Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Return of the Shadow

JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 7/23/2017, reviewed 7/25/2017
4 stars

This is the sixth volume of the History of Middle Earth (HOME) series and the first of the History of the Lord of the Rings sub-series.  It covers the first several drafts of the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.  I really enjoyed this book.  It was a nice break from the first five volumes which look at the stories that make up The Silmarillion.  I’m sure I liked this book because I’m more familiar with the LOTR than I am with the Silmarillion stories and I’m enjoying the break from them.  Different is good, especially when you’re getting twelve volumes of drafts and notes and research. 

Perhaps the most fun of this book is finding out Tolkien’s original names for the characters.  Frodo was Bingo.  I think everyone is glad this eventually got changed.  Between the song, “And Bingo was his name-o”, and the game, I think the name would have been too distracting.  In actuality, Bingo is named after a family of stuffed bears Tolkien’s children had.  Frodo was one of the companion hobbits.  In addition, Aragorn was a hobbit named Trotter, and Pippin was Marmaduke.  So lots of changes took place between the original drafts and the final addition.

The thing to remember when reading this and keeping in mind all these name changes is that LOTR was a sequel to The Hobbit.  With these early drafts, it’s clear that the Tolkien’s intention was to come up with another adventure for hobbits, not the thousand-page saga of apocalyptic proportions that it turned into.  There’s a lot of hobbit banter, that is, rather silly conversations between the hobbits that amused Tolkien and his son, but would have been remembered today as goofy, less risqué Monty Python-esque absurdities.  Think of Pippin’s silliness multiplied by four.  The story didn’t become serious until the first Black Rider appeared, something that surprised Tolkien himself as he wrote it. 

It’s not until Trotter (the future Aragorn) tells the tale of Beren and Luthien that Tolkien starts to bring in the whole Middle Earth mythology.  Suddenly, LOTR becomes part of the universe of the Silmarillion.  The nature of the Ring grows from just being a simple magic trick to something much more dangerous.  Things come together and soon the drafts transform into the text we are all more familiar with. 

This book doesn’t cover the whole Fellowship of the Ring.  It stops at the Mines of Moria.  Aragorn is still Trotter, and Gimli and Legolas are still not formed either.  It’s only 1939-1940 and Tolkien is still getting stuck.  I think it’s funny that Tolkien sends updates to his publisher that chapters are being completed when he still doesn’t know where the story is really going. 


I’m looking forward to the next three volumes.  As usual, I followed along with Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor and his Mythgard Academy textual analysis of the book.  This makes it much more readable.  I have to admit, some of Christopher Tolkien’s background is very dry, but Olsen’s analysis breathes life into the history of the stories.  I give the book four stars out of five and as usual give the warning that this is pretty much a book for fans like me, a dedicated geek.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Gargoyle

Andrew Davidson
Completed 7/15/2017, reviewed 7/16/2017
5 stars

I found this book while searching the “theology” category on Worlds Without End, for my Theology in Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  I was excited because the library had it, although I was a little suspect:  I found the book in the literature section instead of Fantasy/SF.  What I got was a highly readable, exciting book with an unlikely romance and only a little theological fantasy element.  Nonetheless, I was completely satisfied.

The premise is that the narrator, an actor/director in the porn industry is in a horrific, fiery car crash, leaving him with burns over much of his body.  While undergoing extensive repair therapy in the hospital, he meets Marianne, an escapee from the mental ward who insists they were lovers in a past life.  She’s a sculptress, making grotesques, that is, gargoyles that do not spout water.  Once she leaves the ward, she visits him repeatedly, bringing him stories of their past life as well as other stories of love and devotion.  When it’s time for him to leave the hospital, he moves in with her.  He finds meaning and love amidst the chaos of her artistic, manic, and possibly schizophrenic life. 

The past life is the part of the book that helps categorize it as theological.  Marianne was a German nun in the early 1300s.  She worked in the scriptorium, copying and translating books.  She has a natural gift with languages and works on a translation of the Bible in German and secretly works on a translation of Dante’s Inferno into German as well.  Her work and life is interrupted when a mercenary soldier is brought to the abbey with burns from a fiery arrow.  She is assigned to care for him.  This is the first time Marianne and the narrator meet in the past.  What makes this genre fiction is its ambiguous nature.  Is the past life real or fiction? 

