Monday, December 31, 2012

Wrapping up 2012

My blogging over the last six weeks are obviously not everything I would have hoped for. I found a apartment last month, which is something of a miracle all things considered. Unfortunately I couldn't get any time off work in December or January so I've been forced to pour all my free time into this project. It is almost inhabitable, I expect to move in in January, joined a few weeks later by my girlfriend. That does mean I will be without internet for a while in January so I don't expect great things next month either.

Despite the poor finish I did review 60 works in 2012. They break down into 41 novels, 5 short stories, 7 novellas and 7 collections and anthologies. I had hoped for more, but realistically that is a decent total. One of the goals was to read more works by women and I certainly did better than last year. Of the 60 works I've read, 26 were written by women, 31 by men and the remaining 3 contained work by both men and women. I hope to do a little better still in 2013. Next year's challenge over at Worlds Without End might help in that respect.

Which brings me to the 2012 Grand Master Reading Challenge. I managed to read all 12 books and review 11 of them. Ten of them were posted on the Worlds Without End blog as well. The rules only required me to write 6 so that is another goal achieved. The complete list:
  1. Tau Zero - Poul Anderson
  2. Prelude to Space - Arthur C. Clarke
  3. Forerunner - Andre Norton
  4. I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
  5. The Wind's Twelve Quarters  - Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
  7. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon - Frederik Pohl
  8. White Mars - Brian Aldiss
  9. Dragonsdawn - Anne McCaffrey
  10. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
  11. The Listeners - James E. Gunn
  12. All About Emily - Connie Willis (not reviewed)
Books I've read but not reviewed in 2012 (some of them might still get a review later on) are What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank by Krista D. Ball, The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm and the aforementioned All About Emily by Connie Wills. I don't have a page total for 2012 handy right now but it should be around 17,000. Significantly down form last year.

Best of 2012
I'll limit myself to five books this year, ten seems too many on a total of 60. The best books I've read this year (not necessarily in that order) are:
  1. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. I'm very impressed by this first volume in Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. She tackles Epic Fantasy in her own unique way.
  2. Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm. Somewhere between urban fantasy (sans sparkling vampires) and magical realism, this is probably her most underrated novel.
  3. Crack'd Pot Trail by Steven Erikson. Not what you'd expect from a Korbal Broach and Bauchelain. You'll think it either dreadful of brilliant.
  4. The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu. This novella should have won some of the awards it was nominated for.
  5. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. Complex and chillingly plausible, this novel is one hell of a début. I prefer it over Zoo City.
Interesting list now that I look at it.

My traffic this year has grown considerably compared to 2011 but not as much as last year. I think it could have been a little better if I had continued posting. I've had a couple of very popular reviews this year, mostly tied to movie or TV releases. The most popular reviews this year are:
  1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
  2. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
  3. Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  4. A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin
  5. A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin
  6. Green Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson
  7. The Ice Dragon - George R.R. Martin
  8. The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
  9. Reaper's Gale - Steven Erikson
  10. The Valley of the Horses - Jean M. Auel

Four reviews showed up on last year's list as well. I wonder if any of them can keep going. The Hunger Games book reviews are way more popular than anything else I've written. Despite being up less than a year they are way ahead of any other reviews in number of pageviews. The Hunger Games has almost five times as many hits as Roadside Picnic got in 2012 and Catching Fire isn't far behind. What is more interesting is that Mockingjay didn't catch on. Nor did A Clash of Kings. Still, generally speaking making it to TV or the big screen does wonders for your sales (and traffic). I'd hate to think what would happen if I reviewed Fifty Shades of Grey :P

I don't dare make too many given the current circumstances. I want to take part in the reading challenge over at Worlds Without End again and make progress on my Frank Herbert and Kim Stanley Robinson projects (I did manage a few of those last year). Other than that it will be a challenge to keep this blog going. If I manage that I'll be happy.

That wraps up 2012. I wish you all a happy 2013 and I hope to see you on Random Comments again.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Busy Writing Jury Reports This Weekend

Got twenty-six to write and I'd like to do at least ten of them this weekend. Otherwise I'll never make the deadline. I have read all of them by now and it's an interesting mix ranging from absolute beginner to publishable with some minor tweaking.

I was expecting more classic fantasy, since that is all that can be found in the F&SF sections of most book stores here. Most of them are contemporary though. Some leaning towards the surreal, some more urban fantasy-like. I think publishers would be wise to rethink what they choose to publish/translate if I see this selection. Not many 2012 end of the Maya calendar apocalypse tales either. I was more or less expecting that. My view might a bit skewed though. I'm reading twenty-six stories in this first round, out of ninety-one submissions.

Anyway, the point of this post is to tell you not to expect a new review this weekend, I'm otherwise engaged ;)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

De Eerste God - Adrian Stone

My attention for Dutch language has been sorely lacking this year. The last time I reviewed one is a year ago, almost to the day. I am reading lots of short storied for the Fantastels contest at the moment but a full novel was a while ago. De Eerste God, final book in the Rune duology by Adrian Stone came out in September fortunately. I hate to leave series unfinished so this one was on my to read list. De Eerste God (literally: The First God) is his fifth novel, all set in the same universe. It is not necessary to have read Stone's trilogy centred around the monk Marak, but without having read De Achtste Rune, the novel makes no sense. It is a direct sequel. In fact, I think it could have been written as a single (admittedly pretty large) novel. This concluding volume is definitely lighter on social issues, I got the impression Stone had quite a bit of trouble tying up all the story lines he started in the first novel.

In Kadish, the God-Emperor Danobe has acquired the eighth rune, making him more powerful than any of his predecessors since the cataclysm that rocked the continent ages ago. This power has a price however. Danobe hears voices that drive him slowly insane. The only thing that can hold them at bay is the healing magic of Serina, enslaved priestess of Viguru. Danobe needs to stay focussed. He has a rival eighth after all. Ghelan has survived the trap set for him and has come out as powerful as the God-Emperor himself. These two men are the only ones who can stop the looming disaster created by the pair of them in the previous book. The dimension of the gods is still leaking into the world though the rift created by Ghelan. It must be stopped before it overwhelms the world. Only the eighths can do it, if they don't destroy each other first.

Stone spend much of the first novel laying out the stresses on Kadish society and showing the reader the nation was on the brink of collapse. In this novel, the inevitable happens and things come crashing down. It doesn't quite happen in the way the previous novel seemed to suggest though. Stone used his characters to show the various cracks and stresses in society in the first novel. This book is much more focussed on their personal challenges. The novel leaves very little space for what is going on outside the line of sight of the main characters. I thought this was pretty strange given all the rebellious talk, clashing interests and general discontent displayed in the first novel.

During his tyrannical rule Danobe is not concerned with the wellbeing of his subjects. His reign is one of unpredictability and ruthless action, the consequences of which can be felt far outside Kadish' borders. Stone captures the chaos and terror among his subjects very well. Even characters used to being in his presence fear his unpredictable temper. As a seventh rune magician he was already the most powerful magician in the nation. Now the eight rune distances him even more from ordinary mortals. The mad king is a figure that shows up in fantasy quite often, it is perhaps not the most original element in this novel but Danobe made me nervous so I guess it works to an extend.

His fellow eighth and adversary Ghelan faces the same challenge but deals with it in a different way. You could say Ghelan is a bit of an anti-hero. Where Danobe sought the power of the eighth rune, Ghelan had it trust upon him. It doesn't make a difference to the encroaching madness but where Danobe denies the connection and revels in the power it gives him, Ghelan would do anything to get rid of the rune altogether. He is haunted by guilt over his part in Danobe's rise and the rift between dimension he created. It makes him easily the most annoying character in the book. He is indecisive, stubborn and at times wallowing in self pity. For most of the novel I thought what he needed was a good kick in the backside to get him moving. When he finally does make a major decision, it is mostly driven by his own needs rather than the clean up the mess he got himself in.

