**spoiler alert** Some books you can describe with a single sentence. This is one of them: "Vampires kicking Nazi ass." I mean really, how can that po**spoiler alert** Some books you can describe with a single sentence. This is one of them: "Vampires kicking Nazi ass." I mean really, how can that possibly go wrong?
That's a rhetorical question. It can't. Still, actual execution can range from mediocre to eye-gougingly awesome. While Sarah Jane Stratford's The Midnight Guardian slides fluidly along this continuum, it's closer to the latter than the former, if only because of it's breathtaking characters (that's a pun). As far as the "kicking ass" parts go, they're too few and too far between, strung out along a plot that doesn't achieve lift-off.
Of course, the world has never been the same since a certain book featuring unconventional vampires. Stratford's vampires are a sensible concoction of various conventional interpretations. I like how crosses don't affect vampires who were Jewish in life, little details like that. They have the usual overdrive sex urges that seem to plague the undead like bad hangovers, but other than that, they are tolerable mythical creatures. And, passionate relationships aside, they are interesting people. Well, some of them.
Stratford tells the story in a non-linear manner. The "main" plot takes place in August 1940, with Brigit on a train escorting the children of a vampire hunter to safety in London. Interspersed are chapters two years prior, with Brigit and her millennial cohort in Germany just before the start of the war, as well as episodes from Brigit's past, including her "making" and when she "makes" her love, Eamon. I actually found this structure counterproductive to my comprehension of the story, but it's an excellent way of educating us about Brigit's life.
By far the most interesting parts of the book are the episodes of Brigit's past. I loved watching her transformation from human to vampire and her effort to come to terms with the implications of immortality. Stratford's vampires are still very human in the sense that they are not evil fiends. Sure, they kill people and suck blood. But they don't hurt children (who are unpalatable) and still have very human passions—for culture, particularly books and music. Nevertheless, Brigit's life as a vampire is manifestly different from her life as a human, and the difference is jarring at times. She has to confront her mixed feelings for her maker, who's a well-meaning but obtuse idiot. When she turns into a vampire a man whom she believes she's destined to love, he's not grateful at first, and the years slip by as they work things out. There's a certain sense of destiny to the relationship that I kind of had to ignore, but individually they're both interesting people.
The whole "vampires trying to sabotage the war" plot? Not so much. I enjoyed the chapters in 1938 in which Brigit, Mors, et al. attempt to infiltrate the ranks of the Third Reich. Stratford's depictions of wartime Germany, the attitudes of Germans toward Hitler and the Nazis, and the behaviour of the Nazis themselves are all wonderful. And it's fun watching how vampires would practise espionage. As we approach 1940, however, my interest begins to dissipate. I don't follow how Leon's children are "precious cargo that marks the only hope of salvaging their mission" (from the cover copy). Sure, it's great that Brigit is being all compassionate and risking herself to get them out of Germany, but what do they have to do with her mission?
That mission was doomed from the start, of course, and it only seems to derail and deteriorate as the book goes on. I suppose that's the problem with a premise like "vampires go to stop Hitler's war machine". Unless one wants to stray into alternate history territory, clearly the vampires can't succeed in preventing war, nor can they just go in and kill Hitler any time before April 30, 1945. That alone isn't a problem—"how will they fail?" can be just as exciting, even more so, than "will they fail?" But Stratford can't maintain my interest while Brigit is on the train. There's a nosey sergeant and a suspicious doctor who's actually a vampire hunter. All Brigit can do is complain that she's too exposed to properly eat, so she feels weak.
The climactic battle takes place on a peer, where Brigit is about to get on board a ferry to Britain with the children but is confronted by the doctor/hunter. Brigit gets the children she's protecting onto the ferry by having Eamon use his music, powered by their love, to create a smokey hand that pulls the children over the water separating the boat from the peer. And that, sadly, broke my suspension of disbelief.
Despite that last damning bit of criticism, I did enjoy The Midnight Guardian, and I'll recommend it to some of my friends who like supernatural fiction. Its plot could use some work; as this is a debut novel, I'll be interested to see if Stratford's writing improves with subsequent Millennial efforts....more
This is my second Christopher Moore novel, the first being Fool. I'm still getting a handle on Moore's style and how to gauge him, but I don't thinkThis is my second Christopher Moore novel, the first being Fool. I'm still getting a handle on Moore's style and how to gauge him, but I don't think I'm off when I say that Fluke is not one of his better works. Sure, it has that distinctive sense of zaniness that any Moore fan comes to expect; you won't be disappointed if you read this book. Yet neither the story nor the characters are as entertaining as Fool's. The jokes are there, but they're less cohesive; they're funny moments that fail to form up into a single, hilarious book.
Not sure how to review this one. It's not as deliciously quotable as Fool was, so I can't just string together a bunch of quotations, call them witty, and try to pass that off as a review. Nope, I actually have to talk about the plot. You have been warned.
The plot of Fluke develops slowly, giving you time to grow accustomed to the persnickety research team and its supporting cast. It doesn't really jumpstart until Nate gets swallowed by a whale (literally), at which point the whale semen hits the Zodiac raft and the story goes into overdrive. There's a definite need for suspension of disbelief, as Moore strays over the boundary of improbable to implausible. But it's hard not to be seduced by the mystery Moore manifests. Who built the whale ships? Are the whale-men a result of natural evolution, or were they created by someone or something? What's up with the requests for pastrami on rye? Will Nate hook up with Amy?
The actual answers to most of those questions didn't live up to my expectations. Nate's life post-swallowing is confusing, ill-explained, and not all that funny. There are some interesting ideas thrown about relating to genes, memes, and evolution, but even these are far from well-developed. The quality of Fluke is heavily weighted to the beginning of the book, for it's there that Moore creates a very real (if not realistic), well-established world of characters and relationships.
The latter part of the book is still funny, but everything feels underdeveloped, rushed toward an artificial ending. For instance, Nate and Amy develop a relationship but face an obstacle in their relative ages and Amy's unique condition. Normally, starcrossed lovers is a tragedy . . . but I didn't really care. The blasé, lackadaisical attitude that makes Moore such a good humourist doesn't, in this case, lend itself well to character development and pathos. Nate just resorts to drinking or the casual nihilistic embrace of sleep once too often for me to care about what happens to him.
I'm not sure what it takes to wake up one day and decide to write a novel about cetacean biology. Fluke's premise is somewhat inspired and original. There are certainly predictable aspects of this book (I figured out what Amy's role was long before it's revealed), but the plot has enough twists to keep you guessing. Pastrami sandwiches that seem like throwaway lines become pivotal. Big mysteries turn out to have small answers. It may be a cliché, but nothing is what it seems in Fluke, and there is much hilarity to be had....more
When something momentous, like a Neanderthal physicist from an alternate universe visiting our universe, happens once, it's a fluke. When it happens aWhen something momentous, like a Neanderthal physicist from an alternate universe visiting our universe, happens once, it's a fluke. When it happens a second time—and when the portal that connects the two universes shows every sign of lasting indefinitely—it's a paradigm shift. Society will have to adjust to having Neanderthal neighbours like Ponter Boddit, who is not only redefining what we consider "human"; he's also holding up a mirror to "human" society, forcing us to reevaluate all the practices we consider normal and even sensible.
Robert J. Sawyer once again uses the Neanderthals as a foil for humanity's questionable environmental and ethical policies. That's not to say the Neanderthals are perfect. In Hominids, we see an example of misguided justice and misjudgement on the part of one Neanderthal. In Humans, the Neanderthals' High Gray Council, its world government, is slow to see the benefits of staying in communication with our universe. When Ponter is shot and its ambassador kills the shooter, the Council decides to cut ties with our universe, stopped only by a brash plan by the ambassador. In general, all the aspects of Neanderthal society that seem to make it peaceful and successful—the Companions, their cosmology, their approach to environmental management—have hindered their development in areas in which we are proud of our scientific achievements. We've been to the moon and the ocean floor; the Neanderthals have done neither. But much of our scientific advance comes at the price of, at the behest of, the need for weapons of war.
Even though it's clear that Neanderthal society is far from perfect or ideal, Sawyer's obviously using it critique our society. Sometimes this comes off heavy-handed, but mostly it works well. My favourite such scene occurs at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Ponter, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people killed in wars, says that Congress should have to declare war in view of the memorial. While I'm sure that politicians weigh the loss of past lives every time they decide to declare war, this scene is a potent reminder of how easy it is for us to lose sight of lessons learned in favour of ephemeral goals. Humans are passionate and ambitious, and while this has resulted in marvellous achievements, it's also a source of actions we later, as a society, tend to regret. Sawyer's "alien visitor to planet Earth" perspective does its job as it reminds us to always re-evaluate our principles, even if we do end up deciding they're correct.
In my review of Hominids, I criticized Sawyer's portrayal of physics. Quantum mechanics and portals don't come up much in Humans. Instead, the new scientific element is a geomagnetic reversal. I'm not as familiar with the science behind this, so I'm not going to discuss it at much length. Suffice it to say that Sawyer once again links his science to his exploration of what makes us conscious beings, and it's interesting, I'll give him that. Also, he presents it in such a way that it's a constant but unassuming part of the plot that readily takes a back seat to the character conflicts that dominate Humans.
Ponter and Mary are now trying to chisel out a "relationship" as best they can. It's difficult, since Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have radically different ideas with regards to mating, cohabitation, and marriage. Mary still perplexes me, and I don't find her a very satisfactory character. Sawyer just doesn't sell me on the motivations behind how she acts, and as a result, she seems to be acting a certain way because the plot requires that she does so. It's not that I'm incredulous that any scientist or any divorced person can still be a Catholic—rather, I'm incredulous of Mary after hearing her flabbergasted explanations to Ponter on how she reconciles the contradictory aspects of her personality. Sawyer is ascribing complex character traits to characters who are not, evidently, that complex at all, and the book creaks under the added stress.
Humans is much like Hominids. I found it a very average book. Typical of Sawyer's writing, it didn't take me long to read at all, and overall the book's enjoyable and interesting. It could be a lot better....more
**spoiler alert** Didn't we just do this? I need to take a break from Robert J. Sawyer for a while now, since I just read Hominids, Humans, and no**spoiler alert** Didn't we just do this? I need to take a break from Robert J. Sawyer for a while now, since I just read Hominids, Humans, and now Hybrids. The complete trilogy! Do I get a set of steak knives?
If you're really interested in a critique, I advise you to read my reviews, neither of which are very spoilerific, of the first two books. All my criticism (and praise) of those books holds for Hybrids as well. It saves me typing and saves you bandwidth and valuable time you could otherwise use for, say, reading books.
Oh, and there are spoilers now. You started reading this review regardless of the automatic warning, though, so I assume you're OK with that.
One of the main plots in Hybrids centres around Ponter and Mary's budding relationship. They need to work out living arrangements, considering that Ponter spends twenty-five days of the month living with his man-mate, Adikor, and if bonded to Mary would only expect to see her four days a month. Mary has to get over her conditioned discomfort with Ponter and Adikor's intimate relationship, and she has to decide where she wants to live—her Earth, or his. Finally, Mary and Ponter want to have a child, and they need to decide if it will have a predisposition toward religious belief (like humans) or be an atheist (like Neanderthals).
This plot is the most interesting part of the book. Mary's ultimate decision to make their child a born atheist is no doubt controversial. I'm an atheist, and even I at first expressed some indignation—I thought Mary's decision was one that she couldn't make, that the child should have the choice. But belief isn't a choice, is it? I can't just choose to suddenly change my mind and believe in God . . . such convictions are deeper than conscious thought. So my initial position seems to be wrong; the idea that Mary and Ponter's child should be born with the potential for choosing religion or atheism because it's an "obstacle" to be overcome is just as bad as saying that the child should be born blind so it can "overcome" the obstacles associated with blindness. Religious people would no doubt disagree . . . but such a debate is outside the scope of this review. It's enough that Hybrids sparks the debate; science fiction should do that.
The other plot is Jock Krieger's genocidal attempt to infect all Neanderthals with an altered, selective strain of Ebola so as to wipe clean their pristine version of Earth and leave it ripe for human colonization. This plot isn't nearly as convincing nor as interesting as the other one. Firstly, Jock is just such a stereotypical villain—the "avaricious American"—that I cringed a great deal while reading his scenes. Secondly, Sawyer can't maintain the suspense required for the amount of travel his characters have to accomplish just to foil the bad guy.
With regards to Jock, I had a hard time believing someone could be both that nefarious and that blasé at the same time. (I'm sure some people in real life are, but fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense.) His character didn't sit well with me in Humans either; he seemed to fluctuate between earnest scientist who desired synergy and coldblooded game theorist who only wanted to exploited the Neanderthals. And as soon as Mary gives him the Neanderthal codon writer, the first thing he does is manufacture a virus that kills Neanderthals—and only Neanderthals. It wasn't a big deal to him though.
After reading Flashforward and these books, I've realized that Sawyer has a penchant for forcing his characters to traverse nearly impossible distances in very short lengths of time. In the case of Hybrids, he ups the ante: our characters have to go back and forth as their goals change toward the very end of the book, and I had a hard time keeping it all straight.
What most let me down about Hybrids, however, was the fizzle of the threat of Earth's geomagnetic reversal. In Humans, we learned that it was possible that the collapse of the Earth's magnetic field would cause human consciousness to "crash." Not only does Sawyer dismiss this threat in Hybrids, but he does it in an incredibly banal way, tacking it on after the climax where Mary and Ponter confront Jock. All of humanity goes on a great big magnetically-induced acid trip with themes ranging from religion to alien abduction? While this could be an important plot point in its own right, the way Sawyer included it at the end of the book turns it into an afterthought and undermines the intriguing ideas he advanced in Humans about the link between consciousness and Earth's magnetic field.
So what's new with Hybrids? Not much. Babies, genocide, a little uncomfortable dramatic irony. As far as concluding volumes go, Hybrids wraps up the plot nice and neatly, but it doesn't earn any points in the drama department. The story here is thin and not very satisfying....more
Few things are probably scarier than suddenly being utterly and totally alone. Robert J. Sawyer reminds us of that fact by transposing Ponter Boddit,Few things are probably scarier than suddenly being utterly and totally alone. Robert J. Sawyer reminds us of that fact by transposing Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, from the parallel universe in which he resides to our universe, where Neanderthals have been extinct for tens of thousands of years. Aside from having instant celebrity status—including the paparazzi that come with it—Ponter must face the fact that he might never return to his own universe. And back in his universe, this has ramifications for people he cares about. As the consequences of Ponter's transposition unfold in two universes, Sawyer shows us what might have been if evolution had happened differently, and he presents an interesting contrast to contemporary human society.
I am disappointed with Sawyer's use of physics—more accurately, with his explanations—in Hominids. He gets the premise, quantum computing breaching a parallel universe, as a freebie. With such an intriguing premise, however, I would have expected a more thorough look at the physics behind quantum computing and parallel universes. Instead, we get a watered-down conversation between a physicist and a geneticist that compares the "Copenhagen interpretation" and the many-worlds hypothesis.
Sawyer's explanation of the Copenhagen interpretation is quite misleading. Yes, quantum mechanics is complex, so I don't expect more than a simple explanation of anything—yet Sawyer has demonstrated in other books that he's up to the challenge. Firstly, there is no one explicit "Copenhagen interpretation." It's actually an umbrella term for several related, sometimes contradictory interpretations. Secondly, the Copenhagen interpretation does not strictly rely on a conscious observer; rather, the act of observing a system alters the system. Some interpretations pair Copenhagen with a conscious observer, but not all.
Of course, the more I read Sawyer's work, the more I realize that his underlying theme is one of consciousness. Specifically, Sawyer's interested in what makes us conscious and the implications that consciousness has for human development. I saw this in Wake, in which Sawyer juxtaposes a new emergent consciousness with human consciousness; in Flashforward, consciousness is a key component of the reason behind the eponymous global event.
In Hominids, consciousness is a dichotomous moment: in our universe, Homo sapiens received the quantum fluke of consciousness, as Sawyer interprets it here; in Ponter's universe, Homo neanderthalensis achieved consciousness. That event caused the first divergence of the universe, and since then it's consciousness (specifically, having it) that has made all the difference. But these two conscious species, while both achieving success and dominance on the planet, have developed very distinct societies.
The description of Neanderthal society is probably the most intriguing aspect of Hominids. Everything from the non-agricultural, decimal system of timekeeping to the Companion and alibi archive technology is both different yet familiar. Sawyer manages to take disparate, well-used ideas, like that of a "surveillance society" and combine them in order to create a well-realized, seemingly functional society filled with Neanderthals. Ponter's world has almost no crime and is arguably more environmentally conscious. However, it has its problems too, as we see from Adikor's almost capricious encounter with the judicial system. The parts of this book that take place in Ponter's universe are the best parts, because they're interesting and also exciting.
Would that the rest of the book could keep up! It's an unfortunate consequence of the nature of a linear narrative that authors must occasionally compress the span of events. Otherwise, I don't think that our Earth would have accepted so quickly the idea that Ponter is from a parallel universe; likewise, there would have been more inquiry into exactly what happened to Ponter when he reappeared in his universe. Sawyer presents interesting snippets of news articles that let us know how the wider world is reacting to his plot development, but his scenes are never global in scope. Instead, he focuses on individuals, usually of limited authority, close to the centre of the crisis.
Unfortunately, most of the human characters leave much to be desired. The main character, Mary Vaughan, is raped in her opening scene, doesn't report the rape (because the plot requires it), but tells Ponter about it moments before he leaves to return to his universe. And she apparently manages to fall in love with him because he's attractive and flustered by humanity's paradoxical approach to ethics. I've no doubt that Sawyer's put in a good effort to forge the relationships he needs to explore his larger issues of consciousness, religion, and inter-species romance. But it just comes off as very contrived and even, dare I say, stereotypical, particularly when it comes to how Mary copes with being raped. The fact that the major relationship in this series is shallow does not help Hominids and will not help the other two books.
