_Neuromancer_: a name to conjure with. Arguably (actually? I’m not 100% sure) the first cyberpunk novel and therefore great-grand-daddy of a3.5 stars
_Neuromancer_: a name to conjure with. Arguably (actually? I’m not 100% sure) the first cyberpunk novel and therefore great-grand-daddy of a genre that revolutionized science fiction (and is also therefore indirectly responsible for every single sub-genre in the speculative fiction field apparently needing to be called “something-punk”, WTF is that about anyway?!) Despite being a card-carrying nerd and genre fan at the time it was published I managed to miss this one the first time around and am obviously rather late coming to the party. Not that I’ve been unaware of what cyberpunk is, or been a complete stranger to many manifestations of its influence, but I must admit that this particular flavour of sci-fi was not a favourite of mine when it first hit the streets and so many of the ‘approved texts’ of the genre never made their way onto my reading list (especially, it must be admitted, after I bounced hard off of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and had a fairly ‘meh’ reaction to Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” set in the same universe as _Neuromancer_).
This novel has everything that would soon come to define the cyberpunk genre: the ‘consensual hallucination’ or alternate reality that is cyberspace (with the corollary that people have the ability to fully interface with computers and truly inhabit this strange new world), the merging of the human and the technological even in the ‘meat’ world of physical reality, the Japanization of culture and economics tied to an apprehension bordering on paranoia when viewing authoritarian political and economic structures, and a basic fear that as things speed up more and more we are moving closer and closer to ultimate anarchy and chaos even as big brother tries to tighten his grip and enforce order.
The story revolves around Case, a ‘Cowboy’ or computer hacker who is adept at ‘jacking-in’ to the matrix and getting data for those that are willing to pay for it. As we open Case, now an ex-cowboy ever since his brain was chemically damaged due to attempting to double-cross the wrong clients, is visited by an unlikely guardian angel: a man going only by the name of Armitage. This mysterious and humourless stranger has the whiff of the military about him, but he wants Case to do a job for him and manages to do the impossible: he gives Case back his abilities by undoing the damage done to his nervous system, but holds over him the damoclean threat of having this gift revoked at the least sign of non-compliance. The team is rounded out by Molly, a ‘Razor-girl’ whose attitude and body modifications make her the perfect lethal enforcer, and Riviera a psychotic drug addict and con-man able to manifest life-like holographic images. Welcome to the hard-boiled world of cyberpunk. Of course none of the team trusts their ostensible boss Armitage (or each other really) and this is only exacerbated by the fact that none of them truly know what their end goal is. Armitage strings along his team with tidbits of ‘need-to-know’ and the promise of a payout worth any effort (but is he really pulling the strings or is he merely a puppet to a higher force?) The plot allows us to follow this rag-tag group of miscreants on a tour of the post-cyber world and we are introduced to several of the major players in the game of politics and intrigue, as well as seeing some of the more interesting ways in which humanity has modified itself to suit this brave new world of technology and decay.
Given the time when it was written it isn’t surprising that I found myself getting a decidedly 70’s and 80’s vibe from this book. The tech itself is often depicted by Gibson in what might now be considered ‘retro’ ways: clunky hardware, landline phones, old school modems with scratchy handshake signals, and wires and cables to ‘jack-in’ to computers definitely all contributed to this. Even the descriptions of the matrix itself, that vast cyber world made up of code and data, are given in terms that brought to mind (to me at least) the bright primary colours and geometric shapes of an old vector graphics game. One could even argue that the iconic first line of the novel, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”, while still striking and apposite, is ultimately a dated allusion, calling to mind something that most youngsters these days will have little to no frame of reference for given the advent of digital TV. Aside from the apparent technological anachronisms there were also a few specific cultural references that definitely brought the 80s back to mind for me (oh the heady days of youth!)
