Friday, July 30, 2010

The Memory of Whiteness - Kim Stanley Robinson

The Memory of Whiteness is Robinson's third novel, after The Wild Shore and Icehenge. It's a very unusual book, to me, it really stands out in Robinson's oeuvre. Much of his work deals with science and many of the characters are scientists. In this novel science plays a large role in this novel as well but this time it is not so much the process and the ways it can change the world but rather the world view that is influence by a scientific theory. The first time I read it, in 2006 I believe, I was very impressed with this somewhat surreal trip though the solar system. A feeling that has not been diminished by this reread.

The novel is set in the thirty-third century, some three centuries after a physicist named Arthur Holywelkin forces a paradigm shift in physic by revealing a theory that is the biggest breakthrough in science since Albert Einstein. In his later years, Holywelkin devotes his time to building a massive musical instrument known as The Orchestra, a complex instrument allowing one man to play the 30th century equivalent of a symphonic orchestra. Three centuries after its creation the debate on whether it is actually a musical instrument or a glorified recording studio is still raging.

Recently, Johannes Wright, the ninth master of The Orchestra, has started preparing for a tour of the solar system. Starting from The Orchestra's home on Pluto the trip will take them down the gravity well towards the sun. Stopping at the various moons and planets for a series of concerts of his music. Compositions based on the physics of Arthur Holywelkin. The eagerly anticipated tour is followed around the solar system by an armada of spaceships. Not all of them turn out to be admirers though. It soon becomes apparent someone wishes Johannes harm.

Music is an aspect of human culture that pops up on a few occasions in Robinson's work. I recall one scene from Antarctica in particular, where the main characters are caught up in the excitement of a really good rock concert. He takes it a lot further than that in this novel. Wright's music is more than just music, it is an expression of the equations that are the basis of Holywelkin's theories. A theory that had a very profound impact on science and society as a whole. The science of Holywelkin and the music that Wright produces are so intertwined that in some parts of the novel you have to pay close attention to figure out which it is the characters are talking about.

To make the mesh of ideas and concepts even more complicated Robinson also hooks up a philosophical debate to Holywelkin's work. From the days of the ancient Greek philosophers to Newton's formulations of classical mechanics, scientists were trying to express everything in exact definition and precise mathematical formulations. Until the twentieth century that is, when words like relative and uncertain showed up in physics. It seems that the rigid determined grid of the universe expressed in Newton's formulas is not the entire truth after all. Still, even with new theories problems remain. Quantum mechanics and theory of gravitation cannot be reconciled with each other. A new layer of physics is needed and Holywelkin comes up with one that seems to work. A system that seems to be able to predict the movement of any particle. A theory that can, given sufficient computational capacity, predict the future. Or, as one small but powerful sect would have us believe, the future is preordained, there is no free will. Is this something you want to believe or do you put your faith in yet another layer of physics, one that again encapsulates all that has gone before in an indeterminate system, yet to be unveiled?

The narrative voice Robinson uses to tell this tale is quite on usual for his work. He addresses the reader directly at times, while in other sections he employs a third person point of view. To give you an example in which Robinson tells us about a particular problem he's faced with in this book:
How does music mean? Not, you can be sure, in words. Music is a language untranslatable, it is too direct, too subtle, too ... other for words. Music moves directly from the inner ear to the lower brain stem, where our emotional lives are generated; and nothing can stimulate the complex response that music does, except music itself.
So Dent sat on his knoll above the amphitheater and listened to Johannes Wright play, as the late afternoon shaded into evening; he listened with all his mind focussed, his flesh quivering slightly in the cooling air. But you dear Reader, cannot be told what Dent heard. Words cannot describe this music.

Chapter 3 - Terra Incognita
Despite this problem of putting music into words Robinson succeeds very well in describing the emotions attached to it. The Orchestra is a strange instrument and a thirteen centuries from now composing has developed beyond what our ear is used to. Nevertheless, the author manages to capture the elation the characters feel when Johannes plays, the rapture they experience when Wright reveals the mysteries of Holywelkin's theories to them. Perhaps music cannot be put into words but Robinson gets his point across.

This unusually heavy dose of music notwithstanding, there is quite a bit in this novel that the reader will recognize from other works. Wright's tour of the solar system takes us to many places we visit in other books as well. The part of this novel set on Mars, Wright plays on the slopes of Olympus Mons, is one of my favourite parts of the book. We also see some elements there that will return in the Mars trilogy. The conflict between Red and Green appears in a slightly different form for instance. The tour also passes a whole range of social experiments on smaller inhabited objects. With so many places in the solar system open to human habitation just about every society you can think of has found a home somewhere. Robinson doesn't go into any of them in detail but some of these ideas do return in later books.

Of all Robinson's early novels I probably like this one best. The unusual approach to the narrative and the connection between art and science make this novel stand out. I think it is a love it or hate it novel though. Some people will be put off by the direct way in which the author addresses the reader, others will think the scientific aspect of the book didn't receive enough attention. With a focus on art and philosophy, there is no guarantee that readers who like the Mars trilogy will enjoying The Memory of Whiteness. I would recommend you try it anyway. It's a great piece of science fiction, I've rarely come across a more intriguing read.

Book Details
Title: The Memory of Whiteness
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 351
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-86143-5
First published: 1985

Monday, July 26, 2010

Short fiction by John Scalzi, Ian Tregillis and Mary Robinette Kowal

I haven't read nearly enough short fiction lately and I was in the mood for some this weekend. Perhaps because I didn't have quite as much time to invest in the novel I am currently reading as I would like. I have a number of collections waiting to be read but all of them were too big to read in a weekend so instead I raided for short stories. Here's a couple I read on Sunday.

After the Coup - John Scalzi has recently celebrated its second birthday and in that short time it has collected quite a treasure trove of free short fiction on their site. I haven't nearly read all of it but some of the ones I have read are quite good. One of their latest additions is After the Coup by John Scalzi. A short story set in the same universe as Old Man's War, which to my shame I haven't read. He is also the proprietor of The Whatever, one of the most popular SF-blogs on the net. Apparently his proudest achievement is the bacon cat incident. Given my limited experience with Scalzi's work I am not quite sure what this tells us about the quality of his writing.

But back to the story. Lieutenant Hart Schmidt is in serious trouble. On a diplomatic mission to the Korba, he has failed to foresee the interest in military matters their new military junta is displaying. An agreement between the Korba and Colonial Union hangs in the balance. Schmidt has only one soldier aboard his ship. The engineer Harry Wilson, a man with no recent combat training. When he lets this titbit slip in the negotiations the Korba immediately propose a duel. On their terms. And Harry is suppose to loose. The stakes are high and so Schmidt is forced to face Harry with the question: "How well do you take a punch?".

