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.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Napoleon's Pyramids and The Rosetta Key by William Dietrich - review

Napoleon's Pyramids

In 1798 Ethan Gage an early thirties American, adventurer, gambler, mason and former employee and protegee of Ben Franklin is living by his wits and luck at the card table in the decadent Paris of the Directorate age, just after the end of the Terror and before the age of Napoleon when uncertainty and corruption ruled the day.

One day his luck turns though unclear if for good or bad, when he wins a strange Egyptian medallion at a card game; immediately a mysterious Count Silano offers him a nice price to buy it, but Gage does not like the count so he refuses, and then he is attacked in the street, framed for murder and thrown in jail.

However he receives an offer of pardon if he would join a mysterious expedition the current darling of the French people, one Corsican general Bonaparte is leading to a mysterious destination at both his and the Directorate rulers behest - for glory, plunder and to get rid France of a popular general who could be dangerous. Bonaparte is taking lots of scientists, mathematicians, journalists, artists with him, and the destination is of course Egypt.

Ethan joins the gang with his friend, the journalist Talma, and strange things start to happen again even on the way to Toulon where they would embark - he meets with the famous English spy and adventurer Sidney Smith recently escaped from a French prison.

Ethan participates at some of the most memorable events of the campaign, the capture of Malta, the 2 battles of Abukir, the battle of Cairo, he gets in, out, in, out...of Bonaparte's favor, he meets Nelson, he visits the Pyramids, finds a beautiful mysterious woman, and treacherous enemies, makes and loses friends...

In other words an usual historical thriller, but it's funny, the characters grow on you and I always love first person writing. The battles are very well described and there are lots of mysteries. The ending is very good though an almost literal cliffhanger.

There are also some brilliant cameos, especially by the famous "black" general Dumas, the son of a French aristocrat and a black slave who was a leading general of the revolution before being eclipsed by Napoleon and then he was the commander of the French cavalry in Egypt before parting ways with Bonaparte and dying in obscurity several years later. Of course his main claim to fame is that after he returned from Egypt he became the father of Alexandre Dumas.

In a clear homage to Dumas, the author has the main villain Count Silano having a Cagliostro moment scene with the general Dumas, when after challenging the general to a strange duel involving eating a pig - called Cagliostro's duel- and the general declining and storming from the room after Bonaparte forbids a more classic duel with guns or swords, the Count Silano exclaims: "he was wise to refuse, this way he will get back to France and have a son who will become very famous"

I have not have this much fun reading a historical thriller since The Eight by Katherine Neville and I am looking forward to the sequel.

Highly, highly recommended

The Rosetta Key, sequel to Napoleon's Pyramids - some spoilers for the first one here so beware

The Rosetta Key takes off pretty much where the first book leaves - though it starts dramatically with Ethan Gage awaiting execution as a spy, with the roughly 4000 ottoman soldiers captured by Napoleon at Jaffa and executed in masse in one of those rare Napoleonic moments of outright cruelty though done with some political purpose in mind - in this case to frighten the Ottoman soldiers and rulers of Syria to surrender to Napoleon who with about 15k soldiers wanted to emulate Alexander and conquer all the way to India - of course it does not work, but that's only because the Syrians have a ruler they fear more than Napoleon - Djezzar The Butcher

Ethan recounts the story of how he got there starting from his journey on the British ship he landed on at the end of the first book where he cleans the sailors at cards - which leads directly to his current fate- , to Jerusalem where he meets another interesting girl - his current lover Astisza is still missing...

Then after Gage escapes the mass execution, the story moves forward to the siege of Acre, where Djezzar helped by the British and some French noblemen fights Napoleon, and then to various places in the Holy Land, then Egypt, and it ends on a quite satisfying note in Paris. Everything is wrapped up, but the possibility of further adventures is left open and if the book continues to perform in the market as the first one did, I am pretty sure a new chapter in Ethan's adventures will come up.

In many ways this is a better book, more polished than the first one, the main historical characters are still memorable - when Napoleon arrives before Acre, Djezzar a very feared 75 years old climbs the wall and yells at the French - "I killed more men and f.. more women than Napoleon and I will f.. him too", the one liners are very funny:

villain - "Gage don't they teach you classics on the frontier?'"
Gage - "On the frontier classics make excellent fire-starters"

It's pulpy, funny, lots of battles and hair-raising escapes and fascinating characters both real and imagined.

The only weak moments that started to irritate me after a while are the repetition of Napoleon ordering Ethan execution, Ethan escapes but then he comes back to Napoleon for a reason or another and it repeats a bit too many times.

Highly recommended fun book, and if new Ethan Gage adventures get published I will read them for sure.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Martian General's Daughter by Theodore Judson - review

I read Mr. Judson's debut Fitzpatrick's War when it was published and despite some minor flaws - mostly lack of balance common in debut novels - I was impressed with the retelling of Alexander the Great' story from world conquest to decline in madness in a post-apocalyptic world.

Since the early reviews for The Martian General's Daughter were mixed, I was not sure if I wanted to buy it, but when the first 60 pages were made freely available in the huge Pyr sampler, I was hooked and ordered it immediately. Slim at about 250 pages, I just could not put it down when I got it.

It is a retelling of the pseudo-fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the Antonine dynasty, though this time the events happen in the Pan-Polarian Empire of the late 2200's, based on N. America - capital in Garden City former Mexico City built by the analogue of Nero once Washington burned - and stretching half the globe to the Chinese frontier and the Sahara Desert and with space outposts- in a world of declining technology where metal eating viruses and nanotech infections of metals slowly degrade the former high-tech civilization to the original pre-tech one of the romans.

Peter Justice Black, the gruff former sergeant who by personal valor became a general and his illegitimate daughter Justa who serves as his aide-de-camp navigate treacherous water in the wake of the death of Matthias the Glistening - his high tech implants became infected with nano so he died of "plague" like Marcus Aurelius - and the ascension of his son Luke Anthony in 2278 vs Commodus in 178, all recounted by Justa years later. Taking the name The Concerned One the handsome but murderous and cowardly Luke slowly descends into madness, though he is still loved by the people at least when their bellies are full.
Outside of Justa the narrator, Luke is the most realized character of the novel and all the scenes involving him are unforgettable, from his mocking of Matthias' lessons quickly changed to cringing fear when Matthias shows displeasure, to the final moments in the Imperial Palace.

In parallel chapters from the present after the death of Luke Anthony and several of his short lived successors in 2293, armies raise 3 generals to the throne, one being Peter Black the general of Asia currently commanding the imperial outposts on Mars - hence the title
The favorite to win is Selin - Severus - the general of N. America whom Peter Black saved from certain disgrace and death earlier, but humiliated him in the process.

However history does not need to repeat itself exactly and the book has quite a few surprises.

Full of vivid descriptions of cruelty, buffoonery, murders, battles, and a message of hope despite its bleakness, The Martian General's Daughter is an unforgettable book from Mr. Judson. Highly, highly recommended - one of my top sf books of the year and a big positive surprise.