Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb

March 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I have to say I’m a little split on this trilogy. On one hand, after reading the first book I said to myself, “I can’t believe I ever thought the Farseer trilogy was complete–this is what it needed all along”. Character-wise I feel like Fitz, done so well in the first three books, is finally more or less drawn perfectly in these books. The trouble is Hobb set such a high standard in the Farseer trilogy that some drop off is inevitable. There are still flashes of that greatness here but unfortunately the plot doesn’t tie everything together strongly. The story of the first book is almost completely independent of the second two, and in the second two books there is something of a lack of urgency. Finally, it pains me to say that the last third of the third book is, to me, almost a complete disaster. It doesn’t ruin this trilogy, but man, it’s unfortunate. At any rate, this builds strongly on the Farseer trilogy so start there. While it doesn’t tie strongly to the Liveship books there are some spoilers for them and at any rate the Liveship books are better, so I would recommend reading those first as well.

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

March 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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More light SF on the militarist model. As with Warrior’s Apprentice it is as enjoyable as it is unbelievable. The difference between the Miles books and other military science fiction is Bujold has very little interest in military tactics. Hand to hand fighting gets a brief description and space battles are almost entirely offstage. Quite different from the Honor Harrington series or Drake’s books. The Miles books revolve around relationships…Miles wins because he can convince the right people to be on his side, and is smart enough to figure out in very broad terms what he should be doing. This makes for more compelling characters and an easier to understand narrative. It’s worth noting that the book is very disjointed and episodic, but it doesn’t really matter given the subgenre.

Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

March 28, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Warrior’s Apprentice is some of the best “light SF” I’ve ever read. A lot of people disdain this subgenre as juvenile, but as long as one has the proper attitude and expectations it can be quite enjoyable. By reputation I knew what to expect from the Miles books. My sister gave me Shards of HonorCordelia’s Honor and Barrayar collected–for Christmas in 2002, but I wasn’t impressed. The plot and characters were OK but the writing was clunky and weighed down by a lot of the more embarrassing tropes of the genre. Those books may precede Warrior’s Apprentice chronologically, but I would recommend giving them a pass and reading WA. There’s no point in reading things in order if it will cause you to give up before you get to the good stuff. And Warrior’s Apprentice is good stuff. It’s smoothly written, and while it isn’t even remotely believable if you let go it will take you for an enjoyable ride. What elevates it over the rest of the military genre is in its ability to combine fun adventure SF with a little bit of a values system. This isn’t a deep psychological exploration, so the hero’s reservations sometimes come off as a bit whiny, but that’s far better than the gunslinger who plows through dozens of faceless enemies without a second thought.

The Light Ages by Ian R. Macleod

March 26, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Macleod’s The Great Wheel was a thoughtful and capably written book, so when I saw The Light Ages favorably reviewed I figured I would give it a try. Well, as before Macleod has produced a thoughtful, well-written book. This time he has added some very good world building. Unfortunately my reaction was ultimately about as flat as before. Because the world building is so well-done, the scope so broad, and the characters so carefully drawn, I am certain that some…many?…will find this to be a great book. Unfortunately it never quite took off for me. The first problem was the steampunk Victorian setting. I liked the idea of magic fueling an industrial revolution of sorts but all this took back stage to what in my opinion amounts to a hit job on capitalism in the 1800s. It’s not that I disagree, it’s that I question the relevance. Macleod sets up something of a straw man by constructing his world so that the humanist reforms that happened in real life do not happen. It’s not that I don’t sympathize in theory with characters trying to deal with the unfair class struggle in the midst of slave labor conditions, it’s that I don’t really enjoy reading about people in rather miserable circumstances. It’s a pretty long book and I really just got tired of it. I would recommend it to people who liked The Great Wheel and to people who find steampunk settings to be very interesting.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

March 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books get a lot of press for being underrated fantasy. Really, though, I don’t think fantasy is the genre. Peake is a good, maybe even great, writer and what he has managed to produce here is the novel equivalent to an unrelentingly bleak and minimalist postmodern stage play. The setting is an enormous castle more or less in the middle of nowhere. Nothing is around it except for a squat, unbelievably poor village. Right away I was bothered by the absurdity of a feudal system that doesn’t seem to have any serfs to speak of. What Peake is doing is constructing a hazy dreamscape where the world outside the castle fades to white while people struggle with their difficulties inside it. The characters are all grotesques and the events in the plot are somewhat arbitrary. Unlike Gene Wolfe, who at times evokes the same haze, this world is not poorly understood, there is nothing to understand. It is the two dimensional backdrop to the play Peake is putting on. If you enjoy getting social commentary by means of a strained allegory then this is probably a great book. I do not, but I could appreciate the marvelous job Peake did with his characters. I hesitate to call them characters, since they are not really characters in the traditional sense. They are types wrapped in massive eccentricities. Many of them are amazingly memorable, but I didn’t much appreciate Dickens and ultimately I didn’t appreciate this. It’s too bad, because at one moment, as Steerpike comes to Fuschia’s window, I could sense something that I would consider brilliant in the realm of possibilities. But Peake was after something else entirely. If you liked Dickens, this is not the same thing but it is worth a try. Otherwise, it is mainly worth reading to know what other people are talking about.

Salt by Adam Roberts

March 3, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Salt is one of those books that has an interesting premise and not much else going for it. The setting is a new colony world, a planet whose surface is almost entirely covered in salt. To establish this Roberts has written what in my opinion is a simply beautiful opening few pages to the novel, the most memorable opening I’ve read short of Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Unfortunately what follows is merely mediocre. The setting and the ways the colonists cope with it are interesting, but the novel is really a sociological book. SF has a long tradition of writers setting out their ideas of utopia or dystopia on the clean canvas of a colony world, but in this case Roberts seems to be going more for a story about unbridgable cultural differences. The story is told in first person by two narrators in alternating chapters. Each belongs to a fundamentally different society, and the book is about the inevitable conflicts that arise through these differences. The problem is that by the end of the story both characters are thoroughly unlikable. One society is pretty much an off-the-shelf militarist totalitarian state, while the other is little-C communist. Neither works because the first has unfortunately been so common in history it is mundane and the second is so unprecedented it seems impossible, and Roberts’ narrator has thought processes that are so different they can scarcely be thought of as human. Ultimately the book goes nowhere: the plot does not resolve, the characters are completely estranged from the reader by their actions, and the book seems to make no philosophical point other than “extremes are bad”.  Not recommended.

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