Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obligatory End of Year Post

Well, it has certainly been an eventfully year for me on all fronts and reviewing was no exception. I most certainly didn't expect to be running my own book blog by august of this year. In a way I still wish it would have turned out differently. On the other hand it has been a liberating experience as well so I can't complain. I'm thinking about changing a few things next year but nothing definite yet.

So how did I do? Well, I read 93 books this year, which is more than I expected and certainly more than I expect to be able to manage next year. These 93 books resulted in a total of 79 reviews. Not a bad total but there is one thing thing I mean to improve on in 2010. A review for each book I read if I can manage. Of those 79 reviews 51 can be found on this blog. The remaining 27 are in the archives of BSCreview. I guess I speeded up a little in the second half of the year.

Best of 2009

Like last year, I am going to name the best books I have read during the year. Which is not the same as the best books of 2009. Out of the 93 books I read only 25 were actually published in 2009 so there is really no way I could even make a guess at what the best books of the year are. History will tell no doubt. To avoid any confusion I'll add the year the book was first published in this list. They are listed in no particular order.

  1. The Dosadi Experiment - Frank Herbert (1977)
    This book is my favourite Frank Herbert novel. Concise yet wonderfully complex it captures the best of what made his science fiction a great read.

  2. Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey (2009)
    This book surprised me. After a number of Kushiel books I didn't like all that much, Carey tries her hand at something completely different and the result is a joy to read.

  3. The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (2009)
    Finishing someone else's work usually an unenviable task. The way Sanderson handles Jordan's creation makes him deserve every bit of praise this book got.

  4. River of Gods - Ian McDonald (2004)
    I read four books by McDonald this year, they could all have made this list. River of Gods is the most accessible. The authors imagination and prose make it into an unforgettable reading experience.

  5. Boneshaker - Cherie Priest (2009)
    My first foray into Steampunk. This is one cool novel!

  6. An Autumn War - Danial Abraham (2008)
    In my opinion the best book in Abraham's Long Price quartet, some of the best fantasy of recent years.

  7. The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
    One of the most anticipated books in 2009 for me. Bacigalupi's fascinating and terrifying future lived up to my expectations.

  8. Tuf Voyaging - George R.R. Martin (1986)
    Tuf is probably one of Martin's best creations, this book collects all the Tuf stories. The change in his character over the course of the book is brilliantly done.

  9. Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson (2009)
    Robinson's portrayal of the father of modern science is just outstanding.

  10. The Apex Book of World SF - Lavie Tidhar ed. (2009)
    This collection of science fiction in the widest possible interpretation of the term contains some great short stories from around the world.

Most Popular Reviews

Looking at traffic this blog is still tiny but each month the numbers inch up a bit. Almost 60 percent of my visitors are from the US and the Netherlands. The rest is mostly form various places in Europe, Canada and Brazil. About 50 percent are from English-speaking nations, a quarter from the Dutch-speaking corner of the world. I've reached the conclusion that a little networking wouldn't hurt in trying to improve the numbers but since I have no idea when to actually do this without skipping sleep entirely, I'm afraid the numbers will have to take care of themselves for now. The most popular reviews on Random Comments this year were:
  1. The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
  2. Dust of Dreams - Steven Erikson
  3. The Apex Book of World SF - Lavie Tidhar ed.
  4. Boneshaker - Cherie Priest
  5. Time Out - Various authors
  6. Shadow's Edge - Brent Weeks
  7. The Way of Shadows - Brent Weeks
  8. Het bouwplan - F.H. van Dongen
  9. Magií of Cyador - L.E. Modesitt Jr.
  10. Black Trilium - Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May, Andre Norton
The top book doesn't actually come as a surprise. It was one of the biggest releases of the year. There are some interesting things about this list however. Fantasy does better than SF. I guess given the sales figures of both genres that is not surprising. Something that may have influenced the list is that six out of these ten got a link on Fantasy Book News and Reviews in one of Jeff's Today in Fantasy posts. His blog directs a lot of traffic to Random Comments so I owe him a big thank you. Any way I can convince you to try science fiction Jeff?

Numbers five and eight are books only available in Dutch. Apparently the little networking I did do on a number of Dutch fantasy forums did work. As I mentioned above only about a quarter of the readers are from the Dutch-speaking part of the world so I am still a little surprised that any of the Dutch only books made the list. The Apex Book of World SF is also a surprise. I put this review up on December 27th and it got more hits in the first 24 hours than most reviews get in total. I guess I am going to have to keep paying attention to books from outside the English-speaking world.

Looking ahead to 2010

Which books am I looking froward to... Too many books to actually read next year I guess. I have two huge tomes by Dan Simmons on the to read stack, I mean to read at least one of them. Same goes for the three Edward Rutherfurd books still waiting to be read. I also intend to have a go at China Mieville's The Scar. As for 2010 publications, there's quite a few I have my eye on. I'm looking forward to Ian McDonald's Dervish House, the next Wheel of Time book Towers of Midnight, the final book in Steven Erikson's Malazan series The Crippled God. I'm curious to see what tales Cherie Priest has in store for us in her Clockwork Century and I can't wait to read the final part of Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles. I also intend to read a few more classics of the genre. In other words plenty to do next year.

A happy new year to all of you! I hope to see you all around on Random Comments or elsewhere in the blogsphere. I promise to be a little more active commenting on the various blogs I visit.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hybrids - Robert J. Sawyer

I was hoping to finish Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax in 2009 and I have managed in the nick of time. This is going to be the last review of the year. Hybrids continues the story of Sawyer's parallel Neanderthal populated world he began to reveal in his award winning novel Hominids. I thought Hominids was an interesting novel but the sequel Humans turned out to be not nearly as good. I'm afraid Hybrids doesn't manage to get us back to the level of Hominids. It's a decent read but he takes some elements introduced earlier in the trilogy too far to be believable. Before reading any further, be advised I have some things to say about this book that could be considered spoilers.

The political disaster in the second book that almost lead to the permanent closure of the connection between our own earth and the Neanderthal world has been successfully averted. Some of the most highly regarded Neanderthal scientists, artists and philosophers have crossed over to freely share their knowledge with humans and see what they can learn in return. Almost everybody seem happy with the way events have turned out yet some people remain cautious. Neanderthal society is very different from ours, its technology could threaten a number of liberties western society takes for granted.

Mary in the mean time is trying to figure out how to deal with her relationship with Ponter. He may be a wonderful man, he does come with ties to a man-mate as well as two daughters. She may be liberal by the standard of the catholic faith, there are some elements in Neanderthal society she finds very hard to accept. And there is another problem. Mary has proven Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal are genetically different species. They will never be able to have children the natural way. There is a piece of Neanderthal technology that could help them but it has recently been banned by the Neanderthal government. Mary intends to find it anyway.

As with the previous two volumes, Sawyer stuffs a lot of science and speculation into this work. We find out more about Neanderthal society, which in some ways seems to perfect to be true. On the other hand this is the third book, Sawyer is already committed to most of those elements in the story at this point. There is a quite a bit on genetics and also a lot of speculation on the way the human brain works. One of the researchers Mary and Ponter meet studies the areas of the brain that are associated with religious experiences. She is even able to activate these parts of the brain in a controlled experiment. Ponter shows no reaction at all, Neanderthals seem to lack whatever it is that makes Homo Sapiens religious.

As with the previous volumes I thought a lot of the scientific ideas presented in the book very interesting. I am not thrilled by how he used two of these elements however. The first one is the piece of Neanderthal technology that allows one to sequence DNA and RNA one base pair at a time if you so desire. I was completely baffled by Mary's naiveté in this matter. How can the truly enormous potential for abuse be so completely ignored by a trained geneticist? Science is not the main thing on Mary's mind in this book but certainly all those years of training should kick in at some point. Handing over banned technology to someone who has spend his life trying to outsmart the Russians in war game scenarios is simply beyond stupid.

