Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Gold Coast - Kim Stanley Robinson

The Gold Coast is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Califonias series. I read the first part, the Wild Shore during a vacation in the Czech republic in 2007 and ordered the other two books right after I came back. They ended up on my to read stack though, I just didn't get around to reading them. Time to change that. In the Three Californias trilogy Robinson presents three radically different future Californias. Where The Wild Shore showed us a post apocalyptic society, The Gold Coast is more or less a continuation of where most people assume were heading at the moment. California is slowly turning into a gigantic mall, the part that isn't covered by freeways that is.

A synopsis of this book is pretty hard, we get a lot of different points of view in this book. The central character is Jim McPherson though. Jim is the son of a defence contractor. His family is well to do and he moves in fashionable circles but he's not a happy man. For one thing he can't get along with his father. Jim has socialist ideas and they clash with what his father is doing. Professionally Jim is not doing that well. He works two part-time job but doesn't make enough money to support himself. The only place where he is somewhat at ease is among his friends. His life of designer drugs, casual sex and rampant consumerism leaves him empty. Jim is acutely aware of the history of his native Orange County and how much of it has disappeared under the concrete of freeways and apartment blocks. He needs a purpose, a way to strike back at a system he despises and one of his friends is in a position to offer him that. Jim enters the world of industrial terrorism and heads straight for a major crisis in his life.

Where in the previous book California and its society were barely recognizable as such, the picture this books paints is all to familiar. According to the back cover it is set in 2027 and as far as I can tell we're pretty much on track to what Robinson describes. Socially and economically anyway. This book was first published in 1988 and in some respects it shows its age. Video tape is still around and the Soviets are as well The cold war is still driving a huge industrial-military complex, boosting the local economy. Despite the ever present threat of nuclear war, smaller conflicts are breaking out all over the globe, often involving the US. The violence is one of the things that repulses Jim.

The Gold Coast is very cleverly constructed. Though a number of characters we see the events that will have an impact of Jim's life unfold without any of the characters overseeing the whole drama. The novel clearly shows the sometimes disastrous outcome of uninformed decisions. After finishing it, it occurred to me that a lot of what is going on is influenced by the decisions of a man who has something like fifteen lines in the book in total. Robinson portrays him as rational but also very hard. Jim ends the book on a positive note but I am not sure that goes for the reader as well, most of us would like to think we have a little more control over our lives.

Orange County, where most of the novel is set, it the place where Robinson grows up. Throughout the book you sense a kind of melancholia for al the things that were and went away in the region. With little bits of Jim's writing on the history of the region mixed in with the rest of the story we more or less cover it from pre-history to Jim's time. Robinson obviously loves the region he grew up in but the sadness of so many beautiful things disappearing under the ever expanding concrete of suburbia penetrates the entire novel. I'm not entirely sure it is fitting for Jim, it seems to me that you to have at least seen some of those things disappear for it to evoke this kind of feeling. By the time Jim is born, around the turn of the century I think, most of what he describes is gone. Jim goes so far as to look for a bit of tangible evidence of the past to compensate for its absence in twenty first century Orange County. This incident is set in the opening chapters of the book and appears to be the a number of young fellows under the influence of drugs. For Jim it obviously goes deeper than that.

All three novels share one character: Uncle Tom. Like in The Wild Shore he is a very old man in this book, tucked away in a nursing home because of his failing lungs. Where Tom tries to hang on to some little bits of civilization in the previous book, that same civilization is almost torture for him. Sure, he is looked after and kept alive but that is about all. He definitely appears happier in The Wild Shore, it seems an overdose of technology is not going to make people happy either. Given the fact that the third and final book is utopian, that may well be the message Robinson wants the reader to carry along to the next book.

This is probably a very silly thing to say in a review but I haven't quite made up my mind about this book yet. I guess it is one of those novels where you can appreciate the skill it took to write it, identify with the main characters and recognize a lot of what the author is showing you but still not causes you to write a rave review right after you finish it. If anything is leaves the reader a bit melancholic as well. At one point in the novel Jim realized that whatever he decides to do, it will make no difference whatsoever in the long run. The Gold Coast does not portray a happy future but for those of you who are willing to brave it, there is an awful lot to think about in this novel. I suppose I am ready to look at another alternative. Surely we can do better than this future.

Book Details
Title: The Gold Coast
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb books
Pages: 389
Year: 1995
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-89037-7
First published: 1988

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

I picked up my girlfriend's copy of His Majesty's Dragon a while ago when my stack of to read fantasy novels had reached a low and I was pleasantly surprised by it. I'm still not sure if I will stay on board for the whole series, I understand Novik means to write nine books in total, but the second book in the Temeraire series was definitely on my to read list. Although the story picks up where His Majesty's Dragon ended, in many respects Throne of Jade is quite a different book. Novik manages to surprise me a second time.

With the battle of Trafalgar won and the French areal invasion fleet defeated things calm down slightly for Laurence and Temeraire. Until the Chinese show up that is. Their prized Celestial was a gift to the French Emperor Napoleon and they refuse to accept he is now used to fight England's battles. An unworthy activity for such a fine specimen, he must return to China. Laurence finds himself separated from Temeraire and withdrawn from patrol duties. An meeting with the Chinese diplomats turns into a disaster and after a blatant attempt to separate the two permanently Temeraire makes his opinion know by flying away with Laurence to join their fellows in a battle over the Channel.

