Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Citadel of the Autarch

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/22/2014, Reviewed 11/23/2014
5 stars

The final book in “The Book of the New Sun” tetralogy is both an easier read than the first three and a complex, unresolved ending that leaves you realizing that this series is a complex, multi-layered saga that requires multiple reads and active discussion and analysis.  It more or less answers my question as to why I had such a tough time staying focused through a lot of the prose of the earlier books.  This series is an enigma and it has only been by reading some analysis of it online that I am beginning to understand what was really happening throughout it.  I’m not going to try to convey that in this review.  It gives away too much of the dramatic, crazy ending.  You’ll have to read it yourself, perhaps multiple times, as I probably will to really understand just how great a writer Wolfe is.

Severian continues his wandering north to the war zone between the Commonwealth and the people of the north.  He raises a soldier from the dead using the Claw of the Conciliator, and they both end up at a something of a M*A*S*H unit run by religious order which used to be the possessor the Claw.  There he recovers and finds himself the judge of story contest to determine who will marry a beautiful female soldier.  Before he makes his decision, he is tasked to move an ascetic from a castle in path of the war.  There he learns more about a race of people who are actually aliens watching over humans.  When he returns the hospital is destroyed and most of his acquaintances are dead or dying.  He continues toward the war, enlisting, and being wounded in battle.  He is saved by the Autarch who then reveals Severian’s destiny. 

This book is a little easier reading because there are more dialogues and exposition.  It starts to tie up many loose ends left by the first three books.  The prose is still gorgeous, but in this book, you really begin to question Severian as a narrator:  what were lies, what was truth, and ultimately, how many Severians are there.  Yes, I used the plural.

TBOTNS is considered a science-fantasy.  The first three books feel like fantasy, but this conclusion reveals that a lot of it is based in science fiction.  We discover that there are aliens shepherding human-kind through its destiny.  There is time travel bouncing the aliens around Severian’s life.  There are parallel universes, energy rich black holes, and “stellar weapons”.  You get inklings throughout the series that there is much more science fiction that what you think you see on the surface, but you don’t begin to understand it all until this last segment.

One analysis I read called TBOTNS the Ulysses of SF.  There are puzzles and questions throughout the book.  There’s a story that the publisher asked Wolfe to add single paragraph at the end that wrapped up the story with a “and they lived happily ever after”.  Wolfe instead wrote a coda piece that performs this function.  Considering that at the end, I thought, “What? Wait a minute.  Noooo!   Yesssss!  Argh!”, I’ll have to pick up that fifth book.  There is also a companion book of essays about the series by Wolfe called “Castle of the Otter”, a mis-quote of the title of this fourth book.  I’ll have to pick that up too.

Don’t let that discourage you from reading this.  It is an amazing work, with glorious prose, beautiful characters, and a brilliant, complex universe.  It leaves you with, “I have to know more!” rather than a simple “I don’t get it”.  This series is one that at some point, I will want to read at least one more time.  I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sword of the Lictor

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/16/2014, Reviewed 11/22/2014
5 stars

 “Sword of the Lictor” is the third installment of the Book of the New Sun.  It continues the journey of Severian, a torturer who cannot seem to find his place in the world.  The story picks up with him in the destination of his exile journey.  Once again, he shows mercy to a “client”, necessitating another flee from possible indictment and more progress on returning the Claw of the Conciliator to its rightful guardians.

One of the basic themes of the series is relationship versus aloneness.  The theme runs through each book, but in this installment, Wolfe really drove it home for me.  This time, Severian loses a woman he loves and a foster son.  Being immersed in a feeling of aloneness and abandonment myself at this time, I was devastated by these losses.  I related to his stoic retelling of these trials, as well as the moments when his emotions burst through and overwhelmed him.  It reinforces the idea that while we may have the occasional companionship, ultimately, we must forge our way through life alone.  Nothing is permanent, and the randomness of life never lets us get too comfortable with the people whose paths may cross ours.

