Saturday, November 23, 2013

Het einde van de Magier - Raymond E. Feist

Otherwise known as Magician's End. When I was in my late teens I went through a spell when I hardly read any books at all. Literature classes at the time seemed to be aimed to force the most boring reading material on you, or otherwise books that are way over the head of your average teenagers, making reading seriously unappealing. I've always wondered how many people never got back to reading again after going through those classes. I returned to reading in 1996 when I entered college, mostly to take my mind off the more technical stuff I had to read as part of my education. Feist's novels had first started appearing in Dutch translation back then and he is in part responsible for my reading habits these days.

Feist was quickly followed by other big names in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I didn't take me that long to figure out he isn't a very good writer in most respects. What he used to be very good at was hold the reader's attention though. Even if his stories are straight, fairly stereotypical D&D material, there is something in there that keeps you reading. In the late 1999s my access to English language books was limited so I ended up with a whole stack of Feist's novels in translation. He is one of the few authors I never read in English. In hindsight, maybe I should have. the translation contains some annoying inconsistencies, especially in the names of characters. Then again, I suspect Feist's prose isn't the kind that looses anything in translation.

Magician's End is the final part in Feist's riftwar cycle, a series of books that started with the publication of Magician in 1982. As of 2013 there are 29 novels in the series, one novella and several shorter pieces. Apart from the novella, Jimmy and the Crawler, in with Feist tries to salvage the last two projected volumes in the Krondor sub series, I've read them all. Personally I think that Feist hasn't really produced anything decent since the third volume of the Sertpentwar Saga: Rage of a Demon King. Most of the work he produced after 1998 has been sloppy, riddled with continuity errors and frequently feels rushed. I seriously considered dropping the series at one point but by then, he had almost reached the end of the cycle. And it must be said, while his most recent books aren't his best, they have been a step up from the real low he hit in the early 2000s.

Magician's End is the final volume in the cycle. Meant to tie up all loose ends in the series. Pug and his companions are are faced with the ultimate threat to their world, while on the mortal plane, Feist rehashes the plot of Magician and presents us with another difficult succession in the Kingdom of the Isles. Feist among other things resolves the prophecy where Pug has to see everyone he cares for die before his work is done and reveals another layer in the cosmology of Midkemia.

Over the course of the series the cosmology of the Midkemian universe has been revised and added to several times. Marcos in particular has revised his truth so often that nothing he says can be take without a grain of salt anymore. In this novel, Feist expands his analogy between quantum mechanics and magic. It is something that has come up a number of times before, Nakor's view on magic is particularly compatible with quantum mechanics, but I don't Feist has gone into it in so much detail before. It is almost like he is agreeing with Arthur C. Clarke on technology and magic. Of course I don't think I know anyone able to manipulate matter at the quantum level with their mind. When you think about it, the Midkemian universe has an interesting structure to it. Unfortunately the way it is presented in the novels is mostly to serve the story. When Feist needs the rules changed or an even more dangerous enemy introduced, he adds another layer.

While the magical side of the story was decent, I really can't say the same for the events in the Kingdom of the Isles. As usual, the sword part of Feist's sword and sorcery is some kind of boyish wishfulfilment. He rarely includes female characters that are more than the love interest of whatever boy happens to be the main character (a notable exception being Mara, the main character in the Empire trilogy co-authored by Janny Wurts, these are some of the best books in the cycle). The victor of the war of succession is never in much doubt and he observant reader will probably have guessed to outcome in the previous book already. The whole plot line and characters involved are predictable and cliché to say the least. There doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the events in the Kingdom and the magical struggle that Pug and his companions are facing either. The outcome of the war is essentially irrelevant to whether or not the universe Midkemia is part of can be saved.