Since Laurence and Temeraire cannot be parted it and the Chinese refuse to abandon him to the British the only possible compromise seems to be for Laurence to accompany Temeraire on the long journey. Preparations by the nearly desperate British officials are made swiftly and soon the Chinese delegation as well as Laurence and Temeraire are on a dragon transport ship on the high seas. Their journey will take many months and there will certainly be some surprises waiting for them at the end of it.

Throne of Jade starts off familiar enough with some heated discussion by Laurence over Temeraire's treatment as well as a spectacular areal battle in the opening stages of the novel. The character of the novel soon changes though. A large part of the tale is dedicated to the trip to China, which in 1806 could take more than half a year. With little to do on board there is plenty of time for introspection and Laurence does his share of that. The Chinese are obviously trying to get into Temeraire's good graces and pry him away from the barbarians why currently hold his affection. Laurence is not quite sure how to deal with that.

On the other hand he is curious too. Chinamen in the west was far from a common occurrence in those days. They know almost nothing of each other's habits, customs and society. Despite the formidable language barrier, Novik seems to have a more realistic idea on how fast a human can learn a language completely unrelated to their own, progress is being made. These clashes between the their cultures are very well done. I rather enjoyed this part of the book. If you liked the previous book for the relentless pace Novik sets it is going to be a bit of a disappointment but I thought it was one of the better parts of the novel. Laurence and Temeraire grow more on that journey than in the rest of the first two books combined.

As much as I have enjoyed it, the extended journey does not leave all that much of the book to be spent in China. It makes the book as a whole a bit unbalanced. Novik avoids a lot of the Chinese court politics by keeping Laurence and Temeraire locked up in their pavilion for most of their time there. The accommodation reached at the end of the book has very little to do with Laurence himself and a lot of the intrigue goes right over his head. Novik clearly introduces the themes for the next book in the second half of Throne of Jade, one which could potentially be very interesting. With all this growing up the characters do and all the preparing the reader for the next book, Throne of Jade clearly exhibits the symptoms of the middle book syndrome and I don't think that was quite necessary.

Another difference with His Majesty's Dragonn is that we're much less reminded of the historical context of the book. Napoleon is a distant threat for most of it. There are references to the Battle of Austerlitz and the end of the Third Coalition, usually considered one of his biggest victories and to the (second) British takeover of the Dutch Cape Colony but nothing that really touches the story directly. I also get the impression that China is presented as a stronger state than it was at the time, the first cracks in the rule of the Qing dynasty had already appeared by then. There are some hints as to what is going on in the Chinese empire at the time but I would not have minded a bit more detail in this respect.

I enjoyed Throne of Jade just as much as His Majesty's Dragon but for quite different reasons. Both have their flaws but more than enough good points for the balance to be positive. I guess Throne of Jade is a bit harder to like, with little of the book focussed on battles and aerial acrobatics but that is hardly something the author can be expected to keep up for nine books. Perhaps Novik has not quite found the right balance between action and developing her characters and the relationships between them. Something I hope Novik can improve on in the third book Black Powder War. I guess I am on board for one more at least.

Book Details
Title: Throne of Jade
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 399
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-48129-0
First published: 2006

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Servant of the Underworld - Aliette de Bodard

I recently read de Bodard's story The Lost Xuyan Bride in The Apex Book of World SF and found it one of the highlights of the collection (if you are interested, it can be read on the author's website). One of the things I liked about it was the use of two non-Western cultures in this alternative history/detective story. Normally I am a bit more cautious but based on that story I decided to give her début novel Servant of the Underworld, the first novel in the Obsidian and Blood series a go. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. It turned out to be a fast-paced and exciting, historical fantasy/mystery.

Servant of the Underworld is set in Tenochtitlan in 1480. At that time the centre of the Aztec empire and close to reaching it's largest territorial expansion. In the vibrant capital politicians, priests and warriors vie for influence at the court of the Revered Speaker and sacrifices in blood are part of everyday life to appease the gods. Even human sacrifices are deemed necessary at times to make sure the fifth world does not end. Our main character Acatl is a small player in the political minefield of Tenochtitlan. As high-priest of the dead, he worships Mictlantecuhtli, a relatively unimportant deity.

Acatl prefers to stay out of politics, immersing himself in guiding the recently deceased to his god's domain with the proper rituals and sacrifices as well as comforting those left behind. His appointment as high-priest could not have come to a person who wanted it less. When he is called away from his temple to investigate what appears to be a murder he soon finds out that there is no escaping politics. Arriving at the scene of the crime the case looks straightforward. His brother Neutemoc is found covered in blood. Enough blood that the victim cannot have survived even though no body is present. Acatl is forced to undertake the investigation and come to his brother's defence. What appears to be straightforward soon leads him to the highest circles of Aztec society and beyond.

De Bodard sets her story in a culture that has, shall we say, a reputation for being bloodthirsty. It would have been pretty easy for the author to exploit that for shock value. Something that whoever wrote the cover text was quite aware of. The author does not need to emphasize that element of the story to make it a good book. She does not spare us the Aztec's rather frightening pantheon, nor a ritually sacrificed animal or two but all as everyday part of life. The main character and narrator (the book is written in the first person) is so used to these practices that he doesn't seem to deem them worthy of elaborate description and that, I think, makes the character of Acatl a whole lot more convincing that he would otherwise have been.

To further flesh out this character the author adds a quite complicated relationship with his brother. The man who fulfilled his parents' wishes for their children and gained honour on the field of battle. His parents' rejection of his modest ambitions of being a priest still stings. Perfect he may seem, Neutemoc is human enough. Accused of murder, a pawn in the power struggles his warrior society is involved in, a marriage that is about to collapse, his parents should have seen him now. As one of the gods Acatl encounters puts is, he is full of regrets and bitterness. He's also a well rounded character.

