Saturday, January 29, 2011

WWW: Watch - Robert J. Sawyer

I recently realized that I still hadn't read this book despite rather liking the first part in the WWW trilogy. Since the final book is expected to be released in April, now seems to be a good time to get if off the to read stack. I thought the first book, WWW: Wake, also the first I have read by Sawyer, was a very interesting novel on many levels. The trilogy deals with consciousness in various forms and Saywer uses some unusual protagonists to tell this story. I have since read Saywer's Neanderthal Parallax, which after a strong start in Hominids, finishes a disappointment with de decidedly weaker sequels Humans and Hybrids. After having read WWW: Watch I'm left wondering if something similar is going to happen to this trilogy.

WWW: Watch picks up the story where we left it in the first book. Fifteen year old and, until recently, blind girl Caitlin Decter has made contact with the conciousness that has arisen on the world wide web. The question that needs answering is what to do next? Caitlin is worried that if the existence of Webmind, as the entity is called, becomes common knowledge, someone will try to take him out. Still, she has to trust someone. There are things Caitlin cannot do for Webmind and she can't be by his (Caitin insists Webmind is male) side twenty-four hours a day. There is such a thing as school after all. Reluctantly Caitlin informs her parents and so Webmind is introduced to the world.

Caitlin's fears are not entirely unjustified. Without her knowledge the Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters (WATCH), a branch of the American intelligence agency NSA, has figured out what is going on. Monitoring the communication between Caitin, her parents and Webmind they, naturally, see a threat. What they need is a way to take out Webmind but if it has an off switch, the location of it is not apparent. There appears to be only one way to learn more about it, and that is asking the Decters. Unfortunately they reside in Canada and are not willing to cooperate.

In this novel Sawyer sets out developing some of the ideas he set loose on the reader in the first book. It is a book that deals with consequences for the most part. He describes Caitin's response to seeing the world for the first time, Webmind's reaction to being able to communicate with humans and the world's reaction on finding out Webmind exists, among other things. The way these developments are portrayed are not quite as convincing as in the first novel. Especially the character development of Caitlin leaves something to be desired.

In the first novel, I thought Sawyer managed to depict the world of a blind teenager quite convincingly (as far as someone with reasonably good eyesight can judge anyway). The challenges posed by a PC for instance, are quite detailed in that book. In this novel, I feel Sawyer slips. It's in the details, the way Caitlin responds to being able to see mostly, but also an unguarded comment on how the only chore in the Decter household Caitlin was able to perform is setting the table. That's on top of the problems Sawyer, a middle-aged male who to my knowledge does not have children, of getting into the mind of a teenage girl. It's a valiant attempt but it doesn't fully succeed. It gets even worse when Caitlin decides she is in love.

Webmind is handled a lot better. He, for the moment I'll agree with Caitlin, is an interesting character, a hugely intelligent entity coupled with an almost childlike naïveté about the world. Given the amount of science fiction that deals with artificial intelligence (can Webmind be considered AI without having been purposely created by humans?) turning against humanity, it is not surprising some of the characters, most notably Caitlin's mother, keep this possibility in the back of their mind when dealing with him. Sawyer never let's Webmind do anything remotely evil, although it does need some pointers on privacy, but the author clearly shows what damage Webmind is capable of, if he put his mind to it. There's a subtle sense of suspicion you can't quite shake even if you dismiss all the intelligence agency nonsense. I wonder if this aspect of the novel will be further developed in the last novel of the trilogy.

Another noticeable difference between the first and the second book is that Sawyer is more preachy in this novel. He's never made a secret of the fact that he prefers rationality over religion or that he quite likes Canada and would not like to see certain aspects of US society introduced there. There is nothing wrong with these opinions of course, in fact I agree with him for the most part, but the way they are woven into the story is annoying at some points. I know Thanksgiving is not on the same day in the US and Canada (and there is no such thing here in the Netherlands!), I know the outlook on the history of both nations is very different on either side of the border and still tinged by nationalism in some cases. There's quite a long list of little items such as these. They are only marginally relevant to the story, there is absolutely no need to bludgeon the reader with it. To top it all off, Sawyer includes a reference to FlashForward, the television series based on one of his stories, which is the most shameless bit of self-promotion I've come across in a novel.

These little annoyances add up an distract to what Saywer has to say on consciousness and the rise of Webmind. That is a shame because the author adds a whole lot to what was already discussed in WWW: Wake. Caitlin's father performs a Turing test on Webmind for instance, which I consider one of the more interesting scenes in the book. The results and implications are very interesting but it doesn't settle whether or not Webmind is conscious in the way humans are. It looks like Sawyer's got some more ground to cover on this subject. In this novel he's beginning to integrate the story of Webmind and that other non-human conciousness, the Bonobo/Chimpanzee hybrid Hobo. I look forward to seeing how this will develop in WWW: Wonder.

