Archive for February, 2014

Weber quartet

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Recently I’ve gotten back into the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. Today I visited the bookstore, and surprise surprise, it had some David Weber novels on discount and the paperback version of the latest Honor Harrington novels that I didn’t have yet. In fact, they were the first two novels of the Safehold series, Off Armageddon Reef (2007) and By Schism Rent Asunder (2008), which was quite convenient as I already had books 3 and 5 of the series, and the other two were Mission Of Honor (2010) and A Rising Thunder (2012). So I had a nice foursome of two pairs and a small recovery of my read pile which I have been hitting the last few months. However, one cannot read too much of one author so I do plan to put in a break, because, in all honesty, Weber is not that a versatile writer and his prose does get repetitive. His novels are well structured and do not contain flaws so you only obtain a dislike if you read several novels in a row. That said, I should not change into reviewing mode here.

David Weber – Echoes Of Honor

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

In my review of In Enemy Hands I considered that novel to be an expanded prologue to the main story of the second story cycle in the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. This assessment proved to be quite right in Echoes Of Honor (1998), the eighth novel of this military science fiction series, which is not only longer than the previous novels but also takes the storytelling to a greater scale. Previously the stories in the novels revolved around a single confrontation and some background play. In Echoes Of Honor there are multiple confrontations on different playing fields. Whereas In Enemy Hands had plenty of space for Weber to delve into characters and add plenty of details he now had to make choices. Such choices could have been avoided by cutting the novel in half, but unfortunately the plot, with so many threads to keep going, did not provide a real place where a good break could be put into.

The necessity of making choices had its positive and negative effects. The main choice I am talking about is the cutting of scenes. To keep the story confined to a single novel Weber cut out any scene that was not essential to the plot. Of course I have no idea to what extend he did such afterwards of before he started the writing. My feeling is that he did do some cutting afterwards. Some chapters seem to summarize more while others hold his regular pacing and the reader will slightly miss some chapters before and after as one is familiar for Weber to do. As his story is usually focused mainly on one location (a star system) and a straightforward sequence of events he can spend plenty of time on details and characters. There is very little space here. A number of side characters get a showing in only one chapter and there is not time to give them more. They do their thing and contribution to the plot and we only get minor references later on, if necessary.

As such one of the negative effects of the heavy cutting (or focused chapters) is that Weber has less room to do his usual stuff. He has to skip on things you would usually see. Despite this and the restriction it causes on his character development he manages to give attention to as many characters as possible. This has the positive side effect that the story contains a wider palette of different characters than the usual limited set. To be honest, it is not such a bad thing that Weber has to skip on scenes as he sometimes has the habit to use many words and long dialogues sequences to tell his story. That is not altogether gone, but there are few longwinded scenes which can become boring.

It must be said that Weber handles the larger scale in which the different storythreads operate quite well. It was well structured and Weber was always in control. There are no flaws or events that seem inconsistent or weak. On the other hand the larger scale left less space for maneuvering. Certain sequences were rather predictable. The plot lacked good twists or surprises. That is however to be expected. Military science fiction is all about (fleets of) spaceships fighting each other over enormous distances. There is a lot of time required for travelling and contemplating the actions and movements of opponents with the extra limitation that scouting can only be done locally. Space is vast so it is easy not to be seen until you arrive at your target.

What to conclude about Echoes Of Honor? It is a fine military science fiction novel, entertaining and engaging to read. As mentioned before it is constrained by the limitations of the subgenre. I have enjoyed the novels best that focused on character interactions and confrontations. There is however very little of that in this novel where tactical discussions and military actions dominate. The different parties are always separated from each other. They clash from a distance and never directly, which, as before, can wear a reader down. Unlike the previous two novels Weber has me going again and one cannot avoid picking up the next novel in the series to see what happens next. I am at least happy that I am back into the flow as I barely avoided bogging down earlier.

David Weber – In Enemy Hands

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

After a break of almost a year I have continued with the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. As the series is military science fiction and having read six novels in a row attrition had crept in. Weber had managed to improve the stories and the general plot development up until Flag In Exile, the fifth book, but here the sequence ended somewhat, with the sixth, Honor Among Enemies, being a drop in quality and a break of the flow of the general narrative. There were few sparks and a reading the novels so close after each other had generated a feeling of repetition. That is the risk of the subgenre, especially regarding military novels which often provide a lack of variation to the general setup of the novel.