Of course this is perhaps following the wrong scent. There is no doubt that the concerns and ideas of the 70’s and 80’s are bone-deep in the text, not only in the realm of technology, but politics as well. The book is ultimately concerned with working through the problems raised by the technological and political issues of its day: what do we do when the line between humanity and technology becomes less and less distinguishable; when we see technological implements not just as tools, but as indispensable extensions of ourselves? What happens when globe-spanning multinational corporations start to dictate public policy to the nations under whose protection they ostensibly operate? What is the meaning of ‘culture’ in a world becoming more and more a global village? Of course these concerns are not specific to the 80's and are certainly just as relevant today and in the end I think that Gibson’s fluid way with prose, the quick pace of the story, and the immersive world he depicts all do a great job at uniting the era-specific elements of his story with those that are more universal in their depiction. In many ways the use of what might be seen today as ‘outmoded’ technology combined with a society whose use of these scientific tools far outstrips our own (to the point of having both an extra-planetary society and nascent AIs) actually adds to the flavour of the novel. You really get a feel for the grimy, cobbled together, anything-that-works attitude of this bootstrap world. Add to this the menace of international corporate conglomerations that have more or less subsumed nation states as humanity’s default political structures with anarchy peeling at the edges of a society that is both rising with a wave of high technology and falling into chaos as it seems to be coming apart at the seams and you have a recipe for some great sci-fi. ...more
I'm at a bit of a loss for what to say about this volume. It was certainly enjoyable, but after what I considered the superlative efforts of the firstI'm at a bit of a loss for what to say about this volume. It was certainly enjoyable, but after what I considered the superlative efforts of the first two books in this part of the series (The Judging Eye and The White Luck Warrior) I was perhaps a tad let down by this one. Most likely this is due to the fact that, frighteningly like GRRM, Bakker was forced to split what was supposed to be one book into two: in this case the originally proposed final volume of the 'Aspect Emperor' series has now become two books and thus perhaps this part of it is just suffering from middle book syndrome...or I'm just disappointed at being denied my grand climax.
Be that as it may there is still a lot of good here. Achamian and Mimara finally come to the ruins of Ishual and what they find could either lead to the fall of Kellhus or perhaps their own deaths. I won't spoil it, but I was equally interested and irked by what they found and only time will tell where I finally land on this. Also, was I the only one to perceive a nod to one of the mysteries of the Dune series in a reveal about the Dunyain that manages to make them even more chilling and inhuman? I will admit to being both delighted and stupefied regarding what they came across as they journeyed on in an attempt to catch up to the Great Ordeal and definitely look forward to seeing how that storyline finally plays out.
The story of Esmenet and her brat-godling Kelmomas continues as Kellhus' empire crumbles around them and the assassin of the goddess Yatwer walks in their midst. I generally have the least amount of patience for this storyline as I find both Esmenet and Kelmonas a little annoying, but the mystery of the White Luck Warrior, along with some interesting developments in general, kept me from getting bored here. Kellhus himself surprised me with the fact that he revealed one of his greatest secrets to his two main lieutenants Proyas and Saubon, the purpose of which I am still unsure of. He walks an interesting line as both possible saviour and ultimate foe of humanity and I still have not decided where exactly he sits on that spectrum.
My main dismay about the final book being split into two likely revolves around the fact that it seems to have meant that we still see very little of the Consult aside from the hordes of Srank being decimated by the Great Ordeal (though I will admit that we do get a cameo that involves both a major character and event that is central to the Consult, even if it is a very short one, which leads to a pretty intense cliff hanger). I find the Consult to be one of the most intriguing elements of Bakker's world, so being denied any answers to their nature is frustrating, though it is at least partially made up for in this volume by the revelations we get regarding the mysteries of his second greatest creation, the Nonmen. As Sorwheel, Serwa and Moenghus descend into the depths of the Nonman mansion of Ishterebinth we see first hand the crumbling world of the mighty and immortal Nonmen and its a fascinating and dark world indeed, perhaps even more harrowing than the journey into the abandoned Nonman mansion of Cil-Aujas from the first volume.
I can't really say much more at the risk of spoiling something so I will leave with this final word: I found this book to perhaps be a bit of a stumble when compared to the first two volumes of 'The Aspect Emperor' series which I felt were exemplary, but it's still a very worthy book and a must-read for those who have kept up with this series thus far....more
So, volume two of the “Aspect Emperor” series has come to a close and so far R. Scott Bakker still proves that he has the chops to pull off a multi-voSo, volume two of the “Aspect Emperor” series has come to a close and so far R. Scott Bakker still proves that he has the chops to pull off a multi-volume epic fantasy that not only uses the standard tropes in new and interesting ways, but that gives his characters depth, darkness, and complexity and does so with prose that is always enjoyable and sometimes downright exhilarating to read. I don’t think that I really *like* any of his characters (though Achamian, and to a lesser extent Mimara and even Sorweel, come close), but I find them all thoroughly intriguing, even when they are frustrating or repellent…or perhaps it’s because they are. Kellhus is still a fascinating cypher: a saviour who is chillingly amoral and manipulative, but whose ultimate aims and decisions on how best to reach them seem maddeningly right. Achamian, the ostensible hero of the tale, comes across at best as a petty cuckold hazarding ridiculous risks (for himself and others) for the sake of ill-feelings and wounded pride, and at worst as a monomaniacal menace who is little more than a tool that could lead to the utter destruction of all mankind. Kosoter and his pack of Sranc scalpers (esp. the mysterious Nonman mage Cleric) are always an intriguing bunch and watching their inner dissolution on the trail to the Library of Sauglish as they become pared down to a nub, leaving only their most essential (and repellent) characteristics is fascinating. I have to admit that I found the struggle for power at the heart of Kellhus’ empire in Momemn a little less captivating (probably because I find Esmenet a less interesting character than some of the others), but the glimpses we get into the dysfunctional and super-powered Dûnyain family (from “Uncle Holy” Maithanet right on down to dear little psycho Kelmomas) is always a fun train wreck to watch. And Sorweel, Serwa and Moënghus? Let’s just say I’m intrigued to see where and how the heck they end up.
