Monthly Archives: June 2014

Gun machine

Gun machine / Warren Ellis. Originally published 2013.

This review is by special request.

Celebrated graphic novel author Warren Ellis continues his invasion of the rest of the literary world with Gun machine. Consciously written as an assault on the police procedural genre, Gun machine takes the mystery novel to places familiar yet also incredibly weird.

Brief plot description

(Spoilers for the first chapter and part of the second)

Gun machine is the story of veteran NYPD detective John Tallow. While responding to a call involving a nude man with a shotgun Tallow’s partner of 20 years is killed, and Tallow finds himself faced with solving they mystery of a sealed apartment filled with weapons linked to unsolved murders. Teaming up with two eccentric forensic analysts Tallow is made responsible for investigating and solving hundreds of murders and stopping the most prolific serial killer ever to go unnoticed.

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The left hand of darkness

The left hand of darkness /  Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published 1969.

Here is where things start to get interesting. The left hand of darkness is a classic, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and a groundbreaking novel in feminist science fiction. A 1998 Locus reader’s poll put it at number 2, just behind Dune, on the list of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. (Although Ringworld and the Foundation trilogy both made it to the top ten, which calls the accuracy of the entire list into question for me, but that’s a post for another time) Yale professor Harold Bloom even went so far as to include The left hand of darkness in his list of books comprising the Western Canon.

Brief plot description

(spoiler free)

Told in an epistolary format, The left hand of darkness follows Genly Ai, representative of a galaxy-spanning collective called the Ekumen. He arrives on the planet Winter (called Gethen in the local language) in an attempt to convince the locals to join the Ekumen and share their cultural and scientific knowledge with the other worlds in the collective. The inhabitants of Gethen are “ambisexual”, normally without a biological sex except during mating periods, where depending on their surroundings and relationships they develop male or female attributes.

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Barrayar

Barrayar / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1991.

Barrayar is the second of the main Vorkosigan series in internal chronology, but was the fifth published. Winner of the 1992 Hugo award, Barrayar is the direct sequel to Shards of honor. While the Vorkosigan books are largely self-contained and could (mostly) be read in any order, I’d recommend (and I think Bujold agrees with me on this point) reading Barrayar before Warrior’s apprentice, the second published book in the series, since Warrior’s apprentice necessarily gives away all of the major plot points of Barrayar and a significant amount of Barrayar’s emotional impact would end up getting diluted.

Brief plot description

(Spoilers for the end of Shards of honor and for the very beginning of Barrayar, but nothing major)

Barrayar features Cordelia Naismith, now married to Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honor and pregnant with her first child. After the death of the emperor, the Vorkosigan family finds themselves responsible for the late emperor’s son. Attempting to navigate her pregnancy, a new culture, and the increasingly volatile political situation, Cordelia find herself embroiled in a series of plots with potentially tragic consequences.

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Books I gave up on: part 1

While I normally try to finish novels once I’ve started them, there are occasional books that, for one reason or another, I just can’t get through. I don’t like to give up on books, but if I’m really not feeling a book I’ll occasionally decide that it’s not worth finishing.

Pavane / Keith Roberts. Originally published 1968.

Pavane had two strikes against it, really. First, it’s a fix-up, which is not a format that I typically enjoy. I prefer my short stories to be short stories and my novels to be novels. With a few exceptions (see my review of The right mistake) it’s not something that appeals to me. Secondly, it’s an alternative history novel which, despite my love of both historical fiction and sf/fantasy, is not a genre I typically enjoy.

I gave up on Pavane fairly early on, partway through the first section. I just didn’t find the story compelling, and it wasn’t sufficiently character-focused for me. I’d certainly recommend it to fans of the alternative history or steampunk genres, but it just wasn’t for me.

The difference engine / William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Originally published 1990.

Can you sense a theme here? The difference engine is another alternate history novel  that didn’t really appeal to me. I made it about 2/3 of the way through before giving up on this one. I lasted longer than I did in Pavane because it did have more of a character-driven plot. I gave up after the first major conflict was resolved, the revolt by Captain Swing. The prototypical steampunk novel, the setting is a world where Babbage successfully built his analytical engine, resulting in a society controlled by steam-driven “difference engines
. It follows a set of mysterious punch-cards from owner to owner as various factions compete over them. Most of my criticisms of Pavane apply here. It just wasn’t my thing, but I’d recommend it to cyberpunk fans looking for something a bit different, alternate history aficionados, and steampunk-types.

