Thursday, June 25, 2009

JD's Take: The Mistborn Trilogy (Brandon Sanderson)

The really, really short version:

2,272 pages of extremely high quality fantasy.

The slightly longer version:

Lisabit already covered this series, and we feel about the same about it, so I'll let her review stand. This series features an intricate and fascinating world/magic system, an ensemble cast of compelling and interesting and flawed characters, an evolving storyline that works quite well at escalating the threat while not seeming tacked-on, a witty and entertaining writing style, and several fantastic and unexpected twists on fantasy tropes. I'm not too proud to say that the ending had me tearing up pretty bad, and the final resolution was simultaneously satisfying without being over-done, brief without feeling truncated, touching without being sappy, and open for more books without feeling like an obvious set up. I'd rate the ending as one of my favorites in any series.

There were times when the work dragged a little bit. I agree with Lisabit that the angst in the second book could have been cut in half and that would have been fine with me. The first half of the third book dragged pretty bad for me as it ventured too close to Epic Fantasy Purgatory for comfort (that being: endless marches. Everyone just moving around the board in excruciating detail, but not actually *doing* anything). One of my favorite characters (TenSoon) got the shaft, story-wise, in the third book too, which was a shame to me. I think his character's resolution could have been more meaningful if his narrative had gone another direction (West, actually).

There are also times when you'll be screaming at the characters to pay attention to some small detail, that they are making life far more difficult and it's Just So Obvious. Of course, the first time I did that I was totally wrong about it... so you might want to keep those yells bottled up lest you be embarrassed when you're wrong...

That said, I highly recommend this series to any reader of fantasy. If you are the type of person who happens to get a little *too* excited by well-executed and fiddly magic systems (in other words: if you are a tabletop roleplayer) then all the more reason why these books should immediately go onto your must-read stack. At the top.

Oh: and Lisabit is totally wrong about the "glaring plot hole" she claims to have found. Nyah. :)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

[Sean's Summation] Saturn's Children (Charles Stross)

If Mr. Stross has been on this blog a bit much of late, you can blame me. I've been an unabashed fan of his after reading Accelerando, and though JD beat me to Halting State, I agree with his solid recommendation to read it. Thus, when I saw the wonderfully...ahem...provocative cover of Saturn's Children, I was genuinely excited -- would this be a Heinlein-eqse, risqué sexbot on a mission romp? The answer, it turns out, is equal parts "yes" and "well, kinda."

Quick setting summary: Saturn's Children is set some several hundred years into our future. Humans have built robots with relatively powerful AI to do all manner of jobs -- from asteroid mining to entertainers to spaceships to whatever else that humans, being squishy or easily bored, couldn't do. Stross gets around our current problems with AI by hand-waving that these robots are based on human intelligence patterns (essentially, computer-based copies of our brain's structure). Robots have a "soul chip" that stores their consciousness, which can be slotted into another copy of the same model, carrying over its experiences and personality. Copies of the same model form lineages that typically stick together, pooling the soul chips of their dead brethren/sisters so that the deceased's memories live on. In addition to their soul chip, robots can have slave chips installed (usually unwillingly), which allow near total control of the robot in question.

By the way, "robot" is a slur equivalent to some of our more pernicious racial slurs. So, apologies to any persons that happen to be non-pink goo reading this. Though, I really should apologize for much more, because, you see, there are no more humans (or any biological life) in Saturn's Children. Somewhere in the next couple of centuries, humans disappear (Stross isn't particularly clear on the how or why, but it's not really necessary to the story), leaving behind our robot slaves and a destroyed Terran ecosystem. Problematically, since robots were generally property rather than people, this left most in a peculiar legal state. Some enterprising robots that happened to have legal powers of attorney used their now defunct masters' funds to buy up around 90% of the robot population. This created a solar system of a incredibly small, cruel and insane aristocracy and enormous slave population. The few remaining "free" robots were essentially self-owned LLC's barely scraping by, attempting to avoid falling into debt and becoming indentured servants themselves.

Enter into this world our protagonist, Freya, a free robot of modest means. Unfortunately for her, her lineage's purpose died out with humanity: she was to be a hyper-advanced sex toy for the few remaining humans. (Is it any wonder we died out?) Thus, she starts the story down on her luck somewhere in the high atmosphere of Venus.

Looking back over those last couple of paragraphs, I can conclude that I'll never be a jacket-cover writer. Moving on.

In continuing theme with his previous fiction, Stross depicts space-travel as realistically as possible. Thus, it is very Hobbesian: solitary, nasty, and brutish, but not so much with the short. Travel to Jupiter from Mars on even some of the fastest ships takes over a year and that journey comes with a hefty dosage of ionizing radiation from the ship's nuclear engines. Colonization efforts are also depicted in realistic, but nonetheless fantastic, detail: a city moves on rails around Mercury to keep its temperature optimal, while Mars gives birth to a massive space elevator. While settlement would have been impossible for squishy humans, robots manage to proliferate, colonizing the solar system in our stead. While this is terribly disappointing to those of us raised on Star Trek, it sadly has the support of quite a bit of scientific evidence behind it.

Stross cheats a bit with his characters and makes them mostly clones of each other, but this sort of fits in a world dominated by many clones of a few basic models. There is a background cast of various more fantastic non-anthropromophic bots, but their details are usually shallow. There are a few colorful exceptions to this, of course: Dechs seems to fill the role of the plucky dog sidekick, but reveals to be much more. The hobo bots on Mars are also wonderful bit of the familiar yet absurd.

