When (unnecessarily) reviewing a book as widely read as To Kill a Mockingbird it is interesting to consider why it is generally considered one of the...moreWhen (unnecessarily) reviewing a book as widely read as To Kill a Mockingbird it is interesting to consider why it is generally considered one of the all-time greats. The prose style is pleasant enough but not extraordinary, the story is fairly simple and straightforward, the characters are quite lively and believable but some lesser-known novels also have those. What this book has in spades that all too few works of fiction is heart. At the risk of sounding “totally gay” I find this book wonderfully charming, heartwarming and compassionate.
The book is a mixture of the "Southern Gothic", and a coming of age "Bildungsroman" story of two kids Scout and Jem. The gothic part features a creepy neighbor who is possibly some kind of flesh eating mutant. This aspect of the story is intermingled with a charming story of day to day childhood in Maycomb, Alabama, then the story takes a dark turn as they gradually become aware of man's inhumanity to man. The weirdo next door become much less interesting under the circumstances.
We often talk about world building in genre books on Goodreads, escapism into alien worlds, fantasy lands and such, what Harper Lee has done here with the setting of Maycomb Alabama is even more remarkable. There is a vividness, a sense of place in this book, that immerses the reader into the story. The narrative is full of warmth, wit and wisdom, the book is brimming with wisdom and quotable lines like:
“There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
I love books that touches the emotional core, that make me feel something. Most novels I read are just for entertainment and if I get that I am a happy customer. However, this book puts me into a state of reverie after finishing it, by so doing it has transcended from being just another novel to read until the next one to something to cherished. It is a mystery and a shame that Harper Lee never wrote another novel, but the single book she has written is worth more than most authors’ entire bibliography.(less)
Does the world need another Dune review? I very much doubt it needs mine but that never stopped me before, saturation be damned!
Dune in and of itself,...moreDoes the world need another Dune review? I very much doubt it needs mine but that never stopped me before, saturation be damned!
Dune in and of itself, in isolation from the rest of the numerous other Dune books, is by general consensus the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. You may not agree, and one book can not please everybody but statistically Dune comes closest to achieving just this. Witness how often you see it at or near the top of all-time best sf books lists.
I never read Dune with the a view to reviewing it before, it makes for a more attentive and actually more enjoyable reading experience. When I first read it in my early teens I did not really appreciate it, I thought it was good but overrated. There are just too much depth for my young mind to handle. I got the gist of the story just fine but the richness of the novel completely escaped me.
What makes Dune superior to most sf books is the quality of the world building. Frank Herbert went into painstaking details of Arrakis without ever bogging down the story. During the main body of the novel (excluding the appendices) he did not once resort to making info dumps. How many modern day sf authors can do that? Still, world building alone can not possibly account for the legendary status of the book. Herbert places equal emphasis on the characterization, plot and prose. The book is full of memorable characters from the badass Lady Jessica, to Paul Atreides who starts off as a fairly generic Luke Skywalkerish “chosen one” kid to a messianic figure always ready with a sage comment for every occasion. The villains are even more colorful, especially the super-sized Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, so fat he needs anti gravity devices to help support his girth (cue worthless yo papa so fat he needs suspensors jokes). And his psychotic nephew Feyd-Rautha who is a ruthless natural born killer and seems kind of gay for some reason.
When I read it as a young lad the book seemed very long, but by today’s gigantic epic sf/f books standard Dune’s 896 pages length does not seems like much of a challenge if you take into account almost 100 pages of appendices and glossary. It is a highly readable and accessible book if you that transport the reader to a very vividly realized place. If you are looking for a bit of escapism you can not beat reading Dune for the first time.
That's enough review I think, I just want to make a few random observations for people who are familiar with this book (more than half the people who read this review imagine):
- Most memorable scene for me is the “Gom Jabbar” test where Paul Atreides has his humanity tested by the Reverend Mother. What is yours?
- I love the little quotes from all those Muad'Dib books by the Princess Irulan. How many are there? Is there a “Muad'Dib’s Cookery Without Water” or perhaps a Muad'Dib popup book for the kids?
- The stillsuits are great, I want one!
- What is with all the “ah-h-h” business most (lesser) writers make do with an "ah!" or an "aha!". Are the characters having orgasms?
- Don’t skip the appendices, they are well worth reading.(less)
If you want to keep up with the Joneses in the scifi reading community you will have to read this short story collection. Considering he has published...moreIf you want to keep up with the Joneses in the scifi reading community you will have to read this short story collection. Considering he has published less than 50 stories and not a single novel Ted Chiang is one of today's best known sf authors among sf readers, this does not make him a household name but he is a force to reckon with. It is also remarkable how many major sf awards he has won given the relatively small number of stories he has published. In other words he is terrific without being prolific.
Stories of Your Life and Others is the only collection Mr Chiang has published at the time of writing, he also has a few other stories published which are not included in this volume. Having read this collection it is easy to see why he is so revered among the sf readership. All these stories are based on ideas which range from damn clever to ingenious, they are all beatifully written and most of them feature well developed characters. I will just briefly comment on the stories:
"Tower of Babylon" (Nebula Award winner) The collection starts with a wonderful fantasy story that reads like scifi thanks to the logic employed. Imagine climbing the Biblical Tower of Babel to the very zenith, way above the clouds, all the way to where you would imagine heaven to be. Well, you don't have to imagine it, Mr. Chiang has done it for you with some amazingly visual description and immersive story telling.
"Understand" A sort of Flowers for Algernon croaaed with the Cronenberg movie "Scanners" with a literally mind blowing climax. It is very intelligently written and fast paced. I do wonder if Ted Chiang himself a recipient of "hormone K" therapy, his intellect does seem to be superhuman. A riveting novella-length tale.
"Division by Zero" Obsession with maths can drive you mad. Not really my favorite story here, but like all the others it is clever and well written, short too!
"Story of Your Life" (Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award winner) One thing I hate about aliens on scifi TV is how goofy and anthropomorphic they tend to be. If they didn't have have green skin or furry faces you would not know they are aliens. They are often just money grubbing, lusty, greedy, noble, heroic or vain as the human characters, and their language tend to be just as translatable into English as Chines or Italian. The aliens in this story are very alien, they are beyond comprehension and if you want to speak their language you have to alter your entire way of looking at the world. This story is about more than just "first contact" however, it is also about the perception of time, fate and predestination. I have said too much already, you really have to wrap your head around this one.
"Seventy-Two Letters" (Sidewise Award winner) Another weird story set in a world where golems can be animated when embedded with names. This story is more about ideas than plot and moves at a stately pace. Again not a personal favorite but it is still interesting and not very long.
"The Evolution of Human Science" More like an essay or journal article written in a fictional world than a (very) short story. It is basically about posthumanism and well worth reading and pondering afterward.
"Hell Is the Absence of God" Another gobsmacking story, the fourth one in this short volume! A mind blowing fantasy set in a world where angel visitations and miracles are well known and documented facts. Religion, faith, good and evil are portrayed here in an intelligent, compassionate and logical manner. The most emotionally charged story in this collection. This one will stay with me for the rest of my days.
"Liking What You See: A Documentary" Not really a documentary, but a story about how different our perception may be if we can filter out facial beauty and how "lookism" is ingrained in our lives. Written from multiple viewpoint and partly in journal style for that "macro" effect. Another excellent thought experiment.
This collection of stories is generally very readable, erudite, fascinating and memorable. A book like this is the reason most of us read sf/f books. What we have here is a real "sensawunda" merchant, one of the all-time greats.
In the unlikely event that you are reading this I want you to know that all is forgiven.
"Whatchutalkinbout?" I hear you say, or perhap...moreDear Ms. Atwood,
In the unlikely event that you are reading this I want you to know that all is forgiven.
"Whatchutalkinbout?" I hear you say, or perhaps I don't because it is fairly common knowledge that Margaret Atwood does not consider her sf books "science fiction", "speculative fiction" she allows but "science fiction" is a definite no-no because (according to her) it is full of talking squid-like aliens thingies (If this is news to you, you may want to look up her Wikipedia entry and other sources). Being a sci-fi fanatic I could not bring myself to read one of her books for the longest time because of this attitude.
Now the way I figure it, when an author is this good, you got to forgive them their eccentricity. In all fairness it is her prerogative, and if she wants to call Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid's Tale cookbooks or a vampire romances it doesn't make the books any less brilliant.
I quite like The Handmaid's Tale but I did not feel like I was in her target readership and it is just another pretty good book among many good books that I read last year. Oryx and Crake on the other hand is just hits the spot! The story, the characters, the world building, the themes, and the prose combine together into an extraordinary novel, not a single misstep. I was going to complain about the frequent Present day to flashback structure but I became accustomed to and fascinated by both time lines.
