Monthly Archives: September 2014

The sparrow

The sparrow / Maria Doria Russell. First published 1996.

This one’s something of a go-to

The sparrow is a multi-award winning philsophical “first contact” novel. If Tor is any indication, it’s fairly controversial in the sf community and I’ve even seen it called “torture porn”. It’s also one of those books whose sf status is the subject of some dispute. Nancy Pearl (the basis for the librarian action figure, among other things) claimed in a 2001 Library journal article that it was mistakenly classed as sf, saying it should be classed with general literature because of its philosophical content.


There’s a lot of crossover appeal here, and I recommend it constantly to non-sf fans, but being a “philosophical novel” does not disqualify something from being sf. If that was the case then everything Le Guin has ever written and most of Philip K. Dick’s work would not be sf. I can see putting it with fiction because of the crossover appeal, but claiming that it’s not sf goes a little too far. It was in the general fiction section at the library where I worked when I read it.

Plot summary

(the end of the novel is revealed in the first chapter. The plot is not so much an examination of “what” happened but of “why and how” did this happen)

In 2019 humans find the first proof of extraterrestrial civilization in the form of a musical broadcast. While the UN debates about how to deal with this, the Jesuits send an expedition to the world led by linguist and priest Emilio Sandoz.

Sandoz is the only survivor, and returns broken in spirit and physically maimed.

The novel alternates chapters between the investigation of the aftermath of the expedition and the story of the expedition itself.

Continue reading The sparrow


Scaramouche / Rafael Sabatini

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

I think I’ve used that quote before on this blog, no?

Scaramouche is one of the all-time classic swashbuckling novels. Like Dumas, Sabatini has a gift for infusing exciting adventures with intense emotional depth. Scaramouche, a book set in France during the Revolution written by an Italian author, was originally written in English and so bleeble blop blorp blonk.

Brief plot summary

Andre-Louis is the illegitimate child of an unknown, probably noble, father. Traines as a lawyer, he was raised in Brittany with his godfather. When the local marquis kills his best friend in a duel, Andre-Louis decides to seek justice for the murder. A series of misadventures results in Andre-Louis becoming a wanted man for (perhaps unintentionally) inciting revolution. Going undercover with a group of Commedia dell’arte players, he takes on the guise of the stock character Scaramouche.

Continue reading Scaramouche


Redshirts / John Scalzi. Originally published 2012

Redshirts is a humorous sf novel by former SFWA head John Scalzi. It’s also the first Hugo award winner I managed to read before it actually won the award, so that made me feel special.

The premise of the book is fairly evident from the title, but I’ll throw together an extra-brief plot summary.

Extra-brief plot summary

On a ship suspiciously reminiscent of something out of the original Star Trek TV show, a group of ensigns realize that whenever one of them goes on an away team with a member of the bridge crew they won’t be coming back.

Continue reading Redshirts

The Malazan book of the fallen

Gardens of the moon / Steven Erikson. Originally published 1999.

This is going to be another long one

The Malazan book of the fallen is an epic fantasy series comprising ten main volumes, a related trilogy, another lengthy series by Ian Esslemont, and a series of highly entertaining novellas. (If I’ve missed anything, let me know). In a manner not totally dissimilar from the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books are heavily influenced by the authors’s tabletop role-playing game experience. Unlike the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books have one of the more unique settings in the epic fantasy genre.

Erikson, like O’Brian, refuses to patronize, assuming that his readers will be able to piece together the “rules” of the world and its surprisingly intricate history without lengthy explanations from the author. As a result, the series can be a bit daunting as the reader has to rely heavily on context to figure out what is actually going on. Erikson is an anthropologist by training, and that expertise heavily informs the series, making the world full of vibrant, diverse cultures that can’t be easily reduced to comparisons with real-world groups (à la Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Brent Weeks, or virtually any major epic fantasy author). Erikson is not above using his fictional cultures to make subtle jabs at popular anthropological theories, which provides extra fun for readers who enjoy that kind of poking.

Full admission: I haven’t finished the series yet. I got distracted most of the way through and set it aside for too long. I’ve started re-reading it but considering the length it’ll be a while. I’ve read the first 8 books of the main series and most of the Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas (to be reviewed separately). I feel like I’ve got a good enough handle on the series to review it collectively, especially since it’d be nearly impossible to examine the plot of Gardens of the moon without giving away way too many details.

Brief plot summary

Gardens of the moon opens with the aftermath of the apparent assassination of the emperor of the Malazan empire and his second-in-command by the head of their secret police, Surly. Seven years later, Surly is now the empress Laseen and the rapid expansion of the Malazan empire has caused the military to be overextended. The situation is further complicated by Laseen’s apparent attempts to purge the government and military of those loyal to the old emperor, as well as interference by the quasi-divine Ascendants, all of whom have their own agendas.

The series has three major plotlines that eventually converge and approximately 100,000 major characters. The first plotline takes place on the continent of Genabackis, where the Malazan military is attempting to conquer a group of massively wealthy city-states. The second major plotline focuses on a religion-fueled rebellion on a subcontinent that was (mostly) already under Malazan control. The third plotline, which connects to the first two significantly later in the series, involves the conflict between a capitalist empire and a tribal society.

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. But it’s also great and it’s not that hard to keep track of what’s going on. There are enough characters common to most of the books that it’s relatively easy to find an anchor.

Continue reading The Malazan book of the fallen

Identity crisis

Identity crisis / by Brad Meltzer ; art by Rags Morales.

It’s been a while since I did reviewed any comics, so here’s a new one.

