Archive for August, 2011

Stephen King – Insomnia

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Stephen King is most famous for his horror novels, but he does venture into less scary territory at times. At least, that’s how I consider those novels not aiming to be scary but are simply fantastic in nature with some dark themes. Overall the boundaries between horror and fantasy can be hard to distinguish at times. When I picked up Insomnia (1994) I was not sure if I would like it. The reason I got it was because of the Dark Tower series, a dark epic fantasy that is one of my all-time favorites. King wrote several novels outside of the actual series that were related to the Dark Tower series, even with characters of those novels popping up in the Dark Tower novels. As such Insomnia was claimed to be one of those novels. So before I started to read it I wondered how much it would be related and if it would be too much horror to my taste.

Let’s not waste time on that answer. Insomnia is very much related to the Dark Tower series. One who hasn’t read one or more of the novels of the series would not understand the references made and consider them strange or mysterious. For those who have it will provide some interesting new insight, albeit limited, on the Dark Tower universe, which in itself is complex and full with possibilities.

Insomnia is also hardly a horror novel and should be more considered a low fantasy story where fantastic events take place in an average American town.

The setting, as is quite common for King’s style, puts the reader in a everyman’s environment. King’s characters are just regular people, nothing special and with habits and behavior you recognize at once. It is this trait that makes King’s works so popular and powerful. In this case we get a view of the elderly community and how did cope with daily life after retirement. One might think it to be a peculiar and perhaps boring setting, and for the early start it is, but steadily he adds strange elements until we get into the actual story. Next to the elderly scene he adds a second more controversial theme which plays an important role for the events in the story. These two themes, the elderly one and the controversial one, make this novel more than just a fantastic tale, but gives it depth and room for thought for the reader.

The plot itself is more straightforward than complicated after the central mysteries start resolving during the development of the story, but far from predictable. King takes his time to tell the story; with almost 700 pages this is a very long novel. It could have been a much shorter and faster novel with ease, but as many characters belong to the elderly, and the main character himself is elderly, their world is slower and the story should reflect that. Even so, the story is certainly not too slow. It is mainly the beginning which takes some time before the so-called ‘action’ starts. King keeps a good pace, but it is certainly not fast. The words are not wasted. Every detail has its importance.

Insomnia is a must-read novel for any Dark Tower-fan and certainly a strong and enjoyable read. It is not of the same quality as the Dark Tower novels, but contains many interesting additional ideas that make it more than worthwhile. The two themes that form the make-up of the story give it a greater depth and as usual King’s characterization is maybe not remarkable but very genuine. Recommended.

Adrian Tchaikovksy – Blood Of The Mantis

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

For now this is the last of three consecutive reviews of Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s Shadows Of The Apt series. The third book is called Blood Of The Mantis (2009) and continues the story of the events that took place in the previous two novels of this epic steampunk fantasy. Actually the story takes a turn as the final events of the previous book have caused the main antagonist (an expansionist empire) to find its’ momentum stalled while internal affairs are causing new problems.

Blood Of The Mantis follows three storylines of which two take the main characters, of a still expanding cast, to new places, which remains a habit of Tchaikovsky, as in every books he explorers different places in his world. Still it remains so that each place only gets a limited exposure to present some original traits and local culture. We still don’t get a true feeling for the places we visit. It remain superficial.

Each story arc is actually not that complex although plenty of small things happen. Only because the three arcs are interwoven you get the idea many things are happening. This book also lacks the mini story arcs of the previous books, in which there were real events which were concluded within a few chapters. The reader has to do with the three arcs which are hardly related to each other.

What also lacks in this book is character development. The characters do not undergo changes as the events in the arcs have far less impact. They could be seen as average quests. Although entertaining enough, it makes this third book weaker than the first two.