Although de Bodard admits to taking a few liberties with history in the author's note, she certainly could have fooled me. It is not a period I am very well acquainted with but I thought the historical setting was well realized. If this book is ever made into an audio book I do pity the person doing the reading. Aztec names are often long and seemingly impossible to pronounce. To prevent them from blurring into random syllables instead of characters I did have to check to character list thoughtfully provided by the author early on in the tale. She also added a list of the most important Aztec terms and concepts to help us along. I would not mind seeing that expanded a bit in book two. It makes for interesting reading.

An interesting and unusual setting, a well rounded main character (did you ever meet a priest of the dead being the good guy in a fantasy novel?) and a brisk pace. This novel has a lot going for it. What makes this début even more impressive is the fact that the author has written it in her second language. Since it is my second language as well I am probably not the one to tell you if this in noticeable in the novel. De Bodard doesn't go for elaborate sentences or complicated vocabulary (save the Aztec terms) but then, you don't have to be a second language speaker to avoid that. She certainly manages a whole lot better than I do in this review. I'd say Servants of the Underworld is one of the better débuts I have read recently. Definitely worth checking out. I am certainly going to keep an eye out for the second book.

If you want to make Acatl's acquaintance without committing to a novel you can try this story on the author's website. It clearly served as a starting point for the novel.

Book Details
Title: Servant of the Underworld
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 431
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-734654-7
First published: 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rise of the Terran Empire - Poul Anderson

Rise of the Terran Empire is the third in a series of seven books collecting all of Anderson's writings in the Technic civilization setting. The stories are presented by internal chronology and in this book we have reached the boundary between the two eras Anderson put most of these stories in. The time of the Polesotechnic league, Nicolas van Rijn and David Falkayn and the era of the Terran Empire and Dominic Flandry. The previous two books contained quite a few pieces of short fiction but this third tome includes two full novels with room left over for four shorter works. One of these, Sargasso of Lost Starships, originally published in Planet Stories, appears for the first time in book form so if you are a completist this is a must have.

The collection opens with the 1977 novel Mirkheim. It features both Falkayn and van Rijn in what will be their last adventure. A war between a recently civilized alien species and the Commonwealth over a planet rich in rare metals Falkayn discovered earlier in his career, shows just how unprepared, weak and utterly divided the Commonwealth and the Polesotechnic league have become. Van Rijn decides to gather the crew of spaceship Muddlin' Trough for a mission of intelligence gathering before hostilities break out.

It features some peculiar monologues by van Rijn of the virtues of being an independent trader and the evils of government and regulations. Given the state of the league and van Rijn's unmistakable dissatisfaction with it, I must say I have some trouble grasping his position at times. Anderson creates a very dark, gloomy atmosphere in this book, as if everybody is waiting for the end of an era, which I suppose is what this book heralds. I thought it was an interesting read but the second novel contained in this volume is more interesting.

Before we get to that there are a few shorter pieces first though. Wingless (1973, sometimes referred to as Wingless on Avalon) is the first of a number of stories in this collection featuring the birdlike Ythrians, and a joint human/Ythri colony on Avalon. A descendant young descendant of Falkayn spends a lot of time in the company of a group of rather condescending Ythrian youths. They soon find out that being able to fly isn't a benefit in all situations. This story was a bit too moralizing for my taste. It doesn't help that the next one is a variation on this theme.

Rescue on Avalon (1973) is another story of Ythrian/human interaction on Avalon. A young human finds himself the only one close enough to assist a Ythrian in serious trouble after a big storm. He secretly holds a grudge against the Ythrians but rescues him anyway and learns there is strength in diversity. Same comment as the previous story really.

In the next story, The Starplunderer (1952), we meet the founder of the Terran Empire. The commonwealth has weakened to a point where human controlled space is being overrun by barely civilized alien races. During the second sack of earth John Henry Reeves is taken prisoner by the Gorzuni. On the ship carrying him away from earth he meets Manuel, a man with designs to take over the ship and he can use John's help to achieve this aim. Manuel has quite a megalomaniac streak. It makes him a very interesting character. Given the pivotal moment in Technic history it describes I am surprised it never made it into one of the earlier collections of Technic history material. I quite liked it.

In Sargasso of Lost Starships (1951) we see the empire several generations after Manuel founds it. It's still expanding rapidly. Basil Donovan, former nobleman from a recent addition to the empire is dragged away on a mission to explore a nearby nebula. The Terrans do not know what to expect but he has been there before. It is not a place he particularly wants to return to. This 1950s story is a bit pulpy, which I generally do not like. Anderson creates a very alien and somewhat scary atmosphere in Sargasso of Lost Starships that made me overcome my usual feelings of pulp SF. It's creepy but I liked it a lot.

The novel People of the Wind (1973), which got Anderson Nebula, Hugo and Locus award nominations, closes this volume. In this novel a large Terran fleet sets out to readjust the border with the Ythrian dominated Dominion. The Dominion does not seem to stand a chance against the might of the Terran Empire but especially on Avalon, people have decided to make conquest as expensive as possible. For such a short novel Anderson uses an awful lot of different points of view. On the one hand this gives us a very detailed idea of what is going on. On the other, I didn't quite grow attached to any of them. Anderson includes quite a bit of personal drama in his story. I think it could have had a bigger impact if he had focussed to story on a few less characters. It is nonetheless the best piece in this collection, not at all hard to see why it got all those award nominations.