Feist's work displays a lot of problematic elements that were common in the sprawling fantasies of the 1980s and 1990s. These works have a certain appeal but in recent years I have drifted away from it a little. The overused pseudo medieval settings, feudal societies, the messiah-like prophecized one, the stereotypical elves, dwarves and dragons, the traditional roles of men and women, the problematic borrowing of non-western cultural practices to represent foreign kingdoms and empires, Feist is guilty of pretty much all of it. Considering how deep a hole he dug himself over the course of the series, I think he manages reasonably well with this final volume. It is not a masterwork of epic fantasy by a long shot but compared to much of his recent output he ends the cycle on a positive note. I guess I have read the final volumes in the series mostly because of an odd sense of nostalgia but in a way I'm glad I did finish the series. It's not a series I would recommend to anyone new to the genre these days, it is likely to confirm any preconceptions about Fantasy they might have, but Feist did get me reading again and I'm probably not the only one who started to explore the genre through his books. I suspect a lot of other Fantasy authors owe Feist for the very accessible books we wrote in the 1980s. I would not be surprised if he is responsible for dragging many more readers into the genre. The genre has moved far beyond the type of work Feist has produced and as a reader I think I have developed a taste for more challenging work. Feist was the entry point however, and I think I can forgive him a bunch of mediocre books just for that.

Book Details
Title: Het einde van de magier
Author: Raymond E. Feist
Publisher: Luithingh Fantasy
Pages: 544
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Translation: Lia Belt
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-245-2892-9
First published: 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hellstrom's Hive - Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert's 1973 novel Hellstrom's Hive is considered to be one of his better ones. It is one of the two works currently included in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series for instance.  The other being the inevitable Dune. My copy is an earlier reissue by Tor to coincide with some of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson Dune expansions. It first appeared in serialized form in Galaxy between November 1972 and March 1973 under the title Project 40 and saw release as a full novel not long after. I first read it in 2007 and I think that it was as close as Herbert would come to full blown horror in his career. There is something incredibly creepy about the novel. It literally makes your skin crawl.

Herbert was inspired by the 1971 movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, produced by David L. Wolper and directed by Walon Green. Herbert must have seen it shortly after it's release and it obviously had quite an impact on him. I hadn't seen the movie before so in preparation for the review I decided to watch it. Visually it is very good, considering the movie is over 40 years old by now. The content of the movie is utter nonsense however. It is a semi-documentary in which the fictional Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Herbert would use this name for one of the main characters in his novel) shares with us his shocking finding that insects are superior to us in every way and likely to rule the earth long after humanity has gone extinct. He does so by comparing an entire class of animals (there are currently over a million species of insects described by science and the consensus is that there are many more yet to be discovered) to a single species of mammal and, when it suits his argument throws in some arachnids for good measure because the are 'closely related.'  Never mind several hundred million years of diverging evolution.

Obviously, insects have many adaptations not seen in humans and can survive in environments inhospitable to humans. They also have limitations but the film tends to ignore those. Hellstrom, portrayed by actor Lawrence Pressman, takes us though the myriad of survival strategies of insects to show that in a Darwinian competition for survival we will inevitably lose. Hellstrom's narration is probably intended to be satirical. Personally, I found it annoying. The language he uses is pompous, full of grandiose statements presented without context. The facts presented in the movie are supposed to have been checked by several scientists but nevertheless manages to omit most of wider ecology that supports both humans and insects. From a ecological point of view his argument is laughably poorly reasoned. Even if it was meant to take down our opinion of our own achievements a notch I couldn't really take it seriously. In short, despite the pretty pictures, I thought the movie was rubbish.

Herbert himself must have realized some of the movie's shortcomings. Despite borrowing heavily form the movie in the snippets of text attributed to Hellstrom or his brood mother, he does go about presenting his story in a different way. The novel opens with operatives of an organization only referred to as the agency stumble across information regarding technological breakthrough. The information is incomplete but suspicions soon arise that it is a weapon. The information is traced back to a farm in Oregon, property of one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist and documentary maker. When the agency starts to investigate his place, agents start disappearing.

Hellstrom's Hive is, as the title suggests, a community modeled on social insects. It's a society of classes, where each member has their own roll, specializations and adaptations. They are bred for the task they are meant to perform and selective breeding has been part of their community since its founding several centuries ago. A select group of specialists holds up a front for the outside world but most of the community is kept carefully hidden in an underground warren.

