Archive for January, 2014

Adam Christopher – The Age Atomic

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

While The Age Atomic (2013) by Adam Christopher is in many regards a science fiction novel, it takes place in the past of a slightly alternative Earth. I had not expected there to be a sequel to the novel Empire State even as there still were some loose ends. I had imagined it to be an idea he wanted to explore and develop and as such he concocted an engaging tale in it with the atmosphere of a noir. I was thus somewhat surprised there was a sequel and it was certain for me that I would pick it up. There were still some loose ends and I was interested in what kind of threads he would explore.

In The Age Atomic Christopher returns to the main protagonist of the first novel and not much time has passed since then. With a dark outlook of the near future I expected Christopher to follow a similar leisurely style with plenty of things happening. Christopher instead decided to pick another course. The plot immediately jumps to the fore, there is barely an introduction. Plot development, strangely enough, is rather more slow and straightforward. This effect is increased by a secondary independent storyline . In a way both storylines are somewhat gloomy and creepy. The characters were less convincing than before. Although Christopher takes his time to tell the story some things are lacking. Perhaps it is that many characters are familiar that there is much less new to tell or put them into a different course. Even so the characters remain unique and quite iconic. It is unfortunate that Christopher doesn’t manage to do more with them.

What remains ever so powerful in this novel are the vivid descriptions of the many otherworldly scenes of which the story is composed. At any time I could picture them clearly in my imagination. There aren’t many writers who are able to do this that strongly and it is one of the reasons why I enjoy Christopher’s novels. He doesn’t need many words to do so and that is what makes it impressive as too many words can dull the effect.

The story of The Age Atomic is not as encompassing and complex as Empire State. As a sequel it provides a conclusion to some of the loose ends. However it also shows that there was not that much more to tell. Christopher does put in as much as he can to create a full-fledged novel that will leave the reader satisfied at the end. It does not deliver as well as Empire State was able to do and that is always the downside to writing a sequel to a standalone novel of great quality. It is hard to match it or even top it. It is not as great but well recommended.

Juliet E. McKenna – The Gambler’s Fortune

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

I had a few doubts after the use of some poor plot devices in The Swordman’s Oath by Juliet E. McKenna. As the story was still entertaining and the writing enjoyable, besides me already having the next three books in The Tales Of Einarinn at home, I quickly moved on to the third book of the series, The Gambler’s Fortune (2000). The rather straightforward fantasy series has a collection of fairly distinct and unique cultures and peoples and some nice concepts of magic usage that provides a flavor of its own. McKenna has her novels carefully planned so that each has a selfcontained story that takes place in a different environment where she can explore something new.

McKenna moves the story in a different region although the activities will ring a bell with the quests of the first novel. The first person narrator is also the same as that novel while there are again a few third person narrators although one new one provides a separate but connected storyline. As McKenna tries to provide a standalone plot for each novel this also means that she starts up somewhat slowly and again it takes quite some time before the plot really starts moving forward. While the initial phase was not that exciting in the previous novel this time it proves to be more interesting. Even so it takes quite some time before the real action kicks in. The secondary storyline does not help here as McKenna takes a slow approach to provide development towards the threat that is the real core of the novel’s plot. I did not really like the new characters and the development rather predictable. I was quite happy when the foreplay was over. On the other hand it did help make the plot more solid so that she could avoid the flaws and weaknesses in the plot of the previous book.

The slow start has been there in each of the first 3 novels of the series. Although the second half makes up a lot it does show a general weakness. It is nice that each book has an ending but it does crush all the momentum of the greater plot which has to be revived at the start of each next book. Another weakness was that the plot structure of this and the second book was quite similar in many ways. Foremostly this can be attributed to the fact that the created threat is smothered before it can be of influence in the next novel. All chance of widening the scope is gone and it allows McKenna to start freshly again in the fourth book.

