Archive for October, 2012

Stephen Hunt – The Rise Of The Iron Moon

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

In the first two books of the steampunk Jackelian series Stephun Hunt started with a strong fantasy component in the story, followed by a strong science fiction component in the next story. In his third novel, The Rise Of The Iron Moon (2009), he mixed both components all out together where it gets hard to discern one from the other. He also decided to give the story a different approach than before. Unfortunately these two things were a bad choice.

I really liked the first two books, and also the fourth as I read that one before them. Hunt created well-constructed plots with engaging albeit traditional stories and interesting characters which he developed quite well. He wrote within a complex framework that with all its weird elements worked well together. In The Rise Of The Iron Moon Hunt takes up another traditional story and again tries to give it his own twist. The way he approaches it however breaks completely out of his well established framework. Basically it comes down to “anything goes”. This pretty much destroys the coherency of the plot. It is full with flaws and inconsistencies. I will not go into details as there are plenty and I don’t want to spoil.

The sad thing is that Hunt was unable to get out of his story under control. His attempts to keep it going resulted in the story becoming predictable. You can see the twists coming far ahead and those you don’t see are quite ridiculous. In my review of the second book, The Kingdom Beyond The Waves, I noted Hunt needed to watch out for rehashing plot components and in this book he does so again. Only due to the very different plot development he avoids some.

What I disliked about the novel was its tone. In his other novels Hunt played to the emotion of the reader with times of excitement, drama, worries and grins. This is all gone in this book. It is over the top, much to dramatic and the whole story is depressing all through. I had a hard time getting to the end and didn’t really want to finish it, because I was getting tired of the whole plot development. There was no fun, it was not grim or engaging. It was a struggle. I can say I’ve read worse stories so I can handle quite a bit. The only thing that kept me going was Hunt’s fine prose. His style had not changed so the overall atmosphere was still the same. It’s pretty much the only positive remark I can make.

One of Hunt’s strong points is his characterization. He gives his (side-)characters time to present themselves. This element was also pretty much lost in the story. He re-used several old characters which he didn’t feel like introducing again, although he seems to aim at writing standalone novels in the same universe, and most of the new characters didn’t get much time to settle down. They remained rather one-dimensional.

A big problem to his story is that it’s told as if it is the end of a series, a big final. Of course I already know there are 3 more books of which I’ve read the next one and that story is written as if nothing has happened before while the impact of the story of The Rise Of The Iron Moon is huge. You can guess I was quite baffled when early on in the book the story took its approach to anything goes, unless the next novels takes place before the events of The Rise Of The Iron Moon.

I don’t really understand why Hunt wrote such a story for The Rise Of The Iron Moon when in the next novel he returns to the approach of the first two novels and regains the same high quality I enjoyed. I am happy that Hunt aims at writing standalone novels because this means that previous events don’t play a big role in the other novels. I can thus advise readers to simply skip this novel when reading the series as it will not affect the others and you can avoid damaging your reading pleasure of this series. I finished it only so I could review it wholly, because I really felt like putting it aside and going to the next one. This one is not recommended.

 

Stephen Hunt – The Kingdom Beyond The Waves

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

The Kingdom Beyond The Waves (2008) is the second book of the Jackelian series by Stephen Hunt. The books contain standalone plots while there are certain recurring characters that play a minor or greater role in the story. The Jackelian series clearly falls in the steampunk genre. The first book, The Court Of The Air, had a large dose of fantasy added to it. In the second book the fantasy element is almost absent and it the science fiction element is dominant.

Like the first book the plot is divided between two main storylines with the plot mainly being told from two viewpoints while side characters get plenty of time as well. A difference with the first book was that the side characters got less attention overall.  Perhaps this is because Hunt is working with a smaller cast and a more constrained setting. Either way, on this part it doesn’t have the same strength. The plots themselves remain somewhat traditional with plenty of twists.

At a certain point I did notice that Hunt used a similar structure for the plot development as he did for the first book. Of course the content and the story are very different. It are certain generic elements that popped up around the same time. Although it is not a problem an author should watch out for getting formulaic in his plots.

More than in the first novel Hunt used the notion of cliffhangers by switching storylines as much as possible. On certain moments this felt a little annoying because I was just getting into the action before it was suddenly broken off.

Hunt shows he has created a complex world with a lot of weird elements and he keeps extending it. In a way I can compare it to the steampunk Apt-series by Adrian Tchaikovsky which to me just doesn’t work as well although on certain levels there are similarities. Stephun Hunt just does it the right way. A greater eye for details and characterization while keeping the level of technology sufficiently constrained.

