I think this is the first Kage Baker novel I've read whose jacket description properly captures its feel (though the description for The Anvil of the...moreI think this is the first Kage Baker novel I've read whose jacket description properly captures its feel (though the description for The Anvil of the World comes close). The first paragraph (and the first section of the second paragraph) sound exactly like at least half of the heroic fantasy novels being written today, and in broad strokes, this novel follows that very popular story arc. But throughout the story, and coming to the fore at the end, is the sort of wry humanism that is so at odds with most of heroic fantasy, and so trademark to Kage Baker's (and Connie Willis' and Lois McMaster Bujold's) style.
This is the story of how the Master of the Mountain and the Green Saint came to be who they were in The Anvil of the World, making it a prequel of sorts, though both books stand equally well on their own. As in The Anvil of the World, Baker doesn't confine herself to even-length chapters, nor does she stick with one viewpoint; some sections are first-person narrative, one is second-person, and one is third-person with a first-person frame -- though while it isn't always clear who is speaking at first (because they are characters that haven't been introduced yet) Baker is always in control, and the reader is immediately aware that the perspective has shifted and where in the world it has shifted to.
Most of the story revolves around Gard, who will become the Master of the Mountain; the Green Saint isn't born until halfway through the book. Gard is a wonderful character -- despite all the baggage handed him by heroic fantasy convention, he retains a wonderful clarity of purpose: all he wants is the chance to live and be happy, and he will do what seems necessary to make that as likely as possible. He encounters several mentor figures (another fantasy trope) including Balnshik, who we met in The Anvil of the World; he attracts a ragtag bunch of followers, outcasts in the world at large, through his strength of character; and he forges himself (with the help of those mentioned above) into the sort of tool so very common in heroic fantasy: impossibly skilled at everything he sets his hand to, be it conventional fighting (with any weapon) or magic.
But just as his journey appears to be veering too far into teen boy wish-fulfillment, Baker grounds it yet again in his simple desire for happiness. He bests his enemies not to make the world a better place, but simply to get himself and those he loves out of harms way; that accomplished, he takes whatever jobs come to hand (I particularly enjoyed his turn as an actor) to keep food on the table and a roof over his head. If I have one quibble, it's that the Green Saint was not given as much depth as Gard, and their romance was of the "love at first sight" variety. But while that quibble was strong enough that I couldn't love this volume quite as much as The Anvil of the World, The House of the Stag is still one of the best heroic fantasy novels I've read in a long time.(less)
It may be that Jacqueline Carey will never recapture the magic she created in Terre d'Ange, but for once I agree wholeheartedly with one of the quotes...moreIt may be that Jacqueline Carey will never recapture the magic she created in Terre d'Ange, but for once I agree wholeheartedly with one of the quotes on the book jacket. "At the novel's heart is the kind of grace Carey is known for: an illumination of the strength that lies hidden inside all of us." (Eric Van Lustbader) Loup is a fabulous character, and the way Carey keeps the perspective focused on her allows the reader to see the subtle changes her fearlessness creates in those around her despite Loup not understanding them herself.(less)
I have to say, first off, that every single review I saw of this book online (even ones as short as a single line) gives away something you are not su...moreI have to say, first off, that every single review I saw of this book online (even ones as short as a single line) gives away something you are not supposed to know until the very end, if you figure it out at all. These details that they spoil are not exactly essential to the plot, but one was spoiled for me (and I think the novel lost some of its tautness as a result) and the one that was not spoiled I was very glad wasn't spoiled because it was a minor mystery I spent the first half of the novel picking at (so again, I suspect the novel would have lost some of its appeal had I known the answer to the riddle). All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if you want to come to the book unspoiled, avoid all online information about it like the plague.
I say right now that I will endeavor to do better than that, and give a truly spoiler-free review.
