Archive for April, 2015

Kate Griffin – A Madness Of Angels

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Kate Griffin has taken the definition of urban fantasy to a new level with A Madness Of Angels (2009). Whereas most of the urban fantasy novels found simply rehash familiar fantasy tropes in a modern setting, Griffin has made them evolve. For this she has used a simple concept for magic and applied it to the modern age. What resulted was urban magic, magic that originates, is defined and applied by modern technology and urban elements. That is as far as I will go in disclosing the essence of the novel. Just this evolution is enough to create a refreshing story in a familiar setting.

The story is told in a first person narrative. The reader thus only knows what the main protagonist knows although it is soon clear that something strange is going on. Fortunately the main protagonist is thrust into the scene without knowing what is going on and this allows Griffin to gradually recover the information to build up the background of the main protagonist as he tries to figure out what is going on and how it relates to his past. As the main protagonist is somewhat unusual this provides a compelling read.

The plot is not much different from the typical urban fantasy page turner as the main protagonist is hunted from the start while he tries to set up his own hunt to discover what is going on. I have not read a lot of urban fantasy so I can only say that in comparison the plot is relatively straightforward. The main protagonist is not thrown from one crisis to the next in which multiple story threads struggle to remain on top. Instead the plot goes from clear to unclear in which uncertainties are removed as the different parties involved decide which side to take. It is in fact early on visible where the final confrontation is headed although Griffin keeps it in doubt a bit. There could be a major twist but as the story develops the reader sees that Griffin is not one to throw her story around to keep the reader off their footing. These are the weaker elements of the novel although others might prefer a less rampant plot. For me there could have been a bit more ambiguity. The good and the bad are too obvious despite attempts to make it seem not so clear.

The strength of the novel hinges on the very interesting main protagonist, whose approach and behavior follow unusual patterns, and the highly original urban magic used. Perhaps others have invented similar things before (and I may have read them) but these did not make their mark as much as Griffin has done. The range, variety and complexity of the magic are really great and thus make a strong impression.

I really enjoyed this novel. It is original in many facets and breathes a different kind of urban fantasy in comparison to the usual fare. Picking up the next novel in the series is a no-brainer. Much recommended.

Feminine compensation

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

For some reason I seem to pick up more novels by female authors at second hand bookstores than as new editions. Here I have to add that I read quite more novels by men than women although I try not to be biased when I check up on a book. The thing is just that many female authors do often use a quite feminine style and typical themes like romance, triangle relationships and family. These do not automatically avert my interest. Foremostly it depends on how it is handled. Unfortunately, for me, there are more often similarities than fresh or different approaches.

Now I am digressing a bit here. My note on finding more female authors at second hand bookstores originates from the fact that those of which you find new editions often follow the popular trends and genres as these sell better. Finding female authors that don’t is usually a matter of luck when browsing through the shelves. On the second hand bookshelves there is no presentation or selection. It is a random collection of novels that have been put back into circulation and often they are older ones with titles which aim less on their target readers as older fantasy and science fiction (I have been talking about this genre actually) did not have such as they have done for the past 10 to 15 years. The chance is thus larger that I check something written by a female author.

I have picked up four novels, of which one is an omnibus of three, but two female authors of which I have read books before. This made picking them up easier. The first is the Chronicles Of Morgaine by C.J. Cherryh, consisting of Gate Of Ivrel (1976), Well Of Shiuan (1978) and Fires Of Azeroth (1979). Cherryh has written quite a bit of science fiction but those novels do not appeal to me. Another (later) fantasy series by Cherryh did appeal to me and I quite enjoyed then, enough to give this other fantasy series a try. It was cheap, I have to admit, so the threshold was low. The other novel is The Master Of White Storm (1992) by Janny Wurts. Although I did not enjoy her early work much I do enjoy her recent series. This novel seems to fall in between the two. It may disappoint or surprise. I picked it mainly up because I had not seen it before in any bookstore so getting it cheap pushed me forward to give it a try.

 

Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom – The Lazarus Effect

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

The sequel to The Jesus Incident takes place several centuries later. This is something that is not uncommon for Frank Herbert to do as he likes telling his story within a larger framework. It automatically makes The Lazarus Effect (1983), the second book of the Pandora Sequence, a relatively standalone work with a plot that could be read without knowing what went before. There are some minor references but most of the story could be told independently.

