Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Miller (4 stars)

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

4 out of 5 stars

Read in May 2010

Excellent weekend spent pondering man, God, science, religion, death, life, despair and hope. Miller’s award-winning novel stands the test of time (over fifty years now) and justifiably deserves to be continuously in print.

So many questions to ponder, presented through Miller’s monastic brothers preserving the last scraps of our civilization and an undying Jewish hermit (assumedly the Wandering Jew of legend) searching for Him who said ‘Come forth!’ Never once did I feel preached at, so skillful was Miller’s presentation.

Even though the Cold War is over, and mutually assured destruction no longer so assured, A Canticle for Leibowtiz posits convincingly that ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’

Book Review: To Reign in Hell by Brust (3 stars)

To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust

3 out of 5 stars

Read in January 2010

Brust’s second published novel, To Reign in Hell, seemed to me almost an alternate history/legend/mythos to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not having read Milton’s works thoroughly, I probably missed much of Brust’s subtleties, wit and demonic humor. I still smiled at his quirky repartee among the bit characters. He coaxed me into sympathizing with the traditional enemy host, illustrated that truth can be in the eye of the beholder and perception is everything.

I read the novel quickly and the story kept me turning pages. My only complaint stems from the over abundance of dialog. It reads more like a screenplay (without any indication of whose speaking nor stage directions). I got used to all the dialog by the end of the book, but I struggled through the first third of the book because of it.

Book Review: Before They Are Hanged by Abercrombie (4 stars)

beforehanBefore They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

4 out of 5 stars

Read in May 2009

Returning to the Circle of the World, where Auda was the hub of activity in The Blade Itself, this middle installment of the trilogy spends most of its time on the fringes of the world.

The Union deployed nearly all its military resources to retaining and regaining Angland from Bethod in the North. Field promoted Colonel West strains to breaking, first by being saddled with Prince Ladisla, who charges his troops into Bethod’s trap. West, the Prince, and a handful of others survive the massacre, but barely survive the flight back to the Union army. The Northman, including Dogman, spurned by the Union army when they offered to assist, lead the refugees roughly ahead of Bethod’s scouts to report the debacle to Field Marshall Burr.

Meanwhile, ignoring the axiom that you should never fight a war on more than one front, the Closed Council send Superior Glokta to hold Dagoska at all costs and to the last man against the Emperor and his legions (eight of them at one point) in the South. While investigating the disappearance of his predecessor, Glokta finds the assassin, an Eater, and discovers that torture is ineffective against such paranormal beings.

Bayaz and his quest for the Seed crawls across the western continent and the Old Empire. Jezal, Ferro, Ninefingers, Quai and Longfoot round of the rest of the band of not-so-merry men. Their trek traverses across the entire continent, through the ancient, dessicated capital, over treacherous mountains and finally to a forgotten remanent of the past on the shores of the western ocean. Ultimately, Bayaz is frustrated by his clever former master, Kanedias the Maker.

Abercrombie amazes me with his ability to write heart-pounding battle scenes. The chapter “Among the Stones” stands out as my favorite from this novel. But there are many opportunities for violence to choose from. While not as grand as Tolkien, his style reminds me of Robert E. Howard, only more intense.

Characters developed apace with the circumstances they survived or overcome. Jezal learned humility. Glokta committed great evil and great good. West overcame his inhibitions. Ferro fought against hope and trust. Quai disturbed me but didn’t get much focus. I suspect he will become troublesome next time.

With Prince Ladisla dead, leaving only one heir to the Union throne, the political intrigue and corruption reach new heights and twists, culminating in the murder of the remaining an heir. Now the Open Council will be put to a vote to select a new heir and you can bet the gloves will come off in the next book, Last Argument of Kings.