There's no question here: I heartily recommend Hominids to anyone interested in a glimpse at a world where Neanderthals became the dominant species. As with any Sawyer book I've read, this is a fast read; Sawyer keeps the plot moving and keeps you wanting more. While I can't always laud the results, Sawyer does know what he's doing as a writer, and Hominids demonstrates that with every page....more
Warning: This review contains spoilers about the review. Continue reading only if you have already read this review or if you are unconcerned about ruWarning: This review contains spoilers about the review. Continue reading only if you have already read this review or if you are unconcerned about ruining the ending of this review.
Open with a joke about the size and weight of this book making it good for a number of non-reading-related purposes. Go on to comment on the excessive amounts of esoteric terminology.
That's probably how most reviews of this book begin, and they're probably right in doing so. Of course, plenty of books are justified in their length (or at least, we tell them they're justified for fear that they'll sneak off our shelves and kill us in our sleep if we say otherwise). And I see plenty of reviews that go on to say that they like Banks' no-holds-barred use of terminology, counting it as a sign of good worldbuilding. I'm not as convinced that The Algebraist is satisfactory in either regard, but let's give it the benefit of a doubt. Let's assume that Banks is justified in both these respects and go on to address the next question: if a reader can get past these two hurdles, does he or she find a worthwhile story?
(Review spoiler alert: the answer is "No.")
The heart of this space opera is Fassin Taak's search for a mathematical Transform that will unscramble a list of coordinates of secret wormholes that connect almost every inhabited system in the galaxy. The Mercatoria, ostensibly the good guys, would kill for this sort of information, since wormholes are the only viable method of faster-than-light travel and connecting two systems by wormhole is an arduous process. Come to think of it, anyone would kill to get the information, or to keep it hidden, which makes Fassin's search quite difficult.
Banks spends the majority of this book (and that is a lot of book right there) keeping coy about whether or not any such secret wormhole network exists. In the end, the revelation is somewhat disappointing, and even a little predictable to those well-versed in this sort of science fiction story. (Gas-dwelling alien species think alike.) And it turns out not to have much bearing on the other major plot in the book, the invasion of Fassin's home system, Ulubis, even though Fassin's in such a hurry to find the Transform so he can get help before the invasion fleet arrives. So the two main plots become disconnected, and neither are very satisfying on their own.
(Review spoiler alert: I'm trying to do this review without any actual plot spoilers, so forgive my ambiguity.)
To discuss the Dweller List and its Transform, one must discuss the Dwellers themselves. I have to confess to having a soft spot for absurdist, relaxed aliens who have a society based on the accumulation of "kudos" but happen to be lying on a cache of hyper-advanced weaponry should a threat come calling. Pretty much all of the Awesome in The Algebraist is a result, directly or indirectly of action or utterance of a Dweller or Dwellers. My favourite example would probably be where Archmandrite Luseferous begins shooting live humans out into space unless the Dwellers produce Fassin:
Luseferous pointed furiously at the line of bodies heading slowly towards the planet. "Don't you fuckwits understand? That doesn't stop until I get what I want!"
The three Dwellers twisted to look as one. "Hmm," Peripule said thoughtfully. "I do hope you have enough people."
I'll save talking about how this pushes Luseferous from deliciously evil to laughable stereotype for later. I just want to revel in how wonderfully apathetic the Dwellers are. Not that I condone apathy toward humans. But the Dwellers' attitude is very alien, and as the above example demonstrates, they really have no reason to care about human lives.
(Review spoiler alert: The following is about the only praise I have for The Algebraist, so lap it up while the lapping is good.)
Unfortunately, our glimpse at Dweller society is brief compared to the time Fassin spends traipsing about the rest of the galaxy meeting a couple of other random species. We learn that the Dwellers don't really fight in factions anymore so much as have "Formal Wars" over somewhat trivial issues. Nevertheless, Dweller society isn't very cohesive—many Dwellers are completely ignorant of matters like military capability and whether or not they have a secret wormhole network. There's just so much potential in this single species. Despite the fact that a good chunk of the book happens in Dweller gas giants and Fassin spends most of his time with Dwellers, there's so much more we could have learned.
(Review spoiler alert: And now we resume our regularly-scheduled criticism.)
Compared to the intriguing Dwellers, the actual object of Fassin's quest is far less interesting. Banks makes a big deal over the fact that Fassin needs to find "the Transform," which turns out to be an equation written in "alien algebra" (hence the title, The Algebraist). Supposedly this list and its Transform are so important because they'd give the Mercatoria (or its enemies) access to a pre-existing network of wormholes. If this network exists, the Dwellers so far haven't offered to share it with the Quick species. No one seems to mention why finding proof of this network would motivate the Dwellers to change this position. And if the Mercatoria has the means to find the wormholes, what do they intend to do? Take the wormhole portals by arms? Because we've already established that the Dwellers, while never openly hostile, don't permit that sort of tactic and tend to respond with overwhelming force.
The actual quest is a mundane journey that consists of following various Dwellers who may have information Fassin needs. Along the way, he gets into a series of scrapes. At first, there's pressure to find the Transform as soon as possible, so that the Mercatoria can summon reinforcements before Luseferous' invasion fleet arrives in Ulubis. Gradually, however, this becomes less of an issue, and in the end Fassin's search doesn't have any effect on the outcome of the invasion. Not that it matters, since the invasion itself turns out to be a minor problem anyway.
The invasion's mastermind, Archmandrite Luseferous, also begins the book as a credible threat. He's intelligent, ruthless, and sadistic. Also, Banks goes out of his way to make it clear the Luseferous isn't a delusional megalomaniac who ignores his advisers and compromises his plans out of ego or pride. This credibility erodes gradually as Luseferous' fleet travels to Ulubis, culminating in Luseferous' humiliation and defeat because he antagonizes a couple of Dwellers in search for this mythical Transform. And there's no real reason for this sudden change in characterization, other than the fact that Banks needs Luseferous' invasion to fail, of course. That the invasion failure is a result of miscalculations and bad characterization should be enough to set off alarms in the cautious reader's head.
Sandwiched in between, among, and pretty much everywhere these two plots aren't, are various sub-plots, revenge plots, and miscellaneous exposition about the types of species that inhabit the galaxy. The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn't a bad thing). The fact that artificial intelligences are anathema forms an important point in the structure of the Mercatoria, which is fine. But then Banks includes an entire subplot involving hidden artificial intelligences, and Fassin's Head Gardener turns out to be an artificial intelligence, and all the while I'm just wondering . . . why?
There's a lot going on in The Algebraist. And a lot of it goes wrong. But it all goes wrong for the same reason: after a strong opening, the book presents a weak resolution with every possible threat declawed before it could be defeated. It's as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patience evaporated. Judging from the praise that others have heaped upon this book, this is a situation where your mileage will vary. However, I urge you to think twice. There is a story somewhere in the depths of The Algebraist, but extracting and parsing it is not for the faint of heart . . . and I question whether the end result worth the effort....more
I did it again. I walked smack into the middle of a series. And I have only myself to blame. Had I been more careful in examining this book, I would hI did it again. I walked smack into the middle of a series. And I have only myself to blame. Had I been more careful in examining this book, I would have noticed it's part of a series—I would also have noted its epistolary format, another feature that ordinarily gives me pause. However, I did not notice these things, and even once I did, I read this book anyway. Now I have to write this review—me, a neophyte to the Adrian Mole saga, a doubter of epistolary works! This can only end in tears.
Adrian Mole, at this point in his life, is the single father of two boys (by different mothers), living in housing, and struggling to make a career for himself as a writer. We're supposed to identify with Adrian on some level, I guess, and find humour in his insane experiences with crazy relatives, random elderly people, and the head of comedy at the BBC. So you'll have to forgive me, fans of Adrian Mole, when I say that I think Adrian is an idiot.
I don't really want to identify with someone as deluded and irresponsible as Adrian. Sure, the people in his life use him quite a bit and seldom show him much respect. I sympathize. I don't empathize, however, because on top of all those hardships, Adrian creates more in a ceaseless fashion that is a neurosis all to itself. He's paranoid, obsessive, and bland. There's very little to like about Adrian. Usually, when faced with a main character like this, I take it as a sign that the story is one of gradual redemption as the character shoulders responsibility after responsibility. I didn't expect Adrian to become a world-renowned humanitarian or even to find love (in fact, I was sure the probability of the latter was zero). Yet Townsend manages to restrain Adrian from any sort of character development; in fact, I think he might actually un-develop, if such a thing is possible.
The back of my edition has quotations from various publications. The Evening Standard suggests that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) identifying with Adrian, he's a useful creation because "no matter what your troubles may be, Adrian Mole is sure to make you feel better." I get that; part of the appeal of comedy is finding humour in the tribulations of other people. My point, however, is that there is little humour to be found in Adrian's situation. Most of it is of his own invention, and thus unavoidable. It would have been better if Adrian were less of an idiot, a more redeeming man faced with the burden of overbearing, maritally-confused parents and step-parents while trying to raise two kids. As it is, I feel better knowing I'm no longer reading about Adrian Mole!
According to The Times, "Adrian Mole really is a brilliant comic creation . . . every sentence is witty and well thought out. . . ." That is pure-grade blurb hyperbole. The majority of sentences in this book are dull or, at best, mildly amusing. I did appreciate Townsend's intentional, subtle use of grammatical errors to create a more authentic epistolary experience.
As an aside, I'd also like to give a shout-out to the New Statesman. Apparently their regular blurb-writer was out sick, because someone in the office decided it was appropriate to string-together several adjectives: "poignant, hilarious, heart-rending, devastating" and call it a blurb (I kid you not; that is the entire quotation).
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole is a perfect example of someone trying to create an exception to the rule and failing miserably. It contains the sort of random plot developments and incredible acts that, if done well, make a humourous novel awesome by definition. By the same token, however, it's very difficult to do it well. There's no middle ground, and if it doesn't work, it plunges the book into mediocrity. I always think of Douglas Coupland when considering this phenomenon. Coupland's books are rife with insane plot developments (my favourites are usually in JPod, which Coupland then leveraged into a hilarious TV series for the CBC). He does it so well that his books, at least in my opinion, are exactly what The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole attempts to be. Yet Coupland does occasionally slip up, and when he does, it markedly detracts from the quality of his book. Poor humour is worse than no humour.
My comparison to Coupland will continue as I examine the next gimmick that Townsend employs: like Coupland, she writes herself into the book! Like Coupland, this fictional Townsend is a caricature, portrayed as a hack and a jerk. Unlike Coupland, who plays a large and direct role in JPod, Townsend doesn't actually appear in person; she's just mentioned by several characters, including Adrian himself. Unfortunately, this reduced role feels like the rest of the book's gimmicks do: throw-aways without which the book would have been better.
Epistolary novels, in general, are harder for me to appreciate than the more conventional contemporary novel format. Even Coupland's The Gum Thief didn't persuade me to join the dark side. Now, like any story, the success of an epistolary work depends more on its writer than the fact that it's written as a series of letters. Douglas Coupland executed his novel well, which earned it a respectable 3 of 5 stars. Sue Townsend, on the other hand, has written a series of one-off joke snippets with reusable characters and combined them to create a novel-length work. And that's my main objection to contemporary epistolary novels; it's just so easy to be lazy with the actual letters or diary entries themselves. Since any epistolary work will naturally feel somewhat jumbled after it has been assembled, owing to the discrete nature of each entry, it's harder to detect this overall lesser quality than it is in a novel with a more unified narrative.
Are there funny parts in The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole? Certainly, but they are few and far between, and once used, Townsend tends to parade them around time and again until they have long overstayed their welcome. That's true of the book itself as well....more
**spoiler alert** Welcome to a typical "forbidden fruit" romance scenario in an historical setting. Aemilia is a discontent vestal virgin who manages**spoiler alert** Welcome to a typical "forbidden fruit" romance scenario in an historical setting. Aemilia is a discontent vestal virgin who manages to fall in love with a man. Naturally, since the vestals must remain chaste, this is considered a bad thing, and so Aemilia is torn between her loyalty to Rome and her love of a slave determined to overthrow Rome. Drama!
Narrated from Aemilia's point of view, the story takes on an intensely personal tone. We feel Aemilia's loneliness, her sadness that her family just packed her away to become a vestal virgin, her sense of estrangement from the other vestals, who offer more squabbles than support. She grows from an uneasy child into an uneasy woman, never able to give herself entirely to Vesta like some of the vestals can, unwilling to throw herself into the politics of her group. It's easy to sympathize with Aemilia, to watch her take a lover and reflect on how unfair it is that she gets caught. But she does get caught; she does have to suffer the consequences. In the end, what does it all mean?
Despite Aemilia's strong voice, her relationships with her fellow vestals are somewhat one-dimensional. It's as if Sherri Smith made the other vestals a certain way in order to emphasize Aemilia's sensibleness. Alarm bells immediately went off in my head, and I thought of other books that do this—pump up the main caracter by surrounding him or her with less-than-ideal companions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't enjoy having Aemilia as the narrator. She was just far too biased (and, as I'll later point out, unreliable). From this perspective, The Virgin's Tale becomes a "woe is me" tale instead of a "tragedy of a girl forced to become political scapegoat" tale that it could be. Suddenly the story becomes about what happens to Aemilia instead of how what happens to Aemilia reflects on the nature of the Republic of Rome.
The only other interesting character is Julia, who joins the vestal virgins after Aemilia. The two share friendship and rivalry for the first few years of their service, culminating in an awkward nighttime visit by Julia to Aemilia's room. Here was where the book could have diverged, could have become interesting by making Julia Aemilia's lover, and for a moment, I thought that would be the case. After all, nothing in the description says that Aemilia broke her vow of chastity for a man.
Alas, my hopes were not borne out. Aemilia falls for a household slave, Lysander, who claims to have been born in Greece but is actually just a half-Greek born into slavery in Rome. He is also plotting to overthrow Rome by supporting a patrician's plot while secretly raising a slave rebellion of his own. To Smith's credit, Lysander has enough brains that he's not all brawn—Aemilia and him do seem to fall in love. Still, it's a gooey, carefree sort of love that seems riskless even though Aemilia is, in fact, risking it all. But I'm sure it's OK because, you know, he makes her feel really, really good.
And in fact, depending on the interpretation of the ending, that element of risk completely evaporates. That Aemilia would be caught was never in doubt. The book begins with her being sealed into an underground tomb. However, we don't learn if she gets rescued until the very end. There's reason to believe that rescue may just be a hallucination though.
The part of me averse to happy endings thinks Lysander's rescue of Aemilia is a weak way to end this book. We were built up for tragedy right until the end, and to yank away Aemilia's tragic death and replace it with a happily-ever-after is the ultimate cheat. Truthfully, I also didn't care much for either Aemilia or Lysander, so I wasn't sad to see her go. Much better that she should die for love than escape because someone inexplicably put a door into the side of her tomb and Lysander happened to sneak to where she was buried and help dig her out. Right.
On the other hand, the ending could just be a dream. Aemilia demonstrates herself to be an unreliable narrator several times in this book, most notably with the way in which she fantasizes about Tullia leaving the vestal virgins after her 30 year term of service is up and marrying her lover. It turns out that Tullia was actually caught and executed, her fate identical to what would befall Aemilia. We only learn this at the very end of the book. This, combined with the fact that the method of Aemilia's rescue seems improbable, leads to me to think that it's a dream and not reality. The stress of Aemilia's capture, combined with the depleting oxygen in the room, finally makes her crack.
Since the ending ultimately depends on whether one considers Aemilia a reliable narrator, it's up to the reader how to interpret it. Neither ending substantially changes my opinion of the book. I suppose I should probably just avoid these sorts of historical romances in the future. I picked the book up because it's set in ancient Rome, and I like ancient Rome. It's unfair of me to expect the book to rise above its genre and give me something else, just as it's unfair for a Western reader to expect a fantasy novel not to have magic. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself to label an entire genre mediocre—and that's what The Virgin's Tale is—which leads me to conclude that there are certainly better books in this genre than this one. While it's a far cry from awful, The Virgin's Tale doesn't possess anything that makes it stand out....more
**spoiler alert** The arc of Codex Alera is certainly proceeding in the proper direction. I liked Furies of Calderon, but I really likedAcadem's Fu**spoiler alert** The arc of Codex Alera is certainly proceeding in the proper direction. I liked Furies of Calderon, but I really likedAcadem's Fury. Although the plot itself wasn't as inspired and thoughtful as it could have been, it had hints of originality. Where the second book of the Codex Alera truly shines is in its characterization and the difficult themes therein revealed. This isn't just 400 pages of macho "we've got to save the kingdom" sorcery and swordplay. That's right: there's actually feelings and consequences.
Two years after Furies of Calderon, Tavi is a student at the Academy in Alera's capital . . . Alera. He's also training to become a secret agent and serving as a page to the First Lord Gaius Sextus. However, events from the previous book are coming back to bite him in the ass. It turns out that the creature he awoke in the middle of the Wax Forest was actually the dormant queen of a terrifying species called the vord. They've nearly wiped out the Marat twice and this time are going after Alera—and Tavi. In the ensuing chaos, enemies of Gaius Sextus choose to attack him while his health fails, and other enemies find themselves in the ironic position of having to aid Gaius so Alera doesn't succumb to civil war when it most needs to be strong and unified.
Although Furies of Calderon was also tinged with political intrigue, Academ's Fury blossoms with it, and we finally get a sense of what it's like to see Jim Butcher write on a grander scale. The world of Carna becomes clearer, and we learn of the existence of some other races, such as the canine Canim and the Icemen (who were mentioned in the first book but only in passing). With the exception of one as you know about furycrafting between Tavi and Maximus, Academ's Fury is delightfully light on exposition, preferring to deliver the details of the world around us as the action unfolds. The exposition, when it's present, is disguised by Butcher's careful and lively descriptions of battle sequences.