Oryx and Crake is a dystopian and a post-apocalypse novel, these two subgenres of sf are often misunderstood to be interchangeable terms. The fact is in a dystopian world society still functions in horribly messed up in some "you would not want to live there" ways but it is still a society. In a post-apocalypse setting society has already fallen and there is no governing body of any kind. The "present day" framing story is set after the apocalypse has already occurred and the flashbacks gradually fill in the details of how this came about. In the near future dystopia where the flashback sections of the novel is set the world is dominated by multinationals and society is becoming increasingly depraved, food and natural resources are scarce. Scientists see genetic engineering and biotechnology as the answer to all of society's woes. Oryx and Crake is the story of what happen when genetic engineering is allowed to develop is unhindered as long as there is profit to be made. The eponymous Oryx and Crake are main characters but the actual protagonist is Jimmy who later renames himself Snowman, possibly the last human being alive, excluding a group of posthumans / subhumans whose welfare and survival Jimmy has taken responsibility for.
This review is already too long for its own good, I could go on and on about the relentlessly inventive elements of this book and how it eventually touches at the emotional core and tugs at the heartstrings. It leaves me in an unusually pensive frame of mind. Any book that can do that deserves the highest recommendation.(less)
Q: What would be Victor Hugo's reaction be if he saw the musical/movie version of his book, Les Miserables? A: "What sorcery is this...moreQuestion on Reddit:
Q: What would be Victor Hugo's reaction be if he saw the musical/movie version of his book, Les Miserables? A: "What sorcery is this?"
The book is full of profound quotable lines but I went with the above any way, it just tickled me when I read it. Phew! Took me a full month to read Les Mis and I can’t say I enjoyed every page but it ends up with a 5 stars rating any way. “What sorcery is this?” indeed! Les Mis is clearly back in vogue since the musical movie came out and earned well deserved accolades and Oscar noms.
I have been a fan of the stage musical for years since I saw it in London West End. I have considered reading the original source material but the formidable length of it has always been dissuasive, particularly as I have read very little historical fiction. The book is by no means an easy read, the writing is described by Orson Scott Card as "voluminous overwriting that is typical of 19th-century fiction"(link).
It starts slowly with the introduction of Monseigneur Bienvenu Myriel a minor character who plays a pivotal role in inspiring the protagonist Jean Valjean (SN# 20641) to forsake his thieving ways and become an honest, virtuous man (“bought his soul for God”). The life and times of the good bishop makes for a dull read but as soon as Jean Valjean shows up the narrative becomes very gripping and dramatic. This is not to say reading it is plain sailing from that point. When the narrative is focused on the characters the novel is extremely readable, riveting and even moving, but Victor Hugo often interrupts his narrative to go off on lengthy tangential expositions that will leave many readers snoozing with the book transforming into a pillow.
The book is just too damn good to give up on however, if you lack the patience to cope with lengthy chapters about the battle of waterloo, the history of the Paris sewers, the granddad super long winded speech etc. my advice is to skim like mad. Certainly the almost unreadable tangential parts that had me skimming like a thrown pebble on water. You have to be careful not to miss the points where the story resumes though.
When Victor Hugo is not rambling like an eccentric uncle his prose style (or the English translation of it) is beautiful, lyrical, often witty and gently humorous. Most of the characters are lovable or wonderfully despicable, Valjean, the unrequited Eponine, the overzealous Javert and the irredeemable Thenardier being my personal favorites. The other two central characters Marius and Cosette are more problematical. Marius comes across as a little dense to me and Cosette a little vapid, very different from the resourceful much abused little girl she was to begin with.
In spite of my complaints this really is one of the all-time best reads, and some ideas, characters, dialogues and scenes will stay with me for the rest of my days. This is why in spite of being partially unreadable I rate it at 5 stars (though 20641 stars would be more appropriate).(less)
Last book of 2012 for me, a good end to the year. Beggars in Spain is the sort of sf novel that posits a basic idea and extrapolate from that the foun...moreLast book of 2012 for me, a good end to the year. Beggars in Spain is the sort of sf novel that posits a basic idea and extrapolate from that the foundation to look at the ramifications and implications of this idea from all possible angles. The "high concept" idea is very simple, in the near genetic engineering create a new race of people who do not sleep. While the basic idea is simple the numerous implications and ramifications of this development are far reaching and very complex. The main point is that not spending any time on sleeping gives a person a massive amount of extra time to do more, to accomplish more with their lives. In the context of this novel the "Sleepless" people even enjoy far longer lives, good looks and higher intelligence. The emergence of this new elite race creates all kinds of tension, envy, mistrust, hate and fear between the "Sleepers" (that would be us) and the Sleepless, to the point where most of the sleepers soon migrate to an orbital, an artificial world orbiting Earth in space.
I personally suffer from occasional bouts of insomnia and this book gives me hope, though possibly a false one as it is fiction after all, speculative fiction at that. Early on in the book the author posits the idea that sleep is not actually necessary as it is a genetic leftover from the stone age when people need to find somewhere safe to sleep and hide from predators. The reparations to the body during sleep can be done just as effectively during waking hours with the help of some gene modifications. I don't know how scientifically viable this is but it is very interesting to imagine how different our lives would be without sleep.
The main characters are well developed, both protagonists and antagonists, some are quite unpredictable which is always a virtue in a novel. The "bad guys" are not evil as such, their motivation is entirely understandable, and the "good guys" are believably flawed and complex. The prose style is very accessible, my only complaint is the frequent mentions of some of the female characters' long legs. A couple of times would have sufficed I think! The themes of racial prejudice, envy, intolerance and even hypocrisy are very well presented and mirror the human foibles we come across all too often. The pacing is generally leisurely but I did not find any part dull, and the book as a whole is highly readable.
An excellent book to end the year with, and well deserves all the accolades it has garnered (the original novella from which this book is expanded upon won the Hugo Award and Nebula Award).
Ah! Last volume of a trilogy, the final page is always turned with a sense of accomplishment, not that it was a long hard road getting there, Joe Aber...moreAh! Last volume of a trilogy, the final page is always turned with a sense of accomplishment, not that it was a long hard road getting there, Joe Abercrombie's writing is a breeze to read, though the breeze can be damn uncomfortable! Having read three longish books by him now with pleasure I can declare myself a fan. The last couple of books I read prior to this one were strong on plot and ideas but they failed to engage me on an emotional level because the characters were not rather flat and uninteresting. Coming back to character-centric The First Law trilogy is a refreshing change of scene, even if the air smells a bit fetid at times.
Last Argument of Kings naturally carries on from where the second volume Before They Are Hanged left off. Most of the book is concerned with warfare between the Union against both the Northmen and the Gurkish Empire. The individual stories of the skillfully developed central characters from the previous two volumes are (sort of) concluded here as well as the epic main story arc that affect all of them. I keep coming across reviews of First Law books that mention "unlikable characters", I could not disagree more, I like almost all of them, and even the ones I dislike are interesting to read about. The protagonists are all complex and believable, some of their story arcs remain open ended and there is room for sequels, but as far as I know Abercrombie's subsequent books set in this world are focused on secondary characters instead.
The previous page turning fantasy epic I read was The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett, it was a very good and compulsive read but it pales in comparison to books in this trilogy, the wit, charm, and intelligence of Abercrombie's books are seldom matched in the sf/f genre. The prose style is generally visceral but occasionally the author slips in unexpectedly lyrical passages like
"Their deaths were written in the shapes of sweet blood on the bitter ground. Their deaths were whispered in the buzzing of the flies on the corpses beyond the wall. Their deaths were stamped on their faces, carried on the wind, held in the crooked line between the mountains and the sky. Dead men, all."
"It’s hard to be done a favour by a man you hate. It’s hard to hate him so much afterwards. Losing an enemy can be worse than losing a friend, if you’ve had him for long enough."
These more profound thoughts tend to be from the perspective of the melancholy barbarian Logen Nine Fingers.
While I love how all the myriad characters converge for the grand finale, I find the fate of the individual protagonists a little too inconclusive, and some of them deserve a better fate than the author gave them, though I suppose that is a reflection of real life. As Logen Nine Fingers.(master of catch phrases among other things) likes to say "You have to be realistic" and "Nobody gets what they deserve". Still, even though the intent of the author is to create a gritty, visceral and believable fantasy saga I feel the actual ending need not be so bleak, I followed the lives of these characters and I like them enough to wish for a happy or at least optimistic ending for them. Not all tropes need to be turned on their heads I think, happy endings leave a better aftertaste. That said it is the journey, not the destination (to trot out another cliche), and many readers are fine with the book's ending as it is. Just a personal quibble from me then.