The characterization is better in this novel. McKenna spent a bit more time with the new characters and most of them were fleshed out to a reasonable degree. As before the first person narrative does not really add that much although McKenna uses it mostly to allow the narrator to muse on matters more. As she had used this character before it does not provide many new insights.

Overall this novel is a great improvement to the second novel and it has allowed McKenna to move up on track again. It has at least motivated me to keep on going. Compared to the first novel it is not that good. There is never a real threat despite the attempts and the story is also hampered by some amount of predictability as McKenna follows paths threaded before in the previous novel. The execution is better but it does not really add up. The story however is entertaining although it does not veer much from the typical fantasy fare.

Juliet E. McKenna – The Swordman’s Oath

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Lately I seem to get across fantasy series of which each volume is relatively selfcontained as they have a beginning and an end while there is still the greater storyline in which it takes place. One of those is The Swordman’s Oath (1999) by Juliet E. McKenna, the second novel of The Tales Of Einarinn. Unlike those other series there is really a gap between events. Most of the previous storylines have been concluded and we are off for a fresh start although the central goal of the story is still the same.

It is this ‘fresh start’ which hampers the story mostly. The reader is halfway the book until events really begin to roll. Until then the pace is quite slow and the events are rather minor and of limited importance. The contrast becomes rather large as much more important things happens in the second half while the pace is increased a lot and events rush ahead, getting to a conclusion very quickly. Other events are then only referenced to which only increases the amount of unevenness in the story development. Most of the characters are the same as before so there is less need for introductions. The advantage of a next novel in a series is that you can put more plot and development into it as you don’t need to waste time setting too much up. The second part actually held more interesting details to be explored but due to the greater pace I only barely did not have the idea that I encountered infodumping. McKenna managed to avoid it outright, but as the time for the events were limited there was little time to do otherwise.

In my review of the first novel I wrote that McKenna chose one main character to tell the story from a first person narrative while she would use several other characters for a number of third person narrative. The reading experience was not great because of that as I couldn’t fall into a decent rhythm. In this novel she used a different main character for the first person narrative and one other character for a third person narrative. This time it worked much better as there was more steadiness between the changing of viewpoints as there were mainly two. What also helped was that the third person narrative told a different storyline that stood apart from the main storyline. Because McKenna didn’t switch that much she was able to create more of connection to the two narrators and develop their characters better. Still it was not really that well done. I remained a bit unsatisfactory on both accounts although there was an improvement compared tot the previous novel. A downside of telling two storylines that do not really complement each other is that there remains less room for the plot. In both cases the plot is fairly straightforward except for one sequence.

The main annoyance I had with the plot were a number of flaws and holes around the moment McKenna was done with the slow uneventful pace and decided to get things going. For most of the first half of the novel the different characters had been concentious regarding the dangers they were in. Then they suddenly decided to drop it all. As a reader you immediately know what is going to happen (and it does), but McKenna pulls off a twist which however leads to a surprising plot shift and also heads to the predicted direction. It immediately becomes clear McKenna was aiming for the plot to go into a certain direction (that is, the aforementioned second half plot), but had no solution on how to pull it off. The result is very poor and flawed and the story barely survives it.

Once the second part kicks in you are willing to forget the bad sequence and see where it goes from there. Unfortunately at a certain point McKenna reveals another plothole which is one of the centers of the following conflicts. She does not manage to explain it and the bad sequence as a result becomes even worse in hindsight.

From then on the plot of the second part does not manage to hold up for some time. I was willing to read over it (again) although the poor plotting did not improve. Once the main character gets out McKenna manages to recover as she gets back to familiar ground, leading to an engaging finale.

Even so, one of the central themes of the greater plot gets unhinged due to the course of the events. For some reason the bad guys choose a more difficult path while there is a clearer and much easier path they could follow. McKenna also attributes some major event in the past to something that seems rather minor in scale. It does not really add up.

