Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lisa’s Take: Jhegaala (Steve Brust)

The last few Vlad books have been fairly chronological, so it was interesting and refreshing to read Jhegaala, which jumps back in Vlad’s timeline quite a bit. Jhegaala falls in between Phoenix and Athyra, following Vlad’s escapades immediately after leaving Adrilankha in his flight from the Jhereg. He gets it in his head to track down his mother’s family, and sets out through the East to do so. When he reaches his destination there’s all sorts of fun intrigue, warring factions, misunderstandings, and general angst. As usually, Vlad ends up in a stick situation and has to extricate himself.

What’s not to like about this book? It’s another good installment in one of my favorite stories. As usual, it goes down like candy but still has enough of a kick and emotional impact to be compelling. It got loud chuckles from me on more than one occasion, and had me squirming uncomfortably at others. If I wanted to knit pick, I’d say that the whole “Vlad knows what’s going on and isn’t going to tell us” bit got dragged out longer than necessary, but that’s a pretty small gripe. I especially loved the chapter intros in this one – I want to go back and read them all together. Exceptionally amusing.

This is a short book, so I’ll keep the review short as well. Go read the latest Brust! If you haven’t ever read any of the Vlad books at all, then you’re severely deprived and should start consuming them from the beginning!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

JD's Take: The Dreaming Void (Peter F. Hamilton)

The Dreaming Void takes place 1500 years after the events chronicled in Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained and begins a new trilogy set in the same world. Which, of course, means that I really should have written reviews for those books as well... but I didn't. Ah well. *looks* Actually, I did write a review of Pandora's Star! Haha! Victory for me!

Mr. Hamilton is very good and making deep, interesting, characters set in wildly fantastic science fiction settings, which makes me very, very happy. In this novel we see him extrapolate the technology advances (and corresponding technology shifts) from the first series by 15 centuries, which is an interesting intellectual exercise that he handles with a deft hand and a keen sense that the story and the characters are far more important than the exercise. The new characters introduced are fascinating and really drew me into the story. Ironically, the older characters that I already knew from the previous books seemed... awkward. It's very possible that this was intentional... their reasons for remaining in the corporeal world are varied, but they are by far the exception and so they stand apart from the society they've watched grow and change. I won't give away which characters return, but there are a couple of old favorites and a couple of surprises still kicking around the galaxy.

I didn't really get drawn into the story until about halfway through the book but, at the same time, I was never bored in the least. It just... took him a while to reach the narrative "tipping point", where the story and the characters that have the weight to roll along on their own inertia... each interaction giving more energy to the force of the narrative flow. Those who like their books to each stand alone will be disappointed... as the first book in a Hamiltonian trilogy there are so many loose ends at the conclusion of the book that it hardly even has a climax. There is plenty of cool shit going on, but no thread of the story reached an end. This is no surprise to anyone who has read any of Hamilton's other work... he writes epic scale sci fi and he does it beautifully. For me, I wasn't disapointed by the end... only eager for the next tome.

Overall, I'd call this a promising introduction to the new trilogy, and an exciting expansion of the wonderful world he created in the previous books. I'm inordinately pleased to be looking forward again to another Hamilton novel to appear on the shelves... I was pretty bummed when I finished Judas and realized that it might be a while before I saw more from my favorite comtemporary SciFi writer.

Sean's Take: Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge

Hai. I'm Sean. I'm normally really lazy and slack about posting reviews of what I read. I'll try to be better about it in the future (ha).

I originally introduced myself to Vernor Vinge [0] reading his space opera-tastic A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire On the Deep [1]. I found them enjoyable, mainly because his portrayal of computing technology in the far future was slightly better than "punch a few keys and photon torpedoes come out."

Fast forward a few years and I happen upon Rainbow's End, a short(ish) novel based on the universe Vinge started on in "Fast Times at Fairmont High" [2]. Grabbed a hardback from Amazon and got crackin'.

Vinge's characters haven't gotten much better over the years. They're certainly believable given the settings they live in. However, he really does like his asshole antihero protagonists who find themselves in anachronistic situations.

What's so awesome about Rainbow's End, however, is the shear idea density of this volume [3]. Each chapter has Stross-levels of current time-frame extrapolations, but they're significantly better thought out. Each piece seems logically fitted to the frame of the narrative rather than thrown-in.

This is not a book of jet-packs and FTL, however. And it's definitely not XKCD levels of "the future's pretty cool," either. The surveillance state is in full effect -- but, appropriately enough, most people rarely seem to mind [4]. More interestingly, it portrays the online world, not as a separate cyberspace a la Gibson or Stephenson, but multifaceted overlays on the real world. Characters going "off the grid" feel the same dissonance we would get in a location without, say, running water and electricity.

The palpable feel of "being left behind" by the current pace of technology is a consistent theme of the novel. Even those who would be on the forefront of technology today wind up being behind the cutting edge (see the middle-aged hacker who's still using a quaint laptop while everyone else has "smart clothing").

Bottom line: If you enjoy speculation about the near future, this is a must read.

[0] Vernor Vinge
[1] I have a serious soft spot for space opera, anyway. Blame Lucas, Roddenberry & company.
[2] Recommended if you want a quick intro to this work.
[3] *cough*
[4] This gives it an aura of legitimacy/believability to me, sad as that is.

Monday, July 28, 2008

JD's Take: Battle Royale (Koushun Takami)

Odds are pretty good that if you are one of the (2) people reading this, you already know what this book is about, but I'll give you the back-of-the-book summary regardless. In an alternate world much like our own (but worse!), Japan has decided that one way of reinforcing the power of the dictator is by randomly selecting a middle school class from each prefecture and making them fight to death each year. We open as a class of forty 15 year-old kids is taken to a remote island and set loose with a backpack each of supplies and told to kill each other off.