After three books I can say that Shadows Of The Apt carries it strength on two pillars. The first is the original insect aspect of the different races. It provides Tchaikovsky with a wide range of possibilities and variations. In each book he adds new ones. The second is based on the different cultures these insect aspects provide. The main story arcs do not really provide something new. Even with such original cultural aspects, Tchaikovsky does stick to standard forms for his plot. There is of course originality in the details that compensate this, but overall we never go into depth, it remains superficial. This certainly shows when one tries to delve into the background of the different cultures, their history, development and more details of the different societies. There hardly is any. The story lacks deeper layers. The mysteries do not have great complexity. It is all sufficient to the purpose of the greater story but nothing more. It obviously is a choice of the author. Some like to keep the story accessible for different readers or to themselves. I have enjoyed reading these books, but I like more depth and that is the reason why this series (until now) is nowhere near my top list of books. It certainly is quite above any mainstream fantasy due to its original concepts which are used exquisitely, but its lack of depth and, I should no forget, attachment I feel to the main characters, is what keeps it from reaching a higher level.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Dragonfly Falling

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The trouble with reading several books of a series in a row is that you don’t want to repeat yourself in the subsequent reviews unless the books are sufficiently different so you can note these. Alas this is not so much the case for Dragonfly Falling (2009) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This second installment of the Shadows Of The Apt series continues immediately after the events of the first book, Empire In Black And Gold and is thus similar in style and development with the difference that there is no introduction and the reader is put straight into the continuation of the different (and new) story lines. As in the first book there are several mini story-arcs within the main story which by definition are completed within the book. This provides more closure while there are larger story lines left open for the next books.

In Dragonfly Falling Tchaikovsky further expands his cast and also introduces new races based on insect aspects, which forms the original foundation for this epic steampunk fantasy. He adds a bit more complexity as there is more going on with the so-called bad guys of the series which creates some more depth. There is some character development but with the story moving on so fast there is little time for Tchaikovsky to do so.

Events certainly move fast in this book. Plots of which you might expect to linger in the dark for some time get resolved surprisingly fast, forcing development on more quickly. Although this can be seen as a good point, it is also a bad point because it has less impact. In some cases it feels too fast with events happing sooner than one would have expected.

Tchaikovsky keeps moving the characters quickly between places which keeps preventing growing some attachment. The same is the case for the characters. Some I like better than others, but I still don’t feel attached to any of them, which is a weakness in the writing. I am entertained and the original insect-concept interests me greatly, but the plot and developments remain somewhat standard, even as the steampunk elements and insect-related cultures provide original settings and mini story arcs. Of course this is not uncommon, but this series is not grabbing me as I could have while it has sufficient elements to do so. I will have to read more to find out what it exactly is that I’m missing. Luckily I can do so.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Empire In Black And Gold

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Once again it is time to catch up on my reviews, as I prefer the reading to the reviewing, so a couple of reviews will be following each other the coming days. First one up is Empire In Black And Gold (2008) by Adrian Tchaikovsky, the first book of the Shadows Of The Apt series. It can be considered an epic steampunk fantasy, as it contains imaginary technology which is not constricted by analog limitations of Earthly fashion. Most prominent are the flying machines and the use of weaponry.

The world created by Tchaikovsky contains human races (in the book kinden) which possess certain insect-like traits in a wide range of unique abilities. It is this original concept which makes the story stand out as it provides Tchaikovsky a deep well to create a multitude of interesting races and their respective cultures. A second division between the races is by those who are Apt and Inapt, which simply means those capable of understanding technology and those who don’t. This inability is somewhat odd, but it does put limitations on certain characters which again gives the story a unique feel.

Tchaikovksy quickly introduces the main characters in the story using varying viewpoints. Basically he simply picks those needed to tell the story from different perspectives to help the reader understanding the contrasts between the different races and how they view each other. However, he does slip sometimes as I noticed a few times that the point-of-view suddenly changed between paragraphs, although this would usually not be too obvious as he could be using the third person perspective as well. Even so, to me it felt a bit sloppy.

There is ample time wasted on the introduction as the plot quickly moves into high gear while not moving too fast. We visit different places to present the different parties involved in the story so the reader will have no lack of understanding how this world is working. What I did notice, later on, was that these visits are rather short. We only get a superficial view of the main characteristic of the place as we never stay long enough to get attached.

The plot itself is fairly basic in representing two opposing forces which will be clashing and of which the development is unclear. Tchaikovsky makes it move in various directions and puts several mini-arcs within the main story arc, giving the reader more to enjoy than just a straightforward story.

