Archive for February, 2011

Peter F. Hamilton – Pandora’s Star

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

When I read The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton I discovered he had written books taking place in the same universe due to references in the book itself. As I quite enjoyed The Dreaming Void and there was still quite some unclarity about those earlier events in the references I decided to get me some more Hamilton. Thus I ordered Pandora’s Star (2004), the first book of the Commonwealth Saga. It’s quite a heavy volume: my edition is almost 1200 pages. Quite surprising that a publisher is okay with that. Luckily I never complain about the length of a book. More reading for the same price.

Like The Void Trilogy Pandora’s Star is a standard space opera with a low technology element and mainly event-driven. The story is also told from a third person point of view which shows clearly in a number of info-dumping paragraphs when there is a change of scenery and this has to be explained beforehand. It is a light form of info-dumping as it is nowhere annoying or boring, but they do form a small disturbance in the usually smooth and easy prose. For its 1200 pages the book is actually a quick read. I usually read as fast as I can, especially when I enjoy the story and with Hamilton I discovered I can go maximum speed. Maybe I’m done quickly but that’s life.

Pandora’s Star contains a multitude of characters of which a fair number’s viewpoint is followed. It’s a varied set and Hamilton manages to flesh several of them out well so the reader can identify with them. However, this does not work for all of them. Some are just not distinct enough (given the time spent with them) to do so sufficiently or their function or actions in the story does not distinguish them enough.

Pandora’s Star actually takes a long time to get started. Several characters start off in their natural setting which also provides Hamilton with a way to present different facets of the universe he has created and the backgrounds of his characters so he does not need to give larger references later in the story. There are actually a few mini-storylines which are used to set up relationships between several characters which provide the circumstances for later events. All this takes up several hundreds of pages. These introductions are quite enjoyable but never the real thing. It is after this lengthy introduction that the story really gets going.

Pandora’s Star contains all the elements (and more) of a space opera, containing a large spectrum of the future society without going into deep anywhere. This makes the story very accessible with plenty of things to enjoy. This is no classic, but just a great read with the only minor thing being the lengthy beginning. Even so, everything is very well balanced and thought out, although Hamilton does not concern himself with a lot of details, only those that matter for the story. Hamilton knows how to write good and entertaining science fiction. Much recommended.

J.V. Jones – Watcher Of The Dead

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Watcher Of The Dead (2010) is the fourth book of Sword Of Shadows by J.V. Jones. As this is my first review for this series I will need to give some introduction to the series. The series plays in the same world as Jones’ Book Of Words trilogy, although in a neighboring part of that one’s setting. Jones started this series in 1999 and has needed at least three years per book to be published, which is slow pace. Of course we have been somewhat spoiled by some authors who’ve managed to produce heavy tomes every year and even write more besides that.

Sword Of Shadows takes place in a northern region of the world. A harsh place with harsh inhabitants. Four main groups can be defined. The civilized cities, the primitive clans, the hidden people and the unbound. With the unbound I mean a various number of smaller groups who are independent and can traverse more freely between the other groups. Even the three main groups are split up into smaller groups, creating a diverse society with complex relationships. To give the reader a grasp of all these groups and number of characters are followed and their viewpoints told. Jones’ gives plenty of detail, but no more than necessary.

There is no clear black and white in Jones’ world. It is a composition of various shades of gray. Some seem more evil, other more good, but it remains ambiguous what it really is. In that sense it resembles A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin. The magic remains mysterious and somewhat down to earth. A difference is that the scale is somewhat smaller and Sword Of Shadows doesn’t have that heroic or dramatic feeling which would create the epic feeling. However, Sword Of Shadows certainly is an epic fantasy, because it is rich in detail, characters and cultures and the way these all intertwine and affect each other.

Jones’ characterization is strong. A varied range of characters are followed and each of them has a clear identity. Jones brings this in a natural way, through their thoughts and actions, without being forceful. This makes Swords Of Shadows a character-driven story, more than events.

This attention to character also causes one of the weaknesses in Jones’ storytelling, because as she puts more effort into it, less actual story happens. This does not weaken the storytelling itself as it is well done and the reading experience is good, but at the end of the book, when one reflects back on events, one realizes how little has happened. This was very much the cases for Watcher Of The Dead. Some characters get little time to shine, maybe a few chapters, and with so many characters followed (I counted eight), that means that most of them get little attention, although each chapter of attention is intense. Jones did manage to give and complete for each of them a sort of mini-story, but looking back it is all very meager. I would have preferred a few hundred pages more so everyone gets there piece equally. Of course within a time-line it can happen that not much happens for a certain character, but the elapsed time also seems skewed. For some only some days, maybe a couple of weeks seem to pass, while others get a few months. This skewness I also noted in the previous book, A Sword From Red Ice, and here I noted it again. This does make me wonder and I would like to have some time-line overview to place events in a better way.