Unlike the last book in the series, “Sword” seems to have a stronger sense of movement and purpose.  While it still ends with Severian on the road, it feels less meandering.  He’s determined to return the Claw, and must get through numerous trials to accomplish this.  In one very intense sequence, Severian is staying with a small family in the mountains.  Their lives are often disrupted by a creature that incorporates into itself the life force and memories of the people it devours.  This is a more evil, perverted variation on the corpse eating feast in the last book.  Instead of sacramentality, the monster uses the essence of its victims to manipulate those it stalks into becoming its next meal.  The scene is truly terrifying as Severian tries to keep the family from willingly running directly into the mouth of doom. 

Severian’s other encounters are equally enthralling, including the climax of the book, where he learns the true nature of Dr. Talos and Badlanders, the leader of the acting troupe from the first two books and his lumbering giant sidekick.  The exposition and ensuing battle scenes are riveting. 

Again, the prose is the star of this book.  But more like the first book, “Shadow of the Torturer”, it didn’t distract me from the plot and the action as much.  There were still times when I was lulled by the glorious descriptions, losing track of the action, but less often than during the second book.  Perhaps that goes back to my point about “Sword” seeming to a better sense of purpose in itself. 

Like its predecessors, this book was nominated for and won multiple awards.  Wolfe’s imagination and writing continue to be top notch.  I give this book 5 stars out of 5.  I was incredibly moved and devastated by the loss in this book.  If I had read this when my own life was more stable, I may not have been as emotionally affected.  But since I was, it meets my criteria of being an excellent book that invokes a strong emotional reaction. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Claw of the Conciliator

Gene Wolfe
Completed 11/9/2014, Reviewed 11/16/2014
4 stars

 I finally began reading the rest of the Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe.  “Claw” is the second in the series and picks up with our torturer Severian alone on his exile journey to his new home.  Like the first book, “Shadow of the Torturer”, this book is chock full of gorgeous prose and insight into Severian’s character.  I loved it, loved reading it, but felt it suffered from the usual plight of the sophomore book in a fantasy series: a sense of meandering.

The book follows Severian on his continuing journey to his new home in exile.  It begins with his being accompanied by Jonas, who he met at some time between the end of the first book, and the beginning of this one.  They are searching for the company of diverse and interesting people Severian was travelling with before losing them at the end of the first book.

Jonas is a wonderful character.  He has become Severian’s traveling companion, friend, and confident, not unlike Sam Gamgee in LOTR.  Jonas seems to have an unflagging desire to help and support Severian, but it is not exactly made clear why until well into the book.  And even there, it’s a little murky.  It didn’t matter though, I found him incredibly interesting and likeable. 

Ultimately, though, the book is about Severian’s experience with the “Claw”, a stolen gem that was slipped into his satchel unknowingly.  It is a relic of the Conciliator, aka the New Sun, a sort of savior whose return is supposed to be imminent and necessary for the restoration of the dying sun.  The Claw has amazing powers that Severian doesn’t quite understand, but tries to use, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  He is now its guardian, and he recognizes that he must return it to the religious order that formerly guarded it, and he regularly switches allegiances and makes oaths he later breaks, just to further his quest to return the Claw.

There is one scene that really sticks out.  Thecla, the woman to whom he showed mercy in the first book by letting her commit suicide rather than suffer under his torture, returns.  At a feast by the revolutionary to whom she was consort, her roasted body is served.  Severian attains Thecla’s memories and experiences by eating her flesh and drinking a strange potion.  Like a cross between Eucharist and the rituals of some remote primitive peoples, this sacramental meal completes the intimacy between them.  Now a part of him, her essence aids him throughout the rest of his journey.

What really struck me again about this book was the prose.  It is written so beautifully that every paragraph sent me into a blur of images and feelings.  Unfortunately, this was also part of the book’s downfall.  I often would find myself so lulled by the prose, reveling in its images and feelings, that I would miss the action.  I regularly had to go back and reread sections to see how and where where I missed the action because it so seamlessly blended into Severian’s thoughts and reflections.  It accentuated that meandering feeling that made it hard to determine where the plot was going.

