Secret Country Trilogy by Pamela Dean

December 29, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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These books are technically young adult, but they offer a great deal to interested adults. Essentially the books are an update of Lewis’ Narnia books that subtracts the Christian allegory and adds in modern fantasy attitudes as well as a heavy dose of Shakespeare. The high concept here is that, like Lewis’ children, a group of five related kids ranging from eleven to sixteen cross over into a fantasy world but, the difference is, this fantasy world is the one they have imagined for years to the point of acting out crucial historical moments and devising languages. As such, they have knowledge of the future, since they were the ones who plotted it, but they are constrained to the roles they assigned themselves and, as children, even royal children, their influence is relatively small. From that intriguing starting point, a host of complications ensue as differences in what they imagined and what they are living prevent their knowledge from being absolute and, most interestingly, they have problems when their roles differ from their own personalities.

The writing, especially the dialogue, is sharp and often humorous. If I had to raise any complaints, the characters are a little too passive, a big battle scene is envisioned in an uncharacteristically lame manner, and the villain is ultimately defeated just a little too easily. These are very good books though, and strongly recommended to people who enjoy fantasy, especially material like Narnia. The only people I’d warn off are those who can’t tolerate prose written at a YA level or who require a lot of blood and adrenaline from their fiction.

Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

December 27, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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The first few chapters of the book are really, really good. Better than I thought Stover was capable of. Needless to say I was pretty excited. Then everything reverted to Heroes Die levels. That’s not bad, per se, since Heroes Die was a very competent procedural and this is its sequel. Like its predecessor, this book features solid writing, an intricate plot, and even more intricately choreographed action scenes. If you liked Heroes Die then you will probably like this as well. If you didn’t like it, stay away. If you didn’t read it, read that before reading this, as this is a direct continuation sequel.

First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson

December 26, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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As I said in an earlier review, if I think something is Important enough that I ought to read it out of sheer obligation then I will deliberately try to avoid getting any details before I read it. The Thomas Covenant books have been on my radar for a long time. Opinions vary wildly as to whether the books are great or awful. There’s only agreement on one thing: Covenant is intensely unlikeable and almost certainly the genre’s foremost anti-hero.

This reputation led me astray. I was expecting Covenant to go around being a complete bastard, but instead, he is a decent enough person except for one nasty thing he does very early in the first book. He feels really guilty about that, too, and in the process blames himself for a whole lot of other stuff over the course of the trilogy. Most of this blame is overblown or fabricated entirely. Covenent, I was somewhat disappointed to discover, is not a bad person so much as he is a degenerate whiner.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, the high concept is this: Covenant crosses over to a fantasy world, but chooses not to believe that it really exists, perferring instead the interpretation that it is all a hallucination. This is a clever twist on the very old idea of crossing over into faerie, but it doesn’t exactly go anywhere. It seems to me like either you’d reject what your senses were telling you (presumably doing nothing or alternately act completely selfishly) or accept it. Covenant seems to think accepting the fantasy means madness, so he doesn’t do that, but he mostly goes along with it anyhow, exact at points convenient to the plot he will do odd things due to his alleged unbelief.

Mixed in with this is Covenant’s leprosy. Today leprosy is curable, but when the book was written it could not be cured. Thanks to what I think is a far fetched view of small town America’s reaction to having a leper living in their midst, Covenant is completely alienated from society in the real world. His acceptance by the people of the fantasy world he crosses into (they don’t know what leprosy is) for some reason makes him mistrustful and angry.

Thanks to America’s fascination with serial killers, there are a lot of fiction that deals with the psychology of what I would term broken people. By the standards of Hannibal Lector, Covenant isn’t that bad off, but still his leprosy (and the hateful response of his town) has turned him into someone who cannot successfully relate with other people. This all ties in somehow or other with the series’ big bad guy, whose defining characteristic is hatred. The problem with all this is I don’t sympathize with Covenant’s psychological hurdles because I find them arbitrary. He’s broken not by something I can understand like the death of someone close to him or some particularly tragic medical condition like paralysis, but by an imaginary scenario (imaginary both in that his contracting leprosy happens miraculously and his rejection by society is totally unrealistic).