Overall I guess there were a few too many little annoyances in this book the make it as good a read as WWW: Wake was. Although that book does clearly contain some of the same bad habits as Sawyer displays here, it is a lot more muted in that novel. I will admit that my opinion of this novel may have been a bit coloured by reading the Neanderthal Paralax in the mean time though. Still, I do hope Sawyer can raise his game a bit for the final novel and prevent this trilogy from ending in disappointment. There is plenty to work with in this series, he should still be able to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Watch
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 352
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01818-5
First published: 2010

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

In 2006 the biggest début of the year in fantasy was without a doubt The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. The following year saw the rise of another new star in fantasy. The Name of the Wind, first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle, by Patrick Rothfuss made a huge impact and the second book, which will be released in March, has been on many a list of most anticipated releases for the last couple of years. Although the second volume had already been written by the time the first book was published, Rothfuss rewrote the entire book after realizing what professional editing did for the first volume. After such a successful début, the pressure was on to deliver a second book. I suspect Rothfuss was right taking his time to revise it. The first volume has certainly created high expectations on my part.

The story opens in a tavern in the village of Newarre (read: nowhere), where innkeeper Kote is trying to lead a quiet life, accompanied by his student Bast. The first sign that he may not be allowed to do just that is what a huge spider-like creature appears and attacks one of the locals. Fortunately for him, the creature is crushed under a horse of the local and he brings it in to the village for inspection. Although he doesn't tell the villagers, Kote knows what this creature is, how dangerous it is, what drew it to Newarre and that it is most likely not alone. Without telling the villagers or Bast, Kote sets out to kill the rest of the creatures.

While looking for the creatures in the darkness outside the village he runs into a lonely traveller. This man, known as The Chronicler, has been chasing a rumour that the great Kvothe, a man of legend and presumed dead, is living in Newarre. He recognizes Kote instantly. After they return to Kote's inn, The Chronicler convinces him to let him write down his story. But only on Kvothe's terms. He will need three days to tell it and The Chronicler is not allowed to change a single word. On this first day, Kvote tells the story of his youth, his parents, his first teacher and above all his time at the university. The tale of his brilliance and mistakes, his first love and his brush with the mysterious Chandrians. In short, the real story behind the legends that have sprung up around him. It does not need the embellishments associated with rumour and the creation of myths, the truth is quite exciting enough.

It's very easy to see why this book has such an appeal. It is not the most challenging of reads, neither is the setting the most original in modern fantasy but it is without a doubt a triumph of storytelling. When Kvothe tells us about his life the reader is sitting in that inn with him, hanging on his lips. Good storytelling is an art and keeping it up for the better part of 600 pages is very impressive indeed. Not to mention Rothfuss planned two more books in this style. He's set himself quite a challenge by choosing this limiting format but in The Name of the Wind at least, it works very well.

That is not to say the book is without weaknesses. The way he tells his story can come across as a ramble at some points. Rothfuss must have realized it because he lets Kvote warn the reader early on in the book when the author has him say:
"If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way."

Kvote to The Chronicler, Chapter Seven - Of Beginnings and the Names of Things
He is quite right here of course, the story does not take the straightest way. This being the first book, it is not easy to say what is foreshadowing and where Rothfuss genuinely wanders, but I can't shake the impression that he does from time to time.

Whether he is rambling or not, Kvote is a memorable character. He brags, he's overconfident and can be a bit of a drama queen. He's also brilliant and he knows it. In fact, that is what gets him in trouble most of the time. Too sure of his own capabilities and too impatient to wait, he frequently takes rash action. Because of this the story can change direction very quickly and in unpredictable ways. Although Rothfuss has already revealed some of the feats Kvothe has yet to perform, how he will get there is still a mystery. The flow of Kvothe's successes and disappointments in this books makes for some very good reading. It does not really lend itself well to a climax in this book however. The event that will close this story is known early on in the novel and when this event does occur, it feels a bit abrupt. Kvothe may be ready to call it a day, but as a reader you are for from done with this book. A curse and a blessing I suppose, given the years that have passed waiting for the second volume.

