Archive for January, 2013

Alexandre Dumas – Louise de la Vallière

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

After almost a year I finally picked up the second part of the so-called Ten Years Later trilogy by Alexandre Dumas. Ten Years Later is his third serialization of his famous the Three Musketeers saga. As this part was far too long (over 2000 pages in fairly small print) to publish in one novel, it is often split into three parts. The reason it took so long to continue was not because the first part, The Vicomte Of Bragelonne, was bad, but simply because a long serialized novel (over 600 pages) from the mid nineteenth century is somewhat an exhausting read. Serialization means that every week a chapter is published and that the reader has to be able to understand the story sufficiently to know what the situation is and that each chapter has to sell and push the reader onward towards the next chapter. This means each chapter has a certain amount of repetition. Dumas handles this expertly by extending dialogues and/or adding some quick short notes in the narrative to keep the reader up to date. Nevertheless the effect on the dialogues is such that they get dramatized and that one character goes into long ways to either avoid telling what is going on, forcing the other character to keep trying to slowly nibble all the details from the other, or tries to tell what happens in an elaborate way to avoid misunderstanding. This actually creates amusing and intricate dialogues which one rarely finds in novels these days, but after scores of such chapters one simply needs a break, no matter how entertaining the story itself is.

The second part of Ten Years Later, known as Louise de la Vallière (1847), had some peculiarities about it. As it is the middle part of the story there is no real beginning or end. The book pretty much ends in a cliffhanger. Luckily I have the third part so I don’t need to wait. If it was intended or not I don’t know, but cutting Ten Years Later in three parts is exactly the best way it can be cut. This I know now because I’ve already started with the third part. There surely is some overlap in events, but the moments chosen to cut it are actually the best to choose. One could of course cut it into smaller parts, but to have a better view of that I need to complete the last part, The Man In The Iron Mask, first.

Of the five Musketeer novels into which the serializations have been collected Louise de la Vallière stands out as the novel lacking musketeer presence. Less than a quarter of the novel includes one or more members of the famed musketeers. This also means that all of the action is only found there. The reason for this is that most of the novel focuses on romantic intrigues at the royal court. As such Louise de la Vallière can better be described as an historical romance instead of an historical adventure like the other novels. The intrigues are elaborate, border to silliness, but are also rather entertaining because the behavior of the characters often feels quite odd. I am still quite surprised how fast I have been able to complete this long novel while romance is not a genre I like. Of course the chapters that did contain musketeer action helped a lot to break the romance streak. There was a stark contrast between those chapters and it made me enjoy them to a far greater extend as Dumas made the chapter very witty and the development much unpredictable.

One of the things that saves this long romance is that Dumas uses every possible excuse to create a confrontation between characters. The developments do not always follow logic and often happen too quickly within the timeframe, but this is only noticed when one pays attention to it. Many novels often choose to make the characters avoid each other, creating tension because confrontations just miss or the characters try not to give anything away and create intrigue because the characters don’t know enough. Instead Dumas creates confrontations in which too much is disclosed through heartwrenching dialogues causing great drama and more intrigues and confrontations to follow. It’s great fireworks and in a way also exhausting.

Most of the characterization is done through the dialogues. Dumas only provides some motivational comments so that the reader can put the words of the character in the right perspective. As most of the approach in the dialogue is dramatic and most characters avoid saying things straightforwardly as they don’t want to be misinterpreted, this does make it hard to genuinely understand the character. Many choices are made because or for others and not for the character himself. Many characters are thus acting to provide the right impression and not their true nature. Of course this can be as a representation of the behavior of the people in these times.

Louise de la Vallière is not the best of the Musketeer novels, which is also proven by the fact that it has never been adapted for the TV screen (to my knowledge). It is quite different from the typical Musketeer novels as it focuses on courtly life, but the many silly romantic intrigues do have their perks and are a change from the regular fare.