The character the story revolved about in the first book, the priestess Serina is less prominent here. She is still being held but the God-Emperor in a strange mixture of enslavement and affection for her captor. Given the level of force being used and the mistreatment Serina is subjected to, this part of the story remains problematic. Her feelings towards the God-Emperor are hopelessly and unrealistically mixed. She does become a bit more calculating though, making sure that the child she carries will be the only one Danobe will ever have. In the novel, Serina's story line explored sexism and racism in Kadish. Something that moves to the background considerably in this book. Her healing skills are met with a kind of grudging respect but what more freedom might do for the nation is no longer of any concern to the other characters. In fact, the finale of the novel hints at a continuation of the suppression of women. I consider Serina's story line something of a missed opportunity.

In the end, the story  left we with mixed feelings. Stone delivers another competently written fantasy novel with De Eerste God but I don't think it lives up the the promise of De Achtste Rune. I got the impression he was struggling tying up all the loose ends and lost track of the implications of of what he showed the reader in the first novel. The Rune duology hides the bones of a larger, more complex tale than Stone ends up delivering. There is plenty to enjoy, De Eerste God is a decent, fast-paced read but I think it could have been more.

Book Details
Title: De Eerste God
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 363
Year: 2012
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-5120-0
First published: 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Listeners - James Gunn

I haven't been very adventurous in my reading for the Damon Knight Grand Master reading challenge. Seven of the ten books I've read so far have been by authors I have read other works of, while two others were acknowledged science fiction classics. For the eleventh read I decided to pick a book by someone I knew very little of. James Gunn doesn't have as long a bibliography as some of his contemporaries and quite a lot is short fiction. He made quite an impact on the genre nevertheless. Besides writing, Gunn is a noted critic and teacher as well as the director of the Center for Study of Science Fiction. The Listeners (1972) is a fix-up novel, various parts of it appeared in Galaxy Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1968 and 1972. It is probably its best known novel, but apparently not one instantly recognized as a masterwork. Gunn missed out on all awards and nominations save one for the Campbell award in 1973. There have been a whole bunch of editions of this book with different forewords, introductions and afterwords. The copy I've read is a 2004  edition which features an introduction by H. Paul Shuch, an American physicist heavily involved with SETI, a foreword by Thomas Pierson, founder of the SETI institute, and and afterword by the late Freeman J. Dyson, British-American mathematician and physicist. I guess this book is still well loved in scientific circles.

In 2028, the SETI's search for extraterrestrial life is still ongoing without ever having picked up a single signal that indicates intelligent life. Director Robert McDonald, a staunch believer in the project, is facing ever more difficulties keeping SETI funded. McDonald himself is beginning to wonder if the project is worth the personal sacrifices he has to make. Then, a signal is received that is unmistakably of alien origin. A broadcast is received from a the direction of the star Capella, 45 light years distant. It changes everything. The project, the world, our place in the universe. Humanity is about to enter into a conversation with a ninety year time lag.

I like science fiction a lot but in my mind at least, it doesn't tend to get really interesting until the late 1960s. A time when writers started to incorporate more social sciences into their works, pay greater attention to their characters and move towards more literary forms of writing. The Listeners is a novel that tries to do some of these things. It is in essence a first contact story, which are a dime a dozen in the genre. With a lot of attention dedicated to radio telescopes, it is also firmly rooted in hard sciences. I've been to an installation in Westerbork, the Netherlands many years ago and it is an impressive sight. It is also not the exciting kind of science one might expect in a science fiction novel. It is painstakingly clearing up and deciphering signals, it passive, it is what the title suggest, listening. When you think about it, it isn't an obvious choice of subject for a science fiction novel.

Because of the fairly slow pace of events, Gunn as a lot of time to delve into the psyche of his characters. The story is very introspective. McDonald in particular thinks a lot about what he is doing and why it is worthwhile, but also if it isn't taking too much of a toll on his family. Other characters reflect at length about the changes in society over the course of the novel which spans almost a century. As the novel progressed and society gained more and more utopian characteristics, I kept wondering if Gunn thinks that contact with extraterrestrials will change our look at the universe in such a way that the world's problems become fixable or that it would have happened anyway. Fear would have seemed an equally likely reaction to me, even if realistically the aliens were too far away to be a threat.

Limited but the power of With radio waves taking ninety years for a round trip, it is essential to pack as much information as possible into one broadcast. The message received is deceptively simple, even if it takes the best minds and an enormous amount of computer power quite a while to decipher it. The process of understanding it, the debates and speculation, the attempts at suppressing the find, efforts to fit it into existing religious frameworks and of course the question how to respond all make for fascinating reading. It is not as flashy as an alien invasion but a lot more realistic description of how first contact might happen.

Structurally it is an interesting novel as well. Gunn litters the McDonald sections in particular with quotes from literary greats, usually in the original Spanish, Italian, German, Latin and French. Quite unusual for an English Language novel. The Listeners is divided in five sections, four of which are followed but what Gunn calls a computer run. These are snippets of all manner of news sources, quotes from scientists (Carl Sagan and Frank D. Drake and Guiseppe Cocconi to name a few), philosophers and science fiction writers. They add a lot of detail to the reader's understanding of the SETI project although it appears to have expanded and changed beyond what Gunn envisioned in 1972. One might say his selection is a bit one sided. Quite a lot of it is very supportive of the project and its goals. There has been quite a bit of criticism of the project for as long as it has existed. Ranging from people who consider it dangerous to alert aliens to our presence, to those who SETI is unscientific to begin with. Most of the characters have links with the organization, Gunn might have used the computer runs to balance it a bit.

In the end I thought The Listeners featured a little bit too much promotional material for the SETI project but it is a fascinating read nonetheless. Gunn picked a subject that isn't particularly sexy and yields very little in the way of visible or easy to understand results and turned it into a good story anyway. It is a bit melancholic at times, some readers will not particularly care for the characters. I guess I can see why it didn't sweep the awards or turns up in lists of must read classics. After having read it, I think it does deserve more recognition than it has received. This novel is definitely one of the pleasant surprises encountered in my Grand Master Reading Challenge reading. I may have to check out some of Gunn's short fiction in the future.

Book Details
Title: The Listeners
Author: James Gunn
Publisher: BebBella Books
Pages: 195
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-932100-12-9
First published: 1972

Monday, November 5, 2012

You May Have Noticed...

...that I didn't post a new review this weekend. I had hoped to write two, but unfortunately I seem to have developed bronchitis, which left me in a zombie-like state for most of the weekend. I have a lot of others stuff to do this week, looking for a new apartment for instance, and there is always work of course, so I very much doubt I'll be able to catch up before the weekend.

To make matters even more interesting the first batch of stories I have to read for the Fantastels 2012 short story competition. Twenty-six in total. I just had a look at the first one, which pushes the 12,000 word limit. I figure this is going to keep me busy for a while. In other words, November is going to be quiet on Random Comments. Maybe I should get an intern, or a house elf.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, book one in the Inheritance trilogy, is one of the most discussed releases of 2009. It has launched Jemisin's writing career and since it's release four more books have appeared. I missed this novel at the time and only really noticed it once the nominations for the Hugo and Nebula awards came in for that year.  The reviews I've read about this novel have been mostly positive so I figured it was about time I caught up. Jemisin's approach to fantasy in this novel turns out to be very much oriented towards religion. I must admit I am a bit puzzled by the great number of positive reviews and award nominations. I liked this book well enough but it is certainly not everybody's cup of tea. For a début it is a very interesting work though.