The Name of the Wind is one of those books that capture that sense of adventure many are looking for in a fantasy novel. We get to see a complex and to the reader brand new world through the eyes of a young protagonist (Kvothe tells about the first sixteen years of his life in this volume) and explore it with him. We see the world through the eyes of a young man full of possibilities. It's fresh, exciting and even bad luck does not stop Kvothe from going for it. Rothfuss also offers the reader the more mature, depressed and brooding Kvothe The Chronicler gets to see. It's a very interesting contrast and it raises quite a few questions. After this first book I am by no means sure how Rothfuss means to unite these two very different Kvothes. I do think Rothfuss has managed to create a character that will keep the reader turning pages for the full trilogy. A theory I am certainly going to check once I get my hands on The Wise Man's Fear.

Book Details
Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 661
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-7564-0407-9
First published: 2007

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Darkest Hour - Mark Chadbourn

Whatever variety of the flu it is that is making half of Europe sick at the moment has hit me hard this weekend. I have two books waiting to be reviewed but right now I am no condition to write a coherent text about either of them. I pulled one from the archives I meant to add later this year anyway. Books one and three of this series have already been added to to Random Comments. It was originally written in May 2009 and needed only mild editing.

I read World’s End, the first book of Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule trilogy a while back. World's End was published in the UK in 1999 but the books didn't make it to the American market until Pyr has released them in 2009 with about a month in-between the books. They have gone on to publish The Dark Age, a second trilogy set in this universe, as well. I thought World’s End was a decent read, Darkest Hour is better. Chadbourn maintains his fast pace and deep mythological connection to the land but lowers the D&D content. Being the second book in the trilogy, it does of course leave you hanging, so I'm trying to get my hands on the third book.

At the end of the first book Church and his companions have managed to free the one force that could stop the Formori, the Tuathe de Danaan, only to find out they are not interested in the job. In fact, they think Church and his companions unworthy to even make such a request, tainted as they are by failure and the corruption of the Formori. The Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon will not give up though. Formori plans for the return of Balor, the one-eyed god of death have been delayed, there is time to regroup and plan. A little time, but not much, the world as they know it is falling apart rapidly, technology is failing all over the place and the authorities seem to have no response to the difficulties they face. At the next festival, that of Lughnasadh, the Formori are sure to make another attempt to drag Balor back into the world and end it for all time.

Under the guidance of Tom the company goes in search of means to convince the Tuathe de Danaan to help them defeat the Formori. Again Church, Ruth, Ryan, Laura and Shavi will have to dive head first in a world that is unknown to them. When they ask the dead for help in a ceremony in the Highlands of Scotland, the trail leads to Edinburgh. The dead not only set them on the right trail, they also mention one of the five is a traitor. This of course, does not nothing to ease the already mounting tensions within the group. It is their darkest hour indeed.

In this book Chadbourn develops his five main characters further. Where in the first book they are mostly trying to stay alive, they now begin to assume certain roles in the company. Ruth gets a crash course in following the craft, Shavi’s shamanistic talents are put to the test, Ryan is turning into a warrior, and Church appears to have overall command (much to his disliking). Only Laura doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself and makes no secret of it. It puts her in conflict with Ryan in particular, but her relationship with the other members of the company are strained as well. We also learn more about Tom’s history. There is a lot more to him than the old hippie front we get to see in World’s End. This increased attention to character development does the trilogy a world of good.

As with the previous book, Chadbourn adds a lot of mythological references to the book by introducing a lot of supernatural creatures. He also delves into the history of Edinburgh Castle and Old Town district and visits the chapel at Rosslyn; a site that may be familiar to people who have read The Da Vinci Code. I think I prefer Chadbourn’s handling of the myths surrounding that building. With Church and his companions avoiding population centres whenever possible, we also get quite a bit of landscape descriptions. Scotland and Yorkshire in particular receive attention. They visit some of the lesser know neolithic sites, trying to find the old places of power and bring them to life again. The first book mostly leaned on the big, and well known sites with a collection to Celtic or early Christian mythology. This book dives in a lot deeper. If you are interested in in that aspect of the story and of Britain’s cultural and natural heritage this book is probably more satisfying than the first one.

One of the aspects I liked less about this novel is the tendency of the companions to go off on side quests. Even trying to avoid people they run into them from time to time. These people inevitably have problems dealing with he collapse of technology and the appearance of large numbers of quite dangerous supernatural beings. The temptation to fix a smaller immediate problem and ignore the big picture is always there. I guess you could say that if Church and his companions are to become the heroes of the land they will eventually have to deal with issues like that. In some cases the author throws these things in to develop the talents of one of the members of the group further. They don’t always lead to actually resolving the problem however, and they are quite often dropped when the character is being forcefully reminded of the big picture. This makes some of these scenes rather unsatisfactory to read.