The two stories I did not like where the shortest of the bunch, so overall I liked this volume quite a lot. Without the focus on van Rijn and Falkayn it is a bit more varied than the previous volume David Falkayn: Star Trader. The transition from the Commonwealth to the Empire is, despite the fact that these stories were written over a period of twenty-five years, a recognizable overarching theme in all if them. When you think about this, it certainly is an achievement to write such an impressive future history completely out of chronological order and end up with something that on most levels makes sense. The fourth volume, Young Flandry, is published this month. Despite me liking this book a lot, I still haven't decided whether I will buy a copy. The cover art is an atrocious for one thing. For another, Flandry is something of a James Bond in space. I am not entirely sure if that kind of story suits me. No regrets on purchasing Rise of the Terran Empire though, I just wish Baen had continued this series in hardcover instead of switching to paperback.

Book Details
Title: Rise of the Terran Empire
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 480
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3275-3
First published: 2009

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan

As Adam over at The Wertzone points out, it has been twenty years since the release of The Eye of the World, a landmark in the fantasy genre. I haven't been reading the series that long of course. I was 13 at the time and had barely begun to learn English. The first Dutch translations didn't appear until 1994. I picked up my first Wheel of Time book in the summer of 1999 and read all available titles as soon as I could get my hands on them. The Wheel of Time got me into online communities and ultimately into book reviewing as well. To say it has been an influence on me is understating its importance. I'm ashamed that almost missed it.

To mark the occasion I posted a review of
The Eye of the World I wrote in late 2008 as part of a reread of the entire series in preparation of the release of The Gathering Storm. I've fixed a few minor errors but other than that the review is unchanged. At the time the title of the book Brandon Sanderson was completing had not been announced so I am referring to it as A Memory of Light.

The Eye of the World is the first book in Jordan’s hugely successful Wheel of Time series. I don’t know of any other book that has gets so many “this book got me into fantasy” comments as this one. This isn’t true for me. I had already read Tolkien, Feist and Hobb by the time I arrived at Jordan’s work. He had me hooked right from the prologue though and I keep coming back to this book in particular. I must have read this book half a dozen times now. My ever expanding library has put it’s qualities a different perspective over the years. It is definitely not without its flaws, in fact, for such a hugely influential work The Eye of the World is a surprisingly mediocre book. But I love it anyway.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Thus Jordan introduces us to the Wheel of Time and the Two Rivers. The Two Rivers area is a very isolated corner of the world. It is nominally part of the Kingdom of Andor but that nation, like so many others, cannot control the territory it claims on the map. Two Rivers folk have looked after themselves for generations now. Many of them do not know they have a Queen. On the evening before the festival of Bel Tine, the spring festival in the Two Rivers. Rand al’Thor and his father Tam are travelling to the village of Emond’s Field to deliver apple brandy to the local in. Spring may officially be beginning but winter’s hand still lies heavy on the land. It has been a very hard winter and Rand is looking forward to the festival.

Before they reach the village Rand spots a rider cloaked in black behind them on the road. He vanishes when Rand alerts his father. Rand doubts whether the rider was actually there but when they arrive in the village his friends Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara have also seen the rider in the past few days. And there is more news, a mysterious lady by the name of Moiraine has arrived, accompanied by the warrior Lan. A Gleeman has also made an appearance at the inn in Emond’s field. And to top it all off the peddler Paddan Fain has arrived with disturbing news from outside the Two Rivers. All of this makes Tam uneasy. They decide to go back to their farm and return to the village for the festival the day after.

That night the farm is attacked by Trollocs, creatures of the dark who have not been seen so far south in millennia. Rand thought them stories only. Both Rand and Tam survive but Tam is wounded and unable to travel. Rand manages to get him to the village only to find it in ruins as well. The Trollocs have raided it too. During the attack Moiraine has revealed herself to be an Aes Sedai, a wielder of the One Power, the force that drives the Wheel of Time. For Moiraine it is clear what the Trollocs were after, Rand, Perrin and Mat. Aes Sedai are much feared and mistrusted throughout the land but she manages to convince the boys the only way to prevent the Trollocs from returning and completely destroying the village is leaving the Two Rivers. She plans to take them to the city that houses the White Tower, Tar Valon, the seat of Aes Sedai power and one of the most beautiful cities west of the Spine of the World.

Tam gives Rand his blessing and in the night a party consisting of Rand, Perrin, Mat, Lan, Moiraine and the innkeeper’s daughter Egwene al’Vere set out for Tar Valon. The gleeman, Thom Merrilin decides to travel with them, for a while at least. During their flight from the Two Rivers they are hunted by Trollocs and worse. When they ford the river Taren, the only place into the Two Rivers they seem save for a while. The boys and Egwene know very little about the outside world but going back does not appear to be an option. In fact their journey has just begun. Meanwhile, the village Wisdom of Emond’s Field will not stand by idly while the four youngsters are being taken away. Nyneave al’Meara sets out in pursuit and thus begins a long journey of her own.

The firs thing many readers will notice about The Eye of the World is that a large part of the novel is basically a retelling of The Felllowship of the Ring. There are the hobbits (Emond’s Field youngsters), Gandalf (Moiraine), the uncrowned king Aragorn (Lan), the Black Riders (Fades) and even, although not immediately apparent, a Gollum. Jordan never denied this, he set the beginning of his tale in familiar territory for fantasy readers before branching out into his own world. In a way this is an understandable choice. Jordan sets out to tell a highly complex tale, he needs to get his readers on board before really taking off. In another epic fantasy series I like, Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, the author throws you right in the middle of the story and leaves you to piece things together on your own. Erikson’s books are very rewarding but a lot of readers will not make the effort required to get into the book. On the whole I think I prefer Erikson’s approach. Jordan doesn’t really leave familiar territory for the first 300 or so pages of the book. Not until the party (or should I say fellowship) splits up does the story get really interesting.