While much of the story is devoted to either having two of the main plot threads cover huge distances of geography (Kellhus & the Great Ordeal and Achamian & the Skin Eaters) or another main thread devoted to plunging into the labyrinthine intrigues of the slowly dissolving imperial court (with Esmenet, Maithanet, and Kelmomas taking centre stage) and thus at times it can seem that not a lot happens in a relatively large span of pages, there are some really exciting, edge-of-your-seat type moments on display. Whether it’s the kick-ass fight that Cleric and Achamian have with (view spoiler)[Wutteät, the seemingly undead Father of Dragons (hide spoiler)] in the bowels of the Library of Sauglish, or the psycho machinations of ‘little’ Kelmomas in the hidden mazes of the Imperial Palace, or the endless sea of hording Sranc inundating a portion of the Great Ordeal in the midst of the ruins of mankind’s first great empire, or even the somewhat confusing but thoroughly intriguing mystery of the White-Luck Warrior and his seemingly time-warped journey through the Three Seas, there’s more than enough to maintain a reader’s interest. The Cleric and Achamian thread was especially intriguing to me as the entire scenario seemed like some untold tale taken from _The Silmarillion_ and twisted in incomprehensible and often lurid ways. It was as-if (view spoiler)[ Gil-Galad (hide spoiler)] went insane, lost his memory, and went adventuring with an even darker version of Túrin and his outlaw buddies and they just happened to stumble upon (view spoiler)[ Ancalagon the Black or even Glaurung (hide spoiler)] and had a magical slugfest in the heart of the ruins of Nargothrond.
Ultimately Bakker seems to strike a nice balance between moving the story forward and taking time to flesh out his characters and events. One could argue that some of the storylines don’t move forward (certainly geographically and sometimes plot-wise) as far, or as quickly, as one might wish, but ultimately I never felt bored with Bakker’s pace, or thought that he was sacrificing the story in the name of broadening his horizons or navel-gazing (I’m looking at you GRRM). Despite this nice balance, however, I still have a creeping fear that leads me to ask the question: Can Bakker wrap up this story in only one more volume given the relative leisure with which he has unfolded it to this point? As noted above I don’t in any way view his unhurried pace as a bad thing and I appreciated the way in which it allowed events to seemingly unfold organically and characters (even peripheral ones) to grow in interesting and realistic ways. It’s just that in looking back and seeing that approx. 2/3 of the apparent page count allocated for the story has been expended and then looking forward to see what he still needs to cover I really hope he isn’t forced to rush to the finish in order to reach the climax of the story in only one more volume. After all he is already working with a large cast, many with significant ties to the previous series who are still only beginning to be fully sketched out at this point. How will they develop? Should they have even been introduced? It's certainly nowhere near as bad as GRRM spinning out of control and adding viewpoint characters, locations, and subplots to an absurd degree, but is at least mildly analogous and makes me squirm a bit. Bakker’s also working with some pretty significant (and indeed numerous) plotlines that need to not only resolve, but also dovetail with each other to some extent, none of which seem to have their ultimate goal in sight yet. That being said, at the end of the day I have faith that he has the chops to pull it off...don’t let me down R. Scott Bakker!
Ok, so it’s pretty clear that Peter Watts doesn’t think very highly of the human race. When I look around at the state of the world we’ve made I haveOk, so it’s pretty clear that Peter Watts doesn’t think very highly of the human race. When I look around at the state of the world we’ve made I have to admit that I’m not sure I can blame him. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like he thinks much of the possible post-human solutions to the ‘problem’ either. Man, what’s a species to do?! Given the general tenor of Watts’ books I think the answer might be: just roll over and die…after sufficiently (and pointlessly) railing against the inevitable of course. Shit, I wonder what Watts is like at parties?
I was looking forward to reading this book given how much I enjoyed its prequel _Blindsight_, but I have to admit that I didn't grok this one nearly as much. I think the long lapse since reading _Blindsight_ didn't help. I'm pretty certain if I'd re-read it before tackling _Echopraxia_ I probably would have had an easier time of it. I was also a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of hard science that I must admit I didn't quite follow most of the time. Given this is a hard SF book I can't really hold that against it...it's my problem, but one that did deter from my enjoyment of the story to a certain extent.