But I can’t fault the book too terribly for this.  It is so beautiful, and the universe and characters are so interesting, that it’s hard to stop reading.  Even though I felt that the plot meandered without a clear direction, it’s still an amazing read.  It’s easy to see why the book was nominated for five and won two awards.  Gene Wolfe is a terrific writer.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars, that is, it’s an excellent book.  It just didn’t have the emotional impact “Shadow of the Torturer” gave me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson
Completed 10/31/2014, Reviewed 11/1/2014
2 stars

Life happened after reading about 100 pages of this book.  My partner of 10 years decided to leave me.  This probably tainted my opinion of “Snow Crash”.  I was already having a hard time concentrating on anything, and I just wanted to explode out of my skin.  But rather than finding solace in reading, all the things about this book that were supposed to be great felt self-conscious and arrogant.  This book came out in the 1992.  So perhaps I needed a more 90’s sardonic mind-set, with less distraction by real life events that made this book feel like an exercise in narcissism. 

“Snow Crash” takes place in a dystopian future where the government has broken down and the country is organized and run by franchises of former entities:  the CIA/Library of Congress conglomerate known as the CIC, Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, Bob’s Police Security, and Uncle Enzo’s Mafia franchise of pizza delivery chains.  The protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (yeah, talk about narcissistic choice), is a hacker who co-created a virtual universe used by millions of computer users.  By day, he lives in a storage unit, delivers pizza for the Mafia, practices sword fighting with his katanas, and mines data for the CIC.  After crashing the Mafia car on a nearly failed attempt to deliver a pizza in 30 minutes, he retreats to his Metaverse, where he discovers a computer virus that destroying the minds of other hackers.  Called Snow Crash, the virus practically destroys his former hacker partner, sending our Hiro on a mission to destroy the virus and its creators. 

The one thing I liked about the book was that the concept of the virus was based on Sumerian mythology.  I found myself trudging through the narrative, waiting for more discussion of the gods and the myth of the Tower of Babel.  This might be the boring part for some readers, being long, almost non-fiction accounts of the Sumerian myths.  But I found the opposite true.  I enjoyed those parts while finding the action tedious and difficult to follow.

I was really confused by the timeline of the story.  Time passes but feels unaccounted for, creating gaps in the development of the relationships in the story.  The secondary character, the 15 year old skateboarding Kourier named Y.T., which stands for Yours Truly (another ugh), is introduced when she gets Hiro’s pizza to its destination after he crashes his car.  From that point on, they become friends, with her eventually helping Hiro with his mission, and getting into trouble on her own as well.  Somewhere in there, this relationship developed, but I have no idea where.  Towards the end of the book, Hiro reflects on all the times he spent with Y.T., but I don’t remember any of that development. 

I liked a lot of the concepts of the book.  The Metaverse is an interesting prediction of the now ubiquitous MMORPGs like Second Life and World of Warcraft.  However, reading it over 20 years after publication feels like the book is nothing more than “a guy and his MMORPG character”, not unlike Stephenson’s later book “The Diamond Age”, which I loved, being dated enough to be reduced to a story about a girl and her tablet.  

The dystopian organization of the remnants of the U.S. was pretty interesting too, creating the environment for the bad guys to take over the world via Snow Crash and the Sumerian mythology.  But eventually, this felt derivative or perhaps like a deconstruction of a Robert Ludlum spy novel where some unassuming guy foils the megalomaniac. 

Perhaps I need to reread this book again in a few years.  Given a return to normalcy in my life, I might have a more open mind for this darling of science fiction fans and literary critics alike.  But it made me trepidatious about taking on Stephenson’s massive tomes like “Anathem”.  I give this book 2 stars, with the right to re-review sometime in the future when my own perspective is perhaps a little more tolerant. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Foundation’s Edge - Hugo winner 1983

Isaac Asimov
Completed 6/21/2013, Reviewed 6/22/2013
4 stars

“Foundation’s Edge” presented a challenge: to read the first three books in the Foundation series.  None of these were Hugo winners.  They were published before the awards began.  Other readers had advised me to read the first three as well.  I thought it wouldn’t be too bad.  All three books consisted of short stories, written independently for s.f. magazines before being collected into “novels.” 

