Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Green Brain - Frank Herbert

The Green Brian is one of the novels that Herbert published following the release of Dune. It was first published as a novelette under the title Greenslaves in Amazing Stories in 1965. Apparently the title is a reference to the English folk song Greensleeves. It was released as a novel by Ace Books in 1966. My copy is one in a series of four Frank Herbert titles reissued by Tor in 2002, to coincide with the release of The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I read it shortly after this edition became available and I think it is the only Frank Herbert book I didn't like the first time through. This second reading didn't really alter my opinion. It's a rather pulpish novel.

The novel is set in a not too distant future in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Here is war is being waged to bring Brazil's abundant insect life under control. In the so called Green Zones, all harmful insects have been eradicated in the belief that his will boost productivity and this support a larger population. The Red Zones are yet unconquered and teeming with insects. It is the job of men such as Joao Martinho to enlarge the Green Zones. Until recently this has been going well, there is good money to be made in the business. Signs that all is not as it should be have begun to appear however.

To investigate the situation a team of the International Ecological Organisation have been sent to Brazil. Lead by the Chinese Dr. Chen Lhu they are to investigate and get the process back on track. It quickly becomes obvious that Lhu has a hidden agenda. China is one of the driving forces of the project and efforts to eradicate harmful insects have progressed furthest there. Although the Chinese preach this new way of dealing with the environment to the entire world, they are quite secretive about their own Green Zones, not allowing any outside visitors to check on their claims. People are getting suspicious, and with good reason as it turns out.

Many of Herbert's books have an ecological theme in them, it what makes them stand out among published at the time. In Dune the ecology is worked intricately into the story, in The Dosadi Experiment ecology is applied to human society to explain the unusual characteristics of the population. In those books the use of this theme is not as heavy handed as in The Green Brain however. The reasoning behind the project to get rid of all harmful insects has a glaring and obvious error. Ecology deals with interactions between species. To take one species out of the equation requires the whole system to adjust. Given the enormous complexity of an ecosystem like the Amazon rainforest, it takes a huge amount of knowledge of the system to predict what those changes are going to be and which species will be most affected. To do it on the scale proposed in the novel is a recipe for disaster. Separating harmful from useful based on partial knowledge and hope the system won't collapse is not a particularly smart move.

Herbert understood this, it is quite obvious from the start of the novel that the project is doomed to end in famine. Too obvious for any suspense to be left in that part of the book. To oppose this folly Herbert uses a well know plot device in science fiction. He creates a non-human intelligence as an adversary. Based on the fact that insects procreate faster than humans and thus can evolve a lot faster and inspired by colonial insects an insect intelligence known as The Brain arises and takes control of the efforts to combat developments that it considers a path to the death of all life on earth. The Brain is described as highly intelligent but also immobile and completely dependant on the insects that take care of its physical needs and provide it with information of events outside its hiding place. A very vulnerable position to be in, if humans had been aware of its existence anyway. It is by far the most unlikely element in the plot.

Interestingly enough, Herbert also mentions human faction opposed to the project. The author never reveals is such resistance actually exists and how widespread it is but they are constantly accused of sabotage and re-infesting recently cleaned areas. Maybe they are used as a convenient scapegoat but this kind of resistance makes a lot more sense to me and I thought it a shame Herbert didn't go into this in more detail. With a project that is unlikely to be endorsed by any serious ecologist and a huge insect brain hiding in the jungle fighting it my willingness to suspend disbelief broke down after the first couple of chapters. Herbert would go on to write Hellstrom's Hive (1973) a much better novel using colonial insects as a model.

I guess I didn't like the concept of this book but I have to admit the way this story plays out between Martinho, Lhu and the third main character Rhinn Kelly is interesting. Events take them deep into the jungle where a complex psychological game between them develops. Although not everybody will appreciate the less than flattering description of Kelly's services to the IEO, Herbert does manage to build the tension to great heights before the climax of the novel. The pressure heaped on Joao in particular is very well done.

Although not without its qualities, in my mind The Green Brain it the weakest of Herbert's novels I have read to date. He never manages to really lift it above a science fiction monster story. For an author who was reluctant to enter the field of science fiction, he made many attempts to break into the main stream fiction market in his career, it is a disappointingly work. In each and every one of his novels Herbert, he tries to raise the level of the genre with lots of attention to the psychology of the characters as well as a good idea to support the novel. In The Green Brain he does not achieve the desired result. The combination of ecology, social insects and science fiction has potential as Herbert would later show but in this book he did not find the right combination.

Book Details
Title: The Green Brain
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 218
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34250-2
First published: 1966

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Victory of Eagles - Naomi Novik

Victory of Eagles is the fifth instalment in Novik's Temeraire series. I thought the previous four books had ups and downs but in general they are fun, fast reads. The fourth book, Empire of Ivory had a very promising end so I was rather looking forward to reading this. I guess this book mirrors the series as a whole in that it has its ups and downs but is generally enjoyable. It will be the last Novik review for a while. I have caught up with the author. The sixth instalment, Tongues of Serpents, is due next month in hardcover. Although I enjoyed the series I don't think it is quite good enough to invest in one of those. I guess it will be next year before I get around to reading part six.

After Laurence's decision to deliver the cure for the dragon disease that struck Britain in Empire of Ivory to the French, thereby undoing a deliberate attempt by the British to infect the French dragons, he is put on trial and condemned to a traitors death. The British are very pragmatic about the matter though. With Napoleon clearly preparing a second attempt at invasion, Temeraire cannot be spared from combat duties. Laurence is put away to ensure his good behaviour. Temeraire spends his time at a breeding ground in Wales waiting for something to happen. The treatment of the dragons there are a constant source of annoyance to him and he tries to convince the dragons they should not accept such treatment. This does not appear to make much of an impact.

The ship Laurence is kept prisoner on happens to be in the wrong spot when the French decide to invade. He gets involved in the battle. When the dust settles and the magnitude of the disaster becomes clear to the British, he is sent to Wales to fetch Temeraire and return to active duty. This turns out to be a bit of a problem. Tired of sitting and waiting while the French invade, Temeraire has decided to take action and leave the breeding grounds. When Laurence arrives and finds him gone a difficult search for Temeraire begins.

By the end of the previous book there has been quite a bit of divergence from history as we know it. There is very little recognizable history left for someone with my limited knowledge. The mental state of King George III is mentioned. The raid on Denmark in 1807, which in Novik's time line is lead by Nelson, also plays a small role in the book by providing an opening for the French to break the naval blockade. The invasion is entirely fictional of course but it is met by one of the most famous historical figures in the book is General Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington. In our version of history he rose to prominence in the Peninsula War and did not become a Duke until 1814. Novik moves his rise forward a few years. By the end of the last book I had more or less expected Novik to let go of historical events entirely but some links obviously remain.

