Archive for July, 2010

Dave Duncan – Faery Lands Forlorn

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I’m a bit behind on my reviews as I’ve been reading more than spending time on my blog. Well, you know what is more important ;-) . Last week I finally received Faery Lands Forlorn by Dave Duncan (1991), which is book 2 of A Man Of His Word. Books 1, 3 and 4 I had also ordered via the web, but as I had gotten them from different places, this book took a long time to arrive. I had already started on book 1 over a month ago, expecting book 2 to arrive soon, but it took much longer. Now I can finally finish the series.

I will start of with a little introductory. Dave Duncan is probably no known name and if he is, his books are probably among the main mass of mainstream fantasy. I could only get second hand editions from the web and good quality ones were way too expensive, so I settled for decent quality ones. I usually aim to get new or very good quality, but in this case it was not important to me. Why? Simply said, I discovered this author because the sequel series to A Man Of His Word, named A Handful Of Men, got translated into Dutch. As Dutch Fantasy publishers are few, few titles escape attention. I sort of liked A Handful Of Men. Sure it was mainstream, but different and original enough to stand out. As I don’t like having an incomplete collection of a series, I decided to get the first series too. This was also pushed by my search for new books and not finding recent series that interested me. I’m a selective reader. I usually have a good feeling what I like and what I don’t and there is a lot of stuff I don’t have a good feeling to. That I was able to collect them all, I’m happy with, because this series does not seem to have been reprinted.

As I’m not going to review Book 1, as it’s been a while, I will first give a setup of the world and story. The world consists of a large continent with numerous islands. The center part of the continent is mainly inhabited by humans, although of non-impressing kind. The outer parts are inhabited by many different races from earthly fantasy lore, like elves, gnomes, trolls, faeries, djinns, fauns and more. The races mingle freely among each other, so that creates a lot of variation. Magic is obtained through words of power, the more you have, the more powerful you are. This is one of the main storylines of the series, as many try to obtain more of them. The second storyline is the romantic quest. One knows how this will probably end, but as usual it is the journey which counts. The book follows the stories of the two main characters of the romantic quest, so to say.

Telling anything more about the plot would be spoiling. These aren’t long books with an average of 330 pages. I can say that Duncan manages well to avoid cliches and it is hard to predict what will happen, which to me is always a big winner for any book. Faery Lands Forlorn is a bit slow at the startup. The book is already two thirds on the way when the real action starts. Before that the main characters are progressing slowly. It’s no boring read, but for such a short book it makes one feel how the author thinks we can make it to the end in time with this pace. The final third of the book gives an interesting insight to the world of the series and introduces a number of important players. In the end there is still a long road the go with only 2 books left.

A Man Of His Word, like its sequel, manages a level above mainstream with a few original ideas and the avoidance of boring cliches. It’s no complicated novel. The worldbuilding is somewhat minimal. The different characters are not flat, but not that complex either. Sufficient is the right word. It does not lack details, but no more is given than needed for the story. I think this is not the aim of books. The author wants to write an entertaining story with likeable characters where he sets up enough of the world so it works and is believable. I’m happy with that, as I don’t feel much need to know more.

Reviews of the next two books will follow soon.

Steven Erikson – Dust of Dreams

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Dust of Dreams (2009) by Steven Erikson is the ninth volume in the epic and massive series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I will start of by stating that this series currently is my favourite fantasy series, or rather, has been for the past 5 years since I started reading them. As I started late, I bought them as mass market paperbacks and as I like to have my books as much in the same layout as possible, it forces me to wait a year after the release of each volume. Luckily I can be patient, even as the publisher decided to revamp the series after book 5. Personally I like the first rendition much more.

As it is my favourite series, there was no time to add purchase or reading posts, because once I bought it I mainly spent my time reading, as it should be. As it is too much work to recount the previous volumes I can explain why this is my favourite series.