The conqueror’s shadow / Ari Marmell. Originally published 2010.

I was given this book by a friend who read it and enjoyed it. It certainly wasn’t terrible, but it was incredibly stupid. The conqueror’s shadow is a dark fantasy novel that takes more than a little inspiration from both the Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven and the Warhammer Fantasy universe. The hero is essentially a fantasy warlord version of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, who comes out of retirement after his daughter is attacked. I actually nearly finished this book before being distracted by more interesting fare. I was reading it at night before bed and it was certainly effective at putting me to sleep.

I have no opposition to “dark” stories, but this was so obnoxiously dark it came out the other side and ended up being silly instead. The reviews on Amazon are fairly positive, so it’s possible I’m missing something, but it really wasn’t for me. It is a book I’m likely to recommend to others though. Fans of Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie will probably find plenty to like here, although Marmell’s writing lacks the style of Weeks and the philosophical depth of Abercrombie. It’s a good book for fans of dark fantasy in general who are looking for something unchallenging and “fun”. It might be worth checking out for horror fans who are looking for something different as well.

 

The elfstones of Shannara

The elfstones of Shannara / Terry Brooks. Originally published 1982.

And now we’re back to epic fantasy, and Terry Brooks in particular. The elfstones of Shannara is the second book in the original Shannara trilogy, showcasing Brooks’s gradually improving writing skills and attempts to differentiate himself from Tolkein.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler-free, I guess)

Starring Will Ohmsford, the grandson of the hero of Sword of Shannara Frodo Baggins Shea Ohmsford, Elfstones of Shannara chronicles Will’s attempts to restore the magical tree that prevents demons from escaping into the world. What follows is another adventure suspiciously similar to the first book in the trilogy.

Continue reading The elfstones of Shannara

The right mistake

The right mistake / Walter Mosley. Originally published 2008.

The right mistake is a book unlike any other that I’ll be reviewing here. It’s a brutal, raw, and ultimately uplifting tale set in South Central LA. Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in Watts during the 1950s, and he doesn’t shy away from difficult themes. The right mistake is no exception in its depiction of a group of people living in a neighborhood wracked with violent crime, police brutality, and general hopelessness coming together and trying to make a difference.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler-free)

The right mistake follows Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and “street philosopher” as he organizes a group that comes to be known as “the Thinkers”, individuals from disparate ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds who meet to discuss the problems in their community and how to deal with them.

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The boys

The boys / Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Originally published 2006-2012

Garth Ennis is perhaps one of the more interesting figures of the modern comics scene. Best known for his work for Marvel in the 90s and the Preacher series for Vertigo, his work is notorious for its transgressive content. Outspoken in his dislike for superheroes, The boys is Ennis’s farewell to the genre. Like Watchmen, The boys imagines what would “really” happen if superheroes were real. Unlike Watchmen, the superheroes in The boys are super-powered, thinly veiled caricatures of well-known DC and Marvel heroes. The boys features graphic, intense violence and depictions of virtually every paraphilia imagineable, but also a touching love story and in-depth examinations of masculinity, family, and friendship.

Brief plot description

(No end-game spoilers, but some early plot points will be revealed)

The boys follows Wee Hughie, a timid Scottish conspiracy theorist who becomes one of “The Boys”, a black-ops group charged with controlling and containing superheroes. The superheroes in the world of The boys are everyday people sponsored by the massive Vought-American corporation and granted superpowers through a drug called “compound V”. These heroes are largely vain, selfish, and unconcerned with anything but themselves. Super-hero battles generally result in massive civilian casualties as the super-powered combatants fight without any consideration for those around them. Billy Butcher, the teams leader, recruits Hughie for the team after Hughie’s girlfriend is accidentally killed during a superhero battle.

Continue reading The boys

Master and commander

Master and commander / Patrick O’Brian. Originally published 1969.

