Archive for October, 2010

Gene Wolfe – On Blue’s Waters

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

There are some books that are hard to categorize. One of these books is On Blue’s Waters (1999) by Gene Wolfe, the first book of the Short Sun trilogy. It is a weird mix of science fiction and fantasy. The fantasy elements are there in some strange oddities and the situation in which the truth of advanced technology has been lost to the people in story. Many things remain unexplained because the characters simply don’t know.

The Short Sun is the third series I’ve read by Gene Wolfe. The first was the New Sun and the second the Long Sun. The Short Sun is a sequel to the Long Sun. I do not know if there is a relationship to the New Sun, but I have not noticed it. The New Sun novels and the Short Sun novels are told from the first person point of view and the limitations that go with it. Gene Wolfe abused this fact to make events unclear because the main characters cannot perceive it sufficiently. This was not that much of a problem in the New Sun novels. In the Long Sun novels it was hard to keep a clear view of the events that were evolving even if it came from multiple persons. What Wolfe was doing in the Long Sun novels was presenting a recording of recollections of different characters which were made into a novelization. This was really a more complicated way of writing a story but also original. One could call it literary SF.

In the Short Sun Wolfe has taken this concept a big step ahead. He is trying to fuse original literature into science fiction. We find ourselves with a narrator not just telling us his story but also experience him writing the story at the same time. It is a sort of diary in which a story is told.

This may sound exciting, but Wolfe takes it even a step further. The narrator is doing a messy job. Sometimes he recollects events to come or skips back to relate to some earlier events as in reference to the events he had just described. Thus he is taking away some surprises but also creating questions about what is going to happen. And while the story progresses his current events start taking up a bigger role so that we are actually reading two stories at the same time. Even as this way of writing is an interesting experience it also made it hard for me to keep reading. It took me quite some time to finish. There is no smooth development or action sequence to move you on as the narrator often breaks the story to add his comments to what happened.

What really made the book hard to read was that I disliked the main character. He is a normal person with weaknesses and strengths, but also with a doubting nature. He is unsure of himself although he sticks to some vague convinctions he thinks he must follow. He can be quite frustrating.

The story itself is relatively dull as it describes a long journey, but Wolfe has added a number of oddities to keep the reader going. The fact that the journey is nothing peculiar it is strange that it is the main character who seems to attract all these oddities during his journey. They serve some purpose, probably, but only some time later in the story. The so-called second story is without these oddities and that worked better for me.

Even with all these difficulties I will surely continue with the series. I already have the next two books. I will just not be in a hurry to do so. I will take a break and pick up the next book when I’m in the mood for it. Despite all the difficulties Wolfe writes very interesting and weird stories and I like that. The thing is that his style will not be everyone’s piece of cake.

Back cover spoilers

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

I’ve been a bit busy with other things than reading or buying books lately, so I haven’t been able to keep up my usual number of additions. Today I had some time to go strolling through some book stores looking for some interesting reads.  I did not find any. It seems it’s a bit low on the book publishing lately that match my taste. Of course as I’m Dutch I also have a bit more limited range of books that are available to me as bookstores here have to make a selection of English books.

One thing that makes the difference for me to choose buying a book or not is the text on the back cover (or inlay). Often this puts me off as publishers often give half the plot away. This can prevent me from buying crap but also prevent me from buying the book because I can guess more easily it’s not my kind of book. Personally I prefer a description that does not give away the plot but provides the setting. Even in that case I can still guess if I will like the book or not, but at least it won’t give it all away before reading it. In some cases it will serve its purpose and make me want to try the book.

Today this was the case for The Company of Glass (1999) by Valery Leith. I hadn’t seen or heard about the book or author before so my stance was neutral towards the book. As mentioned before the back cover text only described the setting and the players. It didn’t give anything away which isn’t told in the first two chapters (I’ve started already), so that leaves the plot a big mystery to me. Yay! That’s how I like it. If the story is good or not I will have to discover. This was a reason for me to buy the book and find out.