With all that military action going on in the book and with the main characters right in the middle of it, one would expect this novel to be heavy on battle scenes. And indeed two major battles are described in the book, both of which Temeraire is very much involved in. Between those two events surprising amount of the book is dedicated to logistics and skirmishes. With the inclusion of dragons foraging and logistics differ quite a bit form what an ordinary army would need. Although the way the British finally manage to lure Napoleon into battle at their terms is quite ingenious, the middle part of the book was not all that interesting. My attention flagged on several occasions.

Part of the cause is probably in the very dark mood that permeates the entire novel. Laurence is literally waiting to be hanged so he can be done with it. He is doing his duty as he sees it but he is not happy about his orders and burdened by guilt about the people who have been affected by his treason. In effect it makes him a very passive character for most of the book and at times the do-your-worst-you-can't-kill-me-twice attitude annoyed me tremendously. Temeraire still does not seem to have understood the profound social impact of Laurence's treason. He is quite puzzled as to why Laurence would agree to be hanged in the first place. After four books the gap in understanding between them seems to be widening.

With Laurence not actively interfering for a change, Temeraire is full of initiative. He means to push his dragon emancipation agenda forward full force now that the British need their full support. His manoeuvring is rather clumsy, Temeraire might possess a powerful brain but he is young and inexperienced. Much of his negotiations are nothing short of blackmail. Although I can see why, after putting his ambitions aside for more pressing concerns for so long, Temeraire is eager to proceed but the lack of guidance by Laurence is telling. In previous books, Throne of Jade in particular, the interaction between Laurence and Temeraire is one of the strong points of the book. Laurence's attitude in this book changes that. It's like he is giving up on guiding the dragon altogether. He seems to think it is out of his hand. This air of defeat that can be found in much of the novel didn't suit his character at all.

I must admit the big battle at the end makes up for the part of the book that failed to hold my attention. It's probably the strongest finale Novik has written yet. It's not quite enough to make Victory of Eagles into a good read though. I guess it's a case of too little, too late. I also suspect Novik managed to get herself in trouble for the next book by forcing her characters away from the main action again but we'll see about that when I read Tongues of Serpents. Sticking to this book, I guess you could say it is neither the best nor the worst in the series. It's enjoyable, delivers what the readers have grown to expect but I didn't think it was surprising or outstanding in any way.

Book Details
Title: Victory of Eagles
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 376
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-51225-3
First published: 2008

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel

Recently it was announced that the sixth and final book in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, titled The Land of Painted Caves, will be released in March 2011. Set in pre-historic times, the books deal with the possible interaction between Neanderthals and our own species among other things. They are renowned for there meticulously researched descriptions of pre-historic life as well as notorious for their sexual content and the Mary Sue like development of the main character. I've read all five books available so far and although I thought the were entertaining, I do think the literary quality of the books take a nose-dive after the first novel. The Clan of the Cave Bear is quite an interesting book however, the announcement that a new book was forthcoming prompted a reread.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set somewhere between 30,000 to 25,000 years before present, a time when temperature and sea-level were lower than today and much of Europe was either covered with ice or cold steppe/tundra environments. Modern humans shared their environment with Pleistocene megafauna and another species of human: the Neanderthal. The story opens with an earthquake in which the parents of five-year old Ayla perish. Alone, in an environment full of predators capable of devouring a human child, she wanders the forest and steppe near her home. Weakened by hunger she accidentally disturbs a Cave Lion and her cub. Ayla manages to escape but gets mauled in the process. After thirst drives her from her hiding place, she once more wanders the steppe until fever, hunger, dehydration and sunburn finally cause her to collapse.

Ayla's string of misfortune comes to an end when a group of Neanderthal, made homeless in the same earthquake that took Ayla's parents, pass by. Their medicine woman Iza can not bear to see a child suffer, even a child of the Others. Their leader, a male in his peak named Brun, reluctantly allows Iza to take the child and when Ayla wakes up she is surrounded by her new clan. A tall, ugly child by Neanderthal standards, the Clan is unsure if they should take her in. Sending her away would mean certain death however, something Brun will not allow now that an effort has been made to save her. When Ayla find the Clan a new cave, she is allowed to stay. A choice that will have severe consequences for both Ayla and the Clan.

Auel has spent an astonishing amount of time researching her series and this first books clearly shows that. Some of the research for this book is outdated by now, it has been thirty years since it was released. The difference in height between Ayla and the Neanderthals appears to have been exaggerated for instance but the rich detail in which Auel describes the ice age environment is simply awesome. The uses of various plant species, the ecology of Pleistocene fauna and numerous survival strategies are woven into her tale to give those aspects of the story a very realistic feel. Despite all this research Auel has had to fill in quite a few blanks. Even with thirty years more research available since the writing of this book, our knowledge on the period and the Neanderthal species is limited. As a consequence, there is no shortage of speculation in this novel.

One problem for Auel was that until the early eighties a lot of scientists doubted that Neanderthals would have been capable of speaking a complex verbal language. Not until 1983 a find in Israel showed that this was indeed anatomically possible for Neanderthals (which still does not prove they did have a complex language). This came too late for Auel so she solved it by proposing a way of communicating that involved signs and body language but only a few spoken words. In fact, one of Ayla's earlier challenges is learning to communicate. Another, even more speculative plot element is the neurological difference between the two species. Auel proposes that Neanderthals posses a racial memory that enables them to tap into the wisdom and experiences of previous generations. To store all this information their skull, and particularly the area that stores memories has grown to the maximum size the Neanderthal women's birth channel can handle. In effect the full capacity of their brain has been used and making further growth and gaining new knowledge impossible.

In this way Auel rationalizes the eventual extinction of the Neanderthals. Science offers us several theories on why the Neanderthals went extinct but no definitive answer. One hotly debated matter is whether or not inbreeding between Neanderthals and humans was possible. Recent genetic research indicates it may have happened but this is far from universally accepted in the scientific community. The matter of interbreeding, cleverly worked into the plot by Auel, is the subject of a stunning insight into the future of the Clan by Creb, the Clan's Mog-ur or Magician. I consider this one of the most powerful scenes in the book.

