Guards! Guards!

September 1st, 2005
This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series Discworld

I came to the Pratchett game late, and I’m getting through it slowly. It’s not that I don’t like it, quite the opposite…Pratchett has become one of my favorite comfort authors in recent years. The problem is that I buy about 90% of my books at second-hand book stores…and none of you bastards are selling back your Pratchett books! It’s like people covet them as precious things to be re-read over and over or something…but I acquire them bit-by-bit. With this one done, I’ve read all of the “Starter Books” from the Discworld Reading Order Guide but Maurice (which doesn’t seem essential at this point), and several others along the various storylines. Guards! Guards! is one of the Pratchett novels I’ve often seen cited as one of the favorites of Pratchett devotees, and I can easily see why. Like Small Gods (the first Discworld novel I read), this book blends classic humor, parody of fantasy genre conventions, and genuinely insightful social commentary with graceful ease. Funny books that also make you think. It introduces a host of characters important to the Discworld Milieu, like Carrot, the hypercompetent and charismatic but forcefully naive young man of mysterious ancestry who was raised by dwarves. And Vimes, the Captain of the Guard with a drinking problem and a genuine love for his squalid city hidden under years of dereliction and neglect. It’s also got conspiracies, magic, police work, lots and lots of dragons, romance, and an Orangutan. A Librarian Orangutan. An Irritable Librarian Orangutan, even. I enjoyed this book a lot, although I think I actually enjoyed Men At Arms more (Yes, I read it out of order, and No, it obviously didn’t impact on my enjoyment of it overly much), and would certainly second the opinion of the many others who recommend this as a good place to start reading Pratchett. I also think this is probably a good book to get a certain subset of folks who don’t typically read fantasy into the genre, specifically those who enjoy detective and police stories. So if any of the above sounds appealing (and if it doesn’t I assure you it’s my poor talents at fault), read this book.

Paladin of Souls

August 28th, 2005
This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Chalion

Bujold is…a difficult author to describe. She plots very well. She is capable of adapting seemingly any number of fiction genres into her own milieu, and even making it look easy. Her prose is rich without being purple, and she is capable of character interactions both interesting and subtle. I also think she’s the most successful Mary Sue author I’ve ever read. I’ve had that impression since I read Cordelia’s Honor, and the further adventures of Miles that I’ve acquired were unable to dislodge it. Curse of Chalion, her first attempt at fantasy, very nearly did; it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years, and I highly recommend it…but Paladin of Souls done gone and reinforced that notion of mine I mentioned. Before I go any further, I need to make clear…this is a good book, I liked it quite a bit, I don’t think almost anyone who enjoyed Curse of Chalion should give it a miss, and I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way. Read the rest of this entry »

The Stone Canal

August 4th, 2005
This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series The Fall Revolution

A note to editors or whomever it is who writes the little bits that go at the front of a book before the text begins: Please, please, please list the “Other Books by this author” in publication and/or preferred reading order…particularly when they are a series. I’m not entirely certain that this is what led me to start reading MacLeod’s “Fall Revolution” books beginning with number three and then proceeding next to the second in the series, The Stone Canal, but it seems like a reasonable assumption. At any rate, these stories do stand pretty well each on their own, and perhaps I might even find some interesting insight from reading them out of order as I have. As with The Cassini Division, this is socio-political science fiction, exploring ideas about politics and economics in future worlds where technology and information are so ubiquitous as to render our current systems completely obsolete. This book is helped greatly, however, by having a narrator not nearly so obnoxiously self-righteous as The Cassini Division‘s Ellen May Nguyen. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wizard

July 20th, 2005
This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series The Wizard Knight

I’ve been sitting on this review for way too long, and it’s hard to say exactly why. Like the first half of this duology, The Wizard is densely populated with events of significance and masterful prose. Also like its first half, it can be confusing in its succinct, matter-of-fact tone and many-layered contexts and settings, which are even more off-putting if it’s been some time since you read the first book. (A brief aside on the title. I understand that The Wizard Knight is the real name of this mammoth book, seperated for publishing reasons and not story ones, but even that is not that great a name for this book. Very little of what would “conventionally” be called wizardry goes on here, although there’s gobs of magic and certainly plenty of Keniggitting. Were I to name the two parts of this unfortunately divided work, I’d probably go for “The Sorceror Knight” for the first, and “The God Knight” for the second. Much more apropos.) Read the rest of this entry »

