Archive for August, 2012

C.J. Cherryh – Fortress Of Ice

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Although the title may hint otherwise Fortress Of Ice (2006) by C.J. Cherryh is a separate sequel to her high fantasy Fortress Quartet. It is a continuation with some differences. Foremost is a time gap and the fact that the central plot of the Fortress Quartet had a conclusion. A conclusion is not the same as an end and I describe it such because not everything was resolved. Personally I think it’s more believable if not every little thing gets a solution as nothing is ever really finished.

Now to the book itself. An important difference is that the story revolves around a new young character. Much is narrated from his viewpoint. Occasionally Cherryh switches to some other characters and this is rather welcome to me. A minor flaw in the books of the quartet was that Cherryh spent too much time on her characters brooding or being involved in long drawn out discussions. Normally such things stay on a limited scale so that I’m not much bothered by it. One could call it characterization and fleshing out the characters, but a good writer doesn’t need that many words or repeat things to emphasize them. This is what goes wrong in the first half of Fortress Of Ice. Cherryh spends way too much time on the so-called characterization. For example a whole chapter is spent on the main character brooding and being uncertain. Nothing happens and there is no dialogue either. There is no need to use that many words after the intention of the author is already clear. Once could address the extensive scenes to slowly building up the tension and the story. To me it was too slow.

It is only past the first half of the book that events start shaping up although it does so on the background. It’s the main thing that I considered good and impressive about Fortress Of Ice. There is a shadow that slowly grows into darkness, a terror that rises in the background with the reader hardly noticing and getting a grip on it. Once could compare it to a crescendo. A very slow one, but the effect is the same. The final part almost bursts and is very gripping. If only it hadn’t been that short and that more of the book had that feeling.

For such a long book (over 500 pages) the story itself is rather simple. Cherryh does add a feeling of complexity and plenty of subtleties. Unfortunately she does not exploit it to the fullest. In my opinion the book is way too long and some 200 pages could easily have been shed while keeping the same effect and a far stronger prose.

The new main character is not that great. At first he resembles the main character of the quartet a lot. There are differences which is mainly that he behaves more normally and spends too much time doubting himself. Why there is so much uncertainty is unclear. The subtle dark background influences mentioned before could have played a role, although this is never made clear.

Much remains unclear at the end of the novel. A battle has been won. There are still matters unresolved and this can only mean there will be another sequel. For now the main problem of this book is that there is too little mystery. Cherryh spend much time at slowly disclosing the mysteries over the course of four books. Some still remained and the question is on how much time she plans on resolving those. Fortress Of Ice clearly lacked sufficient story for its length and Cherryh will has to put on some considerable effort there and not spend too much time rehashing feelings and dialogues. This is still an engaging book with the strengths and the weaknesses mentioned above. If one does want to reader to be taken in one should not build up the story so slowly. As I’m a staunch reader I can manage quite a bit, but many others won’t.

Hella Haasse – The Scarlet City

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Most of the historical novels that I have read follow the same approach to tell their story. Either the authors create a fictional character who gets involved in all kinds of historical events or they find minor historical character about whom little is known who is or could have been in the same position as the fictional character. In both cases their impact on the events is presented in such a way that their contribution could have been overseen by history.

A very different approach is taken by The Scarlet City (1952) by Hella Haasse. Her main character is an actual historical character although of minor importance. Although this main character is most prominent in the narrative there are also several other narratives which are written from the viewpoint of very important historical characters. Haasse tries to get under their skin and represent their thoughts and views within the historical framepoint from which the story is told.

The narratives are told in a unique way. Haasse often starts out the specific narrative from a third person stand. This is usually used to quickly tell their involvement within the historical or personal events that have passed and then turns to their inner thoughts. This part is written from a first person point of view as the character also tells a story of what has happened to them and how they feel about it. These events can be recent or flashbacks to events from the past. A similar first person narrative is used in the form of letters between historical characters which also tell the developments of historical events in combination of the feelings of the characters. A third narrative is one that has none as it consists of a long bare dialogue between two characters. This approach forces the author to represent all emotions through the words she uses for the dialogues. I considered this quite well done. The dialogue narratives form a stark contrast to the pieces containing inner thoughts as those lack dialogue and take a bit more effort to get through because they are fairly long.

