drive next year.

Speaking of which, things will be a bit more quiet around here next week than usual. I have finished reading Wild Cards I and there will be a review, probably on Friday. I'm also determined to read at least one more book and do an end of year post. Given my schedule for the next two weeks that is quite ambitious but I think I can manage that much. There ought to be a law against Christmas and New Year's Day falling in weekends I tell you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Godmakers - Frank Herbert

The Godmakers (1972) is probably one of Herbert's harder to find work. I don't know of any recent publications in English. I got my hands on a Dutch language copy December 2001 and I've been looking for a reasonably priced English copy since. A couple of weeks back I managed to get my hands on a 1973 paperback edition. It's in reasonably good shape, not bad considering it is older than I am. When I first read The Godmakers in 2001 I was quite impressed with some of the ideas Herbert used in his work. It was the first book other than the Dune series I'd read by him. After this reread, having a few more book by Herbert under my belt, I'm afraid it is not one of the better ones.

A great war has left the galaxy reeling. Contact with many words was lost in this era of violence and humanity is still trying to pick up the pieces. Determined to prevent another outburst of war, each rediscovered world is thoroughly checked for signs of warlike activities. Re-education is imposed on those deemed salvageable, in some cases, al planet buster is the only known cure. Field agent Lewis Orne is sent out to newly rediscovered planets to judge is superficially peaceful societies are what they appear to be. Orne is soon noted for his unusual observations and deep insights. As he is sent more challenging assignments, is soon becomes clear that he is on a path that may take him beyond humanity, to godhood itself.

The Godmakers is a fixup novel, consists of four short stories: You Take the High Road (Astounding, May 1958), Missing Link (Astounding, February 1959), Operation Haystack (Astounding, May 1959) and The Priests of Psi (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, February 1960). Of two of these stories to copyright has apparently expired. Missing Link and Operation Haystack are available on ManyBooks. They've also been recently published as a paperback by Phoenix Picks. One or more of these stories also appear in the various collections of Frank Herbert's short fiction that have been published over the years. Again, these are not easy to come by, all of these collections are decades out of print.

The novel clearly shows that the book indeed consists of four separate pieces. Personally, I think some more effort to bridge them smoothly would have done this novel a world of good. Perhaps this was a bit of a rush job, In 1972, Herbert's ambitious mainstream novel Soul Catcher appeared as well and the first instalments of Hellstrom's Hive, serialized in Galaxy in 1972 and 1973 and published as a novel in 1973, were also in the works. The stories offer brief snapshots of Orne's development but sometimes the jumps can be jarring, particularly between the Operation Haystack and Priests of Psi sections of the novel. I thought the last section of the book, which relies much more on religious themes had a decidedly different tone than the other sections.

The part of the novel I most enjoyed was the first section. In You Take the High Road Herbert examines how there are clues of military activity in the most basic elements of our lives. Orne sees hints in the way roads are constructed, the way production is organized and what kind of games and sports we play, to name a few things. Much more subtle signs than political power structures, fortifications or standing armies. Another interesting thought is the hoe and handle argument. I'm not entirely sure who thought of this but I've seen it before in various guises. Basically it states that by creating interdependency, with one side specializing in, and only able to, produce the hoe, and the other the handle, war is much less likely to occur. Now keep in mind that these stories were written in the late 1950s, a time when WWII was a fresh memory and the great political experiment that resulted in the European Union took off, which is partially bases on the same idea. In a way, Lewis Orne is the personification of the cry "Never again!"

Later on in the novel, Herbert leans more on the idea that it is not god who made man but man who makes gods. Orne, on his way to become a man-made god, is put though a number of spiritual tests in order to show him his true power. The text becomes increasingly philosophical here, with passages that will no doubt offend the more dogmatic believers in a number of religions. Another idea that is shows up in more of his works, is the creation of religions for specific purposes. It's a theme that shows up in Dune for instance, but also in the Destination: Void series. The concept is an interesting one but I think the way he uses it in his other novels works better.

The Godmakers is not a great novel, I consider it as something of a study for Herbert's later works. The concepts that show up in Dune are the most obvious but I also think Orne is something of a proto-Jorj X. McKie, the main character in the novels Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. A lot of the short fiction Herbert produced where his sandbox. He played around with ideas that would later develop into his strongest novels. Trying to patch four of these stories together and calling it a novel has not worked particularly well in this case. Still, in Herbert's oeuvre as a whole, these short stories were a significant step in his development as a writer. From that angle, they are still more than worth reading.

Book Details
Title: The Godmakers
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Berkley Medallion Books
Pages: 221
Year: 1973
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-425-02344-3
First published: 1972

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another book in the Mail

It really is almost Christmas. Today another book I requested arrived. Harbringer of the Storm, the sequel to Aliette de Bodard's debut novel Servant of the Underworld, landed on the doormat. It will be published in January 2011 so I'll try to read and review it before the end of the year.

Publisher Angry Robot has published a number of unusual books last year. Things that don't quite meet the well-established conventions of the genre, books that would ordinarily not receive much attention. Not everything they publish will be universally loved but it certainly good to see a publisher take a chance on some interesting titles.

From the publisher:
The year is Two House and the Mexica Empire teeters on the brink of destruction, lying vulnerable to the flesh-eating star-demons – and to the return of their creator, a malevolent goddess only held in check by the Protector God’s power.

The council is convening to choose a new emperor, but when a councilman is found dead, only Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, can solve the mystery.

When he hears rumours of a sinister cabal of sorcerors he must face up to demons, not all of them his own.

I'll be back tomorrow with a review of a Frank Herbert classic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stonewielder - Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is the third novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that runs parallel to Steven Erikson's massive series Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. In his first novel, Night of Knives, Esslemont provided something of a prologue to the entire series, before embarking on a larger project in Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder is set after the events in Return of the Crimson Guard and takes us to the rarely seen continent of Korel, carrying over the storyline of Kyle and Greymane from the previous novel. At a little over 600 pages it is not quite as epic as Esslemont's previous attempt, something that has fixed a number of the problems Return of the Crimson Guard showed. This is definitely Esslemont's best yet.

