Archive for March, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Warlord Of Mars

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Can pulp be classified as literature? That is a question that in my opinion can only be answered with yes if the pulp stories had a great impact on later writers and the genre itself. One of the great pulp writers has been Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is most famous for his creation Tarzan, although he wrote many other completely different stories. His second-most popular series, at the time was his John Carter-series, about an American Civil War veteran getting transported to Mars. Science Fiction thus and in that sense he is a successor to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

The main difference between these two authors was that Burroughs wrote serials for pulp magazines, so each chapter had to entertain and end in a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked. The story was far more important than the characters. To keep things simple: the characters are very one dimensional. Dialogue that is not directly related to the story is absent. This absence allows for a concise and fast pacing story although it is not always rushed. He adds sufficient details to the plot. Nevertheless time is not really of great importance and Burroughs just provides time periods where necessary.

I am rushing a bit ahead of myself. The book I started with is the third novel of the John Carter-series. The Warlord Of Mars (1918) pretty much directly picks off where the previous novel, The Gods Of Mars, ended. As these series aren’t that complex it was rather easy to get into the story. Personally I like it when I’m dropped in the middle of the story. A true beginning requires an isolated (or far away) location or a setting with a boring background. Either way, I did not need to bother myself with starting up.

What not helps the one dimensional characters is that a first person narrative is used. Everything is told from the main character, John Carter’s, viewpoint. A quite remarkable character actually. He is a man of action and impulses. Caution or dabbling in inner thoughts are not his way. While this behavior is at the same time leads to annoyance at his lack of control and sudden surprises in plot development, it provides Burroughs with a natural explanation why the main character does not bother much with telling more about the characters as to give them more depth.

Describing the main character like this would make one think he is a simple man, but it is here that Burroughs will surprise the reader. His main character has a very progressive nature. Confronted with many different races with their own strange behaviors and cultures, he remains ever open-minded, denouncing cruelty and seeks peaceful cooperation between the at first conflicted peoples. He defeats or liberates, but never conquers or subjugates, even if it is easily in his power. It is this hidden message of humanitarianism that surprised me after finishing the book. I don’t remember if the first two books were presented in the same way. It is too long ago that I read them. Perhaps the First World War, when the serial was first published, had a certain amount of influence on this novel.

While these stories were originally pulp the prose itself is not. It is actually well written. The prose is strong and fluent and never getting repetitive. He manages to express his imagination, with the weird creatures and surroundings of the Martian biology, quite well. It is vivid and strange, and I liked it quite so.

So if one doesn’t mind the one dimensional characters and the action-based plot The Warlord Of Mars is quite the entertaining read. I would not read too many novels of the series in a row because it are still pulp stories and I do like to read stories with better characterization and more depth. Still, it is easy to see why Burroughs influenced so many later writers. This is of a quite different nature and style than the more solemn stories of Verne and Wells, allowing an easier accessibility and a greater trigger on the imagination of the reader.

Barsoomian tales

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

The advantage of movie adaptations of a book is that it is expected an increased interest in the original story will follow. In this case I am talking about a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that have been republished at the release of the movie John Carter which tells about adventures of an Earth man on the planet of Mars (called by its inhabitants Barsoom). Back in the day (between 1910 and 1940) the series was highly popular and its story concepts inspired famous movies like Star Wars and Avatar.

These days the John Carter series is mostly forgotten. If there is a reprint then its usually only the first few books. As I am a sucker for classic works, especially Fantasy and Science Fiction, I’ve had the first two novels in a Dutch omnibus edition for over a decade. I never thought much about reading more, but with the release of the movie and subsequent reviews that mentioned many more than those two books, I decided to check on the availability of the rest of the books.

As I said in the beginning, a movie adaptation often acts like a trigger for book publishers to release the books as well to gain some extra profit there. Three quite nice and fairly cheap omnibus editions have come available containing all 11 John Carter novels. Now is the chance to get them complete at last. So I did.

The first volume contains A Princess Of Mars (1912), The Gods Of Mars (1914) and The Warlord Of Mars (1918). The second volume contains Thuvia, Maid Of Mars (1920), The Chessmen Of Mars (1922), The Master Mind Of Mars (1928) and A Fighting Man Of Mars (1931). And lastly the third volume contains Swords Of Mars (1936), Synthetic Men Of Mars (1940), Llana Of Gathol (1948) and John Carter Of Mars (1964). The last novel can be considered an extra as it actually contains two stories: John Carter and the Giant of Mars (1940), which is more of authorized fan-fiction, and Skeleton Men of Jupiter (1942), which is actually an incomplete story. They are all not large books as they were published in serials in magazines. The shortest are about 170 pages and the longest no more than 300 pages. So they are ideal to combine together.

