Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Judith Tarr – A Fall Of Princes

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Judith Tarr follows a not often used format by introducing a new main protagonist in each new novel of her Avaryan Rising fantasy series. I should add here that she also likes to use two main protagonists to tell the story from different perspectives. She does so in the third novel of the series, A Fall Of Princes (1988). The plot takes place some decades after the events of the previous novel and concentrates itself on the children of the main characters of the previous novel. While most fantasy series would tell a story of an empire being forged, Tarr is less interested in that and focuses mostly on the characters who are central to it, leaving the conquering and warfare to secondary storylines. The reader actually sees very little of the empire forging. Already in this third novel the so-called divine empire that has been created has already swallowed most of its smaller neighbours so that only and equally powerful other empire stands against it.

While this premise would lead to many predictable stories, Tarr surprises the reader from the start and sets off in very different directions. The story is very much crafted to develop the two main protagonists in their own particular ways while they keep orbiting around each other. She does a fair job on it although neither of the main protagonists were very much appealing to me which perhaps made it hard for me to give it the appreciation it should have gotten.

The plot dulls a bit in the middle section which consists of two parts that both aim to pull the main protagonists stronger together and more apart from their opposing parties. It is the most difficult part of the plot and Tarr, to me, doesn’t pull it off completely convincingly. She has done this approach before and then I was not satisfied either. Nevertheless the middle section is quite enjoyable because Tarr remains in a more familiar setting and there are less odd twists that would make one wonder what it is about.

Odd twists are plentiful in the final section. Tarr tries to put all the pieces into the right place but to me they did not fit very well. One part of the problems is that much of the mysteries in the first part are mostly absent in the middle section and then return to bring everything together. The reader will then have forgotten the details and has to try to work it out for himself. Although I consider myself to be pretty sharp on interesting bits I was not wholely satisfied. The plot is not entirely solid. It is clear what Tarr wanted to tell about in the story she devised but it is far from perfect as it contains quite some difficulties that she did not solve well enough for me.

What does give this novel much more than the first two novels is the cultural diversity and details. Before there were few particularities to be distinguished. The reader had to fill in part of the world. In this novel Tarr introduces several new cultures and explores them more deeply, making the story richer and giving it more depth and colour. These are certainly elements that compensate for the flaws in the difficult plot that Tarr set up. Also somewhat unusual that neither of the main protagonists are white although it is a detail the reader barely notices in the story as Tarr makes it a natural thing of the setting.

One particular thing about this novel is the large degree of bisexuality present. Although it is far from unique from older fantasy it not common either. Tarr tells it in a convincing way without becoming visual which might be unappealing to some readers. Compared to many traditional cultures Tarr does a good job making it feel more natural within the world she has created.

A Fall Of Princes is not an easy novel. Tarr certainly aimed high but in my honest opinion she did not achieve her goal. She did not fail, but there are some flaws and weaknesses in the difficult plot that make it fall short in comparison to the more concentrated and straightforward plots of the first two novels of the series. Fortunately the story contains many enjoyable parts and Tarr tells her story in such a way that the reader is engaged from start to end. Because it is an unusual story within the far more similar fantasy novels of today it is a refreshing and worthwhile read.

Judith Tarr – The Lady Of Han-Gilen

Monday, August 31st, 2015

In the second novel in the Avaryan Rising fantasy series, Judith Tarr departs from the traditional legend tale of the first novel, The Hall Of The Mountain King, to give a kind of retelling of the love triangle. In The Lady Of Han-Gilen (1987) the story is told from the female perspective instead of the male protagonist of the first novel. He is actually absent in the first part of the story, his name already growing in the known world. Tarr avoids telling the story of his rise and jumps to the next pivotal events in his life, this time told from a different point of view.

The female protagonist is certainly no damsel, but rather strong-minded, quite capable with plenty of daring. The first half of the novel plays out rather eventful and pleasant to the neutral reader. One might have expected the journey of the protagonist to take longer but Tarr makes it a fast one. The quest-like story transforms into a full-fledged romance in the second half in which the female protagonist battles desire and love and Tarr manages to make it quite convincing although the final result is what is to be expected.

Although I am male I do not dislike a well-told romance if it stays away from being too obvious, sweet or dramatic. Tarr walks a fine line during the deciding moments but her resilient heroine is not stupid and quite aware of the situation she gets herself into. No human is perfect and things can turn out differently than expected. In the first half Tarr sets the main protagonist up to develop a deep character who is far from witless so that the second half is experienced in the right state of mind although it may have given away the conclusion to easily. Of course the whole series already predefines how certain things will develop so the reader is here for the journey.

The Lady Of Han-Gilen is a quite pleasant story, well written with a fast developing plot that keeps an even pace. The main flaw to me was that it was too short. The heroine of the story is very likeable and should have been given more room to shine. Instead the plot is rather straightforward during the second half although the twist that leads to the end simply brings the story to a quick conclusion. However I did enjoy it overall and it certainly made me want to read more. Recommended.

