Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Captain Flandry - Poul Anderson

Captain Flandry: Defender of the Terran Empire is the fifth part in Baen's project to collect all the stories in Anderson's Technic Civilization and publish them by internal chronology. Three of the previous four books centred on the characters of Nicolas van Rijn and David Falkayn. In book four, aptly named Young Flandry, a new hero takes over. It is graced by one of the most horrific covers I've come across although Captain Flandry is giving it a run for its money. This cover even got the attention of the bad cover art blog Good Show Sir! I suppose it is the content that counts however, so let's have a look at that.

Captain Flandry contains six stories. One full novel and five shorter works, including the first Flandry story ever published. The collection opens with Outpost of Empire (1967). This novella length work does not feature Flandry but is does incorporate many of the elements that return again and again in the Flandry stories. A world far from the centre of the empire is on the brink of rebellion. A rebellion partly incited by the Empire's rivals: the Mersians. Incompetently governed, the local officials are quickly outgunned. Fortunately the empire can draw on more resources. Outpost of Empire is probably the best piece in the collection. It features a well thought out world and an unusual society. As with many of these border conflicts Anderson describes in this series, the ways of warfare are superbly adapted to the local environment. Flandry sometimes takes a rather arrogant view on what he calls barbarism. The voluntary barbarians in this story might have been more to his taste.

Next up is the only full novel in the collection. The Day of Their Return (1975) is the newest work in this book. From a technical point of view it is probably the best written. This novel marks the entry of a notable enemy of Flandry, although the Captain himself will not make an appearance in this book. The Mersian agent and telepath Ayrcharaych visits the world of Aeneas, also the setting of the novel The Rebel Worlds contained in the previous volume, to stir the rebellion on that planet to life. Carefully feeding the fires of religious fanaticism it almost succeeds. I thought the previous novel set on this planet was mediocre but I must admit I quite liked the return to this world. Anderson develops the Aeneas a lot further than he did in the previous book. Part of the story is a bit predictable, one of the main characters is a quite naive young man, but the overarching conflict between de Empire and the Mersians is very well done. I'd rank this one just behind Outpost of Empire.

At this point Flandry himself shows up in the collection and the quality of the stories goes downhill quite a bit. The next story is the very first Flandry story ever published: Tiger by the Tail (1951). Although the version contained in this book has undergone some editing by Anderson in the 1970s, they are still quite pulpish. In Tiger by the Tail Flandry wakes up on an alien space ship after being drugged by an attractive woman. As it turns out Flandry is being abducted by a civilization outside the Empire. It has been fast-forwarded into the space age, not giving the culture the time it needs to catch up. A galactic empire is their dream but Flandry quickly shows them they are terribly naive about galactic politics. Anderson may have polished the original but the plot is still very cliché and quite predictable. I'm not impressed with this first Flandry story.

Nor with the second as it happens. Honourable Enemies (1951) is the first encounter between Flandry and Ayrcharaych. In this story the two empires once again battle for control of a (backward) border world. Flandry can't figure out how Ayrcharaych guesses his every move until they discover he is an exceptionally talented telepath. How do you fool someone who can read your mind? Flandry's (very beautiful) colleague Aline knows the answer. The story is too cheesy for words, especially the fact that Aline is secretly in love with Flandy. I know James Bond hadn't been invented yet when Anderson wrote this but I am still surprised he actually managed to sell it to a magazine. Besides Flandry's romantic entanglements, the plot is self is very straightforward and won't fool the reader for a second about how Flandry is going to fool his enemy. This is by far the weakest story I have encountered in this series. Fortunately Anderson grew a lot as a writer in later decades.

The collection then moves on to The Game of Glory (1958). In this story chases a lead on a possible rebellious movement on the aquatic world of Nyanza. When he arrives at the planet the official Empire representative on the planet has been murdered and Flandry rolls right into a deadly situation. Slightly better than the two previous two stories, the setting in particular is quite interesting. And Flandry doesn't even get the girl this time! A Message in Secret (1959) is the final story in the collection. Set on an interesting world where the dominant culture seems to have reverted to a kind of central Asian nomadic existence, Flandry is yet again faced with the task of rooting out a possible uprising. The way he goes about asking the Empire to send in the cavalry is quite interesting.

All in all I was not too impressed with this collection. Thankfully the two works really worth reading make up some two-thirds of the total collection so the four mediocre stories ending it don't make it a disappointment. Captain Flandry does suffer from repetitions of various kinds. Flandry or another protagonist states the inevitability of the Long Night in each story at least once. A number of them also follow the same plot. The Mersians try to shake a border world loose from the empire, Flandry finds out about it and investigates, Flandry finds he is hopelessly ill prepared, Flandry overcomes these challenges anyway (and gets the girl). This volume offers very little variation compared to the previous books (Rise of the Terran Empire in particular). It wasn't a punishment to read but Anderson has written better material. I hope the sixth volume, Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Knight of Terra, expected in December 2010, contains better stories.

Book Details
Title: Captain Flandry: Defender of the Terran Empire
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 405
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3333-0
First published: 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Escape from Kathmandu - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer. For a number of his works one could question if this is actually the right description. There is the novel A Short, Sharp Shock (1990), which could be called surrealistic or just fantasy for instance and right before he published that novel, Escape from Kathmandu, a collection of four linked novellas set in contemporary Nepal was published. Three of the novella's, Escape from Kathmandu, Mother Goddess of the World and The True Nature of Shangri-La were published in Asimov's in 1986, 1987 and 1989 respectively. The first three can be read independently. The fourth one, The Kingdom Underground, can be read independently as well if you really want to, but it does refer to events in the earlier novellas in several places. I think this story is better if you've read the others.