Years ago the Malazan Empire attempted to conquer the Korel subcontinent. The Malazan 6th army was dispatched and failed to do the job, instead setting up a kingdom for themselves and dismissing their commander. Now, the newly risen emperor means to correct this and he enlists the old commander of the previous invasion, Greymane, to do it. Soon, preparations for a new invasion are in full swing. The emperor lends some of his best remaining commanders to the project, including the famous Admiral Nok and one of the last mages the Malazan Empire can still call upon. This time there will be no mistake.

In the mean time the Stormwatch, weakened by shortages of men and supplies prepares for another season defending Korel's Stormwall against their ancient enemy, the inhuman Stormriders. It does not appear that help is forthcoming. Most of the subcontinent is on edge because of the emergence of a new religious cult. For millennia the Goddess that has protected the land and the Stormwall has been the dominant cult, suppression all other religious movements and even access to warrens. Her control is about to be challenged by a popular movement beyond anything seen on in the long history of her rule.

It's difficult to fit this book in the time line of the entire series. Over the course of the series there are some apparent contradictions in Erikson's books, especially Toll of the Hounds. I'd say Stonewielder is set after events in The Bonehunters, Return of the Crimson Guard. It probably set after Reaper's Gale as well, although this novel is set on an entirely different continent so it is hard to tell. It may overlap with Toll of the Hounds, but as I mentioned above, I'm still not to clear on when events in that book actually take place. Before taking on this book it is probably best to have read Return of the Crimson Guard and Erikson's books up to Reapers Gale before tackling this one. I don't think reading Erikson beyond book seven will not spoil this novel for you however.

Set almost entirely on the relatively isolated Korel subcontinent, Stonewielder is definitely one of the more focussed Malazan novels. A lot of the earlier books in the series are spread out all over the Malazan world and its warrens. This book only has one minor story line that does not tie into events in Korel. It involves Kiska, whom you may remember as one of the main characters in Night of Knives. She sets out in search of the missing mage Tayschrenn. This thread felt like a bit of a loose end for me, no doubt Esslemont means to continue her story. Although it follows up on events in Return of the Crimson Guard, it would have been nice if this story line had been a bit more relevant to events in the rest of the novel. I guess it doesn't help that the whole affair ends on a bit of a cliffhanger either.

Despite the military campaign being the focus of the book, Esslemont takes quite a different approach than in the previous novel. Relying more on divine intervention and magic that on military skills, this book is in some was the opposite of Return of the Crimson Guard. In that book, the large scale military action that formed the climax of the novel was almost too much of a good thing. This time around, the story relies less on the military action, instead showing a society crumble from its very foundations. Throughout the novel you can feel the rigid control the Lady exerts on Korel begin to crack. A situation that appears to be as robust as the very foundations of the Stormwall, escalates with incredible speed. I found this process of collapse one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel.

Another aspect of the novel I enjoyed is the pacifist theme in the book. The main religious movement challenging the rule of the Blessed Lady, is lead by the pacifist Toblakai Invanr (it has to be said though, he is dragged in kicking and screaming). Makes you wonder what Karsa would make of that. For a series that features quite a lot of battles and other forms of physical violence, that is quite an unexpected turn of events. His convictions are put to the test when he is swept up in events that can only lead to bloodshed. I thought he was one of the more interesting characters in the book. As with many of the key players in the entire series, he obviously has a past which is only partially revealed in the novel. Would be nice to learn some more of him in later books.

All in all I was quite impressed with this novel. Esslemont opens up another part of the Malazan universe we had yet to explore and does so in a more tightly plotted novel than his previous books. He manages this without loosing any of the complexities of Malazan world or the shades of grey that makes the series rise above the mass of epic fantasy novels. Perhaps not quite as much fireworks as in Return of the Crimson Guard, some readers might be disappointed by that, but definitely a worthy entry into the series. Looking forward to more Malazan goodness when Erikson's final novel in the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God, appears next year.

Book Details
Title: Stonewielder
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 634
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06444-3
First published: 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In the Mail

Now I don't normally do these kinds of posts because... well, normally there isn't anything in the mail I didn't order myself. But this week there is. A nice Christmas present by Tor containing the following books, both edited by George R.R. Martin:

From the publisher:
Back in print after a decade, expanded with new original material, this is the first volume of George R. R. Martin’s Wild cards shared-world series

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

Originally published in 1987,
Wild Cards I includes powerful tales by Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Howard Waldrop, Lewis Shiner, and George R. R. Martin himself. And this new, expanded edition contains further original tales set at the beginning of the Wild Cards universe, by eminent new writers like Hugo–winner David Levine, noted screenwriter and novelist Michael Cassutt, and New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.
I specifically expressed interest in this book so there will be a review as soon as I can manage, probably sometime next week. I've read the latest three Wild Cards books by Martin and his consortium last year and I as impressed with Inside Straight in particular good to see the first part of this long running series in print again.

From the publisher:
To honor the magnificent career of Jack Vance, one unparalleled in achievement and impact, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, with the full cooperation of Vance, his family, and his agents, have created a Jack Vance tribute anthology:Songs of the Dying Earth. The best of today's fantasy writers to return to the unique and evocative milieu of The Dying Earth, from which they and so many others have drawn so much inspiration, to create their own brand-new adventures in the world of Jack Vance’s greatest novel.

Half a century ago, Jack Vance created the world of the Dying Earth, and fantasy has never been the same. Now, for the first time ever, Jack has agreed to open this bizarre and darkly beautiful world to other fantasists, to play in as their very own. To say that other fantasy writers are excited by this prospect is a gross understatement; one has told us that he'd crawl through broken glass for the chance to write for the anthology, another that he'd gladly give up his right arm for the privilege. That's the kind of regard in which Jack Vance and The Dying Earth are held by generations of his peers.