First is the depth of the series. A stunning amount of layers, neatly mixed from the first to the final volume. Few books I’ve read contained so many mysteries and secrets. I love that. The story thrives on it.

Second is the epic scale. The mythology, though vague and scattered, is on the level of Tolkien and Homeros. So rich, so haunting, so diverse. Another part is the wide range of characters, peoples, nations, societies and races. Many feel very original, nothing like the common earthly copies to which many fantasy authors stick or create variations of.

Third is the impressive ease with which he handles a large cast of characters, making sure they cannot be flat and giving them sufficient attention to build them. This last point is also a sort of weak point. Because of the large cast there is little space for true depth and characterization. One does not grow really attached to specific characters. Maybe that is actually for the better, as the death toll is high (the title of the series is fittingly named). Even so, it is a choice one always has to make, else the pace of the story can slow down too much, becoming longwinded and losing strength. This does not really happen in these books. Erikson never sticks too long with a character but keeps shifting continuously, allowing us to see events from many vantage points. Still, he prevents the reader from discovering too much, but just enough.

Fourth is that each book contains its own story and each story stands proud and strong on it’s own. Each is different in tone and development and has it’s own flavour, although military campagns dominate. You can never predict what is going to happen, which is the thing I love most.

The fifth and most impressive point is that he has maintained a constant high level of quality in his books. I cannot name a weak book. Of course there are some things in a book that sometimes feel too much, for example when he introduces yet another new set of side characters whose purpose sometimes remain unclear for a long part in the novel, but I call it more a reader flaw than a writer flaw.  Another point on the quality is that it is done in massive volumes. Most of my paperbacks count more than 1000 pages, but it is never too much.

With all that covered, I can focus on the ninth book. It is the first half of the two part final. Erikson, unlike some other authors, keeps a tight plan and schedule, and I certainly praise him for that. It allows me to endure the wait on some other series. In the beginning of the book Erikson apologizes for not having an ending in this book as the story was too long for one volume. All his other books has an ending, although there were still plenty of storylines waiting to continue. As Erikson opened the book about the end, I will start with it as well. It actually did have an ending even as this time one of the main storylines ended it a sort of pseudo-cliffhanger. If I compare it to the previous volume it was only a little more open. Nice to apologize, Steven, but for me it was not necessary. A simple note that it was first of a two parter would’ve just been sufficient.

The plot itself, as usual, is too complex to elaborate on. Spoiling would take too much to write. As already spoiled before, this ninth installment is as good as the previous ones, for all the reasons mentioned in the beginning. It even contains new mysteries, as usual caused by older mysteries being unveiled. What does set this volume apart from the previous ones are two things.

First are revelations. There were plenty of revelations is the previous books, but the ones in this book seem to have reached the core of story. Of course many still remain, but Erikson has reached the point that we have come to the disclosure of the final mysteries which form the foundation for the important story lines. It feels as such in the way they are presented. It almost pained me to see it happen, but I think each storyteller wants to get to the end where he finally can tell how it really is (or most of it). And he does it very well.

The second new thing is that philosophy is emerging in the story. Different characters are discussing the existence of the universe they live in. How the past was and what the future will bring. To me it feels that Erikson for the first time is bringing a message. Not that they didn’t exist before, but they were veiled, only for those who wanted to see. This time it comes with more clarity. The question is if it is to prepare us for the final events to come or for Erikson himself to look back to the immense and complex universe he has created now that he is nearing the end of the story. In these moments he lets the reader think about it as well too.

No need for me to recommend this book, and all the previous ones, in this review. I think my previous words have said enough. The only question remains is if the final ending will be just as great as those of the previous novels. I cannot wait, but I will have too.

Marco Polo – The Travels

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Few people these days will not have heard of Marco Polo, the mediaeval merchants who travelled to the hardly known court of Kubilai Khan, at the time supreme lord of the greatest empire in the world: the Mongol Empire, an took back to Europe amazing tales of what he saw there.

