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.