The battles will be a treat for those who come for the carnage. Me, I'm more interested in the intrigue. Fidelias is back, working even more closely with the Lord and Lady (especially the Lady) Aquitaine. We get more of his well-intentioned extremist speech as he tries to persuade Isana to throw in her support with the Aquitaines—and get to see his surprise, mirroring our own, she agrees. I have to admit that, as I watched Isana consider pledging her public support to the Aquitaines in return for assistance against the vord invading Calderon, I thought, "No way. She's going to stick to her principles, say no, and find another way to do this." But she said yes, and my respect for Jim Butcher went up another notch, because he makes his characters make tough decisions and stick to them.
I wish I could say I was more impressed with Isana as a character than I was in the first book, but that's not the case. Again, Tavi found his way into my heart, as did Kitai. Isana had even less to do in this book than she did in the second, even though she is arguably far more important this time around. Indeed, for someone who's supposed to be so formidable, she spends a good deal of her time captured by someone intent on using her; Lady Aquitaine is just a good deal more polite about it than Kord was. Back in Calderon, Bernard and Amara hunt down a vord nest while making eyes at each other, and I'm forced to agree with Doroga, who gives them the Marat equivalent of "get a room."
My dissatisfaction with the characters themselves didn't stop me from enjoying the dilemmas they face. Like Isana, Amara finds herself torn between loyalty to the First Lord (the office) and loyalty to her heart. I'll let you guess which she chooses; the point is that she and Bernard make a choice and that it will doubtless have consequences in future books. Once again, Butcher weaves life-and-death conflict together with mundane family and romantic matters to create a convincing, three-dimensional story that makes me read fast and furiously onward to the end.
And what an ending. Furious doesn't even begin to describe the pacing around the climax. There's a lot going on—too much, almost, although Butcher manages to pull it off. Once again, Tavi demonstrates that even though he has no furycrafting he's still a formidable foe. Once again, Butcher manoeuvres his characters into certain death and then delivers rescues that would be deus ex machina, were it not for the fact that, going back, the justification for those rescues has been built up since nearly the first chapter. Elements that seem disparate are in fact intimately connected: the elusive thief that Tavi must track down is actually his semi-fiancée, Kitai; Isana goes to Alera's capital looking for help from the First Lord but ends up getting it from an enemy; Fade once again slips reluctantly back into his persona of Araris Valerian. There's a grand structure at work in Academ's Fury, one so carefully crafted that Butcher makes it look easy.
It is easy, too, to see where Tavi and friends will end up. Without reading any spoilers for the next books, I can see where the plot is going and what Tavi's role in the fate of Alera will be. Not that I'm complaining. What Butcher lacks for originality in his plot he makes up for with original worldbuilding and strong writing—his plots deliver, even if they can be predictable. If there is any reason to read Furies of Calderon, or to re-read it if you gave it a try and put it down in a fit of disinterest, here is one: Academ's Fury....more
My gut reaction to this book: "Wow, this guy spent a lot of time figuring out to how to describe things."
Maybe it's a shallow statement, especially coMy gut reaction to this book: "Wow, this guy spent a lot of time figuring out to how to describe things."
Maybe it's a shallow statement, especially coming from a writer, but it's true. Revenant made me think about how literary fiction tends to put more emphasis on lyrical descriptions than other genres. And along with that, you get all these characters that are apparently not only observant, but verbose in their observations. A certain amount of description is necessary in any book; literary fiction runs the risk of introducing so many trite phrases that the book becomes a bundle of intense adjectives connected by some common nouns, populated by characters who apparently all have English degrees.
Revenant succeeds in presenting the same scenes differently from the perspectives of different characters. Quantity of lyrical descriptions aside, Tristan Hughes does establish a distinct voice for each of Neil, Ricky, and Steph. So when any two of them described the same scene, it would be laced with different prejudices, different assumptions, and different observations. Neil saw Mr. Jones in a sympathetic light while Ricky viewed him as an arrogant, shambling old man. This is something that really intrigued me and kept me reading even when the book felt slow.
Part of that slowness is an endemic quality owing to the book's setting and themes. Taking place on a small Welsh island, Revenant is retrospective and introspective. It's has very little action, and the action that does take place is motivated by internal conflict more than any external force. Any substance in the book comes from those conflicts, and from how the characters work through them as individuals, alone. (Because none of these people talk. They just don't. They spend the entire book not talking.)
Childhood can be traumatic, and Revenant captures that feeling perfectly. It has a traumatic event, yes, but it's also the way in which the characters, who are now adults, look back on their childhood in general. With distance between the past and the present, the characters pass judgement and form conscious opinions as to how their childhood influenced their lives. Now they've come together after years apart, years that have changed them, and we see them try to finally come to terms with that trauma.
There's plenty of observations the characters make that I found valid. I especially enjoyed Ricky's reflections on how time doesn't diminish the feeling of intimacy between truly good friends—ten years ago can feel like ten hours ago between good friends. Some of the observations feel a little too valid, as if the characters have been moulded into certain mindsets and told what people whom they represent would say a certain thing. Again, Ricky, as the wandering, unfulfilled adult who never quite grew into maturity, fits this description.
We never do get much detail on what the characters were doing between childhood and the present-day part of the book. Neil stayed on the island; Steph presumably went to the mainland. Ricky was "away." This gap in the narrative lends itself to the characters as representatives of types of people rather than actual persons, something that mars the otherwise poignant microcosm that Hughes creates on this island. The characters are mouthpieces, not people, and every time I read a book like that, I get a sudden desire to pick up something by John Irving. There's a man who knows how to weave emotional truth into a fulfilling story and create real, living characters.
Revenant is an origami piece of a story: beautiful but fragile. It's an interesting execution of the same old ideas and themes that we see in retrospects of one's childhood, to the point that I'd almost say the themes are executed too well. It's skilfully and exquisitely written but doesn't take any thematic risks, choosing instead to play it safe....more
I have to admit that I'm not a Harry Turtledove connoisseur. I read a couple of his books when I was younger and have somehow retained romantic memoriI have to admit that I'm not a Harry Turtledove connoisseur. I read a couple of his books when I was younger and have somehow retained romantic memories of how great a writer he was. This has motivated me to go back and read his oeuvre. I started with this series more by coincidence than anything: I noticed The Breath of God on my library's New Books shelf and took out both it and this book. Unfortunately, Beyond the Gap didn't live up to my expectations, and now I'm wondering if my fond memories of Turtledove are faulty.
The premise is interesting enough. To the north, a vast Glacier blocks any further travel—until a Gap opens up, through which a barbarian Bizogot by the name of Trasamund discovers that there's a world beyond the Glacier. And there are people in it, people who call themselves the Rulers and have a serious desire to invade every land they can and subjugate the people—whom they view as lesser animals or vermin—in those lands. Aside from Trasamund, most of our protagonists come from the more "civilized" empire to the south, Raumsdalia, which isn't in as much danger from the mammoth-riding Rulers—yet.
Like I said, the premise is cool. Turtledove has mixed elements of "traditional" medieval fantasy with Iron Age society and Ice Age climate. It was nice to see a quest-style, travel-based plot where the characters had to deal with such problems as lice, bed bugs, the sparse food in the northern lands, and the lack of wood. Aside from the somewhat interesting setting, however, Beyond the Gap does very little to make itself entertaining.
Take the Rulers, for instance. There's nothing really unique about them. Culturally they're distinct from the rough Bizogots and avaricious Raumsdalians; I'll give Turtledove that. But they're just the stock foreign invaders doped up on a manifest destiny. I can't help but feel that Turtledove took something with great potential, the idea of a gap in this great, impenetrable Glacier, and somehow made it feel . . . boring. Ordinary. Just another fantasy story with masculine heroes and evil invaders. There's so much he could have done with the land beyond the Glacier, so many things he could have chosen to populate it, and he chose what was perhaps the least interesting.
Not that we would ever know, for we spend precious little time in the land beyond the Glacier. It takes more than half the book to get there, and then when our protagonists arrive, they meet the Rulers, have dinner, and are promptly shown the way back to the Gap. The rest of the book consists of the group going south back to Raumsdalia, then coming back north toward the Gap. Following me? The long journey to the north the first time comes with a promise that we'll get to see something interesting beyond the Glacier. In my opinion, the Rulers don't live up to that promise. Even if they did, it doesn't justify the repetitive travel that comprises most of the second half of the book. Turtledove's characters spend most of their time talking and travelling and very little time actually doing something, probably because he's made the Rulers such a formidable threat that he can't have a group of five people beat them. That would, admittedly, be zany.
This roundabout plotting would be forgivable if we had some interesting character development to go with it. There is character development, but it's very tame and usually simmers rather than coming to a boil. The main character, Hamnet Thyssen, is obsessed with his adulterous wife (until he falls for a Bizogot shaman). She happens to be married to a scholar going on this quest up north, and she decides to come along just to torment Hamnet. Most of the relationship issues in the rest of the book centre around how horrible this woman, Gudrid, is to everyone, even the men who sleep with her. Apparently she wants only attention and acknowledgement of how much more attractive she is than other women, especially from her ex-husband, for some reason. Instead of shutting her up, however, Hamnet just banters with her in not-very-witty moments. If there's one reason to enjoy his relationship with Liv, it's that he finally feels good enough to begin moving past Gudrid. Most readers will have started this process several hundred pages before then and sigh with relief when Hamnet catches up.
Rather than constructing plausible reasons for ignoring the threat of the Rulers, Turtledove just breaks one of his characters, Sigvat the Emperor, turning him from discerning ruler into an idiot who cares more about sleeping with Gudrid than paying attention to possible threats from the north. So what does he do when Hamnet decides to go north and help the Bizogots organize a defence? Send an "imperial order" to recall Hamnet, an order that Hamnet eagerly ignores. The only duel in this book is a fistfight between Trasamund and a Ruler—and toward the end, we get a little bit of combat between the Bizogots and some Rulers. Other than this, there's plenty of talk about fighting, and Hamnet likes to mention he killed one of Gudrid's lovers in a duel, but very little fighting. I'm not a bloodthirsty person by nature, but if I ever thought a fantasy book without fighting would be interesting, Beyond the Gap has convinced me otherwise.
This is just bad, lazy storytelling. The characters and cultures and climates of Beyond the Gap are very well differentiated from each other. I like that Hamnet's noble and strong, Ulric's witty and wily, Trasamund's boastful but fair, etc. But everything is so bland. The conflicts are unremarkable, and the stakes, while high, never really seem to materialize until the very end of the book.
There's an oh-so-helpful blurb on the front cover from Publishers Weekly: "Vivid!" I'm wondering if they stuck to one word because of space limitations or because any specificity would belie the compliment. The only "vivid" thing that comes to mind are the relentless references to sex, adultery, and more sex. Every second page is, "the Bizogots often have sex in the same tent as others" or "Gudrid loved to spread her legs for men," etc. Meanwhile, all I'm thinking is, "And I don't really care. Can we return to the story now, please?" And the book replies, "No. Screw you, I'm going to talk at length about how Hamnet feels wounded by Gudrid's betrayal!" And I say, "Well fine then. I'm going to give you a poor review on Goodreads."
And then book tries to eat me, and I remind it that it is made of paper and I am made of opposable thumbs and digital watches, the former of which are great for closing the book and throwing it across the room. (Digital watches are just neat.)
Anyway, I digress. I did not enjoy this book. It is like an unflavoured meal: the structure and maybe even the nutrients are there, but without the spices and herbs to give it flavour, it's tasteless and hard to get down. Then again, I haven't tried roasting it over a dung fire, which the Bizogots claim will infuse food with a "unique taste." Not that I'm advocating book-burning, mind you. That would be silly (not to mention a bad idea in my case, since this is a library book). If you happen to own a copy, do the sensible thing and sell it to a used bookstore so you can profit from somebody else's poor taste....more
**spoiler alert** I highly recommend you read my review of Beyond the Gap if you haven't already, since it will save me time if I don't have to reiter**spoiler alert** I highly recommend you read my review of Beyond the Gap if you haven't already, since it will save me time if I don't have to reiterate all the points there that apply to The Breath of God as well. To recap: had fond memories of Turtledove, opinion of his steadily decreasing, this series is terrible, and I don't know why I've bothered.
The opening of The Breath of God foreshadows how deeply inadequate the book becomes by its end. For about the first ten pages, every second paragraph consists of an interjection of exposition to make sure that those who haven't read the first book can keep up with the proper terms and social dynamics. If there's anything good to say about Beyond the Gap, it's that its exposition is far more subtle than what happens at the beginning of The Breath of God. Still, I ignored it and read onward. Little did I know that this would be the least of my worries.
For a little while, this book was actually good, and it improved to the point that I considered it better than the first book by a fair measure—perhaps not three stars, but definitely two stars. I'll first explain what impressed me so much, and then I'm going to provide some spoilers that demonstrate why I lost all faith in this book before it was over.
Firstly, there's much more action in The Breath of God than there is in the first book. I don't want to be shallow and claim that a fantasy book must have action scenes in order to be good. However, in the setting that Turtledove has created, with the shadow of the Rulers falling over the Bizogots and Raumsdalia, the inaction on the part of the protagonists in Beyond the Gap irked me. In this book, there's many more skirmishes, retreats, victories—you name it. The protagonists win some and lose some, which makes for some balanced storytelling. None of the action sequences are too cumbersome or too long, and Turtledove capitalizes on the unique aspects of his creation: war mammoths! Oh yes. They are fearsome.
Secondly, for most of this book, there is no Gudrid. If you have read the first book, you'll know why this is a big relief.
Thirdly, while the narrative once again consists of a great deal of travelling and very little interesting development on the part of the characters or the plot, there's more variation. Instead of a long trek north beyond the Glacier followed by a long trek south followed by a long trek north, but not as far north, we get a long trek up the Glacier followed by a long trek down, then there's another trek south and finally a trek north. With fighting interspersed, it's easier to stomach. And at no point did I feel like I wanted to just stop reading, a sentiment all too familiar with Beyond the Gap.
So far the book seems tolerable, eh? Not great by any means, but something for the fantasy fan looking to relax. So what is the deal-breaker? As usual, it's characterization. The way Turtledove handles his characters in The Breath of God goes from bad to worse to unbelievable. This book moved me, but not in a profound way—it moved me to express my disbelief and my outrage over how unrealistically these characters behave.
There are plenty of minor examples, most of them toward the end of the book (hence why it seemed so good at the beginning). Once Hamnet (alternatively, "Count Hamnet" or "Hamnet Thyssen," since Turtledove can't seem to settle for just using Hamnet's first name and saving my nerves) and his party return to Nidaros, there's a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of nitwit guards, all of whom are programmed to say something like the following:
"What are you doing here?" . . . .
"Reporting to His Majesty," Hamnet answered. "I know more about what's going on in the Bizogot country than anybody he's talked to lately. I hope he'll listen to me, for the Empire's sake."
"But he's angry at you. Didn't you know that?" the guard said.
Some variation of this exchange, complete with rhetorical questions that end in "do you?" and query whether Hamnet is aware that the emperor is dissatisfied with him, populate the majority of the subsequent three pages. Also, Turtledove seems to think that having his characters state the obvious is the same as humour. All in all, this makes for very uninspiring dialogue.
All these minor problems with characterization pale in comparison to what I can only call the betrayal that occurs in chapter 14. A little background: prior to the first book, Hamnet's wife, Gudrid, left him for another man. She was malicious about it, so he spent most of Beyond the Gap nursing his emotional wound and thinking ill of women in general. He still managed to fall for Liv, a Bizogot shaman, and it looked like it was True Love. They're still happily together in The Breath of God, but now Hamnet becomes suspicious because Liv and Aulun, a Raumsdalian wizard, are spending so much time together. At first he thinks it's just shop talk, yet he can't help voicing his suspicions—which Liv promptly dismisses.
Then, out of the blue, he stumbles upon Liv and Aulun kissing. And she says:
"Don't be foolish, Hamnet," Liv said. "It's over. You know it is. It's been over for a while now. You know that, too. . . . You caused what you wanted to cure."
What a hackneyed breakup line: "It's been over for a while now." I shudder. Still, that's not what I found unforgivable. Simply put, I couldn't believe this was happening. And here Turtledove manages to demonstrate the difference between foreshadowing and justifying future events. I understand that Liv is claiming Hamnet pushed her away because of his overprotectiveness. That makes sense. Yet we suddenly go from Hamnet being suspicious to Liv leaving him, with no intermediate troubles or arguments beyond a few sparse discussions. If this was some sort of tactic to make me keep reading, it worked, because I was turning the pages as quickly as possible to see if some sort of spell was influencing their actions or if this was all just a feverish dream.
Worse still, everyone is OK with this sudden change in relationship status. At breakfast, Hamnet finds out that everyone else knows already. And none of them think it's a big deal. Ulric just recommends that Hamnet sleep with someone else.
So he does. Not immediately, but after a couple of chapters, he takes up with another wizard—this time a woman from the tribe of cannibals who live on top of the Glacier. And apparently, she makes him happy now.
It's a simple affliction, but I'm afraid it's incurable: The Breath of God is just so frustrating. Relationships between characters change based on authorial fiat, not on any logical chain of cause and effect. Characters are idiots to serve the plot or annoyingly obvious. All of these distractions woke the critic in me from his deep slumber, and I began paying more attention to how the book was written than the story itself (which is seldom good). It pains me to say this, but I actually liked some of The Sword of Truth books better than this book. The ostentatious caricature of collectivism called Emperor Jajang would be a welcome relief from the one-dimensional vacillating idiot this book calls Sigvat II.
This book's inconsistency is such a fatal flaw because it destroys the most important part of the experience, especially for a fantasy: suspension of disbelief. This act is always contingent on the author promising to create an internally consistent universe. And with unrealistic characters and uninspiring plotting, the universe of the Opening of the World trilogy just doesn't deserve my suspension of disbelief. The Breath of God sags, wheezes, and groans beneath the weight of its own implausibility....more
**spoiler alert** So I've done it again. I don't know why I do this. Sometimes literary fiction appeals to me, but most of the time it comes off as bl**spoiler alert** So I've done it again. I don't know why I do this. Sometimes literary fiction appeals to me, but most of the time it comes off as bland or just unremarkable. Nothing about The Pages indicated to me that it would be any different, and I was predictably unimpressed with it. But I can't very well write a review that says, "More of the same." I feel an obligation to provide a full explanation of my displeasure, especially because, at the time I'm writing this, the other two poor reviews of this book both consist of single sentences.
