Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 in Review - I Really Need to Read More

Although I never managed to reach the productivity of the early stages of this blog, 2015 was a relatively good year for reviewing. In 2016 I haven't managed to equal that. Mostly because I simply read less and put more time in other activities. I haven't reviewed everything I read either, missing two novels. A total of 47 entries appeared on Random Comments this year. I also contributed 9 articles to, one of which is a review I didn't also write in English. All in all it is not bad but not quite what I had in mind in January either.


I read 34  novels, 4 collections, 3 novellas, 1 anthology and 11 pieces of short fiction this year. A total of 53. Of these I reviewed 51. All but two of these reviews appeared on Random Comments, the exception being the novel The Wan by Bo Balder, and the collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I reviewed Chiang's collection on this blog in 2011 already. The Hebban edition is some 3,500 words long and quite different from the Random Comments edition. My reading amounts to roughly 15,000 pages of material, markedly down from last year. In fact, it is probably the lowest total since I started the blog. Next year's target of beating 2016's total should be easily achievable.

I managed to read an equal number of works by men and women this year, 26 each, with the anthology containing work by both men and women. I didn't consciously aim for an exact balance but it is nice to see that is how it turned out. As usual most of my reading was in English. I read only three translations this year. One from Chinese to English, one from English to Dutch and one from Swedish to Dutch. Three books were read and originally written in Dutch. That leaves 47 read and originally written in English. Although this year's crop is pretty varied as far as the background of the author is concerned, I did not manage to read many translations. Another thing to keep an eye on next year.

Lana contributed one review in 2016. The Stand by Stephen King.

Best of 2016

I read a lot of decent books this year but not that many that really stood out. In that respect, 2015 was a better year as well. There are a few that I do want to mention though, in no particular order. As always, these are drawn from what I read this year, they are not necessarily published in 2016.
  1. Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. Everything about this book is strange. It's is something between a collection and a novel but not quite a fixup either. The setting is unusual and the meandering plot is perhaps even more so. It is firmly grounded in science fiction though, with lots and lots of references to the classics in the genre. I would not be surprised to see this one end up on the Nebula shortlist.
  2. Planetfall by Emma Newman. A science fiction novel dealing with mental illness. It includes some interesting science fiction elements but the character building is what really attracted me to this novel. The sequel was published in November. I have to remember to order a copy of that.
  3. American Gods by Neill Gaiman. I came late to this novel and in hindsight I should have read it sooner. Apparently it is a love it or hate it novel. I loved it, and if you haven't already, you should read it too.
  4. Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston. A triumphant return to the world of Castle. Fans of this series will want to read it. It's a book that, despite the fantastic setting, very much deals with the problems of of our present world.
  5. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. First book in a space opera trilogy. It is one of the most exciting books in that particular subgenre I have read in ages. Again, this one might end up on an award shortlist or two.
Books that almost made the list are Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho by Auke Hulst, Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald and The City & The City by China Miéville.


Traffic is once again down, which is not surprising given the fact that I produced less content this year. More troubling is the fact that about 10% of it comes from a location in Russia specializing in link spam. They have been very active in trying to get me to vote for Trump (even after the election was done), buying a particular kind of blue pill and other nonsense like that in the past few months. If I weed out all the spam these are the most visited articles.
  1. The Valley of Horses - Jean M. Auel
  2. Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt
  3. Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd
  4. The Lucky Strike - Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Death's End - Cixin Liu
  7. The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
  8. Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee
  9. Interview: Steph Swainston on The Wheel of Fortune
  10. The Jesus Incident - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Three 2016 articles, which is better than last year. Hex rating high is also understandable. I reviewed the Dutch language edition of the novel in 2014 but the English edition appeared this year. My very first author interview made it to the list as well. I'm very pleased with that. The rest are older articles that just keep going. Most of them have been on this list in previous years as well.


