Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking back on 2010

I've seen a number of these posts go up already on other blogs. As usual I was still busy reviewing. I really wanted to get the review of Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard done before the end of the year. That book brings the total number of works I've read in 2010 to 91. Which is actually 2 less than in 2009. I reviewed 90 of them however, which is 11 more than last year. Of these, 88 can be found on this blog, the other 2 were written in Dutch for Fantasy Realm. Not a bad total but I'm still not quite living up to my ambition to average two reviews a week. There's definitely a challenge there for next year.

Of the 91 works 66 were written by men, 19 by women and 6 contained the work of both men and women. Still a bit of gender bias there I suppose. There were 76 novels on the list, 7 collections/anthologies, 7 pieces of short fiction and one non-fiction work. According to Goodreads my reading in 2010 totalled 35,213 pages, or about 96 pages a day. I don't have a reliable total for 2009 but I am pretty sure the 2010 total would be lower if I bothered with a thorough count. Of the 91 works 31 were published in 2010, one will be released in 2011 and the rest is older, sometimes considerably older.

So what are the best books I've read this year? As always a difficult question. I won't limit myself to the book released this year. This are 10 novels that stood out among what I've read. They are listed in the order I read them in.

Platinum Pohl (2005) by Frederik Pohl. A wonderful collection of short fiction spanning much of Pohl's long career in science fiction.
The Prefect (2007) by Alastair Reynolds. The most recent novel in the Revelation Space setting. Combines noir with space opera.
Under Heaven (2010) by Guy Gavriel Kay. Historical Fantasy based on Tang dynasty China right before the An Shi rebellion. Kay is worth reading for the prose alone but the rest of the novel is outstanding too.
Ship Breaker (2010) by Paolo Bacigalupi. His first attempt as YA fiction is a resounding success.
Alien Earth (1992) by Megan Lindholm. Takes a bit to get going but turns into a surprisingly good Science Fiction novel by the author also known as Robin Hobb.
The Dervish House (2010) by Ian McDonald. Wonderfully complex SF novel set in near future Istanbul.
The Radio Magician and Other Stories (2010) by James van Pelt. He produces some of the best short fiction is SF today.
Soul Catcher (1972) by Frank Herbert. His only mainstream work. Somebody please bring this back in print.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell. I'm totally biased by the choice of topic of this novel.
The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Classic Science Fiction, I don't think it gets much better than this. I really ought to read more of her work.

Traffic has been inching upwards during the year. It's still not a whole lot but I seem to have a nice group of regulars. Hopefully it'll continue to increase next year. The ten most popular review in 2010 were:
  1. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  2. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  3. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  4. Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson
  5. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  6. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  7. The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. Rise of the Terran Empire by Poul Anderson
  9. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  10. The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
The top book is certainly surprising. I had never heard of Roadside Picnic until it was suggested to me. Apparently there are not that many review s of this book online, Random Comments does very well in Google searches for this title. Towers of Midnight will most likely overtake it in the future but it fished the year at the top of the list by a fair margin. The other title on this list that surprises me is The Lucky Strike. I suspect someone is using this book in a history or literature class somewhere because I keep getting hits from people looking for a summary (it's a forty page text, shame on you!) or trying to Google the answer for what look like textbook questions. Last year I had some Dutch language titles in the top ten. This year the first, Ziel van de Duivel by Adrian Stone can be found at the 20th spot.

My plans for next year are a bit vague. I hope to review a few books more than this year. I also want to finish a couple of long running project. Beginning with finish reviewing the collection of Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization being published by Baen at the moment. There are two volumes left. I ought to be able to tackle those next year. I also want to continue my reviewing of Frank Herbert's non-Dune books. There's quite a few left. I don't think I will be able to fit all of those in 2011. My project to reread Kim Stanley Robinson's work seems to have stalled a bit. I hope to continue that next year as well. Quite a few books left there as well. There's a few other series I want to continue and a whole lot of books I look forward to in 2011. Too many to list and most likely too many to read. I mean to finish Elizabeth Bear's Edda of Burdons, finish the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, read some more Erikson and tackle another of Edward Rutherfurd's monsters among other things. We'll see how things go.

Hope to see you all around here next year. Best wishes for 2011!


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Harbinger of the Storm - Aliette de Bodard

I read Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard's début novel and the first book in the Obsidian and Blood series, in January and it was one of the most interesting books I'd read in a while. Not that many people write a novel in a second language and manage to get it published. I'm always mildly envious of people with that kind of language skills. De Bodard's work (this is her second novel but there is lots of short fiction) usually features non-western cultures, something not that many writers take on, making Servant of the Underworld an unusual novel. I enjoyed her depiction of the pre-Columbian Mexica (Aztec) empire a lot. Harbinger of the Storm is the second book in the trilogy and thankfully publisher Angry Robot was kind enough to send me an advance copy. This book was high on the to read list for 2011.