My conclusion of this novel is mixed. There is an improvement in the general storytelling which has more stability and McKenna does some good worldbuilding which created interesting things to read about and provides an original setting. On the other side the plot of this novel has some serious holes and flaws that can barely be put aside while the greater plot also gets weakened on several points. So where do I stand now? My initial feeling of this series found certain confirmations on the overall quality while there were parts that were better than expected. I am still interested in how it all work out, although there are still 3 books to go, although my expectations have been lowered. I will not be rushing onwards and I only hope McKenna will keep improving, especially on the plotting.

Non-fiction something

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Occasionally I have made comments on me not reviewing any non-fiction that I read. I have never mentioned before what kind of non-fiction that I am reading. I did not really consider it noteworthy as these were often quite specific works and of limited interest to anyone reading my blog. As I have now reached my 300th post, after 3.5 years of blogging, I think I can indulge myself a little.

So what have I been reading recently? The first is The Chronicles Of Pug (2013) by Raymond E. Feist. When I was in my teens I read every book they had, including a bunch of his Midkemia novels. When I got older I lost interest in the series as it did not live up to the quality I like in fantasy. I can manage a couple of books, but that many tired me out.

Feist has last year completed his saga and this work is, as Wikipedia mentions, a coffee table book. It contains a rough summary of all the events set up in a series of notes. Most interesting, to me, were the many maps and beautiful artwork, all in color. I did read the summary, as I was not planning to get back to the series any time soon, and unfortunately it made me cringe because of the poor quality. It was fragmentary in nature and it was a pretty crudely presented. It was somewhat boring.

Something totally different was Vanished Kingdoms (2011) by Norman Davies. It is a selection of histories of rather interesting nations of Europe which few know something about and if there are references then they are often quite different from their origin. Davies takes a rather broad approach, comparing current views of those old nations and the behavior towards them, and their actual history. He writes in a very engaging way like many good historians do and told some fine tales. A few were of lower quality compared to the others but it certainly was a worthwhile read.

As I have been telling a bit about my reading activities I can tell a bit about my current ones. I have managed to get back to one novel from my old reading list, The Chessmen Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although his stories a interesting his plots are in general variations on the same theme, a girl in distress who needs to be saved. It has been long enough that I can enjoy the story again instead of the plot. I just have to take care not to start on the next one immediately after I finish it. I am currently also reading two other novels: The Age Atomic (2013) by Adam Christopher. It is a science fiction novel set within an alternate history. The other is Gambler’s Fortune (2000) by Juliet E. McKenna, the third book of five from the fantasy series The Tales Of Einarinn. A review of book 2 will be added soon, so I will not indulge too much about it.

So there is no lack of material for this blog of mine as long as there are books and I keep reading.

Gav Thorpe – The Crown Of The Usurper

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

With The Crown Of The Usurper (2012) the The Crown Of The Blood Trilogy by Gav Thorpe comes to an end. It is a military fantasy although Thorpe varies the setting sufficiently so it isn’t too dominant and keeps himself from describing extensive battles, keeping them constrained to the essential ones.

Like the previous two novels The Crown Of The Usurper is set up in a standalone way in the sense that it contains a storyline of its own with a beginning and an end although knowledge of previous events does become more important to understand what is going on as the greater storyline takes over as this novel takes the greater story also to a conclusion. This is however one of the flaws in the novel. As I mentioned the novel has a storyline of its own but it hardly gets developed. It pretty much gets ignored from the moment the greater storyline needs to finish. We get hardly any insight in the what and the how. Thorpe provides some minor insinuations but does nothing with it. At the end of the novel I still had no clue.

Unfortunately this is not the only missed opportunity. In fact this novel contains a number of them. Every time Thorpe gave a hint of some possible twist I had my mind racing ahead thinking about the possibilities about what might happen or how it would influence the story. It was a lost exercise as nothing was done with it, every time.