I look forward to catching up with all the Abercrombie fantasy fiction in 2013.
4.5 stars (5 stars for the trilogy as a whole)(less)
The trouble with reading a book like The Fall of Hyperion is that whatever book I read next will likely seem like a load of ol' crap. In fact, in a Sh...moreThe trouble with reading a book like The Fall of Hyperion is that whatever book I read next will likely seem like a load of ol' crap. In fact, in a Shrike-like manner this book traveled back in time and slashed my opinion of the book I read prior to this one which now looks shabby by comparison.
The first Hyperion book ends on a (musical) cliff hanger, The Fall of Hyperion carries on from there though the first chapter is narrated in the first person by a "new" cybrid protagonist Joseph Severn. While he is not in the previous book he is derived from the same John Keats template as "Johnny", the wavy hair cybrid and lover of the bad-ass Brawne Lamia P.I., one of the seven pilgrims who traveled to confront The Shrike (a real cutting edge guy possibly descended from Freddy Krueger). The wonderful world building from the previous book is further developed in this book, we get more expositions about the Hegemony, the TechnoCore and a little more about The Shrike, not to mention the further adventures of our favorite pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion is structurally different from its predecessor, it is entirely linear though narrated from several different points of view. While I enjoy the way the first book is structured (The Canterbury Tales style), where the stories are very strong on their own this more conventional structure also works well for me, it is nice and cohesive and a pleasure to follow.
The Hegemony and the TechnoCore remind me of Iain M. Banks Culture society and the AIs that mess about with the poor humans living in these societies. The citizens of the Hegemony are similarly pampered but are not watched over with paternal fondness by the AI like in Banks' books. The Hegemony government is done by human politicians with an AI representative, led by the awesome Meina Gladstone who I picture as resembling actress Maggie Smith at her sternest. The high technology tend to be of the more handwavium variety with FTL travel achieved by "Farcaster" portals, and instant Fatline (FTL) communication, all compliments of the TechnoCore. The social ramification of this technology is very well thought out, the novel is to some extent a cautionary tale about over reliance on technology.
Dan Simmons' prose is deservedly lauded as one of the most literary best in the scifi business, at times lyrical, often witty and evocative. Most of the central characters are already well established in the first book, they are further developed here and the relationship between the pilgrims are much strong stronger. Their loyalty to each other, which slowly developed in the first book, make them much more appealing, even the two that don't get along like Brawne Lamia and Martin Silenus (though the "mouthing off / shut up" running gag gets a little old after a while). The back story of each of the five Pilgrims form plot strands that converge and then beautifully woven together by the epic conclusion. My favorite section of the first book, the poignant story of Sol Weinthrob and his backward aging daughter is particularly well concluded. I am also glad to see my favorite character Brawne Lamia get spend more time on the centre stage.
I love the literary and pop culture references. To be honest what I know about John Keats and poetry can be written on a postage stamp and leave enough room for the Queen's entire head, but things like The Wizard of Oz (movie) references are more my neck of the wood and I find them very amusing.
This is not a story of a boy and his BFF tiger. The tiger is nothing like Tigger or Lassie. This is not a YA book.
That is worth pointing out I think, be...moreThis is not a story of a boy and his BFF tiger. The tiger is nothing like Tigger or Lassie. This is not a YA book.
That is worth pointing out I think, because the movie poster and trailer gave me this impression.
This book has teeth.
My initial thoughts on Life of Pi is that it is a book that demands to be read slowly due to a rambling nonlinear narrative in the first few chapters. Actually it is not, it can be read fairly quickly once you hit your stride with it. Any way, the novel got off to a slow start for me though I found the intro "Author's Notes" immediately appealing. Initially I was also a bit confused about which part is narrated by the author and which by Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel the book's protagonist. That sorts itself out after a while as I settled into the author's narrative style and the book's structure. There are some expositions about about running a zoo and animal psychology which I find very interesting. I certainly know some people who believe zoos are immoral and all the caged animals should be set free, this book presents a plausible case for why this may not be such a good idea and that the animals are unlikely to be grateful to the liberators. I am not normally a fan of infodumps, but these expositions are affably written and mostly non-technical.
Once the main part of the story begins, where poor Pi is cast away on a life boat with some wild animals the books becomes very engaging and I was devouring his adventure and could not wait to find out what happen next. The ocean adventure part of the book is really a riveting read. As Pi settles into his life on the life boat the book becomes trippy and metaphysical in parts. If you read online discussions about this book you will find several interpretation of what it all means and what really transpires in the book. To go into too much detail about this ambiguous aspect of the book would risk spoiling the book for potential readers, suffice to say that the book left me with plenty of food for thought which is still swirling in my head as I write.
There are elements of humour scattered throughout the book, the style of humor tend to be fairly subtle, my favorite humorous scene involves three bickering wise men and a boy of multiple faiths. I also love how the major supporting character Richard Parker came by his name. My favorite aspect of the book is the prose style which is lyrical, accessible and generally very pleasant to read. Here is one of my favorite passages:
"I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen."
Even if you are entirely irreligious you can still appreciate the eloquence of the writing.
This book is often classified as a fantasy but I wonder if it is actually more scifi? Some strange places and things are rationalized with scientific assumptions, particularly a mysterious island that appears in the last section of the book. Some people are understandably frustrated and annoyed by the epilogue of the book where everything seems to turn upside down, or not depending on how you want to interpret this part of the book. It surprised the hell out of me but adds to the enjoyment of the book, and I don't think it invalidates anything that goes on in the preceding chapters. Looking at other Goodreads reviews Life of Pi seems to be divisive among its readers. Quite a few people find the book pretentious and not as intelligent or profound as the author presents it to be. They may be on to something, I don't really know. Oftentimes I find the reviewers just as pretentious as the book they are criticizing, is this a case of an eye for an eye? Personally I just wanted it to be entertaining and interesting and it meets these criteria in spades. A little pretentiousness does not bother me as long as the book is a good read.
I have no qualms at all about recommending this book, may be you will love it like I do, may be it will make you mad and you will throw it at the wall. I really don't know how it will be for you. Totally worth a shot in my opinion.(less)
Hyperion is generally regarded as a science fiction classic, it tends to be included in most "Best SF Novels of All-Time" lists. I first read it when...moreHyperion is generally regarded as a science fiction classic, it tends to be included in most "Best SF Novels of All-Time" lists. I first read it when it was first published in paperback, at the time I had no idea I was reading a book that is destined to become a classic in the genre. When I began to participate in online sf books discussion groups not so long ago (primarily PrintSF these days) I noticed how often Hyperion is mentioned, usually reverent tones. A reread is then in order because I have entirely forgotten what is so good about it, besides I have not read the subsequent books in the Hyperion Cantos. If I remember correctly I could not get my mitts on a copy of The Fall of Hyperion at the time. Anybody who is familiar with the works on Dan Simmons will know how versatile he is. Simmons has published books in several genres including, sf, fantasy, horror, crime, and non-fiction. I can not say that he excels in all of them because I have only read his sf and horror novels but it would not surprise me if he does.
Hyperion is beautifully structured and skillfully built up from gradually introducing the reader to the universe of the book to taking the readers through the adventures of the seven protagonists. It is one of those rare books that is highly readable from start to finish, yet its accessibility belies its complexity. The novel is comprised of brilliant six distinct novella length stories wrapped within a frame story (a la The Canterbury Tales). This book encompasses several different styles or sf sub genres including space opera, hard sf, soft sf, military sf, cyberpunk, horror, and even literary fiction, each story even manage to encompass multiple subgenres. The different parts combine into a cohesive excellent volume, Simmons' wonderful versatility is amply showcased by the different narrative voice and tone he adopts for each part.
My favorite is Part 5, The Detective's Tale: "The Long Good-Bye" which begins as a noir crime fiction then transform into a cyberpunk story with a ton of action with a touch of martial arts and even romance. The difference in narrative voice is particularly noticeable here, Brawne Lamia is the only female protagonist but kicks more asses than all the males put together yet still comes across as feminine. It is a sort of The Long Goodbye in reverse with the woman as the private eye. Part 4, The Scholar's Tale: "The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter" also deserves a special mention as the saddest, most poignant story here, somewhat reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon crossed with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All the parts are great though, these two are just my personal highlights. An earlier story even reminds me of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness before things take a left turn into Twilight Zone-ish weirdness.
