Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Wiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed - Patrick Rothfuss

Like the past few years I once again made the resolution to review all books I read this year. Last year I got close, 90 out a total of 91. This year, I am determined to make is 100%. But then I came across this book. The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Wiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss, illustrated by Nate Taylor, is something quite out of the ordinary. For one thing, it is not a children's book.. The creators are quite clear about that right from the start. Despite their clear intent to spare the innocent psyche of children these books are usually meant for, I can't help but wonder where Rothfuss found the guts to publish something like this.

Consider, after years of painful therapy you have carefully transformed the thing under the bed from a lurking monster to a warm and comforting presence in the bedroom. Like having the cat sleep at your feet or having a loving parent look in on you while you sleep. And then, after finally managing a good night sleep without having to suppress the urge to check for monsters under the bed, Mr Rothfuss comes along and pulls a stunt like this. HOW DARE YOU! How do you think you'll EVER be able to explain this to Oot? This calls for mass book burnings and voodoo dolls I tell you! As if our lives are not already filled with horrors, you have to add princesses and teddy bears to the list! Why do you think people seek refuge in fantasy anyway? Thank to YOU and your accomplice Mr. Taylor, do not for a moment think your part in this crime will be forgotten, I will have to check under the bed again! You know, just to see if it is still there...

I'm not the only one who does that right?

< <
> >

In other words, I kinda dig their sense of humour ;)

Book Details
Title: The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Wiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Illustrations: Nate Taylor
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 69
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-313-6
First published: 2010

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Crippled God - Steven Erikson

The Crippled God is the tenth and closing volume of one of the biggest achievements in fantasy: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Over the past twelve years, these massive tomes appeared on schedule, steadily building one of the most complex, dramatic and challenging series in the genre. Looking back on the series, I am in awe of the world Erikson and co-creator Ian C. Esslemont have created. The previous book, Dust of Dreams, was something of an exception in the series, it ended on a cliffhanger. Erikson approached to finale of his series as one huge tale, too large to fit into one book. Perhaps not entirely unexpected, Erikson does not wrap up all loose ends in this volume but is is without a doubt a fitting end to the series.

After their catastrophic meeting with the K'Chain Nah'ruk at the end of Dust of Dreams, the Bonehunters are severely diminished. Large numbers of heavies and marines, the backbone of Tavore's army, have perished in the battle. Still, Tavore is determined to carry on with her mission. An even more formidable challenge awaits the Bonehunters as they try to cross the Glass Dessert, the place where a god died, on the way to their final confrontation against the Forkrul Assail. With their ultimate cause and destination still unknown to the army, they are on the brink of mutiny as Tavore drives them on towards a convergence that will determine the fate of the world.

It is of course impossible to properly summarize this book. Erikson may not have tried to wrap every thing up in this volume but there sure is a lot of stuff he does resolve. Just about every character from the previous books still living (and quite a few who have passed through Hood's gate) are mentioned in this novel. It is almost too much to take in all at once. I recently reread Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates, the first two books in the series. That was a good move, I would have missed even more than I already have on this first read of The Crippled God. In fact, I probably should have reread Memories of Ice as well. There are countless references in this book to events scattered throughout the series, going back as far as Whiskeyjack's advice to a young Ganoes Paran in the prologue of Gardens of the Moon.

The structure of this novel is one that Malazan readers will be familiar with by now. Erikson starts slowly. The opening chapters contain a lot of introspective passages (and a severe overuse of italics) by lots of different characters, setting the stage for the convergence to come. Most of the story lines in this novel will eventually lead to Kolanse, where the final confrontation between the major players in the series will take place. The story line of the Shake is the exception. Although events are of course linked to just about everything else, they are only distantly aware of events in other places. This story line also makes the novel get going a bit faster. The climax of the Shake's defence of the first shore is the first major story line of the novel to be resolved and the real action begins slightly before the halfway point of the novel. Quite a bit sooner than novels like Toll of the Hounds, of which the last third can be said to be action-packed.

For me the Shake illustrates what makes Erikson's worldbuilding stand out in the fantasy genre. It's messy, the lines are blurred. Shake are descendent of the the Tiste Andii, apparently not full blood but close enough to retain certain links and a sense of obligation to guard the First Shore against the Tiste Liosan. There are many more examples of things like this in the books. People splitting, forming new alliances, cultures and tribes. The Toblakai, who themselves have Jaghut blood and later formed the Barghast and Trell peoples, come to mind. An other example would be the Forkul Assail Watered. Figuring out the ancestry of these groups, their relation to each other and in some cases what caused the split between them, give this series an atmosphere of tremendous age. I've never come across a series with such a rich history.