Another thing about the extinction question I noticed, is the way Auel hints at a link between the extinction of the Cave Bear some 27,000 years ago. Finds at Neanderthal sites in Switzerland, Italy and France, among other places have given rise to the theory that Neanderthals worshiped the Cave Bear. In the book Auel develops a rich religious life for the male half of the Clan in particular, based on animal totems. The Cave Bear is the mightiest of these spirits. They see Ursus, as the spirit of the Cave Bear is referred to, as the protector of the Clan. They are his people. In several places in the story Auel drops hints that these animals are getting rare, suggesting that their fates are linked. Some recent finds in Spain indicate that the Neanderthals managed to hang on a little longer but I liked the parallel and the way Auel handled the worship of Cave Bears in general.

Auel's work has received some fierce criticism over the years for the explicit ways she describes sexual scenes. The first book in the series is a bit different in that respect. For a lot of the book Ayla is too young for sex, later she is considered extremely ugly in the eyes of the people surrounding her. Despite the absence of explicit sex scenes in The Clan of the Cave Bear, I still consider the way Auel deals with sexuality in this book is still a weak element in her story. As a consequence of the Neanderthal development of racial memories and the problems storing them in the vast but still limited brain, Auel's Neanderthals show a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Their roles in society are strictly dived. The man leads, hunts, provides and protects and the woman gathers, cooks, cares for the children and provides a relief for sexual tension. Because either sex lacks the memories of the other, they are incapable of taking over each other's roles, incapable of even learning the activities of the other. It makes their society very conservative and completely inflexible. Something that is bound to clash with Ayla's inquisitive and creative nature. The inflexibility of the Clan versus the creativity of the younger human species is a comparison Auel draws numerous times in the book.

Neither the Neanderthals nor the Others have made the link between sex and procreation, which frankly is one of the least likely of Auel's speculations. Personally I can't imagine someone not making the link. Unfortunately it develops into a key plot element in both this book and later parts of the series. With sex and reproduction not linked, monogamy is not required for the Clan. Any man can "relieve his needs" with any woman he chooses. Consent of the woman is not necessary but it is considered polite to ask the woman's mate for permission. And so it is possible for Broud, one of the younger males of the Clan and in many ways the embodiment of inflexibility and blind adherence to tradition, to openly abuse Ayla. Not because of any attraction on his part, of to father a child. He does this solely to make a point. He is the man, he has the right to order her to do whatever he wishes and he will make her stay within the bounds prescribed for a woman by Clan tradition. The whole sequence that leads up to this event in the book didn't work too well for me. Broud is too much of a stereotypical cave man in my opinion, and the Clans complete lack of understanding as to why Ayla objects to this treatment does not strike me as very likely.

The struggle between Ayla and Broud in many ways represents the enormous challenge Ayla faces in fitting into this alien society and conforming to their traditions. Although there are some aspects of it I didn't like, Ayla's story does carry an enormous load of suppressed emotion. The Clan of the Cave Bear is a tragic book in many ways. A story of the demise of a species as well as ultimate failure of Creb and Ayla to bridge the gap between their species. Ayla puts a very human face on this large theme, her actions constantly underlining the difference between their species but also highlighting certain human emotions the species share. Auel carefully builds up to the crisis that forms the climax of the novel. By that point it is not entirely unexpected but the way the story plays out is heart-wrenching at times.

The combination of meticulous research and an emotionally powerful story has made this novel into something special. Although I have read the other books in the series and enjoyed them, I don't think any of these books quite manage this same mix. I can't honestly recommend the other books in the series but The Clan of the Cave Bear is an unusual novel. Not without it's flaws perhaps, but still something of a landmark. One of those books one ought to have read. It works fine as a standalone so even if the others do not interest you, give this one a try.

Book Details
Title: The Clan of the Cave Bear
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 495
Year: 1991
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-25042-6
First published: 1980

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Redemption Ark - Alastair Reynolds

Like last weekend I'm supposed to be social today and tomorrow. Since I am not quite done with my next book and it doesn't look like I will manage a review tomorrow, I decided to make good on my promise and move the missing review of Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series over. It turned out the January 2009 original was a bit sloppy so I a had to do some editing. Still not the best I've ever written but I hope it'll be informative at least.

I read Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space, some time ago and thought it an interesting book but one that on several points it leaves something to be desired. Reynolds has written four more books set in the same universe, as well as a number of shorter works. Three of the books should be read in publication order, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Chasm City and The Prefect are standalones. Allthough Chasm City is the second book in publication order, I decided to skip that for the moment and complete the trilogy first. Redemption Ark is an immediate sequel to Revelation Space and in many ways a major improvement over the first book. It does however delve rather deeply into exotic physics, even more than with Revelation Space you have to enjoy hard science fiction to like this book.

The Hell class weapons stored on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity have sent a signal back to their makers without the knowledge of Illia and Ana who still control the ship. Light years away in another solar system the builders of the weapons, a human faction called the conjoiners, people who have incorporated technology to enhance their lives and create a kind of shared consciousness, have picked up the signal. Until recently they have been distracted by a war with another faction, the Demarchists. Now that the conjoiners are winning this war resources can be spared to retrieve the weapons.

In the mean time in the Resurgam system, and I use this term for the sake of clarity only, due to the problems of sub light speed travel though the galaxy Reynolds’ time line is quite complicated, Illia and Ana become aware of another threat. Sylvestre’s actions in the previous book must have set off some galactic burglar alarm. They have attracted the attention of the alien entity responsible for the extinction of the Amarantin species a million years ago. The Inhibitors as Ana and Illia think of them, are Reynolds’ answer to the Fermi paradox, have begun preparations to sterilize the system again. And this time they mean to be more thorough. Illia and Ana see no other option than to use their ship to evacuate the entire population of Resurgam, some two hundred thousand people and employ the Hell class weapons to strike at the Inhibitors.

The highest circles within conjoiners faction are also aware of the Inhibitors. They have encountered them as well and think of them as the Wolves. Skade, a high ranking conjoiner, is tasked with their response to this new threat. One approach she means to try is retrieve the Hell-class weapons for use against the Wolves. To get them back she employs the help of Nevil Clavain, one of the oldest conjoiners alive. Skade does not tell him the complete strategy of dealing with the Wolves however, and when Clavain finds out he defects. The two conjoiners parties race for the Resurgam system to retrieve the Hell class weapons while the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity desperately tries to get the evacuation of the planet started.

As I mentioned in the introduction Reynolds throws in a great deal of physics into the book. During the galactic car chase between Skade and Clavain both factions use technology that reduce the inertia of their spacecrafts, making it possible to attain higher accelerations than the human body could possibly survive. He goes into quite a bit of detail on how this works and what the consequences of this lowered inertia would be. There is a theoretical basis for what he describes, the author is a trained physicist and astronomer after all, but I will admit this kind of physics goes way over my head. Reynolds makes sure to explain the more counter-intuitive consequences of relativity and the absence of inertia though. For me the physics didn’t interfere with the readability of the book but some interest in these matters is absolutely required to enjoy it.