To be honest, it was a good thing to take a break. If I had continued with the seventh novel, In Enemy Hands (1997), that feeling would have been even stronger with the risk of a much longer period not continuing the series. This is because the novels suffers from a few weaknesses.

The first and alas most obvious weakness is that the title gives away the theme of the plot away. The earlier titles were generic enough only to provide a hint. Even worse was the description on the backcover of the novel. As I did not need to read it to get me to read the novel I was very fortunate because, as I read it after I finished the book, it gave away pretty much all of the plot. Of course some details were missing, but not much.

One might ask how they could give that much away of the plot on the backcover also provides the second weakness. The plot itself is rather simple and straightforward. That is not a problem normally, but there was pretty much only one storyline. Weber added a few secondary characters that he followed around the storyline. This was mainly done to provide some insights into the behavior of the characters in the course of the events.

Actually, the plot itself is so shallow that more than before Weber spent a lot of time inside the heads of a number of characters, letting them drift in extensive sequences of inner thoughts. It is okay to do so occasionally, in my opinion, as it provides some moments of retrospection and breaks from action scenes and the like. One should avoid however to make them too long. In my view there was a lot of filler. Besides that a good author should not require that many words to express the emotions and thoughts of a character.

The aforementioned sequences take up most of the first half of the novel, in which virtually nothing of consequence happens. It is more of a buildup of the situation in different places. The second half holds pretty much all of the actual plot of the novel and even that feels like an extended play to give the book more body.

Although the novel ends in a good and entertaining way it is rather clear that the whole novel is written to provide the setup for the next stage in the series. As the first five novels provided a sort of cycle of a greater plot, the sixth and this seventh novel look to be part of a second cycle. The titles are a bit of a giveaway, at least for the initial stage. The sixth book provided a kind of transition while In Enemy Hands provides the setup. It may seem that Weber could not cut the plot of the cycle in usable chunks. In Enemy Hands thus looks more like an extended prologue that has been expanded to the size of a regular novel. It has me excited for the next novel and the conclusion was good enough to satisfy me to hide the earlier feelings towards the long and mildly less interesting first half.

Compared to the other novels of the series In Enemy Hands is somewhat poor. It has it qualities as Weber knows how to handle his characters and his prose makes it an easy read. There are still some of elements of lazy writing, especially in the dialogues and inner thoughts, where there is also less to distinguish the different characters. He does know his military science fiction so that remains of good quality. The singlesided plot which is several ways is predictable besides being a giveaway. It is only in the details where one finds most to enjoy. Of the series this novel will not be one of the memorable ones.

Juliet E. McKenna – The Assassin’s Edge

Monday, February 24th, 2014

With The Assassin’s Edge (2002) Juliet E. McKenna concludes her five book fantasy series The Tales Of Einarinn. In each book told a story within one greater plot. Each story was relatively standalone so that they could be evaluated on their own merits. The downside of a sequence of standalone stories is the question on how to end it. Normally this is done by moving up the stage a level gradually or using a great stage from the start. To the contrary McKenna chose to keep the stories relatively low-level: a small group, pretty much a handful of characters, formed the focal point and events never turned to any larger scale as they succeeded in thwarting their adversaries in time.

As a consequence, having reached the last book, the scale of the plot is still low-level and one cannot expect to suddenly change it to a greater level. McKenna also doesn’t choose to differentiate from the course she has taken.

This means that that The Assassin’s Edge aims to tell another standalone story with the difference that the adversaries are to finally defeated. It has to, else the series does not really end, so I am not spoiling anything. This has been a relatively straightforward series so this has to be expected.

The story itself is a major change from the fast paced and action packed fourth novel, but it also does not follow the typical structure of the first three novels. While the novels in those latter cases were divided into two stories The Assassin’s Edge splits into two instead which are then switched between until they come together at the end. This prevented the stories to have the feeling they had a slow pace. On the other hand they were not moving forward faster than in the first three novels. The main improvement was that the two stories were of more equal quality than before.

I cannot say I was truly satisfied about either of the two storylines. Both held some flaws and there were some things I did not understand well. McKenna put in a few twists regarding what one would have expected. Unfortunately I did not really understand them. For me McKenna did not deliver as well as I hoped for. The series did not go out with a bang or a thud, but with a sizzle.