Blood Music

July 6th, 2005

I previously mentioned Vingean Singularities in my review of The Cassini Division, but being published over a decade previous to Macleod’s stories, Bear’s book is a significantly earlier entry in the fiction addressing the concept, and in some ways much more direct. This is a story told about the people who kick off the Singularity (quite by accident, as it happens), others who find themselves caught up in it, and the few who find themselves excluded from it. One of the interesting aspects of this story is that the nanomachines that are the vehicles of the Singularity are wholly biological in their inception…they are composed of the cells of our own bodies. Bear’s story opens with a brilliant but slightly sociopathic bio-engineer working in a lab developing biochips like those we have today that are used in sensors to detect diseases and bio-warfare agents, but in the 80s were pure SF. On his own time, using the equipment of the company he works for without their explicit knowledge and certainly without their approval, he begins to experiment directly on human cells, specifically his own body’s lymphocytes, attempting to form the basis of molecular computers by adding memory and computational abilities to the cells’ usual RNA and DNA functions. When he’s found out, and his project is judged too dangerous, he’s told to dispose of the material and fired. Instead, hoping to soon get somewhere they could be safely extracted, he injects the modified cells back into his bloodstream. As it happens, he doesn’t make it to get them extracted…but after a time, he notices changes in his body…and his mind. The cells survived, they evolved to even more sophisticated computing abilities, and they are improving their host…but what they might consider improvements compared to what their creator and the rest of humanity would can be astonishingly different. Bear tackles a lot of ground in this chilling, engrossing story, from the nature of intelligence and memory, to what purpose “legacy DNA” and “introns” might serve, to the effects that consciousness might have on space and time in a Quantum sense. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s told in a framework that is gripping and colorful, and only occasionally dated despite being 20 years old (Red Volvo Sports Car? What?). Highly recommended.

Anvil of the World

June 26th, 2005

I was sold on Anvil of the World by Kate’s review, which captures some of the story’s interestingly serious bits and humorous bits (particularly the intro paragraph of the book, which I won’t re-quote here, just read Kate’s review) in a way that I’m not going to try and replicate. As she and Koz both mention, this is not a unified story, but I don’t know if I would actually characterize it as three novellas. More accurately, this is a novel in three parts, as the second and third each build of necessity on the stories that come before them, merely having individual plot curves and climaxes as would be characteristic of individual stories. But I digress… Anvil of the World tells a story from the perspective of a man who calls himself Smith, in a world where that name is even more common than our own due to certain essential religious ties. Trying to escape a shady past, he begs a job as caravan master from a cousin in a city distant from where he’s had his troubles. He soon discovers that caravan master, particularly on the route he’s intended to run and with the cargo and passengers he’s been contracted to guide, is far from an easy ride. The second part of the story is an almost straightforward murder mystery, well…almost straightforward except for the fact that it’s set in and tied intricately to a fantasy world’s complex race and religious issues. Despite that, the humorous tone Baker sets early on is continued throughout…even through the deadly-serious-in-scope adventure that forms the conclusion of the book. Like Kate, I was reminded of Hughart’s ability to juggle humor, mystery, magic, and significance. This is a very, very good book, and I recommend it without reservation.

Web of Angels

June 20th, 2005

A brief note, first, on how I read. I generally have at least two books going at any given time. I’ve got one I’m reading at home, and one I’m reading at the gym. Generally the gym book takes a bit longer to finish, because I’m only reading it in 30-40 minute intervals, a few times a week at best. Web of Angels was a particularly poor choice for a gym book, which I should have known going in, because I’ve read Ford’s stuff before. The book begins in the far future with a nameless boy fleeing with a sort of extremely high-tech laptop (obviously stolen) from a death squad. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the theft which motivated the chase, but rather something he had done with the “webset;” apparently certain sorts of programming are illegal, and he’s particularly precocious. He finds refuge with a strange woman who tells his fortune using animated Tarot cards, and sets him on a path that will acquire him a mentor in the illegal (but not necessarily unethical) profession of “webspinning.” Ford, writing in 1980, postulated a sophisticated, instantaneous data transfer network connecting the many worlds of this book called “The Web,” which is a pretty impressive piece of prognostication. The rest of the book is divided between the young man’s (who takes the name “Grailer Diomede”) coming of age, and a strange mystery which he is hired to solve. The first part involves all the usual, the learning of his craft, moving on to “Journeyman” tasks, falling in love, losing love, and attaining mastery if not happiness. The second part was somewhat confusingly complicated, although it might have been clearer if I hadn’t read it in chunks as I mentioned. It all ties together in the end though, with a conclusion that is is satisfying and sad at the same time. As Pam mentions in her review, Ford experiments quite a bit with his use of language in this book, which is fascinating if you’re into it, but some are not, so consider yourself forewarned. Recommended, with those reservations. I’m looking forward to a more deliberate and less episodic reread.

The Complete Book of Swords

June 12th, 2005

Saberhagen is one of those names I’ve heard and seen on the shelves for years, but have never actually picked up. Perhaps I was wise in my ignorance. It’s not that these books are bad, exactly, so much as they are resoundingly mediocre and don’t live up to the potential of what they could have been.

