Archive for August, 2014

Jack Vance – Throy

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Jack Vance concludes The Cadwal Chronciles with Throy (1992) and that is basically what it does. At the end of the second book, Ecce And Old Earth, a central goal in the series was achieved and the final novel deals with what happens after. There were a few issues left that needed to be resolved and Vance does this in a surprising way.

The surprise is however not a positive one. The great weakness or flaw of Throy is that it lacks a plot. It contains a handful of events in which the main protagonists only play a minor role. Oddly enough the bulk of the novel is taken up by a long non-sensical quest that goes into peculiar directions. The quest itself is of relatively minor importance but Vance spends a lot of time in it.

Much can be said about the size of Throy. The first novel was a heavy tome, the second 200 pages shorter and the third, Throy, has even more than 200 pages less than that. Usually that should not be a problem as Vance normally writes novels the size of Throy. In this case he seemed to have been unable to come up with a good plot and devized something else. This is basically the quest in which a number of worlds are visited that allow Vance to showcase his ability to create unique and interesting cultures and societies. He addresses a few different themes that actually divert the reader from realizing that the quest is being stalled. Vance shows his qualities but they are not to the benefit of the actual story.

Throy is not entirely a dull affair as I may portray it. There are a number of action scenes which are in away unique to Vance. They provide shocks and twists although they do not last very long. There is a measure of brutality to them that is unusual as Vance likes to go for something subtle or simple.

On my grounds Throy is not up to par to the average Vance novel and it is certainly far below the high level of the other two books of the trilogy. It lacks a decent plot and the central quest has the feeling of being more filler than having true substance. Aside from these things Vance does cover some grounds he hasn’t touched on before. There are still many of his qualities on display that make Throy an enjoyable and interesting read. So it is far from his worst and one cannot miss it as it concludes the trilogy in a number of surprising ways to a sufficient degree of satisfaction.

Jack Vance – Ecce And Old Earth

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

After a very focused setting in the first book of The Cadwal Chronicles, a science fiction trilogy by Jack Vance, he takes off to new locations in Ecce And Old Earth (1990). The setting of the first novel, Station Araminta, had really grown on me, with its large cast of characters and the smalltown atmosphere that felt familiar and unique at the same time.

The novel ended with two major issues left in the open and this second book follows these stories. Vance does so in an orderly fashion by continuing the story immediately after the conclusion of Station Araminta. One thus can return from the start of where we left off.

The first story is fairly straightforward and it lacks some degree of excitement. It is the setting and the creatures inhabiting it which steal the stage and this is obvious as Vance clearly must have enjoyed creating it and making the reader go through the experience.

The core of the novel is formed by the second storyline. Somewhat unique about this storyline is that it has a change of main protagonist and for as far as I know this is the first in which there is a sole female lead. In his Lyonesse novels Vance already told parts of the story from female perspectives but this was mixed with male ones and combined with the fantastical setting he didn’t go very deep. Vance shows that he doesn’t have a problem with a female lead. He doesn’t make her into a copy of his usual type of protagonist but keeps her genuinely feminine. As a woman she has weaknesses and advantages and Vance makes her increadibly real. My guess is that Vance as a writer likes to pleasure himself by using a limited set of male protagonists as that is how he likes them to be and that it is not his goal to use greater variations. He uses his side characters for that.

The setting of this second storyline takes the reader for the first time to Earth. That is, within the particular universe in which many of his science fiction novels are set. Usually he only went to strange and far away worlds, only hinting that Earth was still there. It thus remained one of the great mysteries. I can only recall one of the Devil Princes novels, The Palace Of Love I think it was, where there was a short visit.

This visit to Old Earth is baffling. Vance’s universe takes place in the distant future, many undisclosed thousands of years away. Of course things change but this Old Earth is very different. There are places that are familiar and others which are new, their actual location unknown as the references do not always seem to fit. My imagination was wildly triggered. Vance gives no explanation or background. We only see and learn from the places the main protagonist visits.

Every location that the main protagonist visits forms a miniature story as each is so very different from the others and the sequence of events follows their own course, with its own set of characters and themes.

The two stories of the novel are in fact quests and with quests it is always the journey that the characters go through that form the heart of the story. This is also the case here. It is exciting and all the miniature stories make you want to keep on going, so that it doesn’t really end. Which was a similar but very different quality of the first novel. Vance does it again. It is, in my opinion, overall not as great as the first novel was, as the reader has to say goodbye to the characters of the miniature story each time that it ends. The reading experience is thus less warmer and as the main arc is a quest there is ultimately less variation in the development. However, this is still one of his great novels.