Harbinger of the Storm is set about a year and a half after events in Servant of the Underworld. Worrisome events have taken place in the Mexica empire. The Revered Speaker, the link between the world of the living and the god Huitzilpochtli, their shield against the deities who are aiming to end the fifth world and make it anew, has passed away and left the people unprotected. Selecting a successor is no easy matter. The council from which a new Revered Speaker is to be elected is hopelessly divided. Time is pressing though, with each day that passes the pressure on the spiritual defences of the empire grows. The terrible star-demons are waiting for their chance to rip the empire apart.

Acatl, High-Priest for the Dead, once again finds himself caught up in the court intrigues he so much despises. Although most of the council members are aware of the treat to the empire and the need to restore their link with Huitzilpochtli, all of them are too busy expanding their personal influence to really care. To make the situation even more volatile a council member is murdered shortly after the Revered Speaker's death. Acatl is called in to investigate the death and finds out that someone is not ready to wait for the star demons to arrive. They summoned one to do their dirty work for them. The empire is in even more danger than Acatl assumed.

In the previous volume Acatl tries to stay clear of politics, something he does not entirely succeeds at. This time there is no escaping it. Serving Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Death, he has a part in the funeral ceremonies for the departed Revered Speaker. This makes Harbinger of the Storm a lot more political than Servant of the Underworld. De Bodard goes into quite a lot of detail on the downright Machiavellian politics some of the priests and military leaders of the empire practice. Some of the shameless manoeuvring by the priests who ought to be busy preventing a very real supernatural disaster is worthy of the Borgias. It thoroughly disgusts Acatl, who is... perhaps not entirely naive but a bit too unwilling to accept that not everybody will put the common good before their own interests.

The succession de Bodard describes is a very curious one. It often wasn't a father-to-son affair like one would expect. Often brothers and even cousins had a good shot at the position as well, making the succession uncertain. The author uses this to great effect in the novel, creating a struggle for the throne put under an immense pressure by the need to provide the empire with a link to their patron god. The peril the empire is in, is made very clear by the appearance of a number of supernatural beings, Aztec mythology does not seem to have a shortage of scary figures. Not everybody may like their historical fiction (or is it historical fantasy?) with this much supernatural influence but I think the author does use it cleverly to build the tension.

Servant of the Underworld was a bit more contained to the city of Tenochtitlan, with the city itself as historical background, not so much the characters and events. In this volume we get to see a bit more of the way what we think of as the Aztec Empire was organized. It mentions the alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan and a lot more of the lay out of the city than the previous book. The departed Revered Speaker Axayacatl is a historical figure, as are a number of other characters in the novel. From what I can tell the historical details on the succession, or even the events in that particular year are not that well documented, giving de Bodard some leeway to tell her story. The book does not pretend to be fully historically accurate but it thought it was nice to see a bit more of the historical context.

The book is written from the first person and I think it restricted de Bodard a bit. The novel involves a lot of political intrigue, all of which we get to see from the point of view of a character neither particularly skilled nor very interested in the process. Acatl's pretty good at telling when he's being lied to but motivations often elude him. Some of the finer point of what is going on in Tenochtitlan's ruling council might have benefited from another point of view. That's a personal preference though, one could just as easily argue that since de Bodard started the story in the first person, she should stick with it.

I found Harbinger of the Storm to be a worthy successor to what I consider to be a very successful début. The emphasis in this book has shifted a bit from a murder mystery to political intrigue but the setting hasn't lost any of its appeal in the process. The novel zooms out a bit to allow room for more religious and political aspects of Aztec society to slip into the story. Despite my preoccupation with the historical aspects of the novel, Harbinger of the Storm is mostly a race against the clock to deflect a supernatural attempt to end the empire and the world. De Bodard manages to work a great sense of urgency into the story, making it a very fast read. She has once again managed to deliver a very interesting book. I'm looking forward to reading the third, as of yet unnamed, book in this series.

Book Details
Title: Harbinger of the Storm
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 384
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-85766-075-6
First published: 2011

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wild Cards I - George R.R. Martin

Recently, Tor released three new books in the long running shared universe Wild Card series, Inside Straight, Busted Flush and Suicide Kings, collectively known as the Committee Trilogy. A fourth standalone volume, Fort Freak, number twenty-one in the overall series, is expected sometime next year. Tor is the fourth publisher to take on this series and pretty much everything from the previous three publishers is out of print. That means that a lot of the back story of this series is only available second hand, sometimes at very steep prices. Fortunately Tor has now reissued the first Wild Cards novel, originally published in 1987 by Bantam Books, in a trade paperback format.

The original edition was edited by George R.R. Martin and written by a collective of New Mexico writers. Howard Waldrop, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milán, Edward Bryant, Leanne C. Harper, Stephen Leigh, John J. Miller and Martin himself contributed to the writing. In the Tor editions tree new sections were added, written by David D. Levine, Michael Cassutt and Carrie Vaughn. I understand Tor also has plans to reissue the second and third books in the series, Aces High and Jokers Wild, but so far I haven't seen any information on them except the original announcement.