The second thing that really bothers me about the story is the storyline dealing with the scientific explanation of religious feelings. I am not religious myself, in fact, I think there is something to say for the Neanderthal view on such matters presented in this book but I think it could have been dealt with in a slightly more subtle fashion. The reduction of a religious experience to a series of electromagnetic pulses in the brain on an experimental scale will not sit well with some people, the massive scale on which this occurs at the end of the novel under the influence of fluctuations the earth's magnetic field, seems to be almost deliberately provocative. Now there is nothing wrong with making people think about these things, it is a science fiction novel after all, but I fail to see why the story needs this epilogue. Mary is rapidly loosing faith in the Catholic church this book, the epilogue seems designed to drive the point home. She was right to doubt.

Despite its flaws I did enjoy reading the Neanderthal Parallax and its final volume Hybrids at some level but I very much doubt they represent Sawyer's best work. Hybrids is a fast paced novel rich in ideas and scientific concepts but with a rather unlikely plot. I guess it shows that it takes more than a good premise and fascinating ideas to write a really good science fiction novel. If you are like me, unable to put down a trilogy once you started, then this book is very readable but I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone less stubborn.

Book Details
Title: Hybrids
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 396
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4675-9
First published: 2003

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Apex Book of World SF - Lavie Tidhar

One argument in the (completely pointless) debate on whether or not science fiction is dying is that the genre is a very anglophone affair. I'm not entirely sure I agree with that statement. Simply because Science Fiction does not get translated into English does not mean it isn't written and published outside the English speaking nations. There is an extra hurdle though and that is the size of the market. Science Fiction is a niche market and it is becoming more so every year. To sustain a population of professional writers you need quite a few people who read science fiction. English can provide that, many other languages cannot. I don't know of of any author writing in Dutch who can make a living writing science fiction or even fantasy.

There are several strategies to deal with this problem. A first group simply keeps their day job or supplement their income with other activities in the publishing world. A second group writes mainstream literature or other, more profitable, genres and throws in a work of science fiction once in a while. A third group attempts to write in English, translates their own work or has their work translated to reach a wider audience. Writing speculative fiction in a small language is hard but that certainly doesn't stop people. There's is quite a bit out there if you know where to look. The Apex Book of World SF collects a number of stories from around the world. Most of these writers have adopted the third strategy. Some of the sixteen stories were written in English, three were translated by the author and in three cases the translator is named in the copyright information. I have been looking around for quality Dutch genre fiction with limited but encouraging success, it only makes sense to see what is on offer in the rest of the world.

The Apex Book of World SF is a very mixed collection, containing stories that could be seen as horror, fantasy, science fiction and even surrealistic literature. As usual with these kinds of collections I didn't enjoy all stories in equal measure. In fact, there were a few that didn't appeal to me a whole lot. The stories that did were the majority though. I'm not going to write down my thoughts on each of them, this review is going to be too long as it is, but I'll mention some of the highlights.

The collection opens with The Bird Catcher by Thai S.P. Somtow. It's an award winning story and deservedly so. The Bird Catcher describes a visit of an old man and his grandson to a museum where the remains of a notorious serial killer are on display. The grandfather takes his grandson to tell the horrific tale of this criminal and his own part in the criminal's story. It's a horrific tale about a traumatized boy who has witnessed the horrors of the fighting in the second world war in China. Somtow does not spare the reader the details but the what I liked most about the story is how the main character deals with complicity and guilt and how the grandson is not impressed with what to him is ancient history. If you look past the horror it is a very sad tale, one with an unbelievably complex tangle of emotions in the main character.

Transcendence Express by Jetse de Vries is one story I was particularly interested in, partly because the author is Dutch and partly because of a number articles and interviews I read online. De Vries is a man with an opinion. A scientist (illegally) brings quantum computing to a poor nation in Africa and thus heralds the end of development aid. The concept is very interesting indeed but de Vries does take rather big strides. I think there is a longer work hidden in this story. The consequences of the actions of the scientist are enormous but wouldn't it be nice to be able to grow your own computer?

The collection contains two stories from Chinese authors. Wizard World by Yang Ping is the one I like best. By the end of this century a vast MUD occupies the time of millions of people around the world. The main character is one of them. He hasn't been outside his apartment for three years. When his carefully developed character is killed a strange series of events is set in motion that will chance the main character's life. This is one for all you World of Warcraft addicts out there. I thought the rising panic in when the main character's work is wiped out in a instant was particularly well done.

One of the two Israeli contributions is the collection's most disturbing story by far. Cinderer by Nir Yaniv is about arson made into an art form. Right from the beginning it is clear there is something very wrong with the main characters. The reference to Donald Duck, the complete lack of guilt or even acknowledgement of the loss of human lives and careful build up to the point where the reader fully realizes what is wrong with the main characters is chilling. The author uses a number of story elements to make this story disturbing but it is the structure he chooses to tell the tale that really makes it work for me. The use of repetitions and changing from one character's point of view to the next in particular.

The Lost Xuyan Bride by Aliette de Bodard is set in an alternate version of North America where the continent was not only colonized from the Europe but also from China. As a result the American west is now an independent state culturally heavily influenced by China. As a result of the Chinese and Europeans clashing, Mexico has retained an Aztec culture. Throughout the reader can feel the tension between these three very different cultures. The story itself is detective story. A lonely American PI in Xuyan is hired to find the daughter of one of the influential families in the country. The plot is good but I admire this story most for the excellent worldbuilding.

The last story I want to mention is Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang by Kristin Mandigma. It is one of the two contributions from the Philippines. I admit I needed the help of wikipedia to figure out what an Aswang was. You probably need a passing familiarity with left wing politics to fully appreciate this but it is absolutely hilarious. The combination of the spot on socialist jargon, the angry tone of the letter and the way the author takes on the merits of Heinlein's Starship Troopers had me laughing out loud. A brief but very strong contribution to the collection.

So how successful is this collection? As the editor points out in the introduction the The Apex Book of World SF is geographically speaking incomplete. The focus is mostly on Europe and Asia so there is much more territory to explore. Tidhar has managed to gather a bunch of quality stories though, and he hints that this may be the first part of a larger project. What he has presented so far certainly leads me to believe there are more of such jewels to be uncovered outside the anglophone sphere of Science Fiction. I certainly hope that The Apex Book of World SF will be successful enough to allow more ventures into world SF.

For those of you who like to be informed on this topic, some of the people behind this publication have set up a news blog here.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 287
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9821596-3-7
First published: 2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

Promise of the Wolves - Dorothy Hearst

One of the three book stores in the city centre of Almere went under a couple of weeks ago. This is a real shame. It was not the largest of the three but it usually had the best selection of English language books. Even at the horribly inflated Dutch book prizes I sometimes could not resist. When I found out the final sale was in full progress and much of the store empty. The entire inventory was offered with a 50% discount. Amid the books that were left I found a copy of Hearst's Promise of the Wolves. I have had my eye on this book for a while, not quite sure if I would like it or not. It turns out I was right to doubt. It wasn't one of those books you can't possibly make yourself to finish but I wasn't impressed by it either.

Promise of the Wolves is a story about the relationship between man and wolf. Most of the story is set 14,000 years ago in a valley in southern Europe (according to the back cover, the book itself does not mention a specific location). Four packs of wolves share the valley with a tribe of humans. Their relationship is governed by events 40,000 years ago that was the stuff of legends. The wolves attitude towards humans is completely dominated by the lessons learnt back then. Even with the mounting tensions between wolves and humans over prey they both need to survive, the legend is strictly enforced

Until the moment on of the wolves in the Swift River pack bears a litter of pups that should not be allowed to live. Intervention form the Greatwolves, the powerful overseers of the wolf packs in the valley saves the life of one of these pups. With her mother banished from the pack Kaala now has to struggle to find her place in the pack. A pack she is prophesies to either save or utterly destroy. On top of that Kaala also finds herself attracted to humans. When she breaks a taboo of the pack and saves one of their kind her position in the pack becomes even more precarious.

The book is written largely from the point of view of the wolves and anthropomorphizes them to a large extend. If you don't like that do not pick up this book. The author is not out to write a scientifically accurate description of the social structure among wolves. She does take care to carefully give each member of the pack its own personality but I must say they never really come truly alive to me. Promise of the Wolves is a fairly short novel with quite a few characters. Even in Kaala's pack some of the characters are not that well rounded and never rise above the roles that the general public would expect of various members of a pack.