Characterization is certainly a strong point of this book, all the characters are complex and believable, moments of humor and irony are discreetly slipped in to prevent the book from becoming leaden. The prose style, as mentioned previously, changes in accordance with the setting and character, as a whole the book is beautifully written. I also love that the book ends on a surprisingly cheerful musical note (though not quite a song and dance number) which is also something of a cliffhanger, and our "heroes" are far from safe.
If you count yourself an sf fan you need to read this. If you just want to read a damn good book this is also for you.(less)
This is the edition I bought as a wee lad, I only managed to finish A Wizard of Earthsea due to foolishness of the young. Recently I have finished rea...moreThis is the edition I bought as a wee lad, I only managed to finish A Wizard of Earthsea due to foolishness of the young. Recently I have finished reading all three books of the original trilogy so I thought I'd link this book to my review of the individual volumes:
A Wizard of Earthsea - My review In which we meet young goat herder Duny soon to be named Ged and nicknamed Sparrowhawk. This is the story of Ged attending a school of wizardry on Roke Island, a serious mistake he made through hubris and how he seeks to rectify it.
The Tombs of Atuan - My review In which we meet Tenar a young girl on the horrible island of Atuan where they worship the evil "Nameless Ones", how she meets Ged and ... (spoiler!)
The Farthest Shore - My review In which we meet young prince Arren who shows up on Roke Island to enlist Ged's help to stop an evil thing that is sucking every good thing out of Earthsea. Ged is now an old archmage.
The three volumes combined is shorter than one volume of most fantasy epics today. They are beautifully written and rightly revered as classics of the genre.
When I first tried reading this in my teens I could not manage to go beyond 50 pages because I wanted Ged (AKA Sparrowhawk), the hero of the previous...moreWhen I first tried reading this in my teens I could not manage to go beyond 50 pages because I wanted Ged (AKA Sparrowhawk), the hero of the previous volume A Wizard of Earthsea, to show up and follow him on new adventures. What I found instead was a story of an entirely new protagonist, a young girl called Tenar who lives an oppressive life on the island of Atuan. Young fool that I was, I did not read on to the middle of the book where Ged does show up for more adventures, though this time as the secondary character. If I had waited I would realized this second volume of the Earthsea trilogy is even better than the first.
The pacing of The Tombs of Atuan is much more staid than A Wizard of Earthsea, much of the first half of book is spent on fairly elaborate world building, developing the insular, claustrophobic setting of Atuan. LeGuin's skills with character development and the eloquence of her prose maintains my interest during the slower paced early part of the book. Tenar is a fine character, intelligent, resilient and resourceful. I love how her character dveelops as she gradually realizes the truth about the things she has dedicated her life to serve and worship. However, for me Ged is like the battery that powers the plot of the story. Le Guin really switches to second gear as soon as he suddenly pops up, the story gallops on from that point.
This book is much darker and more mature than A Wizard of Earthsea, the scenes in the pitch dark of the Labyrinth is highly evocative and a little creepy. I was reading this on a sunny afternoon and I could still feel the creeping darkness, thank God for Ged's enfeebled mage light! Even though the "big bad" Nameless Ones never really come out of the shadow to show us some dripping fangs, cyclopean eyes, tentacles and such, Le Guin still manages to make their evil quite palpable.
OK, I don't want to write a long review for such a short book, so short that I am still hankering for some more Earthsea time, so now I am busy reading the third volume The Farthest Shore.
Update: After finishing The Farthest Shore I believe this is my favorite book of the original trilogy. I just love the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere in this one. Looking at a few other reviews it seems to be a fan favorite also.(less)
Thank goodness this book is in the public domain where I can grab a PDF version for some intensive copying and pasting of the Russian names. The prota...moreThank goodness this book is in the public domain where I can grab a PDF version for some intensive copying and pasting of the Russian names. The protagonists' names are hard enough to remember but names like Semyonovitch Lebeziatnikov have me reaching for the white flag.
Plot-wise Crime and Punishment is fairly straight forward, an impoverished young man murdered a nasty old woman and her sister but afterward finds that he can not live with himself; after suffering some extreme anguish of the soul he begins looking for redemption. The simple synopsis belies a psychologically complex book. This is an entire character driven novel, full of psychological insights and profundities. To me, the most difficult aspect of reading this book is the writing style which is eloquent and evocative but most of the characters seem to speak in extraordinarily long monologues, pontificating, ruminating, philosophizing, wringing their hands like nobody's business. However, once I got used to this I became captivated by the protagonists and their plights.
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a wonderfully complex antihero, I was appalled by his act of murder which seems like some kind of weird experiment to test his very odd theory about what an intellectual is entitled to do, especially if he compensates for one evil act by doing numerous good deeds. While Raskolnikov is front and centre of the story, the novel is not entirely about him, the supporting characters also have very hard lives of their own. Particularly Sonia (Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova) the poor girl who sells herself to feed her family and eventually finds love and respect in the last place you would expect. All the characters are very vividly developed, even the villains of the piece are not the mustache twirling types with Machiavellian schemes. They are just horrid, odious, selfish, manipulative men, the sort you meet or read about all too often in real life. There is Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin who never murdered anyone but is so cruel, arrogant and selfish that I wish Raskolnikov had administered the same axe treatment to cure him of his personality. Then there is Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov who is a pervert, possibly a pedophile, yet also some kind of antihero yearning for redemption.
This is not a book to read if you are looking for a good giggle, but if you are interested in contemplating faith, redemption, conscience and morality it is the very thing. It would seem ridiculous if I said that reading this book has made me a better person, the trouble is the truth is sometimes ridiculous.(less)
I remember reading this book as a child and loving it, and that is all I can remember, the reading and the loving. Anything about the contents have sl...moreI remember reading this book as a child and loving it, and that is all I can remember, the reading and the loving. Anything about the contents have slipped through the old grey cells somehow. As it turned out my brain knew what it was doing when it jettisoned all the details of the book so yesterday I was able to read it as if for the first time. Like A Virgin.
Nowadays any fantasy book that feature a school of wizardry can not help but bring up Harry Potter comparisons (I can't help it any way). A Wizard of Earthsea was published several decades before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's / Philosopher's Stone, and I wonder how much of it inspired the Rowling books. No disrespect to the deservedly popular Potter series but certainly Earthsea's Roke Island's school of magic seems like a precursor to Hogwarts, and Le Guin's protagonist Duny / Sparrowhawk / Ged starts off as a boy with an unusual degree of natural talent for magic. In all fairness the similarities dwindle to nothing by about half way point through A Wizard of Earthsea though. OK, got that out of the way, no more pointless HP comparisons henceforth.
A Wizard of Earthsea is - to some extent - a bildungsroman about a boy name Duny who has an unusually high aptitude for learning and using magic. After saving his village from invaders he was discovered by a wizard who gave him his true name Ged. After travelling with the wizard for a while and not learning very much magic thanks to the wizard's "Mr. Miyagi" style of teaching he was sent to the Roke Island to enroll in a wizardry school. He learned magic very quickly of course but soon make a huge mistake and accidentally invoked Something Better Left Alone. Much gnashing of teeth and a search for redemption ensues. (I am appallingly bad at synopsizing as you can see).
When Ms. Le Guin wrote this book in the 60s there was not much of a fantasy genre, some Tolkiens here some Lewises there, very little else. This makes A Wizard of Earthsea something of a landmark for the now thriving fantasy genre. Also in those days the term "magic system" did not exist but Le Guin knew even then how thoughtless, frivolous use of magic in a book can render the story unbelievable. So she cleverly imposed some logic and limitation to the use of magic and thereby created one of the earliest magic systems.
"Listen, I don't understand: you and my brother both are mighty wizards, you wave your hand and mutter and the thing is done. Why do you get hungry, then? When it comes suppertime at sea, why not say, Meat-pie! and the meat-pie appears, and you eat it?" "Well, we could do so. But we don't much wish to eat our words, as they say. Meat-pie! is only a word, after all... We can make it odorous, and savorous, and even filling, but it remains a word. It fools the stomach and gives no strength to the hungry man."
See what I mean? Genius! The magic in the Earthsea universe is based on the "words of power" and "true name" idea. "One who knows the true name of an object has power over it." is fairly self explanatory, this applies to people's names also; giving someone your true name is a little like giving them your Paypal password, not something to be done lightly.
