Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect is Alastair Reynolds' most recent novel in the Revelation Space setting. Apart from the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days and a short story that hasn't been included in a collection yet, I've read all the earlier material in this stetting. To read The Prefect that is not required however. Reynolds has hinted that he will follow up on this novel but it works just fine as a standalone. Chronologically it is the first of the novels (there are some shorter pieces that are set before this novel) so it is not going to spoil any of the other books for you. The best reading order for the Revelation Space novels is something that is quite as straightforward as it might seem however. You can read this one at any time but my personal opinion is that is probably best to read it last. I'm going to have to write a separate post on this topic sometime.

In 2427 the Demarchist societies around Yellowstone are right in the middle of their Belle Epoque. Yellowstone itself is sparsely populated but in orbit around the planet are over ten thousand habitats ruled by the strangest social experiments you can think of. The only constriction is that the inhabitants must be allowed to cast their votes. In the democratic-anarchistic system every issue is decided with a vote. Something that would take so much time that a lot of people have delegated this task so special software able to predict their vote and cast it for them. To ensure the voting process is not tampered with, a system wide police force known as the Panoply is tasked with overseeing the process and bring those who illegally influence the vote to justice.

Tom Dreyfus is one of the best Field Prefects the Panoply employs. At the opening of the book he is engaged in what seems to be a routine lock down. One of the habitats has exploited a flaw in the voting software to swing votes and now suffers the consequences. Soon after his return from the habitat a major crises unfolds. The Ruskin-Sartorious Bubble has been destroyed, killing all 960 inhabitants. Again this seems a straightforward case. All forensic evidence point in the direction of an interstellar spaceship belonging to the Ultra faction. The relationship between the Demarchists and the Ultras have been tense lately, it may look straightforward but it is still a delicate matter. Soon Dreyfus uncovers a number of inconvenient clues. The matter may be more complicated than he first suspected.

At first glance Dreyfus is not a very original character. From the synopsis on the back cover you may think The Prefect Inspector Morse in space. A moody, ageing cop without much of a personal life fighting a number of personal demons and trying to hold long enough to solve this one case. He even has a trusted sidekick that knows when to ignore orders. In some ways John Thaw would make a fine Tom Dreyfus. The whole book is clearly influenced by some of the darker crime novels. Reynolds plays by the rules and provides the reader with all the clues to solve the riddle. You need to be a lot smarter than I am to actually see it coming though, the plot is complicated and has more than a few twists. If anything this novel shows that originality readers (and reviewers) are constantly looking for is overrated. The same stories get told again and again, it's the way you do it that really counts. And that is where Reynolds scores full points for this novel.

This novel is the first detailed look at the Demarchist Belle Epoque. The other novels are all set after the Melding Plague struck and changed the Glitter Band into the Rust Belt, an event that may not have been quite as much of a surprise as we previously thought. In 2427 the Demarchist society is still in full swing and after seeing it as a ruin, I very much enjoyed this perspective. Although Reynolds does not go out of his way to show us the individual societies the Glitter Band is composed of, we do come across a number of strange social experiments. There is the Persistent Vegetative State (which is exactly what you think it is), a state almost entirely dedicated to the voting process and several voluntary tyrannies (that one only sounds like fun to me if you get to be the tyrant). Just about everything a human could desire is possible given the advanced technologies available to the Demarchists. Inside the habitats just about anything goes. By contrasts the actions of the Panoply are closely monitored and subject to severe restrictions and miles of red tape. It gives the reader a feeling of a decadent society, very much turned in on itself.

That is not to say the politics in this book are tame however. Technology has created a number of monsters in the past and Yellowstone is far from done with this legacy. In Revelation Space we are introduced to the story of the Eighty and in The Prefect it turns out to be an important plot element. Reynolds' books are set in a high-tech environment but his is not afraid to show the downsides or horrors this technology can turn into. Some profoundly unethical applications are on display in this novel, giving the book a very dark atmosphere. It's not quite as heavy on the exotic physics as the earlier Revelation Space novels, making it a bit more accessible to those who prefer to avoid the hard science fiction parts of his novels.