The missed opportunities were quite vital in my opinion in regard to the character development as there was little of it. Several times I had the feeling that Thorpe needed to rush ahead to conclude his story within the trilogy format. The pace at some points was even more relentless than previously. Only the essential scenes were there and like the previous novel I had sometimes the feeling I had lost the sense of the time in the story. Now they were here, then they were somewhere quite distant. I don’t say that there had to be some traveling in between. It was just that nothing happened to give some feeling op time passing. Of course other novels have the occasional time jump. They are just not as frequent as here as this is still one connected story and not a collection of events that paint a greater tale. One could think that perhaps many of such scenes had been written, only to be cut out later, possibly for the reason that the novel became too large. Personally I don’t think that would be such an issue with many heavy fantasy tomes reaching close to a 1000 pages.

All these were only minor annoyances. I could live with them, they were only missed opportunities. However, there were two things that were kind of major annoyances. The first one was like the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Thorpe created a convergence for some very interesting scenes. I was quite interested in how they would turn out. Instead he put in a very convenient rabbit with a most dull resulting scene which even gets cut short. I was really disappointed. Things were really going too easy.

Now to the final annoyance. Thorpe spent two books creating a threat of great impending doom. And in the last book he simply puts it down the drain. I have to be a bit spoilerish a bit, but I hope it might help provide some focus so you might be able to discover what I couldn’t. To say it like this: I did not understand the motive or the resulting actions of the bad guy. Was he in control or not? There seemed to be some contradictions. If he had been in control then he did a very poor job, but many signs said that he wasn’t. Thus it went off and on. In the end it did not really matter. The main character said it early on in the novel already. I won’t quite him but it reflects the essence of this type of fantasy novel.

So it sounds by now if I was quite displeased with this novel. That was not really the case. Overall it was quite enjoyable and the pages turned easily. It was just in the details that it failed on many fronts. If you didn’t look too much at those it was a fair read. Nevertheless I have to conclude that in this trilogy the first book was the best and most solid one. The second did well for me too, although it was more straightforward and had some minor flaws. Quality wise this third novel dropped considerably. I am still not sure if Thorpe (or his editor) cut a load of scenes or that he simply decided not to pursue the many opportunities he created. The story simply falls short and it lacked some explanations to the what and how. The sad thing is that after reading two books of a trilogy a reader really wants to know how it ends and thus will do so in the expectation it will stay on the same level . That this then doesn’t happen leaves not a good aftertaste and damages the trilogy as a whole. I am doubting now to recommend it. A solid foundation and¬†conclusion is important for a story. If you put both on quicksand then it is no good.

Here I should add a personal note. Before I got the first novel I was aware that Thorpe was an author for the Warhammer universe. My opinion on those books is negative. It is only a gut feeling, but that feeling has always proved right for me. Now that he was stepping away from it I was hoping that it would also give me some incentive on the rightness of that gut feeling. First a single novel and perhaps the rest of the trilogy if it could prove itself. At first it was better than I expected. I did not stand corrected but at least I had the idea that I could pick up some other works of the Warhammer authors for some entertaining reads. Now I am not sure anymore. This is not a case of bad writing. Thorpe does a fine job. The story contains much but often Thorpe chooses the poorer (and easier) route to follow. I have often read fantasy books that mainly took the easy route, leading to a poor predictable plot with little imagination. Thorpe does not take the easy route. He often sets off a steep hill or dangerous path, but strays before he reaches the end. So it is almost like a twist that often turns back on itself. And I will leave it with that.

 

Lucius Procopius – The Persian Wars

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Persian Wars (ca. 553) by Lucius Procopius are in fact Books I & II of The History Of The Wars. I could read the whole thing first but the edition I have (by the Echo Library) has cut them into three volumes according to the subject of the books. Even though the book is short there is enough to mention for a review, and besides, I am in no hurry to read the rest. It was just a quick read I was going for.