Of course there’s still a few rough spots further along in the book. Rand and Mat’s adventures travelling down the road to Caemlyn are narrated in what is basically a big flashback. It has been known to confuse readers. Especially the bit right before they reach the city. Personally I think the climax of the book isn’t a marvel of clarity either. After reading a couple Wheel of Time book it starts to make more sense but Jordan’s world and it’s history is so complex that at a first reading it’s pretty hard to grasp the significance of what happens at the Eye of the World.

Jordan has the prologue going for him though. He’s written one of the most intriguing prologues in fantasy (I am referring to the original prologue here, not the Ravens prologue added in the YA edition of The Eye of the World). It deals with Lews Therin Tellamon’s last moments and the creation of the Dragonmount. It’s this prologue and not so much the first part of the book that had me hooked from the very beginning. It hints at a lot of things we’ll learn about in subsequent novels. It’s also the only bit of writing in the entire series to be set well before the main story. It’s one of those bits of writing where you can already see that Jordan is going to take the story far beyond the trilogy format.

In later books it becomes obvious the story has grown way beyond what Jordan planned, originally it was supposed to be six books, now it looks like book 12 is going to be so big it has to be split up in two volumes. The seeds of this expansion are sown in The Eye of the World. I don’t think I noticed it so much in previous reads but Jordan does leave an awful lot of questions unanswered. Apart from introducing us to a number of main characters Jordan also mentions a lot an awful lot of back story and hints at things that will become important later in the books. To give you an example:
“I will give you justice then, Rand al’Thor,” she said. “First, because I have the advantage of Elaida and Gareth in having heard Two Rivers speech when I was young. You have not the look, but if a dim memory can serve me you have the Two Rivers on your tongue.”

Morgase passing judgement on Rand’s trespassing of the Royal gardens, chapter 40.
The only person we know of who has left the Two Rivers before Rand is Tam al’Thor. In later books it becomes clear Tam had quite an adventure during the Aiel War. So there is a possibility Morgase and Tam met. Whether or not they have is still not cleared but I am pretty sure Jordan meant to pursue this at one point or another in his story. Both Morgase and Tam are in Perrin’s company in Knife of Dreams. Maybe we will find out. On the other hand, Jordan could have meant to use it in one of the prequels he intended to write.

Another example:
“Breyan fled with her infant son Isam, and was run down by Trollocs as she rode south with him. No one knows their fate of a certainty, but it can be guessed. I can find pity only for the boy.”

Lord Agelmar telling Lan’s story, chapter 47
We still don’t know Isam’s fate for a certainty but there have been hints (in The Great Hunt in particular). Death in the conventional meaning of the world can be ruled out I guess. It is another one of the riddles Sanderson should shed some light on in A Memory of Light. It has been said that the story grew too large for Jordan to handle because he kept adding characters and story lines. I would argue that a lot of what makes the story branch out so much has it’s roots in the first two books in the series. It’s what makes rereading the early Wheel of Time books so much fun. You keep noticing these little things that will become important in later books.

The Eye of the World is not the best Wheel of Time book in my opinion, but it is the beginning of an epic journey. A journey that, despite all the criticism of Jordan’s later books, is still one of the biggest achievements in modern fantasy. After half a dozen reads this book doesn’t bore me and I very much doubt it will after half a dozen more. All things considered it is remarkable how this book, that uses a lot of standard fantasy themes and has a few flaws in the writing, grew to be so popular. I think the of the scope of Jordan’s vision has something to with that. This book makes it clear there is a lot more to discover, this sense of anticipation appeals to me, and most likely to a lot of other people as well. Even though I have read and reread the entire series, I still look forward to watching the story unfold again.

Book Details
Title: The Eye of the World
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 670
Year: 1990
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-312-85009-3
First published: 1990

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Arms-Commander - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

I've been taking chances on quite a few books I have read recently, authors I wasn't familiar with, a couple of books outside what I consider my comfort zone and one of two I got on impulse. The results weren't bad but once in a while you have to allow yourself some comfort food and Arms-Commander seemed a good choice for that. It is the sixteenth Recluce book and I have read and reread the previous fifteen so I more or less knew what I was getting into. On the other hand Arms-Commander is the first book in the series where the main character is female and it is the third book in that particular era of the world of Recluce, something he has only done once before, so there was some reason to believe this might not be a very typical Recluce book. For those of you who like their fantasy familiar there is no need to worry. Arms-Commander is a solid entry in the series but will not surprise those who have read the other Recluce books.

The story is set about a decade after Nylan and Ayrlyn left Westwind and toppled Cyador for the nation of Lorth as described in The Chaos Balance, making it the fifth book in the Recluce chronology at the moment. Things have not changed all that much for Westwind in the mean time. It has grown, preparations are well under way to build the keep that is described in The Towers of the Sunset, but it is still a nation surrounded by hostility and constantly bordering on the edge of starvation. Only Marshal Ryba's foresight and their superior military skills keep Westwind from being overrun. Not that past experiences have stopped the neighbouring nations from trying of course. Ryba has foreseen a new attempt by the nation of Gallos to try and conquer them. Preventing them from succeeding will be costly and it also stresses the need for better relations with their neighbours.