Nothing really drastic. I am considering adding some of my writings in Dutch to the blog. I have enough of those now that it would make a nice addition. It would mean tweaking the site a bit and I don't think I will have the time for that in the next few months however. Maybe a bit later in the year. I also want to review more short fiction. Collections and anthologies tend to dwell on the to read stack too long. Which is a shame. A lot of interesting stuff is published in the short form. To make a start with this I am going to change my approach to reading short fiction a bit an review more individual pieces. I don't have that many unread novels on the to read stack at the moment so January will be short fiction month on Random Comments. I'll try to read and review as many as I can next month.

An that concludes another year on Random Comments. I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2017 and hope to see you all around on the blog again.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Dune - Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert is one of those books that are impossible to review. It is a monument in the genre, described as the novel that is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. It won a Hugo Award and appears on every list of must read science fiction. The book spawned five sequels by Herbert himself and a whole (mostly to be avoided) shelf of books by his son in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. There is a movie and a mini-series and a second attempt at a movie in the works. The book has been read by just about everybody with an interest in science fiction and there must be thousands of reviews out there. Everything I could possibly say about this book has been said several times already, and probably more eloquent than I could manage. So what can I possibly add to that?

Not a whole lot I've decided. So there won't be a review this week. I will say that it is the first time I read this book in English and the Dutch translation is quite good. I'm not quite sure of how many times I've read it in total. Four or five times at least. I think it is a novel that deserves its status as a landmark in the genre. For all its flaws, and it does have a few, it is a defining book in the new age era of science fiction. But then, I don't have to tell you that. You'll likely have read it already. If not, then you really ought to. Preferably before that movie they are planning hits the theatres. If you insist on reading a review however, go read the one Lana wrote a while back.

I'll be back in a few days to close the year at Random Comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Renegade's Magic - Robin Hobb

I'm a bit low on recent releases. There are a few waiting for me under the Christmas tree but since that is a few days off yet, I have taken the opportunity to read an older title. Renegade's Magic, the final book in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, is probably the least popular book she wrote. Hobb is not known for writing fast paced novels, but even by those standards this concluding book does an excellent job of trying the reader's patience. While I am still fascinated with the premise and the worldbuilding, I do have my reservations about this novel. To properly explain why, I'm going to have to give away a bit more of the plot than I usually do. Be advised there are spoilers for the entire trilogy ahead.

Nevare has finally been cast out completely from Gernian society. His friends and former colleagues think he is dead. Magic has enabled him to get away, but he has quite literally lost everything. There is only one option open to him, follow the magic and see if the Specks will take him in. Once again the magic interferes and the Speck side of Nevare's personality takes over completely. Gernian Nevare becomes a spectator in his own body, watching helplessly as the magic leads the Specks into a desperate action against the invaders. Reason, fear and disease have all failed, fire will have to do the job. It is all or nothing for the Specks, in a fight that is so hopelessly unbalanced that victory seems impossible.

Magic has messed with Nevare's mind a lot over the course of the previous books and in this novel his personality completely splits. The Speck trained Great One takes over and the Gernian noble takes a back seat. Like the previous two books, Renegade's Magic is completely written in the first person. That means that for most of the novel, the narrator is not actually in control of what is going on. He watches the story unfold from the back of his Speck self's mind. For most writers, it would be a challenge to keep this interesting for a few chapters, Hobb attempts to do this for most of the novel. Combined with her tendency to plot the novel at a moderate pace, it can't fail to bore some readers. The inevitable confrontation with the Gernians and the equally inevitable realization that Nevare is doomed to fail as long as he is divided against himself, are a long time coming.

What we do get, is a detailed look at Speck  society. Their resistance to Gernian expansion is put into cultural perspective. Their society is ruled by magic but they are not nearly as ignorant of the outside world as the Gernians seem to think. What Hobb does very well is show us the desperation of the Specks and the huge price their magical resistance extracts from them. Being a Great One is not an enviable fate. Hobb also pokes a few holes in the idea that the Specks are a peaceful people by shedding light on their past conflict with the Kidona. It is another example of how well developed Hobb's world is.