The difficulty is that without those two bits of information that so many others cavalierly spoiled, there's very little way to talk about the book. Even saying that it is a Culture novel gives you a clue to what one of the pieces of information is, but I felt that was something I could include because Banks himself gave that away. Without spoiling anymore, I will be forced to speak circuitously, which I must beg your forgiveness for. Inversions is set on a planet with a roughly Medieval level of government and medicine, and which is just beginning to experiment with gunpowder but still relies mainly on crossbows and swords. It is narrated by one of the characters, but the narrator does not tell which character he or she is, though that conceit is broken down by about the halfway point. This mysterious narrator relates two parallel tales, one of the King's physician (named Vosill) in a country called Haspidus, and one of the General Protector's bodyguard (called DeWar) in a country called Tassasen, across the mountains from Haspidus. The countries are not at war with one another, but they are uneasy about each other because the world has just suffered a planet-wide disaster which has upset all of the old systems of government.
That, then, is the set-up. The chapters alternate between the Doctor's story, which the narrator relates through her assistant Oelph, who is reporting clandestinely to another Master; and the Bodyguard's story, which the narrator relates through a third-person omniscient voice that is kept relatively confined to DeWar's perspective, but not entirely. As I mentioned above, it becomes clear who the narrator is in these stories about halfway through, but Banks handles that gracefully, not with a big reveal, but by slowly letting the mask the he or she is wearing at first slip away, almost as if unconsciously.
There is little for me to say about the two stories being told; very little happens. This novel, much more than other Banks novels I have read, is a character study, a portrait of two individuals in positions of power at a time of momentous change on this world. There is intriguing against both the Doctor and the Bodyguard, for they are foreigners to their lands and not trusted as a result; there is a touch of romance, mostly unrequited; there are surprising philosophical passages that take on greater weight as events unfold. There is a startlingly vivid hunt scene, and a botched assassination attempt, but otherwise the only action comes in a mock war (complete with catapult) that DeWar has with the General Protector's son. There is ugliness, because Banks never shies from that, and there is quite a bit of witty repartee between the Doctor and her King and between the Bodyguard and the General Protector's favorite concubine. There is also a tale of a land called Lavishia, and two cousins that lived there, that is the only real clue to the bit of information that was spoiled for me.
Ultimately, the stories end, but as with the other Culture novel I have read, the ending is pretty damned emotionally unsatisfactory. But that, too, is a stylistic choice on Banks' part, and one that I respect. They end unsatisfactorily because, unless all of humanity is obliterated, no story ever has a real ending. There will always be loose ends, people who disappear leaving only questions behind them, events that are understood imperfectly, and whose full effects still haven't been seen. It is actually a happier ending than that other Culture novel, I think; at least, the people within the story seem happy with it. The philosophical questions raised are never answered, because how could they be? They have no right answers. . . (I'm looking at you again, Prime Directive!) Instead, we are left to muddle through day by day, doing the best we can, trying to hold onto the best parts of ourselves and make good decisions with imperfect information, just as all the people (in Haspidus, in Tassasen, and even in Lavishia) in this story do.
And that's where Inversions left me, a tad frustrated (but again, I think that was deliberate), a tad philosophical, and fairly impressed. I do believe I succeeded in writing a spoiler-free review, but I'm not sure I managed to say anything at all, lol. I would definitely recommend this book, but you must accept that nothing happens, there is no real ending, and there isn't even a message to it all. That said, Inversions is still one of the strongest books I've read in a while.(less)
This is a collection of six mystery novellas and novelettes featuring Abigail Irene and Don Sebastien, and it is an excellent place to start with Eliz...moreThis is a collection of six mystery novellas and novelettes featuring Abigail Irene and Don Sebastien, and it is an excellent place to start with Elizabeth Bear. It is one of her most accessible works, so if you can find a copy of it (not necessarily easy, with small-press releases) and enjoy quality prose and characters, I strongly recommend checking it out.
The novellas are sequential and build on one another, so the collection should be read in order. It starts as Don Sebastien leaves the Old World for the New on a zeppelin, having shed all his court but one Jack Priest, his ward. Vampirism is illegal in the British Empire, so Sebastien takes care that no one suspects his true nature, and when one of his fellow passengers goes missing he is forced to solve the mystery quickly, for fear that when the zeppelin arrives at New Amsterdam the captain will call in Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene, whose reputation is known across the Atlantic.