The book is necessarily fast paced and eventful due to minimal length, though the climax is not as spectacular as I thought it would be, it is quite satisfying and leads to an elegant wrap up of the story. The prose is beautifully written as you'd expect from Le Guin, the book was written for children so it is more easily accessible than her adult science fiction books. Don't let the "for children" label put you off though, there was no YA category at the time, or this book would have been hailed as the best of them. Characterization is very nicely done, Ged starts off as a fairly typical arrogant young whippersnapper and grows into a kindhearted, responsible (and melancholy) adult. If you have kids this would be a great book to read to them. The principle of "with great power comes great responsibility" is much better learned here from Ged's experiences than from Peter Parker's.
Another thing I remember from my first reading of this book in my teens is that I could not get into the second book The Tombs of Atuan due to the switch to a new protagonist, I wanted so much to know what Ged is going to do next. I was a stupid kid. At least now I have more Earthsea books to look forward to.(less)
This is the second volume of The First Law trilogy. I read the first book The Blade Itself in early March 2012, today is 27th July 2012 so the two boo...moreThis is the second volume of The First Law trilogy. I read the first book The Blade Itself in early March 2012, today is 27th July 2012 so the two books were read five months apart, I wonder if I will finish the trilogy by the end of the year. In any case, even with a memory like a sieve I had no problem getting into the second book after the 5 months gap. This is not a standalone book so you need to read The Blade Itself first which should be no great hardship unless you received "Before They Are Hanged" as a present then you'd need to cough up the dough for the first book, it won't break the bank I'm sure (no, pirating is not an option).
"Before They Are Hanged" continues the adventure of three groups of characters introduced in the first book. One group is on a quest for a magical artifact, a traditional fantasy trope but with some unconventional character developments, events and eventual outcome. The second group is focused on a soldier and a group of mercenaries and their participation in a war against foreign invaders, the third is centered on the complex and fascinating Inquisitor Glokta and his effort to defend a city also under attack by invaders and the aftermath of his success / failure (don't ask).
I suspect some people will underestimate this series mistaking it for just another "gritty fantasy" with a lot of swearing, sex, and violence, certainly those elements are there in plenitude but there is also an undercurrent of some themes being subtly explored. Like how heroism - like greatness - is often thrust on reluctant people. How people sometime do despicable things just to survive and hate themselves for it. I wonder how many people are aware of the compassion and humanity in Joe Abercrombie's books? In my estimation he is a terrific writer, his prose style may not be lyrical but it is often very witty and the book is well balanced with action, violence, pathos, romance and humour. His greatest strength may well be his characterization, the main characters are complex, believable, interesting and often very funny. I have often seen his characters described as "unlikable", if this is true I must have been reading it wrong because I like all of them and find it hard to pick a favorite.
For the faint of heart I should mention that this book, like its predecessor, include a couple of torture scenes which I got through with a little flinching. My only concern about these scenes is that they will alienate readers who would otherwise love the book and Abercrombie deserves a wide readership.
I normally prefer narration from a single point of view, which I find easier to follow, and with multiple points of view some of the protagonists are so much more interesting than others that I often feel like I am wasting my time following the lesser characters. However, multiple POVs tend to be necessary for epic tales, to cover all the different events and locations. For this book I find all the POVs enjoyable and I don't really mind moving between them. The description are generally very vivid, you can really feel the cold, the hunger and the pain that the characters go through. Magic is utilized very sparingly in the story and there is no "magic system" worth mentioning because its appearance is so infrequent.
As with the first book this one is highly recommended for fans of heroic fantasy. The third and final volume of this trilogy is called Last Argument of Kings, come to think of it I don't want to wait to long before I dive into that one.(less)
Now and then I come across a book that is a distillation of what I like in fiction, genre fiction in particular. I previously raved about Jonathan Str...moreNow and then I come across a book that is a distillation of what I like in fiction, genre fiction in particular. I previously raved about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and then some people told me they think it's a load of ol' crap. It puzzled me a bit that some people don't see the greatness of the books I deemed to be great, but then I realize that such things probably puzzle most of us, we are all arbiters of good taste in our own little universe. So given that after reading this book you may not agree with my assessment of it (much to my astonishment) I am going into "rave mode" again.
Firstly I am going steal SF Signal's one sentence synopsis:
"A teenaged girl in 1979 deals with her witch of a mother, faeries, a difficult boarding school life, and the joys of discovering science fiction and fantasy."
Any mention of boarding school and fantasy in the same sentence will tend to trigger the name "Harry Potter" in people's minds, well you can fuggedaboudit, it's just an ordinary boarding school, no Defence Against the Dark Arts classes here. In fact, the setting of the boarding school resonates with me very much as a former pupil of such a school. It is a tough environment for geeky scifi reading type of kid that I was and Morweena, the protagonist and narrator of this book is. The loneliness, the bad food, the discovery of like minded friends all ring very true to me.
From the synopses of this book at Goodreads, Amazon etc. fantasy fans are probably unsure whether this really is a fantasy novel at all, and not just some rambling of a delusional girl. Well, the author has stated clearly in interviews that the fantasy element is not meant to be ambiguous, even if it may seem that way. You see, Jo Walton has done something very different with the so-called "magic system" trope here. In the universe of this book the magic is very discreet and always has "plausible deniability" in that the effect of the magic may look like normal coincidence. This makes the magic even more dangerous than in your average fantasy epic, the effect can be devastatingly wide ranging with everybody none the wiser about the cause. I am not going to give any example of this, it is really worth discovering by yourself.
The most important aspect of this book is that it is a love letter to science fiction and fantasy books, I have never seen so many books and authors mentioned in a single book and they are mostly books I am very familiar with. Like Asimov's Foundation, Delany's Babel 17, Tolkien's LOTR etc. At the time the story is set, in late 1979 and early 1980 fantasy was not the massively popular genre it is today and the fantasy books were far outnumbered by the sf books, so interestingly this book is actually about a science fiction reader in a fantasy world. Most of the books mentioned are scifi classics with only the odd LOTR and Narnia books thrown in. The little comments about the books and the love the author via her characters show for the books make me want to read sf/f until my eyes fall out.
The book is beautifully written in eloquent yet fairly simple prose in an epistolary format (diary entries), the characters are very well developed and believable. I can actually imagine what it feels like to be a teenage crippled girl in spite of my many disqualifications for identifying with such a character. As I understand it the story is partly autobiographical in that many of the key events are based on her own experiences as a teenager. I found the climax to be oddly conventional in its spectacularity and it does not seem to conform with the relative quietude of the preceding chapters. Still, no real harm done.
Jo Walton clearly loves the sf/f genre and reading in general with a passion, a feeling I share and this book is another one to be cherished. A solid 5 stars for a well deserved 2011 Nebula Awards Winner.
Update, September 4, 2012 Among Others just won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel, a few months prior to that it won the Nebula Award. It has also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. That should be enough accolades for anyone considering reading this book!(less)
I read The Grapes of Wrath about eight months ago, to be honest I was a little disappointed in it because I expected to like it more than I did on the...moreI read The Grapes of Wrath about eight months ago, to be honest I was a little disappointed in it because I expected to like it more than I did on the basis of its reputation and because I love Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men which I read previous to that. For some reason The Grapes of Wrath just did not resonate with me, one of those inexplicable things that can not be explained I think. East of Eden is an entirely different matter, it clicked with me all over the place and already found a place in my short to be re-read list.
Most of the synopses for this novel that I have seen tend to indicate that this is a story of two families the Trasks and the Hamiltons and how their lives are intertwined. I have probably been reading it wrong somehow because I feel that the book is all about the Trasks and the Hamiltons are supporting characters. Lee the Chinese manservant seems more crucial to the story than the Hamiltons. The story is inspired by the Biblical story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis. The influence of "Cain and Abel" is quite explicit from the names of the central characters and actual mentions of the biblical bros within the novel. That said I am going to cheat and skip the synopsis entirely because the book does have quite a lot of plot in spite of being essentially character-centric, this makes synopsizing a real chore.
The main characters really make the book for me, I am fascinated by them and their motivation. Cathy Ames has to be one of the most interesting antagonists in fiction. Here is a character who is evil simply by nature, the wealth and benefits she gets from her machinations are merely byproducts. She does what she does because that is how she rolls! Some people are just bad to the bone. This quote from the book:
It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.
To me that makes her some kind of fascinating anomaly or mutant, she is also quite the scene stealer, every time she shows up in the book all the other characters immediately fade into the background for me (including the actual people in my vicinity at the time of reading). Cathy reminds me of Sharon Stone's character in the movie Basic Instinct. I wonder if she tries to redeem herself at the end though? If you have read the book and some thoughts on this please let me know.