Despite the Shake's heroics, most of the plot deals with the convergence taking place in Kolanse, where the Fokrul Assail are preparing their campaign to cleanse the world of the human race. Their motives were a bit vague to me before starting this book but somewhere in the second half of The Crippled God, a number of pieces fell together for me. I liked the reference the humanity's overuse of their environment in particular, even if the Assail solution to this problem is a bit drastic. The history of the Assial is an area where there is room for more development. In the early books in the series they were assumed to be extinct (like a number of other elder races). It is clear they invaded Kolanse years before the event in this book, suggesting a presence on another continent somewhere. Perhaps this is another area Esslemont means to explore.

I was also a bit surprised at how many people decided their best chance lay with the Crippled God. He is something of a villain in the earlier books. His cruel use of the Tiste Edur leader Rhulad Sengar in Midnight Tides come to mind. I suppose Ganoes Paran saw the shape of the game early, but for me as a reader it took quite a few books to figure out his role in the story. I'm going to have to reread some of the later books as well to see what clues I've missed along the way. I'm pretty sure I will see some events in the books in another light, knowing where they will eventually lead to. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that definitely requires rereading to fully appreciate it.

All things considered, I think The Crippled God is a fitting conclusion to the series. It would have been impossible to write a novel that answers all questions and it would certainly not have been in style if Erikson had tried. Some things are left to Ian C. Esslemont to explore. His next novel Orb, Sceptre, Throne will no doubt answer some of the things missing in this novel. Personally I don't mind a bit of ambiguity at the end of this series. You can't really draw a line somewhere and tell the reader this is where it all ends on a history as complex as that of the world of Malaz. The finale of this novel is a convergence on a scale we haven't seen before. I must admit I thought the dramatic impact was a bit less than in novels that don't carry the burden of Erikson's enormous cast quite so heavily. It doesn't quite match the ending of Duiker's tale in Deadhouse Gates, or the finale of Memories of Ice, which remains my favourite in the series. Still, for the real Malazan fan this book is a treat. Not that is wasn't clear before this novel but Erikson has just completed a landmark series in the genre.

Book Details
Title: The Crippled God
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 921
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-04635-7
First published: 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Khaim Novellas - Tobias S. Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi

I keep an eye out for everything Paolo Bacigalupi publishes ever since reading his marvellous collection of short fiction Pump Six and Other Stories in 2008. When news reached me that Bacigalupi teamed up with Tobias S. Buckell to write a set of paired novellas in a shared fantasy world, I was quite excited about the project. Unfortunately they were meant for release as audio book on There is nothing wrong with audiobooks of course, but I happen to prefer reading over listening so this was a mild disappointment. Fortunately Subterranean Press picked up these novellas and released them in hardcover with some very good artwork and interior illustrations by J. K. Drummond.

The novellas are set in a world where magic exists but comes at a high price. With every use of magic, a new bramble sprouts somewhere near. These plants are almost impossible to kill, poisonous and rapidly overrunning entire cities. Everybody feels use of magic ought to be curtailed but there is always the lure of solving some problem with magic that would lead to disaster otherwise. What's one extra sprout somewhere near weighed against the life of a sick child? Draconian laws are put in place, religious orders preach against using magic and still the bramble spreads... Apparently Bacigalupi came up with the bramble idea, it looks like he took his inspiration from the tragedy of the commons.

The Executioness - Tobias S. Buckell

In this story we meet Tana. She middle-aged, mother of two sons and burdened with an alcoholic husband living outside Khaim. Her family can barely make ends meet on the income of Tana's father who is one of the city's executioners. Tana's father is very ill however, and soon the day comes when he can no longer perform his duty. To ensure the family's income, Tana sees only on option, she will have to take his place. When she returns for taking the head of someone caught using magic, she learns that raiders have struck the city. Her husband is dead, her father dying, her children taken. Carrying the executioner's axe, Tana sets out to get her children back.