Judith Tarr – The Hall Of The Mountain King

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

While many fantasy novels share their origin with the legends and fairy tales of old, few share a story and setup that is reminiscent of those legends and fairy tales. Judith Tarr chooses this more classic style for the first novel in the Avaryan Rising series, The Hall Of The Mountain King (1986), as her main protagonist is a half-god arrives to claim his heritage in a land he knows little about.

At first sight the story follows familiar tropes: a thwarted stepmother, the supplanted halfbrother and the new prince showing off his right to the throne. It is not all that simple. Tarr places an unwilling comrade at the main protagonist’s side who despite his dislike and loyalty to the halfbrother holds his duty higher. The halfbrother, while strong and honorable on the outside, is weak on the inside. The story however is not what it seems. It has a character-driven plot although it follows traditional patterns. There are subtleties and details that show that there is much more going on than the story.

Character-driven as the story is, Tarr has plenty of opportunity to delve into the characters and develop them. The novels is not that long but she keeps the progress of the plot fast so that each sequence is provided with plenty of opportunity to explore the characters. From the initial onset to the last pages Tarr grabs the reader’s attention and does not let go until the end. No words are wasted and the only complaint could be that the story isn’t longer, that the plot could be a bit more extensive so we could enjoy the characters more.

Making the story longer or the plot more extended would not have fit this fantasy story that is told like a legend. Like the legends of yore, she follows the traditional patterns and makes sure the reader will have a similar experience. The major difference is the great depth of this character-driven story. The traditional pattern is also the main weakness of the story. It does not provide anything new and much is rather predictable. The reading experience is what makes this novel more than worthwhile. It is actually quite nice to read something traditional that is done so well. Most similar contemporary ones would have made it too simplistic or childish. This is also an adult read, showing how much can be made of something traditional without stepping beyond its boundaries. Recommended.

Leo the Deacon – The History

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Translated works of history written in earlier mediaevil times are fairly rare. One of the venues that are not often explored are the less known works of history. One of these that I like to explore, if I can find a translation, are the Byzantine histories as they are written by the only empire to survive through the Middle Ages in Europe. Completed around the year 995 is the History by Leo the Deacon. It is not a long history but it mainly covers the reign of only two Byzantine emperors in the period 963-976, which is not that long a time. Leo the Deacon does provide an prologue of the emperor before and an epilogue of the emperor after to provide a beginning and an ending although as most histories go the ending is less coherent because the author died or was otherwise unable to finish his history as he was writing about recent contemporary times. Leo the Deacon occasionally puts in some comments on what happened later to some persons to remind the reader that despite bad fortune they were able to play important roles again.

There are several things which are interesting about this history. Despite Leo living during the times of the events described he was mainly a young student in Constantinople and most things he writes about he has to base on indirect accounts. Unlike other historians with a religious education and office Leo shows very little interest in religious affairs. He aims to write a more popular type of history, the military history. Much of the history is about military campaigns and the conflicts the Byzantines were involved in against the Arabs in the south and the Bulgarians and Rus in the north, but also various internal rebellions.

What is interesting about the two particular emperors that take central place in this history is that they are caretaker emperors for the genuine emperor who is too young to lead the empire while it faces all kinds of threats. Both emperors are generals who take power to prevent intrigue and corruption at the imperial court turning everything into a mess. They are strong and capable leaders and maintain that the child-emperor is their heir to be when he becomes an adult. It probably helped that both were related to the family of the ruling dynasty so that they can claim to be part of that dynasty as well. Because of the continuous threats, either external or internal ones they spent relatively little time ruling and are mostly campaigning. As Leo mainly focuses on their campaigns the reader has little insight on how the empire manages during their absence. One can only assume the administrators behave themselves and let the government do its daily job.

While Leo the Deacon relates much of events outside of his direct knowledge, which varies in quality and detail on the accounts he has available, he provides eyewitness accounts of his own where he can add it in. In one of the later campaigns he serves in his religious capacity and he is thus able to provide a far more extensive and detailed account of what happened. It are these parts that have a more genuine quality and allows the reader to experience the events better.

The History is a fairly positive read as it relates a period in which the Byzantine Empire is able to expand and grow again after a long period of slow decline. The accuracy is not great as Leo tells a whole sequence of related events and can then return to some time in the past to tell about another sequence. Although they usually happen within the same timeframe there is no exact reference. Fortunately Leo covers a relatively short time period so the differences are not the large. The translation I read is also a research translation so it has many notes throughout the book to provide background information, corrections and explanations. I thought it was an enjoyable and interesting read. As a history it is far from perfect but considering the availability of historic works in those times it provides much information and details.

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.