We pick up several years after the events of _Blindsight_ with the human race assuming, as usual, that no news is good news as far as the mission to discover the origins of the mysterious aliens behind the 'Firefall event' goes and so we're back to our life as usual with internecine wars and the race to outdo each other in resource consumption taking up most of our time and effort. Daniel Bruks is a biologist living a solitary life in the desert cataloging mutated species and running from a traumatic event in his past. He is also a baseline human struggling to live in a post-human world. His life is about to change drastically through the intervention of a nearby 'monastic' community of Bicameral humans (basically a super-intelligent hive mind) and an escaped vampire (yes a vampire in a hard SF book...Watts has a very interesting version of these beasts who are actually a prehistoric human offshoot brought back by the wonders of science and stupidity of mankind).
In short order Bruks finds himself running from unknown enemies and participating in a voyage across the solar system to discover what mysteries and dangers lie in the ruins of the Theseus project as outlined in the first book. It's a Peter Watts book so I don't think I'm committing a heinous act of spoiler if I note that nothing goes well at all for anyone. Watts populates his mission to space with an array of modified post-humans and his view on how our race might evolve, and the technologies to which they are wedded, is always interesting. Of course we require a lens like Bruks through which to view these super beings who are beyond the ken of wormlike mortals such as ourselves.
All in all I generally enjoyed the story though Watts' baseline of utter pessimism and my aforementioned inability to always follow the technical nuances of the science being thrown around did hamper my enjoyment some. I also *think* I know what happened at the end of the story, but am a little uncertain about some aspects of it, though I guess having food for thought about the hows and whens is ok. I'll call this one a draw I guess...interesting stuff for sure, but not a book for which I am the ideal reader. ...more
Wow. This was a tough one. It was a very good hard sf book that I don't think I'll be coming back to anytime soon. As others have said: "abandon all hWow. This was a tough one. It was a very good hard sf book that I don't think I'll be coming back to anytime soon. As others have said: "abandon all hope ye who enter here." A well written, excruciating exploration of the human "problem" where it turns out that it really is a problem. How do you take a book whose central premise seems to be that the development of self-awareness in human evolution was a wrong turn that wasn't meant to happen at all? That it was in fact contrary to the entire development of intelligence throughout the rest of the universe that only occurred due to a fluke in the evolution of a competing species? Talk about being alone in an uncaring reality. Watts manages to take Lovecraft's primary hobby horse and make it work in a way that is truly frightening in its utter nihilism. This isn't a scary universe because Watts tells us so (as it would have been had Lovecraft wrote the tale), it's scary because he shows us so.
Our primary filter for information is Siri Keeton, a man with literally only half a brain. Due to a childhood trauma he was essentially lobotomized and given computer processors to make up for what was removed. Siri obviously lost a lot during the process, but "gained" the ability to be the ultimate "Chinese Room" for humanity...for all that was worth. His whole life he has been trying to understand even 'baseline' humans and his facility with doing so, with looking at the human enigma on the surface and from the outside, and parsing it correctly has led him to become a professional conduit between these baseline humans and the posthuman entities they have created and made to work for them. He is a uniquely appropriate narrator for this tale as his very mode of existence showcases Watts' entire argument in microcosm; and interestingly his entire development as a character is the reverse of the development of the story and even of the universe itself. Siri's story starts and ends as a very lonely one, but for very different reasons.
Another fascinating element of the tale is the fairly unique use of vampires as an off-shoot sub-species of humanity originally destroyed due to humanity's self-awareness and then brought back by high science to be our servants. These are probably the most frightening vampires I've yet come across in fiction, not only because of the pseudo-scientific "plausibility", but primarily because of what we eventually discover about them in the story's conclusion.
I will say very little about "Rorschach", the alien entity with whom humanity attempts to communicate in this tale of first contact, except to say that the Lovecraftian enigma of its seeming indifference to human existence is truly chilling in its implications. Far more than any dreaming Cthulhu, Rorschach is an entity whose strangeness is truly to be feared.
All in all this was a rewarding, though deeply uncomfortable, read.
This review applies to all three volumes of Bakker's 'The Prince of Nothing' series. First off, let me say that I'm really impressed with what BakkerThis review applies to all three volumes of Bakker's 'The Prince of Nothing' series. First off, let me say that I'm really impressed with what Bakker achieved here. I'm reminded of something Guy Kay said when asked why he wrote The Fionavar Tapestry about wanting to prove that there was still life in the old tropes of high fantasy, as designed by Tolkien, and that new things could be done with them as opposed to mere slavish imitation. I think Bakker succeeded admirably in this (whereas Guy Kay's actual creation of something really new, in Fionavar at least, is debatable).
