Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nights of Villjamur - Mark Charan Newton

Author blogs are strange things when you think about it. If I consider how much time I have to put into this blog for a modest two posts a week, a real active author blog must be a horrible sink of time for a writer. Still, I follow quite a few of them. Some I follow religiously and some blogs I follow, are by authors I haven't actually read any books of. Those are a minority though, right now there are only two left on the list. One is John Scalzi, who's blog Whatever probably transcends a regular author blog. The other is Mark Charan Newton. When I came across a paperback copy of Nights of Villjamur on my last visit to the bookstore I decided to change that. Did I just say I read an authors book because I like his blog? Why, yes. And I will have you know it makes more sense than picking it because it has a pretty cover. At least I know this man can write coherent sentences. Right. On with the review.

Night of Villjamur is the fist book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. The second book City of Ruin will be released in early June in the UK. As the title suggests much of the story is set in the city of Villjamur, the capital of an empire that controls large parts of the Boreal Archipelago. Powerful this state may be, it does face some serious challenges. An ice age is approaching, or rather a long winter predicted to last for several decades. This is not unexpected and people have had time to prepare. It will be a time of great hardship for the less fortunate citizens however and many have flocked to the capital to seek shelter. On top of that the empire is lead by a paranoid emperor, a man less who is becoming less able to control affairs of state by the day. In practice the council is taking the important decisions and this institution is controlled by the manipulative chancellor Urtica.

The chancellor's manipulations touch the lives of three subjects of the empire. Night Guard commander Brynd Latharea is sent to the distant corners of the empire to investigate rumours of a violent alien invasion. Meanwhile senior investigator of the Inquisition Rumex Jeryd is charged with investigating the death of one of Urtica's colleagues in the council. At court a young womaniser using the name Randur Estevu has wiggled his way into the presence of the emperor's younger daughter Eir. The citizens of Villjamur are certainly living in interesting times.

Newton himself seems to have a thing for blogs himself. Praise for this book includes blurbs from Speculative Horizons, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, and Fantasy Book Critic. His website quotes even more book blogs. The impact of book blogs on genre fiction is undeniable of course but you rarely see an author or publisher pay this much attention. Quite a difference from authors like L.E. Modesitt Jr. who, given the wide variety in quality, is more reluctant to read online reviews of his own work. Perhaps a bit of a generational gap here?

The response to this book, online at least, had been overwhelmingly positive. It would appear that I have once again manages not to read one of the buzz releases of 2009. I can certainly see why Nights of Villjamur got such a positive reception. Newton is not afraid to show his influences in this book, which clearly include Jack Vance and China Miéville, but he gives these ideas a certain twist. Villjamur with several sentient races, obscure cults, arcane technology, odd climate and strange architecture is a gorgeous backdrop. Newton includes New Weird elements, horror and more classical fantasy themes into his tale without firmly fitting into any of these categories. The story includes fascinating world building, multiple points of view, court politics and cultist intrigue and all of that in a book of less than 500 pages. You'd almost believe it is too much to handle for one novel.

You wouldn't be entirely wrong believing that either. As much as I liked this book I do think that in the end it leaves the reader hanging. What the book does, is resolve part of the political intrigue Urtica is involved in. I think of his as the central character in this novel. The linchpin of the story. His part in the novel is not that large though. He is a point of view character but does not receive too much attention. Much more of the book is dedicated to the exploits of the trio I mentioned above. Each these characters is affected by Urtica's actions but none of them this chapter in their lives seem to be complete. Jeryd has not worked though all the implications of his finds yet, Brynd still only has a limited idea of the military threat to the empire, Randur has not achieved what he intended to do in Villjamur. There is clearly a "... to be continued" for each of them in this novel, it would have been nice if the book had been a little more self-contained.

That being said, there is no doubt whatsoever that I will be reading the next volume in this series at some point. Newton leaves some interesting hints about the alien invaders and the origin of sentient life on the world of Villjamur to explore in the next book. I also have to admit that the stories of Jeryd and Brynd sucked me into this book. Brynd's story line in particular leaves me with the feeling there is quite a bit more to tell about him. In fact, the way Urtica keeps him out of Villjamur and the discovery of the military threat to the empire could be viewed as the idea set up to launch into a second book. Randur's story was a bit more problematic in my eyes. His motivation, he is mainly driven by guilt, is not entirely convincing. Or perhaps not fully enough explored to make it convincing. I think Newton has some work left to do here. All in all there is plenty of interesting stuff to follow up on.

So how do we rate this first Legend of the Red Sun? Newton creates a fascinating world, with a number of wonderfully grey characters. It's very easy to loose yourself in his creation. On the other hand and he leaves so much of the main characters' personal journeys unexplored that the way he follows up on this novel will have a major impact on the reader's opinion of this book. That's not necessarily a good thing for a first book in a series. The quality of the writing in this book leaves no doubt Newton is quite capable of delivering a good sequel however. All things considered, Nights of Villjamur is a great read but be prepared to be left wanting more.

P.S. I had a weird association with the name Urtica. His name is also the name of a genus of plants that includes the common nettle. Urtica strikes me as a poisonous character, he doesn't sting, he kills. In short, not the material you can brew a nice pot of tea from. Any one have any idea if this was intentional?

Book Details
Title: Nights of Villjamur
Author: Mark Charan Newton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 497
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-46166-5
First published: 2009

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Eyes of Heisenberg - Frank Herbert

The next in a series of reviews on Frank Herbert's non-Dune book, although I will probably end up rereading Dune as well. The second half of the 1960s saw the publication of quite a few on Herbert's novels. Probably the big hit that Dune (published in 1965) proved to be made publishing some of his other works easier. The Eyes of Heisenberg was published in 1966, the same year the first version of Destination: Void was published. From another published The Green Brain (I will get around to this one soon) was also published in the same year. A further two novels, The Heaven Makers and The Santaroga Barrier appeared in 1968, before Herbert returned to Arakis for the sequel Dune Messiah (1970). All of these novels are quite short, most of them would probably be considered novellas these days. Herbert manages to pack them with quite a few ideas however. Many of the concepts used in these books will be recognizable to the Dune reader.

The Eyes of Heisenberg is set in a far future where humanity is ruled by a small group of biological immortals known as Optimen. They have lived for tens of thousands of years and regulated every aspect of life. Their life and health is preserved by carefully maintaining the balance. Genetic engineering has progressed to the point where the genetic sequences of a fertilized ovum can be manipulated by highly skilled doctors. This technique is used to keep the population within a narrow genetic bandwidth and decide who gets to have children. Parents have little say in this matter but they are not entirely without rights. When Lizbeth and Harvey Durant, a couple lucky enough to be selected for breeding, exercise one of these rights, to be present at the modifying of the genetic material of their child, it becomes apparent that there is a certain uncontrollable element to procreation. An element that threatens the carefully maintained balance.