The novella's share two main characters, George Fergusson and George "Freds" Fredericks. Both Americans who fell in love with the Himalayas and are now semi-permanent residents of Kathmandu. Together (much to Freds' dismay) they explore the mysteries of Nepal. From a captured Yeti to the fate of the Mount Everest expedition of 1924 and from the mysteries of the Nepalese bureaucracy to the true location of mythical Shangri-La, George and Freds stumble across all of them trying to make sense of their strange environment. It's Nepal though a western eye so their (rather laid back) sense of wonder never wears out entirely.

Robinson writes about men who have fallen in love with the country and I suspect he shares something of this affection as well. Nepal in the late 1980s was not in all respects a pretty place. Plagued by poverty, corrupt government and environmental problems, there was much misery to discover once you move outside the touristic part of Kathmandu. My aunt spent some time in Nepal more or less around the time Kim Stanley Robinson visited the country. She was staying in India for a year but had to make a detour to Nepal because her visa to India expired. One of the things she told me about her time there is that the place is unbelievably filthy. The lack of sanitation is one thing that Robinson points out numerous times in the book.

Although he isn't blind to the problems of Nepal, Robinson managed to make Escape from Kathmandu a surprisingly upbeat book. George and Freds are both accustomed to the peculiarities of the country and although it the corruption in the Nepali government sets Freds off at times, especially after it humiliatingly defeats him in The True Nature of Shangri-La, they can just as easily see the good around them as the bad. Part of what they love about the country is the fact that even if the Nepali doesn't always understand the reasons themselves, the place is run very differently from a western country. Mystery is very much accepted as one of the main ingredients of Nepal's allure and should therefore be kept a mystery. Interesting enough, George and Freds discover the nature of these mysteries while trying to keep others from doing so on a number of occasions.

There are a number of elements in these novellas that would make their way in Robinson's later work. There's the trekking and mountaineering of course but also his interest in various forms of Buddhism and the occupation of Tibet. In the Mars trilogy in particular, Robinson develops a style in which descriptions of the (Martian) landscape are very present in the narrative. Although Escape from Kathmandu includes a number of passages where he does something similar, his descriptions of Mount Everest and it's surroundings are particularly vivid, they are much more contained. The harsh conditions of these great altitudes on Earth do bear some resemblance to the conditions on Mars however.

The tone of this novel is rather light. Some passages are comical, especially later on in the book, when Freds wonders what disaster George is luring him into this time. That surprised me a little to be honest. Robinson's works are usually full of quite heavy scientific and sociological themes and while this novel doesn't lack that entirely, it is a much more relaxed read than the previous books he published. Robinson touches on a lot of sociological, religious and political issues in this book but where in most of his novels the characters are deeply involved in these issues, George and Freds pick more limited, immediately pressing causes. As such, it offers the readers more of a choice to about how much to invest in this book. It works very well on the surface, as an at times comical story about two Americans in Nepal, but also as a story that exposes some of the problems the country was facing at the time (and in some cases still is facing). Escape from Kathmandu is a surprising read from people who are familiar with Robinson's work. I also think it is a good place to begin if you haven't read any of his other books. In either case, I highly recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Escape from Kathmandu
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-87499-5
First published: 1989

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If I only ever read one book by...

I've been trying to get a bit better acquainted with the classics of the science fiction genre for the last two years or so. During that time I have read books by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, C.L. Moore, Jack Vance, Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick to name a few. I haven't exhausted the bibliography by these authors by a long shot (and in a few cases I probably never will) but once in a while I like expand my horizon a bit. There are plenty of authors who are missing in this very modest list but one of the more obvious names that comes to mind is Isaac Asimov.

I've looked around a bit and found out the man has a bibliography the size of your average phone book (did they publish his grocery lists too?) so I have no idea where to begin. I could take the easy route and pick up Foundation but picking a book because it is the author's best known work doesn't strike me as a particularly good way of selecting my reading material. So my question to you, if I only ever read one book by Isaac Asimov, which one should it be?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

You'd almost forget it, amid the torrent of well deserved praise he has received for his work completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series but Sanderson has written a number of very good epic fantasy novels in the past years. Finishing another man's work may sound like an ungrateful task but the success of The Gathering Storm must have opened doors for him. With The Way of Kings, book one of The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson is starting on his most ambitious project yet. An epic fantasy series projected to take ten volumes to complete. Tor is looking for a successor to the Wheel of Time series and they may just have found it in The Stormlight Archive.

Thousands of years ago the human population of Roshar won a great victory over a now legendary enemy. After the gods turned away from the world humanity was left to its own devices and survived against the odds. It changed the world forever. The weapons remaining from that war, still influence the wars of the present, with the bearer of a Shardblade or Shardplate providing an army with a huge advantage. A Shardbearer is practically a one man army, nearly indestructible and capable of mowing down regular combatants by the dozen, they can dominate the battlefield. Possession of such rare weapons gives one access to the upper class of society. Countless attempts to reproduce the technology of that ancient era have failed so these last reminders of that conflict long since faded to myth are all that is left of the time when the gods still looked upon the world.

Recently there have been signs that the ancient enemy may not have been as decisively beaten as once assumed. Four very different people are faced with signs that a new apocalyptic struggle lies ahead of them. A daughter of a noble house about to collapse under debts tries to gain apprenticeship with a noted scholar in order to gain access to a precious object and steal it. What she finds when studying with her mistress makes her doubt the wisdom of this action. A young man training to be a surgeon is turned into a soldier against his will. On the field of battle he finds he has talents he would not have discovered otherwise. A high-prince and Shardbearer fighting an endless war of attrition receives visions during the violent storms that often strike the region, urging him to unite the people. An oath bound assassin is sent on a mission of death and destruction to clear away the obstacles for his patron to prepare humanity for what is coming. For each of these characters eventually realizes the Everstorm is coming and the world is not ready to face it.