Well, since Covenant is unappealing and perhaps unrealistic, what are we left with? A paint-by-numbers high fantasy that beyond its main character does nothing to make you forget it comes from a period when fantasy was deeply influenced by Tolkien. For some eason a lot of arguments in this line seem to revolve around whether it was cheating for Covenant’s talisman of power to be a ring, but I didn’t have a problem with that at all. As Tolkien himself answered the criticism that his One Ring was too similar to Wagner’s, “They are both round and there the resemblence ceased.” But in many other respects, from his use of poetry to his names to his language choices to his pro-nature themes, Donaldson owes much to Tolkien. Unfortunately, he isn’t nearly as effective as Tolkien was with any of these things. The poetry never matches Tolkien’s own uneven standard. The language and history fails to be compelling since it is not backed by a lifetime’s thought the way Tolkien’s was. And the nature themes seem to betray a lack of enthusiasm. If Donaldson really cares about nature and the environment, he fails to translate that successfully into his prose.

The saving grace of these books is that Donaldson is a very competent writer, for all his other faults. In this he reminds me of Eddings, although Eddings had a better hand with dialogue. Nevertheless, the writing moves the reader briskly from points A to B to C. If you love high fantasy and can’t think of any others you’d prefer to read right now, you’ll probably enjoy these books. If you really enjoy alienated main characters, run, don’t walk, to the bookstore to get this. And if, like me, you just want to be able to know what people are talking about when they are discussing fantasy, you probably ought read these at some point as well. Otherwise, I’d give them a pass.

Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling

December 18, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Schismatrix is described by Sterling as the most “cyberpunk” work he has ever written and will ever write. It’s funny that he associates it so strongly with a modern literary movement (I’m not saying he’s wrong, I don’t know enough about what makes something cyberpunk to evaluate it) given its structure is of the sort of novel that is rarely written these days: the episodic biography. There used to be a lot of these back when short fiction dominated the field and novels tended to be either padded out shorts or several shorts strung together. The book follows its main character throughout his life (a very long life, thanks to medical advances) and in so doing charts the evolution of the human society throughout the solar system.

It is this society that gives the book its title, as it is deeply fragmented and full of small units and factions. Sterling has crafted what must be over a dozen ideologies and social structures to populate his solar system, some more understandable than others. His inventiveness is remarkable and I didn’t find myself complaining that a branch of future technology had been overlooked. Either Sterling was complete or I share his biases.

Unfortunately, when you get past the world building the story, plot, and characters leave a little bit to be desired. The episodic format moves us from one startling world to another in a manner that dazzles the reader with Sterling’s creativity but prevents any true attachment to the characters. It doesn’t help that most of them, especially early on, are deeply unlikable.

I’m giving this four stars because I think it succeeds in what it set out to do, which is form an engaging chronicle of future history. If you prefer character-driven fiction you probably ought to give it a pass.

One final note, I read this in an edition called Schismatrix Plus which tacks on some short stories Sterling wrote in the universe. They are decent, but only one, “Swarm”, is of real quality. Their placement after the novel is logical because, even though they were published first, they surely are easier to understand if you come in armed with the basics of Sterling’s complicated universe.

Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

December 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Back when I was plowing through most of the available Miles Vorkosigan books, essentially the only thing Lois Bujold published before Curse of Chalion, I used words like “light” and “fun” to try to convey the low-impact nature of the books. Bujold was not trying to dazzle the reader with amazing ideas, postmodern style, or gutwrenching emotion, she was just spinning a fun story. Some of the series’ later books flirted with emotional resonance. I hoped that by leaving Miles and indeed SF itself behind, Bujold was going to aim a little higher.

Well, no. Chalion is technically fantasy, but as I categorize things it is an intrigue novel. There aren’t a lot of swords and sorcery, just schemes and plots. If you like such things, this might be good beach reading. It’s competently written and ruthlessly predictable. The Evil characters are utter caricatures. The Good characters are so blandly good, perhaps so as not to offend any possible reader, they threaten to bore. The world building is kind of standard…the only feature of the world that approaches being unusual is the religion, which is extremely simple.