McKenna did a decent job on her characters. She took sufficient time for some of the characters. Others did not get much attention. Of course most of them she had given focus to in the previous novels as many of the old characters gathered again for the final. These characters did not carry enough baggage or room for development to delve deeper.

My opinion on the series as a whole is mixed. It is quite decent, slightly better than average and it avoids many of the typical fantasy tropes while using many common elements. The worldbuilding is quite decent although it doesn’t go that deep. However, McKenna took in each book time to explore a different part extensively which also provided for the needed variation as the plot structure of the novels was often similar. The fourth book in the series, The Warrior’s Bond, I consider to be the best by far, as I enjoyed it most. It did have a quite different plotstructure and pace so it is really an odd one out compared to the other books. So a nice series which will provide some light entertainment to spend some time on.

Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814) forms a change from Jane Austen‘s first two novels Sense And Sensibility and Pride And Prejudice. Of course it is still a “contemporary” romantic novel, the contemporary element being only recognizable by the social structures and behaviors in which the romance takes place. Characterwise and in the development of the plot and the situations the plot can be transferred to almost any time and place, which is, I think, one of the major reasons why these novels have such great popularity, at least among female readers, even today.

What is a great change in this novel are two things. The first, and most important one, is the main protagonist. As always it is a female one, but gone is the strongheaded, free-speaking and rather liberal-minded one. Austen this time took the challenge to center the story around a demure, passive, overly sensitive and very timid young woman who prefers not to speak and stay on the background.

The second change is the style. The first two novels had and extend of comedy to them. Austen created plenty of amusing situations where the males and females in the story got caught up in what one could say were minor conspiracies from different sides which led to misunderstandings and unexpected consequences.

The latter is not completely gone in Mansfield Park. The difference however is that the situations are not happy ones. Mansfield Park has more drama in the tragic sense. There is no happy undertone when something does not go right. One feels it can only get worse and the characters are not as friendly between each other.

Overall thus this novel had quite a different atmosphere. Austen’s strengthens this effect by keeping a lower pace and spending more time evaluation the thoughts and events of her characters, which as said have a more negative tendency.

When the novel was nearing the end I was almost expecting some very different ending as the unwinding of events were heading for a perhaps bad ending. Austen did not let it go that far. Later than in here previous novels she threw in a major twist near the end. It was not coming out of nothing but I had not expected it to happen. Austen had followed a different course, and perhaps she would handle this story differently. Of course reader satisfaction in those days was of greater importance so I did expect she would provide some positive turn, although I did not foresee she would shake things up so much.

Mansfield Park shows Austen’s progression as an author and her writing skills. It was not not as entertaining as Pride And Prejudice but it did show more of different parts of the society of that days than the previous two novels, which I consider to be rather positive as the whole romance developments are of less interest to me, being a male reader. I look for other things in the novel to enjoy myself. Although the main protagonist is weak Austen manages to develop her more strongly than any of her previous characters and provides great insights in her thoughts and behavior.

Personally I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice more, for as far as I’ve read Austen’s novels, but Mansfield Park holds more literary quality, although the plotting and the romantic developments keep it on a more moderate level.

 

E. R. Burroughs – The Chessmen Of Mars

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

One of the common themes in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs is that of the damsel in distress. The damsel may not be a simple objects to be rescued and be strongminded and capable of some feats of her own, ultimately she will be unable to escape on her own. This theme is also very much central in The Chessmen Of Mars (1922), the fifth novel of his John Carter or Barsoom series.

It is this recurring theme that gives me problems at keeping on reading the series. From the very start it is obvious how things will turn out, in the general sense and if you have just finished such a story, getting motivated for the next can be hard. Because of this I have no choice but to take substantial breaks between reading the novels to allow me to appreciate them fully.

You will ask me now why I still show appreciation when I am complaining about recurring themes which are in a sense predictable. There are pretty much two reasons for that. The first reason is the journey. You may know how the story will turn out but you will not be able to predict how it will get there. Burroughs gives his imagination free reign and provides many grotesque and fantastical scenes. While the John Carter series is in essence science fiction there are also some fantasy elements where some rather unexplainable or supernatural things happen while there are sequences that come close to horror although he never ventures to far ahead. One could say it is a fantastical gothic fantasy. He wrote the series before there was any of the fantasy or horror we know today and so he stays closer to the nineteenth century version than the modern one. Either way, it is much different from any common fare despite that some things do sometimes give a familiar ring. Personally I would contribute that more to later authors being inspired with what Burroughs wrote than the other way around.