“Foundation” began well.  I loved the first four stories.  They dealt with the establishment of the Foundation, and its first several crises.  I began to lose it in the fifth story.  It was about the beginnings of the space traders.  Somehow, the commerce aspect just didn’t grab me.  I found the next two stories, told in “Foundation and Empire,” rather tedious as well.  I think they fell into the category of many short stories I read:  Introducing a lot of characters without much development, leaving me not caring about their plight.  I also found that as the stories progressed, there was way too much exposition, extensive dialogues and monologues to reveal and move the plot.

“Second Foundation” consisted of two stories, one shorter story which was okay, and a longer story which was really great.  The story of “The Mule” was interesting, imaginative, and full of action.  The character development was much better.  I cared about each character introduced.  It was a great setup for beginning “Foundation’s Edge.”

“Edge” was the first of the Foundation novels to begin life as an actual novel, rather than as a collection of short stories.  Asimov’s writing style was much tighter, more reminiscent of “The Gods Themselves” than the earlier Foundation stories.  The characters are very well developed.  I cared about all of them, even the bad guys.

Once again, Asimov relies on exposition to explain and move the plot, but somehow, here, it was much more interesting and seemed more appropriate.  The relationships between the characters created a more natural environment for the lengthy descriptions and reveals.  And Asimov’s writing style was clearly more mature, as I was able to follow and enjoy the dialogues and monologues.  Unlike the earlier stories, the exposition really moved the plot forward.

It was interesting to see the role of women change throughout the series.  The first three books were written in the 40s.  “Edge” was from the 80s.  Out of the first nine stories, there are only two female characters of interest, and they are in “Second Foundation.”  In “Edge,” there are female characters throughout the story.  They are still archetypal:  bitch, goddess, lover, subservient wife.  But they feel a little more naturally a part of the story.   Whereas in “Second,” I had the feeling Asimov was trying to say, “Hey look, I can write about women!  See, women can be in science fiction!” 

There is one point that makes me wonder if my feelings about the book and acceptance of exposition isn’t tainted.  The plot contains a search for the genesis, the search for Earth, the source planet.  I always find genesis stories incredibly intriguing.  This may have made me more willing to accept the expositions, rather than be bored by them.  In my final analysis of this book, I’m going to assume that the book is better because it held me better than most of the preceding stories.

“Foundation’s Edge is a great sequel” to an uneven series.  I give it 4 stars (out of 4 in my rating system, 5 being reserved for books that change my life).  Where the crises in some of the earlier stories seemed forced, this crisis seemed a natural part of the Foundation universe.  It was well worth getting through the first trilogy to read, understand and appreciate this book.

POST SCRIPT:  “The Mule” from “Second Foundation” won a retro Hugo for 1946.  I didn’t realize this until after I wrote this review.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Uplift War - 1988 Hugo Winner

David Brin
Finished 4/26/2013, Reviewed 4/27/2013
4 stars

I loved this book.  I liked it more than Startide Rising.  It read like great science fiction:  Aliens that weren’t too cartoonish, contemporary theme of environmentalism transposed on another planet in the future, sapient chimps, and characters I cared about. 

There were a lot of characters, similar to Startide Rising.  In that book, I had a tough time keeping all the dolphins and aliens straight in my head.  In particular, the dolphins had names which all ran together for me.  In Uplift, there were two main chimps, aliens, and humans.  The chimps had human names, which were easier to remember.  The two main aliens were also easier to keep separate.  The invading aliens were a little confusing at first, but because of their titles, their characteristics were easier to follow and keep separate.

I loved the theme of guerrilla environmentalism.  While topical when the book was written, it seemed more profound today.  There is great appeal to turning “primitive” and fighting the invasion forces of the scheming alien establishment.  Here, the last free human, an allied alien, and a band of sentient chimps are forced into hiding in the mountains, don clothing and weapons made from local plant life, and fight the invading forces using guerrilla tactics.  Initially a spoiled playboy, the human scouts through the mountains unshaven, in a loin cloth, making tarzan calls.  Through this transformation, he comes to realize who he is and what his gifts are.  And the allied alien, also a somewhat spoiled child, comes into her adulthood as well though the same process.

The intelligent chimps are also great characters.  It was so easy to empathize and identify with the struggle to be recognized as being equal with the other intelligent races, despite the fact that they range from the heroic to the villainous, from the motivated to the complacent, just like humans and the other alien races.

