Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Review Post, 11/5/2011

Two books this week.

S.M. Stirling - The Tears of the Sun

This is the most recent of Stirling's Embervese books. Set in a world where all modern technology just stopped working in 1997, Stirling is now telling the stories about the second generation post-event (so, actually in the future). The books are best described as science fantasy - there's some science stuff there, but the plot is entirely fantasy. Gods affect the events, and there is magic and singing swords and the whole bit.

Ok. This is five books into the series, and, if you haven't been reading them, this is not the place to start. If you have been reading them, this may be the one that makes you want to stop. It has all of the things that I like about Stirling - the long, chewy compound sentences, the characters facing absurd odds, the clearly defined good and evil, and all of that. It also has all of the stuff about Stirling that makes me cringe - the writing of accents, mostly.

There are three things that I didn't like about the book - three things that make me almost inclined to tell fans to steer clear. One - the book is largely flash backs, and flash backs within flash backs - as in, the character is describing something that happened three months ago, and in the midst of the description, has to describe something that happened six months ago. These flash backs are presented entirely out of chronological order - something that Stirling does, but it's quite egregious here. You really have to pay attention to the date stamps at the beginning of each section. Two - the whole book is building up to this big climactic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Everything is working towards that end. Lots of discussion of mustering troops, and talking to this group and convincing them to work with that group, and rescuing people so this other group can safely work with all of the pre-existing groups, and etc. Setting the ground for the battle. Making sure that everyone, even the enemies, are in the right place at the right time. And then, there's this battle, and it's a short chapter at the end of the book, and then it's done. For all the build up, I expected more. I wanted to read about the heroic last stands. I wanted to read about the forlorn hopes. I wanted the clash of arms and all of that. And it wasn't there. If you're going to set up a big set piece battle as the whole purpose of the book - well, you should have that battle, is all I'm saying. Three - This book should have been the last book in the series, and it wasn't. Hopefully, the next book will be - the big bad has noticed our bold heroes of good - but there was a lot of back filling and flash backs and setting up of toy soldiers and such that didn't need to be in this book, and which could have been the big climactic battle followed by the bigger, climacticer battle.

Oh. And the title was never explained, as far as I saw.

So, I will probably pick up the next book in the series when I see it, because I am a completeist, and because I care enough about the characters to see where the story ends. But, if you are not a completeist, I would suggest skipping this one. And if you aren't reading the series, this is not the place to start.

Emily Diamand - Fire and Flood

The sequel (and, I'm pretty sure, conclusion) to Diamand's Raider's Ransome. Also set in a post apocalyptic setting, these books follow Lilly, Lexy, and Zeph as they struggle to overcome differences between their societies, and to bring their AI friend to Lundun, where he hopes to be able to power up fully. The book is YA, and I'd say the low end of YA - I'd even go so far as to call it juvenile fiction - so the writing is geared at that level, and the characters are somewhere between 12 and 16. Diamand has clearly done some thinking about the way in which societies fall apart, and how the resulting tribal groups would struggle with each other. She's thought through the sort of fail-safes that a slightly more advanced society than ours might have put in place, and how those fail-safes might fail, and what that failure might look like. All in all, a simple but delightful book, with a lot of adventure and action. I'd recommend it to 8-12 year old readers, boys and girls, and people who like to read stuff for 8-12 year old readers. Good stuff.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Post

Bleh. I am sick. My throat is all scratchy. This weekend doesn't look to be as long and complicated as last weekend, but I'm in no fit shape to make a full review tonight. Plus, I have a book that I haven't finished yet. Tomorrow, I promise!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday Library Day, 11/1/2011

So, I'm posting this now, so that I don't forget. Timely posting, on a fixed schedule - I know I can do it, if only I work at it, right?

Three books today, and I'm deeply in serial narrative mode here:

George Martin - A Feast of Crows

This is the next to most recent Martin novel, which will bring me up to date on the series.

Allison Goodman - Eona

The other half of the Eon/Eona duology.

M.D. Lachan - Wolfsangel

Some sort of epic werewolf novel/series, involving vikings. It has the potential to be awesome, or to be awful, or, perhaps, awesomely awful. I'm kinda hoping for option 3...

Also, a heads up. Because I am a masochist (not really - put away the spankers), I have signed up for NaNoWriMo - the National Novel Writing Month contest. Basically, I'm thinking that if I make myself MORE busy, I'll actually accomplish things in defiance of logic and to spite myself. I shall endeavor mightily to keep up with myself.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

An actual Sunday Review Post, 10/30/2011

Gah. I am exhausted. Who knew that bugs and pumpkins and chili could take so much out of a guy?

