Archive for September, 2014

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

One genre in which instant classics can be created is science fiction as authors can explore a concept or idea based on certain developments in current society and thus provide a warning on how it can go wrong, creating a powerful impact that can resonate through the generations.

One of these novels is The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman. It is hardly known these days although it won pretty much all the major science fiction awards after it was published. It may be because Haldeman takes a number of staggering courses for humanity, that certainly in the years it was published, might have shocked many, and even today. This is something that other classic novels like 1984 and Brave New World steered clear from. In my opinion The Forever War takes the ideas of those novels to a higher level and Haldeman increases the impact by not just creating one future society, but several, and all of them turn out to be haunting in very different ways.

The Forever War is a very focused novel. The story is told from the view of one person and this main protagonist is the most normal of those we encounter and the most relatable for the reader. A strong connections is created at the start of the novel and reader and protagonist hang on to each other as the story takes us into the future. Haldeman keeps the character grounded and familiar and that is something that other classic SF novels usually don’t manage to do.

The plot is set up in different stages. It is in fact a collection of episodes of which three are explored in detail. The others remain relatively short. The plot progresses quickly while the story keeps a calmer and more steady pace. The ending is sudden and almost shocking like many of the different episodes. Every part is thought provoking. Every scene is used to maximum effect and the message(s) Haldeman puts into his work resound strongly while they are never obvious. He remains an observer. He tells things as they are and how they are experienced. It is to the reader to judge but it is impossible not to.

Even 40 years after its publication The Forever War has lost none of its potency. One can only agree with all the awards it has been granted in recognition of it being a classic. It is more the pity that it is not as well known as 1984 or Brave New World. Highly recommended.

Dave Duncan – Mother Of Lies

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

One of my main questions after having read Mother Of Lies (2007), the second novel in the Dodec Duology by Dave Duncan, was why the story was divided into two parts. Both novels are around 400 pages so one big tome of 800 pages would have worked far better, especially because it is in reality one main story that has been cut into two. The cut moment is chosen well, although it can be said that the plot has been adapted so it would fit. It is all a matter of where to add or remove details.

Mother Of Lies continues immediately from the final events of the first novel, Children Of Chaos. I read both novels after each other so I can say there is no break. Fortunately Duncan avoids recapping earlier events and moves straight on. The plot is less complex as several threads have converged and joined together and more do so in the earlier stages of the novel. Duncan adds in two new threads in which we follow two new characters who form minor protagonists from whose viewpoint different parts of the story is told. They allow Duncan to explore and develop new material although they remain of minor importance and thus don’t compare to the main protagonists.

As the story is of a somewhat grand nature the final events in the plot take up much space. There is less space for details and light comedy as the mood becomes heavier and there is more haste as the opponents are trying to outwit each other. Duncan chooses to skip on some minor events. This has the effect that some things remain in the dark until much later. We only know what the chosen narrators are able to provide us with and by staying away from some narrators he clouds the knowledge of the reader. While this is effective in regard to the tension within the story it is not all that unpredictable. To me personally I would have liked to read about those minor events as Duncan always tried to give some credit to the supposedly bad guys.

To be honest, Duncan throws in a fair number of plot twists that do not feel that strong. This in comparison to the way he kept grounding his story and characters to make everything more believable while the setting and certain developments are fantastical. In a certain way one could say he balanced the good and the evil things and in the end he did make some choices that feel more normal than the usual perfect convergence that many fantasy novels have as a finale. To me however it felt important that everything that happened would be believable within the framework of the setting. On certain occasions I did not have that feeling and that is why I am less satisfied with how everything developed. My only thought on this is that Duncan (or his editor) stuck to much on fitting the story within a certain size of the novel and cut and changed things to make sure the two novels of the series would be balanced in pace and content. Of course it could also have been the way the plot had been planned all along and that the execution within the story is simply not that convincing.

One thing that is certainly true is that Duncan must have had a lot of fun writing this story. When reading you can feel the joy and pleasure of setting up the plot, the different characters and all the minor and greater events that drive the story. As the concept of the world and the peculiar characteristics are already fantastical, everything else is aimed at making it all work together with a cast of characters to which the reader can easily relate.

Mother Of Lies is the weaker of the two novels of the series, mainly because of the weaker plot and the choice to leave out some interesting minor events. The greater plot also constricts the plot of Mother Of Lies as everything needs to converge to conclude the plot. This is of course normal but the story is too large to give this novel some room of its own. It is wholely dependent on the first novel and that weakness would not have been there if the two novels had been combined into one big book (of a still acceptable size) where there would have been no need to balance events. Even so, Mother Of Lies contains some original developments and a number of surprising minor twists that give it enough standing of its own. Recommended.