So there is quite some variation in how each narrative is told while the focus lies on each character’s feelings and inner thoughts. It is a more psychological approach. One often writes literature behind the background of a familiar contemporary setting as it is easier to obtain the right mindset. Here Haasse tries to do the same in a historical novel set in a time centuries ago. This is of course much harder to do although through the use of diaries and letters that survived from those times one can get close.

The story itself covers a dramatic period in sixteenth century Italy when it was the focus of Habsburg and French conflict with the papal city of Rome in the center of events. It was also a struggle between Spanish and French loyalties conflicting with independent Italian resistance to them both. Haasse does not create much fictional history. Only for her main characters she has to provide details and situations so that they are in a certain way involved with each other. After finishing the novel I looked them all up and there were only a few minor discrepancies. As the novel is 60 years old it could be that certain details were not known back then.

As Haasse is a Dutch author I have obviously read her novel in Dutch. She is one of the most renowned Dutch female authors and has been translated into English and other languages a lot so this should be a novel you can find in your own language if you want to read it. Her prose was easily readable, never complex or overly stylized. She was very careful with the words she used. Often an author will have a specific recognizable style in the way of the words that are chosen. One can see that as habitual phrasings. What I felt from Haasse was that she avoided getting habitual and chose her words in such a way that one cannot sink into the rhythm of the prose. She changed that rhythm in such a way that you don’t sink into but are lifted on it instead. The prose remains fresh while still having it’s rhythm, although it is not through the habitual phrasing of words.

This is a good novel and I enjoyed it. It has no particular strong plot as it only covers a small timeframe within eventful historical times and the focus lies on the inner motives of historical characters. That in itself is interesting and well done. The original way Haasse presents her narratives and her strong prose provide another reason why to read and experience this novel.

Richard Morgan – The Cold Commands

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

The Cold Commands (2011) by Richard Morgan is the sequel to The Steel Remains, a sword and sorcery style fantasy in the tradition of David Gemmell and Joe Abercrombie with a bit more magic and some hidden science fiction elements. I was pleasantly surprised by The Steel Remains so I eagerly awaited to arrival of The Cold Commands.

The novel is not exactly a sequel. Some time has passed and the events of The Steel Remains had a limited impact on the plot development. The plot is rather detached, leading to a story that would manage well enough as a standalone novel. There are some minor references that would spark the reader’s interest for the first book while overall the new situations are different enough to not require more explanation than a regular background hint. I had forgotten most of what had happened before and I didn’t feel much need to get back to it. Nevertheless the lack of memory does provide me with a good excuse to read The Steel Remains again.

Because The Cold Commands works as a standalone novel it has the problem that it is starting up again as Morgan develops new storylines. He does not really have to reintroduce the characters, although the new reader will fairly quickly be up-to-date with who they are in the greater scheme of things. The thing is that he doesn’t continue the story of The Steel Remains and this causing him a lot of time to set up the new storylines. There are three of them and to me it felt he needed too much time to tell his story. Afterwards I took them apart and could only conclude that individually not much had happened for them, only by regularly switching between them the reader would still feel satisfied. It is a problem I noted with a number of fantasy novels which lacked sufficient plot development and the writer needed too many words (without the reader ever being annoyed as the prose is ever good) to tell his story. When the book came close to the end I suddenly awoke and realized that it was already done and I hadn’t seen much yet. Even with the feeling that it could be a standalone novel I hadn’t enjoyed it to the same extent as The Steel Remains. It was at that point that the story turned and got an unexpected big climax. So I was satisfied while I would have liked to see more of it earlier and not the slowly building and entwining of the different storylines.

The storylines themselves contain a number of surprising twists which were interesting or fun. It allowed a certain measure of unpredictability which I like and which causes this series to be put on my Wanted List. The three main characters are not all that original, but are quite amusing and have their own style which distinguishes them.

In the beginning I named Gemmell and Abercrombie as references to the style of this series. That has not changed with this novel. Those who like them will certainly enjoy this novel greatly. There aren’t that many layers and the complexity remains within a bound frame, giving enough the pleasure while not giving the reader something too hard to bit through. I enjoyed it for certain, although (for now) it will not be among my personal favorites. It’s good stuff and not all books have to be more than that. Recommended.

