• Reading,  Review

    Book Review: Shadow of the Torturer

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    I tried to read this book in 2014 and hated it. In fact, this was one of the first one-star reviews I ever gave, deciding that a DNF doesn’t rate more from me. Since that attempt was less than three years ago, I initially didn’t see the need to put myself through that again.

    And then, in the course of my Hugo/Nebula/WFA novel winners quest, I found an audio version and thought maybe I could manage that while commuting. And I was right, but I still didn’t enjoy the book. There were several times I probably would have stopped or skipped ahead if I hadn’t been driving at the time.

    Severian’s character is strange and not really workable for me. He’s actually presented very well while still serving with the Torturer’s Guild. His personality, while distinct from his friends and fellow students and journeymen, fits the mold for how he’s grown up in the guild.

    But that personality shifts dramatically almost as soon as he walks out the front door, by turns allowing himself to be manipulated, by others a passive participant in life, and by still others he becomes an arrogant jerk. No, not everyone is consistent of character in the real world, either, but Severian seems to be very gumbified, molded by the author into a completely new character to fit whatever situation the author feels like putting him into. It gets both tiring and irritating.

    To go along with the lack of a consistent character, we have a lack of consistent story once he’s away from the guild. Nothing really happens in the second half of the book. We careen from situation to situation, barely advancing the plot and not really advancing the characters of Severian and companions. After enough of these situations have gone by, the author apparently decides that’s enough for one book and the narrative just ends.

    Not exactly a cliffhanger, though they are in the middle of something that hasn’t been explained at all, and with no real warning. The story just stops without telling us anything is coming. Severian is going through another door, and this seems like a good place to break things off, telling us we can read further in his memoirs if we choose.

    And in the afterword, we find out it’s a tale of the future and the author is merely a translator? Olaf Stapledon pulled this in Last and First Men, and it didn’t really work for me then, and it doesn’t work for me now, especially on top of the book that I just read.

    Overall rating: 2 stars. Again, I’m well aware that this book, and the series it starts, is well thought of by big parts of SF literary fandom. Yes, I’m equally well aware that Mr. Wolfe is considered a giant in the genre by some other really big names in the genre. Yes, it won two major awards.

    But I have to ask again: so what? Just because a book is critically acclaimed or wins awards doesn’t mean any particular reader has to like it, and I didn’t. Your mileage may vary, but I won’t be reading the next book in the series even though it also won a major award (the Nebula this time). I’m actually a little sorry I spent the time to try this one again.

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  • Reading,  Review

    Book Review: The Aleph and Other Stories

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    This is a strange collection of strange stories. Before now, I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Borges’ work, and I’m still not sure I am, especially since he appears to have been fairly prolific from what I’ve read about him since finishing this.

    Not every story in this collection comes under the headings of science fiction or fantasy, at least not when I’m looking at them. But that’s okay. First, it’s good to step out of your comfort zones now and again. Second, to some degree, I enjoyed every story in the book, and that’s not something I can usually say. Third, the historical pieces here capture moments in time that I might not otherwise have considered.

    If I had to think about themes running through the collection, I’m probably going to come up with three words: immortality, obsession, and time. Sometimes all three of these run together in a story and sometimes none of them are obvious but there are subtle tendrils here and there.

    I’m not going to go through this story by story – plenty of other people have done that, and I’m not sure I have anything meaningful to add, although I suppose if this is the only review you read about this book (please don’t limit yourself here), maybe you’d appreciate at least a little something.

    My favourites:

    “The Aleph”, the titular story, is about an object that is, “one of the points in space that contains all points”. In fact, it contains every point in space from every angle in perfect clarity. Actually, the story is really about the effect on someone looking into the Aleph.

    “The Dead Man” is, oddly to me, an historical piece about a man who believes he is seizing opportunities rather than writing his own epitaph.

    “The Man on the Threshold” is also not a speculative fiction piece, but does contain a little bit of mind bleepery, subtle enough that it almost goes by at the time.

    Overall rating: 4 stars, almost. I’ll leave it there, but at the same time mention that I wouldn’t want to be a woman in any of Borges’ stories. The writing is wonderful and the stories make you think, but collectively, this survey of Borges’ work is sexist as hell.

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  • Reading

    Book Review: How Not To Be Wrong

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    The cover blurb describes this as “the freakonomics of math”. No, not really. Freakonomics was the freakonomics of math. It just happened to be written by an economist. This book is really more about the author’s desire to answer the question “when am I ever going to use this?”