Another aspect of the story that is theological genre fiction is the narrator’s own descent into hell while he detoxes from morphine.  Like the past life, it is unclear whether the trip through his own version on Dante’s Inferno is real or not.  Some things happen that are too uncanny to be simply hallucinations. 

The book is really well researched.  Besides the details of the fourteenth century, there is an amazing amount of detail in the plight of the narrator as a burn victim.  The author covers actual burning experience, the extremely long healing process and the mental and emotional effects on the victim as well.  Some of the writing is so vivid, I felt like I was experiencing it as it happened.  It is intense and downright frightening at times.

For a book that straddles the line of genre fiction, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I questioned whether or not it was fantasy right up to the end.  But the plot and execution of the book was so well done that I didn’t mind.  If anything, it was nice to get away from genre fiction for a little bit.  The only thing I have to say against the book is that the details of the burn victim’s experience may be too intense for some people.  I give the book five out of five stars.  The premise is great, the detail is great, the writing is great.  There are a few plot holes which don’t get wrapped up nicely, but I had such an ecstatic reaction to the book I couldn’t knock points off for this.  I highly recommend this book as long as you think you can handle the intense burn victim details.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit

Becky Chambers
Completed 7/3/2017, reviewed 7/8/2017
5 stars

I’ve read five out of the six nominees for the Hugo award for this year, and this is the first book I loved.  The story is about Lovelace, an AI who gets transferred out of her ship after a complete shutdown and reboot and into her own synthetic body.  Now she must learn to navigate existence as an individual.  With her is Pepper, an engineer with a disturbing past.  As Lovelace’s journey unfolds, we also delve into Pepper’s past, learning about her harsh childhood and her previous experiences with spaceship AI. 

This book is a standalone sequel to Chamber’s previous book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  While Long Way took us on an adventure with the crew of a spaceship, this book follows the spaceship’s AI after being excised from the ship.  The only other character from the previous book is Pepper, who we only met briefly.  Rather than being the continuing adventures of the ship and its crew, this is a side story but in the same universe. 

From the moment I began this book, I loved it.  I found the struggle of Lovey trying to get adjusted to her new body fascinating and heartbreaking.  In the last book, Lovey was in love with one of the crew, but in her reboot, she lost all memory of her relationship.  Now she starts over with a clean slate.  In addition to learning to be an individual, she also has to keep a low profile.  There are a lot of laws about AIs, and moving one into its own body is illegal.  Lovey takes a new name Sidra and tries to assimilate into society as a person, not just an AI.  Fortunately, she has Pepper to help guide her through life.

Pepper is a very interesting and engaging character.  Interspersed between Sidra’s chapters, we follow Pepper’s story.  She started life as a clone, working in a factory-like setting reclaiming discarded electronics.  She escapes and is saved by a shuttle’s AI, Owl.  Through this relationship, we see how she learned about AIs and spaceships.  It gives us an outsider’s perspective on AIs to juxtapose with Sidra’s first person experience.  In addition, the two story lines give us two characters who must learn to find meaning to their existence and a sense of identity. 


What I like about this book is that it is character studies in space.  It’s about relationships without being soapy, yet still has an ending that might just make you shed a tear.  At the same time, it takes place in space without being a space opera.  This was just the book that I needed after reading a couple of dry space operas that I didn’t enjoy.  It’s sweet without being saccharine.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee
Completed 6/25/2017, reviewed 7/1/2017
2 stars

This is another Hugo nominee.  For some reason, I decided to read all the Hugo nominees this year before the award was given out.  Out of all the nominees I’ve read so far, this is my second least favorite, after Too Like the Lightning.  It’s military s.f. with a very complex universe based on mathematics.  Despite having been a math major (over 30 years ago) I missed the whole point of the mathematics.  The book was that complex.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I still recognize that the book was pretty well designed.

Kel Cheris is a captain who is given a chance to redeem herself after misconduct on the battlefield.  She’s assigned to capture a fortress that’s been commandeered by heretics.  To accomplish this she brings back the consciousness of a general Jedao who is one of the greatest generals in history, but also a madman who caused the death of over a million people including his own soldiers.  Can Cheris take back the fortress without becoming Jedao’s next victim?