In my Revelation Space review I mentioned the characterization and dialogue left something to be desired. Reynolds has made great progress there. While the first book featured a lot of cynical bastards he puts in quite a bit more emotion in this book. Clavain in particular struck me as an interesting character. He is someone who seems haunted by his past, I will have to read the short stories about him sometime. It isn’t limited to him however, the characters who featured in the first book attain a new depth in Redemption Ark. With a more diverse cast and better characterization this novel gets going a bit sooner than Revelation Space. It is still quite a heavy read though. My copy is printed in an extra wide format making the six hundred or so pages of the book seem quite long. There are also a number of places where the characters are mistrustful of each other and take too long to come to a compromise. Especially the scene in Chasm City, where H proposes a plan to reach Resurgam in time to stop Skade drags a bit.

I liked Revelation Space, I like Redemption Ark even more. Better written and faster paced than the previous book this novel will please the fans of uncut space opera. If you've come this far in the series reading Absolution Gap is simply not optional. The author leaves his characters with some serious problems to solve in the next part of the series. I suppose it is a bit of a middle book in that respect but there is a clear promise of a spectacular finish in the final book. Reynolds is one of those writers I need to read with generous breaks between the book to let it sink in and I do think the standalone Revelation Space novels are a little bit better than the trilogy but it is quite clear than Reynolds has created something special with the Revelation Space trilogy.

Book Details
Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 646
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07384-5
First published: 2002

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Beggars in Spain - Nancy Kress

My appreciation for short fiction is a relatively recent thing. I used to prefer novels but after reading a few collections a couple of years back I have been paying more attention to short fiction. One of the collections that drew my attention was Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories by Nancy Kress. I've been meaning to read more of her work ever since reading that book in 2008 but so far I have not made much progress. A few more short stories and one of her more recent novels, Steal Across the Sky. For my next attempt to get better acquainted with her work, I picked one of Kress' better know novels, Beggars in Spain. The novella this book expands upon won Kress both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1991 and 1992 respectively. The novel deals with some pretty disturbing views on society making it an interesting but not necessarily comfortable read.

Leisha Camden is one of the first people whose parents have opted for what is believed to be a huge step forward in genetics. Her genetic material has been extensively altered but the most striking alteration is in the fact Leisha does not need to sleep. As a side effect of this alteration she is also unusually intelligent and psychologically stable. In the same treatment a second egg is fertilized. Leisha's sister Alice does not have the same genetic improvements and is in effect an unwanted by product. As Leisha grows up to be a promising lawyer, Alice is mostly ignored by her father. A situation that reflects a number of developments in society at large.

Early in the twenty-first century a new and clean power source becomes available that dramatically changes the world's economy. Patents on this invention makes the US enormously rich. At the same time a generation of bright, sleepless citizens in maturing ready to take advantage of their superior education and skills. Unfair competition the sleepers feel. Hatred and jealousy flare as society splits in a class of productive, rich and intelligent class and a class who's empty lives are supported by a minority an decreasing minority. Not a situation people on either side of the divide are happy with.

This reprint edition includes an introduction by Kress in which she explains something of her influences. Normally I am tempted to skip the introduction but this one is very enlightening. Kress uses ideas of Ayn Rand and Ursula K. Le Guin, in particular those expressed in her novel The Dispossessed. I have read neither Rand nor The Dispossessed (that last I mean to change sometime soon) but what I have read about Rand and Le Guin was enough to see some these influences. It might be interesting to read all three if you consider picking up this book. I'm not entirely sure I can overcome my hesitation to try Rand myself though.

Part of the novel relies pretty heavily on an ideology based on Rand's Objectivism. She does this in the guise of the teachings of Yagaiism, a school of thinking advocated by Kenzo Yagai, inventor of the cheap Y-energy (John Galt anyone?). It links dignity to what an individual can achieve through his or her own effort and that (voluntary) contract is the basis for society to operate. To put (part of) in in the words of Yagai himself:
"No, the only dignity, the only spirituality, rests on what a man can achieve with his own efforts. To rob a man of his chance to achieve, and to trade what he achieves with others, is to rob him of his spiritual dignity as a man. This is why communism failed in our time. All coercion - all force to take from a man his own efforts to achieve - causes spiritual damage and weakens a society. Conscription, theft, fraud, violence, welfare, lack of legislative representation - all rob a man of his chance to choise, to achieve on his own, to trade the results of his own achievements with others. Coercion is a cheat. It produces nothing new. Only freedom - the freedom to achieve, the freedom to trade freely the results of achievement - creates the environment proper to the dignity and spirituality of man."
Book One - Leisha 2008 - Chapter 3
The some of the highly productive and increasingly threatened Sleepless are great believers in this philosophy. Combined with their increasing isolation, in most cases of their own choosing, a head on collision with a society where an huge part of the population is basically living of what a minority produces, appears inevitable. Where Leisha and Alice come to some sort of solution of the problems in their relationship, there seems to be no fix for what ails US society. I thought the rift in society was portrayed very much in terms of absolutes. Especially in later parts of the novel everybody seems to be either highly talented and absurdly productive, or a lazy, uneducated leech of society.

I must admit my reaction to the book is coloured in part by my dislike of Objectivism. I think the idea too extreme to be practical, especially on a planet as densely populated as ours. To an extend, it also fails to take into account the fact that people are social animals, which means dealing with people even when you don't want to or feel they are not entitled to your consideration. What really bothers me about it though, it not so much the idea itself, but the extremes to which some of its supporters seems to take it. Frankly, some of the things proposed based on Objectivist thinking make for disturbing future. A future that could very well hold some elements of the conflict described in Beggars in Spain.

Fuelling this movement is the side of society that lives of welfare without contributing anything. These people are described as a group that is quite happy to take what the government offers, and it offers a lot in the prosperous late twenty-first century USA. It kills any curiosity or drive they may have had to improve their lot or develop their talents. This is a well known criticism of welfare systems and one not entirely without merit but the extend to which this phenomenon is displayed in this book is hard to believe. These two elements and the way they feed on each other in the book makes for disturbing reading in several places in the story. Which, all things considered, shows how powerful Kress' writing can be.

Impressive this clash of ideas may be, for me the part of the novel that deals with the relationship between Leisha and her sister Alice is more interesting. Especially early on in the novel when the two are growing up and growing apart, Kress manages to create a very intimate view of what it is the be Sleepless and how much of a benefit this modification is and what this does to Alice's personality. We see most of it through Leisha's eyes. Especially the young Leisha does not seem to be capable of fully understanding the burden the inevitable comparison to her brilliant sister is for Alice. They are two wonderfully contrasting characters.