After the Coup is a very humorous story. The dry, stating the obvious way of dealing with an impossible situation made me laugh out loud a number of times. The antics Wilson has to go though to keep his skin more or less in tact are painful and hilarious at the same time. The mixture of annoyance and amazement in Wilson when the Korba reveals yet another unsuspecting quality is very well done. It is a fast, fun story. If you haven't read Scalzi before don't let that discourage you, it can be read independently of his books.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

What Doctor Gottlieb Saw - Ian Tregillis

The second story I picked is something quite different. I recently read Tregillis' début novel Bitter Seeds, an alternative history novel set in the early stages of World War II, and a number of Wild Cards novels that contain contribution by him. What Doctor Gottlieb Saw is a short story set just before the main part Bitter Seeds at the farm where Doctor von Westarp is running his experiments to create an Übermensch. It can be read without having read the novel but if you have read it, the story will shed some light on certain events. Either way, it is very much worth reading.

Again the story starts with someone is serious trouble. Doctor Gottlieb works at Doctor von Westarp's farm as a psychiatrist. Accused of practising Jewish science he is only tolerated for as long as he remains useful. His already precarious position becomes even more unstable after the death of one of von Westarp's test subjects. They are looking for a scapegoat and Gottlieb might just be it. Desperately Gottlieb looks for a way out and everything points in the direction of a seriously disturbed young woman named Grettel. Another one of von Westarp's creations.

Grettel is one of the more interesting characters in the novel Bitter Seeds but in this story Tregillis manages to portray her as even more disturbed. What Doctor Gottlieb Saw is even darker than the novel. What we see of Grettel is a young woman who practically radiates innocence but at the same time ruthlessly exploits her talent to see into the future. Perhaps it is because the short story format but I though the contrast in this story is even sharper than in the novel. Add to that the carefully controlled sense of desperation that puts a strain on Gottlieb and the way he realizes the implications of what goes on but decides to keep this knowledge to himself and you have a very interesting story. I thought the dark and tense atmosphere in the story were very well done.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

First Flight - Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is a name I've seen popping a number of times but like with John Scalzi, I've never read anything she's written. Until now only short stories have appeared, some of them collected in Scenting the Dark and Other Stories (Subterranean, 2009), but next month her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) will be published. I've already seen some glowing reviews but I'm not quite sure if it is something that will appeal to me. First Flight is one of a number of short stories that can be read for free on the web. I very much liked it so perhaps I ought to dig up some more.

First Flight is a time travel story which takes us back to the day the Wright brothers successfully tested their Flyer III in 1905. Because nobody expected it to succeed there are not images of this event and historians intend to rectify that. One of the limitations of time travel is that you can only travel to a period in time in which you were actually alive. To be able to go back all the way to 1905 one needs to be well over a hundred. Eleanor Louise Jackson is one of the few people who fit that description. Unfortunately the trip does not quite go as intended the Time Machine breaks down at a very inconvenient moment. The historians want Eleanor to go back and get the job done as quickly as possible. Eleanor has her own ideas on how this situation should be handled.

The story contains two elements you find in most time travel stories. A fear of being discovered and a fear of altering the future. As such this story is not special but I have to admit the moment Wilbur Wright draws his conclusions from what Eleanor tells him is memorable. The last couple of pages of First Flight carry quite a punch. I must say it didn't look like I'd like it all that much up to that point but Kowal managed to convince me with the ending. Nice nod to H.G. Wells classic in there as well. Very enjoyable read.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

That's it for now, perhaps I will get around to one of those collections next week. I really ought to have a go at the one of James Van Pelt's collections, The Radio Magician and Other Stories has been on the to read stack for too long. Next week.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Naamah's Curse - Jacqueline Carey

Jaqueline Carey managed to surprise me twice last year. Her novel Santa Olivia, a novel that is very hard to put into a category, was one of the better books I read in 2009. In her Kushiel setting Naamah's Kiss appeared. Something of a fresh start for a series that hadn't managed to convince me in the previous three instalments. The new trilogy is noticeably less dark. Carey has changed direction the direction of the series and while Naamah's Kiss will certainly appeal to readers of her earlier books, I appreciated the new course the author set. I had high hopes for the second book in this trilogy. Naamah's Curse didn't quite live up to them.

After the events in the previous book our young heroine Moirin is a favourite at the Ch'in court. The gods ride their champions hard however, her next challenge is already lined up for Moirin. Her love Bao has disappeared. In an attempt to find the man who raped his mother with Bao as the reminder, he has left for the Tartar steps. Moirin hesitates. Bao has his own destiny to follow after all. With winter approaching the choice can no longer be postponed and Moirin decides to follow him. Even with the blessing of the Ch'in court, currently at peace with the Tartars, this in not an easy journey.

Hit by the first snow storm of the year, Moirin is forced to seek shelter with a band of Tartar nomads for the winter. When spring finally comes she travels with them to the gathering of the Tartar Khan, where she expects to find Bao. She does indeed find the Khan and her love appears to be one of his favourites. So much so, that he has given one of his daughters to him. The Great Khan is not pleased with Moirin showing up and attracting Bao's attention. The humiliation to his daughter is too much to bear. Moirin must be gotten rid of, the sooner the better.

Moirin has grown considerably as a character. Her youthful mistakes of the previous book have made her more cautious in her dealings with the supernatural as well as a lot more aware of what Naamah and the Bear Goddess of the Maghuin Dhonn. For Moirin this is something of a blessing and, as the title suggests, a curse. These two divine presences provide Moirin with something of an unfailing compass. Following these divine instructions gets Moirin in trouble more than once, not everybody appreciates the teachings of Naamah in particular, but they are always presented as a necessary step in Moirin's development.

In Naamah's Kiss Moirin does not always heed the divine warnings she receives. Sometimes she just fails to pay attention to them, sometimes she consciously ignores them. More often than not these decisions turn out be costly mistakes but she does not regret it in every instance. In Naamah's Curse Moirin has learnt to heed the goddess' warnings and apparently the price is generally to high to ignore them. For each and every difficult choice Moirin faces she consults the goddess and unfailingly chooses the path that meets with her approval. It generally leads to a favourable outcome (at a price). This approach took a lot of the tension from the book for me. Moirin rarely questions the intentions of Naamah or the Bear Goddess, instead focussing on the beliefs and cultures she meets along the way. A little more introspection would have suited her at times. Being a Goddess' chosen doesn't generally come with a roadmap to success. I guess I miss the rebellious spark that the teenager Moirin possessed.