Yeine has been raised in one of the barbaric nations of the north. After her civilized mother's death, she is summoned to the world's centre of power; the magical city of Sky. All nations of the world are controlled from this one miraculous place. With the power of a god behind them the rulers of Sky reign supreme. On arrival, Yeine finds her maternal heritage to be very distasteful. Her huge family is strictly hierarchical and although some safeguards have been put in place by the god they serve, decadence, cruelty and pettiness are rampant. What is worse, Yeine finds out she has been named one of the three possible successors to the current, ageing ruler. Yeine is not interested in taking on the burden of leadership but to her rivals, she is a threat. Staying alive long enough to figure out what drives her family and how she can survive in this lethal environment is going to be a challenge.

The story is told from the first person point of view, for which I always have something of a weakness. In this case, Jemisin does something very interesting with it by plainly stating that the narrator is dead. So far for the much heard criticism that using a first person perspective is a spoiler of sorts. It also allows Jemisin to seamlessly introduce a whole lot of worldbuilding into the tale. Yeine is from a backward province and has never been to Sky. Her mother didn't think it was necessary to teach her much about the city. Yenie is very naive during the opening stages of the novel and that allows the reader to take in a lot of the details that would have been obvious to a long time resident. It does make Yeine a very typical fantasy protagonist though. Girl from an out of the way part of the realm finds out she is heir to a kingdom. Fortunately, Jemisin is smart enough not to make this the centre of the novel.

The question that really interests Yeine is what happened to her mother. She suspects her mother was killed as part of the political machinations in Sky but finding out the truth in an environment here deception is a second nature to most, turns out to be very hard. Soon she is lost in a political game of which she understands neither the rules nor the stakes. As she reveals layer after layer of power struggles the stakes prove to be high indeed. Behind the Lord of Sky, the god Itempas is in complete control. After the the killing of one companions and the enslavement of the other he rules the universe as he sees fit, even forcing his defeated offspring into human shape, their powers at the disposal of his human ruler. This struggle between the gods is where Jemisin takes a different turn from most other fantasy series. These chained divine creatures play an important role in the plot.

Jemisin portrays them as larger than life beings, with dramatic powers and equally dramatic flaws. Yeine walks among them, bargains with them and to a point sympathizes with them. The theological underpinnings of this novel are complex. The gods remind me of those described by Homer in temperament, although the story of creation and cosmology seem more hinduistic, with a force of creation, a maintaining force and a destructive force (or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). With one of the three most important deities in complete control, the universe is out of balance. I guess we can see where this is going in the rest of the trilogy. Again, Jemisin doesn't take the obvious choice. She uses destructive god, imprisoned in human form, to inject sexual tension and romance into the story. He is dark, dangerous, unpredictable and apparently irresistible. This might not be everybody's favourite but personally I think it isn't overdone and adds something to the story.

The entire novel is set in just a couple of weeks, Yeine never gets the time to find her balance in Sky. Things move more rapidly than she can keep up with making it a very fast paced read. As fantasy novels go, it is not a huge book but still a substantial read. I read it in a few days, during a week where my reading time was severely restricted. I wonder if a bit more measured pace might have done more credit to some of the more technical aspects of the novel. Jemisin does a number of interesting things with point of view and playing with genre conventions and it is very easy to ignore those in favour of the plot. 

All in all I thought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a very good read but not quite as original as it has been made out to be. It is still firmly rooted in traditional fantasy, and the story of a youngster from a backward part of the world discovering her heritage is not exactly unheard of in the genre, the twists in the plot don't really change that. Still, Jemisin is obviously talented and clearly willing to challenge genre conventions. That is a very interesting combination, something fantasy needs more of. It may be a while before I get around to it, but I will be reading the rest of this trilogy.

Book Details
Title: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 425
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-04392-2
First published: 2009

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

There is absolutely no point in reviewing The Hobbit (1937) of course. Like Tolkien's Magnun Opus The Lord of the Rings, it has been analysed to death and then some. I very much doubt I'll have something to add. The first movie in a trilogy based on The Hobbit is expected in December so I wanted to reread the book anyway. Jackson will no doubt do a fine job, even if I don't see why he'd want to stretch it to three movies, but his images will change the story forever. Cinema has such a wide audience that even popular novels like The Hobbit run the risk of being relegated to the book behind the movie. Of course Tolkien has been very popular for decades. Maybe that will mitigate the effect some. Anyway, I have a date in December with my girlfriend to go see this movie, now is the last chance to read the book without being affected by Peter Jackson's version.

Poor Bilbo Baggins, a respectable Hobbit very much enjoying his comfortable life at Bag End. It is rudely interrupted when the wizard Gandalf shows up. Before Bilbo knows what is happening, his home is being invaded by a party of thirteen Dwarves. The plan a journey to the far off Lonely Mountain, where the dragon Smaugh has been hoarding a Dwarven treasure. They mean to take it and re-establish the Lonely Mountain as the Dwarven stronghold it once was. Thirteen is an unlucky number however and besides, the Dwaves expect to need a burglar to gain entry into the halls Smaugh now occupies. According to Gandalf, Blilbo is just the man for the job.

Tolkien has been something of a blessing and a curse for the Fantasy genre. Almost forty years after his death Fantasy that can be considered Tolkien clones is being published. Although the popularity of Epic Fantasy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings seems to be receding at the moment in the English Language word, it is still going strong over here in the Netherlands. In Germany as well, stories about Dwarves, Elves and epic struggles between good and evil continue to sell well. Whether we like it or not, Tolkien has made a lasting impression of Fantasy and literature as a whole. And it started with this little novel, which against Tolkien's expectations, became a huge success.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a children's book. The language is probably a bit dated but it is not nearly as flowery and verbose a text as The Lord of the Rings. I would say it is still very readable for today's children. The Hobbit has a kind of light-heartedness about it that makes it much less dense and much more plain fun that Tolkien's work for adults. I've often wondered what could have driven Tolkien to write two such completely different works, but still part of the same history. Tolkien was always tinkering with his work, even long after it had been published. There have been countless revisions of the texts of The Lord of the Rings over the years. The Hobbit didn't entirely escape this. Some revision was done, especially to Gollum's part of the tale. Apparently he tried to bring The Hobbit more in line the The Lord of the Rings stylistically as well but fortunately his beta readers (or whatever it was they called these folks back then) told him it wouldn't work.

I guess the book shows it age in other ways too. The total absence of female characters is one. I think Bilbo's mother is mentioned once but that is just about the best I can come up with. At least Tolkien improved on that marginally in The Lord of the Rings. That being said, Tolkien does present a pretty fast paced story. Once Bilbo leaves his comfortable home, he rolls from one adventure into another. Each more distressing than the next. Bilbo is at the same time the humorous note in the novel and the voice of reason. Tolkien's Dwarves are stubborn and not entirely free of greed. It also contains less that flattering accounts of human and Elvish actions. Most of the text might be lighthearted, it hides some pretty ugly scenes. Tolkien more or less does the same thing in situations where Bilbo is in mortal ganger. For instance by Gandalf tricking the Trolls and having the Goblins sing silly songs.

My favourite part of the book is the invisible Bilbo facing Smaugh. He is a traditional western dragon. Evil, clever, dangerous, hoarding a treasure and to be killed by a hero. I guess the outcome is a little predictable but I enjoyed Bilbo having fun with the dragon and getting his tail feathers singed when he is being too clever. What always struck me as a little odd about the book was that Smaugh's demise is not actually the climax of the tale. Along the way, the Dwarves seem to have stirred up a hornets' nest and a big battle with Goblins ensues. The Lord of the Rings and its appendices shed some light on the background of these evens but in The Hobbit they aren't very well explained. It is one of those battles that Tolkien would go on to write more of, full of unlikely heroics and tragic deaths. It is what one expects from a man who has such an influence on modern Fantasy I suppose.