The characters themselves form a wide range bunch and obviously comprise of many races to provide plenty of variety and frictions, although those remain rather friendly. There is no character that stands out. They are likable enough but I did not feel a real attachment to any of them. There is some character development, but only a few of the characters go through a change, while those of others remains limited.

Empire In Black And Gold was a fun and original read with a solid and fast story with several nice twists but nowhere going extreme. As only a small part of the world has yet been explored it makes the reader more interested on what there is more. It has some complexity but it doesn’t cover much mysteries as it follows a plot that has a clear direction. Certainly recommended for any fantasy reader who likes to discover original worlds.

Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Some books take some longer time to finish. To solve this problem I take them for a ride. In this case, as I travel by public transport (tram and train) to and from my work each day, I read while traveling. I started on David Copperfield (1849) by Charles Dickens during my vacation two months ago, but I didn’t really get into it. So now six weeks later I’ve finished it.

As the period might hint this was not a novel that grabbed me and kept me reading. It was fine reading it in small parts with daily intervals. The novel itself was originally a serialization, with a chapter published each week (so I assume). This format can lead to problems because there is little time to correct errors or to be sure of a coherent plot. Dickens circumvented it by making the chapters episodic. He wrote a sequence of events as long as he could keep it going. That’s a least how it felt to me. This was also the problem for me. We follow the main character through the episode but then it ends and Dickens moves on to a different episode, leaving open threads of the previous episode hanging for a later time. I would have liked it more if he had stuck through or kept on a certain track. Instead he kept changing tracks regularly, although he kept returning with the same characters, making the overall story a coherent whole.

The story is a narration of the main character’s life up to a certain point. As said before a number of episodes are selected. At some points he goes into detail, as others he quickly summarizes developments in his life. That would be okay if the episodes would provide some resolution or drama. Dickens rarely goes deep. Most of it remains somewhat superficial. The main character has some tough times but he usually quickly recovers or finds better prospects. Situations that seem to be a perfect setting to provide for a strong development never go through but are rather escaped and left behind.

David Copperfield is thus a story that meanders between moderate bad and good events and only occasionally provides an extreme. For a book of almost 1000 pages this is not much. As I’ve read other serialized novels from the same time period (the historical novels by Alexandre Dumas) the contrast couldn’t be bigger. While those were a tempest that kept me hooked, in this it was a breeze which gently moved me to the destination.

Another point that I want to note are the dialogues. It is nothing peculiar that they are long, which is normal for the time period, but the lack of substance bothered me most. The characters often said anything at except pleasantries or hints at their real attentions which were quite vague. Maybe it is a certain style that others would enjoy but to me they were quite boring.

Of Dickens it is said that he wrote some iconic characters (like Dumas did), but I was rather disappointed. Yes, he did manage to provide a clear characterization but they were rarely out of the ordinary. Especially as he never went into extremes with his story the characterization also remained within limited boundaries.

This is not much of a positive review. I already hinted at this in the beginning and it is my conclusion as well. The book is not bad. Dickens writing style is good to read so that didn’t slow me down. His story however remained a collection of related episodes which avoided real confrontation. It is a story that refrains from dissatisfying readers, although there is some social commentary on mid-eighteenth century English society while presenting the reader a picture of that society as well, although the general behavior seems too kind overall. It is still quite possible I will pick up another Dickens novel in the future. It did provide me with a good reading during travel and there are other novels which are supposed to be classics as well. I am just not sure Dickens’ style of writing is the thing for me. I had guessed this for some time already, as I’ve got a good instinct for books, but I still wanted to try one of his novels one day. At least I can say I have done so now.

Contradicting intentions

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Not so long ago I stated I should stop buying books for a while as my stash had been growing a bit too much lately. Of course this does not stop me from visiting the local book stores now and then with the risk of me finding something interesting. Now it has also been so that I have been adding a fair number of reviews the past few weeks so I could say I’ve been working on my stash which should allow me to buy something again.