Few people these days however, will have actually read his account of those travels. So famed, yet so unknown. For me a reason to buy the book and find out the truth behind his fame.

Marco Polo was barely an adult when he joined his father and uncle who had returned from a first visit to Kubilai Khan when they were soon sent for a second mission. This was the year 1271. It would take 24 years before Marco Polo would finally return home to Europe. It was clearly no brief visit. As merchants and foreigners they were highly esteemed by Kubilai Khan, who was apparently interested in any topic. It actually took some bit of convincing until they were finally allowed to return to Europe.

The story of The Travels is medium-sized. Not short but also not overly large. It is divided into different parts, each describing a number of related topics. First it starts with the journey to the court of Kubilai Khan, from the Levant through Central Asia, entering China from the west (also known as the Silk Route) to Beijing. Then follow tales of the greatness of Kubilai Khan and his immense power and wealth, before two travels are told which Marco Polo undertook as an emissary for Kubilai Khan to the southwest and southeast of his empire. The final parts detail the travels back to Europe, which went via South-Asia and India. There is an extra part relating to several wars among the Mongols, but there does not seem a special reason why this was added.  Overall Marco Polo saw a huge part of the hardly known Asia. Being an emissary of Kubilai Khan he was received respectfully in many places, even as he was a strange foreigner.

So this is the setup: stories from travels through all of Asia. This should allow for some interesting tales. Alas, it is not so much the case. The stories are mostly about travels. Marco Polo is a merchant. For him the things which are interesting are the things people produce and trade in and which customs they have. So the stories tell about trade and wealth, the production of food, be it game, drinks and gains from the lands and the local industries, usually gems, gold or silver, silk and furs. The customs relate to the beliefs, the political structure and odd habits. In numerous cases he breaks this list with some tale of wars or history, which authentity leaves a bit to question. In most cases Marco Polo did not know the languages so that he had to rely on his interpreter. One can guess how accurate much of this would have been. Even in the case of religion he often does not seem to have a good idea and in only some tales we recognize familiar things.

So as Marco Polo travels from city to city, declaring their distance and direction, from country to country, there is often a long repetition of very similar things. Especially in China, which was heavily populated, most things were very uniform. In most cases it’s all the same. The fact that in between he tells about other events and sights, prevent the reader from getting bored.

What I hoped to read about was what Marco Polo did during his stay of 24 years. The book however is very impersonal. Little is said about what Marco or his father and brother actually did in China. We know they acted as emissaries. We also know Marco Polo ruled one of the larger cities for some time. This city, like Beijing, is described in detail because he lived there for a long time, but most other cities remain vague and anonymous. These are also the better parts of the stories.  So I mostly got disappointed. Luckily odd customs are interesting to me, so those kept me going. In the end it was really a book about travels with some side informations if it was deemed interesting. I guess for the mediaeval people tales about strange customs and great wealths with some short tales of wars were far more interesting. For the modern reader it’s a bit dull.

With my account of the reading being repetitive, is it well written? Actually, the book was ghostwritten for Marco Polo, who mainly related what he remembered. The ghostwriter, a man of no fame, wrote everything down quite literally. The stories are written as they would have been told to an audience. As such the audience is addressed indirectly quite often, as if the teller of the stories wants to keep their attention. Although the different parts are nicely structured, now and then it happens that something must be told what was forgotten earlier. For a book this seems silly.

In a sense I guess the book would work well when read aloud for children. This way only parts would be told at a time. Reading it all almost continuously like I did is less fun. The story should have been rewritten, but of course, at that time, such things were not very important.

A book for children. That does not sound like great tales which created such fame for Marco Polo. At that time they might have, but today’s reader will be rather disappointed. There are others books from the Middle Ages which tell of much greater events, but none of them are about the riches, customs and lands of Asia. The book is interesting for those who like to know about trade and customs in 13th century Asia. There are plenty of strange things. Historically the stories about conflicts and wars are often somewhat inaccurate and vague. Also those tales are often rather very similar.