Don Sebastien and Abigail Irene don't meet until the second novella, when Sebastien horns in on a particularly chilling murder in his new home of New Amsterdam. While her quick acceptance of a place in his court comes out of the blue, they have immediate chemistry as people with a stricter moral code than is usual for their positions and a particular enjoyment in circumventing (or ignoring outright) Victorian moral conventions. They also make an excellent detective duo; Sebastien does more of the traditional detecting (interviewing suspects, having contacts in all corners of society that can provide information) while Abigail Irene's credentials as a forensic sorceress make her a turn-of-the-century magical C.S.I.
Each mystery they solve together deepens our understanding of the alternate world they live in; we are introduced to many sectors of a fairly complex society where magic and technology are intertwined and creatures of the night are just one of many oppressed classes. Impressively, every single mystery is fair -- while I only guessed one of the conclusions correctly, I was able to find the clues in each story after the reveal. Bear is never exactly an easy read, as she does not spoon-feed her world to the reader, but this collection is much less dependent on the reader catching every single reference than Blood and Iron was. I was left wanting much, much more set in this world; I'm grateful that it's followed by Seven for a Secret and The White City and hopefully many more.(less)
This is an odd book, a standalone Company novel that I think would actually work better for someone who does not know the series than for those of us...moreThis is an odd book, a standalone Company novel that I think would actually work better for someone who does not know the series than for those of us who know and love it (which might explain the very lackluster reviews I've seen of it online).
Not Less Than Gods is written in a third-person omniscient near-objective mode, meaning the narrator knows everything about everyone in the story but rarely delves into their thoughts and feelings, staying detached. Despite what the jacket would lead you to believe, it never enters Edward's head -- he is a cipher to those around him and to the reader. I resented this mode at first -- it seemed to leave a great gaping hole in every scene -- but the introduction of Rabbi Canetti reveals that this was a very deliberate choice on Baker's part and one, in fact, that I believe would make the book for those who have not read the Company novels (and have the eyes to see it).
To one who has not encountered the Company before, this novel has a central theme -- the danger of creating a monster and then giving it a soul. It is a Frankenstein tale, plain and simple, with Dr. Nennys as Dr. Frankenstein and Edward as his monster -- a subtler monster than Shelley's, but just as horrifying to the average bystander and just as innocent. We the reader cannot see Edward's perspective for this to work, however, because he does not know that he is a golem; the objective tone Baker uses reinforces her message.
The novel still is not entirely effective; I think it would have been stronger had Baker dipped more into the ancillary characters' heads, and it is rather slow starting and episodic throughout. It is also more steampunk than I expected, paying far more attention to the workings of all the wondrous machines than were really warranted by the story. But I think that if I did not know the Company novels already, I would have been quite moved by the climax as Ludbridge watches Edward realize what exactly he is.
However, I do know the Company novels, and I have met Edward before. I know his history already. Most importantly, I know how much more of a complete person (as opposed to a golem with a soul) he is than this book gives him credit for, so I am resistent to giving him the pass that this book provides him on all those shady ethical issues. With all that extra knowledge, I was left almost entirely cold by the novel. I wanted, instead, the novel that the book jacket led me to believe this was -- a real dip into Edward's psyche before Mendoza ran into him in California, something more realistic psychoanalysis than allegory. Or, at least, something with a bit more humor and action, some of the dashing zest for life it seemed Edward had (in amongst his raging egomania).
So all in all I'm frustrated by this novel, but I nonetheless hope it does well, and it would be very nice if it finds an audience outside of Baker's core Company fans.(less)
This book is in three parts; the first, "The Robot's Twilight Companion" was previously published in a collection with that title. It is also the stro...moreThis book is in three parts; the first, "The Robot's Twilight Companion" was previously published in a collection with that title. It is also the strongest of the three sections in this volume. It relates the story of how Orf gained sentience through Orf's perspective. The chronology of how this happened wasn't entirely clear to me (again, it's told through Orf's perspective, and it is eminently reasonable that Orf's memories of its earliest consciousness would be muddled) but it involved a tech only partially turning off a decommissioned mining robot and a geology grad student imbuing a mining robot with what remained of the consciousness of his dead mentor, Victor Wu.