Robert Jordan – A Memory Of Light

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Getting the last book of a long ongoing series in my hands always make me hesitate beginning to read because once I read the end it will (finally) be over. No more waiting for the next installment, no more thrill of finding out it is out and getting it into my hands. And so the wheel stops turning with A Memory Of Light (2013), the fourteenth book in the epic fantasy series The Wheel Of Time by Robert Jordan, which has been completed by Brandon Sanderson as the author died 6 years ago.

There is one thing I have to say first on this series. The original predicament for the series was pretty standard: the rise of an old great evil to which a chose savior has to bring a stop. This did mean that there could only be two ways it could end: evil wins or good wins. Any other solution would mean the story had not actually ended. Obviously this is a series of which the conclusion is clear, just not all the exact details.

What made the series different from many other similar stories was its scale and scope and that the journey for the savior contained a lot of obstacles. Aside from the savior there were several other main characters that played a pivotal role in the story and also provided the necessary wider scope of events taking place as the savior’s position became far more constricted. So in the end I have to make clear that the joy of reading this series was in the journey towards the goal.

I say this because in the final book everything has to come together and that it has to conclude as many storylines (and there were plenty) as possible before it heads into the expected grand final of the series. This means that A Memory Of Light is quite different from the previous novels as it has a far greater focus. In the early parts there are still some unresolved issues that get some attention. This maybe takes up a quarter of the book. By then the grand final already begins. This perhaps sounds like early, but it has to. Things are never as simple as that.

The so called Last Battle is not one simple clash. It is given more body, more detail and a more realistic (as far as that goes in a fantasy story) approach. The Last Battle splits out into many minor storylines in which many of the main and side characters we have known in the series play their role. Obviously it is impossible to give everyone sufficient attention so this does mean a lot of side characters only get a momentary notice and for the rest we see little or nothing more of them. This is also the point where the novel is not able to deliver. The reader only gets a limited view of what is going on and in the end we don’t know of many what has happened to them. I am still not sure if more attention should have been paid to that. At least there should have been some attention to the general result of the Last Battle. Instead there is only a focus on the conclusion of the story which, for me, was just one the possible variations I had expected and thus did not surprise me or provide me with a certain impact.

Am I dissatisfied with the ending of the series? To a certain extent. As said before, there was never much doubt in which way it would conclude. The only questions were how and who would survive. On that part there were a few small surprises, but overall it was not that brutal as it could be. Besides that the whole layout and process of the Last Battle was done very well. It was engaging and terrible and enriched with many minor storylines that provide different viewpoints and plenty of variation so that it nowhere gets dull.

One of the other issues I had with A Memory Of Light is that certain issues get resolved rather easily and certain aspects that played a role in the earlier story did not get much attention in the end. Some elements in the story don’t get explained so that I still don’t understand how or why they were there. I can think of them myself, but not every reader might be able to.

This time I had more trouble to differentiate between Sanderson’s and Jordan’s writing style. In the previous novel, The Towers Of Midnight, I could recognize Sanderson’s style quite clearly compared to Jordan’s. In The Gathering Storm, the first book that Sanderson completed, Jordan had probably written many parts of already before he died and he probably had written some of the final scenes for A Memory Of Light, leaving the middle part and other gaps for Sanderson to complete. I had expected Sanderson’s style to be noticeable in A Memory Of Light as well, but I was unable to although there were some moments I thought I did. Either he managed to mimic the style better or he has grown into it as he is still a developing writer. The consistent or similar style is a positive note as it is important that a series can be completed in the same voice.

My final opinion of A Memory Of Light is in general positive. There are some weaknesses which are mainly caused by choices for adding details in some places while glancing over things in other places where more details or some more extensive scenes might have made some parts stronger. A book can only have a certain length. An author has to decide to cut out some things to make it all more manageable. The great extensive Last Battle already takes up a lot of the novel. Although I did not get bored or dulled anywhere, other readers might and so one cannot drag it out too long. So it is not a complaint, just a note. Overall I am happy the series is finally concluded as it did drag out a few books too long. Brandon Sanderson did a fine job finishing it and as I already liked his other works before I heard he would take up The Wheel Of Time series I was happy he was chosen as I thought he would be a good choice and I certainly think he was.