The History of Theophanes

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

When a book is also partially a scientific publication one can be confronted with problematic book titles. In this case the official title The History of Theophanes (c. 815) should be The History (Chronographia) by Theophanes Confessor. The latter addition to the name is there because Theophanes is not that an uncommon name and there have been more historians with that name. In this publication the ‘author’ is attributed to the translator, which is nice to do, but incorrect.

Let’s return to the book itself. Theophanes Confessor, as his name implies, was a monk who was later proclaimed a saint. He wrote a history from the creation of the world until his own times. He lived in the Byzantine Empire and his knowledge comes from the Byzantine point of view and thus his focus lies on Byzantine history.

What makes this history special? It describes the a part history of the Byzantine Empire which is often considered to be part of it’s dark ages: the seventh and eight century. Decline, warfare and internal religious strife caused most records of those times, Byzantine accounts as it is, to be lost. The Byzantine Empire had a long tradition of writing down history but from this period all has been lost except for the history of Theophanes Confessor who made use of those sources lost to us.

As the period until the seventh century has been described by other historians, only the ‘unique’ part of Theophanes’ history has been translated. Further on, this is the first English translation of this history. This may seem somewhat unusual as there are no historic accounts of those times from the Byzantine point of view.

That this work can be considered a rarity describing times that even in European history are considered to be lacking records is already a reason to read it. Another reason is that this history also described the rise of  Islam and the spreading of the Arab culture (although that came after all the conquering). You obtain insight how it was able to overcome two (the Byzantine and the Persian) empires which possessed a more advanced civilization and organisation.

Even as this history covers 200 years, it is a rather thin book. The actual history only takes 180 pages with plenty of internal notes. Theophanes describes events year by year although he sometimes references to events to come to express some irony or justice which would later on happen a certain person.

Each year also contains the year of reign for the most important rulers known to Theophanes. This provides a reference point although the translator has to note that errors still happen now and then, especially as Theophanes often lacks accurate information about lands with which there is little contact.

Although of each year some events are described, many years are rather uneventful in Byzantine history and only one or two sentences cover a year. Especially for older times Theophanes has to rely on other sources which leads to quite some variation in styles. There was no concept of plagiarism back then so copies were quite literally made. So wherever he had a source there will be more information added but this is often incongruent. It can be a lyrical description of battle events, a piece of dialogue or a more detailed account of events. In some he even used Arab sources, providing the reader with a surprising accurate description of events he usually knows little about. Only when he reaches his own times the history described comes from his own memory and is more detailed.

Overall Theophanes keeps a neutral stance towards events, be it bad or good to the Byzantine Empire or the Christian world which is threatened by the rise of Islam. This sometimes changes when he writes about the internal religious struggles of the Byzantine Empire. There was still much discussion about the nature of Christ and the Trinity. This was mostly caused by the influence of the other religions from which the converts came from and which they used to interpret their new religion. These struggles get some extra attention and Theophanes does not hesitate to give his own opinion. His opinion is expressed even vehemently when it comes to the actions of the emperors towards religious affairs. Those who went against the church and promoted their own are called evil, while those who let the church be or let themselves be led are called pious. All neutrality is lost here.

Even so, most of this history is read like a modern history, while most histories I’ve read have a personal touch of the author in the way he presents events and facts. Only occasionally Theophanes diverts from it, which at least make it something more than just a dry account of events (although it never gets boring).

This history is an interesting read and even as the translator claimed the toughness of Theophanes’ prose in his introduction he has made his translation a very well read. I’ve read old histories which could be a tough or slow read, but I did not notice such here. The variation in styles is preserved while the prose is never a hindrance.