    The short answer, never exactly stated outright, but talked around quite a bit, and in a longwinded way in the opening pages, is that if you’re talking about how to solve a quadratic equation or prove two triangles are the same triangle, you’re probably not going to. And that’s not the point, anyway. The point is to open up your brain to ways of thinking that will help you solve real world problems and question things when it’s important to question them.

    There are definitely fun bits, demonstrations of how numbers can be manipulated (and actually, he comes back to this point with a lot of different examples, some esoteric, and some very entertaining), how a first past the post voting system doesn’t work with more than two candidates (surprise!), and how people in the relatively recent past have taken advantage of poorly designed lotteries.

    But in amongst the fun bits, I’m confused about how and why god keeps coming into things. He doesn’t appear to be taking sides on a mathematical proof for or against god, but the author keeps bringing it up. And suddenly, somewhere past the half way mark, he brings up original sin. Original sin? Seriously? He compares just generally being wrong to the concept of original sin as if it’s a real, concrete thing. At this point, I actually came very close to putting the book down as I’m really not interested in someone mixing religion in with the science I thought I was reading.

    The writing itself is a bit variable, sometimes very engaging and readable and sometimes very dry and long-winded with examples that stretch out a little too far.

    Overall rating: 3 stars. I come down on the side of liking this book, though I don’t know if the subtitle, “The Power of Mathematical Thinking” is ever realized in the book outside of demonstrated moments when people have taken advantage of that power.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Reading

    Book Review: Watchtower

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    So, secondary world fantasy without any actual fantastic elements. Secondary world fiction then, maybe. But really, there is no speculative element to the story beyond that, a complete lack of magic, strange creatures, gods, or any of your other standard fantasy tropes.

    And yet it’s a good story.

    Oh, on the surface, it’s a fairly standard story. Small kingdom (closer to a city state, really) is invaded and most of the soldiers and its lord are killed. One of the guard captains accidentally survives, as does the lord’s son. They escape and go recruit some help to take the town back. Simple, straightforward, easy to follow.

    But the characters have to work at things a little harder than that. Ryke, the guard captain, has to make a lot of compromises and moral adjustments to keep his prince alive, save him, and get the help they need. The prince has to change who he is. They both need to come to the realization that women are people too and may have their own thoughts and feelings.

    And there’s world building here, though so much of it is in the background that it’s just naturally a part of the story. An otherworldly capoeira, a martial art disguised as dance slips in somewhere in the hidden valley, promising that there’s a whole other culture yet to explore. The south is very different from the north.

    It also seems to be a small world, taking days on horse to get to what are considered far away places. Or maybe the horses are just very, very fast. Populations are equally small. I have the feeling this will get stretched out a bit in future books of the series, but just now, it seems small. So small that, in the journeying chapters, I’m often mentally subbing in ‘weeks’ for ‘days’ because it seems far more reasonable to me.

    Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I enjoy almost all the characters. The bad guy isn’t really bad, exactly, just looking to forge a new home and set himself up as the lord. The hero has moral struggles. The prince he’s supporting makes major life changes.

    And there’s a lot of inclusivity here, particularly among those who live in the secret valley, including an out lesbian couple. Quite a change from the standard fare of the late 1970s.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Reading

    Book Review: Sten and the Mutineers

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    I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed this universe.

    Set between books two and three of the original Sten series by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch, Sten and the Mutineers is a short novel (I blew through it in a couple of days) encapsulating a single adventure, straight-line and the team’s abilities and workings to deal with it.

    It throws back to the old days when the good guys were good guys getting their hands dirty, General Mahoney was still around, and the Eternal Emperor was actually a good guy (and also a good guy, if you parse the difference). There are other throwbacks and call outs to reel you in as well, tiny things to tie into Sten’s childhood or provide links between The Wolf Worlds and the two Damned books, plus characters that have been too long absent from my life.

    Oddly, I seem to have missed Alex Kilgour more than the rest of the characters, though I was quite happy to have Doc and Ida back, too. Sten didn’t seem to have as much to do as sometimes, not quite as much the main character as I’m used to, but standing out in front of the rest of the ensemble a little. Which is okay, but makes the title a trifle misleading. Still, how else would I have made the connection?

    Aliens and space ships, battles and potential romances, plot twists and treachery, enemies and allies, sometimes both. A fully resolved plot that still leaves things open for more (which I’m fairly certain there is because Mr. Cole’s website says that Sten and the Pirate Queen is coming soon).

    And it’s available for free in a serialized format on Mr. Cole’s website. Here’s the link for “episode” one: http://stenbooks.blogspot.ca/2015/11/chapter-one-episode-one.html.

