Tag Archives: book

Book Review – Hellstar

Hellstar by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

Cover picture from HellstarEarth’s first colony ship to the stars is going fine, several decades into its trip to a distant habitable planet. The 8000 inhabitants are healthy and happy in their metal torus. But slowly things start going wrong – mechanical failures and strange physical phenomena manifest themselves with increasing frequency, and soon the population starts showing the strain. A serial killer and a dangerous recreational drug don’t help things either.

Hellstar, despite the terrible title, is actually not a bad hard scifi (with a few mystical overtones) thriller. By no stretch of the imagination is it a good book, but it is well-paced and its only real major crime was being written in 1986. It’s time to bring out The Eighties Scifi Paperback Checklist:
Continue reading

Book Review: The Swerve : How the World Became Modern

The Swerve : How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
ISBN: 9780393064476

Cover picture from The SwerveThe dark ages took a pretty brutal toll on Europe and it is no surprise that scholars of that era looked back to the writings of the Roman Empire with a reverence that they probably didn’t deserve. But the rediscovery of one particular document, On The Nature of Things by the free thinking Lucretuis, inspired several generations of scholars and kickstarted the scientific revolution.

Or so Greenblatt’s impressively researched book argues. Actually, most of the page count is concerned with a monk named Poggio Bracciolini who led a fascinating life against a backdrop of distant monasteries and vicious vatican politics, before becoming something of a professional manuscript hunter with On The Nature of Things his greatest find.

On The Nature of Things certainly sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It asserts that the Gods (if they exist) take no interest in humanity and that natural laws (not to mention random chance) hold complete sway over events. It even claims that all matter is made of tiny particles, which is a remarkable guess. I imagine it was pretty heady stuff for stuffy 15th century society.

The Swerve is at its best when it is describing Bracciolini’s life and the state of 15th century Italy. But it makes an unconvincing argument that On The Nature of Things‘ rediscovery deflected caused the course of human thinking to swerve (to use the book’s tortured analogy) away from dogma towards science. There were lots of things going on, and the new found popularity of an ancient poem was only part of the story.

Despite that quibble, The Swerve is well written and informative if perhaps a little dense for summertime reading.

Book Review : Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Empire is completing its purge of the former nobility, sending thousands to the slave mines to die. Meanwhile a huge rebellion has reached boiling point amongst the tribes that inhabit the plains between the empire’s seven cities. Meanwhile a heavily outnumbered group of loyal empire troops struggles to fight its way across the continent while protecting tens of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile some characters from the first book arrive, among them an assassin who will carry a sacred book into the heart of the rebellion (unknowingly being followed in the meanwhile). Meanwhile, his companions head off somewhere else, while escapees from the slave mines do some other stuff meanwhiley.

Deadhouse Gates cover artLike its predecessor, Deadhouse Gates tells a bunch of overlapping stories, although this book amps it up to eleven with an incredible amount of plot going on simultaneously. The point of view changes very frequently and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who was who. By far the best parts are the passages that follow the Malazan refugees and their tireless protectors as they struggle through the desert under the leadership of the brilliant Coltaine. This is basically a rip off of Spartacus but no worse for it. Other parts could probably be jettisoned without losing much however the multiple viewpoints do allow for a couple of genuinely surprising reveals.

The good news is that the writing has improved immeasurably since Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates is a very readable book. The bad news is that it still has a very D’n’D plot, with events happening because they must to advance the plot rather than seeming to arise organically as a result of previous actions and incredibly arcane and powerful objects just falling into characters’ hands at the right moments. The whole world was apparently created for the author’s role playing game in what must have been a real humdinger of a campaign, but this makes for an oddly constructed story. Huge coincidences drive the plot as the novel jumps from action set piece to action set piece. You can just about hear the dice rolls, and anytime a character doesn’t speak for a while you get the feeling like the rest of the players sent someone out to pick up the pizza.

Speaking of action set pieces, Deadhouse Gates is incredibly bloody even by the standards of grimdark fantasy. I doubt there is an 800 word stretch in the whole novel where nobody gets their liver ruptured or their face staved in. The action is pretty well written though and the talkiness of the first book is greatly diminished.

Only recommended if you really like this sort of thing.

Book Review : Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

The already vast Malazan empire is in an expansionist mood although discontent simmers within the ranks of the armed forces. Powerful wizards on both sides clash with arcane sorceries leading to huge loss of life. Only two free cities hold out against the oppression of the empress and the air is thick with magic, vile treachery, and the unsubtle touch of the gods themselves.

