Saturday, October 25, 2008

Update on books

I have not posted here in a long time since I started doing reviews for Robert at Fantasy Book Critic, while keeping the habit of doing mini-reviews on sffworld and Goodreads.

As a matter of counting I am currently at 194 books read in 2008, though of course I've done many rereads, partial reads, short fiction and such. Though I started cataloging the books read with my son too - or to be more precise the novels, some with more graphics, some with less, but full novels otherwise - so the true number is probably around 190 for now.

Of 2008 releases, right now I have 4 that stand out in terms of impressions made on me. These 4 are books that I encounter rarely, so powerful an impression they made.

Anathem by N. Stephenson, a once in a decade book and the only current serious candidate to displace Use of Weapons by IM Banks from my all time sff novel, though I will need some years to assess that.

2666 by Roberto Bolano - an extraordinary novel, dark but full of hope too

Caine Black Knife by M. Stover - the perfect, no words wasted, blade-edge fantasy novel

Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney aka G. Joyce - an adult fairy-tale, dark, funny, and with a message of hope and redemption that resonated powerfully with me.



1: Anathem
2: Void 2/BSRA - tie
3: January Dancer
4: House of Suns
5+: ??? Matter/Line War/Cosmos Incorporated/Gone Away World/Martian General's Daughter/Principles of Angels/Winterstrike/Devil's Eye/Affinity Bridge/Incandescence/Implied Spaces/Swiftly/Multireal/Claws that Catch/Slanted Jack/The Great Planet Robbery ???

Genre Fantasy:

1: Caine 3
2: Kingdom Beyond the Waves
3: Ten Thousand
4: Magician and Mrs Quent
5+: ??? Painted Man/Way of Shadows/Empire Black and Gold/Deep Water/Sharing Knife 3/Affinity Bridge/Havemercy/The Steel Remains/Red Wolf 1/Last Argument of Kings/Bloodheir/The Alchemy of Stone/Shadowbridge ???

Mainstream literature with fantastical elements:

1: Memoirs of a Master Forger
2: El Juego del Angel
3: The Gargoyle
4: Ghost Radio
5+: ??? The Monsters of Templeton/The Enchantress of Florence/The Memorist/Black Ships/Ninth Circle/Domino Men ???

Mainstream/historical fiction - no fantastic

1: 2666
2: Waltenberg/Le Salut De L'Empire - tie
3: The Good Thief
4: The Gift of Rain/Serious Things - tie
5+: ??? /The Triumph of Caesar/Legionary 2/The Minutes of the Lazarus Club/Other People's Children/Spies of Warsaw/The Lost Army/ ???

Since Thunderer was technically 2007, and Storm from the Shadows and Drood are 2009 I have not included them here, otherwise Drood would have competed strongly for 2nd against El Juego del Angel in mf, Storm would have been tied with Void 2/BSRA in sf and Thunderer would have been tied at 3 in gf

Also a bunch of interesting 2008 books are coming, or I have not read yet including

already own: Gladiatrix, Quiet War, Shadows' Edge, Creator's Map, Glass of Time, Watermind, Lord Tophet, Breath God, Dark Volume, Hakawati, Fraction of a Whole,

to buy asap: The Juggler, Shadow of the Scorpion, The Company, Sentients Orion 2, BioHell, Long Look,

and of course unexpected surprises, so the rankings may change

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A look back at 2008 until now, and a look ahead

I finished the 4th "blockbuster" fantasy book of the year Bloodheir by Brian Ruckely - I may come up with a review soon, and I read 3 blockbuster sf books too, so already it's crowded at the top of my list and a lot of books are still to come. This year I am keeping count of new books - for me - read, and I am currently at about 68 novels done or almost done and a lot of anthologies/magazines and quite a few of extra short stories. The novels are split 28 sf, 20 fantasy, 20 historical/mainstream though classifications are tricky.

Looking at only 2008 releases from now on.