P.C. Hodgell – Dark Of The Moon

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Sometimes I feel sad when putting a book down if I’ve enjoyed it greatly and there is no further continuation or when I have to wait some time for the next installment. The latter is the case for Dark Of The Moon (1985), the second novel of the God Stalker Chronicles which perhaps can also be called the Kencyr Saga, as there is no exact name for this (epic) high fantasy series by P.C. Hodgell. I’ve read now five, starting at book three and coming to full circle now with Dark Of The Moon.

Having started with the sequel to this book one might fear that it would contain too much details later referred to. While there are referrals, they are without details. The actual events and circumstances are not disclosed and the reader isn’t given more than necessary, which means that Hodgell doesn’t waste words on earlier events and keeps her prose tight and in the now.

In reality this book provided me with a wide range of information and new insights of which I had gotten to know little of. I’ve read other earlier novels in series in which I started at a second or later book and often when I read the earlier books it was less interesting to read because I knew too much of what would happen. This was certainly not the case here.

Although Hodgell tells her narrative mainly from the viewpoint of her female main character, the other characters got no more attention than necessary. In Dark Of The Moon the narrative is divided in two almost equally. This more steady other perspective was quite welcome, allowing the characters around this secondary main character to be developed better. It was not something I was missing in the later books so it’s just an nice extra.

The two storylines are quite different from each other. The secondary is fairly straightforward, although plenty interesting things happen. The main storyline contains many twists and surprises, exploring places and elements that were much less touched on in the other novels (not trying to spoil here), and in general followed a greater pace, albeit a little slower than the first novel. Some things that I had interpreted from the later novels turned out differently in the actual events, which to me is a good thing.

Dark Of The Moon is a full-fledged story that would almost manage as a standalone novel. It is another refreshing take on the story Hodgell has been telling. So far four of the five books were able to do so in an excellent way, making this a strong and engaging series which books are hard to put aside once started reading. And even the one that didn’t was still a great and fun read. Book six is already out and I only need to wait for the right paperback edition to be published, which I hope shouldn’t be long. This one is (again) highly recommended.

P.C. Hodgell – God Stalk

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

After starting P.C. Hodgell‘s fantasy series with the third book Seeker’s Mask I was hesitant to pick up the first novel as I didn’t want to remember too many references when I did. In the end I simply couldn’t wait and fortunately the references had barely gave things away. Instead God Stalk (1982) contained a lot more than expected.

Although the story is mainly told from one viewpoint, the main character quickly gets involved in multiple intrigues which are elegantly woven within each other as it all takes places in a single city. The fast pace and the main character being a feisty young woman gave me the impression I was reading an urban high fantasy, albeit that it lacked the typical clichés of vampires, faeries and spirits and alike, or the romantic triangle that tormented her. What was mainly different was the attitude of the story. Instead of dark and haunting, it had a more good-natured tone an at times it was even fun. This doesn’t mean it was easy-going. Plenty of bad and nasty things were happening; they were just presented in a different style. And that is probably the effect of it being a 30 year old novel. It inherits more from Fritz Leiber‘s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories or Michael Moorcock‘s Elric tales. It is a very early urban fantasy that lacks many predictable components of today’s mainstream urban fantasy. So that automatically makes it a very refreshing take that I very much enjoyed.

As the story is set in a city it is very much different from the other books of the series, in which cities are pretty much absent. Because of this is has a very different atmosphere. Another contribution to this is a lack of people from the main character’s own people who dominate the other books. They behave differently, to an extent, as some similarities were notable. This I think is quite remarkable as Hodgell’s six current books of the series span a period of 30 years and her style and story writing has hardly changed at all. Anyways, another contribution to the difference was also the plot, which contained different elements as the society of the city stand in stark contrast to that of her own people. I can only make these comparisons because I’ve already read the later novels, except the second, so my comments here provide a story of pre-review for the later novels.