P.C. Hodgell – Honor’s Paradox

Monday, January 21st, 2013

The sixth novel in the epic fantasy Kencyrath series by P.C. Hodgell is Honor’s Paradox (2011). It is a straight continuation from the previous novel, Bound In Blood, and one of my early conclusions is that both books should have been one instead of two.

In the previous for novels each told a somewhat standalone story aside from the greater one. By book four, To Ride A Rathorn, this pattern changed. Both Bound In Blood and Honor’s Paradox are closely connected to To Ride A Rathorn in settings, themes and story elements. Overall developments progress more slowly. There are less revelations and Hodgell took her time to explore the world of the Kencyrath more extensively. This is probably also connected to the fact that she took a long time to write the first three novels while she able to be far more productive since the last three. She does not intend to rush the story to the end and as the stories are engaging and odd at the same time, the characters refreshing and the setting quite unique, I have not that much of a problem with that. The only downside of it is that Honor’s Paradox, like Bound In Blood, does not have the spark and impact as the first four novels had, as they explored known paths introduced in To Ride A Rathorn. It is okay to have another novel to conclude these, but they have been split into two novels which gives the feeling (a matter of perspective, but this is how it does work), of it being extended too much. Both novels are not that long that they couldn’t have been combined, although this would result in a doublesized novels compared to all the previous ones.

I have pretty much already disclosed that Honor’s Paradox closes the story arc that started in To Ride A Rathorn. This would not be a spoiler as, noted above, it will finally conclude it as it has been going on too long and that the series can progress to the next stage and explore new paths. I am now actually quite eager to read the next installment.

What to say about Honor’s Paradox? It has a similar rhythm as the previous novel. The prose is fine and easy to read and the events as always amusing and at times sinister. As I think of it there is less attention to the side characters. Hodgell has given them ample time in the previous two novels and doesn’t seem to have much to add to them. There is less drama and conflict. Hodgell tries, but it is all rather of a concluding nature. The story arc needs to be ended and many positions have been made clear already. Hodgell adds in a few revelations but they don’t have much impact.

Even though it is hard to do so, I can only conclude that Honor’s Paradox doesn’t deliver as well as the other novels in the series and is the weakest of all, albeit still being way above the average fantasy novel. As before I could not put the book down and I enjoyed it very much. It is just not the right novel to start the series in if you would do so by accident, but the same can be said for the fifth novel, as you would have missed too much of what has been going on before.

David Weber – On Basilisk Station

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

I’ve started with the first novel of the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The first installment, On Basilisk Station (1993), introduces the titular character in the early stages of her career in the space navy in this military science fiction series. Where many other series usually begin at the school or academy which is always an easy and familiar entry, Weber chose to skip that part as he (apparently) wants military action, not simulation.

Weber uses a fairly traditional space opera setting while using the British Empire as a rough template for the base of the space navy. The background is only lightly explored, mostly in the political sense, as the main protagonist spends all her time on her missions. The military theme dominates as there is very little time spent outside it. We only see the characters in there functional capacity and not much light shines on their personal backgrounds. The reader has to do with the main character.

The novel starts of a little awkward. Instead of providing interesting confrontations the main character is moved to the required position to tell the story. It is at that moment that the story really begins to move and Weber gets into the rhythm he has been looking for as the plot develops rapidly. Although he manages to add a few good twists most of the plot is rather predictable. The cause of this is that Weber seems to let the confrontations of the main character and the side characters go by to easily. Only in the finale he manages to do it better. I haven’t really read pure military science fiction before so I don’t know if it is somewhat part of subgenre. The formality, strict rules and position of the military provides it with constraints that can either be followed or broken. Weber decided to follow them which does support the way the different developments are handled.