Westwind Arms-Commander Saryn will be instrumental in in defeating the Galosians as well as removing the constant treat of invasion by their neighbours. An uneasy peace between the regency of Lornth and Westwind has lasted ever since the defeat of their Overlord in Fall of Angels but now it looks like the regency is about to be replaced by a group of lords in favour of continuing hostilities. It is time for another angel of darkness to descend from the Roof of the World. Saryn is sent to support the Regency with a small force of Westwind guards. A task that seems hopeless from the start.

The first thing I noticed about the book is that Tor has chosen another artist to do the cover. All of the previous Recluce covers have been done by Darrell K. Sweet. Sweet has done a number of decent covers but more than a few of them are crappy and the Recluce books have not escaped those. The covers of The Death of Chaos and The Order War are high on my list of worst fantasy covers ever. I like this one, having people on the cover with anatomically correct proportions is refreshing.

As I've come to expect from books in this series the worldbuilding is very good. The arrival of the Angels some twelve years before this story opens is truly a pivotal moment in the history of Recluce. As a direct result the nations of Westwind and Saronnyn rise and the empire of Cyador falls. It also seems to have had an impact on Hamor, although we only get hints about that. It establishes the legend and attempts to alleviate the effects of centuries of male dominance and repression of women. In a way, Nylan's actions even lead to the founding of the nation of Recluce. There are lots of ties between the stories set in this era and the rest of the series and Modesitt adds a few in Arms-Commander. He hints at the deeds of Kerial, Lorn's son, sometime after the end of Scion of Cyador for instance. Although one might wonder if the author does not tire of this particular creation he certainly creates enough openings for new books. I haven't seen any hints that there are plans for another Recluce book but I would not be surprised if Modesitt wrote a couple in the next few years. *spoiler* Probably not on Saryn though. He tends to end the story once someone attains the throne. *spoiler*

On top of the various links to other books the author creates a very detailed picture of the nation of Lornth, its complex politics and the reasons for its current political instability. The unforeseen consequences of Nylan's actions set the stage for this novel for a large part. It puts Saryn in a position where her intervention can only make matters worse. Saryn is not a politician but she learns a thing or two along the way. The circumstances force her to grow where she would not have sought out such development herself.

The main theme, perhaps even more so than in the Nylan books, is sexism. Much of Saryn's actions and frustrations are driven by her encounters with a culture that restricts women to being housewives and mothers and frequently turns a blind eye to abuse. Often Saryn is faces with a refusal of her opponents to belief her prowess in battle, even in face of clear evidence, which generally leads to crushing defeats at her hands. Personally I thought this aspect of the book was a bit overdone. Given the devastating consequences of opposing the Angels I can see people get more devious but keeping up the direct assaults is madness.

Saryn's opinions and actions do not differ that greatly from any of the other, male, Order-oriented characters. I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of the story. Being female, she needs to prove herself even more that Nylan had to do to establish is authority in Lornth but other than that you probably could have wrote he where is says she. Saryn does use her order/chaos abilities differently from other main characters. I go the impression she seems to think of them more in terms of electromagnetic currents. She never develops her talents as far as some the the other main characters but her approach leads to some nasty tricks on the battle field.

I was looking for comfort food and that is pretty much what I got. Arms-Commander contains most of the elements that makes Recluce books enjoyable in my opinion. The change to a female point of view does not really alter the way Modesitt goes about telling his story. For those of you who think Recluce books are repetitive there is probably no point in reading Arms-Commander, for fans of the series this book is a solid entry in the Recluce saga. I thought it was neither the best nor the worst Recluce book. Perhaps the female point of view did not quite make the difference I'd hoped it would but I enjoyed it anyway.

Edit 20-01-2010: A blog entry by the author relating to this review can be found here.

Book Details
Title: Arms-Commander
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 527
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2381-1
First published: 2010

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Platinum Pohl - Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl turned ninety a couple of months ago, he's one of the last golden age writers still with us. I discovered his blog last year and it is a treasure among author blogs, I've been following it religiously ever since. Until I read The Last Theorem, his collaboration with another of the science fiction greats, Arhtur C. Clarke, I had never actually read anything by him and that of course had to change. Pohl does not appear to have a great many books in print at the moment but among the more recent publications is the collection Platinum Pohl, A career spanning collection of his best short fiction. Almost every collection of short fiction contains weak stories but I was absolutely blown away by editor James Frenkel's selection of Pohl's work. It is one of the best collections of short fiction I have ever read.

Platinum Pohl contains a total of thirty stories, too many to comment on each of them but I'll name a number of the highlights. The opening story is The Merchants of Venus. A novella length work and the first work than mentions the Heechee, which he would later write a number of novels about. The story deals with the dangers of exploring Venus and how to stay alive one a reasonable income in a high cost environment. I thought his description of Venus very interesting, the way Pohl imagines transport in particular. The story also has a very nice twist at the end, as do many of the other stories in this collection. It has made me add the novel Gateway to my to read list.

My Lady in Green Sleeves is set in a world where classes are strictly separated by profession. It has gone so far that one person will not even attempt to do part of another's job in the absence of a worker from that particular class, believing himself or herself too incompetent to even try. They even have trouble understanding each other's jargon. There is one environment where all these classes meet and that is in prison. This explosive mixture of talents is bound to be trouble and Captian of the Guard Liam O'Leary can feel the storm coming. Some very interesting social commentary here. Especially the ending of the story but I am not going to give that away. There are a number of these alternate societies in this collection and each of them makes you think about how different it really is from our own. Or how alike.