Herbert's depiction of this human hive is absolutely brilliant. He actually manages to create a kind of sympathy in the reader for poor, embattled Hellstrom, who is only trying to protect his community from outside forces. He realizes that if they are exposed, their society will be considered an abomination. The Hive would be destroyed instantly. They are not without their resources however, a cat and mouse game between Hellstrom and the agency ensues. As the story progresses and more details of the hive are exposed to the reader a sense of dread envelops the reader. The full consequences of the way the hive has chosen to read are horrific to an individualistic society and Herbert uses that to full effect.

The agency certainly seems to see it as such when they see the full extent of what is going on in Hellstrom's Hive. I guess the agency point of view shows the novel's age. It is an organization trapped in a kind of paranoid cold war state of mind. It would have been easy to draw the parallel between a communist state and the hive's social structure. Herbert thankfully doesn't really emphasize that, it must have been obvious enough at the time, and that certainly has helped the novel age more gracefully. It is a false analogy anyway. It's pretty insulting to compare a soviet worker to the mindless drones that make up the majority of the hive and in the end most of the characters who have an inkling of what it really is, seem to realize that.

One of the things that make me like the book much better than the movie that inspired it, is the fact that Herbert is aware of the different ecologies of humans and insects and that humans could never fully fit in the ecological structure of a social insect. The snippets of text from Hellstrom and his brood mother give the the reader some insight into the philosophy behind their community and warning that they should not slavishly follow the termite mold in which the hive is built show up fairly frequently. Another example of Herbert's ecological awareness is the internal pressure the community exerts on its leaders. The community is looking to expand and in times of severe stress, the tendency to swarm and start new colonies in order to maximize the chance of survival suffuses the story. It is almost as if this pressure is coming from the subconsciousness of the entire swarm, although explanations of pheromones are also given. It helps create the image of a Hellstrom beset by problems on all fronts.

If there is any element is the novel that is lacking, it is probably the climax. Throughout the novel, the work is very well paced, carefully keeping the balance between sympathy for the hive and discomfort with its ruthless nature. There is a masterfully depicted scene near the end of the novel that essentially shows us what happens when you poke an ant hill. Despite that, the end of the novel doesn't feel very satisfactory. Throughout the novel both parties search for an advantage but neither seems to get the upper hand. At the end of the novel there is still a status quo. Battles have been fought, secrets uncovered but nothing is really resolved. For a novel that mostly relies on the plot and the big idea behind the story rather than the characters, none of whom attain much depth, the ending really is a bit of a problem.

Despite an ending that could have been better I enjoyed Hellstrom's Hive a lot the second time around. Seeing where Herbert got his inspiration did significantly change my perception of the novel so I guess it was worth watching the rather poor movie after all. I still think The Dosadi Experiment is his best non Dune novel but this one is not that far behind. It takes the ecological awareness that can be found in many of his novels to a new level and the creepiness Herbert works into it make it stand out. If you can forgive Herbert the ending, I think it is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Hellstrom's Hive
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 332
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-31772-9
First published: 1973

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mind Meld over at SF-Signal

I've been invited to take part in one of SF-Signal's Mind Meld articles. I feel honoured to be included. I've just read through the entire article and I am in some very good company indeed. The questions for this one was: why are anthologies important for writers and readers of Speculative Fiction? What have been some of your favorite anthologies? Find out my answer and a bunch of other opinions here!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord

Karen Lord's debut novel Redemption in Indigo was one of the books that received a lot of attention in 2011 and 2012. It's one of those books I mean to pick up but so far I haven't read it yet. From what I understand of the reviews, it's a book well worth reading. While looking for suitable books for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I came across Lord's second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, in a bookstore in Amsterdam. If her first novel is anywhere near as good as the second, I can see what the fuss was about. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very good science fiction novel. Comparisons with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin are made on the inside flap of the cover. For once, I don't disagree with what it says there. Something the flap text doesn't mention is that there clearly is a bit of Bradbury in the novel too.