It has to be said, this book is epic by every standard and Tor went to great lengths to make it a noteworthy release. They coaxed Michael Whelan, who more or less retired from doing cover art recently, into doing the cover. I like the work he did on Steven King's Dark Tower books better but I must admit that it is a fitting piece for the novel. The interior artwork is provided by three artists, Isaac Steward, Ben McSweeney and Greg Call and includes a number of maps, pages from notebooks and images of the creatures and plants of Sanderson's world. Sanderson himself used every trick in the book to make this an epic undertaking as well. The novel is over a thousand pages in hardcover. I hate to think how big the paperback release is going to be. There's preludes, prologues, interludes, an epilogue and an appendix as well as 74 regular chapters. The cover price of US$ 27,99 may be a bit steep but you get an awful lot of book in a very pretty package for that.

When you get right down to it, it is the content that counts though and although I did enjoy the book, I do not think it is material for a rave review. It looks like Sanderson has invented another complex and imaginative magic system in this world. The outlines of this system are mentioned in the book but a lot is left to be explored in later volumes. As a reader, Sanderson is someone who wants to know how things work and this is something that carries over in his writing. An appendix with information on various elements of his world is always present in his books for instance and The Way of Kings is no exception. Although a lot of this magic system is still shrouded in mystery it looks like very promising. It's one of the many beginnings in this book.

Sanderson's world is not quite the standard pseudo medieval setting either. Again there are a number of elements left to explore but in essence it seems a harsh place full of violent storms, with an erratic climate and inhabited by a host of strange creatures. One of the main beasts of burden is a creature that looks somewhat like a giant crab for instance. A fine sketch of the animal has been included in the book. Another strange creature we encounter, and one that is more important to the plot, are the strange Sprite-like beings called Sprens. They seem to be attracted to strong emotions in particular and mostly disappear as quickly as they show up. Like many things in the book, it is one element of this world Sanderson has just begun to explore.

The book offers a varied cast of characters. As usual with these massive series the reader will develop a preference for some of them. I didn't really dislike reading any of the points of view but I must admit I enjoyed the chapters with Kaladin (the surgeon turned soldier) a bit more than the others. There's a strange tension in this story line between the urges to heal and to fight in this character that make him an interesting read. The high-prince Dalinar has his moments as well. Most of his struggle is in how to interpret the visions he receives and whether or not they have a religious significance or if he's just going mad. Religion and doubt lurk right below the surface in much of this novel, another element found in more of Sanderson's books.

The author is obviously trying to lay the foundation for the later books in the series. The number of characters and points of view in The Way of Kings is not excessive but after a few hundred pages I did get the feeling that Sanderson was taking his time to get to the point. I must admit he delivers a strong finale with a number of interesting twists in the story but by the time we got there, I was more or less done with the book though. One of the best ways I can illustrate this is using the scholar/thief Shallan as an example. She appears briefly in the last hundred or so pages that wrap up the novel after being absent for almost a quarter of the book. Her inclusion in the finale almost feels like an afterthought, something the author remembered he needed to wrap up. It had also been clear where Kaladin was heading for some time then. The climax of the novel is a fine bit of writing but I did feel Sanderson was taking a bit too long to get there.

The Way of Kings has gathered is share of rave reviews already and indeed, for the fans of epic fantasy there is a lot to like in this novel. I don't think it is the best he's ever written though and I did have that feeling with each of the previous novel I've read (I read them in publication order). He's laying a solid foundation, I would go so far as to say it is a promising start, but in itself I don't think it is a brilliant book. Then again, (I refrained from doing so until this point but Tor is practically begging for a comparison with The Wheel of Time so allow me this one) the same could be said for The Eye of the World. Sanderson may well be on the right track. It will be interesting to see where he will take this story in the yet unnamed and hopefully slightly more concise second book of the series.

Book Details
Title: The Way of Kings
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 1007
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2635-5
First published: 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Whipping Star - Frank Herbert

I'm currently reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, which is a monster of a book. Looks like I need a few more days finish it. In the mean time I have dug up an older review. The original turned out to be rather sloppy so it needed a bit more editing that I would have liked. Hope to be back this weekend with a fresh review.

Whipping Star is the last of Frank Herbert’s non-Dune books Tor has been reprinting in recent years. This 1970 novel is the fist full novel in the ConSentiency universe, which up to this point consisted of only two short stories. Both of them are contained in the collection Eye and may very well be included in other short fiction collections. Like these short stories, Whipping Star has the unusually observant BuSab agent Jorj X. McKie for a main character. This universe is also the setting of what I consider to be Herbert’s best non-Dune book: The Dosadi Experiment.

Whipping Star is a far-future science fiction. The universe contains many intelligent species and to govern them the ConSentiency has been created. This intergalactic government evolved into something of a nightmare. It grew to be frightfully effective, laws were conceived and passed at such speed that no proper though could be given to their need and the effects. To slow down to machinery the Bureau of Sabotage, or BuSab, was created. Their motto: “In Lieu of Red Tape”. A quite unorthodox approach to checks and balances but for the ConSientients it seems to work.

At the opening of the novel, McKie is called in to work on the case of the Calabans. Calabans are a rather mysterious group of sentient aliens but also of vital importance to the ConSentiency. When they first appeared in the ConSentiency they introduced jumpdoors. These jumpdoors allow almost instantaneously travel between two points in the galaxy, making even the fastest spaceships obsolete. Unfortunately the mind of the Calaban seems to be beyond human comprehension, and that of any other ConSentient for that matter. Nobody knows how the jumpdoors work or why the Calabans do what they do.

