Sunday, September 28, 2014

Assail - Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont's sixth novel Assail is the final book in what we'll for convenience call the Malazan main sequence. Esslemont started publishing in earnest a few years later than his co-creator Steven Erikson and his novels are interwoven in Erikson's storyline. By that time Erikson had set the Malazan standard and Esslemont has had a rough time living up to that. His style is different from Erikson, a bit less verbose and a bit less satirical. It has gotten him quite a few negative reviews, some of which are in my opinion not justified. Erikson and Esslemont are not the same person, you can't reasonably expect them to approach their creation the same way. That being said, not all of Esslemont's novels were equally strong. I had problems with Night of Knives and Orb, Sceptre, Throne in particular. Fortunately Assail is one of Esslemont's stronger ones. In fact, some might consider it his best one yet.

Gold has been discovered on the continent of Assail. Lots of it if the stories are to believed. Enterprising people from all over the world make the long, hazardous journey to the continent only to find out just how dangerous the place is. Ancient magic lingers in the north of the continent in particular. Omtose Phellack, the ancient path of ice, still holds the place in its grip. It is weakening though. Slowly the ice is releasing its grip on the land and this creates opportunities for those who have an ancient score to settle with the rulers of the ice. The natives of course, are not at all amused by all this unwanted attention. A bloody struggle for control of the region is about to begin.

The final book in the main sequence needs a final reckoning of some sort. Given the sprawling that and the countless unfinished story lines the previous fifteen books have brought us, it would have been undoable to tie all of them off. Esslemont chooses to focus the supernatural part of the conflict on the eternal war between the Elder races Jaghut and Imass. The summoner Silverfox, whom we met in Memories of Ice is key to this story line. She is both the only hope for the future of the Imass as well as the person trying to heal the rift that has formed between the various clans. It's this part of the story I liked the least to be honest. Silverfox is very passive. She spends most of her time in pursuit of one of the clans bent on continuing the war. I don't want to give away the climax of that story line but I felt it was a bit disappointing. I was more impressed with the way Esslemont handled the confrontations between just about every group mentioned in the previous fifteen books. It must have been quite a challenge to keep all those cultural backgrounds straight.

Another aspect I think many readers will notice is the element of repetition that is present in the book. The various characters, and there are quite a lot of them, in the novel all more or less make the same journey to Assail, meaning we see several characters pass the same place at various times in the book. As with all Malazan novels, the story works towards a convergence; but this time the characters don't come from different directions. Once the first group has passed a particular place, the reader will be aware of the danger it holds for the travelers. It does take away some of the tension at certain points in the novel.

What I did like about the book is that Esslemont uses a theme that appears in Erikson's work as well. He reflects on the fate of civilizations that meet a fully agricultural, imperialistic civilization. In Erikson's work it is often the nomadic peoples who find out the strength of an empire first hand. In Assail it is the Icebloods. A small group of families of Jaghut descent who hang on the north of Assail. The gold on their land is their misfortune. Replace gold for oil, or any other precious resource really, and our own history can tell you what will happen. It's a tragic story. The Icebloods are doomed and they know it. In true Malazan style they are determined to make a stand however. Assail's gold carries a price in blood.

The Jaghut presence is noticeable in other groups of the local population too. They are a very independent lot, not easily impressed by outsiders and of the opinion that killing them and taking their possessions is quite all right. Their land is not one that offers many opportunities for economic growth so piracy and scavenging have become an art on Assail. Even the names on the maps of Assail encourage people to stay away. Assail is cold, wild and has a vaguely Nordic feel to it. When you think about it, Esslemont and Erikson have managed to give the many locations in their vast world a distinct flavour. One would not mistake Assail for Korell, Lether or Genebackis.

Assail weighs in at 540 pages. It seems to be a length Esslemont is comfortable with. His books are substantially shorter than Erikson's, making them slightly less intimidating to get started on. I thought Assail was quite a quick read and definitely one of the smoothest Esslemont has produced to date. Some readers will probably think it is not quite what they expected form the concluding volume of the series. The world of Malaz is huge. There are plenty of questions unanswered and plenty of places left to explore. Personally I don't see how it could be otherwise in this monstrously detailed world. I understand Esslemont intends to write a series of prequels next. He doesn't intend to go back as far as Erikson is doing at the moment though, so it will be an opportunity for Esslemont to write a story that is not completely interwoven in Erikson's work. I look forward to reading what Esslemont comes up with next. He has grown considerably as a writer over the course of this series. I expect some more good stuff from him.