Good times.

What follows is a gripping story filled with twists and gut-wrenching moments. I found myself eager to read more, to find out who lived and who died. I was constantly surprised by the brutality of the author and the humanity of the characters. That isn't to say that the book is without flaws, far from it. I'm not sure whether it is a facet of the original text or the translation, but the writing is often stilted, repetitive, and immature. The characters repeat themselves endlessly, reusing the same phrases repeatedly, and often dwelling on the obvious far past the limit of my patience. Some of the characters are extremely unrealistic. The antagonists (whether they be the government, the guy running the show, or the classmates with a villainous streak) are usually flat and generically sinister (though there is a notable exception to this in the form of the Bad Girl character).

Overall, I found the whole work oddly compelling, and pushed past my annoyances with the writing style with minimal effort to see what happened next. The best part about the book is that it explores the themes of evil, violence, authoritarian government, betrayal, loyalty and human nature without dwelling overmuch on it, and makes a nice pulpy read out of it in the process. Now I just need to pick up the movie!

[Mini Review] Lisa’s Take – The Tide Lords Book 1: The Immortal Prince (Jennifer Fallon)

I’m sticking to a mini-review on this book, because I’ve been putting off reviewing it for lack of verbose content. I don’t feel like writing a plot description – every time I try the summary falls flat and just doesn’t do the book justice. So, a mini-review!

Jennifer Fallon is rapidly rising on my list of authors I like – I have a feeling that by the end of this quartet she’ll break through from “good authors” to “favorite authors” on my mental tally. She just does characters and intrigue so damn well – what other author can claim that they have given me an aversion to a particular beverage based solely upon one of their characters’ use of it?

Woo, tangent! Stick to the mini-review. At first I was afraid that The Immortal Prince would be too predictable (I called one of her “big reveals” quite early) but she got me pretty good with another one of her reveals – any time an author causes me to emit an utterance loud enough to attract JD from two rooms over, it’s pretty impressive. The characters were excellent and well developed (as always) and I can sense the potential for angst building towards a head later in the quartet. Did I mention that Jennifer Fallon is starting to rival Robin Hobb for angst levels? Impressive, I know.

Right. Thumbs up. Read this book, it is tasty goodness.

Monday, July 14, 2008

[Lisa's Take] The Dark Volume - Gordon Dahlquist

The Dark Volume is the most disappointing book I’ve read in the last year. Maybe even the most disappointing book I’ve ever read, period. It’s certainly the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced since starting this blog.

The aforementioned offending book is the sequel to The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – a book that would almost certainly make it onto my “book top 10 list” were I to compile one. Glass Books is kind of a victorian-steampunk-fantasy-intrigue-mystery hybrid, a genre niche that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered elsewhere. When I first started Glass Books, I nearly put it down after 30 pages – it was rather thick and slow and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But I decided to give it my customary 100 page attempt, especially given how entertaining the prose was, and by the time I’d made it through one of each of the character perspective chapters, I was totally hooked. The story unfolded with tantalizing slowness and was totally unpredictable – because the genre is so different, I had absolutely no idea where things were going. The characters also developed with the same delicious unveiling – building upon them bit by bit, never revealing too much all in one go. Glass Books was a novel to savor, something to really immerse yourself in and get swept along. It accelerated to the grand finale, then finished with an incredibly Victorian ending... think The Awakening. It was brilliant.

And then The Dark Volume went and ruined it.

The book started out on the wrong foot by demolishing the open, dream-like ending that Glass Books established. It took away any sense of ambiguity, or any interpretive open-ness that the first book established by diving straight back into the plot where the first one left off. This immediately put me on guard, as the ending of Glass Books was one of the best (and most gutsy) parts. I suppose you could argue that this was unavoidable with a direct sequel, but it could have been approached less jarringly.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get much better from there. Where Glass Books took its time and ramped up slowly and steadily, introducing layer after layer of plot and intrigue, Dark Volume just sort of throws it all at you , one thing after another. And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. The “and then this” storytelling technique seems to be a more and more common theme in books I read lately – how about some pacing, people?

I also had some pretty serious gripes around prose and character development. Whereas in the first book the characters were revealed and grew slowly but surely, the sequel did nothing to further develop or deepen the 3 main characters. The new characters that were introduced were largely forgettable. Secondary characters from the first book did improve a bit, but only from increased exposure to the reader, I think. Also, where the first book had very entertaining (self-consciously overblown) prose, the second book was just verbose, without the tint of self-deprecation (appreciation?) that made the prose of the first book tongue-in-cheek, rather than arduous.

As if all that isn’t enough, then we get to the book’s ending, where it committed two more grave crimes. The first was trying to redeem itself at the last minute by jerking emotional strings. Gods how I get sick of books that reach the ending and go “hmm, I’ve managed to only tell a mediocre, lackluster story. Let’s try to make up for it by senselessly killing characters off, in hopes that the emotional impact will make there reader think the whole story was actually emotionally engaging!” Yeah. Oh, and then there was one other little niggling problem with the end of the book... in that it didn’t actually end! That’s right! The Dark Volume (much like The Great Book of Amber) isn’t actually a book! Haha, fooled you – get to the end of that last page and just SEE if there’s any wrap up or resolution. I can’t even begin to explain how disgusted I am.

Is there anything else I missed? The lack of viciously double-entendre’d conversations? The non-existent opportunities for Svenson to be awesome, rather than a useless puppy-dog? Chang only really getting to be badass maaaybe once? Even Miss Temple’s characterization was hollow at best.

Anyway, I should stop ripping before I get even grumpier. There is only one good thing to say for this book: the ending makes it clear that a 3rd novel will be forthcoming, and I can do nothing but cross my fingers and fervently hope book 3 will right the many, many wrongs of the book 2.