Now the Calabans are disappearing and they are leaving a trail of destruction behind. Every Sentient who has ever used the services of a Calaban either goes mad or dies when the Calaban disappears. With the ConSentiency completely dependent on their jumpdoors that means just about anybody is at risk. The crises reaches a climax when the last Calaban around is found to be in the service of one of the richest women in the universe. Bound by a legal agreement it serves as a subject for torture for its mistress’ entertainment. The Calaban, the creature introduces itself to McKie as Fanny May, is, in her own words, headed for ultimate discontinuity. Not that anyone really understands what that means but if the most obvious meaning is correct, the universe is in trouble. It is up to McKie to figure out what makes the Fanny May tick, and how to prevent ultimate discontinuity.

Herbert usually puts a lot of scientific and philosophical ideas into his stories. This one, somewhat atypically for Herbert's work, is mostly focussed on communication and language. How to communicate with an alien who’s view on the universe is completely different from yours? Throughout the novel, agent McKie, who is considered very good at such things, is aware of the subtle differences between the species making up the ConSentiency. Language is a tricky thing, translating one culturally loaded concept into another culture’s framework is never a precise fit and the problems these differences cause can be lethal in some situations. Of course McKie’s problems with Fanny May go way beyond that. One fine example of the problems McKie faces:
“About time you called,” McKie said. “About time I called?”
“Well, you certainly must’ve gotten Furuneo’s message quite a …”

“What message?”

McKie felt as though his mind had touched a grinding wheel shooting off ideas like sparks. No message from Furuneo?
“Furuneo,” McKie said, “left here long enough ago to …”

“I’m calling,” Siker interrupted, “because there’s been no sign form either of you for too damn long, and Furuneo’s enforcers were worried. One of them… Where was Furuneo supposed to go and how?”

McKie felt an idea blossom in his mind. “Where was Furuneo born?"

McKie realizing what the Calaban’s interpretation of 'going home' is.
The conversations between McKie and the Fanny May are probably the best part of the book. The reader has to work hard to follow them though. Herbert managed to describe an entity who’s thoughts are so alien that one wonders if Fanny May really is the creation of a human mind. I thought these passages where fascinating. There are readers who think the novel spends too much time on these matters but as far as I am concerned Herbert put in enough adrenaline-fuelled, race against the clock type of action to balance the more thoughtful parts of the novel. With Herbert’s focus on the communication/language theme it is not quite as dense in ideas as some of his other books, making it a good place to start if you consider reading Herbert’s none-Dune works. I would recommend reading it before The Dosadi Experiment in any case, even though they can be read independently the fist McKie novel gives away the ending of the second book. Besides, Whipping Star is a good way to ease into the the ConSentiency universe, not a bad thing considering the The Dosadi Experiment is a more densely written and challenging read.

I thought Whipping Star is one of the more interesting novels by Herbert I have read. It is not a very heavy read like some of his other works, but definitely worth my time. The short tempered McKie makes for an interesting character. There are some parallels with Lewis Orne, main character in the novel The Godmakers as well as number of short stories, but McKie is much better developed. His humanity gives the reader a firm anchor in the ConSentiency, with it’s numerous alien characters. This universe may not have the epic scope of Dune but it is definitely worth looking into. It's a shame Tor didn't reissue The Dosadi Experiment in the more durable format of this edition of Whipping Star.

Book Details
Title: Whipping Star
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 255
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1775-9
First published: 1970

Sunday, September 12, 2010

De torens van Romander - W.J. Maryson

W.J. Maryson is one of the heavyweights in of Dutch fantasy. Before publishing this book in 2002, he had already written a fantasy series in six parts called Meestermagiër (litteraly: Master Magician) which did quite well in the Netherlands and has been translated in German (and probably a few other languages). Despite my efforts to get better acquainted with Dutch speculative fiction, my experience with Maryson's work is limited to one short piece published in the collection Time Out, for which he also did the cover art. The reason I read this book is not so much to fill the shameful gap in my library but rather the fact that it has been published in English in August under the title The Towers of Romander (just this once I'll include the Amazon link). The American market in particular is very hard to penetrate for foreign language authors. Translated short fiction appears regularly, there are magazines and websites that focus on work form non-Anglophone nations, but full novels, now that is a challenge. To my knowledge, Maryson is the only Dutch fantasy author to manage this feat in recent years. A remarkable achievement.

Note that I have read the Dutch edition. The English version has been translated by Lia Belt, a professional translator who has, among others, translated books by Raymond E. Feist and Patrick Rothfuss into Dutch. Rothfuss had some very nice things to say about her and even invited her to a signing he did in Amsterdam a while back. Belt is one of those translators who does not object to changing names of people and places when she feels the original meaning is lost, words gain a meaning the author did not intend to put there or if they accidentally mean something silly in Dutch. It is entirely possible the English version of this book contains altered names so if you see something that looks unfamiliar that is why. I also had to guess the proper English translation of some of the concepts in the book.

De torens van Romander is the first book of a trilogy set on an ocean world. A realm of far-flung, storm-beaten islands, a lot of them inhabited by culturally district groups of people. On Loh, one of the larger islands a young man by the name of Lethe grows up somewhat isolated from the other boys and girls his age. Loh is renowned for its magicians (referred to as Mysters in the book). Everybody on the island has at least some magical capability. Except Lethe. After years of trying to master some sort of magic his teachers have concluded there is no magical talent in him whatsoever. He is the Unmagician.