As I still have some vacation days left to spend I do need something to take along (I don’t have a car so any traveling I do provides me with the opportunity to read, as long as I’m not on a bus). So what I have picked up at the local second hand book store are the first three volumes of the Shadows Of The Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This fantasy series has had some appraisal and I’ve read a few reviews of some of the books, but I hadn’t been convinced before that they were my kind of book. I’m usually pretty good with my instincts on my liking of a book. I expected no dislike but no specific liking either, so it would be an ideal book to buy cheaply second hand. The first three novels are called Empire In Black And Gold (2008), Dragonfly Falling (2009) and Blood Of The Mantis (2009). I expect to pick them up soon with subsequent reviews to follow, although I won’t be able to say if I get sufficient relaxing time to spend time reading.

C. J. Cherryh – Fortress Of Dragons

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Fortress of Dragons (2000) concludes the story of the Fortress-series by C. J. Cherryh, even though there is a sequel out, but it is no spoiler to mention that this sequel is not part of the main plot. While the first book, Fortress In The Eye Of Time, managed to have a story that could stand on its own, the next three novels form a single story. The events immediately follow up on each other.

In my previous review I wrote that the previous novel, Fortress Of Owls, seemed to be about preparations for the main event and that I hoped Fortress Of Dragons would pick up pace and be more intense, although I expected the beginning to be the typical Cherrhy slow start. Picking up the pace it did not however. The pace remains moderate, especially as the two main characters manage to keep things under control. There are tensions, but as before, the sparks never create a fire. Overall that is the downside of this series. Cherryh spends more time on her characters than on the plot. This allows good characterization and a certain amount of character development, but if the crises remain moderate and under control, real development or stress stays absent.

Overall the plot is fairly basic. There are many minor events to entertain and occupy the reader, but the twists, as mentioned before, don’t really have impact. The revelations of mysteries are not special or extensive either. Not much is really hidden. This is still mainstream fantasy written by a capable writer who is good enough to present some differences to the mainstream elements, but the ideas do not seem to have been developed very deeply. For me there was a lack of complexity and originality of plot which could have lifted this series higher.

Stories don’t have to be complex, but originality is important to me. I try to avoid mainstream fantasy because they are so similar and thus predictable. This story was not that predictable, luckily, but that was mainly in the minor events. That did allow me to enjoy the series sufficiently. However, it rarely surprised or captivated me. It was simply a nice story with a peculiar main character. I will still read the sequel to the series, as I already bought it, but now the main plot is finished I am in no rush.

So in the end I do not particularly recommend this series unless you are looking for a simple but enjoyable fantasy story with some nice concepts, but nothing out of the ordinary. The quality is sufficient to raise it above the average, but not much further.

C. J. Cherryh – Fortress Of Owls

Friday, August 5th, 2011

The third novel in the Fortress-series is Fortress Of Owls (1999). In this volume C. J. Cherryh continues her fantasy tale of threatening sorcery in a mediaevil world. Although two viewpoints are followed the second only gets limited coverage as the focus lies on the more unusual character who forms the center of the story. It is this unusual main character that makes the this series stand out from the mainstream as Cherryh manages to present him in a refreshing way. Still, most of setting and story is quite ordinary.

Cherryh’s style can be considered to have a moderate pace with extensive dialogues while taking her time to set up a scene. Luckily her writing is fluent and easy to read so you hardly notice it. Nevertheless this causes the plot to move slowly as she tried to give everything their appropriate attention.

Each book in the series until now seems to have a specific approach. The plot of first book, Fortress In The Eye Of Time, pretty much stood on its own. Of course there was still plenty to be resolved, it could have survived without a sequel. As such it was good enough that I wanted to read the next novels.

The second book, Fortress Of Eagles, was quite different. The plot moved very slowly in the beginning and overall not that much happened, especially compared to the first book. In my view it was mainly setting the stage.

This third book is mostly defined by revolving around preparations. Plenty happens, but it is only minor and more details to the bigger story than really essential. Cherryh’s extensive writing made the book reach the end too soon. So what I now hope is that the next novel, Fortress Of Dragons, will be more into the action and go into the actual plot, although I expect Cherryh to start off slowly again, but picking up the pace earlier than before.

Overall Fortress Of Owls will keep the reader entertained but tensions never rise much. There is danger but it doesn’t get to an actual confrontation. It is certainly an improvement compared to the previous novel, but still quite not on par with the first.