Archive for June, 2015

C.J. Cherryh – Fires Of Azeroth

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

The third novel in the Chronicles Of Morgaine fantasy trilogy by C.J. Cherryh is Fires Of Azeroth (1979). Like the previous novel the story can be read on its own although it is a direct sequel to the second novel, Well Of Shiuan. One will miss some references but as a whole the story stands on its own despite the fact that quite some characters from the second novel have moved on to the new world in which the story takes place.

Cherryh creates a very different world compared to the previous ones. The first was a world in relative conflict, the second in peril and the last is quite idyllic which now is very much overturned. While the two central characters are given some time of respite there is no growth of bond or understanding. They remain rather distant and apart despite the harrowing times they have gone through. The peace does not last and while the two stay together much longer than before there is no change in their relationship, certainly no improvement or worsening. As ever they get separated and as before it is the sidekick, from whose viewpoint the story is told, who gets caught by the enemy. Of course he has to stay alive and it is almost odd that no matter the worsening of the situation he always survives. Cherryh does give some explanation but it is not completely convincing. In the final part things become rather chaotic. Little is explained and the lack of a map or a good description of the journey hampers understanding the development of events. Cherryh holds on to the restricted perspective of her main protagonist but as he is often more clueless than insightful it remains rather vague and hard to understand.

As I mentioned before the main protagonist, being the sidekick and uncertain in a nature, is not very likable and more often irritating. His characters hardly develops. He mainly gains experience but this does not help him become a more complete and trustworthy person. To me it is the main frustrating thing about this otherwise interesting and original series.

The plot of the novel is somewhat more varied than the second book but as its length is not long and the time spent on characterization relatively long there is not much room for complexity. Compared to the others there are some possible flaws here that I did not understand. Perhaps I missed some points but there were several kinds of behavior that did not fit a more normal reaction or development. I did not see a clear reason to how the way the final part developed. There is a theme of (self)destruction in the series and while it was acceptable in some occasions in did not do so here.

Cherryh concludes her story in a somewhat humane way which in a way is surprising although previous opportunities were also not used. She tried to tell her story in a different way. The main characters were far from perfect and good and evil are also not absolute. In that sense keeping a hold on one’s humanity could be seen as an underlying theme of the trilogy. Instead of opting for a grand story arc Cherryh opted to tell a much smaller series of stories with dark themes which each held some glimmers of light. I may not be entirely satisfied in the end. That is however not a requirement. Novels can aim to set the reader thinking and this one certainly does.

Maarten ‘t Hart – A Flight Of Curlews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

I have to admit I don’t read many novels in my native language, Dutch, but of course I used to do so mainly before I had depleted my local library and moved on to works that were not translated yet. I do still have some Dutch books on my shelves that have been lying there for me to pick them up one day. One of those is A Flight Of Curlews (1978) by Maarten ‘t Hart, one of the few of his novels that have been translated into English.

It is not a long or overly complex novel except for psychological nature of the plot. An accidental encounter causes turmoil to the stabile internal life of a man, bringing back many memories during the days that follow. The memories at first look seemingly random. Gradually they start to paint a deep profile of the main protagonist from his early childhood to more recent events.

The main protagonist is not an ordinary man. Though highly intelligent he copes with many sociological failures and a number of tics. He is a typical autistic nerd that have become very familiar today but as this novel was written in the seventies such a stereotype did not exist yet. Perhaps at the time it came out it might have looked to be about a rather disturbing person.

The author writes a very easy prose and his writing is fairly simple but very vivid, which makes it enjoyable and accessible. The story is very focused as it is narrated from only one viewpoint. The great problem however is the lack of a good plot. A large part, perhaps at least a third of the novel consists of flashbacks. These do not last very long and the story returns to the main plot but this does not last longer than the flashback until another one follows. This overload of flashbacks, while interesting, does hamper the main plot a lot which sees very little progress until about halfway the story. To me it was a relief that the flashbacks stopped and the actual story continued. Peculiarly enough the majority of the plot revolves about a different series of events than much of the first half seems to develop towards. It leads to a somewhat disappointed ending although with regard to the flashbacks the reader understands the main protagonist well enough that it was not unlikely to have turned out this way. One could say it is a realistic result. Things like this happen in real life as well.

There is much to like about A Flight Of Curlews. It is well written and the main protagonist can be seen as interesting as we explore his being and how he interacts with other people. The overload of flashbacks and the lack of a good plot damage it enough for it not to be a entirely satisfactory read. The novel is considered to be one of his most popular and best works but I don’t regret that I have not picked it up earlier.

C.J. Cherryh – Well Of Shiuan

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

While the basic concept behind the Chronicles Of Morgaine allows for standalone stories C.J. Cherryh chooses to tell her fantasy trilogy in a more traditional way. Well Of Shiuan (1978) is a direct sequel to Gate Of Ivrel although the story would still work reasonably well on its own as it is set on a different world and environment. Knowing what has happened before does help understand things better as there are multiple ties that bind the story to Gate Of Ivrel.

Well Of Shiuan is essentially a disaster story. While there currently is a popular market for post-apocalyptic novels Well Of Shiuan focuses on how people behave and act when it is happening. The story is however told from the view of the outsider who does not completely know what is going on or why people are behaving like that. He has missed much of what has happened before and has not experienced the decline of the world as other have. To be exact, he does not care much at all as he his on a mission of his own. So what the reader gets is fragments. Nevertheless they are more than powerful enough to convey the atmosphere of this world.

The arrival of the outsiders are a catalyst for the events in the novel. Things occur rapidly. At first it may seem odd to the reader but soon it becomes clear that everyone has been seeking a way out. I had quite a bit of trouble with it myself before I understood how the author viewed the world she had created. In a way it was necessary for her because the novel is not long and the plot only has one central setting in which most of the drama and interaction happens. That is basically how the story is set up. There is a slow introductory part while the finale is of a similar length but much more rushed.