Actually, now that I read that, it sounds really ... wrong. Sorry.

So, I promised you a review of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur, and here it is.

I said, on Friday, that the book was solidly good, but not excellent. First off, Newton is treading some well trodden ground here. We have an empire on a world which is about to enter into an ice age. Everyone knows that the ice age is coming, and the empire has been preparing for the coming disaster. So - empire in danger; we've seen that before. An ice age - not a common disaster, but not unheard of. There are forces within the empire which seek to turn the disaster to their own ends - in particular, there is a conspiracy attempting to overthrow the Emperor. This produces lots and lots of nice politics - but political plots are a dime a dozen. We have a detective who stumbles onto the conspiracy while doing an investigation of the mysterious death of a council member. Ok, a police procedural. Plus, there's a romance plot involving the sister of the Empress (the Emperor throws himself off a balcony a couple of chapters in. This isn't my spoiler - it's on the book flap) and the man she thinks she's hired to teach her dancing and sword fighting. (There's a fair bit of mistaken identity throughout the book.) There's a military plot involving a variety of threats, including zombies and giant crab-like monster things. There are cultists who accumulate relics, which seem to be clearly some sort of advanced technology - perhaps the remnants of an earlier, much more advanced, society? So, not only is Newton treading ground that has been trodden before, but he is also treading it in many many different directions. All of these plots do blend together, somewhat, but the whole left me a little baffled and breathless. I felt like saying, "damn it, man, pick one and follow it through!"

The police procedural worked as the central piece of the book, and it was clearly the most complete element. It had a defined beginning, middle, and end. However, it was a "we, the reader, know more than the detective does" sort of procedural - and I don't like those. Also, I felt that the mystery was a little weak in other ways too, chiefly motivation for the murderer. Additionally, the police bit featured a particularly nasty bit of betrayal - good writing, but uncomfortable. That was an odd bit where an excellent piece of writing made me not really like a whole bit of plot - weird.

The politics were the best part of the novel. I really like political novels, and the politics here were murky and twisty - exactly the sort of thing I like. The motivation for the villain here was clear as a bell - in order to take over as Emperor, he needs to remove the existing dynasty. Watching him plot was delightful, and he was an excellent villain. If he had a mustache, he would have twirled it. Jeremy Irons could easily play him in the film adaptation, and chew scenery to his heart's content. Seeing him get his comeupance will be delightful.

Newton's characters in general are really well written. Given the extent that this is a character driven novel, that's a good thing. Poorly written characters would have doomed this novel. Newton offers us a broad cast that we can care about. We can root for the cocky young sword and dance instructor learning to love for the first time, or for the young rulers learning that there is more to their empire than the palace they grew up in. We can watch the slow re-building of the relationship between the detective and his estranged wife. We can thrill to the exploits of the military commander facing unfaceable odds. We can ponder the motives of mysterious cultists, engaged in byzantine plots of their own imagining. All of these myriad characters make the book worth reading, and compensate many many times for the problems I've mentioned.

The other thing that Newton does that I found interesting (and also frustrating). The empire has several different species in it - humans, and Rumels (who are bipedal, mammalian, furred, have tails, and are very long lived), and Guaradas (who are bird type things), and possibly other things hiding in the wings. All of these different species of character make for some interesting dynamics - how does it all fit together?

The frustrating thing about these alien species is that Newton never really explains how it all fits together, or where the various species came from, or offer us a glossary or a "history" of the Empire - the bits that might, tacked onto the end of a book like this, fill in the gaps that a reader like me really craves. There isn't even a map of the empire, or a suggestion of how large it is, relative to the world it's on. Perhaps a map would spoil a big reveal in a future book - "ha ha! Look, they're really on Earth!" - but given the distances people were travelling between islands, and the suggestion that there are hostile forces just outside the empire - I wanted a map. These are little things, but they accumulate.

My final complaint about the book is that it doesn't end satisfyingly. It's clear that Newton is writing an Epic (I feel some justice in using the term, because deities do play a role in the novel, if not directly), and so the novel ends somewhat abruptly, just as the conspiracy plot comes to fruition in one place, and the heroic military expedition is retreating from sure and certain death in another place.  I know the second book has been published (because it was seeing Book 2 which prompted me to pick up Book 1), and I'm not opposed, per se, to a serial narrative - but, on top of the other little things ... Well. The strong characters will draw me back into the second book, but it will be a "pick up when I see it" rather than a "hunt it down because I must have it" type thing.