Orf is a wonderful viewpoint character, and unlike most of the other sentient A.I.s I've read. It has no knowledge of the outside world, no connection to any global databases to pull information from, and it wasn't intended to be an A.I. at all, so was given no algorithms to help it understand humanity. It knows rocks, and it reads books, and it observes everything it possibly can. Through Orf's eyes we get a little bit of a sense of coming apocalypse, but Orf itself can't understand what it is observing because it does not have the proper frame of reference. Orf's viewpoint is very much the viewpoint of a precocious child, and that lends a great deal of tension and tragedy to the events that unfold around it. "The Robot's Twilight Companion" firmly belongs in the tradition that flows from Mary Shelly's Frankentstein, and it is a worthy addition.
The second part, "Pennyroyal Tea," jumps ahead 200 years. The apocalypse has happened, and the viewpoint character is Jarrod, a member of the Rangers, U.S. Forest Service personnel that banded together to protect Olympia National Park from both loggers and environmental extremists immediately after the world fell apart. I read very little post-apocalyptic fiction, and this experience is not likely to change that. Jarrod is a likable viewpoint character (though not as likable as Orf); the quest structure works decently well; I enjoyed exploring the various cults Jarrod gets tangled with. However, it was a very dark future (to be expected from post-apocalyptic SF, but still) and the section with the Cougars was downright painful to read. The section then ended very abruptly with Jarrod meeting Orf and a second apocalypse that rendered Jarrod's quest futile.
The third part, "The New Exiles of California," makes the transition from "The Robot's Twilight Companion" to "Pennyroyal Tea" seem brilliantly smooth. While hints of the apocalypse to come are found throughout "The Robot's Twilight Companion," and we can see the eventual shape of the conflicts "Pennyroyal Tea" throughout, far too much happens off screen between "Pennyroyal Tea" and "The New Exiles of California." Time jumps 800 years further into the future, where contact has already been made with other intelligences and an entirely new science has arisen to do everything. (And I mean everything -- as far as I could tell, the technology of this future was at least as advanced as the technology in Star Trek, but it was based on aesthetics and the terranes -- no computers, no worry about power, nothing, really, that I could understand at all.)
The tone of this section was also just bizarre. The viewpoint character is Noah, a shaman, a symbologist, and a scholar, dealing with a worry about something called the Chunk, that everyone can tell is heading towards Earth at faster-than-light speeds and is messing with their trance states, which is how communication (with planets, stars, and who knows what other types of beings) is accomplished in this future. His worry, however, takes the form of musing on history (which serves to fill us in on a little of how this new world order came about) and rambles about aesthetics -- a field in which my only experience is reading short selections from Plato and Aristotle in college. The section is very short; he has an "Aha!" moment where he intuitively grasps the Chunk's purpose and then quickly puts everyone into action to attempt to save the planet. And there the story ends -- we are left to guess whether Noah succeeded, or even whether or not he was correct in his intuitive leap. Orf makes another cameo, this time as Noah's psychologist, but has no real impact on the story whatsoever.
Overall I have to say I did enjoy this book. Daniel's writing is strong, and I loved "The Robot's Twilight Companion" so much that I think I would have recommended this even if I had hated the second two parts. And I didn't hate either "Pennyroyal Tea" or "The New Exiles of California" -- they just weren't exactly up my alley. I do think Daniel could have accomplished the transitions a little more smoothly (maybe with a dip into Orf's perspective between each, to fill us in what's going on?) but other than that I don't have any real problems with the text from a technical standpoint. I will most likely be checking out more of Daniel's work (he has three novels: Warpath, and the duology Metaplanetary & Superluminal; looking at the descriptions it appears they all follow a more standard narrative structure) but I can't help wishing that "Pennyroyal Tea" and "The New Exiles of California" had been more like "The Robot's Twilight Companion."(less)
I am very sad to say this is my least favorite novel of Terre d'Ange so far. This is partly because of the theme Carey is exploring in this novel, but...moreI am very sad to say this is my least favorite novel of Terre d'Ange so far. This is partly because of the theme Carey is exploring in this novel, but mostly because it simply does not measure up to the rest of the series.