Another character who is not mentioned very much in discussions of this book is Lee, the "Chinaman", being of the oriental persuasion myself I can not help but identify with him, though our lives don't actually have anything in common. If I was an actor I would love to play him in a movie adaptation, certainly I wish I had half his wisdom, decency, sensitivity and perceptiveness. Although he is a manservant he is someone to aspire to be. Interestingly Lee, along with the similarly perceptive Sam Hamilton seem to be the only characters who has a perfect understanding of what is going on and of everybody else's motivations.
Of the protagonists I really feel for Caleb's plight. We all feel unloved at one time or another and we all feel the urge to do morally questionable things or to strike out and damn the consequences, just for that brief moment of satisfaction. Caleb is a complex character with many facets to him, more than he himself is aware of. His "nice" idealistic brother Aron is a little bland to me and seems more like a plot device. The romantic interest Abra is probably too wise for her years, but I like the calming influence she tends to have on the other characters. Unsurprisingly she and Lee get on like a house on fire.
The writing is heartfelt, eloquent yet unpretentious, at times it is lyrical without ever being inaccessible, these qualities should come as no surprise to regular readers of Steinberg. The dialogue always ring true and the characters have their own believably distinctive voices. There are also moments of levity that manage to raise a smile. The book does have it all (except killer robots).
Reading East of Eden has been a moving experience for me and a thought provoking exploration of human heart, a book to be read again and again. No wonder it won the Nobel Prize.(less)
I seldom reread books because there are too many interesting unread books in the world to catch up with but some books just haunt me, demanding to be...moreI seldom reread books because there are too many interesting unread books in the world to catch up with but some books just haunt me, demanding to be reread because I have forgotten too many details. I was walking around in a lush garden and I was reminded of this book and felt the need to reread it. This book is set on a far future Earth near the end of its existence, the sun is imminently going nova, human society and civilization have crumbled long ago. Plants and vegetable reign supreme, and human beings have devolved into primitive little green people the size of monkeys.
"Only five great families survived among the rampant green life; the tigerflies, the treebees, the plantants and the termights were social insects mighty and invincible. And the fifth family was man, lowly and easily killed, not organized as the insects were, but not extinct, the last animal species in all the all-conquering vegetable world."
As you can see, things look pretty grim for mankind! This book gives us a fascinating look at devolution in action, beside the little green people who are our direct descendants, there are subspecies of man who are presumably descended from crossbreeding of unknown origin.The most interesting example being the tummy-belly men who have a symbiosis relationship with a tree that feed and control them through a tail which function like an umbilical cord. When this is cut the tummy-belly men become clumsy, floundering and almost mindless; with a speech pattern which is particularly hilarious (much funnier than Yoda's). Aldiss' plant dominated Earth is full of ambulatory mostly carnivorous plants, John Wyndham's Triffids would have some very stiff competition here.
The best thing about this book is the vivid world-building that you can really submerge in. This is the most fascinating post-apocalyptic future Earth I have ever seen depicted in science fiction. I almost want to be there, except I don't fancy my chances in that environment, certainly I would like to see it portrayed in a decent movie. The aggressive environment reminds me of the action-packed Deathworld 1 by Harry Harrison (long-time collaborator of Brian Aldiss), the aforementioned The Day of the Triffids, and - strangely enough - my favorite computer game Plants vs. Zombies. The naivety of the human protagonists remind me of William Golding's Lord of the Flies at times. The characters are not "deep" but they are believable, the weird plants tend to have oddly whimsical names in spite of their deadliness, and the whole thing is written in very nice literate English prose.
I am not sure about the profundity that some other reviewers mentioned in their reviews of this book, if there is a subtext it is not obvious to me, but for sheer escapism you can not beat this one. A very firm 5 stars rating from me.(less)
My third Culture book, a series of epic space opera about a post-scarcity human society in the far future. If you are not familiar with this series yo...moreMy third Culture book, a series of epic space opera about a post-scarcity human society in the far future. If you are not familiar with this series you may want to read this Wikipedia entry first and come back (or not, as you prefer). I love Consider Phlebas but I followed that up with fan favorite Use of Weapons and it nearly put me off the entire series. I don't want to go into why I do not like that book, if you are curious you can always find my review. Still, I love Consider Phlebas so much Use of Weapons could not completely eradicate the goodwill I still have for Mr. Banks and the Culture series. The Player of Games then is the book that will make or break the rest of series for me.
Make it is.
The Player of Games is complex, intelligent yet easy enough to follow, none of that mucking about with multiple timelines or switching to and fro between "the present" and flashbacks in some weird reverse order sequence. The story simply revolves around a single protagonist Jernau Gurgeh, possibly The Culture's greatest games players. That is saying something given how important games are to the indolent citizens of The Culture who are supplied with every material thing they can possibly want. Gurgeh is approached by the "Special Circumstances", the Culture's secret service / black ops type organisation to take part in an "Azad" game tournament at The Azad Empire, a rival civilization just a few light years away. This game is so important that it is the cornerstone of The Azad Empire. The winner is elevated to the Emperor status. As to why the Special Circumstances want Gurgeh to take part in this tournament you will have to find out for yourself by reading the book. You can thank me later.
The most fascinating feature of this book for me is the Azad game, it seems like a hyper-chess game with various card games and philosophy thrown in. Its is so complex it makes Quidditch look like Snakes & Ladders. Though the author does not describe the game in so much detail that it would be playable if you had the mega-board, the pieces, the cards and other things to hand, the description is done so well that you can imagine such a game existing. As with the other Culture books I have read Banks has populated the novel with quite a few well developed characters, though most of them tend to be AI or wee robots ("droids"). The central character Jernau Gurgeh is complex and interesting though not particularly likable, a typical trait of Banks' protagonists it seems. Still, at least he is not a tough-as-nails anti-hero, which is getting a bit old for me, his extreme focus and obsession makes him quite vivid. I also love the humorous moments interspersed throughout the book, these are mainly based around an indignant droid in a clunky disguise. The grand finale which takes place on a planet regularly burned by a perpetual wave of fire is wonderfully exciting though little plot twist at the end is not particularly surprising. Iain Banks' prose style is as literary as ever and is a pleasure to read.
This book has made me re-commit myself to reading The Culture series, I look forward to reading many more volumes.(less)
The idea that earth can resist an alien invasion is fairly ludicrous given that the aliens would have to travel light years across the universe to get...moreThe idea that earth can resist an alien invasion is fairly ludicrous given that the aliens would have to travel light years across the universe to get here, so their level of technology and weaponry must be vastly superior to ours. Poul Anderson, a scifi legend, was well aware of this, and he carefully created an amusing scenario where such a thing is at least plausible. Anderson was a versatile author, books like Tau Zero and Brain Wave and The High Crusade are all very different (not to mention his non-genre and nonfiction works).
The premise is fairly straight forward. In 1345 AD a huge spaceship lands in Ansby, a small village in Lincolnshire just as Sir Roger de Tourneville an English knight was raising an army to fight a war with France. This is a scout ship from the Wersgorix Empire who are always looking to expand their dominion. As luck would have it their technology is so advance that they have forgotten how to fight hand to hand and falls prey to the English soldiers who stormed their ship and basically hacked them all to death except one rather shady character named Branithar. Thinking that the "flying ship" will give them a huge advantage over the French Sir Roger orders Branithar to fly the ship to France, Branithar readily agrees but activate the pre-programmed autopilot to take them to the nearest Wersgor colony instead.
In spite of the rather farcical premise the book is very enjoyable, it is more humorous than the other Anderson novels I have read (well, I have not read that many of them). Fans of the ultra hard sf Tau Zero will be disappointed if they are expecting more in that vein, those looking for a quick read entertaining sci-fi romp are in for a treat. The book is written in the first person, narrated by a monk who follows Sir Roger on his space adventures. The medieval style English is wonderful, I can not vouch for its authenticity of course but it is very amusing to read especially when describing alien technology. For example:
"I have studied the principles of their star maps a little, sire," I answered, "though in truth they do not employ charts, but mere columns of figures. Nor do they have mortal steersmen on the spaceships. Rather, they instruct an artificial pilot at the start of the journey, and thereafter the homunculus operates the entire craft."
Ha! Love that stuff! The main alien race the Wersgorix are a little old school in that they are blue skinned bipeds who communicate through vocal speech and gestures, thus conveniently facilitating the establishment of communication. Other alien races show up later who are less like anthropomorphised creatures but really not all that strange by today's sci-fi standard. You may find that the idea that a bunch of medieval Brits resisting and conquering alien races with vastly superior technology ridiculous. It is basically done through bluff and bluster, with a lot of luck thrown in:
"But how could that be, sire?" asked Sir Owain. "They‘re older and stronger and wiser than we." "The first two, granted," nodded the baron. His humor was so good that he addressed even this knight with frank fellowship. "But the third, no. Where it comes to intrigue, I‘m no master of it myself, no Italian. But the star-folk are like children."