When compared to his earlier books, Revelation Space in particular, Reynolds has grown a lot as a writer. This book is better written and more tightly plotted than anything else I've read by him. It is the perfect mix between hard science fiction, space opera and mystery. Depending on whether you like crime novels this book may be the best of the series. I haven't quite made up my mind about it but it certainly gives Chasm City a run for it's money. I ordered a copy of Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days last night, the last bit of Revelation Space I have yet to read. I hope to fit that in sometime next month. After that I'm going to have a look at some of the novels in other settings. Reynolds got me hooked. Go read one of his books!

Book Details
Title: The Prefect
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 502
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08218-2
First published: 2007

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gateway - Frederik Pohl

A while ago I read Platinum Pohl, a collection of Frederik Pohl's short fiction and after a couple of stories I was sure I had to read more of his works. Fortunately Pohl is well represented in Gollacz's SF Masterworks series so it was not all that hard to find a copy of what is generally considered one of his better novels. Better may be a bit of an understatement here, Pohl needs an entire shelf just to house the awards he has won for this book. Gateway got him a Nebula, a Hugo, a John W. Campbell and a Locus award. That's right, for one book. Now each of these have been known to make odd choices come award season but winning all four... well, I figured this book's got to have something going for it. And indeed it does.

In the near future (seen from the late seventies, so probably right about now) Earth's population has reached a staggering, and unsustainable, twenty-five billion inhabitants. To supply food for all these people production methods we'd consider distasteful, to put it mildly. Robinette Broadhead is one of the people working in an industry squeezing out the earth's resources to produce food. His life consists of work, sleep and more work. Until he wins the lottery one day. His ticket out of a dreary existence and a dead end job. Robinette, or Bob as he is called for most of the novel, buys a ticket to the only place where he can become truly wealthy: Gateway.

This wealth comes at the price though. Gateway is an alien artefact circling our sun, a facility to dock spaceships built by a mysterious and long vanished race called the Heechee. Their ships are still functional, they can even be operated, but nobody has the faintest idea how they work. Brave or foolish men and women travel them to distant places in the galaxy in search of new resources, technologies and materials to support earth's huge population. Some return famous and wealthy, some return in tiny bits and pieces, some don't return at all.

The book moves back and forward between two story lines. One consists entirely of Robinette's sessions with his computer therapist. He refers to the machine as Siegfried von Shrink and from what we gather early on in the book Robinette certainly needs some therapy. The man has issues. More than a few in fact, but one is dominating his life and the reader spends most of the novel figuring out what it is. Siegfried is a brilliant character if you can stand a little Freudianism. He's ever patient and always needling Robinette to reveal just a little bit more of himself. Robinette gets so fed up with him that he tries to gain the upper hand in these conversations in a very petty way but even that Siegfried manges to turn on him. Although not quite what one expects of a classic science fiction novel, the conversations between Siegfried and Robinette are fascinating to read. At times frustrating, humorous and, despite highlighting all Robinette's negative qualities, even touching. I'm sure not everybody will agree with me on this but I quite enjoyed this part of the book.

Fortunately for those who disagree with me, Gateway also contains a number of classic science fiction themes mainly incorporated in the second story line. It is set on Gateway were a younger Robinette is trying to make his fortune. The way Pohl describes the trips the prospectors make, getting into a Heechee ship is about as smart as putting a gun against your head and pull the trigger to see if it's loaded. Not that stops them but it does create a certain atmosphere on Gateway. Any trip may be your last and people tend to enjoy if while it lasts. To escape the fear and stress of their situation Gateway is quite liberal when it comes to sexuality and drugs and Robinette takes full advantage. With the ever present but curiously absent Heechee, Pohl creates a certain sense of mystery in the books. He raises an awful lot of questions about them in the novel but answers very few.