This book contains original stories from George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Moon, Tanith Lee, Tad Williams, Kage Baker, and Robert Silverberg, along with fifteen others--as well as an introduction by Dean Koontz.
This book came along with the Wild Cards one. I already own a the Subterranean edition and I must admit it has been gathering dust on the to read stack for a while now. Don't hold your breath for a review, I am not making promises regarding this one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

World's End - Mark Chadbourn

I've been a wee bit busy this week, with a labour law exam and a new kitchen being placed on Monday and Tuesday. I've managed to read quite a lot of Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont but it doesn't look like I'll finish it in time for a review this weekend. Instead I am running this older review. It was written in April 2009 and as usual, it needed a bit of editing. I'll put the second part of this trilogy up on Random Comments as well some time in the next year.

World’s End by Mark Chadbourn is the first book in the Age of Misrule trilogy. The book was first published in the UK in 1999 and in 2009 Pyr has released all three in with about a month between them for the American market. The trilogy is set in the UK, probably just before the end the 20th century. Although in some ways it is a typical fantasy novel, the choice of characters and the use of contemporary British English set it apart somewhat. Which is what saves the novel from mediocrity, thematically it is not ground breaking.

Nobody knows it yet, but the world as we know it is about to end. After millennia of absence the Faery are back in town. Some of the darker elements among the Faery are preparing to take over the world. Their presence is still unnoticed by most of the population but strange things are happening all across Britain. Jack “Church” Churchill and Ruth Gallagher are unfortunate enough to witness one of these strange occurrences. What seems to be an ordinary murder at first glance clearly has a supernatural aspect to it. When Ruth and Church begin to understand what is going on, they wish they’d never found out.

Soon the two of them find themselves on the run from all manner of supernatural beings trying to silence them. Fate has another role in store for them though. Ruth and Church are the first two members of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, a group of people bound to the land and humanity’s only hope of survival. While the darker elements of the Faery are already loose, the only force that can oppose them is still bound. It is up to the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons to free them. To do that they need for ancient artefacts hidden in several places in Britain and they need to do it before the Beltane festival. With all manner of monsters in hot pursuit and time running out, a desperate search for the artefacts begins.

So… a group of unlikely heroes in search of mystic artefacts that will help them save the world from eternal darkness. All pretty standard D&D stuff really, the only thing that is missing is the pseudo-medieval setting. Still, I am pretty sure that if you like that sort of thing, this will not be the book you are looking for. Chadbourn’s story is firmly rooted in our present world, with characters who are very reluctant to release their troublesome everyday lives. They are half believing things will go back the way they were on the one hand, and pitying those who do not yet know things will never be the same again on the other.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Dragons are not a happy bunch. Each of them is dissatisfied with their life in some way and deep down, none of them really want the world to return to normal. All of them feel guilty, usually related to a (violent) death in their surroundings. Perhaps that makes them a bit more likely to eventually embrace their new world, especially when they find out the deaths are not a coincidence. The way they discuss this in British English, using a lot of slang at times, really drives home how different British English and American English is. Schools around here teach British English but we are exposed to American English a lot more, blurring the lines for a second language speaker. I guess it takes a native speaker to demonstrate the difference.

There is a library full of fantasy books out there that rely on Celtic mythology as a theme or source of inspiration but I have rarely read a book that does it so thoroughly. Chadbourn introduces us in rapid succession to a number of mythical creatures, gods and objects, usually accompanied with a brief explanation by Tom, the man who serves as a guide to the brothers and sisters. The Wild Hunt, the Green Man, Lugh, the Maiden/Mother/Crone, the Formorians, the Tuatha Dé Danann and of course the Arthurian legend are all worked into the story in one way or another. Many of these will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers of fantasy, several of these figures are used in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for instance. It may sound familiar but not many authors explore these myths to the extent Chadbourn does.

All this Celtic myth does not slow the story down however, Chadbourn takes us at the speed of a car chase through a number of locations significant in Celtic Mythology and the Arthurian legend. I have visited a number of these locations myself twenty years ago (Dartmoor, Tintagel, Stonehenge). Chadbourn’s description of the places and the route the party takes is described in such a way it would be possible to track down for the real fanatic reader. The way he describes a number of places I haven’t seen, Glastonbury in particular, makes me wish we had taken a detour back then.

What to make of World’s End? After reading it I am left with mixed feelings. There are aspects of the story I liked a lot. Chadbourn is obviously very versed in Celtic mythology and he uses this to great effect in the novel. He also makes sure not to make his story into a black and white, good versus evil kind of book. On the other hand the plot is pretty standard in fantasy. I didn’t entirely escape the feeling I had read this book before. The final part of the book suggests the plot of the second part in the trilogy, Darkest Hour, will be more interesting. For me that is enough to tip the balance, I guess I am on board of book two.

Book Details
Title: World's End
Author: Mark Chadbourn
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 419
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-739-3
First published: 1999

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foundation and Empire - Isaac Asimov

In my effort to get better acquainted with the classics of Science Fiction I read Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation in October. It was not a bad read but I can't say I was impressed with this collection of five tales centred on the decline and fall of a galactic empire. I've decided to see this through and at least read the original trilogy. Not sure if I really want to wade into the maze of sequels, prequels and books in the series written by other authors. Foundation and Empire is the second book in the original trilogy and was first published in 1952. It contains only two, loosely connected stories both of which are set after the events in Foundation. Both stories were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945.

The first story, The General, deals with the inevitable confrontation between Foundation and the dying Galactic Empire. The Empire may be in full decline, it still commands the resources of the centre of the galaxy and when a strong emperor and ambitions general rise to the occasion, there appears to be some spirit left yet. Foundation is heading for a new Seldon crisis.
In the second story, The Mule, deals with an threat to Foundation Seldon apparently did not foresee. A rebellion against Foundation lead by a mysterious general nicknamed The Mule is making rapid progress through Foundation space. Rumours of superhuman strength and ability precede the Mule and his rebels. What if Seldon's psychohistory is not as accurate as the people on Foundation like to believe?

The fact that it contains only two stories, instead of the five contained in Foundation, make it more of a novel than a short story collection. It allows Asimov to add a bit more flesh to the bare bones of the stories presented in the first book. I'm still not terribly impressed by the writing though. It is marginally more descriptive than in the previous book but it is still a lot of dialogue. As a consequence, there is still a lot of taking the reader by the hand and walk him/her through the story going on, but I do get the feeling Asimov is asking some more interesting questions here. Foundation was, in a way, repetitive, with the outcome of a crises more or less predetermined. In Foundation and Empire, Asimov uses this predictability as a theme in the novel.