Not everybody seems to think Lethe is without talent however. The Myster Matei has been researching the forbidden colourless magic. A form of magic that last manifested itself nine millennia ago and has the potential to destroy the world. Such dangerous knowledge has been suppressed ever since the last Myster to study it, died as a result of his curiosity. Matei is not about to let knowledge that could save the world disappear. Especially when the first signs of a new outbreak have been spotted on a remote island in the far north of the world. He convinced his colleagues to allow him to continue his research but resistance within the ranks of Mysters is fierce. Matei knows he has to work quickly to stay ahead of the opposition. He begins to gather his companions on his quest to unravel the mysteries of colourless magic. The first one is Lethe, whom he suspects has a talent that will prove decisive in dealing with the crisis.

Being a speculative fiction author in the Netherlands is no ticket do fame and fortune. The market is not large enough to support full time fantasy authors unless they sell big abroad, so not many writers manage an even semi-professional approach to writing. On top of that they have to compete in a market that is flooded with translations of mostly English language works and manage to sell their works on a market dominated by two large publishers with a distinct preference for the faster-paced, traditional epic fantasy. Comparatively little science fiction is published and the urban fantasy plague that currently floods the American market is a lot less noticeable here. Maryson has managed to overcome all those obstacles. Part of this is no doubt that he writes the 'right' kind of fantasy for the market but his writing also displays an undeniable quality that is rarely seen in Dutch fantasy. The author effortlessly switches between the more direct language of Lethe's day to day activities and a more poetic style for flashbacks, dreams and the point of view of non-human entities. It feels like the work of an author who is confident in his ability to write a good story.

This first book in the Unmagician trilogy is quite a fast read. The pacing and structure of the story reminded me a bit of Raymond E. Feist's early books. Most of the scenes make their point efficiently, not burdening the reader with too much background material or deviations in the form of lots of secondary characters. The book is the first of a trilogy so obviously Maryson is going to leave us hanging in some of his story lines. Taking that into account I was not really impressed with the climax of the book. My perception may have been influenced by the fact that Maryson specifically picked this book to be translated. I have no idea if there is going to be a translation for the other two, so I guess I expected the book to offer a bit more closure. Maryson finds natural points to end this first book in all of the major story lines but only one is really concluded. He carries a lot over to the second book.

What struck me most about the story is how little we actually learn about the main character. Matei believes he has a special talent and recognizes Lethe's potential, which means there probably were Unmagicians before him. If so, the reader is not told. Lethe finds out a little bit about his talent but for most of the story he is just a bright and unusually observant boy. There is no conscious attempt to discover or develop his talent. Then is the mystery of Lethe's father and the fancy sword he's left his son. We learn he is curious about his father but when he is confronted with a man who might know more about his he doesn't press the issue. Lethe is shy, lacks confidence. Not entirely illogical given the fact that he was almost an outcast for part of his life but towards the end of the book a little more initiative in exploring his past and talent would have suited him. At the end of the book we only see the barest outline of the man he no doubt must become to face the threat of colourless magic.

Despite these quibbles and preconceptions on my part De Torens van Romander is a very promising start to the trilogy. Maryson has set his story in an interesting world, lots of nautical terms and themes in the novel. It makes me wonder if this is a theme that connects more of Maryson's work. The short story in Time Out also had an oceanic environment as setting. I was impressed in particular by the technical skill Maryson displays in his writing. For the English language readers I must admit I am a bit worried readers will be frustrated by the rather open ending of the book. It is not often that a book manages to draw me in yet leave me with so many questions when I finished it. I certainly hope to be able to report news on translations of the other two parts. For the Dutch language readers, fans of epic fantasy will enjoy this book. Be sure to have the second volume on hand, you'll want to dive right in.

Book Details
Title: De torens van Romander
Author: W.J. Maryson
Publisher: Uitgeverij M
Pages: 366
Year: 2002
Language: Dutch
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 90-225-3151-1
First published: 2002

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has received a lot of attention lately. It's been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize so I guess I am actually reading something the literary establishment might approve of for a change. It is set for the most part in Dejima, the sole place where the closed Japanese society of the Edo era had limited contact with the outside world. For much of it's existence this trading post was run by the Dutch East India Company so it is not entirely surprising there has been quite a bit of attention for this book over here. The novel has been translated into Dutch under the title De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet. It's not a literal translation but I am not going to tell you what it means since I consider it a spoiler. I read the original English version which created the very strange sensation of reading in English about Japanese people struggling to speak Dutch. It is a very unusual book.

Dejima in 1799 is not the place it used to be. Run by a Dutch East India Company that is long past its heigh-day, only one ship a year still makes the trade run to Japan. Plagued by corruption and the uncertain political situation in the Netherlands, which is under constant threat to become a department of France, and the pressure of the British to take control of the Dutch colonial possessions, the place is not nearly as profitable as it once was. To turn the tide and wring at least some profit out of this enterprise Chief Overstraten arrives from Batavia. In his company is a young clerk named Jacob de Zoet.

De Zoet arrives from his home town of Domburg in Zeeland to make his fortune in the east. He has lost his heart to the lovely Anna, who is unattainable for someone from his station. His only hope is to return as a rich man after five years of service. Making a profit in Dejima is not going to be easy for someone with the ethical standards de Zoet lives by. Together with Overstraten he sets about uncovering the corruption that has plagued the trading post in the last decade and uncovers quite a few dubious transactions. Something that not all of Dejima's residents appreciate. De Zoet is a bit naive about how money is made in the east and soon he becomes ensnared in a web of corruption, fraud and deceit. Things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a Japanese woman.

The story of Jacob de Zoet is but one of the story lines Mitchell weaves into his tale. The story of a Japanese Buddhist Shrine and various Japanese officials and scholars in Dejima and the story of an English captain trying to win Dejima for the British are told as well. Historically the novel is loosely based on the live of Hendrik Doeff, Chief of the trading post between 1803 and 1817, and the Phaeton incident (1808) when a British warship fired its cannons in Nagasaki harbour to press the Japanese into supplying them with water, food and fuel. Although Mitchell plays around with the time line a bit, there is a lot of historical material in this novel. I thought his choice to set the novel during one a period when Dutch colonialism was on the verge of complete collapse is very interesting. He drives home the lack of contact with the Netherlands or even de Batavia very well. One ship a year, if one arrives at all. How's that for lonely?