The relevance of this history is substantial. It is written by the secretary to the greatest general of the era, Belisarius, during a period of reconquest by the Eastern Roman Empire (also known, later, as the Byzantine Empire) under the emperor Justinianus. Procopius served Belisarius throughout his career and allows the reader a eyewitness account of these times. Nevertheless, Procopius was no neutral observer so the words need to be read carefully. He could not lie outright and much can be discerned by the careful reader.

The translation provides easy readable prose. Procopius seems a good storyteller and this is what he starts with. The book deals with the wars that the Eastern Roman Empire fought with one of the incarnations of Persia (this was the second) not only during Procopius’ lifetime but also before. Procopius starts off with an introduction to Persia and describes the recent history to provide the reader a good feel and insight to the character of the Persian. There are a number of amusing anecdotes and it seems to take some fair time before the Eastern Roman Empire gets involved.

Now I need to provide some background to it all. The Eastern Roman Empire had no ambitions to venture beyond its traditional boundaries to the east. It mainly had its sights on the west to recover the territory lost after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. During this particular period the Eastern Roman Empire was very active in the reconquest. It had no interest in Persia. Peace was preferable.

One thing that is particular about the Persian Wars is that they are mainly defensive wars. Any attack on Persian territory were feeble attempts that were not very serious. One thing that is not mentioned in the book, but rather clear if you look well at it, is that the borders with Persia are very undermanned and that the Eastern Roman Empire could hardly form an army to defend itself against incursions by Persia. The wars are in fact a series of threats (in exchange for gold), looting and burning of Roman cities in the plains in the Middle East by Persia with rarely any resistance or counteroffensive by the Eastern Roman Empire. Even more staggering seems to be that the Empire doesn’t seem to care about the destruction of cities and the loss of wealth and people. The only question that remains is why Persia did not take full advantage. It is possible Persia was already overstretched in size, had internal problems and considered the great size of the Eastern Roman Empire too dangerous in case it decided to really strike. Any aims for conquests was focuses on minor states that were either subservient to one of the two powers.

The Persian Wars is a somewhat unusual book. There is hardly any mentioned about events in the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Most of the story is focused on Persia and the wars take only place around the border areas. Procopius remains neutral about the great losses. It happened and one should not be too much troubled by it as the Persians did not really gain actual territory. I enjoyed this particular history as it has a characters of its own and does provide certain insights in those times in that region of the world.

 

Gav Thorpe – The Crown Of The Conquerer

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

The Crown Of The Conquerer (2011) by Gav Thorpe is the second book of The Crown Of The Blood Trilogy. Despite it being the middle book one does not have the idea that it is only a connecting story as the first novel had a finale that closed the main storyline. The Crown Of The Conquerer is set up in a similar way although one will be lacking some information on what happened before. The novel has a storyline of its own that also ends in the same book. The novel thus manages to stand on its own. There is still the greater storyline that connects the novels but if the trilogy had been a longer series it could have been any volume.

The plot of the story itself is fairly straightforward. Gav Thorpe writes rather military fantasy and the fighting of wars take up much of the story. To make sure that the story contains everything needed and reaches the goal Thorpe has set the story takes many jumps in time, with weeks passing by at once frequently. This sometimes makes it hard to keep sight of the greater picture of the events. Filling the time with unimportant events is of course not required, one must keep focus on the story. It is just that Thorpe has set his requirements in such a way that to make them relatively realistic he has to jump in time a lot.

Thorpe adds in multiple elements of intrigue to thwart the main protagonist of the story now that he is in a position of power. As the main protagonist is rather a good guy although somewhat violent he is easily manipulated. One of these intrigues is handled rather clumsy and could have been approached in much smarter way. Fortunately his opponents are not that much smarter than him. That is one peculiarity of this novel. The characters are in general not that smart and all make some kind of, rather stupid, mistake that they could have avoided. I didn’t think it was annoying or generating sighs as they do cause sudden twists that are hard to predict.