The next story I want to mention is The Kindly Isle. The main character is on a touristic island to check out a half built hotel his company considers buying. He is somewhat distracted from this task when he sees a former colleague from his days in a top secret research facility on the island. A colleague who left his job in quite a hurry years ago. This story has a dash of science fiction in it, in a way it deals with biological warfare, but that is not the core of the story. What really makes it a great story is the character development. There are no big explosions or steamy sex even though the author could very well have fitted that in. The story doesn't need it. The gradual realization of what the main character must do and how events unfold after that decision is brilliant. Structurally it is probably the best story in the collection.

Science fiction and horror can go together very well. George R.R. Martin has proven that more than once with his science fiction/horror hybrids. Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair is also a story that could be considered both. What could be better than spending a day with your family at the fair? Well, in this future world I'd think again. The conclusion is chilling, not only because of what happens at the fair, but also because of how it is justified.

Servant of the People is another of my favourites. It is a story dealing with artificial intelligence and if and at what point, the should have the same rights as a human being. In this story they have the right to vote. It deals with the election campaign of a veteran politician. He has beaten all candidates for years but now he has to go up against a non-human opponent. What I particularly liked about this story is that it is not a naked grab for power by evil machines. The sincerity of the robot candidate is so credible that one would not hesitate to vote for him. On the other hand, are we really comfortable with that idea?

The last story is want to mention is Saucery. It's a humoristic story about two men who have done very well for themselves in the time UFOs where vastly popular. They each claim to be in contact with alien entities and are not afraid to make money that way. Now they have fallen on hard times though. A recent expedition to Mars has found life and it bringing back real aliens. Who is going to buy their stories now, when the real thing is about to arrive on earth? Their businessman like attitude in facing the crisis while never quite admitting they are frauds is hilarious. A subtle kind of humour is present in many of the stories in Platinum Pohl but it is most outspoken in this one.

Platinum Pohl is a remarkable collection of stories, especially if you take into account the oldest was published in 1949 and the newest in 1996. The quality remains very high over the years and even the oldest stories have aged well. There is a bit more smoking than we're used to, the USSR shows up once of twice and Pohl has had to make up some interesting details about Mars in absence of scientific data but none of that really bothered me. The author relies on his skill as a writer rather than fast paced plotting or stunning alien settings. Perhaps that has made some of these stories age more gracefully than a lot of other science fiction. It has certainly convinced me to try more of his books. Of course, looking at the to read stack, that may be a while. But I'll get to it sooner or later.

Book Details
Title: Platinum Pohl
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 460
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-30145-1
First published: 2005

Friday, January 8, 2010

De Scharlaken Stad - Hella S. Haasse

Hella S. Haasse is one of the stars of Dutch literature. She will be turning 92 next month and with a career that long it isn't surprising she has quite a long bibliography by now. Haasse has won a number of prestigious awards for her work and is one of the most widely translated Dutch authors. I know of English, German, French and Spanish translations of this particular work and there may be more. In English it is published as The Scarlet City, which is a literal translation of the Dutch title. First published in 1952, it is one of her early works. Like many of her novels it has a historical theme.

De scharlaken stad is set in 16th century Rome. Italy is involved in a series conflicts known as the Italian Wars. Hopelessly divided Italy has become a battlefield in a conflict that will involve most of the major European powers at some point. The book is set in the 1520s, a period of time when the French King and Habsburg Emperor are battling for influence in Italy. The situation is further destabilized by a series of popes wielding their worldly power for political and territorial gain. In short Italy is a mess.

The late 15th and early 16th century is also the period when the various members of the house of Borgia are at their most influential. Widely known for their crimes and perversities the Borgia family became the symbol of corruption in Rome. A reputation that long outlived the most prominent members of the house. The main character of this novel is a man known to historians as the infans Romanus, Giovanni Borgia. He is presumed to be an illegitimate child of Lucrezia Borgia but we don't know for sure. And neither does he, the novels is a desperate quest to solve the riddle of his parentage.

Rarely have I read a book where the opening paragraph made such an impression on me. I won't bother you with a quote in Dutch, I don't feel competent to translate it, so there really isn't a point to supplying it. Suffice to say it is brilliant. In that one paragraph the main character describes the effects his family name has on his contemporaries in Italy. In that one paragraph the author pours all the negative emotions the main character associates with the name Borgia. It's a very powerful, effective bit of writing.

The novel itself is a complex one. Haasse tells her tale using multiple points of view, mostly historical characters, who relate the history of Italy up to the sack of Rome in 1527. The narrative frequently overlaps and some events are seen from several points of view. The intricate politics of the situation are described in detail at some point, making it hard for those not familiar with this piece of history to follow the story. A lot of the characters have a way of, very eloquently, rambling on about the woes that befall Italy. These characters include some of the most notable of Rome's inhabitants at the time. There are chapters comprised of parts of the correspondence between Niccolò Machiavelli and Franseco Guicardini as well as chapters seen from the point of view of Michelangelo. Quite a few popes, noblemen, generals and other historical figures make an appearance in the book, impressing on the reader just how complicated Italian politics were at the time.