One other point that Mitchell drives home mercilessly is the enormous greed that was the basis for the Dutch presence in Asia. Events in Nagasaki were mostly dealt with without bloodshed, something that cannot be said for the Dutch expansion in Indonesia, just about everybody seems to be out to get rich at someone else's expense. This trait is not limited to the Dutch, both the Japanese and English in the story have some rather selfish motives for their actions. Something that clashes violently with de Zoet's devoutly protestant upbringing and gets him in trouble more than once.

The book is divided in five parts, two of which are pretty brief and could be considered an epilogue. The first three parts contain the bulk of the story, with the first focussing on Jacob, the second on a number of Japanese characters and a third which introduces the English to the stage. Part of the genius of this novel is how he weaves those three stories into each other in the final part of the book. The tree parts each contain a decidedly different outlook on events, with the Japanese part, the one I was least familiar with, as the most fascinating of the three in my opinion. I won't pretend Mitchell didn't lead me to a couple of things about the history of my country but the way he handles the Japanese characters is my favourite part of the novel.

Language is another key element in the book. Not so much the language the author uses, what I noticed most about that is his use of the present tense, but the way the characters communicate. The Dutch are not allowed to learn Japanese (although that does not stop Jacob) so they have to rely on translators provided by the Japanese. Dutch and Japanese are very different languages so it is not surprising that a lot of semantics and grammar has to be discussed. Where a lot of authors would gloss over the problem of trying to learn a second language and just assume a character would become fluent soon enough, Mitchell makes the reader very aware of the problems this kind of communication would entail. When I read English, I don't have an instant translation ready in my mind of course but those passages did make me consider the difference between Dutch and English and how one explanation to the Japanese would work in English but not in Dutch. It's a very strange way of reading. The author seems to have picked up some Dutch while researching this book, he has advanced enough to realize Major Cutlip has a name that would sound very funny to a Dutchman. Apparently it is true that bad language is still the first thing you learn.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a fascinating book. From the very first scene in which we witness a difficult birth (with illustration) to the eventual return of de Zoet in the Netherlands the story kept me captivated. I have to admit the use of the present tense in the narrative took some getting used to but when the story drew me in it was a very enjoyable read. The way Mitchell portrays three very different cultures and the very interesting historical setting as well as the unusual way in which he ties the three main parts of the book together easily make it one of the best historical novels I've read. I may be a bit biased because of the author's choice of setting but I still recommend you read this.

Book Details
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre
Pages: 469
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-340-92157-9
First published: 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Deadhouse Gates - Steven Erikson

I reread Gardens of the Moon, the first book in Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, last month and it very much revived my interest in the earlier books in the series. They are quite challenging reads so an entire reread of the series might take a while but perhaps I will try. I couldn't resist taking Deadhouse Gates with me on vacation in Germany anyway. Like with the first book it amazed me how much I missed during the first reading of this book. If you think you know what to expect after reading Gardens of the Moon, think again. Erikson is not about to let the reader settle in comfortably in this series. He certainly kept me on my toes.

The Seven Cities, long since conquered by the Malazan Empire is about to burst into rebellion. Fuelled by prophecies and the perceived weakness of the Empress the legions of an uprising known as the Whirlwind is gaining force in the Raraku dessert. Lead by the mysterious seer Sha'ik a torrent of fanaticism and bloodshed is about to descend on the Malazans unfortunate enough to be caught up in the storm. To protect the Malazan refugees an undermanned force lead by the Wickan chief Coltain is sent on a nearly suicidal mission to escort the Malazans fleeing before the Whirlwind to the city of Aren. Witnessed by the Imperial Historian Duiker, Coltain attempts to do the impossible.

In the mean time in the Malazan capital of Unta the latest round of purges makes a new victim. Felesin, youngest daughter of the house Paran finds herself in chains and on her way to do forced labour in the Olateral mines. If she survives the trip. Her brother Ganoes is presumed dead on Genebackis and her sister Tavore has shifted her loyalty to the Empress. Tavore has much to answer for, failing to protect her house and family. Apsalar, or Sorry as she was known to her squad mates, is heading back to the island of her birth to find her father. Accompanied by Crocus, Fiddler and Kalam her path takes her directly into the eye of the storm.

Deadhouse Gates is the only book in this series of which I own the American version. Tor wisely left the cover art for this one unchanged so it is graced by Steve Stone's marvellous image of the hounds forming in the dust storms of the Whirlwind. This image even survived the series redesign of the Bantam editions from The Bonehunters on. Definitely one of the better covers in the series.

Although the possibility of a rebellion was already mentioned in Gardens of the Moon, that book also offers a good opportunity of a sequel with the same set of characters. An opportunity that will in fact be taken up in the third book Memories of Ice. Instead, Erikson develops a whole new part of his world in this second book, with al almost entirely new set of characters. Only a handful are carried over from the previous book. Not a whole lot if you take into account that the Dramatis Personae for this novel lists over eighty characters. It is a pattern that Erikson will follow for the rest of the series. With the exception of the final two books in the series, which could be considered one very big tale, the books constantly switch from one continent to the next.

The story of Coltain's Chain of Dogs, probably the backbone of this book and an arc completely contained to Deadhouse Gates, is without a doubt the most striking part of the novel. A tragedy in Malazan style with an army, abandoned by the higher command, trying to achieve the impossible out of a sense of honour and duty that far exceeds what might be expected of an ordinary soldier. In Gardens of the Moon we saw one squad operate more or less on it's own. The Chain of Dogs is the first real demonstration of what makes a Malazan army so deadly, a lesson that will be repeated in other books.