It takes quite a while for the direction of the book to become clear. At first I wondered if it was some sort of take on the domestication of dogs or perhaps that the events that sparked to legend were some take on a scientific theory on human behaviour referred to as the Great Leap Forward but neither appears to be true. There are some vague, and in my opinion inaccurate, references to ecological principles in what the wolves call the balance. Eventually the driving force behind this story turns out to be entirely supernatural which I must admit was a bit of a disappointment.

The story is based on the idea that there is a connection between wolf and man. They are hunters we both admire and fear. Not killing by brute force but applying cunning tactics to bring down prey many times their size. Logically speaking this is a one sided affair of course. This connection is all in the head of a human. By choosing show the story from the wolf's point of view Hearst had the opportunity to explore what the other side of this relationship might look like. Whether you like a more spiritual or scientific approach to this, the book fails to do so. One unlikely occurrence in the prologue and a twisted legend among wolves do not make a solid basis to explain the behaviour of the Swift River pack.

Kaala's attraction to humans is a good example of this. Intellectually we know that her approaching humans is about a s smart as me sticking my hand in a roaring fire. She does so anyway. She feels compelled to do so. The reader has to accept this completely unnatural behaviour of wolves without any explanation why she does this. Anthropomorphizing is something I can live with but if you are make changes this radical, I need some sort of rationale. On the other end there are some problems too. Humans living in the same area as wolves generally have a healthy respect for their power. If you encounter one on your own, trying to be friends with it is not at the top of the list of possible reactions yet many of the human characters accept the presence of wolves easily.

Maybe Hearst means to explore some of these things in subsequent books, Promise of the Wolves is the first in a trilogy, but in this part I just didn't feel the story made much sense. The book is very readable and touching at times but overall I thought it was a disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: Promise of the Wolves
Author: Dorothy Hearst
Publisher: Pocket Books
Pages: 341
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84739-447-7
First published: 2008

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York: The Novel - Edward Rutherfurd

For some reason not entirely clear to me at the moment I attempted to read Edward Rutherfurd's latest novel in the busiest week of the year at work. I rather enjoyed a number of his books but they tend to be epic, time consuming reads. Much to my own surprise I managed to finish it in time to write the review this weekend. Rutherfurd writes historical novels using what I think of as the Mitchener approach. Instead of focusing on people the main character is the book is a place. Usually a city. In this case, as the title suggests, it is New York. His timing is impeccable. In 1609 Henry Hudson claimed the region for the Dutch, four hundred years later this event has been widely commemorated in the city.

Rutherfurd chooses to begin his history of the city a bit later than what is usually considered its founding. The book starts in 1664, when New Amsterdam is already a flourishing colony about to be taken over by the English, and takes us all the way to present day New York with an epilogue that is set in 2009. All the main characters in the book are fictional but Rutherfurd also shows us glimpses of historical figures ranging from Peter Stuyvesant to Abraham Lincoln and from Enrico Caruso to J.P. Morgan.

The backbone of the book is formed by successive generations of the fictional Master family. This family of Dutch and English origin is present in the city almost from it's founding and witnesses the growth and change of the region. As their fortune rises and falls with that of the city, they interact with many groups that have inhabited New York though the ages. Secondary characters contain members of the local Lenape tribes, Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Puerto Rican and Jewish immigrants as well as slaves and their descendants.

There is an awful lot to say on the history of New York, more even than could fit into this 860 page hardcover. The author has had to make some choices and as always these are debatable. I do not know an awful lot about the history or New York, in fact, I learned a great deal reading this book, so to me it seems Rutherfurd covers most of the important events to some degree. I found the part of the role of New York in the War of Independence particularly interesting. The Master family is torn on this subject, with one generation supporting the revolution and the other remaining loyalist. It must have been tempting to zoom out a bit and cover these great events but Rutherfurd manages to keep the story focused on the city and the influence on the revolution on the population.

He does more or less the same thing with that other great conflict on American soil, the Civil War. The general feeling in New York at the time is against going to war, even when war becomes inevitable this sentiment does not really change. I thought the chapter on the draft riots of 1863 was one of the best in the book. I guess this chapter combines the various currents in the city best. In large parts of the book, and this is one of the few points of real criticism I have on this work, Rutherfurd follows the money. The Masters are traders, bankers, brokers and generally well to do. They do suffer the occasional, and sometimes very severe, financial setback but they never quite end up in the gutter.

While to book shows us poverty the characters always seem to be able to avoid or escape the worst excesses that plagued 19th and 20th century New York. In a way it is the American dream on a smaller scale. Not everybody becomes a millionaire but real poverty is usually seen from a distance. What the novel shows to a greater extend is the downside of unrestrained capitalism. As the city goes though various cycles of booms and busts the author mercilessly exposes the corruption, appalling greed and crime associated with the big money in New York. A phenomenon that plagues the city from its earliest stages right up to Gorham Master, who has to find out the hard way that happiness cannot be expressed in dollars.

One could argue the choices the author makes in great detail. Being Dutch I would not have minded a bit more on the New Amsterdam phase of the city for instance but truth be told, the book manages very well without. No doubt some people will have some remarks of the depiction of slavery in New York. There's an awful lot more the author excluded than in the eyes of some readers warranted a place in the book. At the end of the day New York is a work of fiction though and as such it succeeds very well. Rutherfurd has written an engrossing history of the city, as far as I can tell he hasn't had to fill in a lot of blanks. His approach takes some getting used to since there is no one single character to follow and if you do like a particular character he or she is going only going to be around for a short while. The city is the star of the show and that is something the reader should not loose sight of. I think I like his novel The Forest a bit better but New York is not far behind.

Book Details
Title: New York: The Novel
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 862
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-385-52138-3
First published: 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik

Dragons are a fantasy cliché I am not particularly fond of. Not that it cannot be used to great effect but I rarely encounter books where the author gets the best out of the cliché and manages to do more with dragons than emphasizing the fantasy setting. My girlfriend on the other hand loves fantasy tales with dragons in them. There's a whole stack of McCaffrey's Pern books right behind me on a the cupboard (shelf space is a bit of a rare commodity in this house, or maybe we just own too many book). It is not altogether surprising she picked up this series a while ago and loved them. Since my to read pile mostly consists of science fiction at the moment and I was not in the mood for one of those, I picked up Novik's first Temeraire novel. His Majesty's Dragon proved to be a fun read.

The year is 1805. After defeating the armies of the second coalition France, now fully under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte seems to be firmly in control on the continent. He has cast his eye on the one enemy remaining undefeated, the British Empire. The British suspect Napoleon has plans for an invasion of Britain and are gathering a new coalition against him. If any attempt of an invasion are to be successful Napoleon will have to deal with the British fleet however and it is men such as Captain Will Laurence's job to prevent the French from dominating the seas.

Under his command the HSM Reliant captures a French frigate. Given the condition of the ship this is not much of an achievement but the cargo it turns out to be carrying makes it worth the effort. The British have captured a dragon egg that is about to hatch. It puts Laurence in a difficult position. When the dragon hatches it needs to be harnessed right away for it to be useful in aerial combat. Harnessing the dragon means a life dedicated to the aerial corps, making the captain of the dragon a social outcast. Laurence must sacrifice one of his crew to attempt to harness the dragon and he can't very well demand a sacrifice of his men he is not willing to make himself. His life is about to be turned upside down.

For the most part His Majesty's Dragon is a historical novel, the dragons play an important role in the story but they are the only fantasy element Novik has added. Appart from the dragons Novik follows the course of history as we know it. As such, the end of the novel does not come as a great surprise but I can't say that bothered me much. In Laurence Novik creates a very believable early 19th century British captain. His belief in the strength of his nation and its political system are unshakeable. Although he does appreciate Napoleon's achievements on the continent in a way he still thinks him a tyrant. Something that in the light of what we now consider political freedom is quite amusing at times.

The Dragon, and I suppose given my views on this particular fantasy concept this should not come as a surprise, is slightly more problematic. One of the minor characters in the book tries to approach the subject in a scientific fashion. Suspension of disbelief most certainly was not enough to not laugh out loud at that. There's all manner of other impossibilities as well. England has quite a few dragons, France even more. The economics of keeping them fed in a time when livestock was quite valuable is beyond me. A large dragon can eat several cows a day apparently. Temeraire is also unreasonably gifted at languages.