There is plenty of food for thought in this book. I've only covered some of the ideas covered in the book and barely touched upon the applications of genetic manipulation that are mentioned in the story. It was not a very comfortable read for me though. The way Kress describes a lot of these issues is pretty confronting I suppose and rarely in a way I agree with. Kress meant this as an exploration of ideas and not so much a statement of what is right in her eyes so don't let this put you off. Beggars in Spain is a thought-provoking read, one that will make you reconsider your own convictions. There are two more novels in this series. I'm curious to see where Kress intends to take all this in Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride.

Book Details
Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 400
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-073348-3
First published: 1993

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Random Comments Stats So Far

There's a meme going around on the book blogs I follow about the 2010 stats so far (I've used Ken's version but there are a bunch of others). I generally do these kinds of things, I'll tell you about 2010 when the year is (almost) done, not because five months, fourteen days and 17 hours of it have already passed. Having reached 100 reviews last week I thought it would be nice to look back on those however, so I am doing slightly modified version.

The 100 reviews consists of 86 novels, 5 omnibus editions, 1 short story, 7 collections/anthologies of short fiction and 1 novella. 90 of these were written between July 4th 2009 and June 11th 2010. I cheated 10 times and moved older pieces to this blog. Once I decide I like an author I tend to return to their work. Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds are currently in the lead, each with 6 reviews, followed by a number of authors with 4.

Of these 100 works, 23 were written by women, 71 by men and 6 contained work by both men and women. I guess I'm still a bit biassed there although part of this seems to be that the men I read seem to be more prolific. The 23 books by women I read had 18 different authors (some more than one), the 71 books by men had 36 authors (again, some more than one). Or maybe I don't return to female authors as much as the men. Bit of both probably. No idea about people of colour but I'm pretty certain the authors are overwhelmingly Caucasian.

I read 10 works in Dutch, of which three were translations from German and 7 original Dutch language works. The other 90 were in English, of these only one was a translation, in this case from Russian. In total these works had 45,880 pages. The shortest being a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, 10 pages, the longest is Toll of the Hounds by Steven Erikson with 1295 (the mass market paperback edition, it may not actually be the longest in word count).

AW Bruna: 1
Ace: 1
Angry Robot: 2
Apex: 1
Baen: 4
Ballentine Books: 2
Bantam: 6
Berkley Medallion Books: 1
Books of Fantasy: 1
Corgi books: 1
De Bezige Bij: 1
Del Rey: 4
Doubleday: 2
Dover: 1
Dutton: 1
Fairwood Press: 1
Gollancz: 10
Grafton: 1
Grand Central Publishing: 1
Het Verschijnsel: 1
Kramat: 1
Little, Brown and Company: 2
Luitingh: 4
NEL: 1
Night Shade Books: 2
Orb: 6
Orbit: 4
Pan: 1
Penguin: 2
PM Press: 1
Pocket Books: 1
Pyr: 3
Rainbow Pockets: 1
Roc: 2
Solaris: 1
Tor: 19
Voyager: 4

That adds up to 99. I had a look at an Edgar Allen Poe story a while back which, being free of copyright, is widely available as E-book on the web. I guess Tor and Gollancz are the big winners. That is without getting into the whole which imprint belongs to whom thing of course. I must admit I lost track of that a long time ago.

<1900: 2
1900-1959: 1
1960-1969: 4
1970-1979: 4
1980-1989: 6
1990-1999: 8
2000: 4
2001: 3
2002: 1
2003: 5
2004: 3
2005: 1
2006: 7
2007: 5
2008: 12
2009: 21
2010: 13

Large emphasis on the last few years. I don't think a book blogger can escape that entirely. The picture is slightly skewed though. I read four Poul Anderson collections that contain work dating as far back as the 1950s but have only recently been published in this form. The same goes for a Frederik Pohl collection which spans something like five decades.

Most popular reviews:

01. Dust of Dreams - Steven Erikson
02. The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
03. Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay
04. The Lucky Strike - Kim Stanley Robinson
05. Servant of the Underworld - Aliette de Bodard
06. Shadow's Edge - Brent Weeks
07. The Apex Book of World SF - Lavie Tidhar (ed.)
08. Blackout - Connie Willis
09. Shine - Jetse de Vries (ed.)
10. Dragon Haven - Robin Hobb

I guess epic fantasy still rules. The Lucky Strike is the odd one out. I gets an insane number of search engine hits for some reason. The others are either very popular books or the reviews were linked on author/editor blogs.

Hmm, I guess that's about it. Anything else you'd like to know?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

A while ago I asked all of you what I should read for my 100th Random Comments review. Unfortunately most of you rather shy about commenting so Hans, who's taste leans towards classic science fiction, got his wish. He suggested several titles so I picked to one I would be least likely to pick up without prompting. Thus I ended up with Roadside Picnic by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I've never read anything by these two gentlemen, in fact the names didn't ring a bell when Hans proposed it. It was first published in English in 1977 so I was afraid it might be difficult to find a copy. Fortunately, Gollancz' SF Masterworks picked this book up as one of the later titles in that series (number 68 to be exact). As far as I know this novel is the only translated work in the selection. I guess Gollancz has some work left to do, you'd expect Jules Verne and Stanislav Lem in that company at least.

Years ago in an event known as the Visitation aliens visited six sites on Earth. They left just as quickly as the arrived but left a lasting legacy. The areas surrounding the landing sites turned into strange abandoned landscapes, places where remnants of the alien visitation turn the site into an incredibly dangerous environment, where the laws of physics don't seem to apply. One step in the wrong direction can be your last. The artefacts that can be found in these areas, the one described in the book is known as the Zone, are very useful and extremely valuable from both the scientific and monetary perspective. The Zones are closed off from the outside world by the authorities and the area is studied by an army of scientists. Men like Redrick Schuhart, Red for short, still find their way into the Zone to hunt for alien artefacts and sell them on the black market. The people making a living this way are known as Stalkers. It is a highly dangerous profession with a staggering mortality rate. Dangerous it may be, it is also highly profitable and the ultimate prize, an artefact known as the Golden Sphere rumored to be capable of granting wishes, is still out there to be taken.