A balance to be maintained, I guess that is the crux of the novel. Herbert isn't too fond of balances. One of the characters in the book mentions that change is the only constant, an axiom that returns in many of this novels. A lot of Herbert's characters are forced to continually change, face changing conditions, reconsider their beliefs and embrace new insights. They are constantly evolving and adapting. And yet, in this novel Herbert portrays a society that is completely stagnant. A place where processes such as natural selection has been eliminated and where deviations from the standard, desired set of genes is surgically corrected. Procreation has become a purely technical matter, not a process that binds generations together or ensures or creates family bonds. People are individuals, isolated from their ancestors and children, basically a people without a history or roots. In short, the Optimen have created a very scary world. Herbert has captured the stagnant nature of Optimen society very well.

The forces that threaten the Optimen's control are described in a more subtle way. There is the mysterious change in the Durant embryo observed by one of the genetic engineers for instance. A change that is never explained properly, perhaps a random mutation? Most of the pressures seem to be of a social nature however. The Optimen seem to loose interest in the world around that at a certain age, giving themselves over to hedonistic pleasures and shunning the actual governing of the world. They become more and more detached form a world which clearly shows the signs of discontent. The Optimen's dislike of anything to do with death and termination makes them blind to the violence that lurks beneath the surface. It also deprives them of a certain thrill, a sense of being alive that, once rediscovered, is very hard to ignore.

I've centred on the idea which I think is the core of the novel but Herbert explores a lot more in this book than I could convey in this review. While I was very impressed with the concepts Herbert uses, I must admit that from a writing point of view, this novel isn't his best. With a bunch of point of view characters and less than 200 pages in which to develop them, none of the characters become truly alive in a sense that they become more than the idea they represent. Most of them are cardboard characters really. Some people feel this is a problem with many of his early novels. I only agree with this to an extend but The Eyes of Heisenberg definitely suffers from it.

I guess I would have to rate this book as one of Herbert's weakest. It is still strong on interesting ideas and fascinating concepts but the character development in particular is not great. There is an awful lot to recognize for people who have read Dune however. The longevity of the Optimen is a theme Herbert would reuse in God Emperor of Dune for instance, Leto II lives several thousand years. Again longevity is coupled with a tight control of human society, although some might find Leto's fate preferable to the eternal boredom of the Optimen. Recognition and strong concepts are not enough to lift this novel to the same level as some of Herbert's other books though. A bit of a shame really, this story probably was not developed to its full potential. Of course, for the real Herbert fan like me, it is still an interesting read.

Book Details
Title: The Eyes of Heisenberg
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 185
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34252-9
First published: 1966

Monday, May 24, 2010

Suicide Kings - George R.R. Martin

Suicide Kings is the third part in the latest reincarnation of the long-running Wild Cards series. Together with Inside Straight and Busted Flush it forms the Committee trilogy. I guess you could consider this trilogy Wild Cards the next generation. These books are my first encounter with the series and are meant to be an entry point for new reader. Many of the older volumes are out of print, although Tor has plans to reprint some of them. Like most of the previous novels, Suicide Kings is a collaborative effort. This volume is written by six authors - Daniel Abraham, S.L. Farrell, Victor Milán, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector and Ian Tregillis - and is of course edited by George R.R. Martin.

We return to the committee one year after the evens in Busted Flush, when the Amazing Bubbles managed to prevent New Orleans being hit by a nuclear explosion. Bubbles has been in a coma ever since but work for the committee continues. The organisation has attracted more Aces to take some of the strain of the overworked original members but it is also increasingly being bogged down by bureaucracy. When a major crisis develops in Africa, political sensitivities pretty much prevent the committee from taking action. This position cannot be held indefinitely however. The Caliphate seems to be on the brink of collapse after a major defeat at the hands of the People's Paradise of Africa (a nation made up of a number of countries in central Africa). With the incredibly powerful and absolutely ruthless Radical as their main weapon the PPA seems unstoppable.

In the mean time, some of the old guard committee members are asking themselves is this is how they are going to save the world form now on. Disappointed in the UN-leadership and disturbed by reports of the Radical's actions and other atrocities that are taking place in the PPA, many of them find their own reasons for a smaller scale, private initiative. Of course without the official backing of the committee these actions are not very well prepared and often very, very dangerous. Then again, the alternative seems to be worse.

As I mentioned above, this novel was written by six people so, not surprisingly, it has six main story lines that cross and interconnect at various points in the novel. In the previous two books the contributions of the various authors have been split into chapters but are otherwise more or less in tact. In Suicide Kings Martin has chosen a different approach. The book is divided in chapters named after the day they cover and consists of snippets of text by each author. Some of them are as short as half a page and they rarely exceed four. In my eyes this is the greatest weakness of the book, it gives me the feeling of being rushed through the story, of seeing one frame of a movie and then being rushed on to the next scene. At times it is intensely frustrating to leave a character in the middle of something and jump into the next scene.

Thematically on the other hand, this book is probably the most interesting of the three. It clearly refers to events in our time line, in particular the second Congo war. One of the most bloody conflicts since the second world war, this conflict was very much ignored by much of the western world. The extreme levels of violence against the population, women in particular, and the extensive use of child soldiers in the conflict have clearly served as an inspiration to this novel. In an brief afterword Martin asks for support for the victims of this conflict. Victims that are all too often perpetrators as well. Dealing with these children an impossible dilemma and unfortunately the situation in Eastern Congo in particular still isn't stable.

Our Wild Card heroes struggle with these issues throughout the book. Especially the morality of killing child soldiers is something that poses a major problem for some of them. Killing is never easy for most of them but when it is a child pointing a gun at you it becomes infinitely harder to pull the trigger yourself. The question of whether these children are victims or the enemy and the even more complicated question of what to do with these children once the fighting stops is key to the final part of this novel. The authors drive the difficulty of the situation home mercilessly, and although some of their goals are achieved, this makes for a bitter sweet ending of the trilogy as a whole. I didn't quite know what to expect when I picked up a series of books inspired by super hero comics but it certainly wasn't this. The authors have managed to surprise me with the depth of their characters and the difficult problems they've tackled in this trilogy.

A book written by so many different authors will always pose serious challenges for the editor. Martin has done an admirable job in making all these different authors speak with one voice but Suicide Kings also clearly shows some of the drawbacks of this process. Especially in the early parts of the novel the constant jumps between characters made this book though going. Once the direction of the story became clear, my reading speeded up significantly and I must admit the finale of the book is very strong, both emotionally and in terms of the action scenes. I guess on the whole I liked this one better than Busted Flush, which suffered from a meandering plot, but the result is still less than stellar. After the strong opening I am mildly disappointed by the way this trilogy developed but on the other hand I am also impressed by the way the books dare to take on some pretty heavy themes and the way the characters are developed by multiple authors. In short, I am left with mixed feelings about this interesting but challenging project.

