For some reason, I've had a hankering to reread these books for a few months. A yen I gave in to this weekend when I checked out a Science Fiction BooFor some reason, I've had a hankering to reread these books for a few months. A yen I gave in to this weekend when I checked out a Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of all 5 novels and a collection of short stories (the latter of which, I haven't read).
Having read The Book of Three, I can see where my moral compass may have begun to form. I first read these books in sixth grade as an extracurricular project, and then made a filmstrip of the final book, The High King (yes, a "filmstrip" - for the young'uns out there, think PowerPoint presentation without the laptop :-). The characters are honorable, kind & loyal to their friends, and they fight only when they must.
Even looking at it today with a sadly more jaundiced eye, I enjoy reading it, and am happily plowing through The Black Cauldron, book two....more
The only way I can give 3 stars to Best Served Cold is if I read it in the spirit of that wonderfully campy B-movie horror classic of revenge The AboThe only way I can give 3 stars to Best Served Cold is if I read it in the spirit of that wonderfully campy B-movie horror classic of revenge The Abominable Dr. Phibes, starring Vincent Price and Joseph Cotton and the incomparably lovely Caroline Munro (though she’s dead and doesn’t have anything to say). In the movie, Dr. Anton Phibes revenges himself against the ten people whom he blames for his wife’s death using the plagues of Exodus as a blueprint. It’s great fun to watch, Price is at his scenery-chewing best, and he gets away with it in the end (more or less).
If I were to consider Best Served Cold as a serious commentary on the “way things are,” I can give it but 2 stars. While I enjoy the grimmer, more morally ambiguous fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, et al., Abercrombie is too nihilistic in the end for my tastes. He writes well enough* and the stories are well paced but none of his characters can catch a break, and anyone who tries to be better gets slammed down (usually lethally).
The mercenary general Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna of the Thousand Blades are betrayed and murdered by their employer Duke Orso of Talins (an off-stage character in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy) but Monza survives to take ruthless vengeance against the seven principals in the affair. The novel is divided up into 7 sections that follow Monza as she gathers a small group to go after her brother’s killers – Caul Shivers, a Northerner; Friendly, a thief and murderer with an obsession for numbers and counting; Morveer and Day, poisoners; Shylo Vitari (Glotka’s former associate from the First Law); and Nicomo Cosca, Monza’s former mentor and erstwhile general of the Thousand Blades (betrayed and deposed by her). As I mentioned above, the pace is brisk and the writing carries the reader along as Monza’s actions cause greater and greater disruptions in the politics of the Kingdom of Styria. The betrayals come thick and furious, and by the end of the book you discover that nearly everyone’s motive for their actions revolves around the desire for vengeance against someone. One of the things I most enjoyed was Abercrombie’s ability to show how easy it is to misinterpret other’s motives. E.g., (view spoiler)[Duke Orso betrays Monza because Benna had been plotting to raise her up in his place as Duchess. But Monza knew nothing of her brother’s machinations; in fact, she was almost entirely blind to the fact that he was a ruthless coward whom everyone else despised. (hide spoiler)]
It’s serendipitous that I read this right after finishing Against All Things Ending, the third book in the third Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Monza Murcatto is the anti-Thomas Covenant (or anti-Linden Avery). Where the fundamental principle guiding the latter two is compassion, Monza’s are “mercy and cowardice are the same” and “conscience is an excuse not to do what needs doing.”
It makes for a bleak and joyless read…. Unless, of course, one can keep the soundtrack of Dr. Phibes in his head and imagine Caroline Munro playing Monza. _________________________________________
* Many reviewers praise his description of battle and fighting but that seems more a deft hand at describing gore than anything that elevates the prose to any higher meaning. E.g.,
“Shenkt stepped around his sword, the edge of his hand sank deep into the thief’s chest then tore back out. A great chunk of rib and breastbone was ripped out with it, flew spinning through the air to embed itself deep in the ceiling.
“Shenkt brushed the sword aside, seized the next man by this breastplate and flung him across the room, his head crumpling against the far wall, blood showering out under such pressure it made a great star of spatters across the gilded wallpaper from floor to ceiling. The flies were sucked from their places by the wind of his passing, dragged through the air in mad spirals. The ear-splitting bang of his skull exploding joined the hiss of blood spraying from his friend’s caved-in chest and all over the gaping boy as time resumed its normal flow.” (pp. 598-99)
**spoiler alert** Maybe a 4-star. I'm still digesting.
Review to come.
The review has arrived:
If we could give stars to individual characters, I’d give**spoiler alert** Maybe a 4-star. I'm still digesting.
Review to come.
The review has arrived:
If we could give stars to individual characters, I’d give Isis, the narrator of Iain Banks’ novel, five, which is why I’m revising my initial rating of the book as a whole to four stars.