Don't get me wrong -- I love this world with a deep and abiding passion, and I will buy the novels in hardcover the day they come out as long as Carey writes them. But this, the third trilogy set in the world of Terre d'Ange, is simply less powerful than the two trilogies that came before. It is less focused. The books are less focused than either Phedre's or Imriel's -- while the first six books in this series had definite beginnings, middles, and ends (that nonetheless contributed to the larger three-book story arc) both Naamah's Kiss and Naamah's Curse have minor endings that are clearly just pauses in the action rather than true endings to a book-long story arc; and Moirin herself is less focused -- she is seeking her destiny, but the only guideline she has is that she will cross many seas, so she just kind of wafts through the world waiting for her diadh-anam to flare up and let her know that this is a place she's supposed to be for a while. That passivity stands in stark contrast to Carey's best heroine, Phedre no Delaunay, who always had a sense of purpose and urgency to whatever she set her mind to. (Phedre also thought before embarking on any action, while Moirin just kind of jumps into bad situations and then goes "Ooops! I guess I shouldn't have done that.")
And the fact that I kept comparing the two protagonists to each other is symptomatic of the flaw in this book as well. They are both female first-person narrators in the same world, and Carey's skill is not so great that she gave them very distinctly different voices, so some comparison is natural. But in this book I have become convinced that Carey is deliberately comparing them to each other in her own mind, because so much of the action of this book echoes the action of Kushiel's Avatar, the third (and best) book featuring Phedre. Both books range into non-European lands (in Avatar it was Africa; here it is Asia); both books feature the protagonist's soul being made a battleground of the gods; the protagonist is tortured in both books as a part of that battle. (There are other parallels, but they would constitute spoilers for this book.) And at each point where there is this echo of the earlier heroine, Carey makes Moirin make the opposite choice.
Obviously, she did this to ensure that Moirin is NOT just a Phedre clone; but simply making Moirin the reverse of Phedre does not make a unique heroine -- being the anti-Phedre is no better than being Phedre-lite. She even gave Moirin an anti-Joscelin in Bao, and reversed the way their relationship worked -- in Kushiel's Justice Phedre drove Joscelin away, while here in Naamah's Curse Bao drives Moirin away through his actions and the difficulties they cause.
But the anti-Phedre trend continues even to the thematic level, and this is the point that I have to give the caveat: the theme Carey chooses to explore is well-executed, so I cannot say that the book is bad as a result of it; it simply is not to my taste, and so I disliked the book a bit as a result. In all the Phedre books there was an underlying theme of the gods' battles being worked out through their human followers -- Melisande is acting out her Kusheline nature in playing the game of Kings, and the battle between her and Phedre in the first two books emphasizes that the gods have created the battle and the battleground, and the humans are simply acting in accordance with their natures; the Mahrkagir, in the third book, is also acting as the avatar of a god, and Phedre is cast against him by her own gods. I loved this theme, because it allowed the human characters (even the villains) to be human, heroes of their own stories even as they are the villains in ours, while not at all lessening the visceral impact of the good vs. evil battle.
Here in Naamah's Curse, the theme itself is reversed. Instead of the humans acting in accordance with their gods, this novel is all about the ways humans can twist their gods to their own ends. The Khan of the Tatars, the Yesuite Rebbe, the Falconer and the Spider Queen -- all of them preach a twisted piety to serve their own human needs for power. And this made the book ugly to me. The battles between the gods had a certain purity to them, a sense of larger-than-life figures and motivations beyond our ken; the battles here are purely human ones despite all the talk of gods, and there is nothing pure about that. It is the darkest of the novels of Terre d'Ange to date, despite the fact that darker things happen in ALL of the other novels, and that made it hard for me to take it to my heart.
Still, anyone who has read the other novels has to read this one, and will have to read the next one as well to find out what Moirin's destiny finally is. And to show one way Carey has improved over time, this novel did at least have more humor than all the others combined, as well as the best one-liner ever, and one that echoes off the Phedre novels in all the right ways: "They say the gods use their chosen hard. Apparently, the gods are part of a vast conspiracy to share their chosen, too."(less)
This is the sort of space opera I can love. Forget Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space trilogy, with its sloppy (sometimes indulgent) writing and wood...moreThis is the sort of space opera I can love. Forget Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space trilogy, with its sloppy (sometimes indulgent) writing and wooden characters; forget Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, with their climaxes that lead to nothing but futility; forget even Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga -- much though I love the characters and the wit, it doesn't have the breadth of imagination or the sheer scope that Westerfeld captures here.