Book Details
Title: Assail
Editor: Ian Esslemont
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 540
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2998-1
First published: 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself - Ian Sales

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the second part in Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet, a series of alternative histories rooted in the Apollo space program of the 1960s and 1970s. I'm a little behind on this series of novellas. The third one, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, has been out for quite a while but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. This is actually my second read of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. I read it last year but didn't get around to writing a review then. This week I had a bit more reading time so I had another go at it. Like the first in the series, Adrift on a Sea of Rains, it is a highly technical piece of science fiction. If you liked the first one in the series, this one is sure to go down well too.

The US has missed its opportunity to get an astronaut to the moon first. The Russians beat them to it and NASA shifts its objective to an even greater prize: a manned mission to Mars. In 1979, Major Bradley Emerson is the first to set foot on the red planet. Soon after his return, he retires from NASA, something that probably saves his marriage. Something he found on Mars keeps him tied to the space program however, and in 1999 he is asked to go back into space for a final mission.

The story contains so many references to real events, places and science that finding where the story deviates from our own history is quite a challenge. Sales refers to the Apollo missions of course, in an appendix in the back a list of the missions and how they played out in this timeline is added. There are also references to the 'face' on Mars, photographed by Viking 1 in 1976, some quantum mechanics, including that infamous cat of Schrödinger and of course a number of references to the mysterious Area 51. Where the first novella seems to deal with the Nazi legacy to the space program, this novella is more focused on the conspiracy theories it has spawned.

Stylistically the novella is much the same as Adrift on a Sea of Rains. Sales uses no quotation marks in his dialogue, uses a table to display conversations over radio and generally creates a sense of distance to the characters. Like the main character in the previous novella, Elliott is lonely. It's fitting in a way as he knows something very few people on the planet know and he is not allowed to share it even with the people closest to him. Maybe it is not surprising then that Elliott feels at ease when he's in space.

The structure of the novella is quite interesting. He starts the novella with a list of acronyms, which the reader will want to return to frequently. Some of the novella is absolutely riddled with them. After that follows the main story, which is divided in two main strands. The first set in 1979 dealing with the journey to Mars and one set in 1999, dealing with Elliott's return to space. After that a glossary on important terms and space missions follows. Like with the previous volume, this glossary is required reading if you want to understand where Sales deviates from history as we know it. For the reader who has read though all that, at the very end a section with the answer to the riddle Elliott encounters on his second mission is included.

This odd structure gives the novella two endings as it were. Elliott's personal story has come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion before the glossary. One could even stop reading there as it is a natural end in the plot. It is quite open ended though. For the reader who wants to know what Sales makes of all the conspiracy theories he mentions it would probably have been unsatisfying. Those readers will want to go on and read the rest even if, for the readers more interested in the emotional climax of the story, it might feel like an afterthought.

Like Adrift on a Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is a very interesting piece of science fiction. It is very technical, very well researched and contains a lot of interesting detail for people with an interest in the history of space exploration. I found it amazing how Sales can take a work that is so obviously grounded in real technology and history in such a strange direction. It may not be the most action-packed piece of fiction you'll ever read but it certainly inspired a sense of wonder in me that much science fiction aspires to. In short, another novella well worth reading. I should get on with it and read the third one soon.

Book Details
Title: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself
Author: Ian Sales
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Pages: 70
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9571883-5-8
First published: 2012

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Widow's House - Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House is the fourth volume of the Dagger and Coin series by Daniel Abraham. They've been appearing like clockwork every year in spring. Recently the cover art for the fifth and final volume was released. The Spider's War is set for release in the spring or summer of 2015. These books tend to linger on my to read stack for a while. On the one hand I like Abraham's writing, but on the other, these novels are not the most challenging or innovative reads around. They deliver what they set out to do. The Dagger and Coin is solid, epic fantasy, nothing more and nothing less. If you are in the mood for that, you could do worse than these novels.

War has enveloped the world. Geder's armies, assisted by the spider priests are achieving one victory after another. The rapid pace of expansion is causing problems though. His armies are exhausted, food is scarce because most of the farmers have been called up to fight and on top of that, there are rumors that a dragon has once again been spotted in the world. Still Geder wants to press on. The rejection by Cithrin stings and when he realizes how she used him, there is no holding him back. The army marches on Porte Oliva to settle the account with Cithrin.

In The Tyrant's Law, Marcus and Master Kit figured out that the Spider Goddess does not exist but that the ancient dragon magic creates the illusion of communicating with the Goddess. Its victims are completely convinced they are right and will prevail. Throughout the book we see signs how this conviction is beginning to work against the priests and how it will lead the world into a spiral of continuous violence. The shape of the conflict to come is beginning to get clear in this novel. It also means Marcus' job is done for the moment and he takes a bit of a back seat in the novel. The unresolved tension between him and Cithrin remains unresolved. Making peace with his past is also out of reach for the moment.