In fantasy the 4 2008 blockbusters I've read would be ranked as follows:
1. The Kingdom Beneath the Waves by S. Hunt - can move to sf easily
2. Bloodheir by B. Ruckley
3. LAOK by J. Abercombie
4. The Red Wolf Conspiracy by R. Redick

Rounding them, there would be 3 excellent novels, Shadowbridge by G. Frost, Ninth Circle by A. Bell and Passage by Lois Bujold - all these I've enjoyed a lot but they lack the epic quality of those 4 above, so it's hard to make a comparison

In sf I've read 3 2008 blockbusters:

1. House of Suns by A. Reynolds
2. Line War by N. Asher
3. Matter by IM Banks

Rounding them would be the excellent Martian General's Daughter by T. Judson - this one was so unexpectedly good that I am tempted to break my habit and rank it with the blockbuster epics above. Then excellent too would be Death's Head 2 by D. Gunn, Slanted Jack by M. VanName, The Great Planet Robbery by C. DiLouie, Earth Ascendant by S. Williams

Ahead there are several more blockbuster books coming and others with lots of potential , so this year will be very crowded in my top 10 lists...

In SF to come: BSRA by D. Weber and maybe even an arc of Storm of Shadows late in the year, and maybe another for Crown of Slaves 2. Anathem by N. Stephenson. Implied Spaces by WJ Williams. Incandescence by G. Egan. Void 2 by P. Hamilton. Space Opera by M. Flynn. Possibly AI War by DK Moran. All blockbusters or potentially so... And then Cosmos Incorporated by M. Dantec and Neuropath By S. Bakker may get to that status in my eyes due to their controversial content. I am not sure about Stross novel Saturn's Children, it may be just another geek novel, but the blurb looks very interesting - still I have not read a blockbuster novel from Stross yet, so we will see. Also A. Remic's Biohell, Ketos by P. Palmer, Multireal by DL Edelman may compete there as well as the new 163* saga The Dreeson Incident. also Jack McDevitt has a new Alex Benedict book, and while none of the recent Benedict books approached the brilliance of a Talent for War - that book made me a fan of McDevitt's storytelling since and I've read and enjoyed all his books, except one - the disater one since I rarely like those - who knows about the new one. There is a lot of potential there too.

In Fantasy to come: Dark Volume by G. Dahlquist, Steel Remains by R. Morgan, possibly Dance with Dragons by GRRM, Lord Tophet by G. Frost, The Alchemy of Stone by E. Sedia, Principles of Angels by J. Fenn, The 10 Thousand by P. Kearney. Less competition here, but who knows there may be several more titles I am less aware of...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Last Love in Constantinopole and Second Body by Milorad Pavic - review

Some time ago I heard about Milorad Pavic Dictionary of the Khazars but it never interested me that much. However recently Larry of the Of Blog of the Fallen posted the link for Second Body a free online novel by Milorad Pavic and that novel really hooked me.

I ordered all the English translation of Mr. Pavic available here in the USA - The Dictionary, Crossword, Tarot, and Two-sided novels respectively as they are better known and after some Internet digging I manged to find the Unique novel available in English but only from Serbia under 30$ including s&h, so I ordered that too.

I will review all when I read them since they are wonderful, wonderful novels that deserve to be as widely known as possible.

Last Love in Constantinopole - or the Tarot novel

This novel is structured in 22 chapters - keys based on the major arcana of the Tarot cards - and in the appendix there is a cutout for the 22 cards and a short dictionary explaining their meaning as well as several ways of using them either for divination or for reading the novel.

The chapters of the book are interconnected short stories that progress somewhat linearly though with liberal detours in the past or through the fantastic, so they can be read relatively independently.

The prose is beautiful and the novel is absolutely fascinating. It follows the interconnected fortunes of two Serbian families, one of merchants that provides several soldiers for Napoleon, and one of artists that provides several soldiers for the Hapsburg Empire. The action happens in 1797 and 1813, and the main character is Captain Haralampije Opujic, a larger than life Napoleonic officer, him of 3 deaths and Last Love in the title. A famous womanizer, party-goer and marksman, he has a counterpart in Hapsburg musician turned officer and marksman Pahomije Tenecki - their famous encounter of 1797 becoming stuff of legend.