While there are many hints of the dark days to come for Middle-Earth I still mostly see The Hobbit as a fun adventure. Tolkien is not yet dragged down by the weight of all the mythology he created or the countless unpronounceable names that complicate his later works. Perhaps it is not a very surprising story for the the more experienced Fantasy reader but I can still see why I enjoyed this book when I first read it in my early teens and why it encouraged me to read more Fantasy. Genre readers may be a bit tired of Tolkien's influence on the genre but that simply isn't an excuse to skip this book. It really is a must read for fans of Fantasy and literature in general.

Book Details
Title: The Hobbit
Author: J.J.R. Tolkien
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 285
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-261-10221-4
First published: 1937

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Be My Enemy - Ian McDonald

Be My Enemy is Ian McDonald's second book in the Young Adult Everness series. I read the first novel, Planesrunner, last year and it turned out to be a fun and very geeky read, full of science fiction elements, cool gadgets and airships. McDonald is clearly aiming at boys in their early teens, a demographic that is currently not very well served. He may be on to something. As far as I know, McDonald has sold three of these novels to Pyr but he clearly set it up to be a much longer series if there is demand for more. I would not be surprised if more novels will be written in the future. Granted, I am not the target audience but I have been enjoying these two novels an awful lot. In fact, I wish there was something like this around when I was the right age for these books.

Warning: spoilers.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Last month I ran a poll to help me decide which book should be reviewed work number 300 on Random Comments and tied it to the Grand Master Reading Challenge for which I still have to read a couple of novels. Ray Bradbury won. I had expected one of the big names I hadn't covered it to get it, perhaps Jack Vance or Robert Heinlein but, as one commenter pointed out, with Bradbury's passing at the age of 91  just a few months ago, perhaps it is not so surprising he come out the favourite. I haven't read anything by Bradbury before so I figured I'd read the book he is best known for. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 so it's too old to have won any of the major science fiction awards but it has been added to countless list of best books in science fiction and is well regarded outside the genre. It is one most influential dystopian novels, often mentioned in one breath with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. In short, a book with quite a reputation.

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel set in a future America where books are outlawed and a fireman's job is to burn them instead of putting out fires. One such man is Guy Montag, who unquestionably burns book, the source of all dissent in society. Until he meets the 17-year-old Clarisse that is. She talks to him about ideas that make no sense and about doing things that no rational, we ll adjusted man should even consider. She makes Montag thing and without him understanding why, he develops an aversion against his job, starts questioning his life and develops a curiosity about books. Montag is in trouble.

Bradbury's prose is not something you regularly encounter in science fiction. His style is overflowing with metaphors, with lengthy stream of consciousness passages when Montag is face a crisis or living though a breakthrough. Bradbury demands your full attention when reading it, he makes you feel the panic, stress and confusion of Montag in what might appear rambling scenes to the unfocussed reader. By today's standards it is a short novel but it is pretty intense reading. It certainly took me a few pages to get used to this style. I guess it's not surprising people see different things in this book but I was ab it surprised to find the book's message wasn't what I thought it would be.

Book burnings are something of a symbol and censorship, promoting ignorance, removing ideas that don't fit into a particular world view. Books, or rather the ideas they contain, can be dangerous to people with narrow ideas on what society should look like. Books make people think, they stimulate curiosity, open up the mind to experiences one would normally not encounter. Banning books and controlling the media are tools of dictators. Fahrenheit 451 is frequently seen as a work warning us of these dangers and protesting state sponsored censorship. From what I have read about it, I was more or less expecting something along those lines. Much to my surprise, that isn't exactly what this book is about. His depiction of society is chilling but it is not the book burning that is doing the damage. In fact, from the people around Montag you might say they are unnecessary.

Probably the most disturbing element in the novel is the way Montag's wife Mildred surrounds herself by television. The is completely absorbed in empty soap operas or news that is composed of meaningless one liners and takes the shape of cheap entertainment more often than not. Mildred is entirely disconnected from her husband and the world around her. It is not the suppression of ideas that is keeping the population in check, it is just that books are completely replaced by a passive, strictly controlled form of entertainment. It doesn't encourage people to think or be critical. They just have to take it in. When Montag asks his wife what her favourite show is about, she can't really produce a coherent answer. In fact, she is surprised he even asks. It should be obvious. What Bradbury is objecting to here is the replacements of books by simplistic television and other media. If Bradbury felt like that in the 1950s, what must he have thought of the current media landscape? Whatever you may think of Bradbury's position, it clearly is still relevant.

Thematically and stylistically I can see why this novel does well in literary circles as well as the science fiction genre. It does not escape the shortcomings of many science fiction novels of the period though. Montag is the central character and decently rounded but the rest of the cast is mostly there to symbolize a part of Montay's dilemma and rarely rise above the archetypical.  It is also stuck in a very traditional pattern of gender rolls and, by now, fairly dated ideas on future technology. It has aged more gracefully than many of his contemporaries though. Bradbury doesn't focus on a technological idea in this novel and his ideas on the media have turned out to be pretty accurate at some points. The depiction of Montag's pursuit struck a chord with me in particular.

All things considered, Fahrenheit 451 is a remarkable novel in the context of the science fiction genre at the time as well as the literary acclaim it has received. It didn't turn out to be quite the book I had expected but it certainly delivers a thoroughly disturbing image of the future. Right at the end, Bradbury surprised me again, with a ray of hope that Montag is offered. In the same novel Bradbury is showing how easy it is for people not to notice the emptiness of their existence and the lengths they will go to, to preserve something they value highly. For those of you who are still predicting the end of the dead tree type of book, I think  Bradbury would disagree. And for what it's worth, so do I.

Book Details
Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 227
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-654606-1
First published: 1953

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Range of Ghosts - Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear has been releasing novels at an impressive rate since 2005. What is even more impressive is the versatility these novels display. They range from science fiction to urban fantasy, from horror to historical fiction and often include elements from various subgenres such as post-apocalyptic or steampunk. Bear's new book, Range of Ghosts, is the first volume in the Eternal Sky trilogy. It is Bear's attempt at epic fantasy and judging from this first volume, this trilogy might be something special. It was published in March so I am a bit late to the party. There is already a host of glowing reviews out there. I can only add my praise to it. Range of Ghosts is a novel that ought to be on the awards shortlists next year.

The novel follows Temur, grandson of a great Khagan of the steppes. Once the sky was littered with a hundred moon, representing his sons and grandson. Now the moons are disappearing at an alarming rate as the the Khaganate is torn apart by civil war. After his brother dies in battle, Temur is the legitimate heir but his faction is weak. He chooses exile to avoid being killed by his stronger cousin. Under a different sky Samakar, once princess of the Rasan empire, has given up her royal status to become a wizard. Once she was heir but after her half-brother was born, she lost that status and the only way not to pose a threat to his reign is to remove herself completely from the line of succession. Together, Temur and Samakar will face a religious cult bent on encouraging war among the nations of the region to further their own goals. Whatever sky they are under, the world is a dangerous place for Temur and Samakar.

The first thing the reader will notice is that Bear opted to abandon the pseudo-medieval Europe setting in favour of a Central Asian one. Temur and his people are clearly inspired by the Mongols, Samakar's people appear to be Tibetan, and Chinese, Arab and Turkish traditions also make an appearance. Just about every nation along to Silk Route, or Celadon Highway, is present somehow. Although non-western settings are becoming more common, Bear's choice is still a nice change for the more experienced fantasy reader. That atmosphere in this novel is very different. I'm not very well versed in the history of the region but I get the impression Bear didn't try to stick too close to actual history. In this case that probably improves the tale.