As in previous volumes, there is quite a bit of travelling in this book. Carey explores a number of places not seen in previous novels. The Tartar territories are prominent early in the book but Carey also shows us parts of what in our world would be called Tibet. Given Moirin's focus on religious matters her interest in local religions is not surprising. Carey draws from Buddhist traditions as well as the Hindu pantheon in these chapters. Bhodistan (India) has been mentioned in a number of books now but it does not look like Carey means to travel there in the next volume. She has dropped hints that Moirin's destiny will take her to the New World next. Throughout the story Moirin acquires another couple of languages. I will admit that this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine but learning to speak a foreign language is not quite that easy for most people. Moirin seems to be headed in Phèdre's direction, she speaks at least half a dozen languages at this point, most of them from different language groups.

Although sexuality in general is a theme in the series and the book, the sexual content of this entry is quite modest compared to the previous part. With Moirin chasing her beloved for most of the book there aren't that many opportunities. Moirin isn't precisely celibate but if you read these books for the steamy sex then Naamah's Curse is not going to be your favourite. Personally, I think Carey was wise not to force it. The story does not lend itself to more sexual content and sex for the sake of it is not really something I appreciate in a novel.

While Naamah's Kiss was a promising start of a new trilogy, Naamah's Curse does not quite match the standard set in that book. The fresh, inquisitive Moirin of the first book has grown up considerably and in the process has lost something of her appeal. This book is not a bad tale but a little less dependence on the divine in Moirin's quest would have made it much more exciting. Her complete acceptance of her destiny is a little too much of a good thing. Interesting characters are generally more than a well trained pet of the Gods but in this book Moirin is in danger of becoming just that. It makes one wonder what would happen to her if the Bear Goddess does not guide her through a difficult decision or what will happen if the two deities disagree. Perhaps Carey will show us in Naamah's Blessing.

Book Details
Title: Naamah's Curse
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 567
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-446-19805-9
First published: 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Black Hills - Dan Simmons

Black Hills is the fourth book by Dan Simmons I've read and in these works he has impressed with the variety of themes and settings he takes on. Simmons has written science fiction, horror, historical novels, crime and probably other things I am not even aware of. The man's a very versatile writer. This book, like his previous two novels The Terror and Drood, could be considered historical fiction with a clear supernatural theme. Despite his science fiction past, this book may escape the genre ghetto and end up in the mainstream section of the book store. It certainly has a wide enough appeal to attract readers from both sides of this imaginary line.

The novel tells the story of the Paha Sapa. His name means Black Hills in Lakota but it is only used by those he is most intimate with, to the rest of the world he is Billy Slow Horse. Born in 1865, Paha Sapa lives through the final days of the independent, buffalo hunting lifestyle of his people. In 1876 he is present when a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho defeat General George Armstrong Custer in what is known as Custer's last stand. As any young Lakota boy would try to do, Paha Sapa counts coup of the dying general. In this act, Paha Sapa takes the spirit of Custer into his own body. It is the start an uncomfortable life carrying the spirit of one of the greatest enemies of his people around.

Paha Sapa's story takes us far beyond the Little Big Horn battlefield. It shows us much of the turbulent past of the region, from events like the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the Dust Bowl that would hit the Plains in the 1930s and the construction of the Mount Rushmore monument, where Paha Sapa works as a powder man. His life is lead in the belief that somehow he can make a difference, redress the old sores of the injustice his people suffered, stop the continuing degradation of the plains ecology he has witnessed throughout his life. The job at Mount Rushmore seems to present an opportunity. Especially when it becomes clear president Roosevelt will be visiting the site to dedicate the recently finished head of Thomas Jefferson.

Although not much of it shows up on this blog, I've read quite a few books with Native American themes in them. Anthropology of North American peoples is one of my father's interests and he owns a stack of books and magazines on the subject, quite a few of which I have read. In the fiction department it ranged from Karl May's hopelessly inaccurate and moralizing Winnetou adventures to Dee Brown's heart-wrenching historical fiction Creek Mary's Blood. I later added books such as Eye of Cat by Roger Zelazny and Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie (although I seem to have misplaced my copy of that book) and right now Frank Herbert's Soul Catcher is staring at me accusingly from the to read stack. The tragic events in the American West have been a source of inspiration for some great literature but there is also a god-awful lot of nonsense being written about it. Simmons has obviously come across his share of this doing the research for this book. I don't think I have ever read a book on the subject that so brutally pops a number of myths and misconceptions as Black Hills.

With Custer in his head Paha Sapa frequently has to face uncomfortable truths about his people's past. The general, who has a grudging respect for people like Crazy Horse, one of the great Lakota war chiefs, and despises the reservation Indians and the more peace-minded chiefs such as Red Cloud and Black Kettle (whom he thinks of as a hypocrite). He also reminds his host that even without all the military action that received so much attention the life-style of the plains tribes is doomed simply because of their reliance on the nearly extinct buffalo. The general is not shy about detailing the brutal style of warfare of the Lakota and the fact that a mere century and a half ago they pushed other tribes out of the region themselves. None of this noble savage living in harmony with the environment crap for Custer, who's cruel observations don't even spare the actions of his widow, fighting to preserve the reputation of her late husband. Simmons is not afraid to touch more recent controversies, such as the Crazy Horse memorial being built in the vicinity of the Mount Rushmore monument or the question of how much blood it takes to be part of a tribe, either. If you prefer a more romantic picture of Native Americans this book is a positively uncomfortable read.

Paha Sapa is an intelligent man, he sees the truth in some of what Custer tells him. That does not prevent him from seeing the tragedy of the defeat of his people, the senseless massacres and the unsustainable practices that drive the plains ecology to the brink of collapse. Throughout his life he fights against blatant discrimination but also what is described as the sullenness that overcomes the reservation Indians. Paha Sapa is a man who has lost a lot. His people and their culture, his wife after only four years of marriage and ultimately his son. You'd think the combination of a blunt ghost and a hard life would make him bitter. It doesn't. Paha Sapa strikes me as a gentle and very lonely man. Simmons has done a wonderful job portraying him as someone still very much in touch with the Lakota world view of his youth but certainly not blind to what the modern world has to offer. At times Simmons makes you feel like he should strike back at the world that has treated him so cruelly and he should do it NOW! But then, there is always this nagging doubt. Simmons holds that tension very well throughout the novel.

Black Hills is written very much out of chronological order. Chapters set in 1876 and the 1930s alternate and Simmons throws in a few chapters set in other periods as well as some interior monologue by Custer's ghost at various points in the novel. Gradually a more or less complete view of Paha Sapa's life appears. Simmons chooses to reveal quite a few important facts about his life before the events are actually described in the book and this is not something everybody will appreciate. Personally I didn't mind the non-linear fashion in which the story is told but the reader does have to pay attention.