Even though I spend quite some words on these minor points, Watcher Of The Dead does remain a great read, with strong characterization, a thrilling story and a gloomy intensity. My only disappointment is that I got so little after three years waiting. I hoped for more and now I have to wait for the next book. Saying that, I expect this series to have at least two or three more books to reach the end, especially with the current pace. Another full recommendation.

Peter F. Hamilton – The Temporal Void

Friday, February 11th, 2011

It is hard to write a useful review when you read the second book of a trilogy almost immediately after the first book in which the second book is basically of the same quality as the first, being practically similar in the way it is written and the development of events. This is the case for The Temporal Void (2008) by Peter F. Hamilton, the second book of the Void Trilogy. Everything I wrote in my review about the first book is applicable for this review. A solid space opera SF with multiple characters and a steady pace which is not too slow or too fast.

The only difference with the first book which sort of makes it better is that there is no need for introduction. In The Dreaming Void he spent time on describing the future society he had envisioned, but of that there is less need in the second book. It is not a very complex universe. There aren’t that many secrets; only those important to build and tell the story. In a way he thus has avoided the typical weak middle book syndrome which plagues many trilogies. Of course one needs to read the first book before the second, but usually when one has to review a second book it usually gives something lacking. I did not have that feeling at all. The story sucked me in and it was hard to let go.

With two out of three books being satisfying and quite enjoyable Hamilton has already beat my experience on his older Night’s Dawn Trilogy in which I liked the second book much less, and the third hardly. Now I just hope for the third to provide a satisfactory development and ending. The way the story has been progressing I have been thinking on what he will write about. Knowing that he writes heavy tomes there should still be plenty to come in the final book and much will be beyond my imagination. As I prefer the cheaper paperback I will have to wait some time for it. Luckily I’ve ordered an other series he wrote in the same universe called the Commonwealth Saga in which characters were referring to in the Void books, so I can enjoy myself a bit more before having to settle for the wait. Until then The Temporal Void gets another one of my recommendations.

Peter F. Hamilton – The Dreaming Void

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Several years ago I read the Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. I liked his style and about half of the series, the latter causing me to put him on my maybe-list. This list consists of authors I tried one or more books from but did not convince me completely to read more, but of which I would be willing to try them again.

Recently I got to pick out a book for free and I decided to try The Dreaming Void (2007), the first book of the Void Trilogy. I had read some positive reviews about the series, so I was willing to give Hamilton another go.

Although The Dreaming Void takes place 1500 years in the future, it is still a recognizable world that Hamilton presents compared to technological developments of today. The story is a low-tech space opera, with which I mean that Hamilton doesn’t bother himself too much with scientific and technical explanation of how his universe works, at least no more than necessary. Personally I prefer that kind of SF, simply because it is not much fun to read. The future technology he presents also does not require much explanation as it is easy to imagine.

Hamilton tells his story from a third person point of view using several characters’ perspective. The story is more event-driven than character-driven. Although the characters are original and fleshed-out there remains some amount of distance. I enjoyed them but did not feel a strong connection to them. Hamilton’s prose is solid and smooth without being complex or stylized.

The Dreaming Void actually contains two stories. The main story is the space opera but the second story is told from only one viewpoint and completely different in nature. Disclosing more would be spoiling so I’ll leave it at that. Together they create an original variation in reading experience while both are equally enjoyable.

There are no real negative points. As said before I missed a bit of connection with the characters but this was in no way affecting the reading experience. Hamilton does tend to introduce characters early in the story in which it takes some time before they start to play a role in the actual story. It does give him space to show more of the future society in a normal setting, but it is less interesting to read. I don’t think the series will obtain classic status. It just doesn’t contain anything that is groundbreaking or truly novel, but it doesn’t need to have that. It’s a well written space opera SF novel of high quality which aims to tell an entertain story.

I don’t think I need to tell more. I enjoyed the book. I already bought and read the sequel, so I can only give it my recommendation.

Glen Cook – Soldiers Live

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

If it really is the final book remains to be seen (according to Wikipedia the author still has plans for new ones), but Soldiers Live (2000) by Glen Cook is for now the tenth and last book about the Black Company, a series that I have enjoyed greatly and has found a solid place amongst my personal favorites. Each book has proved to have its own character and style, with the author re-inventing himself continuously. The trademarks of the books have been soldier-life in a world of sorcery, fast-paced with many twists that easily avoided cliches. Until the last three books the length of the novels was kept just over 200 pages, but contained more story than some of todays heavy tomes. Only the last books were about 400 pages, which is still relatively low to what some fantasy readers are accustomed to.