In 1813, their sons - and here we have the second main character and actually the one getting most face-time in the novel Sofronije Opujic a Napoleonic lieutenant and his Hapsburg counterpart captain Pana Tenecki face off too.

There are also quite a few women, some lovers of both elder Opujic and Tenecki, as well as of elder and younger Opujic, some that are related to them in various ways as well as with the Tenecki's and assorted odd characters, most notably an orphan Avksentije Papila, classmate of one of elder Opujic's illegitimate sons who is presumed to be able to tell the day of death for most people...

A short but very, very engaging read at about 160 pages, and worth of at least one reread to get all the details - highly, highly recommended

Second Body - or the Pious novel

This online novel is a very powerful meditation about God, Creation, resurrection and what Christ meant to humanity.

It is written in 5 chapters following a mysterious ring that is rumored to discern what the wearer will have in life - health, love or happiness depending on which color it turns, but somehow it always turns a color if any only when the wearer is dead. So what does it mean?

Chapter 1, 3 and 5 are contemporary following the narrator, an elderly writer who is already 40 days dead at the beginning of the novel, his strange and strangely met wife, and several other mysterious characters, real and supernatural.

Chapter 2 is about a Serbian emigre writer/editor in Venice ~ 1764 and his adventures and misadventures with some venetian girls, Anna and Sabetta.

Chapter 4 is about an orthodox Serbian under-priest - "hieromonk" on the border between the Hapsburgs and the Turks from 1717 to some decades later and his fateful encounter with a catholic priest and reputed alchemist and necromancer. This chapter is the philosophical heart of the novel and the discussion between the two encapsulates it perfectly. I am not an expert in theology so I have no idea how original are the arguments there - but they are very interesting and it makes the book worth reading only for that.

Whimsical, always interesting and beautifully written, Second Body is an extraordinary novel, a coronation of a magistral career. Read it for free at the link above.

As an aside - there are some typos here and there, and chapter 3 ends with chapter 4 included, so if you join the files as I did to read on some device do not be surprised to see a repeat - and I think it is not intentional since chapter 4 is headlined in the repeat - though with Pavic you never know. But hey, it is free so no quibbles

The Great Planet Robbery by Craig DiLouie - review

This is a fun-filled, hard to put down novel which is both a riff and an homage to classic pulp adventure sf.

The synopsis below, while quite accurate in fact is very misleading in spirit:

"Lawrence Dobbs and Timothy Muldoon, Colonial Marines and thorough rascals, are the last of a dying breed of adventurers in a Federation that has tamed dozens of wild planets and is increasingly becoming civilized. When an old astronaut offers to sell them a map that will take them to a legendary planet promising rivers of gold, Dobbs and Muldoon recruit a crew of misfits for one last great adventure. They soon realize they haven't just discovered gold, but the very secret of alchemy. To keep it, they just have to fight millions of hostile natives, a team of elite bounty hunters, a combat-assassin android named Bova and the emperor of a dead civilization."

The main two characters Dobbs and Muldoon are that old adventure tale tropes, the smart cynical enabler - Dobbs, the big hearted, dimmer, but brawnier and braver - Muldoon.

On the wrong side of an investigation - using close to light speed time dilation to age some scotch and sell it as expensive 60 year old scotch - Dobbs and Muldoon, sergeants in the Federation Marine corps and already on the black list of some long dead official and sent for protection duties to a dead end desert planet which is close to a wormhole, but useless otherwise, are now the target of an investigator that is due to arrive in 5 months time. This could land them on a prison planet so they decide to skip town so to speak.

There are wormholes but any organic matter sent through has always disappeared, so people travel only sublight using cryogenics, hence spacers tend to have drawn-out lives while generation pass on planets. Still the Federation and its bureaucracy are always there, so if you are on the black-list of someone important, you tend to remain there however much time-dilation you use to go in the future...