In any case Anderson has written the book and developed the characters with such skill that you are likely to be swept away by the story and jettison your incredulity out the window.
Tremendous fun and takes no time at all to read, a must.(less)
This book is legendary among cyberpunk fans, I do not really count myself among them as I have read too little from this sub-genre to qualify. However...moreThis book is legendary among cyberpunk fans, I do not really count myself among them as I have read too little from this sub-genre to qualify. However, it is very frequently recommended in the excellent PrintSF forum I frequent. A few years ago I went through a phase of reading crime fiction almost exclusively because I felt like a change from decades of reading sf/f. One of the best practitioners of crime fiction is Michael Connelly, whose most famous creation is detective Harry Bosch. If Mr. Connelly had put Detective Bosch in space (and cyberspace) he may have ended up with something like Altered Carbon (if he is lucky).
Altered Carbon takes place in a universe where human personalities can be digitized and transfer to different bodies (called sleeves), artificial or natural but unoccupied. Takeshi Kovacs' consciousness was in storage when he suddenly finds himself in a stranger's body and tasked with solving a mystery for a millionaire whose life was recently restored from backup after he has apparently committed suicide. His backed up consciousness has no memory of this alleged suicide because it occurs after the backup was made and he insists that he is not the suicidal type.
The story is not difficult to get into due to its linear timeline and a single first-person narrative. It took me a while to warm up to the protagonist Kovacs because like most fictional hard boiled detectives he is pain in the nether regions until you get to know him. The other characters are interesting enough without leaving much of an impression, one exception being an AI character named after a legendary guitar hero. Richard K. Morgan's prose seems more American than English, which surprised me a bit given that he is British, but the style goes with noir territory I suppose. The prose style is in the tradition of Raymond chandler / Dashiell Hammett. Visceral and lean with the occasional surprising passages of contemplative and even lyrical narration. The nature of "the self" and reality is thoughtfully ruminated upon.
I have read several reviews that mentioned that this book would make a great action film, one review even describes it as a Schwarzenegger film. This may well be the case if they cut out all the thoughtful elements and just concentrate on blowing shit up real good. I wonder how pleased the author would feel with that?
I would rate this novel at 4.6 stars, it does not quite reach the emotional core for me (though it is not far off), it falls just a little short in the poignancy department. Still, it is a fantastic sf book with plenty of food for thought and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone in search of an excellent sci-fi read.
Note: This book makes me question the "immortality by cloning" sf trope. The idea is understandable but somehow does not jibe with me. There is an interesting discussion of the idea here.
I just realised that I have not touched upon how virtual reality is cleverly used in the book as an interrogation tool, now I don't know where to discreetly fit it into the review!(less)
I had no idea what Kindred is about prior to reading it, I previously read Octavia Butler's Wild Seed and thought it was marvelous, and Kindred seems...moreI had no idea what Kindred is about prior to reading it, I previously read Octavia Butler's Wild Seed and thought it was marvelous, and Kindred seems to be her most popular work judging by Goodreads ratings. So buying a copy of Kindred without knowing anything about it was a no-brainer. I even deliberately avoided looking at the book's synopsis before hand, I just wanted to get to know the book as I read on. I hoped for a pleasant surprise, which I did get. This is only the second Octavia Butler book I have read and I already worship her.
Kindred is about Dana, an African American woman who finds herself time travelling involuntarily to Maryland in the early nineteenth century. It is not explained how or why this happen to her, the mechanic of it is entirely irrelevant to the story. The novel is about her experience of slavery in the past. Her fate becomes intertwined with Rufus, a white ancestor who is the only son of a plantation owner and who somehow triggers her time traveling trips every time he is in mortal danger, a situation that arises more frequently to him than to most people. While there she experiences the woes of slavery first hand, including whipping, beating, degradation and humiliation.
This is a harrowing and emotional read, I almost cry manly tears during some of the chapters. I never pondered what it may have been like to be a slave, it is not exactly a contingency which is at all likely to ever arise. However, Ms Butler - genius that she was - made me feel it through the eyes of her protagonist. The pains and humiliation of slavery resonates with me even though there ought to be nothing to resonate. I kind of winced every time a stroke of a whip is described. This is not a comfortable read but highly engrossing and thought provoking. The book is very much character-centric, the relationship between Dana and Rufus is very complex and fascinating. Dana's husband Kevin who also become embroiled in time traveling and is marooned in the nineteenth century for years without his wife adds to her complications, his reaction to returning to the present time (1976) is entirely believable and again resonates strongly.
The book reminds me a little of Connie Willis's excellent Doomsday Book, which is about time travelling to the fourteenth century and also a harrowing (yet wonderful) read, though the emphasis of that book is on poverty, hardship and diseases rather than slavery. The involuntary time traveling aspect of the book reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, though Kindred predates it, and Kindred is certainly not a romantic book.
Octavia Butler was not one of those literary writers who try to avoid the science fiction label like the plague even while using sf tropes in their works, she has always loved sf and gladly embraced the genre (see image below).
That said, Kindred is also not science fiction. The author described it as a "grim fantasy" and deliberately did not put any science in it, it is described by some literary critics as a "neo-slave narrative". I did consider why the book was written as a fantasy (or almost sf) instead of historical fiction, then I realised that it was probably done so the modern reader can experience the nineteenth century Maryland through the protagonist's contemporary eyes, this makes the book very visceral.
While the book was written to make the reader ponder some serious issues such as man's inhumanity to man, inequality and courage in an environment where you are made to feel worthless, at no point did I feel like being lectured to. The author knows the importance of communicating through the story, and I was completely swept away by it. Whatever I read next will likely suffer from being compared to this book. This goes in my all-time greats list.(less)
When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world, he (Tolkien) pretty much knocked it out of the park. But that means there’s not much point in my writing it again, is there? Forgive me for saying so, but it feels as if folk have been writing Lord of the Rings again for a while now, and I think we could probably, you know, stop.
The above quote is the author's response to a columnist's criticism that his work is morally bankrupt and an insult to the classic fantasy tradition laid down by J.R.R. Tolkien. You tell 'em Joe. This blog alone spurred me to read The Blade Itself, a character centric fantasy, low on magic, high on horrific dentistry and body parts extractions. This book is clearly not for the faint of heart, there is a lot of violence and "plain speaking" language within, but no more so than GRRM's now legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series.
If you read the negative reviews of this book, some of them will mention that the main characters are unlikable. I disagree with this criticism, I find the characters development to be the best aspect of this book. Perhaps some of the protagonists are supposed to be unlikable, but I like them any way, some of the most interesting people are unlikable. Besides, I find them vivid and believable.
As the book is comprised of multiple non-intertwining plot strands and the focus is more on characters than events, I would like to highlight the four major characters:
Glokta - The crippled inquisitor was a handsome soldier before he was tortured and mutilated for years under enemy captivity. Logen Ninefingers - a Conan-esque barbarian with more flaws and less fingers Captain Jezal dan Luthar - the Bertie Wooster of fantasy Bayaz - a mysterious and obnoxious wizard who is fond of baths
There are several more characters of note but a long list of unfamiliar characters would probably lose your interest (typing them all out would lose mine). Like a lot of fantasy novels this is a multiple perspectives points set up. Part epic journeys, part political maneuvering, lots of fighting, occasional bits of wizardry and a smidgen of romance (surprisingly charming if not exactly sweet). The story does nor drag at any point. The combat scenes are very skillfully written, you can almost feel the weight of the heavy swords being wielded. The prose style is witty and often humorous. As mentioned earlier, many of the negative reviewers seem to seem to be under the impression that the book, the characters, perhaps even the author himself are morally bankrupt. I disagree completely, there is definitely a moral compass here, some of the characters strive to do the right thing even if they go about it the wrong way. Doing the right thing is often hard and the characters in this book are just as fallible as we are.
Ernest Cline is roughly the same age as me and we share some similar tastes for geeky forms of entertainment (though I don't think I played quite so m...moreErnest Cline is roughly the same age as me and we share some similar tastes for geeky forms of entertainment (though I don't think I played quite so many games as he did and I was never very good at them). There are a lot of people in our age group and I imagine that this book will appeal to most of them that have fond memories of the pop culture and video games of that wonderful decade, the 1980s. I wonder what the book will appeal to people who grew up in the 90s and later though. Any way, for the target demographic this book is just terrific fun, there is not much substance to it but it often raises a smile, we can always do with more of those.