Identity crisis was one of DC’s pretty much annual summer crossover spectaculars, where Things Will Change Forever. Identity crisis was far more controversial than most of the other comics with “crisis” in the title, and (perhaps unintentionally?) set the mainstream superhero comics industry down a path of darker and darker stories that culminated in another big Summer Event, Infinite crisis.

I may or may not review Infinite crisis at some point in the future. It depends on whether or not I have the willpower to force myself to read it again.

Identity crisis is controversial mostly because of its unusually adult content for a summer crossover. I’ll be dealing with that in a separate section towards the end of the review so that readers who don’t want to read about it, either because they haven’t read the title or aren’t comfortable with it won’t have to.

Brief plot summary

(frustratingly vague to avoid spoiling much at all)

Identity crisis is a combination of domestic drama and mystery novel. The spouse of a member of the Justice League of America is murdered. The JLA bands together to solve the murder. When threatening letters are sent to the spouses of other heroes, the JLA must deal with the possibility that a serial killer might know their secret identities.

Continue reading Identity crisis


Cetaganda / Lois McMaster Bujold.

Yeah, you can probably skip this one.

Cetaganda is my least favorite of the Vorkosigan books, but it’s still a great read. It’s my least favorite because one of the reasons I enjoy the series so much is because of how interconnected everything is while each volume still works as a standalone novel. I like Cetaganda less than the others not because of any particular failings on its part, but because it’s largely irrelevent to the series as a whole.*

*Since writing this post, my perspective on this issue has changed somewhat. See the addendum below.

Plot summary

Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan end up on the homeworld of the Cetagandan empire for a state funeral. Cetaganda is aggressively expansionistic and during Miles’s grandfather’s youth had attempted to “colonize” the then technologically backwards Barrayar. The political situation is understandably tense, and soon Miles and Ivan find themselves embroiled in the complex morass of Cetagandan eugenics policy.

Continue reading Cetaganda

The unbearable lightness of being

The unbearable lightness of being / Milan Kundera. Originally published 1984.

“Behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison”

The unbearable lightness of being is Kundera’s classic philosophical novel about the intertwined lives of several people during the period surrounding the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It falls somewhere between Vonnegut and Camus, being more concerned with  philosophy and the characters and their relationships than with telling a story.

In fact, if it actually told a defined story with beginning, middle, and end it would kind of defeat the book’s philosophical premise.

Originally written in Czech and first published in French, I read it in English. For various reasons, it was published in English before it was published in Czech and I’ve never seen any significant criticisms of the translation.

“Plot” summary

As I mentioned above, there’s no plot as such. Tomáš is a doctor and habitual womanizer. Tereza is Tomáš’s wife, struggling with accepting her body and with her husband’s infidelity. Sabina is an artist and one of Tomáš’s regular lovers. Franz is a professor in an unhappy marriage who is in love with Sabina.

Continue reading The unbearable lightness of being


Blackcollar / Timothy Zahn. Originally published 1983.

In which I am severely disappointed.

Blackcollar is a the first novel in a series by Timothy Zahn, an author best known for his massively successful Star Wars EU novels. Blackcollar is, as far as I can tell, Timothy Zahn’s first published novel. If you’re the type who’s inclined to start reading from an author’s first book, I abjure you: don’t do that here, you’ll end up with a totally twisted sense of Zahn’s writing. I came to it having read a decent percentage of his more recent books, grabbing it on Kindle when it was on sale, and was not a fan of what I found.

Brief plot summary

The Earth has lost its war against the alien Ryqril,* but an underground resistance movement still thrives. Allen Caine is tasked with finding the elite blackcollars, guerrilla heroes of the war now in retirement and under close observation by the Ryqril and their human collaborators.

*Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. It’s a space opera from the 80s, which means that all alien names are contractually obligated to be a random mish-mash of letters.

Continue reading Blackcollar


Sharps / K.J. Parker. First published 2012.

Somebody spilled Shakespeare in my fantasy

Sharps is the story of a group of accomplished fencers sent on a goodwill-building tour of a foreign country. Parker doesn’t write traditional fantasy novels so much as they* write historical fiction set in fictional countries. They are a great author for fans of classical tragedy, and a good entry point for people who “don’t read fantasy”.

Brief plot summary

Five fencers of disparate backgrounds are more or less forced into representing their country in a series of friendly exhibition matches with the neighboring nation of Permia. Relations between the two countries are uneasy to the extreme as they have just formed a truce after four decades of war.

All is not as it seems, as powers in both countries seek to use the matches for their own ends. The situation is further complicated when Permians start dying and it becomes clear that at least one if not all of the fencers are pursuing goals at odds with the group’s stated purpose of building friendship between the two nations.

Continue reading Sharps

The club Dumas

The club Dumas / Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”

The club Dumas is a bibliophile’s adventure novel, and was the basis for the film The ninth gate starring Johnny Depp. It’s also one of my favorite books of all time.

Originally published in Spanish, I read the English translation. Pérez-Reverte is very picky when it comes to his translations (he originally did not allow his books to be translated into any language but French) and the English edition of The club Dumas is very well done.

Brief plot summary

Lucas Corso is a rare book dealer hired to authenticate a previously unknown manuscript of a chapter from Dumas’s The three musketeers. At the same time, he is commissioned to discover which of the remaining three copies of the book De umbrarum regni novem portis is the only genuine, non-counterfeit copy.

Lucas’s journey takes him all around Europe where he is joined by a mysterious American tourist in a series of incidents bearing a more than passing resemblence to the plot of The three musketeers.

Continue reading The club Dumas