Thinking after I finished, I decided that Bujold is a character author. She has a genuine liking for her protagonists. Too much of a liking to put them through anything truly difficult. To be sure, the main character, Cazaril, has a relatively interesting backstory. He’s not of the sword-swinging school (although, infuriatingly, Bujold succumbs to the temptation to make him a skilled fighter regardless) and though a member of the nobility he has no direct power. Instead, he has a hand in great events by working for others. In that sense, the book reminds me slightly of Hobb’s Farseer books. I say slightly, because those books might as well be in a different genre. Hobb is a much better writer (this is no slight on Bujold, who–aside from her earliest work–is solid, it’s just I consider Hobb to have about the best technique fantasy has to offer) but more importantly she writes very hard books. By hard, I mean she pulls no punches emotionally. Her characters face genuinely terrible situations and suffer enormously. Because Hobb is such a good writer, the reader empathizes and suffers too. So while I think the Farseer books are great, I must concede that at times reading them is like going to the dentist. It’s good for you, but it can be hugely uncomfortable at times. I say all of this by way of comparison because compared to those sorts of books, Curse of Chalion is a confection. It is utterly painless. Though the characters go through privation and even seem despairing, none of it ever seems serious and sure enough, it passes quickly. Even though this book was a much easier read than the Farseer trilogy, I’ve already reread the trilogy once and expect to do so again. I don’t think I’ll read this book again. I recommend it if you enjoy intrigue, really like fantasy, or really like Bujold’s other work. If you don’t like the idea of a painless confection, give it a pass.

Before I go I want to complain about one aspect of this book which, though hugely obvious from the get-go, might be considered a spoiler, so if you haven’t read it and plan to do so, you might want to stop reading. Towards the end, two characters (keeping this vague in case of wandering eyes) have a fairy tale romance. That’s fine, but the man is in his mid-thirties and the woman is twenty. Now there isn’t anything technically wrong with this, and certainly in a faux-midieval world it would be common, but I felt this was rather dubious on the part of the author. Somehow, I get the feeling the author felt the ending wouldn’t have been as happy if the character had had a fairy tale romance with a woman his own age. Or, god forbid, a woman fifteen years older. Since the author is a woman herself (not to mention middle-aged) I can hardly accuse her of the male wish-fulfillment that still pollutes science fiction and fantasy, so I’m rather perplexed. My only explanation is she wants to make the ending as satisfying as possible for the reader and figures male readers consider the ending much better if the guy gets paired off with a young woman. This lack of faith in the readers, while probably justified, is kind of dispiriting.

Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

December 13, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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If I think it is likely I will read a book I usually do my best to avoid all details before I read it. This is supposed to leave me open minded, but occasionally it backfires and I get a set of expectations that are completely mismatched to the book when I eventually read it. Stover has been on my radar for a while after I read a number of surprisingly positive comments on his mercenary work for the Star Wars licensed books. It’ll be a rainy day indeed when I go back to reading that kind of stuff, but I figured I’d give his original work a try. So far so good, but somehow I got the impression that Heroes Die was some sort of grim deconstruction of the Ultimate Warrior cliche. I mean, look at that title!

Alas, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Heroes Die is a celebration of the procedural beat-em-up. Reading through the opening scene, which tries too hard for that Stephensonian edge and loses itself in the minutiae of the choreography, I thought I might be in for a pretty bad book. This impression was just as wrong as my initial one, however. It turns out that Heroes Die is about as a good as a fighting procedural can possibly be. It’s got a couple flaws, namely the aforementioned lapses into scripting stunts for Hollywood and the overly metaphysical ending, but in spite of them it is a very solid pageturner. In fact, I finished it in one sitting. Amazon claims it is 200,000 words, so I really don’t recommend this. But I couldn’t help myself, since if the ending had been executed better I might have given it five stars. As it stands, it very much deserves four. What seperates Heroes Die from the shelves of similar books you can find at any Borders? For starters, the writing, once Stover hits his stride, is pretty sharp. Second, I found the setting to be extremely impressive. It’s wholly unbelievable in every respect, from the alternate universe angle to the castes of Earth society, but man, it’s fun. It’s a little too complicated to do justice to here, so you’ll have to go to the back cover or someone else’s review, but I was really impressed by the whole Actor thing. Finally, by virtue of his dual nature, the protagonist is a little more self-aware than your typical sci-fi or fantasy Ultimate Warrior type. Don’t get me wrong, Caine is no FitzChivalry, but the book avoids the trap of just letting ethics slide because this is an “edgy” story about a guy who can kill you eighteen ways with his bare hands.