One thing that is different from many other novels is that the main character is capable and skilled. There is no stumbling or growing curve. The reader is presented with a character who knows how it works. During the series the reader will (that’s what I expect) see the main character undergo experiences and challenges in which she utilizes her abilities to the extreme. For me it was a nice change to have such a main character. Of course things don’t go that easy and I hope she will counter heavier experiences in the later books.

Due to the military setting and the main character it is the story which drives the novel for the most part and there is plenty of it. Weber keeps up a brisk pace and although the main focus is on the central character he regularly switches scenes to an enemy or certain side characters to give a wide perspective.

Weber’s prose is easy to read and although there is much usage of military terms they are fairly common so that those who have read science fiction before will have a familiar feeling. As he quickly goes from one dramatic scene to the next, it is hard to put the book down as you want to know what happens next even though you can sometimes predict how it will go. Weber weaves several minor themes in the book, and although they are rather common science fiction themes, they are part of the story and give some extra depth to it as he develops them well.

There were a few minor things that could use some improvement. There were a few scenes which were almost copies of each other, where Weber used the same elements in a confrontation although the situation was different. Weber also has the tendency to put his main character in a shining light, either by her colleagues or her enemies. A few times is okay, but he did it just a bit too frequently. Another, very minor, thing were some awkward info dumpings, where Weber presents it as a character reflecting while in fact it goes into too much detail than would be normal. Weber actually creates the problem himself as he needs to explain details that the reader would not understand, but the character would.

Either way, the minor things only happen a few times, so it’s only noticeable for someone like me who pays attention to such things. On Basilisk Station is on a whole an engaging pageturner and a fun read. I did enjoy it despite the predictability and the limiting military setup. I will certainly read more as I secretly hope Weber will head for the heavy confrontations and experiences and that this is a more friendly introduction, although I would not read too many after each other because I fear (and expect) that it would tire me out quickly and that would be a waste. This is a well written mainstream science fiction novel and as it is a subgenre which I haven’t dwelled in before I can safely explore more of this series. I do think that I won’t read other military science fiction novels soon as it is too constricted and just not something I want to read too much of. If you want to try military SF or like it already, this one I can recommend.

 

First haul of the new year

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

It’s been a while since I got myself some new books and in my first haul I managed to update my Wanted Books list, as I found Honor’s Paradox (2011) by P.C. Hodgell in the store, the sixth and latest novel of her epic fantasy Kencyrath novels. Helped by them being on discount I also picked up two novels of two other series. The first are books 1 and 3 of the Honor Harrington military science fiction series by David Weber, named On Basilisk Station (1993) and The Short Victorious War (1994) respectively. A friend of mine had tipped them to me long ago and although I had gotten digital versions I disliked reading from the screen so much that I never started on them. Now that I found a novel in the store and on discount I had to give it a try now. As there was another novel of the series on discount I decided to get it as well, as I don’t go shopping that often and it could be sold before I get there again. The same reasoning I applied to books 2 and 3 of the Necromancer Chronicles, a fantasy series by Amanda Down, named The Bone Palace (2010) and The Kingdoms Of Dust (2011). I had read and excerpt of book 1 (promotion excerpts for other books in pocket editions are quite common these days, I do say it has its uses, but it rarely helps), and had thought it decent enough. Finding a discount then helps crossing the threshold for trying them. The downside is that I don’t have the first novel. I am somewhat inclined to wait and see if I can get the first book cheaply before starting on the series. My experiences from the past few years have been mixed when not starting as series with the first novel. At least I have 2 novels I do can start on while I’m currently also reading others. It’s better to have something you’re reading than not getting to decide on what to read next.

