Archive for October, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Master Of Ballantrae

Monday, October 31st, 2011

One who will read The Master Of Ballantrae (1889) by Robert Louis Stevenson will first think it is a historical novel, like Kidnapped, set behind the Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1745, but then it changes to a more adventurous theme, like Treasure Island, before switching to a more darker and psychological narrative which resembles The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, after which it keeps changing again. Even so, the tale forms a coherent whole, as it is presented as a composition of collected narratives. As such one could see it as a somewhat experimental novel. There certainly is more than meets the eye. Compared to the other novels the story is much darker and gloomier, more realistic and raw, while containing elements of the mysterious. The only conclusion I could make that this book must be categorized as a gothic novel with some unusual characteristics. In a way it also has some resemblances with the novel-length Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Master Of Ballantrae is certainly Stevenson’s most mature psychological novel. The characters have their virtues and vices and also weaknesses. It is a study of how social standing limits behavior and forces to make choices of which none are good. As such this can be a tough book to read. The reader will worry, the characters are not very likable and how can things ever be resolved in a good way? Stevenson twists and turns and comes with a surprising end after all which any prediction will fail to guess.

It is hard to give a good opinion about a novel that is written in such a fatalistic way, but it is written well and all the strange peculiarities and its composed structure make it an interesting read. I do not feel like I should not have read this novel. It was certainly a strange but entertaining experience. It may not be Stevenson’s best or a classic, but more a work of literature than before, showing that he can do more than just a historical or adventure novel. So I will recommend it.

Ian Fleming – Thunderball

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

The movie adaptation of the James Bond-novel Thunderball (1961), by Ian Fleming, is considered to be one of the most popular and best of the franchise. To me it has been a good but not the best, so I was quite interested in how the original novel would turn out.

Thunderball is the first novel in which SPECTRE gets introduced, whereas in the movies it was introduced in the first movie already and played a role in many more. This is also what makes it different in setup. The movie leaves a lot of events in the beginning more mysterious while Fleming, in his usual way, starts with an extensive prelude. It also shows a more peculiar reference of the times which in the movie play no part. It is these extras which make the start of the novel quite interesting because it provides details and viewpoints previously unknown.

Once the prelude is over the novel starts following the movie again but with some small changes that were probably done for the visual effects to appeal to the viewers better. In the novels events are more business-like and less adventurous. Several striking side-characters from the movie are absent and it are these elements which make the movie much better than the novel. The movie added many more action scenes and a larger and more entertaining cast. The novel does manage to entertain but the first half of it is cut down severely in the movie while the second half is extended greatly. The movie does it better, although the novel is still a solid James Bond tale. Fleming knows his format and sticks to it. The Bond in the novel is characterized much better. The reader has a much better feel for him than one could get from the movie. It is this what makes the novels very worthwhile to read. One will discover more details and a greater picture with more realism.

How does Thunderball stand compared to the previous novels? As said, Fleming knows his format. For several novels in a row he sticks to a steady cadence and stays within the canvas which makes the stories work. Nevertheless Thunderball lacks good twists and surprises. Bond has his aim quite clear, which is probably partially because half of the novel is spent on several events that lead up to the point that Bond comes into action at last. So I think I would rank it on part with Dr No, but below Moonraker, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which until now remain my favorite novels. Still, none of the James Bond novels have really disappointed me until now. Each of them remains a good thriller with elements and the typical Fleming style that makes an enjoyable read.

The trouble with story collections

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I don’t mind reading story collections, but they can be troublesome if I want to write a review about them. Do I give comments about each story or do I give a more general overview of the quality and themes of the stories? One does want to prevent repeating oneself and as I try not to spoil a short story can contain too little that I can’t say more than one or two general sentences about them. So I am always in doubt if I want to write a review or not. It’s easier when it’s a story collection from one author, because that gives you some space to tell more. When you have an anthology of many authors it is much harder. An example of this is a recent acquisition: Songs Of The Dying Earth (2009), a story collection in honor of Jack Vance. Over 20 stories and different authors with a somewhat unique difference. All of the stories take place in the same universe created by Jack Vance. In that way they are connected and also because the authors aim to present a story ‘like Jack Vance’ which provides some measure to which I can write a possible review. I am a big Jack Vance fan, so it doesn’t require special effort for me. At the moment I am still unsure if I will write a review for this book or not.