If you like novels that mix hand to hand combat with political intrigue, don’t miss this. If you are sick of that sort of thing, then give it a pass.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

December 12, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I actually read this a couple weeks ago but forgot to review it. I hate to cheap out on you like this, but V for Vendetta is the sort of work I can either write something brief or something extremely long and detailed but can’t do any justice to it with something of more typical length. If you haven’t already, I would strongly recommend reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen. If you have and you liked it, then I definitely recommend reading V for Vendetta as well. It is a shade less brilliant than Watchmen and occasionally infuriating, but it is a great piece of fiction. Moore is a great writer.

Having tossed out the recommendation, and not having enough time to properly discuss these issues, I will have to settle for making some assertions that I hope to write more about later. Since the movie is coming out in a few months, you will probably hear a lot about V for Vendetta. Some people see it as a haunting vision, a cautionary tale about fascism that is more relevant today than ever. Forgive me if I disagree. I think Moore gravely misread the overall motion of western culture (mass execution of homosexuals and black people? mmmkay). Additionally, the anarchy proposed and modeled in the book is just another disguised dictatorship, with V as ubermensch giving the people what they are too stupid to want. Meanwhile, nothing that could even be confused with a viable alternative to the story’s straw man fascist state is proposed. Instead, apparently riots and mob rule will somehow sort themselves into the ideal state. Whatever. Finally, much will be made no doubt about how the movie or graphic novel “glorifies terrorism.” I don’t know and don’t particularly care what Moore wanted to glorify, so I won’t analyze whether it is supposed to glorify terrorism, but by any sensible, the main character is a terrorist. Having a brutal, almost nihilist (if you don’t believe the anarchy bit) protagonist battling a thoroughly evil police state means there’s no one you can truly vote for and makes the story a great discussion piece.

Too bad the public discourse these days has sunk to such abysmal levels that no one on either “side” will actually have a rational discussion about these ideas with anyone they disagree with. A big part of Moore’s brilliance as an artist is he can write a gigantic speech in favor of something I find ridiculous and I still love reading it. And for all his eccentricities, he is subtle enough to let the reader come to their own conclusions about the important points. In the past year or two I’ve read political novels of revolution from MacLeod, Mieville, Stross, etc., but this is by far the best.

Solder of Arete by Gene Wolfe

December 10, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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This historical fantasy is the sequel to Wolfe’s excellent Solder in the Mist. Unlike Wolfe’s other series, the Soldier books more or less stand on their own in the sense there is no gigantic cliffhanger at the end. On the other hand, it would help if you read Solder in the Mist before reading this one. For an overall summary of the character and setup, see my review of that book. This book is more of the same, which is a very good thing. That said, it is more opaque. On the Wolfe difficulty scale from one to 10 (keeping in mind the conversion factor…I don’t think Wolfe has ever written a novel easier than a 9 on a normal SF or fantasy scale) the first Soldier book was a 3 or a 4, with much of the difficulty coming less from narrative obfuscation and more from the lack of familiarity a typical reader, including myself, has with classical Greece. Solder of Arete still demands an understanding of ancient Greece I don’t quite have, but it supplements that with quite a bit of Wolfean narrative misdirection. It hits about an 8 on the scale (where Short Sun and Castleview are 10s and Fifth Head of Cerberus is a 9), I think.

Wolfe is infamous for his unreliable narrators, and Latro may set some sort of record. He is truthful, as far as I know, but there is a very, very great deal he leaves out for a wide variety of reasons. Wolfe cheats a little bit, in my opinion, in having Latro have all the habits of an ordinary person (since he wouldn’t be able to function otherwise) despite losing just about all of his memory. There’s some good reasons why this makes sense. On the other hand, Latro doesn’t have a firm idea of what is unusual, which makes the narrative quite difficult to follow at times since the unusual happens to Latro pretty much all the time, but he usually doesn’t realize it. I would think that someone who understood how to interact with people as well as Latro does would realize it is odd to be able to see and speak with people that no one else can see.

Even though there is a fair amount I don’t understand, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the ride. Hopefully the promised two sequels, when they appear, will clarify matters (but I’m not getting my hopes up…if anything Soldier of Arete muddies the waters of Soldier in the Mist). Ultimately, Soldier of Arete still comes together as a very enjoyable novel and one I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the previous book.

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