Erica and Sophie are gal pals, the former a philosophy and the latter a psychoanalyst. When a recluse named Wesley Antill dies, his surviving siblings invite someone from the University of Sydney's philosophy department to read over his epic philosophical tract and determine which bits are worth publishing. Sophie tags along for the ride, because she's got a hole in her schedule of having affairs with married men. Instead of getting to work, however, upon arriving on the farm, Erica does everything she can to avoid revealing Wesley's philosophy to us even as she stokes some sexual tension with Roger Antill, Wesley's brother. Oh, and she was sleeping with Sophie's dad.
There's a certain sense of majesty in the way Murray Bail describes both the setting and its characters. I love his descriptions of Sydney in the second chapter, the way he explains that it's a city that embraced psychoanalysis instead of philosophy as a result of how it grew from the forced immigration of convicts and other social misfits. This descriptive quality stays constant throughout the book and testifies to Bail's abilities as a writer. In fact, Bail's ability to make Australia come alive for me not just as a setting but as an atmosphere almost makes this book a worthwhile read:
Travellers and strangers to all parts of Australia, especially away from the coast, can expect wonderful hospitality. The coutnry has its faults, as any country does, but lack of hospitality is certainly not one of them. Only when hospitality is little more than an excessive informality, when an entire nation breaks into premature smiling and all-teeth, small-talk mode—which betrays an absence of philosophical foundations—does it appear as nothing more than an awkward type of lightness.
I could go on and quote more of the opening to chapter 8, which establishes a character to Australian life even as Bail continues his thematic contrast of philosophy and psychoanalysis. And to some extent, Australia becomes a better-realized character than either Erica or Sophie, for we at least better understand it. While Bail provides plenty of pithy descriptions of his other characters, there's very little conflict to accompany these pictures, and what conflict there is feels contrived and very confusing.
It's a sneaky thing, a novel without conflict. Hard to accomplish, of course, because a story needs conflict, but doable when you can distract with description and dialogue. I didn't notice it until after I finished the book and began to think about how to write this review. Then it struck me: nothing happens.
As with most damning statements, this one is not entirely true. More specifically, what does happen feels unsubstantiated by the plot. The only hint of conflict for our two main characters occurs toward the end of the book, where Sophie storms into the shed full of Wesley's papers and accuses Erica of sleeping with Sophie's father. Erica admits that she has been, and Sophie intentionally or accidentally spills her coffee over a number of the pages of Wesley's tract.
I was taken aback—not over Erica's misdemeanour or the coffee spilling incident, but because I didn't see this coming. It was entirely unexpected because I had sense of the relationship between Erica and Sophie's father. The only hint we got was when Sophie's father phones her only to ask to speak to Erica. Maybe I'm dense, but I don't always assume that if a father wants to speak to one of his daughter's friends he is sleeping with that friend. . . . Moreover, we never meet Sophie's father or her evil step-mother. All we know of them comes from Sophie herself. I feel like I'm missing an entire layer of story that would have made The Pages more interesting.
This conflict between Sophie and Erica never gets resolved. Sophie ends up leaving, taking Erica's car back to Sydney. I realize that this is a trend in literary fiction, this idea that "life goes on" after the story, but now I have to ask what the point was of having Sophie discover Erica and her father's relationship. How does it affect the story? Erica doesn't really seem to change much, and I don't know what Sophie does, because we don't hear from her after she leaves. As beautifully established as these characters are, neither of them has any development.
The same goes for poor Wesley's philosophy. Here I was shallowly expecting to actually learn about it before the end of the book. I wasn't expecting some revolutionary secret to the meaning of life, but I wanted to see something . . . different. Instead, not only does Erica avoid Wesley's philosophy for the majority of the novel, but we get a serious of disjointed statements at the very end of the book, with very little moderation or interpretation. So I'm left to interpret things for myself—always a dangerous task—and conclude that the moral of the story is that amateurs don't make good philosophers!
Really, the entire exploration of philosophy and its juxtaposition with psychoanalysis is shallow and pretentious. I can say this because I have examples of literary fiction that does exactly this and does it well. Take, for instance, any novel by John Irving, who demonstrates that a fascinating plot is not anathema to deep characters with psychological issues. More appropriate even to our discussion would be the Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies, which draws heavily on Jungian psychology, and features actual scenes of psychoanalysis in the later books. Davies uses a full cast of characters to illustrate his themes on psychology and philosophy. Bail's minimalist and tightly lyrical approach, while artistically intriguing, is not as successful nor as satisfactory.
I can't, in good conscience, recommend it, not when there are so many better executions of similar themes in the works of Irving, Davies, et al. Yet you may decide otherwise. I'm finding that the statement "your mileage may vary," while applicable to any matter of taste, is doubly applicable to taste in works of literary fiction. Judging from the blurbs on the back of this edition, Bail has a strong following—and all the more power to him. I won't be joining that following, however. The Pages didn't strike any chords with me....more
Seldom does a book live up to blurbs like "Unforgettable. Impossible to put down," as Jack McDevitt says of Wake. Usually, such claims are empty hype,Seldom does a book live up to blurbs like "Unforgettable. Impossible to put down," as Jack McDevitt says of Wake. Usually, such claims are empty hype, even when the book is good. Not so with Wake. I agree wholeheartedly with McDevitt, for I was 100 pages into the novel before realizing it was 2 AM and I should probably get some sleep. There's no way that Wake could be mistaken for "an action-packed thrill ride" or any of those other tired blurb clichés floating around in the critique pool, but "impossible to put down" definitely describes the opening to Robert J. Sawyer's new trilogy about an emerging artificial intelligence.
For a fairly short volume, and one that lacks any sort of action or suspense, there's a lot packed into Wake. The central plot, which deals with Caitlin Decter's bid to gain sight and how this leads her to discover the Web's emergent intelligence, happens against a backdrop of the ongoing information wars in China and research into primate intelligence in the United States. Sawyer makes accurate allusions to current technology and scientific developments. This sense of scope and style reminds me of how Cory Doctorow writes about technology in his books. With ease, these authors transcribe to paper actions and descriptions about technology we use every day but don't always pause to understand how we use it. Moreover, because the descriptions are accurate, Sawyer is educating the less technologically-adept even as he immerses us in this very human plot. So kudos.
I call the plot of this book "human," even though it concerns an AI, because the nature of being human is the motif that connects all of the disparate subplots in Wake. I wish that something beyond theme connected these subplots; the critic in me has to profess disappointment that Hobo the chimp's story is only tangential to Caitlin's, at least for now. This is a structural issue with the narrative, however, and it doesn't detract from the thematic brilliance of Sawyer's writing.
Caitlin often refers to Helen Keller and her writing, as well as a book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. She mentions Keller's descriptions of what her thought processes were like before she learned how to communicate and interact with the external world. Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness similarly discusses a theory about a turning point in human history where the two halves of the brain managed to talk to each other and act on conscious thoughts instead of instinct.
In China, the Communist Party decides to kill several thousand people in a remote province to eliminate the threat of H5N1. To prevent the Chinese people from seeing the inevitable backlash of the world media, it severs all communication outside of China. These are the actions of humans, yet the idea of killing thousands of people merely to prevent the spread of an infection seems, at least to me, very inhuman.
Then there's the bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid, Hobo, who can communicate via sign language and startles everyone when he paints representational art—a profile of one of his researchers—instead of the typical abstract pictures so far produced by non-human primates. The way Sawyer portrays Hobo makes him seem far more human than he actually is, and this is where, as a sceptic, I have to balk. Artificial intelligence aside, this is probably the part of the book that relies the most on extrapolation of something we haven't achieved yet. I do believe it's possible for apes to use sign language to communicate intelligently; don't get me wrong. And Sawyer's portrayal of Hobo's humanity serves its purpose of parallelling the development of the Web AI.
This final piece of the plot puzzle is what connects the other three, of course. When China puts up the Great Firewall, it severs this non-sentient entity into two, suddenly enabling it to begin conceiving of time and eventually abstract thought. From there, it begins to learn and teach itself new concepts, something that continues up to and after Caitlin discovers its existence. Sawyer does his best to portray the alien nature of this intelligence's journey toward sentience while still describing it in terms we can comprehend. For the most part, he pulls this off, although I preferred the observations that Caitlin, her father, and Dr. Kuroda make about the intelligence's composition as cellular automata over Sawyer's first-person depictions of the intelligence. The former were just so unique yet tantalizing, since it really drives home the point that the Web is a fluctuating network of constant streaming data and not some sort of static series of Facebook pages and Google search results all stored in a database and delivered to your browser when you hit "Go."
To return to the motif of humanity, however, I'd like to point out a section toward the end of the book, in which Caitlin leads the emerging intelligence to Wikipedia, which it consumes eagerly, and then onto Project Gutenberg:
And then, and then, and then—
The gold mine.
The mother lode. . . .
Not just coded conceptual relationships, not just definitions, not just brief articles.
No, these were—books! Lengthy, in-depth treatments of ideas. Complex stories. Brilliant arguments, profound philosophies, compelling narratives. This site, this wonderful Project Gutenberg, contained over 25,000 books rendered in plain ASCII text. . . .
It took me an eternity—eight hours!—but I absorbed it all: every volume, every polemic, every poem, every play, every novel, every short story, ever work of history, of science, of politics. I inhaled them . . . and I grew even more.
Firstly, I'd like to note that Sawyer has described precisely how I feel about books, about reading in general, and about wonderful libraries like Project Gutenberg. But if you're reading this review, you're probably on Goodreads, and you probably understand, so I won't belabour that point. Secondly, while Sawyer is far from the first SF author or scientist to make this point, it's an important one when it comes to discussing how to deal with an artificial intelligence, should we create one or should one emerge spontaneously as it does in Wake. It's going to learn. Fast. And the information we feed it will determine what opinions it forms about humanity.
Read over that last paragraph again. In eight hours, the AI consumes the sum total of Project Gutenberg's library (this is after it's partaken in Wikipedia and in Cyc, an encyclopedia tool specifically designed for teaching AIs). In so doing, it has consumed all these myriad works of humanity, works that talk about being human, whether they're philosophy or fiction or scientific in origin . . . and it's seen our history. How we've treated each other, continue to treat each other, and how we've treated this planet.
An intelligence that emerges from the World Wide Web emerges from the combined knowledge and information that we humans put on the Web. So even if this intelligence itself is not human, everything it learns is going to be a product of humanity, at least at first. Whether consciously or not, we're going to shape the first opinions of an emergent intelligence. It's something worth considering.
Beyond the human angle, Sawyer's crammed so much in here that I'm not sure where to start. So let's talk about Caitlin's blindness.
I'm not blind, so I'm certainly not congenitally blind, and as such, I'll never really know what Caitlin's world is like. Yet Sawyer at least gave me an inkling of what it's like to be blind, both from a conceptual perspective and a technological one. One thing I noticed is that instead of providing visual descriptions of places and people around Caitlin, Sawyer is always careful to describe in terms of sound, touch, and smell. Caitlin concludes Dr. Kuroda is tall because of the direction from which his voice comes but heavy because of the way he wheezes. We don't know if he's bald or has thick hair or blue eyes. As someone who doesn't really visualize things when I read, I didn't miss the lack of visual description and appreciated this change.
Sawyer also introduced me to how the blind and visually-impaired interact with the Web. Oh, I already knew about screenreaders like JAWS and refreshable Braille displays, etc., but this was the first time I'd really thought about how they get used. For Caitlin, this was all just normal for her, and through her eyes I began to understand how it was possible to interact with the world in this way.
And beyond her blindness, as a person, Caitlin is a well-thought-out character. She's "feisty" as the jacket copy promises, but she isn't perfect—she has a few melt-downs and tantrums. Still, Sawyer manages to make her a realistic LiveJournal-using, ebook-reading, iPod-listening teen without making her into a caricature or stereotype. Now if only she could kick that nasty exposition habit she develops in the second third of the book. . . .
This is why it was so hard to put down Wake and why the first thing I did upon waking today was pick it up and finish it. Sawyer makes me think, but he also makes me look at stuff I already think about in different ways. He does this with Caitlin, and he also does this with China.
"The Great Firewall of China" is a pretty well-known term on the Web. Most people are aware of the Chinese government's tight control over the Internet in China, both in terms of access and in terms of content—Google's controversial decision to censor its search results, China's tendency to block websites that it finds too seditious or inappropriate, the spyware built into the networks and the computers themselves, etc. Let's be honest for a moment. For those of us reading Wake in North America or Europe, that's half a world away, and the public consciousness has a fleeting attention span. Sawyer reminds us that the oppression in China has been ongoing for decades now, and even if the People's Republic is doomed as some projections claim, that won't stop them from committing further atrocities before they fade into history. Fortunately, it isn't all grim: dissidents are using the Internet to fight back. And while the increasing globalization of the economy does prop up the communist government, it also makes it harder for that government to simply cut off all ties from the outside world. Unlike North Korea, which has fewer people and doesn't make stuff for Wal-Mart, China is dependent on the outside world. The Web connects us, and even when censored, offers hope for freedom.
We live in exciting times. Well, I suspect that we've always lived in exciting times ever since our bicameral minds fused and we started to keep track of time. But don't doubt that here and now, the present, is full of wonders. Just as Apollo 8's photographs of Earth from space changed how we perceive ourselves, so too is the Web changing how we interact. The advancements in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology . . . everything we uncover only shows that there's more to learn, but if you thought the Renaissance was exciting, just recall that we know so much more now. We can be terrible, cruel, nearly insane . . . but when we come together to do good, we can be a wonderful species. Wake reminded me of that, of the good and the bad about humanity, of the incredible events and discoveries happening all around us every day. It reaffirmed my desire to read and watch and grow and know more, my love of learning, and my love of life....more
**spoiler alert** After a somewhat bumpy relationship with literary fiction for the past few weeks, The Housekeeper and the Professor delivers an enjo**spoiler alert** After a somewhat bumpy relationship with literary fiction for the past few weeks, The Housekeeper and the Professor delivers an enjoyable experience that reassures me some literary fiction is sublime. Full disclosure: I am studying mathematics, so I do find the subject matter in this book fascinating. I understand that less mathematically-inclined readers might not, but I don't see that as an excuse for enjoying this book any less. The Housekeeper and the Professor isn't a textbook, nor is it a treatise. Most of the math is high school level, and one doesn't need to pay attention to it to follow the story.
Instead, one must focus on the emphasis on mathematics and the way the characters in the book embrace it. The Professor never misses an opportunity to observe an interesting relationship between two numbers or educate the Housekeeper or her son, Root, about some sort of mathematical proposition. Ogawa perfectly captures the way I feel about math, the reasons why I'm studying math in the first place. There's something transcendent about this search for truth through numbers . . . math allows us to express aspects of the universe that would otherwise remain invisible. You don't have to be a math genius to comprehend this, as Ogawa demonstrates with her character of the Housekeeper.
I'm not just fond of these people's titles. Ogawa is very stingy with her names: a famous baseball player gets one, and Root's designation is more of a nickname than a title, but everyone else is out of luck. The Housekeeper and the Professor are exactly that; the former has a "Director" as her boss and the latter has a "sister-in-law" as a minor antagonist. Most of the time, when a character lacks a name, that means he or she is minor and unimportant. Obviously this is not the case here, and by making almost everyone nameless, Ogawa manages to make it feel normal. Still, the lack of names can make it hard to establish identity. While I contend that Ogawa succeeds at this for all three of the main characters, I understand how one could find it difficult to empathize with them.
The characters' namelessness is fitting considering the novel's subject matter. Like the mathematics that he studies, the Professor is an abstraction. In fact, owing to his condition, he is a Professor of Mathematics—and that's all he is. His memory loss has shrunk his world such that math is the only thing he has left. He grasps numbers because they haven't lost their meaning for him like the rest of the world has: whether it's 1975 or 1990, 220 and 284 will still be amicable numbers. To some degree, one can say the same for the Housekeeper. After her young pregnancy, she takes up the only work she knows how to do; since then, this has been her life. Hence, these titles are fitting enough identities for the characters. They would be stifling if Ogawa failed to develop the characters beyond their titles; fortunately, that's not the case.
For a story set in Japan, The Housekeeper and the Professor is completely accessible to the Western audience. I could almost forget its setting and think it takes place in North America. The most important relationship, in my opinion, is the one between the Professor and Root. It takes on the qualities of a father-son relationship that anyone will recognize. Not only does the Professor educate Root and challenge him, but Root in turn looks after the Professor, cares for him, and rekindles the Professor's love of baseball. This shared enthusiasm for baseball is one of the few ways in which the Professor ever comes close to transcending the eighty minute barrier on his memory. By this I mean that, whenever Root engages the Professor in a discussion about baseball, the fact that Enatsu has long since left the Tigers seldom matters . . . suddenly the Professor has something other than mathematics he can talk about to a like-minded person, and his little world has just grown bigger.
Root matures considerably throughout the book. At first, the Professor's manner startles him, but he quickly grows accustomed to the rituals he must endure. Soon, he becomes not only fond but protective of the Professor. At one point, the Housekeeper has to leave to buy cooking oil. She is worried about leaving Root alone with the Professor, but Root assures her that it's fine. However, when she returns, Root has accidentally cut himself with a kitchen knife. It isn't a big deal, but after, Root is cold toward his mother. When she asks why, he says, "I'm mad because you didn't trust him. I'll never forgive you for that." It's a small scene, but it's significant, for it shows a strength of character and a sense of judgement far advanced of Root's age.