This book is a translation from Russian of course. Although my vocabulary in that language does not exceed half a dozen words (two of which are out of fashion) I thought the text itself read very well. Alastair Reynolds once mentioned to be "...fascinated by the texture of translated prose, especially that cool, icy detachment that seems to hover around prose that's been translated from a genuinely foreign language..." It's something I've seen in some translations as well but not so much in this one. Naturally I was curious to find out who did the translation. Nowhere in this edition is the translator credited and that is something the publisher ought to be ashamed of. I found an earlier Gollancz edition translated by Antonina W. Bouis and if I were to venture a guess, they probably used that translation for the SF Masterworks edition.

At 145 pages in this edition Roadside Picnic is a fairly short novel and I thought it was pretty stripped down to the bare essentials. The mystery of the alien visitations stays just that. Throughout the books bits and pieces of what people think to have learnt about these aliens surface, none of them appear to be much more than theories. One of the more interesting ones, from a literary point of view is the comparison that gives the novel it's name. When asked what he thinks about the alien visitations Dr. Valentine Pillman replies as follows.

“My pleasure, imagine a picnic."
Noonan shuddered.
“What did you say?”
"A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess - apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow." The nervous animals in this analogy are the humans who venture forth after the Visitors left, discovering items and anomalies which are ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.”
“I see, a roadside picnic.”
“Precisely, a roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos. And you ask if they will come back.”

Noonan isn’t convinced and neither was I but it sure is an interesting image.

Noonan and Pillman are not the core of the story however. Most of the novel focusses on Red and his illegal exploits in the Zone. The authors are very careful about what they choose to show us of Red’s activities. Right from the start it is impressed on the reader that the Zone is deadly but we don’t actually get to see much of it early on in the story. They authors build up to exposing the full horror of the place on the ultimate trip into the Zone Red takes. Early on in the book he’s much more occupied by taking care of his family and struggling with he authorities and their futile attempts at keeping the Zone closed off. The Strugatsky brothers didn’t seem to think an state-sponsored research facility would be up to the task of exploiting the zone to the benefit of all people. Sounds like a dangerous bit of criticism in the Brezhnev era Soviet Union.

There’s a huge contradiction between the way Red cares for his family and saves the life of a fellow stalker and his illegal activities and what he ultimately must do to survive his final trip into the Zone. It is easy to let yourself be distracted about all the seemingly impossible things that artefacts found in the Zone can do but the real mystery is that of Red’s motivations. Sometimes I think he is not even sure himself. His ethical framework certainly give the reader something to puzzle over as Red is pictured as caring, loving and concerned in one scene and ruthless, violent and criminal in the next. It’s a puzzle the authors leave to the reader to solve. To add to the confusion the ending does not provide any answers as to whether Red’s expedition was worth it. Throughout the book Red is hesitant to explore his own wishes and seems to fear that the wish the artefact will force him to admit about himself. Or at least that is one possible interpretation of it. I’m pretty sure this ambiguous ending will put more than a few readers of.

I thought Roadside Picnic is an intriguing read but not one for a lazy reader. With the story so stripped down and the authors being intentionally ambiguous about several aspects of the book, it forces the reader to carefully consider what has just been read. It’s a book that will most likely yield something new on every reread and I must admit that after one reading I feel there are things I missed. When I had just finished this book I wondered for a moment what Hans had gotten me into but upon reflection I feel he did me a favour by suggesting it. If you want to sample to non-anglophone science fiction you could do worse than Roadside Picnic.

Book Details
Title: Roadside Picnic
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 145
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07978-6
First published: 1972

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Alien Earth - Megan Lindholm

Megan Lindholm is perhaps better known under her pseudonym Robin Hobb. Since the appearance of Assassin's Apprentice in 1995, her work set in the Realm of the Elderlings has gained her a wide popularity among fans of epic fantasy. Before the emergence of Hobb, Lindhold had already published ten other novels. A lot of these are out of print these days and that is a shame, the seven I read so far are more than worth reading. It should be noted that Lindholm had a good reason to adopt another pen name. While the Robin Hobb books tend to be more traditional epic fantasy, Lindholm's works also includes urban fantasy to books that border historical fiction and, in the case of Alien Earth, even science fiction. It's hard to pin down the difference in style but Lindholm's writing has often been described as grittier. Liking Hobb is no guarantee you will like Lindholm.

Beware, I loved this book and I am going to tell you why in quite a bit of detail. The text below is spoilerish.

Alien Earth is set in a far future. Humanity has managed to poison Earth to such an extend that the alien Arthroplana step in and offer, what is in their view, the only possible solution to the catastrophe unfolding our home planet. Complete evacuation. This evacuation is made possible by the unique relationship of the Arthroplana with a species of space dwelling Beasts. Converted to spaceships, these huge creatures manage to save some humans and the most important of their cultural inheritance. Keping humanity firmly in control the Arthroplana set out to show the evacuees the error of their ways as well as how to create an ecologically balanced society.

Centuries after the evacuation Captain John Gen-93-Beta of the Beastship Evangeline is approached with an unthinkable mission. A faction dissatisfied with Arthroplana rule asks him to return to the dead planet Earth to find out if the Arthroplana are right in saying the planet is beyond recovery. The Arthroplana will not approve of what John's employers are trying to achieve so the whole mission is complicated by blackmail, manipulation and the need for secrecy. Nevertheless, John sees no other option than to accept. Setting out with a small crew John heads for Earth, without any of them knowing the details of John's assignment. Each of the five travellers, the Beast Evangeline, her Arthroplana keeper Tug, Captain John, his crew mate Connie and stowaway Raef have their own ideas agenda. The journey slowly turns into a much more than a trip to survey the Earth, it becomes an exploration of what it is to be human somewhere along the way.

There are several aspects of this novel I very much liked. The relationship between the Arthroplana and humanity being one of them. Tug and his race may seem like benevolent saviours and rulers of mankind. They are anything but, as one of the five main characters of the book, the Arthroplana Tug, clearly shows us. He manipulates, deceives and speaks half truths to keep perfect control of the situation. His long lifespan, compared to humans, and his seemingly complete control of the Beast Evangeline appears to put him in firmly charge. It does not take long for the first cracks in Tug's story to appear however. The unravelling of Tug's control and of the flaws in his story is one of the main story lines in this novel. This process is quite subtle and very complex but I guess you could say a major clue can be found in the treatment of ecology in this book.

The Arthroplana are a species that strive to create a cooperative ecology wherever they go in the universe. By this they mean an ecology made up of species that don't compete but only take and give in return to the system what they need to survive. There is no predation, no wasteful breeding strategies, not even competition within a species. Plants only produce enough seeds to replace an ageing specimen, not to colonize new terrain. A place for everything and everything, in its place as one of Connie's teachers put it. Ecology as a perfect symbiosis of species.