The supernatural is very present in the story. The sky in particular is an element to take note of. It changes depending on the religion of the local rulers. Temur's iron moon for instance, is only visible in places where the Khagan holds sway. In the Rasan empire the sky looks very different and the characters are always aware of it. You only have to look up to be reminded of the nation you are in, and which religion is dominant in it. Such a clearly visible reminder of the presence of the gods has an impact on the characters. Temur and Samakar are very aware of the different ways the same histories are told in their respective nations.

Temur's story is very much at the forefront during much of the novel but it is the female characters that are most interesting in this story. It is as if Bear wanted to write a fantasy novel that included the full range of what is possible for a female character to achieve into this single volume. The world Bear describes is not without sexism. Arranged, forced marriages are mention, exclusion from the line of succession in some places and the need to wear a veil in others. Samakar and the secondary character Payma experience some of this first hand. But there is tremendous power in these women too. We see women as powerful political figures, honoured advisers and warriors as well as damsels in distress and victims. In Temur's realm they even enjoy a level of sexual freedom than is pretty rare in epic fantasy. As the novel progressed I became more and more convinced Bear was making a statement here. Creating an example of how women could be portrayed in epic fantasy without limiting them the traditional roles they're usually found in.

Like in the other novels by Bear I've read, the style in which she writes is something special as well. Where Bear liked to play with tenses and points of view in the Edda of Burdens trilogy, it he choice of words and, especially in the descriptions, a limited use of contractions that drew my attention in this novel. In Temur's chapters, the horse related idiom is very present. Samakar is more concerned with power, appearance and politics. The undercurrents of politics are always present in her point of view sections. The synthesis between point of view and use of language in this novel is probably my favourite aspect of Range of Ghosts.

If there is one point of criticism I could direct at this novel, it is the fact that it is probably going to be more of a long novel in three parts than a trilogy. There is a strong climatic scene at the end, in which Samakar shows impressive physical strength, but it is also something of a cliffhanger. There is no way you can finish this book and not want to read the sequel Shattered Pillars. Personally I can live with that. All things considered, Range of Ghost is an impressive novel in terms of world building, characterization and prose. It is quite simply one of the best books I've read this year. I guess the good thing about getting to it late is that I won't have to wait too long for the second book, which is expected in March 2013. Bear has placed Shattered Pillars high on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Range of Ghosts
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 334
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2754-3
First published: 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fountain of Age - Nancy Kress

I ordered a copy of Nancy Kress' latest collection as a present for my girlfriend. She has recently read an enjoyed Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories (2008) so this one seemed like something she would like. I am a fan of Kress myself, especially a her short work, so I borrowed it from her during my recent visit to Norway. Fountain of Age contains nine pieces of short fiction, all published between 2007 and 2009. Five stories appeared in Asimov's, two in Jim Baen's Universe, one in Fantasy Magazine and the final story is originally part of the anthology Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders. Kress won a Hugo award with the first story in the collection and got a Nebula for the last one. In short, I was expecting some good science fiction when I opened the book and I wasn't disappointed.

This review is very spoilerish, you have been warned.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

I'm in Norway at the moment (although I'll likely be back home before I publish the review) and that means I have the opportunity to borrow my girlfriend's copy of the final Hunger Games book. I own the first book in the series, The Hunger Games, which was mildly entertaining in a brutal way, but didn't really live up to the enormous hype that surrounds it. It might even have worked better a movie. It followed the book pretty closely but I ended up liking the movie better. Stubborn as I am, I did decide to finish the series, despite not really liking Catching Fire, the second book in the trilogy. There is always hope the third one will be better but I'm afraid things only go downhill in this final volume. I certainly hope Collins is smart enough not to try and cash in even more on these stories an leave it at these three. This series really has run its course

Katniss has survived her second arena but survival is all it can be called. She is hurt badly both physically and psychologically. The rulers of District Thirteen try to patch her up as best they can but Katniss is depressed and traumatized. Peeta is in the hands of the Capital, suffering the consequences of her actions and her relationship with Gale seems to have changed forever. There is no peace for the weary though. Katniss has a value as figurehead for the rebellion in the Districts. The president of District Thirteen is well aware of that. She will do whatever it takes get Katniss to cooperate and become their mascot, their inspiration, their Mockingjay. The final battle for control of Panem has started.

Mockingjay is without a doubt one of the most depressive novels I have read in a long time. Katniss is a mess in this book. Not surprising given what has been done to her or course, I thought she wasn't nearly traumatized enough in the first novel to make the story believable. In this book Katniss positively wallows in her misery tough. She is hurting bad and frequently passes that on to the people around her, all of whom have their own wounds to heal. Katniss is stubborn, unreasonable, suspicious, sometimes even paranoid. She is also only a step short of being suicidal. It is very dark material considering these books are supposed to be young adult.

I can't say I like Katniss a whole lot in this novel even if her misery is understandable enough. She is pushed into a number of situations where she really shouldn't be in and inevitably ends up making some poor choices. Collins' depiction of District thirteen is almost as bad as that of the Panem. Where the Capital is decadent, District thirteen has adopted a Spartan way of life. Militaristic to the bone, without considerations for anything but survival and completely focussed on destroying the Capital. One of Katniss' many dilemmas in the novel is figuring out if the cure might not be worse than the disease. Would a Panem run by president Coin be any better than one run by president Snow? This question is explored in detail as the reality of the war that is being fought becomes clear to Katniss. The book contains just about every dirty trick and despicable act imaginable short of sexual violence. That, apparently, is where the line is in YA.

Collins' view on this war is a very cynical one. Every rebel we get to see is driven by a need for revenge or a lust for power. Motives to take part in the struggle are carefully disguised to be just and fair but underneath there is no ideology, dreams of a better future or even an idea what that future should look like. The war is all consuming, driving both parties to extreme violence, and apparently leaving no room for thought on what a post-war society should look like. Interesting enough, one of the few things both parties agree on is that the follies or our civilization, that was destroyed by war centuries ago in the novel, should not be repeated. Personally, I doubt these people really have learnt anything. In fact, at the very end of the novel the new President appears to agree with me. Or at least says that any lessons from the war are temporary at best.

I got very little in the way of positive emotions from this novel. I'm not even sure Katniss has any idea why she bothers putting up the Mockingjay show for District Thirteen. Perhaps the most telling scene come at the very end of the novel where a new round of Hunger Games are proposed and Katniss actually votes in favour. It is  typical for the lack of direction and sense of purpose she has in this novel. While I have to admit it is entirely in character, it is not a joy to read. Especially early on it the novel, where Katniss agonizes over the decision of whether or not to become the Mockingjay, the book does very little for me. It is a repetition of issues faced in the first two books mostly. The final part of the book is more action packed and, if possible, even more desperate. It reads a little better, although the outcome of the war is a forgone conclusion.

Maybe the novel has something to offer for readers who are more interested in the love triangle that is an overarching theme in the trilogy. The whole thing is pretty forced in my opinion. All the acting Katniss and Peeta have done, should pretty much have killed any chance of an honest relationship before one even started. I'm not particularly impressed with the way Collins resolved this problem. I must admit is does offer a tiny ray of hope in what is otherwise a very, very dark story but the outcome feels a bit too neat.

As usual with overhyped books I can't help but wondering if the people who rave about this novel have actually read other books. I think the first novel is mildly appealing but as a whole, the trilogy falls flat. Catching Fire is in part repetition and, in the end, relies on things that go on far away from the main character. Mockingjay is long litany of everything that is wrong in Katniss' world, combined with a war that has been decided before it started and some very unsatisfactory resolutions a the end. I guess if there is a lesson to be drawn from this read, it is for me to stay away from books that generate this level of raving.