Most of the book is seen through Robinette's eyes but Pohl also includes snippets of material from other sources. He stresses the fact that Siegfried is a computer by showing us some of the code. It looks a bit like what little I remember of gw-basic and it's probably one of the more clearly dated parts of the novel. They also include brief mission reports on flights from Gateway, stressing just how dangerous those expeditions are and how rewarding they can be and a number of classified adds circulating on Gateway among other things. Robinette is a bit too busy hiding from himself to pay all that much attention to such details so they provide a welcome insight in what is going on on Gateway.

At the very end of the novel the two story lines come together in what I thought was a pretty strong finale. This again is something not everybody will agree on. The way Siegfried finally manages a breakthrough and reveal to us just what it is that is causes these intense feelings of guilt in Robinette is, I suppose, debatable. Siegfried's parting comment though... I certainly didn't see that one coming. It opens up all manner of possibilities for sequels, of which Pohl indeed wrote a couple. Gateway is over thirty years old by now, and in some respects it is clearly dated. Advances in information and computer technology have far outstripped what Pohl describes and I'm pretty sure all the Freudian stuff is not nearly as popular with psychiatrists as it used to be. Gateway nonetheless remains a very readable and highly enjoyable book. I liked Pohl's dry humour and his tight control of the plot. I'm not that well read in 1970s science fiction (yet) but this certainly is one of the better ones I have come across. Definitely recommended.

Book Details
Title: Gateway
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 313
Year: 1999
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-818-5
First published: 1977

Friday, February 19, 2010

Walking the Tree - Kaaron Warren

Walking the Tree is the second novel by Kaaron Warren. I have only read one short story by her in The Apex Book of World SF, which I thought one of the weaker pieces of the collection. The concept of this novel appealed to me a lot though, so I decided to give this novel a try. It is an interesting book in many ways but structurally not without a few problems. As a bonus publisher Angry Robot has made a novella available on their website which tells the story from the point of view from one of the secondary characters. I have yet to read it but I thought it was a nice touch.

The novel is set on the island Botanica. The island is huge but almost all available space is taken up by one gigantic tree. Around the base of the tree small scattered communities of people known as Orders live on whatever the tree and the ocean provide. To prevent inbreeding and provide an understanding of the wider world for their children, a five year journey around the tree (did I mention it was really big tree?) is part of their upbringing. They are accompanied by a select group of healthy, intelligent women who are supposed to find a place in the world right for them (and mate as far away from home as possible). The entire group is referred to as a school and the process is known as Walking the Tree.

The main character Lillah is one of the teachers to leave her Order of Ombu. It has been her dream to undertake the journey as a teacher and after a nerve-wracking selection procedure she is selected. On the eve of her departure however a nasty surprise is sprung on her. One of the children she will be accompanying is suspected to carry a disease known as Spikes. An affliction that almost drove humanity to extinction in generations past. The mere suspicion on having the disease is reason enough for the unlucky person to have to undergo "the treatment". How exactly a person is treated varies from Order to Order but the result is always the same. Death. Lillah is asked to care for the boy but if she if found hiding a diseased child she too will be killed.

Warren has created a very interesting setting for this book. She goes into detail about the various communities on the island and shows us their individual mix of beliefs and superstition. Some of them appear close to utopia while others are dark indeed. What the teachers need to do is look beyond the surface to find out if they fit in this place. Their society is also interesting in the sense that it is the women that move away from the community to find a place elsewhere. We're more used to thinking the other way around. Personally I think this way of organizing things would result in some pretty intense testosterone fuelled violence, except for the taboo on breeding too close to your own Order, the temptation to not allow teachers to go on must be pretty bad in some places. With one notable exception this does not seem to be happening. It would of course mean the collapse of the entire system and an the return to a situation where fertile women are protected rather than encouraged to travel, it seems like a fragile system to me.