Asimov examines the related concepts of determinism and free will in this second book of the series (for another excellent take on these concepts see The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson). Seldon's psychohistory claims to very accurately predict the major developments in galactic history, making Foundation believe that although there are not guarantees for individuals, even leaders, the organisation will survive whatever crisis is thrown at it. So far, Seldon has been proven right every time. History plays out as he predicted, it appears to be predetermined. Which raises the question, why bother to get all worked up about some hotshot Empire general doomed to fail anyway? How much room does Seldon leave for free will? What of the belief that some people can indeed change the course of events by being in the right place at the right time? Is the inertia of the galaxy so great that is rolls right over individual initiative? Some pretty uncomfortable questions to ask in a country that follows a dream rooted in individualism.

So then, how do we put Seldon's theory to a real test? One technique used in science is to challenge his assumptions. And it appears Seldon made quite a few to make is models work. For one thing, he assumes that people will be people, now and in the future, and that their behaviour will remain predictable. He also assumes that no individual can have a measurable effect on the course of history. But once in a while, nature throws in a wild card, one that is very hard to foresee. The Mule, with all his rumoured special abilities, fits the bill admirably. He is many things but most likely, he is not human. So now the unpredictable side of nature is pitted against Seldon's deterministic view of the future. It's definitely the most interesting challenge psychohistory has come across.

I guess I feel that Asimov is beginning to put his idea to a serious test in this novel and that alone makes it more interesting that the previous book. It still suffers from the flaws that many books from this era possess. Cardboard characters, sexism (there is actually a woman in this novel but the way she's portrayed will most likely not meet with the approval of the modern female reader), simplistic plot and in Asimov's case, dreadfully straightforward language. Still, I think he's beginning to grow on me a bit. It'll be interesting to see where Asimov takes his story next. From the ending of this book I'd say he isn't done with the Mule yet.

Book Details
Title: Foundation and Empire
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 244
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80372-3
First published: 1952

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Gypsy - Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm

I've been trying to round up the books by Megan Lindholm (perhaps better known under her pseudonym Robin Hobb) still missing in my library. Of the ten novels that appeared under the name Megan Lindholm owned six at the beginning of the year, the four Ki and Vandien books and the duology about Tillu and Kerlew. I found a copy of her excellent science fiction novel Alien Earth earlier this year and I expect to receive a copy of Wizard of the Pigeons later this week. The Gypsy was also still available which means the only one I am still missing is Cloven Hooves. Looks like that one is out of print but I haven't given up hope on finding a copy yet. The Gypsy is, as far as I know, the only collaboration Lindholm has been involved in. She wrote it with Steven Brust, best known for his Vlad Taltos novels. I haven't read anything by him but judging from the other Lindholm books I've read, his influence on this story is very noticeable.

Experienced police man Mike Stepovich ans his green partner Durand apprehend a gypsy suspected of murdering a shopkeeper. Stepovich immediately notices something strange about the gypsy and does something he's never done in his long career. He fails to turn in the knife the gypsy is carrying. Somehow he knows the gypsy is not the murderer and the knife is special. Later that night, the gypsy disappears without a trace from the police cell they are holding him in. Murder investigations are not the territory of an ordinary patrol cop but this case does not let him go, especially when the body of an old gypsy woman turns up. Again, the suspect Stepovich and his partner arrested, seems to be involved and Stepovich is determined to find him. His search will lead him into a supernatural power struggle the existence of which he never suspected.

The Gypsy (1992) is an Urban Fantasy novel from before the hijacking of the sub genre by perky, vampire-slaying, werewolf-dating, power-girls. It is set in the late 1980s and it mixes Hungarian folklore (which I assume to be part of Brust's input) with a small town US setting. From what I can tell, it received some very mixed reviews over the years. I guess it is not an easy book to like. I'm not sure about Brust but it is very different from the other novels that Megan Lindholm wrote for one thing. It is also a multi-layered novel, demanding that the reader pay close attention to what is going on. Both for the police procedural and the fantasy part of the book. Personally I think it is a very interesting piece of writing but al lot of people will probably decide it is not their cup of tea.

The multi-layered aspects of the novel is something I very much liked about The Gypsy. The whole novel is structured to let the reader move between the real world and a fantasy realm, with the emphasis of the story slowly moving from the first to the latter. The characters have different names for both settings (Stepovich is referred to as the Wolf for instance) and the time indications that head the different sections of a chapter are adapted accordingly, from very precise (05 Nov 17:30) to suitably mysterious (Late Autumn, Half Moon, Waxing). Only the chapters names themselves are firmly in the fantasy realm, referring to the fantasy names of the characters. The different names of the characters can be a bit confusion early on in the novel, but the novel contains enough hints to figure out who is who early on.

Apart from an indication of the time, each of the sections is also preceded by a few lines of song lyrics. They form another interesting part of the novel. These lyrics were written by Brust and Adam Temple and later put to music and recorded by a band named Boiled in Lead. The album appeared in 1995 under the title Songs from the Gypsy, I understand it's a mix of rock and folk with Celtic influences. I haven't had a chance to dig for this music yet, but the lyrics make me suspect it could be a very nice album.

The number of characters Brust and Lindholm need to tell this story is probably a bit much for a relatively short novel. The reader barely gets time to get acquainted with them all, let alone be swept away by the romance between Laurie and the Raven, to really dive into the complex relationship between Stepovich, his former partner Ed and his current partner Durand or the history of the Gypsy and the Fair Lady. It's not the characters that reach out the reader in the book but more the elements of the story, the form the authors choose and the fluidity with which reality changes for the characters. If you are a very character oriented reader, then this book is probably not going to work for you. I still think it is a very fine piece of writing.