Book Details
Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 448
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-407-10937-4
First published: 2010

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Number 300 Poll Result

A couple of weeks ago I put up a poll so you could help me pick the book that is going to be reviewed work number 300 and also take up a spot in my Damon Knight Grandmaster Reading Challenge list. The poll closed on Sunday and the results are as follows.
  1. Ray Bradbury - 8 votes
  2. Micheal Moorcock - 5 votes
  3. Damon Knight and Jack Vance - 4 votes
  4. Robert A. Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, L. Sprague de Camp, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison and Joe Haldeman - 2 votes
  5. Lester del Rey and Harry Harrison - 1 vote
  6. Jack Williamson, Fritz Leiber, A.E. van Vogt, Hal Clement and Philip José Farmer - 0 votes.
So Ray Bradbury takes this one by a fair margin. A bit of a surprise to me, I had thought Vance or Heinlein would have a shot too. Since it was clear for a while that Bradbury was winning, I did some book shopping in Bergen, Norway last week and found a copy of his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, which to my shame I must admit I haven't read yet. Since I have a few more books to review before I hit 300, A Fall of Moondust being number 296, it will be a couple of weeks before the review is up.

Thanks for voting every one and see you around for the next 100 ;)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke

I've been reading Clarke for a couple of years now and I must admit I am beginning to develop a real appreciation for his work. Not all of them are equally strong of course, but he as written works that clearly are masterpieces of the genre. Apparently the publishers of the SF Masterworks series agree with me. He has no less than five titles in the list, of which A Fall of Moondust (1961) is the fourth I have read. It is one of the novels he wrote before the publication of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a novel that is something of a watershed in his career. It is a hard science fiction novel, and more than fifty years after it's publication, it a bit dated. Still, the basic story holds up very well. What sets this novel apart from other works by this author is the building of tension. I haven't come across Clarke managing quite this level of suspense yet in the novels I've read.

Sometime in the twenty-first century humanity has colonized the Moon and is rapidly on its was to building a life off planet. The Moon even has become something of a tourist attraction. One sight that is quite popular is a cruise across the Sea of Thirst, a basin filled with very fine dust grains, weathered away from the Moon's rocky surface by the merciless temperature changes on the surface. In the absence of air, it haves like a powder in some ways and a liquid in others. When the Selene, the vehicle travelling this unique sea, disappears beneath the surface during a Moon quake, a race against the clock starts to get the passengers and crew out in time. A formidable technical challenge, given the hostile environment and the peculiar medium that swallowed the Selene.

In a way, this novel is not much different than a number of others Clarke has written. Finding a technical solution for the challenges posed by space is far more interesting than the characters to him. And it must be said, Clarke has set himself a serious challenge. As he explains in the 1987 foreword to the novel, it was written before mankind has set foot on the Moon, and one of the worries back then, was that seas of fine powder might indeed exist and even be capable of swallowing spacecraft. I must admit the explanation on the forces that make this stuff flow and collect in low places is a bit beyond me but apparently it was considered plausible back then and it is not ruled out that the static electricity described in the novel might indeed work elsewhere in the solar system. If these seas really exist, they haven't been found on the surface of the Moon but they certainly make good material for a science fiction novel.

In the early stages of the novel, the sense of wonder dominates the story. Clarke describes the Moon in detail, in a style that reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's descriptions of Mars, although it must be said that Clarke is much more concise. Once the Selene goes down we switch to technical mode though. The author has clearly thought about all the things that can go wrong in a pressurized ship buried under a thick layer of dust. One system after another is put to uses they were never designed for and Clarke clearly gave a lot of thought about what could go wrong under such circumstances. He is clearly not unfamiliar with Murphy's law.

Another big part of the novel, and one that is much more interesting given the rest of Clarke's oeuvre, is the way he goes about describing the attempts to maintain morale. It is vitally important not to have anyone crack if you are buried under tonnes of dust, in a pressurized cabin that is not meant to house people indefinitely of course. I thought the way Clarke went about it was more fitting for a 1940 air raid shelter somewhere in London than a spacecraft though. A somewhat old fashioned British mentality seems to have taken over the company despite its members being from all corners of the world. Nevertheless, the cracks that begin to appear are dangerous enough and the psychological pressure on the people caught on board the Selene is real enough. It induces the kind of claustrophobia that space shares with submarines.

Clarke doesn't ramp up the psychological pressure all the way in the end. The climax of the novel is again technological. The stresses on the poor Selene cannot be held at bay indefinitely after all. It is a shame really, Clarke could probably have done a bit more with the company inside the Selene. That would have required a finer characterization than I have seen Clarke employ though. I guess the omniscient narration would have clashed with an attempt to increase the psychological pressure as well. I think this narrative mode isn't doing the story any favours as it is, especially early on in the novel. Clarke uses it at the end of chapters to end with a cliffhanger. It is unnecessary to the point of being annoying really. Even the least observant reader will understand things are not going according to plan without being told repeatedly.

Those minor quibbles don't take anything away from the fact that A Fall of Moondust is a very entertaining read. I guess you need a bit of a taste for hard science fiction to really enjoy this novel, but it is not a technical or on such a grand scale as some of Clarke's other works. Some readers may even feel it lacks the scope of some his other novels, Rendezvous with Rama (1973) comes to mind, or the sheer scale of some of the other engineering projects he describes, for instance in The Fountains of Paradise (1979). A Fall of Moondust is not as ambitious, nor perhaps as original, as some of his other books, but is a well written story that will keep the reader turning pages. Clarke manages to create a feeling of urgency that is hard to ignore. It is not among the very best of what Clarke has written but certainly not far behind. If you liked his other novels, this one won't disappoint.

Book Details
Title: A Fall of Moondust
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 224
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07317-3
First published: 1961

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I've had a good spell reviewing wise recently but I need a little break again. In a few hours I will be on the plane to Norway to go see my girlfriend. I haven't seen her in three months so it should be obvious that reviewing books will not be on my mind in the next week. I may sneak one in anyway but no promises.

In other news, I've been asked to be on the jury of Fantastels 2012, a Dutch language short fiction competition. The contest is open for submissions for the entire month of October. So if you want to run the risk of having your story random commented by all means submit. Do keep in mind it is a Dutch language competition.

The poll I put up to pick my final Grand Master Reading Challenge book is still up and will be open until I get back. If you haven't done so yet, cast your vote. I will be back on the 30th, probably with couple of fresh reviews for October. In the mean time I might be a bit slow responding Behave yourselves while I am gone ;)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Limbreth Gate - Megan Lindholm

I've reached the third volume in my rereads of Megan Lindholm's Ki and Vandien Quartet. Lindholm's work under this pseudonym is very diverse but the Ki and Vandien novels are more or less straightforward fantasy. A secondary world with a long, largely unknown history, lots of different sentient races, magic and divine creatures. All the ingredients are present. They are pretty focussed on the characters that give the series its name however. No huge cast of secondary characters and countless side plots. They are very efficiently written in a way. Each book is a complete story, there are no major cliffhangers or unresolved questions; it is the relationship between Ki and Vandien is what ties these books together. In short, a very different style of fantasy than the books written under the Robin Hobb pseudonym. One of the great mysteries for the reader is how a person can adopt two completely different styles and stay sane I suppose. It is something that has always intrigued me about Lindholm/Hobb.