Despite such incidents, their time at the Professor's house strengthens the relationship between the Housekeeper and her son. It's the Professor who suggests—nay, practically orders—that the Housekeeper have her son come to his house after school so he doesn't have to be a latchkey kid. She cooks dinner for three now instead for one, and the arrangements are more domestic—like a family, but not quite. The Professor is always happy to show Root and his mother some new numerical notion. When she first meets the Professor, the Housekeeper is fascinated by his interest in math and his gift for teaching. However, it's Root's involvement that truly encourages her budding appreciation of mathematics. As she sees the Professor and Root explore math, both through Root's schoolwork and the problems posed by the Professor, she joins them in order to avoid feeling excluded—and in so doing, she becomes enchanted by math.
The only other character of any importance is the Professor's sister-in-law. She only appears when there's trouble, and she seems curiously intractable and eager it misunderstand. When never get a complete picture of how she feels about the Professor, other than that she feels compelled to care for him. I didn't enjoy the confrontation between her and the Housekeeper and didn't quite understand the significance of the Professor settling matters by scribbling down Euler's formula. Indeed, the inscrutability of this part of the plot is one of this book's few miscalculations. In almost every other respect, Ogawa manages to hit just the right notes.
The depiction of the Professor's anterograde amnesia is realistic and harrowing. The poor man only has an eighty-minute memory and walks around with notes clipped to his suit! Throughout the book, the Housekeeper has so many conversations with him, learns so much from him, even takes him to a baseball game . . . and he remembers none of it. For him, it's always 1975. Enatsu is still a famous pitcher for the Tigers. Ogawa shows us how the Professor's condition makes it difficult for him to live a fulfilling life. Oh, he enjoys himself when he's solving a math problem and constructing a proof . . . but he will never remember all of the proofs he's constructed prior to that, all of the contests he's won, or any of the great new developments in number theory since 1975. The thesis that the Housekeeper finds beneath the false bottom of a cookie tin containing baseball cards gives us a glimpse into the Professor's past life, one from which he is now irrevocably separated by his accident. He can experience transitory joy, but he no longer has the capability for lasting satisfaction or contentment.
Then when the Professor's amnesia worsens toward the end of the book, it's just heartbreaking. Here is a man who is so kind and thoughtful, and he's already had so much taken from him. Now he's lost the rest, and his eighty-minute memory becomes a zero-minute memory. He lives entirely in the present, which is not as wonderful as it might sound. As a result, Ogawa reminds us that the past has immeasurable value. It helps form our personality and is full of a vast collection of experiences, both good and bad, that contribute to how we understand the universe. The Professor was always happy to meet Root and teach him mathematics. But he would never understand the joy of watching Root grow up over a number of years, never watch Root's love of mathematics blossom into a passion that would lead to teaching math in elementary school. This experience is forever lost to him.
I wouldn't call the ending to The Housekeeper and the Professor sad, but it certainly wasn't happy. Although there is a little romantic tension between the two eponymous characters—and the Professor becomes a strong father figure for Root—this is not a romance, and there is no happily-ever-after. The Professor's anterograde amnesia becomes total, and he loses what small amount of independence he has managed to retain. The Housekeeper and Root must move on to other jobs, must continue on with their lives without the Professor, without his lectures or his mathematics or his note-covered clothing. It's a separation more profound than death, for they must go on with their separate lives, changing and growing even while the Professor continues to forget, and forget, and forget. . . .
Memory is fragile and tenuous, yet oh so important to our conception of self. Yoko Ogawa reminds us of the importance of memory in a fascinating, unassuming way. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a whisper of a novel, something that will take root in your mind and blossom into a fond memory....more
**spoiler alert** So, there's this guy, right? Ex-football player with an injured knee, now paying the bills with a tech support desk job in small-tow**spoiler alert** So, there's this guy, right? Ex-football player with an injured knee, now paying the bills with a tech support desk job in small-town Michigan. Then he gets infected by triangle-shaped alien parasites that hijack his body, drive him crazy, and want him to meet up with other hosts so they can build a giant gateway and welcome Earth's new alien overlords. Suddenly, Perry Dawsey isn't having a good day anymore.
At first glance, Scott Sigler's Infected is little more than a standard alien parasite infection/invasion story. The CIA's conducting illegal operations on American soil. The gore is more than gratuitous and complete with penis mutilation. The characters are stereotypes present more for plot development and snappy dialogue than pathos.
At second glance, Infected is still your standard alien invasion SF/horror story. The nefarious, networked Triangle parasites always seem one step ahead of the protagonists, often with squishy, blood-drenched side-effects. Any sort of extraneous character dies off-screen or is marked for death and then killed in a slow, painful manner. And everyone, everyone with a little authority is a jerk.
At third glance . . . well, I hope you see where I'm going with this. I'm not going to praise Infected for being original or even for being amazing, because I can't. However, it does deliver precisely what it promises in the teaser. It's exactly what I was expecting going into the book. While I love it when a book exceeds my expectations, I can't fault a book for just meeting them. Infected is solid, predictable, and entertaining.
The pacing is hit-and-miss. Much of the book consists of watching Perry Dawsey discover and battle against the infection of his body. Meanwhile, the CIA and its CID-drafted allies struggle to find the source of the infection and capture a live host for study. While I enjoyed the former plot, the latter is slow and often uninteresting, despite additional special effects like gas explosions and gunfire. There's a long middle stretch during the manhunt for Perry that lasts far longer than it should, delaying the conclusion and climactic missile-bombing of the alien gateway for an interminable period of time while we watch Perry continually evade capture.
Sigler devotes a great amount of space to describing how the Triangles interact with their hosts' bodies. He takes us from the germination of the seed organisms all the way to the achievement of sentience, at which point the Triangles in a body can communicate with each other and with Triangles in the bodies of other hosts. There's a nice mix of neurological jargon with simple, graphic descriptions of what was going on, both inside and outside Perry's body. The result is a visceral experience as we follow Perry in discovering more about the Triangles and their purpose on Earth.
Perry's struggle to retain his volition and identity in the face of the "mindscreams" of the Triangles is harrowing. I couldn't enjoy Perry much as a person. Despite the fact that Sigler holds him up as a reformed man with a temper who had an abusive father, Perry's still a jerk. Nevertheless, that didn't stop me from being alternatively disgusted and dismayed by the transformation Perry undergoes and the physical and psychological toll it exacts. In Perry, we see the full course of the infection from beginning up until when the Triangles will "hatch." Unlike many infected, who give into the Triangle-induced paranoia quickly and begin killing whomever they see, Perry fights against his Triangles. He begins cutting them out of his body—not easy, and definitely not pretty. Even when he loses ground against the Triangles, gives into their demands for food and death, he takes revenge even if it means hurting himself. I may not agree with everything Perry does, but his ordeal provides the only real character development in the book.
The other characters, and their relationships, are shallow in comparison. Murray and Dew, a CIA deputy director and his field agent, respectively, are fellow Vietnam veterans, the last surviving members of their group. They have slightly different methodologies, as evidenced by their choice of career paths. Yet they are their roles: hardboiled, hardline veterans fighting the good fight for America. Murray will do anything to protect the country even as the situation hits FUBAR levels and above; Dew is out for blood after one of the Triangle hosts mortally wounds his partner.
Then we've got the two scientists, Margaret Montoya and her partner Amos. The latter fits the role of comic-relief sidekick to a tee, right down to being the one who calls for a moratorium on levity the moment the protagonists realize what they're really up against (it's always the funny one who realizes it's not a joke). The trouble with these two, aside from Amos' constant wisecracks, is that they are superfluous to the story. Nothing they tell us really makes a difference, since most of it is repeated in what Perry learns about the Triangles from their own wacky dialogue with him. And since Montoya and Amos only react in this book, arriving on the scene after the action is over to perform an examination and provide an explanation, they don't contribute toward the resolution in any way.
Perhaps the only character who doesn't conform to a stereotype is Agent Otto, Margaret's CIA liaison. Otto provides some tongue-in-check observations that contrast Amos' more sarcastic witticisms, and he's also the Watson for Margaret and Amos' jargon-laden exposition. But there are times when he completely belies his stoic CIA exterior and begins acting like a kid, spinning around in a big plush chair and advising Margaret to take charge and stand up to Murray (his boss). While I have to admit I was pleased by Otto's speech, his behaviour did feel incongruous. In other words, he does defy stereotypes, but he does it in such an obnoxious, loud manner that I'm still not satisfied.
Infected is a story precariously balanced between realism and escapism. At times, it feels like it desperately wants to be regarded as a serious SF thriller. Mostly, as the chapter titles and narrative voice reflect, it's lighter horror, comfortable in its own hokeyness and content to play its tropes straight. There's nothing wrong with that. So if you're considering reading Infected, the best recommendation I can make is to trust your instincts. If it sounds like something you'd like, you probably will....more
I'm not sure what attracted me to The Sealed Letter. It's a book that exists in that intersection among historical fiction, fiction "based on a true sI'm not sure what attracted me to The Sealed Letter. It's a book that exists in that intersection among historical fiction, fiction "based on a true story," and relationship drama fuelled by larger issues of gender and individualism, the sort of book that can appeal to so many people yet go unnoticed because it looks "too historical" or "too much non-fiction" or "too romantic." When I started reading The Sealed Letter, I hoped for something good but didn't expect anything great. I was pleasantly surprised.
Emma Donoghue grounds her story in facts, incorporating fiction only when necessary (because the facts are not extant) or in order to compress time. Her methodology and some of the factual history of the book's events are all detailed in the Author's Note at the end of the book. One of the advantages to using real people and a real divorce case is that Donoghue automatically has a plot; she need only enliven the characters for us. And she has associations that she would otherwise need to falsify: she'd have to make up an intelligent but morally-conflicted Emily "Fido" Faithfull and make her a pivotal member of the Reform Firm.
The first few chapters are slow-going, unfortunately, and that may turn people away from the book before it begins to get good. There's a great deal of superficiality in the interactions between Fido and Helen Codrington. The purpose of this becomes clear later in the story, but at the beginning I found it dull. What I was waiting for was a real insight into the minds of these women and how they regarded their era. Although it takes awhile for Donoghue to unlock their psyches, she finally gets around to it.
What elevates The Sealed Letter above mediocrity is the three-dimensional way it portrays the people involved in this high-profile divorce. It is easy to set a divorce case in Victorian England in which the woman is the sympathetic character at the mercy of an uncaring husband. I found it hard to sympathize with Helen, who is both adulterous and manipulative, with sensibilities that radically change with her mood. Nevertheless, I understood her desire to remain a mother to her children (even if she was never very maternal) and repair the tear in her marriage that she—belatedly—realizes is her fault.
At the same time, Helen puts to shame Fido's Cause. She is a "fallen woman," an unfortunate counterexample to the claims of Fido's Reform Firm that women can be every bit as sensible and intelligent as men. As a result, Fido is torn between loyalty to her Cause and loyalty to her friend. She vacillates between an absolute adherence to one or the other as she tries to parse Helen's manipulation and deceit. There were times when Fido's changeable loyalties frustrated me, but I waited patiently for her to discover how unreliable Helen is.
And then there is Harry. Donoghue begins giving us insight into his mind toward the middle of the book, wherein he first suspects that Helen is having an affair and sets out to confirm or disprove this suspicion. Poor Harry is apparently clueless about his wife's adultery, and this discovery robs him of resolve and even, to some extent, reason. He becomes more reactionary, allowing his friends the Watsons, his brother, and his lawyers to manage the divorce case while he watches and participates with a sort of grim realization that there is no way to turn back the clock.
I come off as anti-Helen in my evaluation, and I do think she bears the majority of the blame—after all, she's the one who strayed. Yet my point is that Donoghue manages to portray all of the characters as sympathetic at times and at fault at other times. It's a realistic depiction of the difficulties of marriage and divorce (and life in general): nothing is clear cut, nothing is black and white, and there's always certain points where it's impossible to turn back.
The last theme echoes over and over again throughout the book. There's one quotation, which I can't locate at the moment, that aptly describes this idea. As she watches the divorce proceeding, Helen wonders if all this was an inevitable outcome of her dalliances with Mildmay and Anderson. She likens herself to a little boy pushing his toy soldier closer and closer to the edge just to see what would happen. I really enjoyed this underlying idea that we humans are prone to pushing ever so slightly too hard and bringing disaster upon ourselves.
The martial woes of the Codringtons takes place against the backdrop of Victorian society, and Fido's roles as an activist for women's rights is a key issue in The Sealed Letter. It's worth remarking on the ironic censure that Fido receives from other women in the Reform Firm, particularly the "equal above all others" woman Bettie Parkes. What I found most poignant, however, was the depth to which Fido sinks in the witness box to retract an affidavit she has signed. Fido essentially claims her "weakness as a woman" as her excuse for signing a statement to which she can attach no veracity. This makes her a hypocrite and hurts her Cause . . . yet it is so very true.
Which is not to say that all women are weak. No, what I mean is that Fido is right in claiming she was too weak-willed to refuse to sign the affidavit, too weak-willed to stand up to the illogical Helen Codrington. It's a character flaw—of the individual, not of the gender—that manifests over and over again, each time sending Fido down a darker, dimmer road as she tries to find some sense of equilibrium. Even as she contrasts two very distinct Victorian era women and their attitudes toward men and society, Donoghue reminds us that gender is only a part of who we are.
But what of the eponymous letter?! What's so special, so scandalous, that it remains sealed until the final chapter? Without going into too much detail, let me just say that this is more a MacGuffin than anything. It serves a minor purpose, but the book would have worked even with the letter removed, so don't spend too much time stressing over it as you read, OK?
Finally, I'd like to conclude by way of complaint about a formatting issue. What's up with the font used in this edition to render letters? It's nearly illegible; I had to squint and carefully linger over each cursive word in order to make it out. I don't mind when books use different fonts, even cursive fonts, to add a little flair—just make them readable!
The Sealed Letter delighted me with its detail and its characterization. Donoghue presents an actual divorce in 1864 England, setting it against the social issues of the time, and the end result is a success....more
**spoiler alert** Christian mythology is a rich source of fiction. It's a great deal of fun to re-interpret mythology and add a new twist, a new persp**spoiler alert** Christian mythology is a rich source of fiction. It's a great deal of fun to re-interpret mythology and add a new twist, a new perspective. This isn't a new trend either; it's been going on since there was a Christianity to mythologize. Few figures have drawn as much attention as the Devil, also known as Satan, Lucifer, What Have You. In the Bible, he is a serpent and a trickster. Milton made him sympathetic (although I suspect he was copying the Rolling Stones). Although Dante's Inferno from the Divine Comedy is more about Dante's journey through Hell than it is about the Devil, the same idea applies: it's one man's interpretation of a mythology that has shaped entire societies.
Now we have Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's take on Inferno—a re-interpretation of a re-interpretation of Christian mythology (at least, the Hell part). Niven and Pournelle (I'm going to call them N&P from hereon if that's fine; I don't know which wrote more of if that's applicable here, so I'll laud and lament them collectively) draw heavily from their source material. However, you don't need to have read the original before tackling this Inferno. I haven't yet tackled the Divine Comedy, but I'm aware of enough of the basic plot to see the parallels here: a writer dies and finds himself in Hell. He ventures deeper and deeper into Hell's concentric circles, each one featuring punishments for different types of sinners. The narrator receives a guide—in Dante's case, Virgil; in Carpenter's, Benito Mussolini. The goal of this journey is an escape from Hell found at its very centre. The ending of the book, as well as in some of its particulars, differs from the original. This is more a work "inspired by" Dante's than a straight "updated" version.
The Hell of N&P's Inferno is one of horrors and punishments that seem just but, as Carpenter puts it, "much too late." At first, Carpenter can't believe he's in Hell. As a science fiction writer and an agnostic, Carpenter tries to rationalize Hell. He calls it "Infernoland," a sadistic amusement park created by advanced humans or aliens. As he goes deeper into this setting, however, he encounters stranger and more unsettling sights that call this theory into question. The problem is not that Carpenter is unable to believe in God (and thus in Hell) but that he can't reconcile a God with a "private torture chamber" with the largely benevolent God depicted in Christianity. In fact, any Inferno is somewhat of a deconstruction of the Christian mythos, since attempts to depict the nature of punishments in Hell inevitably evoke this sort of reaction: why would God do this? By the end of the book, Carpenter believes he has arrived at an answer, one that requires him to stay in Hell and help others escape while Mussolini goes on to the next stage (presumably Purgatory).
N&P break the monotony of Carpenter and Mussolini's relationship with several transitory characters, including Billy the Kidd, an astronaut named Jeremy Corbett, and for a moment, Jesse James. As much as the idea is a good one, I have to question the choice of companions. Really, Billy the Kidd? Maybe I'm just a bag o' no fun, but these people aren't examples of what I'd call interesting historical personages (now Mussolini is definitely on that list). And these companions are with the main characters for such a short time that it's hard to develop any attachment to them. Just as I begin to warm up to Corbett, N&P pull him back to his place in Hell, leaving Carpenter and Mussolini alone once again. Almost all the characters save these two are underdeveloped, more one-liner jokes ("What are you in for?") than actual people.
My problem with the bureaucratic episode is similar. I loved the parody of bureaucracy—I love parodies of bureaucracy in general, and N&P include a good one here. It's just too short (although maybe this is necessary in order to keep such parodies fresh and funny). All of these short sketches of punishments in Hell give Carpenter the opportunity to reflect on his past life, but without much of an idea of Carpenter's life, there's very little in the way of pathos.
In addition to the bureaucracy parody, there are plenty of lighter moments in Inferno. N&P make plenty of references to popular science fiction authors at the time, delivering tips of the hat or vaguely disguised mockery to Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, etc. Carpenter as a character and his entire Infernoland theory is as much a comment on the cult of science fiction as it is a deconstruction of Christian Hell. A good deal of what we know about Carpenter we learn from how he describes his relationship with his fans. He feels like he's a more approachable, more open author than some of the more prestigious authors who are winning Hugos and, like Asimov, publishing far more in a year than he'll output in a lifetime. As Carpenter speculates about the fantastic mechanisms that must operate Infernoland, we get the idea that he clings to this theory long past its expiry not because he genuinely believes in it because it's all he has. He has spent so long being just a science fiction writer, with few if any other attachments, that science fiction is all he has left of any sense of "normal" (and Infernoland is certainly not normal).
