Silverlock by John Myers Myers

June 27, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Silverlock has a reputation as a fantasy masterpiece, but while it is quite a unique piece of work I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. It’s also not exactly fantasy. Not really. Published in 1948, this is a story about, well, stories. Myers draws characters and situations from dozens…probably hundreds…of famous public domain stories and legends. If you enjoy spotting references, this is probably worth it on those grounds alone. People who enjoy that are the ones who label this book a masterpiece. I however don’t really find reference hunting to be all that entertaining. Consequently I was more interested in the story itself. It’s in a mode I’m not too fond of, the picaresque. The main character starts out as a thoroughly unlikable jerk but his strange journeys cause him to change. It’s all well executed, but cribbing as it does from so many sources it didn’t feel all that original until the last fourth of the book, when the story unexpectedly turns from episodic hijinks into a meditation on the meaning of life. If you’ve read many of my reviews you know this was more up my alley, and indeed I found it quite interesting. Ultimately I’m not sure many modern readers will enjoy Silverlock, but if you are widely read in pre-1900s literature you probably will find much to like, and for the rest of us ultimately there are some interesting ideas as well.

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 23, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

If you asked me I’d say I wasn’t really a Bujold fan, but a glance at my web page reveals I’ve read almost all of her books. So maybe I’m a fan, but compared to her extremely vocal Internet cheering section I’m quite indifferent. She’s become a wonderful character writer, but she never lets her characters endure anything very bad or participate in a story where there’s any real uncertainty over the outcome. All my complaints about Curse of Chalion, the book to which Paladin of Souls is a sequel, are valid for Paladin, only more so in most cases. The main character is never particularly tested and the events of the novel are extremely predictable. This time, the scope of the novel is smaller (and thus there’s not a lot of import to the proceedings) and the protagonist changes only a little bit and this change isn’t handled very well at all. Meanwhile, the principal action of the book is rather unsatisfying, since like most magical systems in fantasy, the relgious magic Bujold has created does not benefit from close inspection, and the mechanics of it prove central to the story. If you haven’t read Curse of Chalion, you should read it before reading this. If you didn’t love Curse than give this one a pass in any case, because it is just more of the same, but watered down further.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

June 20, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

In the world of comics and “graphic novels” there are a few titles consistently mentioned as being superlative. One is Watchmen, and I was extremely impressed with it when I read it three years ago. I thought it would therefore be a good idea to read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns on the grounds that anything mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen is worth my time, even if it is Batman.

Unfortunately, compared to Watchmen, there’s not a lot going on in Dark Knight Returns. Much of it is just procedural. In the second half there are indeed some interesting ideas, but Miller doesn’t have the space (and possibly not the ability) to really make his case. It’s nifty to say that Batman actually inspires the “supervillains” who oppose him, and furthermore that as a vigilante he is an anarchic force, but ultimately this stuff needs more time than Miller is able to give it. Much of the Batman psychology is relegated to a few stray shots of TV talking heads debating the “Batman issue”, for example. Meanwhile, much of Batman’s world remains as difficult as ever to take seriously. Even apart from the sort of silliness that is perhaps inevitable in superhero comics, Batman only makes sense in Gotham, a film noir city of boundless crime and corruption. Maybe this was a compelling setting when Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986 and suburbanites were convinced the “inner cities” were going to soon become completely lawless, but after two decades of violent crime holding steady or declining, it all seems kind of irrelevant. Meanwhile, the action storyline is reasonably engaging and probably fun for fans of comics, but as an outsider I didn’t get much out of it. I’d recommend it to people who really like comics in general or Batman in particular, but unlike Watchmen there’s no need for the rest of us to take note.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

June 18, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments

Let’s get this right out there. It’s well known that there are a lot of fantasy books that are basically Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off. Well, this is one of said works. Now, in fairness to Williams, the coming-of-age arc with the protagonist and the romance element are really ripped from Eddings (or Eddings’ influences), not Tolkien. But really I was surprised just how many elements from Lord of the Rings are reshuffled and put back on the table. Even minor details, like the Elves (never referred to with that word, but come on) sailing to the hidden West when getting sick of the world, or the big bad guy sending a sun-blocking storm out from his volcanic stronghold, show up. Oh, there’s a few elements taken from Arthurian legend and, oh yes, for some reason the Catholic Church (again sans serial numbers) makes an appearance as well, kind of like in Guy Gavriel Kay’s later work. All these well-worn elements mean that, for me at least, the trilogy could never be much more than a pleasant diversion. It’s like listening to a decent remix of a song you loved: it’s still good, but it is hardly as exciting as listening to a good new song.