While Abraham is clearly working towards the climax of the story, in The Widow's House he is mostly setting the stage. There is a major battle in the book but neither of the parties get out of it what they were aiming for. In fact, Abraham makes it clear that the solution for ending this conflict is an economic one rather than military. It is Cithrin's mind for economics that comes up with a way to fuse the economies of the various nations in such a way that war becomes too expensive to wage. Her method is not the same but the idea that war can be prevented in such a manner is one of the principles on which the EU and its forerunners operate. The way in which economics is woven into the story is remains one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Interestingly enough, Cithrin also sets up the mechanisms for a spectacular economic crash here. I don't think the story will take us that far but it would certainly have been interesting to see how she'd respond to that.

Clara in the meantime is still seeing the world though more feudal eyes. Even more aware of the various classes of society, Clara herself moves though a kind of vacuum. She is an embarrassment to the court, yet the mother of one of the nation's highest military leaders. It changes her perspective in many ways. She does remain convinced that Geder will lead the nations into ruin however, and continues her campaign to see him removed from the throne. I liked her attitude in this book. She is of the opinion that the worst has already happened to her and is quite willing to risk her life to see peace return to the world. Abraham does make sure to keep a bit of an aristocratic outlook in this character, she may have fallen from grace but her upbringing will not let her be anything but a lady most of the time.

Geder himself seems at a bit of a standstill in this book. He is still the slightly naive, book smart and in some respects decent man, but also possesses a bit of a psychopathic streak, that comes out in full force under the influence of the Spider priests. He is, in other words, his creepy self for most of the book. The combination of basically decent actions and a ruthless policy of conquest is one you don't come across often in Fantasy. We have seen it in the previous novels however, and in this one we have to wait until the very end before we see cracks starting to appear.

I have often wondered what this series could have been if Abraham had taken a few more chances. He consciously avoids a number of overused tropes of the genre (the promised one, a clear good versus evil story, quests for magical artifacts etcetera) and includes elements in the plot that you don't come across often. The banking, the way he handles female characters and his take on religious fanaticism are good examples of that. Despite all that, the series has a very familiar feel to it for readers of epic fantasy. As Abraham said himself, he aims to do epic fantasy exceptionally well. While te result is familiar, comfortable and pleasant reading, it does leave me with the sense of unfulfilled potential. The Widow's House is another solid entry in the series but one that leaves me in doubt whether the final volume will be able to make me shake the feeling this series could have been more than Abraham has made of it.

Book Details
Title: The Widow's House
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 493
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20398-2
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fool's Assassin - Robin Hobb

This book is surely one of the biggest releases of 2014. After the publication of Fool's Fate in 2003 Hobb stated that she was probably done with Fitz but eleven years later, a new novel starring Hobb's most famous character appears. Fool's Assassin is the first book in a new trilogy on Fitz and the Fool. I must admit I was a bit hesitant to pick it up. Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy had not been received as she might have wished and the way the splitting of the four books in the Rain Wilds Chronicles series was handled, didn't sit well with a lot of readers. What better way to give her career a boost than to return to a fan favourite? The story of Fitz and the Fool ended in their customary dramatic fashion and it seemed like a fitting close for these two characters. Was there really more to tell about them? Well, rest assured there is. Fool's Assassin is quite simply the best book Hobb has produced since Royal Assassin (1996). It is simply stunning.

It's been more than a decade since Fitz last saw the Fool. He's spent most of his time on the Withywoods estate with his wife Molly. He does advise the Farseer King from time to time but mostly he stays out of the affairs of the kingdom. They've raised Molly's children and most of them have now found their own way in the world. The years have not been kind to Molly and while Fitz keeps the appearance of a man in his thirties under the influence of the Skill, she is aging at a more normal rate. What Fitz wants, is to spend as much time with her as he can manage but his past will not leave him be. Fitz may not recognize it straight away but the Fool is trying to reach out to him and that can only mean more trouble.

Fool's Assassin is actually the first book starring Fitz I've read in English. I started reading Hobb when she started to appear in Dutch translation in the second half of the 1990s, I eventually switched to English for the Liveship Trader books but Fitz I've read only in Dutch translation. Reading one in English made me realize how good the initial translations by Erica Feberwee and Peter Cuijpers were. A lot of translations of Fantasy novels into Dutch are, to put it mildly, not very good. Hobb has hit the jackpot with her translators. They've managed to capture the spirit of the novel very well and apply the kind of creative translating that is necessary for a Fantasy novel. That being said, I would like to read the rest in the original language too one day.

In a way, this book feels like coming home. Hobb manages to slip right back into the character of Fitz. He is not the young man he was in the Farseer trilogy of course. Where he was young, rash and prone to decisions that were in equal parts dramatic and stupid, Fitz has matured a bit in the years that followed. His life would seem much more settled but the early stages of the book are filled with quiet drama. Molly aging much faster than Fitz himself is one example. Their wish to have another child together now that they are both around to raise it is another. Fitz and Molly are still very much in love and still quite capable of hurting each other.