There is not much character development. With the strong pace that moves the story forward there is not much time for any character to stay in one place too much. As Thorpe uses multiple characters, besides the main protagonist, to tell the story he has limited time for them and most is spent to move the plot forward. Where he tries to some characteristics become somewhat odd and unexplained. One character becomes rather vile compared to his earlier behavior, which felt somewhat out of tone.¬† Thorpe’s character development worked best on two characters who were both in a more lowly position. He also spent more quality time with them and that immediately paid off. If he could have managed that with the other characters the overall quality of the novel could be much better.

The Crown Of The Conquerer is not as good as the first novel to which it is the sequel. The story is much simpler and straightforward. It is refreshing to have the characters be a bit more dumb than is usual, although I’m more for the smart and cunning characters as the possible complexity that could be created in the plot was now lost early on because the characters failed on their own. Nevertheless it is a fun and easy read, with nice and original worldbuilding that provides the basics for a fairly original fantasy story. Better than average, very enjoyable, but not on the level of belonging to the better fantasy novels.

 

Juliet E. McKenna – The Thief’s Gamble

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

I return back to some traditional fantasy with The Thief’s Gamble (1999) by Juliet E. McKenna, the first book of The Tales Of Einarinn. The traditional element originates mainly from the standard medieval setting, the selected cast of characters and the quest-like nature of the story. Some secondary races are somewhat familiar although this is more culturally than physically. On the other hand there are some original elements which provide some welcome deviation from the expected fare. The world of Einarinn shows no resemblance to Earthly analogies in names and culture. The cultures are not particularly developed and remain on a generic medieval level, but that’s not really a requirement.

McKenna manages to provide a different group of characters. In central play are the mages. For a change they are not of the assisting kind but the ones on the forefront that move the plot. They take up an independent position while being an accepted part of society. This is a refreshing stance compared to the usual fare: either mages hold leading power over normal people, move events from the shadows or are persecuted and hunted. Here the mages are no different from anyone else.

The magic system itself is not much explained and follows the typical usage. Nevertheless she puts in a twist. As it is a part of the story I will not go deeper into the details. There were some minor oddities which were not really explained, although they are not of such a great importance.

McKenna’s storytelling is quite decent. This was her debut novel, so it is not unusual that some things are not right yet. Earlier in the novel there is some infodumping, but this quickly decreases. Instead McKenna uses the typical device of starting each chapter with some extract providing background information. Unfortunately these felt somewhat clumsy. This device has been used plenty and it should be rather simple to copy. To me McKenna did a poor job of it. As they do not hold a real part to the main story I do not count them much for the overall opinion. The plot itself develops fairly well. There were some moments where the plot had some weak moments and some plot devices were used to set the right stage. There were also some confusing moments which have not been explained to full satisfaction.

The narrative is a bit peculiar. McKenna has opted to use one character for a first person narrative and all the others for a third person narrative. The difference in the approach is rather small. Because of that the switching between types of narratives is somewhat of an annoyance. There are not extra benefits. The reader does not learn more or less. It does break the flow of the narrative. The first person narrator takes center stage frequently, but there is not alternation between the other characters. McKenna uses them as they are most fit.

There is not much character development although all the characters are fairly well set up and avoid the typical archetypes. They all have some history which are disclosed early on in the aforementioned infodumping style. In most cases they are of little importance to the story and while the characters go through some ordeals the changes were minor. If this had been done it would certainly have improved the quality of the novel.

Overall my opinion of The Thief’s Gamble is partially as expected. The quality is of an average traditional fantasy. McKenna manages to steer away from the predictable in several ways which makes this a more worthwhile read. The story holds some weaknesses but none of them are lethal. The plot is entertaining enough for me to have a go for the next novel in the series and that is the minimal requirement I was looking for. There is room for improvement and as usual I give the author the benefit of the doubt as in most cases the first novel if often not the strongest.