Wild Cards I is all about setting up the shared universe. The story opens in 1946, when a human like alien lands in the US claiming he's come to save the earth form a mortal treat, the Wild Card virus. By the time people start to believe him, it is already to late. Despite the best efforts of WWII flying ace Jetboy, the virus is released with devastating consequences. It kills 90 percent of those it infects, leaves 9 percent permanently disfigured and grants 1 percent a wide ranges of unusual powers. The disfigured survivors are referred to as Jokers, while those with useful, sometimes even incredible talents become aces. This volume in the series tries to cover events from the initial release of the virus in 1946 to the 1980s, right before present when the book what initially released.

Having only read the three recently released books of the Committee Trilogy, I was struck by the different approach these books take to the mosaic novel concept. The Committee Trilogy is much more a true novel, with the sections written by different authors interlocking into one story. Wild Cards I is more of a collections of short fiction. Although characters some characters show up in multiple sections of the novel, the stories can pretty much be read independently once you know the concept of the Wild Card. The book seems to aim at giving the reader an overview of how the Wild Card virus influenced the world and setting up a number of story lines that will be continued in subsequent books.

There are some very strong stories among the original entries into this series. I particularly enjoyed Roger Zelazny's entry The Sleeper, featuring an Ace who sleeps for days or weeks at a time and wakes up with different powers every time. It's not always an Ace he draws either but somehow it is never a lethal recurrence of the virus that hits him. Like many of the stories in this collection The Sleeper's life is tragic. Witnessing the release of a Wild Cards virus at a young age, he has to grow up much to quickly. The Sleeper is by no means a perfect Ace. After he looses his father to the virus he provides for his family with criminal activities, starting a life in the underworld of New York City. A rather lonely life as we'll find out later in the book. He does some very wrong things but on the other hand you can't help but feel sorry for him.

A second story I think stood out in the collection is Walter Jon Williams' Witness. It introduces the incredibly strong Ace Golden Boy, whose powers make him ideally suited for the 1950s variety of gunboat diplomacy. Golden Boy's real passion is acting however, so once his diplomatic career takes a nosedive, he heads for Hollywood. A place that is about to receive the attention of one Senator McCarthy. Williams shows us how hopelessly unprepared Golden Boy is for his life in the spotlight and how the strongest man in the world basically breaks under the strain. To make matters worse, Golden Boy does not seem to age. It's enough to make one wonder if he has indeed drawn an Ace. There is no outrunning his past for this man. Another very dark part of the collection about a dark part of US history.

Martin's own contribution, Shell Games, is a bit more upbeat. I had already read this bit, Martin included it in the massive, career-spanning anthology Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. The story introduces the Great and Powerful Turtle, an Ace with very strong telekinetic abilities. Inspired by the comic books he read in his youth, he wants to use his talents for the good of mankind, catching crooks and saving people. In a rather physical way, his friend points out that he is quite vulnerable when concentrating and so they come up with a solution that will make him unreachable for anything short of heavy artillery. His first major challenge comes when Jokertown's leading entrepreneur, a woman by the name of Angelface goes missing. Martin probably approaches the superhero comics that inspired this series closest in this tale. A damsel in distress, an ordinary fellow turning into superhero with great powers, one would almost think the story cliché. Martin also uses his story to give us a look at the dark side of New York's Joker ghetto, a setting important to many of the Wild Cards' stories.

Three new stories were added to entice readers to invest in a book they perhaps already own. For the book, I don't think it was really necessary. Sure, it tries to cover a great span of time in relatively few pages, so there are plenty of gaps to fill, but the general outline of the Wild Cards universe is introduced well enough. The book works just fine without. That being said, I quite enjoyed David D. Levine's addition Powers quite a lot. His anti-hero Ace Frank Majewski, who carefully keeps his ability to stop time for everybody but himself hidden because of McCarthy's antics in Witness, is another strong character in book. His reluctance and fear for his family, deeply rooted in what happened in his native Poland during and right after the war, are some of the ingredients that makes this story work for me. It's very much at odds with the image of some of the more public Aces. This story also an interesting take on the events surrounding the crash and capture of U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960.

Wild Cards I contains a lot of snapshots from post-WWII history. It is not yet a fully integrated set of stories, but more of a sandbox where each of the contributors do their own thing. The result is a very interesting book and the start of an unusual series, but it also leaves us with a lot of loose ends. It will be interesting to see if Tor goes through with publishing more of the back catalogue of the Wild Cards series, this book certainly whets the appetite for more. As a reader relatively new to the series, I very much liked this opportunity to go back to the origins of the series. Judging from what I have read so far, the series seems to have developed a lot over the years. Wild Cards I was not quite what I expected but it surprised in a good way. If, like me, you have only read some of the later books, this book is really a must read.

Book Details
Title: Wild Cards I
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 493
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2615-7
First published: 1987

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Early Birthday Present

My birthday isn't until the 27th but my birthday present arrived yesterday. A couple of people pooled resources and bought me a very nice e-reader. For those of you familiar with such devices, it's a Sony PRS-600. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, right now it is still busy charging the battery, but it looks very pretty. Looks like I may get around to reviewing some of the stack of e-books waiting on my hard drive next year.