The setting and characters may be familiar, but Hobb does do something different in this book. She introduces a second point of view. Like Fitz', it is written in the first person and no, it is not the Fool. I've always felt it was one of the weaknesses of the Farseer trilogy that we were limited to Fitz' point of view and so never got to see much of the events that took place beyond his line of sight. With a sprawling military conflict at the heart of the story, that was a bit of a problem. Interestingly enough, this second point of view character pretty much spends the entire book in the same location as Fitz. That will change in the second book in the series though.

It should not come as a surprise to readers of Robin Hobb but Fool's Assassin is not a book with a very high pace. Hobb takes her time to set the story in motion and examines her characters' actions and motivations in detail. For me that is part of the appeal of Hobb's writing. In a genre where speed and action often seems to be preferred over characterization, Hobb is a writer who tells the story at her own pace. It helps to create the rounded characters in the novel and explore the setting in depth. After six books I had not really expected Hobb to stray from this approach and she doesn't. It's a novel that pays a lot of attention to details and the emotional state of the characters. So if you think Fitz was whiny in the previous novels and Hobb needs to get on with it, you will probably want to skip it. If, like me, you are in awe of what Hobb has already done with Fitz and the Six Duchies, this is one book you do not want to miss.

I would have liked to get into the plot in a bit more detail but that would have been giving too much away about a book that has just been published. What I can say is that Fool's Assassin captivated me and that I managed to read it in a single weekend. If I had had a bit more reading time I might have finished it in a day. It is a wonderful read, Hobb has hit the bullseye with this volume. The only thing I think some fans of her works may dislike is the fact that it ends on something of a cliffhanger. Even if it hadn't, it would still have left me with the feeling that it is an awfully long wait until the second volume comes out. On the bright side, I have a feeling that that one is going to be worth the wait.

Book Details
Title: Fool's Assassin
Editor: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 630
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744417-5
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Heechee Rendezvous - Frederik Pohl

A while ago publisher Baen experimented with an online game. By playing it you could win free e-books. It didn't last for very long but I did manage to gather enough points to get a few free books out of it and since I enjoyed Gateway (1977) and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) quite a bit, this third volume in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga was one of them. It's one of a number of Pohl's novels Baen converted to e-books. It would appear it was a bit of a rush job. For some reason they couldn't be bothered to put on some decent cover art (granted, given what passes for cover art at that publisher, it might actually be a blessing) and my epub edition contains an annoying number of typos and formatting errors. Quite frankly, it is a good thing I didn't pay for it or I'd want my money back. But in the end it is the story that counts, so let's have a look at that.

In this third volume Pohl takes us back to see his main character Robinette Broadhead again. He is still rich as Croesus, happily married to a beautiful wife and in the possession of a top notch health insurance policy that keeps him healthy even though he is getting on in years. Despite this, or maybe because of this, guilt still gnaws at him. So much so that he feels impelled to seek out his old councilor Siegfrid once more. As it turns out, Robinette is not done with the Heechee quite yet, or with sophisticated computer programs for that matter.

Where the first two novels managed to rake in quite a few award nominations and awards, Gateway in particular is considered one of Pohl's finest, at this point in the series interest was clearly waning. It was nominated for a Locus SF Award but lost to Larry Niven's The Integral Trees. In 1984 the peak of Pohl's writing career lay some years behind him. Heechee Rendezvous still has that undertone of satire in it but the story itself and the way it is told, will grate on more than a few readers.

Robinette himself is the main narrator but part of the story is also told by an artificial intelligence based on Albert Einstein. The story switches point of view between those two frequently and not always in a smooth way. Albert's tone is a bit pedantic, whereas Robinette himself has a tendency to throw in cliffhangers and if-I'd-only-known type of phrases. It is, in other words, a very good example of how to annoy your readers.

The story itself is amusing enough though. We even end up in Rotterdam for a bit. Having lived there for a couple of years, I recognized some of the places Pohl mentioned. He even mixes in a bit of poor Dutch. Of course he then manages to mortally offend a whole nation (or maybe two) by having Robinette's Russian wife mention that in her opinion speaking Dutch is much the same as speaking German. Ouch! It makes me wonder if Pohl has ever been here though, or if it is all book research.

Pohl throws in quite a bit of cosmology and astrophysics in his story. It is not so much that your average science fiction reader can't follow but enough to know that you are reading a book by a man for whom science fiction contained actual science. One of the major plot points is Albert's inability to convince himself of the validity of quantum mechanics for instance. He still firmly beliefs in a universe governed by predictable laws of nature. Or as he himself puts it: God does not play dice. There is also a bit of Stephen Hawking hidden in the text and some speculation about the ultimate fate of the universe. Some of it has been overtaken by new theories already but not so much as to make this aspect of the story seem very dated.