Inferno is at times very much a piece of genre fiction, almost meta in the way Carpenter interjects with his interpretation of Hell. It has elements of both satire and seriousness in it, but in this instance they don't mesh satisfactorily. Part of me really liked it, but overall I feel . . . underwhelmed. This is a usually a sign that a book has lots of little good ideas (like Benito Mussolini as the guide to Hell) but never really coheres....more
With Inferno fresh in my mind, I set off to read Escape from Hell, the book that initially attracted my attention. I genuinely enjoyed a good deal oWith Inferno fresh in my mind, I set off to read Escape from Hell, the book that initially attracted my attention. I genuinely enjoyed a good deal of Escape from Hell. However, it never strays far enough from the original book's premise to escape Inferno's shadow.
I like Sylvia Plath as Carpenter's companion better than Benito, just because she's a better companion. I'm not sure how well Niven & Pournelle (henceforth known as N&P) portrayed her, nor do I really care. Unfortunately, while she was an interesting conversationalist, that's all she really was. She's there to listen to Carpenter theorize aloud about the purpose of Hell, its functioning, and the rules operating on this plane of existence.
Now that Carpenter has discarded his "Infernoland" theory and believes this is Hell, regardless of what God has to do with it, he's on a mission to discover if everyone has a chance to escape. As much as I liked his musing about "the rules," a lot of it felt repetitive and redundant. Worse still, some of the really interesting stuff is never fully explained. Why are these suicide bombers allowed to run around blowing people up? Do they really disappear forever when they explode—unlike their victims, who reconstitute elsewhere in Hell—or do they also recover? I'm not asking for answers to the "big" questions, such as "Is there a God?" and "What's his plan for all these souls in Hell?" I just want answers to some of this minor ones.
I did enjoy the further look at the bureaucratic aspects of Hell (if you read my Inferno review, you'll know I asked for more of that!). N&P use Vatican II as an excuse to revamp how Hell deals with souls and even what sort of souls end up in Hell. This is a neat way to integrate a real life event as a plot device to shake up the rules of the world they've created.
Carpenter encounters far more people in this book than he does in Inferno, and more of them are people we know. I'm ambivalent about this. On one hand, I like the inclusion of famous people in Hell (although sometimes I disagree with where N&P placed them among the various punishments). On the other hand, the sheer volume of characters borders on overwhelming. It's sort of like a television series trying too hard to bring in well-known guest stars to boost its ratings. Did we really need to briefly run into people like Anna Nicole Smith or Kenneth Lay? N&P don't adequately use the people they include to make any sort of point, so it's just more fluff in a book with a dangerously over-stretched plot as it is.
The plot, in case you're wondering, is that Carpenter's going to gather more people and help them leave Hell. He wants to know that everyone can try, if they're ready. However, he keeps on meeting people who don't want to escape, or people who can't escape yet. The former really annoyed me. If it's Hell, shouldn't it be bad enough that you'd do anything to leave? If you're really enjoying that time in the boiling pitch, exactly why is it considered a punishment?
Again, more questions than answers. Escape from Hell is just as easy a read as Inferno and expands somewhat on the original book's premise. However, it lacks the close parallels to Dante's journey, as well as the sense of revealed mystery that Inferno had—there's plenty of mystery here, but little enough gets revealed. On the whole, I liked Inferno better, because from a technical perspective it's a smoother work. Escape from Hell is interesting but patchy....more
**spoiler alert** Honestly, I'm a little intimidated.
I didn't realize that The Master and Margarita is an "unfinished" masterpiece, complete in its na**spoiler alert** Honestly, I'm a little intimidated.
I didn't realize that The Master and Margarita is an "unfinished" masterpiece, complete in its narrative but still unpolished prior to Bulgakov's death. As with any published unfinished work, there's a certain amount of third-party editing that will alter the interpretation of the text. To compound this problem, I'm an Anglophone reading a translation from Russia. I'm not as familiar with Russian literature or Russian history as I could be. As a result, a great deal is lost in translation across the barriers of both language and culture.
This book is rife with allusions literary, cultural, and musical. Bulgakov constantly makes plays on words that refer to Russian writers and poets with whom I'm not familiar, as well as incorporating aspects of poems and works, like Faust, that I haven't read. By reading the notes at the end of this edition, I get the idea that there's a great deal of irony at the expense of the Soviet regime in 1930s Russia—again, it was difficult for me to appreciate that on my own. I feel like this is a book full of subtext I can't comprehend at this point in my life. That's nothing to be ashamed about. I'm young, and I'm sure that as I grow older, I will re-read books and discover new elements to them that went undetected before. Still, it's frustrating, especially in something as sublime as The Master and Margarita.
Of course, those eponymous characters don't actually show up until later in the book. First we get to see the effects of the devil's visit to Moscow. Indirectly or directly referred to as "the devil" and "Satan," Woland isn't necessarily "evil" in the absolute moral sense of the word. He's a trickster and a tempter, but from the perspective of some people, like Margarita, he's an omnipotent saviour. He represents darkness, yes, but a darkness that must exist so that we may also have light—an embodiment of a dualistic philosophy at odds with the overt Christian nature of the mythology in this book. This is not merely a story about a sympathetic devil character; it's a decontextualization of the devil as part of the Christian mythos. Bulgakov does this partly to evince religious themes, but I suspect it's more to satirize Soviet society.
Investigators conclude that the inexplicable events in Moscow during Woland's stay were the result of a group of highly-skilled foreign hypnotists. The sheer absurdity of the previous sentence should drive home the gleeful way in which Bulgakov prods at the strange bureaucratic creature that was his government. Everything must be explained, rationally and according to the proper procedure, even if the explanations eventually offered are nonsensical and absurd. Everything has its place in the grand scheme.
As the epilogue puts it, referring to the characters in the narrative, "Absolutely nothing happened to them, nor could it have since they never existed in reality." There's a twin meaning to this sentence. Nothing happened, because some of the events depicted in this story border too close to criticism of Bulgakov's government, something that would have met the heavy hand of the censors. This is an utter and complete work of fiction, a dream of a character who himself is fictitious. At the same time, it emphasizes the categorical denial by the government that anything supernatural could be responsible for the disruptions in Moscow: the official Party line is that God doesn't exist, so neither does the devil.
The devil isn't the only one treated sympathetically here. Pontius Pilate is portrayed in a sympathetic light through chapters from the Master's destroyed manuscript. Here, he's just this guy, you know? Doing his job. Managing people, networking, joining Facebook groups—er, I mean, interrogating prisoners. We get the sense that he actually believes Jesus is a harmless guy, a genuinely nice guy, but Pilate has to execute him anyway, because he spoke out against Caesar (notice the parallels to 1930s Russia). I loved this version of Pilate, finding in him a kernel of nihilism that would ordinarily seem out of place in a book about Christianity. Pilate is a tragic character, neither saviour nor saved. He is offered no potential for redemption, forgiven only by the grace of Margarita after nearly 2000 years of limbo. And, as with most of the ill-fated characters in this book, Pilate didn't stand a chance. Fate was gunning for him, just as Fate was gunning for Berlioz, for Bezdomny, for the Master himself until Margarita, again, stepped into the fray. So what about the Master and Margarita? When they finally grace us with their presence, were they worth the wait?
The Master is a fairly undeveloped character. We don't learn his real name. All we know is that he's an artist who managed to earn the undying devotion of the beautiful, capable Margarita. And he wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate that eventually resulted in him being committed to a psychiatric institution. In terms of plot, he exists mostly so Margarita can save him. And I suppose he provides some interesting information to Bezdomny. Thematically, the Master represents the persecuted writer. There's a sense of the despair that, even if an author is permitted to write certain works and promised little censorship of them, he or she still exists in an intolerant, suspicious society, and thus his or her work will always suffer and be constrained. The Master is constantly struggling not just for freedom but for an understanding of what form that freedom will take. He frees himself of any name, save the honorific given to him by Margarita. He frees himself from society by entering a psychiatric clinic. He is freed from life and from Moscow when Azazello "kills" him. Perhaps most notably, he frees himself from the one thing in his life that has consumed everything else, the novel about Pontius Pilate. He burns the manuscript, only to discover that "manuscripts don't burn," and have it restored to him by Woland—a very romantic condemnation of censorship if ever there was one. The Master reinvents himself almost as often as Woland and his demonic associates do.
Margarita reinvents herself one major time, becoming a witch to save her lover. But we get glimpses of previous transformations as we learn how unhappy she was with her life as wife to a well-off man. The Master changed that for her, and with him gone, she has little for which to live except the hope that he may one day reappear. The fact that Margarita seizes upon any chance to help the Master, even if it means making a pact with the devil, instantly makes her one of the most human characters in this narrative. Margarita is neither innocent nor pure; however, she consistently acts on behalf of others rather than herself. When granted a boon by Woland, she first asks for another rogue to be spared her eternal Sisyphean torment. She then asks for the Master to be returned to her—selfish on the surface, but remember that she believes he will genuinely be happier with her than elsewhere, and such is the case.
Their happy ending is not the only happy ending, if the narrator is truthful. Woland's merry little group—and more the members of the group than Woland himself—cause a good deal of disruption in Moscow, burning buildings and scattering fake notes and, heaven forfend, foreign currency! They ruin some lives, but the actual body count is quite low. And the epilogue insists that the majority of the characters whose lives are deranged in this story end up the better for it, finding niches in which they are happier. Again, is this really the work of the devil? Woland is, more than a straight avatar of the devil, the embodiment of chaos more often just disruptive than harmful.
The Master and Margarita is dense but not dull. It's not light reading, in that there's enough subtext to keep you thinking about it long after you're finished the book. At the same time, there's genuine wit and irony in here, of the kind that demonstrates humour isn't just for comedy. This is a book very much a product of its time and of that time's politics that is very much relevant in any time with any politics....more
**spoiler alert** I had a good time reading Consider Phlebas. Iain M. Banks manages to mix technobabble with description and dialogue to come out with**spoiler alert** I had a good time reading Consider Phlebas. Iain M. Banks manages to mix technobabble with description and dialogue to come out with fascinating societies and intense action sequences. The plot was simple, and pretty linear, but it got the characters where they needed to go and blow things up. Beneath it all, there were the questions Banks raises about what it means to be human, about how we plan to interact with machines when they are just as intelligent as—more intelligent than—we are. My elation and excitement began to dissipate after the climax, however, melting away into a small amount of confusion and the bittersweet realization that nothing that happens in this book really matters.
First, a minor spoiler that's more about Banks' universe than the plot of Consider Phlebas. When I started reading, I assumed that the Culture is the product of humans from Earth and that this book takes place in the far future. The appendix clarifies the timeline; the Idiran-Culture War during which this book takes place is actually concurrent with 14th century Earth. The Culture's origins lie in a group of humanoid species, and contacts Earth around 2100, nearly eight hundred years after the events in Consider Phlebas. Again, this has no bearing on the plot, but it's a good reminder of one way in which Banks manipulates our sense of scale.
The fact that the Idiran-Culture war is "the most significant conflict of the past fifty-thousand years" of galactic history is buried at the end of the appendix, but it's one of the most interesting and important observations in this book. Imagine considering fifty-thousand-year swathes of history. Fifty thousand years ago, humans were still stumbling out of Africa and spreading throughout the world. We really have only about, what, 6000 years of recorded civilization? By setting his work in a world where civilizations like the Culture consider a couple of millennia a mere blink of the eye, Banks immediately puts us on uncertain ground and forces us to re-evaluate our conceptions about history and how individuals and even civilizations influence the outcome of events.
Consider Phlebas is a classic "rescue mission" plot, somewhat inverted in that the protagonist is working for the stranded Mind's enemies, trying to steal it away before its comrades can retrieve it. Horza has plenty of opportunities to explain why he dislikes the Culture and has sided with the Idirans; frankly, I have to admit I'm on the Culture's side in this one. I'm ready to accept my synthetic overlords. And it's pretty clear that Banks thinks the Culture is a very stable, largely beneficial society. So throughout the book, I was hoping that somehow Horza would lose, that the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda would recover the Mind and return with it to the Culture. . . . In retrospect, I should have been more careful with my wishes.
OK, here's the spoiler. The back cover copy says "It was the fate of Horza . . . and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries . . . actually to find it, and with it their own destruction." I thought that was just some hyperbole on the part of the publisher to sucker ambivalent readers into the story.
I was wrong. Almost everyone dies toward the end, and one of the survivors later commits suicide. The events in this book aren't part of a great turning point in the Idiran-Culture war, and none of the characters have any significant impact on galactic events. Which brings me back to scale and how Banks distorts our conceptions of "a long time" to humble us.
On an individual, human level, Horza's actions are important. He's fighting the Culture out of personal convictions, and even when he has the opportunity to go off and forget his obligations to the Idirans, he gets his mission back on track and sets off to retrieve the Mind. In the process, he falls in love with Yalson and conceives a child with her . . . and when she dies, something in Horza breaks, and he pushes himself over the edge trying to take revenge. Although I didn't agree with Horza's ideology, I understood that he was struggling to find a place and keep some sense of purpose. This is no easy task, especially not in a society that exists on an interstellar level, as Banks reminds us.
Ultimately, the Idiran-Culture war concludes some time after the events of Consider Phlebas. The story's only bearing the war itself is that the rescued Mind gets installed in a Culture ship and names itself after Horza. As a result, Banks leaves us with the bitter taste of futility in our mouths at the book's end. There was no real reason for all those people to die; they did, however, and not in some blaze of glory like so many war movies. They were extinguished in Horza's failed attempt to steal something that ended up having no influence on the outcome of the war and robbed him of everything he cared about.
The only conclusion I can draw that makes any sense is that this is Banks' justification for the Culture's reliance on machines, a refutation of Horza's claim that the human-machine alliance is a hollow, stagnant one. Only Minds possess the combination of boundless intelligence and longevity. Humans in the Culture, and even the Idirans, are nearly immortal, but immortality itself does not beget wisdom. The Minds are nearly immortal as well as wise, and as such, they are the only beings in the Culture capable of understanding events on a galactic scale and reacting to them. Hence, the Culture needs its machines because humans—with a few exceptions—can't comprehend events on such a large, lengthy scale. I'd have to say that Banks is right on this one.
The less lofty aspects of Consider Phlebas aren't any less impressive. Although we don't actually see many Culture-controlled areas, we learn a good deal about the Culture, and Banks does a lot of world-building. I particularly enjoyed how he describes the Damage tournament that takes place on Vavatch Orbital prior to its destruction. Damage is the sort of game that we like to imagine existing in the post-apocalyptic type of world we often envision alongside any sort of posthumanism—the ultimately sign, perhaps, that all conventional morality has gone out the window. And Banks stays true to this idea, for the most part.
Also, I couldn't help but imagining all of the drones in Consider Phlebas as having British accents. Maybe it's the bad influence of 343 Guilty Spark from the Halo series, but there's just something about the snarky superiority of the drones, particularly Unaha-Closp, that fits with the British stereotype of the elite, upper-class gentleman with perfect diction and manners used to disguise discourtesy. Anyway, the parts where we got a glimpse at the workings of the drones' minds were a definite treat.
Where Banks is less successful is the main plot of the book itself. Sometimes the action wandered, and there were parts that seem unnecessary (and unpleasant—I'm thinking of Horza's encounter with Fwi Song). Horza's approach fluctuates from calm and calculated to insanely risk-taking, and I never quite get a handle on what makes that switch inside him flip. I continued reading because I knew eventually they would wind up on Schar's World and try to find the Mind, but Banks seldom succeeds in interesting me in what happens in between the beginning of the story and its end. I was hooked on the societies, and maybe a couple of the characters, and I wanted to know how it all turned out!
Consider Phlebas has an edge to it. Without any prior experience in Banks' Culture universe (nor, indeed, with any of Banks' other work), I didn't realize this until the end of the book. Whispering rather than shouting, Consider Phlebas still manages to describe the scale on which its grand imagination must play out. Yet it doesn't always deliver a similarly-scaled narrative, not successfully anyway. I recommend it, but with the warning that this isn't "feel-good" fiction. And although the space pirates, antimatter bombs, and sex may make this sound like an action-oriented space opera, there's something deadly serious about Consider Phlebas.
Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
Reviewing series always poses a challenge. I've reviewed the two previous books in LeeFull disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
Reviewing series always poses a challenge. I've reviewed the two previous books in Lee Stephen's Epic series: Dawn of Destiny and Outlaw Trigger, and I don't think it's demeaning to Hero to call it "more of the same." Most of what I said regarding the first two books stands for this book as well: there's plenty of action, great dialogue, and the plot, as they say, thickens to a pleasing viscosity.
Hero begins in a much darker place than either of the first two books did. Scott Remington, once the Golden Lion, is now a feared Nightman of Novosibirsk. He's lost his fiancée, murdered an innocent man, and pretty much shut himself off from anyone who cares about him. This all happened in Outlaw Trigger and makes the direction of Hero obvious: this is a story of redemption—and not just redemption for Scott—and rediscovery of what it means to be a hero.
Try as I might (and I tried really, really hard), I could not enjoy Scott's redemption as much as I'd like to enjoy it. Scott's arc is so technically precise from a literary viewpoint, and that's the problem. There's a little meta-cynic inside me puncturing my suspension of disbelief as it comments on Scott's progression from anti-hero back to hero, Nightman to Black Lion. It happens exactly as I expect, and for that reason, it fell flat. There are some things that work excellently when they meet expectations rather than defy them—but Scott's redemption isn't one of those things.
For me, the best part of Hero is the parallel development that happens for Esther, Svetlana, and Dostoevsky. It's the intersection of these characters' quests that coheres the motif of redemption. Even though I found Scott's personal issues dull, these three characters had more than enough going on to distract me.