Speaking of which, things will be a bit more quiet around here next week than usual. I have finished reading Wild Cards I and there will be a review, probably on Friday. I'm also determined to read at least one more book and do an end of year post. Given my schedule for the next two weeks that is quite ambitious but I think I can manage that much. There ought to be a law against Christmas and New Year's Day falling in weekends I tell you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Godmakers - Frank Herbert

The Godmakers (1972) is probably one of Herbert's harder to find work. I don't know of any recent publications in English. I got my hands on a Dutch language copy December 2001 and I've been looking for a reasonably priced English copy since. A couple of weeks back I managed to get my hands on a 1973 paperback edition. It's in reasonably good shape, not bad considering it is older than I am. When I first read The Godmakers in 2001 I was quite impressed with some of the ideas Herbert used in his work. It was the first book other than the Dune series I'd read by him. After this reread, having a few more book by Herbert under my belt, I'm afraid it is not one of the better ones.

A great war has left the galaxy reeling. Contact with many words was lost in this era of violence and humanity is still trying to pick up the pieces. Determined to prevent another outburst of war, each rediscovered world is thoroughly checked for signs of warlike activities. Re-education is imposed on those deemed salvageable, in some cases, al planet buster is the only known cure. Field agent Lewis Orne is sent out to newly rediscovered planets to judge is superficially peaceful societies are what they appear to be. Orne is soon noted for his unusual observations and deep insights. As he is sent more challenging assignments, is soon becomes clear that he is on a path that may take him beyond humanity, to godhood itself.

The Godmakers is a fixup novel, consists of four short stories: You Take the High Road (Astounding, May 1958), Missing Link (Astounding, February 1959), Operation Haystack (Astounding, May 1959) and The Priests of Psi (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, February 1960). Of two of these stories to copyright has apparently expired. Missing Link and Operation Haystack are available on ManyBooks. They've also been recently published as a paperback by Phoenix Picks. One or more of these stories also appear in the various collections of Frank Herbert's short fiction that have been published over the years. Again, these are not easy to come by, all of these collections are decades out of print.

The novel clearly shows that the book indeed consists of four separate pieces. Personally, I think some more effort to bridge them smoothly would have done this novel a world of good. Perhaps this was a bit of a rush job, In 1972, Herbert's ambitious mainstream novel Soul Catcher appeared as well and the first instalments of Hellstrom's Hive, serialized in Galaxy in 1972 and 1973 and published as a novel in 1973, were also in the works. The stories offer brief snapshots of Orne's development but sometimes the jumps can be jarring, particularly between the Operation Haystack and Priests of Psi sections of the novel. I thought the last section of the book, which relies much more on religious themes had a decidedly different tone than the other sections.

The part of the novel I most enjoyed was the first section. In You Take the High Road Herbert examines how there are clues of military activity in the most basic elements of our lives. Orne sees hints in the way roads are constructed, the way production is organized and what kind of games and sports we play, to name a few things. Much more subtle signs than political power structures, fortifications or standing armies. Another interesting thought is the hoe and handle argument. I'm not entirely sure who thought of this but I've seen it before in various guises. Basically it states that by creating interdependency, with one side specializing in, and only able to, produce the hoe, and the other the handle, war is much less likely to occur. Now keep in mind that these stories were written in the late 1950s, a time when WWII was a fresh memory and the great political experiment that resulted in the European Union took off, which is partially bases on the same idea. In a way, Lewis Orne is the personification of the cry "Never again!"

Later on in the novel, Herbert leans more on the idea that it is not god who made man but man who makes gods. Orne, on his way to become a man-made god, is put though a number of spiritual tests in order to show him his true power. The text becomes increasingly philosophical here, with passages that will no doubt offend the more dogmatic believers in a number of religions. Another idea that is shows up in more of his works, is the creation of religions for specific purposes. It's a theme that shows up in Dune for instance, but also in the Destination: Void series. The concept is an interesting one but I think the way he uses it in his other novels works better.

The Godmakers is not a great novel, I consider it as something of a study for Herbert's later works. The concepts that show up in Dune are the most obvious but I also think Orne is something of a proto-Jorj X. McKie, the main character in the novels Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. A lot of the short fiction Herbert produced where his sandbox. He played around with ideas that would later develop into his strongest novels. Trying to patch four of these stories together and calling it a novel has not worked particularly well in this case. Still, in Herbert's oeuvre as a whole, these short stories were a significant step in his development as a writer. From that angle, they are still more than worth reading.

Book Details
Title: The Godmakers
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Berkley Medallion Books
Pages: 221
Year: 1973
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-425-02344-3
First published: 1972

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another book in the Mail

It really is almost Christmas. Today another book I requested arrived. Harbringer of the Storm, the sequel to Aliette de Bodard's debut novel Servant of the Underworld, landed on the doormat. It will be published in January 2011 so I'll try to read and review it before the end of the year.