Jack Vance – Araminta Station

Friday, August 29th, 2014

I have fond memories of Araminta Station (1987) by Jack Vance, the first novel of The Cadwal Chronicles. I have read this science fiction novel several times already although it has been some years since the last time. It is the longest book by Jack Vance; my edition is almost 700 pages; and written in the period which I consider his finest, when he expanded the scope and complexity of his novels, which before rarely reached 300 pages and often were closer to half of that. I have to admit that I am a major Jack Vance fan and I consider this particular novel to be one of his best. And after this reread that opinion has not changed.

I do not want to indulge in what makes Jack Vance’s writing so great and unique. He has been awarded many awards and status, by fans and colleagues alike. Strangely enough he seems to be rather unknown by the mainstream audience. Lets just say he is one for the connoisseurs. So in this review I prefer to focus on what makes this particular novel different and better compared to his other works.

The first thing that makes this novel unique is the setting. The world of Cadwal is a nature reserve and its small population is dedicated to maintaining that status. Essentially this makes the actual setting not much different from a small town. Most people know each other from birth and they are always close together. Any event involves them all. This results in a stationary cast of characters which continually encounter each other throughout the novel and everybody deals with the situations in a mundane fashion.

A consequence of the settings it the second element what makes this novel so much more. With the stationary cast and continuous encounters Vance really goes in deep. He has all the time to spend with his characters and develop them during a long course of events. The reader gets immersed into this small world that is very unique and has a great diversity. Except for his typical main protagonist the large cast of side characters have far more depth and versatility. One could say that is rather unusual.

The plot itself is actually a long string of smaller and larger events. It is much more low level than his usual fare and there is not a moment where it might seem dull. There is a greater story that gradually unfolds. It is not a flawless plot although the weaknesses are minor. Only an attentive reader like myself will probably notice them. For an author who is used to much shorter stories creating such a wonderful tapestry is already marvellous.

The loves of creating strange creatures and landscapes gets plenty of attention. With the world as a nature reserve Vance adds in plenty of outings where he can indulge himself. His genius in making odd and peculiar cultures and societies is not absent either. Vance makes sure his plot allows for some brief visits to other worlds where he sets some stunning developments.

This is an almost perfect novel as one can get from the likes of Jack Vance with far more depth and better characterization than he has ever done. It is almost a sad thing when the story ends, although I know a sequel will follow. Nevertheless I have to admit that the novel may not be to everyone’s taste. One has to like Vance, obviously, and this won’t be easy on those who don’t know his work that well because on the outside it may seem like a not particularly grand story like may SF novels tend to do. It is however the craft of being able to tell a story that is nowhere groundbreaking that immerses the reader and gives joy to those who recognize the beauty that makes it stand out from the usual science fiction novels.

Scott Lynch – The Lies Of Locke Lamora

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

I was not immediately taken in by the reviews I read about The Lies Of Locke Lamora (2006) by Scott Lynch, the first novel in the Gentleman Bastards Sequence. There are many fantasy novels where thieves have the centre stage and they often feel rather similar as one in most cases sees a similar series of activities they are expected to perform. It is hard thus to escape them being stereotypes. Once I did make the step to give this lauded novel I try I understood why (and this is the second time I have read the novel).

Different from the usual fantasy novels that concern thieves is that the main protagonist and his consorts are in essence rascals. Their activities are acts of comedy in a rather grim world. This is unusual because rascal characters are usual side-kicks with not so much substance. Building a novel around a group of such characters I would consider to be not that easy as one has to create distinct characters while each contributes to playing the right kind of part. Lynch has succeeded in pulling this off and has thus created a refreshing set of characters.

One effective technique that Lynch uses to avoid infodumping is by adding interludes that contain flashbacks or certain background information for later scenes to come. The flashbacks can sometimes even considered to be short stories as they are almost selfcontained. The interludes also provide a way of increasing the tension when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger.

The world that Lynch creates contains many familiar flavors that reminds the reader of a Mediterreanean setting while it avoids copying cultures exactly. There are fortunately a number of peculiarities that enrich the setting. There is magic but it plays a relatively minor role. Much attention is paid to alchemy and artifice to show that the world has a unique technology level which makes it hard to pinpoint to an earthly analogy.

Lynch´s prose is easy and enjoyable to read. He knows to capture the reader and present original and entertaining characters with a sufficient degree of depth. The pages flip easily as event progress steadily and not too fast. His interludes provide moments of rest for the reader before jumping into the fray again.

The plot is fairly unpredictable and there are numerous twists that will take the reader by surprise. While plent of dark and grim things happen there are many light moments of comedy and fun. Lynch knows that character confrontations provide the sparks that make scenes lively.