The plot itself unveils a new layer in the mystery of the Heechee, their sudden disappearance and the reason for their self-imposed exile. You could even say that the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Pohl does tie up the plot in some ways but he also leaves the door wide open for sequels. He would eventually write three more Heechee books, The Annals of the Heechee (1987). The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Judging from this book, I'm not entirely sure there is material for three books in this series. I do have two of the three sequels though. I may give the next one a go too.

Given the high standard Pohl sets in the first novel of this series, Heechee Rendezvous is a bit of a disappointment. It is entertaining in a way but simply not very well written. Robinette is not the most sympathetic of characters. This is something I can deal with but Pohl somehow manages to continually make him get on the reader's nerves. Quite an achievement, but when I start feeling it is a blessing the book is only 273 pages long, he may have overdone it just a bit. Still, if you enjoy the riddle the Heechee pose, it is very  readable. Just don't expect Pohl to rise to the level he attained in the 1970s.

Book Details
Title: Heechee Rendezvous
Editor: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 273
Year: Unknown
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3781-6
First published: 1984

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who, in my opinion, does better at writing short fiction than novels. Her best length appears to be the novella, of which she has produced a number of memorable ones. The best known is probably Beggars in Spain, which formed the basis for the novel of the same name. A few years back I also read Act One, which garnered her a number of award nominations. I was quite pleased that I was able to get an advance copy of her new project Yesterday's Kin through NetGalley. Like After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall it is either a short novel or a novella. I don't have an exact wordcount but I think it falls short of most definitions of a novel. Novel or novella, it doesn't really matter.  Yesterday's Kin is a very interesting read.

Aliens have made contact with Earth and parked a spaceship in New York City. Talks between the United Nations and the aliens have been going on for a while but what they actually want remains unclear. Geneticist Marianne Jenner has paid little attention to these events, absorbed as she is in her work. With the publication of her latest article, announcing the discovery of a thirtyfirst haplogroup in humans, she is suddenly contacted by the aliens. Slowly, the reason for their visit becomes apparent, Earth is about to pass through a cloud of alien spores that could drive humanity to extinction. A race against the clock to find a treatment for the virus begins.

The Jenner family, Marianne and her three children, represent the full range of responses to the arrival of the aliens. They are seen as an invasive species, a threat to public security, a source of information on how to deal with the oncoming crisis or a new culture to be embraced completely. In short, Earth is hopelessly divided on how to deal with the situation. Kress keeps a strong focus on the impact events have on the family. It's one of the things that set her writing apart. Where many writers would be tempted to zoom out, look at the political drama in the background or include more action scenes. Kress keeps things closer to her characters, making the tale more intimate and also more focused. It's not a style suitable for sprawling novels but for the novella length it works very well.

Kress again drew inspiration from genetics in this novella. The genetic research the main character is involved in does not only shed light on the development of humanity but also has a link to the aliens. There is quite a bit of population genetics in the story. Concepts such as haplogroups, mitochondrial Eve and the population bottleneck of 70,000 years ago show up in the story. When you read this story it really hits home how much genetics have been able to contribute to our knowledge of the development of the species, supplementing branches of science such as archaeology and paleontology.

The author doesn't limit the science to genetics though. A fair bit of ecology sneaks in between the lines as well. I do think that Kress didn't quite manage to integrate the view of the aliens as an invasive species (in the ecological sense). With transport of people and goods around the globe at an all time high, accidental introductions of species that can upset an entire ecosystem is becoming a huge problem. That is on top of the trouble already caused by the species that have been purposefully introduced. A single species not involved in a particular ecosystem can alter it radically, usually leading to great losses in biodiversity. The idea that an alien species might cause something like that is plausible but we don't get to see any of that. Social disruption yes, but no ecological havoc. In fact, considering what Kress tells us of the origin of this alien race and the speed at which evolution takes place in complex organisms, it may not be all that big a risk. When Kress eventually reveals why she included that particular idea, it made sense but didn't come across as particularly convincing.

That being said, I did enjoy the science Kress put into this story an awful lot. The use of genetics in science fiction is widespread but I can't think of any other author in the field who takes her inspiration from recent scientific research in the field like Kress does. The life sciences are a very important part of her story but she consistently manages to keep her stories quite close to the everyday life of the characters. It is not the sense of wonder Kress is looking for, but the impact on everyday life. They are a combination of fascinating science and well drawn characters. Stories that are both emotionally powerful and thought provoking. In many ways Yesterday's Kin is a signature Kress novella. If you liked her other work, you can't really go wrong with this one.  I have read Kress stories where the elements of the story fall into place more convincingly but it is still a high quality read. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up on a few award shortlists next year.