Deciding that it's time to get rich once and for all, and using an old spacer's treasure map, they prepare to appropriate an unmanned freighter due for a wormhole transition, deviate it slightly to avoid the wormhole and go and find the treasure planet and rob it. As Dobbs put it: from the Federation manual of how to deal with alien societies - there is Plan A trade, Plan B diplomacy and if all else fails Plan C military conquest.

So Dobbs and Muldoon put together a crew of spacer misfits and off they are.

There are all the characters you expect - the big badass mercenary, the humorless officials objecting to the innocuous scams of our heroes, the lovable, naive sextech - we are in a postmodern era after all - that our big hearted hero falls for, the brave, loyal and ultimately doomed foot soldiers, the bad, revenge oriented alien, the well meaning, cynical but drunk commander, the quirky pilot and navigator, the big-gun guy and his nasty robot shooter, the smart but socially clueless engineer, the untrustworthy hacker. But everything is turned on its head and almost nothing happens as it "should".

There are so many hilarious moments that punctuate the dry, ironical, matter of fact narration, that is hard to stop laughing quite often.

The above sounds like 50's pulp reinvented for our times - as people write once in a while, though sf moved beyond that a long time ago. However The Great Planet Robbery is actually a very self-ironic, post modernistic tale told through all the pulp cliches you want. This is what I would call "picaresque sf" more than anything else, though with full modern sensibilities beneath the pulp-like content. I am not quite sure why I enjoyed it so much - probably the sum of all parts rather than anything in particular, but it is a whimsical tale that you may love or hate on sight.

The ending is superb, quite funny and in the spirit of the book. If you want a fun romp that also challenges the adventure-sf tropes this is the book for you.

As an aside - I hesitated ordering it since it sounded too pulpy for my taste, but the cover sold the book for me. So check one for people who argue that cover art is important. The cover does not scream pulp, but hints at something subtler...

Friday, May 9, 2008

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds - review

After 2 brilliant novels at the beginning of his career - Revelation Space and Chasm City, Mr. Reynolds' novels became either incomplete or just showing flashes of brilliance combined with lots of forget it run of the mill action. The short stories and novellas showed an extraordinary brilliance though and I've wondered if he would ever write a novel commensurate with them

House of Suns is that novel - epic space opera on a large scale but with characters you can identify with, hard sf based on the current understanding of the limits of science and a touch of fantasy and romance to complete it. It seems that every important large scale space opera has to have some fantasy these days - as the recent works by P. Hamilton and IM Banks show, and House of Suns has a princess, an evil step-brother, wizards, magic and peasants still remaining hard sf throughout :)

Based on the Thousandth Night novella published in the 1M AD anthology, with the same universe and characters, though different action, the story takes place in a mostly human dominated Galaxy 6M years in the future, with everything allowed except causality busting - so no ftl - moving planets out of danger, Dyson spheres, cloning, intelligent robots, immortality, matter replicators, damming stars - anything conceivable today that stays within the limits of our physical understanding of the Universe is there.

Civilizations rise and fall, but towering over them are the Lines, groupings of originally 1000 immortal shatterlings though in time some are lost to attrition - all clones of a single person to start with - that have the most advanced ships, tech, and go on Circuits around the Galaxy, meeting once every 200k years to mix their memories. Of course travel being sub-light they spend most time in stasis or slow-time - they can and do slow time at will with "syncromesh", so of those 6 Million years each shatterling lived several tens of thousands - bookworms tunneling through the pages of history as they are called by entities that actually lived through millions of years though at a slow pace

The shatterlings are almost as benevolent gods to the "turnover" civilizations of the Galaxy and they trade and do good works like preventing stars to go supernova, moving planets out of harm's way...

The story focuses on 3 main characters - 2 shatterlings of the Gentian line Campion and Purslane - Campion is brash and just on the right side of censure for various actions or inactions - Purslane has the best ship of the Gentian line and is patient and determined, making a good match with her illicit lover Campion - the shatterlings are supposed to go alone on their circuits and not form bonds...