Book Details
Title: Suicide Kings
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 445
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1783-4
First published: 2009

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

I did not quite have enough reading time to finish a second book this week so I've salvaged another older review again. I started this blog with a review of Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds. It's a bit odd to have only the last book in a trilogy on the blog so I moved the first part today and will probably move the second part sometime in the near future. This review was written in July 2008, I've done some minor polishing but it is mostly in original shape.

The first book of the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds and his début novel. It’s also the first book I have read by this author and I must say I am impressed. Not that the book is flawless but there is a lot of potential here. I understand the author was still working at the European Space Agency when he wrote this novel, before giving up his job to pursue a full time writing career. Not surprisingly Revelation Space is hard science fiction on a grand scale. Not light reading but once you get into the story definitely rewarding.

Set in the 26th century mankind has escaped the solar system and settled many planets. Despite scientific theories that claim the opposite, they find the galaxy relatively empty of intelligent life, apart from the remains of societies that were destroyed ages ago. One man who is interested in this apparent lack of intelligent life is archaeologist Dan Sylvestre, leader of an expedition to the now lifeless planet of Resurgam. Resurgam was once home to the Amarantin, a species that appeared to be on the brink of archiving space flight. They were destroyed in what archaeologists now call “the event”, a cataclysm that took place almost a million years ago. Sylvestre is dead set on finding out what caused their extinction, in fact, he believes that such knowledge is necessary to ensure the survival of humanity. Unfortunately for Sylvestre not everybody agrees with him. After decades on the inhospitable planet there are those who want to terraform the planet and give up the search for the Amarantin secrets. They stage a successful coup and Sylvestre spends much of the next decade in prison. Imprisonment is not the problem Sylvestere face either. He seems to have made quite a few enemies along the way and some of them are now hunting for him.

Ilia Volyova is one of the hunters. She is an ultranaut on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity, one of the great spaceships that travel between the inhabited systems in the galaxy at speeds slightly below the speed of light. The Ultras rarely go down to a planet and spend a lot of their time in reefersleep, a kind of cryogenic preservation of their body. The ships captain is a centuries old Ultra who’s body barely contains living flesh. He is mostly cybernetic. Sylvestre’s father has saved him some decades ago from death but now he is infected with the melding plague and nothing seems to be able to stop the disease from spreading. Ilia is determined to find Sylvestre to save her captain. Apart from a dying captain the lighthugger has other problems. Their gunnery officer has gone insane and Ilia has had to kill him. He needs to be replaced. When the lighthugger visits Yellowstone, Sylvestre’s last known location, another of Sylvestre’s hunters, a mysterious character referred to as the Mademoiselle, uses this opportunity to place the assassin Ana Khouri on board. Posing as gunnery officer Ana’s real mission is to kill Sylveste, no matter the cost.

It took me an awful long time to figure this out but one of the important themes in this novel is the Fermi paradox, a proposition by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi who wondered why if the conditions for intelligent life to evolve must be common we still haven’t found any signs of it. Reynolds solves the paradox by introducing a force than suppresses the evolution of space faring civilizations. It is a pure coincidence of course but I recently read 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Arthur C. Clarke does just the opposite, an alien intelligence tries to steer evolution towards intelligent life in those books. From a scientific point of view Reynolds’ approach probably makes more sense.

As I said, this book has potential but it also has flaws. Especially early in the book it is a chore to keep the time frame of the various story lines straight. Travel faster than the speed of light has not been invented (it seems Reynolds is with Einstein on this one) so the journey of Ilia and Ana starts several decades before the storyline of Sylvestre to enable them to cross the vast distance between Yellowstone and Resurgam. Reynolds mentions a date in the chapter title but since he changes point of view in his chapters frequently those are not always a good guide.

A bigger problem with the book is that Reynolds takes an awful lot of time to get to the point. He takes his time describing the settings (Chasm City looks intriguing by the way), detail the history of the galaxy and of course elaborate of various astronomical phenomena the characters encounter. In the end all three of our main characters are being manipulated by others but he reveals it ever so slowly, which results in a lot of explaining at the end of the novel. I wouldn’t call the final chapters of the book disappointing but the way he wraps the story up is not flawless. Another minor irritation is that especially towards the end of the book all characters become increasingly cynical. It leads to some awkward dialogue,Sylvestre’s wife Pascale seems to suffer most from this.

Definitely room for improvement but in the end this book is well worth reading. It is a book that requires some patience though. It takes a while for the pieces to fall into place. So sit back end enjoy the ride. Reynolds certainly adds enough interesting sights to the book to keep the reader entertained. His professional background clearly shows, I very much liked his descriptions of star systems. I also liked the central theme of this book, once it became clear to me. All in all a good début for Reynolds and a solid basis the continue to explore the Revelation Space setting. It has definitely put the direct sequels Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 545
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-748-5
First published: 2000

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

Ever since I've discovered Bacigalupi marvellous collection of short stories Pump Six and Other Stories I've read everything by this author I could get my hands on. He just received a Nebula award for his début novel The Windup Girl which was one of the top books of last year for me. In Ship Breaker Bacigalupi tries his hand at young adult fiction. I've always found young adult to be an extremely problematic label for fiction but in this case I guess it means the book is aimed at teenagers. Despite the fact it's been quite a while since I could say I was part of that age group, I very much enjoyed this novel. The story may be a bit more straightforward than The Windup Girl, thematically it is every bit as interesting.

The story is set in a future where oil has almost run out and is extremely valuable. Sailing ship have returned to the world's oceans and the enormous tankers that once used to transport oil around the globe have been beached and are slowly being dismantled for reusable metals. The working conditions for the workers who break up the ships are appalling. Exposed to toxic chemicals and just about every hazard one can think of on an industrial site, life is short and brutal for these workers. The heavy work, reclaiming the ships' steel is mostly done by crews of adults. So called light crews strip the ship of valuable copper and aluminium. This scavenging is usually done by children small enough to move though the cramped interior of these ships. Kids like Nailer Lopez.

Nailer does not know his own age but thinks he is about fifteen. His mother died some time ago and his father is a violent drug addict. One of the most frightening men on the scene, even to his son. Nailer is not large for his age, just small enough to work the light crews but quite aware that his days on that job are numbered. He is looking for a way out but so far an opportunity has not yet presented itself. When he is involved in an accident on the ship he is working on, nearly drowning in an oil residue left on the ship, his outlook on life changes. Quite inconvenient really, when he is confronted with the survivor of a shipwreck washed on the shore after a devastating hurricanes hits the region. He is faced with a choice, claim the scavenge or help a fellow human being. Survival alone is no longer enough.

For a young adult book Ship Breaker features some pretty heavy themes. Nailer's home and working conditions are quite clearly a reference to the conditions in which ships are scrapped in places like Alang, India. How the west disposes of its waste is not something we consider every day. Some of the ways we choose to deal with it are downright shameful. By placing those practice on American soil Bacigalupi brings some of this problem very close to home. There's a lot of references to the effects of climate change too. A polar sea that is ice free and used for shipping between Japan and the American east coast for instance. More severe weather events, catastrophic sea level rise, entire coastal cities drowned, the world Bacigalupi envisions is not a pretty one.