The second reason why I appreciate Burroughs’ novels is his prose. Despite the novels being part of a serial publication aiming for greatest effect and speedy writing his style is of a great quality, never repetitive and at times quite lyrical. As the general plot is not overly surprising I spent more attention to his phrasing and use of words which are of a richness you don’t see that much. It is not a requirement as today’s novels are more about the plot and the story or the behavior and development of the characters. As Burroughs’ have far less of those elements the story is compensated by the quality of his writing.

The plot itself is pretty much crafted to serve the desired flow of the story. There are a number of flaws and coincidences which the attentive reader will notice, but as mentioned earlier the story is written to entertain and provide a playing field for the imagination and if you put the credit there you will be satisfied.

In fact, Burroughs did a pretty good job on the character development. The main focus was on three characters and each was given sufficient time to explore there reasoning and decisions. Within the frame of the story this was well done.

While this is a John Carter novel he only has a minor role. This was also already the case in the fourth novel, Thuvia, Maid Of Mars. I consider it a pretty nice change to explore the behavior and thoughts of people who have been born on Mars and lived there all their lives. The reader is not an outsider anymore and sufficiently familiar with the setting to get further inside.

There is much to say about The Chessman Of Mars. I quite enjoyed it and while I will wait some time before I continue with the sixth novel of the series I know for certain that I will. One should take the time to enjoy this old series for what it is worth. Going ahead to quickly will diminish the pleasure of reading. This particular installment is recommended.

Juliet E. McKenna – The Warrior’s Bond

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

The Warrior’s Bond (2001) by Juliet E. McKenna turned out to be a great surprise. I pretty much expected the fourth novel in The Tales Of Einarinn fantasy series to follow a similar format as the previous three novels: A slow start with a first half containing some build-up for the second half and some minor storylines of low importance before the real action would start up halfway down in a different direction. In the first few chapter this almost seemed the case, but then McKenna did not linger and moved the characters to the center stage of the plot.

The story then transformed into a kind of urban fantasy type of plot. The characters barely had time to adapt to everything that was happening around them. The pace became fast although McKenna managed to maneuver some scenes with a more leisurely pace in between. With so much going on suddenly McKenna had sometimes a bit trouble jostling all the different elements of the plot within the set timeframe which like many urban fantasy plots were very constrained. I would judge she succeeded although there were some wobbles but when turning the rapidly progressing story in a pageturner the reader hardly has time to spare attention to minor details.

All in all, very entertaining and far more exciting stuff than the regular fare of the first three novels. Saying much on the plot is hard without giving something away. Overall it was quite different with a more stronger approach for the characters. Everybody was taking action and thus being more present. There was some character development but I shouldn’t give it that much body. With multiple narratives in a fastpaced plot there is not that much space to put much into it. Nevertheless McKenna managed to add some into it at times when there was a moment to lower the pace.

Mentioning the narratives, McKenna still used one first person narrative and a few third person narrative. In my first review of the series I mentioned that I disliked the shifts because there are multiple third person narratives. I haven’t said much since. In the second novel the switches were much less and there was more focus. As I have kept on reading without any time intervals between the subsequent novels you could say I have gotten used to it. Still I don’t think the setup is ideal. McKenna uses the first person narrator to provide more insight into the characters which usually revolves about more internal thoughts and monologues which do not result that well in the aim. The third person narratives also have it, only to a minor extent and sometimes barely and making the distinction is not really necessary if I compare it to how other writers handle it.

The Warrior’s Bond was the most enjoyable and fun read of the series, especially as it lacked the slow buildup and less interesting first half that the first three novels had. This one was a real pageturner. The only downside of the different approach and the plot followed is that it moved the greater plot hardly forward. As McKenna has been writing pretty standalone stories for each novel there is not really any expectation for a grand finale to come in the fifth and last novel. It will also have to contain a standalone story so that does intrigue me in how she will conclude it all. This one is certainly recommended.