What do you do when your planet and the center of your culture has been wiped out in a single strike? That is the question facing the Sadiri who had the good fortune to be away from home at the time of the strike must answer. Besides drastically reduced numbers, they also face a severe gender imbalance. The question of whether the Sadiri have a future as a separate people or should blend in with the other peoples of the galaxy is very much on their mind. Scientist Grace Delurua is assigned to a project to see if salvaging Sadiri culture by introducing new blood from the planet Cygnus Beta is feasible. It will be a life changing experience of Delurua and the Sadiri.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a novel that easily fits into one of science fiction's many subgenres. It is a very character driven novel. Don't expect a lot of scientific speculation or detailed future histories. Lord inserts what the reader needs to know when the characters run into it, so it takes quite a while for the basic outlines of this universe to become clear. Even with what the characters add to the reader's knowledge, quite a few questions about how this universe works, and especially Earth's position in it, remains a bit underexposed. The novel is carried by the dynamic between the two main characters Delurua and the Sadiri councilor Dllenahkh.

Lord does describe a number of cultures on the Cygnus Beta that vary from a Faerie court to a feudal society, although on most of the planet, there seems to be a bit of a frontier mentality. As a striking contrast, the few cities the planet possesses are very liberal. According to the acknowledgments Lord, who is from Barbados herself, has made the planet into a mix of cultures and societies to mirror the situation in the Caribbean. This mix also contains people of Sadiri ancestry, which is why the Saridi are so interested in the planet.

The Sadiri are one four strains of humanity in the galaxy. Their culture has developed to potential of the human mind in ways that others cannot achieve. They are a long lived and telepathic people, who value mental discipline and self-control. Their actions are guided by logic and reasoning rather than my emotion and impuls. I'm probably not the first to note that there is more than a bit of Vulcan in these people, although it must be said, they have a much better sense of humour. Their self control is stretched to the max by the prospect of not being able to find a suitable bride however. When Sadiri snap the results can be quite dramatic, even violent.

The novel is mostly written as a travelogue, with Delurua doing the narrating. It covers the entire year the project she is assigned to is running. Delarua's chapters are written in the first person. Between chapters there are short sections seen from Dllenahkh's point of view. The create a sense of distance and mute the emotion in these sections Lord opts for a third person point of view here. This division works very well. The mind of a Sadiri is obviously alien to the reader, where Delurua's way of thinking is much more recognizable. When the novel opens, she feels she already knows a thing or two about the Sadiri but her understanding deepens immensely throughout the novel.

In essence, and this is another element that will not be to the liking of some science fiction fans, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a romance. Throughout the novel the feelings Delurua and Dllenahkh have for each other grow until the outcome is inevitable. I guess you could say it is a case of opposites attract. Delurua is a very intelligent woman but lacks the Sadiri mental discipline. She often displays much more emotion than the Sadiri and over the course of the novel learns how to reconcile her emotions and intuition with the Saridi way of thinking. Dllenahkh has some adapting to do as well. On more than one occasion he takes a leap of faith and accepts Delurua's conclusions, reached by intuitive leaps rather than measured reasoning. The relationship, both on a personal and professional level develops in a very natural way. It is the key element in this novel and one that is very successfully executed.

My experience with books I've read for the Women of Genre Ficiton reading challenge has been mixed. I've found some very enjoyable reads, some excellent novels and a few that didn't appeal to me at all. The Best of All Possible Worlds is without a doubt one of the excellent ones. With only one book left to read, it is probably my favorite so far. The strong character development, the subtle romance and the sense of humour worked into the novel are a combination that you find very rarely in science fiction. I would not be surprised if it was nominated for an award or two next year. As far as I'm concerned this book is a must read.

