Sunday, September 28, 2014

Assail - Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont's sixth novel Assail is the final book in what we'll for convenience call the Malazan main sequence. Esslemont started publishing in earnest a few years later than his co-creator Steven Erikson and his novels are interwoven in Erikson's storyline. By that time Erikson had set the Malazan standard and Esslemont has had a rough time living up to that. His style is different from Erikson, a bit less verbose and a bit less satirical. It has gotten him quite a few negative reviews, some of which are in my opinion not justified. Erikson and Esslemont are not the same person, you can't reasonably expect them to approach their creation the same way. That being said, not all of Esslemont's novels were equally strong. I had problems with Night of Knives and Orb, Sceptre, Throne in particular. Fortunately Assail is one of Esslemont's stronger ones. In fact, some might consider it his best one yet.

Gold has been discovered on the continent of Assail. Lots of it if the stories are to believed. Enterprising people from all over the world make the long, hazardous journey to the continent only to find out just how dangerous the place is. Ancient magic lingers in the north of the continent in particular. Omtose Phellack, the ancient path of ice, still holds the place in its grip. It is weakening though. Slowly the ice is releasing its grip on the land and this creates opportunities for those who have an ancient score to settle with the rulers of the ice. The natives of course, are not at all amused by all this unwanted attention. A bloody struggle for control of the region is about to begin.

The final book in the main sequence needs a final reckoning of some sort. Given the sprawling that and the countless unfinished story lines the previous fifteen books have brought us, it would have been undoable to tie all of them off. Esslemont chooses to focus the supernatural part of the conflict on the eternal war between the Elder races Jaghut and Imass. The summoner Silverfox, whom we met in Memories of Ice is key to this story line. She is both the only hope for the future of the Imass as well as the person trying to heal the rift that has formed between the various clans. It's this part of the story I liked the least to be honest. Silverfox is very passive. She spends most of her time in pursuit of one of the clans bent on continuing the war. I don't want to give away the climax of that story line but I felt it was a bit disappointing. I was more impressed with the way Esslemont handled the confrontations between just about every group mentioned in the previous fifteen books. It must have been quite a challenge to keep all those cultural backgrounds straight.

Another aspect I think many readers will notice is the element of repetition that is present in the book. The various characters, and there are quite a lot of them, in the novel all more or less make the same journey to Assail, meaning we see several characters pass the same place at various times in the book. As with all Malazan novels, the story works towards a convergence; but this time the characters don't come from different directions. Once the first group has passed a particular place, the reader will be aware of the danger it holds for the travelers. It does take away some of the tension at certain points in the novel.

What I did like about the book is that Esslemont uses a theme that appears in Erikson's work as well. He reflects on the fate of civilizations that meet a fully agricultural, imperialistic civilization. In Erikson's work it is often the nomadic peoples who find out the strength of an empire first hand. In Assail it is the Icebloods. A small group of families of Jaghut descent who hang on the north of Assail. The gold on their land is their misfortune. Replace gold for oil, or any other precious resource really, and our own history can tell you what will happen. It's a tragic story. The Icebloods are doomed and they know it. In true Malazan style they are determined to make a stand however. Assail's gold carries a price in blood.

The Jaghut presence is noticeable in other groups of the local population too. They are a very independent lot, not easily impressed by outsiders and of the opinion that killing them and taking their possessions is quite all right. Their land is not one that offers many opportunities for economic growth so piracy and scavenging have become an art on Assail. Even the names on the maps of Assail encourage people to stay away. Assail is cold, wild and has a vaguely Nordic feel to it. When you think about it, Esslemont and Erikson have managed to give the many locations in their vast world a distinct flavour. One would not mistake Assail for Korell, Lether or Genebackis.