J.K. Rowling – The Harry Potter novels

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

The past 2 weeks I have been re-immersing myself into the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, spending most of my free time reading them again without much of a break. Now I have been thinking if I should review each novel separately or write a grand review of all the novels together. The reason for this is that the Harry Potter novels have been immensely popular worldwide. Some consider it a modern classic. There is thus no real need to promote them or convince someone to try them if they have been in doubt. Among my own family and friends I know no-one who didn’t like them, not counting those who are really not interested in fantasy or reading. Even people who usually don’t read or avoid fantasy have read them. Another reason to review them together is that it requires some effort to write distinguishable reviews where I don’t repeat myself as there are many elements in the books which remain consistent throughout the series. And besides that it is nice to give some comparison between the books. So this is a grand review of 7 books, where I give my thoughts on the series.

Where to start? The series is a Young Adult fantasy series in which each subsequent novel grows in complexity and approach to fit the age of the developing reader. The first books are written on a lower level, and most of all, faster paced and much shorter in length, while the later novels are heavy tomes that take more time to tell the story. The series is also very accessible to adult readers who find much to enjoy and can recognize many elements from their own youth while the prose is nowhere too light and simplistic. The series consists of seven novels: The Philosopher’s Stone (1997), The Chamber Of Secrets (1998), The Prisoner Of Azkaban (1999), The Goblet Of Fire (2000), The Order Of The Phoenix (2003), The Half-Blood Prince (2005) and The Deathly Hallows (2007). Originally I started with the novels after The Goblet Of Fire, as the first novels were more or less depicted as children’s novels, while the next two were seen as more enjoyable for adult readers. Praises by friends made me change my mind. Enough to say that once I started I was immediately hooked.

From that angle I can state that I greatly enjoy the whole series. There is very little to criticize and even these are just minor things. So what is so good about them? Personally I think it is most of all the great plotting. Each novels tells its own story with a clear beginning and ending while there is also a greater story told that connects all of them. Each plot is wonderfully crafted with great complexity and many layers that has an Agatha Christie quality to them with the main difference that this is no who-dunnit but a real story with strong characters, fun ideas and depth. Having reread all the novels after each other I was able to recognize minor comments in the early novels that in the later books played a larger role. It is a joy to notice them.

After the plotting the characterization is also one of the strong points. The books contain many characters and Rowling manages to give each of them a voice although there many side-characters don’t get much attention. They are all recognizable but nowhere cliché. Many stand out with their unique habits and characteristics and they are always fun to encounter again. It is almost a shame Rowling keeps her focus on the three main characters of the books, although this is required to keep the books and stories manageable.

What struck me quite much during the reread were the many strong scenes in the novels. There is very little redundant text during most scenes. Rowling uses all the words she needs to create the right effect and doesn’t use too much. Each scene carried its own emotion, be it anguish, fear, happiness, anger or calm. Everything is painted vividly to the eye of the reader’s imagination while Rowling avoids describing too many details. Only those that give the setting the right feeling. The reader will fill in the details himself.

What the novels have in common is a consistent style in the use of prose. Rowling introduces many new words that are frequently used in the universe of Harry Potter. A whole new vocabulary is used. Without making it look silly or forced she avoids the use of swear words or curses and creates children friendly alternatives that feel right and funny. It is full with catchy phrases and expressions which quickly become familiar and characteristic of the world of Harry Potter.

Criticism of the novels usually entails Rowling’s use of familiar components that have been used for ages. The orphan, the coming-of-age story, the dark lord, the school setting and this in combination of the most common depiction of witchcraft and wizardry. Personally I believe there is nothing wrong about this. True originality becomes harder and harder as more stories are created in which almost any variation becomes covered. The only way to distinguish oneself is by creating a mix of common components that together form something greater. After all they are only used as a framework, a setting for the story. All the plots in the novels themselves are in my opinion unique in their setup and complexity and how the different storylines are woven together. Taken outside of the context of the novels, the plots of books 1, 2, 4 and 5 are familiar. Rowling however makes something new and original of them by adding a lot of different elements that have not been used for them before. And in my opinion this is always the toughest thing in writing: to write something that works. It’s similar to cooking: you can throw a lot of ingredients together, but the ingredients require the right amount, the right order and the right time to create something that tastes well and in this regard Rowling has done a perfect job.