While The Jesus Incident had many of the trademarks and style of Frank Herbert, this is much less present in The Lazarus Effect. Bill Ransom is again the main writer who now handles more of the narrative flow in the traditional way. With this I mean that the scenes are less jumping from one event to the next, although perhaps it was a bit too extreme in The Jesus Incident and the two authors decided to tone things down a bit, although that would not seem very typical of the Frank Herbert in his later years. It is for that reason that one can say Ransom has taken the lead in the writing with Herbert adding spice.

Thematically the novel has a strong focus on ecology with additions of religion and terrorism. This would certainly resonate with today’s events in the world would it not be so that the terrorism is not connected to the religion at all and that religion is the victim in a certain way.

Like the previous novel the story is set on the threshold of great changes to the society of the world of Pandora. Much of the story deals with the convergence of several developments. The story is told through the eyes of several characters of which only a few have center stage. Of the others we learn little about while Ransom uses the early parts of the story to set the background of these characters. In that way the novel is set up similarly as the previous one as it only allocates time on the characters to set them up after which the plot takes over and developments follow rapidly, leaving no space to explore how the characters handle the changing situations. It has thus the same kind of unbalance. In the beginning the story seems character driven but before we get halfway it becomes plot driven.

What I am missing in this novel is exploration. Herbert and Ransom have created a unique world with several unique societies and they are only developed to their basics. The reader is very interested to see more but the plot dominates too much.

The Lazarus Effect has a far less dark and terrible atmosphere than The Jesus Incident. Humanity has created a better world, at least on the surface. The terrorism theme does hit when it does although it is not taken to any extreme. The story turns to a more positive vibe and ends in a way that closes the story. The Pandora Sequence could just have ended there. Originally there was only a setup for two novels. As the novels hold fairly standalone plots there is always room to write another story if there is success and we know Herbert and Ransom decided to do so.

The Lazarus Effect can best we described as a Ransom novel with a strong Herbert flavor. Herbert sets the themes and the course of the plot but it is Ransom who makes the journey. While I attributed the dark nature of The Jesus Incident to him I would now do the opposite and attribute the lighter nature to him in this novel. Of course I can only guess this based on the Herbert novels I have read. What struck me after I finished the novel, which I mentioned before, is that the buildup of the story is very similar to The Jesus Incident. As Ransom is foremostly a short story writer I can only assume he followed the same template for the story now that he had a greater hand in the writing. The similarity is too peculiar that it can’t be explained by something else.

So is The Lazarus Effect a better or worse novel than The Jesus Incident? It is less complex and is more enjoyable to read. Despite the similarities there is a very different flavor which makes it hard to compare them as it depends very much to what you are in the mood for. The novels are related to each other and are part of a story sequence but have to be judged on their own. So in this case I will not judge. I do will say that I left The Lazarus Effect with a better feeling although it is not bad if a novel returns a disturbing feeling once in a while and makes you think. As such I enjoyed them both in very different ways.

G.W. Dahlquist – The Chemickal Marriage

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

The Chemickal Marriage (2012) by G.W. Dahlquist is the second sequel to The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters. I call it such because the trilogy does not have a real name and I don’t want to invent a name of my own, although the Glass Books Trilogy would be fairly appropriate. On the other hand the series is not a trilogy in the traditional sense. With this I mean a trilogy of three connected standalone books that form a kind of unity or one that tells one great story in three parts. Neither applies to this “trilogy”. The first book is not exactly a standalone story as it leaves plenty open ends although the majority of the mysteries are resolved and most of the antagonists seem to be out of the game. One could live with the story ending there. As I mentioned in my review of the second book, The Dark Volume, it could only play out the remaining open strands of the plot and in a way it does do so. In fact the greater story arc could just as well have ended with that novel. Dahlquist chose however to create a more dramatic ending with much of the future unclear. Who did really survive or die? And so one could say that The Chemickal Marriage is a second sequel.