    Overall rating: 3.5 stars, which I’m rounding up to 4 in recognition of this story bringing be back to a universe that’s high on my list of favourite series for the sheer number of times I read the original books and the hours of reading pleasure they brought me.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Reading

    Book Review: An Ancient Peace

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    This is the sixth book set in the same universe, but the first of a new sub-series, I think following at least some of the main characters (one for sure, and definitely most of the principles have been around. I kind of knew going in that I wasn’t starting at ground zero, but figured if the writing was good, I’d probably be fine.

    And I was right, mostly. This isn’t a bad jumping off point into the universe, but I was definitely missing some things, some nuances in the society that previous books built, some in-universe jokes and references.

    But it still worked okay. Ms. Huff establishes quickly that this is a setting with some previously filled in background, dropping bits and pieces as you need them to figure things out as you go along. There are, at one point, quick summaries of previous plots made by a background character to another background character to establish the main protagonist as someone not to be f’ed with and also to provide some great rationale for her PTSD-related issues.

    In a way, this book is filling in some more background, and the variety of species, each with a distinct, if still relatable, outlook and the interaction between members of those species is where the book lives. The primary characters have an easy familiarity between them, built from friendship and shared struggles. They mesh together well and the understand species and personality differences can be both sources of conflict and amusement, sometimes at the same time.

    The “bad guys” on the other hand, aren’t bad in their own eyes, which is nice, but aren’t particularly likeable or relatable. The only reason they have to be together is the money they’re going to make at the end of things if successful, and no one seems to care much how many of them make it to that success until it looks like they’re not going to make it on their own. The leader has different motivations, of course, which makes things a little more stressful for everyone there.

    As for the overall plot, well, it’s essentially a race to see who gets to the big gun first, and the bad guys have a head start. To be honest, it’s fairly linear and predictable. There’s never really any doubt about how things might turn out for the bad guys. The good guys have different measures of success depending on who knows what when everything is over, which makes the denouement period interesting.

    Overall rating: 3 stars. It was a decent read, and I liked it, and while it stands okay on its own, I suspect it would get an extra star if I had more of the background from the previous books. Maybe that’s the direction I should take.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Reading,  Review

    Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

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    Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1980.

    This is probably what Robert Heinlein would have classed as a “gadget story”. Granted the gadget is awfully big, a ground to geosynchronous orbit space elevator, it’s still a gadget. And if some of the characters are more dimensional than in the typical gadget story, that’s a good thing.

    At its heart, this is a novel about the quest towards an idea and turning that idea into reality. There’s a lot of well thought out science and engineering going into this book, and the characters are all competent folk in their own fields, which run the gamut from space engineer to dedicated monk at an isolated monastery.

    There isn’t a lot of conflict or adventure to be had here. Aside from the space elevator itself, and a few tense moments during a rescue sequence, this is more a story about ideas. Ideas like the big engineering projects that will take us forward, like science being what will get us to those big projects in the first place.

    And I rather enjoyed that the hero of the story, if hero is the right word, is an engineer. A brilliant and supremely competent engineer, to be sure, and one who builds big and dreams bigger.

    Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I liked this better than Rama, the last Clarke book I read, mainly due to actually being able to get to know the characters, particularly the main POV, but other books of his rank a lot higher with me. At the same time, there really weren’t a lot of emotionally intense moments.

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  • Reading,  Review

    Book Review: Cibola Burn

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    Book four in The Expanse series, and the one I’ve enjoyed the least so far. I did still enjoy it, but not as much.

    This is a different kind of book than we’ve gotten in the series so far, smaller in scope in a lot of ways, but set up for a lot of character development that isn’t realized as well as I would like. For a book that was so focused around Holden and Amos, I should have gotten to know them a lot better, but Amos was totally in a supporting role, and Holden is seen too much through other people’s eyes, mostly a woman who thinks she’s in love with him for a big chunk of the book (she isn’t, but she thinks she is.)

    It’s also a book that can’t quite decide what kind of book it is. Science Fiction, certainly, but beyond that? It’s at times an exploration and settlement story, a “natural” disaster, an action adventure, a survival story, a posthuman experience, a rescue, and even a political thriller for a few moments here and there.

    On that last, how the UN figures that it has any jurisdiction in another star system is completely beyond me. The characters in the book all seem to buy it, so I have to, but it seems ridiculous on the face of things to me.

    The minor characters with their own POV scenes mostly came through better than those I consider the primaries, though none as well as Miller’s former partner, Havelok who shows the most growth of personality and the most change of any character in the book. It helps that I like the directions he grew in, especially considering his starting point.