The story begins with the forging of twelve Swords of power by a God who calls himself Vulcan, and a story of the one man of the twelve who went to aid the God that returned from the task, albeit with his right arm removed. In “payment,” Vulcan gave this simple peasant and former blacksmith one of the Swords, with a prophecy that his eldest son would wield it one day. 15 years later, a tragic sequence of events leads to that man’s son, Mark, fleeing for his life with the Sword in hand, banished from his homeland and hunted by the Duke who ruled over it. Mark soon encounters, in a terribly convenient coincidence, another bearer of a Sword, and they discover that the two Swords have very different powers. This man, Nestor, uses his sword to slay Dragons, and is accompanied by two young assistants, Barbara and Ben. Nestor is soon separated from the three young people, and they proceed onward to the demesne of a powerful but famously kind Knight called Sir Andrew, where unusual sequences of events soon have them socializing with the Knight and his devoted Sorceress.

Meanwhile, Nestor is encountering strange powerful beings and frightening monsters, hoping to regroup with his young friends and Sir Andrew to warn them of an oncoming menace. There’s a climactic three-way battle, and its outcome seems to set up intrigues and power vacuums that could lead to some very interesting story-telling ahead…and that’s where The First Book of Swords ends. The dialogue was never exactly stellar, and the characterization was flat and archetypal at best, but the story has lots of potential.

The Second Book of Swords takes all the potential set up in the first book, rummages through it, and exclaims “Screw it. Let’s all play D&D!” Really…you can all but hear the dice roll, and the GM bitching about how this part of the Module would have made more sense if they’d told them about the magical whoziwhatsit about 20 pages ago. Mark, Ben, and Barbara are reunited several years after the events of the first book, having apparently done nothing of interest in that time. Mark and Ben set off after a hidden cache of gold and Swords, hidden in a mysterious labyrinth and accompanied by magical warriors, wizards, and beastmasters. All that was lacking was a meeting in an Inn with a mysterious stranger. The dungeon crawl proceeds exactly how you might expect, and the book ends. Woo.

The Third Book of Swords shows Saberhagen saying “OK, I’ll write something relevant to the first story, if you really insist.” We’re treated to Gods bickering and politicking, deformed and powerful Dark Kings and Queens, secret romances with Emperors, and the confirmation of something hinted at in the earlier books that seems rather strange…the twelve Swords are not even close to being on the same power level. Some are ridiculously more powerful than others…hugely, insanely powerful. Why this would be…why the Gods thought such an oddly imbalanced and imprecise tool would be useful in their “Game” is left completely un-illuminated. Why the Gods are such complete twits is, likewise, left in the dark. The book ends, tying up most of the loose threads, and yet leaving the reader with very little satisfaction.

Apparently, these books were compelling enough to enough people to warrant many reprintings, a slew of additional sequels, and various omnibus bindings, one of which was given to me. In the “read only what’s recommended to you” ruleset, this book leads to a refinement: “This is heavy and I’m moving, do you want it?” is not exactly a recommendation. I can’t recommend this one to a general audience, but if you’re looking for cheap action and maybe inspiration for your next dungeon slog, I’ve got something heavy…do you want it?

Return to Weapon X

May 13th, 2005
This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series Ultimate X-Men

Back to the land of superheroes in tights for us, since I picked up the second volume of this series for a measly 4 bucks at Target (this is the first time I’ve ever seen a graphic novel that was staple-bound rather than flat-spine bound, which I’m sure accounts for its value). The art is changed slightly, with Adam Kubert taking over entirely (both he and his brother Andy did work on volume 1), but I didn’t mind the change too much since the style is kept largely the same, if not quite as dynamic. This volume deals with Xavier and his crew’s abduction and involuntary enlistment in a re-imagined Weapon X program, now administered as a sub-branch of an apparently chronically underfunded S.H.I.E.L.D., using mutants to do the dirty work when “regular” agents might not be able to. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., we get to have some fun with Nick Fury in this one, as his mechanically enabled abilities are cut on and off by the second based on what accounting will and will not allow to be expensed. We get to see the X-Men *not* having fun, dealing with their imprisonment and increasingly ethically challenged missions under Weapon X’s sadistic commander Wraith (shadowed by Sabertooth, whose look didn’t really do it for me), and the introduction of a completely non-English speaking but very well depicted Nightcrawler. Hard choices for Marvel Girl in particular in this one, perhaps foreshadowing a future slide? Although the title implies it, Wolverine’s role is not especially central in this volume but, like in the first, it’s crucial for its resolution. One suspects that Millar et alia are trying not to focus overly much on the character many people feel is most compelling of the original X-men, but can’t help using him to resolve the hairy messes that make up their plots. He’s just too badass to not be used. If The Tomorrow People worked for you, go ahead and pick this one up. More gritty X-goodness.