That is of course not how earth's ecology works. In what the Arthroplana call a competitive ecology their is a relentless competition between species for an ecological niche as well as a pressure from within a species that promotes that those best adapted to their environment are mist likely to procreate. Earth's ecology is not a balance. It is more like a series of interacting species, each constantly oscillating around their own personal optimum. An optimum that is not stable either. Ecology is constantly moving, driving evolution and in turn being driven by it. A system promoted by the Arthroplana would be stagnant with most of the driving forces of evolution negated. And yet, this is what the Arthroplana are trying to make the human race fit into.

To achieve this guided evolution has been forced on the human species. Their lifespans has been radically increased, partially by suppressing growth and delaying puberty, and size has been decreased significantly to lessen the drain humans pose on the ecosystem. So much interference does not come without a price. Human procreation is becoming increasingly problematic and to keep the human race convinced of the necessity of such tampering a treatment known as Adjustment is often required. You can feel the strain on the way the Arthroplana deal with the universe in every part of the story. The more these alternative views on ecology are unfolded to the reader the more it becomes clear something's got to give. I think it is a great concept for a science fiction novel.

It is also a quite complicated concept and takes a while to fall into place for the reader. As a result many people will think the book is rather slow to start. I must admit I didn't really get going myself until close to the halfway point. With five characters that don't fully trust each other, several of which not particularly sociable, a lot of time is the book is devoted to introspection. Early on in the novel dialogue is not that important. Mistrust and downright anger is making the characters move carefully. Once Earth is reached and the inevitable crisis begins to take shape and the characters are forced to open up or seek the confrontation this changes quite dramatically. For the most part this is quite gradual except for Evangeline. This is probably the only bit of criticism I have on this novel. The change from the dumb beast Tug seems to think she is to the vast intellect Raef discovers felt a bit abrupt to me.

Another aspect of this novel I thought very well done was the way John and Connie view Earth. Having been away from it for generations and knowing the planet only from books and other kinds of documentation, they have no idea what to expect. Earth is truly alien to them. Connie's incredibly naive exploration of their surroundings and her thoughts on seeing one of the despised competitive ecologies really drive home what has happened to humanity since leaving the planet. It's monstrous to consider really. Even Connie, who is by no means a model citizen as far as the Arthroplana are concerned, has been indoctrinated to an extend where her very survival on the planet where her species evolved is doubtful.

I found Alien Earth to be a very good read. Lindholm expertly weaves the stories of these five very different characters into a magnificent science fiction tale. Although Alien Earth is quite different from other novels I have read in terms of setting and concepts, I guess the in depth characterization is unifies Lindholm's entire oeuvre. Unfortunately you'll be hard pressed to find a copy of this novel, and many of Lindholm's other titles but if you do happen to come across a copy I highly recommend you seize the opportunity. Given the result of this first foray into science fiction (unless there is short fiction in that genre I am not aware of) it is a shame Lindholm didn't write any others. Which leads me to wonder, what would a Robin Hobb science fiction novel look like?

Book Details
Title: Alien Earth
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Grafton
Pages: 385
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-733357-8
First published: 1992

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Left Hand of God - Paul Hoffman

This is something of a big moment for Random Comments. The Left Hand of God is the very first review copy I have received for review on this blog. Although I have not been all that active in trying to get advance copies, there is something to be said for being entirely free to read and review what you want, I do think it is flattering that someone was willing to send a nice hardcover version across the Atlantic so I can have a go at reviewing it. So a big thank you to the people at Dutton for providing me with this copy. The Left Hand of God is certainly an interesting book to review. It came out in January in the UK it got a big push from the publisher and therefore a lot of attention in the blogsphere. The reviews of the blogs I follow where mixed reviews but over here in the Netherlands the translation seems to be doing pretty well. Being translated right away is a sign of success in itself I might add, the major Dutch publishers of fantasy float on translations but they do like to play it safe. From all this, I guess I expected that this book could go either way.

Cale is a young boy growing up in the Redeemer Sanctuary, the seat of a particularly extremist and violent religious order. Life is hard for the boys in the monastery. They are trained for religious war and to harden them no method is spared. The food is terrible, the random acts of violence a daily occurrence and blind obedience to religious doctrine the norm. In short, not a very nice place to grow up. Although he doesn't know it, Cale is special. One of the Redeemers has seen Cale's potential and he is singled out for an education in war that goes beyond what the other boys are being taught. This does not earn Cale any privileges however, if anything his treatment is even more brutal than the other boys. Cale doesn't know about every horror that goes on in the Sanctuary though. When he stumbles across something he was not supposed to see, even his iron self-control shatters and he is forced to make a life altering choice.

A young boy with extraordinary powers, destined to "save the world or destroy it" to quote the back cover of the book. At first glance it looks like this book uses more than a few rather worn out fantasy clichés. In a way it certainly does. On the surface this book is a rather straightforward story of Cale discovering his talent and dealing with the world he's been kept away from for most of his youth. Throw in a damsel in distress, and indeed Hoffman does, and the picture is complete. Not really a story to get excited about. There are a couple of things that make this book a more interesting read than one would expect though.

One of the things I liked about The Left Hand of God is the humour with which some passages are written. Despite the dark nature of the story, the author finds a number of points where a dry sense of humour fits very well. In the quote below Cale has just described the dish he was raised on to his companion and the only available alternative. The dish, Dead men's feet, is described a kind of sausage of which one rather would not know what kind of meat is in it. At the risk starting a fifth Anglo-Dutch war, I believe the English eat something similar with breakfast.

"Well," said IdrisPukke after Cale had finished telling him about the Redeemers' way with food. "If I'm ever disposed to think badly of you, I shall try to excuse you on the grounds that little should be expected of a child brought up on dead men's feet." There was a short silence. "I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice."
"No," said Cale, too weak to be affronted.
"There is a limit to how much we should expect of the capacity of acceptance of other people. It might be better, should the subject ever rise in good company, not to mention the rats."

Chapter 18

The book is marketed as fantasy but other than the alternate world, there are remarkable few fantasy elements in the book. Hoffman uses a mixture of real world names and places for instance. One of the major cities on the map is named Memphis, the book include references to religious icons, people and practices, there is talk of Norwegians, Dutch and a region named the Middle East, etc. There's no trace of dragons, elves or magic and very few funny, unpronounceable names. There is only the barest hint that Cale's talent may be divinely inspired, although Cale himself believes a more rational explanation. The author puts in a number of references to real world events and literature as well, the Battle of Agincourt most prominent among those. Although some are pretty obvious, the author's afterword convinced me I missed more than a few. The cover letter and an interview with Hoffman state that the author used his experiences at a Catholic boarding school as in inspiration to the book. We have to keep in mind this is a work of fiction but I think it is save to say Hoffman didn't enjoy his time there. Given the amount of heat the Catholic Church is taking at the moment in various abuse cases, Hoffman's timing is interesting.