So are there weak points? Lynch may create a good number of original characters but the reader gets barely the chance to know them. You can smell the history and while this is a strong thing it does give a mixed effect. The technique with the interludes and flashbacks may be very effective and enriching the story they can also seem like a way to thicken the story. A question that can arise is if the story could have contained more if the background information had provided in the regular scenes where useful. This would force the reader to pay more attention to gather the different pieces together instead of them being provided in an orderly fashion.

Essentially this is a strong and good novel that has pretty much nothing to complain about. What remains is matter of taste. This is a grim fantasy novel about unusual thieves with a flair of comedy. It can be classified as an urban fantasy as there is one set location and the city plays a role of its own to set the tone and the atmosphere. The protagonists undergo a growing series of complications that get interwoven with each other. There is some magic but it plays a small role. Unlike other thief novels, Lynch keeps much down-to-earth in a fantastical setting.

Jack Vance – The Five Gold Bands

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

In an earlier review of a novel by Jack Vance, The Dogtown Tourist Agency, I mentioned that even his weakest work can be considered to be on at least an average level of quality. I put this claim to the test with The Five Gold Bands (1950), which I have reread for the first time. It is one of his earliest works and a fairly short novel compared to his usual books.

Let me start with the weaknesses of the novel first, because there are plenty to mention. Although Jack Vance has written many science fiction novels most of them have been character driven and any technology usually only plays an indistinct role in the story. The settings usually allows him much freedom in the level of technology available. In The Five Gold Bands he had not yet reached this stage yet. Technology forms a major plot element. The setting is not the far distant future, but a relatively near one so that much is more relatable.  Two concepts give the reader the greatest unease. Vance introduces many technological ideas. Of course he wrote this book in 1950, but even back then there were plenty of authors who could use future technology in such way that even today it still seems science fiction. Vance’s technology feels extremely outdated and relatively simplistic. The other concept, which I won’t detail on, is an evolutionary premiss that is far too extreme. It feels like he wants to use something alien but had a poor explanation for it.

The plot itself wobbles a bit on these weak foundations. I also found myself having guilty prejudices towards certain approaches. For the last decade technology has changed society so much that I project concepts on other things where they cannot be. To be honest, few SF authors predicted something like the internet before the 80ies. The actually wobbling is caused by the main protagonists. Although Vance starts with one male protagonist he adds a second female one. The latter is a good choice, to be honest, because the main protagonist is a rather annoying character and not really likeable. He is a very limited character and had nothing of the typical Vance roundness that one is used to. He is very flawed and it is a surprise that he manages to reach his goals.

That said I should switch to why this novel still holds sufficiently qualities. As said the main protagonist is unusual. He is very different from the typical Vance fare which is a reason for fans to read this. It is also, in a way, refreshing that such a flawed character can pull so much off by pure improvisation and some luck. His female sidekick, who is also quite different from the usual Vance fare, is rather his opposite. She is smart and knows what to do. She is portrayed like a modern and strong female who has to put up with primate-like male partner. As the story progresses it is rather shocking to see that the male protagonist manages to drag her down to his level. It is an amusing development. There is much unusual stuff going on.

Despite the technological and evolutionary ideas that will fall poorly on today’s reader Vance does show his strengths with the alien humanity he introduces. Here we see his gift for unusual cultures and societies that we would exploit to great effect in his later novels. Here they are not fully developed yet. We get a limited view of these and a number of fantastical settings. Now time is too short to spend much time here. It is still his quality that allows the reader to imagine these things with so few words where so many other authors can barely create something with far more.

As the novel is not very long, the pace is quite fast and Vance puts in a lot of events within a limited amount of pages. This limits the space he has to develop his characters to some extend. The main development is found the female main protagonist who undergoes and unusual change in character. This is still very old-fashioned science fiction and far below the high levels of grandmasters of those times. Vance would later change his approach and focus on his strengths. Here we still see a rough and inexperienced Jack Vance, despite the fact that in the same year he would write his first classic The Dying Earth, which of course was fantasy, not SF.

So can I still uphold my claim regarding the works of Jack Vance? One problem of course is that especially his old SF, like many other SF of those days, is very outdated. One has to read it with as little prejudice as possible and see the ideas for the future as they are presented. The core premiss that fuels the story still holds very much true. I had to check it, but it at least predates one classic SF novel by Isaac Asimov who also makes use of it, of course to far greater effect. I am not such an SF expert to be certain Vance was the first. Someone else will have to refute that. Besides that the novel introduces some great settings, although we don’t see that much of it and the two main protagonists are rather unusual, certainly for those days. This may be one of Vance’s weakest novels but there is still enough to enjoy that can stand on an average quality among the works of science fiction.