Dave Duncan – Children Of Chaos

Friday, September 19th, 2014

One interesting aspect of the fantasy genre that the imagination is the limit. One can create something that is physically not possible and use that to build a world that is conforms to different rules than we know. Such a different concept has been used by Dave Duncan for his Dodec Duology, with the first book named Children Of Chaos (2006). The name is derived from the shape of the world: a dodecahedron, an object with twelve identical faces in the shape of pentagons. It is of course not realistic but Duncan made a valiant effort to create some physical rules that would constrain the people living on this world. Just such an idea makes a book already worth reading.

The premise for the series is relatively simple. One face of the world is conquered by the other and a group of siblings (four in both novels) is forced to leave their home. I mention this I read another fantasy novel using a very similar plot because before this book, this being Acacia by David Anthony Durham (actually published a year after the first book of the Dodec Duology). The world-building and the plot derived for this similar premise were so poorly done (and irritatingly so) that I didn’t even finish that novel. Perhaps that made me hesitate to read this series with the similar premise, even though I have read quite a few other novels by Dave Duncan already and thus know that he does things quite differently. I am now happy that I picked the series up when I came across it again recently.

Despite the odd setting Duncan keeps much of the world building familiar. The peoples created are based on Earthly ones with some small adjustments. The cultures however are very different. This is a universe where the divine has a strong influence over persons, especially those who are chosen. I call it the divine because the gods are not present but they exert influence by granting gifts and abilities and they are not particular picky about it. This thus has a strong impact on the story and the plot development, but Duncan makes sure there is no clear favouritism. It are still the choices of the person who decides to use them.

The characters in the novel define the nature of the story. In this odd world and the strong divine influence Duncan makes sure to ground his characters. They are unique persons who have grown within their circumstances. They are not perfect and often naive, taking their chances and impulses as they come. Their choices are not always what we would consider the right ones and they are just as well the victims of circumstance. Despite the oddities it is easy to relate to them and Duncan also shows that the enemy is not as evil as they seem to be. Even the main antagonist, who is clearly very evil, makes choices and takes actions which are logical. You get to understand her, to some extent.

The plot provides few introductions as major events kick in almost immediately. Changes are coming and the main protagonists will play a pivotal role. Duncan switches narrative between them and also adds a few minor ones so that the reader is provided with a good picture of the greater whole. Each narrative is done well. Even those by minor characters give the reader a good insight into their thoughts and background without being obvious.

The frequent shifts between narratives push the pace of the story along with many things happening although the greater plot follows a gentler pace. However, it is not correct to stick everything to the greater plot. It are the many minor events that determine the course of the greater plot. Duncan could have started the story from the beginning and from there told the different stages of the greater plot. Instead he chose to show the central premise that would define the final stage of greater plot. I have read series in which the story started in the middle to avoid the setup stage but this is the first in which the story starts near the end. The effect of this choice is that the plot of the novel is full with intrigue and rapidly developing events that make a thrilling layered story.

The novel ends almost abruptly with many threads still in the open. This is of course always tough when having a series consisting of only two novels. The story is not long enough to break it into selfcontained parts. The choice for the moment is however right as a final turning point has been reached. The story is very entertaining and there is sufficient connection with the characters to captivate the reader and make him keeping to turn the pages. Recommended.

Scott Lynch – The Republic Of Thieves

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

After a relatively long wait of 6 years Scott Lynch came with a new novel, the third book of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, a fantasy series about extraordinary thieves. Lynch ended the second novel with something of a cliffhanger and The Republic Of Thieves (2013) continues with the resolution to the predicament of the main protagonist and as usual immediately they fall into new dire straits.

However, this is where that ends, to some extent. The Republic Of Thieves actually has 2 separate storylines. They are slightly related, but one could cut them apart as separate novels. Lynch presents the second storyline as interludes, the technique he has used before to feed cliffhanger effects by switching to a different story and providing some background for later scenes. In this case the interludes are long, frequently longer than parts of the main story, and they are connected. In effect, as mentioned, they form a second story. Because of that you get an odd reading experience.