I feel obliged to warn parents that this novel is not for young teens or children. It contains graphic violence, graphic language and adult situations.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Rothfuss (5 stars)

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

5 out of 5 stars

Read in September 2008

The story is told by the protagonist years after the events occurred. He’s actually dictating his life story to a wondering Chronicler so there is no real sense of danger when something terrible happens to him – you already know that he survives to tell the tale. It’s almost an autobiography of the main character (Kvothe) from pre-adolescent boy through “college” (as an adolescent). Definitely a coming-of-age tale of a renowned hero and adventurer.

Kvothe starts his story from his early days as a curious contented son of traveling entertainers. But all does not remain rosy, as he becomes an orphan by a tragic and horrific event. Kvothe survives, living on the streets, and eventually attends University to study to be an arcanist. Ill fortune often finds him and his curiosity and pride get him into trouble frequently.

Kvothe is the protagonist and the one relating his story. Denna is the love of his life, who he met on trip to University and keeps meeting sporadically throughout the rest of the tale. Ambrose is one of the annoying antagonists, the rich brat and bully at University who thinks he can put Kvothe in his place through any means at his disposal, including assassination attempts. The Chandrian are elusive terrifying beings who killed his family and the entire entertainer troupe and also wiped out everyone attending a wedding near the town of Trebon. Various Masters at the university both help and hinder Kvothe’s progress through his terms and he has a handful of friends who are fellow students, patrons or musicians.

Because the story is a story within a story, being told from the first person point-of-view, I only really connected with the main character when he was a helpless orphan fending for himself on the streets. Once he liberated himself from those dire circumstances, I could follow his progress through secondary education mostly by shaking my head at his thickheadedness – not over a lack of intelligence on his part but more the lack of experience socially. Typical coming of age stuff.

I would recommend this book to all fantasy readers. Be prepared to wait for the rest of the story, though, as the rest of the trilogy is not published yet.

I updated my rating to match my feelings for this book. It was the best book I read last year (2008) by far.

Book Review: Old Man’s War by Scalzi (4 stars)

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

4 out of 5 stars

Read in December 2008

A good story, regardless of genre, and an especially great military science fiction tale.

Our point of view is through the eyes of John Perry. We meet him on Earth, as a seventy-five year old widower living in Ohio. It’s his birthday and it’s time for him to report for duty. He (and his wife) both signed up for the Colonial Defense Force ten years ago, recruited with visions of renewed youth and minimum of two years of service. Kathy died eight years ago of a stroke while making cookies in their kitchen. John makes his farewells to friends and family and visits his wife’s grave one last time.

John and several thousand other 75-year olds are transported to a Colonial transport ship and enjoy the usual military “hurry up and wait” routine. Eventually, after seemingly endless and pointless tests, the day of truth arrives and the recruits report for their final physical improvements regimen.

Rather than a retrofit of his existing body, John receives a new improved not quite human body with many enhancements, including green photosynthetic skin, cat-like eyes, SmartBlood (nanotechnology), BrainPal (PDA and HUD with extreme Internet access all embedded in the brain – both voice and thought activated) and superhuman reflexes, strength and endurance. After training, designed mostly to convince the recruits that their old inhibitions do not apply to their new bodies, the soldiers are dropped into battle with a variety of incomprehensible, tenacious and prolific alien species. Their goal – to defend the scarce “real estate” of the human colonies and potential colony planets.

For me, the best parts of this story were the relationships. They were sparse but gripping. Perry’s memories of his wife and marriage. The familial bonding among the Old Farts and the grief of their passing. I was especially touched with the death of Maggie, who composed a heart-wrenching jisei poem as she plummeted through a planet’s atmosphere:

Do not mourn me, friends
I fall as a shooting star
Into the next life

And lastly the burgeoning relationship between Jane Sagan, occupying the body of Kathy, John’s wife, and John Perry. Her anonymous postcard sent to John inviting him to find her when he retires and start a new life with her brought tears to my eyes.

I recommend this to anyone who loves military science fiction, with a good dose of wit and sarcasm, flavored with a gentle touch of what it means to be human in an insane non-human galaxy.