The great problem with The Chemickal Marriage is that although some mysteries remained unclear in The Dark Volume, it did resolve pretty much all the open strands in the greater story arc. The Chemickal Marriage thus creates a new threat as a result of the finale of the second novel. The story could stand almost on its own if the reader would not have needed to know and understand so much of all that happened before. Unfortunately to me it seemed as if Dahlquist tried to revive some of the elements of the first novel including the complex plot. I say unfortunately because the complexity is actually contrived. From early on events, informations and clues are placed deliberately into the hands of the protagonists. At first they seem somewhat strange but oddities are a typical element of the style of the story. It is however clear that they are pieces of a puzzle and it takes to the finale of the story to make them fall into place at the right moment to resolve all that was apparently wrong. It is this that annoyed me to some extent. In the previous novels Dahlquist managed to fit in the bits of information in a natural way so that they came available at the right moments during the development of the story. That is how it should be. I quite dislike a plot that is set up in such a way that everything peculiar that happens is obviously designed to have a purpose towards the conclusion as they fall out of place within the natural flow of the story. Although some characters die during the story others are kept alive for unclear reasons except for the necessity of the plot that needs them later. It is because of this that The Chemickal Marriage’s plot is the weakest of the three.

After this long complaint I have to get back to what is good about The Chemickal Marriage, because there is much to enjoy. Like the previous novels it is a well-crafted steampunk novel set in a supposed alternative England in which things are different while it is unclear how it came to be. We are only given the now and there is barely any background covered throughout the series. The lack of “infodump” can be considered as refreshing as most of the settings can only be derived from the places visited and mentioned. The novels are despite the complex plots very character driven. Dahlquist keeps a powerful focus on his three main protagonists. They are not perfect and they all have their own goals and means to achieve it. Although they supposedly work together this rarely actually happens. Nevertheless they all have a strong heart that connects with the reader.

Dahlquist repeatedly shows his great skils by creating captivating and engaging scenes in which there are no simple choices and all characters involved make good or bad choices intentionally or by chance. The plot of the novel may be rather contrived it does not take away the vivid and powerful moments that give the story color and momentum.

The Chemickal Marriage does bring the series to real final conclusion that will satisfy the reader. As mentioned before it is not really required for me. A story can end well while many things remain unresolved. Like real life nothing really ends. It is not a bad thing to stop after The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters. Doing so while knowing there are two sequels is however a hard effort. I do not regret reading them as I enjoy a good read and despite my complaints they are still above average novels of great quality that provide a different reading experience that is reminiscent of the nineteenth century mystery novels written in a modern way.

Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom – The Jesus Incident

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Frank Herbert is most famous for his Dune novels but of course he wrote more. The Jesus Incident (1979), the first book in the Pandora Sequence got written by pure chance. It is a peculiar anecdote that I like to share. The first idea for the novel was a short story contributed to a collaborative project with other science fiction authors taking place on the same planet. Herbert did not have the time to it all and asked his neighbour Bill Ransom to do it for him so he only needed to revise it for him. Their collaboration pushed them to do something serious. So they took that story and used it as a concept to write a sequel to Destination : Void, an earlier work that Herbert had just revised. What came to be was a world that was in a way the opposite of Dune: a waterplanet instead of a sandplanet. While Dune was the results of millennia of human society in space the planet Pandora was newly settled. However, Frank Herbert remains Frank Herbert. His works cannot be without some greater and provocative themes. Like Dune, Pandora is a planet of dangers and although one half comes from the planet environment the other half comes from the humans.

I have not read any original works by Bill Ransom so I cannot say what he may have contributed to the story but I have read a fair number of novels, outside of Dune, by Frank Herbert, so I can indicate what seems out of odds with the Herbert composition. What strongly resonate in the novel are the religious, ethical and ecological themes that are very typical Herbert. They provide a depth and complexity that give the story many layers. Another typical Herbert feature is the usage of focused scenes. We jump from scene to scene, from character to character view point where they matter and anything in between is simply left out.

As noted in the introduction of the novel much of the actual writing was done by Ransom. Herbert is clearly the leader who sets the content and the direction, revising where necessary. I have to say that is not entirely balanced out. The earlier chapters are slower in which the characters are more inward looking, while the later chapters are faster and more rushed, with less time for introspection where more insight might be more interesting for character exploration. Many scenes are also lacking character interaction. That does not need to be a bad thing but the characters that Herbert and Ransom present are all such different types that they would create great interaction. They however choose to avoid much of them. I am not saying there is a lack of character development because Herbert and Ransom keep their focus on a limited number of characters who each have their own ordeals, showing them to be of a rather grey flavor, neither good or bad, depending on the perspective.