Things like this would bother me in most novels but I must admit the combination of Temeraire's great intelligence and his naïveté is endearing. Given his background it is unavoidable that Laurence has different ideas on his new duty than most of the aviators raised to the aerial corps. It influences Temeraire's personality to a point and shapes the relationship between the dragon and his captain but it also has repercussions for the aerial corps. His Majesty's Dragon is a short and rather fast paced novel so there is not that much space to explore this. I expect it will be a theme in following books in the series.

His Majesty's Dragon is not the best fantasy novel I have read but it is a fast and fun read. It's one of those books you can easily read in a day. I was pleasantly surprised by how much liked this book. It combines a fascinating bit of history with a popular fantasy trope and the result is certainly worth reading. I'm pretty sure I will end up reading the second book sometime soon. Maybe my girlfriend's taste in books overlaps with mine to a greater extend than I thought. I will not read any more Pern novels though!

Book Details
Title: His Majesty's Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 356
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-345-48128-3
First published: 2006

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Summer of the Apocalypse - James Van Pelt

Summer of the Apocalypse is to date the only novel by James Van Pelt (I promise to stick with the US spelling of his name but why on earth do people feel the need to change the V in van into a capital once they leave the Netherlands?). Van Pelt is a prolific short story writer, his website lists almost a hundred of them and it looks like that list hasn't been updated in a while. I read only two of his short stories, The Last of the O-Forms, which can be read here, and A Flock of Birds, which used to be available online but isn't any more. Both of them impressed me in different ways. I am going to have to check out one of this collections sometime next year. Right now I have several collections of short fiction on the to read pile so I settled for the novel instead. It turned out to be a good choice, the novel does not disappoint.

Eric is fifteen years old when a disease wipes out ninety-nine percent of the human population. He may not have seen it coming but his father surely did. It turns out a hideaway near their home in Colorado has been prepared in the last few weeks and when everyday life breaks down as a result of the spread of the disease, Eric and his parents go into hiding. Eric's mother catches the disease anyway and quickly follows countless other people into the grave. To make matters worse for Eric, his dad undertakes an expedition to town and never returns. Eric decides to go out and look for him.

A second story line is set sixty years later. Eric is an old man and one of the few survivors of the Gone Times still alive. He sees the community he lives in slip further into illiteracy and primitiveness and attempts to at least teach the town's children to read. Their parents, the first generation to grow up and not remember the Gone Times, do not see the importance of it. To Eric reading is key to relearn lost knowledge and technology. The world may have fallen an long way, it is not beyond rebuilding. At seventy-five, Eric is not as tough as he used to be but he thinks he still has one long hike left in him. A trip to Boulder Colorado, where he hopes to find the university library still in tact. A repository of knowledge that just might set his community on it's way to rebuilding rather than living on the leavings of a dead society.

Van Pelt does not spend a lot of time detailing the causes of the apocalypse and the collapse of society. Other than some basic descriptions of the symptoms of the the disease we don't learn much about it's origin. His story is focussed on the people who live though it. In this relatively short novel Van Pelt manages to create a very convincing main character in Eric. Separated by sixty years there is a great sense of connection between the young, insecure and traumatized Eric trying to survive the end of the world and the old but spirited Eric, refusing to give up is fight against ignorance.

One particular thing that struck me about Eric is the way he questions whether or not the apocalypse was actually such a bad thing. Sure, a lot of people died but with them most of the evils of modern society died as well. Are people better off now? Should he really be trying to regain lost technology? It's a question that upsets the seventy-five year old Eric severely. One thing he doesn't consider but would have been interesting to explore is whether or not Eric can actually answer it. After all, he lived through the apocalypse before being and adult. His exposure to the big bad world has been limited and his memories are far from fresh. Perhaps the decision he makes is not altogether surprising in this light.

As I mentioned before Van Pelt does not really go into the mechanics of modern technology failing. One things he does mention is how plenty of technology is still available but almost none of it works. Partially though lack of power and fuel but also because not all of its components have the same life expectancy. Shelf life, as one of the characters puts it, is a major problem sixty years after the apocalypse. With no goods being manufactured and old stocks running low or decaying the world is rapidly loosing its technology. This is not a concept I have found in other post-apocalyptic writing (I will admit to not being all that well read in this particular sub genre) but it makes a lot of sense. It does make one wonder how other parts of the world are doing though, a questions that weighs on Eric's mind at one point in the book.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. Eric is a wonderful character and showing him as a boy and an old man really makes this book work for me. Do not expect a great epic story a world collapsing, that is not what the book aims for. Van Pelt describes the apocalypse on a personal level if you will. It's one of the better books I have read this year. Summer of the Apocalypse has been on my wishlist for a while. After having read it, I regret not getting it sooner.

Book Details
Title: Summer of the Apocalypse
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 255
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-9746573-8-7
First published: 2006

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Het Bouwplan - F.H. van Dongen

I was lucky enough to win another contest on one of the Dutch language SF/F forums I frequent. Het Bouwplan appeared with the small publisher Verschijnsel, specialized in what it calls literature of ideas. The title literally means building scheme but I suppose you could also say blueprint. Van Dongen uses the more literal 'blauwdruk' in another context in the book so it is probably not his translation of choice. It would make for a better title in English I think, so for the purpose of the review I am going to refer the 'het Bouwplan' as the Blueprint. The description of the book intrigued me, it was the reason I participated in the contest in the first place. If you read Dutch there is a very pretty website dedicated to it. In short, it certainly looked promising after reading it I have to conclude it is not quite my cup of tea.

A plot summary for this book is going to be a bit of a pain. Not because the book doesn't have one, but because the structure of the story is very loose. It does not offer the reader a lot to hold on to. Early on in the book we meet Ralen (although it takes several chapters before we get to know his name). Ralen is a Traveller, a man obsessed with rooting out the structure of the world and revealing the Blueprint's mysteries. The Blueprint, the mysterious building scheme of the world, one that is both the origin of life and a prison in which to capture it. A structure shattered in six separate sections that Ralen wants to reunite. He is cursed with amnesia but never lost this obsession with the Blueprint. Throughout the book, as one theory after another about nature the Blueprint is proposed and rejected, he never looses sight of this objective.

I have to hand it to the publisher, the book, as in the object itself is a beauty. A very nice sturdy hardcover, the type that may actually last a lifetime, good cover art and one of those nice bookmark ribbons. They obviously went all the way on this book. I wish more publishers would take as much care about their product. If there is one thing I can't stand it is a hardcover falling apart after two readings. My feelings about the content are mixed though.

The book is written in the first person, except for one chapter where the point of view suddenly changes to another character, we see the entire story through Ralen's eyes. Ralen is a confused man, he does not remember much about his previous life. Especially early on in the book his actions and responses to the other characters do not make much sense. The writing feels like raw sensory input, a creature trying to make sense of the world around him but misses a framework to make sense of what he experiences. The world he lives in and his obsession are as much a mystery to Ralen as they are to the reader.

Creating a mysterious atmosphere in the book is exactly what the author aims at of course and we do learn more about Ralen's world along the way. Unfortunately his actions do not become much more coherent. With each new character he encounters and with each new idea his idea about the Blueprint he is exposed to, he runs of in entirely different direction. The book contains fractions that later unite and betray each other again with Ralen at the centre of it. Motivations for this kind of behaviour are often found in vague philosophical differences of opinion. Some of the characters express their admiration for Ralen's ability to roll with the punches life (or the Blueprint) deals him. To me he appears impulsive and forever responding to changed circumstances. These changes in direction even seem to suppress his sense of morality at one point in the book, leading to a particularly gruesome scene when he let's out his most primal desires. It makes his actions feel almost random. I had so much trouble getting into Ralen's head that it was very difficult to really connect with the character.