All in all I liked this second book in the series better than the first. A lot of people will mention the problems middle books usually suffer, but personally I never really felt these weaknesses occur quite as often as many reviewers seem to believe. Darkest Hour doesn’t suffer from them anyway, unless you count ending on a cliffhanger as a problem. Given the improvements over the second book I am very curious where Chadbourn will that the third one. Always Forever has just placed itself high on the to read list.

Book Details
Title: Darkest Hour
Author: Mark Chadbourn
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 469
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-740-9
First published: 2000

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Red Seas Under Red Skies - Scott Lynch

In the summer of 2006 one of the most praised fantasy début of the decade appeared. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a fresh wind through the genre, one that combined a more or less traditional epic fantasy setting with heist novel. It was a fast flowing, at time humorous novel that cleverly made use of flashbacks to give the story and the characters depth. Its success was overwhelming and it must have posed quite a problem for the author. How on earth do you live up to expectations created by The Lies of Locke Lamora? In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second book in a planned series of seven, Lynch continues his story. Living up to expectations was nearly impossible for Lynch and I mostly agree with the people who say it is not quite as good as the previous book. That being said, it is still a very entertaining book and a worthy successor to The Lies of Locke Lamora.

After their dramatic confrontation with the Grey King in Camorr, life is no longer safe for Locke and Jean in the city of their birth. Having lost the entire fortune the Gentlemen Bastards acquired over the years, it is time to start over. Locke and Jean relocate to the city of Tal Verrar where they start a new confidence game. Posing as traders they work their way into one of the most exclusive gambling houses in the city: the Sinspire. The profits of the house are locked away in one of the most severely protected vaults the two have ever come across. The challenge is irresistible, soon Locke and Jean are working their way up to the most exclusive levels of the Sinspire.

The game is not without complications however. The Bondsmagi have not forgotten what Locke and Jean did to one of their own. They have a score to settle with both gentlemen and when it looks like Locke and Jean are ready for the deciding move in their game, the Bondsmagi step in. They are not satisfied with just killing Locke and Jean, soon they are entangled in a web of lies, deceit and blackmail that may very well cost them their lives. Juggling all these conflicting demands is hard enough already but Locke and Jean are determined to cut the strings attached as well. It will take all their skill to get out of this one alive.

Lynch creates an even more fascinating setting in this book. The city of Camorr, with it's Elderglass buildings, was a fantastic place already, Tal Verrar is even more spectacular. An series of Elderglass islands rising up form the sea. It is as much a vertical as a horizontal city, with each level the fortune and social status of the inhabitants rises. The author adds to this image by describing all manner of strange mechanical and alchemical devices that make life comfortable in the city. It's a lovely creation and a superb fantastical setting but it does come at a price. One of the things I noticed right away on this reread is the very descriptive writing in the first part of the novel. Although I was very taken with the setting I do feel it slows the opening of the story down a bit more than necessary.

In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Lynch writes very much out of chronological order. He mixes scenes from Locke's youth with chapters dealing with his more recent exploits but even within the chapters, the writing often goes back and froth in time. Red Seas Under Red Skies opens in that way, starting with a scene where Jean and Locke confront each other, backed up by crossbows. Chronologically it is in the final part of the novel. I guess you could see it as a way to make the reader aware of the strain the relationship between the two man will have to endure in this novel. Later on in the novel, Lynch makes much less use of this technique. In the first part of the novel, the chapters are interspersed with reminiscences, which cover the time form their departure from Camorr till the final moves in the Sinspire game. These stop a little way before the halfway mark, with the rest of the novel mostly chronological. This shift in the way the story is written is a bit odd. If you like your books a bit more symmetrical this will definitely be noticeable.

Although the novel contains a complete story arc of its own, Lynch is clearly laying some of the groundwork for later book. In The Lies of Locke Lamora he made a point of hiding certain facts about Locke's past for the reader. One of them is his mysterious lost love Sabetha. She's mentioned briefly in the first book but not nearly as much as in the second. Locke keeps his feelings about her carefully bottled up. Not until Jean finds someone to love is he really forced to examine his feelings more closely. There is no resolution for this story line in Red Seas Under Red Skies. Locke's love is expected to make an appearance in the third book, Republic of Thieves, however. It is one of the obviously missing parts in his history. It will be interesting to see why he doesn't go after her now that nothing binds him to the city of Camorr.