The world building in this book is pretty phenomenal.  It is based on mathematics, as I mentioned above, and everything has its place and structure, right down to the calendar.  If a heresy arises and something like a day is added to the week, it threatens to warp reality, even to the point of causing weapons to malfunction.  The heretics who took over the fortress have a calendrical heresy that must be put down.  Cheris and Jedao are the ones to do it. 

As much as the world building is impressive, it was also very frustrating for me.  The book plops you down in the middle of the universe, using the concepts and jargon without being introduced to it.  You have to divine it yourself.  I never did.  I never really grasped the whole calendrical heresy concept, leaving me lost in this relatively short book.  I would have occasional moments of clarity, only to be lost a few paragraphs later.  It made the reading of the book a wholly unpleasant experience.

At the same time, I recognize that the book is well formulated.  I won’t say well written, because I believe that if it was, I would have understood it better.  But throughout the book, I was impressed by the author’s word choices.  He used a lot of strong nouns and verbs, making for striking, but inevitably difficult prose.  By the end, I was simply looking at words, not fully grasping what I was reading. 

I give the book two stars out of five.  I think this book is for people who like complex space opera, and who don’t mind waiting a whole book to figure out most of what’s going on.  There’s a part of me that wanted to give this book three stars, acknowledging that it’s an intelligent book, but my own personal experience with it was simply too miserable.   



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fallen Angels

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn
Completed 6/11/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
3 stars

I hate writing reviews so long after reading a book.  Unless I’m actively thinking about a book during that time, I lose so many of my thoughts.  I finished this book a week ago, but I simply didn’t have the time to sit down and collect my thoughts.  Finally, I have the time.  I’ll try my best to convey why I think this book is a three star book.

The premise is pretty interesting.  In the future, environmentalists have gained power in the government and stopped global warming.  Unfortunately, that restarted the ice age that was being held back by the rising temperatures.  The environmentalists are also luddites, eschewing technology in most forms.  They’ve even outlawed science fiction because it condones the use of technology.  The inhabitants of a space station, Freedom, became an independent nation, refusing to return to a country that bans technology.  While they are more or less self-sufficient, they occasionally need nitrogen from the atmosphere to replenish their supply.  To get the essential gas, they send down a ship to scoop it up and return it to the station.

The story opens with one such mission to get nitrogen, but the spaceship is shot down and the two spacemen land on the North Dakota Glacier.  A rag-tag group of science fiction fans from a convention race to the rescue of these fallen angels.  But can they get them back to their space station before the government finds and arrests the angels?

The plot is pretty humorous and by admission of the authors, it is a satire on environmentalist extremism.  On that note, I think the book hasn’t held up well over time.  Environmentalists today are not the luddites that they may have been 30 years ago.  But the satire is still funny despite the aging. 

The best part of the book is the SF convention jokes.  They’re not even jokes, Niven et al. caught the nature of conventions.  From the description of the people to the chaos of the convention, it is a slice of what conventions are really like.  It should be noted that the convention is being done in secret, because of the government’s ban on SF. 

As I mentioned before, the book hasn’t aged well.  For example, fax machines are still in use and cell phones didn’t evolve.  However, it is surprisingly close to the current real world anti-science government that is creating the global warming backlash.  And I don’t think there is any science these days indicating that we are on the brink of a postponed ice age.


I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s fun, even though some of the parallels to our current government is a little depressing.  It’s dated and the science is dubious.  But most importantly, it’s about the fans of SF being the heroes of their own SF adventure.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Diabols

R.W. Mackelworth
Completed 6/17/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
1 star

This book was a gift.  The giver said here’s some bona fide pulp science fiction from the 60’s.  Enjoy.  Well.  No.  It’s pulp alright, but that’s the best thing that can be said about it.  Even though it was a short book, a novelette perhaps, it dragged on and on.  It was practically incomprehensible.  It was the worst book I’ve read in years.  And a warning, there's a spoiler in this review.