Arabian Nights

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Among the classics of literature there are some works which have no author. One of those famous work is The Tales of 1001 Nights. This work is actually a collection of Arabian stories ranging from the early ninth century until the 18th century. There has never been a definite collection. Various texts have been attributed to be part of this great telling and obviously many have been added or lost. Thus anyone who wants to buy The Tales of 1001 Nights is presented with the problem of deciding which collection is the best.  In the edition I bought the translator also addressed this problem. One of the requirements, so he decided, was that the collection actually contained 1001 stories. The second was that there did exist an original Arabic written version of the stories. This lead him to pick as a choice the so-called Calcutta II collection of 1842. Even so, the edition I got still has two bonus stories: the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba. Both obviously famous, but without an original Arabic text. Those stories are classics as well, so it is nice to have them as well. For those who wonder which edition I got: it is the three volume Penguin edition. Overall it’s almost 3000 pages so that would provide plenty of reading pleasure.

Sergei Lukyanenko – The Last Watch

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

The Last Watch (2006) is supposedly a sequel to the Watch Cycle, an Urban Fantasy series written by Sergei Lukyanenko which takes place in Russia. As someone who has read this sequel immediately after the named cycle, this is partially true and partially not as the book continues from where we left off in the previous book, though some time has past, but as the main characters don’t age as normal humans do, this thus has little impact.

This sequel is less part of the trilogy because it very much has the smell of making some extra cash from a successful series. I can name several things to prove this statement. Even though the book consists of three stories as the previous one, this time they do not stand alone. The stories are just a division in parts. This book is one story. A bad choice of Lukyanenko is to leave the Russian setting and go foreign, which basically makes the original atmosphere disappear. Besides that Lukyanenko also picks up some known legends instead of creating his own. The book also lacks the rivalry and intrigues between the large powers. There is a bigger enemy and so all that special chemistry is gone. There is no need to look for character development, as it isn’t there. Events and situation remain rather superficial. The story is pretty straightforward and the plot has plenty of flaws and doesn’t convince.  Even with all this, Lukyanenko now and then manages to put in some original stuff and traces of what made the early books stand out.

Even as the plot is weak, the story is not boring. There are sufficient entertaining scenes to keep you reading, while you still want to find out the truth to the mystery. As those truths are slowly revealed it makes you reach the end, but the truths feel incomplete and lack conviction.

Stating all these comments, I’m making this quite a negative review. For a part I think it is justified as the quality of the stories have only gone downhill after the great first book. While that one had some promise to become a classic of Urban Fantasy, the last book won’t stand out among average mainstream Urban Fantasy. As I don’t read that much Urban Fantasy it is hard for me to give a decent comparison. I will just end with that I do not recommend this book unless you are a big Lukyanenko/Watch Cycle fan. As I inclined to say in the beginning: one should stop after the official Watch Trilogy. Even as The Last Watch is a continuation/sequel, it does not add something worthwhile, as well giving convincing answers to some of the remaining mysteries.

Sergei Lukyanenko – The Twilight Watch

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

The third book of the Watch Cycle by Sergei Lukyanenko is The Twilight Watch (2003). In my previous reviews I gave recommendations for this Russian Urban Fantasy series because of a fresh way of writing and well constructed plots. The second book however was not as good as the first. So the question with the third book if is if it can return to the earlier level.

As we are used to, this book is also divided intro three stories of which the first two are fairly standalone and the third completing the bigger story. There are some difference. There is a somewhat larger time jump since the end of the second book and there is no real gap between the stories which makes them look less than separate stories as before as they are much more connected.

In The Twilight Watch we return to the main protagonist of the first book. A happy return one could say, but the same spark is not there. Whereas the first two books had fast-paced and slow-paced stories, the stories in the third book are all the same and neither slow or fast. Just this makes the stories feel more average like a typical Urban Fantasy. The stories have no sense of urgency and what really misses are the ingenuous plot twists and the cunning intrigues that made the first book that great. It is also now that I noticed that the second book also lacked those two core elements that made the first book stand out, but managed to compensate it with some fresh elements.

