Hammerfall by CJ Cherryh

April 30, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Hammerfall has decent character work, an interesting world, and the solid mechanics you expect out of a veteran author. Unfortunately, all this is in service of an extremely simple plot and a setting that bored me and I suspect will bore you. If you liked Cherryh’s Faded Sun books a lot, run to the bookstore to get this. If you thought Dune would have benefited from less intrigue and more tramping around in the desert, this may be your book.

As a side note, any SF author wanting to write a story about a messianic prince running around the desert had better spend a long time thinking about how to keep the reader from making the comparison, because stastically speaking it’s highly unlikely the book will stack up in most people’s minds. Dune is “only” a borderline great book, it’s not impossible to do better, but you’re competing not with Dune but with people’s memories of it.

But the real problem this book has it tells a pretty good story that is about 20 pages long. My paperback edition is over 400 pages long. The rest is filled either with the mechanics of safely traversing the desert or the main character’s visions and his angst regarding his situation. While none of this is bad, per se, and in fact I greatly respect Cherryh’s ability to come with various events and character situations to pad out the journey, the fact is it’s not in service to the story. When the main character sets out on one of his several desert journeys, the reader knows It Won’t Be Easy, But He’ll Get There. And so he does. There’s no feeling of danger, since while the bit players are in grave danger the main characters can be assumed to be too central to the story to be mowed down by the odd dust storm. If the last 10 pages of the 20 page plot were really great, mindblowing stuff, then maybe I’d say it was worth it. Unfortunately they are not.

Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

April 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I consider myself a big Guy Gavriel Kay fan. Although unlike some I don’t recommend his Finovar Tapestry, which I thought was occasionally moving but sabotaged by the uneven writing and world-building, I have liked everything he has written since. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept that the main characters will have very modern ideas about war and equality of class, race, and gender, Kay has written some great books.

So it’s difficult to admit that not only is Last Light of the Sun is my least favorite of Kay’s post-Finovar pseudo-historical work, but also indicative of a decline. Previously the Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s second most recent work, was my least favorite of Kay’s history-based books.

That’s not to say Last Light of the Sun is a bad book by any means. From any other author I would consider it a book strong enough to make me put the author on my to-read list. The worst part of it is not the book itself, but the direction it seems Kay is going with his work. Those who have read and haven’t liked Kay’s post-Finovar work in the past should give this a pass. Those who haven’t read Kay at all should start with Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan.

For those who have already read Last Light of the Sun, specifics follow.  If you haven’t read it and plan to, I’d suggesting avoiding the spoilers.

Notes on why I was disappointed:

  • The first issue I have is that it is not an epic story, but it feels like it is trying to be. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story that’s not an epic, and I’m not really going to get into the differences between what I consider epic storytelling and “smaller” stories, but suffice to say the writing style and detail seems modelled for the epic format, when the story is really more of a character piece.
  • Because frankly, not much happens: A prince dies in an unsuccessful Viking raid on a farmhouse. A follow-up raid gets stopped initially through the efforts of the English and then in Wales by three characters taking a walk through a forest and one self-sacrifice. Two characters who barely talk to each other the entire book get married, ostensibly aiding the integration of the Welsh and the English.
  • Given the lack of Momentous Events in the plot, one might assume character arcs will make up the difference. Unfortunately the characters don’t change all that much either. Two characters come to grips with their fathers and the rest come to grips with the existence of fairies (more on this later).
  • So what we’re left with is a snapshot of a slow change in the socio-political world of northwest Europe. The Vikings are losing strength, the Anglo-Saxons are gaining in military strength and becoming more civilized. The events in the book are merely the continuation (not even the culmination!) of trends that have been continuing since Alfred became King.
  • Kay seems to be increasingly interested in his Christian characters getting hit over the head with pagan mysticism. It was a major plot event in the Sarantine books, but here it is almost the only plot event. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me. Watching Christian characters wrestle with their faith in the face of what is nearly (if not outright) proof that it is either false or hugely incomplete is not profound, it’s depressing and not in any way applicable to real life (where such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming). In Last Light of the Sun (as opposed to, say, Lions of Al-Rassan) there’s not even a religious tolerance case to be made, since belief in Celtic mysticism has already faded from organized practice to vague superstition by just about everyone.
  • Although Kay’s dialogue remains well-written, in this book his characters seemed almost entirely without flaws, unless you count the minor insecurities (OK, and a psycho-somatic illness) the male characters work their way through during the book. Alun’s problem is dealing with grief for his brother’s death, but all of his rash actions prove rewarding. Alfred’s fevers don’t even effect him during the book’s time frame.
  • Then there is the awkward writing. I don’t remember to what extent this showed up in previous books, but here Kay is almost obsessed with going into “ripples of fate” bit-character life stories about once a chapter. While often interesting in and of themselves, ultimately it is tiresome to be constantly diverted from the plot. Then there are the first-person-plural asides about the way “we live our lives”–which is just clumsy.
  • Finally, it is frustrating how little follow-through there is on what I felt were important or interesting parts of the narrative. For example, there isn’t any examination of how the Norse mythology causes (or reflects) some large differences in cultural values besides some half-hearted mentions of Valhalla. In fact, Norse mythology in general is given the short shrift, which is disappointing since I find it fascinating. Then there are other incidents, like the execution of the cornered Vikings by archer, where the cleric protests but nothing ever comes of it despite this being a much more important point than faeries in any historical context. And if he’s writing a fantasy novel and not historical fiction, why is the correspondance so rigorously 1:1?

While I originally thought it was a great idea to mine history for themes and settings, I think Kay is in a rut. I think he is less and less willing to depart from actual historical events and people. I hope in the future he goes back to his Tigana strategy of using history to inform without actually being all there really is.

Madness Season by CS Friedman

April 26, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

This is proclaimed as a masterpiece in many places on its cover, so since I very much liked Friedman’s Madness Season and liked her other books, I had some high hopes for this one. Unfortunately it was a disappointment. The world-building was suspect, the characters unlikeable, and the writing dodgy. That’s not to say it was a horrible book, but I would only recommend it to Friedman fans. Those who haven’t read Friedman should start with something else.

Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

April 18, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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Long story short, this is a great book and strongly recommended. I’ve written a more elaborate discussion of the New Sun books in my review of Urth of the New Sun. In the meantime, here is what I wrote after reading Shadow of the Torturer, when I was very intrigued but not yet convinced.

A book with the precise opposite feel from what I was reading before. Where the Miles books are light and fun, Wolfe has written a dark and brooding book. It is pretty much the opposite of a procedural narrative in that vast amounts of the narrative…both the details of the world and actual events in the story…are presented through insinuation instead of through explanation. Wolfe, on purpose I’m sure, presents a constricted and hazy view of a vast world. After spending the first third of the book fumbling around trying to build a Grand Unified Theory of what was going on I finally just learned to sit back and let Wolfe handle it as he wished. That’s not to say it is Pynchon…somehow the characters and their motivations remain crystal clear amidst the blurry setting. I know I’m making it sound very odd, but it’s an odd book, and it’s one that works. The world, though hard to see, is fascinating, the characters are well-written, and then there is the matter of some underlying meaning…like reading Banks in his weirder moments, the reader can choose between letting the book carry them along for a ride or diving down and reading dialogue and stranger moments carefully in search of meaning. Either path is rewarding.

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