Monday, August 29, 2011

Resurrection - Tim Marquitz

Resurrection is the second part in Marquitz Demon Squad series and continues the adventures of Frank Trigg, also known as Triggaltheron. The series is set in a world where God and the Devil have decided to throw the towel and Angels and Demons are now fighting for control. Resurrection is set after the events in Armageddon Bound, the story refers to events in the previous novel several times, but it is also an entirely new case for DRAC. I wouldn't go so far as to say they can be read independently but Marquitz has made them pretty self contained. The first novel was entertaining but sometimes burdened by too lengthy action sequences. In this volume, Marquitz has struck a better balance.

The world has been saved from Armageddon but the work of a DRAC agent is never done. While Trigg is enjoying a well deserved bit of R&R in one of the more questionable bars in Old Town, he stumbles across a group of zombies. Or rather, they stumble across him. For someone with his supernatural powers they are not too dangerous but in large numbers they can still do a lot of damage. After a brutal fight, Trigg calls in his colleagues and an investigation into the origins of this zombie outbreak begins. What seems to be a relatively easy case compared to preventing Armageddon, soon turns into something more complicated when Trigg realizes the necromancer involved, will not settle for animating a few corpses.

One of my complaints about the previous book was that Trigg is a horribly sexist character, who apparently feels the need to describe his physical reaction to every pretty woman he comes across. Perhaps I am getting used to it but it appears that Marquitz has gone a bit easier on this personality trait of Trigg's. The poor man still can't get laid without being interrupted though. As with the first volume, if you are not at least capable of ignoring it, this book will most likely annoy you.

In the previous novel the emphasis was mostly on a struggle between Angels and Demons and factions within those two groups. In Resurrection, Marquitz takes a closer look at necromancy. Zombies are one expression of this but the larger plan calls for the resurrection of someone who, according to Trigg, ought to remain dead. Marquitz is once again expanding the array of supernatural creatures that populate his world. I must admit I don't share the current zombie fetish that is washing over the genre at the moment. Trigg's response to them, a complete lack of fear followed by a moment where he realizes he's screwed if he doesn't move, is very well done though.

Resurrection is more tightly written than then Armageddon Bound. While the first novel was relentless in terms of action scenes, it came at the expense of character development and plot. In this novel there are few more scenes in which Trigg is not fighting, arguing or running away from someone more dangerous than he is, which does the plot a world of good. Trigg is gaining power, his development beyond one of DRAC's foot soldiers takes some getting used to. He likes it when people underestimate him. From the way Trigg is picking up power in these two books I'd say this is something he'll have to get used to.

Although Marquitz' writing has improved in this volume, the final chapter could have used a bit more attention. It reads like the author is ticking off loose ends in the plot one of after another. When I read it I felt the author might as well have added bullets to the text. There's also a hint in this chapter in which direction Marquitz means to take the next book. It was nicely foreshadowed in the text and one of the stronger point of this chapter. The author manages to deliver a complete story and still add a hook to get the reader interested in the next volume.

Marquitz once again delivers a fast paced novel, full of action and Trigg's self-depreciating humour. He has managed to raise the bar quite a bit, resulting in a stronger second novel, that builds on an interesting premiss. There is still quite a lot to uncover in this setting. Most of the struggle between Angels and Demons seems to be limited to one city for instance. As of yet, there is no clue why this would be the case. Fortunately Marquitz clearly intends to write a third book and judging from the final chapter of this novel, I'd say it is going to be a conflict on a scale we haven't seen before.

Book Details
Title: Resurrection
Author: Tim Marquitz
Publisher: Damnation Books
Pages: 200
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61572-397-3
First published: 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in a space opera trilogy named The Expanse by James S.A. Corey. Corey is a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I am familiar with the work Abraham published under his own name, some of which is very good indeed. Corey is his third pen-name. He also writes an Urban Fantasy series under the name M. L. N. Hanover. With ten novels under his belt, Abraham is definitely the more experienced of the two. I haven't read any of Franck's writing yet. I know he has contributed to the latest Wild Cards volume Fort Freak, which is still on the to read stack. Other than that, I only know him as George R.R. Martin's assistant. I didn't know what to expect of this novel, it is quite a departure from Abraham's previous (novel length) work and a new adventure for Franck. As it turned out, Leviathan Wakes is a very readable bit of science fiction. One that might appeal to a larger crowd than just the hardcore SF-fans.