I could start with A Princess of Mars again to begin reading the whole series. This time I have read them before already however, which is also the case for The Gods Of Mars. I do have to admit it has been a long time so I have forgotten most of it. Nevertheless I enjoy falling into the middle of a story so I have decided to start with The Warlord Of Mars. Eventually I can always pick up the first two novels again. I don’t mind that. Shifting the order in a series allows different perspectives. When I was younger, before the advent of the internet and webshops, I had little choice but pick up the books available at the library, which was relatively small. Frequently enough they could be a random book from a series, either first, last or one in the middle. So I don’t mind picking up a story later in the plot and this time I can still change my mind if I want too.

Bookweek gift

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

In the Netherlands we have each year a national bookweek to promote books and an author. When one spends a certain amount of money on books you get a free novella. Obviously this also means free exposure for the author as his novella is given to several hundred thousands of people. Although there is usually quite some media attention to the bookweek I do not aim to buy a book just to get the bookweek gift.These days there are often theme months and alike to promote a certain genre like children’s, suspense, or fantasy novels.

I actually didn’t buy any literature during this year’s bookweek, but just some non-fiction I am interested in. The booksellers don’t make much of a difference. They usually get so many copies that they don’t need to be strict and customers can always decline the gift.

This year’s bookweek gift author is Tom Lanoye, a Belgian author, or as they usually rather say, Flemish, as those Belgian authors are usually the only ones in Belgium writing in Dutch. The rest use French or German. There are not many places outside of the Netherlands where Dutch is a main language. Besides Belgium one will only find it in the Southamerican country of Suriname and several Caribbean islands (our old colonies).

Oh, I shouldn’t forget the title of the novella. There obviously is no English version of it (yet), so a literal translation will have to do: Clear Sky (2012).

Mary Gentle – Ancient Light

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

A few years after her breakthrough Science Fiction novel Golden Witchbreed Mary Gentle wrote a sequel called Ancient Light (1987). Golden Witchbreed described the mission of an envoy to a humanoid alien planet after first contact had been made to determine the future status of the planet. As the aliens lived in a post-technological world with a rejection of technology this formed the main base of conflict for the story. Now the main character of the first novel returns after several years in a different role than before.

With the return, Gentle also brings back characters of the first novel, also in different positions, but they feel a bit too conveniently placed. Several times I wondered how they got there. It can be explained, but it seems Gentle wants to re-use older characters and not bring in too many new ones which she has to set up again.

For me the main problem with the novel was the main character. A first person narrative was used like before. In the first novel I complained about the main character being a poor choice as an envoy, this has worsened in this novel. During the course of the years the main character has gone through some bad problems which have made her mentally unstable. How she managed to have a decent career in the meanwhile I don’t know. Her return is more of a flight to one environment where she had bad experiences to another one where she had similar ones. She behaves melancholically, confused and erratic. Nevertheless few of the people around her seem to take of notice of it or take action upon it. It might be a great challenge for a writer to present such a character but in combination with the first person narrative I mainly irritated me. I didn’t care for her at all and with a first person narrative you don’t have any alternatives that make it more bearable.

It was mainly because of this narrative that I could not fully enjoy the novel. For the first third of the novel the behavior of the main character dominated the course of the story which just didn’t seem to go anywhere. It was somewhat a struggle to get through. Fortunately at that point the story took control and forced the main character to move around in a more coherent direction. It is a shame that Gentle took this approach to tell the story, because it is essentially a very good one. Viewers of Star Trek may be familiar with the so-called Prime Directive about human involvement in alien affairs, especially when there is a technology discrepancy between the cultures. This is sort of the base for the plot and Gentle handles it in an excellent way. Overall the plot is quite good and much better than that of the first novel where the plot played a secondary role to presenting the alien culture. In this novel that is of lesser importance because it doesn’t need to be introduced which gives the story a better flow.

One other thing did trouble me somewhat, also related to the position of the main character. Apparently there is quite some experience in new contacts with alien planets, but this seems to be of little impact. Of course nobody is perfect, but there does seem to be a lack of competence at times to deal with tough situations. This just felt odd.