Red Seas Under Red Skies manages to capture quite a bit of what I liked about The Lies of Locke Lamora. It's perhaps slightly darker than the previous book but nonetheless a fun read. Locke and Jean's escapades are exciting, humorous and sometimes downright suicidal. I can't quite get over the structural flaws of the book though. It starts very slow and the pacing of the rest of the novel is somewhat uneven as well. Right up to the finale of the book that actually feels a bit rushed. They say you have a lifetime to write your first book and a year to write the second. Red Seas Under Red Skies may have been the victim of this little bit of publishing wisdom. It could have done with another round of straightening out some of the problems. Even with these problems it is still well above merely good though. For fans of the first book this one is a treat. I'm very much looking forward to reading the third part. There seems to be some confusion about when it is actually going to appear but some time in 2011 is still an option. Bring on The Republic of Thieves!

Book Details
Title: Red Seas Under Red Skies
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 558
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80468-3
First published: 2007

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Act One - Nancy Kress

Ever since reading Kress' wonderful collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories I've been keeping an eye out for her short fiction. A number of her short works won Nebulas and Hugos, the most recent was a Hugo in 2009 for her novella The Erdmann Nexus, which unfortunately I haven' t read yet. Act One was nominated for the Hugo, Locus and Nebula award but won none of them. It was originally published in Asimov's in 2009. Last year Kress reached an agreement with publisher Phoenix Pick, who made the book available in print and various e-book formats. In January they offered it for free download (you may still be able to get it) so I took the opportunity to finally read it. As usual, it is a thought-provoking and moving story.

I always have trouble reviewing shorter works without giving too much of the story away. The text below is a bit spoilerish.

Barry Tenler is the manager of the ageing and in recent years none too successful actress Jane Snow. Still, there is a new opportunity waiting and Barry believes this role will do Jane's career a lot of good. To prepare for the part, which involved the consequences of recently introduced genetic engineering techniques, Barry and Jane have arranged to meet the members of The Group. An underground organisation willing to go a lot further down the path of genetic modifications than current legislation allows. They are considered terrorists by the authorities and have some very far reaching ideas on the future of the human species. The meeting goes well enough or so Barry and Jane think. It takes a while for the reasons of The Group for agreeing with the meeting to become clear however. And when they do, Barry and Jane realize they are in trouble.

Kress stuffs quite a lot of questions about genetic engineering in this novella. There's the ethical aspect of experimenting on human beings, altering them in ways that are not fully understood without them having a say in it. There is also the question whether or not the product of such can still be considered human. To explore these issues, Kress uses three main elements in the story. Barry, our narrator is the first. He has his own troubled relationship with genetics. Barry suffers from achondroplasia, a mutation that causes dwarfism. A life in a world created for taller people have given him a unique perspective when it comes to genetic engineering. It has also lead him to the decision in his life he regrets most.

The second element that illustrate the main questions the novella poses are the children who have had the benefit of genetic treatments. Kress introduces the Barrington twins, among the first to receive what advocates of the technique call Arlen's Advantage. A genetic modification that makes the children hyper-emphatic. It is almost impossible to lie to them or to even hide your true feelings. This deeper understanding of other people's feelings would make them more sensitive, cooperative and better behaved. As the twins show, the treatment has side effects. The twins, who possess radically different personalities, also serve to point out a problem in genetics that still poorly understood. How much of a certain trait is due to genetic predisposition and how much to nurture. When you read this novella, compare the twins' use of their ability with the natural empathy of Jane and Barry's gradually shifting moods. The way Kress shows us that genetic engineering is more complicated than switching a couple of base pairs in a specific gene is very well done.

A third strand in this story looks at the effects on a larger scale than the individual. Genetics is scary to a large part of the population (think of the ongoing discussions of whether or not to allow genetically modified crops) and the Group's disregard of legislation and the opinions of other people poses a threat to public order. The final part of the story is partly dedicated to showing how such fear and anger can lead to violence and, reaching back to the individual level, how it affects Barry and Jane.

Act One is quite a dense piece of writing, I needed a couple of days to reflect on this story before I began this review. It's one of those stories one should savour, it's not a long text but one that demands some time to read it properly. It is definitely one of the stronger stories by Kress I have read. She must have had some fierce competition to miss all those awards. It's an emotionally intense look at some of the questions raised by advances in genetics. Recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: Act One
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Phoenix Pick
Pages: 77
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-60450-413-2
First published: 2009

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Second Foundation - Isaac Asimov

I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Foundation and Empire last year in my attempt to read more of the classics of Science Fiction. Without a doubt these novels left a mark on the genre, they've been read by generations of SF-fans and seven decades after the first Foundation story appeared in in Astounding Magazine, the novels are still in print. They may have been the pinnacle of Golden Age SF, I can't say I thought them great literature. Asimov's style is dreadfully direct and the previous books were in dire need of a good round of editing. The Foundation novels are big on ideas however, I have to give him that. Second Foundation is the final novel in the original trilogy. It contains two loosely connected stories, the first part was originally published in Astounding in January 1948, the second, much longer, part appeared in late 1949 and early 1950 in the same magazine.