Violence is one of the more interesting parts of this novel. There does not seem to be much competition over resources. With communities separated by weeks of travel, in some cases even months, war is unnecessary and impractical. That is not to say there isn't any violence though. In several instances we witness swift and brutal action being taken against individuals, often from their own community and with very little provocation. Most of the communities have a district dark side. The way they deal with disease and malformed children is the most apparent outlet but sometimes it is more subtle too. The vivid and peaceful images of open sky, the huge tree, the beach and the ocean can turn on the reader quickly and some scenes are downright unsettling. The way Warren casts a shadow of what appears to be a peaceful community is very well done indeed.

I was less impressed by the progress of the plot itself. The novel takes a bit to get going, which in itself is not a problem. However, once the threat to Lillah's happiness has been made clear, her charge disappears into the background for something like 200 pages. He is mentioned once in a while, we get a few hints that he may or may not carry the disease but other than that, it is business as usual for the school. It is presented as something that is always in the back of Lillah's mind but rarely forces her to confront the situation. When it does come to head the problem is dealt with quite quickly and even more attention is drawn away from the characters by revealing a whole new layer of life on Botanica. It left me with the impression that perhaps the author has been carried away by her own world just a little bit.

On the whole I found Walking the Tree to be a very interesting read. Themes such as the way the Orders rely on oral traditions for passing on knowledge and how travelling changes the main character and makes her grow are skilfully depicted by the author. The different communities with their different outlook on life make the reader constantly reassess the culture on Botanica. I think this goes at the expense of what is presented as the main story line to an extend and some readers may be bothered by this. It is easy to be carried away to Botanica however, and if you let yourself be, Walking the Tree is a great journey full of strange, fantastical places and unfamiliar cultures. I think there is room for improvement but all things considered it is a very good effort by Kaaron Warren.

Book Details
Title: Walking the Tree
Author: Kaaron Warren
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 525
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-732244-2
First published: 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blackout - Connie Willis

Nine years after the appearance of her previous novel Passage a new Connie Willis book has hit the shelves. According to a recent post on the Suvudu blog it took Willis eight years to write the novel. A story that kept growing on her and eventually ended up being split in two parts. The second book All-Clear is scheduled for release in the autumn of 2010. Before you get worried, the second book has been delivered by Willis, there will be no indefinite wait. My only previous encounter with her work is her award-winning novel Doomsday Book, which I read in Dutch translation in 1999. Doomsday Book was a pretty good read but I liked Blackout better.

The story of Blackout revolves around a group of time-travelling Oxford university historians doing research on several aspects of life during de second world war in the UK. It is set in 2060, when time travel technology has been around for a while and the researchers are pretty confident in the laws that govern it. They firmly believe it is not possible for them to influence history by their presence in the past. In fact, it isn't even possible for them to approach the critical points in history. As such, their assignments do not appear to be too dangerous or exciting. One of the historians is on an assignment to see the effects on children being evacuated from London to the countryside to keep them save from bombings. Another is studying the life of Londoners living though the 1940 Blitz and the nightly stays in air raid shelters this involves. A third historian is studying some of the heroic actions performed by ordinary people and ends op in Dover at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.

Business as usual of so it seems. From early on in the book there are signs that all is not as it should be. Time travel schedules are rearranged, greatly upsetting the preparation of the historians. On top of that they also have to deal with slippage, not precisely ending up in time where one intended to go. All manner of little things seem to prevent the characters from completing their assignment. When the drops, points where the historians can travel back to the 2060s, start giving them trouble too, the three realize just how much trouble they are in.

I did not realize this when I bought my copy of Blackout but the novel is related to several other novels and stories in Willis' oeuvre. I recognized a reference to Doomsday Book early on and I suspect there are a couple of references to other books as well. One of the minor characters, professor James Dunworthy will most likely be familiar to people more familiar to Willis' work. It is not necessary to read the previous books first. What you need to know about time travelling is explained in Blackout and the major characters appear to be new creations by Willis. The book is obviously not meant to be a direct sequel to any of the other works in this setting.

