Archive for February, 2013

Ian C. Esslemont – Orb Sceptre Throne

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

If anyone had been searching for a sequel to The Malazan Book Of The Fallen then Orb Sceptre Throne (2012) by Ian C. Esslemont would be it. While Steven Erikson wrote the above mentioned series, Esslemont, his partner in creating the world of the Malazan Empire, has been tackling the so-called side-events taking place in the same universe and exploring parts of the world they created that were only heard of in the epic fantasy series.

This is the fourth book he has written and this one takes up a storyline that has been lingering since the first book of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen and remained unfinished after the eight book of the series, Toll The Hounds. In a way one can see Orb Sceptre Throne as a sequel to that novel. There are a few minor storylines from Esslemont’s earlier books that continue here as well, but most of the storylines in the novel are all related to the central story arc. In that Esslemont keeps up at staying onto fairly standalone  novels, although one needs to have read the books of the Fallen to appreciate them fully.

In more than one way Orb Sceptre Throne wraps up old storylines and brings them to, although perhaps temporary, a conclusion. Some mysteries are finally unraveled. The tragic element that was part of his and Erikson’s books is diminished much. So much has happened already that more would not leave much left. In that sense the ending is rather timid. I had expected a great clash, but it didn’t happen. Matters got resolved without reverting to them. In a way that was disappointing. Nevertheless it is good for a change to see that great destruction and violence is not always the answer so I did appreciate how Esslemont handled it.

The story was well crafted in the typical style we are used to, quickly switching between characters and scenes.  For a change there are less greater powers active which reduces the tone of the events to a more down to earth nature, although plenty of supernatural stuff keeps happening.

Esslemont’s writing style has always been very similar to that of Steven Erikson. Because his earlier novels followed characters that Erikson hadn’t touched it remained hard to really compare them. In Orb Sceptre Throne most of the characters used have been introduced and used much by Erikson. I was thus very interested in how well Esslemont could preserve their peculiar characteristics. I have to say he did so very well. I had only a feeling that there were minor differences, but I couldn’t point them out.  Should two authors be so similar in style? I don’t really mind. Esslemont does have a different voice and the similarity makes his and Erikson’s novels form a greater unity than it might have had.

I had great joy to read more stories taking place in the Malazan universe and Orb Sceptre Throne is a good addition to the series. It closes a number of old open ends which means that the next stories will contain more new things, about which I am in great anticipation. Recommended.

 

David Weber – Flag In Exile

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Flag In Exile (1995) is the fifth book in the Honor Harrington series, a military science fiction by David Weber.  While the novel continues the story in the previous novel Field Of Dishonor, it is readable as a standalone book. A main change within the plot is that the greater conflict, a.k.a. war, of the series has now commenced in full. At the same time the main character seems to be sidelined, both mentally as politically. Fortunately her chosen location provides her the means to return into the game.

Flag In Exile mixes planetary events with activities in outer space. In that sense it is more like the first novel of the series, On Basilisk Station. Differences are that there is not as much action and the pace is somewhat lower.  Much is focused on the grand finale so it takes some reading before the story goes all out.

The main character has undergone some heavy ordeals in the previous novel and still suffers from it in this one. To Weber the main character is his heroine so whatever still plagues her does not inflict as heavy troubles as it could have been. As usual he remains somewhat lenient on her. The drama isn’t taken as far as it could have been. Of course one can attribute it to the strong will and character of the main character to be able to overcome her hurdles so quickly. This prevents heavier drama to follow as the main character keeps it under control. Weber does show the vulnerability caused by earlier experiences is still there.  As said in previous reviews, the way Weber portrays the main character is not a flaw and that he doesn’t take the drama further isn’t either. I mainly mention them because they are obvious paths that could have been taken in the story. Weber limits the heavy drama to a few and keeps the others at bay. Describing these choices reflect how the story is set up so you know what you will get.