The first time I read this novel the Chain of Dogs took most of my attention. I occasionally lost patience with Kalam's exploits in particular. Although his story arc is completed in this novel, a lot of the time we spent with him is used to foreshadow events in later books. This is also partly true for Felesin, who ends up playing an important part in House of Chains. A lot of that will be lost on the reader on a first reading. There are lots and lots of references to events and places that won't make sense until House of Chains and Midnight Tides. Holds are mentioned in this book as a more primitive versions of warrens (which are still not adequately explained themselves), the mysterious Toblakai warrior at Sha'ik's side remains anonymous until the fourth book, there are more hints on the coup of Empress Laseen and the purging of the old guard, the first appearance of the Trygalle Trade Guild and in between all that detail, there are the rumours of evens depicted in Memories of Ice floating around. In short, a lot of detail not directly related to the story being told. It will all make sense later on it the series but for now it requires patience on the part of the reader.

So a book with two distinct faces then. One part that sweeps the reader away in the heroic effort of Coltain to save as many Malazan lives as possible and another with probably even more obscure references than the first novel in the series. This second side of the novel has definitely grown on me during the reread but for a first time reader it remains a difficult book. By this point in the series it should be clear that Erikson tells a complex story in a highly developed and messy world. Together with co-creator Ian C. Esslemont he is writing epic fantasy with a scope beyond any other epic fantasy series I have read. For me, this reread is underlining just how good this series really is. If there weren't several dozen other books screaming for my attention I'd dive right into Memories of Ice.

Book Details
Title: Deadhouse Gates
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 843
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-34879-1
First published: 2000

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

Time to sample another SF Masterwork. I’ve read a number of Clarke’s other novel but none of them were written before 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While this novel is by far his most well know work, Clarke is mostly remembered as one of the greats of the golden age of science fiction. I must admit my taste seems to run more to the new wave authors but I haven’t read much golden age science fiction yet, so perhaps it is a bit too soon to make that judgement. Childhood’s End was originally published in 1953 but when history caught up with the original Clarke rewrote part of it. The version that was used for the SF Masterworks edition is the 1990 rewritten version. Gollancz has recently redesigned a number of titles. My version is one of the renewed series and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts. Although many of the golden age science fiction novels are by now very much out of date, I thought it an odd choice to go for the rewritten version but still hail this book as one of the best of the era. Roberts even comments on the slightly awkward fit of the old and new sections.

Mankind has taken its first steps to leave its cradle and has begun to explore space. Before we’re good and well ready for the next major step, an alien species referred to as the Overlords make their presence know. Intellectually and technologically vastly superior to humans, the visitors force human history in another direction. Wars are forbidden, the world is to be unified under one government, poverty, illiteracy and disease are all eradicated. The Overlords seemingly effortless mastery of human society is not uncontested. It soon becomes clear however that resistance is futile. Their technological superiority and the benefits mankind is reaping form these changes are just too much to struggle against. Despite this paradise that is taking shape under the guidance of these benevolent tyrants, doubts remain. What are the true motives of the Overlords? Why won’t they show themselves? And why do they refuse to allow further exploration on space?

Although the book deals with humanity growing up as a species, it must be an uncomfortably read for parents. The Overlords seem to think that after a certain age humans are so stuck in their own patterns and beliefs that it is much more successful to let certain bad habits die out. All religion is considered superstition by the Overlords. There is no factual basis for any of it and they are keenly aware of the profound influence it has on the population. They also believe that education and scientific progress will eventually ensure the removal of this obstacle. That is a bold statement, an arrogant one even. I’m not personally a religious man but my experiences with people who are, are such that no amount of education is going to stop them from believing it whatever it is they choose to accept as the truth. Science as an antidote for religion is not something I believe in. However convenient it would be sometimes.

The gradual disappearance of religion is one element of a process that, as Roberts points out in his introduction, appears in a number of forms in the book. Childhood’s End, the reaching of maturity of one generation, means the end of the (biological) need for the previous one. All that is left is death. Humanity is on the brink of taking the next step in their evolution in this book. For those that are left behind this fact is bitter indeed. The finale of the novel is seen from the point of view of one of those left behind. It is not a cheerful end despite the greater goal that has been achieved. The way in which Clarke ends this novel is very powerful indeed. I'm glad he didn't rewrite that bit.

In typical golden age style, the concept of this novel is much more important that the characters. It is one element in Clarke’s writing that is still present in his later work, long after the genre as a whole has taken a different direction. In a fairly brief novel, Clarke shows us a story that takes over a century though the eyes of quite a view characters. Their part illustrates a key development or represents an idea or current present in society but they are not figures a reader can grow attached to. In between these sections seen through the eyes of these various characters are fairly long stretches about what is going on in the world told to us by a narrator. It is not a style that would survive a critical editor these days, I think Clarke relies on the narrator a bit too much to drive his point home. It has to be said though, the concept is an intriguing one. Clarke takes the time to guide the reader through the process and explain why things are rolling towards their inevitable conclusion. Paradise is not the end of the line, it is the starting point for a new step in our journey.

No doubt there are people who would radically disagree with Clarke’s logic in this novel. Although a lot of it makes perfect sense to me there are a few points where I think he glosses over some of the obstacles in the Overlords’ way a little too easily. The author himself didn’t seem entirely convinced either. Early on in the story he introduces a hint of the supernatural, a plot element that cannot be rationally explained. Scientific explanations and cold logic don’t seem to be enough to take the story where Clarke wants to go. In this light his afterword (written for the 1990 edition) is very interesting. When he wrote the first version of this book, Clarke believed there were things science could not explain. By the time he wrote his afterword he confesses to be an almost complete sceptic. It makes me wonder how he would have written this story later in his career.