I enjoyed both novellas a lot but I think The Executioness is the weaker of the two. The story was partly inspired by the question why there are so few middle-aged women as major characters in modern fantasy. Which, in itself, is an interesting question of course, truth be told I couldn't name that many. Tana's role is that of a mother protecting her children. Everything she achieves in her search for her children are means to an end, she is ready to give it up in a moment if it means getting her children back. This is a very powerful motivation of course, but not one that will win Buckell many feminist fans I suspect. Not until the very end of the novella is Tana forced to adjust her view a bit.

Tana's travels do give us a brief view of the world this story is set in. Buckell, who's published work is mostly sciece fiction, quickly finds out why epic fantasy is ...well... epic. Worldbuilding takes time and Tana's story itself could easily have been novel length. In short, the author has some trouble fitting it all into a hundred pages. He manages, but it left me with the feeling that the world was a but underdeveloped. Despite my earlier comments, I did grow to like Tana a lot. Her story may be a bit of a fantasy cliché, it is a well-written fantasy tale.

The Alchemist - Paolo Bacigalupi

The city of Khaim has been trying to control the use of magic, and thus the spread of the bramble, by making unauthorized use of magic punishable by death. Not everybody is ready to give up magic, death penalty or not, so the bramble keeps spreading. In his laboratory alchemist Jeoz is working on a mixture that will kill the bramble and makes sure it stays dead. He has sacrificed his wealth for this, selling just about every bit of furniture in the house. Jeoz has an additional motive for his project, without the use of magic, he cannot keep his daughter alive. She is suffering from consumption and will surely die without magical intervention. When Jeoz hits the jackpot and finds a formula that will work, he rushes of to the authorities to show his invention to them. Khaim's mayor does not intend to deliver the world from the poisonous bramble, he sees the means to reinforce his monopoly on the use of magic. And if Jeoz doesn't care to comply, well, the major has the perfect incentive to make him.

So instead of a mother trying to protect her sons, we have a father protecting his daughter. How is this story different from The Executioness? What makes it work better? For one thing The Alchemist does not have the wide scope of Buckell's story. It is focussed on what happens in Jeoz' household for the most part, making it more intimate, less dependant on a large cast and events in the wider world to make the story work. It feels to me like Bacigalupi's story fits much more comfortably into the novella format.

What I also liked about this story is the gradual way in which the motives of the key players are revealed. It is clear what Jeoz tries to achieve from the first but there is much more to his household than is immediately apparent. Bacigalupi carefully times the moment when the mayor's ideas on Jeoz' invention become clear. When it comes to pacing and time key developments this novella work very well indeed. In a way, The Alchemist is not that different from Buckell's effort but I think I can see why Bacigalupi got the Nebula nomination.

The Executioness and The Alchemist form an intriguing set of novella's. On Suberranean's website a new story in this world written by Buckell appeared. I wonder if he and/or Bacigalupi intend to develop this world further. There's definitely room for more stories in this setting.

Book Details:
Title: The Executioness
Author: Tobias S. Buckell
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 102
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-354-9
First published: 2010

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 95
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-353-2
First published: 2010

Monday, March 21, 2011

Over at Grasping for the Wind...

John Ottinger, over at Grasping for the Wind, asks us the following question for his Inside the Blogsphere feature:

If you had to leave your house in a hurry, and you could only grab five volumes off your shelf, which five would they be and why?

I picked Soul Catcher by Frank Herbert (review), The Dune Encyclopedia by
Willis E. McNelly, The Lies of Lock Lamora by Scott Lynch (review), The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (review) and Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin. What to know why? Head on over to John's Blog.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 1)

Aliette de Bodard's work frequently features non-western cultures. The two novels she published so far, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm are set in a pre-Columbian Aztec Empire and many of her short stories also include Aztec, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. De Bodard has written a handful of stories set in what she calls the Xuya universe. In this alternative time line China discovered the Americas before the Europeans. The Chinese expeditions to the Mexica empire helped reduce the shock effect of the eventual arrival of the Europeans and prevented it's fall. In modern times Mexico and the United States are divided in three power blocks. A strong Mexica Empire in the south, a west coast settled by the Chinese and the eastern United States more or less as we know it, a former British colony mostly settled by Europeans. The first story in this universe I read was The Lost Xuyan Bride, which is included in The Apex Book of World SF and can be read on the author's website. I very much liked that story for the interesting alternate history it is set in (among other things).