I have no idea how someone who is familiar with Brust's other novels would experience this but like with the previous Megan Lindholm novel I read, I feel the author has taken a direction she hasn't taken before. The variety in style, voice and theme of the Megan Lindholm novels is a lot greater than her work as Robin Hobb. Some people interpret this as the author looking for her voice, personally I think Lindholm's talent runs a lot deeper than the Hobb books show (and I enjoyed those an awful lot). I'm looking forward to seeing what an Urban Fantasy novel by Lindholm looks like without the input of another author.

Book Details
Title: The Gypsy
Author: Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 272
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-31192-4
First published: 1992

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin

My experience with the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin is limited to one short novel and a short story. I enjoyed both and since neither the novel, The Eye of the Heron, nor the short story, The Season of the Ansarac, are considered Le Guin's greatest work so looking a bit further was tempting. Le Guin is one of the very few women to have made it to Gollancz' SF Masterworks lists. Two of her books are included main list, with a third limited to the hardcover series. Her 1974 novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is the first of these, number 16 in the series. Although I will no doubt read The Lathe of Heaven, some time next year,The Dispossessed was higher on the list because of the link with Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain. Reading that novel earlier this year made me curious about Le Guin's book. I can definitely see why it made Kress think.

Some 170 years ago a group of rebel anarchists from the planet Urras made a deal with the government they were rebelling against. In return for an end to the rebellion the movement got a one way trip to the moon, help establishing a colony and a promise to be left alone to implement their vision of what society should look like. At the opening of the story, a society without government, law, authority or personal property has formed on the moon Anarres. The moon is arid, low in resources and life on land has not evolved as far as on Urras. Survival on Anarres is a struggle and luxury of any kind is unknown. Still, people are mostly content to live by the philosophy of the leader of the rebel movement, a woman named Odo.

Despite the freedom and generally peaceful life on Anarres, human nature still has its dark side. Envy, guilt and greed are not so easily left behind. Something the physicist Shevek finds out when he tries to publish a ground-breaking theory on the nature of time. The only people who truly understand and appreciate what he is trying to do live on Urras. He will have to venture into the world of monetary economy, strange forms of government and personal possessions. A move not everybody on Anarres approves of.

I'm pretty sure that whatever I write on this book will not do it justice. I finished it on Sunday night and after sleeping on it, my mind is still reeling with the implications of what Le Guin wrote. I'm simply amazed at what she managed to put into this fairy compact novel in the way of ideas and ideologies and still manage to flesh them out enough to show both their strengths and weaknesses. Society on Anarres and Urras are radically different but Le Guin doesn't present either as right, or even better than the other. The capitalist system Shevek is exposed to, clearly has it's problems, while the anarchy on Anarres only seems workable in a place of extreme isolation.

This novel is full of different modes of governments and political theory but the very first thing that struck me about the novel is the use of language. On Anarres the people speak a constructed language designed by a computer. Their language frowns on the use of possessive pronouns (there is no such thing as personal possessions after all), so it isn't "my book" but "the book I am reading". When there is no longer a reason why the book should be in your possession you are supposed to return it or pass it on to someone who does need it. Le Guin refers to a scientific theory known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis here. This theory, oversimplified, states that language shapes thinking. By removing the possessive entirely, the programmers of this new language hoped to remove an in their eyes perverse impulse from society. I understand the theory is not as popular as it once was, but it does show up in older science fiction novels quite a lot. If I remember correctly, Frank Herbert refers to it in some of his novels and it also shows up in works of people like Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany to name a few. Whether or not you support this theory, Le Guin does some interesting things with it in this novel.

Besides language, time is also an important element in The Dispossessed. Shevek's researches a new mathematical understanding of time, one that he hopes will lead to a technique that will make it possible to instantly communicate across the vast distances of space. He means to make the current reliance on electromagnetic means of transmitting, which are limited to the speed of light, obsolete. Shevek views time as linear and as a circle, with Le Guin including an analogy of a book. It's all there between the covers but it only makes sense if you look at it in the right order. In line with Shevek's ideas on time, the novel is written out of chronological order, with Shevek's departure being the first chapter followed by chapters set on Urras mixed with chapters describing events that lead up to his decision to leave. In effect the final pages are both the halfway point and end of the novel.

Some say science fiction is a way of looking at the present. This book certainly supports that statement. There is no parallel for the anarchistic society Le Guin describes on Anarres but events on Urras are certainly recognizable enough. The state that hosts Shevek appears to be a laissez faire capitalist state, with a number of neighbours who prefer other political and economic systems. A lot of the politics go right over Shevek's head, he's hopelessly unprepared and very naive about the political minefield he has willing walked into. For the reader, even if these events play in the background to an extend, an outline of the cold war and the smaller conflicts played out on the territory of less powerful states are clear.

I liked both the form and themes of this novel a lot but they do not make for the easiest book to read. A lot of the novel is devoted to Shevek's observations of an alien world and its economic system or his developing theory on time. The long, fairly densely written chapters do no lend themselves to reading in a few stolen moments on your lunch break or right before going to sleep. It is a pretty challenging book some may even say it is dry at certain points in the novel. For me, it was not beyond what I could handle. Many of Shevek's insights were very interesting because they provide a convincing outside view on a capitalist system. His opinions are so convincingly different that I loved every moment of this novel. As far as I am concerned The Dispossessed is an absolute must read for fans of the genre and more than worthy of the shelf full of awards it has collected.

Book Details
Title: The Dispossessed
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 318
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-882-6
First published: 1974

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Magic of Recluce - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

In May 1991 the first novel in the Recluce series appeared. Almost twenty years later, the series is still going strong. A sixteenth novel, Arms-Commander, appeared in January of this year. I don't think even the author himself suspected that the series would grow to such epic proportions. Although the series totals sixteen books at the moment, there are never more than two on any one main character and the entire series spans more than eighteen centuries. The Magic of Recluce may be the first book published, it is the second to last in chronological order. I've reread this novel a number of times now and every time I do, I wonder how on earth I missed so much on the previous reading. For first time readers it is probably not an easy book. Well worth the effort though.