Next to this story collection I purchases two other novels. One is The Rose Of Dekama (1836) by Jacob van Lennep, a historical novel set in mediaevil Holland. Jacob van Lennep is called the Dutch Walter Scott as he wrote many romantic historical novels. Of course in that period this was a big genre. The Rose Of Dekama is actually one of the few novels by Van Lennep that have been translated into English.

Last up is an epic fantasy novel, King’s Dragon (1997) by Kate Elliott, the first book of the Crown Of Stars series. I have seen the series around for some years, but deemed it to be too mainstream to pick it up immediately. At the local second hand bookstore I found a good copy of the first novel for a good price so I decided to try it out. If it is good enough I will pick up the other novels. One can’t always read the best if one wants to keep reading, so I don’t mind doing a bit of mainstream (if the novel proves to as I expected) series once in a while if it is written well enough to entertain me.

Lois McMaster Bujold – Cryoburn

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Somewhat unexpectedly Lois McMaster Bujold last year added a new novel to her Vorkosigan Saga, a series of character-based science fiction novels with which she has won multiple awards. What defines this series is that each novel can be read as a standalone. References to earlier books only add to the richness of the plot but do not obstruct understanding it. Another important notion is that in each novel Bujold follows a certain theme in which the morality of certain choices are woven into an engaging and fast-paced story which is written in a very easy going but effective writing style. What she does so good, and which is probably also why she won those awards, is that the theme is never forced upon the reader but a natural element within the story. It will make the reader think and creates depth to what would seem just an adventurous action-like SF novel. Like other great story tellers it is her strong characterization that grabs the reader and creates a strong attachment to the different characters of her novels.

The last Vorkosigan novel was published 8 years ago. The series had reached a certain conclusion although as it is also a history of a family over the period of many decades there was still space for some additions, if there was a theme and plot available that would provide for a fitting SF story. To that I should add that Bujold has not written her novels in chronological order so she could always fit a new story within the existing timeline.

The new novel is called Cryoburn (2010) and takes place several years since the events of the last novel. What makes this novel different from the previous ones is that there are three main points of view. Besides the main character we see events from a familiar side-character whose viewpoint was also used in previous stories and a new one specifically for this novel, telling the story through the eyes of young local child. It was somewhat obvious to me that Bujold wanted to give herself a bit more of a challenge and do something new to make the novel more different than the previous ones. I can say this worked out well enough as it provided a way to tell more story. In earlier books we only saw events through the eyes of the main character which also meant that things he didn’t know, the reader wouldn’t either. In this case there are less of such surprises as more angles are covered.

However, these multiple perspective do try to hide that the plot is not as complex or thrilling as we are used to. Although a lot of things happen and Bujold takes her time to give it sufficient attention it is rarely really riveting. Things fall into the right place too quickly, even when there are twists. The plot is well crafted but simply too limited, especially compared to the plot of the other novels. As such this book feels more as a fan-pleaser than a novel that would draw in new readers. As I’m a fan myself I did enjoy myself greatly, but for a good review I need to detach myself and pick out what a new reader would be less happy with. A new reader would certainly like and enjoy the book, but would not be impressed. The theme that Bujold has picked up is not really new, although she adds some new elements to expand on the concept. Bujold knows what works in a novel but I did feel she took it too easy. A bit more danger or complex situations would have improved the story. I cannot say the plot or story is weak, but having read the other Vorkosigan novels I know she can do much better.

That is where my conclusion brings me. Cryoburn is an enjoyable addition to the Vorkosigan Saga but also one of the weakest, compared to the high quality of those other novels, perhaps the weakest. Still this is a good SF novel which remains, like Bujold always manages to do, easily accessible for any reader.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – The Sea Watch

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

As I wrote in my review of The Scarab Path, Adrian Tchaikovsky changed his style and approach of his storytelling after completing the first four books of his epic steampunk fantasy Shadows Of The Apt series. The fifth book could be seen as a standalone story, albeit with some minor new developments for the main characters that would influence the greater story, although the impact would be considered minor. The plot of the story told could have been set in different environments. A similar thing can be said about The Sea Watch (2011), the sixth installment of the series.