    Overall rating: 3.5 stars, which I’ll likely round up on Goodreads, mostly due to the strength of previous books in the series. This is a bridge book, with a smaller, far more localized scale than previous stories in the series. It hints at larger events to come in the next book, but gets a bit lost in pseudo-natural disasters, blind obedience, and death slugs.

    The idea of cloud-dwelling bacteria colonizing our eyes is kind of neat, though.

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  • Reading,  Review

    Book Review: Gloriana

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    Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1979.

    This book starts out so description laden it’s hard to stay awake. On several occasions, that description slides into list making and the lists are long enough that it feels like that scene in Holy Grail when we’re learning about what people ate when the Lord bestowed the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch on his followers, except no one is available to say, “Skip a bit, Brother.”

    When we finally do get to the point where there are characters, we skip from character to character without warning or apparent reason and the chapter breaks seem completely arbitrary. That arbitrariness doesn’t change a whole lot.

    The British Empire is big and early, but otherwise this is clearly an alternate Earth and Gloriana is a representation of Elizabeth I, if in a slightly later time.

    There are paragraphs lasting pages, with such overdone lavish description that you get lost between sentences, particularly when those passages interrupt actual storytelling, of which there’s precious little.

    And a main point of the book is that Elizabeth, I mean Gloriana, in spite of being the Empress of some large fraction of the world, is an incomplete woman because she can’t have an orgasm, no matter how hard she tries or with who or how many people.

    Really.

    The main antagonist, an artist of deception and eceipt by the name of Quire, makes her fall in love with him with a flick of his fingers, more or less, and because he’s annoyed with his former patron, Gloriana’s closest advisor, Montfallcon, who just doesn’t get him.

    Other members of the court have a variety of sexual tastes and fetishes, none of which are really relevant to what there is of the story, but which nonetheless play for a lot of wordage.

    Overall rating: 1.5 stars. Because I did finish it, but this was not a good read for me. For two-thirds of the book, nothing really happens, there’s just a slow buildup of tiny events that add up to maybe a long novelette’s worth of story. When there are actual events finally going on, they’re still mostly boring. And the Queen achieves her ‘fulfillment’ (and orgasm) while being raped by Quire, a point which seems missed a lot.

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  • Reading,  Review

    Book Review: Proxima

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    So there were things I really liked and things I really hated about this book.

    The science works well, from the physical construction of the new world around Proxima Centauri (Per Ardua, named for the RAF motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, through adversity to the stars), is a well-visualized and well thought out world with an interesting population of alien creatures. Back in the solar system, things work just as well, with a good mixture of extrapolated technology and technology indistinguishable from magic that makes hard SF set a couple of centuries in the future work.

    And I like several of the characters, two of my favourites (for completely different reasons) being artificial beings. I’d like to know more about Yuri’s past than we eventually get, but the gradual reveal of important bits works for the story.

    On the other side of things, and these will take longer, are the things I don’t like.

    The story has too many jumps in time, making big gaps in the narrative. This looks like an attempt to skip a lot of supposedly boring bits where nothing really happens to the characters but life. Not a new idea, and it’s been used well in the past, but it doesn’t work for me for some reason.

    I find the idea of colonizing another world (in another solar system) the same way the British colonized Australia in the 18th century, with criminals and forced transportees, completely unrealistic. There would be no shortage of volunteers, regardless of the ease of finding people you don’t want to keep around anyway.

    The sexual/gender dynamics in the book are disturbing, at least, though that may be at least partially a natural outgrowth of the manner of people the author mostly populated the story with. Misogynistic doesn’t seem to be too strong a word here, though. Women are more or less property, and the violence, abuse and rape allowed to happen indiscriminately on the transport ship under the eyes of the guards and crew is extremely disappointing from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t get any better when the colonists are dropped on the planet.

    On the political side of things, we have an escalated version of the Cold War, only with bigger technology and worse potential outcomes. No worry of Mutually Assured Destruction here, though there should have been, and how the destruction comes about is something that everyone involved in the planning should have foreseen. I hate it when a plot hinges on smart people doing stupid things.

    Overall rating: not quite 3 stars, but definitely more than 2½. Proxima cliffhangers very well, but I’m not sure I’m keen on where it seems to be leading. No spoilers from me, but looks like it’s going to be a ridiculously overused trope. It was billed as the first book in a trilogy

    Part of the problem of this being an incomplete story on its own is the primary storylines being only vaguely related, stretching the definition of vaguely a bit. There are only a couple of points of contact. I’m going to assume things come together more in the second book. Or maybe the third to wrap things up.

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