The Risen Empire stars with a bang, throwing the reader into the action head-first in the perspective of a pilot on a desperate reconnoissance mission a couple hours after the Child Empress has been taken hostage. It shifts perspective every few pages, always clearly marked in the book and with enough clues in the first paragraph for the reader to settle into the new perspective seemlessly, and every time the perspective shifts it adds to the tension. As in any great space opera, there is a lot going on -- enemies without and within, unlikely characters thrown together and forced to forge a bond, people you can root for (but, rarer in space opera, no villains -- Westerfeld wisely shows the reader the Rix side of the action as well, and even the Emperor is crafted with an eye towards the sort of real motivations that might drive a person to do horrible things).
But of course, no book can maintain that sort of frenetic pace for 300+ pages, and it is actually the slower moments that hold this story's heart. After reaching a breaking point in the battle, it jumps back in time to show us the meeting between Zai and his lover Oxham, called the Mad Senator for reasons I won't spoil (but which I love). Their relationship grows quickly in book-time but is drawn out over the course of the novel in slow, luxuriant snippets for the reader. Oxham is a wonderful character, fully as complex as Zai (and their relationship is hardly as easy as most writers would make it -- they're separated by some pretty strong philosophical differences), and once she is introduced her present-time storyline is just as compelling as the space battle her lover is leading -- political wrangling, after all, is at least as dangerous an occupation as starship captaining, and the stakes are higher because mistakes are always taken out in innocent blood.
And just as obviously (well, at least to me, though given how many books I read that simply consist of grim men doing grim things maybe it isn't as obvious to everyone else) Westerfeld finds ways of sneaking in a fair amount of levity. The Emperor's undead cats, Oxham's House, and Alexander were all delightful elements that I won't spoil by explaining here. The entire novel was pitch-perfect, shifting between actions with dire consequences and moments of sheer absurdity with a wonderfully light touch.
It does have a couple flaws: though I prefer it to Banks' Culture novels, Banks is a far superior stylist -- Westerfeld's prose succeeds in getting out of the way of the story admirably, but it doesn't soar; there were a couple of (very minor) elements that took me out of the story because they struck me as anachronisms (a reference to a wax museum? really?); and it is very much a part one -- Westerfeld intended this volume and the second volume (The Killing of Worlds) to be one novel titled Succession, but it ended up being a little too long to publish in one volume economically, so it got split in half (meaning you had better have the second volume handy when you finish this one -- it definitely has a cliffhanger ending). But overall, this is a great book, exactly the sort of book I read science fiction for.(less)
This third novel in the Company series reverts to Mendoza's first-person narration, and the transition did not go entirely smoothly. Mendoza is still...moreThis third novel in the Company series reverts to Mendoza's first-person narration, and the transition did not go entirely smoothly. Mendoza is still far more self-centered than Joseph, and that comes through her narration. We saw in Sky Coyote that Joseph wants her that way because he fears for her safety, but after being in the head of a character who is constantly paying attention to those around him and to events at large it's frustrating to come crashing back to Mendoza bitterness, self-pity, and deliberately narrow focus.
That shift in perspective made the first third of the book relatively rough going for me. Baker's writing style is still a trifle obvious, and there were no perfect moments as there were in Sky Coyote to make up for the downsides. So I spent my time instead wondering at the gender roles that are shaping up in the series and being a little put off. Of the two first-person narrators, obviously Joseph is the more well-rounded, adult character; but if you're going to have a male narrator and a female narrator in a parent-child relationship, obviously one of them has to be more adult and it might not mean anything that Baker chose the male to be the parent. But unfortunately (for me at least), those same character traits are given to another pair of male and female characters in this novel: Porifirio is the sort of operative who deals with being an immortal by watching out for the other immortals in his care and is justifiably wary of the Company while Imarte has retreated from the trauma of living an immortal life among mortals into a ferociously narrow focus on her work.