Childhood’s End is generally considered to be one of Clarke’s best novels. I have not read enough of his work to say anything sensible about that but it was certainly an interesting read. As with many of his novels, this book is essentially an expanded short story. I wonder if I should try some of Clarke’s short fiction next. In his novels it is blatantly obvious that in terms of prose and characterization Clarke is not, in technical terms, a great writer. His stories are supported by ideas, he tries to dazzle the reader with a clever concept. Perhaps his way of writing is better suited to the short form. If you are interested in golden age science fiction you could certainly do worse than Childhood’s End but this novel is not quite good enough to replace Rendezvous with Rama as my favourite.

Book Details
Title: Childhood's End
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 242
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08235-9
First published: 1953

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Scar – China Miéville

Just over two years ago I read Miéville’s first Bas-Lag novel Perdido Street Station as part of an online discussion that died some 200 pages into the story. I finished the novel anyway and it left me with mixed feelings. Perdido Street Station is a very challenging book for someone who reads English as a second language. Miéville has a huge vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it. This in itself is not a bad thing but the lavish descriptions of New Crobuzon left me with the impression that perhaps the book was a bit overwritten. Although my to read stack includes The Scar, Iron Council and Miéville’s short story collection Looking for Jake and Other Stories, I hadn’t found the patience to attempt another of Miéville's novels until last week. In a way The Scar is every bit as rich and complex as Perdido Street Station but I found it a much easier book to get into. Perdido Street Station may have been Miéville's breakthrough, but as far as I am concerned The Scar is definitely the better book.

No longer feeling safe in her native New Crobuzon, Bellis Coldwine has accepted a post at the merchant vessel Terpsichoria as a translator. She is desperate for a way to leave the city so in order to get the job, which will eventually take her to the New Crobuzon colony of Nova Esperium, she has learnt a new language in a month. A few years hiding away in that far corner of the world ought to be enough to let things cool off in the city. Unfortunately the trip does not go as expected. During the conversations between the captain of the ship and a group of New Crobuzon allies, disturbing information surfaces. The appearance of a New Crobuzon agent forces the captain to drastically alter his plans.

To make matters worse the ship is boarded by pirates and while most of the crew and passengers are spared, the captain is killed. The pirates are part of the Armada, a vast floating city travelling the world’s oceans. This slow, cumbersome raft constructed of captured ships can only keep out of the hands of the major naval powers of the world but keeping its existence secret. Everybody is offered a place in their society but no one is allowed to leave. Bellis is stuck and she resents this fact, especially after she gets wind of a threat to New Crobuzon. Escaping to warn the city is not the only problem she faces however; the Armada’s leaders are chasing a dream of their own, one that risks the very existence of the Armada.

In Perdido Street Station we’ve gotten to know the city of New Crobuzon intimately. Miéville describes the city as warped reflection of Victorian London, infused with strange technologies and many even stranger sentient creatures. In The Scar he turns his powerful imagination outwards; the city is only mentioned, none of the action actually takes place there. For the most part we are at sea. The sea Miéville describes is no less wonderful than the city. Playing with our fear of the deep, and what might be hiding down there, he creates a spectacular array of strange animals and sentient life forms. The Armada is a society well adapted to live among such creatures. The scale, the organisation and the architecture of the city is utterly fantastic and makes for a great backdrop. I must admit I had the feeling that it would be ripped apart during the first bit of heavy weather they encountered but don’t let that bother you. The absurd or impossible are very much part of this novel.

The story itself is one that gradually reveals new layers of most of the major players in the book. Bellis has the idea she is constantly being manipulated and to an extend that is true. Especially early on in the book she is quite naive, rather surprising for someone for a metropole like New Crobuzon. She quite willingly lets herself be guided into all manner of activities that have major unintended (by Bellis at least) consequences. I thought her tendency to bemoan her own gullibility and inability to get away from the Armada were a bit too much at times. She does not seem to miss anybody in particular, just the city of New Crobuzon itself. It does not strike me to struggle quite so much against her captivity. When she does take action Bellis manages to get herself in the thick of thing though. She’s present at quite a few memorably events in the history of the Armada.

Bellis’ experiences leave her scarred, both physically and mentally. This scarring of the characters and the world is a very strong motif in the story. Very few of the characters escape it. Scars are seen as a sign of healing, a way of carrying history with you, a source of tremendous power and even an act of love. Scars are dealt with in a surprisingly positive way in the book. It’s the price of living but receiving them is not necessarily a bad thing. Why, sometimes they even create opportunities.

I felt that Miéville lost himself a bit in the vivid descriptions of various aspects of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station. The book felt overwritten, too long for the story the author was trying to tell. The Scar is, although not much sorter, a faster paced and better balanced book. It features a good bit of spying and a great conspiracy as well as a very well realized naval battle. As the end of the novel approached Miéville had me absolutely hooked. The author unveils quite a bit about the Bas-Lag world beyond New Corbuzon and although he gets quite descriptive at times, I never had the feeling this went at the expense of the story. This book is a much better mix of action, strange world building and character development.

After reading Perdido Street Station I had my doubts about whether Miéville is a writer I would actually enjoy reading. After reading The Scar I feel like Bas-Lag is beginning to grow on me. Some of the more absurd elements in the story still made me blink at times (mosquito people?) but not nearly as much in the previous book. Perhaps my tastes are shifting a bit towards the more unusual expressions of speculative fiction. I'm looking forward to reading Iron Council, judging from the description it should be an interesting read. I might even get to it before the end of the year.

Book Details
Title: The Scar
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 795
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass market paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-39290-7
First published: 2002