Archive for September, 2011

Adrian Tchaikovsky – The Scarab Path

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

After the first four books of the Shadows Of The Apt series Adrian Tchaikovsky concluded the main story arc. This steampunk fantasy series could have ended there but with many things still open to explore the story continues as a story is never truly done.

In The Scarab Path (2010) Tchaikovsky takes the reader to unexplored territory, thus expanding his world. There are several changes to his storytelling. Instead of keeping all main characters in the picture he makes a selection while a new set of characters is added in this novel. Whereas this happened also in the previous novels these new side characters play a much more prominent role. While the previous novels had several unrelated storylines there are now much fewer and they are also closely related with plenty of interaction. The locations also remain more static and constrained.

All these limitations allow for a much more focused story. There is more time to develop the old and new characters. In that sense it is a vast improvement to the previous novels. I felt a stronger connection to the characters and the side characters were far less two dimensional.

Although the story itself finally explores some of the history of Tchaikovsky’s world he doesn’t do so in a very original way. At first I though he would get into it sooner in the story, which would leave space for more intricate development, but the pace slowed down, moving it to the end. With that the exploration remained limited and in the end with little impact. After I completed the book I wondered if there would be any real impact and that this was mainly a standalone side story to provide a setting for some developments which I considered to be of minor importance. I assume some things will play a later role, but I don’t think it will have serious impact.

Overall this fifth installment has its strengths and weaknesses, making it not better or worse than the previous novels. In a certain way this is certainly not bad. Tchaikovsky shows that he can do more and improve in areas that I thought him weak before. However, the improvements weakened other elements, so there is not sufficient balance yet to lift the series to a higher level. The main issue that I have with this series that the plot or story doesn’t impress me. It is solid, entertaining and without flaws but doesn’t thrill me due to a certain simplicity and lack of deeper layers and background. Either way, its a very enjoyable read and I do recommend it to any fantasy fan.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Salute The Dark

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

After a wait of four weeks I continue with the Shadows Of The Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky with the fourth novel Salute The Dark (2010). I’ve already said a lot about this fantasy series in my previous reviews and most still applies to this novel. Luckily there are some differences I can mention.

A big difference is that this time we are not visiting new places but mostly revisit old ones. That might provide some room for world-building, involving those places, but Tchaikovsky has little interest there and focuses on action and character interaction. I still only have a limited idea of the different cities and kinden (as the different races are called). The reader doesn’t learn more than necessary. Perhaps it is that I’ve twice been reading the James Bond novels, before starting on a batch of the Apt novels, which are noted for their rich detail. So that could explain why I miss it in these books.

Tchaikovsky tries to add some character development but he switches between the points of view from the minor story arcs so often that I didn’t get the time to get involved or feel attached. This lack of attachment to the main characters remains a bit of an issue for me. In this novel finally some of the more prominent characters are written out but I hardly feel any loss for them.

Even though the novel is a bit shorter than the previous novels the pace of events are greater, especially with the wider range of locations and points of view, Tchaikovsky manages to cram a lot together without losing coherency. There weren’t any real flaws, but with the fairly straightforward storylines it would be hard to step out of place. Like the previous novels this book is a good and entertaining read without much real complexity or larger background. To me the series remains right in the middle between mainstream and masterpiece. This is certainly not bad, but the insectile element of the races has great potential due to its original concept. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky is lacking sorely there and after four books I’m not expecting the series to grow beyond its current boundaries. Still that doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying it. I surely do. It is just that in the past I’ve read great concepts which also didn’t deliver as the author was unable to exploit is beyond the idea and just told a standard story. Tchaikovsky compensates this by adding a strong steampunk element and a wide variety of his original concept but it nowhere surprises or impresses me. Maybe I’ve read too much, but I know I can still enjoy something simple. Either way, I will continue with book five and see where the story will take me next.

Ian Fleming – Goldfinger

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

With Goldfinger (1959), the seventh installment of the James Bond series by Ian Fleming, I have come halfway. As usual I assume everyone knows about how it works with the plot and the typical Bond-characteristics so that I mainly focus on what is different from the movie adaptation (without spoiling anything) and commenting on good or bad points.

Goldfinger was a strange reading experience for me. In the beginning the story seemed to unfold more slowly than the movie and at a certain point I had the idea it was going to drift into a different direction considering the ending, but Fleming still had some twists up his sleeve that made it all worthwhile. All things considered it is hard to say if the movie or the novel is better. Their different approach and development of the story are such that they balance out against each other. What seemed weak in the movie is stronger in the novel and the other way around. In the end both are very satisfactory, making Goldfinger certainly one of the better novels, similarly as it is considered one of the best movies.

More than ever James Bond is like we know him from the movies, more reckless, determined and a woman’s man than the earlier novels. As the novels follow a chronological order it can be seen as a natural development as Bond has gotten more experienced and has been through more hardships so that he feels a greater urge to live life to the fullest.