Book Details
Title: Yesterday's Kin
Editor: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61686-176-3
First published: 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lana Reviews: The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells

First published in 1898, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is a work of science fiction that I, as a reader in 2014, feel must have been way ahead of its time back when it was first released. Although some of the scientific ideas brought up in this novel are a bit out of date today, they were actually the theories that were thought to make sense back then, and Wells himself did a pretty good job explaining such scientific and technological ideas in his works so that the average person could understand them better.

One day, something unexpected happens over south-eastern England. A falling star is observed, few noticing the greenish streak it is leaving behind as it rushes across the sky. Incidentally, it turns out that the 'meteorite' lands somewhere in Surrey, not far from Woking where the narrator of the story lives. Only the next morning, however, when someone ventures out to find it, is it discovered that it is not a meteorite at all, but a cylinder, its top unscrewing slowly indicating that someone or something must be inside, trying to get out.

What comes out of the cylinder is clearly not a creature of our world, and before long, it becomes clear that it has no intention of making friends. After witnessing the violence and chaos unleashed upon the curious but innocent masses gathered around the cylinder, the narrator hurries home. He decides to get his wife and servant out of Woking to somewhere safe, a journey they manage without much trouble. But as he returns home with the horse and cart he loaned for the trip, it turns out that what happened earlier near the cylinder was only the beginning of the destruction that Woking and the rest of the area would see. The rest of his story tells of how he tries to make it back to his wife, while at the same time trying to stay safe as the Martians have started moving around.

The book is told in first person view by a nameless narrator mostly telling us the story of what happened to him when the Martians invaded. Through a few chapters however, he also shares his brother's experiences with us, something I think Wells chose to do to give his readers a second point of view from a different, and perhaps more well-known, location. Not every reader would recognize Woking and the surrounding country-side, but most would have heard of London. Since the whole story is supposed to be a factual account of the invasion from Mars, we get to know very little of the characters - few of the principal ones are even named.

The story itself starts out with a chapter that, among others, does two things. First, it links something that actually happened in real life a few years before, to the events of the story. In 1894, a French astronomer observed a strange light on Mars. This became the starting point of Wells' story. He makes this into one of the times the Martians launched one of their many cylinders: destination Earth.

Second, it explains how come the inhabitants of Mars are so far ahead of humans intellectually and technologically, and since it was the prevailing theory of planetary formation at the time, this is explained as a result of Mars being an older world than ours because it is further away from the sun than Earth, the theory being that the outer planets formed first, and also cooled and aged faster than the ones closer to the sun. Since they didn't know what we do today about Mars being cold and barren, one cannot blame them for thinking that if life was possible on earth, it would only make sense that life would be possible on Mars too. Believing Mars to be an older world, it would then not be far-fetched to think that the Martians would have come along further in their development than the people of earth, having had more time to evolve.

Talking about evolving, Wells' background as a science teacher in training and a believer in Darwinism shines through as he, somewhere along the way, describes the evolution of the Martians. He had already aired a lot of the ideas he brought up in The War of the Worlds in an essay he had published in 1896, named Intelligence on Mars. Here, he speculated about the evolution of Martian species compared to those on earth, thinking they would have to be different since the conditions would undoubtedly be different. He also played with the idea that perhaps, if Mars had changed enough that the Martians could not live there anymore, they would be looking for a new place to settle. His genius was that, where contemporary authors stuck to the usual plot of the then popular invasion novels, letting humans fight humans, Wells raised the stakes so much higher by introducing a formidable and near unbeatable enemy from another world.

The only book I had read by Wells before picking up this one, was The Time Machine, which I read in my late teens and really enjoyed. Still, I was a bit skeptical about The War of the Worlds as I really disliked the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie of almost the same name, which is the only filmed version I have seen. Fortunately, the book is so much better. I especially like that it is set in a time when horses and carts are still in use (where the movie was set it in our day and age), and yet you have these Martians moving around in metal vehicles with three long legs, brandishing laser-like weapons! How Wells came up with these things I will never know, the man sort of invented the future. As for this book, it served to remind me of an author I had enjoyed in the past, and now I cannot wait to pick up more of his works.

Book Details
Title: The War of the Worlds
Editor: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 199
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-14-144103-0
First published: 1898

Saturday, August 23, 2014

City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett

Broadway Books is giving this one a big push, I've been sitting on a review copy of this novel for months now. I've seen a few reviews pop up over the past few weeks already, it would appear they've been liberal with review copies. It won't be out until September so I didn't put it at the top of the reading list. City of Stairs is Robert Jackson Bennett's fifth novel and the fist one I've read. From what I can tell, Bennett writes novels that aren't firmly planted in one genre. This novel could be considered a fantasy, but there are elements of other genre's mixed in. His novel American Elsewhere (2013) won him a Shirley Jackson award, which leans towards dark fantasy and horror. Bennett may have convinced me to try that one. I very much liked City of Stairs and it would fit into one of the reading challenges I'm taking part in this year.