One of the few more or less constant ideas Ralen seems to toy with is the idea that happiness and a purpose to life are found in the tribal hunter/gatherer cultures of humanity's past. A structure where an individual is still an important part of the collective, without the individual being crushed by anonymity of a larger structure. It's in idea I've come across before in Kim Stanley Robinson's work in a slightly different forms of the social and economic level. It's a very interesting theme to explore and I wish the author had looked a bit deeper into it. Ralen reuniting his tribe, as a human parallel to reuniting the six sections, would have made a wonderful story line and a structure to support the rest of the story.

As it is, the story shoots off in too many different directions to be a really enjoyable read. Especially early on in the book it can be downright confusing. The persistent reader is rewarded with a fitting end but the author leaves me puzzled about what a lot of story elements have to do with achieving Ralen's ultimate goal. The end makes me suspect I missed a few things along the way. I think I owe this book a reread in a year or so, to see if that is in fact the case. On this first reading however, I would have appreciated a approach a bit more methodical and a bit less impulsive to uncovering the mysteries of the Blueprint.

Book Details
Title: Het Bouwplan
Author: F.H. van Dongen
Publisher: Verschijnsel
Pages: 295
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-78720-16-4
First published: 2009

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Last Theorem - Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

In March 2008 one of the titans of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke died at the age of 90. At the time he was working on The Last Theorem, a collaboration with another big name in science fiction, the slightly younger Frederik Pohl. He turned 90 last month. Clarke's health would not permit him to do the writing himself so much of the novel was written by Pohl based on an outline and notes by Clarke. Just a few days before he died, Clarke finished reviewing the manuscript and gave it his blessing. Clarke's last novel got quite a bit of attention when it was released. It also got mixed reviews.

The Last Theorem is the story of the life of Ranjit Subramanian. We follow his life, most of which probably takes place a few decades later in this century, from boyhood to middle age. Ranjit grows up on Sri Lanka as the son of a Hindu priest. His father hopes he will succeed him but Ranjit is obsessed with mathematics. Number theory in particular. He is determined to find the proof the Fermat's last theorem. This theorem states that the Pythagoras' theorem (surely you have heard of it) does not hold true for dimensions higher than two. Fermat left the world a note stating he had found this proof but if he actually did write it down, this proof did not survive him. His last theorem has indeed been proven but not my means which were available to Fermat. It is one of the great riddles of mathematics apparently.

A second part of the story is set well away from earth. Starting with the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert in 1945, the world has detonated something in the neighbourhood of fifteen hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Each a bright flash of light and radiation clearly visible from space. It has taken a long time for someone to notice but when it happens a reaction is unavoidable. A race referred to as the Grand Galactics takes note of the signals from earth. They are not amused. Their reaction will be swift and severe. It seems the human races only has a few decades left.

Now before you all decide to avoid this book like the plague because it has math in it, which in itself is a very understandable reflex, let me assure you that the mathematical side of the story is not that challenging. The authors did not attempt to find Fermat's proof themselves in this book. They do describe some number tricks and general concepts but nothing too complicated. I thought what the authors do show was quite entertaining.There's a fair bit of other science in the book as well of course. It contains just about every concept Clarke has used in his earlier books and most likely a reference to himself as well (the writer who never leaves his house). Clarke did not particularly reinvent himself but for people who have read more of his books The Last Theorem will feel familiar. And that is what a lot of people look for in a book. I have not actually read any fiction by Frederik Pohl, something I intend to remedy soon, but the tone writing does remind me of the posts on his blog (which I recommend you check out). Pohl seems to be permanently amused at the world and some of that can be seen in the book. Even if this fictional world isn't always pretty.

The pace of the book is probably where most of the criticism is directed at. Up to about two thirds of the book I didn't really see why so many people didn't think it was a great book. The story progressed nicely, although the focus shifts a bit from Ranjit's mathematical achievements to world politics. It is here that Ranjit is to play a (small) part in the world shaking events that the book chronicles. The conclusion of the book is fairly abrupt though. Once first contact has been made the authors appear to see the outcome as inevitable and don't spend a lot of time discussing it. The finale of the book will probably raise a few eyebrows with readers. Did we really need so much story to build up to it? Or were the authors in a hurry to wrap things up? I took a few days to let the book sink in before I began the review and I am still not entirely sure. It is an ending like you'll find in more of Clarke's books though, leaving us with a world headed for an utopian future.

In the end I guess The Last Theorem leaves me with mixed feelings too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in a way. Like we've come to expect of Clarke it contains a lot if fascinating scientific speculations as well as a number of humorous observations about society. On the other hand the book is quite unbalanced and the connections between the various elements of the story tenuous at some points. It does not excel at character development either, but then, Clarke's books never were about characters. He writes about the world. While the book never bored me, or even failed to entertain me, it does have too many flaws to be a great novel. Normally I wouldn't recommend it, but as a fan, can you really not read Clarke's last novel? Let me put it this way then, if you are familiar with Clarke you will probably want to read it. If you are new to his work, I suggest you start with one of his earlier novels. My personal favourite is Rendezvous with Rama.

Book Details
Title: The Last Theorem
Author: Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 303
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-729000-0
First published: 2008

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Beyond the Shadows - Brent Weeks

I hate to leave a series unfinished if it is at all palatable and while the first two books of the Night Angel trilogy where not brilliant, I still couldn't stay away from the final book. In Beyond the Shadow Weeks continues the relentless action he has filled the first two books with. After reading Shadows Edge, which was a lot better than the first volume The Way of Shadows, I had hoped would be able to continue improving. Unfortunately Beyond the Shadows is a bit of an unfocussed book. Better than the first book, not quite as good as the second.

Cenaria is saved and while Logan may not have been able to claim the throne many things now seem possible. This general sense of optimism does not last long. Soon it becomes apparent that several parties are trying to relieve the weakened nation of it's new found independence. While Logan is willing to settle for a role in the shadow, Kylar clearly believes he should be king. He is even willing to take up his old profession for it. A major disagreement about how to save the country yet again is in the making.

In the mean time the prophet and disowned son of the late Godking Dorian has made his way to his home country. As soon as word of the Godking's demise penetrates to his capital a bloody battle between his offspring ensues. One of them must succeed him and only the strongest and most ruthless of his sons stand any chance at all. Dorian came to the capital to rescue Logan's wife Jenine but he soon becomes involved in the civil war. The only way to really change something about the brutal culture that rules Khalidor is to take charge himself.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this book really. I didn't think it was bad but it's not great either. As I mentioned in the introduction the book is a bit unfocussed. It frequently changes point of view and visits many locations in Weeks' world. No less than seven armies are on the move trying to get to the big battle at the end and getting in each other's way. The Night Angel himself is first trying to be a hero in Cenaria before running off the see Elene and Vi but despite all his powers he does not have a clue what he is supposed to do with them. In fact, it takes Kylar some 500 pages to figure it out. For the main character in the trilogy he is pretty unimportant to the overall story. That is not to say he doesn't do some pretty cool things of course but I won't spoil that for you. The whole triangle with Vi and Elene seemed a little over the top too. Even if it does get him laid finally in this book. Somehow with Kylar's backgroudn a 20 year old virgin does not seem terribly likely.

Although he can be whiny at times, the character that I thought was most interesting in this book was Dorian Ursuul. The way he has been trying to distance himself from his father's tyranny and the way he falls almost falls into the same trap of violence followed by more violence is very well done. I think Weeks could have spent a bit more time on the moment where Dorian finally realizes what he has been doing since taking his father's place and what he can do to break the cycle. It would have improved the ending, which relies heavily on an enormous outburst of magic to tie off many story threads and force some prophecies to become reality.

As with the rest of the trilogy I enjoyed reading Beyond the Shadows at some level. It is not a great book though. Like the previous books it relies on the fast pace and action scenes to carry the book and that is simply not enough for a really satisfying read. Maybe he overshot zooming out from the city of Cernaria, which is pretty much the focus of the entire first book, a bit as well. If it had not been for Orbit's unusual marketing strategy, I suspect this trilogy would not have received quite the attention it did last year. It's not bad for a début but I don't think I will rereading this trilogy.