Another factor that makes this book an interesting but challenging read is the sheer amount of research Simmons has put into it. The text is riddled with Lakota phrases for one thing. Thanks to Kevin Costner we all know one word in Lakota, Simmons adds to this vocabulary considerably. Names, places, concepts not easily translated into English, some passages are pretty hard to read because of all the Lakota injected into them. There are other places in the book where the weight of all that research seems to lie heavily on the story. The novel contains some very descriptive passages about the Chicago World Fair of 1893, the work at Mount Rushmore and New York City. In general I enjoy historical detail and much of it is fascinating to read about but at times I think it is slowing the story down more than it ought to.

Despite overdoing it slightly on the historical detail, I liked Black Hills an awful lot. From what I can tell Simmons has managed gotten as close as it is possible for a wasicu to get to the Lakota mindset. Paha Sapa is a very intriguing character, someone you can't help but like. The dilemma Paha Sapa faces and the way his life leads up to this one moment in which he has to choose kept me fascinated with this story. Simmons is most definitely a candidate for the best of 2010 list as far as I am concerned. It's one of those books I would recommend to everybody, no matter what your reading preferences are.

Book Details
Title: Black Hills
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 487
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-84916-088-9
First published: 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pride of Carthage - David Anthony Durham

I'm a little behind on my reading again so I moved an older piece to this blog. This review was written in October 2008, a period in which I read more historical fiction than I do at the moment. I did some minor editing as usual, it needed less than most of the stuff I wrote back then I'll be back next week with a fresh review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons.

David Anthony Durham recently ventured into fantasy with his book Acacia: The War with the Mien and its sequel Other Lands. Before that he wrote a number of historical novels, making him a very interesting writer for a reader likes me,who likes both fantasy and historical fiction (and hybrids thereof). Pride of Carthage tells the story of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and Hannibal’s campaign against the Roman republic. A decisive moment in the history of Rome. I haven’t read any of Durham’s other books but after reading this one I may have to put one or two on my to read list.

After Carthage’s defeat in the fist Punic war it takes the Carthaginians several decades to rebuild their strength. The loss of their fleet in particular is a severe blow to their pride and power. Wealth keeps flowing into the city however and soon Cathage expands its influence again. Under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca the empire expands into Iberia, where its sphere on influence brushes with Rome’s once again. The tension mounts and when Rome declares the city of Saguntum, well within Carthage’s sphere of influence, a protectorate. War is beginning to look more likely by the day. Hannibal, by that time in control of the Iberian possessions of Carthage, decides not to wait for the Roman invasion. Still lacking a fleet of decent size he sets out on an epic march across the Alps into the Roman republic itself.

The book follows Hannibal’s exploits in Italy, his victories at Trebia and Lake Trasimene and of course his most famous victory and Cannae in 216 BC. A battle during which Hannibal’s smaller force managed to encircle and butcher a large Roman army. It is one of Rome’s greatest defeats and a tactical masterpiece that is still studied by soldiers and historians alike. The road to Rome lies open, the republic is in a state of panic, visions of the sack of Rome at the hands of Brennus in 387 BC haunt the Roman citizens. Lacking reinforcements from Carthage, the leaders of the city appear displeased with Hannibal’s initiative to start a war with Rome, he decides not to besiege the city but continue to fight his war of attrition on Italian soil. The wisdom of this decision is still debated but it did mark the turning point in the second Punic war. From then on Rome would gain the upper hand until Hannibal’s ultimate defeat by one of Rome’s greatest generals, Scipio Africanus, at the battle of Zama in 202 BC.

Durham tells the story of Hannibal’s war from a number of different points of view. From the great general himself to his brothers and wife, but also from several Roman points of view and those of ordinary soldiers and camp followers. In doing so Durham ensures the readers gets a detailed look at what ancient warfare entailed. The author describes it in harsh detail in fact. Although Hanibal himself does not come across as a brutal or cruel man in the book, he orders the destruction of complete Saguntum and he accepts the fact that a large portion of his army will not survive journey to meet the Romans in battle on their own soil. The battle scenes are plentiful and detailed and a lot of blood was spilled even for the standards of the time in Hannibal’s war. Durham captures the frantic, often desperate action of these battles very well.

Despite all this action I thought the book was a bit slow in the beginning. The first part of the book deals mostly with the situation in Iberia and the rising tension between Rome and Carthage. The author takes his time setting the stage. Once Hannibal starts moving the pace rapidly increases though. Durham has divides the book in 5 parts, each about 100 pages long and dealing with a specific phase in the conflict. I prefer shorter chapters or parts, whatever you want to call them, simply because I don’t like to stop reading in the middle of one. I’m not always in the position where I can sit down and read a hundred pages in one go. Durham doesn’t provide many points where you can put the book down easily. Of course this became harder as the book progressed anyway.

The author follows history closely as far as I can tell. Historical material on Carthage is pretty scarce. Decades after the Second Punic War, Roman senator Cato the Elder spoke the famous words “Carthago delenda est” and, after repeating them in the senate every chance he got, Rome agreed. In 146 BC the city was completely destroyed, it’s citizens sold into slavery or killed and the historical record destroyed. Oddly enough there seems to be a lack of material from the Roman side as well. Most of it dates from well after the events themselves. And Romans had the tendency to make much of their enemies after they had defeated them (see Micheal Curtis Ford's The Last King for an other example of that). The picture the author paints of Hannibal is one of a sympathetic man in a way. One who is slowly worn down by the responsibility he carries. Probably not the way a Roman would have described him but I found it plausible enough. Durham has certainly put in a lot of effort in getting the details on life in ancient times right. The details of life in the various places the novel is set and those of the campaigns in particular give his book a very realistic feel.

One could say the ending of the books is a bit abrupt I suppose. Hannibal’s career doesn’t end after Zama. He will be an important factor in Carthage’s political scene for several years after than until he is eventually exiled in 195 BC. His military brilliance seems to have ended after Zama though. He faces Roman armies in battle as a mercenary general during his exile but never with much success. I that light it certainly makes sense to end the book there. Pride of Carthage is an interesting retelling of Hannibal’s tale. I enjoyed reading it a great deal but if you consider reading this book keep in mind that it is pretty heavy on military action.

Book Details
Title: Pride of Carthage
Author: David Anthony Durham
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 568
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-385-72249-4
First published: 2005

Monday, July 12, 2010

Het sterrensnoer - Mark Laurence

As you may have guessed from the title, Het sterrensnoer is a Dutch language title. It's been a while since I've reviewed one of those. The last one was Adrain Stone's Ziel van de Duivel in April. Unfortunately interesting genre fiction titles by Dutch language authors are far from common. Het sterrensnoer is the eighth book appearing under the Books of Fantasy imprint, a published that attempts to give new talent in genre fiction a chance. I've read two others (see the Vuurproef review) and both impressed me with the quality of the writing, editing and design. Given the small print run of one of these novels a surprising amount of time and energy is devoted to publishing these books. Het Sterrensnoer is no exception.