The plots of these stories do not stand out as before and feel somewhat flawed. Lukyanenko had a great idea for the first book. The follow-up was a to be expected continuation, based on the concepts that he had created, but now it feels that he didn’t know what direction to take the story further on. So the plot he made up was not as genuine as before. This was already notable in the final story of The Day Watch, but Lukyanenko does seem to fall for the typical fantasy plot, lacking a certain amount of creativity and power to put into the books. If this was what he intended originally then it feels odd. What the Watch Cycle really misses is a well developed backstory, the so-called mythology. Historic references are few and hardly play a role, except where it is necessary to set up plot elements. The Watch Cycle focuses on the now. Backstories don’t reach further than a century, which is way too little with characters having lived for centuries or even millennia.

Even less is also the character development. As noted before there is a lack of pressure. The main characters have a mission, but it’s not that personal anymore. The struggle of the previous books is light and even the ending doesn’t sizzle. Although creative it too nice, leaving the dark and bleak atmosphere behind.

Did book three manage to recuperate from the downturn of book two? No. It actually continues on the same path. Though still quite enjoyable, this book doesn’t manage to be more than mainstream Urban Fantasy. A sad development for a series of which the book started so well.  Because of this I cannot really recommend it except if you like the series enough to enjoy more of the characters or you are just into Urban Fantasy and like a Russian perspective.

Sergei Lukyanenko – The Day Watch

Monday, October 11th, 2010

After the first book of the Watch Cycle, a Russian Urban Fantasy series written by Sergei Lukyanenko, I continue with the second volume. This is aptly named The Day Watch (1999). As the first book focused on the so-called good guys, the focus now lies on the bad guys. The police force of which the title has its name and which tries to the good guys trespassing the law governing the magical beings of Lukyanenko’s universe. This switch from the point of view obviously has the risk of having the reader restart, but as we have already been introduced to a few of their members in The Night Watch we start on familiar ground. As with that first book, Lukyanenko still doesn’t stick to a single point of view, which allows him allow the characters from the other side some time in the spotlight, with the difference that it’s not with the first person narrative.

Just with these constructs he manages to keep a hold on his refreshing take on Urban Fantasy like he did in the first book. Still there are differences. As with the first book the second book is divided into three stories. While the first two stories of the first book were action-packed pageturners, the second book starts with a similar slow pace as the third story of the first book. Maybe even slower. It’s a much more straightforward story which lacks the twists which we are used to. The second story however returns to the style of the action-packed stories and is really the peak of the second book. From this comment you can already guess that the third story is weaker. Like the third story of the first book this is again a completion story and not standing on its own. It is rather similar in setup, actually, but again simpler. The pace is slower with far more dialogue. The ending itself is only partially satisfying and still seems to leave some flaws.

Overall this second book is weaker than the first one, but it still has the flavour and constructs of the first book that make it rise above average Urban Fantasy. The peak is in the second story. The ending of the finalizing story doesn’t deliver as well. Lukyanenko also doesn’t manage to create as much character development as in the first book as each story switches points of view. There is some, but it is hardly more than average Urban Fantasy. However, we do get a refreshing take on Lukyanenko’s universe as most points of view are from the so-called dark side, allowing him to show that good and bad are not that easily distinguishable.

While the first book managed to really create a different kind of Urban Fantasy novel, Lukyanenko doesn’t manage to keep up to that level or rise even higher. Still, there is plenty around to give this book also a recommendation. This universe is worth to keep reading about.

Sergei Lukyanenko – The Night Watch

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

After some busy days and plenty of reading I’m finally in the mood again to update my blog. That’s how it happens. Regular updates were never my intent. I add posts as I please, so in the coming days I will do some catching up.