In Outlaw Trigger, the Fourteenth company gets a tactical scout by the name of Esther Brooking. On her first big mission, she mistakenly comms the wrong unit and sends most of its members into the waiting arms of the enemy—a costly beginner's mistake. Now Esther's trying to do everything she can to make up for that misstep and is more than ever driven to excel. At the same time, she's one of several of Scott's comrades who refuse to give up on him, even when he seems unreachable. Interestingly enough, she resents the arrival of Svetlana, who proclaims herself the saviour of both Scott and the Fourteenth, leading to a bit of rivalry. Also, I was critical of the earlier books' lack of combat-driven heroines. Finally, in Hero, Esther earns her redemption and shows that she can use a gun. I was quite pleased.
I eagerly awaited the return of Svetlana. She may be Scott's link to his past life, but she herself needs redemption. In her time away, she's realized that her relationship with Scott was as aborted as her relationship with the ill-fated Anatoly Baranov. Svetlana blames herself for setting Scott on the path to becoming a Nightman (a charge I find spurious, but that's neither here nor there) and thus feels responsible, in part, for his current state. She returns out of a sense of guilt and duty and finds her task entirely an uphill one. I also appreciate the ambiguous nature of Svetlana and Scott's relationship: she could be a potential future love interest, but they could also just remain good friends.
Dostoevsky, a Nightman, is the Fourteenth's executive officer, and he played a crucial role in Scott's coerced recruitment into the Nightmen. Beginning with Outlaw Trigger, however, that pesky conscience has been rearing its small, persistent head, and finally Dostoevsky begins to listen. This is perhaps the most poignant redemption arc, in my opinion. Scott became a Nightman out of guilt; he wears the armour as a weighty symbol that he took an innocent life. Doestoevsky became a Nightman by active choice; presumably he rose to the rank of fulcrum through dedication to his duty. He accepted General van Thoor as, if not a god, a messianic figure to whom he pledged his life. Compared to Dostoevsky, Scott's just having a bad couple of months.
It's the comparison, however, that's the best part. Watching these four characters go through their personal tribulations toward the same goal is literary harmony at its best. And these individual plots come together to form an important theme about war. These are soldiers, humans at war, and that takes a psychological toll. People under pressure make mistakes, have regrets, and there's no such thing as "making up for one's mistakes"—there's only "doing better." Even a good man, like Scott Remington, can't avoid being scarred by war.
There were a couple of quaint, humourous parts of Hero. Firstly, the Fourteenth adopted a dog whom Svetlana named Flopper. Secondly, Will "BBQ Sauce" Harbinger and Derrick Cole, formerly of the Eighth, join the Fourteenth and immediately marvel at their good fortune to be in the only unit where women dump porridge on each other (I kid you not). Now, these weren't my favourite moments: I'm just not a dog person, and while I did find Will's stunned reactions funny asides, that's all they are, asides. However, I mention them not to criticize them, but to praise their inclusion: this is a war story, and in a time of war, soldiers always need outlets for their frustration. A little frivolity and levity is necessary to keep everyone sane. Asides though they are, these scenes are important asides that strengthen Stephen's universe and further emphasizes the seriousness of the war going on between humanity and extraterrestrials.
Speaking of which, we still don't know why aliens are attacking Earth in utterly illogical ways. I'm going to limit what I say here so I can keep the review spoiler free. In the prologue chapter, we witness the shadowy Judge Archer recording a message for someone (Intelligence Director Kang?) that reveals Archer knows more about the cause of the war than we previously thought. Apparently, the Bakma, Ithini, and the Ceratopians aren't the only ones interested in Earth—there are other species out there, who haven't arrived yet, but whose coming apparently won't mean cake and candles.
I stand by my opinion that Archer, and most of the other judges, are cardboard characters. I do enjoy their machinations, however. Stephen puts us in a nice moral conundrum. As far as we know, Archer and his cadre still have the best interests of humanity in mind—well, they think they have the greater good in mind; for all I know, they could turn out to be Knights Templar. However, it seems evident, at least so far, that Archer isn't working against humanity. Still, he's skulking around behind the backs of the legitimate authorities. Not exactly laudable behaviour.
Then again, much of the book consists of less-than-laudable behaviour. Hero is greyer than a bucket of dirty mop water—to good effect. We even see some humanization of the enemy aliens, particularly the Bakma. In the first two books, the Bakma were little more than external threats; none of them were even one-dimensional characters. That changes in Hero, where Scott personally rescues a Bakma prisoner from execution and establishes a hesitant rapport. This is an important step in the evolution of both Scott and the series.
And there I shall end: the evolution of the series. My opinion of the Epic series has continually improved with each book, not in leaps and bounds but by steady increments. This series, and each component book for that matter, is easy to read but not light reading, consisting of a well-paced mixture of action, emotion, and intrigue. It's solid, with both its flaws and its virtues in the best places for each.
**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
The Epic series opened strongly, but it doesn't hit its stride until**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
The Epic series opened strongly, but it doesn't hit its stride until the second book. While Dawn of Destiny had some of the best heart-pounding action I've read recently, it still felt preliminary, like a too-small appetizer at a restaurant. Only because I knew there was more coming did it feel like enough. The next course was certainly worth it, however.
Set almost three months after the end of the first book, Outlaw Trigger still has heart-pounding action scenes, but Lee Stephen has balanced them this time with heart-breaking events closer to home. Scott Remington is settling into his role as lieutenant and eagerly awaiting the arrival of his fiancée, Nicole. But when another base operative murders Nicole as his final test to enter the Nightmen—General Ignatius van Thoor's elite, amoral warriors—Scott is utterly devastated. From that moment on, he is a different person, and the only thing that matters to him is revenge. Stephen explores the consequences of this desire, both for Scott and for the people closest to him. Meanwhile, behind the lines, EDEN's high command debates what to do about General Thoor's consolidation of his power base....
Stephen displays masterful plotting. Almost from the first page, I read with a sense of impending doom, as every scene built up to that final, inevitable moment at the climax when Scott's worldview changes forever. Unlike the first book, Outlaw Trigger focuses less on the Alien War and more on character development, particularly Scott's. Anyone worried that Scott was going to turn out a cakewalking action hero should fear no more; if anything, he has executed almost a U-turn onto the road of antihero. His quest for vengeance predictably skews his judgement; it gets people killed, including someone close to him. And one by one, even his friends begin to turn away.
Despite its dramatic logic, however, I was kind of disappointed that Scott became a Nightman—not because I dislike this descent to the nadir of his existence, but because it was just so obvious so early in the book. Stephen has managed to elevate his writing to the level where I dread what I know will happen, what I know must happen in order for the story to make sense. Now he has to take it to the next level, beyond the mere inevitable. I love anticipation and suspense, but I also want to be surprised. The well-executed expected turns a book from good to great; the unexpected is what can make it outstanding. Even a smidgen of doubt, a glimmer of hope that Scott might actually manage to rise above all this, would have been enough to make the story feel less singularly driven toward Scott's descent.
There were times, too, when Scott's brooding was a little too intense. Stephen's descriptions of Scott's feelings tend to belabour the point. There's a fine line between a properly-weighted amount of dramatic one-liners and a corny overabundance; depending on where you happen to draw your line, this book may cross it more than once. It's not a deal-breaker, and again, your mileage may vary. It annoys me more for the fact that the plot is strong enough to stand on its own and communicate the severity of the situation through its atmosphere without a surfeit of sinisterly-toned chapter-ending sentences.
That same heavy-handedness comes across in the scenes set among EDEN's judges. This subplot gives us a distant perspective on General Thoor's long-term game plan, in which recruiting Scott to the Nightmen was only a small—but indubitably integral—part. The newest judge on the block, Benjamin Archer, spearheads an investigation into Thoor's actions, and discovers that Thoor's been silently reducing EDEN influence at his base for years. I thoroughly enjoyed Archer's snakeoil sincerity, with which he wins over the rest of the council, even the president, who has always been reluctant to even consider challenging Thoor's authority. I also liked the reveal at the end that Archer is the mastermind behind the actions of the two conspiring judges from Dawn of Destiny. However, the dialogue among the judges was lacklustre, and the characters were correspondingly dull. There seemed to be conflict for the sake of conflict, and more stating of the obvious.
Characters other than Scott get their times in the limelight as well. David is cast in the light of both father figure and the surrogate leader for the group while Scott is out of commission—but after Scott's actions lead to Galina getting killed, David doesn't know if he can stand up for Scott anymore. I value the contrast between Scott's inner strength, which is utterly shattered along with its sources (Nicole and his faith), with David's, which is tempered by his years of experience as a police officer.
Becan, the Irish rogue, seems like he has a more reduced role in this book, providing little more than some quips and the occasional helpful observation. He's not my favourite of the supporting cast, though, so I didn't mind that much.
Galina's death was, in a way, more tragic than the murder of Nicole. It was really the first time Scott contributed to his fall. Nicole's death was the theft of Scott's happiness, but it was a theft; he was not at fault. By indirectly causing Galina's death through his own recklessness, Scott becomes complicit. And Galina had to die as much as Nicole did. As long as she was there, her closeness to Scott was a lifeline to sanity. There was still hope for a way back out of the pit. Her death was necessary to make Scott's misdirected murder at the climax possible. Now he has truly reached the point of no return, because he feels that there's no one left who can redeem him.
I'm really looking forward to the promised return of Svetlana. This is going to be good.
And just like that, I'm sold. Well, mostly. The demanding reader in me would like to haggle for a lighter touch, and a few more twists. But there's no denying that Outlaw Trigger is a sound sequel to Dawn of Destiny, building on the best elements of the first book and continuing to raise the stakes. It promises, it delivers, and it leaves me wanting more.
Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
There's something refreshing about a boots-on-the-ground alien invasion of Earth. WhenFull disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
There's something refreshing about a boots-on-the-ground alien invasion of Earth. When aliens darken our doorstep, they seldom need to send troops down to pacify the population, probably because any species advanced enough to have interstellar spaceflight capability will also have some pretty terrible weapons. Why send wave after wave of soldiers when some well-placed bombs and a few destroyed satellites will accomplish the same goal? That's the conundrum at the core of Dawn of Destiny, the first book in the Epic series. Three alien species—the Bakma, the Ceratopians, and the Ithini—and their minions have been haranguing the Earth Defense Network (EDEN) for nine years now, but to what end?
Scott Remington, the protagonist, rises quickly through the ranks after facing several pitched battles from which he manages to emerge the hero (or at least not die). This earns him the admiration of his fellow grunts and begrudging respect from most officers—but not all. Scott's competence could quickly grow annoying; thankfully, Stephen compensates by including plenty of people who think that, "Remington is overestimated by everyone." And when Scott does save the day, it's always with a plan that makes sense in the context of the situation, managing to make fantastic battle scenes seem realistic. This balanced perspective keeps Scott from becoming a larger-than-life action hero and plays counterpoint to the book's science fiction conflict of human versus alien.
In general, I loved Stephen's characterization. Scott's companions have diverse background stories and interesting but not one-dimensional personalities and quirks. Some of them, like Jayden, start out stoic and gradually warm up, even manage to find a girl. Others, like the experienced cop, David, and Scott himself, already have signficant others and must struggle to balance their long-distance relationships with their lives in EDEN. And then you've got Becan, who verges on succumbing to the "lovable Irish rascal" trope except that he has genuine moments of weakness—and tenderness too.
As antagonists, the Bakma aren't characters so much as character devices. We really only get to interact with one, and it has a bit part. Indeed, although this book concerns an "Alien War," the aliens play a small role in it. This perplexes even the main characters, who spend a great deal of time speculating on the motives of the Bakma and their fellow aliens—why wage a ground war when they clearly have the ability to simply wipe out humanity from orbit? Dawn of Destiny sets the stage for the rest of the series to explore this all-too-important question, but at the expense of reducing the primary villain to an abstraction. As a result, throughout the numerous combat scenes I couldn't shake the comparison with Starship Troopers out of my head, unfair though it is.
There are a couple of humans who serve as articulate antagonists in the aliens' stead, however. EDEN's highest level is a council of "judges," who are desperately searching for a technological edge over the highly-advanced aliens. Intrigue among the council causes the death of one judge after he stumbles onto a secret his colleague apparently wants to keep secret. I'm looking forward to discovering what this secret is, and what ramifications it's going to have for Scott and his friends. Also, there's the taciturn and unapologetically brutal General Thoor. Borderline psychotic, and definitely a sociopath, he's one piece of bad road, doing whatever it takes to ensure victory. The order to promote Scott to epsilon comes from Thoor himself, pointing toward a creepy, and rocky, future relationship between these two.
Aside from its presentation of the Bakma, Dawn of Destiny falls short in one more aspect of characterization: there's a dearth of badass female heroines. Yes, there's a couple of developed female characters, but they always seem to have support roles—combat medic and wife. And we all know doctors can't fight (wives sure can, but that's neither here nor there...). I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of capable women added to the roster alongside Scott and his current cadre.
I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but also absent are major expletives, which have been downsized and replaced with less profane alternatives, such as "flick" and "veck." This blatant attempt to avoid profanity sticks out like a sore thumb against the otherwise honest and gritty landscape of war. Characters get their fingers blown off, but they don't swear (or at least, Jim, it's not swearing as we know it). Set in the far future, or far far away (BSG and Farscape, I'm looking at you) this would be acceptable and even clever. As it is, it got distracting, particularly during some of the scenes that were supposed to evoke suspense and dread. In one scene, the protagonists are hunting flesh-eating bug aliens in an abandoned school—no power, no plans, no backup. It's the perfect recipe for horror, old-school B-movie alien horror, and then suddenly the characters start saying things like, "I hope to flickin' God" and the moment is gone.
Stephen could also work on his exposition. Occasionally, it's oddly-timed and awkwardly-poised as paragraphs dumped by the narrator after the subject comes up in dialogue. Although this is subjective, I actually prefer it when the exposition is light in the first half the book and then gets heavier later on, once my attention has been captivated by the characters and the story itself. Drop me just enough hints to keep me interested, but I don't need to know about, say, the comparative xenobiology of the Bakma, Ceratopians, and Ithini. It's not a big issue, in that it never compromises the story's unity or breaks up the frequent action scenes that tend to crop up once every couple of chapters. Still, it's something I hope improves as the series continues.
In that same vein, I would have liked to learn more about Earth's culture in this universe. We get some minimal glimpses at what the media is like when Scott does a press conference after winning a prestigious military award; beyond that, we get precious little idea of what civilian life is like on war-torn Earth. How are people coping with nine years of constant alien attacks on major cities? What's this doing to the global unity supposedly in place when the aliens first showed up? Did world peace come with a three-for-one deal, bringing us solutions to world poverty and world hunger as well? Or does humanity face more than just the threat of alien invasion? Certainly, I don't expect Dawn of Destiny to spell everything out for me. In some areas, however, it's rather sparse.
By far, the best part of this book is its action. Stephen writes a mean combat scene. Eschewing overly-flowery descriptions of scenery in favour of clear, crisp tactical overviews of a situation, Stephen's action scenes are always fast paced and high stake. From the moment Scott and his comrades enter the combat zone, we know they're in danger; with each new mission, however, Stephen manages to keep the challenges varied enough that it doesn't get boring. I've been known to get lost during combat scenes because I don't have a good conception of how the battle is unfolding ... not so here; I feel like I'm there, watching through someone's HUD. In many ways, Dawn of Destiny is a favourable mix of movie and video game, a little bit cutscene and a little bit rock and roll—er, I mean action. It's intense and everything you expect from a book in a series called Epic.
So far, the Alien War is more an excuse for conflict, which provides a backdrop for combat scenes and character development. Dawn of Destiny comes in a shiny sci-fi package, but it's more properly a military thriller than thought-provoking science fiction. Did Dawn of Destiny wow me? No. But it did make me laugh at times, and it did provide me with a good afternoon read.
**spoiler alert** Too often a good fantasy book with a solid story suffers because its author is too busy showing off the awesome world in which the s**spoiler alert** Too often a good fantasy book with a solid story suffers because its author is too busy showing off the awesome world in which the story takes place. Not so for The Briar King! No, instead of bad worldbuilding ruining good writing, Keyes' writing ruins his superb worldbuilding.
The Briar King starts with a prelude 2000 years in the past, when humanity unites to overthrow its Skasloi slave masters. In the present, humanity has now divided into the bickering nations across Everon. As political matters point to war, the eponymous god-like Briar King appears to be awakening after millennia of slumber, and no one is quite sure what this means for humanity—except that it can't be good. Caught between the hammer of war and anvil of nature, our protagonists find themselves with few friends and even fewer options.
I loved the world of Everon itself. Greg Keyes does a wonderful job at establishing the relationship among various nations without resorting to too much exposition. We get a sense of the deep enmity between the Skernish and Hansa and of the amity between Liery and Crotheny. Overarching it all is the Church, predicated on the veneration of saints and their sedoi, places of power where saints rested or parts of them have been buried. Finally, we get glimpses of the history of Everon between the overthrow of the Skasloi two thousand years ago and the present day—mention of some sort of continent-wide empire known as the Hegemony, a tyrannical ruler known as the Black Jester, and related conflicts called "the Warlock Wars." All of this Keyes weaves together into a tight historical background for the present-day drama. And that's why it's so disappointing that the actual conflict in the book is so underwhelming.
The principal fault lies in the characters, who are, for the most part, stock. Anne Dare is the rebellious princess who must grow up and fulfil her destiny; Austra is the trusted and devoted maidservant; Neil is the knight in shining armour, immune to temptation and incorruptible; Aspar is the grumpy old man; William is the good-natured king who never suspects betrayal; and Robert is the deceitful brother who kills his sister out of jealousy and arranges his brother's death to start a war. Not only do these characters act like their tropes, but their dialogue is similarly uninspired to the point of corniness:
A touch of anger at last entered Robert’s voice. "But you'd already decided that, hadn't you, Wilm? If you thought me a brother, you would never have betrothed Lesbeth without asking me. I could never forgive you that."