Centuries ago a space ship was forced to make an emergency landing on the planet Barash. It soon became apparent that the survivors were not going anywhere and so efforts were shifted to long term survival. Every bit of technical know-how was used to create a new civilization, one that would be able to maintain their level of technological development. Several centuries on, this has proven to be most difficult indeed. What is left of star ship technology is rapidly wearing out and nobody is interested in, or capable of, keeping things going.

The ancient ones where thorough in storing their knowledge though. Even in a world more interested in astrology, strange religious cults and wizardry some people strive to regain what is lost. On the west coast of the continent of West-Barash a girl named Merle is born with startling blue hair. Although she doesn't know it, her hair announces her a descendant of the crashed star travellers. She is one of the few people with the power to unlock the lost knowledge of the ancient ones, knowledge much desired by the few who know about it. When Merle discovers a family heirloom, an ancient book written in a script only she can decipher containing hints of her heritage, the ruler of the city she grew up in manipulates her into starting a quest to return the lost knowledge of the star ship to the people. A quest that turns out to be more than a little dangerous.

I've been thinking about how to translate the title for you for a couple of days now and it proving to be a pain in the backside. Dutch is one of those languages where you can take two words, glue them together and make a new one. Thus we end up with words like rioolwaterzuiveringsinstallatie (sewage treatment plant) which tags together four words (I will leave it to you to figure out which). We're not quite as bad as the Germans but it is close. Sterrensnoer is one of these constructed words. Ster, plural sterren, means star(s). Snoer can mean chord, line, rope or in this case necklace. Necklace of Stars? Or from the stars as the story suggests it is? Doesn't quite have the same ring to it as in Dutch. This necklace is a very important object in the story however, somehow it ought to show up in the title.

Important this necklace may be, it is also a part of the story with which I had a problem. Merle is quite ignorant of a great many things, one of them being the origin and properties of the necklace. It is an artefact of enormous power but Merle seems to have no control over it. As she starts out on her journey, hopelessly unprepared, it saves her from certain death an number of times in deus ex machina-like fashion. Some of these scenes would have been a lot more convincing if we had know at least a little bit of the history of the necklace and what it was capable of. It's one example of a problem that shows up in a number of places in the novel. Foreshadowing is almost non-existent in this book. This lack makes the story very unpredictable but also creates the impression of reading about a series of seemingly unrelated events. It takes quite a lot of explaining in the last fifty or so pages of the book to bring it all together.

That being said, Het sterrensnoer has more than a few things going for it. Laurence is not afraid to mix fantasy elements into what could be considered a science fiction story. On his website he mentions Jack Vance as one of his influences and the way he blends science and magic did remind me of the atmosphere in some of the Dying Earth stories. Although not everybody appreciates broken down space ships, beam weapons and motorized vehicles in their fantasy, this novel has a certain cross-over appeal. Given the small number of science fiction works still appearing in Dutch, that is certainly not a bad thing.

Another thing I absolutely loved about this book is the author's use of the Dutch language. Many texts in modern Dutch, and translations in particular, are riddled with Anglicisms. I don't consider myself a purist when it comes to the Dutch language but I do like it when people remember which language they are writing in. Laurence's use of language is not overly flowery but he employs a wide vocabulary, using some words I don't remember seeing in any text in quite a while. His vocabulary is to an extend tailored to create a fantastic atmosphere in the story, something in which he succeeds very well. It gives him a certain freedom in his choice of words and he employs it to the fullest extend. Some may consider his vocabulary slightly old-fashioned but I am very impressed with what he shows us of his language skills. Laurence wields language like a precision instrument, without the need to resort to bluntness or crudely descriptive passages. In that respect this novel is a very enjoyable read.

Het sterrensnoer is a début novel and in places the inexperience of the author shows. That did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying most aspects of this novel. If Laurence manages to get a little more grip on his plotting his next book, he clearly leaves himself opportunities for a sequel, could be very good indeed. His début is a little short of excellent but I would certainly call it promising. Het sterrensnoer is an action-packed, fantasy-tinged science fiction story that ought to have quite a wide appeal. I for one, will be keeping an eye out for his writing from now on.

Book Details
Title: Het sterrensnoer
Author: Mark Laurence
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
Pages: 320
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-608600-3-4
First published: 2009

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is one of the most anticipated books of 2010 for me. In recent years McDonald has written an number of novels and short stories set in places most science fiction does not venture. His novel River of Gods and the accompanying collection Cyberabad Days took us to a future India, his novel Brasyl, as the title suggests, to Brazil. The combination of a very strong sense of place as well as interesting technological and political developments and superb characterization made these books real winners for me. In The Dervish House McDonald takes us to 2027 Istanbul and again the result is a very good book.

In April 2027 the city of Istanbul is suffering from unseasonably hot weather. A little heat does nothing to slow the pace of the vibrant city however. Turkey has finally joined the EU a number of years back and has since developed into a nexus of energy trade. Large quantities of natural gas pass through the city every day, on their way to various European nations. The face of Turkey may be turned west in recent decades, it is still a nation with many faces and Istanbul seems to incorporated them all. With Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern Turkish influences combining into a mix of European and Oriental the city is a gorgeous backdrop for McDonald's story.

Over the course of five days and though the eyes of six main characters the author explores the city, incorporating into his story the rapid advance of nano-technology, the apparent shift form oil to gas to meet the world's energy demands, the ever present threat of religiously inspired terrorism and the complexities of the financial sector. The lives of a retired professor, a nine year old boy with a heart condition, a gas trader, an antique dealer, a marketing graduate and a troubled young man with a history of substance abuse intertwine to show the city and uncover a plot that puts the lives and sanity of millions at risk.

His previous settings in India and Brazil McDonald incorporated technological advances that would radically alter everyday life if they became reality. In River of Gods the development of artificial intelligence takes such rapid strides that they become indistinguishable from human intelligence in most cases and in Brasyl McDonald deals with quantum computing. The Dervish House looks at nanotechnology. Tiny computer like machines that can be used for all manner of applications, from toys to medical machines to communications. The books ultimately predicts that this technology will blur the line between organic and electronic, the human body an information storage device. It's an interesting line of thought but somehow I feel 2027 may be a bit too soon for such radical changes.