The big question with a so-called final book is if it manages to bring the story to a good conclusion. Cook preferred to give most of the previous books a certain ending so one could say that saves him from having to do so even more in the last book as most fantasy series tend to leave the majority of the story threads and mysteries for the end. Soldiers Live has a similar pacing as Water Sleeps, even as the narrator has changed again. While Water Sleeps had a more static nature, there is plenty of movement in Soldiers Live, giving it the feel of a faster pace as locations change more quickly.

Although Cook introduces some fresh and new elements in Soldiers Live, most of characters and settings remain familiar. I had a bit the feeling that he only managed to get a hold of only a few characters. Most remain a little underexposed. Events are dominating the story more than the characters were and that weakened the story a bit.

While some scenes remain great and enjoyable, others left little impact. I had the feeling Cook was more focused on bringing the greater story to a closure than spending effort in making it have an impact. For the first time I noticed some things in the story that were odd and never given an explanation. The behavior of some characters seemed more rushed than usual, the outcome of certain events just given as fact with little to give it substance.

There was plenty to enjoy in Soldiers Live, but also elements that did not satisfy, including a part of the ending. Overall I have to put it in my ranking somewhere in the middle. It contains sufficient good stuff, but lacks in some parts to be among the best. My final ranking of the Black Company books is as follows:

  1. The Black Company
  2. She Is The Darkness
  3. The White Rose
  4. Water Sleeps
  5. Soldiers Live
  6. Shadows Linger
  7. Dreams Of Steel
  8. Bleak Seasons
  9. Shadow Games
  10. The Silver Spike

The above list doesn’t say much how good the novels really are. The last book is still better than average and the top 4 certainly belong to the best stuff around. Below that the differences in quality are smaller, the order more depending on different traits. It is not always easy to make such a distinction as often with fantasy series the different books are of a similar level as it is mainly one story cut into parts. What makes the books of the Black Company different is that most of them are almost able to stand alone on their own as events between the books are often several years apart and narrators and the set of characters change with each book. Only a few of them survive until the end. Time goes on. Life goes on. And as it the essence of the Black Company being a mercenary company, it loses members in battle and gains new ones again afterwards.

Glen Cook brings in a certain amount of reality that has to be held up in a fantasy setting. He was one of the first to do so, creating a certain certain sub-genre of fantasy which has been called dark and gritty with many shades of grey in the worlds that are created. Some followers of this heritage are Steven Erikson, George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, but many more fantasy authors who write in this way can be found since Glen Cook wrote the books of the Black Company. The whole series is highly recommended by me. Not every book can be called very good, but it will nowhere let you down.

Glen Cook – Water Sleeps

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Water Sleeps (1999) is the ninth novel about the Black Company by Glen Cook and the third book of Glittering Stone. Water Sleeps is more of a standalone novel than the previous ones although its still part of a greater picture. With almost 400 pages we have again a bigger novel than we were used to as the first seven novels were just over 200 pages. Whereas the eight book, She Is The Darkness, kept the same fast pace for most of the book as we are used to by Cook, the pacing of Water Sleeps is slower. This is mainly caused by the simple fact that Cook is using more words and detail for the story. The pacing is in a way actually the same but now he finally has time not to rush it. With a new narrator this also makes it easier to give the book a different atmosphere than the previous novels.

Much more than The White Rose this is a book about resistance. The location doesn’t shift as much as before and some of the main players are different. The story starts several years after the events of She Is The Darkness in which quite some changes have occurred. Still, the character that is the Black Company remains, although we see a less soldier-like surrounding. This does prevent the setting to become too repetitive and it keeps Cook also fresh in his writing. As usual some minor characters have become main characters while major ones have become minor. The stories of Black Company are a continuously shifting canvas. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes.

Water Sleeps is a book of expectations and a certain tension. Cook doesn’t provide the many twists as we are used to but overall Water Sleeps has a strong and very steady plot which provides some insights that have been kept hidden. One could say the title fits the essence of the book. It moves, it stirs and has a great power. Highly recommended.

Getting ahead of myself

Monday, February 7th, 2011

I had a somewhat unexpected break which in two ways hindered me from updating my blog. First I was to immersed in reading (the last books of the Black Company by Glen Cook) and when I planned to write my reviews I got sick. First that made me unable to spend much time in front of my PC but later I did manage to do more reading to pass the time. I picked up The Dreaming Void (2007) by Peter F. Hamilton and I liked it sufficiently that I decided to get some more. Last Saturday I felt well enough to go into the city and visit a bookstore where I picked up two new books. These were its sequel The Temporal Void (2009) and Watcher Of The Dead (2010) by J.V. Jones, the fourth novel of Sword Of Shadows, a fantasy series that Jones has been fairly slow (compared to some others) on progressing, with at least 3 years between each novel. But I’m happy to continue the series.

Now I’m feeling somewhat better again and I’ve already finished The Temporal Void as well, which means I’m four books behind on reviewing. As such I hope to be able to push out several reviews this week, but more books are on the way so hopefully they won’t interfere too much.