Book Review: The Forever War by Haldeman (3.5 stars)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

3.5 out of 5 stars

Read in July 2009

If I had been born in the 50s and also been born male, I’m positive I would have loved this story. All the pain, confusion and futility of Vietnam but strung out and extrapolated over three thousand years (or about three years relatively speaking). The last fourth of the book salvaged the first three parts.

I didn’t have any trouble grasping the science, the physics or the technology. Haldeman did an excellent job conveying them without making me take a course in quantum physics or string theory.

But again, similar to The Accidental Time Machine, character development suffers, even though we spend months bored in transit. I personally didn’t care for or agree with his predictions for societal changes on Earth and elsewhere that occurred while Mandella travelled at relativistic speeds. I did agree with the morale of his story, which is similar to Ender’s Game in philosophy.

I’ve now read most of the classic (and one neo-classic) military science fiction novels. My personal favorite seems to be Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, followed closely by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Haldeman’s Forever War follows and the distant finisher remains Armor by John Steakley.

Book Review: The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts (5 stars)

The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts

5 out of 5 stars

First Reading (June, 2009):

Great prose, good characters, intriguing plot twists.

In fact, I spent the first part of this book in total confusion. I love maps and Janny’s website has a great interactive map of Athera. Before I’d read forty pages, I had minutely scrutinized the online map in total frustration. I could not find the places Janny was referencing!

Eventually, my questions were answered (I should have had more patience).

I absolutely loved the first half of this book, riding along in the headlong rush to the first climax. I struggled a bit with the aftermath and could only watch in disgust and horror at the damage done to the characters I’d come to know and love. It made for great drama, sometimes almost melodrama, but boring it was not.

It’s one of the longest books I’ve read in quite some time – nearly seven hundred pages as a mass market paperback. After finishing it, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better as two separate novels. I really should have taken a break after the first climax to let my mind and emotions come to grip with the consequences to the characters.

I don’t know how I missed this book when it was first released in the early nineties. I’ve been reading fantasy for over twenty-five years and this was too good to miss. I’ll have to chalk it up to having toddlers and no time to devote to reading.

I highly recommend this novel to fantastic fiction fans everywhere.

Second Reading (July/August, 2010):

Since I gave away my older Roc MMP edition to spread the ‘good news’ of Janny’s Wars of Light and Shadow series, I took the opportunity in mid-May to purchase the re-released MMP edition while at DemiCom, where I had the privilege of meeting and visiting with Janny Wurts. I felt compelled to complete my collection of the series so that I could re-read Curse of the Mistwraith repeatedly to refresh my memory of the unfolding layers and complexities that comprise Athera.

I highly recommend this book and this series for the devoted lovers and perspicacious readers of complex multifaceted myriad-layered epic fantasy brimming with inimitable characterizations and sublime universe craftsmanship.

March 2013 Update:  HarperCollins is still running a sale I referenced in a previous blog posting on the first three ebook editions for the Wars of Light and Shadow series.  For just under a buck, you can start on your journey to find the Paravians in The Curse of the Mistwraith

Book Review: The Crown Conspiracy by Sullivan (4 stars)

The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan

4 out of 5 stars

Read in February 2009

A very enjoyable quick read. I enjoyed the fast paced romp following the antics of the two thieves, Hadrian and Royce, and the intrigues entangling them with the royals Alric and Arista.

The tale starts with some stolen letters, which are then re-stolen right from under the owner’s nose from a windowless tower room behind the only door (locked) and a safe (also locked). The thieves complete the job successfully, collect their payment and plan to take a bit of a vacation before taking on another client. But Hadrian stumbles upon a desperate noble who convinces him to take an emergency job to steal a sword to prevent his death in a duel scheduled for the next day. Royce rightly chastises Hadrian for breaking the rules but agrees to do the job because the price is almost too good to be true.

And it proves to be just that. The thieves spring a trap that implicates them in the murder of the king. They are arrested and placed in the dungeon, convinced they will be executed in the morning. The Princess Arista has other plans and helps them escape on the condition that they kidnap her brother, the Crown Prince Alric. And thus begins the adventure of Prince Alric and the Thieves, as it’s referred to once the dust settles and the crown rests safely on the correct royal brow.