A day after finishing this novel I am still undecided about whether or not I like it. Haasse's knowledge about the period is impressive, the style of her writing is fine (if slightly dated but what can you expect after half a century?) but I still felt is was a very impenetrable book. At times Giovanni's quest to find out who his parents are resurfaces frequently in the book, but given the alternatives he is presented with I wouldn't have blamed him for not wanting to find out at all. Each of the candidates seems to have played their own dubious part in the history of the Italian Wars. The riddle is consuming Giovanni though, in fact, it gets in his way when he tries to find his place in the world. Instead of choosing an identity or making himself into something, he is constantly distracted by this mystery. Like the history of the Italian Wars, Giovanni's quest is a depressing one.

All in all I found this book a hard nut to crack. I very much enjoyed Haasse's style but at the same time I wonder if the way she presents the story isn't making it a lot more complicated than it has to be. I read Het Woud der Verwachtingen, another historical novel by Haasse set in France during the Hundred Year War several years ago. It was first published in 1949, a few years before this book, and for some reason it seemed a lot more accessible to me. Even if it does incorporate as much historical detail as De scharlaken stad. Goivanni is an intriguing character and Haasse certainly captures the period very well but for some reason those two components don't blend into one novel in my head. Still, if you like a challenging historical novel, this might not be a bad choice at all.

Book Details
Title: De Scharlaken Stad
Author: Hella S. Haasse
Publisher: Rainbow Pockets
Pages: 327
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-417-0796-3
First published: 1952

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Chasm City - Alastair Reynolds

I began last year's reviewing with an Alastair Reynolds review, I began Random Comments with an Alastair Reynolds review so I figured I might as well start 2010 with an Alastair Reynolds book as well. Not that he did anything to deserve it but apparently I associate his book with beginnings. Chasm City is his second novel and it's set in his Revelation Space universe. Unlike Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, which have to be read in that order, this book is a standalone and can be read without any prior knowledge of the Revelation Space universe. I enjoyed Chasm City tremendously. Had I finished it last year it would probably have been on the best of 2009 list.

When we meet Tanner Mirabel he has quite a history as a soldier, mercenary and security specialist behind him. His planet, Sky's Edge, has been at war pretty much since its colonization and is considered something of a backwater by it's neighbours. Technology is behinds centuries if it doesn't have military applications. Tanner is not interested in the war though, he is on a manhunt. His target is a local aristocrat who's family has been wiped out using weapons Tanner's boss Cahuella sold to a third party. That they were not intended for Reivich's enemies is no mitigating factor, a vendetta is born. Reivich has managed to kill Cahuella and his wife Gitta, whom Tanner sworn to protect. Tanner is still alive though, an oversight Reivich is going to regret.

His hunt takes Tanner to another system. When he he is woken from cryogenic suspension after a fifteen year trip he suffers from amnesia and despite a desire not to let the trail grow cold he is forced to take at least some time to recover. A virus created by one of the religious orders, or perhaps one should say personality cults, on his home planet is further complicating matters. It is engineered to inspire religious feelings in those who contract it by letting them relive the life of the object of their worship, a man named Sky Haussmann, in their dreams. Tanner struggles to regain his memory and keep Haussmann's personality at bay but his objective remains clear. He needs to find Reivich.

What struck me most about this book is the vast improvement in the writing. Reynolds' first novel Revelation Space was a good read but it had some pacing problems as well as a number of awkward dialogues. There is no trace of that in Chasm City. It is something of a different beast though. Where Revelation Space is a space opera with a large scope and equally large cast, Chasm City is basically Tanner's story. If you're a big fan of Space Opera five hundred pages on one main character may be a bit too much.

For me Tanner was a great character however. I can't go into too much detail without major spoilers but Tanner certainly faces some stiff challenges in this book. The combination of amnesia combined with the viral infection making hem relive another man's life turn his life into a struggle to maintain his identity. On top of that he is dropped into a strange environment without preparation. Certainly, he has heard of Chasm City and its orbiting band of Demarchist habitats a place of wonders, decadence, vast riches and advanced technology. By the time he arrives the melding plague, a major plot element in the Revelation Space trilogy, has struck and the Glitter Belt has been renamed Rust Belt.

Chasm City has changed beyond recognition. With all advanced technology failing the city has had to rely on simpler and older forms of technology to keep the planet's hostile environment at bay. The city is largely powered by steam engines powered by the rising heat and gasses from the planet's interior. The buildings, once infused with technology have taken on grotesque forms. It gives the whole city a bit of a steampunk atmosphere. Even if Tanner hits rock bottom in a city where the rich live in the clouds, we don't quite get to see the hard, dark place Scorpio remembers in later books.

Before turning to writing full time, Reynolds worked for ESA. His expertise in physics and astronomy clearly shows in his books. Chasm City does not contain quite as much technical details as other books I have read by Reynolds. In part this is because the story does not have quite so much space travel in it. The scenes we see of Haussmann's live contains most of the science I suppose. In the Revelation Space trilogy the physics got sufficiently exotic that I was unable to distinguish it from technobabble at some points, only to find out later that there was indeed a theoretical basis for it. In Chasm City Reynolds goes easy on us. Not that there isn't still quite a bit of physics hidden here and there in the book, but a lot of science is more biology and physiology. Things I find easier to understand at the intuitive level.

I have a few of Reynolds novels still on the to read list but at the moment Chasm City is the best of the bunch I have read. A standalone but set in his best known setting, this novel is also a very good place to start if you haven't read any of his books. Not quite as dark as some of his other books, it does still incorporate a suspense/mystery element as well as a lot of hard science fiction and closer look at one of his most interesting locations and it's society. If you only read one Alastair Reynolds novel, Chasm City has to be it. A highly recommended read.

Book Details
Title: Chasm City
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 524
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-441-00912-3
First published: 2001