So all in all Ancient Light is a novel with a good plot but a very poor main character. My feelings are mixed as I couldn’t enjoy it fully because the main character often irritated me too much.

Ari Marmell – The Conquerer’s Shadow

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

In books I am always looking for original plots, stories that use a new perspective on a many used concept, turning it into something different and refreshing. One of those books is The Conqueror’s Shadow (2010) by Ari Marmell, a fantasy novel which is mainly told from a warlord’s perspective where past actions influence future events. Marmell adds to it magic weapons, familiar but different creatures and powerful sorcery, which means that warfare and battles take place in a different way.

Just a different perspective and take on the typical fantasy story is not enough. Because of the change of perspective Marmell can tell a different kind of story, which can be categorized as a ‘What if’ device, which other authors, like Brandon Sanderson, have successfully implemented. In that sense Marmell succeeded as it felt like a ‘new’ fantasy story to me. He made good use of this by adding in plenty of plot twists, using the changed setup to the maximum effect.

Besides that I do have to add that the story told isn’t that large. Marmell compensates this by enriching with flashback scenes at the start of each chapter. These scenes provide some insight into past relationships and backgrounds of characters. In some cases the flashbacks are related, while others stand more on their own. Marmell does make sure they are used in the right chapter as much as possible.

Even with these very positive points I was not completely satisfied in the end. This falls down mainly onto three reasons. The first is the characterization. Marmell managed to do so decently on the main character and on one side-character, but on most other characters I did not really feel distinct personalities. They had some different behavior but the way they talked and acted was too much the same and interchangeable. This was also partially caused by the second reason. While actions could be bloody and dark, in general the characters behaved light-hearted and good-natured towards each other as if they were big buddies or equals. Considering past situations it just doesn’t feel right, as they were the cause of some nasty deeds which seem to have little effect during the story. Their dark sides seem to play no role. I have seen novels with combinations of dark or gritty fantasy with comedic attitudes, but here it isn’t done in the right way. This is a grim and bloody but light-hearted fantasy that is not gritty or dark. To me it didn’t work out that well.

The third reason for complaint is the world building. I will have to do a little bit of spoiling here to explain it. The central nation and the society that Marmell presents in his world are simply hard to imagine. It is old, rich and powerful with many cities, but it lacks serious armies and a central command while accordingly it has supposedly deflected earlier foreign attacks with ease while the current threat seems to walk around the nation for many months virtually unopposed while it does little itself and nobody is thinking about that. There are some explanations possible, but they are simply far-fetched to me. They are also necessary for the plot to work, but the difference between the movement of armies compared to that of one or a few are too big.

The size of the world also left me somewhat confused. On one side it seems fairly large, but sometimes it seems smaller and in other occasions rather huge. The age of the country would make it seem rather unopposed towards external threats considering the internal weak structure that hasn’t been disturbed much for a long time.

My feelings towards The Conqueror’s Shadow are mixed. I enjoyed the new perspective and the resulting original plot, while the nature of the prose was often light-hearted with dark tendencies which didn’t work out. The world-building also needed some serious attention, especially in relationship to the plot. However, it will not be easy to change it that easily. Thus, a not very mainstream-novel, although some elements remain, while not choosing for a darker or a lighter theme. In my view a darker theme and behavior would’ve worked far better, but as I like such themes better I do am biased.

Ian Fleming – The Man With The Golden Gun

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

The last novel of the James Bond series by Ian Fleming is The Man With The Golden Gun (1965), published after his death. As only a first draft was written it is considered incomplete as Fleming normally wrote a second draft to polish the story and add details. That it was still published without any changes means that even a first draft was still a good read. So I will look at this review a bit differently, regarding certain weakness and flaws to the fact that it was incomplete.

Compared to the previous novel You Only Live Twice Fleming takes Bond completely back to the spy game. This even happens from the start, with an opener we are normally used to in the movies, while Fleming usually takes a slower approach in the novels. Fleming takes little time to slow down. Instead of giving Bond time to investigate he is thrown into the fray early on, which makes a more exciting read.