From the explanation of the Elves' immortality, as well as a really interesting extrapolation of what that would mean for a contigent being, to the depiction of evil so utterly repulsive and frightening that it makes Melkor and Sauron look like Sunday school teachers this series really played with the traditional high fantasy motifs in ways I found very intriguing. Add to that a magic system based on principles from the epistomology of different schools of philosophy and a cast of characters whose flaws make them almost painfully real to the reader and you'd expect to get a smash hit on your hands. Except that doesn't really seem to have happened and I think I know why.
In a nutshell the books, and the world they present, are just so unambiguosuly dark that I think few readers have the stomach to follow Bakker where he wants to lead them. The most redeeming character of the series, the downtrodden wizard Drusus Achamian, is ultimately a loser who seems only to be a relative good-guy in that he's too feckless to be effectively out for himself. Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the character who would be the titular hero of the series as written by anyone else, is more akin to a natural force than a man and the utter vacuity of his moral centre is so frightening that it makes him both more and less human than any other character of the novel. Cnaiür urs Skiötha, another incredibly well-drawn and fascinating character, is also so driven by his broken nature that while what he is capable of is impressive, it certainly isn't anything the reader is likely to relate to. Bakker obviously has a point to make in his story about human nature, and even the nature of reality, but it certainly isn't a point that is likely to sit well with too many readers unless they like their world view leavened with a heaping portion of nihilism. One begins to wonder, as we learn more about this world and the sleeping great evil that is apparently looming on the horizon, why anyone would bother trying to save such an utterly flawed universe anyway. Despite all of this, though, the world as Bakker paints it is an incredibly vivid and interesting one. The hints of 'what has gone before' that are dropped in the story give real texture to this place and the mysteries still left unanswered are as tantalising as those for which we do receive some explanation. It is really fascinating to see how someone using similar tropes and building blocks to Tolkien could have built something so completely different, and yet still so compelling.
The story itself follows the rise of a great crusade between warring nations against the backdrop of the rise to power of an ancient force of evil which most of the world does not even believe in anymore. Behind and within this backdrop are woven the tales of the three main characters (Achaimian, Kellhus, and Cnaiur) as they each pursue their own goals and are inextricably led to one another. The climax of the series could be considered something of an anti-climax, for while each of the characters has, in some sense, found what they were seeking and begun upon a new path, the much larger movements of the story (both the crusade and the rise of sleeping evil) are left in media res for another series to pick up on. Bakker has now released two books in this continuation of the larger story, but many readers may find it frustrating that so much of what could be considered the overarching plot of the novels is left completely hanging by the end of volume three.
Overall I was torn by this series. One the one hand I think Bakker did a commendable job in building a world that did truly new things with the high fantasy genre and I was always fascinated by each new mystery he revealed; on the other hand I ended up feeling like I needed a shower after reading these books. The evil in it is presented so convincingly, and the very nature of the world he created is so bleak, that I just don't relish the thought of visiting the place again. Add to that the fact that the term "sympathetic character" doesn't seem to be in Bakker's vocabulary and you are left with a series that is definitely tailored to the tastes of the minority...but then again, maybe that's a good thing....more
After finishing The White Luck Warrior, the most recent volume in R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy novels set in the world of Eärwa, and realizing3.5 stars
After finishing The White Luck Warrior, the most recent volume in R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy novels set in the world of Eärwa, and realizing that I had many months to wait for the next book, and somehow feeling like I didn’t yet want to leave this dark and twisted world I decided to go back to the first series and give it a re-read. Eärwa is an interesting secondary world: one in which the metaphysics of its religions are objectively true, as are the consequences of not adhering to their byzantine moral codes. It seems as though the entire world is damned, certainly those who practice sorcery (the ultimate mark of human folly and pride and the greatest sin against the gods and their act of creation) and nearly every character in the novel seems to suffer under the weight of this condemnation. There seems to be a lot of damnation to go around, but very little in the way of atonement, forgiveness, or mercy. As I said…pretty dark and as I have mentioned elsewhere, when not in the right mood for it, this can be an obstacle when reading Bakker. At the moment, however, I was on a role with Eärwa and decided to extend my stay for a bit…it is at least as fascinating as it is dark. These days “dark fantasy” is nothing new, indeed it’s almost become something of a commonplace in the genre, but I think Bakker may have been one of the earliest writers to explore this paradigm. “Dark and gritty fantasy” this may be, though I don’t think Bakker strays as far thematically from the high fantasy tropes and idioms of Tolkien as do many of his confrères; in fact I think he may be one of the few writers in the field who has not only made use of them, but done so in truly novel and interesting ways.