Assail weighs in at 540 pages. It seems to be a length Esslemont is comfortable with. His books are substantially shorter than Erikson's, making them slightly less intimidating to get started on. I thought Assail was quite a quick read and definitely one of the smoothest Esslemont has produced to date. Some readers will probably think it is not quite what they expected form the concluding volume of the series. The world of Malaz is huge. There are plenty of questions unanswered and plenty of places left to explore. Personally I don't see how it could be otherwise in this monstrously detailed world. I understand Esslemont intends to write a series of prequels next. He doesn't intend to go back as far as Erikson is doing at the moment though, so it will be an opportunity for Esslemont to write a story that is not completely interwoven in Erikson's work. I look forward to reading what Esslemont comes up with next. He has grown considerably as a writer over the course of this series. I expect some more good stuff from him.

Book Details
Title: Assail
Author: Ian Esslemont
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 540
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2998-1
First published: 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself - Ian Sales

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the second part in Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet, a series of alternative histories rooted in the Apollo space program of the 1960s and 1970s. I'm a little behind on this series of novellas. The third one, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, has been out for quite a while but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. This is actually my second read of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. I read it last year but didn't get around to writing a review then. This week I had a bit more reading time so I had another go at it. Like the first in the series, Adrift on a Sea of Rains, it is a highly technical piece of science fiction. If you liked the first one in the series, this one is sure to go down well too.

The US has missed its opportunity to get an astronaut to the moon first. The Russians beat them to it and NASA shifts its objective to an even greater prize: a manned mission to Mars. In 1979, Major Bradley Emerson is the first to set foot on the red planet. Soon after his return, he retires from NASA, something that probably saves his marriage. Something he found on Mars keeps him tied to the space program however, and in 1999 he is asked to go back into space for a final mission.

The story contains so many references to real events, places and science that finding where the story deviates from our own history is quite a challenge. Sales refers to the Apollo missions of course, in an appendix in the back a list of the missions and how they played out in this timeline is added. There are also references to the 'face' on Mars, photographed by Viking 1 in 1976, some quantum mechanics, including that infamous cat of Schrödinger and of course a number of references to the mysterious Area 51. Where the first novella seems to deal with the Nazi legacy to the space program, this novella is more focused on the conspiracy theories it has spawned.

Stylistically the novella is much the same as Adrift on a Sea of Rains. Sales uses no quotation marks in his dialogue, uses a table to display conversations over radio and generally creates a sense of distance to the characters. Like the main character in the previous novella, Elliott is lonely. It's fitting in a way as he knows something very few people on the planet know and he is not allowed to share it even with the people closest to him. Maybe it is not surprising then that Elliott feels at ease when he's in space.

The structure of the novella is quite interesting. He starts the novella with a list of acronyms, which the reader will want to return to frequently. Some of the novella is absolutely riddled with them. After that follows the main story, which is divided in two main strands. The first set in 1979 dealing with the journey to Mars and one set in 1999, dealing with Elliott's return to space. After that a glossary on important terms and space missions follows. Like with the previous volume, this glossary is required reading if you want to understand where Sales deviates from history as we know it. For the reader who has read though all that, at the very end a section with the answer to the riddle Elliott encounters on his second mission is included.

This odd structure gives the novella two endings as it were. Elliott's personal story has come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion before the glossary. One could even stop reading there as it is a natural end in the plot. It is quite open ended though. For the reader who wants to know what Sales makes of all the conspiracy theories he mentions it would probably have been unsatisfying. Those readers will want to go on and read the rest even if, for the readers more interested in the emotional climax of the story, it might feel like an afterthought.

Like Adrift on a Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is a very interesting piece of science fiction. It is very technical, very well researched and contains a lot of interesting detail for people with an interest in the history of space exploration. I found it amazing how Sales can take a work that is so obviously grounded in real technology and history in such a strange direction. It may not be the most action-packed piece of fiction you'll ever read but it certainly inspired a sense of wonder in me that much science fiction aspires to. In short, another novella well worth reading. I should get on with it and read the third one soon.

Book Details
Title: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself
Author: Ian Sales
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Pages: 70
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9571883-5-8
First published: 2012

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Widow's House - Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House is the fourth volume of the Dagger and Coin series by Daniel Abraham. They've been appearing like clockwork every year in spring. Recently the cover art for the fifth and final volume was released. The Spider's War is set for release in the spring or summer of 2015. These books tend to linger on my to read stack for a while. On the one hand I like Abraham's writing, but on the other, these novels are not the most challenging or innovative reads around. They deliver what they set out to do. The Dagger and Coin is solid, epic fantasy, nothing more and nothing less. If you are in the mood for that, you could do worse than these novels.