Another interesting bit of scary science is the presence of genetically engineered beings called half-men. They are described as a mix of human, tiger and canine genetic material and provided muscle and unquestioned loyalty for those who can afford to pay for them. They are disturbingly intelligent but practically enslaved. Bacigalupi raises an interesting point about genetics here, one that is also relevant to Nailer's relationship with his father.
"Listen to me, boy. Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." Tool's eyes flickered to the captain, and his sharp teeth gleamed in a brief smile. "When the fighting comes, don't deny your slaughter nature. You are no more Richard Lopez than I am an obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe."
Half-man Tool to Nailer - Chapter 19
The influence of genetics on behaviour remains an interesting but poorly understood issue I guess.

There's also quite a bit of attention for the peak oil event (or rather, oil running out entirely) present in much of Bacigalupi's writings. Some very clever ways of dealing with it are described in the book. It doesn't seem to be set in his Windup future however. At least, I haven't come across references to that particular technology. Especially the sailing technology described in the book is fascinating, although Bacigalupi seems to realize it cannot replace the massive fossil fuel powered ships that currently travel the world's oceans. All of this changes views on our current consumer society for Nailer and his generation of course. They tend to view the people living in what they call the Accelerated Age as extremely wasteful. Nailer is making us look in the mirror in a way. Quite a lot to take in for the young reader indeed.

When you get right down to it the story isn't about the world's ecological struggles however. It's about a boy looking for a better life, a bit more comfort and above all, people he can trust. It is very interesting to see Nailer move from raw survival mode to compassion and trust. He's faced with various issues of trust and loyalty throughout the novel. Bacigalupi also mercilessly exposes the gap between the privileged elite, even in this exhausted world they are quite comfortable, and the immense poverty on the scavenger beaches. At first glance this gap seems enormous but Nailer soon learns he does have things in common with the rich. He may even like some of them.

Ship Breaker is meant to be a young adult novel, I would have loved this book at thirteen, but Bacigalupi has put enough food for thought in this book to appeal to more mature readers as well. While my attention was clearly drawn to the environmental themes of the book and the links with his other works, the author did not forget to tell an exciting story. Even if you ignore Bacigalupi's bleak outlook on the future and just let yourself be swept away by Nailer's tale it is a very good read. Enjoyable on multiple levels, Bacigalupi has created a very interesting book with Ship Breaker. I would have loved it at thirteen, I guess I love it at thirty-three as well.

Book Details
Title: Ship Breaker
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 326
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcoverk
ISBN: 978-0-316-05621-2
First published: 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Taking requests

I'm approaching a hundred reviews on Random Comments, something I'm very pleased with. I had to cheat a couple of times and throw up an old review to bridge a too large gap between new material but on the whole I didn't expect to be able to keep reviewing at a steady pace for so long a period of time when I stated this blog.

My most recent review, Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (who, by the way, quadrupled my traffic in the last 24 hours with one tweet. Thank you for the kind words!) is number 91. At this pace I will reach a hundred by the end of June. So I though we'd try something different for the occasion. I'm taking requests for number 100.

Which author or book have I shamefully omitted in my coverage, who do you think I should read given my reading habits (see review index for the complete list) or what book would you just like my opinion on?

A couple of rules. It has to be in a language I can read, so Dutch or English. Please don't name book six in a twelve book series I haven't read (I will consider book one). Don't name your own book, there are other ways to get that reviewed ;) and last but not least, pick something you're reasonably sure is still in print or I won't be able to get a copy in time. The most interesting, outrageous suggestion will get the review. Motivated suggestions stand a better chance of being picked.

So what'll it be?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is not an author who has a book out every year so when a new one does appear, it rockets to the top of my to read list immediately. I chose to order the US edition of this book, even though it would take longer to arrive and was a bit more expensive, just because the beautiful cover art by Larry Rostant Roc has put on their edition. Kay's last novel Ysabel (2007), a book set in contemporary France, was something of a departure from the style and setting of his more recent works, clearly reaching back to his earliest novels, The Fionavar Tapestry. In Under Heaven Kay seems to have returned to his historical fantasy, books in the style of The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic novels. Like in previous works Kay creates an analogue of a period in history as a backdrop for his story. This time he is taking us back to 8th century China under the Tang dynasty. An interesting choice since most of his readers would be more familiar with European history. A choice that turned out very well indeed. I've seen this book praised and then praised some more in various reviews. I can only say the reviewers were right. It is a brilliant novel.

Shen Tai, the second son of a famous and recently deceased general of the Kitai empire, has elected to spend his time of mourning at the site on a battle that marked his father. Bloody beyond belief, this remote battlefield is still haunted by the ghosts of the unburied dead. Tai is determined to bury as many of them as he can before tradition allows him to return to his normal life again. His efforts do not go unnoticed. The site is guarded by a small garrison of the Kitai empire on one side and an a Taguran (Tibetan) garrison on the other. The Tagurans have send word back to their capital and a Kitai princess, sent to the Tagurans as part of the peace agreement that ended the war, has bestowed an impossibly great honour upon Tai. For his labours he is to receive two hundred and fifty prized Sardian horses.

At no time in its history has the empire as a whole possessed such a number of these horses. It is a gift beyond the imaginable. It is also a death sentence. Tai will not be able to even get the horses to his father's estate without being robbed and murdered. And even if he somehow manages to make it back to civilization in one piece, an even more dangerous political game will begin. The empire is lead by an ageing emperor who does not seem to be as interested in running his empire as he was during his younger years. Control of these horses can shift the balance of power among those seeking influence at court or even the throne itself. In short, Tai is in serious trouble.

There's an awful lot about this novel to admire. For one thing I very much liked the way in which the novel gradually zooms out from Tai's personal problems with his unexpected gift to those of the empire as a whole. The events being described are the opening stages of a civil war known to historians as the An-Shi rebellion (in the book changed to An-Li rebellion), eight years of unparalleled bloodshed, violence, hunger and political chaos. Casualty figures as high as 36 million haven been named. Although it is not certain if there were indeed that many dead, it is quite clear the rebellion itself was catastrophic. It would have been easy to let these dramatic events take centre stage but Kay remains pretty focussed on the direct, often more pressing, problems of his main characters. In an empire at the height of its power, they are not in a position to influence matters greatly. History is the canvas on which Kay paints his story, it is not what the book is about.

Kay captures the inertia of such a large state with fairly limited means of communication very well. The delays, the waiting for new, the ad hoc decisions because nobody is around to give orders. Where fantasy tends to find ways to speed up communication, Under Heaven sticks to what would actually have been available back then. In earlier books Kay inserted a bit of supernatural. There are Shen Tai's ghosts of course and they do have a major impact on one of the opening scenes but ones Tai leaves the valley there is barely a hint of it. This absence is one of the reasons why I think this book is his best one yet. In Tigana and The Last Light of the Sun in particular, supernatural elements felt a bit out of place to me. Not enough to really diminish the reading experience but enough to make me wonder if the story needed it. There is no hint of that in Under Heaven.