One trait of Herbert, as mentioned before, is to avoid connecting scenes. There are thus sudden jumps in time. This does not have to be an issue if the reader can follow the chronology of the story; one just has to add a minor reference. Unfortunately the chronology seems to go a bit haywire in the latter half of the novel. Some things seemed to go rather slow while other events rapidly progress. For example one of the big developments appears out of nowhere as it is only referred to in the past while the story is already trying to deal with the effects of the development. As the novel isn’t that long it wouldn’t have been bad to add a few chapters to build it up better. Finally, one of the main events at the end of novel is rather unexplained and only stated as a fact while I kept wondering why and how it was supposed to occur.

The thing about the novel that in my point of view is probably a great contribution by Ransom is the haunting atmosphere of the novel and the brutal depiction of certain scenes. Herbert usually takes a more clinical approach. He can write about some nasty things happening while you don’t get attached; you simply are captivated. In this novel such scenes were taken to greater extremes and at times I could feel a shiver as I responded to what I was reading. Pandora is supposed to be a bad place and Ransom brings that vibe to the reader. It is not a thing I related to Herbert, that’s for sure.

The Jesus Incident is a peculiar novel. It is a very condensed novel although it starts relatively slowly and it has many introspective scenes. There are many themes interwoven into the story and they create a layered plot in which the reader will certainly have his own thoughts and reflections. On the other hand I think some things were rather rushed. Despite the layers the plot is eventually fairly straightforward and I think it could have been developed better. I see room for improvement to make it into something more powerful. In the end the messages Herbert and Ransom try to convey get somewhat simplified and that is something Herbert has not needed to revert to. Nevertheless I did enjoy this novel for all its haunts and terrible themes.

Frank Herbert – Destination : Void

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

With regard to the novel Destination : Void (1966) by Frank Herbert there is one thing that can be put into discussion and that is its publication year. Although I give the year as 1966 here the story was revised and edited in 1978, partially to accommodate it as a prequel to the Pandora Sequence. The later edition is the most common version and finding the original version will be much harder. To make it even a bit more complicated is that the story was published as a series in an science fiction magazine in 1965. However, the original bookform of the story was published in 1966 and although it was revised later on they are in essence still the same story. I have not read the original version but as both versions are not considered to be different novels I follow the original book publication year with the note that it is the 1978 version.

With that behind us I can focus on the novel itself. Destination : Void is a traditional hard science fiction novel. The core of the story is actually a thought experiment. Telling what it is will give away the plot and it is more fun to discover it while reading. I intentionally did not read the backcover to avoid giveaways. It is not a long novel, so there is much to give away. The thought experiment is a ‘what if’-idea and Herbert aims to develop it in a rational way, having the main protagonists discuss concepts and the development of the issue while telling the story. In that sense the title of the novel can be interpreted in different ways but it is nice to think about it afterwards.

Just describing a thought experiment as a story can be quite boring. Herbert makes sure there is a plot that keeps the reader engaged. From the very beginning the characters find themselves in a position of crisis, forcing themselves to the so-called thought experiment as a ways to survive. During the development of the experiment they are confronted with ethical issues, conflicts and threats that spice up the story but also provide a way to give the experiment a direction. The plot thus does not fall away into boredom but that could also partially be so because it was originally published as a serial, forcing Herbert to make each chapter engaging and interesting.

On the part of character development Herbert has made the perfect setup to do so. There are only four characters and each fits a specific profile and position within the story. Each struggles with the situation in a different way and tries to obtain the objective in the way they want it to. Throughout their thoughts and interaction with the other protagonists it is impossible not to get connected with them.

Herbert provides a strong plot that keeps the reader going forward to find out where it will lead to. The voyage seems clear but the destination is murky. It is at the destination that Herbert goes a bit astray as the final is rather sudden and strange. That is partially one of the defects of a thought experiment. The journey forms the core that drives the story. The destination brings all kinds of complexities and choices are plenty. It is here where the characteristic flavour of Herbert’s science fiction emerges as just writing a somewhat regular suspense plot is not his way. There has to be something bigger. As such I am somewhat divided about the finale. It is provoking but not all together fitting to the down-to-earth atmosphere of the story.

Some parts of the story may seem outdated, especially on the technology field, but much remains very readable. That is always the issue with old science fiction as current technology jumps ahead on concepts that were unimaginable at the time. Even so I like to read things like it because they express the ideas of the time. Most of the future technology is even now of present interest, using ideas that in today’s world is a matter of discussion as well. In that sense it remains a timeless story until all ideas have been put into reality.