Book Details
Title: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 307
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-345-53405-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Tyrant's Law - Daniel Abraham

The Tyrant's Law is the third of five  novels in Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It has been published in spring but back then I hadn't read the second volume yet. Now I've finally caught up with the series. Hopefully I'll be able to do a more timely review of the fourth novel, The Widow's House, which is scheduled for the spring of 2014. Although the series is neither very original or hugely challenging, I've enjoyed the previous two novels a lot. They adhere to the conventions of epic fantasy and make for very comfortable reading. I don't think these novels will end up on any lists of highlights of the genre but I'm pretty sure I'll end up reading all five anyway.

Geder, the Lord-Protector of Antea, has defeated the nation of Asterihold in a quick war. The nations have been embroiled in political and military conflict for generations but this appears to be a decisive blow. This conquest doesn't mean the war is over though. Geder catches wind of a conspiracy against him. The Timzinae, one of the thirteen races of humanity that inhabit the world are behind supposed to be behind it and so Geder's army turns its gaze to the nations where they are most populous. War will soon engulf them and once again Geder's priests play an important part in his campaign.

If there is such a thing as middle book syndrome in five book series then this novel is definitely suffering from it to some degree. As usual Abraham has complete control over his plot but I do feel that the novel lacks a strong story arc of its own. Abraham is getting people from A to B, setting up conflicts for the two concluding volumes of the series and delving into the history of the world. Quite a lo  achieve in one novel but still the result isn't quite as satisfying as The King's Blood.

Abraham keeps the number of points of view down to four in this novel. Geder, Clara, Marcus and Cithrin, all of whom we met before. It is Geder's actions that drive most of the story though. As in previous books, Abraham portrays him as a man who essentially means well but does some seriously creepy things. Protect by his position from the consequences of his actions he rules with an iron fist, depending on the talents of his priests to keep the momentum of the war going. His judgments are often harsh and usually rash. Once his is convinced he knows the truth he applies his brand of justice without digging for motivations or how a person's actions might fit into the larger picture. Geder thinks he will be able to retire gracefully once the prince comes of age but given the speed he is alienating people from him, that seems very unlikely to say the least. The mixture of naiveté and ruthlessness makes for a very disturbing character.

Cithrin, one of the more interesting characters in the novel seems to have come to a standstill of sorts. She is sent to do a years apprenticeship with a more experienced banker. The war interferes however and she is forced to return to her old style of risky banking. I guess what Abraham is trying to do with this character is having her develop a personal and professional moral compass. In the later stages of the book she makes some progress but early on her story line drags a bit. Her plot line ends on a very interesting note however, she seems to have underestimated Geder. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next book.

Back in Camnipol, Clara is picking up the pieces of her life. She may be disgraced at court but at least her children are still in a position to regain their standing among the nobility. Her life revolves around bringing down Geder now. Left without influence at court, she patiently looks for other ways to disrupt Geder's war. I thought Abraham did a very good job with Clara. Her perspective on life changes drastically but given the strain she is under, the change doesn't feel forced. It's very interesting to see how a person who is essentially considered to be marginalized manages to impact events to such a degree.

Marcus is out and about traveling with Kit, one of the few people in the world who has a good grasp of what is going on at Geder's court. He realizes that the world is in far more danger than it appears to be and sets out to destroy the source of the power behind the throne of Antea. It seems like a classic quest story line but Abraham does give it a nice twist. Little progress is made in resolving the complex feelings Cithrin and Marcus have for each other however. Like in the previous book, Marcus is definitely the least interesting character that gets a point of view.

Abraham set out to write a classic epic fantasy and do it exceptionally well. I'm not convinced he is living up to that ambition with these books but the fact is they are very fast paced and entertaining reads. They are also much more likely to gain him a large audience than his less conventional Long Price Quartet. If you liked the previous two volumes the only thing that will probably bother you about this novel, is that the fourth part is not available yet. That or the fact that the series has not been blessed with particularly good cover art. With The Tyrant's Law, Abraham has added a solid volume to his traditional epic fantasy series. I for one, am curious how he'll bring this series to a close.

Book Details
Title: The Tyrant's Law
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 497
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-08070-5
First published: 2013