Book Details
Title: Beyond the Shadows
Author: Brent Weeks
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 689
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-742-6
First published: 2008

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lucky Strike - Kim Stanley Robinson

Earlier this year Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Galileo's Dream was released in the UK (the US release is next month). Robinson is one of my favourite authors so I jumped on that book and read it in three days. Shortly after I found out there has been another recent publication, although the stories it contained had been published before. The Lucky Strike is a novella length booklet in the Outspoken Authors series by PM Press. Outspoken is surely something that applies to Robinson. It contains his novella The Lucky Strike, the short story A Sensitive Dependence On Initial Conditions and a lengthy interview with the author parts of which have recently appeared online.

As the title of the series suggests, the topic of this book is controversial.The Lucky Strike deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In Robinson's alternative history the crew of colonel Paul Tibbets crashes during a training exercise, another crew is selected to deliver the bomb. Captain Frank January is the man who will be responsible for dropping the bomb on target. After the briefing he begins to have doubts about the necessity of the raid. Frank clearly understands the enormous damage to bomb will do. Surely a demonstration of America's new powers should suffice. Shouldn't it?

The debate about whether or not the dropping of these two bombs was necessary to end the war or a war crime still rages. Personally I think the appalling damage these two weapons did, and they did know enough in advance to know how bad it would be, should be answer enough. That has not discouraged people from debating the what ifs that accompany this decision. In Robinson's version casualties are minimal yet the end of the war is achieved. This story will be enough to enrage those supporting the decision to drop the bomb I am sure. If you strongly support that position reading this story will no doubt result in a fine rant on historical revisionism. All I can say to that is keep in mind it is a work of fiction.

Something of which Robinson himself reminds us in A Sensitive Dependence On Initial Conditions which explores the possibilities to describe history as a set of physics like laws and the problems one encounters in such an attempt. It's a complex but very interesting piece, one of his more philosophical writings. The story mixes history with quantum mechanics, chaos theory and the processes in the human brain (among other things). To illustrate his ideas he proposes a number of different scenarios of the future if the bombing raid on Hiroshima had turned out differently with wildly different results. As the title suggests, he finds that predictions of the future are highly sensitive to initial conditions. In other words, the choice is ours. Science fiction writers all over the world will be pleased with this conclusion ;)

The last part of the book is taken up by a thorough interview titled A Real Joy to be Had with questions by Terry Bison. It covers all stages of his career and many of his novels. Reading the entire thing is much more rewarding that the pieces that have been put online. The part in which Robinson discusses infodumps and his dislike of that word was probably the most amusing bit. He is frequently accused of infodumping in his books and, whether or not you use that word for it, he is guilty as charged. It is in fact one of the reasons why I loved the Mars trilogy.

Outspoken is certainly applicable to Robinson in this book. He gives us an awful lot to think about in a mere 120 pages. I very much enjoyed reading it and will no doubt reread is a number of times in the future. Robinson is way on the left side of the political spectrum and he makes no secret of it. This book is provocative and meant to be that way, something to keep in mind while reading it. While reading The Lucky Strike I realized I have only read a few of Robinson's short stories. Fortunately there are plans for a best of collection to be published sometime next year. I am definitely going to read that.

Book Details
Title: The Lucky Strike
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: PM Press
Pages: 123
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60486-085-6
First published: 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vuurproef - Bianca Mastenbroek

In my ongoing search to find speculative fiction of quality written in Dutch I recently came across the small publisher Books of Fantasy, it appears to be an offshoot of Pure Fantasy Magazine, one of the few magazines in the Netherlands dedicated to short form science fiction, fantasy and horror. Their catalogue offers a number of interesting titles. I picked Bianca Mastenbroek's début novel Vuurproef based on a short story by Mastenbroek I read a while ago in the collection Time Out. Her story Versteend Verlangen was one of the stories that impressed me in that collection. Vuurproef turns out to be something of an odd duck in the Books of Fantasy collection. It is a historical novel dealing with a witchcraft trial, without any fantasy elements added to is.The title of the novel translates as "Ordeal by Fire", one of the methods used to determine someone's guilt. By the time this story is set the practice had been abolished but it does make an effective title.

Vuurproef is set in Heezop, a (fictional) town in what is today the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, in the year 1595. A new Lord by the name of Vaillant has recently taken over control of the region. Influenced by his new legal advisor Master Fabri, Vaillant has placed the extermination of witchcraft high on his agenda. His campaign is not without results, at the opening of the book Anna van Asten, the main character of the book, is forced to witness the burning at the stake of Heezop's first witch. A poor old woman named Jenneke de Grauw. Generally disliked, the village is glad to be rid of her. Anna argues that this does not make her a witch but Vaillant and Fabri claim to have obtained a confession.

Anna's sharp tongue and her questioning of Lord Vaillant's actions soon turn against her. Women are not supposed to be that outspoken. Anna has learned to think for herself, she can even read and write, hardly the image of an obedient and god fearing wife. In short, in Lord Vaillant's eyes she is a prime suspect. Anna finds herself accused of witchcraft and arrested by Vaillant's men. To her astonishment and that of her husband Henck, the village is willing to testify against her. While Anna faces Vaillant's questioning, Henck embarks on a mission to save his wife from a fiery death at the stake.

The events Mastenbroek describes are based on a series of witch trails held in 1595 in the town of Asten (note the main characters last name). Names and places have been changed though. The town of Heezop, as far as I know, does not exist. The name appears to be a combination of Heeze and Geldrop, two towns in the region. Lord Vaillant is not a historical figure either but it does not take too much imagination to figure out who he is based on. The process of a witch trail is described in detail in this book and that is probably where the most historical material is added. It clashes violently with our own sense of justice but many involved in such trails back then probably genuinely believed what they were involved in was justice and not a lynching. Many but not all, the author does hint at possible ulterior motives in several chapters. This view into the trail itself was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me.

Part of the procedure is of course the interrogation of the witness. In particular the painful examination. Mastenbroek gives a number of detailed descriptions of how one went about obtaining a confession in those days. She does not go to the extremes we sometimes encounter in fantasy (I'm thinking Goodkind here for one), but the degrading and excruciatingly painful scenes can be pretty horrific nonetheless. She manages to evoke this reaction without resorting to gory details but focusses on the successive phases of desperation, determination and hope of the main character instead. A very fine piece of writing.

The author alternates chapters seen from the point of view of various characters in the story with brief glances at the life of Anna's daughter Jutta. She is torn between fear and disbelief as the evidence mounts against her mother. Brief snippets of Jutta's writing add a very distinct and at times touching perspective to the overall story. She writes this in a (psuedo?) old fashioned spelling of Dutch. I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary but it does have a nice effect. Unfortunately she drops the style in a letter Anna has written to her husband towards the end of the book. It would have been a pain to write the entire letter in the style she uses for Jutta but it would have been consistent.

There are two things I would like to have seen in this novel that would have lifted it from very good to excellent in my opinion. The first is a bit more insight into the motivation of the main villain in the book Valliant. He is mostly portrayed as sexist, impatient, cruel and perhaps a bit perverted. Mastenbroek hints at a failed relationship with a woman that fires his current rage. We never find out exactly how or why this woman angered him enough to take it out on the local population. As a result Lord Vaillant remains a bit one dimensional. He is clearly the villain of the tale without any redeeming characteristics. Another question that remains is how he came under the influence of Master Fabri. He's quite a shady figure, the dynamics of his relationship with Vaillant could have been interesting.

The second point is somewhat related and has to do with the point at which Mastenbroek opens the story. Right at the beginning of the we witness the execution of the first witch in Heezop. At this point a lot must already have happened inside this relatively small community. These people have known and tolerated each other their entire life yet they choose to execute one of their own. The question of how a community gets caught up in mass hysteria is one that the author does not explore at all. We get to see how they, in all practical terms, ostracise the van Asten family but at that point the process is well under way.

Vuurproef is a dark book, given the theme it could hardly be otherwise. The author is taken a piece of local history and turned it into a tale of desperation, hope and love. As with the previous short story I was impressed with Mastenbroek's writing (just go easy on the exclamation mark) and characterization. There is room for improvement but Vuurproef is a very good first novel by a promising author. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work, short for or long, in the future.