To begin with the second story, as it is of lesser importance, it records events in the past, before the first novel, and allows Lynch to revisit old characters which he had fun with. Although they are younger and less experienced there are the familiar dynamics and comedy while the characters develop themselves. It has the typical Lynch style twists and surprises. Unfortunately there is not much of a specific goal in the plot. Quite soon it is clear where things are going and this has nothing to do with what the characters are supposed to do. Lynch does a nice play of the events but I have to admit I was not really interested and put more attention to the character interaction. The plot simply did not drive me forward. This could be because of the theme of the plot. I have encountered it in a number of other novels and those did not interest me much either. It is thus hard for me to give an objective opinion.

While much of the second story thread familiar ground the first and main story, excluding the beginning, if you put it outside of the second story, actually flounders around. It is past paced, almost hyperactive, with plenty of chaotic stuff going on. Like the second story, the goal of the plot is actually not relevant. It is the journey that aims to entertain and this it does less well than the second story. There is not much real drama, no real twists or cliffhangers. The plot is basically a long dance that is chaotically choreographed. There were never any real dangerous or dark complicated situations as in the previous novels. Yes, it was entertaining but it never really grabbed my attention and hooked me in. I was simply waiting for the axe to fall and there was little of it. I could not even say there was much character development as it all rushed ahead.

So there you have it, two novels merged into one and neither of the two really delivers. They entertain and have fun, but neither has the grim and dark atmosphere of the previous novels. Only the opening sequence had that and when that was over it went into an easygoing mode. It was actually the secondary story that held the twists and the complicated situations, but as this was an old event there was little chance things could turn badly as the goal would not be sidelined as happened in the previous novels.

What I have mentioned and not talked about yet is the theme. Underneath both stories and all the different events that take place this novel is actually a story of a romance. It is on that theme that the real fireworks take place and not in the plot. One could even say it is the third story and it is this story that Lynch put his heart into. With the side effect that the other two stories get less heart. In both Lynch does a lot to compensate but in all three cases it is impossible to give each their full measure. I don’t mind a story of a romance but the plot has to support it. Now there are two plots and neither supports the romance. The romance is woven in between the plots. In the end on varying accounts the book falls short and does not deliver. It does not come anywhere close to the level of the first two books. It is still well written with many fun situations and peculiar characters but with the focus split in three there is no good foundation.

One thing that is very different from the previous novels is that we are not really following the life of the main protagonist. For the first time we are presented with a greater story arc and Lynch sets some steps toward it. There are a few major revelations which change certain perspectives. Peculiar enough the revelations have no real effect on the plot or the story. It seems they are needed for the next or later novels. There is also no grand finale. Instead there are several minor ones that are rather short. This is because there are multiple stories which are mostly unconnected and each story holds no plot that really can provide a big finale. I slightly hoped for it, but Lynch decided to go for the underwhelming one. It is not that I was disappointed because I could see most of it coming.

To me it seems as if The Republic Of Thieves is something of a middle novel. There were matters to resolved and things to be set up for the next stage (I hope). What did made me cringe was that Lynch suddenly added some prophecies into the story. Personally I dislike such plot vehicles as these give away certain surprises and developments. Because of this I now have to question if Lynch can return to the level of the first two novels or that the next novels will start driving into more mainstream territory.

Scott Lynch – Red Seas Under Red Skies

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Writing a sequel to a very successful first novel is usually considered not to be easy. One such a sequel is Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007), the second instalment in the Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch. After some thinking about the plot I realized Lynch solved the problem by using a similar plot structure as the first novel, The Lies Of Locke Lamora. And it has worked while it is not that obvious at all. The setting is completely different, there is a new cast of characters besides the main protagonists, and the development of the events at first sight seems very different.

But it isn’t. Lynch uses in his plotting the same subtlety and smoke screens as his main protagonists but the formula is all too similar. The novel starts in the middle of a new and most complex scheme by the main protagonists. It kicks off faster and with more comedy than the one in The Lies Of Locke Lamora so that it captivates the reader from the start. As before the scheme is regularly interrupted by flashbacks, so-called interludes, which in a series of episodes tell the story of what happened after the end of the first book and the earlier stages of the scheme they are working on. The latter however don’t give anything away of the true nature of the scheme and increases the excitement.

Whereas the first novel still had some more need of a gradual development before trouble kicks in, Lynch does not waste time here and starts the troubles and complications early on. The story reaches top gear before it even gets half way.

So these are subtle and effective changes within the plot to make sure the reader is far too busy keeping up to everything going on to pay attention to the plot structure. Because at this point the scheme, as before, gets interrupted when an adversary forces the main protagonists to play another scheme. It is at this point where the story sags somewhat as the plot development slows down for some time. Fortunately things pick up eventually although the story is by this time a three quarters on the way and there is little space for manoeuvres. Lynch speeds up events and while it is entertaining it is less exciting.