Also in small restropect chunks we get to see the original Gentian, Abigail, millions of years ago in The Golden Hour - that's a literal name - when humanity lived in the Solar system only and the shatterling project originated and some of how the Lines formed.

Purslane and Campion meeting illicitly on their way to the next Gentian reunion and preparing to falsify their memories before dumping them in the common mix, stop by an obscure planet to fix a stardam put in place to prevent a supernova extinction of the local civilization.

Being late to the meeting, they detour to fix Campion's ship, and in the process rescue a strange robot of the machine people - Hesperus - with missing memories. Finally on their way to the reunion, they get a very disturbing message and the adventure begins...

The ending is fulfilling, leaving space for a sequel if the author desires but completing the story very nicely.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt - review

The Kingdom Beyond The Waves
by S. Hunt, is the 2nd book in the Jackelian world and I can only say wow, this book fulfills the promise shown in the previous one. That book At the Court of the Air had a lot of sense of wonder, but was marred by two things: choppy writing and grating naming conventions. Still the inventiveness inside made it a top 10-15 book for me last year.

TKBtW is a much better and tighter book stylistically - and it helps that once you get used to the naming conventions in the first book, they do not grate anymore. The action happens several years after At the Court of the Air and while it's not quite a sequel, it also builds on the first book so it's really a good idea to check that one first.

It starts with an Indiana Jones moment starring Amelia "call me Professor" Harsh, an old tomb, some untrustworthy guides and some upset locals, and goes on a ride non-stop throughout its 550+ pages, throwing surprise after surprise in the mix and culminating with an unbelievable 60 page action sequence starting around page 484 where the final cards are laid on the table, till the 8 page epilogue at page 548.

There are 2 main strands of the book - Amelia is obsessed with the fabled disappeared city of Camlantis where Utopia supposedly existed until destroyed by barbarians. The enigmatic billionaire Abraham Quest who raised himself from a street urchin to his current eminent position by wits and luck and in the process "bought" the Jackelian nation at the exchange, only - as he put it - to have the bill of sale canceled by ungrateful shopkeepers, wants to better the state of man - he already has the best factories, orphanages, spends a lot of money on the poor, funds "progressive" politicians to power and as mentioned tried to run the country directly.

But the path of reform is slow and unpredictable, so Quest wants to find Camlantis too, presumably to show that it is possible to have utopia on Earth and how to get it done faster. He bankrolls Amelia Harsh in a very dangerous expedition to find the "key" to Camlantis.

Meanwhile in Middlesteel, one Cornelius Fortune, count Speeler is on a mission of revenge against the communist Quatershift. Becoming Furnace-breath Nick with a magic mask, and mysterious ways of getting around the Cursewall separating the 2 nations, he is the terror of the terrorists so to speak. On one such mission he frees the famous "mechomancer" whose specialty is steammen - robots - Jules Robur from a labor camp where the Revolution wants him to design weapons for them.

Soon Cornelius finds out that he was lured to free Jules Robur on false pretenses and being afraid Robur is actually a spy of the Shifties presaging another invasion or some other mischief, he decides to investigate. The path leads to Abraham Quest and the search for Camlantis.

I do not want to spoil the book with more since there are quite a few surprises along the way, but I want to note that while AtCoA was science-fantasy, this one is almost pure adventure sf with some magic that can be explained by natural law if the author is so inclined, and its sense of wonder reminds me why I started reading sf in the first place.

And when a secondary but important character is called Jules Robur and one of your main characters and Robur's employer is called Abraham Quest you should have a hint of what's up - though it does not really matter since the book will still surprise you a lot.

This one will be in the top 5 this year, though it's getting crowded there.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Line War by Neal Asher - review

Line War is an excellent conclusion to the Ian Cormac Polity series that started in Gridlinked, though 2 prequels Prador Moon and Shadow of the Scorpion have been published in the meantime. After this review, I will add an overview of the series which has been one of the best large scale space opera this century.