The story itself is engaging, although one some parts it remains rather mundane for a science fiction novel. Weber doesn’t cover much ground that is original or extending or crossing boundaries. He stays within the familiar limits of the genre. His only original contribution is on space travel and space ships which has been well developed. The main focus lies on space warfare so he chooses not to spend too much time on details that are not related to it. The question that remains with me is if he puts his focus where his strengths are or that he could have developed the non-space warfare elements in a better way. That would certainly have improved the overall standing of the series. Now it remains rather mainstream, however well written and structured the space warfare is.

With Flag In Exile Weber keeps a certain level of quality after the good Field Of Dishonor. Among the novels until now it is about average in quality which is a positive thing as the novels keep me reading on. Turning the pages comes easily and that is always a good thing.

 

David Weber – Field Of Dishonor

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

The fourth novel in the Honor Harrington series by David Weber makes a big change compared to the previous novels which were more of a standalone nature. It is still military science fiction, but this time little time takes place in space and there are no space battles. Field Of Dishonor (1994) is actually a direct continuation of the third book in the series, The Short Victorious War, and combines continuations of the storylines from the first three novels and the effects they have on the new story.

Field Of Dishonor contains exactly what I was missing in the previous novels. The characters take center place as they are now outside the regular spaceship setting and are able to behave and act without the normal constraints within the military. There is much more personal drama and character development and this brings everything much more to the front.I really liked it and consider it a vast improvement.

The story is not all that perfect. There are some minor details that Weber glances over of which I had expected him to spend some time on if he was really trying to go all out. He also pulls out more rabbits out of the hat that seem a bit too convenient for the main character. There are more struggles but he still refrains from going all the way. He remains somewhat protective of his main character, making her a bit too skilled on too many fields. However, a writer is allowed to choose his own approach to how he wants to portray and present his characters and it is also a subjective thing as each reader is different. By and by I should also remind myself that this novel is from the early nineties in which the science fiction genre was still quite different from what we are used to nowadays in science fiction.

All in all I consider Field Of Dishonor the best of the series until now. The plot of the first novel was better, but it loses on some style issues which Weber managed to get rid of mostly afterwards.Field Of Dishonor is more dramatic while still being a pageturner despite the lesser action, and it made me very eager to read the next installment as with this novel Weber breaks the standalone pattern and makes it part of the greater story. This book is still readable as a standalone work although it would spoil much of the events from the first three books. This one’s recommended.

 

James Cook – The Journals

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I was not sure what to expect when I started to read The Journals (1779) by James Cook, the famous explorer. It is an abridged version covering his three expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. The book is more than 600 pages long, so there is plenty coverage of events.

While it is an official journal describing the daily progress and technical details and complications of the journey, Cook adds in a lot of observations. He is not simply recording where they are and what they encounter, he also tries to understand the people and cultures he meets and explain it in the right frame of mind. He is not simply an explorer, he pursues scientific research. He is careful in his approach, prefers to hold back and not judge too quickly, avoiding violence if possible even if the people he encounters have rather barbaric habits. He tries to understand them and does not push his values upon them. He is knowledgeable on previous explorations of the unknown and the errors that were made in those, leading to enmity and misunderstanding between explorers and natives. He tries not to abuse them from his superior position, although his expedition is limited in resources he always needs to trade for food in the most profitable way as he does not know how long his journeys will be.

While writing his accounts on what takes place, the reader gets insight in his character and behavior. He also gives his opinion on the situations he encounters. Often he seems very lenient towards the natives he encounters. This is only as long as they don’t cross certain boundaries that might cause undesired side effects. When this happens he immediately steps into action and does not stop until matters are resolved to his satisfaction while making sure he limits any negative impact from his actions. This approach made me reminiscent of the so-called Prime Directive from the Star Trek series. Cook himself reminded me much of captain Picard from the Next Generation Star Trek series. It almost seemed to me that his character had to be inspired by Cook. Because of his personal contribution to the journal it also resembles much of a diary. So this is not just a travel book, but also a partial autobiography.