Perhaps one of my favorite theme in the story were the debates concerning creation myths from a robotic perspective. As creatures created rather than evolved, the majority of robots had trouble believing that their creators came to be in such a messy manner. This leads to the comedic reversal of evolutionists being treated as the intellectual parriahs that today's creationists fill, complete with cultists, "skeptics" and the like.

Though I am admittedly a Strossian fan-boy, we now come to the part of the essay where I must lambaste him for failing: Mr. Stross needs an editor with a chainsaw and plenty of duct tape. As was the case with Accelerando, Saturn's Children is occasionally non-linear. Unlike previous works, however, these transitions are unexpected and confusing. At several points in the book the transitions were so jarring, I found myself checking page numbers to make sure my copy wasn't missing pages. A zealous editor should notice these sorts of things and berate Mr. Stross until they're fixed.

(As a note, from reading his blog, it appears he's been releasing and editing quite a number of books of late. While I'm all for output, I really would prefer a more paced release schedule. Quality, not quantity!)

Further, his characters motivations and personalities fall flat, especially towards the novel's climax. I was left wondering, "So, that's why so-and-so did that? Ho-hum." It just really didn't feel believable or interesting. The overall plot, too, felt a bit weak. It was very Mission: Impossible (the Tom Cruise movies, not the TV show): needlessly complicated, with too many, "Oh no, X was really Y all along!" moments.

Despite these complaints, I had a good time with the novel, and would definitely recommend it to fellow SF readers for their enjoyment.

Monday, June 15, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Conqueror’s Moon (Julian May)

It seems like I see Julian May’s name a lot on the book shelves, so when I saw a used copy of the Conqueror’s Moon hardback a few months ago, I snagged it for $4. I’m nothing if not willing to try out new authors, and a $4 hardback is usually a steal. Sadly, I was very disappointed in this particular bargain. As always, I gave the book 100 pages to impress me (a generous 102 in this case) and I was beyond relieved when I could finally call it quits.

I’m not really up to trying to put together a plot summary, so instead I’ll just bitch (because who doesn’t like to listen to me rant about bad fantasy?).

The story started with a very promising prologue – first person with a touch of wit and a very human tone… but after this brief introduction there was a subsequent switch to 3rd person omniscient and the author started waxing poetic about the world and the characters. Is there nothing less enticing in a book than extended droning about the history of a nation? Especially when said history is neither particularly original, nor particularly interesting? The author went on at length and started to lose me right away. Once characters started showing up on screen (on page?) I though the book might turn itself around and hook me… but I found quickly that the characters were much like the history – dull and over-described. I want to be shown what my characters are like, not told “he was loyal, oh so loyal.” And heaven forbid that more than a sentence or two should be spent describing totally mundane clothing – please spare me. I especially enjoyed (didn’t enjoy) the few pages that introduced 16 characters and spent a paragraph describing each one. Let me tell you how exciting that was – I do so love incorporating memorization exercises into my reading experience!

Oh dear, I seem to be waxing sarcastic and not a little bit caustic. I’ll just stop before I get really carried away, shall I?

I do see that Ms. May has written quite a lot of scifi – can anyone out there tell me whether it is more worth reading that her disappointing fantasy foray?

[Lisa’s Take] Labyrinths of Echo Book 1: The Stranger (Max Frei)

Max is your typical loser – 30 something, down on his luck more often than not, and a chronic night-owl to the point that he can’t keep a regular day job. The only thing remarkable about Max is that he has very vivid dreams. Then one day a man in Max’s dreams offers him a job… and seeing nothing better about his life Max accepts and is transported to another world – vibrant and exciting where magic is commonplace, but highly regulated. A little bit of acclamation and training and he is officially instated as the Night Time Representative of the Secret Investigative Force (think the CIA, but with magic).

Do you remember when you first read Harry Potter? Even if you weren’t completely blown away, you have to admit that the world that Rowling painted was gorgeous, colorful, and enthralling. My experience reading The Stranger was a lot like that – the world was just so very engaging and convincing. I really felt like I had been plucked out of Boring Old Real World and dropped into the fantasy city painted by the author.

There are some quirks to the storytelling in The Stranger. The first is that it’s a translation from Russian, and while it is very well done, there are references or jokes made from time to time that don’t quite make sense. Very minor things that don’t at all take away from the major themes or humor in the book as a whole. After finishing all 4 Night Watch books and now this new piece of Russian Fantasy, I’m gaining a serious affinity for the genre – both in the originality of the stories and worlds, as well as the variety of wry, askance humor that seems to pervade.

The second quirk to the book is that rather than one large arc (The hardcover weighs in at a middlingly-dense 544 pages), the book is broken up in to 5 large “chapters,” where each chapter is its own story, largely self-contained. Each of these chapters has its own hook, plot, crescendo, climax and resolution, which is nice, but it made the book feel a bit choppy, rather than being a smooth continuous narrative.

What else is there to say about this book? The characters are vibrant and exciting, the wit is beyond measure, and each chapter is nearly impossible to put down. I absolutely loved it, and I’m desperately hoping that the rest of the books in the series will be translated soon and published in the US.