In her pursuit of cargo to haul, Ki has left the areas she is familiar with and ended up in the town of Jojorum. Vandien is with her on this occasion and after their business is conducted they enjoy the markets of the town. They split up do each do some shopping of their own and agree to meet in a tavern in town. It becomes clear that the place is not very welcoming to Romni teamsters however and Ki feels forced to leave before nightfall. What Ki doesn't know is that Vandien is being deliberately delayed by a group of Windsingers, a weather controling magical order they have clashed with in the previous book. Ki is forced to leave without him and by the time Vandien realizes she is gone, Ki has been tricked into leaving the city thought the Limbreth Gate. A gate that not only leads out of town, but into another realm. Ki is in mortal danger. It is up to Vandien to find a way to reach her and draw her back to her own world.

This novel sheds a bit of light on Ki's own past. In Harpy's Flight (1983) she is depicted as being accepted in the Romni community but not quite a part of it. A number reasons are given in the first book. She married an outsider for instance and her refusal to give herself over to the mourning rituals of her people are another. Those are clearly not story and  in The Limbreth Gate more reasons are revealed. It also explains the interest of the Windsingers and the wizard Dresh in Ki, both of whom play a part in the story. The political intrigue inside the Windsingers' council is another element central to the plot. Ki's actions in The Windsingers (1984) has put her on the bad side of a faction within the council. For a group with considerable power they can be extremely petty (as well as arrogant) but it must be said that some them are not entirely without mercy.

What this novel does more than the previous two volumes, is expose feelings and doubts in the main character. The creature that uses the Limbreth Gate to create a connection between the two worlds is starving for new experiences, having long since tired of being god in a realm that contains only its own presence. In the process it consumes the unfortunate person being drawn through the gate. It is an idea that Robin Hob would later use in the Farseer trilogy, where Veritas' dragon empties him of all experiences and emotions. The Limbreth is a hungry creature, deceptively reasonable and tempting as a Siren. Ki cannot help open up to it and it exposes things about her relationship with Vandien that until now remained unspoken.

The way the relationship between Ki and Vandien develops is one of the things I like most about these novels. They hurt each other badly sometimes, in this case they can't help but doing so, but they always manage to turn it into a step forward.
        He could not smile at her. The relationship so carefully built seemed crumbled; he dared no longer trust the weight of his heart to it. "it is more than that," he said heavily. "It is not going to be the same between us."
     Ki looked deep into his eyes, troubled by what she saw there. "The same as what? When was it ever the same between us, from day to day? When did we ever want it to be?"

Ki and Vandien discussing how to move on - Chapter Twenty-One.
Lindholm has never been easy on her characters and Ki and Vandien certainly get their share of misfortune and heartbreak. Their experiences in the Limbreth realm are traumatic but not enough to shake them loose from each other. I've read a lot of comments by people who don't like this book as much as the others because Ki is not herself for most of the story. Personally, I think she shows herself even stronger than we could have suspected from the previous two volumes.

Vandien's struggles are depicted in a very different way. He has been trying not to ask more of Ki than she is willing to give and in this novel, he runs up against the limitations of that approach. Under the influence of the Limbreth's visions she wants to put their relationship behind her and Vandien has to overcome his impulse to leave her be. Lindholm uses a hird character to embody Vandien's more ruthless thoughts. The half Brujan Hollyika is a woman of action. Blunt, forceful and living for the moment, she seizes what she desires without debating feelings or morality. Hollyika does what Vandien can't make himself do, exposing some severe doubts about his relationship with Ki. I've been thinking about whether or not this makes Ki the stronger of the two but when you get right down to it, they both need someone to pull out of the mess they find themselves in. Vandien might consider that the next time he feels inadequate. I guess it just makes them human.

Maybe this third book in the quartet is the most difficult to appreciate. In terms of structure and emotional charge it is the best of the quartet so far I think but definitely a more challenging read than the previous two. Lindholm is clearly progressing as a writer over the course of this series. Something that can be seen in the final volume, Luck of the Wheels (1989), as well. Ki and Vandien remain two of Lindhom's most intriguing creations and I am very much enjoying to way in which she develops these characters. The Limbreth Gate made me want to reach for the next one immediately after finishing it. Unfortunately there is a to read stack to consider though, it will have to wait its turn. I will try to read and review that book before the year is out and wrap up this series.

Book Details
Title: The Limbreth Gate
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 360
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711254-8
First published: 1984

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Crack'd Pot Trail - Steven Erikson

Crack'd Pot Trail is the fourth in Steven Erikson's series on the necromancers Korbal Broach and Bauchelain. These novellas are an offshoot of his huge Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where the pair shows up in Memories of Ice. Recently they have also been part of Ian C. Esslemont's fourth Malazan novel Orb Sceptre Throne. The events in these novels are set much later in the Malazan time line however. I read the Night Shade Books edition for the previous three volumes but it appears this publisher has lost interest in these novellas. For the fourth, and the recently published fifth novella titled The Wurms of Blearmouth, I got the PS Publishing editions. PS Publishing spent a lot of time and effort making this novella look pretty. It has very good cover art and three beautiful full colour interior illustrations by Dirk Berger. It makes this edition expensive though. For people with a small budget the Tor edition might be the better option.

In Crack'd Pot Trail we follow a group of travellers on a notorious desert trail. Part of the group is in pursuit of a pair of necromancers who have left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Other members tag along for other reasons. There is a group of pilgrims hoping to find the Indifferent God, as well as a group of poet, on their way to an annual festival. The trail is long and dangerous and when the group is not making as much progress as expected, their supplies fall low. Survival becomes priority number one. There is no way they can all make it across the desert, hard choices will have to be made.

This novella is a love it or hate it book I think. I've seen reviews on either extreme of the scale but very little in between and I can see why this would be so. I must admit I am torn as to whether is novella is brilliant or a failed experiment. One thing is clear, it is a break with the previous three entries. At 181 pages it is a lot longer than the previous three entries for instance. The focus of the novella has also shifted away from the necromancers that give the series its name. Korbal Boach, Bauchelain and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese are present only at the very end of the novella and play not part in the story other than being a distant target. This fact alone will put some readers off.

Where the previous novellas were pretty straightforward reads, this is a complex tale. Erikson creates a great number of characters in the limited space available in a novella, making the reader work hard in keeping the various groups and motivations apart. Something that isn't made any easier by the narrator of the story, a poet by the name of Avas Didion Flicker. The man is cursed with a verbosity that would make even the Eel of Darujhistan blink. The first twenty or so pages are particularly dense. Flicker describes each of his fellow travelers in detail. From that point on the story gains a little more speed but it never becomes easy reading.

Erikson made this novella almost impossible to review. The main attraction of the novel is the way he describes the relationship between the artist and the critic. As the journey becomes more desperate and food runs out, the only option left to the travellers is to start eating each other. Who should go first? Why the least useful person on the journey of course: the poets. To determine the order in which the poets will be eaten, each night a contest is held between them. The one with the most dismal performance, and it must be said, this particular group of artists is not blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent, will be eaten. Well now, how is for a portrayal of the critic. Erikson is challenging us to show ourselves the cannibalistic Philistines he describes? Some reviewers obviously found it tempting. The irony is overwhelming.
    "I still want details," said Tiny Chanter, glaring at me in canid challenge.
    "As a sweet maiden, she was of course unversed in the stanza of amorous endeavour-"
    "What?" asked Midge.
    "She didn't know anything about sex", I re-phrased.
    "Why do you do that anyway?" Apto inquired.
    I took a moment to observe the miserable, vulpine excuse for humanity, and then said, "Do what?"
    "Complicate things."
    "Perhaps because I am a complicated sort of man."
    "But if it makes people frown or blink or otherwise stumble in confusion, what is the point?"
    "Dear me", I said, "here you are, elected as Judge, yet you seem entirely unaware of the magical properties of language. Simplicity, I do assert, is woefully overestimated in value. Of course there are times when bluntness suits, but the value of these instances is found in the surprise they deliver, and such surprise cannot occur if they are surrounded by similitude-"
    "For Hood's sake," rumbled Tiny, "get back to the other similitudes. The maiden knew nothing so it fell to the Fenn warrior to tech her, and that's what I want to hear about. The world in its proper course through the havens and whatnot." And he shot Apto a wordless but entirely unambiguous look of warning, that in its mute bluntness succeeded in reaching the critic's murky awareness, sufficient to spark self-preservation. In other words, the look scared him witless.
    I resumed. "We shall backtrack, then, to the moment when they stood, now facing another. He was well-versed-"
    "Now it's back to the verses again," whined Midge.
    "And though with heated desire," I continued, "he displayed consummate skill - "
    "Consummate, yeah!" and Tiny grinned his tiny grin. 