Recently, two other stories in the Xuya universe were made available online so I took the opportunity to read them. Although the stories are set in the same universe that are separated by several centuries. They are two very different pieces of writing and hint at a much greater story. De Bodard offers the beginnings of a chronology on her website. For those who like alternative history it is very interesting reading.

The Jaguar House, In Shadow
This story was first published in Asimov's (July 2010) and is nominated for a Nebula award this year. It can be downloaded as pdf here, or can be read on the author's website. Word count is about 7,900.

This story is set in a period of civil war in Mexica. During the rule of the current Revered Speaker all Houses but one, have been destroyed for opposing him. Only the Jaguar House is left, surviving by completely submitting to the will of the current leader. Not everybody in the Jaguar House agrees with this policy. Onalli and Xochitl directly oppose it. Onalli manages to stay out of reach of the head of the House, her former friend Tecipiani. Xochitl is not so lucky and Onalli intends to get her out of the House before Tecipiani can do damage beyond repair.

The Jaguar House, In Shadow is a very good example of why I love to read short fiction. De Bodard does something with this story that would probably not work very well in a novel. The events described in the present are balanced by an undercurrent where time flow in the opposite direction. By taking us further in the past of the characters and showing us a few key moments in the relationship between them, the story it gains an emotional depth the story would not have acquired otherwise. The author effectively shows us the divisions that appeared between a group of friends, a military order and ultimately the whole Mexica empire. Unfortunately, it is a bit hard to really see the historical context of the story without looking at De Bodard’s chronology. I love the way she tells this story but some of it is quite cryptic.

The Shipmaker
The Second story was published in Interzone #231 (November/December 2010). It's on the 2010 BSFA short list and has been made available as a pdf by Interzone. Wordcount is about 5,500.

The Shipmaker is set centuries after The Jaguar House, In Shadow, in a far future where each of the great powers has a presence in space. This story is seen form the Chinese point of view. Dac Kien is a Vietnamese woman who designs spacecraft for the Chinese, that are part machine and part biological. The organic parts are added in the last part of the Construction. The whole procedure is a delicate operation. One that is thoroughly upset when the surrogate mother of the organic element that will be come the ship arrives early. It appears the birth will be much sooner than anticipated. Dac Kien will have to quickly revise her carefully created design.

I guess this story shows the large cultural difference between west and east. The Chinese shipbuilders include principles of the ancient Feng Shui aesthetics into their design. It is not a matter of changing a few sections and cutting out a few others, the harmony of the design will be utterly ruined by such an approach. Qi must flow harmoniously though the ship for it to operate well. On top of that the author weaves in some of Dac's personal life. The problems she faces with her partner (another woman) and the negative response of her family. They would rather see her married. Although the reader will sympathize with Dac's choice to set her own course in life, De Bodard introduces an element of doubt in her main character. The meeting with the surrogate mother of the ship's organic component makes her see matters of family and children in a different light. No easy answers in this story.

The chronology of the Xuya universe also mentions the existence of an unpublished novel titled Foreign Ghosts in this setting. After reading three very good Xuya stories I am certainly curious what a full novel would look like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear, second book in the Kingkiller Chronicle is without a doubt one of the most anticipated novels of 2011. In fact, I've seen so many reviews pop up over the last days that I questioned the wisdom of adding another. Then again, I really wanted to read it and working my way though a thousand pages of Kvothe leaves me without any other content for the blog. In other words, you'll have to put up with another review of this book. It's been almost four years after Rothfuss' début, The Name of the Wind, hit the shelves and in the mean time expectation of this novel have only been raised. It's hard to follow up on such a successful début novel. Rothfuss clearly realized this and set about completely rewriting the already finished second novel. He took his sweet time but it has to be said, Rothfuss delivers a book that will do well with people who liked the first volume.

The Wise Man's Fear takes us back to the Waystone Inn in Newarre, where Kvothe prepares to tell the second part of his story to the Chronicler. The village is clearly rattled by events of the past few days. One of the villagers has been killed by what the villagers think is a demon and the war that is being fought far away has made it presence felt in the form of high taxes. These are hard times for Nevarre's small community.The Chronicler, Kvothe and his companion Bast know a lot more about what is going on in the world and it worries them. Bast would like to see Kvothe take a more active hand in these affairs, to have him live up to his reputation, but Kvothe refuses to take the bait. It seems Bast has to come up with more convincing methods to get Kvothe to move.