This first volume in Bakker’s magnum opus, which currently consists of five books (with, as I noted above, a sixth on the horizon and, I think at least, the possibility of at least one more trilogy to fully flesh out many of the ideas and stories that Bakker is working with), is an impressive first novel, though I did notice a few infelicities on my re-read that I think ultimately show how Bakker has improved as a wordsmith. One thing that stood out to me was Bakker’s occasional tendency to over-explain things, though I must admit that some of this may have been more the result of the fact that I already knew many of the details he reveals than any real fault in Bakker’s prose. Still, show don’t tell, right? I also found myself occasionally weighed down by political and logistical details that admittedly are understandably necessary if one is going to tell a tale about a mass crusade of nations against an ancient foe. It’s not the kind of thing you can rush through if you’re going to do it right, and many integral pieces need to be set up before anything can be set in motion unless you choose to start in medias res, which was not Bakker’s choice here. So, again not exactly a complaint, more just an acknowledgment that my favourite elements of the book were not those centring on the larger ramifications and details of the Holy War, but instead those that centred on the characters, especially, I must admit, the savage yet cunning barbarian chieftain Cnaiür urs Skiötha and his godlike yet enigmatic companion Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the titular Prince of Nothing.
I won’t go into too much detail on these characters so you can enjoy the revelations about them yourselves, but I recall being struck upon my first reading of the initial trilogy (and this feeling has certainly remained) with the way in which these two figures seemed to embody one of the main ideas that I think Bakker was working through in the initial trilogy: the concept of the Übermensch. It always struck me that in Cnaiür we saw something along the lines of a ‘true’ nietzschean superman, a man with superior physical and mental skills driven by an overpowering will to overcome all obstacles and enforce this will upon the world. In Kellhus we have something slightly different, a man who is the product of both a genetic breeding program and a highly sophisticated training process (shades of the Bene Gesserit and their search for the kiwisatz haderach here) both of which are designed to produce a human ‘conditioned’ to be able to “set himself before” the myriad influences and deterministic elements of the world such that he is both “truly free”, able to make decisions that are not merely the unthinking by-product of unperceived influences, and can as a result perceive the hidden motivations of others, thus wielding an almost inhuman influence upon them. Following these two characters as they meet, come to realize how they fit into each other’s lives and plans, and watch them play off not only each other, but the world at large (and the Holy War that is the ultimate backdrop for the whole story) is a lot of fun.
Besides these two supermen, the story is rounded out by a very large cast of characters, both high and low, who range from the dysfunctional, one might even say psychotic, Ikurei family that rule the Nansur Empire and hope to use the Holy War as a tool for their own ends, and the contingent of Nersei Proyas an idealistic young King who hopes to retain the ‘purity’ of the crusade, to Sërwe and Esmenet, two women whose low-caste standing belies the roles they have to play in the greater story. Perhaps central to them all is the somewhat schmuck-like sorcerer Drusas Achamanian, a man of great eldritch power plagued by insecurity and uncertainty who is driven by dark dreams of an ancient apocalypse to search for an enemy who may not exist, but who might also be the hidden authors of the end of the world. These mysterious figures, the Consult, are perhaps Bakker’s most interesting development throughout his entire series: a play on the “ultimate evil” trope common to high fantasy (there’s even a fabled ‘evil overlord’ in the form of the enigmatic “No-god” Mog-Pharau), Bakker is able to make them into perhaps the most terrifying embodiment of evil I have come across in the realms of fantasy. Their origins, certainly in the context of fantasy, are novel and their methods are both insidious and far-reaching. We see only glimpses of them as they attempt to remain in the shadows and act as the unseen instigators behind all that occurs, but those glimpses are both tantalizing and fascinating.
I know in many circles that “world building” is a dirty word, but I think it is absolutely necessary to the genre and, when done well, doesn’t intrude upon the story, but rather complements it and allows for the reader to more easily suspend their disbelief. I think Bakker does an exceptional job in this regard (the already noted slight tendency to over-explain in some place notwithstanding) and he only gets better as one progresses through his books. I don’t want to say too much more, since if you have the stomach for truly dark fantasy (explicit violence and sex are pervasive elements of the story) you’re in for a treat and you ought to experience the revelations as they are brought forth in the narrative. All in all this is a commendable first volume upon which much will be built, and if you are a lover of fantasy with the stamina to persevere through a high page count across not only multiple books, but multiple series, then I highly recommend it. ...more
I love Sean Stewart and I wish he hadn't given up on writing fantasy. His books are always a treat and pay back tenfold the effort put into them by thI love Sean Stewart and I wish he hadn't given up on writing fantasy. His books are always a treat and pay back tenfold the effort put into them by the reader. _Clouds End_ was Stewart's "pure fantasy" novel, not the mixed urban fantasy with science fictional elements type of story that the majority of his works seem to fall into. I have to admit that the first time I tried to read this book I didn't like it. I still think that Stewart wasn't fully successful in realizing what he was attempting , but this novel still has some of Stewart's best writing, character development, and a truly marvellous vision of a magical world.