While all these events are going on the central theme of the novel is however the fragile relationship between the sidekick and the central character of the story, of whom, like in Gate Of Ivrel, we see half as much, as the sidekick keeps getting parted from her for several periods. I had hoped there would be some improvement on that part because she is far more interesting than the sidekick. The sidekick, our main protagonist, is not a very likable person as he is full of doubts and can’t seem to make up his mind. His erratic behaviour is thus annoying and it seems all to fitting that his master does not trust or depend too much on him. She tests him as she does not desire to remain alone but she wants to make sure he is well committed.

The plot of Well Of Shiuan is much more simpler than Gate Of Ivrel. While the central part is focused and holds the most development there is far less exploration and development of the rest of this new world in which the story is set. Perhaps it was all Cherryh really had to tell and she did not see interesting developments beyond the central story she wanted to tell. It does leave a more focused story that in its harrowing nature is quite effective. I cannot say I enjoyed this story particularly well. I do like a more balanced plot and a bit more exploration. Narrating the story only from the viewpoint of the sidekick, who I don’t like much, does not help much either. I only get happy when his master returns to him so that he is given some direction instead of being indecisive all the time. There is still another novel to go in the trilogy and I do am interested in how it will come to a conclusion because despite the weaknesses this is a unique story unlike any other fantasy story and that does make it worthwhile to read.

C.J. Cherryh – Gate Of Ivrel

Monday, June 8th, 2015

While I read some fairly recent novels by C.J. Cherryh I took little interest in her older works which seemed mostly science fiction. Before those however she wrote The Chronicles Of Morgaine, a fantasy trilogy (although she has written another sequel some years later), which is written in a somewhat different mold, as it is more in line with the style of those years, of the seventies, before fantasy took its first steps into the popular genre. With that I mean that the fantasy is more low-profile and character-focused instead of epic and action-focused. This does not mean the stories are not epic but the approach is more simplistic.

The first novel of the trilogy, Gate Of Ivrel (1976), is Cherryh’s first novel, and one would not easily recognize it as such. It has a mature style and a heavy atmosphere. Her characters are nowhere near stereotypes but rather mysterious and hard to approach. As it is not a long story she keeps the number of characters few, allowing her to focus on the characters.

While the series is called the Chronicles Of Morgaine the story is told from the perspective of her so-called sidekick. He becomes attached to her but he knows little about her and she discloses very little as sharing knowledge is dangerous. This choice is proven often as the sidekick is very uncertain and frequently gets separated from Morgaine, usually taken by his or her enemies, who try to cajole or seduce him for her secrets. Much of his development revolves around his divided loyalties and the choices he has to make.

The plot moves back and forth as Morgaine attempts to achieve her goal. As the story is told from the perspective of her sidekick Cherryh has to craft the plot in such a way that he maintains part of the main events. For much of the story she manages this quite well although the final sequence is rather chaotic. I am still not certain about the what or why. Part of the reason of course is because we only know and see what the sidekick does and this is often rather limited. It as least leaves space for speculation.

Gate Of Ivrel is an intriguing novel. There are several mysteries, much about the central character of Morgaine, and about the background of events. Cherryh does provide an introduction to provide the premise of the series for the reader and being able to understand sufficiently what is going on but there is much more to explore. It is not a grand or powerful novel. The setting is fairly simple and the main protagonist is not easily liked as he has serious personal issues, insecurity the most prominent of them. The central character of Morgaine is far more interesting but Cherryh made the choice to keep her a mystery which proves to be very effective as you want to read more.

Lois McMaster Bujold – Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

Despite the great popularity of her Vorkosigan science fiction novels Lois McMaster Bujold has only written new novels when she had the right story for it. As they are standalone stories she can set stories at different places within the timeline of the series although she has to take into account that these do not disturb future events. While the first set of novels had plenty of action, intricate plots and serious themes woven into them she has occasionally also written what can best be described as comedies. These comedy novels are also quite the fan pleasers as Bujold often brings back characters from past novels and adds in romantic elements.

You might already be guessing that I am making notes on these particular novels is because Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (2012) is also one of these comedy novels. One might guess differently from the title and for the first few chapters of the novel I had a different idea as well, but the plot took a quite different direction than I had expected.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is not much of a Vorkosigan novel in the literal sense. This is the story about one of the side characters. It is not the first time that Bujold has done so. The switch provides her with a new character to explore and develop better and she can describe the world in a slightly different way. We do meet familar characters of old again but these now play a different role as their relationship toward the main protagonist is different. As usual, Bujold makes a good job of it.

I may have said that is the story of one of the side characters but this is not entirely true. Only half of the story is told from his viewpoint. The other half is told from the viewpoint of a new character. As she interact intensively with the other main character he still gets much of the center stage. The pairing brings extra focus on the two characters, their relationship and their development throughout the story.

While this is a very enjoyable book for any Vorkosigan fan I have to be honest here that the plot is rather circumstantial. Initially I expected an exciting plot that would see plenty of action. Bujold however steers the plot in a completely different way with very little action. The bit of action that we do get at the end is more of a diversion to push certain developments into a necessary closure. Either way it is fortunate for the novel that Bujold did so because for the larger middle part of the novel the story is somewhat lacklustre in which Bujold follows some predictable course.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is not anywhere close to the best Vorkosigan novels. Is it the worst? Bujold does not write bad novels or poor stories. This book is much of a fan pleaser and as a fan I had no regret reading it. She is still a superb story teller. Telling the story from this particular side character is something that makes the novel very worthwhile reading although it lacks some depth and it does not raise the side character much from his side character position. In a way that is a sad thing to see.