Line War picks up where Polity Agent ended and is all action from start to finish. There are every kind of battles from hand to hand, infantry/tanks against Jain constructs - this is the civilization destroying kick butt tech that is the main enemy in the series and which first Skellor and now Erebus try to use against the Polity - huge spaceships - we see the moon like Cable Hogue kicking wormship butt big time - these are Erebus main battleships, big and powerful - but there are lots of wormships though , informational battles and quite a few other things that I do not want to spoil.

Mr. Crane new and improved by Dragon and highly enraged by Erebus for the killing of his charges on Cull is on a quest for vengeance that ends quite fittingly though not exactly where you would have expected.

Orlandine the Jain controlling haiman - AI enhanced human - that fled the Polity is also on a quest for vengeance against Erebus and convinces some war drones - Knobbler and Cutter being their leaders - to help her against Erebus

Arach the spider like war drone and Cormac' sidekick is back again for action, but this time the AI Jack Ketch does not have a shipbody yet, so it is on the former renegade and still despiser of humans King of Hearts that Cormac and his party embark in their missions related to the war.

Mika, Cormac's friend and lover is again pulled from studying Jain tech to liaise with Dragon and go on a mission

Jerusalem the huge AI warship that is leading the war effort against Erebus seems to be puzzled by Erebus' seemingly random attacks so enlists Azroc a golem that developed a conscience to help predict them.

And of course Erebus itself, the melded AI that wants to become the god of this part of the galaxy - though humans are still pests to be eradicated with some tailored viruses once Erebus controls the rest of the AI's. Though Erebus has some problems itself too with some rebellious ghosts in the machine inside its melded mind. Erebus reminded me a lot of MorningLightMountain of P. Hamilton's Commonwealth duology and he is the best villain of the Polity sequence by far.

Highly, highly entertaining and an excellent conclusion to the Cormac saga, Line War is the best novel in the series, and everything is wrapped up neatly.

Overview of the series:

The Ian Cormac series itself consists of 5 main novels, the standalone debut Gridlinked, and the 2 duologies that build one upon other, but are essentially 2 huge volumes split in 2 big books each- the Skellor event in The Line of Polity and Brass Man, and the Erebus event in Polity Agent and Line War. All the action happens in about 12 years, 2432-2444 , in the huge AI led civilization called the Polity.

In Gridlinked we are introduced to the veteran Polity Agent Ian Cormac - think James Bond without the girls since he is thoroughly dehumanized by many years of direct AI connection called gridlink and he is actually disconnected from it due to imminent danger of burnout. The main villain is Arian Pelter a separatist leader - people unhappy with the Polity, mostly misfits, power hungry persons, or criminals - who has a personal vendetta against Cormac. We meet Mr. Crane the android killing machine in thrall to Pelter, Dragon the planet like mysterious sentient entity first encountered by Cormac many years ago - one of the cool things about the series is how the mysteries between Dragon and his eventual fate are revealed - and various other personages.

Gridlinked was Mr. Asher's debut and hooked me of his novels. A bit unbalanced as most debuts, it is a very, very good book, 3rd in enjoyment in the series for me after Line War and Brass Man. Then after the absolutely brilliant The Skinner set in the Polity 600 years later and still the top N. Asher novel in my opinion, Mr. Asher returned to Ian Cormac in The Line of Polity. This one is the weakest novel of the series though once Brass Man who is the second part was published I appreciated it more. Still the beating on evil, moron followers of a church on Masada and their oppression of poor human serfs just outside the Polity was boring and conventional, though the main villain evil scientist Skellor, the Jain tech and the planet Masada with its weird native creatures become an important part later in the series.
Brass Man, the best novel in the series before Line War concludes the Skellor subplot and brings back Mr. Crane and Dragon in a big way.

Then the Erebus series consisting of Polity Agent which was good but very incomplete being only half of the duology ending now and Line War introduced renegade AI's, most important the melded super-AI Erebus, a renegade haiman Orlandine and the new Cormac sidekick, the bored spider like war drone Arach. This duology is almost non-stop action with big battles of every kind and should be read as one huge novel to be properly enjoyed.