For me it was interesting enough to have read a somewhat classic story, but I would not really recommend it. That probably explains why it has become fairly unknown these days and only the legendary fame remains. Lucky for Marco Polo. There were plenty of ingredients for a legendary story, but most of it has been left out. The dish remains rather plain than high cuisine.

Titus Flavius Josephus – The Jewish War

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Titus Flavius Josephus, originally named Joseph, is a rare Jewish historian from ancient history, and as such the only pure and named source of the old Jewish history. As he lived in the later part of the 1st century AD, he was able to recount of important events as an eye witness to the Great Revolt of the Jews which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. With the Great Revolt, the Jews lost the last bit of autonomy they had within the Roman Empire and subsequent Emperors chose to disperse the Jews so that they could not cause another revolt in their Holy Land. This was the event that marked the beginning of their final diaspora, until they reclaimed the land in 1948.

It is because of this reason that this history is important to read. Although the Jews had been banished before, some or many could remain and later they had managed to return. This time it would be different. It gives one insight in the how and why.

Although this book is rather unknown these days, it has been quite popular since its publication around the year 74. When the bookpress was invented in Europe this book was one of the most translated works next to the Bible. One might explain it because it described the fall of the Jews shortly after the death of Christ, for which the Jews bore a large responsibility, according to the gospels. Besides that it was a detailed and vivid account of the world of the time when Christ lived, as Josephus did not just described the actual events of the Jewish War, which took place between 66 and 70, but started around the year 170 BC, giving full details of biblical persons like Herod the Great. About 1/7th of the book treats this rather lengthy introduction. I have to admit that I skipped this part, as I read the prequel of this book, Antiquities of the Jews, which Josephus wrote after it, earlier, and described the history of the Jews as it is mostly written in the Old Testament of the bible. As he ended that book before the events of the Jewish War, I thus had already read this introduction. Josephus is not that great a writer to reread it all almost immediately after.

Most interesting about Josephus is that he was not an outsider in the war, but actually played a fairly important part. In the beginning he joined the revolt and became one of the rebel generals as he was from a noble priestly family. Early in the war he was defeated after a hard and long fight and taken prisoner. It was at this moment that he changed sides. On meeting his victor, Vespasian, he declared him to be emperor, which he wasn’t at the time. Josephus would however be the first to do so before anyone thought it possible. As the Emperor Nero committed suicide and the Roman Empire turned into civil war, Vespasian became victor and emperor. Josephus was thus redeemed and joined the side of Vespasian’s son Titus, who had taken over the lead in the Jewish War. He joined him in the Siege of Jerusalem, trying to get his countrymen to give up battle against the supreme Romans, with little success. After the war he went to live in Rome, where he held a priviliged position in the Flavian dynasty for the rest of his life. Most Jews considered him to be a traitor, but some might say he saw the doom the Jews were leading themselves to, as they never had a chance to win.

Did I just spoil major plot points? I’m not telling much more than is written on my book cover. This is afterall history. The most important events are usually known already. One reads history to discover the details of the events that occurred and the how and why. The many twists and turns are usually not mentioned. Telling all this is also necessary to explain my review and how this book was written.

As Josephus was a rebel, he is a proud Jew and the history of his people is important to him. As he switched sides to the Romans and he writes for a Roman audience, he is also pro-Roman. They are always the just ones, rarely doing the wrong thing. Persons might be corrupt, but in general Romans are the best. This is also how the book is written. He is harsh on the rebels, but also tries to explain their views, as he had the same ones, so that people had an idea of why the revolt happened or how they were deluded by certain leaders. At the same time he gives positive remarks where possible. Bravery, honesty and humility is praised. It is because of those things that this history is not one-sided but related accounts from both sides. Josephus spoke with refugees and survivors of the war and could thus described events in the Roman and the Jewish camp to great detail.

With this I conclude the part of why this book is an interesting read and important to current events. It is also a reason why I like to read historical books or histories. One gains great insight and understanding.

