Archive for April, 2013

Peter F. Hamilton – Great North Road

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Whenever Peter F. Hamilton writes a novel he makes sure to put in as many words as possible. His latest, Great North Road (2012), is a big one with almost 1100 pages. I don’t mind that, as long as it is written well. Luckily I’ve been reading Hamilton’s novels for some years and although it began with a rough start I can state it has always been easy as the prose is solid and the storytelling right on the mark and nowhere dreary. I know other writers who like the write big books, but most of them simply add words with little relevance that do not contribute much to the story.

Hamilton has been one of the few science fiction authors who has managed to claim a place on my top list. I don’t really need to think about buying a new novel by him and I can just pick it up if I see it. Here I do have to add I haven’t read the story collection he publish a few years ago, but that is mainly because I’m not that much of a short story fan. Their limited length simply fail to satisfy me sufficiently, most of the times.

Great North Road is actually a detective set in a future environment. For a change the time leap is not as great as in his previous novels so the setting contains a lot of familiar elements. The story is also quite earthbound. This time no space battles, sequences of space travel or explorations of future or alien tech. Personally I don’t think an SF author should always stick to the same game to prevent becoming repetitive and find some new challenges. Nevertheless quite some Hamilton tropes remain, like strange not-understood aliens and an array of rather eccentric or peculiar characters.

As usual the cast of characters is huge. A change however is that Hamilton spends more time on characterization. In essence there are five main protagonists (if I am counting right) of which two take center stage. Hamilton spends plenty of time with them to give them all the space they need. Also new in this novel are many sequences of flashbacks that he uses to fill in backgrounds. They are not annoying. Most of the story takes place in two settings so they provide some variation, not only in setting but also in mood and atmosphere. Hamilton also uses the flashbacks to showcase the new universe he has created as the two central settings are very focused and there is relatively little movement. He has spent time developing the new universe and does not want to leave them in the background. I can say that chances are low that Hamilton will write another book in this universe, so it is actually nice to see and know more.

All the time spent on the characters and the flashbacks add more layers to the story. They do not cause complexity but allow Hamilton to create a greater weave which he gradually connects with each other.

The central part of the plot that he has created, which is the storyline focusing on the murder case, is highly peculiar and utterly fascinating. Hamilton wrote investigation storylines before but here he takes it to a new level. It is new and refreshing. Everything happens in a slightly different way that we are used to and that just made it captivating to me.

Around the central part revolves a second storyline. This centers less around the now but more about what happened before and how it affects what happened later. Unfortunately this part is not very original. There are some peculiarities but overall we’ve seen it before. Another downside is that the storyline starts to drag on as it progresses. It is here that the length of the story is felt. Developments are slower and more repetitive. This is simply caused by the fact that Hamilton is not hurrying and does everything step by step until he reached the conclusion. Perhaps he was enjoying himself playing it all out meticulously.

As one can suspect the murder case storyline gets solved before the other storyline. The subsequent endgame then takes to long and the conclusion is suddenly wrapped up quickly. It almost felt as if Hamilton noticed the story was getting too long and that now he had written what he had needed to write, the loose ends were not that interesting anymore and he wanted to be done with. It almost seemed that Hamilton was taking the easy way out. Not that it would be implausible, it was just somewhat unlikely and that was rather in stark contrast to the careful worldbuilding and real people that he had developed.

So the book all around is 99% strong to good with the last 1% having a glitch. I would even have accepted it if Hamilton would have just left the last 20 pages out as these are just silliness in my opinion. No reason to give this novel some bad marks. Endings are always though. In such cases an open ending would be better than to quickly wrap everything up.

There is one last remark I do want to make. The actual plot is not that complex that is it justifies such a big novel. Hamilton simply added details, layers and flashbacks to expand it as much as he could. It did not hurt the pace as he kept that a good constant, although it was nowhere fast. One would almost think he abused the credit he has built up over the years with the big novels that did require all the space they needed. Normally this novel would have been cut to a third of its length (I’m serious) and one would have not lost anything important. Well, that’s just my opinion. Not that I say it’s too long. I love a long and great read and a short book means I will spend less time enjoying myself and thrill will be over far too soon. Anyhow, this is another great one by Peter F. Hamilton. Recommended.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – Thuvia, Maid Of Mars

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Thuvia, Maid Of Mars (1920) is the fourth novel in Edgar Rice BurroughsJohn Carter series.  The novel is the first in a new cycle of stories taking place on Mars, or Barsoom as it is called in the series. The first three novels had their focus on the main protagonist of the series and formed a sort of trilogy. Thuvia, Maid Of Mars has the son of John Carter as the central character. Not that he is so much different, but Burroughs uses it to create a new romance on the titular maiden as John Carter is bound in married life. Although the romance is the center piece of the story, much that takes place is actually adventure and action. The romance only drives the tale. The outcome is clear from the start. The only questions which remain are which hurdles have to be taken.