The city of Bulikov was once the center of the world. A place where the gods came together and miracles were an everyday occurrence. Then, a man from Saypur, one of the conquered nations of the world, chafing under the rule of the gods, rose up and in a swift and brutal rebellion killed the gods. The city collapsed in on itself and almost a century later, is still mostly a ruin. Efforts to regain some of the former glory are blocked by the new rulers, and knowledge of the history of the city and religions that once thrived there is extremely restricted. The old gods are not that easily defeated though. Under the surface, a rebellion is simmering. When a historian from Saypur is murdered, intelligence officer Shara stumbles across evidence that the status quo Saypur has so carefully tried to maintain is about to be disrupted.

What follows is a bit spoilerish, you have been warned.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Random Comments is Five Years Old Today

Five years old and unlike last year I didn't even forget. Still have no other ambitions that keeping it going. Let's see if we can reach double digits ;)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Val & Lana Review: Artemis Awakening - Jane Lindskold

For the four hundredth reviewed work on Random Comments I thought we ought to try something different. I got Lana to agree to do a joint review for the occasion. In the poll I ran a while ago you selected Jane Lindskold's latest novel Artemis Awakening, the first of a new trilogy, and so we set to work. As was the expectation, we don't quite agree on this novel. Maybe it is something worth repeating for a few other titles we have opposing opinions on.

Created from bare rock by a human empire so technologically advanced  that moving planets was a simple task, Artemis was to serve as a  pleasure planet to the few who'd be allowed access to it. But when the empire fell, the knowledge of the whereabouts of the planet was also  lost, and Artemis survived only as a fable told to children, to remind them of the great achievements that their ancestors had once been  capable of.

To Griffin Dane however, Artemis is more than a fable. To him, it is  his path to recognition and fame among his peers. Believing that he might have found the till now lost coordinates of Artemis, he sets out alone on a journey through the stars, afraid that if he accepts the help or company of any others, including his family, he will have to share the glory to come, or even have it taken away from him completely. And  so it is that when he arrives on Artemis, crash-landing his ship in the process, he is alone with no conceivable way to get back home.

Lucky for him, he soon meets Adara and her psych-linked companion, Sand Shadow the puma. They are both ascendants of the bio-engineered humans and animals who were once created to populate Artemis in order to  make the stay more pleasant for its visitors. Convinced that Griffin must be an ascendant of the creators of Artemis, she and her companion  decides to help him find his way on their planet in his search for a way home. Before long, they are joined by Adara's friend Terrell, whose abilities as a factotum will prove invalulable to their cause, as their journey leads them to strange places and unexpected happenings.

Lana's view:

Artemis Awakening is my first book by Jane Lindskold. I have heard of some of her other works, but looking at her bibliography, I cannot say that I have read any of them. As such, I had no idea what to expect when I started on this novel, and it was all quite exciting!

Artemis Awakening is set in a post-apocalyptic world, about 500 years after the events that broke it apart. Humans have managed to regain some of the technology that was lost to them (after a fashion anyway; they did not only lose technology, but special abilities were lost as well), but compared to the legends of their ancestors, it looks as if they may still have som way to go in order to catch up. This seems to be one of the things driving Griffin Dane onwards; perhaps if he finds Artemis, he'll rediscover some lost technology of the past - something that will help humanity take another step towards the greatness they once had. Most of the time, Griffin comes off as the kind of character that is fair, highly intellectual and sympathetic towards others; he is even brave when the situation calls for it. Once he becomes focused on something, however, it is as if all his attention and energy go towards that one thing, and nothing else seems to be of importance anymore. For a long time, one does not get to see that latter part of his personality, so through a lot of the book, I found it hard to imagine this character as someone setting off alone to make a discovery because he did not want to share it with anyone else; he just didn't seem the type.

Another character that kind of tricks you in the beginning, is Terrell. When he first entered the story, I thought he would simply take on the role as someone annoying and arrogant, a pain in the backside and just there to make life difficult for Griffin - and perhaps for Adara as well. Before long, I had to admit that perhaps he was the most likable of the bunch, which is saying a lot as, with two notable exceptions, the people of Artemis generally comes off as pretty likable at all times. I was left with a feeling that he was introduced to the core group (Griffin, Adara and Sand shadow) to make things a bit more interesting - suddenly we have two males interested in one female, and drama can ensue. Except that nothing really ever happens, other than some comments and a few confused thoughts. Perhaps Lindskold is planning on adding more tension and awkwardness to this situation in the sequel since she did not do much with it in the first book.

