Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Published : Gollancz, 2011
Awards Won : BSFA Award and Campbell Memorial Award

The Book :

“A tale of murder, artistic rivalry, and literary trickery; a Chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems; a narrator whose agenda is artful and subtle; a narrative that pulls you in and plays an elegant game with you.

The Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across the archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across its waters. 

The Islanders serves both as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands; an intriguing, multi-layered tale of a murder; and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.”

This is only the second novel I’ve read by Christopher Priest, and the first was The Prestige.  I really enjoyed both the book and film of The Prestige, though they had their differences.  I’d always meant to read more of his work.

My Thoughts:

The Islanders is presented as a guide to the Dream Archipelago, and it contains chapters describing various islands, ordered alphabetically. The Dream Archipelago is an uncertain, contradictory kind of place, and the structure of the novel reflects that.  It is a place that can’t be seen as a whole, due to temporal distortions, and so, like the reader, the inhabitants have to build a sense of their world from experiences and disjointed information. Many pieces of the puzzle are also suspect or inconsistent.  For example, this is a book whose fictional introduction is written by a character that dies within its pages. Since I haven’t read many of Christopher Priest’s novels, I’m not sure exactly where this novel fits into his larger body of work.  There are other works that feature the Dream Archipelago, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything crucial by reading The Islanders first.

The novel makes for a very odd kind of travel guide, since the information provided for each island varies greatly.  Some islands’ sections contain only geographical and cultural descriptions, others have complete short stories, and still others contain transcripts of interviews or correspondences.  Some chapters, like the one about the horrific insects named thrymes, were pretty exciting in their own right, but I was most impressed by how the different sections interlinked with one another.  For instance, one section contained a one-sided conversation of letters between an aspiring novelist and a famous writer Chaster Kammeston.  Though her letters seem perfectly friendly and polite, information later revealed about Kammeston highlights how many of his buttons she managed to innocently push.  I loved how the book became progressively more complicated as there was more information to mentally cross-reference, and I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth between chapters to remind myself of small details.

The novel offers many tantalizing puzzles, but it does not provide any solutions.  If you’re expecting any kind of resolution or conclusion resolves the mysteries and ties together the different plotlines, then you will be disappointed.  There are enough clues, though, for the reader to come up with their own theories, and it is also left to the reader to decide on what meaning, if any, the overall work holds. For one example, there is never any revelation about the true circumstances of the murder, mentioned in the novel’s description. However, there’s enough information scattered throughout the novel to give a pretty good idea of what happened.  I can see how this style of novel would not be to everyone’s taste, but I had a lot of fun trying to see how everything fit together!  

My Rating: 4/5

The Islanders is more of a puzzle than a conventional novel.  It is presented as a tourist’s guide to the Dream Archipelago, and it contains a story, description, correspondence, or other shortwork for a variety of islands, ordered alphabetically by name.  I liked how the various sections linked to one another, and how information gained later in the novel could change the interpretation of previous chapters.  I thought it was a lot of fun piecing larger stories together from the information scattered throughout the different islands’ sections.  There is really nothing in the way of a conclusion, though, so the larger picture only exists within the readers’ minds.  Like the cartographers that draw maps from the Archipelago’s wandering drones, the reader is left to construct their view of The Islanders by building connections between many disjointed pieces of information.   

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham)
Published : Orbit, 2012
Series : Book 2 of the Expanse
Awards Nominated : Locus SF

The Book :

“On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun…” ~The Expanse Wiki 

I loved the first novel of this series, and it has taken me entirely too long to get around to book 2!  I was hoping that I’d be able to read Abaddon’s Gate before the next one comes out (this June), but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Also, it looks like Syfy is picking up this series as a television show, so here’s hoping they do it justice!

My Thoughts:

Caliban’s War occurs in the aftermath of the events of Leviathan Wakes, and it features a number of the same characters. It also seems to repeat many of the same beats as the first novel in the series—missing daughter, alien protomolecule, vomit zombies, etc.—but, given how much I enjoyed the first novel, a little repetition did not deter my enjoyment of the continuing story. I still find it impressive that this novel was written by two authors, since their writing seems to merge seamlessly at this point.  I could pick out Abraham’s point-of-view character in Leviathan Wakes, but I honestly couldn’t tell who wrote which character this time around.       

Speaking of the viewpoint characters, Caliban's War features four.  Jim Holden remains from the first novel, though he’s been going through a rough patch after his traumatic experiences in the previous novel.  Holden has lost his idealistic certainty, and I was much more engaged with his search for how to live as a good person.  I also still love the rest of the Rocinante crew, and I really enjoyed the direction the novel took Holden and Naomi’s relationship.  The viewpoint character Prax Meng, a scientist desperately searching for his missing daughter, was an interesting counterpoint to Holden and his crew.  After the callousness of Julie Mao’s parents, it was refreshing to see Prax’s devotion to his daughter.

The other two additions are Bobbie, the Martian marine, and Avasarala, the foul-mouthed, elderly politician. Bobbie was a pretty simple, straightforward character, but it was refreshing to see a macho fighter character portrayed as a woman.  As for Avasarala, I found her political skill a little unconvincing, but I assumed she must have been more charismatic on her climb up the ladder of power. I thought the simplistic Earth-Mars politics angle of the story was one of its weaker points, but watching Bobbie and Avasarala interact livened up the plotline considerably.  In fact, altogether, I really enjoyed the interactions of the characters, and the complementarity of their various perspectives.