Cover art for Gardens of the MoonGardens of the Moon is a complicated book, there are a lot of overlapping stories going on and many of the characters are secretly not-what-they-seem so it can be hard to keep track of who is who. The incredibly silly names do not help matters; along the way the reader will meet High Fist Dujek, Anomander Rake (Lord of Moon’s Spawn), Sergeant Whiskeyjack, mage Tattersail, love interest Challice D’Arle, and elder god K’rul – none of whom are really that interesting. It is this sort of thing that gives fantasy a bad name (could be worse though).

On the other hand the setting is pretty great. There is whole backstory of the empire lurking under the plot not to mention a very unique system of magic, which is important since half the characters seem to have some sort of magical power. Also, unlike a lot of fantasy, there are plenty of females to mix things up and less of the standard casual racism. This strikes me as a tad unrealistic but it is a refreshing change of pace.

The novel’s biggest flaw is the dialog. Gardens of the Moon is a dialog-heavy tale but almost all the characters speak with the same (very modern sounding) voice, using the same flat tone whether they are addressing a lover, a demon or a thief in a back alley. Even worse, all the named characters tend to talk only to each other, as if the novel was a cheap TV show that can’t afford to spend money on extras that speak. Much of the story is supposed to take place in a teeming city, but it feels deserted and most scenes take place in one of a handful of locations.

I am sick of books that will not end properly to encourage you to buy the next one so I was happily surprised to find the Gardens of the Moon comes to a pretty satisfying ending for a book that spawned a bunch of sequels. I struggled through GotM because a friend reckons that the first of these sequels, Deadhouse Gates, is one of the best fantasy novels he has read. This might be a low bar, but I am reading it now. Deadhouse Gates does seem like an improvement but I am reserving judgement until I reach the end. UPDATE: reviewed here.

As for Gardens of the Moon, I cannot recommend it unless you really like this sort of thing.

Book Review : Two Books by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Cover art for both Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood

Sometime in the near future the world is dominated by huge corporations that are above government control. Employees of these corporations live in company compounds that are strictly guarded since business competition increasingly resembles guerrilla warfare. Genetic engineering is behind most technological advancements, bringing wonders (amazing cures) and horrors (virulent diseases) alike. The rest of the population scratch a living in huge grubby cities. Against this backdrop of mistrust, one new plague manages to almost completely annihilate the human race. Almost, but not quite.

Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood tell concurrent and somewhat overlapping stories of the years leading up to the killer plague and the events that follow. They could almost be edited together into a single book.

O&C follows Jimmy, a boy growing up in the compounds of a minor corporation and his association with another boy, Crake, a genius destined for greatness. YotF tells the story of two women, Ren and Toby, who live outside the compounds. Both women belong to a religious survivalist organisation called The God’s Gardeners, who reject modern life and predict a coming world-wide plague. Thus Ren and Toby are well placed to survive one when it conveniently arrives.

The main problem I had with both books is the main characters: Jimmy is a rather whiny and ineffectual as a protagonist, doing almost nothing of his own volition. Although slightly more proactive than Jimmy, both Ren and Toby are outshone in their own story by the more-vivid characters that surround them. All three characters have a rather limited perception of their world, and it is their observations that shape the readers understanding of what is going on. The books play a clever trick of having the reader eventually come to realise more than the characters ever do, but I found it hard going following such mopey people (especially Jimmy who gets a whole book to himself).

The books are well written and well thought out, although some of the nu-speak terms that crop up seemed jarringly tin-eared to me. One thing corporations do well is think up cool names for products and I don’t think terms like “ratunk” would survive the first focus group. The plots unfurl in a roundabout way that can be infuriating, especially since a lot of the real action goes on behind the backs of the main characters, but everything hangs together pretty well.

Of the pair, YotF is the more entertaining book. I think Atwood put more effort into getting the reader into the mindset of the God’s Gardeners and they come off as much more sympathetic (albeit crazy) than the jaded compound dwellers of O&C. The best part is the insane sermons and hymns quoted from the God’s Gardeners endless meetings at the beginning of each chapter. These capture the voice of the organisation well, and read better than anything that directly follows the narrative.

This is not a pair of books for fans of resolution, both books end on the same cliffhanger. A third book in the series MaddAddam (released couple of days ago) will hopefully continue the story but who knows.

Recommended but requires commitment.

Related: Some guy named Orville Stoeber has recorded some of the God Gardener’s songbook on Youtube. I assume he did it with his tongue in his cheek, but it is a little hard to tell.