Blackout is only half the story and, it will not surprise you, ends on a major cliffhanger. Willis is generous with cliffhanger endings, not only at the end of the book, but at the end of the chapters as well. As such, on its own, it is not a very satisfactory read. We get to know the main characters, their projects and how they go awry. We also get some hints at the trouble they have gotten themselves in but then the story stops abruptly. I think to really say how good this novel is, we're going to have to wait until All-Clear is available.

There is a lot of potential in this story to make it excellent though. Willis' research on the period is meticulous. I don't want to think about how much time it must have cost her to figure out what was bombed when and at what time the various sirens went off. Such knowledge would be vital to a historian studying the period to be reasonably sure not to get killed on the assignment. The characters are acutely aware of these things as well as the main sequence of events. The research shows other details too. From the local slang at the time to the organisation of the war effort in the UK. Willis makes it very clear how ill-prepared the nation really was and how close it came to being defeated. The level of detail shows what a tour de force writing this book must have been.

The book contains a distinct comic element as well. At one point in the novel one of the characters works in a department store of Oxford street. The scenes there invoked all manner of unwanted associations with the sitcom Are you Being Served?, which is set thirty years later and has absolutely noting to do with the book. This is just how my brain works I guess. More often the comedy is intentional, with circumstances conspiring to prevent the character from achieving something they desperately need to do. The characters have to do a fair bit of improvising to make sure they do not arouse suspicion and often completely fail at this. I understand this comical side of the story is not unusual for Willis' writing. For a book that is so dependant on historical setting these scenes provide a good balance to what otherwise could have been a book dragged down by details.

There is an awful lot that I like about this book but the fact remains the story is not done. I can well understand the people who decide to wait until the second book is available before reading Blackout. That being said, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in some time so I think I will forgive the publisher for making us wait for the second part. I'm very much looking forward to the release of All-Clear. In the mean time I am considering picking up To Say Nothing of the Dog, a book in the same setting I haven't read yet. As far as I am concerned Blackout is a recommended read but if you are impatient you may want to wait until the second book is released before picking it up.

Book Details
Title: Blackout
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 491
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80319-8
First published: 2010

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Destination: Void - Frank Herbert

Like The Heaven Makers, Destination: Void is one of Frank Herbert's titles no longer in print. I had to find a second hand copy of the book. Apparently the rather battered copy I managed to unearth once belonged to Alexander Henry high school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Makes one wonder how it ended up here in Almere, the Netherlands. Like my copy the book itself also has quite a history. The story was first published in Galaxy under the title Do I Sleep or Wake in 1965 before the first version of the book appeared in 1966. It was revised and partially rewritten for the 1978 publication, released before Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom embarked on the Destination: Void trilogy set in the same universe. My copy is of the 1978 revised version.

Destination: Void is set in a future where humanity has been experimenting with artificial intelligence. To achieve a truly conscious artificial intelligence without risking earth a crew of (expendable) cloned humans are sent safely on a journey to one of the nearby starts under the care spaceship completely controlled by a computer overseen by a disembodied human brain. Although the reader is given reason to doubt the truth of this, the ship our main characters travel on is the sixth of the series. All previous ships have mysteriously disappeared and at the opening of the book it looks like the sixth ship is doomed as well. The human brain controlling the ship, as well as the two backups have failed and several crew members have died as a result of various accidents on the drifting vessel.

Three crew members remain to manually control the ship. They soon realize this is not going to be enough and wake one replacement from hibernation. Together they attempt the impossible to survive the current crisis. To create an conscious artificial intelligence in the ships computer to take over control from them on the long journey. Each of the four is acutely aware of the role they have been conditioned to play in this process as well as the flaws and pressures built into the ship's systems and environment to help the process along. On them rests the responsibility to see three thousand souls in hibernation to their destination safely.