I picked up Master and commander because of a growing interest in the Napoleonic era, and naval history in general (largely spurred by my job at the time). The fact that my spouse is an avid Jane Austen fan helped as well. Master and commander is the first book in the lengthy Aubrey-Maturin series, a roman-fleuve* following the adventures of two friends during the early Napoleonic era. The series is noteworthy for blending aspects of the classic naval adventure and the regency romance novels of manners. O’Brian’s insistance on pinpoint period accuracy, down to the very 19th century writing style, makes the series somewhat tricky to recommend, but do to the satirical tone, it manages to avoid the rampant racism and sexism found in many novels set in the same period (C.S. Forester’s novels are some of the most egregious offenders here).

Brief plot description

(spoiler-free)

Jack Aubrey, officer in the British Royal Navy, encounters naturalist/doctor Stephen Maturin when the former’s enthusiastic response to a musical performance discommodes the latter. The two end up becoming fast friends, and when Aubrey is offered a captaincy, he invites the impoverished Maturin to come along as ship’s surgeon.

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Shards of honor

Shards of honor / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1986.

I first read Shards of honor in 2012, after several years of resisting the Vorkosigan saga because it looked too much like the David Weber Honor Harrington novels. Bad cover art is a great way to keep me away from books, and the cover art for the Vorkosigan books is overwhelmingly terrible. I kept hearing about how good they were, so one day while at the library I decided to check the series out. When seeking out a new author, I have a tendency to immediately read the earliest book available. I do the same thing with music. This probably means I miss out on great authors whose first novels were somewhat weak, but I’ve tried to keep that in mind to avoid this problem.

Brief plot description

(This should be mostly spoiler-free; I’m not revealing anything here that isn’t within the first chapter or two)

Shards of honor is a hybrid space opera/romance novel, about a ship’s captain who finds herself stranded on an unexplored world in the middle of a warzone. Forced to cooperate with a notorious war criminal from the other side, they attempt to survive long enough to get off planet and return to their homes.

Continue reading Shards of honor

The sword of Shannara

This was actually the first edition I read
The sword of Shannara (image from Wikipedia)

The sword of Shannara / Terry Brooks. Originally published 1977.

First things first, I have to admit, this is not a great book, even if it is a significant one. The sword of Shannara was the trailblazer for the genre of “let’s re-write Lord of the rings but without the historical, linguistic, or mythological background”.

That’s not to say that the Shannara books are just Lord of the rings with different character names. There are more cosmetic differences than that. While Tolkein’s Middle Earth novels are an attempt to tell the fictional history of our world, the Shannara books take place in a post-apocalyptic future where elves and magic have returned.* I’ve been told that Brooks’s other major series, beginning with Running with the demon, bridges the gap between the present day and the world portrayed in the Shannara books.

What this slight adjustment to the setting means is that you get some ruined modern-day buildings and highways tossed into the descriptive portions from time to time.

The other thing Brooks does differently is turn the all-powerful One Ring into a sword that doesn’t really seem to do much of anything. There’s not really any point in describing the plot because for all intents and purposes it’s exactly the same as Lord of the rings.

I don’t mean to rag on this book too much – it’s really not terrible. In dropping the mythological setting of Lord of the rings, Brooks creates a book that’s a more casual read. Of course, he then half-destroys this accomplishment by making this book about twice as long as it really needs to be.

The Shannara books gradually get better as Brooks finds his own style and the world gets increasingly fleshed out. Sword of shannara is definitely the weakest in the series, so if you try it out and find it too derivative, try one of the other books before you give up on the author altogether.

The sword of Shannara is really nothing special. I read it in middle school while on a long road trip, and it was great for that. I picked up the kindle edition of the original trilogy, and it was fine for stuck-on-the-train reading.

Strengths:

A significant work in the genre

Lengthy but varied enough to satisfy on long trips

Weaknesses:

So derivative the word “derivative” doesn’t seem strong enough

Doesn’t really offer anything that Tolkein doesn’t

Recommendation:

I haven’t recommended this book to anyone, mainly because anybody who I’d feel comfortable recommending it to has already read it. I did see it at a public library’s “Start a new epic fantasy series” display, and that’s really the only time I’d recommend it. It’s great for people who want to read a fun epic fantasy series and don’t care too much about anything else. Recommended for fans of the genre, others should probably stay away.

*But not in the cyberpunk Shadowrun sense. That’s a topic for another post.