One of the things that make Kay's books stand out is his beautiful, poetic prose. There's some fine examples of superb writing in this novel. There's two things I've noticed about thee writing this book in particular. The first is the shift between past and present tense, depending on whether the point of view character is male of female. Sometimes it can be distracting for an author to change back and froth between various styles. It made Elizabeth Bear's By the Mountain Bound, which changes from past to present tense as well as from first to third person depending on the point of view, quite a challenging read. With Kay the transition is so smooth that I actually had to go back and check once I noticed the change. A second thing I noticed about the writing is a technique where he tells you the outcome of a scene and then lets the reader watch it unfold. This is something he's done in several of his books, I remember it from The Lions of Al-Rassan in particular. Not many authors would choose to give the outcome away at the start of the scene but again, Kay pulls it off admirably.

Under Heaven is a book that really has it all. Beautiful use of language, great world building, well developed and interesting characters and an intricate plot that includes court intrigue, a love story, and a dip into Shen Tai's past to examine the motivations for some the hard choices he has to make throughout the book. It is by a fair margin the best book I have read this year. We're not even halfway yet but if this book doesn't end up in the best of 2010 lists we're in for an exceptional year indeed. In other words, this is a wonderful book. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 573
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-46330-2
First published: 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Empire of Ivory - Naomi Novik

Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Naomi Novik's successful Temeraire series. I read the first three in the last couple of months and found them to be fast, fun reads. The third book, Black Powder War, showed some serious flaws however and I must admit I feared Novik had run out of steam at this point in the series. In Empire of Ivory Novik offers a better story but it's not entirely without its problems either. Nothing that will discourage a fan of this serious though, it is another fast, fun novel with a promise of a quite dramatic book five at the end of it.

Captain Will Laurence and Temeraire have finally managed to make their way back to Britain only to find the Aerial Corps in shambles. A disease has struck the dragons, leaving many of them unable to perform their duties. Several dragons have already died and only a handful are still unaffected by the disease. Temeraire and the feral dragons that accompanied him are quickly put on patrol duty to at least keep up the appearance of a stout areal defence. The French have been probing for weaknesses and it is only a matter of time before the state of the British defences become know.

When Temeraire tries to intercept a small French messenger dragon who has seen the quarantined sick dragons he is accidentally exposed to the illness. Surprisingly enough he turns out to be immune and this provides a clue to a possible treatment for the disease. At their stopover in the Cape Colony on their way to China, events depicted in Throne of Jade, Temeraire recovered from the very symptoms that now plague his colleagues. An expedition is mounted to the Cape to find out what element of Temeraire's diet has proven essential to his recovery. The must hurry, time is running out for many of the dragons and Napoleon has clearly not given up on invading England.

What struck me most about this book is the extend to which Novik deviates from history as we know it. Until now she has depicted events more or less as we know them from the history books. Although there are clues throughout the books that the history of the new world in particular has been drastically altered by the presence of dragons, in Europe things seem to be pretty much what we expect. The first thing that struck me is the fact that Nelson survived the Battle of Trafalgar. This may have been mentioned in His Majesty's Dragon in which the battle plays a role. I must admit I can't remember the scene in that much detail. Laurence meets him several times in this book. He's depicted as a not unpleasant but rather vain man.

The history of the Cape Colony is also very drastically altered in the book. The region changed hands a couple of times during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars before becoming permanently British in 1806 (until it became South Africa in 1910). When Laurence and Temeraire arrive in 1807 the provisional governor Henry George Grey is still at the helm. Events triggered by Laurence and Temeraire moving into Africa's interior, they travel as far as the Victoria Falls, which had not been named such of course, Victoria would be born in 1819, and find an Africa affected by Slave trade and the coastal settlements of various European countries but still firmly independent. I'm not going to say too much about it to avoid spoilers but it looks like dragons are going to severely impact the colonization of Africa.

Temeraire's ambitions to improve conditions for dragons in Britain is mostly pushed to the background. Although Novik devotes some attention to the parallel abolitionist movement, demands of the moment push it mostly into the background. A bit of a shame since Temeraire's plans could have made for some interesting political struggles. In fact, the last books seemed to promise some more action this point and I was a bit disappointed to see it downplayed in favour of exploring the more exotic parts of the African interior. Given the ending of Empire of Ivory it doesn't look like Temeraire will make much progress in the next book, Victory of Eagles, either. That sense of adventure is one of the more attractive parts of the series however, so perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me.

In the end Empire of Ivory offers a better structured and more complete story arc of its own, centred on the mysterious disease, than the previous book. I have seem some complaints in other reviews that the novel takes its time to get going but that is certainly not my experience. It does take a little time get reacquainted with the situation in England, which after an absence of a year can hardly be a surprise. It does end in a major cliffhanger however. If you don't like that in a book then this one might be a bit annoying for you. I think the ending does offer some interesting action in book five but on the other hand some of the heavier themes in the books are not quite given the attention they deserve and the series remains rather light because of that. Still, it is good to see Novik improve on the rather poor Black Powder War, it will be interesting to see if she can keep the momentum going in Victory of Eagles.

Book Details
Title: Empire of Ivory
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 404
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-49687-4
First published: 2007

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Book Habits Meme

I saw this one appearing on just about half the blogs on my blogroll so I thought I'd have a go at it as well.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack?

I will do anything for a bowl of katjang pedis but since they contain enough calories to fuel a Boeing 747 I try to keep it to a minimum.

What is your favourite drink while reading?

Water or coffee. Can't live without caffeine.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

I usually put my name and the date and place I got them in the books I buy. I marked a passage once but generally I prefer to keep my books as pretty as possible. I'm a little more protective of the hardcovers than paperbacks though.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

I do have bookmarks somewhere but I never use them. I either remember the page of chapter last read or put whatever is available at the moment between pages. Bits of paper, pens, hairbands, cds....

Fiction, non-fiction, or both?

Mostly fiction, once a year or so the urge to read history or something in the natural sciences seizes me so I have a couple of those at hand.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

I can pretty much stop at any place but I prefer to do so at the end of a chapter. Unless it ends in a really bad cliffhanger.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

No such abuse allowed in my house no matter how bad the book.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

I mostly read in English these days, which is a second language so this does happen once in a while. Unless it is really important to the story and I have absolutely no idea I don't use a dictionary. Would be too distracting to look up every word I can't immediately translate. In fact, I try not to translate at all. Works fine most of the time but I will admit reading China Miéville is a challenge.

What are you currently reading?

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik. May finish it tonight, if so expect the review tomorrow.

What is the last book you bought?