War has enveloped the world. Geder's armies, assisted by the spider priests are achieving one victory after another. The rapid pace of expansion is causing problems though. His armies are exhausted, food is scarce because most of the farmers have been called up to fight and on top of that, there are rumors that a dragon has once again been spotted in the world. Still Geder wants to press on. The rejection by Cithrin stings and when he realizes how she used him, there is no holding him back. The army marches on Porte Oliva to settle the account with Cithrin.

In The Tyrant's Law, Marcus and Master Kit figured out that the Spider Goddess does not exist but that the ancient dragon magic creates the illusion of communicating with the Goddess. Its victims are completely convinced they are right and will prevail. Throughout the book we see signs how this conviction is beginning to work against the priests and how it will lead the world into a spiral of continuous violence. The shape of the conflict to come is beginning to get clear in this novel. It also means Marcus' job is done for the moment and he takes a bit of a back seat in the novel. The unresolved tension between him and Cithrin remains unresolved. Making peace with his past is also out of reach for the moment.

While Abraham is clearly working towards the climax of the story, in The Widow's House he is mostly setting the stage. There is a major battle in the book but neither of the parties get out of it what they were aiming for. In fact, Abraham makes it clear that the solution for ending this conflict is an economic one rather than military. It is Cithrin's mind for economics that comes up with a way to fuse the economies of the various nations in such a way that war becomes too expensive to wage. Her method is not the same but the idea that war can be prevented in such a manner is one of the principles on which the EU and its forerunners operate. The way in which economics is woven into the story is remains one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Interestingly enough, Cithrin also sets up the mechanisms for a spectacular economic crash here. I don't think the story will take us that far but it would certainly have been interesting to see how she'd respond to that.

Clara in the meantime is still seeing the world though more feudal eyes. Even more aware of the various classes of society, Clara herself moves though a kind of vacuum. She is an embarrassment to the court, yet the mother of one of the nation's highest military leaders. It changes her perspective in many ways. She does remain convinced that Geder will lead the nations into ruin however, and continues her campaign to see him removed from the throne. I liked her attitude in this book. She is of the opinion that the worst has already happened to her and is quite willing to risk her life to see peace return to the world. Abraham does make sure to keep a bit of an aristocratic outlook in this character, she may have fallen from grace but her upbringing will not let her be anything but a lady most of the time.

Geder himself seems at a bit of a standstill in this book. He is still the slightly naive, book smart and in some respects decent man, but also possesses a bit of a psychopathic streak, that comes out in full force under the influence of the Spider priests. He is, in other words, his creepy self for most of the book. The combination of basically decent actions and a ruthless policy of conquest is one you don't come across often in Fantasy. We have seen it in the previous novels however, and in this one we have to wait until the very end before we see cracks starting to appear.

I have often wondered what this series could have been if Abraham had taken a few more chances. He consciously avoids a number of overused tropes of the genre (the promised one, a clear good versus evil story, quests for magical artifacts etcetera) and includes elements in the plot that you don't come across often. The banking, the way he handles female characters and his take on religious fanaticism are good examples of that. Despite all that, the series has a very familiar feel to it for readers of epic fantasy. As Abraham said himself, he aims to do epic fantasy exceptionally well. While te result is familiar, comfortable and pleasant reading, it does leave me with the sense of unfulfilled potential. The Widow's House is another solid entry in the series but one that leaves me in doubt whether the final volume will be able to make me shake the feeling this series could have been more than Abraham has made of it.