The journals cover three expeditions. The first is to the Pacific Ocean. This is very new territory and most of the serious discoveries take place on this first journey.  It is also the most dramatic of the three journeys. Cook encounters more dangers and hardships than on the other expeditions.

The second expedition aims at finding the unknown southern continent. As we already know there is only ice there is not much to discover. Even so, Cook returns to some of the places he has been before and some new ones in between his attempts to find the southern continent. As he spent much less time in those places during the first journey we get a better view.

The third journey aims at exploring the northern Pacific Ocean, especially the Arctic. This is a quite different kind of journey. In the first place is the style of the journal. Cook lets go of the daily notifications and tries to write more of a travel story than a journal. Before heading to the northern Pacific he returns to earlier places and spends much more time there, giving many more details of rituals and other local matters. In his behavior Cook has also changed. He has less patience with the nasty habits of the natives and he treats them harsher. Perhaps he believes they should know better after several visits.

The abridged version focuses mainly on the discoveries and the events the expedition encounters. General descriptions of the lands and details that are similar to earlier ones that have been described are mostly left out. Only in a few cases I wanted to have read them. In most cases I was fine with the chosen cuts.

The edition I read kept Cook’s original writing style. Most prominent is the lack of consistency in the way he writes his words. Often he uses a phonetic version and this version can vary as well as if he is not sure how to write certain words. Fortunately it does not hamper the readability of the journals. One just has to get used to it and then it reads easily enough. Despite the use of phonetic words Cook’s prose is quite readable. I’ve read old journals before and I had much more trouble with them. I had expected I would need several to many months to finish this book, but it went much faster. Nevertheless this is not a book to read in long sessions. I simply read for like an hour per day and that worked fine.

The Journals of James Cook is certainly a very interesting read to anyone wanting to know about late eighteenth century shipfaring and the Pacific cultures and peoples of those times, even when you don’t know what it all means, but you know as much as the explorers do so you feel like you are part of the mission. It is a fine story of a careful and scientific approach to exploration. I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more than I expected.

 

David Weber – The Short Victorious War

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

After two more or less introductory novels David Weber sets off for the central conflict of his Honor Harrington series. The Short Victorious War (1994) is very much a military science fiction novel. Very important in such a dominating themed series is keeping the stories in the novels distinct enough to prevent things becoming repetitive or formulaic.

The main differences in The Short Victorious War consist of two elements. The first is that the main character is not in the lead for a change. She is part of a team and answering to a superior now. This restricts her actions and behavior but it also lessens her responsibilities. This different setting lacks some tension compared to the earlier books. It is however how one would expect it to be. It mainly means that we get to experience some other sides of the main character.

The second difference with the previous books is the approach of the story. It takes much more time before the real action kicks in. In fact, Weber develops his story analogue to an elaborate chess game. A lot of strategy is involved from different sides. Weber adds in as many viewpoints next to his main character’s one as he deems necessary. Besides providing some variation it also fills in some gaps and heightens the anticipation to what is going to happen in the story. As the events take place in space and both antagonists are unaware of what the other is doing it takes a lot of time before one can act once the proper information is available to make choices from. The main downside of all of this is that you pretty much already will know to some extent what will probably happen, even if you don’t know all the details.

I already mentioned this weakness in David Weber’s story in the previous novel, which also suffered a bit from this. The first novel contained far more events that could not be predicted. That story contained far more layers and complexity. The scale however was much smaller. The scale of the second novel was somewhat larger and the scale in this novel is even much larger than before. As events develop much more slowly there is less room for a fast pace and surprises. Weber at least doesn’t take his time to do so. He spends most of his time setting up and playing his wargame. He clearly enjoys it and he works it out well so there is not much to complain on that part. The story lacks serious drama or conflicts. Weber adds a bit to give his character at least some personal development, but it all does not impress that much. It seems to be there for the variation and do some more than spending all the time on the wargame.