The Kingdom Beyond The Waves is a good sequel to The Court Of The Air. Overall it is not as strong, but the difference is not that great. The different approach, with more science fiction and little fantasy, did not change the feeling of the story. Another recommendation.

Stephen Hunt – The Court Of The Air

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

In the Jackelian series by Stephen Hunt I had started with the fourth novel so I was quite interested in how the first would turn out. As it is, The Court Of The Air (2007) presented a quite different experience while certain elements remained the same. To be precise, this is a steampunk novel with elements of science fiction and fantasy. In this novel, the fantasy element is quite strong as a lot of things happen that cannot be explained scientifically (easily) as many other things.

If one wants to compare the style and worldbuilding of the Jackelian series I would describe it as a lighter and traditional version of China Mieville‘s Crobuzon novels. It has a similar technological approach, although the technology is in many places quite different and The Court Of The Air has strong fantasy elements. What is similar is the metropolis setting and the odd mixture of races. There is great diversity of cultures while Hunt has succeeded into mixing them together in a fitting way. It is a good thing that I like those Crobuzon novels so it was easy to adapt to the world of Jackals. Hunt created more recognizable characters to which the reader can connect more easily and his story follows a more traditional plot development. This does not make it more predictable. It just puts the reader in a more comfortable position.

The story consists of two storylines. The narrative is told from the main character of each while Hunt often adds other viewpoints to provide a greater perspective for the story so that the reader gets everything that is happening. The often quick changing of viewpoints also provides minor cliffhangers to push the reader on and a change in rhythm to keep the reader’s interest sharp. The characters themselves are sympathetic and Hunt made them so that they easily avoid the typical tropes while having the familiar feeling to them. The story itself is neither light or grim while having moments of both. As such it is well balanced.

As I had expected the story is a standalone one and is completed in one book. Nevertheless Hunt manages to pack in plenty of plot development, action and twists. He doesn’t waste more time on scenes than necessary and moves the story on if nothing happens in between scenes. In between he manages to provide characterization and background for many sidecharacters which plays minor role in one of the scenes. This way they all come to life even though we don’t see most of them later anymore.

The story is not flawless although they are all of a minor nature. Most readers would probably not even notice them as they are to entranced by the story. The only thing that nagged me a bit was that one minor storyline somewhat disappeared after about a third of the novel while I had expected it to become more prominent.

I was quite satisfied after completing the novel. My impression of the fourth novel made me decide to get the other 5 current novels of the series and I have certainly not wasted my money. A great story with great character and a Mieville-vibe that avoides the mainstream tropes while still following a more traditional plot development. I can only recommend this one highly.

 

The rule of reverse arrival

Monday, October 15th, 2012

One of the things that have left me resigned over the years that when I order multiple books of a series I’ve decided to read I always receive the first I want to read as one of the last, especially when I have ordered them at the same time, which is usually the case. This time it was again such a case, luckily I still had some other books to read before. The aforementioned series is the so-called science fiction/fantasy steampunk Jackelian series by Stephen Hunt. I had first picked up Secrets Of The Fire Sea, which had no reference of it belonging to a series as it read like a standalone one. Only when I looked on the web for more I discovered it was the fourth book of the series, of which until now 6 have been published. So now I’ve begun reading the first book, The Court Of The Air (2007), which will be followed by The Kingdom Beyond The Waves (2008), The Rise Of The Iron Moon (2009), Jackie Cloudie (2011) and From The Deep Of The Dark (2012). So plenty of reading and reviews to come for the coming weeks.

Adam Christopher – Empire State

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

A new subgenre among science fiction novels and series of the past decade are alternative universes or realities. Not that they did not exist before, but they weren’t as popular before with books, TV-shows and movies and there wasn’t so much you needed to categorize them in a subgenre of their own. The danger with subgenres becoming mainstream is overkill, like with vampire and zombie-novels, there is more crap and average books than good ones, so when picking one up you have to gamble or go with your gut feeling.

Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State (2012) takes on the alternative universe subgenre with the extra twist that it takes place in a mid-twentieth-century noir setting, adding a slight steampunk feeling to it as the technological level is different than what we had expected. His concept for the alternative universe is different with some interesting nuances. Nevertheless he stays away from the scientific approach.