Second Foundation is completely devoted to the mirror organisation Hari Seldon set up in Foundation. It's location is shrouded in mystery and several parties are interested in finding it. In the first part of the novel, Search by the Mule, the mentally gifted and unforeseen mutant known as the Mule, tries to find the location of this threat to his rule. He suspects the Second Foundation possesses similar qualities to his own when it comes to controlling people, making the search for them extremely difficult. He still has a few tricks up his sleeve though.

The second part of the novel, titled Search by the Foundation, is set fifty-five years after the first part, almost four centuries after Foundation. The reign of the Mule is history but the question he's left behind is not. Does history still proceed according to Seldon's predictions or has it been wrenched of the tracks by the actions of the Mule? The Second Foundation may have the answer but it has still not been found. Something a group of men on Terminus mean to change. They plan a new search for Second Foundation. What they didn't take into account, is the help they'll receive from the 14-year old daughter of one of the men.

I felt that in Foundation and Empire Asimov was challenging his own creation and asking the right questions about if and how the predictions by Seldon could actually stand the test of time. In this volume I get the feeling he is just trying to be clever by creating a plot with lots of twists and turns. The Mule was without a doubt the most interesting character in the second book of the trilogy. His talent was unique and completely unpredictable. This doesn't appear to be the case to Second Foundation however, he has clearly found their match in them. Asimov snuffs out a potentially interesting storyline here, the Mule's reign ends in stagnation. The Mule is contained, he is relegated to a conqueror whose rise and fall is nothing more than an flash in history, someone who does not leave a lasting legacy. It seems like a waste of one of the psychologically more interesting characters in the trilogy.

Second Foundation remains quite mysterious even with most of the book dedicated to the search for them. Their mental talents are unnoticed but ever present. It creates a bit of a paranoid atmosphere in the later part of the novel, with characters aware that they might be controlled but never sure if it is actually happening. Second Foundation control is always indirect, always in the shadow, leading to a story full of characters trying to anticipate the other, all the while wondering how transparent their actions are. Wheels within wheels, plots within plot but very little constructive being done. In fact, I am somewhat surprised at the rivalry between the two Foundations. The competition between them is presented as natural, even when Foundation clearly can't oversee Seldon's plan. They presume one of them will lead humanity towards the Second Empire and each feels they are the only ones qualified to do it. For groups of people so well educated, they have some remarkable blind spots.

The ending of the novel is also a bit of a mystery to me. Seldon predicted an interregnum of about a thousand years between the collapse of the first and the creation of the second empire. At the end of Second Foundation almost four centuries of this period has passed. Centuries full of strive, several crises that threatened Seldon's vision and of course the unexpected challenge by the Mule. Why would the next six centuries, which surely must be shrouded in more uncertainty than the first four, be plain sailing? The satisfied attitude of the eventual victor of all the intrigues does not seem to be justified. Apparently the Mule failed to teach them anything about the unpredictable side of nature. Given the two of books that Asimov wrote that are set after events in Second Foundation, the author may have changed his mind about that too.

On the whole Second Foundation struck me as the poorest book in a trilogy that aged none too gracefully. I can see why it is influential and why it was so popular but Asimov's unadorned prose and direct style of storytelling is not something I can get used to. Like Foundation, Second Foundation excels in explaining every detail of the plot to the reader but this time, the plot was not nearly so engaging. After reading the first two books my expectations weren't too hight but I was hopeful that the series might grow on me. I guess this book disappointed me a little. I don't regret reading this trilogy but it is time to move on to something else.

Book Details
Title: Second Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 241
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80373-0
First published: 1953

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie is one of the people who's received a lot of attention in the blogsphere in recent years. Until now, I never got around to reading one of his books. In one of my rare trips to a bricks and mortar book store recently, I got a copy of his standalone fantasy novel Best Served Cold. This novel is set in the same world as his First Law trilogy. It isn't necessary to have read them to understand this book although I got the impression there were some references to places and events in the earlier trilogy. Abercromie is known for his gritty and realistic fantasy. I thought Best Served Cold perhaps tried a bit too hard. It's quite cynical, very nihilistic. To the point where it becomes predictable even.