In the mean time, the story of Kvothe's life continues. On top of overcoming the financial obstacles, Kvothe has survived several challenges to his presence at university, most of which are tied to his nemesis Ambrose Jakis. Kvothe and Ambrose are not about to call off there feud however, the two scheme continually to make each other's lives impossible. At one point they cross the line and both of them are told rather bluntly, that they ought to take a term off from university. It is a disaster for Kvothe, who is now barred from the place where he most wants to be. He also sees part of his income cut off as he is no longer able to work in the university's Artificery. To make the best of this setback, Kvothe decides to pursue the hunt for a wealthy patron. Ambrose has made it impossible to find one close to the university but the world is a large place. It is time for Kvothe to see some more of it.

In the first book Kvothe is introduced as a young boy who is to smart for his own good. His rashness and confidence in his own abilities frequently leading him into trouble. Many of his actions are either exceedingly clever or stupid beyond all belief and Kvothe spends a great deal of time trying to deal with the consequences of such flashes of brilliance. In this book he matures a little. That is not to say he doesn't do some profoundly stupid thing from time to time but there does seem to be a little more mature reasoning behind it. The most obvious change is of course Kvothe's discovery of the physical side of love. Rothfuss is one of those authors who discretely fades to black when things get steamy but he suggests rather a lot of activity on that front. Which of course leads to a whole new set of complications.

The young Kvothe's colourful descriptions of his life are a stark contrast to the sad and subdued mood in the Waystone Inn. One of the things Rothfuss does very well in this novel is make the young Kvothe look larger than life, while making the mature Kvothe telling the story is only a shadow of the man he once was. Rothfuss dedicates only a few brief chapters to the present state of our hero but resignation and the conviction that his life is over stand out clearly in those scenes. It is still not quite clear what happened to Kvothe to put him in the state he is in. One thing is clear, while this book ends on a high, the final part of his story will be a tragedy.

At 994 pages, this book is significantly longer than the first novel in the series. It is even a few thousand words longer than The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, one of the biggest books I've read last year. In fact, reading the hardcover is a good exercise in weightlifting. It begs the question if the story actually justifies that many pages. The answer to that is complicated. As I mentioned in my review of The Name of the Wind, the story rambles a bit. Rothfuss admitted as much by having Kvothe warn us in advance. The way Kvothe tells the story is part of the charm of the book but it also has some serious limitations. It didn't bother me in the first volume. Even if the novel isn't very tightly structured, it reads smoothly. Kvothe is a story teller and The Name of the Wind sounds like a story told around the camp fire.

The Wise Man's Fear is half again as long and personally I think it stretches the camp fire story feel of the previous book beyond what the story can handle. Kvothe does a lot in this novel, not necessarily finishing one thing before diving head first into the next adventure. Rothfuss regularly returns to a bit of unfinished business a hundred or two hundred pages later. Had Rothfuss not delivered one of the most celebrated débuts in the fantasy genre in recent years I suspect this book would have been severely edited. Truth been told, it would have been possible to reduce the number of pages significantly while keeping the main story intact.

Would this have been a good thing? I have mixed feelings about that. While I do think the book is a bit too long, Rothfuss clearly made an attempt to keep the problems of this particular format manageable and for the most part he succeeds. He even has Kvote skip some parts of his own story he does not consider interesting. There were a few points where I wondered why Rothfuss added yet another adventure to what already was quite a long list. In particular the inclusion of a long section on Kvothe's encounter with Felurian and his adventures with the Adem. The do in the end play their part in the larger story of course, but the also take up quite a few pages. The way Rothfuss tells his tale does not result in a lot of natural breaks in the story. When one does present itself Rothfuss takes is. There is quite a bit of Kvothe's boast at the beginning of the first novel that still has to fall into place so moving material to the next volume would probably have lead to trouble later on anyway.

Writing The Wise Man's Fear may have taken a while longer than many fans would have liked, it was definitely worth the wait. Rothfuss polished his story until is shines and given the almost impossible task he set himself after delivering one of the most remarkable fantasy novels in this decade, he was probably right to take his time. Kvothe is rash and self-centred but also brilliant and at times as cute as a baby seal. This book is every thing that The Name of the Wind and then some. Fans of the first book will be very satisfied with this second volume in The Kingkiller Chronicle. It is a very good read by a remarkable author but somehow I can't entirely shake the feeling that sometimes less is more.