While the whole idea of bioengineering humans and animals just to bring pleasure to those few who would have access to it sits horribly with me, the link between Adara and her puma was one of my favorite elements of the story, and wouldn't have been possible in this setting, I think, without what was done to their ancestors. Through Adara we get to find out what Sand Shadow thinks about the things that are happening, and their communication is often a bit funny, since the big cat tends to find the actions of her human companions on the amusing side.

Artemis Awakening is not a very complicated story, at least not so far. I felt that it was very fast-paced, and the type of book one can easily read in one go. Since I haven't read anything else by Lindskold, I have no idea whether this is typical for her or not, although, I think my co-author of this review, who has read other books by her, said something one day about it not being her most complicated work ever, so it might be an exception to her usual style. Whatever the case, I did enjoy it, and I would definitely pick up the next book in the series, just to find out what happens next.

Val's view:

I've read seven of Lindskold's novels before starting this one. All six Firekeeper books and one of her early novels Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls. Compared to these books Artemis Awakening is a very light read. The Firekeeper books is a fairly complex story in the sense that the reader has to keep up with a large cast and the relationship between lots of noble houses, as well as a detailed history of the part of the world the books are set in. Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is much more a character study, where we see the entire story though the eyes of an unreliable narrator, essentially forcing the reader to evaluate each bit of information carefully to figure out what is going on. Artemis Awakening is neither of these things. The premise of this novel is simple, the execution straightforward. In fact, if it hadn't been for the references to rape and sexual abuse, none of which is explicitly depicted in the novel, it could have been a book for young readers. As Lana has already noted, It is not a very challenging book.

I didn't think it was a hugely original book either. Lindskold sets her story in a universe where a huge galactic empire reached levels of technology that Arthur C. Clarke would equate with magic before tearing itself apart. Now, humanity is slowly beginning to rediscover their past. A concept like this made Asimov famous in the 1940s. It is quite obvious that Artemis Awakening leans quite heavily on tried and trusted science fiction tropes.

On top of that, Lindskold sets the novel up like a romance early on in the book. Handsome hero is rescued by capable and beautiful heroine and together they trek trough the unspoilt wilderness of Artemis. Mutual attraction is obvious in those first pages of the book. I wonder how many readers of science fiction will be put off by this. It's not a crowd that is very tolerant to this sort of thing. I must admit I had my doubts as well when Lindskold introduces a rival, setting things up for a classic love triangle. For some reason the author doesn't follow though on this however. Not yet anyway. Further along in the novel a measure of respect develops between the three characters.

I can't say I thought the story itself was that interesting but the concept of the planet Artemis is. It is essentially a world that is tailored to fit the ideal of a wild, unspoilt world. It is designed to keep an ecological balance between the population and their environment that keeps the place empty, wild and unspoilt. A planetary wildlife preserve almost. To achieve this, all sorts of comforts - surely the decadent rulers of a galactic empire can't be expected to rough it - have been hidden away, just waiting for rediscovery by someone who knows what to look for. Someone who is used to a higher standard of technology than the local population. Someone from outside.

Ecosystems are dynamic. There is no such thing as a system that is entirely in balance. It might hover around a kind of dynamic equilibrium for some time but in the long run they tend to evolve. Artemis is of course a designed system, but since it does not appear to be actively managed anymore and several hundred years have passed since it has, one would expect it to drift away from the ideal state the designers had in mind. It would certainly have made things interesting but so far no evidence of that happening has shown up in the story. Lindskold mostly keeps it limited to the adaptations of a small part of the population of Artemis.

One theme that does come back in a lot of Lindskold's work is the connection between people and animals. In the Firekeeper books it was the one between wolves and the main character. Here, the Huntress Adara is accompanied by a puma of unnatural intelligence. To make matters worse, the puma as opposable thumbs. Think about how scary a cat with opposable thumbs would be. They are quite enough trouble without them. And the ones we keep around are not the size of a puma either. It's a fun bit of wish-fulfillment I suppose. One that Lindskold uses to get past all sorts of obstacles the puma would not be able to negotiate otherwise. As always, she has managed to convincingly capture the spirit of the animal. It is anthropomorphizing to a high degree of course, but cat owners will recognize a lot in the Sand Shadow's behaviour.

All things considered, Artemis Awakening is not an unpleasant read. Just a very straightforward one. The plot is well put together but somewhat predictable. The observant reader will see the hook for book two coming quite some time before the climax of the book. It is the kind of cozy science fiction that will not really challenge the more experienced read and as such, I thought it was only mildly entertaining. I might be convinced to read the second volume but I doubt it will leap to the top of the to read stack when it appears.

So there you have it, two opinions of Artemis Awakening. We'll leave it up to you to figure out who is right ;)