However, just as I was beginning to be really annoyed by Baker's female characters, the action picked up a bit and I was reminded of what was so enthralling about Mendoza's narrative in In the Garden of Iden. The few things that Mendoza lets herself care about she cares about passionately, and that gives her narrative more tension than Joseph's ever had in Sky Coyote, because whether it's the wild beauty of unsettled California or her beloved soulmate, both we the readers and Mendoza herself know that she is destined for heartbreak. It took much longer than I expected for Mendoza's Englishman to appear on the scene, but once he did I raced to the conclusion breathlessly, and once the book was finished I wanted to immediately pick up the next one.
There is just one other thing that bothers me about this installment of the novels of the Company: I'm now three books in and the damned story hasn't started yet! This is why I tend to avoid long series' like the plague. . . delightful though these three books have been, there is still the sense that they are merely the opening act of some great epic, and I am getting rather impatient to get to that epic. Luckily for me, I do believe the action commences in the next book; even luckier I think it returns to Joseph's narration. Needless to say, I will be picking it up as soon as possible.(less)
A word, first, on the publishing. Sometime between The Graveyard Game and this novel, Kage Baker switched to Tor. I am extremely grateful for that. Th...moreA word, first, on the publishing. Sometime between The Graveyard Game and this novel, Kage Baker switched to Tor. I am extremely grateful for that. The cover design is much sleeker, and there is a very definite style to the series covers from this point on, making it immediately obvious when you see the books lined up that they are, in fact, a series. The jacket descriptions, too, are much improved, as you can hopefully see from the one I included above. I just wish that Tor had the rights to the entire series, because the first four look very out-of-place on the shelf now. . .
To the story. The Graveyard Game felt unfocused, like nothing more than a transition; The Life of the World to Come does not have that problem. It's still told from the third-person, and does jump around in time, but it is entirely the story of Alec Checkerfield. Like In the Garden of Iden, it is a coming-of-age novel in the classic sense -- we see Alec from his very generation through to a major trial-by-fire and a falling in love. The one major issue I have with this novel, however, is the world Baker created for Alec to come of age in.
The future she has envisioned is pretty dire. It has been through several apocalypses of various sorts, and the few people that are left have emerged incredibly privileged, with advanced technology and all the resources of the planet at their disposal. As we got a glimpse of in Sky Coyote and The Graveyard Game, they have taken the supposedly moral high road on so many issues that they have completely whitewashed their own existence -- no real food (all stimulants and animal products are banned), no real sex, an abhorrence of violence of any kind, and all that extends so far that they can't even read books about such things, so they also have none of the cultural awareness that would at least come with education through literature. This means that they are perennial children, and Alec, as a product of that culture (though he naturally rebels against it) remains a child throughout as well.
Mendoza's previous two lovers were men with great strength of character, as noted in the description; Alec seems so weak compared to them that I highly doubt Mendoza would love him if he weren't genetically identical to her other loves. (Baker does provide a neat little explanation of why Mendoza fell so quickly for all three of the men, however, so maybe I'm wrong about that.) This makes the novel much less involving on an emotional level than the previous four, because all of the previous ones (yes, even the transitional The Graveyard Game) were imbued with passion -- in the two from Mendoza's perspective, passion for Harpole and Fairfax; in the other two Joseph's and Lewis' passion for Mendoza. The Life of the World to Come was more abstract. It moved the plot forward immensely, and I giggled at all the right places, but there were no moments that sank into my chest and made me feel. Even Alec's trial-by-fire seemed somewhat academic -- Alec himself simply wasn't mature enough to grow as I would expect from it.
But I would still strongly recommend this series, and I would still say that The Life of the World to Come is stronger than The Graveyard Game. Baker's prose is consistently good, the story moves along quickly, the ideas are fun to play with, and (best of all) each novel is a complete story arc that nonetheless moves forward the larger series story arc. This novel introduces some new players to the game (and I loved the Captain -- if more had been from his perspective I think Baker would have captured the passion of the earlier books in his love for his boy Alec) and gets us much closer to finding out what happens in 2355. I am still looking forward to each book, which is pretty darned good for a series of this length, I think.(less)
I did not expect to be able to count The Graveyard Game for my challenge; I thought I had filled all the categories this series could fill. However, B...moreI did not expect to be able to count The Graveyard Game for my challenge; I thought I had filled all the categories this series could fill. However, Baker makes a dramatic change to her series in this volume, and that change opened up a new category for me: she dropped the first-person narration and switched to third-person omniscient, so that she could follow both Lewis and Joseph as they took their diverging paths to finding the truth about Mendoza and the other operatives that have gone missing through the ages.