On the political front, Turkish accession into the EU is also an interesting speculation. Negotiations about the Turkish joining have been going on for decades. Turkey seems to be inching closer but there is widespread resistance from within the EU against this expansion of the community (our very own Mr. Wilders, the biggest winner in the latest general elections, is radically opposed for instance). The unresolved issue of Cyprus lead to the accession of only the Greek part of the island into the EU a while back. There are issues with regards to human rights, the large role of the army in Turkish politics, fears of a predominantly Muslim country joining will increase the likelihood of terrorism and the incompatibility of EU and Turkish law in a number of areas. Given the glacial movement towards joining a major political breakthrough would be needed to realized full membership before the date set in the book. It is not something that is very important to the story but by including it McDonald as added an interesting details to his already rich novel. There are a lot more examples of these extrapolations of historic events and processes that bring McDonald's future to life.

As I mentioned in the introduction The Dervish House shows a very strong sense of place. McDonald is constantly describing how the various characters see their own city, how they relate to the history of their city and what role it has played in their lives. The retired professor is ethnically Greek for instance. He is part of the tiny Greek community that remains in the city and he is very much aware that he is part of a minority that is increasingly unwelcome in the city. There are also links with the historic Greek community in the city and the various mass migrations of ethnic Greeks after yet another round of political upheaval in Turkey. The antiques dealer on the other hand, tends to see the city more as layer upon layer of cultural periods of the city, with descriptions of the various building styles she comes across to illustrate this. Each character shows us a different aspect of Istanbul, from high finance to street Sharia, from medieval art to nanotech toys.

This torrent of detail comes at a price of course. For me this book took my full concentration to read. It is too easy to let yourself get lost in the history of the city, the description of a landmark or a reference to the 1980 coup d'etat and loose sight of what the characters is trying to achieve in a particular scene. McDonald packs six main characters in 350 pages, it requires some tight plotting to fit all of this in. McDonald succeeds in creating well developed main characters but demands the reader's full attention in keeping the story lines straight. It takes quite a while for them to converge but when they do, the author weaves them into a very satisfying conclusion. Alternatively, if you are not particularly interested in the details McDonald has put into the novel you're going to wonder when he will get on with it, or even if the author is not overindulging. I didn't think McDonald is but in various places in the book he's right on the edge.

The Dervish House is a fascinating read, a novel densely packed with interesting characters, radical technological advances, depictions of the deep historical roots of the city and based on all this, plausible developments in the society and politics of the city. I marvel at the fact that he has managed to put all of this in such a limited number of pages. I very much enjoyed reading McDonald's latest effort but if you do pick it up be advised it is not a book to read in bed fifteen minutes before putting out the light. It's a demanding, complex and rewarding read, make sure to give it your full attention.

Book Details
Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 359
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-61614-204-9
First published: 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gollancz SF Masterworks: What I've Read

I saw this list posted by Neth, who is currently participating in an interesting project to review all the titles in Gollancz' SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. I will be following this blog with interest. I've read a couple of books in the SF Masterworks series myself but, after going over the list, not nearly as many as I would like. I'm still not particularly well read in SF classics.
Bold means I've read it, italics that I own but haven't read it, and plain means I don’t own it and haven’t read it. Links to reviews on this blog have been included. Some books appear on the list twice because they have been published as a hardcover and the regular paperback. Also note that after The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, no numbers have been assigned to the books and that some books have been published in both the old and the new style.

I - Dune - Frank Herbert
II - The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
III - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick (added 10-may-2011)
IV - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
V - A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke (added 04-sep-2010)
VII - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein (different edition)
VIII - Ringworld - Larry Niven
IX - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
X - The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

1 - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
2 - I Am Legend - Richard Matheson
3 - Cities in Flight - James Blish
4 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
5 - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
6 - Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany (added 08-okt-2011)
7 - Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
8 - The Fifth Head of Cerberus - Gene Wolfe
9 - Gateway - Frederik Pohl
10 - The Rediscovery of Man - Cordwainer Smith

11 - Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon
12 - Earth Abides - George R. Stewart
13 - Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick
14 - The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
15 - Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner
16 - The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin (added 29-nov-2010)
17 - The Drowned World - J. G. Ballard
18 - The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
19 - Emphyrio - Jack Vance
20 - A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

21 - Star Maker - Olaf Stapledon
22 - Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg
24 - The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds - H. G. Wells
25 - Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
26 - Ubik - Philip K. Dick
27 - Timescape - Gregory Benford
28 - More Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon
29 - Man Plus - Frederik Pohl
30 - A Case of Conscience - James Blish

31 - The Centauri Device - M. John Harrison
32 - Dr. Bloodmoney - Philip K. Dick
33 - Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss
34 - The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke (added 14-dec-11)
35 - Pavane - Keith Roberts
36 - Now Wait for Last Year - Philip K. Dick
37 - Nova - Samuel R. Delany
38 - The First Men in the Moon - H. G. Wells
39 - The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke
40 - Blood Music - Greg Bear

41 - Jem - Frederik Pohl (added 02-aug-10)
42 - Bring the Jubilee - Ward Moore
43 - VALIS - Philip K. Dick
44 - The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin (added 01-mar-2011)
45 - The Complete Roderick - John Sladek
46 - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick
47 - The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells
48 - Grass - Sheri S. Tepper (added 19-may-2013)
49 - A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke (added 30-sep-2012)
50 - Eon - Greg Bear

51 - The Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson
52 - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K. Dick
53 - The Dancers at the End of Time - Michael Moorcock
54 - The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth (added 30-oct-10)
55 - Time Out of Joint - Philip K. Dick
56 - Downward to the Earth - Robert Silverberg
57 - The Simulacra - Philip K. Dick
58 - The Penultimate Truth - Philip K. Dick
59 - Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg (added 10-mar-12)
60 - Ringworld - Larry Niven

61 - The Child Garden - Geoff Ryman
62 - Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement
63 - A Maze of Death - Philip K. Dick
64 - Tau Zero - Poul Anderson (added 21-jan-12)
65 - Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke
66 - Life During Wartime - Lucius Shepard
67 - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm (added 08-jun-2013)
68 - Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 - Dark Benediction - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 - Mockingbird - Walter Tevis

71 - Dune - Frank Herbert
72 - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein (different edition)
73 - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick (added 10-may-2011)
74 - Inverted World - Christopher Priest
75 - Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut (added 19-jun-2013)
76 - The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells (different edition)
77 - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke (added 04-sep-2010)
78 - The Time Machine - H.G. Wells
79 - Dhalgren  - Samuel R. Delany
80 - Helliconia - Brian Aldiss

81 - Food of the Gods - H.G. Wells
82 - The Body Snatchers - Jack Finney
83 - The Female Man - Joanna Russ
84 - Arslan  - M.J. Engh (added 12-oct-2013)
85 - The Difference Engine - William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
86 - The Prestige - Christopher Priest
87 - Greybeard - Brian Aldiss
88 - Sirius - Olaf Stapledon
89 - Hyperion - Dan Simmons (different edition)
90 - City - Clifford D. Simak