The novel is set in a future where humanity has ventured beyond Earth and colonized Mars as well as a whole host of moons and asteroids. Humanity's cradle is still essential to the survival of the species however, the source of many materials that simply can't be produced in any meaningful quantities elsewhere. Its power is only rivaled by Mars, one of the few other places in the solar system to house a significant number of people. Further out, are the miners of the asteroid belt, people confined to small bubbles of air and artificial gravity in the the vast emptiness of space.

Jim Holden is the the executive officer on an ice miner, making runs between the Jupiter's rings and the asteroid belt. It's a dead end job on a rickety old ship and usually quite uneventful. Until that is, they come upon the derelict ship Scopuli, emitting a distress call. What they find on the ship draws the crew into a spiral of violence that almost inevitably seems to lead to war. In the meantime on the asteroid turned space station Ceres, detective Miller is on a missing persons case. Although the police force on Ceres has more than enough problems on their hands once the political instability of the solar system is exposed and Miller is told to let go of the case, he can't shake the feeling there is something fishy about it. Miller digs deeper, at great personal expense.

In there is one thing I admire about the book is the way that Corey has managed to make it a science fiction novel that has so many elements of other genres and sub-genres besides space opera in it that it has a much wider appeal that a hard science fiction novel would have had in today's market. That is not to say there aren't some classic science fiction elements in the tale. Corey spends a great deal of time on the effects of gravity (or the absence of it) to the human body, to the operation of space stations, to warfare etc. There is definitely a bit of Rendezvous with Rama in this novel. There are some nice references to things like space sickness and the trick of deciding which way is up in an environment without gravity that a hard science fiction fan will appreciate but doesn't take a vast knowledge of physics to understand.

On the other hand, the story line of Miller also injects a dose of police procedural into the narrative. It's a combination that can work very well, as Alastair Reynolds showed us in The Prefect, a novel I still consider his best. Miller's past and personal problems are woven into the case he is researching. He's increasingly unable to keep his job and his private life separate, or in fact, keep reality and illusion apart. He's clearly a man headed for self-destruction. Holden on the other hand, is a man who has a completely different way of getting into trouble. Besides being rather direct, he feels qualified to decide which information should be shared with the entire solar system and which shouldn't. Much to the disgust of Miller, who blames him for starting a war. The authors have stated it was not intentional but the parallel with Wikileaks is almost inescapable.

Although the story in Leviathan Wakes is essentially complete, the way the novel was written leaves a lot of possibilities for a series that goes well beyond the planned trilogy. There is quite a bit of attention for world building, an aspect that gives the whole novel an epic fantasylike quality. In this novel, the two main characters are far away from the places where the big political decision are made. They deeply impact the story but the real motivation behind them remains mostly guesswork by the main characters. Throughout the novel you can sense that there are layers of events and decisions that have yet to be revealed. It would be nice if the authors paid a bit more attention that than in the next two books. The action we get to see now is set at the fringes of human expansion but what is going on 'down the well', as the Belters refer to the inner solar system, sounds like it is worth a few pages more than are dedicated to it in this novel.

Leviathan Wakes is a novel that achieves what it sets out to do very well. Entertain the reader. It is a novel that is clearly meant to be a fun ride, without too many complications or being too demanding on the reader. As such, I enjoyed it a lot. It's fast paced, very careful not to let itself get distracted in grand descriptions of the solar system or futuristic technology. Many of the elements in this novel will be familiar to the experience science fiction reader, it is not shockingly original. It is however, a well written adventure with plenty of opportunities for an equally enjoyable continuation of the series. I look forward to reading the second volume, Caliban's War, scheduled for publication in the summer of 2012, already.

Book Details
Title: Leviathan Wakes
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 561
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-988-8
First published: 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Missed the Second Birthday of Random Comments!

Outrageous, I know. I missed it by four whole days. Anyway, Random Comments now passed the two year mark. As I said when the blog turned one, I didn't think it'd last that long. Actually, despite a few recent hiccups, I'm very pleased I've managed to keep it going at a more or less constant pace. Thanks everybody for visiting. My traffic is still not a serious challenge Google's capacity but it is steadily rising. Let's see how we do in a third year.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Frozen Sky - Jeff Carlson

The Frozen Sky is a novella originally published in 2007 in the anthology Writers of the Furure XXIII. Last year, author Jeff Carlson has made it available as e-book and was kind enough to provide me with a review copy. Like the stories in his collection Long Eyes and Other Stories, which I read a few months back, The Frozen Sky is a hard science fiction story. It's a fine example of a well written novella, a length that in my opinion is very hard to get right. I have seen relatively few examples of novellas that aren't bloated short stories or rushed novels. In The Frozen Sky, Carlson strikes the right balance.