There is one other thing I want to mention. The James Bond novels were written in the fifties and early sixties. Although they represent the lifestyle and society of those times Fleming adds unusual progressive elements in the novels and provides commentaries on some of the societies that Bond visits. One example is homosexuality. He presents it in a neutral way and although he makes certain comments one cannot discern them as negative as the addition of this element to the story is not made for that reason. In that case he would have presented them in a different way than as a colorful addition to society.

There are more small things like these that enrich these seemingly adventurous and short thrillers. There is more to find and when one recognizes that one will understand why the novels got critical acclaim in those times besides being fantastic thrillers. Even today, when some elements might seem outdated, they are a great read.

Triple save

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

When I order several books at once from the same online bookstore I never know when and how I will receive them. This can sometimes lead to extra waiting in case the books belong to a series and I receive them out of order. In a few occasions this was avoided because the store sent all the books in one package. This was also the case today when I picked up books four to six of the Shadows Of The Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, respectively titled Salute The Dark (2010), The Scarab Path (2010) and The Sea Watch (2011), in one package at the post office, saving me some possible waiting in case I would not have received book four first. Their arrival means a break in my James Bond-novel reading, as I am not much in a rush to finish those.

Ian Fleming – Dr No

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

The first movie adaptation of the James Bond novels was based on the sixth novel. The story of Dr No (1958) by Ian Fleming resembles the plot of the movie closely, but like From Russia With Love some changes have been made in the movie on the beginning and the end while the middle part has been greatly expanded. In a way the novel is thus a simpler story, but with more background and details, elements the movie pretty much avoids as it slows the action and development, something which is of course not as bothersome in a book. So at least in these parts there are new things to discover, but overall the difference in the story of the book and the movie is not that great.

So how does the novel stand among the other novels? From Russia With Love was a strong and good spy novel and although the story is much different Fleming manages to give it a genuine spy-ish atmosphere with a trademark villain we have come to expect in the movies. There is certainly an improved level of quality and consistency in his writing. What was good in From Russia With Love he sticks to and he doesn’t fall back to the flaws of Diamonds Are Forever. This is a solid and well-paced thriller which solidifies the character of James Bond.

As the novel stays so close to the movie it is hard to say more about the novel. Some removed scenes from the novel would not have been a waste in the movie, but of course that is a choice the screenplay writers make. As they expanded the middle part with new plot lines this allowed less time and space for other scenes. Personally I think they made a good choice as most movies usually lack a greater complexity (unlike the book it has been adapted from), but in this case they managed to make some improvements. The novel itself can certainly be appreciated and there are plenty of minor differences which make it a worthwhile and entertaining read.

Ian Fleming – From Russia With Love

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

One thing that surprised me in the James Bond novels that I’ve read until now is that Ian Fleming has put them in chronological order. Events in earlier books are referenced to and sometimes have impact on the later story. While I was somewhat disappointed with Diamonds Are Forever, the next book, From Russia With Love (1957), takes us completely back into the spy game. Like Casino Royale the movie adaptation sticks close to the actual story. There are some differences. The early part of the story is greatly extended, partially as the movie changed certain motives which didn’t allow this long startup anymore. On the other side the final part has different and more scenes than the movie, also partially caused by the change of motives which didn’t require the last part to be follow strictly. Last of all is the middle section. While following the book it has expanded certain scenes and added more. Even as plenty is happening in the book, the movie managed to add a lot more, which is surprising as most movies need to cut scenes in an adaptation.

The cutting and adding changed the story, but only in the general sense. Overall it stayed true to the story and one will enjoy the novel just as one would have enjoyed the movie. It’s the details that make the book more than interesting to read as well, because there are many minor differences and background information that allow for plenty of new to read.

In my review of Diamonds Are Forever I complained about the extensive detailed descriptions that Fleming used in his style. In From Russia With Love he has toned this down again so that it is more functional and fitting as in Moonraker. The more complex plot and greater pace certainly played their part as well. The James Bond novels are on average about 200 pages long, so this probably plays a role in how much words Fleming spends on more extensive descriptions.

The James Bond depicted in this novel is much less vulnerable and naive than in the previous novel and much more like we know him. Still he is not as confident and dominating as we know him from the movies. This is not a bad thing, just an observation. In a movie it is not always possible to portray the character exactly as in the book, as it requires the scenes to back it up. The inner thoughts are usually lost.

From Russia With Love is certainly one of the greater James Bond novels and the most spy-ish one of the series until now. Here the opponent is strong and smart and really playing against Bond instead of Bond having the advantage. These certainly make the more powerful plots. This one’s highly recommended.