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. It has yet to arrive.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

I can read several at a time but I find it easier to review books if I concentrate on one. These days I mostly stick to one at a time.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

Mostly in the evening when everybody else has gone to bed.

Do you prefer series books or standalones?

No preference really.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian McDonald, Alastair Reynolds and Daniel Abraham.

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)

I own way too many books so I have resorted to the most economical way to stow them in the bookcase. The order which they are in only makes sense to me.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Icehenge - Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm reading (or in some cases rereading) Kim Stanley Robinson's older novels at the moment. This will probably result in a reread of his famous Mars trilogy in the not too distant future but we're not there yet. Icehenge is Robinson's second published novel. It was published the same year as his first novel The Wild Shore, the first part in his Three Califonias Triptych. The subject of Icehenge is very different from The Wild Shore. It would be selling the book short to say it is a first step towards his popular Mars trilogy, Icehenge is a very good novel in it's own right, but fans of the Mars books will find many themes in this book have returned in the trilogy.

On the north pole of Pluto a mysterious construction of ice is found, reminiscent of Stonehenge. In this book consisting of three linked novellas Robinson explores the origin of this construct. The first two novellas had been published before under the titles On the North Pole of Pluto (1980) and To Leave a Mark (1982). In this book all three novellas are named after the main character. The first novella consists of the diary of Emma Weil. In an age where gerontological treatment has enabled people to live for centuries, memory has been proven the weak link in the system. Many people keep diaries for the day when they will no longer remember the events they witnessed. Emma's diary tells us about her days on a hijacked spaceship, her work as life support engineer and events during the Martian rebellion of 2248.

This rebellion will be brutally crushed, it's very existence swept under the carpet by the powers that be. In 2547 this is not a situation archaeologist and historian Hjalmar Nederland will allow to exist much longer. Not relying on untrustworthy memories he means to organize a dig at the site of one of the battles of the revolution. Physical evidence cannot lie after all. Emma's diary proves to be instrumental for his work but also leads to an even larger discovery, the origin of Icehenge. In 2610 Nederland's theory on the origins of Icehenge is widely accepted but Edmond Doya is not satisfied with that explanation. He means to prove the monument is a hoax and comes up with some convincing arguments.

Robinson uses a number of very interesting themes in this book but the one that, to me, stands out is memory loss in extremely long-lived people. In this book lifespans of up to five centuries are possible. As a result pretty strict measures have been put into place to prevent overpopulation. Emma, who at the time of her diary is 80 years old has realized this is going to be a problem and starts writing things down. Hjalmar, who is 310 by the time he is allowed to pursue his ideas of the Martian revolution has already experienced life as a sequence of several lives. With memory stacked upon memory only the last 'normal' lifespan can be reliably recollected. His life before that may as well have been someone else's. It's a frightening concept in a way. Think for a moment on how we base most of our decisions on previous experience. What if that becomes unreliable? What if someone confronts you with something you may or may not have done a century ago?

The reader gets a taste of this over the course of the novel. After reading Emma's diary you're pretty convinced you know what has happened but Nederland's histories and Edmond's revisions cast doubt upon just about every part of the story. Nederland's science seems solid and Edmond's theories have an air of conspiracy around them that makes it hard to credit his findings. And yet, he may well be on to something. Which in turn casts doubt upon the veracity of the statements in Emma's diary. Who's right? I guess that Robinson leaves that for the reader to figure out. It does put what we think we know about the past in an interesting perspective.

The cover of this reprint edition proclaims this is "The Award-Winning Author's First Martian Novel". When I first read this novel in 2005 I did notice the themes they have in common but the proclaim it the first Mars novel is a bit too much in my opinion. The focus of this novel is not on the colonization of the red planet, many of the ideas Robinson would later use in the Mars books are used as a backdrop in this book. Political struggles on Mars or Mars-Terra relations do not dominate the story. The political realities of 'Icehenge' Mars are, at least initially, more or less accepted by all main characters, making it a darker future than where the planet ends up in Blue Mars. That book leans more towards utopia. Still, together with Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness it clearly shows Mars was on the author's mind.

The book is a bit dated in some aspects. Written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union is still a major player in this book. Something that returns in many of his early novels. At the moment it looks doubtful the Russians will be able to keep their space exploration going at the rate they have in the past. Then there is the status of Pluto, recently relegated from planet status to Trans-Neptunian object or dwarf planet. In Icehenge the characters see it as the last place to stop before hitting the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Another small but interesting item is the way information is stored. Paper is still important in the 27th century it seems, with characters printing hard copies of electronically stored books. Makes you wonder what the ideas of the author about the current development of e-books are.

I liked this book a lot when I first read it and this second read has probably raised my admiration of the author another notch. It's a very well constructed tale, designed to make the reader doubt, puzzle and think. Icehenge is a good read for people who enjoyed the author's Mars trilogy but it's also a good place to start if you are not sure you're ready for three large volumes of detail on the red planet. Personally I loved the descriptive passages in those books but quite a few readers seem to think it could have done with a little more editing. In Icehenge Robinson keeps that aspect of his writing a bit more in the background. Whatever your preferences Icehenge is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Icehenge
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 287
Year: 1998
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-86609-7
First published: 1984

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Young Flandry - Poul Anderson

This book is part four in Baen's ongoing project to publish all of Anderson's work in the Technic Civilization in chronological order. The cover of this book is so hideous that I almost gave up on this project. It left Aiden at A Dribble of Ink speechless. After reading the first three, none of which were graced by particularly good cover art, I thought it would be a shame to give up now though. In part three, Rise of the Terran Empire, we witnessed the last adventures of Nicolas van Rijn and David Falkayn, marking the end of the Polesotechnic league era of Anderson's future history. We also see humanity slip into a dark age and witness the rise of the Terran Empire. In this Terran Empire phase of history most of the remaining stories in the Technic civilization is set. As the title of the book suggests a new hero enters the stage. Dominic Flandry.

Young Flandry contains three full length novels depicting Fandry in his younger years. As the cover suggests Flandry is something of a James Bond in space so I was not entirely sure I wanted to read this book. I must say, the James Bond thing was not quite as bad as I feared. In the first novel Ensign Flandry (1966) we meet naval pilot Fandry fresh out of the academy and posted on the planet Starkad where the Empire and the Merseians are at a stand off. Each is supporting one of the two primitive sentient species living on the planet. Each supporting one species in a conflict over resources. The fate of these two species is of course not why the Terran Empire bothers with a planet that offers little in the way of resources. They are merely trying to block Merseian expansion. Merseia on the other hand seems to be heading for outright conflict, gradually scaling up the level of hostilities on the planet. Nobody quite understands why. Flandry will be instrumental in finding out.

I liked this first novel more than I expected I would. The Merseian plot turns out to be quite complicated and it helps open Flandry's eyes to the faults of the Empire and it's inevitable demise. The instruction he receives from Max Abrams, an intelligence officer who recognizes competence when he sees it. This encounter on Starkad will determine the shape of Flandry's career. It sets the tone for the rest of this volume, introducing a tired and decadent empire but also pointing out why it is still useful and why men like Flandry can still make their fortune serving it. Interesting politics, interesting description of the planet and the Bond theme not too obvious. A good start of this book.