Book Details
Title: The Widow's House
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 493
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20398-2
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fool's Assassin - Robin Hobb

This book is surely one of the biggest releases of 2014. After the publication of Fool's Fate in 2003 Hobb stated that she was probably done with Fitz but eleven years later, a new novel starring Hobb's most famous character appears. Fool's Assassin is the first book in a new trilogy on Fitz and the Fool. I must admit I was a bit hesitant to pick it up. Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy had not been received as she might have wished and the way the splitting of the four books in the Rain Wilds Chronicles series was handled, didn't sit well with a lot of readers. What better way to give her career a boost than to return to a fan favourite? The story of Fitz and the Fool ended in their customary dramatic fashion and it seemed like a fitting close for these two characters. Was there really more to tell about them? Well, rest assured there is. Fool's Assassin is quite simply the best book Hobb has produced since Royal Assassin (1996). It is simply stunning.

It's been more than a decade since Fitz last saw the Fool. He's spent most of his time on the Withywoods estate with his wife Molly. He does advise the Farseer King from time to time but mostly he stays out of the affairs of the kingdom. They've raised Molly's children and most of them have now found their own way in the world. The years have not been kind to Molly and while Fitz keeps the appearance of a man in his thirties under the influence of the Skill, she is aging at a more normal rate. What Fitz wants, is to spend as much time with her as he can manage but his past will not leave him be. Fitz may not recognize it straight away but the Fool is trying to reach out to him and that can only mean more trouble.

Fool's Assassin is actually the first book starring Fitz I've read in English. I started reading Hobb when she started to appear in Dutch translation in the second half of the 1990s, I eventually switched to English for the Liveship Trader books but Fitz I've read only in Dutch translation. Reading one in English made me realize how good the initial translations by Erica Feberwee and Peter Cuijpers were. A lot of translations of Fantasy novels into Dutch are, to put it mildly, not very good. Hobb has hit the jackpot with her translators. They've managed to capture the spirit of the novel very well and apply the kind of creative translating that is necessary for a Fantasy novel. That being said, I would like to read the rest in the original language too one day.

In a way, this book feels like coming home. Hobb manages to slip right back into the character of Fitz. He is not the young man he was in the Farseer trilogy of course. Where he was young, rash and prone to decisions that were in equal parts dramatic and stupid, Fitz has matured a bit in the years that followed. His life would seem much more settled but the early stages of the book are filled with quiet drama. Molly aging much faster than Fitz himself is one example. Their wish to have another child together now that they are both around to raise it is another. Fitz and Molly are still very much in love and still quite capable of hurting each other.

The setting and characters may be familiar, but Hobb does do something different in this book. She introduces a second point of view. Like Fitz', it is written in the first person and no, it is not the Fool. I've always felt it was one of the weaknesses of the Farseer trilogy that we were limited to Fitz' point of view and so never got to see much of the events that took place beyond his line of sight. With a sprawling military conflict at the heart of the story, that was a bit of a problem. Interestingly enough, this second point of view character pretty much spends the entire book in the same location as Fitz. That will change in the second book in the series though.

It should not come as a surprise to readers of Robin Hobb but Fool's Assassin is not a book with a very high pace. Hobb takes her time to set the story in motion and examines her characters' actions and motivations in detail. For me that is part of the appeal of Hobb's writing. In a genre where speed and action often seems to be preferred over characterization, Hobb is a writer who tells the story at her own pace. It helps to create the rounded characters in the novel and explore the setting in depth. After six books I had not really expected Hobb to stray from this approach and she doesn't. It's a novel that pays a lot of attention to details and the emotional state of the characters. So if you think Fitz was whiny in the previous novels and Hobb needs to get on with it, you will probably want to skip it. If, like me, you are in awe of what Hobb has already done with Fitz and the Six Duchies, this is one book you do not want to miss.

I would have liked to get into the plot in a bit more detail but that would have been giving too much away about a book that has just been published. What I can say is that Fool's Assassin captivated me and that I managed to read it in a single weekend. If I had had a bit more reading time I might have finished it in a day. It is a wonderful read, Hobb has hit the bullseye with this volume. The only thing I think some fans of her works may dislike is the fact that it ends on something of a cliffhanger. Even if it hadn't, it would still have left me with the feeling that it is an awfully long wait until the second volume comes out. On the bright side, I have a feeling that that one is going to be worth the wait.