Herbert decided to rewrite part of the novel because of the great strides being made in the field of artificial intelligence in the years between the first and second version of the book. Technology certainly hasn't stopped developing since the second version was published. The computer and its components as described in the book seem to stem from an age when a computer with the processing capabilities of one of today's more modest laptops where the size of a building. The building and programming of the ship's computer is a much more physical process than what we're used to. Making the right connections is considered crucial. The programming itself is discussed in less detail, Herbert focusses on the way information is accessed, stored and retrieved and the parallels between the computer and biological reality. It feels outdated but it's also fascinating in a way.

Unfortunately the way Herbert presents all this information is not he most accessible. There's an awful lot of references to just about anything Herbert seems to have read on the subject in the book. I consider myself to be reasonably well educated but a lot of it went right over my head. This coupled by the almost superhuman intellects of the main characters and the constant jumping between point of view, often even within a conversation, make some parts of the book very demanding on the reader. In some sections it is nearly impossible to separate the science from the technobabble. I suspect many readers will think this book impenetrable. In fact, a quick Google search turns up little in the way of positive reviews.

There are sections where I really enjoyed the book though. One of the problems the crew encounters when they try to create an artificial intelligence is the fact that nobody really knows what consciousness is. Again, I suspect that much of the philosophy Herbert uses on this topic is a bit outdated but it certainly does make you think. The way the four main characters move around what to science is still pretty much a black box is very interesting to observe. Combined with the knowledge that much of what happens to the crew is manipulated by the people who sent them out there makes for a very intense atmosphere on the ship. In several books by Herbert extreme psychological pressures on an individual unlocks a hidden potential in the characters to rise above themselves and achieve something previously considered impossible. One of the characters in Destination: Void does exactly that and a lot of the pressure applied results in anger and frustration. Although it appears otherwise on the surface he is driven to his creative outbursts by a combination careful prodding of the others and the environment created by the people running the experiment. I thought this part of the novel very well done indeed.

Is it worth digging up a copy of this book? I'd say for the Frank Herbert completists certainly. If you are more familiar with Herbert's work it can be an enjoyable book. Destination: Void is one of his most dense and technical books though and it will certainly not appeal to everyone. I think the sheer technical detail in some parts of the novel are a bit overdone and distract from the story. By today's standards it is a pretty short book but most of it consists of the crew members working through various technical problems and that is certainly not enough to keep everybody entertained. I enjoyed parts of it but on the whole it is not an outstanding book. As much as I like Herbert's writing, this one is probably destined to obscurity. It is a terrific excuse to reread The Jesus Incident sometime soon though. I finally managed to get my hands on all three books of the following trilogy I think I'll do just that next time I run out of more recent stuff to review.

Book Details
Title: Destination: Void
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Berkley Medallion Books
Pages: 276
Year: 1978
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-425-04366-5
First published: 1966, 1978

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Inside Straight - George R.R. Martin

I have read pretty much everything by George R.R. Martin I have been able to get my hands on. That is not to say I have read everything he has written, some of his short fiction is pretty hard to find these days. Another notable omission is the Wild Cards project he co-wrote and edited. The year 2008 saw the (second?) rebirth of this series of 'mosaic' novels, a series of books set in a shared universe, written by several authors. The first part appeared in 1987, Inside Straight is book 18. Normally I wouldn't start a series at book 18 but many of the previous books have been out of print for a while. I understand Tor means to reissue some of the older ones in omnibus editions but I can't find a publication date for the first one. To make this 18th book a good entry point Martin and his companions created something of a Wild Cards: the Next Generation to reboot the series.

What do you need to know about the back story of the Wild Cards? Not a lot really. In 1946 an alien virus hit earth. It killed ninety percent of those infected, disfigured nine percent and left a lucky one percent with superhuman powers. The unlucky nine percent are referred to as Jokers while the ones with interesting powers are the Aces and have influenced to course of history and politics considerably. By 2007, the year in which Inside Straight is set, some of them have attained fame and wealth. At the same time their less fortunate fellows are still very much discriminated against. Many of them live in poverty.