In A Circus of Hells (1970) we fast-forward a couple of years. Flandry has gained a bit of a reputation on Starkad and has received additional training for service as an intelligence officer. Two years after the events in Ensign Flandry he has been promoted to Lieutenant stationed on the planet Ironclaw. Flandry finds himself with what looks like quite a shady business opportunity when one of the local underworld figures asks him to swing by a rogue planet on one of the patrols he's scheduled on. This would of course be reason for a court martial if his superiors learnt of it but the deal is sweetened by a female companion and a heap of cash. Flandry accepts, but not for the obvious reasons as we'll find out.

This novel contains a lot of references to stories in the Polesothechnic League phase of the Technic Civilization which was one of the more interesting parts. On the whole I didn't like this book much. Flandry's female companion annoyed me to no end. I thought she was a very unconvincing character. For someone who's had a pretty rough life she's painfully naive at times. She combines phases of competence with hysterics and is frequently used by the author to offer Flandry a chance to be hero. Anderson makes up for some of this by introducing one of the more interesting planets I've come across in his work. A world with such and elliptic orbit that temperatures change dramatically during the seasons. The way life has adapted to such an environment is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel. It doesn't save it from being mediocre though.

The final novel contained in this book is The Rebel Worlds (1969). In this novel Flandry deals with a different kind of threat to the empire. As always the Merseians are causing trouble on the border and most of the attention of the empire is directed in that direction. On the other side of the empire a cruel governor has managed to spark a rebellion against imperial rule. Lead by one of the empire's most respected admirals it poses a serious risk to the stability of the empire. It must be crushed quickly no matter what the grievances that caused it. With most of the fleet on the Merseian border not many men are available to take on the job. Flandry, for the occasion raised to commander, is sent to the region to investigate.

I guess this novel shows the choice Flandry has made to work to maintain the empire as long as possible best of all three novels in this book. It's an interesting choice, for most heroes in such tales it would be more obvious to look ahead. Flandry only sees the Long Night, an alternative worse than anything the empire can throw at its people. It also shows that Flandry will not shun ethically dubious actions to prolong the empire's life. His attitude towards the rebellion is one of the things I found most interesting about this novel. It does include a woman of course, Flandry stories can't seem to do without, but this time she is portrayed as unfailingly competent. Their relationship contains some unnecessary drama but it does not have quite as much impact on the novel as a whole as in A Circus of Hells. I'd rate this one somewhere between the first and second novel in Young Flandry.

A tired old empire doomed to go under and a young hero fighting to maintain it. Besides the parallel with James Bond I wonder if there is a connection with Asimov's Foundation series. The first book in this series was published in 1951, the same year as Anderson's first Flandry story, although short stories that eventually lead to the novel were published as early as 1942. I guess I am going to have to read Asimov some time to find out. I have mixed feelings about this book, in part I quite enjoyed it but Flandry's Wein, Weib und Gesang attitude does become annoying at times. I think I'll stick around to see how Anderson manages Flandry in shorter works though. Captain Flandry, the next volume in this project, contains some of the earliest Flandry stories and will also introduce his Blofeld, a Merseian agent by the name of Ayrcharaych. In other words, to be continued when I get around to reading the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Young Flandry
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 526
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3327-9
First published: 2010

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Great Hunt - Robert Jordan

I've been a bad blogger this week with only one review of a book that wasn't all that big to begin with. Such trivial activities like working and studying have gotten in the way. Things don't look much better next week either so I salvaged another old review. This one was written in January '09 and was part of a Wheel of Time reread in preparation for the release of The Gathering Storm. I did some minor editing to eliminate the worst of my errors in the original.

Published only ten months after The Eye of the World this book is the second entry in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I always found it hard to pick a favourite but if I had to, it would probably be The Great Hunt. Jordan lets go of the Lord of the Rings approach he took in The Eye of the World and starts to fully explore his creation in this book. It is the beginning of a great many story lines that will be with us for most of the series. While Jordan spends quite a lot of time building the story and characters he does keep an eye of the coherency of the book itself. I think the climax to The Great Hunt is one of the best endings of a Wheel of Time novel in.

There will be some spoilers for The Eye of the World from this point on. A few minor spoilers to The Great Hunt may creep up in the text below as well.

The Great Hunt begins a few weeks after the events in The Eye of the World. Rand and company are still the guest of Lord Agelmar in Fal Dara. Rand is beginning to accept that he can channel and will most likely go raving mad before dying a miserable death. He is determined not to end up as a False Dragon in the hands of Aes Sedai though. To protect his friends he is considering leaving everybody and going out into the vast, sparsely populated areas between the nations. There at least, he can do no damage. Something is keeping him in Fal Dara though and by the time he is finally read to leave he is trapped in the city by the imminent arrival of the Siuan Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat herself. An unannounced visit by the head of the Aes Sedai is unheard of, the city is in uproar.

The Amyrlin does not announce the reason of her visit but to Rand it is clear why she is in Shienar. Before the Amyrlin can get to the bottom of Moiriaine’s actions however, and Rand’s part in recent events, the keep is attacked by Shadowspawn. In the confusion Padan Fain manages to escape and steal the Horn of Valere and the dagger Mat is still linked to. He leaves a cryptic message for Rand written on the wall of the dungeon he was locked in, daring Rand to pursue. With the Amyrlin’s blessing Rand, Mat, Perrin and Loial accompany a group of Shienarans on an expedition to reclaim the horn and dagger. Rand hopes he has finally cut the strings Moiraine has tied to him by leaving Fal Dara. As is turns out, he is more firmly tied to their plots than he imagined.

Egwene and Nynaeve accompany the Aes Sedai back to Tar Valon to begin their training to become Aes Sedai. In the Tower Egwene becomes friends with Elayne, the Daughter-Heir of Andor and meets the Barleon stable hand Min again. Both Nynaeve and Egwene learn quickly and even though Nynaeve has to be angry to be able to channel at all, she is raised to Accepted as soon as she enters the tower. Discipline is harsh but both are determined to learn. The sisters in the tower seem on edge. News from the outside world trickles in and it is nothing but war and false dragons. During one of their sparse free days Nynaeve and Elayne are approached by Liandrin and told Rand, Mat and Perrin are in trouble. They are to prepare for a journey to Toman Head to come to their aid. Elayne and Min have overheard the entire thing and decide to join uninvited.