Book Details
Title: Fool's Assassin
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 630
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744417-5
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Heechee Rendezvous - Frederik Pohl

A while ago publisher Baen experimented with an online game. By playing it you could win free e-books. It didn't last for very long but I did manage to gather enough points to get a few free books out of it and since I enjoyed Gateway (1977) and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) quite a bit, this third volume in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga was one of them. It's one of a number of Pohl's novels Baen converted to e-books. It would appear it was a bit of a rush job. For some reason they couldn't be bothered to put on some decent cover art (granted, given what passes for cover art at that publisher, it might actually be a blessing) and my epub edition contains an annoying number of typos and formatting errors. Quite frankly, it is a good thing I didn't pay for it or I'd want my money back. But in the end it is the story that counts, so let's have a look at that.

In this third volume Pohl takes us back to see his main character Robinette Broadhead again. He is still rich as Croesus, happily married to a beautiful wife and in the possession of a top notch health insurance policy that keeps him healthy even though he is getting on in years. Despite this, or maybe because of this, guilt still gnaws at him. So much so that he feels impelled to seek out his old councilor Siegfrid once more. As it turns out, Robinette is not done with the Heechee quite yet, or with sophisticated computer programs for that matter.

Where the first two novels managed to rake in quite a few award nominations and awards, Gateway in particular is considered one of Pohl's finest, at this point in the series interest was clearly waning. It was nominated for a Locus SF Award but lost to Larry Niven's The Integral Trees. In 1984 the peak of Pohl's writing career lay some years behind him. Heechee Rendezvous still has that undertone of satire in it but the story itself and the way it is told, will grate on more than a few readers.

Robinette himself is the main narrator but part of the story is also told by an artificial intelligence based on Albert Einstein. The story switches point of view between those two frequently and not always in a smooth way. Albert's tone is a bit pedantic, whereas Robinette himself has a tendency to throw in cliffhangers and if-I'd-only-known type of phrases. It is, in other words, a very good example of how to annoy your readers.

The story itself is amusing enough though. We even end up in Rotterdam for a bit. Having lived there for a couple of years, I recognized some of the places Pohl mentioned. He even mixes in a bit of poor Dutch. Of course he then manages to mortally offend a whole nation (or maybe two) by having Robinette's Russian wife mention that in her opinion speaking Dutch is much the same as speaking German. Ouch! It makes me wonder if Pohl has ever been here though, or if it is all book research.

Pohl throws in quite a bit of cosmology and astrophysics in his story. It is not so much that your average science fiction reader can't follow but enough to know that you are reading a book by a man for whom science fiction contained actual science. One of the major plot points is Albert's inability to convince himself of the validity of quantum mechanics for instance. He still firmly beliefs in a universe governed by predictable laws of nature. Or as he himself puts it: God does not play dice. There is also a bit of Stephen Hawking hidden in the text and some speculation about the ultimate fate of the universe. Some of it has been overtaken by new theories already but not so much as to make this aspect of the story seem very dated.

The plot itself unveils a new layer in the mystery of the Heechee, their sudden disappearance and the reason for their self-imposed exile. You could even say that the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Pohl does tie up the plot in some ways but he also leaves the door wide open for sequels. He would eventually write three more Heechee books, The Annals of the Heechee (1987). The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Judging from this book, I'm not entirely sure there is material for three books in this series. I do have two of the three sequels though. I may give the next one a go too.

Given the high standard Pohl sets in the first novel of this series, Heechee Rendezvous is a bit of a disappointment. It is entertaining in a way but simply not very well written. Robinette is not the most sympathetic of characters. This is something I can deal with but Pohl somehow manages to continually make him get on the reader's nerves. Quite an achievement, but when I start feeling it is a blessing the book is only 273 pages long, he may have overdone it just a bit. Still, if you enjoy the riddle the Heechee pose, it is very  readable. Just don't expect Pohl to rise to the level he attained in the 1970s.

Book Details
Title: Heechee Rendezvous
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 273
Year: Unknown
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3781-6
First published: 1984