Lewis was a very minor character in Sky Coyote; no one will ever rival Joseph as my favorite character in this series, but Lewis was a nice addition to the mix, being very different from both Mendoza and Joseph. While Mendoza is passionate and self-centered and Joseph is cynical and a delightful mix of self-aware and self-deluding, Lewis is a gentle soul, artistic and romantic and not at all concerned with (or a concern of) the larger issues of Company politics and the Silence. He has also been quietly in love with Mendoza for centuries, so when he starts to get wind that something nefarious is connected with her disappearance, he forces Joseph to let him help.
This novel serves as a bridge between the first three Company novels, which were very narrowly focused around specific events, and the rest of series, which looks to be shaping up into a large, millennia-spanning epic. It also serves to move us very quickly from 1996 forward all the way to 2276, less than 80 years before the Silence that has caused such consternation among all the different factions in the Company. We get glimpses of the multitude of disasters that has depopulated the Earth and created the very childlike, Puritannical mortals we met in Sky Coyote; but Baker's focus is not on the world-building but on her characters. As Lewis gets more and more wrapped up in his investigation of who Edward Alton-Bell Fairfax was, Joseph is forced to confront all those things he had willfully blinded himself to for so long. The sections in his narration are the strongest of the book the same way Sky Coyote is the strongest volume in the series -- unfortunately, they are short enough that they can be set off in italics without risking eyestrain.
This volume does its job well, filling us in on all sorts of stuff Mendoza isn't aware of, but it isn't as emotionally satisfying as earlier volumes. It feels like a transition book, and should be read as such -- valuable in the information it provides, but not capable of standing on its own in any way. Those that have been titillated by the hints dropped in the previous three books about the Company will start getting their answers here, but those that enjoyed the previous three books for their narrow focus on individual characters and events may think that this is the point where the series jumps the shark.(less)
As I mentioned in my review of The Risen Empire, this isn't really a sequel -- it's merely the second half of the story, which was broken up for publi...moreAs I mentioned in my review of The Risen Empire, this isn't really a sequel -- it's merely the second half of the story, which was broken up for publishing reasons. Unfortunately, it suffers more from this break-up than most novels do, because as far as I can tell Westerfeld did nothing to make the transition more seamless -- the epilogue of The Risen Empire is the prologue of The Killing of Worlds and otherwise the story just jumps right back into the action where it left off.
Were the books in one volume (like, say the omnibus edition the Science Fiction Book Club put out) I doubt I would have even noticed when one stopped and the other started. However, I was reading the mass market Tor editions, and even though I picked up The Killing of Worlds the very next day, I was already a little out of the rhythm of the story. Everyone's decisions felt too weighted, too fraught with dire import for what my subconscious brain insisted (based on the evidence in my hands) was the start of a plot arc. The Risen Empire started with a plot-bang, a frenetic action sequence, and that worked wonderfully because my subconscious likes that sort of opening to a story; The Killing of Worlds started with an emotional-bang, a horrified Nara Oxham realizing the extent to which the Emperor will go to eliminate an embarassment and protect a secret, and that just doesn't work for my subconscious because at the beginning of a story that sort of hand-wringing doesn't feel deserved.
Clearly, it is deserved because of all that went on in The Risen Empire, but the physical mechanics of turning the pages when so few were in my left hand and so many were in my right just threw me out of things.
Once past that initial adjustment phase, however, The Killing of Worlds is exactly as good as The Risen Empire. The stakes spiral ever higher, complications arise, and no seeming victory is ever safe. The heart of the story is still the snippets from ten years earlier (Imperial Absolute); I particularly loved the section where Nara and Laurent went sledding. The pacing is sure and the climax wonderful, as all the disparate elements come back into play forging a resolution that fits just right, no matter how deeply you press it looking for holes. This is a near-perfect story, one I am sure I will return to again and again.(less)