The main character in the novel is Lerris, a young man from the island nation of Recluce. The nation is bases on the principles of order magic and has mostly sealed itself off from the outside world. Very few outsiders ever get to see the interior of the island, nor do many people from Recluce venture abroad. Life is ordered, moderately prosperous and generally peaceful in Recluce. According to Lerris, it is also dreadfully boring. His parents try to convince Lerris of the need for this, to Lerris, stifling level of order but despite their best efforts and a valiant attempt by his uncle Sardit, who tries to teach Lerris the basics of woodcraft, he can't make himself apply to anything with the expected level of dedication. He is simply not interested. To the people running Recluce, the bored and magically talented Lerris represents a threat to their ordered society.

Recluce has a tidy solution for such people. They are exiled from the island. After minimal training in the ways of the wider world, instruction in handling weapons and learning the basics of foreign languages, Lerris and a number of other men and women are sent to the continent of Candar, the most chaotic continent on the world of Recluce. There, Lerris starts the search for the reasons for his exile and the answers that he feels have been withheld from him. Time is pressing however, a strong White wizard is plotting the gain influence in Candar and an inexperienced but order/chaos talented youngster could be a useful tool or a formidable threat.

As epic fantasy goes, The Magic of Recluce is an unusual book. It does not posses some of the elements that draw large numbers of readers to fantasy. It's not a very fast paced novel, Modesitt takes his time to build his world and the character of Lerris before he is set loose on Candar to find his own way. It doesn't include too many action scenes, grand acts of heroism, fantastic sentient creatures or military action either. It does feature a complex system of magic, but one where the consequences of using magic have to be carefully considered to avoid catastrophe later on and where the magic used by the 'bad guy' is not inherently wicked. It's mostly a bildungsroman, I guess we don't escape fantasy tropes altogether, with Lerris gaining a deeper understanding of the world, himself en the consequences of his actions. Despite being bored, Lerris is not given to rash actions. He's a rather thoughtful man, taking his time to consider a problem unless forced into action.

For me, the system of magic, relying on a balance between order and chaos, is one of the major attractions of this novel. Modesitt explores it in more detail in later books but the basics of his order/chaos based system are laid down in this book. There are plenty hints in this book of what happens when the effect on the balance is not considered by wielders of order or chaos magic. Many of such failure to heed the balance have shaped the past of Recluce will show up in other novels in the series. The second book featuring Lerris, the Death of Chaos (the fifth book in publication order and the last chronologically) is perhaps the ultimate example of what irresponsible use of order/chaos magic can lead to. The author is clearly showing the reader that we see things to the order-oriented characters and that they present only part of the story.

The Magic of Recluce contains a lot of details that Modesitt would explore in later books. The character Justen, whom Lerris meets in Candar, will be the main character in The Order War. Cassius, one of Lerris' teachers will star in one of the three short stories in the Recluce setting Modesitt wrote to date. The author of the book The Basis of Order, which guides Lerris for part of his journey, will appear in The Magic Engineer and Rahl, the hero in Natural Ordermage and Mage-Guard of Hamor is mentioned briefly (if not by name). It makes this novel a great book to reread when you have a few more novels in this series under your belt. Worldbuilding is definitely another strength of the book and the series as a whole.

The book does require an unusual amount of patience form the reader. As I mentioned before the story takes of slowly and a lot of the time, Lerris is involved in fairly mundane activities such as woodworking, having a meal, travelling etc. Modesitt uses these activities to outline what is going on in the world around Lerris but the relevance of much of what he sees is not always apparent right away. Some readers will consider these scenes repetitive or unnecessary. As a result the moments when Lerris is forced into action can seem sudden and out of the blue, even if they make sense upon reflection. Personally the supposed repetitiveness of certain scenes in these books never bothered me in any individual book in the series. Do remember that there is sixteen of them however, reading them all back to back is probably not a good idea.

The Magic of Recluce is not the most accessible of novels, especially considering the fact that it is the start of a large fantasy series. Modesitt probably didn't expect to write this many books in the series, but in this first novel he is clearly building something larger than this first novel. The magic system and geopolitical situation in the world of Recluce is still a bit underdeveloped in this novel and a lot of hints the author drops make more sense when the reader has read a few more books in the series. I liked it better the second time I read it. Patience is the word. Give it a go, consider your initial response to what you are reading carefully and in the end The Magic of Recluce will prove a rewarding read.

Book Details
Title: The Magic of Recluce
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 501
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85723-201-1
First published: 1991

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Mirrored Heavens - David J. Williams

In the summer of 2008 I won a contest over at the site that is now The prize was a singed copy of The Mirrored Heavens by David J. Williams. The book arrived a couple of weeks later and ended up on the to read stack, where it has been residing ever since. Not a very nice thing to do, I suspect the author mailed these himself. I humbly apologize for neglecting the book for so long. If it hadn't been my latest Amazon order being a bit late, it probably would have spent even more time on the stack. I found a book that is probably a love it or hate it story. Personally, I have decided this book is not really my cup of tea.

The Mirrored Heavens is the first novel in the Autumn Rain trilogy. In this book Williams paints a break picture of the next century. On the overcrowded and environmentally degraded world a new cold war has started and the world is again divided in two major camps. Most of the Americas are united in one camp, while the Eurasian coalition makes up the other party. Some nations have managed to stay neutral but their role on the international political stage is limited. In recent years an understanding between these two great powers has been reached and things appear fairly stable. They have even undertaken a joint project in space project. All hell breaks loose when a mysterious group of rebels known as Autumn Rain brings this project to an abrupt end. We follow several characters through the violence that erupts, both in the real world as well as in cyberspace.

Williams has created an interesting time line for his 22nd century. Unfortunately almost none of it can be found in the story itself. There is a very helpful appendix on the history of the world between 2035 and 2110 in the book and I suggest you read it before reading the novel itself. Some of the novel makes a lot more sense with that time line in the back of your head. The story itself does not give the reader any time to get accustomed to this alien future. It launches into a frantic action scene early on in the book and it takes a while for the story to slow down. Slow being a relative term here. Williams never really lets up the relentless pace he sets early on in the book. Williams obviously likes action scenes and I am impressed with his ability to convey the urgency of battle in them.