What was significant for me was that all the main characters, including the invading aliens, went through some type of transformation.  Some faced their fears, found their courage, found their intelligence, and learned from or at least recognized their mistakes.

In reading the book, I couldn’t help but think it was highly influenced by the Star Wars era.  It had action, great characters, and a monumental struggle for the right to exist.  Except for the necessary special effects, this book could easily have translated into a great film at the time it was written.  Now that we have the computer technology, I think it should be.  It is a timeless story of fighting oppression, coming to ones’ own, and saving a planet.  From the first few pages, it never lost its grip on me.  I couldn’t help but give it 4 stars.

Friday, November 7, 2014

1980 Fountains of Paradise

 Arthur C. Clarke
 Read 1/2013, reviewed 4/15/2013
 3 stars

I read this book before “Rama,” but am writing this after my review of it.  Despite this book having a little more action and characterization than “Rama,” I had a tougher time getting into it.  It didn’t grab me until the exciting climax.  The juxtaposition of the ancient King’s biography and the construction of the gardens were interesting, but still didn’t grip me.  The same held true with the conflict with the monks. 

As with Clarke’s other books I’ve read, “Fountains” is really well written.  His descriptions of everything is vivid and precise: the science/engineering, the characters thoughts and actions, the history.  But again, it reads more like non-fiction than fiction.  The characters don’t have emotional arcs.  They just are.  Things happen to them.  They respond.  It’s all very sterile. 

I give this book 3 stars because of the imagination that went into this book, and for his amazing descriptive abilities.  If I could have just felt something for the characters, I would have given it four stars.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch
Completed 10/19/2014, Reviewed 11/2/2014
4 stars

I began reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” having heard a lot of hype about the book.  It had a fantastic response to an online group read several years ago and a friend of mine said it was the best fantasy book she’d ever read.  So I went into it with a lot of trepidation.  The title has a misleading Celtic sound to it, though it’s set in a pseudo-Italian world of city-states with gangs and a Mafia like organization of organized crime.  Once I got over my preconceptions, I found the book exciting and highly enjoyable. 

Locke Lamora is an orphan brought up in a gang known as the Gentlemen Bastards.  An ornery and devious fellow, he shows a lot of promise at an early age as a mastermind of complex scams.  He is mentored by a blind priest, who is actually neither blind nor a priest, of the temple of the often unacknowledged thirteenth god of a pantheon of twelve.  In a nice storytelling style, we learn of his apprenticing while being led through his most complex scam and eventually, the main plot of the book, the bringing down of an evil “Grey King” who tries to destroy the crime syndicate and take over the city-state as his own.

The best thing about this book is the characterization.  Locke and his gang are extremely likeable characters.  They make a charming fraternity of orphans, somewhat akin to Robin Hood and his band, stealing from the rich.  The one thing they never learned from their mentor, though, was what to do with their accumulated wealth.  So they know how to steal, buy a stage costumer’s dream of disguises, create fine cuisine, and in the process amass quite a large fortune.  And they do it all in the most amusing ways. 

This book was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award.  Its universe is well-realized, particularly the religious aspect. Having a world with gods, temples, priests, and acolytes adds an interesting and often intriguing dimension to a story.  Lynch realizes it by having the Gentlemen Bastards spend months as acolytes in the different temples, learning the rituals and behaviors of the other communities, specifically so they can disguise themselves as followers of the other gods in their scams.  This was very interesting, particularly the death goddess cult, which induces near-death, and sometimes deadly, experiences in its acolytes. 

Another aspect of the fantasy is the mystery of the previous occupants of the planet.  The world of Locke Lamora was built by unknown aliens who left cities of unearthly glass and metal structures.  The humans who later inhabited the cities don’t know the nature of the materials, but live in and relish the beauty and strength of the structures.  I find this very intriguing and would be interested in finding out if the origin is to be revealed later in the series.

There were times toward the end where I felt the book dragged a bit.  I felt like it short-circuited the buildup to the denouement.  Aside from this misstep, which may be my own perception and impatience, the climax is faced-paced and exciting. I highly recommend this book.  I had a lot of fun reading it.  I give this book 4 stars.