Book Details
Title: Vuurproef
Author: Bianca Mastenbroek
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
Pages: 207
Year: 2008
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-808244-9-2
First published: 2008

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scion of Cyador - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The second part of my recent random Recluce reread. Scion of Cyador is the direct sequel to Magi'i of Cyador and chronologically the earliest books in the series. I read Magi'i of Cyador a while ago and I couldn't suppress the urge to read the sequel any longer. This book is a little less focused on battles and a bit more on politics, especially the second half anyway. Modesitt is very good at letting the reader see all the little signs of change and what they add up to. It's one of the longer Recluce books but well worth the read.

After his excretions containing the Accursed Forest Lorn is sent to the port city of Biehl. Generally considered a quiet outpost where chances of getting involved in skirmishes with the barbarians are minimal. By now Lorn is an accomplished battlefield commander but this assignment requires a completely new set of skills. Soon after he arrives the corruption of the local enumerators becomes clear and Lorn is forced to act. As it turns out, this is but the first of a series of pre-emptive strikes necessary for Lorn to survive. Corruption and barbarians are not Lorn's only enemies though, what is happening on the home front may have an even greater impact.

In the capital Cyad in the mean time, the situation is slowly becoming unstable. The ageing emperor has still not appointed an heir, the Magi are loosing the the chaos driven tools that are their basis of power (and that of the entire nation) one after another, the merchants are clamouring for change and lower taxes and the military is worried about the prospect of facing increasing numbers of barbarians without the Chaos charged firelances the Magi'i will no longer be able to provide. Change is coming to Cyad and everybody is manoeuvring to be in the best position to take advantage of it.

The loss of irreplaceable technology brought from the stars by the Demons of Light is a major driving force in the novel. Modesitt employed this idea before in Fall of Angels (before in publication order, Fall of Angels is set some four centuries after Lorn's story), where the crew of a crashed spaceship has to survive in a hostile environment with less and less hi-tech resources. This time the technology supports an empire however. The course of an empire is harder to change than that of a handful of marines. Modesitt describes all the forces that have a hand in this turning point in Recluce history in detail. It's a change that has the seeds of the empire's eventual demise in it but on the other hand prolongs it's life by centuries. I think these two books have the most intricate plot of all the Recluce novels.

While I enjoyed the intricate plot of this novel a lot, Lorn's character development seems to stagnate a bit. In the previous book he changes from a talented but slightly rebellious boy to a noted battlefield commander, in this book Lorn learns a thing or two but his basic view on Cyador doesn't change. Based on his experiences he thinks that Cyador is the only state that has been able provide the consistent level of prosperity for it's citizens he is used to. He is not blind to his nation's flaws, but likes the alternative less. This strikes me as bit short-sighted of him, his experiences outside Cyador are very limited and most of his reasoning is still done from his position in the upper classes of society. The order of society is something he does not really question in this book, only the relative strengths of the dominating parties.

Scion of Cyador is the last of four books from the Chaos perspective. Modesitt definitely gave the series a new start by this change in perspective and it resulted in four of the best books in the series. He has since returned to the Order perspective for the next four books, five after the publication of Arms-Commander in January 2010. While I am curious about Arms-Commander, I would very much like the see the author try his hand at another Chaos oriented book. I think we have seen enough of the young, or in the case of Kharl, not so young, exile and budding Ordermage for now. It will be interesting to see if he can steer the series in a new direction in the next book.

The concluding volume in Lorn's story may be a bit too heavy on political intrigue to please some. On the other hand, it is not short on military action and Cyad is just a wonderful setting. The feeling of an ageing and decaying empire permeates the entire story. With both intricate plotting and clever manoeuvring as well as decisive action Modesitt has written a well balanced book. I like the Cerryl books (The White Order and Colors of Chaos) a shade better but this book is among the best in the series.

Book Details
Title: Scion of Cyador
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 720
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-812-579126-2
First published: 2000

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humans - Robert J. Sawyer

Humans is the sequel to Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer's Hugo award-winning opening book of the Neantherthal Parallax. Hominids raised a lot of interest because of the concept of a parallel earth where not our ancestors, but the Neanderthals survived to build an advanced society. It was a very strong concept indeed, but I thought the book leaned too much on it to be really exceptional. In Humans Sawyer continues the story of these parallel earths. We get a more in depth view of the Neanderthal world as well as a lot more science and speculations on Neanderthals, the rise of consciousness and our own ancestry.

Adikor's rescue attempt at the end of Hominids enables Ponter Boddit to return to his own universe. The brief connection with his world is closed. For Mary Vaughan it is time to get back to life as usual and return to her job in Toronto. A new college year is about to begin after all. Shortly after her return she is approached with a job offer from an American think tank that is simply too good to refuse. It seems Ponter's visit has gotten her more than 15 minutes of fame and an abruptly terminated relationship after all.

Ponter in the mean time, is arguing for re-establishing the connection to Mary's world. He thinks there is simply to much to gain from contact to ignore the possibility but he soon finds out the conservative Neanderthal elders hard to convince. They see some serious security concerns and there is the question of Ponter's motives. Does he really think the possibilities outweigh the risk or does he just want to see Mary again? After some discussion the elders reluctantly agree to renewed contact and a formal ambassador is appointed to accompany Ponter on his next trip. A trip that will prove eventful for all those involved.

I thought Hominids has a few problems but not enough to distract from the reading experience. Unfortunately Humans amplifies these problems. I love the speculative part of this book but I nonetheless have a major problem with one key plot element. Sawyer speculates that Neanderthals have a much better sense of smell than we do. As I understand it there is some evidence to support that. Ponter seems to possess the sense of smell of a top narcotics dog however, and that raises some questions. Does such a huge increase in a sense of smell not necessitate a larger area of the brain devoted to it? Wouldn't that go at the expense of something else? This increased sense of smell is supposed to be a side effect of the large nasal capacity of a Neanderthal, developed to warm up cold ice age air before it reached to lungs. Would a side effect really increase the sense of smell to such extremes without a clear ecological benefit? I'll admit to not having done any research on it but somehow that doesn't seem likely.

Sex is another issue with this book. There is of course no escaping the question whether or not Neanderthals left their DNA in the current population. This question seems to fascinate both anthropologists and the general public. Based on Ponter's DNA Mary discovers early in the book Neanderthals are a separate species, which puts her relationship with Ponter in a different light for her. It does little to discourage her however, she continues to regard Neanderthals as human. What felt wrong about the relationship between Ponter and Mary is how Ponter is pictured as an ideal man. Both manly and then some but on the other side sensitive and caring. Ponter's society has put sever restraints on violence, it is considered too dangerous given their great physical strength, but does that really suppress aggression or competitiveness of any kind that much? In combination with Mary coming to terms with being raped early in the first book it seems a bit too much.

What I did like about the book was the snippets of Ponter's talks with his personality sculptor (shrink) in which Ponter confesses a crime that is revealed in the final stages of the book. Along the way they also discuss the differences in world view between the humans and Neanderthals. Despite his better judgement Ponter is not entirely convinced the belief in an afterlife and a God that judges all our actions are a fallacy. Personally I lean more towards the Neanderthal view of things but the way Ponter discusses his doubts and how it motivates his actions is very well done.

Humans is quite a fast read and one you'll probably enjoy if you liked Hominids. That being said, it is far from flawless and with the new and exciting concept of modern Neanderthals established in the first book, it does not manage to make up for these flaws as well as Hominids. I liked the scientific speculations Sawyer put in, I liked part of Ponter's character development but there are a number of elements dealing with sexuality and religion that strike me as extremely unlikely. All in all not a brilliant book but good enough to stay on board for Hybrids, the final volume of this series.

Book Details
Title: Humans
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4675-9
First published: 2003

Friday, November 20, 2009

Asking the Great Oracle

Google appears to be the internet oracle of recent years, completely dominating all other search engines on the web. I've been keeping an eye on the statistics for this blog since early October and search engine hits show a steadily rising line. Over 90% of these hits are from Google. Perhaps not all that surprising given the fact that both Blogger and my statistics watchamacallit are Google products.