For some 1946 is a long time ago, the world has grown used to the virus and the Aces it has created. Why, someone in Hollywood thinks they are fine material for a reality TV-show. Thus American Hero is born. It pits a number of, mostly, young Aces against each other in staged contests. The series is a hit and prime fodder for the entertainment press. Fights, sex, relationships and backstabbing predictably ensue. Not everybody is distracted by the TV-show however. Contestant and early discard Jonathan Hive develops an interest in events taking place in Egypt, where the assassination of an Arab Caliph has resulted in a severe outbreak of anti-Joker violence. He figures it is better to be a hero in real life than pretend to be one on television.

Wild Cards is clearly the result of the young George Martin's love for comics. Superhero comics isn't something that has become very big on this side of the Atlantic. If you look for them they are available of course but it is not quite as big a cultural influence as it is in the United States. That puts me at a bit of a disadvantage. Superheroes are supposed to act a certain way and I am sure I will miss some of that. Just ignore it if I include a silly comment into the review. I did suffer from one quite unwanted association. The abbreviation of American Hero (AH) is also the name of the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands. I tell you, this book conspires not to let me take it seriously!

I must admit it does take some getting used to. For this superhero stuff suspension of disbelief simply is not enough. You have to blindly accept the powers some of the Aces have as some of it is complete nonsense. The Crusader for instance can create an impenetrable armour and a sword that will cut though any known substance, there is an Ace who can change himself into a swarm of wasps, an Ace who changes kinetic energy into bodyweight and we even encounter a magic amulet. Once you get past that hurdle it is very entertaining reading though.

The advantage of these books over a comic is that you get to see a lot more of what the character is feeling and thinking and Martin has collected a group of authors who flesh out these characters well. They have created quite a volatile mix in the American Heroes contestants. Some of them are angry, selfish, impulsive or plain stupid and it clearly shows in what they do to each other on the show. But, and I guess this is what makes them superheroes, when they really need to, they pull together and pull off the impossible. All things considered it is still a bit of a lightweight and predictable plot but I enjoyed it all the same.

What I really admire about this book is the editing. There are nine contributors to this volume and I guess I should name them somewhere in the review so here we go: Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassut, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R.R. Martin, Ian Tregillis and S.L. Farrell. It must have been one hell of a job to make these people speak with one voice and take into account 17 books of back story. Which sections of the book are written by which author is clearly mentioned, I guess if you really make an effort you can see the differences in style, but I thought is was a pretty smooth ride. I do feel like I missed an awful lot of references to things that have happened in earlier books. Most of the Aces that will be familiar to the fans of the series only play a minor part in the novel, which I am sure will disappoint some readers, but there are still a number of things in the book that made me wonder if I missed something. I guess that was unavoidable given the history of the series. It didn't stop me from understanding what was going.

So is Inside Straight a successful restart of the series? I don't think I can really answer that. It was an entertaining book but not having read any of the others I have no idea how it holds up to what has come before. I do think it is a fast and fun read and a very unusual project. It's definitely a series I want to read more of so expect a review of Busted Flush, the second book in this new trilogy sometime in March.

Book Details
Title: Inside Straight
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1781-8
First published: 2008

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Admit Defeat

A couple of weeks back I commented on a question raised over at A Fantasy Reader that I almost never put a book down once I begin reading it. Well it has happened this week. For a midweek review I picked up a copy of De Dagen van het Hert by Liliana Bodoc. The original is in Spanish Los dias del Venado, and I am aware of a German translation but I don't think there is one in English.

It has been a while since a book so completely failed to hold my attention. I almost fell asleep while reading it on Wednesday, although I much admit a pretty busy week at work may have more to do with that. So after taking four days to work my way though a mere 160 pages I decided to put it down last night. The book itself only has 268 pages but I couldn't make myself finish it.

So no midweek review this week. I have good hopes there will be one this weekend. I am already 120 pages into Iside Straight by George R.R. Martin et al.