The final sequences of the plot are shuffled a bit compared to the first novel but as before there is a great clash with some dramatic losses, there is a great escape from one adversary before rushing towards another one. There is more subtle and covert play while the impact is of a lesser degree.

I have said much about the plot. What about the characterization? This is very fine and Lynch avoids creating stereotypes. However, the cast is somewhat larger and many characters aren’t around the main protagonists long enough to create a greater connection. This compared to the first novel where there setting was more focused and we spent more time with some minor characters. The main protagonists have less development as they are already uprooted and out of their comfort zone. It is mainly the interaction between the two central protagonists that creates more depth to their characters.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is overall of the same quality as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. It doesn’t have the same amount of moments with dramatic impact and it sags a little in the middle, but the first half is so strong that it makes good where the first novel had its weaker moments. Lynch may have reused the plot structure of the first novel but the story of such complexity and in its elements so different that nobody will care. I do not care for it myself. I just happened to notice it in retrospect. Either way, it has allowed Lynch to deliver a sequel that will leave no reader unsatisfied.

Jack Vance – Nightlamp

Monday, September 1st, 2014

In the later years of his writing career Jack Vance started to writing longer books and used this to spend more time with his characters and to present the worlds he created in greater detail. He also began to do some things somewhat differently. Nightlamp (1994) is a standalone science fiction novel, set in his favourite universe for this genre and in this review I will mostly take a look at the changes he made.

Nightlamp has, to my recollection, the slowest story of all the Vance novels. It is perhaps inherent to the setup of the plot. He has to provide a proper introduction of several characters and how things came to be as they are all essential to the plot. The story thus spans quite some years with periods where there is a story to tell and periods in which he has to run things forward. It is not that he hasn’t used this before but to me it didn’t work that well. The small events that have to be mentioned are not that interesting or exciting. It is unfortunately something that plagues the first half of the novel. There isn’t happening much and the characters do not have the lustre or shear fun I am used to. To be honest, they are all rather dull. The main protagonist is again set in Vance’s favourite mold and this version lacks the spirit of the previous incarnation. Only later in the novel he is given more spine. This is however would be a momentary change as he would fall back to his sullen performance of before.

So the plot, especially the first half, is hardly exciting and the characters fail to truly connect, eventhough Vance has plenty of time to do so. It is not poorly written and the read goes easy enough. It just can’t make much of an impact. There certainly are a number of developments and the slow pace of the plot doesn’t help to move these forward, as they seem to be fairly obvious. So what about the second half?

Nightlamp contains several stories within stories. A shocking but convenient event heralds in a big change. A background story follows not long after. This story is rather lengthy and it to me it is one of the highlights of the novel as it is actually a classic fastpaced Vance story with all the action and adventure he is famed for. It is shortened in, of course, and I am actually disappointed that it did. Now that I look back I think the novel should perhaps have been told with the narrator of that story as the main protagonist. This would have allowed the long first half to be shortened a lot as it has less relevance and be moved to the middle section. Many of the dull characters wouldn’t have needed to play such a large part.

Once this long background story is finished the story quickly takes off to the goal the reader has been waiting for. The final part of the novel develops in unusual and surprising ways. Things do not seem to happen the way Vance normally does. It does again lack action and the peculiar setting does not help. Things end in a minor tone. For once it doesn’t conclude in a way that is totally satisfactory.

Yes, this is a rather grim Vance novel. The overall mood is dark and gloomy. One could compare it somewhat to The Dying Earth although that novel has a mythical atmosphere that made the dark tales rich. There is no enriching element here. Many of the events that occur have a bad streak in them. It is almost depressing. This does make this a very different type of novel than one normally finds with Jack Vance. It is unique and holds many interesting elements that steer away from the way Vance likes to tell his stories.

I do not think Nightlamp will ever be one of my favourite Vance novels. The first half takes too long and the characters do not resonate. The plot has some weaknesses and one will end the novel in a not very positive mood. It leaves one to contemplation, which the novels rarely do as Vance aims to entertain and present wonderous places. Escapism to its fullest. The long background story does provide much of this however and it compensates a lot for the lesser parts. It is all in all a typical Vance novel in which he tries some different approaches. He is not entirely successful and one cannot expect such a productive writer to be at his top all the time. To be frank, this is one of his last novels and all of those show a certain decline one some parts. I should be happy that he kept on writing as long as he could and enjoy the things where I can find them.