What strikes me most about these search engine results is the fact that some people actually pose a question directly to Google. Now I won't claim to understand how Google actually finds stuff but I am pretty sure that unless you tell it to look for a particular phrase it ignores things like "the", "to" and "of". Some examples:

what does perdido mean in english
This person at least omitted the question mark. Google provided a link to the Perdido Street Station review which does not actually state the answer. I wonder if that book prompted the question.

what ship first picked up prendick at the beginning of the story?
This one is my favourite. Its a hit on The Island of Dr. Moreau, a book that can't be much more than 40,000 words. The answer is in the first chapters. Actually doing your homework and reading it would have been faster. Again the review did not contain the answer.

did galileo's work advance their society
A hit on Galileo's Dream. Poorly phrased question, who do you mean by "their"?

is the gathering storm disappointment
Should be obvious what this person was looking for. Given the reactions I have seen so far I would say the answer is no.

when is dust of dreams out in paperback?
I have no idea. Probably summer/fall 2010. Personally I thought not waiting for the paperback was worth it.

where can i find the book "the songs of distant earth"
One of Arthur C. Clarke's later books. As far as I know it is no longer in print so I would suggest a second-hand bookshop.

I looks like Google has some work to do before it can accurately answer questions such as these. Then again, it is designed to find webpages, not answers. People may want to remember that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick

Time for another read in my project to get better acquainted with the science fiction classics. This book is part of Gollancz' SF Mastworks series, a collection in which Dick seems to be a bit overrepresented with fourteen out of a total of seventy-three titles. The 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is generally considered one of Dick's best books and the title intrigued me, so when I came across this copy on my last visit to the book store I couldn't resist. It's the first book by Philip K. Dick I have read so I didn't quite know what to expect. It is not a happy read but it does contain a number of thought-provoking ideas. I can see why this book is mentioned as being on of the highlights of 1960s science fiction.

In 1992 the world has been thoroughly destroyed by nuclear warfare. Life on Earth has become scarce, many species are now extinct. In response to this crises a large part of the remaining population has opted for life in one of the colonies elsewhere in the solar system. Not everybody has left of course. Those deemed to be too damaged by radiation are excluded from emigration and there are a number of less affected people who have elected to stay. To entice people to emigrate to the new colonies androids are made available to them for free. The androids used to be quite primitive but recently have progressed to the point where they are very hard to distinguish from normal people. Androids have no rights whatsoever, they are property. Once in a while one rebels, kills it's owner, runs away and makes it back to earth. It is the job of men such as Rick Deckard to protect the general public and 'retire' these renegades.

The book makes the reader ask themselves what quality, if any, is unique to a human being. The sophisticated androids Deckard is hunting are very hard to recognize. He is very good at picking up the subtle signs but he still needs the aid of a test based on empathy and involuntary reactions of the human body to be certain. Ironically, given the nature of the questions there is a good chance you and I would fail it. His experiences with the latest model of android are making Deckard question the morality or retiring these beings. In a world were life hangs on by a thread, where owning a real live animal is a status symbol, killing is the ultimate crime.

The novel captures the psychological pressure on Deckard very well. With his ability to detect androids pushed to the limit and the accuracy of his test in question, he gets slightly paranoid halfway through the book. Dick cleverly puts Deckard and the reader off balance on at least two occasions by making us guess if a character is an android or not. To contrast the near-humanity of androids Dick introduces the minor story line of John R. Isidore, a man who is so severely affected by radiation that he does not pass the IQ test required to be allowed to emigrate. He is special, or, in less flattering terms, a chickenhead. Barely regarded as a human, he is very much abused by the few people around him and almost smart enough to realize it. The way society treats the alien but hard to recognize androids and the obviously human but looked down upon Isidore is another stab at our own humanity.

In a way Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very much a novel of it's time. It explores ideas, moral issues and consequences of advances in technology but does not really excel at character development. If you're used to more recent science fiction it may be hard to care for any of the characters. They serve a function in the novel, illustrate a point, but it is hard to really identify with them. What makes this book special is the way Dick uses that emotional distance in the book, Deckard suspects he may not be in prime psychological health. His lack of emotion when killing androids is very much part of the way the author makes the reader question his humanity.

I guess it comes down to whether you can appreciate Dick's point without easy to identify with characters to hold on to. He managed to drag me in to the story by creating a very paranoid atmosphere early on in the book and it didn't let me go. That may not work for everybody though. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a pretty quick read, in a way Dick makes his point efficiently. I can see why Hollywood saw a good movie in it, although the amount of rewriting that went into producing a script for Bladerunner seems a bit excessive given the source material. This book quite convinced me to add some more of Dick's books to my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 210
Year: 1999
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-813-0
First published: 1968

Saturday, November 14, 2009

By the Mountain Bound - Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Bear's Edda of Burdens trilogy. The first part, All the Windwracked Stars, was one of the best books I've read in 2008 (mind you, a lot of reviewers disagree with me on this one) so I was looking forward to this one. Bear had the questionable honour to have her book released on the same day Tor chose to release the new Wheel of Time book The Gathering Storm. Whoever came up with that brilliant idea owes Bear an apology. Of course I couldn't help my self and put this book down after a hundred pages when I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan's latest. I probably didn't give this book that attention it deserves so while no apology from Tor may be forthcoming, for what it's worth, I do apologize.

Where most trilogies are more or less in chronological order, Bear chooses to write a prequel. At the opening of All the Windwracked Stars we find a distraught Muire, the Historian and the sole survivor of the battle at the end of the world. By the Mountain Bound tells the story of how this particular end of the world came to be. Since it's creation five centuries past, the immortal Angels of Light have lived in relative peace in the world. Most of them where born from the sea at the moment of creation but several have come form Midgard, the world than has come before and is now dead. Among them Mingan, the Wolf, although he does not remember the death of Midgard.

On day Strifbjorn, the Warrior, finds a nearly drowned woman washed up on the beach. The woman, Heythe or the Lady, arrives with tidings of war. An army of giants is about to descent on them and the Einherjar need to prepare. Soon the first rifts in the unity of the Angels of Light become apparent. Heythe's methods are not acceptable to a large group of the Angels. War seems inevitable, but one against giants.

Where All the Windwracked Stars had a science fiction/steampunk element to it, By the Mountain Bound dives even deeper into the Norse mythology that inspired much of the story. This book will probably be considered more of a fantasy novel. Like in the previous volume, Bear does not believe in explaining all the strange words she uses, so unless you are well versed in Norse mythology (or a master of the Google search engine) you are going to miss an awful lot of references. This combined with Bear's rich, poetic use of language means one needs to pay close attentions. At 318 pages it looks like a fast read. It isn't.

Bear divides her chapters into three points of view, the Wolf, the Historian and the Warrior and uses a different style for each of them. The Wolf is fittingly written in the first person, present tense. The Historian is also a first person perspective, but not surprisingly, in the past tense. The Warrior is a third person perspective. Bear switches between these three, sometimes several times in a chapter. While I appreciate the care and skill Bear put into writing this, the constant switching between these styles is taxing on the reader.

Bear invests heavily in her characters in the book. Most notably the villain from All the Windwracked Stars Mingan. His roll in the end of the world is a complex one. I must admit I was not entirely convinced by Mingan's actions. The cycle of guilt, violence and resignation he goes through, makes him appear very fatalistic. You'd think that a few centuries of living, or in his case probably millennia, would give him a bit more insight in the character and motivation of his fellows. On the other hand, the tense relationship between Mingan and Strifbjorn does add dramatic touch to the larger conflict. Unfortunately Strifbjorn also seems quite ready to embrace death. As clever as manipulation on Heythe's part may be, a bit more free will in those characters would have been nice.

While both Mingan and Strifbjorn play important parts in the unfolding drama, Muire's role is more subtle. Not known for her prowess in battle, Muire is more of a witness. This does explain quite a bit about her actions in All the Windwracked Stars. I suppose some people will find the downplaying of her strengths and importance annoying but I rather liked he subtle influence.

I must admit that without the steampunk and post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the previous book, By the Mountain Bound did not appeal to me quite as much as All the Windwracked Stars. That being said, it is, certainly in a stylistic sense, a very good book. One I plan on giving my undivided attention sometime before the third book, The Sea thy Mistress, is released next year. If you enjoyed All the Windwracked Stars you'll want to read this.

Book Details
Title: By the Mountain Bound
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 318
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1883-1
First published: 2009