The novel begins in the religious community of High Easter Offerance, the base of the Luskentyrians, a sort-of-Amish-like sect that has rejected much of modern civilization. The community is ruled by Salvador, its founder, and Isis is his grand-daughter. Unlike Salvador’s other children, Isis is also the Elect of God because (like her grand-father and father) she was born on February 29 (she’s a “Leapyearian”) and heir apparent. She also appears to have an ability to “heal,” though Banks is very coy about (and Isis herself doubts) whether or not it’s real. When it appears that her cousin Morag, a “world-renowned baryton soloist,” has become apostate, she is sent out into the world to bring her back. It turns out that things are not quite what they seem, either with Morag or with the community’s motivations for sending Isis on her mission, but it gives Banks opportunity to look at the phenomenon of religion – how beliefs arise, how they’re manipulated, how modernity clashes with traditional faith, and spirituality vs. religion.
Unlike most of his other mainstream work - The Wasp Factory, Complicity or A Song of Stone, for example - Whit is a satirical comedy. Nothing really “awful” happens to anyone in the story, and Banks is having a great deal of fun telling us about Isis’ adventures in the world of the Cluttered (one of many labels given to the unsaved).
As hinted, the novel succeeds wholly because of its narrator – Isis. She is a naïve but not stupid or ignorant 19-year-old, whose remarkable self-confidence and belief in her grand-father’s religion stand her in good stead as she confronts her co-religionists and the unsaved she meets when she leaves High Easter Offerance. Despite some disillusioning events (her brother betrays her, her grand-father tries to molest her, she learns the truth about the cult’s origins, etc.), Isis doesn’t despair or become cynical, but turns the tables on her “enemies” and succeeds in redeeming her faith and her wayward relatives – probably. Banks manages to end the novel on a somewhat ambiguous note – Isis confronts her grand-father and brother with the truth and extorts control of the cult from them but the “truth” she promises to tell the community is at the end is left unspoken (or was it the entire preceding narrative?):
“…Here was what mattered; here, looking out over these stunned, bewildered, awed, even fearful faces, here was action at a distance, here was palpable power, here was where belief – self-belief and shared belief – could truly signify.
Truth, I thought. Truth; there is no higher power. It is the ultimate name we give our Maker.
I took a deep breath and an abrupt, fleeting dizziness shook me, energising and intoxicating and leaving me feeling strong and calm and able and without fear.
I cleared by throat.
‘I have a story to tell you,’ I said.” (p. 455)
The other thing about the novel I think deserves mention is Luskentyrianism – the religious faith Banks has concocted. If I were looking for a faith to follow, I could easily see myself following this one. On pages 52-55 of my edition, Isis succinctly lays out the beliefs tenets:
1. God is both and neither male and female, and is referred to as the singular “God” or the third-person plural “Them.” 2. God is omniscient but only “strategically” not “tactically.” I.e., They know what the ultimate outcome will be but They don’t know all the details. 3. God is omnipotent but doesn’t intervene in Their creation unless “things go either apotheosistically well or apocalyptically bad.” 4. Our universe is just one of many They have created. 5. Man is a “deformed child” – God loves us but They regret that we aren’t perfect. 6. There is no Devil; the world’s ills are caused by Man’s inability to clearly see God’s radiant splendor. 7. A fragment of God’s spirit resides in Man. 8. Man’s intelligence, necessary to God’s purpose for him, has nevertheless corrupted his perception of Their purpose. 9. Man must learn “to stand and walk with his spirit rather than crawl with his technology.” What this means is that the Luskentyrians reject most technology, much like the Amish. 10. God’s ultimate aim for Man is unknowable in his present state but will be revealed as he evolves spiritually (leaving open the possibility – in fact, the need – for future prophets). 11. Death is reunion with God. 12. Man can achieve perfection. 13. Body and soul are a unity. 14. Physical love is the communing of souls. This is not “free love” in its worst, stereotypical sense (like drug-addled orgies) but the acceptance of love and its physical aspects in its many forms. As Isis explains, generally the community encourages stable relationships; it’s only at the sects quadrennial Festival of Love that promiscuity is encouraged so that the odds of another Leapyearian being born are increased. 15. All religions contain grains of Truth but are “cluttered up” by the misinterpretations of their followers. 16. God speaks to his people at random moments; it’s prophets like Salvador who hear Them most clearly. 17. Since merit and calmness “are to be found in the out-of-the-way, the byways of life…there is goodness and the potential for enlightenment in doing things differently, seemingly just for the sake of it.”
This is definitely a must read for the Banks fan but I think newcomers to the author might enjoy it, as well....more
This is a very accessible, fast-paced and enjoyable fable about a young man and his journey toward wisdom. Along the way he's helped by the usual castThis is a very accessible, fast-paced and enjoyable fable about a young man and his journey toward wisdom. Along the way he's helped by the usual cast of characters in myths of this sort: His true love, a mischievous sidekick, a beloved teacher, and others whose roles are to illustrate the best and worst qualities in human nature.
Alexander's prose is lucid and unpretentious and perfect for the tween crowd. If you're a parent with a talent for voices, the varied dramatis personae easily lend themselves to a bravura performance before bedtime.