Flicker facing his critics - p. 126-127
The verbosity, the opening with what could uncharitably be describes as an infodump, the absence of the fan favorites, these are all deliberate choices on the part of the author. Choices he would have known would get him negative reviews. Of all the satire Erikson has written, and there is quite a bit worked into his novels as well as this series of novellas, this one obviously targets the reader most directly. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that got a big boost from the blogsphere but it has run into the unwillingness of some fans to see the genre's stereotypes challenged as well. Erikson is a writer who likes the challenge expectations. He makes pretty bold choices in his writing and that is what sets his fantasy apart from your average series. Erikson is not afraid to show us the convoluted relationship between artist, audience and critic and none of the parties are portrayed in a particularly flattering light.

How many authors must have been longing to address their critics like this, or expose the ignorance of their audience? How many could actually do so without hurting their career? The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to appreciate the genius of this novella. It may not add much to the story of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain but under the surface lots of interesting commentary is going on. Crack'd Pot Trail is a daring piece. Erikson once again plays with the reader's expectations and casts a new light on his own body of work. This broader view of this novella will probably not sit well with all readers, but I think it is sheer brilliance. Even if I have to suffer Erikson's most verbose character yet.

Book Details
Title: Crack'd Pot Trail
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 181
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848630-57-4
First published: 2009

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Number 300 Poll

I'm approaching 300 reviewed works on the blog, Pechance to Dream by Peter Lukes being number 293. Like I did with number 100 and 200 I am going to let you decide which book it should be. Since I am taking part in the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award reading challenge over at Worlds Without End, I will limit your choice to one of those authors.

The rules state I can only read one book per author for the challenge. I have already read books by Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Brian W. Aldiss and Anne McCaffrey. For next month I picked The Listeners by James E. Gunn. I've also decided I am going to read one of Connie Willis' novels although I haven't decided which one yet. That leaves one spot and 17 authors.
  1. Robert A. Heinlein
  2. Jack Williamson
  3. Clifford D. Simak
  4. L. Sprague de Camp
  5. Fritz Leiber
  6. Alfred Bester
  7. Ray Bradbury
  8. Lester del Rey
  9. Damon Knight
  10. A. E. van Vogt
  11. Jack Vance
  12. Hal Clement
  13. Philip José Farmer
  14. Harlan Ellison
  15. Michael Moorcock
  16. Harry Harrison
  17. Joe Haldeman
Just to show how well read I am in the genre, I have read just three books by these fellows. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, and Vance's The Dying Earth (which I didn't like very much).So take your pick in the poll on the right hand side of the screen. Specific titles can be suggested in the comments. I make no promises in regards to titles though. I need to be able to get my hands on it quickly so availability is essential. The poll closes on the 30th of September.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Perchance to Dream - Peter Lukes

This book is one of the last review copies I accepted before I closed the shop for a bit. Life is keeping me pretty well occupied at the moment but I made a promise and so I have read Perchance to Dream last week. The review is even more or less on time. I've never read anything by this author before and the publisher, Urania, which is an imprint of Musa Publishing, was unknown to me as well. It looks like a small publisher, they cater to all kinds of genres and niche markets and haven't been in business that long. Judging by the e-book I received for review, they know what they are doing. It was mostly free of the annoying formatting errors that plague so many digital publications and a decent amount of attention had obviously been paid to editing the novel. I'm less thrilled with the cover art, but let's focus on the content; that is what counts most after all.

Perchance to Dream is a science fiction novel, but one that explores the inner universe of our subconscious mind. Manuel Corr is an officer with a highly specialized unit within the police force. Where his colleagues serve and protect in the every day world, he invades criminals' subconscious minds through their dreams and gathers information that can help investigations in the real world. His exploration of this dream world is supported by an array of computers and various drugs, giving him superior control over his environment. Corr is the best of these specialized officers. His control of the Sub-Net is almost intuitive. Corr was under the impression his department was the only group active in this largely unexplored territory. When one of his expeditions into the mind of an influential corporate criminal goes awry, he is forced to reconsider this belief. What is worse, the competition seems to be several steps ahead of him. Corr is dragged into a deadly game of hide and seek in a world where the rules are not fixed and control is often an illusion.

The premise of this novel is a disturbing one. To look into someone's subconsciousness; a place where things lurk that we don't even want to admit to ourselves - let alone share with the world - sounds like the ultimate invasion of privacy to me. It goes way beyond wiretapping or hacking someone's mailbox, and that is not even getting into the question of whether dreaming of a crime is permissible evidence or punishable in itself. In fact, the idea sparks associations with Orwell's concept of thoughtcrime, one of the many disturbing things in his brilliant novel 1984. It would have been nice if the author had gone into the ethical and legal implications of what this unit is doing, or how reliable the information gathered this way is. I understand Lukes is an attorney when he's not writing. I'm somewhat surprised to not have these issues come up in the novel at all.

Instead, Lukes plunges into the action right away, showing us Corr getting into trouble from the start of the novel. Perchance to Dream is a fairly short work, at 54,000 words it is barely novel length. I think the story could have used a few more words to flesh some aspects of it out a little. Corr is in trouble from the very first pages for instance. The reader never gets to experience the way Sub-Net usually feels for him. In the very first meeting with this strange world, the reader sees Corr's certainties collapse but never actually experiences the wrongness of the situation. The reader's introduction to Sub-Net is chaos right from the start. There is no sense of what a regular day at the job looks like for Corr and because of that, all contrast with the situation in the book is lost. The same is true for the rest of his unit, the interpersonal relationships, Corr's past romance with one of his colleagues and a number of other things. None of these things are developed beyond the basic outline, causing most of the characters to lack depth. The story hits the ground running but at times I felt Lukes is galloping ahead when a little reflection might have done the story good.

The novel is marketed as science fiction, which makes sense in a way. The application of science mentioned in the novel is not currently possible and may very well never be. The author doesn't go into much detail on how the system that supports Corr actually works. A generous measure of handwavium is applied to the more technical aspects of the novel. It works and that is what we need to know for the story to progress. As the story progresses, more and more possibilities of the the inner world are revealed until the whole takes on proportions of Robert Jordan's Tel'aran'rhiod. Just about anything appears to be possible as long as the character can figure out how to do it. Lukes' world of dreams becomes reality in the closing stages of the novel. The true extend of the Sub-Net's possibilities as well as Corr's talents remain unclear though.

To say I have issues with this novel is stating it mildly. I feel the idea has great potential but translating the concept into a story that is both entertaining and does a complex idea justice proves to be a challenge. Invading someone's dreams raises all manner of interesting questions on which a novel could be based but Lukes rushes right past them, in favour of a more action packed story. This approach may appeal to some readers, I think fans of a good thriller might enjoy it. With me, the novel mostly left the impression that, while it wasn't a bad read, it could have been much more. Ultimately the lack of development of the concepts and characters that are the basis of this novel left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied after finishing the book.

Book Details
Title: Perchance to Dream
Author: Peter Lukes
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Pages: 163
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61937-171-2
First published: 2012