Brian McClellan – The Crimson Campaign

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

When writing a trilogy most authors opt for writing a single story, ending the first and the second book in something of a cliffhanger and starting the next one immediately afterwards, providing the reader with limited information on the situation. This causes the middle novel to not have either beginning or ending, making it often the weaker part of the novel, although one could say all three novels have their weaknesses and only work best when seen as a whole. The alternative approach that an author can take is providing story arcs within the greater story so that each novel has some closure, allowing for something of a beginning in the next novels.

In the case of the Powder Mage Trilogy Brian McClellan has opted for the second approach, although not in an absolute fashion. He did provide closure in the first novel by completing several major storylines. He does so far less in his second novel, leaving the story arcs in a greater measure of openess. Perhaps McClellan felt otherwise or perhaps this was the best way he could cut the greater story into a third part. I will only know after reading the third and final volume.

The Crimson Campaign (2014) retains the four character perspectives of the first novel with the fourth one remaining of a minor nature and one of three gets less attention. Much of the focus lies on two story arcs that cover the central war activities. The revolution is under threat from several levels and surprises hit from beginning to end. Nevertheless the story does not have the great dynamic of the first novel in which much was complicated and McClellan was able to tell a very engaging tale. The two story arcs that form the center of the plot are far more straightforward. It is win or lose and the little ploys that McClellan fits into them do not carry that great an impact. The main cause is that the reader has become accustomed to the magic systems of the world that McClellan has created: one with the common system of magic with its traits and the original powder magic that changes much of old balance. In the first novel we did not know exactly what it could do or what the limits were but now we do and McClellan does not introduce anything new. There is actually less magic in this novel. Much is left to common warfare.

While McClellan does not need to introduce his characters and his world he does not spend time developing the world any further. Instead he gives more focus to his characters and trying to develop them more. Unfortunately they are more of an internal kind than by interaction with other characters. The minor characters could have used some more development and thus lack some depth. It are the details that enrich a story and also give it depth when you can’t provide much in other places. It seems that McClellan has provided much of what he could and what remains are relatively minor things.

That all being said, The Crimson Campaign is not a weak middle book, certainly not when comparing to many other trilogies. It is however not a rather strong middle book either. It manages to provide a good follow-up of the first novel and a story arc to carry on its own with several nice twists that are found from the early parts until the last ones. As always there are some great scenes that will give the reader great joy and McClellan keeps his story well grounded and easily manages to conjure up the unique familiar atmosphere. All in all The Powder Mage Trilogy is an original story with a very different setting than the usual fantasy worlds. In a way that is a bit of a new trend in the fantasy novels of the past years in which fantasy novels seek to mix fantasy in an original world with a different level of technology than mediaevil. It is a refreshing trend that has gained my interest especially as the number of authors that create them remains limited.

The lost works of Robert E. Howard

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

I am a bit exaggerating with the title of this post. The thing is that Robert E. Howard is mainly famous for his Conan stories, which have frequently been republished, while some of his other protagonists have made some name of their own like Kull and Solomon Kane, although that would be more among the fans. Howard however wrote lots of stories during his relatively short life which in most cases were series focused on a central protagonist. These works are not that easy to to come across as they are republished far less often and not in great numbers so when one does find them you should not hesitate to pick one up.

I have now actually picked up three story collections. Like most of his stories they were written in the 1930′s but I will only refer to the collection edition that I got. All that I obtained were published in the 1970′s and in excellent condition. The first series is called Tigers Of The Sea (1979) and are centred around Cormac Mac Art, an Irish pirate during the Dark Ages. The second is Worms Of The Earth (1976), about a Pictish King fighting against Rome, and the third is The Lost Valley Of Iskander (1976), which focuses on Francis X. Gordon, better known as El Borak, a Texan gunman in early 20th Century Afghanistan. All three collections are barely 200 pages and not all are complete, although Howard left plenty of unfinished stories as well, so completeness is always troublesome when you are dealing with an author who wrote stories to get some quick money. Nevertheless Howard’s stories are quite unique despite their pulp nature as his prose shows great quality and power that has found resonance with many readers. For that reason it is worthwhile to collect his stories.