Stewart has said that he wanted to write an epic fantasy in the mould of Tolkien, but from his own agnostic perspective as opposed to the religiously infused one of Tolkien. The world he creates is truly magical. We start out on the island of Clouds End, a place that exists on the very edge of the magical otherworld known as the Mist. The Mist is the place from which mankind draws their myths and stories, both good and evil, and seems to interact with the human psyche in some sort of symbiotic way, bringing to life the unconscious dreams of those on its periphery. In this sense it is something like Ryhope Wood as seen in Robert Holdstock's classic _Mythago Wood_, though it seems to be creating the world around it in a much more concrete fashion even as it participates in the generation of myths and heroes; for the Mist produces gods and powers, giving physical substance to the folk heroes and villians of mankind. It also changes any humans who enter its depths, making them into Haunts, something akin to the preternatural fae of our more traditional mythologies. We see examples of the former in the world changing figures of the Gull Warrior and Sere, one apparently a folk hero of the island dwellers, the other a trickster god of fire and chaos; the latter comes directly into the story in the form of Jo, a human who had entered the Mist and became a shapeshifter who now longs to regain a human soul.
The main characters are a group of four young friends, all inhabitants of Clouds End, who are drawn into a quest when one of their number, Brook, is "twinned" by Jo and is now mystically bound to her. They decide to follow Jo in her quest to the mainland and become embroiled in a war undertaken by the Emperor of a far land under the malign influence of the fire-god Sere. As usual with Stewart each of these characters are fully realized and interesting people, from the uncertain and apprehensive Brook and solid and dependable Rope, to the adventure seeking and rash Shale and the mercurial and love-lorn Foam. As well, true to form, Stewart's depiction of magic is spot-on. Magic is seen as a numinous and capricious force that touches human lives in unexpected and usually dangerous ways. This is not simply science by another name, it is the unknown and the unknowable taking part in our everyday lives; our dreams and nightmares come to life.
The story is full of exceptional scenes and characters and I found it a joy to read simply for the sake of Stewart's prose, but I have to admit that I don't think it ultimately worked as an example of epic fantasy. The supposed reason for the overall quest, the war being waged by the empire of the forest dwellers against the islanders, seems to peter out without really requiring any intervention on the part of the main characters. It is actually their individual stories that hold more interest, and follow much more reasonable arcs, than the supposed meta-plot of the novel and I think Stewart would have been better served to have simply told their stories without attempting to force them into the context of an 'epic fantasy quest'. Still, I think Stewart has written a worthy book in _Clouds End_ and it is exceptional both for its similarities to his other work and, perhaps moreso, because of its differences.
Sean Stewart is one of those writers I used to buy sight unseen (before he unfortunately dropped out of writing novels and decided to devote his timeSean Stewart is one of those writers I used to buy sight unseen (before he unfortunately dropped out of writing novels and decided to devote his time to writing interactive online games). His books tend to be very character driven, something I personally like, and he has an individual writing style that manages to be 'writerly' without getting bogged down in stylistic tricks.
Basically it is the story of a future earth in the year 2074 after an inundation of magic has flooded the world (this flood started soon after WWII in Stewart's timeline) and only pockets of human civilization are left in the sea of wild and magical frontiers (in this the story can be seen as a member of the same universe as Resurrection Man and Galveston). The novel concentrates on two societies, the Southside, which is a relatively technological and militaristic state located where Edmonton used to be and Chinatown, located in the appropriate region of Vancouver. The former community has made a Faustian deal with the spirits that haunt the Northside in return for the opportunity to be left alone, while the latter lives in the midst of its spirits, especially the three godlike, and archetypal, beings the Dragon, the Lady and the Monkey and the beastlike barbarians (magically mutated humans from the initial magical explosion).
Following the lives of several intertwined groups of characters from each community, Stewart examines the dynamics of these two opposing points of view in an era where the high tide of magic is finally starting to recede and, as ever, human machinations and politics attempt to take advantage of the situation.