This barely fantasy approach, or not fantasy at all perhaps, Hoffman mentions in the interview linked about he doesn't think of it as such, is probably the key to why it got a number of negative review. The Left Hand of God is not Hoffman's first novel. I haven't read any of this other works but I understand they are quite different from this one. For people who know Hoffman from these books, The Left Hand of God will come as something of a surprise. For the experienced fantasy reader it is not a shockingly original book. It is very fast paced and entertaining read however, one of those stories that you could read in one session. The whole book emanates a constant threat of violence that kept me on my toes as a reader.

Despite the huge number of translations that have already appeared, The Left Hand of God is not a book that will turn the genre upside down. On the surface it relies too much on fantasy cliché to be very exciting. What did liked about this book is the style of the writing but also the way in which the books allows you to choose how challenging a read it should be. Hoffman cleverly hides a lot of references to his sources of inspiration throughout the novel, clearly something to look out for on a reread, and if you choose to pursue all those little nuggets it could make this book a much more challenging read. As long as you don't approach this as another boy-destined-to-save-the-world story there is quite a bit to enjoy in The Left Hand of God.

Book Details
Title: The Left Hand of God
Author: Paul Hoffman
Publisher: Dutton
Pages: 372
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-525-95131-5
First published: 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Return of the Crimson Guard - Ian C. Esslemont

One of my colleague's called in sick on Monday which resulted in a very busy week for me at work. I have managed to finish a book in time for a midweek review but unfortunately the focus to produce a coherent review is missing right now so I moved another older review. The original, written in November 2008, was in sad need of some editing so I made a few minor changes. Reads a bit better now. I hope to have a fresh review for you on Saturday.

Return of the Crimson Guard is the second addition of Ian C. Esslemont of the Malazan series, an epic fantasy universe he shares with Steven Erikson. I reread Esslemont’s first effort Night of Knives a while ago and I thought it was an enjoyable read but not nearly as ambitious as the other Malazan books. It covers a very limit part of the Malazan history, the outcome of which was already obvious from Erikson’s books. Return of the Crimson Guard is quite something else. In this book Esslemont offers us the kind sprawling, multiple point of view tale, we’ve come to associate with Malazan novels. With this books Esslemont positions himself right in the centre of the of the complex history he and Steven Erikson have developed. It describes events Erikson hinted at in The Bonehunters, a pivotal moment in the history of the empire. Night of Knives did not convince me but there is not getting around this novel for the real Malazan fan.

Almost a century ago, during the early phases of Kellanved’s expansion of his realm, a group of men and women took a vow of eternal opposition to the Malazan Empire.They turned into the fearsome group of warriors known as the Crimson Guard. So strong were their vows than not even their dead could rest before the conditions were met. Now, with their leader missing and their numbers diminished, several groups of the guard wander the globe to fight the empire wherever they encounter it. Now that the empire under empress Laseen has overextended itself, the Crimson Guard once again gathers for another confrontation. They are far from unified however. Ground down by a century of warfare and lead by a man who’s goals are suspect, the guard has to overcome it's internal struggles to have any chance of success.

There is something to be said for a final push at this moment. The Malazan Empire seems to teeter on the brink of collapse. Various military campaigns on other continents, as well as Laseen’s relentless culling of those loyal to Kellanved, have drained the empire’s military might. With so much of their human capital spent, the empire now faces several rebellions on the continent of Quon Tali, a place that has been firmly under imperial control for decades. The various parties converge on the city of Li Heng ofr a major confrontation. Events there will decide the faith of the Malazan Empire.

One of the things that is perhaps most interesting about this book is that the gods have a fairly light hand in affairs as Malazan books go. Sure, there are quite a few people wielding magic or possessing superhuman strength or prowess in battle, but on the whole divine intervention is quite subtle. Something which cannot be said about military action. This Malazan book may be the book that relies heaviest on battle scenes. While a lot of fans will enjoy this, I think the reliance of the books on these battles to move the plot forward is one of it’s major weaknesses. The middle part of the book is a series of small and sometimes not so small military engagements. It reads like a string of Monrath munitions going of and leading the the really big bang at the end. This approach desensitizes the readers somewhat and that is a shame. Tthe last hundred or so pages of the book, where things start to fall in place, is a fine piece of writing indeed but to get there took a bit of effort.

While I did not mind the battles so much as some readers might, the scenes featuring Kyle and Gehlel where an effort at times. Kyle is a soldier in the Crimson Guard who deserts, or is cast out, after a particular violent incident I won’t spoil for you. No matter how much times he spends around soldiers, he seems to have a hard time shedding his naive outlook on the world. It doesn’t help that he’s caught up in Traveller’s storyline, one that does not seem to have a major impact to the events going on in Quon Tali. Gehlel in a way, is even worse. She is the figurehead of one of the rebellions taking place in the Malazan Empire. The last remaining heir of the pre-imperial ruling class. Being the sole survivor she’s been adopted in a noble house after the Malazans took over. Gehlel has a severe case of having a conscience, which in her position is not something you can afford. Throughout the book she’s being quite stubborn about it. I will admit she clearly possesses a spine, it is especially evident in the last bit of the book, but a little more pragmatism wouldn’t have hurt.

Still, a bit of a problem with the pacing of the novel and some outlying story lines (which I assume will be important to future books) don’t stop this from being a very enjoyable read. In fact, many a Malazan fan would have been waiting to find out about the empire at this point. With Erikson’s books covering events all over the world except the Malazan Empire, he’s left a big gap in the story to be filled. Return of the Crimson Guard does just that. Erikson and Esslemont are different writers, you notice it in their prose, the accents on certain themes, but I am still amazed at the fact these two people have managed to develop such a complex universe and detailed history together and still manage to stay in sync in their books.

Esslemont’s second addition to the Malazan epic is a huge step forward compared to Night of Knives and a bold step as well. He puts himself in the spotlight with this tale of what goes on in the Malazan heartland. The books is a must read for Malazan fans, there is simply too much going on in this book that is important to the overall story. I think Esslemont (and Erikson) took a chance on this book by putting it so much at the heart of the story, and I think it paid off. Return of the Crimson Guard is not without it’s flaws but certainly a worthy and very welcome addition the the Malazan series. I am looking forward to Stonewielder, Esslemont's next contribution to this saga.

Book Details
Title: Return of the Crimson Guard
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 702
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-05809-1
First published: 2008