The good news is that if you are going to copy, you might as well copy from the best, and further Williams is a pretty good writer. As a first published effort Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is far better executed than Guy Gavriel Kay’s similarly Tolkien inspired debut, the Finovar Tapestry trilogy. Williams does some good work both with the characters as well as the story’s intricate plot. He falls down a little bit at the ending, but all in all it is pretty well done.

One more important note. This trilogy is very long, even by modern standards. Williams (in almost all his work) moves things along at a very slow pace. He’s a good enough writer to pull this off if you are willing to stay with him, but if the idea of someone spending 150 pages doing backstory on his protagonist before actually beginning the story frightens you, this isn’t for you. At least Williams finishes his series, unlike certain other long-winded fantasy authors.

Family Trade by Charles Stross

June 7, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Note: Family Trade is actually part one of a two book series (i.e. it was really one big novel but the publisher split it into two). This review is for both. Not that there aren’t any spoilers for either, but I just want to make clear if you get one you will have to get the other to actually finish the story. There is another sequel, Clan Corporate, and my impression (haven’t read it) is that this is part one of a similar duology.

Stross has acquired a reputation as a white-hot SF futurist author. I can see why, though personally he has yet to really impress me. To me he’s sort of like a poor man’s Neal Stephenson in that he brings a lot of cool ideas to the table, but unlike Stephenson doesn’t make you laugh out loud and fails to really have any meaningful character work. On the plus side, he actually writes decent endings to his books and hasn’t entered the business of disguising history textbooks as historical fiction. The Family Trade series is billed as his entry into fantasy, but don’t be fooled. This may have a magic item, but otherwise there’s no magic, and in any case the “outlook” of the story is a forward-looking, future seen as superior, science fictional view. There are also some facile comparisons to Zelazny, but while I admit Stross clearly has read the Amber books, ultimately this is nothing like Amber. No, here Stross is evoking a variation of the scientist-as-hero theme from the classic Asimov/Clarke days that is so rarely seen now, although in fact it is economics, not hard science, in this case. Many sections are reminiscent of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court, showing the modern and progressive protagonist running circles around those who are comparitively primitives.

In between all this we have an action story involving guns, mines, swords, and a conspiracy. To Stross’ credit, the fact his protagonist is (like the author) an IT industry journalist and not a cigar chomping action hero only occasionally leads to some incredulous moments. No, the action mostly works. Unfortunately, in the second book Stross can’t keep all the balls in the air at once and the plot comes undone. The climax is both predictable and unsatisfying. The first book (i.e. the first half of the story) is pretty strong but with the plot coming apart, the characters are too two-dimensional for there to be anything compelling. As usual Stross does fun things with his concept, but a really satisfying story still eludes him. Recommended for those who like science fiction, economics, and don’t mind the fact what’s wrapped around it all is a little too fluffy.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

June 2, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

I feel a little bad giving this book only three stars. Vinge has become a much better writer since he became famous (within the genre, at least) for Fire Upon the Deep. Unfortunately, where his previous two books were hugely fun space opera romps, Rainbows End is a decent but occasionally plodding story with an overcomplicated plot and undercomplicated characters. Vinge has never been a master of characterization, but in his Zones of Thought books that wasn’t a big problem since the plot and world were so engaging. In Rainbows End, Vinge is more interested in touring his ideas about the future than making sure the story functions properly, so the plot never really adds up to anything half as impressive as Vinge is capable of. Meanwhile, the tour itself seems woefully incomplete. For someone who has always thought big in his fiction, Vinge is strangely parochial here, confining almost all the narrative to San Diego State University and the nearby community. Those familiar with Vinge’s biography will know that he taught there for many years, and indeed this is the only real reason for its extremely prominent presence in the book.

Nevertheless, there are surprisingly few near-future science fiction novels these days so Rainbows End will likely be fairly influential, and in truth it does have a few moments of real poetry (the aside about the title, for example) and humor (the PDF). If you are interested in what life will look like with ubiquitous computing, you could do a lot worse. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t more.

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