The story is fast paced. There is hardly any time for contemplation. In the meanwhile Burroughs introduces new ideas and peoples. The only question that I personally had was to which extent those ideas were original and the first occurrence of them in a science fiction story. I don’t read that much very old science fiction although I do aim to read the classics, like the Barsoom novels by Burroughs. I also assume that these are considered classics because they introduced for the first time concepts and ideas that would define later mainstream science fiction novels. Thuvia, Maid Of Mars is a short novel so there is not much space to put in many new things. There is only one set of related ideas that felt very familiar although I hadn’t encountered them in this form. So in that sense it was new too. It is actually this component which makes the novel a more than interesting read.

Lacking time for contemplation, the characters remain are rather flat. The few personal thoughts that Burroughs spends time on are mainly focused on primary issues than providing some depth or insight into the characters. Of course Burroughs’ aim in writing these stories was more to entertain and play with alien races and cultures than to showcase a fantastic setting for a well constructed story as his predecessors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were prone to do. One thing that does show is that Burroughs is well immersed into the Barsoom universe. It is unique and has a distinct atmosphere. It is alien while the aforementioned authors based themselves more on an earthly perspective. This is what makes this novel something more than just an average or even poor novel compared to today’s standards. One has to read it with the time it was written in in mind, which I tried to, and then there is much interesting to see, as Burroughs has a good writing style which will keep the reader going and that’s a quality that is always important in any novel.

One last note concerns the ending. It seemed somewhat abrupt to me and the story stopped suddenly while different matters were still unresolved. Perhaps it will conclude in a later novel although I had expected some storylines to be extended more. Now I am just not certain. At least it will push me to continue on. That said, I have not been reading this novel with great intent. I would not particularly recommend this novel. It is more for collectors like me who like to explore more of the classics in science fiction as one usually only reads the most successful books while the remaining ones are usually harder to find or get. As I have done so before I have discovered that it is often worthwhile to read the “other” books as well as they enrich the experience and the universe that has been created.

 

Stephen King – The Wind Through The Keyhole

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Great was the surprise of many fans of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King when he published a new novel 8 years after he completed it. As I am a great fan of the series myself, I could stop myself from being thrilled. The new novel, The Wind Through The Keyhole (2012), does not continue the story. Instead King uses an opening between the events of the fourth novel, Wizard And Glass, and the fifth novel, Wolves Of The Calla, to tell a three-leveled story. In fact, the story is a story within a story within a story.

The first level provides the connection with the Dark Tower cycle. As it should not conflict with anything happening in the later story it is of a very minor substance. Even so it is great to meet the central characters of the series again and with only some limited scenes he provides the reader with the familiar touch that defines each character.

In the second level King once again, after Wizard And Glass, goes into the background and history of the main character of which the reader had mainly seen glimpses. I have to say I much anticipated this return and I simply drank in the words. The story itself is not that complex. With several different stories in one novel the space is limited. The story is actually pretty much a canvas unto which King adds new insights and answers to old mysteries, making them part of something else instead of giving them straightforwardly.

The third level is supposed to be an old tale of the Dark Tower universe. Instead King could not control himself. There is a lot of detail in the story and certain elements are clearly connected to the Dark Tower cycle instead of the tale itself. There were certain things the narrator of the story could not know or some things that would provide insights which he should have been using. Some things don’t even seem to belong in the tale. It is a peculiar story. More one that King would tell on the Dark Tower universe than that a native would or could tell about his own. The details also conflict with the idea that it is a children’s story. It is certainly not the right way to have told it. Nevertheless, because of those details and insights, it makes a highly interesting read. The story itself starts fairly clich√© and it takes some time before it starts to blossom and become something far more.

Personally I enjoyed the second level tale the most, although it is less complete than the third level story. The Wind Through The Keyhole is certainly a great addition to the series and it holds up to the same quality. As there are more untold background stories I can only say that I hope King will be inspired to write some more. Highly recommended.