The story is set in the early 22nd century, a time when humanity is expanding throughout the solar system. Although the search for extraterrestrial life is ongoing, none has actually been found. Until a crawler from Jupiter's ice moon Europa, completely unexpected, stumbles across evidence for multi-cellular life. Quickly an expedition consisting of three scientists is assembled to investigate. When they arrive, they find themselves completely unprepared for what they discover.

Europa is one of the few places in the solar system that may harbour life. A process called tidal heating is theorized to make liquid water possibly under the thick sheet of ice that covers the entire surface of the moon. The existence of this ocean and the possibility of life have made Europa the subject of many science fiction stories. One in particular that comes to mind is 2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke, in which a monster from the deep takes down an entire spaceship down with it. Another one I recently read is A Spy in Europa, a short story set in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space setting. In this story, Europa's oceans are settled by an advanced human civilizations. Clarke's portrayal of Europa's environment is a lot closer to what Carlson describes.

The novella is told in a non-linear fashion and contains two main story lines. In one, we find Alexis "Vonnie" Vonderach, the sole survivor of the expedition in terrible trouble, struggling to survive the challenges the moon throws at her. The second is set earlier and slowly reveals what went wrong. Carlson also uses this second story line to give the reader some background information on Europa and the history of space faring. It creates a very nice contrast between the immediate needs of Vonnie in the action packed and often frantic scenes in the first strand of the narrative and the slower, more scientifically oriented second strand.

Carlson creates some pretty fierce creatures in Europa's harsh environment. There may be a touch of the idea that such conditions drive the development of extreme physical and behavioural adaptations. An idea that frequently surfaces in the work of Frank Herbert for instance. I must admit the very thin atmosphere on Europa seems a big ecological challenge to overcome, but life sheltering in the ice, it may just be possible. The image of this huge dome of ice as the edge of the universe for these aliens is a nice one. It might feel a bit claustrophobic for humans though. Carlson's descriptions of the extremely cold ice caves Vonnie finds herself in certainly are.

Another thing Carlson gets right is the way he carefully avoids anthropomorphizing his aliens. Vonnie has serious trouble finding out the driving forces of their behaviour. If there is one area where the novella is perhaps a bit underdeveloped, it is in the understanding of what makes these aliens tick. When the penny does drop for Vonnie, it is the last piece she needs to reach an unexpected conclusion.

The Frozen Sky is a well written novella, looking for a reader not afraid of a generous helping of hard science fiction. As with many shorter pieces, some readers will feel it should have been longer and that is leaves a lot of the background of the story rather vague. Personally, I feel Carlson gets the level of detail right. It is after all, as much a story of Vonnie and how, despite the hostility she meets on Europa, she's still able to defeat the impulse to blindly strike back and realize what must be done instead. When Vonnie reaches that point, the background, fascinating as it may be, has served its purpose. To me at least,The Frozen Sky is a very satisfying first contact story. Recommended for hard science fiction fans in particular.

Book Details
Title: The Frozen Sky
Author: Jeff Carlson
Pages: 62
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2010

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Midnight Tides - Steven Erikson

Midnight Tides is the fifth volume in Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and something of a favorite of mine. By this time the series is already ridiculously complex but Erikson manages to weave a new strand into his tale nonetheless. With the first four volumes going back and forth between events on the continent of Genebackis and the rebellion in the Seven Cities, a return to Genebackis might be what the reader expects. In fact, Erikson will get back to that continent for a while in volume six, The Bonehunters, but this book takes a step back in time and moves us to the distant empire of Letheras. I think this is by far the most interesting place Erikson has created in his series, certainly given recent events regarding the world's economy.

The empire of Letheras has been expanding for centuries. A combination of rampant capitalism, merciless greed and military might has lead numerous peoples to complete cultural annihilation. Now, the empire has turned it gaze towards the lands of six tribes of the Tiste Edur for new resources. In the eyes of the Letheri, the Tiste Edure are uncivilized people. Although the tribes don't have a monetary economy and are few in number, they do posses a dreadful kind of magic. For as long as anyone remembers the Tiste Edur have been divided, always fighting amongst themselves. Recently the Warlock-King of the Hiroth tribe, Hannan Mosag, has managed to unite all six tribes under his rule however. And his ambitions go far beyond the Tiste Edur lands. The two nations are on a collision course, one that will pit not long armies against each other but also dreadful magic and powerful ideologies. It is a clash that cannot fail to attract the notice of the gods.

In the previous book, House of Chains, Erikson dedicated a quarter of the text to the back story of a single character. Now, we take another step back to find out the history of Trull Sengar, the flooded realm we first encountered him in, and the actions of groups of Tiste Edur referenced to throughout the first four novels. The chronology of the these books is a bit problematic, with several contradictions cropping up in the text. For me it would make most sense to place the events in Midnight Tides several years prior to Gardens of the Moon but some people insist it is set later.