Book Details
Title: The Wise Man's Fear
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 994
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08141-3
First published: 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

City of Hope & Despair - Ian Whates

Publisher Angry Robot was kind enough to send me a review copy of Ian Whates' novel City of Hope & Despair a few weeks back. When I requested it, I somehow failed to notice this is in fact the second volume in The City of a Hundred Rows. Fortunately there are such marvellous things as online book stores so I hurriedly ordered a copy of City of Dreams & Nightmare and managed to read it in time to at least do a somewhat timely review of the second volume. I thought The City of Hope and Despair an entertaining if not particularly challenging novel. Although the story in the second volume branches out a bit, my feelings about the series are more or less unchanged.

Events in the first novel have left The Prime Master of Thaiburly with the uncomfortable feeling that he has failed to uproot the most dangerous player in the recent attempt to take over the City Below. He feels the city is still in danger. The Prime Master is not a man who became the leader of the city of Thaiburley by closing his eyes for signs like these. At some basic level the city is still in mortal peril. He sends the street thief Tom on the road with a number of unlikely companions to find the source of the city's power, the goddess Thaiss. The trip will open Tom's eyes to the wider world.

While Tom is exploring the countryside, Kat faces an entirely different set of challenges. A creature preying on the people sensitive to the goddess Thaiss' power roams the city, killing and feeding at will. Kat and the Tattooed Men mean to stop this creature but it is hard to track down, even for a team as confident, dedicated and talented as the Tattooed Men. To make matter worse, some parties in the city would rather not have Kat and her companions succeed. And then there is the troubled relationship between Kat and her sister, which seems to be heading for an inevitable showdown. The City Below is still far from safe for Kat.

Where City of Dreams & Nightmare was more or less self-contained, with all important story lines converging at the end of the novel, this second volume is a different creature. Tom and Kat's path diverges in this story, with Tom being cast into the wider world, exploring the area upriver from the city of Thaiburly. It's a strange experience for the boy who has never left the city, he definitely gains a deeper understanding of the world around him. What I found more interesting is Tom's confrontation with various aspects of religion. Tom is not religious, disillusioned as he is by his hard youth being forced to make a living through petty theft. Being in the presence of a young, devoutly religious priestess who regularly demonstrates her talent for healing using the goddess' power, tests Tom's conviction. On the other hand, he is not spared the greed and lust for power that corrupts some religious institutions either.

As a whole I thought Tom was a bit of a passive character though. He's a gentle soul, not someone likely to take centre stage without a good shove in the right direction and a good shove is not something Whates provide very often. Quite a contrast to Kat, who is much more confident in her abilities to survive in the City Below. Although both story lines include a number of action scenes, Kat is often in the thick of it, while Tom depends on his trusted talent to hide him. Like in the last novel Tom needs to be put under severe pressure to uses his talent in different forms where Kat might be considered impulsive. I hope Tom's character will develop a bit more towards confidence. He strikes me as a terribly passive main character for a fantasy novel with a young protagonist struggling to explore his magical abilities.

The previous book was a little light on worldbuilding, which surprised me a little for a book that clearly aims to present a fantastical setting to the reader. Historical background information on the city was very scarce in the first book. A few of the pieces are beginning to fall into place in this book, something I expect will continue into the next volume as the impact of Tom's quest becomes clear. It's more a matter of adding to what we already know however, Whates is not spending more words on in than he did in the previous volume. Personally I still feel the world is a bit underdeveloped, he doesn't make the most of his steampunkish, more scientifically advanced society than one would find in most novels. If you prefer a fast paced story without too many embellishments this may be your book.

I wasn't terribly impressed with the first volume and I'm not blown away but this second book either. As I mentioned in the introduction, they are entertaining, tightly plotted novels but fairly light reading. The major difference between the two is that City of Hope & Despair is much more clearly part of a series. The end offer no clear resolution. One of the story lines ends a major cliffhanger and elsewhere in the novel lots of threads in the story are obviously going to continue into the next book. With the expanded scope of the story and hints of a far larger conflict than what we've seen thus far spread throughout the novel, there is something to look forward to in the third volume of The City of a Hundred Rows.