The story is mainly told from the viewpoint of a character who is likable, but only just so. The character is not really busy living a life and as a result his approach to events doesn’t follow the usual patterns. He is a bit slowish and not particularly smart which is reflected in Christopher’s style. On the backcover of the book it said the story was fast-paced, but this certainly is not the case. It is not slow. It is more like moderately paced. The characters take their time and their is no need to rush. The style follows this as well. Christopher is at times quite elaborate in using words to develop a scene. You sometimes get a bit annoyed, just like the main character, because other characters are  paying attention to other things he wants. I can only assume this approach was the intent of the author.

I had two thoughts on the story development of Empire State. The first, as noted above, was an intended approach towards the scenes and the characters. The characters don’t really get fleshed out, to a certain extend they remain hollow. The same counts for the worldbuilding. We only see what the main character has attention for. Many details of the alternative universe remains a mystery. Like the characters it remains somewhat hollow. The second thought was an unintended approach. This would mean the author just hadn’t looked further than he needed to. Shallow characters and no more than a basic necessary worldbuilding. More detail and background could have given characters more depth and the alternative universe would have come alive more vividly. This would have an effect on the pace. The moderate pace would have become slower and the book much larger, or the pace could have changed to fast. I am not saying that the first or the second would have been best. The first approach has it perks as it reflects certain elements of the alternative universe. The second would have provided a much tighter story and a stronger connection to the setting.

The main concept of the novel is interesting and in itself good, mixing several ideas. The plot Christopher devised is in essence good. The main problem of the story is that he decided to add in several complexities to give the novel more body. I have been thinking about them for a while after finishing the book and have come to the conclusion that they don’t work and don’t make much sense. First of all is a certain amount of randomness to it, secondly a number of inconsistencies and thirdly are a number of flaws. The solutions the characters make up to explain it are no solutions at all. There is no logic and what they in fact conclude is that the current situation is how it apparently is and how it is possible they don’t really know. It’s just a plot device. I believe Christopher could have made up something easier while keeping the essentials, avoiding the serious inconsistencies and flaws, although some would still remain.

There are some good and bad things to be said about this novel. While the main plot is solid, many other parts are rather shaky. Different approaches were possible to tell this story and I don’t think Christopher took the best one. I did enjoy the book although I had no problem putting it aside. Due to the chosen approach and pace it’s no pageturner. It does not have to be as there are plenty of those and sometimes novels can use a different pace to enjoy them better. It is not a must-read and also not a let-down. My best description is ‘quite nice’.

Dan Simmons – Olympos

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

I was happy to have the sequel to the science fiction novel Ilium by Dan Simmons at hand after completing it as I had enjoyed it quite much. Olympos (2005) started of in full gear, bristling with action and a quick pace, with a dash of original storytelling, combining epic pseudo-fantasy, classic literature, artificial intelligence and quantum physics. I devoured the pages until the novel reached about one fifth of its length. Then things changed. And not for the good.

The first change was the pace. It slowed down considerably. Simmons changed his focus to an other of his three storylines. Personally this had been the least favorite of the three storylines as it was the least original and exciting one. Unfortunately much of the change in focus also involved long times spent on the inner thoughts of several characters. Over the years I’ve considered such elements in novels to be easy weak points as its more filler than story development for a writer. A character may reflect on earlier events or summarize things happened during a break, but they do have to be substantial. Along with this story line on of the others also slowed down. Only the third kept some pace, only with the downside that it received less attention.

With the slowing down of the story, the plot development also slowed down. The pace went slack and much less was happening. And what was happening didn’t have the freshness and originality of the first novel. Basically Simmons seemed to be out of ideas. Most revelations and discoveries had been presented in the previous book and the revelations that he did present were not much original or simply not much interesting. The plot development settled for the more convenient paths, avoiding real twists or scares. Certain things became rather predictable. There were few twists and even these I took with a shrug. Some other twists were simply out of place and didn’t make sense. It could have been left out without much of a fuss, unless I have missed something important. In between Simmons put in several explorations of, how to describe it, ideas and thoughts of his own which to me seemed to have little relevance to the story. He at least kept it vague enough for me to be unconvinced.

While I had some trouble to put Ilium down at times, I sometimes had trouble to pick Olympos up. I did keep on reading, but with a much slower pace and for shorter periods. It also didn’t help that Olympos didn’t gather up pace again near the end. It has been a while since I’ve encountered an ending which was so dull. Simmons took the easy way out and avoided much of the hardships. In the end I can only say I was disappointed. After a strong start Olympos acted as a weak conclusion to the duology. Perhaps others would find more in it than I did. It just didn’t deliver what I had hoped for.