Publisher Angry Robot has published a number of unusual books last year. Things that don't quite meet the well-established conventions of the genre, books that would ordinarily not receive much attention. Not everything they publish will be universally loved but it certainly good to see a publisher take a chance on some interesting titles.

From the publisher:
The year is Two House and the Mexica Empire teeters on the brink of destruction, lying vulnerable to the flesh-eating star-demons – and to the return of their creator, a malevolent goddess only held in check by the Protector God’s power.

The council is convening to choose a new emperor, but when a councilman is found dead, only Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, can solve the mystery.

When he hears rumours of a sinister cabal of sorcerors he must face up to demons, not all of them his own.

I'll be back tomorrow with a review of a Frank Herbert classic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stonewielder - Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is the third novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that runs parallel to Steven Erikson's massive series Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. In his first novel, Night of Knives, Esslemont provided something of a prologue to the entire series, before embarking on a larger project in Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder is set after the events in Return of the Crimson Guard and takes us to the rarely seen continent of Korel, carrying over the storyline of Kyle and Greymane from the previous novel. At a little over 600 pages it is not quite as epic as Esslemont's previous attempt, something that has fixed a number of the problems Return of the Crimson Guard showed. This is definitely Esslemont's best yet.

Years ago the Malazan Empire attempted to conquer the Korel subcontinent. The Malazan 6th army was dispatched and failed to do the job, instead setting up a kingdom for themselves and dismissing their commander. Now, the newly risen emperor means to correct this and he enlists the old commander of the previous invasion, Greymane, to do it. Soon, preparations for a new invasion are in full swing. The emperor lends some of his best remaining commanders to the project, including the famous Admiral Nok and one of the last mages the Malazan Empire can still call upon. This time there will be no mistake.

In the mean time the Stormwatch, weakened by shortages of men and supplies prepares for another season defending Korel's Stormwall against their ancient enemy, the inhuman Stormriders. It does not appear that help is forthcoming. Most of the subcontinent is on edge because of the emergence of a new religious cult. For millennia the Goddess that has protected the land and the Stormwall has been the dominant cult, suppression all other religious movements and even access to warrens. Her control is about to be challenged by a popular movement beyond anything seen on in the long history of her rule.

It's difficult to fit this book in the time line of the entire series. Over the course of the series there are some apparent contradictions in Erikson's books, especially Toll of the Hounds. I'd say Stonewielder is set after events in The Bonehunters, Return of the Crimson Guard. It probably set after Reaper's Gale as well, although this novel is set on an entirely different continent so it is hard to tell. It may overlap with Toll of the Hounds, but as I mentioned above, I'm still not to clear on when events in that book actually take place. Before taking on this book it is probably best to have read Return of the Crimson Guard and Erikson's books up to Reapers Gale before tackling this one. I don't think reading Erikson beyond book seven will not spoil this novel for you however.

Set almost entirely on the relatively isolated Korel subcontinent, Stonewielder is definitely one of the more focussed Malazan novels. A lot of the earlier books in the series are spread out all over the Malazan world and its warrens. This book only has one minor story line that does not tie into events in Korel. It involves Kiska, whom you may remember as one of the main characters in Night of Knives. She sets out in search of the missing mage Tayschrenn. This thread felt like a bit of a loose end for me, no doubt Esslemont means to continue her story. Although it follows up on events in Return of the Crimson Guard, it would have been nice if this story line had been a bit more relevant to events in the rest of the novel. I guess it doesn't help that the whole affair ends on a bit of a cliffhanger either.

Despite the military campaign being the focus of the book, Esslemont takes quite a different approach than in the previous novel. Relying more on divine intervention and magic that on military skills, this book is in some was the opposite of Return of the Crimson Guard. In that book, the large scale military action that formed the climax of the novel was almost too much of a good thing. This time around, the story relies less on the military action, instead showing a society crumble from its very foundations. Throughout the novel you can feel the rigid control the Lady exerts on Korel begin to crack. A situation that appears to be as robust as the very foundations of the Stormwall, escalates with incredible speed. I found this process of collapse one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel.

Another aspect of the novel I enjoyed is the pacifist theme in the book. The main religious movement challenging the rule of the Blessed Lady, is lead by the pacifist Toblakai Invanr (it has to be said though, he is dragged in kicking and screaming). Makes you wonder what Karsa would make of that. For a series that features quite a lot of battles and other forms of physical violence, that is quite an unexpected turn of events. His convictions are put to the test when he is swept up in events that can only lead to bloodshed. I thought he was one of the more interesting characters in the book. As with many of the key players in the entire series, he obviously has a past which is only partially revealed in the novel. Would be nice to learn some more of him in later books.

All in all I was quite impressed with this novel. Esslemont opens up another part of the Malazan universe we had yet to explore and does so in a more tightly plotted novel than his previous books. He manages this without loosing any of the complexities of Malazan world or the shades of grey that makes the series rise above the mass of epic fantasy novels. Perhaps not quite as much fireworks as in Return of the Crimson Guard, some readers might be disappointed by that, but definitely a worthy entry into the series. Looking forward to more Malazan goodness when Erikson's final novel in the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God, appears next year.