These action scenes, as well written as they may be, can't carry the entire novel however and I am less impressed with his characters. Most of them are very well trained professionals. Especially early on in the novel they do their job with a clinical, coldness that makes it hard for the reader to really get into their head. Most of the characters seem to fit this mould, making them hard to keep apart at first. They are also low enough in the various organisations they serve that they get information on a need to know bases. To shoot a rebel base to tiny bits you evidently don't need to know a lot. There is a major power struggle going on over their heads, one that the characters have very little knowledge of. And what's worse, no way of knowing if what they are being told is actually true. In effect, what their superiors tell them acts almost as a deus ex machina, with the direction of the plot changing a number of times when some more information trickles down the chain of command.

Because of all the pulse pounding action the novel provides, the overall story suffered a bit and that is a shame given the effort Williams put into creating a realistic scenario for the next century or so. There are very interesting hints of major changes in society. The US seems to have gone through a political collapse and is now something that could be called a military run state. Voting in limited to veterans (a nod to Heinlein's Starship Troopers perhaps?). There's evidence of oil shortages and severe climate change. The Indian subcontinent seems to have been wiped of the map economically in a past war, etc, etc, etc. Most of this is from the appendix, very little of it makes it to the actual story.

The Mirrored Heavens is something of a mix of techno-thriller and cyberpunk. For fans of either sub-genre there is quite a lot to like about this book. It definitely has some of the best realized future battle scenes I've come across. For someone with my obsession for environmental matters, political considerations and societal change this novel is not a really satisfying read. A lot is hinted at but even more has to make way, to keep the pace of the story as high as it is. The Mirrored Heavens was not a bad read but it doesn't really offer what I am looking for in a science fiction novel either.

Book Details
Title: The Mirrored Heavens
Author: David J. Williams
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 409
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-38541-0
First published: 2008

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Profeet van de Duivel - Adrian Stone

I picked up a copy of Profeet van de Duivel (literally: The Devil's Prophet) in early 2007. The first version of this book appeared under the author's real name, Ad van Tiggelen, and was published by a publishing on demand company Gopher. The book did well enough to catch the attention of Luitingh Fantasy, one of the two major publishers of Fantasy in the Netherlands. The reissued it after a solid round op professional editing under the pseudonym Adrian Stone. Dutch publishers seem to have the strange notion that an English sounding name will help sell the book abroad. For the English language market, sales definitely do not inspire confidence in this theory. Profeet van de Duivel was followed by two sequels, Zoon van de Duivel en Ziel van de Duivel. I've reviewed those books already on this blog. I didn't want to base a review of Profeet van de Duivel on the Gopher edition however, so the review of book one had to wait for me to get my hands on the Luitingh edition. I think this is the first time I paid twice for the same book.

The story of main character Marak begins when the Catarist religious order he's been forced into, is violently suppressed. Their leader Zabatha, also known as the Prophet, has been taken captive. In recent years his followers have made a bloody attempt at gaining worldly power and the religious war that followed shook the kingdom of Carolia on its foundations. With the Prophet safely put away, rebuilding can now begin. For Marak the future looks bleak. During introduction into the Catarist order he has been forced to sacrifice one of his fingers to their dark god and he is now forever branded as a follower of a religion that brought death and destruction. His talent for channelling divine power is so impressive that he is granted a chance to test for one of the other religious orders in Carolia. After a nerve wrecking test, Marak is taking in by the followers of Ava, the god providing balance.

Year pass and although Marak is seen as an outsider by most of the order, he is without a doubt one of the more promising students. Cataris is not about to leave such a talented diciple alone however and when Marak makes the mistake of channelling his power in a place where Ava cannot be reached, he is expelled from the order. Outside the walls of the abbey he finds that the influence of Cataris is on the rise again. Carolia is heading for a new conflict with his tenacious followers and Marak finds himself right in the middle of it. Choosing sides proves difficult when the link to Marak's past and old religion appears impossible to sever.

I expected quite a bit of editing and perhaps a bit of rewriting for this new edition. I've reread some passages in the original publication and I can clearly see evidence of some serious editing but the rewriting seems to have been kept to a minimum. One part of the story that seems to have been rewritten is Marak's first visit to the island of Furka, a place that will also play an important part in later books. I also got the impression that the climax of the novel received a lot of attention from the editors. Some of it has definitely done the book a world of good, it reads faster than the original and has a more polished feel to it. On the other hand I did get the impression it was edited towards the kind of fantasy which Luitingh likes to publish. Novels not to complicated in terms of plot and language, with the real thematic complexities hidden in nooks and crannies where the reader can safely ignore them in favour of a thrilling story and of course conforming to generally accepted tropes of the genre. With the emphasis on religion and spirituality in the book is properly used, this novel could have distinguished itself a bit more from the mass of epic fantasy which is currently being translated into Dutch.

A bit of a missed opportunity as religion is without a doubt the most complex aspect of this novel. Stone describes four gods and their religious orders as well as the relations between them and the inevitable politics this involves. They do not get in the way of a very fast paced story however. Stone reveals more in the sequels but never quite enough to satisfy a fan of epic fantasy worldbuilding. I suspect the ascension of Cataris, who once walked the earth as a human being, would make a very nice prequel to this existing series. From the hits Stone drops in his story it must have been quite a dramatic event. Whether the other deities have human origins as well remains a mystery.

Another aspect that stands out in this book is the development of Marak's character. He doesn't have a particularly easy childhood. Moving form the clutches of a cult condoning human sacrifice to an order that does not really want him in their midst, Marak is an outsider for most of his life. Stone portrays him as a man who keeps his distance from people (usually with good reason). His past as part of the Catarists' cult hangs above him like a dark cloud. Part of the climax of this novel is facing this dark past but his connection to Cataris carries over to the next novels as well.