Book Details
Title: City of Hope & Despair
Author: Ian Whates
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 416
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-85766-088-6
First published: 2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

City of Dreams & Nightmare - Ian Whates

I did something incredibly stupid a couple of weeks back. I requested a review copy of Ian Whates' City of Hope & Despair, without realizing that is was the second book in a series. I hadn't read the first part, City of Dreams & Nightmare yet. So I ordered a copy of book one and I'm going to do something I generally avoid on Random Comments: review two books by one author in a row. City of Dreams & Nightmare is Whates' debut novel, he has quite a bit of short fiction to his name though. I haven't read any of his work before so I didn't know what to expect. As it turns out, Whates likes his fantasy with a bit of steampunk on the side and most important, he spares me the ordeal of reading a second book when I didn't like the first. City of Dreams & Nightmare is quite a fun read.

The story is set in Thaibulrey, the city of a hundred rows. It is a vertical city with dozens of levels. Once a wonder of technology, it has been hit hard by a war in its recent past. The city now emanates an atmosphere of decline. Not surprisingly, the higher up in the city you live, the higher your status. At the very bottom reside the poor in what is called the City Below. On the heights, the ruling class of Arkademics reside, in the company it is said, of the demons themselves.

The opening of the story finds young thief Tom on his way up in the city. His gang controls a section of the City Below but tonight Tom is out for bigger game. On his way up he witnesses the murder of one of the city's Arkademics by one of his colleagues. Despite Tom's trick to make people overlook him if he doesn't want to be seen, he is spotted by the murderer. Obviously not pleased with this witness he pursues Tom. The young thief calls of his mission for the night and starts a desperate run for the relative safety of the City Below. What follows will turn Tom's life upside down and change the city forever.

City of Dreams & Nightmare is a book that reads very quickly. Whates' style is to the point, he keeps his plot moving at a good pace. The setting is obviously meant to create a fantastical atmosphere in the novel but Whates doesn't indulge in long descriptions. He keeps the focus on the story and his characters without digressing too much. The city would not be possible without magic and a whole bunch of mysterious machinery and Whates leaves all manner of hints throughout the novel. There's a police force that uses cloaks to do things that defy gravity for instance, a necessity to move quickly between the many levels of the city. Waste management, transport and supplying the huge city all have to take vertical dimension of the city into account. Despite that, the history and inner workings of the city remain something of a mystery. We don't learn all that much about the past of the city either. For people who like their fantasy to include a generous measure of worldbuilding it might be a bit disappointing. It looks like Whates intends to explore some of these issues further in future volumes.

We see most of the story though the eyes of people what are pawns in a very large and dangerous game. Tom clearly has some magical talent. He doesn't seem to understand what he is doing but others have clearly noticed. His presence at the murder scene may seem accidental early on in the book, later on we find out it is anything but. This lack of understanding of what is going on around them also goes for two of the three other important characters, independent street fighter Kat and Kite Guard Tylus are also clearly unaware of the stakes of the game they are involved in. Only assassin and right hand man of the murdering Arkademic, Dewar seems to be a bit wiser in the ways of this fantasy world. The way the author manages to convey the general idea of what is going on over the heads of our heroes is quite well done. I didn't get the idea I was missing thing although it would have been nice to have some of the machinations in the higher rows of the city a little more visible.

Despite there being several characters that get a point of view, Tom is the one the story revolves around. He's very young, his exact age isn't mentioned but apparently he has only recently discarded to opinion that girls are stupid. If I had to guess I'd say about fourteen. He's pretty naive about a lot of things and that is one of his endearing qualities. It does clash a bit with the way he's spent his youth. Tom is apparently an orphan and he is part of a gang that survives by extorting local traders, robbery and theft. Violence, prostitution and crime are part of Tom's direct environment. He's simply too soft to really fit in that world. The author uses this to point out Tom is destined for a different life and to a point this works. I still feel his youth should have scarred him a little more than we get to see in this novel. He strikes me as a bit too pure.

City of Dreams & Nightmare is mostly a quick, fun read. It is not particularly a challenging read and in terms of worldbuilding, I feel Whates leaves a lot of aspects of the city and the world surrounding it a bit underdeveloped. He doesn't quite fulfil the potential his creation offers. That being said, there will be more books in this series and obviously there has to be something left to explore. Tom and Kat's flight through the City Below, trying to keep a step ahead of the nameless players that would see them killed is a thrilling experience. One that has convinced me to see if Whates can put a bit more meat on the bones of his story in the next volume.