Book Details
Title: Stonewielder
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 634
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06444-3
First published: 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In the Mail

Now I don't normally do these kinds of posts because... well, normally there isn't anything in the mail I didn't order myself. But this week there is. A nice Christmas present by Tor containing the following books, both edited by George R.R. Martin:

From the publisher:
Back in print after a decade, expanded with new original material, this is the first volume of George R. R. Martin’s Wild cards shared-world series

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

Originally published in 1987,
Wild Cards I includes powerful tales by Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Howard Waldrop, Lewis Shiner, and George R. R. Martin himself. And this new, expanded edition contains further original tales set at the beginning of the Wild Cards universe, by eminent new writers like Hugo–winner David Levine, noted screenwriter and novelist Michael Cassutt, and New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.
I specifically expressed interest in this book so there will be a review as soon as I can manage, probably sometime next week. I've read the latest three Wild Cards books by Martin and his consortium last year and I as impressed with Inside Straight in particular good to see the first part of this long running series in print again.

From the publisher:
To honor the magnificent career of Jack Vance, one unparalleled in achievement and impact, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, with the full cooperation of Vance, his family, and his agents, have created a Jack Vance tribute anthology:Songs of the Dying Earth. The best of today's fantasy writers to return to the unique and evocative milieu of The Dying Earth, from which they and so many others have drawn so much inspiration, to create their own brand-new adventures in the world of Jack Vance’s greatest novel.

Half a century ago, Jack Vance created the world of the Dying Earth, and fantasy has never been the same. Now, for the first time ever, Jack has agreed to open this bizarre and darkly beautiful world to other fantasists, to play in as their very own. To say that other fantasy writers are excited by this prospect is a gross understatement; one has told us that he'd crawl through broken glass for the chance to write for the anthology, another that he'd gladly give up his right arm for the privilege. That's the kind of regard in which Jack Vance and The Dying Earth are held by generations of his peers.

This book contains original stories from George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Moon, Tanith Lee, Tad Williams, Kage Baker, and Robert Silverberg, along with fifteen others--as well as an introduction by Dean Koontz.
This book came along with the Wild Cards one. I already own a the Subterranean edition and I must admit it has been gathering dust on the to read stack for a while now. Don't hold your breath for a review, I am not making promises regarding this one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

World's End - Mark Chadbourn

I've been a wee bit busy this week, with a labour law exam and a new kitchen being placed on Monday and Tuesday. I've managed to read quite a lot of Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont but it doesn't look like I'll finish it in time for a review this weekend. Instead I am running this older review. It was written in April 2009 and as usual, it needed a bit of editing. I'll put the second part of this trilogy up on Random Comments as well some time in the next year.

World’s End by Mark Chadbourn is the first book in the Age of Misrule trilogy. The book was first published in the UK in 1999 and in 2009 Pyr has released all three in with about a month between them for the American market. The trilogy is set in the UK, probably just before the end the 20th century. Although in some ways it is a typical fantasy novel, the choice of characters and the use of contemporary British English set it apart somewhat. Which is what saves the novel from mediocrity, thematically it is not ground breaking.

Nobody knows it yet, but the world as we know it is about to end. After millennia of absence the Faery are back in town. Some of the darker elements among the Faery are preparing to take over the world. Their presence is still unnoticed by most of the population but strange things are happening all across Britain. Jack “Church” Churchill and Ruth Gallagher are unfortunate enough to witness one of these strange occurrences. What seems to be an ordinary murder at first glance clearly has a supernatural aspect to it. When Ruth and Church begin to understand what is going on, they wish they’d never found out.

Soon the two of them find themselves on the run from all manner of supernatural beings trying to silence them. Fate has another role in store for them though. Ruth and Church are the first two members of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, a group of people bound to the land and humanity’s only hope of survival. While the darker elements of the Faery are already loose, the only force that can oppose them is still bound. It is up to the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons to free them. To do that they need for ancient artefacts hidden in several places in Britain and they need to do it before the Beltane festival. With all manner of monsters in hot pursuit and time running out, a desperate search for the artefacts begins.

So… a group of unlikely heroes in search of mystic artefacts that will help them save the world from eternal darkness. All pretty standard D&D stuff really, the only thing that is missing is the pseudo-medieval setting. Still, I am pretty sure that if you like that sort of thing, this will not be the book you are looking for. Chadbourn’s story is firmly rooted in our present world, with characters who are very reluctant to release their troublesome everyday lives. They are half believing things will go back the way they were on the one hand, and pitying those who do not yet know things will never be the same again on the other.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Dragons are not a happy bunch. Each of them is dissatisfied with their life in some way and deep down, none of them really want the world to return to normal. All of them feel guilty, usually related to a (violent) death in their surroundings. Perhaps that makes them a bit more likely to eventually embrace their new world, especially when they find out the deaths are not a coincidence. The way they discuss this in British English, using a lot of slang at times, really drives home how different British English and American English is. Schools around here teach British English but we are exposed to American English a lot more, blurring the lines for a second language speaker. I guess it takes a native speaker to demonstrate the difference.

