Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Reviews for Friday, 5/21/2010

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Dragonfly Falling
Book Two of Shadows of the Apt. Oooo, I do like these books a great deal. Tchaikovsky is addressing all manner of deep and important things here about loyalty, friendship, adulthood, war, empire, technology... All sorts of good things here. The march of the Wasp Empire continues, Collegium falls under siege, our principle characters are forced to make some difficult decisions about who they are, what they want, and where they see themselves in the world. A couple of things I liked most especially:

1) the contrast between Collegium and the Wasp Empire. Both are dominated by "apt" folks - both can use technology, but they treat technology differently. The masters of Collegium are excited by technology, and constantly seek to develop new things and new ways of doing things. This results in a chaotic technology. The Wasp Empire sees technology as a means to an end; a way to speed things up, but not something to be pursued for its own sake. The closest comparison I can think of - and it's not a great comparison, really - is the US and Japan during WWII. The US War Department had an office devoted to accepting, evaluating, and responding to various voluntary ideas for weapons and techniques.[1] There's a scene in the book where a huge number of proposed defenses for Collegium are described, each master has his own pet device that he wants to see mounted on the walls or tossed into the skies, or launched into the harbor - this struck me as similar to the US approach to technology. The Japanese developed excellent technology at the beginning of the war, but were not big on innovation during the war, for a number of reasons, some ideological, but most systemic - lack of resources for R&D, mostly. The Wasp Empire has good technology, but it is clear that developing new technology throughout the war is going to be a struggle against a belief that technology is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself - this is critical to the development of several characters in the novel.

2) The response - the tension between remorse at the damage done and amazement that the theory worked - that technologists feel after seeing their devices in action. This felt very real to me, and meshes with what I've read about, for instance, the scientists who worked on the A-Bomb, and their response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm thinking particularly of Oppenheimer here, who lost his position within academia and within US society for his condemnation of his invention.

Things I didn't like - Tchaikovsky split his party, and that made it difficult to follow the narrative at times. He was all over the place, in three different locations at once often. So, a chapter would end, and the next chapter would pick up somewhere else. This was dealt with fairly well, but I often wished for longer blocks of direct continuity. Also, Tchaikovsky began killing off characters with some abandon in the second half of the book. Fair enough - the books are set during a war, after all, and death is bound to happen - but there was a small sense that these characters had been developed just enough so that when killed the Really Important Characters - Stenwold, especially - could feel guilty and angry and sad. And the reader too, of course. This was not a huge thing, and I might not even have noticed it had someone else not raised the objection in regards to some other book, where it was (says he - I have not read the book in question) egregious.

The third book of this series is on order at the library, and I will review it in due time. I will say, at this point, I would love to steal this setting for role playing - it has a great deal of juicy possibilities in that direction.

Elizabeth Moon - Legacy of Gird

So, somewhere in the middle of my "to-read" stack is Moon's newest book - Oath of Fealty - and, in order to get to that, I felt it necessary to re-read the previous stuff in the setting - the Paksennarion books, and the Legacy of Gird books. Legacy contains two novels; Surrender None and Liar's Oath. These books come, chronologically, before the Paksennarion books, but were written after, clearly to explain the world of the earlier books. Surrender None is brilliant, by far my favorite of the two. This addresses the revolution of Gird, a figure who has become, by Paksennarion's day, a deity, or at least a major saint. His Code has become the principle legal document for at least one nation, and the way he organized his army has become a template for society. In Surrender None, Moon explores "what really happened," and it is an excellent description of a war between a subservient group and the dominant body of society. Moon has military experience, and it shows in this book - the struggle of soldiers and their commanders to come to grips with the realities of combat are vibrant and ring true (at least to me, a committed civilian). So, yes, a very good book by itself.

Having finished Liar's Oath, I'm not sure I've ever re-read it. There's a lot in there which is good - I like, especially, the discussion of the difficulty of recording events for posterity - how do you handle reality when what you want to write is a legend? I like, also, the description of the struggle of people to establish a society after a revolution - very real, and a good portrayal of the dichotomy between idealism and realism in society. As I mentioned last week, I like authors who consider the question of "what happened next?" in all of it's possible implications, and, to the extent that Moon does that here, she does it very well. The problem is that Moon needs this book to do something else - to bridge the divide between Surrender None and Sheepfarmer's Daughter, the first book of the Paksennarion trilogy. How do we get from the society described in the first book to the society described in the second? The bits which need to act as that bridge in this book feel forced. It is clear that the narrative did not want to be such a bridge, and so there are several places where a chapter opens with "time passed," or something of that nature. Another trouble is that Moon is trying to tell three different stories from three different points of view. Each works internally, but the links between the three are weak in places. I would love to see each of the three stories handled separately - the story of Seri and Aris, the story of Luap and his people, and the story of society under the second Marshall-General (of which we get the least narrative). Additionally, I would love to see, perhaps as a pair of chapbook type publications, the full text of Torre's Ride and the full text of Gird's Code, with Commentaries. I think those would be fascinating, although perhaps not widely demanded.

Anyway, I'm going to take a break from Moon for a couple of days - Paksennarion is three books long and quite a lengthy trilogy at that - and come back to her, perhaps towards the end of next week.


[1] The two which stick in my mind are the cat bombs and the bat bomb. Cats, according to the inventor, would naturally run away from water towards the interior of Japan, which was where Japan had most of its industry. So, bombs carried by cats would inevitably arrive in the interior of Japan, thus doing damage to Japanese industry. That idea was never tested, but the bat bombs were - bats, the theory went, would perch on the eaves of Japanese houses, which were highly flammable. So, incendiary bombs attached to bats would cause large fires. However, when tested, it turned out that bats were not a good delivery system, because they became disoriented in airplanes, and could not be reliably expected to land on Japanese houses.