With Profeet van de Duivel Stone performed a feat not many authors ever manage, to rise above the mass of self published material and become a professional author. Or at least as professional as possible in a market that is too small to support full time authors. This fact alone makes it a noteworthy release in Dutch speculative fiction. I must admit that upon rereading it, I thought the next two books are better. Marak matures a bit in those books and Stone experiments with multiple story lines to an extend that Profeet van de Duivel can't match. There's clearly progression in the quality of the writing. As such, Profeet van de Duivel is a very enjoyable read but not a brilliant book in itself. It's a promise, a sign that, yes, it is possible to write fantasy in Dutch and get published and that the genre may aspire to more than the current, somewhat amateurish state most active writers find themselves in. But above all, let's not forget that, it is the start of what could be a very interesting writing career. Stone is an author I will keep an eye on in years to come.

Book Details
Title: Profeet van de Duivel
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 335
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-2946-9
First published: 2009

Friday, November 12, 2010

Towers of Midnight - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The first barrage of Towers of Midnight reviews burst over us on November 2nd, when Tor's embargo on reviews was lifted. I had to wait for the book like everybody else however, it took me a bit longer to come up with one. So for those of you who haven't had their fill of Tower of Midnight reviews, here we go. The thirteenth and second to last book in the series is one that is gathers the scattered plot lines and ties off a number of loose ends. As a result it is a lot less focussed than The Gathering Storm but it does make some great strides towards the climax of the series.

A plot summary is almost impossible for this book. Pretty much all the main characters make an appearance in this novel. If there is a focus I suppose it is on Mat and Perrin. Mat finally manages to introduce gunpowder into war and gears up for a final confrontation with the snakes and foxes, while Perrin tackles the last obstacles in his way to Tarmon Gai'don: the Whitecloaks and his status as Lord of the Two Rivers. Egwene and Elayne are mostly busy solidifying their position as Amyrlin Seat and Queen of Andor. Aviendha makes a brief appearance in her quest to make the remnant of a remnant of her people that will survive the breaking as large as possible. Rand himself in the mean time, implements his new insights gained in the crisis that was the finale of The Gathering Storm.

The world is not waiting for the Dragon Reborn to put all the pieces just right before the last battle. The world is more clearly affected by the shadow with each passing day. Crops rot in the fields, food supplies mysteriously spoil overnight and starvation is rearing it's ugly head. The Dark One takes more direct approach as well. Trollocs overrun Bordeland outposts and Saldea is invaded by a massive army of shadowspawn. Elsewhere in the lands various plots by the shadow's minions are also nearing completion. In short, the forces of the Light are running out of time.

With Sanderson tackling the full breadth of Wheel of Time characters in this book, it is noticeably different from The Gathering Storm. Sanderson keeps a good pace in this novel. It is a large book but as I mentioned above, he had a lot of loose ends to tie up. It reads a lot faster then for instance Crossroads of Twilight, where Jordan's tendency to get bogged down in vivid descriptions of things irrelevant to the story he was trying to tell reached a peak. Cutting back on the descriptions of dresses helps, but a large part in the pacing of this novel is also in the way in which Sanderson switches from point of view in a chapter. Jordan didn't do this a lot. In the early books most chapters were seen through the eyes of one character. Later on he switches a bit more. In Towers of Midnight the point of view changes a lot. A good example is chapter 7, in which the point of view bounces back and froth between Perrin and Galad. It also tends to have slightly shorter chapters than the last books Jordan wrote solo. I can't really tell for sure of course, but I suspect Towers of Midnight has a bit less of Jordan's writing in it than The Gathering Storm.

The pace Sanderson sets has its disadvantages too. A great many story lines left hanging are tied up in this novel. In some part of the book it felt like the Sanderson was checking items to be resolved from a to do list. Only Perrin escapes this to an extent. He seems to receive more than his share of attention in this book. Many of the issues dealt with in this novel have been theorized to death by the Wheel of Time fanatics and as a result there wasn't all that much going on in this book that really surprised me. What I did think an interesting development is the way the responsibilities the young people we started out with have taken on and how it affects their relationship. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Elayne are all in a position of considerable political and military power, their perspectives, motivations and agenda have begun to drift apart. The rift between Rand and Egwene is most prominent in this novel. The days when they seemed destined to be married in The Eye of the World are long gone.

The high stakes the main characters are playing for these days does seem to have made them a touch more reasonable. Rand in particular is on a quest of reconciliation with as many of those whom he once treated badly as he can find. Rand's mild behaviour is a stark contrast from the increasingly erratic behaviour he's shown throughout the later books. It is not limited to him however, with the Last Battle looming a lot of characters seem to be more willing to compromise. It has taken the edge of Faile's behaviour as well (do I hear a sigh of relief here?) and even Egwene seems to have given up her policy of tricking the Aes Sedai into having her way. All this being reasonable takes the edge of the rather strained relationship between the genres a bit. A good thing as they had reached ridiculous proportions in earlier books.

There are a number of major issues left for the final volume besides the Last Battle. Besides the looming conflict between Egwene and her supporters and Rand's (the division still appears to run along gender lines for this one) the Seanchan prophecy that the Dragon will kneel before the Crystal Throne is the most important. That took me by surprise, the title of this book refers to the Seanchan but their part in it is minimal. Rand also has to deal with the mess he created in establishing and then neglecting the Black Tower. With Aviendha very concerned about what it going to happen after the Last Battle there will probably need to be some sort of epilogue as well. Plenty of material left for the final book, A Memory of Light. Sanderson cleared a lot of things of his plate but I still think the final novel is going to be a big one.

While Jordan and Sanderson get a lot done in this book, I didn't think it was a truly inspired piece of writing. A lot of this book is about how things will happen rather than what will happen, Sanderson is executing a story lines that were set in motion half a dozen or more books earlier. With fans and a publisher demanding an end to the seemingly everlasting series this puts some severe restrictions on how many words Sanderson can spend on properly developing the story. I must admit I wasn't sure a split in three books would be necessary but seeing how things play out, three begins to look like an absolute minimum. If I didn't know this book to be part of a huge series, I'd say it suffered from the middle book syndrome. Will fans like this book? Absolutely. It is Wheel of Time, it is competently written by a man who's insight into the world is close to that of The Creator and especially in the large scale battle scenes where very well done. As for me, I'm not quite as excited about it as The Gathering Storm.

Book Details
Title: Towers of Midnight
Author: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 861
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2594-5
First published: 2010