So can I add any negative comments? The only thing Hodgell has trouble with at times is the narrative. Occasionally she picks a side character to tell the story from for a few pages. Usually the character encounters the main character and this causes the narrative to switch suddenly as Hodgell apparently thinks the usual viewpoint suits her better. She still did this in the later books. It’s not very annoying as most reader probably will adapt naturally.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s even more of a pageturner because of the many intrigues and the fast pace. There are plenty of mysteries and there are many interesting characters of which some have deeper background stories that have an effect on the bigger picture that is slowing unfolding. Highly recommended. This series has not disappointed me for a moment and is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Lives Of The Later Caesars

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

When a work is the only complete historical account of an ancient period of time, it becomes of great importance. Trouble arises when one discovers inconsistencies within the work and discrepancies with fragments and references to other historical works on the same period. The shock becomes great when the apparent historian has made up parts of his work. It is partially fiction.

Fictional elements are not that uncommon in old works of history. The very first history by Herodotos contains a lot of folklore, legends and myths. Fortunately those are fairly easy to distinguish from the facts and at least that they have been written down provides insights into the cultures and peoples outside of Greek civilization. Intentional fiction that is hard to distinguish from real history is problematic. This is the case of the Historia Augusta (c. 370), a series of biographies of Roman emperors in the style of the famous Suetonius that continues his work, covering the period 117 to 285 (the two emperors in between are probably lost). At first sight it is a collection of five authors, but modern historians have discerned that it is the work of one man whose real name is unknown. If the translator kept a true translation than even by reading it one will notice a similarity in style and tone. It is not easy to distinguish the supposedly different authors.

The most trustworthy part of the work is the first half, covering the period 117 to 222. This part is also the version that I’ve read, under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars. Only due to fragments of other works and references to known historic works this has been proven. The author has been quite lazy and sloppy as the style often changes within a biography. The real sections are distinguishable by a more coherent style that is more factual. Even so, the author rewrote some parts or even moved or copied them around. Certain sentences are repeated and the order of events are not set up in a logical way. It is done almost randomly. Fortunately it’s not that bad that it’s not readable, just expect sudden jumps to other topics before suddenly returning to an earlier topic.

The author is also a fan of gossip and rumors. The phrase “some say” and “it is said that” is often used and what usually follows is pretty crazy or nasty stuff. The author likes to tell bad things about the emperors except for a few who are considered to be of exceptional status. Among the listed emperors are several who had a very bad reputation, in the style of Caligula and Nero, and one can only be baffled with how the Roman people let these things go on for many years. It was often a corrupt system that maintained itself until a certain limit was reached.

The most peculiar of this work are the biographies of several rebels who claimed the imperial title but failed. The author frequently mentions that they are quite obscure and because they had no lasting power and rebelled in far off provinces there is little known about them and that which is is doubtful. To the contrary of his own words he starts describing many details and anecdotes about them. Even more astounding is that he produces many letters by them or about them to prove the details. In one case he first writes about a vague claim which is followed by a letter that proves the claim. Instead of writing that he has a letter to prove the claim, he writes the opposite.

All in all this is an amusing work which combines historical facts with fiction. Aside from sloppiness in writing and coherency it is quite readable and enjoyable. My edition had careful notes to make clear which parts where probably fiction and which not, so it also allows the reader to recognize truth from fiction.

David Eddings – The Sapphire Rose

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

With a bit of effort I managed to finish the Elenium Trilogy by David Eddings. The main reason for this is that I’ve quite outgrown the books. I liked them when I was a teenager, which was why I bought them, and that should not be a reason to dislike them many years later. A well written novel, even if it is aimed at a teenager audience, should still be enjoyable when being an adult. Unfortunately I have to admit that this is not the case here. The story is told too much straightforwardly, lacks depth and the writer makes sure that everything is explained to the reader in a not very overtly way, as in, the characters are somewhat stupid. That’s how they feel to me now. As a teenager it didn’t bother me, but now it did very much so. The same counts for the schemes and threats which now seem weak and a little boring. It all lacks subtlety. A lot of pages are wasted on explaining it all and traveling, although that is part of the quest element that each book contains.

I had less trouble with The Ruby Knight, the second book of the trilogy. It didn’t need to introduce anything and it also didn’t need to wrap anything up. As a result it was fairly enjoyable to read. As one can guess the third and last book of the trilogy did suffer from the need to wrap everything up. As a result some things in The Sapphire Rose (1991) become predictable, although Eddings does do his best not to make it too obvious. Nevertheless the obstacles he presents are overcome too easily or used to the advantage of the main characters. It lacks tension as it goes too easily.