The next question is if this book is a good read. On this part I have to say that this is not really the case. I have read better historians than Josephus. He can be a tough read, going into certain details without it really going anywhere and lacking structure when that happens. At times he also like to write long speaches by certain persons. It is a style often used by classic historians, but Josephus’ ones can be rather longwinded and repetitive. The often do not give any information or viewpoints that is not already known.

His sometimes poor writing is compensated by some very horrific tales he writes about the Siege of Jerusalem and how the populace suffered by the hand of extremist leaders, who basically terrorized the people they should be protecting. The tales he recounted actually gave me the shivers. As such they were the best parts of this history.

Another plus is the personal nature of the history. Many on Roman and Jewish side are named for certain acts. Most historian stick to the important persons in history, but Josephus makes sure many are commemorated till this day.

To finalize the review, I have to add that to the book a short one was added titled My Life. Josephus in this tells about his background and recounts certain events in the Jewish War. I read only short parts of it. Most of it was a repeat with some different views and details which, according to the translator, were to give a better view of his own standing.

Is this a book to be read? It certainly is, as I explained in my introduction. However, it also a rather tough read. Some parts will go easy, others not, even for someone with my experience of reading these kind of books. So some core of pure interest is required.

Endeavors in reading

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

As the name of my blog suggests, not all my reading goes that smoothly. Some stuff I read with the speed of light, other works remain lingering for many months, some even a few years. These are books that I am interested in to read, but do not really belong to my favourites. When I set up the blog I only looked at the books I was actually reading now, but I did not check my bookshelves for books that still had bookmarks in them. Books with those that I have put back are ones that I did not manage to continue in for some time that have them lying around did not help.

First one up on the continue-to-read list is Skylark of Valeron by E. E. “Doc” Smith (1934). This is a sort of classic of science fiction, third book in the four part Skylark series. The first two were still quite doable, but this one is tough, even if they are all fairly short books.  E. E. Smith was the pioneer of modern science fiction. The first one to introduce travel between the stars where speeds and distance are not limited anymore, even while he does not even use computers. The series were originally published per chapter as was common in those times. Each thus aim to make an impact, using a lot of baffling events. However, reading them all in one go is quite tiresome. Technically, this is pulp SF. It has been edited a bit to make the chapters fit better, but the writing quality is low. This is also one of his earliest works, which is notable, as I have read his Lensman series as well, which is much better written.

The second book is On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (1999), first book of the Short Sun series. This is a sequel to the Long Sun series, which I had quite enjoyed. On Blue’s Waters is science fiction, but the technological level is so low and mysterious it could almost be fantasy. I am past halfway in the book. The reason I got stuck is that the book is written in the first person. Usually that is not a problem, but in this case the main character makes a lot of comments on his own actions and in general he is not likeable to me. Another problem is that in his comments he often refers to events that will take place later on and is thus basically spoiling. In a different view this could be seen as creating tension for the expectation for how these things are going to happen, but such things are killers for me. I like to be surprised.  That’s why I also dislike descriptive titles of chapters which basically give away what will happen. Gene Wolfe aims at writing literature science fiction, but in this case he makes it very hard on me. I do want to continue and read what will happen, but for now it is on a pause.

The last book I am somewhat stuck in is Eline Vere by Louis Couperus (1889). He is considered to be one of the great Dutch writers, famous for his psychological novels. The way he writes is incredibly stylish, a sort of High Dutch, but can get somewhat tiresome. The book is about the upper class in Dutch society in the late 19th century. It’s about people with rather empty lives who do not dare to take action but just muddle about. I am at about a quarter (the book is over 400 pages), but I really needed to take a pause. It can take some time before I will continue.