One of the things I like most about his book is the depiction of Letheri society. It is a culture where money is the most important status symbol and indebtedness leads to slavery. It's the Uncle Sam king of capitalism in overdrive, an economic systems that crushes anyone who plays the game poorly. Erikson shows us the follies of this system, many of which resemble to cycles of boom and bust in our own economy, though the eyes of two of my favorite characters: the apparently destitute financial genius Tehol Bedict and his (unpaid) manservant Bugg. There is a lot more to this comical duo than meets the eye. Their attempt to crash the Letheri economy is a story line that continues into the seventh volume, Reaper's Gale . It's a brilliant bit of satire that never seemed more relevant that these days.

I said Erikson makes things even more complex and he doesn't just do it by adding a new continent, the whole system of magic we've come to know in the previous four books is left behind as well. In stead of Warrens, a rawer, wilder, more primitive magic, tied to Holds can be accessed here. Curiously enough, the Hold of Death is empty, Hoods influence non-existent, meaning the dead can be made to linger. This gives rise to a number of phenomena we haven't seen before in these books. Armies of shades, curses that keep a soul tied to an already dead body, and even people who specialize in cosmetics for zombies. Some of it is utterly bizarre.

The manipulation of death takes another shape in the figure of Rhuald Sengar, younger brother to Trull. Rhuald is the subject of another ploy by the Crippled God, who abused the absence of Hood's influence to gain influence over the Tiste Edur. Rhuald is the character in which all the fractures in the Tiste Edur society come together. From the ancient corruption of historical events to the smaller scale of the conflicts in the Sengar family. Rhuald's bride, his relationship with his brother Trull and his meteoric rise to power all put an enormous strain on him. And that is on top of the manipulations of th Crippled God. It makes Rhuald one of the most convincingly insane characters in the entire series. Disturbing to read about but also a character who evokes pity in the reader.

Midnight Tides is also the book where Erikson starts to explain a few things in fairly plain language. That is not to say he coddles the reader, you'll still be thrown into strange situations that take a while for it to make sense, but for the first time we get a description of what a Warren is (or an interpretation of what they might be at least). He also sheds some light on the troubled history of the Tiste peoples. The prologue of this novel shows us a pivotal point in their history, one that will define the future of the Tiste Edur. Until now, we've mostly dealt with the Tiste Andi and only received hits of the trouble between Dark and Shadow. I don't think I caught the full significance of the prologue, both to this novel and the over all series the first time through. It's worth keeping that information in the back of your mind when reading this book.

New continent, new characters, new forms of magic and new gods. Midnight Tides almost feels like a new start to the series, but Erikson will merge this new story line into the other novels quite quickly in subsequent novels. It is also the first novel that will have the story spin outwards from the Malazan Empire. Not all readers may be pleased by yet another totally unfamiliar setting but I enjoyed the change of scenery tremendously. The fact that Erikson introduces a host of fascinating characters doesn't hurt either. From the comical Thehol and Bugg to Trull Sengar, turn between loyalty to his family and knowledge of an ancient wrong and a new threat to his people, Erikson once again delivers an epic, dramatic and superbly entertaining Malazan novel. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Book Details
Title: Midnight Tides
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 960
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81314-5
First published: 2004

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

I had a bit more time on my hands then I knew what to do with last week so I attempted to write another review. Unfortunately this does not mean I am back. I will try to written another next week but don't expect a resumption of my two reviews a week schedule just yet.

Earlier this year, HBO aired the television adaptation of Martin's A Game of Thrones. It turned out to be huge success. I've only seen a few episodes but they appear to have stuck quite close to the original book, something that, given the scope of the series, can't have been easy. Filming for the second season, based on A Clash of Kings is under way and with the fifth volume in the series, A Dance with Dragons out in July, 2011 is turning into a very good year for Martin. I was about 650 pages into A Dance with Dragons when my girlfriend decided to steal it from me (truth be told, it was a birthday present). It will be a few more days before I can continue that story so in the mean time I consoled myself with a reread of the second book. It was A Clash of Kings that definitively hooked me on this series, the point in the story where the plot just explodes into so many directions that it is almost inconceivable that Martin will be able to pull them all back together again. Still, given what I have read of the fifth book, he may be able to pull it off.