There is a library full of fantasy books out there that rely on Celtic mythology as a theme or source of inspiration but I have rarely read a book that does it so thoroughly. Chadbourn introduces us in rapid succession to a number of mythical creatures, gods and objects, usually accompanied with a brief explanation by Tom, the man who serves as a guide to the brothers and sisters. The Wild Hunt, the Green Man, Lugh, the Maiden/Mother/Crone, the Formorians, the Tuatha Dé Danann and of course the Arthurian legend are all worked into the story in one way or another. Many of these will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers of fantasy, several of these figures are used in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for instance. It may sound familiar but not many authors explore these myths to the extent Chadbourn does.

All this Celtic myth does not slow the story down however, Chadbourn takes us at the speed of a car chase through a number of locations significant in Celtic Mythology and the Arthurian legend. I have visited a number of these locations myself twenty years ago (Dartmoor, Tintagel, Stonehenge). Chadbourn’s description of the places and the route the party takes is described in such a way it would be possible to track down for the real fanatic reader. The way he describes a number of places I haven’t seen, Glastonbury in particular, makes me wish we had taken a detour back then.

What to make of World’s End? After reading it I am left with mixed feelings. There are aspects of the story I liked a lot. Chadbourn is obviously very versed in Celtic mythology and he uses this to great effect in the novel. He also makes sure not to make his story into a black and white, good versus evil kind of book. On the other hand the plot is pretty standard in fantasy. I didn’t entirely escape the feeling I had read this book before. The final part of the book suggests the plot of the second part in the trilogy, Darkest Hour, will be more interesting. For me that is enough to tip the balance, I guess I am on board of book two.

Book Details
Title: World's End
Author: Mark Chadbourn
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 419
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-739-3
First published: 1999

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foundation and Empire - Isaac Asimov

In my effort to get better acquainted with the classics of Science Fiction I read Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation in October. It was not a bad read but I can't say I was impressed with this collection of five tales centred on the decline and fall of a galactic empire. I've decided to see this through and at least read the original trilogy. Not sure if I really want to wade into the maze of sequels, prequels and books in the series written by other authors. Foundation and Empire is the second book in the original trilogy and was first published in 1952. It contains only two, loosely connected stories both of which are set after the events in Foundation. Both stories were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945.

The first story, The General, deals with the inevitable confrontation between Foundation and the dying Galactic Empire. The Empire may be in full decline, it still commands the resources of the centre of the galaxy and when a strong emperor and ambitions general rise to the occasion, there appears to be some spirit left yet. Foundation is heading for a new Seldon crisis.
In the second story, The Mule, deals with an threat to Foundation Seldon apparently did not foresee. A rebellion against Foundation lead by a mysterious general nicknamed The Mule is making rapid progress through Foundation space. Rumours of superhuman strength and ability precede the Mule and his rebels. What if Seldon's psychohistory is not as accurate as the people on Foundation like to believe?

The fact that it contains only two stories, instead of the five contained in Foundation, make it more of a novel than a short story collection. It allows Asimov to add a bit more flesh to the bare bones of the stories presented in the first book. I'm still not terribly impressed by the writing though. It is marginally more descriptive than in the previous book but it is still a lot of dialogue. As a consequence, there is still a lot of taking the reader by the hand and walk him/her through the story going on, but I do get the feeling Asimov is asking some more interesting questions here. Foundation was, in a way, repetitive, with the outcome of a crises more or less predetermined. In Foundation and Empire, Asimov uses this predictability as a theme in the novel.

Asimov examines the related concepts of determinism and free will in this second book of the series (for another excellent take on these concepts see The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson). Seldon's psychohistory claims to very accurately predict the major developments in galactic history, making Foundation believe that although there are not guarantees for individuals, even leaders, the organisation will survive whatever crisis is thrown at it. So far, Seldon has been proven right every time. History plays out as he predicted, it appears to be predetermined. Which raises the question, why bother to get all worked up about some hotshot Empire general doomed to fail anyway? How much room does Seldon leave for free will? What of the belief that some people can indeed change the course of events by being in the right place at the right time? Is the inertia of the galaxy so great that is rolls right over individual initiative? Some pretty uncomfortable questions to ask in a country that follows a dream rooted in individualism.

So then, how do we put Seldon's theory to a real test? One technique used in science is to challenge his assumptions. And it appears Seldon made quite a few to make is models work. For one thing, he assumes that people will be people, now and in the future, and that their behaviour will remain predictable. He also assumes that no individual can have a measurable effect on the course of history. But once in a while, nature throws in a wild card, one that is very hard to foresee. The Mule, with all his rumoured special abilities, fits the bill admirably. He is many things but most likely, he is not human. So now the unpredictable side of nature is pitted against Seldon's deterministic view of the future. It's definitely the most interesting challenge psychohistory has come across.