Ian Fleming – Diamonds Are Forever

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

After a pause of a few months I have returned to the world of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond with the fourth novel Diamonds Are Forever (1956). In my reviews a recurring elements has been the comparison with the movie adaptation. The movie only takes some characters and the main location from the book. Of course diamonds play a role, but this is less prominent than the movie. From these few statements one can already conclude the novel will provide plenty of new story to discover. Even as this is the case, it is not as much story as one could have hoped for and perhaps would have expected when having read the previous novels.

The overall pace of Diamonds Are Forever can be considered somewhat slow except for a few events. Fleming takes his time to tell his story and goes into a lot of detail. I don’t mind detail as it can provide a way to picture scenes and settings more strongly for the reader. This style of Fleming worked quite well in the previous novels, but in Diamonds Are Forever it is too much as he uses it on every possible occasion which simply slows the pace and fills just pages without much really happening. One could argue that plenty happens but for me it was not really significant and lacking some nice confrontations to spicy the scenes.

The James Bond that is depicted is much more vulnerable and personal and lacks the sharpness and power I got to appreciate before. I thought it somewhat resembled the way Timothy Dalton portrayed Bond in the two movies he made in the series. In a way it is nice to discover more personal details and about the character of James Bond; things that have been left out of the movies, but it does damage his image somewhat.

Even as the first two Bond novels were far from perfect they still had an engaging plot and tense confrontations. Diamonds Are Forever lacks both. It feels as a more regular mission even if it is presented as especially dangerous. Thus I consider it the weakest of the four novels I’ve read now. This is a bit of a disappointment as the third book, Moonraker, showed everything one expects from a James Bond story and I assumed Fleming would stick to this ‘winning’ style. Perhaps it explains why few elements from the novel in the movie adaptation.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I don’t pick up many recent novels from the contemporary modern literature section and even then there is often something odd about the work. I also usually stick to authors I like, for example Michael Chabon and Umberto Eco. I don’t know why I don’t do so more often. I know there is plenty of interesting stuff around. Anyways, to cut to the chase, I picked up Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro partially it has been adapted to a movie this year which provided some publicity that I noticed as it was mentioned that it contained some speculative fiction (a different word for science fiction in the sense that the story is not aiming for science fiction but using minor elements for the purpose of the plot; the definition of course leaves certain space to breathe). Just on a hunch I decided to try it.

First off I can state that the speculative fiction part is right and that the novel in essence is a romantic drama to which have been added some peculiarities. These were probably added by the author to give the novel some more weight and depth as the romantic drama is nothing out of the ordinary if it weren’t for the speculative elements.

The story is told from a first person perspective in which the narrator is recalling her life with the two companions who form the main characters of the story. Ishiguro tells the story in a first draft style. The narrator regularly infuses flashbacks to explain what she is talking about, thinking the background should be well explained. This creates a patchy structure which dominates in the beginning and slowly becomes less as the story turns into a more linear development. It is a nice concept to write the story like this, as if the narrator is recalling events for the first time, maybe even dictating them to a recorder. The downside of this concept is that it makes an uneasy read as the story never seems really to get started. You feel like you are just reading a collection of random flashbacks. The persistent reader will eventually get to a more regular story development.

The story itself, and the speculative element of it, is actually nowhere that original. I recall a movie from that same year telling a story in a similar concept, with a difference. In my afterthoughts on the book I confirmed my feeling that the speculative element was only used a tool with far too limited incorporation of the implications of the concept. I felt, and still do, that there were some weird situations created that didn’t make sense. The movie took the implications more into account to make it acceptable, but the book does not. The pretty much apathetic approach of the characters and other people felt just wrong and this is the greatest flaw of the book. Ishiguro managed to write the story in a conceptually well constructed and balanced way, but only as long as you don’t start thinking outside the boundaries of the framework.

It is this framework which, although it works well, made me decide the author could have written a far more powerful story if he had not only stuck to the romance but also reached out to the environment and society in which it takes place.

A different and minor flaw is the lack of dialogue in the book. The narrator is, especially in the first half, mainly telling about events and only sparsely putting in some dialogue. To me dialogue gives the characters their character and created a greater dynamic and drama to the story. This was certainly proven in last part of the story when the dialogue started carrying the story, giving it the impact which would make the reader think positively about the book. But this would only be because of the last part.

With the lack of sufficient dialogue I never got a good feeling for the two other main characters (with a first person narrator one at least gets plenty there). They remained as the narrator tells us about them, leaving little space for our own interpretation. Only a few of the side characters get some attention while most remain rather two-dimensional.

For its concept and construction this is a well written romantic novel, but with a somewhat wasted potential, certainly when the speculative fiction used is far from original, I’ve seen and read similar things before. Thus, the author could have used it in a different way, although that would have required changing the concept and construction. Overall it is a fine read but to me a bit overrated. Nevertheless it does not surprise me it would have done well within the niche it aims for.