What bothered me most were the logical flaws. With this I mean that from the little background we have of the characters I was quite irritated when Eddings added behavior that didn’t match up to it or almost conflicted with it. It was rather brushed over, making it fuzzy. I became uncertain what to make of it, so I decided to ignore it. I know this is a fantasy novel, but some elements of realism are necessary to give the reader a connection with the setting. So while we only had little background knowledge of most characters left most of them rather flat as we had to do with their behavior in the novel. These were distinctive enough, but when you read about them for three books you should get the feeling you know them. It still felt lacking.

One thing, which I think is one of the reasons why I stopped reading Eddings’ novels at a certain point is that almost all characters quickly start interacting in a familiar way, whatever their station or status may be. Everyone is quite amicable towards each other. Many of the central characters are supposed to be knights and nobles. While this is even pointed out several times I never noticed it in their behavior. Most of them sounded and behaved like regular soldiers. As hardly any background was given it was hard to imagine it to be different.

I find it hard to give a good judgment on this series. I did enjoy them as a teenager and they should still do so for that age group. To be honest, this fantasy can be rated as for all ages. The violence never lasts long and isn’t described very detailed. Few nasty things happens and such scenes are always short. Among the books I read as a teenager there are works which I still enjoy today and would have bought them now as well without a question. This is not the case for this series. I would probably have skipped over the Elenium series. It’s a nice introduction into fantasy as it does avoid certain typical fantasy clichés as it focuses on a group of older church knights who are (usually) experienced enough to take care of matters.

Fictitious histories

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I like reading histories and a number of them I present in my blog because they were written before the time of the exact scientific historic research as we know it for the past few centuries. Before that time historians had much more limited resources. Often they used older histories which they then combined or updated and they didn’t have many ways to check what was true or not. To avoid this problem many histories thus wrote about their own times and as far as in the past as they had reliable sources or persons who could give them fairly accurate accounts.

As those historians wrote from their own perspective this meant that the histories were not very objective, at least not to the extent as we know today, although this can very per country. Nevertheless because they also wrote about their own times they write in a style that reflects their time and age. So besides reading the history one also can discover the nature of the society of the time. What does the historian consider important and in some cases he even expresses his opinion in an indirect way. One could consider this to be fiction, just as an author who writes contemporary fiction tries to tell a story based on true events. It is not just listing the facts, but also adding more dynamic and anecdotes which make it all come alive.

In some cases the histories can become fictitious, where the historian adds dialogues between important persons or speeches. Even so most historians tried to be true to the facts which allows us a good insight into those times. However there are some cases where a history was more fictitious than true. An example of this is the Augustan History (ca. 370). Supposedly it is a collection of lives of Roman emperors during the period 117-284, written by some five different historians. Extensive research lead to the conclusion that it was written by a single unknown author who didn’t want his own name attached to it. That contemporary historians also noted inconsistencies and that half of the work was made up is perhaps a reason for the author to do so. As it is the only complete history of that period it was only through matching the incomplete sources that the non-fictitious content could be extracted. Even so, this does not mean that the rest is all fake, just that some parts which seemed reliable could not be cross-checked. As I am reading this book (albeit only the more trustworthy first half of it under the name Lives Of The Later Caesars) at the moment I will discuss the details more extensively in the forthcoming review.

A large contrast to that work is a new one that I received today. This is The Chronicon (1018) by Thietmar of Merseburg, retitled as Ottonian Germany in this translation. This history covers the period 908 to 1018 of the early Holy Roman Empire. As the author lived in the latter part of the period he wrote about this is an example of a fairly accurate contemporary history. As Thietmar of Merseburg was a member of a noble family and a bishop he was also an insider of the politics of those times. Especially of the later history he himself who play a role, which means that it is not just a history, but also a partial autobiography, giving the book also a personal element.

So how do I find these peculiar histories? This particular one I found after reading the Crown Of Stars fantasy series by Kate Elliot, which takes place in an alternative Europe set in tenth century Germany. From the novels I noted the author must have researched the period well as it was described quite convincing. Next I started searching the web for interesting histories about this period that went into more detail. This I already have general histories, so I wanted something that went deeply into those times. Next it just finding the right key words when searching the web or online bookstores. I am happy with this addition to my collection, although I don’t plan to read it very soon.