I'm going to pass this along to my sister and her daughters, which should be recommendation enough....more
As those who follow my reviews may remember, I've been rereading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. Today (Nov 22, 2008), I finished the fourth booAs those who follow my reviews may remember, I've been rereading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. Today (Nov 22, 2008), I finished the fourth book and felt moved to revise my rating from three stars to four.
As a 12-year-old, I remember liking the final volume the most - as I recall (and I'll find out just how well I do once I move into book 5), it had a lot of action, Taran and his friends finally confronted Arawn and all the threads from the previous books were brought together. As a 41-year-old, I would revise my estimate to the extent that it's book 4 that's the most satisfying and the true culmination of the series; the rest is icing on the cake. Taran's education and development is completed, and he's secure in who he is.
The writing isn't the best but there's never a sense (at least for me) that Alexander is hitting you over the head with his moral lessons. Of course, it probably helps that he's preaching to the choir. I find Taran and his ethics admirable and, as I mentioned in my note for The Book of Three, this must have been a serious, if unconscious, influence on my own moral development....more
I like Kage Baker's Company books (Mendoza, before she's reduced to a simpering, love-sick nonentity, is one of my favorite characters in any series)I like Kage Baker's Company books (Mendoza, before she's reduced to a simpering, love-sick nonentity, is one of my favorite characters in any series) and I love C.J. Cherryh's Union-Alliance future history (Signy Mallory of ECS Norway ranks as one of the most brilliant characters in SF (IMO) and Downbelow Station is a masterpiece). But I can't stand their forays into fantasy. I couldn't finish The Anvil of the World and Cherryh's fantasy tends to bore me.
Sarah Zettel joins that band of authors whose SF I like but whose fantasy leaves me cold. I first met Zettel in her SF author guise - Fool's War, Kingdom of Cages, etc. - and enjoyed her writing. (Though, being reasonably honest, I confess to not remembering anything about the stories; all I remember is that I liked them.) And perhaps I should have known better: I hated A Sorcerer's Treason. But this was a tale of King Arthur, and because I didn't like one book didn't mean that I wouldn't like this one.
But that turned out not to be the case. I gave Zettel 117 pages to convince me to go on but her arguments weren't good enough. The writing felt awkward and forced; there was never a point where I could lose myself in the story. I was always aware that I was lounging in a chair reading a book. Even in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga, which I recently finished rereading and had issues with, I was engaged enough in the story and the characters to want to continue reading. Every few sentences, In Camelot's Shadow's clumsy prose jarred me back into reality.
If I had time or inclination, it might be interesting to reread Zettel's SF novels to figure out why she fails for me in a fantasy setting.
But in this case, I can't recommend the book. I can see where others might find interest in it, however, and wouldn't want to discourage anyone from trying it....more
This is a slim volume (205 pages) for lovers of Chekhov who neither want nor need any in-depth analysis of the stories (which is not to say we get noThis is a slim volume (205 pages) for lovers of Chekhov who neither want nor need any in-depth analysis of the stories (which is not to say we get no analysis, just that it's measured and doesn't overwhelm the reader). This is Janet Malcolm's extended essay on why Chekhov is such a brilliant writer and why we should read him - often.
What I particularly like about Malcolm is that she manages to articulate why I like the man so much. Yet, having written that previous sentence just now I still can't paraphrase that articulation in a satisfying way that doesn't sound too simplistic or trite - you'll just have to read the book.
What I can say is that Chekhov manages to pack more complexity and depth in five pages than many authors struggle to do in 300 or more. It's a shame that tuberculosis took him in 1904 (though how he would have fared under the coming Soviet regime is problematic). Maybe he was "lucky."
Malcolm ties the book together with a minimalist travelogue recounting her adventures in Russia as she visited Chekhovian sites (his houses, museums, etc.) but the interest, for me, rests in her insights into Chekhov and his work, which are interesting and sometimes provocative. For example, she notes that there's a great deal of religious symbolism in Chekhov's stories (gardens and "miraculous" transformations, among others), though the author always claimed to be a nonbeliever.
If you're not yet a fan (shame on you :-), Malcolm's clear exposition and enthusiasm for her subject may just convert you.
What I "hated" about the book is that Malcolm graphically illustrated just how much Chekhov I have still to read - of the near 20 stories she mentions in the course of the book, I was familiar with fewer than five! A gross insufficiency I plan to correct as soon as possible, I assure you....more
Perhaps I should put this in a trilogy including Explaining America and Inventing America. Here, Wills shows how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address foreshadPerhaps I should put this in a trilogy including Explaining America and Inventing America. Here, Wills shows how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address foreshadowed our conception of the United States today (just a minor semantic example: prior to 1865, I would have written "these United States," as if I were referring to a collection of independent but allied states, not a nation)....more
I was doing some research on Peter Heather, author of the nonfiction book I'm currently reading (Aug 2010), and came across a Wikipedia page on "the dI was doing some research on Peter Heather, author of the nonfiction book I'm currently reading (Aug 2010), and came across a Wikipedia page on "the decline of the Roman Empire" where Tainter's book was mentioned. The premise sounded intriguing so on the shelf it goes....more