One minor personal annoyance that has crept up after reading three books of the series is Weber’s habit of nicknaming characters with common names using the familiar versions. Of course nicknaming is not that uncommon, it is just that he only uses those that are common and leaves others unaffected. In a way it provides some slack in the mandatory behavior required in the military environment, but Weber makes it sounding often a bit too easygoing. A bit more formality would have been nicer, although that is just a matter of preference.

Overall The Short Victorious War plays out a little bit better than the previous novel. It still falls short to the complexity, drama and fast pace of the first novel. Nevertheless, despite the lower pace, Weber keeps writing an engaging story in which the pages keep turning with ease. After three books I am far from impressed by the series. It feels rather mainstream and it helps a lot that Weber writes in a very convincing way. His universe is not very complicated and he stays close to familiar environments. It does not stand out, although I have to admit it’s a fairly fun read. I had expected longer breaks in between books that get some breath and on this I turned out to be wrong, so that is a good thing.

 

David Weber – The Honor Of The Queen

Monday, February 18th, 2013

I continue my journey into military science fiction with The Honor Of The Queen (1993) by David Weber, the second novel of his Honor Harrington series. Like it’s predecessor the novel contains a fairly standalone story, taking place a few years after the events in On Basilisk Station. As the characters are part of a space navy they get reassigned frequently, which means few characters remain. Obviously the main character, Honor Harrington, is the one we do follow throughout the series.

A new setting and many new characters allow an author to show certain skill in defining and portraying them. Unfortunately Weber does a half-hearted job and only some characters get some deepening. Unlike the previous novel, this story quickly goes into action mode and a lot of space is taken up by space battles, allowing little room for characterization.

It doesn’t help that Weber stays on familiar ground. The new setting that provides the conflicts is nothing peculiar or original. It is one of the general weaknesses of the series until now that most of the planets and cultures, for as far as Weber spends time on them, are based on western culture. On Basilisk Station still had a primitive alien race that provided some weirdness. None of such are to be found in this novel.

The story itself, mainly focused on the space conflicts, is done well. Weber provides sufficient variation so that not everything takes place aboard a space ship in a military environment. He gives the main character some setbacks to overcome, although he provides a twist that make things easier for her, while the greater challenge would have been more interesting. Even so, doing so might have endangered the desired outcome of the story, so one could call it acceptable.

Weber writes an easily accessible story. There are some technical naval details which show efforts on developing these elements of the story, making it a bit harder SF. Luckily he doesn’t spend too much time on it. The story moves at a good pace and is engaging enough to make the novel a page turner. In the end, however, the novel lacks some originality and characterization, making it a lesser novel than the first on several accounts. Nevertheless he shows the willingness to make some tough choices. This inclines me to expect he will be able to do more and improve later in the series. I’m not really hooked yet, but there is a clear sign the larger plot will start coming into play eventually, making the first novels more of an introductory kind. Thus I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Robert V.S. Redick – The Ruling Sea

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

The voyage truly begins in The Ruling Sea (2010), the second book of The Chathrand Voyage, a fantasy series by Robert V.S. Redick. In the first book most events still took place on land. This time that is much reduced and the titular ship is now the location of the majority of the story development. In a way this means less variation. On the other hand a setting which is more limited allows more space for character interaction and development.

However, it takes some time before Redick gets there. The novel starts slowly. There are still events from the first novel to be played out and Redick takes his time for it. I guess this is the main weakness of Redick’s story. The story contains a number of destinations and the chance is big that they need to be reached as any large twist will automatically endanger several destinations. Thus the reader has to be served with the journey. Luckily Redick puts in a great effort to create a lot of twists and struggles for the main characters to overcome and he manages to avoid getting predictable there. He makes fair use of the constrained setting while adding a few small story threads for some extra variation.