My favorite character was Myron, the cloistered monk who had naive chiseled on his forehead. I also related well to Hadrian. Other than that, I didn’t connect with many of the other characters. In fact, even when their lives were hanging by a thread (literally), my heart didn’t quicken nor did I hold my breath. I thoroughly enjoyed the action and adventure, but I wanted to know more about the characters, especially Royce.

Book Review: Warbreaker by Sanderson (4 stars)

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

4 out of 5 stars

Read in July 2009

Brandon does it again – “it” being his uncanny ability to create female characters that I immediately relate to, like and care about. Not only one, but two of them – Vivenna, the eldest, wisest, best prepared sister, and Siri, the youngest, kindest, most frivolous one. But don’t let those stereotypes delude you. Brandon turns both of these types around, on their heads and sideways and I’m convinced you’ll be pleased with the results.

The magic system in Warbreaker was a tad creepy at times, especially if you believe, as I did, that Breath is equivalent to your soul. Breath is traded, bartered, bought and sold, so you can literally sell your soul in the world of Warbreaker. The accumulation of Breath creates a social hierarchy in T’Telir readily apparent to citizens, priests, and the resident “gods” (i.e. the Returned). The more Breath you acquire, the more abilities and perceptions you enhance, including extending your life indefinitely. The use and study of Breath is ongoing so a future exploration is possible in another story.

Most of the story dealt with the political intrigue in and around the Court of Gods and the seemingly imminent war between Hallandren and Idris. The two sisters, Vivenna and Siri, are princesses of Idris, a breakaway province of Hallandren. Siri is sent to T’Telir to fulfill a twenty year old treaty obligation to provide a royal bride to the God King in Vivenna’s place. Vivenna follows Siri to the city, ostensibly to rescue Siri, but really to fight her inner battle against suddenly being useless and unimportant. How these two sisters deal with the circumstances they find themselves thrust into is the heart of this story.

Other characters of note include Lightsong, a Returned denying his divinity with every witty fiber of his being; Vasher, a ruthless Awakener burdened with the sentient irresistibly destructive sword Nightblood; and Denth, a likeable mercenary who takes Vivenna under his protection soon after her arrival in T’Telir.

The action quickens in the last fifth of the book to the point where I had to re-read several paragraphs because I kept skipping ahead with the implied breakneck pace of the story.

My only quibble with the story would be a lack of return to Idris, especially from the point of view of Vivenna and Siri’s father. Once both sisters are in T’Telir, we never return to their homeland nor hear anything from their family. Lastly, the wrap-up at the end, especially surrounding Vasher, Denth, Nightblood and Lightsong, wasn’t convincing enough for me. It seemed too convenient and too rushed.

I still enjoyed the story and am very grateful that it’s a standalone epic fantasy tale with no cliffhanger ending. Recommended for all fantasy lovers.

Book Review: Bridge of Birds by Hughart (4 stars)

BridgeofBirdsByHughartBridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China that Never Was by Barry Hughart

4 out of 5 stars

Read in January 2010

An Asian adventure packed with action, mystery, myths, ingenuity, humor and hope. Master Li, regardless of his undefined character flaw, discerns perils, puzzles and peoples clearly while his young client, Number Ten Ox, battles monsters, braves ghosts, topples buildings, walks on lava, loves unconditionally and all to save his village’s children from a mysterious malady.

Hughart kept me riveted with each new chapter, each new adventure, each twist in the labyrinth. While some character dialogue seemed too modern for a tale of Ancient China (that ‘never was’), the relentless pace of events kept me turning pages faster and faster. The author spawned vivid visuals in my imagination, making me yearn for a movie rendition similar to “House of Flying Daggers” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

I highly recommend Bridge of Birds to all lovers of fairy tales, legends and high adventure.