I marked a specific scene in this rather battered mass market paperback I own, something I rarely do. Every time I read it, it reminds me of the summer of 1999 and the first time I read The Great Hunt.
She was all in white, her dress divided for riding and belted in silver, and her boots, peeking out from under her hems, were tooled in silver, too. Even her saddle was white, and silver-mounted. Her snowy mare, with its arched neck and dainty step, was almost as tall as Rand’s bay. But it was the woman herself — she was perhaps Nynaeve’s age, he thought — who held his eyes. She was tall, for one thing; a hand taller and she could almost look him in the eyes. For another, she was beautiful, ivory-pale skin contrasting sharply with long, night-dark hair and black eyes. He had seen beautiful women. Moiraine was beautiful, if cool, and so was Nynaeve, when her temper did not get the better of her. Egwene, and Elayne, the Daughter-Heir of Andor, were each enough to take a man’s breath. But this woman … His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth; he felt his heart start beating again.
“Your retainers, my Lord?”
Startled, he looked around. Hurin and Loial had joined them. Hurin was staring the way Rand knew he had been, and even the Ogier seemed fascinated. “My friends,” he said. “Loial, and Hurin. My name is Rand. Rand al’Thor.”
“I have never thought of it before,” Loial said abruptly, sounding as if he were talking to himself, “but if there is such a thing as perfect human beauty, in face and form, then you —”
“Loial!” Rand shouted. The Ogier’s ears stiffened in embarrassment. Rand’s own ears were red; Loial’s words had been too close to what he himself was thinking.
The woman laughed musically, but the next instant she was all regal formality, like a queen on her throne. “I am called Selene,” she said.

Rand meets Selene, Chapter 16 – In the Mirror of Darkness
I had a summer job at a mobile phone company that year. Rather boring administrative work. It was made a whole lot more pleasant by Celine, the girl sitting at the desk next to me. She was a student of international law, conversational in French, Spanish and English and very pretty. Oh boy was I in love. So was she, but unfortunately for me with a Spanish law student who would be joining her for a vacation later that summer. I marked that bit for her and let her read it. It made her smile but looking back on it, I suspect she thought the book was rubbish. Almost 10 years on this is a good memory, although at the time I saw it differently of course.

I didn’t catch the reference back during that first reading but Selene is of course the name of an ancient Goddess of the the moon. An obvious clue to the true identity of Selene. The Daughter of the Moon, a particularly nasty piece of work known as Lanfear, one of the Forsaken. In hindsight it may be better Celine didn’t read fantasy.

Apart from fond memories there are other reasons having more to do with the writing why I like this book. For one thing this book is one you can keep reading and rereading. Jordan put so many hints and minor things that will turn out to be important later on in this book that I would advise everybody to go back to it at least once after having finished the series. To give you an example from to prologue of the book:
The man who called himself Bors shivered in spite of himself. Hastily he undid the seals and buckles of his saddlebags and pulled out his usual cloak. In the back of his mind a small voice wondered if the promised power, even the immortality, was worth another meeting like this, but he laughed it down immediately. For that much power, I would praise the Great Lord of the Dark under the Dome of Truth. Remembering the commands given him by Ba’alzamon, he fingered the golden, flaring sun worked on the breast of the white cloak, and the red shepherd’s crook behind the sun, symbol of his office in the world of men, and he almost laughed. There was work, great work, to be done in Tarabon, and on Almoth Plain.
Bors at a gathering of Darkfriends, Prologue – In the Shadow
Although it is clear Bors is a Whitecloak Questioner, we won’t learn his true identity until the next book. Jordan will follow Bors’ rather painful career as a Darkfriend all the way until The Path of Daggers. There’s number of other beginnings in this book too. The origin of Masema’s obsession with Rand for instance. Rand looses sight of him in The Dragon Reborn but rumours of his deeds can be found in several books. Rumours that make Rand decide to send Perrin to collect him in A Crown of Swords. It the book where Bayle Domon and Egeanin meet each other, the book where Birigitte makes her first appearance, the book where the Aeil and He Who Comes With the Dawn are first mentioned, the book where Rand starts collecting the marks that name him the Dragon Reborn etc. etc. etc.

It is also the book that contains one of my favourite scenes from the entire series, the conversation in which Moiraine confronts Lan with his changing loyalties.
After this, you test me?”
“Not a test, Lan. I spoke plainly, not twisting, and I have done as I said. But at Fal Dara, I began to wonder if you were still wholly with me.” A wariness entered his eyes. Lan, forgive me. I would not have cracked the walls you hold so hard, but I must know. “Why did you do as you did with Rand?” He blinked; it was obviously not what he expected. She knew what he had thought was coming, and she would not let up now that he was off balance. “You brought him to the Amyrlin speaking and acting as a Border lord and a soldier born. It fit, in a way, with what I planned for him, but you and I never spoke of teaching him any of that. Why, Lan?”

Lan and Moiraine, Chapter 22 – Watchers
This scene is probably the seed of the story told in New Spring, in part the story of how Lan and Moiraine met. It exposes the nature of the bond between Warder and Aes Sedai and the precaution Moiraine took turns out to be quite important in The Fires of Heaven. With so many young characters dominating the narrative in the first three books this is one of the few scenes where the more mature characters get to have a turn. The relationship between Moiraine and Lan is a complex one, as we'll find out in later books.

No book is all good of course and one of the few things that didn’t work for me in this book is Jordan’s time line. In the later books he keeps track of what happens when to whom very well as his cast scatters across the nations. In the earlier books it is a bit of a mess sometimes. In The Eye of the World for instance the scenes taking place between the crossing of the Taren and their arrival in Barleon seems to suggest a week has seven days. In the later books it is ten (some fans are quite fanatical about the Wheel of Time chronology). In The Great Hunt some story lines quickly outpace others and to make everybody arrive on time for the climax of the book Jordan skips a few months in one of the story lines (Rand using the Portal Stone). It is probably the biggest leap in the narrative in the entire series and it always felt strange to me. Another thing that didn’t work for me is the cover. I added it to the top section of the article. Have a look, I don’t think I really need to say anything of this subject.

Jordan makes up for it by a great climax, the events at Falme send ripples though the world that will lead Pedron Niall to overreach and entice Elaida to rash actions. Ripples that can be felt throughout the later books in the series. Where Jordan followed in Tolkien’s footsteps in The Eye of the World he is taking off on a journey of his own in The Great Hunt. Much more than the first book in the series does Jordan make the scope of his project clear. From this book on the reader should settle in for the long haul. I suppose for quite a few people this poses a problem. Although The Great Hunt does contain a complete and satisfying story arc, Jordan leaves an awful lot of loose ends in this book to be pursued later on. Especially during the first reading the number of new elements Jordan introduces strikes some readers as too much of a good thing. I certainly appreciated it more after a second reading.

All in all I consider this book to be quite an improvement over The Eye of the World. If that book didn’t convince you to stick with this series The Great Hunt certainly should. It combines the great scope and detailed world of Jordan with the fast pace of the earlier books. Jordan grows as a writer throughout this huge project. Perhaps technically some of the later books are better written. For me however, this is the book where he had me absolutely hooked.

Book Details
Title: The Great Hunt
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 707
Year: 1991
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85723-027-2
First published: 1990