Looking back at the seven books I can divide them into pairs. As the number is uneven one isn’t paired. This is book 5, The Order Of The Phoenix. All the other have things in common with each other.

The first two books, The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber Of Secrets, belong to the shortests novels. They both have a fast pace and the emotional impact is low (compared to the other novels). The events are not as personal as later in the series. There is still some distance between the characters and what is happening. Both stories are directly related to the great evil adversary of the series, although he comes in an incomplete disguise. Both books are on a low entry level, more children’s book (as mentioned before), as the main weak points in the novels are found in the weakness (or nastiness) of the hurdles that need to be overcome in comparison to the abilities of the characters. Both novels are quick reads. Due to the short length the pace is relatively high. The characters don’t really have much time to be explored.

In the next two books, The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Goblet Of Fire, Rowling expands the depth and background of the story considerably. Both focus on events related to the greater story and explore events that happened in the past. The great evil adversary is almost absent in both and in both novels the main characters are finally getting prepared for the battles to come, something which was lacking before. Both novels carry much more emotion. Harry Potter is threatened directly and he learns that much is not what it seems in a web of betrayal, lies and manipulation.

In my opinion, especially after my reread, the fifth book, The Order Of The Phoenix, is the pinnacle of the series. Harry Potter goes through the greatest ordeals and shows great emotional and character development. He uses what he has learned before and prepares for what is to come in the final two books. It is no wonder this is the largest of the seven books, because it contains so much.

The final pair, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, is all about disclosure. We finally get to the truth of the greater plot which is now taking over. School events in The Half-Blood Prince take a lot less prominence. The pace is lower and there is no direct threat for the first time since The Philosopher’s Stone. The plots is much simpler. Rowling needs to resolve matters. One could say it’s the silence before the storm. The shocking finale provides the setup for the last novel which starts with a bang, then slogs down and then steadily gains speed heading for a strong and lengthy finale. In the matter of events and action both novels are weaker than the other novels. One could also see it as a change towards maturity. The main characters have experienced a lot, they have learned and don’t rush at things anymore. One can see these as weaknesses, but the novels develop as much as the characters do. None is the same and they reflect the state of the main characters. As said, I see the last two books as a pair. The Half-Blood Prince is the preparation for The Deathly Hallows. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to give the reader the chance to get a good picture of the greater whole after rushing everything for five books and provide a satisfactory conclusion.

I already mentioned a few minor weak points to the novels. A weak point in general concerns the whole concept of the magic school. For me it is unclear how much the characters actually learn. The complexity of spells seems rather random, especially compared to when they are taught. Overall the usage of spells seems rather limited as the characters use the same spells most of the time. The only times they seemed to learn more was when they took matters into their own hands. Sometimes spells only need to be heard once to copy them while others take huge effort. Of course it is too much effort for an author to have everything required ready, but some organization seems to be lacking. It is only a minor annoyance and I’m only noticing it now that I’ve read the novels shortly after each other.

With this I think I have said plenty about the Harry Potter novels. I’ve read the series now three times and the third time I’ve enjoyed it even more than before, which says much about it already. It is a modern classic which I do expect will survive the times and will give many generations much reading pleasure.

2012 Revisited

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

The year has passed already and it ended a bit low on my reading activity. The last two months there was little activity so that my good run didn’t come close to my score of the previous year. I managed to read 62 books (as usual not counting non-fiction) and a total of 26,789 pages, giving an average of 430 pages per book. It’s 15 books less than last year, although I have to add that I didn’t get to review a few books I read during the holidays. Still, I consider 62 books not bad. Most people read less and I don’t have an e-reader, which gives me a higher threshold to trying and reading new books. Although I love reading, I don’t want it to take up too much of my free time as I have other interests and want to have some bit of a social life as well. We will see what this year brings.