The overarching conflict between the Specks and the Gernians reaches a status quo in the book. Not so much because of the Specks fighting in the more traditional sense of the word, but more because the magic manages to redirect the attention of the Gernians. Easier gains are made elsewhere, rooting out the rebellious Specks is no longer worth the effort. Hobb may have meant it as a happy ending but if you look at the situation more closely, it seems like a matter of time before the conflict will reignite. The Specks' respite is dependant on a gold vein and the goodwill of an eccentric Queen. When the gold runs out and the Queen's attention shifts, an ocean port will still be desirable. The cynic would say that the Specks have been put into a reservation but haven't realized it yet. With no noticeable change in the Gernian attitude towards the Specks, it very much seems like a temporary solution.

From reviews of the previous two books it should be clear I don't particularly like Nevare. His slavish devotion to what society and the Good God expects of him is very annoying at times. What's worse, in this book he has no control and plenty of time to brood over his mistakes and misfortune. After yet another failure, by Nevare's Speck self, he comes to the realization that without becoming one, there is no way he can ever succeed. A full merging of these two perspectives would have resulted in a drastic development of this character. Too drastic for the author apparently. She opts not to take that route and that makes the ending of this novel very disappointing.

Hobb effectively separates the two and allows Nevare to slip back into Gernian society with most of his prejudice and conservatism  intact. To add insult to injury, he is essentially rewarded for it by reconciling himself with his family and being appointed heir to both Burvelle estates. There is talk of buying him a commission too. In short, everything noble's son Nevare could possibly want out of life is within reach. After all he has endured because of society's confining social structure, all the misery he has seen caused by a rigid set of religious rules and cultural prejudice, he ends up fitting precisely in the role the Good God teachings destined him to fulfil.

Structurally the novel seems to follow the same pattern the final books in the Tawny Man trilogy also follows. The climax of the trilogy is quite early in the book and then Hobb takes her time wrapping things up. Although it is not quite as pronounced as in Fool's Fate, the final chapters do feel like Hobb wrapping things up. The central conflict has been (temporarily) resolved, whether or not Nevare knows it. The rest is just rewarding him for being such a dutiful protagonist.

Looking back at this reread of the series I think that the very thing that is Hobb's strength in the FitzChevalric novels is turning against her here. After three books inside Nevare's head I still think he is a short-sighted prick. While one can admire his work ethic and to an extent his loyalty, he is simply too unlikeable and static to make for a really interesting character. For a single first person point of view narrative, that is a big problem. Not even Hobb's worldbuilding can quite overcome this issue for me. Hobb obviously has things to say in these books, mostly about various forms of discrimination, but they always seem to stay one step removed from the characters. I enjoyed reading these books to a point, but they are not among the best she has written.

Book Details
Title: Renegade's Magic
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 662
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075764-9
First published: 2008

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ghost Talkers - Mary Robinette Kowal

In the Netherlands it is not very noticeable, but our neighbours are in the middle of a string of centenaries of major events in the First World War. The period was no picnic in our neck of the woods, but the Netherlands did manage to stay neutral through the four years of bloodshed taking place elsewhere in Europe. As a result, the conflict that enveloped the world some two decades later receives much more attention. Personally, I have always had more of an interest in the Great War. It was the end of nineteenth century Europe and the beginning of a great many things that still shape the world today. Given the enormous changes the conflict brought about, it is not surprising a number of works of speculative fiction are appearing that deal with the period. Ghost Talkers is one of those books.