 

Dan Simmons – Ilium

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

The Hyperion novels of Dan Simmons belong to my all time favorites. It is thus somewhat strange that I’ve hardly read any other works by his hand. Perhaps it was just that they didn’t appeal to me that much and I also have to admit that besides these novels I rarely see his other works in libraries or in stores. So it’s about time I did pick up something that is not related to his Hyperion novels. The book that I read is another science fiction novel called Ilium (2003) and there are some unusual things about it.

The core to this novel is the unusual combination of ideas. The story is a fusion of three rather different ideas that have little in common with each other. Nevertheless Simmons has set forth to use all his skills to bring them together to one whole. The advantage of this fusion is that the reader is actually reading three kinds of science fiction stories, each with their own themes and concepts, which provides variation and a rich mixture for the reading experience. The downside is that despite the fusion the continuous shifts between such different ideas it does not manage become a greater whole. It is not that Simmons does not spend enough attention to either of them. As said his writing skills are great so it is already a marvel that he manages to fuse them together so well. It is just that, to me, I could not decide on the essence of the greater story. I kept being pulled between the three ideas. That’s the best way I can describe.

While reading the novel I was rather surprised to have quite a number deja vu’s related to the Hyperion novels. Certain technological concepts I had seen before, just in a different fashion now. He also re-uses the ideas of the re-embodiment of figures and settings of literature. While they are an enrichment they do feel a bit overreaching as if Simmons want to impress too much and induce a higher level of literature into his novel. An important component of one of the three ideas relates to Homeros‘  Iliad. He does this to such an extent that people who still want to read it had best do so before reading this novel. In a way he honors this great work while on the other hand he does it a bit too much.

With three stories the narrative switches continuously and the pace is fairly fast for the reader, having a hard time to lay down the novel. The main characters are all quite different and nowhere cliché. He provides them all with sufficient character development, but none of them really appealed to me.

The plot itself is filled with ideas and revelations. There are not that many twists, just some of them here and there to keep the reader out of easy expectations. Luckily the twists are not necessary just because the combination of the three ideas provides Simmons with weird connections and complexities.

As I mentioned the story has some things similar to the Hyperion novels. Because of this I automatically began to compare them. This is good and entertaining science fiction, alas no classic. Some concepts Simmons used before already and the new things he is introducing now is certainly not exploring new terrain as many other science fiction novels had written similar stories, although perhaps not as strange as Simmons has made it. Of course this novel is already 9 years old. Even I am unable to put it in the right reference of the time it was written as certain technological advancements have made quite some jumps during the past decade.

It is hard for me to put a good quality assessment of this novel. To appreciate a novel you have to read it not this late after it was published as especially with science fiction, certain ideas have become commonplace. It is one of the reasons why I don’t read that much science fiction as there is a risk ideas become outdated or even misconceived. There is no chance with that happening soon to his novel as Simmons reaches far ahead.

 

Fritz Leiber – Swords Against Wizardry

Friday, October 5th, 2012

One of the icons of the early sword & sorcery fantasy genre are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, their stories mainly originating from the forties until the seventies. Sometimes I wonder if fantasy readers these days are aware these stories by Fritz Leiber exist. I happened to encounter a few of their collected stories at my hometown library when I was a kid and I liked them well enough to buy the complete seven story collections years later. The collection that I’ve read now is the fourth, called Swords Against Wizardry (1968).

In truth this collection consisting of four stories feels like two novellas that have been provided with an introduction and an intermezzo to connect the two rather unrelated novellas. The first short story is so short it barely functions as one, just allowing the start of the first novella to be not to abrupt. The third short story does manage to stand on its own, but the opening and ending match the end of the first novella and the beginning of the second novella too much to be suspect of having been written to connect the two novellas so to provide the collection with a greater wholeness.

The two novellas have little in common except the main adversaries of the pair are dangerous wizards. Funnily enough, or perhaps intentionally, there is a great contrast in the setting as the first takes place in high places while the second is set beneath the earth.

As short stories go the plots are relatively simple, although Leiber puts in a number of twists that will keep the reader from easing down. The style and setting remains somewhat gloomy and grim while there are moments that will make the reader smile or grin. Leiber’s prose is not the smoothest or captivating, which is one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan, so it is very much his unconventional storytelling that makes me want to read him again at times.

These stories still remains classic stuff from different times in the fantasy genre. Anyone who likes different flavors of fantasy should at least explore one of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story collections.