Most fantasy novels originate from English speaking countries, like the US, the UK and Australia, but occasionally a book from a non-english country does get translated, even while the competition is big. Usually the reason for it is that the book is a big success in it’s own country and the neighbouring countries.  One of these is a fantasy novel of Russian origin: The Night Watch (1998) by Sergei Lukyanenko (his name is spelled in different ways, but this is what’s being used on the book cover of my English edition), the first book of the Watch Cycle. There even has been a movie adaptation of it already so that should say enough about how popular it has been. I haven’t seen the movie and I fairly ignored the series for some time. At the time I didn’t feel like buying it until recently I was in the need for something new and complete. As I’m a non-english native I’m less hesitant about foreign books and always more interested in books that have a different setting.

Those who start with The Night Watch will quickly discover it is Russian Urban Fantasy. As the title suggests the story evolves about a magical police force. Those familiar with Urban Fantasy will know the rest of the format. Although we have the typical batch of creatures like vampires and werewolves they play a minor role, which I was happy about. There is plenty of that stuff around. The story revolves about the magicians. The book follows the so-called good guys, but during the course of the book it becomes clearer that everything isn’t that black and white.

Lukyanenko has divided the book in three stories. These are not parts but really complete plots of their own. It is here that the strength of this book is found. Instead of one big story with many twists and turns we get three of them. The shortness instills a certain intensity in them that really hits the mark. This is certainly the case for the first two stories. There is hardly time to reflect. The pace is fast, but never misses or cuts corners.  It is exactly right. This changes in the third story. The pace is slower and more time is spent on reflection. This is the story with the least plot. It feels more like a concluding story as the first two stories are connected and the third completes it. Some say that the sequel is the weaker one because it connects with beginning or end, but in this case the end is the weaker part. Not that the conclusion is weak, but the third story lacks the power of the first two stories. The plots remain crafty and full with twists, but the third story broke the balance.

A funny thing is that the lack of reflection in the first two stories is their weak point, while the reflection in the third story causes it’s weak point. In a sense a full-action story provides total entertainment, but also a big rush, no time for contemplation. I always read these much faster so that I feel I didn’t have that much time to enjoy the book because I was already done.

In the beginning I had to adapt to the Russian style of writing. This was mainly a change of mood and perception which is different from English writers. Perhaps it is part of the translation. Even so, this was not a bad thing. We see things from a Russian point of view and that is certainly a refreshing thing. Once you get used to it, it reads just as smooth as anything else. I’m pretty picky about Urban Fantasy, but the fact that it’s Russian makes the common Urban Fantasy tripes much more bearable. Lukyanenko doesn’t bother himself with the typical fantasy rules. This is a different universe so he makes up the rules. Creatures may seem similar to ones in popular culture, but they are different in some key parts.

The story is told from a first person point-of-view, but Lukyanenko intersperses this with a second person point-of-view. This is mainly done for technical purposes. They could have been left out, but they do add some extra tension and depth to the story. The main character goes through quite some development as he really get involved in a number of dramatic events. He is a sort 0f anti-hero, but not in the typical sense. As he is a watchman he is used to having hard tasks and the fact that he has joined the titular Night Watch means he has a certain determination to reach his goals. The side characters are somewhat developed, but far less than the main character. This is also caused by the fast action-paced plots combined with the firs person point-of-view. There is simply no time. This is not a really bad thing, but I did not really get much attached to the side characters as they got limited exposure time.

The Night Watch is a well-written book. It still has some flaws, but they are so minor they will not be a bother. In the general fantasy genre I don’t think it will be a classic, but it is certainly above average. In the Urban Fantasy genre I have the feeling this would be one of the best, but the flaw of that genre is that many writers use the same success format. Obviously this does not lead to a bad read, but at a certain point one will have seen it all before and lose interest. The Russian setup and the triple plot combination give The Night Watch an edge that beats its competitors. I would say that the Urban Fantasy genre can use more novels that are not set in the US or UK, but of course this is where the authors get their easy way in. They know the surroundings which they write about which makes easy writing. One thus would need more foreign Urban Fantasy authors, writing about their local places. Still, I would be happy if they could manage without the cliché elements as these are certainly no required ones.