The year is 1916 and the Battle of the Somme is in full swing. In an effort to move the offensive forward, no means are left untried. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American heiress engaged to the British captain Benjamin Harford. She is a medium working with the Spirit Corps. Her corps has found a way to compel the souls of dead soldiers to report in before they move on to the great beyond and relay the circumstance of their deaths. This way, even in death, they can relay essential tactical information. The existence of this corps is a closely guarded secret. When Ginger uncovers evidence of a traitor in the British ranks, she soon finds herself embroiled in a game of espionage in which she is the main target.

The speculative element of the novel takes the upper hand in the story. It is very much a fantasy novel and only then a historical one. There is still quite a bit of history in it though. The title may surprise some readers, as it appears to be an allusion to a group of soldiers better known for their role in the Second World War. On a limited scale the US army did employ native American code talkers in the final stages of the war. The US had not entered the war at the time of the battle of the Somme however, and using codes to securely relay messages takes different forms in the book. Kowal does not focus on the battle that is the background of the story. Instead she depicts life right behind the lines with an emphasis on the role of women in the war effort.

There are lots of little details in the story that show the author has researched the period in detail. The presence of a soldier named Tolkien on the battlefield (his experiences at the Somme would work his way into The Lord of the Rings), the literature discussed, the social mores and how the war influences them, the support structure for the soldiers and the English used in the dialogue. Whether or not she succeeds in that last aspect, I will leave to readers better qualified than me. It didn't strike me as out of place though. If you are looking for details on the actual fighting this book is probably not the one you are looking for, but as a snapshot of that particular moment in history it works nicely.

The romance in the novel did not really convince though. A stolen kiss here, a double entendre there, it is all very coy and proper and in line with what one would expect of two well-bred, early twentieth century, young people courting. It is almost cliché and at odds with the situation they are in however. Both of them are in constant mortal danger. War tends to loosen social restrictions, it encourages people to seize the moment while they still can. Ginger and Benjamin do not seem to entertain thoughts on their own mortality even in the face of the atrocious losses the British army suffered in the opening stages of the battle of the Somme. You'd think they would at the very least be a bit less resigned to waiting for their marriage.

The speculative element is provided by Kowal's version of spiritualism. She admits to adapting existing religious beliefs and parapsychology to the needs of the story. It is a set of beliefs that has always attracted a lot of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. That made it a bit hard to fully suspend my disbelief while reading this novel. It has to be said that Kowal uses this reputation well though. By discrediting the practice in public, the British try to avoid raising suspicion to what is going on.

Ginger's talent is a bit of a problem for the military commanders. She is a woman and not even a British one at that. As much as her superior would like to ignore her, he cannot without paying the price. This bit of rampant sexism can't be held in check permanently of course. Ginger has to push harder than any of the men serving under the commander to get him to listen. A coalition of people usually ignored by the powers that be help her get her point across.

What Kowal does very well with the speculative element of the story, is use it to explore love and loss. For a medium, death is not the end. It creates possibilities that a normal person would not have. It allows you to hold on to a loved one in this world, or conversely, to follow into the beyond. The temptation to be selfish or just give up can be overwhelming at times. Ginger goes through all that and more in what is a very harrowing couple of days for her. What makes this novel a good one, whatever you may think of the premise, is how Kowal brings her characters to life. Once the story gets going, their affection, traumas, and triumphs leap from the page. It is a very clever book in a way too. Although they are impossible to miss, Kowal never lets her history, supernatural influences, or feminist elements dominate the story.

All things considered, Ghost Talkers is a book that would not have worked for me in the hands of a lesser writer. Kowal manages to pull it off though. It's a novel that could have gone of the track in half a dozen ways but the author manages to bring it to a convincing close. It strikes a good balance between the various themes and the demands of the story. It's a pretty fast paced story and not a particularly long novel but it has quite a lot lurking beneath the surface. I'm not sure if it will make mine, but I do know this book will end up on a few year's best lists and maybe even pick up an award nomination or two. It's probably not everybody's cup of tea but clearly one of the more notable releases of 2016.

Book Details
Title: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 304
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7825-5
First published: 2016