In The Sea Watch Tchaikovsky yet again expands the setting of his world while staying partially on homeground. In the previous novel the focus lied on a select group of the main characters and in this novel we do so on another group. With this the story has a greater focus and it gives Tchaikovsky more space to develop his characters. Even so, the characters do not rise above a more than superficial description. In that sense he does a poorer job than in The Scarab Path.

In this novel Tchaikovsky expands his range of insectile human races (kinden) to those of the sea. He adds so many that there is little time to give them sufficient attention besides some characteristic descriptions. The ideas and possibilities are very interesting and provide so much material he could have written a separate novel or series just focusing on this sea-environment. In this case, however, he had to divide it between events on land and sea where the land-element is dominant and moving the story. As such I would say Tchaikovsky overshot himself. I also see it as a bit problematic that he needs to expand the world to provide plot development. It would almost seem that he doesn’t have enough ideas to use the existing (and already large enough) world for the story, which, I would think, provide the opportunity to go into more detail and background and spend more time on character development.

As in The Scarab Path the events concerning the standalone story provide a way to make certain developments in the greater story. Still, these remain somewhat minor in impact. Certain dangling threads do get resolved this time as it had been unclear to me where it would fit in. The resolutions were luckily original, unlike the main plot which twists were more of a way to show all the new ideas and kinden, which in the end were not so much different from regular cultures.

So in the end my conclusions about this series hasn’t changed much. The original concepts and the combination with steampunk elements lift it above mainstream, but plot, complexity and depth remain pretty average. Still it remains a good read. The prose is fine, the original concepts keep me plenty of happy and the plot is not that predictable as to provide some surprises. Nevertheless I give The Sea Watch my recommendation as it is still a good novel any fantasy fan will enjoy.

Tom Lloyd – The Ragged Man

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

My hundredth review is one from my Wanted Books list, so I could say it is appropriate for the occasion. It took me one year and two-and-half months to get there. Not too bad.

The Ragged Man (2010) is the fourth book of the Twilight Reign series by Tom Lloyd. It is an epic fantasy series that has a dark gloomy atmosphere and has a mild gritty writing style. The focus on the characters lies mainly at the powerful or the ones supporting them. The mundane or regular persons don’t play any role.

The Twilight Reign series has some resemblances to The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series by Steven Erikson in the way Lloyd displays the Gods and other powers and their relations and actions with the normal world. It is also similar in the presentation and themes. Don’t expect happy endings and characters can suddenly fall away. While Erikson adds a lot of dark humor, one won’t find such in The Twilight Reign. This is the gritty and serious element which makes the series different.

What Lloyd certainly does right is the way he weaves the many mysteries and the mythology into the story. Plenty of hints and references are given, but not too many and without disclosing enough to figure it out easily. The plot itself moves in a solid and steady pace, the point of views shifting between multiple characters of which a few dominate. Lloyd doesn’t waste time on extensive scenes but he spends enough time on each character to give them more depth. The story has enough complexity to make the reader wonder what will happen next but he keeps things straightforward enough to keep the plot accessible.

Lloyd’s characterization is not really strong. He does manage to present a large caste of characters that mostly escape fantasy cliches. This certainly makes the novels stronger as it is something different and there is enough originality to make the novels stand out, although Lloyd does grab back to some common elements. On that part it remains a mystery to how his world is like it is. There are some limitations that keep the story in check but prevent a larger scope and depth. However, this does provide the story with a clear focus and that in itself is important when telling a story, as to prevent too much digressions or unnecessary words.

In The Ragged Man Lloyd has turned certain developments upside down. These kind of twists have become more common the past decade, although it requires an author who has a clear aim for his story. In this book he certainly puts in several twists which could have hardly been expected when having read the previous novels. This makes The Ragged Man the best of the four books published at the moment. Although I was not taken emotionally that strongly the twists did provide great reading pleasure. I certainly can’t wait until the next book.

I will not say this series will become a classic, but it certainly is very good and refreshing for those seeking something different while it has enough familiar elements to be accessible for mainstream readers.