Stewart manages to populate his world with many interesting, and realistic, characters. None of them are painted in black-and-white terms and even the 'villians' have realistic motivations that point to a multi-faceted melding of both self-interest and even love of community. The real star of the book for me, though (even with Stewart's finely realized and well-drawn characters) was the world itself. It is a world we can recognize, and yet at the same time it is completely alien. The small enclaves of humanity fighting for survival in a world that can barely be understood in the rational terms humanity had been wont to apply to it before the 'Dream' overtook them are intriguing reflections of both humanity's ever-present willingness to fight against the odds, as well as an acknowledgment of the myriad of ways in which this can be done. In many ways I felt that Stewart had managed to capture the air of the medieval romance (in terms of world-building if not in style or content) with the minor 'kingdoms' of humanity placed in the midst of the ever encroaching 'wild wood'...a place where demons and ghosts walked and adventures or power might be bought, though at a very high price. The lure of the dream-world is always in contention with the obligations and comforts of human society.
I also like the way in which Stewart paints magic. It is a wild and largely uncontrollable force, though as mentioned certain deals can be made with it in exchange for ability or power. It seems to me to be an appropriate way to look at something that truly is the reverse of 'science' in that while magic does follow certain rules these are more along the lines of adhering to agreements and obligations than being a cookie-cutter 'physics of magic' where spells of fireball or lightning can be produced given the proper reagents and incantation. It is a force that is mysterious and wild, in that sense at least it mirrors nature, though it cannot be easily understood or defined by rules of cause and effect in any systematic way.
The story itself deals with the beginning, and dissolution, of relations between the Southside and Chinatown as we see the leaders from each community vying for power and control. In the midst of this the heir to Southside's virtual king must make a choice that will determine not only her own future and safety, but that of her people and one of the 'heirs' to a great power of Chinatown must come to terms with her place in the world and her familial relationships as well. This book, like all of Stewart's, is primarily about human relationships. He examines how they grow, and end, in the midst of stress and change. He also looks at the price they exact upon us and the give-and-take that must be accepted in our attempts to balance our personal and individual desires with our public and communal responsibilities.
All in all _The Night Watch_ is a great book. It's a well-written story of human relationships set against a backdrop of conflict and magic in a world that could almost, but not quite, be our own.
This may be Sean Stewart's best novel, though I have to admit that it is not quite my favourite. Here we see Stewart displaying full mastery of his prThis may be Sean Stewart's best novel, though I have to admit that it is not quite my favourite. Here we see Stewart displaying full mastery of his prose, his characterization, and his depiction of a fully realized magical world. Be warned though, neither the characters, nor the world presented, are always pleasant to behold.
We follow the story of Josh Cane, a young man with a chip on his shoulder due to the constrained circumstances of his life that are the result of his father's loss of a pivotal game of poker. Add to this the fact that Josh lives in a world after the occurrence of a magical apocalypse wherein everyone has to work hard to survive, not only due to their physical circumstances, but also due to the perilous proximity of the magical Otherworld, and you have the makings of a pretty downbeat story. Stewart himself has described this book as: "...your Basic "Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Everything, Girl becomes her Own Evil Twin, Boy Is Framed For Murder and Sent Along With Sidekick To Be Eaten By Cannibals, and Things Get Worse When The Weather Turns Bad" story." That about sums it up.
Of course there's more to the novel than a simple encapsulation, even one given by the author, can provide. First of all we have, once again, Stewart's excellent characters: Our main character Josh is by turns repulsive and worthy of pity; a man who had expected a life of much greater comfort than the one he ended up with and who is unable to let go of the bitterness he feels as a result of his circumstances. The only person who seems able to stand Josh is his best friend Ham Mather, the gentle giant who loyally accompanies Josh in his exile that is brought about by Josh's infatuation with the third of our heroes: Sloane Gardner, the heir-apparent to both the political and magical leaders of Galveston whose desire to escape from her responsibilities leads to disaster. Standing in the background of the story like a looming spectre is the distorted and eternal carnival otherworld presided over by Momus, a godlike trickster who will give blessings to mortals courageous, or foolhardy, enough to pay the price. As always, be careful what you wish for.
As noted, Josh's story goes from bad to worse and his circumstances, both physical and personal, can become hard to stomach. You think George R. R. Martin can put his characters through the ringer? He could pick up a few tips from Sean Stewart here. There are also no easy resolutions. Stewart always avoids the easy answer or pat conclusion. Our characters do get resolutions of sorts, and they certainly grow and change as people, but nothing is exactly as one might have expected and nothing follows the standard Hollywood paradigm for such things. This is all to the good I say and for all its difficulty, you'd be hard pressed to find a better told story than the one you'll find in _Galveston_.
I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point for Stewart: go to Resurrection Man, or Night Watch for that. Both take place in the same world deluged by magic, though at different points in its history. They are a bit more friendly to their protagonists, though they never quite let them off the hook either. No matter where you start though, you're in for a real treat with Sean Stewart. He's truly an excellent writer of great talent.