The first book centred around the murder of John Arryn, the Hand of the King and one of the most powerful nobles in the realm, who died taking secret and potentially dangerous information into his grave. In the end, the next hand, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell figures out what is going on and looses his head in the process. The genie is out of the bottle however, no matter how hard the Lannister family tries to pretend Queen Cercei's son Joffrey is the legitimate heir to the throne of the now departed King Robert, several parties smell blood. In the north, Lord Eddards bannermen scream for revenge and name his son Robb King of the North. Stannis Baratheon, Robert's younger brother feels he is the legitimate heir, now that Cercei's infidelity has been 'proven'. His younger brother Renly feels he'd be a much better king however, and raises support for his own attempt to seize the Iron Throne. On the Iron Islands, Lord Ballon Greyjoy, painfully subjected to the rule of Robert after a bloody rebellion a decade ago, sees an opportunity to become independent once more and proclaims himself King of the Isles. In the blink of an eye, the Seven Kingdoms have five kings instead of one. Blind to the threats massing on their border in the north, the emergence of a new trio of dragons across the sea and even the turning of the season, Robert's once unified Kingdom plunges into war.

Where A Game of Thrones offers a more of less complete story arc, we leave that approach behind us in this second volume. Martin is now fully committed to the series and it is immediately apparent that he is not going to be able to contain it in the originally envisioned trilogy. The first book provides us with the Casus Belli, in this book, things escalate to an incredible mess. Martin masterfully peels back the cultivated mannerisms and the gloss of chivalry of the long years of peace under King Robert and reveals a rawer, wilder and in many cases crueller face of the Seven Kingdom's nobles. Years of prosperity and peace lost in the blink of an eye, as the forces driving the Kingdoms apart are suddenly released. To keep his story from completely running away with him, Martin does not pay as much attention to the story line of Daenerys. If there is any part of the book that could be considered weak, it is probably her tale.

The story is mostly told from the same points of view as the previous book. Martin has lost one (obviously) and adds Theon Greyjoy to cover events on the Iron Islands and Davos Seaworth, who is in the service of Stannis Baratheon. I must admit, neither are favourites of mine. Davos is a fairly stagnant character. A man converted to Stannis' harsh sense of justice, his loyalty appears unshakable. I always thought this conversion a bit strange, Stannis is not a man to inspire such feelings in people, as Martin makes abundantly clear in this book. The author does more with Theon's character later on in the series. In this book, he strikes me as a selfish and spoilt little prick who is about the have a head on collision with the world.

The star of this second volume in the series is without a doubt Tyrion. Every time I read one of his chapters I wonder how much of Henry Munce he put into Tyrion. Born in the snake pit that is the Lannister household Tyrion has no illusion about the world and his place in it whatsoever. A number of painful lessons in the past have taught him what a dwarf, even a high born one, can expect in the world. Deep down inside he still wants justice and despite his open cynicism and self depreciating comments, he feels it is the best policy. His handling of the situation in King's Landing is his chance to put it into practice and it mercilessly exposes his weaknesses. I thought Martin showed the extend of Tyrion's control over the situation in this part of the story very well. Although quite a lot of what Tyrion tries to do appears to be successful, he is walking on eggshells. Could it be that the world wise and well read Tyrion is a bit naive in the ways of governing a nation?

What Martin does not show us in this book is the campaign of Robb Stark against the Lannisters. Although the Lannisters appear to be loosing, Robb wins all of his battles, his strategic position is not getting any better. As his mother Catelyn puts it, he wins all his battles but somehow he is loosing the war. Not that A Clash of Kings is short on battle scenes, the Battle of the Blackwater is one of the largest in the books and certainly a fitting climax to the novel but it is interesting that Martin passes up on the opportunity to show what Robb is up to. It's a clever bit of plotting to keep Robb away from the main story for a bit. Martin uses it to great effect to deliver one of the shocks A Storm of Swords is known for. It made me wonder why Martin decided not to make Robb a point of view character though, except for Rickon and Robb, all of Eddard's children are.

I have always thought of A Clash of Kings as my favourite book. I don't think A Dance With Dragons will change anything about that. Martin is still too busy pulling together the sprawling story to deliver a novel that works very well on it's own. I think I should reread A Storm of Swords again though. After this reread I've seen a lot of things Martin starts in this book that will have major repercussions in the next. I'm not sure I was quite as aware of that when I read A Clash of Kings of the first time in English a number of years back. I may change my mind after a reread of the third book. Still, A Clash of Kings is the book that got me hooked on this series, the book in which Martin unveils his world in all it's complexity and terror, and the book that raises it above the ordinary multi-volume epic fantasy series. It is the second volume in a seven book series however, don't expect a neat ending like A Game of Thrones had.

Book Details
Title: A Clash of Kings
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 741
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-647989-8
First published: 1998