91 - Hellstrom's Hive - Frank Herbert (added 16-nov-2013, different edition)
92 - Of Men and Monsters - William Tenn
93 - R.U.R. and War with the Newts - Karel Čapek
94 - The Affirmation - Christopher Priest
95 - Floating Worlds - Cecelia Holland
96 - Rogue Moon - Algis Budrys
97 - Dangerous Visions - Harlan Ellison
98 - Odd John - Olaf Stapledon
99 - The Fall of Hyperion - Dan Simmons (different edition)
100 - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (added 16-nov 2013, different edition)

101 - The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells
102 - Synners - Pat Cardigan
103 - Sarah Canary - Karen Joy Fowler
104 - Ammonite - Nicola Griffith (added 13-apr-2014)
105 - The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - D. G. Compton  
106 - Frankenstein - Mary Shelley  
107 - Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban  
108 - Wasp - Eric Frank Russell
109 - Unquenchable Fire - Rachel Pollack

110 - The Sea and Summer - George Turner

111 - The Caltraps of Time - David I. Masson
112 - Doomsday Book - Connie Willis (different edition)
113 - Slow River - Nicola Griffith
114 - Riddley Walker - Russel Hoban
115 - The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov (added 22-jan-2014)
116 - Engine Summer - John Crowley
117 - The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri S. Tepper
118 - A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller
119 - To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis (different edition)
120 - This Is the Way the World Ends - James Morrow

121 - The Deep - John Crowley
122 - Time is the Fire: The Best of Connie Willis - Connie Willis (added 7-jul-2013, different edition)
123 - No Enemy But Time - Michael Bishop
124 - Double Star - Robert A. Heinlein
125 - Random Acts of Senseless Violence - Jack Womack
126 - Half Past Human - T. J. Bass
127 - Transfigurations - Michael Bishop
128 - The Door into Summer - Robert A. Heinlein
129 - Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds  (different edition)
130 - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams (different edition)

131 - Life, the Universe and Everything - Douglas Adams (different edition)
132 - The God Whale - T.J. Bass

Hmm... I guess I have some reading left to do. Maybe I can add another sometime later this month.

Edit: updated 16-09-2011 to include new and forthcoming titles.
Edit: updated 18-11-2013 to  include new titles

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dreamer of Dune - Brian Herbert

In 2003 a biography of Frank Herbert (1920 - 1986) was released by Tor. It's written by his son Brian Herbert, who has written a number of novels as well. The best known of these are probably the Dune prequels and sequels written in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. It's not the only book about Frank Herbert or his works but most of the others I am aware of are out of print so this is probably the easiest to come by. My copy come out of a bargain bin somewhere so I'm not entirely sure how well it did in hardcover. It's been sitting on a shelve for a few years now but I never got around to reading it. After finishing The Green Brain recently I remembered I had this book somewhere, so I picked it up a couple of days ago. Just to give you all a fair warning, I've never seriously attempted to review non-fiction before so we'll see how this goes.

Dreamer of Dune covers Herbert's entire life from his birth in 1920 to his untimely death in 1986. Brian Herbert draws on numerous sources. Early on especially he draws on what public records as well as what his parents and the people who knew them back then had to say about his father. Later on Brian Herbert's memories and personal journal becomes an important source as well. Especially the seventies and eighties, with Frank Herbert at the peak of his success are a lot more detailed.

The most striking aspect of this biography is that Brian Herbert chose a very personal approach to describing his father's life. To an extend this is inevitable, being Frank's son he must have quite a different view on his father than the general public, or a biographer who had to rely on interviews and documentation to create his own image of the man. Brian has his own memories and notes to give us an insight nobody else could have achieved. I'm not sure it is more accurate, but certainly unique. Some passages like things he needed to get of his chest, the writing almost therapeutic in some places. There are passages in the book where it feels like he does not know how to start or where he frankly admits to have stalled. Throughout the book he refers to Frank Herbert as Dad and does not shy away from mentioning his father's shortcoming. It seems the great science fiction writer Frank Herbert did not have a way with children, something that alienated his son from him considerably.

Brian Herbert describes his father's struggles to become a published writer, the need and enormous drive Frank Herbert had to succeed, but also the constant financial troubles, endless moving around and lots of different jobs Frank Herbert held throughout his life. Given the numerous attempts to sell anything, Herbert's ambition to break into the mainstream literature market when his science fiction looked more marketable and the steady stream of rejections it really is a miracle that he persevered. Even after he sold his first novel The Dragon in the Sea, published in 1956 (which is also know under the titles Under Pressure and 21st Century Sub), things stay turbulent for quite a while. Throughout the book Brian Herbert stresses the enormous support Frank Herbert's second wife Beverly gave him, both during his struggle to become a published author as well as managing his affairs after his career truly takes off, sacrificing her own aspirations to become a writer in the process. Although I can't help but wonder if Beverly was always as patient with Frank Herbert as Brian describes it, theirs was certainly a special relationship.

Pretty much every piece of Frank Herbert's writing that has been published is mentioned in the biography somewhere. Brian Herbert goes in quite a lot of details on some books. Dune in particular of course, where I think he overdid it a little bit, especially since a lot of it then comes back for the release of the David Lynch film as well. A project that has quite a history it seems. Dune is inescapable, overshadowing everything else Frank Herbert has form the moment of it's conception, though the 10 years it took to write the novel and during Herbert's entire subsequent career. Another book that is mentioned quite a lot, and I must say this surprised me, is Soul Catcher. It is the only mainstream novel Frank Herbert published, which is partly inspired by the contacts Frank had with west coast native Americans during his youth. It's out of print and I have only recently managed to get hold of a copy recently. The book jumped up quite a few places on my to read list as a result of Brian Herbert's descriptions. Be aware Dreamer of Dune does not hold back on spoilers though.

Another book that is mentioned quite a lot is The Santaroga Barrier, a book that most clearly shows Herbert's interest in psychology. As I suspected, there is quite a lot in this book I missed even on the second reading.The novel Man of Two Worlds, on which father and son Herbert collaborated, is also a book that is special to Brian Herbert. It's one the last novels Frank Herbert published, together with another collaboration, The Ascension Factor. A book that was mostly written his partner on the Destination: Void series, Bill Ransom. These are books I have yet to read. The collections of short fiction by Frank Herbert are pretty much absent though, although various individual stories are mentioned. A bit of a shame, Frank Herbert was better known for his novels but some of the short stories I have read, those in the collection Eye, are very much worth reading.