There were moments when optimism got the better of me and it looked like the book might improve, like the characters might actually break out of their moulds and do something new. For instance, take when Neil and Fastia have a few too many and come close to sleeping together, despite the fact that the former bodyguard to the latter's mother—the queen. I thought they might actually do it and then regret it later. But no, Neil is too pure for that, and so they just have to deal with unrequited love for the next several chapters until Fastia dies at the hands of the Plot. Whenever one of the protagonists gets in a tight enough spot that they might not make it, something inexplicable happens to save them: Anne makes a knight go blind, Neil goes into a berserker rage, etc. None of the conflicts faced by the main characters feel compelling because none feel dangerous. The only mistake the protagonists make is not being genre savvy.
The story itself suffers from first-book-itis, essentially functioning to set up the rest of the tetralogy. It introduces us to the main characters and manoeuvres them into place for the conflicts of the next three books. As much as Keyes tries to create an interesting story, the stock characters and standard fantasy tropes left me unimpressed and unamused. I never felt surprised, or even outraged. Mostly I was passive, maybe even a little bored, as page after page of predictable plot passed me by.
Now, any genre has its established tropes, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Briar King, however, takes that to a whole new level. There's very little that's original about its characters or its plot; just a few names have been changed to protect the exploited. This is formulaic fantasy at its most derivative....more
Maybe it's unfair to compare them, but having read this hot on the heels of The War of the Worlds, I liked The Time Machine better. On thematic grouMaybe it's unfair to compare them, but having read this hot on the heels of The War of the Worlds, I liked The Time Machine better. On thematic grounds it's a close battle, but The Time Machine is a far superior story, hands down.
I'm not even going to touch the whole "time travel" concept as Wells presents it in this book, both because it was written in 1895 and because science fiction has so thoroughly confused the matter that trying to claim something "accurately" depicts time travel is always going to be specious. The main character has a time machine and he goes forward (then backward) in time. Got it? Good.
As with The War of the Worlds, precious few characters have names. In fact, I counted a grand total of two named characters: Filby, "an argumentative person with red hair" and Weena, an Eloi woman who befriends the Time Traveller. We never learn the name of the Time Traveller or the narrator of the book. Still, Wells somehow manages to pull this off with aplomb. And this time, he's even somehow acquired a story to mix in among his speculation and political theory!
Wells' Time Traveller builds his time machine in the hopes of going into the far future, where humanity will have solved all the problems looming ominously in the near future as Britain enters the 20th century. So when the Time Traveller arrives in 802,701, naturally he's pleased to find out that humanity has split up into two species, neither of whom retain the capacity for abstract thought, let alone solutions to all our problems. The happy-go-lucky, child-like Eloi live in a state of daytime bliss punctuated by their nightly Fear of the dark-loving, subterranean Morlocks. The Morlocks make off with the Time Traveller's machine, so he has to live with the Eloi while he plots to recapture it.
The Eloi and the Morlocks are the result of the ultimate separation of humanity, according to the Time Traveller, into a leisure-loving aristocracy (the Eloi) and the service-loving labourers (the Morlocks)—capitalism carried to its logical evolutionary extreme. Political theory aside, there's unquestionable, if unoriginal, validity in the statement that "the cause of human intelligence and vigour" is "hardship and freedom." Unfortunately, Wells never really advances beyond this basic thesis. We never learn if the example he sets during his confrontation with the Morlocks inspires the Eloi to improve themselves or not.
Despite Wells' enthusiastic confidence that the march of science would one day provide the answer to our problems, the Time Traveller, as his representative of the scientific genius, is far from a paragon. Indeed, he displays almost instinctual vitriol toward the ape-like Morlocks. The Eloi, on the other hand, "had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy" despite "their intellectual degradation." To the Time Traveller, Beauty is Good and Ugly is Bad. Some readers may take this as a lack of depth on Wells' part; I interpret it as evidence of depth of character in the Time Traveller—that is, he's not all the virtuous hero; he occasionally succumbs to the prejudices of his era.
The Time Machine is a conflict-laden adventure backed by some interesting ideas, the best of both worlds, unified by Wells' trademark descriptive style. It's a "what if" story, a story of wonder—one-hit wonder. And in that limited respect, while short, it's satisfying....more
It's easy to be a jaded reader of science fiction, especially if you grew up with the conveniences of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the reality of spaceflIt's easy to be a jaded reader of science fiction, especially if you grew up with the conveniences of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the reality of spaceflight. So it's important to remember that writers like H.G. Wells never got to see the famous Blue Marble photograph of Earth; they never got to see what our planet looks like from space—something most of us take for granted in this era. This awareness, our conception of the Earth as a big blue marble, has become so pervasive as to make descriptions like this seem ... odd:
...our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.
(Emphasis mine.) Wells didn't grow up with the Apollo missions; he only dreamed of men walking on the moon. So to write a story about Martians invading Earth, one saturated with speculation that uses the most cutting-edge science available to him in the 1890s, is all the more amazing and deserving of praise. The War of the Worlds is not a novel of the ages because of its story or characters—indeed, it lacks both—but because it is a testament to the power of one's imagination.
It's a good thing The War of the Worlds is short, because a book at any length in this style quickly becomes dull. The first thing that struck me is how Wells names so few of his characters. I'm pretty sure under ten characters in the book are named, and all of them are killed off in the first couple of chapters. The narrator and his wife go nameless; supporting characters are simply identified as "the boy" or "my brother," "the curate," "the artilleryman." That's not to say the characters lack personalities. Although none seem three-dimensional, Wells takes the time to invest the main characters with a cynical sort of human nature: the narrator vacillates between misguided optimism and extreme pessimism; the brother soon finds his own altruism erode in the face of Martian-induced anarchy; the curate goes mad; the artilleryman seizes upon impractical, Nietzschean visions. In a way, the dearth of names is appropriate to what Wells accomplishes: set pieces, scenery with dialogue, rather than actual characters decorate the scenes of The War of the Worlds. Through these inanimate beings, Wells shows us how he thinks civilization—because this is Britain, after all!—would behave during an apocalypse.
The narrative itself is extremely procedural. In addition to the nameless characters, who lend to the narrative its feeling of an anonymous article recounting "the terrible Martian invasion," the narrator often goes off into clinical descriptions of the events that befall him and his own interactions with the Martians. This book is all tactics and no strategy.
No, where Wells truly excels is his portrayal of the Martians as the Other and his exploration of how humanity reacts to the invasion of the Other, to absolute and utter catastrophe. The Martians never parley with humanity, neither to threaten nor to deliver ultimatums. They are taciturn and methodical, ruthlessly organized in their effort to dominate the Earth. Our entire understanding of them is predicated on the narrator's perception, on his perhaps fallible assignation of thoughts and desires to the Martians. They are, he supposes, doing this out of a need to survive—Mars being a dying planet—but it's worth noting that this is total supposition; for all we know, the Martians were utterly malevolent and their planet was fine.
The Martians certainly bring out a certain malevolence in humanity. There's no shortage of books that show the dark side of humanity, of course. But the alien invasion story is unique because of its ability to render us, as a species, totally impotent:
For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heels. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.
This is not the first time Wells compares us to animals; earlier in the book he compares his initial underestimation of the Martians as tantamount to the dodos' lackadaisical attitude toward the first sailors on Mauritius. However, the sentiment doesn't truly sink in until Wells' narrator re-encounters the artilleryman, who sums it up: "We're beat.... This isn't a war. It never was a war, anymore than there's war between man and ants."
From here, the book briefly digresses into a dim vision of humanity's future under the heels of the Martians. The scary thing is, I can see it happening. Our greatest strength as a species is how adaptable we are—but that strength can also be a disadvantage. Civilizations have grown comfortable under the rule of tyrants (just don't ask for the recipe for Soylent Green...); I was ready to envision humanity under the Martians.
It's worth remembering too that this all happens, and was written, before World War II. But does this sound familiar?
It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.
Finally, everyone knows how the story ends, even though few people probably even read the entire book: the Martians are felled by tiny, microscopic bacteria, because "there are no bacteria in Mars." Of all the science in this book—much of which is accurate, by the way, if not precise—that is the most ironic statement, for scientists currently searching for life on Mars, past or present, are focusing on finding that life under a microscope. So fortunately for us, I don't think the Martians will be aiming their rockets at Earth anytime soon....more
I'm a fan of Neil Gaiman: I read his books, read his blog, and follow his Twitter feed. So when he starts mentioning this Amanda Palmer chick, links tI'm a fan of Neil Gaiman: I read his books, read his blog, and follow his Twitter feed. So when he starts mentioning this Amanda Palmer chick, links to her music videos, and extols both her talents as a musician and her creative nature in general, I decided I should pay attention. I did a little research of my own, learned more about Miss Palmer, but ultimately I was still left with the one question we all have, the only question that matters: who killed Amanda Palmer?
This book is beautiful in a very dark, sometimes disconcerting way. Palmer and Gaiman may be two of the people most suited to creating works of twisted fantasy, where everything reminds you of classic or urban myths but is just a tiny bit off, just a little skewed. They've teamed up, along with talented photographers, to create a book that's breathtaking and eerie.
It's easy to say, "Let's do a whole book of photos of me, only dead." In fact, it's downright narcissistic. Yet the sheer variety of ways in which Amanda Palmer dies is disturbingly fascinating. Some of them are conventional, others are highly improbable; all of them look real. This book confronts that essential part of our humanity that's dark, the part of us that scares us--not everything is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.
Gaiman's accompanying text is, as always, imaginative. My favourite, accompanying a photo of Amanda Palmer killed by a typewriter falling on her head, is the conversation between a novelist and his companion in a hot-air balloon.... Interspersed with Gaiman's short tales are the lyrics to the album of the same name. Although I haven't bought the album yet, anyone who has will treasure this book, if only as an illustrated lyrical companion. It is, of course, so much more.
I think the best phrase to summarize my review would be this: I bought it for the Neil but stayed for the Amanda....more
Something's been nagging me ever since I began reading Allen Steele's Coyote series. I enjoyed both Coyote and Coyote Rising, for the most part, ySomething's been nagging me ever since I began reading Allen Steele's Coyote series. I enjoyed both Coyote and Coyote Rising, for the most part, yet something was missing. Coyote Frontier brings that missing piece of the puzzle to the series, for we finally get to see Earth with our own eyes, and Steele reminds us why space travel isn't just for science fiction.
In Coyote Frontier, a starship belonging to the European Alliance, rivals of the collectivist Western Hemisphere Union who tried to take over Coyote in the last book, arrives at Coyote claiming peaceful intentions. The ship, commanded by Captain Anastasia Tereshkova, reassembles itself into a "starbridge," your typical science fiction hyperspace wormhole device. Now that Coyote and Earth are mere hours apart instead of decades, Coyote has been thrust back into the spotlight of the fragmented, struggling survivors of a global climate holocaust. The colonists and various representatives of Earth's government jockey for position, each one trying to defend their own best interests. But who is looking out for humanity's interests?
Coyote Frontier had better writing than Coyote Rising and was pretty much on par with Coyote. My major dissatisfaction with Coyote Rising was how shallow made all of the political motivations of the main characters seem. There's a little bit of this shallowness in Coyote Frontier, particularly in the sections that deal with Susan Montero, Hawk Thompson, and Lars Thompson as they argue over the possible intelligence of Coyote's indigenous hominids, the chirreep. None of the characters of this series seem very deep or well-developed; the possible exceptions are Wendy and Carlos, whom we've seen mature from teenagers in Coyote to middle-aged and elderly by Coyote Frontier, and Hawk, who has to choose between family or higher principles. Otherwise, most of the characters aren't burdened with complex emotions or anything resembling moral dilemmas. Susan is unswervingly devoted to preserving Coyote's natural habitat and indigenous wildlife. Tereshkova and most of her crew are so enchanted with how pristine Coyote is that they "convert" to Coyote's side; former first officer Jonathan Parson embodies this philosophy to a tee.
Where this series excels is in the struggle to colonize another world. The first two books covered the actual effort to construct—and keep—a colony. In Coyote Frontier, we see the inevitable re-establishment of regular contact with Earth, and the consequences this has for both Earth and Coyote. Naturally, the Coyote Federation wants to become a sovereign nation and control who emigrates to their world. All the Earth governments are anxious for new, unexploited land. Steele is far from coy about the novel's role as an allegory for European colonization of the New World; it even includes an indigenous population that some colonists would rather wipe out than accommodate (notably, however, the chirreep are primitive homonids, whereas the indigenous peoples of the Americas were modern humans who merely had primitive technology). Some governments, like the European Alliance, are amenable to negotiating with Coyote on the latter's terms. Others, like the Western Hemisphere Union, are openly hostile. Although the story's main plot does come to a head before the end of the book, these overarching issues aren't fully resolved, to good effect.
For Steele may be writing a story set in the future, but he's writing about the present. The chief moral of the Coyote series is that humanity seldom learns from its mistakes; with each new frontier, we scramble for control as we quickly fill and consume all the resources we can. We've already seen the dangers of unchecked development and witnessed the horrors of genocide, yet with a fresh new world to exploit, suddenly the cautionary tale of our history is forgotten. Despite the futuristic technology and fictional political entities, the situations that Steele creates feel real and plausible. Fortunately, Steele doesn't present a uniformly bleak picture of our destiny. In fact, it's fair to say he's more than optimistic—as long as there are still good people to stand up for human principles, rather than the political principles of any particular country, we still have a chance. And if Steele is right, and we aren't alone in the universe, then it's even more vital that we put our best foot forward.
I would happily recommend the Coyote series to anyone. It's not my favourite series by any means, but it's still a wonderful treatment of important themes. For Coyote Frontier is a ringing endorsement of the necessity for us to strive for the stars. Especially in times of economic tension, people question the utility of space travel, especially attempts to establish manned space travel. What's the point? Simply put, as Coyote Frontier and its ilk do, we have outgrown this world. We need more resources and more room than the Earth can offer. If we can continue to avoid total environmental catastrophe, great; space is a bonus. If not, however, and like the denizens of Coyote's Earth we all become environmental refugees, then escape to the stars may be our only hope for survival as a species. Either way, we need the knowledge and the know-how to get there, preferably sooner rather than later. Coyote Frontier makes a compelling case for this argument, wrapped in an exciting story of old problems on a new world....more
From the first line, this book hooked me: "The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above NovFrom the first line, this book hooked me: "The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd." A post-Singularity descendant of humanity, the Festival, arrives in orbit around the backwater Rochard's World. The Festival's willingness to share anything in return for information results in economic and social upheaval as the repressed citizens of Rochard's World find they can have anything they want: technology, money, even power. As a result, the New Republic decides to launch a battle fleet to deal with the threat of the Festival.
But their strategy calls for a causality violation gambit, which could be a problem. A capricious and unknowable artificial intelligence, the Eschaton, does not tolerate such time travel ventures, which could imperil its own existence. The Eschaton has been known to retaliate with excessive force—planet-crunching, supernova-type force—and so two human agents hope to intervene before it all goes apocalyptic.
Charles Stross does a wonderful job at contrasting different styles of government and cultures influenced by how they embraced the upheaval of the technological Singularity. The New Republic is modelled after eighteenth-century Russia: technologically and socially conservative, with a strong government enforced by devastating mores and sinister secret police. Then there's Earth, homeworld of our protagonists Martin Springfield and Rachel Mansour. The only entity recognizable as a planetary government would be the United Nations, but as Springfield points out:
It's not the government of Earth; it's just the only remaining relic of Earth's governments that [the New Republic:] can recognize. The bit that does the common-good jobs that everyone needs to subscribe to. World-wide vaccination programs, trade agreements with extrasolar governments, insurer of last resort for major disasters, that srot of thing. The point is, for the most part, the UN doesn't actually do anything; it doesn't have a foreign policy.... Sometimes somebody or another uses the UN as a front when they need to do something credible-looking, but trying to get a consensus vote out of the Security Council is like herding cats.
The conflict of values between the New Republic's agents, specifically its naval officers and an inexperienced secret policeman, and Terrans, specifically Springfield and Mansour, fuels most of the conflict of the book. The rest of the conflict comes from the alien nature of the Festival; the New Republic insists on treating it like an ordinary human government with recognizable motivations and strategy. That turns out to be a costly mistake:
The Festival isn't human, it isn't remotely human. You people are thinking in terms of people with people-type motivations.... You can no more declare war on the Festival than you can declare a war against sleep. It's a self-replicating information network.
Stross also packs the book with the ramifications of technology on cultures: the Festival is an "upload society," where minds are stored in virtual worlds and physical forms are transitory. It's diverged so far from its common ancestry with humans that it's no longer human, as mentioned above, but something else, something that we can't really comprehend. In that way, it's even more alien than the Eschaton, a truly alien entity, but one that at least deigns to communicate with humans on a comprehensible level (once and a while). Unlike too much Singularity fiction, Singularity Sky mixes transhuman, posthuman, and human cultures in a way that makes for interesting but still understandable interaction.
Similarly, while this book is packed to the brim with technobabble and discussions of relativity and quantum mechanics, it never feels too heavy. I love how the characters use entangled qubits for "acausal communication" and the Eschaton one day just decided to relocate 90% o the Earth's population to various planets via wormhole. Maybe that's just because I love theoretical physics more than is healthy; I can see how people less familiar with hard science fiction or physics in general might find the exposition in Singularity Sky daunting. On the other hand, maybe it'll be educational. And to Stross' credit, all of the exposition is relevant to the plot.
As much as I must praise Stross' ideas, I can't in good conscience do the same for the story. The pacing is heavily tilted toward the end (as it should be), but the bulk of its ideas and themes reside in its beginning. As a result, Singularity Sky starts off strong—like I said, it pulled me in—but eventually that siren call of awesomeness asking me not to put down the book petered out. The sense of conflict and suspense just doesn't last, and after the New Republic fleet reaches Rochard's World, the protagonists' plot diverges from that of the fleet, and I never really feel like they're in real danger. With any sense of high stakes obviated, the story withers away into the background.
Singularity Sky starts off strong but ultimately fails to deliver. It has the same great ideas of Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns or Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon but none of their pulse-pounding action and complex mystery subplots that make those books great. People like me, who breathe physics and ponder the possibilities of faster-than-light travel, will find Singularity Sky interesting but come away from the book feeling like it had so much more potential....more