One thing that added to the unpredictability is that the majority of the main characters are still young and unexperienced. Or rather, they lack sensibility despite the hardships they have gone through. One important aspect is that there is a lack of real unity and most of all, leadership. Everybody does something different and even the adults fail miserably. Even among their adversaries there is not much consistency and it is on both these accounts that I got a little annoyed at times. Sure it adds up to the unpredictability, but it also causes me to feel less connected to the characters. As mentioned earlier, the setting allowed to go more into the deep with the characters. Instead, Redick took them mainly into varying situations of conflict and unpredictable behavior. So in the end I had some mixed feelings about the characterization.

Funnily enough I started to notice some plot analogies to The Lord Of The Rings. A bunch of unexperienced youths trying to keep their enemy from obtaining an evil object while trying to destroy it, with familiar kinds of companions. Of course fantasy quests always have many similarities. It is the combination of elements and characters that gave me the familiar feeling. The plot development and the story approach is of course very different. I mainly mention it to find out if others agree to some extent.

I am unable to say if this novel is better or worse than the first novel. This is in a way a middle novel as it opens immediately after the events of the first book and does not really reach a conclusion. Redick does provide a surprising and compelling finale so that it contains some conclusions to a few minor story threads. I thus have to say Redick keeps the quality of the story at the same level as the first novel. There were some minor things on which I had some mixed feelings. Overall it can be named as rather original and unpredictable and I cannot compare it to any other series I’ve read, so those are all very positive points. I certainly want to find out what happens next although there is not the eagerness I have with other series when the book has reached its end.

 

Alexandre Dumas – The Man In The Iron Mask

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I have finally completed the large three-part sequence dubbed Ten Years Later, written by Alexandre Dumas. It is the third installment in his Musketeer saga, in which the four heroes have become old men, something that is also reflected in their behavior in the story. Due to the large size of Ten Years Late, it being originally a serialization published weekly, it is usually cut into three parts: The Vicomte De Bragelonne, Louise De La Vallière and The Man In The Iron Mask (1847). Now that I have completed them all I can conclude that the separation into three is the best. Smaller parts could be possible, but especially the last two parts shouldn’t be read too long after each other as there are some minor events in Louise De La Vallière that echo on in The Man In The Iron Mask. I read The Vicomte De Bragelonne over a year ago and I never felt I was missing on much.

In The Man In The Iron Mask the four musketeers take full presence again after staying mostly on the background in Louise De La Vallière. There is a change in pace compared to the previous novel which main characters were young and with mind filled with silly dalliances. The four musketeers are no longer acting on impulse and always on the action. There is much reflection and deliberation. The characters hold on to their great past and this affects their behavior and reactions. They have regrets and ambitions they would like to fulfill before their end. This novel is much more serious and looks more into their psychology. Dumas also had the intention to make this the final story and he thus works towards a conclusion, spending much time with the characters individually.

Compared to the first two parts The Man In The Iron Mask has much less story. The main premise which has been adapted to the screen so often is relatively short and the surrounding events are stretched out to a great extend. There is a long foreplay and afterplay. Perhaps this is what makes it more easily adaptable compared to the other stories which have too many threads or lack a central theme. The story contains also rather little real action. There is one sequence which is more tragic than heroic.

The musketeers have become old men and it shows. On this part Dumas has shown over the series true character development. He held on to their core characteristics. The accompanying behavior is reflected in their station in life and their past experiences. This has changed gradually throughout the story and the conclusion shows this as well.

Now that I look back I can only say that the fame of the Musketeer saga is quite justified. Of course it is not perfect as Dumas wrote with great speed and not great accuracy. Many scenes seem extended to create the most drama and effect he can obtain. However this is not bothersome. It creates an atmosphere of its own. The many characters are quite distinct. One gets to love or hate them as Dumas intends. After 160 years the story still stands. They are not easily accessible due to the style which is so different from contemporary prose. One needs to hang on and get used to its rhythm and then you will not be able to let go.