The only reason I can give a plot summary is because there was one on the book’s back cover.  Boraston is a teacher who gets transported into an eerie world where there are these creatures called Diabols.  They are made of light, like shimmering jewels, but their light kills.  Boraston seems to be immune to these death rays, having survived a fire unscathed in his own place and time.  He’s given a mission to transport a group of children across the barrens.  That evolves into destroying the Diabol nests.  In the meantime, he’s trying to save the children after they’ve been captured by the Corps. 

The writing is awful.  The author uses tons of adverbs.  His favorite was “blackly”, as in “The lines separated the sky blackly”.  Yeah, what does that even mean.  I realize adverbs were used more frequently in the past, but they are all over the place and make for very complicated sentences.  There’s almost no character development.  There were only a few characters, but I had a terrible time keeping them distinct.  And there are simply times where the transitions between sentences and paragraphs just don’t make sense.  It’s more like reading a dream.


Oops.  Spoiler.  Aw, what the hell.  The book is so rare, most people aren’t going to read it.  And I would steer anyone away from this book if you had any interest in reading it.  I give this book one star out of five.  Really, it’s half a star, but some of the sites I post to don’t allow for halves.  So if you see this book in a used book store, don’t buy it.  It’s not worth the effort.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer
Completed 6/4/2017 Reviewed 6/5/2017
1 star

Reading this book was one of the most unenjoyable experiences of my literary life.  It made me feel stupid.  It was so complex, I could really only follow one of the plotlines.  The other plotlines lost me by about the hundredth page.  I finished the book, hoping for some clarity.  Little came.  I think the only reason I understood the book as much as I did was because I read lots and lots of reviews for the book and I looked for the cues in the text to reinforce the understanding I got from those reviews.  For my review, I’ll do the best I can conveying the plot summaries.  

The setting is four hundred years in the future when there are no more nations.  People belong to one of seven global organizations which provide a sort of citizenship, but can live anywhere they want.  There are no gender references.  Everyone is referred to by they or them.  However the narrator refers to the characters as he or she depending on the behavioral characteristics of the person, not the physical gender.  For the most part, the gender references are easy to follow.

The main plot, I think, is that there is a thirteen year old “boy”, Bridger, who has the ability to imbue life in inanimate objects, for example a doll or plastic soldiers.  He is being kept and hidden by a powerful family unit, protecting him from the outside world where they fear people will use Bridger’s powers for evil before good.  The story of the boy is being told by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who has been sentenced to walk the earth doing good things for others.  He (I think Mycroft is a he) spends a lot of time with this family.  He  provides a lot of support and holds the trust of Bridger.

The narrator also conveys the other plot, which dominates the book, but I think is supposed to be secondary to Bridger’s story.  This plot is about the theft of a list of the most influential people on Earth.  This list bears great influence and the theft is a society-shattering event.  Considering this took up most of the book, this is what lost me.  This mystery is shrouded in political intrigue, which I found completely boring. 

The form of this book is that it is supposed to be written as a piece of eighteenth century literature, including the narrator speaking to the audience and the audience answering back.  This breaking of the fourth wall was sometimes interesting, but often annoying.  It made the following of the complicated intrigue that much more difficult.

I also didn’t like the prose.  Rather than helping the scene, I often found it distracting and occasionally pompous.  At times it reminded me of Michael Chabon, looking for new similes to use in his descriptions.  Once or twice, you stop and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to describe this” but then after a while, you just feel like Palmer is simply showing off.  For me, there’s a fine line between good and obnoxious prose.  It’s tough to describe where that line is, but this crossed it. 

There are a lot of characters in the book.  Palmer spends a lot of time explaining what they’re wearing.  It was tough to actually imagine the characters because you didn’t know if the character was male or female, so the type of clothing worn often seemed irrelevant.  In addition to the live characters, Palmer brings in several philosophers of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade.  I actually enjoyed some of the philosophy talk.  But even that got to be too much.  I often lost the point of bringing up the philosopher to begin with. 


I give this book one stars out of five.  In my opinion, it is just too complicated a story for me.  Too many characters, too much politics, too many plot lines, and a challenging form.  And I don’t like being made to feel stupid.  I know a lot of people love it or hate it, but apparently enough people loved it to get it a Hugo nomination.  I wouldn’t vote for it.