Connecting Byzantine history

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Today I received The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, which was completed around the year 1148. It is my third historical book about the Byzantine Empire and like the other ones written by a contemporary. What I like mostly is that the three books almost fit together in the time periods they describe. The first one, The History by Leo the Deacon, covers the period 963-976, the second, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Michael Psellus, covering the period 976-1078, while The Alexiad covers the period 1081-1118. I am already reading Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, but history does not always require to read things in order. Either way, as far as I know, there are no other histories (easily) available about other periods of the Byzantine Empire. The only I know is by Procopius, describing the events in the sixth century when Justinianus I ruled, but I haven’t found an acceptable version yet that I would want to buy.

My version of The Alexiad is the Dutch translation. As the other two books are in English, naming conventions will be a bit different, but the publication of these classic works in the Netherlands is of very high quality and often available in hardcover. I like them much more than the English publications, which often seem to be cheap reprints of old publications, so if I can get them I prefer to do so, even if these publications are usually quite more expensive.

The author of The Alexiad, Anna Komnene, is the one of the first female historians. The book she has written is also a biography. It is even more special as she wrote about the reign of her father, the emperor Alexios I, making her an Imperial Princess. She was thus really in the middle of the events and had access to a lot of intimite information. More information can be found on Wikipedia. No need to go into that many details. In many ways thus, this is a classic book.

Joe Abercrombie – Best served cold

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

For my reviews I do not plan to stick to certain rules. I will add them as I like, even if I have read the book a while back.

First one up is Best served cold, written by Joe Abercrombie in 2009. The story takes places in the same world as The First Law trilogy and even contains a few side characters from those books. The events take place a number of years after the previous books. It remains somewhat vague how long. For now it is a standalone story where the major elements of the other story play a minor role.

Like the title suggests, this is a story about revenge. I wouldn’t spoil much if I would say it really much is mainly about revenge. The story is fairly straightforward in that sense. Clearly it’s about the twists and turns the journey makes and not about how things will end, although Abercrombie does manage to put in some decent surprises. Compared to his previous novels it has few hidden layers, but one does not always need such to have an enjoyable read. Even so, for me the hidden layers add some depth to the plot so that I cannot rate the book as to the same level as the those of The First Law.

Abercrombie writes gritty fantasy. It’s bloody, hard and rough and not always that nice, giving the story a touch of reality. I don’t mind gritty fantasy but sometimes I felt it was a bit too much.  In his main cast he brings together a varied collection of characters. Most get the chance to shine, but some remain somewhat flat. Of course one cannot take too much attention to everyone as the book would be getting quite large, but it leaves little to consider, especially with the bad guys, for whom one won’t care too much. This all is caused by a large set of main characters and a large set of villains. I’ve read others books with many characters and although Abercombie handles it all very well, it does leave the story lacking a bit on some points. Quite above average and a fine read, but nothing special.

Dabbling in old classics

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

It’s not unusual that I am reading several novels at the same time. Usually it is because they are tough to read, even if they are interesting. Most common in this category are old classics. Books from before the time that reading was normal among commoners and when there was an even bigger lack of editors fixing the style of the writer.

At the moment I am reading 3 books, with the remarkable feat that for every one of them there is no clear publication year.

The first one is the Dutch translation of The Jewish War (De Bello Judaica) by Titus Flavius Josephus (c. 74). I have already read (the interesting part) of it’s prequel Antiquities of the Jews (written after this book), so I am actually reading it in the right order. I am getting near the end, although I will skip the bonus novel My life, which is a partial repeat of a part of The Jewish War. Maybe sometime later. I only bought it for the main book.

The second book I am reading is The Travels, ghostwritten for Marco Polo (c. 1300). The famous work about his journey to China and what he saw there. I am already halfway.

The third book is Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (Chronographia) by Michael Psellus (c. 1085). The book describes the rule of a set of Byzantine Emperors between 976 and 1078. The nice thing about the book is that Psellus was a contemporary of the time, being born in 1018 and living in the environment of the emperors after 1028 and playing a part in government from 1042 onwards. Maybe not always that objective, but fairly accurate.

I hope to finish them within a few weeks.