Bond himself feels more detached. As Fleming tells a continuing story in which the events of the previous novel can be an influence of the next, this can be explainable. However, he usually gives the reader more insight into Bond’s thoughts and reasoning. This is mostly absent. As this has been quite common in the series it can be attributed to the lack of polishing and adding of details. This is more a rump story, the plot more bare and more to the core. As I’ve noticed reading the novels Fleming does not like to repeat himself. Every next novel has a different approach than the previous. You Only Live Twice mostly lacked tension and had a great focus on the character of Bond and his environment. In The Man With The Golden Gun the tension is everywhere, there is little focus on the character of Bond. Now he is just a spy and the focus is on the story.

The story barely resembles that of the movie adaptation. A few of the main characters remain, but Scaramanga, the bad guy, is portrayed more normal (or rather, realistic) in the book. Locations, settings and events are all different. Because of this it feels like a new and original story, which feeling I didn’t have for several novels in a row. Even with a more detached Bond I greatly enjoyed the story. Only the ending I consider to be somewhat weaker. It wavered at times and there were some confusing moments.

So as being a first draft version, it having a more detached Bond and a somewhat wavering ending it obviously falls short of the average Bond novel in overall reading experience. Even so, it is a fun read, topping the so-called weaker novels. Of all the novels my ranking is as follows:

  1. From Russia With Love
  2. Moonraker
  3. Goldfinger
  4. Dr No
  5. Thunderball
  6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  7. You Only Live Twice
  8. The Man With The Golden Gun
  9. Casino Royale
  10. Live And Let Die
  11. The Spy Who Loved Me
  12. Diamonds Are Forever

The first three I consider to be the best. Then there is a middle group (nos. 4 to 7) of average Bond novels, not much weaker than the top three. They just lack that bit of extra that makes them really great. Last is the group of weaker novels (nos. 8-12). To those belong two incomplete stories (The Man With The Golden Gun and Casino Royale – which has the feel of a novella and should’ve been part of a bigger story) and the experimental The Spy Who Loved Me. Only two full novels I consider under par: Live And Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever. The other novels of the group just have at least as much to enjoy, while the two suffer from long rather dull parts with insufficient tension.

While the books certainly have their qualities I do have to say that the Bond-movies have taken the stories and the character to a new level. The movies lack the personal details and scale up events and adversaries to grand adventures. In most cases the novels are more realistic (relatively) and down-to-earth. Although the books may seem outdated, they also are a portrait of the times they were written in. Fleming’s unique style of writing is also something which provides a change from the usual prose.

With the novels completed, the ride is not yet over. There is still one Bond-book to go: a collection of all the short stories. One last joy to savor.

Michael J. Sullivan – Nyphron Rising

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

As my review of the second book of the Riyria Revelations fantasy series by Michael J. Sullivan was not that positive, I already had the next installment (as I don’t like waiting until I’m able to get the next book in a series), Nyphron Rising (2009), so I continued on, hoping Sullivan was able to get back to the level of the first book, A Crown Conspiracy. I had already lowered my expectations, as to me this is a fantasy in the tradition of Feist while being of a Young Adult nature and style, although there is lack of young adults among the main characters. The simplicity of the plot and style, the light-hearted attitudes and generally friendly atmosphere contributed to that opinion.

In that sense, this third novel is not much different. The plot complexity has improved, although it is not of the quality of A Crown Conspiracy. Sullivan also seems to have learned from my remarks about the second book. The characters don’t talk too much as before, keeping matters more to themselves so the secrets remain something for the reader to guess about. Even so, the dialogue hasn’t improved and the character behavior doesn’t really convince. The latter also happens at times when Sullivan tries too hard to present a certain character, making him sound impressive while the other characters act similarly impressed as if they’ve never seen something like this before. Here I do have to add that the general intelligence and behavior makes such attitudes possible. Perhaps this kind of approach is suitable for a Young Adult audience, but I do know that quality in those things is possible.

At some points the story did disappoint somewhat. Early on certain expectations were made which later on turned to be rather insignificant. Another disappointment was a second storyline Sullivan added which at the end had no relevance for the story at all. Maybe it will in a later book, but even when left out it would not be required for background purposes as Sullivan makes jumps in time between the books anyways and setups can be explained at that time.

In the end my feelings toward Nyphron Rising are mixed. It is better than the second book, although still falling short compared to the first book. This series is not really spurring me on. It is OK, but in hindsight I would probably not have bought the series. It is very mainstream and the overall quality level is mediocre (my opinion of Feist, though hardly Young Adult, is rather similar so it is good to compare them), certainly to my tastes. I think I will be taking a break before tackling the fourth novel, which I already have as they came in two dual omnibi.