Book Details
Title: City of Dreams & Nightmare
Author: Ian Whates
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 427
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-85766-049-7
First published: 2010

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, first published in 1971, is one of Le Guin's better known novels. It was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards and there have been quite a few reissues over the years. My copy is part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, number 44 to be precise. It is one of three works by Le Guin that are currently part of their selection. I read The Dispossessed a while ago. There's also a hardcover edition of The Left Hand of Darkness but that one appears to be out of print. The Lathe of Heaven is not part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle, as far as I can tell it is a standalone. There are two adaptations for television of this novel. I've seen neither but it's pretty hard to imagine how they could possibly live up to the standard of the book.

The mild mannered, unremarkable man George Orr has a frightening talent. Once in a while he wakes up after a particularly vivid dream and finds the world changed according to his dream. Frightened by the changes he makes to reality and his lack of control over them, Orr tries drugs to suppress the dream. Soon he is caught for exceeding his allotment and forced to undergo therapy for substance abuse. His psychiatrist is Dr. William Haber, a man specialized in dreams and well known for his research in the field. When George is sent to him, Haber is working on a machine that makes it possible to help a patient achieve the phase in which he or she dreams quicker than waiting for the natural cycle to take it's course. Haber is sceptical of George's claims but when he sees the differences George causes during a therapy session he begins to see the possibilities. Both for his personal advancement and improving the sorry state the world is in.

Describing the future (well, back then anyway, as near as I can figure out the story is set in 2002) the novel is set in is a bit of a problem. It keeps changing on the reader. One of the constants however is an extremely rapid warming of the earth due to the greenhouse effect. When we first meet George, he lives in a world he shares with seven billion other people. Not too far from the real figure in 2002, I think we had just over six billion that year. It suffers from severe shortages. Just about all resources the collapsed ecosystem can provide go into food production and it is not enough to properly feed everybody. Le Guin was obviously not optimistic about the effects humans were having on the planet. It's always a little odd to read science fiction that features a collapse at a point we've already passed. Still, looking form a 1970 point of view, the rapid rise of dependency on automobiles, worsening of the air quality and the huge expansion of the US highway network did provide valid reasons for concern. Le Guin's timing might have been off but we might still be heading in the direction she describes.

In essence, The Lathe of Heaven is a novel of two conflicting world views. While Haber feels that the world can be drastically improved and that since he has the means to do so, it is perfectly all right to change it according to his own wishes, George feels he is being used and that it is not for him to decide what the world should look like. Haber feels the world can be perfected, turned into utopia, George would accept it as it is. I guess George's view is mostly based on the Taoistic teachings that clearly influenced the novel. The title for instance, is taken from the Tao Te Ching. It turns out the be an incorrect translation but Le Guin didn't know that at the time. Haber's stance is a bit harder to pin down, Wikipedia suggests it is a positivist position he takes. I will take their word for it.

It is easy to think of Haber as a power hungry megalomaniac, and while he does develop some dangerous traits of the course of the novel, George would be the first to tell you he isn't. He's extrovert, confident in his abilities and even more confident that he sees right though his patients. In George's case at least, he doesn't. He thinks of George as someone who lacks initiative, who can be easily persuaded to go along with whatever Haber thinks best. It's a great contrast with the George the reader gets to see. A man who is perhaps not very quick in making up his mind about things, but does have a good sense of right and wrong. He also has the backbone to do something about it despite the fact that he is forced to undergo Haber's treatment. Le Guin provides ample food for thought with these two contrasting characters and the motivations that drive them.

As the novel progresses and more changes are made to the world, it atmosphere becomes more dreamlike. Without the context it is hard to tell of George is awake or dreaming in some passages. The world becomes less desperate, more controlled but also surreal to an extend. You can't deny that some of the world's problems are taken care of, but there is also a sense of loss and wrongness about the whole situation that keeps building towards the end of the novel. It definitely makes you think twice about wanting to change the world, consequences of actions and illusions of control and, for that matter, about whether or not George actually needs treatment.

Like previous books by Le Guin I've read, I found The Lathe of Heaven a thought-provoking read. Like with The Dispossessed I needed some time to process what I'd just read. Its a short work by today's standards but a pretty intense read. One than made me wonder why on earth I hadn't read more by this author long ago. This book is rightfully considered a classic of the genre. It's forty years old by now but it aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries. To me, it feels like a book that will continue to find new readers. In fact, I recommend you give it a try.

Book details
Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 184
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-951-9
First published: 1971