I guess I feel that Asimov is beginning to put his idea to a serious test in this novel and that alone makes it more interesting that the previous book. It still suffers from the flaws that many books from this era possess. Cardboard characters, sexism (there is actually a woman in this novel but the way she's portrayed will most likely not meet with the approval of the modern female reader), simplistic plot and in Asimov's case, dreadfully straightforward language. Still, I think he's beginning to grow on me a bit. It'll be interesting to see where Asimov takes his story next. From the ending of this book I'd say he isn't done with the Mule yet.

Book Details
Title: Foundation and Empire
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 244
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80372-3
First published: 1952

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Gypsy - Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm

I've been trying to round up the books by Megan Lindholm (perhaps better known under her pseudonym Robin Hobb) still missing in my library. Of the ten novels that appeared under the name Megan Lindholm owned six at the beginning of the year, the four Ki and Vandien books and the duology about Tillu and Kerlew. I found a copy of her excellent science fiction novel Alien Earth earlier this year and I expect to receive a copy of Wizard of the Pigeons later this week. The Gypsy was also still available which means the only one I am still missing is Cloven Hooves. Looks like that one is out of print but I haven't given up hope on finding a copy yet. The Gypsy is, as far as I know, the only collaboration Lindholm has been involved in. She wrote it with Steven Brust, best known for his Vlad Taltos novels. I haven't read anything by him but judging from the other Lindholm books I've read, his influence on this story is very noticeable.

Experienced police man Mike Stepovich ans his green partner Durand apprehend a gypsy suspected of murdering a shopkeeper. Stepovich immediately notices something strange about the gypsy and does something he's never done in his long career. He fails to turn in the knife the gypsy is carrying. Somehow he knows the gypsy is not the murderer and the knife is special. Later that night, the gypsy disappears without a trace from the police cell they are holding him in. Murder investigations are not the territory of an ordinary patrol cop but this case does not let him go, especially when the body of an old gypsy woman turns up. Again, the suspect Stepovich and his partner arrested, seems to be involved and Stepovich is determined to find him. His search will lead him into a supernatural power struggle the existence of which he never suspected.

The Gypsy (1992) is an Urban Fantasy novel from before the hijacking of the sub genre by perky, vampire-slaying, werewolf-dating, power-girls. It is set in the late 1980s and it mixes Hungarian folklore (which I assume to be part of Brust's input) with a small town US setting. From what I can tell, it received some very mixed reviews over the years. I guess it is not an easy book to like. I'm not sure about Brust but it is very different from the other novels that Megan Lindholm wrote for one thing. It is also a multi-layered novel, demanding that the reader pay close attention to what is going on. Both for the police procedural and the fantasy part of the book. Personally I think it is a very interesting piece of writing but al lot of people will probably decide it is not their cup of tea.

The multi-layered aspects of the novel is something I very much liked about The Gypsy. The whole novel is structured to let the reader move between the real world and a fantasy realm, with the emphasis of the story slowly moving from the first to the latter. The characters have different names for both settings (Stepovich is referred to as the Wolf for instance) and the time indications that head the different sections of a chapter are adapted accordingly, from very precise (05 Nov 17:30) to suitably mysterious (Late Autumn, Half Moon, Waxing). Only the chapters names themselves are firmly in the fantasy realm, referring to the fantasy names of the characters. The different names of the characters can be a bit confusion early on in the novel, but the novel contains enough hints to figure out who is who early on.

Apart from an indication of the time, each of the sections is also preceded by a few lines of song lyrics. They form another interesting part of the novel. These lyrics were written by Brust and Adam Temple and later put to music and recorded by a band named Boiled in Lead. The album appeared in 1995 under the title Songs from the Gypsy, I understand it's a mix of rock and folk with Celtic influences. I haven't had a chance to dig for this music yet, but the lyrics make me suspect it could be a very nice album.

The number of characters Brust and Lindholm need to tell this story is probably a bit much for a relatively short novel. The reader barely gets time to get acquainted with them all, let alone be swept away by the romance between Laurie and the Raven, to really dive into the complex relationship between Stepovich, his former partner Ed and his current partner Durand or the history of the Gypsy and the Fair Lady. It's not the characters that reach out the reader in the book but more the elements of the story, the form the authors choose and the fluidity with which reality changes for the characters. If you are a very character oriented reader, then this book is probably not going to work for you. I still think it is a very fine piece of writing.

I have no idea how someone who is familiar with Brust's other novels would experience this but like with the previous Megan Lindholm novel I read, I feel the author has taken a direction she hasn't taken before. The variety in style, voice and theme of the Megan Lindholm novels is a lot greater than her work as Robin Hobb. Some people interpret this as the author looking for her voice, personally I think Lindholm's talent runs a lot deeper than the Hobb books show (and I enjoyed those an awful lot). I'm looking forward to seeing what an Urban Fantasy novel by Lindholm looks like without the input of another author.

Book Details
Title: The Gypsy
Author: Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 272
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-31192-4
First published: 1992