While the plot does bear some similarities to Leviathan Wakes, it's still entertaining in its own right.   The story has a good balance of humor, horror, action and adventure, and the heroes are faced again with a potential disaster for the human race.  Also, the search for Meng’s daughter gave the story a more personal, emotional push than Miller’s obsession with finding Julie.  However, There were a few areas that seemed a little weaker.  The main plot was more political, and the machinations were a too blatant for my tastes.  Following from this, I thought that the villains were a little too mustache-twirling, shortsighted, and unintelligent.  All the same, the novel was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s up with the protomolecule in Abaddon’s Gate.

My Rating: 4/5

Caliban’s War is a thoroughly entertaining addition to The Expanse saga. Holden and his crew return as major characters, and I enjoyed them just as much this time around.  There are also a number of interesting new viewpoint characters, which provide perspectives from a scientific community, the military, and the political sphere.  However, the novel repeats a lot of the successful notes of the first novel of the series, the politics are a little obvious, and the villains are pretty one-dimensional.  Despite that, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement, horror, action and humor, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for the crew of the Rocinante!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Published : Tor, 2010
Series : Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive

The Book : 

Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.

One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.

Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson, and it kicks off the Stormlight Archives series, which is planned as a 10 book series.  The series further fits inside a 36-book set of novels set in the same universe (which includes Elantris, Warbreaker, and the Mistborn trilogy).  I will probably read more of the Stormlight Archives, but I think I’ll probably space out the reading. I participated in a 10-week-long read-along of The Way of Kings, and much spoiler-filled discussion can be found in the 10 previous posts: 1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

My Thoughts:

It’s clear that a massive amount of thought went into building the physical world of Roshar, its cultures, its magic and its history.  It seemed that there were always more details to uncover, and I feel certain that there is still much left to be explained. The magical ‘highstorms’ evolved wildlife that makes me think of the ocean; there are many creatures with exoskeletons and plants that can retreat from the storms.  Several sources of magic are introduced, and it seems likely that they are all connected.  There are also mysteries about the warlike Parshendi species, and their possible connection to the passive, placid slaves kept by the people of Roshar. Another class of species that seem likely to become very important in the future are the ‘spren’, which appear to be attracted to (and/or cause) various things, such as fear or inebriation.  There’s obviously far too much for me to go into everything here, but I was impressed with the wealth of detail lavished on building the world of Roshar.

It seemed to me that some of the sillier cultural quirks in this fictional world might be intended to quietly illustrate the absurdity of various traditions that exist in reality. For instance, many real aristocracies are based on heredity, while Alethi nobility is explicitly conferred by eye color.  The system is not so different, in the end, but defining nobility by the possession of light-colored eyes somehow seems more ridiculous.  There are also weird gender-specific traditions, such as well-bred women having to keep one of their hands idle and concealed, or defining completely separate foods for men and women, since “women like sweet things”.  I’m not sure if these quirks intended to mock reality, to show Roshar as a world of extremes, or both.

The story followed a number of different characters, some of which appear only for one chapter in the ‘interlude’ sections.  Some of the stories converge in this novel, others show clear signs of doing so at some point in the future of the series, and others appear to have been one-off stories to show some aspect of Roshar.  The one-off chapters contributed to making this a somewhat overlong novel, but I’m hoping the context they provide will be nice to have in the future of the series.

The heroes seemed to be very typical of the epic fantasy genre, but they are still very likeable. First there is Kaladin, a very young, humbly-born man who carries great power and seems to have an important destiny.  He meets with a lot of difficulties throughout the story, but his magical spren companion and his natural amazing skills help him through. I liked that the story eventually began to address his youthful sense of self-importance, though. The highprince Dalinar and his son Adolin provided a viewpoint from the opposite end of the Alethi hierarchy. Dalinar serves as a beacon of honor in the otherwise pathetically corrupt nobility, and his adherence to propriety hampers his ability to politick, to his son’s dismay.

The heroine, Shallan, was the most interesting character to me. She is a noble from a relatively unimportant house, who is determined to become the ward of the king’s sister—and then to steal something precious from her. Shallan is clever, though she has mostly been forced to educate herself.  She makes quite a lot of her ‘wittiness’, which always struck me as just a little too awkward and wordy. Shallan’s story holds a lot of mystery, plenty of tension as she interacts with her mentor/target, and a lot of internal struggle, as Shallan tries to balance various desires and responsibilities that would require mutually exclusive decisions.

As might be expected for such a long novel, the story moves at a pretty slow pace. In the case of Kaladin, I think the pace helped to make his eventual triumphs seem more hard-won and believable, but Dalinar’s story sometimes seemed to be treading water.  However, the last hundred pages or so ramped up the energy and momentum impressively, delivering a very exciting climax and resolution to all three of the major storylines.  I don’t know if I’ll be on board for all 36 novels or not, but I will certainly grab a copy of Words of Radiance.

My Rating: 4/5

The Way of Kings is a very long epic fantasy novel that kicks of a 10-book series, within a 36-book set of novels set in the same universe.  Many of the main characters aren’t particularly out of the ordinary for epic fantasy, but they are still easy to like and fun to follow.  My personal favorite main character is the conflicted minor noblewoman on the edge of ruin, Shallan, who I hope to see more of in the coming novels.  The world of Roshar is imagined with an impressive amount of detail, and I feel sure that even after over 1000 pages, there are still many secrets that are left to be discovered.  I felt that the novel was longer than it probably needed to be, and several of the plots seemed to drag at times.  However, the conclusion was very exciting, and has left me looking forward to see what will happen in the next volume!