The near future dystopia setting of Ready Player One works very well as it contrasts nicely to the virtual world of OASIS where life is great, and fantastic adventures can be had without fear of permanent death. I find the world the author created very engaging, it has that vivid sense of place that is very hard to achieve in fiction, in reminds me of the immersive experience of reading Harry Potter books or the best Stephen King books. Kudos ti the author for successfully - almost telepathically - transporting this reader to the world of his imagination. This alone is worth a 5 stars rating for me. The book is by no means a perfect, but to me a 5 stars book does not need to be perfect, it just needs to be special.
The prose style reminds me of Cory Doctorow's in his book Little Brother, hip, sometimes witty, always readable but never lyrical or beautiful. The characters are adequately developed for this sort of adventure though the protagonist Wade is a little Harry Potterish. The books does have a YA vibe to it in spite of not being marketed as one. I generally enjoy the nostalgic 80s element, especially the scenes involving Monty Python, Rush and Pacman. Numerous quick shoutouts to 80s pop culture also abound, but not too much to become grating. The epic climax does descend into juvenilia a little with a heavy emphasis on 80s anime references, I have to confess to enjoying the hell out of that scene also.
The science fiction and world building elements are also very well done. The dystopian setting juxtaposes very well with the VR "holodeck-like" game world. I like how the OASIS game world totally subsume the internet enabling FTL travel, teleportation and spell casting to coexist believably (because they don't actually exist). One aspect of the book which I feel is a little bit of a missed opportunity is that the author did not explore his theme of how over reliance or indulgence in VR means that the real world is generally left to rot. This is more than hinted at but not really adequately explored. This book has been criticized for "nerd-pandering" but I feel that the author's fondness for the 80s is genuine and his enthusiasm is infectious. A light and breezy read, not edifying or life changing in any way, but it made this reader happy, chances are it will make you happy too. Live long and prosper!(less)
This is one of the elite novels that won both Hugo and Nebula awards, there are not many of those and they are generally very good books though you an...moreThis is one of the elite novels that won both Hugo and Nebula awards, there are not many of those and they are generally very good books though you and I can always find some titles to be undeserving, c'est la vie. Before starting on reading this novel I looked around Goodreads and Amazon for some consensus of opinion among other readers. I found the prevailing opinion to be on the positive side but it is always interesting to note the negatives also, in case the reviewers hate the same things I do. Among the unfavorable reviews a common criticism seems to be that this book is boring. While I don't quite agree with this sentiment I understand it. We are bored by different things and have different levels of tolerance for certain kinds of plot or pacing.
While I enjoy time traveling stories I tend to prefer those with a lots of paradoxes, going back and forth, becoming your own granddad, causing a massive rift in the space time continuum, that sort of thing. My favorite examples of this would be The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold and the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein. Any way, just going to one time period and getting yourself in trouble because you are just too damn modern doesn't really do it for me. So Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" does not do much for me and "Timeline" by Michael Crichton is possibly the worst time traveling book I have ever read (I like other Crichtons though).
Having rambled on thus far I have to confess that I like this book a lot (and I can't italicize it enough!). Connie Willis' prose is nice and smooth, it reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold's prose style, with just the right amount of elegance and witticism without sacrificing clarity. The novel is immediately accessible from page one, which is always a bonus. This book is clearly character driven, though there are a few clever scifi concepts like the non-mechanical translating device recorder implant etc. Also, as this is generally a dark novel, the occasional interjections of humor is very welcome.
The main character Kivrin is a wonderful creation, by the end of the novel I feel like this is a real person I have come to know very well. She is courageous, compassionate, intelligent and vulnerable, Ms Willis certainly puts her through the wringer with this one, poor lass. Back to the "boring" allegation, there is some pacing or progression problem with this book, at times characters seem to be running around circle not advancing the plot very much. The search for Kivrin's entry point to medieval time also gets a bit tiresome. That said, whether you will find this book intolerably boring will very much depend on how invested are you in the characters and their plight. I am totally sold on them.
A very interesting question that the novel raised in my mind is since what happened in the medieval time has already happened as far as we in the present time are concerned, all the characters from that period have been dead ages ago, so does it matter to the visiting time traveller if they die or how they die? I think it does because when they are with you they are just people.(less)
"I had already seen dozens of empires come and go, blossoming and fading like lilies on a pond, over and over, seasons without end. Many of those empires were benevolent and welcoming, but others were inimical to all outside influences. It made no difference to their longevity. The kind empires withered and waned as quickly as the hostile ones."
The above passage from House of Suns serves to illustrate the author's grandiose scheme for this book. The story spans millions of years and hundreds of them often pass in the blink of an eye. Talk about fast moving narrative, this book almost break the FTL barrier. That said the story is not hard to follow providing you give it time to unfold and settle you in its very far future settings. In spite of the grand scale there are not that many characters to keep track of. The first person narrative is split into that of three protagonists, actually only one protagonist in a way. It all starts with this one girl Abigail Gentian who grew up in a weird shape shifting house and later cloned herself a thousand (+/-1) times for space exploration purposes. These thousand clones meet up every thousand years or so to celebrate, compare notes and basically party like it's 1999 (+ many kilo centuries). On one such occasion they are attacked and almost wiped out...
My inadequate synopsis barely scratches the surface of the immense story. This is my second Alastair Reynolds book, the first being Revelation Space which is his debut novel published 8 years before House of Suns. I rather like Revelation Space but in a muted sort of way, I thought the characters were on the flat side and a lot of the science went over my head. Well, I am glad to report that in the intervening years (while I was in suspended animation) Mr. Reynolds has acquired the arcane skills of character development. The central characters are likable and believable and the robot characters are just wonderful. While some of the science still goes whoosh! right over my head this is to be expected as I have difficulty figuring out how dental floss works. That said, most of the science and inventions are explained quite clearly and still comes across as ingenious.
Interestingly some very odd beings appear in this book but none of them are aliens. Which brings me to another quote from the book:
"Yes, humanity fractured into a million daughter species, some of which were scarcely recognisable to each other. But scratch beneath the scales, the fur, the tin armour, they were still humans at the core, and no amount of primate babble could ever drown out that silence completely."
TL;DR: No aliens! All the weird blighters that show up in this book are post-humans, though a mysterious alien race is referred to they never actually drop by at any point. The post-humans weirdos more than make up for them though.
There are mercifully brief fantasy interludes (inside a virtual reality) which I don't really care for, it reminds of scenes from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer which did not appeal to me (the scenes, not the book). This book could also do with a bit more humour and levity, but the poignant finale tugs nicely at the heartstrings.
I really should stop rating books at five stars or I shall have no credibility left. I don't want to be the Paula Abdul of Goodreads or something, but really at the end of the day this is a great mind expanding read and to rate it less than five stars seems churlish. I think I will rate the next book I review at 4 stars max, regardless of how good it is!(less)
By gods and Jabber! This is one pugnacious thaumaturgical book! (sorry, bad in-joke).
China Miéville an interesting and awe-inspiring author, he writes...moreBy gods and Jabber! This is one pugnacious thaumaturgical book! (sorry, bad in-joke).
China Miéville an interesting and awe-inspiring author, he writes like an angel but looks like a football hooligan! This is the second of the New Crobuzon series. Why it is not called The Bas-Lag series I have no idea, all of the Scar is set outside the great sprawling city of New Crobuzon, though it is frequently referred to.
As with the amazing Perdido Street Station this book is full of interesting characters and peculiar creatures (some of whom are pulling double duties as interesting characters also) full of magic (thaumaturgy, natch!). Miéville is a master of world building, plots, prose and characterization. The floating city of Armada is an amazing and vivid creation, a crazy yet believable place. The main protagonist Bellis Coldwine starts out being utterly unsympathetic and cold but she is gradually humanized as the story progresses. There are always surprises around the corner and the novel is never predictable.
Interestingly, with all this weirdness going on I am surprised that the most resonant part of the book for me is the brief scene where a young cabin boy (Shekel) learns to read and discover the joy of reading. Now that is something most of us Goodreads punters can identify with.
There are numerous wonders waiting to be discovered by the unsuspecting reader, and it all ends in a somewhat optimistic yet melancholy note. I find this book endlessly fascinating and I look forward to visit Bas-Lag again in the Iron Council. (less)
Best "first contact" novel I have ever read. Vividly imagined alien species, their biology and culture. The plot and science is also well balance, cha...moreBest "first contact" novel I have ever read. Vividly imagined alien species, their biology and culture. The plot and science is also well balance, characterization is not Niven & Pournelle's forte but it is not too shabby here either. This book deserves multiple rereads.(less)