Styria during the Years of Blood. The region is dotted with numerous city states all trying to take advantage of the slightest weakness in their neighbours. In recent years an all out war between the various states has dominated life in the region. On one side the ambitious Grand Duke Orso is fighting a war against the League of Eight. Orso is backed by the Union, one of the large powers in the world, while the Gurkish Empire supports the League of Eight. The two great powers are nominally at piece but neither seems to mind fighting a proxy war in Styria. At the opening of the story, Orso has the initiative. One of his main assets is a mercenary company known as the Thousand Swords. They are lead by a women known for her ruthless methods and resounding military victories. Nicknamed The Snake of Talins, Monza Murcatto is one of the most successful generals of her era. Perhaps a bit too successful.

When Murcatto arrives at Talins to report on the summer's activities, she and her brother Benna are welcomed by the other major players in the Grand Duke's court. The campaign seems to be going well, with their enemies smashed and retreating before the victorious armies of Orso. The Grand Duke is not a man who has risen to power by being naive though. He clearly remembers the origin on his own house, and upstart mercenary commander that took a throne some generations back. Murcatto is too popular in Talins, she has got to go. After a messy attempt at assassination, Benna's corpse is thrown off the mountain Orso's fort is built upon. Monza soon follows. She miraculously survives being stabbed and thrown off the mountain and is taken in by a mysterious practitioner of medicine. Her body is broken, pain her constant companion but soon, she is strong enough to think about revenge. Seven people were present at her assassination, all seven must die. Revenge will be hers.

As the title and the synopsis suggest, the main theme of this novel is revenge. Monza aims to kill some very powerful people and thus, sets herself a very hard challenge. To have any chance of success at all, she needs help. Of course nobody in their right mind would be willing to help her if there wasn't a great deal of gold involved. Fortunately, gold is not something Monza lacks. Bought help has the disadvantage of having the tendency not to stay bought. This is a problem both Monza and the other characters struggle with throughout the novel and what makes it predictable in the long run. Everybody is looking for the right moment to screw their current employer and make more money somewhere else. Monza even manages to corrupt the one character who is actively looking to be a better man (although it must be said, he doesn't have the faintest idea what he means by that). Plenty of plot twist but the all come down to someone double crossing someone else.

Abercrombie's style is quite bloody. Monza sets out to kill seven people but there is quite a lot of... collateral damage, even without the casualties of war. That conflict does not wait of Monza to sort out the mess she is in. Best Served Cold contains quite a lot of descriptions of people getting stabbed, clubbed, bludgeoned, gutted, impaled or poisoned. Monza's revenge is a bloody affair and in more than one occasion she ends up deep in blood and gore. In other words, this book is not for readers with a queasy stomach. Although I don't mind a bit of mayhem myself I do think it pressed the psychological effects of Monza's campaign a bit to the background. Revenge is not to most productive of human emotions. In the long run the momentary satisfaction of cleaving the skull of one of your enemies, does not really outweigh the suffering endured and caused. Quite a few of the characters seem to think along those lines at least once in the book but none of them ever follows up on that realization.

The author creates a number of memorable characters in this novel. I liked the chronically misunderstood (or so he seems to think) poisoner Castor Morveer and the shameless opportunist and mercenary general Nicomo Cosca in particular. Both of them inject a bit of humour into what would otherwise be quite a depressing book. Abercrombie uses quite a few characters in this book but he somehow manages to flesh most of them out really well. He has well over six hundred pages to do it but it's still quite an accomplishment. Despite Abercrombie's talent to draw a character in a few lines, I still feel that with some of them, it would have been interesting to move beyond the exterior of greed, cynicism and suspicion. That is something the book does not seem to find the space for, crowded as it is by bloody action and conversations of trading clever insults.

How to express what I think about this book? I guess I felt that this book was almost but not quite. The darker side of human nature has provided the genre with quite a few good tales but it needs to be balanced by at least a little bit of optimism, altruism or sacrifice. I guess that is what I was missing in this story. Any attempt at moving beyond the cynical world view the characters base their decision on, is swiftly and mercilessly punished. The world is not a place where people get what they deserve but surely no society can function if people are classed as declared enemies or potential enemies. The constant and usually well-founded suspicion gets repetitive in the book, making it a bit predictable despite the many twists in the plot. Best Served Cold is a well written novel, a decent read if you like your fantasy bloody and low on magic, but it was clearly not my cup of tea.