Brian Herbert has received a lot of criticism for the way he has dealt with Frank Herbert's literary legacy. Some of it even justified given the quality of the recent Dune books. I was afraid that with a book weighing in at well over 500 pages he had gone a bit overboard on this project. I read the book in four days in which I ought to have been studying a lot more than I actually did. Brian Herbert's description of his father's life is a fascinating read. He shows us a complex man, at once brilliant and clumsy, ambitious and stubborn. A man who has written some of the finest science fiction novels ever but only a shadow of himself without his wife Beverly. It's written in a way that will reach out and grab you, a book that will put Frank Herbert's stories in a new perspective and above all a book that will leave you with the feeling Frank Herbert wasn't nearly done with life when his time came. I should not have waited so long before reading it.

Book Details
Title: Dreamer of Dune
Author: Brian Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 576
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-765-30646-8
First published: 2003

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Dragon Reborn - Robert Jordan

I have a big exam on Saturday so I have spent most of the week preparing for it. This has cut into my reading time considerably and I am pretty sure that when I am done tomorrow I won't feel like writing a review. So I moved an old one. I originally wrote this one in February 2009. I did some minor tinkering as usual to eliminate the worst of my errors. I'll be back next week with a review of The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. I am also working on a review of a non-fiction book but I am not sure I am going to run that one yet.

Being the third book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Jordan is still writing at a fast pace at this stage, The Dragon Reborn was published only eleven months after The Great Hunt. I have always felt that the first three are somewhat different from the books that follow. Starting in The Shadow Rising, the story lines become so sprawling and complex that he leaves a lot of them dangling until the next book, or the book after that. The Dragon Reborn is the last book that very clearly contains it’s own story arc and where all the main characters end up in the same place at the end of it. The truly epic aspects of The Wheel of Time lie yet ahead.

The opening of the books finds Rand in his makeshift camp somewhere in the Mountains of Mist. He has proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn and word of his battle with Ba’alzamon in the skies over Falme is spreading quickly. Many have already proclaimed themselves Dragonsworn and more fighting has broken out on the already troubled Almoth Plain. Rand spends most of his time arguing with Moiraine over what to do and trying to control his ability with the One Power. After a raid on the camp by Trollocs during which he can’t control the One Power well enough to be useful Rand decides to set out on his own. Being hounded by Darkfriends Rand is driven to Tear and manipulated into trying to fulfil one of the prophecies of the Dragon before he is ready for such a monumental task. He is on his way to take Callandor, the sword-that-is-not-a-sword.

After Rand’s disappearance Perrin and Loial join Moiraine and Lan in pursuit of him. Perrin is still coming to terms with his own new-found abilities. His relationship with Moiraine is almost as poor as Rand’s, and rapidly deteriorating. Most of Perrin’s adventures in this book seem to be linked to Min’s predictions, the most important being the hawk and falcon one, but also the caged Aiel prophecy. A storyline that is the beginning of the love story between Gaul and Chiad (and Bain I suppose). Jordan seems to have a thing for multiple wife’s stories. It isn’t limited to The Wheel of Time either. There’s another fine example in Cheyenne Raiders, a western Jordan wrote before starting The Wheel of Time. There’s quite bit of the Cheyenne in the Aiel actually.

But back to the plot of The Dragon Reborn, Mat, Egwene, Nyneave and Elayne have returned to Tar Valon under Verin’s guidance. Mat’s health has deteriorated some much Nynaeve fears he is close to death. Upon their arrival the girls find out how much trouble they are in for leaving the tower without permission. The Amyrlin Seat herself sets their punishment, which includes a raising to accepted for Egwene and Elayne. Disobedient they may be, they are also useful for the Amyrlin. Not knowing who she can trust in her own sisterhood she sets the three of them on the trail of the thirteen sisters that revealed themselves the be Black Ajah. It soon becomes apparent the trail leads to Tear.

The Aes Sedai see to Mat’s healing almost as soon as he arrives in the Tower. Since he is the only one of the three t’avern Moiraine discovered still firmly in control of the White Tower, the Amyrlin means to keep it that way. With the excuse he may still be dangerous to his surroundings he is not allowed out of the city. Something Mat doesn’t like at all. Egwene, Nyneave and Elayne are willing to help him escape however, if he will deliver a message to Elyane’s mother, the Queen of Andor.

Jordan again introduces quite a few new elements in his story, if not quite as many as in the previous book. We briefly met the Aiel in The Great Hunt but what they are doing on the wrong side of the Dragonwall remains unclear until this book. There’s hints that the Seafolk are upset, suspicion is unsettling the daily life in the White Tower and in several nations we see the rise of previously unknown lords, Gaebril in Caemlyn, Brend in Illian and Samon in Tear. All things that will become important in later books. The Dragon Reborn is mostly focussed on Rand’s attempt to claim Callandor.

The-sword-that-is-not-a-sword, now that we are on the subject, is one of the most unfortunate descriptions in modern fantasy. Granted, there is no shortage of phallic symbols in the series, if you care to look for them, and most Wheel of Time fans I had the pleasure of meeting in real life a bunch of perverts (yes, I fit right in) but even so, Jordan must have seen this one coming. The-sword-that-is-not-a-sword drawn by he-who-comes-with-the-dawn. Ah well, it is an endless source for bawdy jokes I suppose.

The Dragon Reborn is the first book in which Mat gets his point of view. Both Perrin and Rand had quite a few point of view chapters already in the previous two books. Rand receives comparatively little attention in this book but Mat’s character is developed more in the coming books. I suppose that after his exposure to the Shadar Logoth dagger in The Eye of the World Mat was not all that interesting a character. On the other hand a look into the mind of paranoid Mat might have been interesting.

Most sources mention Jordan had a six book series in mind when he started on the project. I have always wondered about that. Arrange things a little differently, have Rand face the Dark One at the end of this book instead of Be'lal and you have a very nice fantasy trilogy. It could have been done. Perhaps at one point Jordan thought so too. Maybe that is part of the reason why the later books have a different feel to them. Although part of that no doubt has to do with Jordan’s development as a writer.

I must admit I like the feel of the next book, The Shadow Rising, more. And that of The Great Hunt too I suppose. The pacing of this book is a lot better than the first two books however. Take for instance clumsy climax of The Eye of the World or the middle part of The Great Hunt that drags too much for any but the die hard Wheel of Time fans to really appreciate. The Dragon Reborn keeps a good pace all though the book and delivers a good finale when the characters meet at the Stone. Perhaps a little bit predictable, but then, a lot of people don’t read epic fantasy because they want to be surprised. Somehow this book never quite captivated me but it is a good read, if a light one. It doesn’t have the many beginnings that make The Great Hunt such a good book to reread, nor does it have the complexity of one of the later novels. It is a good, entertaining read but Jordan has written better books.

Book Details
Title: The Dragon Reborn
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 707
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85723-065-5
First published: 1991