This Immortal & Lord of Light

May 10th, 2005

I was recently reminded, somewhat vividly, how long it had been since I had read Lord of Light, which (since it is truly one of the greatest SF novels ever printed) I deemed required immediate correction. Since I had recently acquired a second-hand copy of Zelazny’s first novel, This Immortal (which was re-released in hardback not long ago by I Books), I thought I would give these a go as a paired reading. A hunch which proved, I think, very rewarding.

To read This Immortal is to begin at the beginning of Zelazny’s career as an SF novelist, already building a powerful reputation in the genre’s short form. It is a story of the Earth as it often appeared in SF of the 1960s, wasted by nuclear war. The war was many centuries ago, however, and mankind survived it, albeit only at the fringes, in areas that weren’t important enough to be direct targets. That remnant of mankind, however, was contacted by (mostly) benevolent extraterrestrials. Much more advanced than humanity, they found our kind to be entertaining and inspiring in our art and our culture (and our bodies, in the case of human females), and mankind (most of whom having fled with the aliens to their distant worlds) rebuilt itself as the lower class of their alien hosts, and sold its homeworld, entire, to be their resort for tourism.

Our first person narrator, Conrad, is a very important figure in the administration of the Earth-as-theme-park, he is the Minister of Arts, Monuments, and Archives. He’s also a mutant, although he doesn’t generally like that being bandied about, one who has lived significantly longer than any human being should have, blessed also with great strength and extraordinary senses, although it is all wrapped up in a package of mediocre and flawed appearance. He’s got a gimpy leg, and one eye is blue while the other is brown, but in general he wouldn’t look particularly out of place in a uniform with an X on the breast. Conrad’s history, or perhaps histories, are obscure, but he’s not at all fond of Earth’s babysitting aliens, or the way they’ve purchased Earth and its inhabitants…which makes it particularly galling when he’s asked to play tourguide to one particularly important one as he goes on Safari to some of the wilds of Earth. Still, one does what is required, and he vows to accompany the alien and protect him from the dangers he might bring along the way.He might have reconsidered had he realized that revolutionaries and infamous assassins would also be in the party, but if there’s one thing Conrad isn’t short on, its a sense of responsibility.

From there on out this is an adventure story, with significant doses of intrigue and scenes of monumental derring-do amongst settings and figures with deep mythical resonance. More importantly, it’s the world’s first glimpse of Zelazny the Novelist’s take on archetype, on the Everyman-Superman. In Conrad one can easily see foreshadowed some of Zelazny’s strongest characters, particularly Corwin of Amber…and the star of our next title, Lord of Light.

The most important thing to be said about Lord of Light, perhaps, is that there’s not much left to be said about it. This is not just an excellent novel, but a truly important one. Here, Clarke’s Third Law is taken to its next logical extension: That magic-like technology of a sufficiently advanced nature is indistinguishable from divine action. The wielders of technology need not be mere wizards and sorcerers…they can be gods. It confronts this idea directly, asking not only whether this is inevitable or desirable but also whether it is necessary…or even relevant, if true enlightenment might be a better state and can be achieved in a more…natural fashion? It accomplishes all of this while giving the reader a bit of an education in far Eastern theology, and also proposing some interesting ways in which technology could make cycles of reincarnation, gods, and demons a reality.

Sam, the protagonist of Lord of Light shares many of Conrad’s characteristics…supremely confident but not without a certain sense of humility. Desirous of a simpler life, where leisure is the chief concern, but with an unescapable sense of responsibility. Powerful beyond what appearances would suggest, but not invincible by any means. Willing to decieve and to destroy that which they most love for what they perceive to be the greater good, when that choice. Con-man and Saint, Warrior and Playboy, Terrorist and Noble…Zelazny takes the heroic qualities of Conrad and writes them larger and more clearly in Sam.

I was surprised when I took a look at the copyright information for Lord of Light. This book reads as the work of a matured talent, someone who has figured out where to take chances and how to make it work, where This Immortal felt rushed in places…like Zelazny had a lot more canvas left to cover, and paint to fill it, but lacked a clear idea (or perhaps just time) to get from the clear image at the center to the bits the edges should have had to complete the piece. But Zelazny published these two books one the year after the other. Even granting that …And Call Me Conrad, the original shorter form version of This Immortal, was published the year before, that such a difference could be felt in so short a period is nothing less than staggering. I can’t even imagine how one could get all the research done that must surely have been necessary to produce something like Lord of Light in that span.

In conclusion, This Immortal is a good book, but very much a product of its time. Unless one is desperate for science fiction where Greeks or Greece are prominent, or is specifically making a study of Zelazny, or finds it in a charity sale for 81 cents and could use some mostly light reading (like me), I wouldn’t advise the general reader to seek this one out. Lord of Light, however, is certain to be a timeless classic. I add my voice to that of countless others as I insist that you to read this book. I doubt you’ll regret it.