Book Details
Title: Best Served Cold
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 664
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08248-9
First published: 2009

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

First review of the year. Since I started last year with an Alastair Reynolds book I decided to make it a tradition. I exhausted his Revelation Space works, which currently comprises five novels and two volumes of shorter fiction, so it is time to have a look at Reynold's work in other settings. Century Rain (2004) is the first novel Reynolds published outside the Revelation Space setting. It combines elements of noir, hard science fiction and time travel with a dash of romance. Reynolds experimented with noir elements in Chasm City and also incorporates it in The Prefect. That last one I think of as the best novel he wrote (mind you I still have a few to go). In Century Rain I don't think the melding of noir and science fiction works too well however, this book is not one of Reynold's stronger novels.

The novel opens in the late 23rd century with archaeologist Verity Auger leading two students through the ruins of Paris. Earth has been destroyed by an event referred to as the nanocaust during the 2070s. A host of tiny machines, released to correct the centuries of abuse heaped upon the earth by humanity, turns against it's creators and kills all life on earth. By that time, humanity has established a foothold in space, which is the only thing that saves them from extinction. Verity is looking though what is left of the earth to find historical records, printed material, not susceptible to the nanobots' corruption. While retrieving a newspaper, a treasure trove of information for archaeologists, her expedition meets with an accident. One of the students under her care dies. Verity is in trouble.

Before Verity can face a tribunal, she is snatched away by a top secret organisation in the human faction she belongs to. They have a very dangerous job for her, for which her skill as an archaeologist will be invaluable. Somewhere light years away from earth, a copy of the planet has been found. Right now, it is the year 1959 on that world, and history has diverged a bit from our own time line. One of the agents sent in to investigate, Susan White, has been found dead after falling out of a window. Verity is sent in to retrieve Susan's notes. Once in the alternate 1959 city of Paris, she quickly runs into Wendell Floyd, a private detective who doesn't believe Susan's death was accidental.

Century Rain is not a time-travel story in the traditional sense of the word. It is more like a copy of earth has been rebooted and reset to the mid 1930s. In Floyd's version of Paris, the Germans never managed to occupy France. Hitler's offensive stalled in the Ardennes and he was subsequently ousted from power. Reynolds gave quite a bit of thought to what this would have meant for the development of science. Things like computers, nuclear technology and rockets were given a great boost by World War II. Floyd's world is lagging behind compared to our own. Unfortunately Reynolds does not mention the territorial consequences of Hitler's failure. What about the partitioning of Poland? The occupation of Czechoslovakia, der Anschluß, the fascist regimes in Italy and Spain? We do end up in Germany during the story so there was some opportunity to at least look at the situation there. I must admit a lot of these details are strictly speaking not necessary for the story but for the real fans of alternate history, this novel is probably a bit too focussed on science.

I did quite enjoy Reynold's depiction of this alternate 1950s Paris. It is changed in quite subtle ways from the city as we know it. There's a decidedly xenophobic wind blowing through the streets of the city, something that the American Floyd is keenly aware of. The author paints a dark picture of the city, with an increasingly corrupt police force and violence threatening, it is not a place Floyd ought to stay for much longer. His preference for Jazz, a kind of music viewed with suspicion in the French capital, helps build a bit of a dark, moody atmosphere. People who know the city may get more out of these sections, I've never been closer to Paris than the Route Périphérique and that was quite a long time ago.

The scenes set in the 23rd centuries are interesting in their own way but I did feel that towards the end of the novel much of the space devoted to the future part of the story was filled with info dumps. The reader needs to be told some things about the general shape of history and Reynolds uses Floyd's ignorance of the situation as an excuse to enlighten the reader. They are not a punishment to read but it probably could have been done a bit more gracefully. Quite a bit can be figured out from earlier portions of the book. It makes the latter part of the novel a strangely structured piece of writing with all the action, chases and last minute rescues one would expect in the climax of a tale like Century Rain, intermixed with long explanations of how things came to be. Thematically these sections do contain some intriguing questions though. The dangers of fully relying on digital information storage for one thing.

The characterization in this novel is also a bit problematic. Reynolds can do certain types of characters really well, the world wise detective being one of them, but in some other areas he has problems. Floyd also has a love interest in this book and in that area the author is less successfully. Rationally I understood there was a connection between the characters but Reynolds could not really make me feel it. The emotionally charged scenes always seemed a bit bland to me. Which is a shame, it could really have added something to the story.

I don't think Reynolds quite managed to really connect the noir and science fiction elements of the story. Century Rain is an interesting novel, one that certainly succeeds in creating a dark atmosphere, but when it comes to the right mix of elements I think it falls short of the level of Chasm City or The Prefect. The novel simply has too many problems to be called good. I still enjoyed reading it, its not a book I would consider putting away after a few chapters, but it won't end up at the top of favourites lists either.

Book Details
Title: Century Rain
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 532
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07691-4
First published: 2004