Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden
Completed 3/2/2021, Reviewed 3/2/2021
4 stars

This was a beautiful book.  It had gorgeous prose and wonderful worldbuilding.  The author studied Russian culture and folklore in college and it is evident in this story about a Russian girl who sees the spirits and pagan gods and the conflict that causes with her stepmother, the family priest, and the townspeople.  My only struggle with the book was that it was a slow burn.  It takes most of the book to get on with the plot, and the gods and spirits are very slowly introduced into the story.  Otherwise, this book is nearly flawless.

The story begins with Pyotr and Marina.  Pyotr is a wealthy landowner in the North of Russia.  They have several children, but Marina wants one more so that child will carry on her legacy of interacting with the world of the spirits.  Marina dies shortly after Vasilisa is born.  The majority of the book is anecdotes from the childhood of Vasilisa, or Vasya, during which she begins to have interactions with the spirits.  Eventually Vasya’s father remarries through an arrangement made by the Grand Prince of Muscovy.  His new wife is considered mad because she sees demons.  This puts her into direct conflict with Vasya.  Also, the family priest dies and the Muscovy Patriarch sends an upstart priest who paints icons and has developed a cult following in Moscow.  He too ends up in direct conflict with Vasya, considering her a witch.  The plot then thickens when the evil twin of the Winter-King tries to claim Vasya so he can be released from the bondage in which the Winter-King has him subdued.

The lush prose is simply marvelous.  It reads like a fairy tale.  But life isn’t easy, as is the case of traditional fairy tales.  Vasya’s stepmother is horrified by the demons.  She wanted to enter the convent but ended up married to Pyotr.  Their marital relations are basically non-consensual and produces a daughter.  And she dotes on her own daughter while reviling Vasya.  The priest also hates Vasya and secretly lusts after the teen.  Of course he blames her for his behavior and wishes she were dead or sent to the convent.  And in general, the role of women is to be married or enter the convent, anything else makes the woman suspect, i.e., a witch.  I suspect the author was going for authenticity with respect to the lives of women in the 1300s in Russia. 

The character development is well done as well.  With the anecdotal quality of the first two thirds of the book, we get a good sense of the family and the priest.  Vasya is easily likeable and her stepmother and the priest are quite the antagonists.  But they are very human and three dimensional.  The horses are also characters.  Vasya can communicate with them and several develop distinct personalities. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  While reading the first two-thirds, I was toying with giving this only three stars because it took so long to form the plot.  But when it did finally get going, I had found myself immersed in the world Arden created and was with the plot one hundred percent.  This book is the first of a trilogy.  It ends cleanly, no cliffhangers.  But it clearly leaves the story open for continuation.  I’m probably going to pick up the next book soon, as I do want to find out what Vasya does next. 



Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Einstein Intersection

Samuel R Delany
Completed 2/25/2021, Reviewed 2/25/2021
3 stars

Wow, I’m really not sure what I just read.  Fortunately, I’ve read about it, so that helps.  I generally really like Delany, so even with his weird, experimental, and new wave works, I try to stay open to the experience.  This book was a little tougher for me than his others, even Dhalgren.  It was a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and my understanding is that it was heavily influenced by the film “Black Orpheus”.  Though I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar with the myth, so I had that as a basis.  There was also a Minotaur-like scene and even a Jesus and Judas thread.  Picking out the elements of the myths was fun, but the prose was pretty difficult.  I would say this book falls in the category of the new wave of SF which was dominant at the time of its publication.  This book won the Nebula Award for 1967 and was nominated for a Hugo in 1968. 

This novel takes place on a futuristic Earth.  Lo Lobey is a young goatherd who falls in love with Friza.  Friza dies suddenly and Lo Lobey wants her back.  He wants to exact revenge on her killer, Kid Death.  He leaves his village and comes across a herd of dragons being moved across the countryside.  He joins the effort which is led by Spider and Green-Eye.  Along the way, he encounters Kid Death multiple times, but doesn’t have the chance to slay him.  Eventually, the herd makes its way to the big city where he finally confronts his nemesis. 

That’s probably one of the shortest plot summaries I’ve ever written.  Well, this is an extremely short book.  My edition was 136 pages.  Though the plot is short, the world-building is large.  As you progress through the book, you find out more and more about what has happened to the Earth and the society that now occupies it. 

The character development is also quite good.  It becomes clear that the people of this Earth are mutants, as Lo Lobey describes his friends and acquaintances.  They are all a little different:  some small, some tall, some very hairy, some very smooth.  Lo Lobey himself kind of sounds like a pear-shaped Neanderthal.  He’s also young, idealistic, and rash.  He has a machete that he plays like a flute.  He doesn’t really want to learn to hunt, but is made to hunt a very large bull-like creature with hands for hooves.  When Friza dies, all he wants to do is kill the person responsible for her death and bring her back. 

My problem with the book is that as it goes on, it gets more and more esoteric.  In the final third of the book, Lo Lobey has interactions and confrontations with multiple people who try to explain to him the significance of myth and relate it to his quest.  So it gets meta and leaves him, and us, hanging.  Also, Delany includes quotes at the beginnings of each chapter, including excerpts from his own journal he kept while writing the book and traveling across Europe.  In one of his quotes, he basically says that it’s time to write the ending, and endings should be inconclusive.  Well, this one was.  There’s some resolution, but not totally.  It felt more like Delany just got tired of writing and stopped. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  The first third is fairly understandable, the second third starts to get weird, then last third gets way weird.  But I give Delany props for placing a mythic journey in a very strange setting, and then mixing other myths along with it.  The title, by the way, is pretty misleading.  Delany actually wanted to entitle it “A Fabulous, Formless Darkness”, but the publisher wanted a pulpier title instead.  The original title doesn’t tell you much about the contents, but at least it’s not a misdirection.  Einstein only comes up in a late discussion between Spider and Lo Lobey.  Should you read this book?  I’d say give it a pass unless you are a big Delany fan, into new wave SF of the ‘60s, or are reading through all the Nebula winners. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Prince of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/23/2021, Reviewed 2/23/2021
3 stars

So the series ends with a sigh.  Not a shout.  Not a whimper.  In this last book, everything comes together a little too nicely.  And there are some plotlines that are still unresolved, or at least glossed over, as if there was more to come.  This may be apocryphal, but I read in a few places that Zelazny was planning another five books in the series.  He did write five short stories in the Amber universe, but I’m not sure where they are in the timeline.    The book is pretty fast-paced and readable, and the buildup is strong.  But the climax left me feeling empty.

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Knight of Shadows, and well, all the last four books.

Merlin returns home to the Courts of Chaos upon the death of its king.  Merlin is suddenly third in line for the throne as heirs before him have either relinquished their claim or have died in mysterious ways.  It is not known who is killing them off.  His half-brother Jurt is one or two behind him in the line.  Jurt contacts Merlin and tells him he has called off his vendetta because he is afraid of the powers that seem to be in control.  Merlin accepts his apology and the two work with Luke and Nayda to get to the bottom of the mysteries of the murders, the conflict between the Pattern and the Logrus, the controlling efforts of Merlin’s mother Dara and his half-brother Mandor, and the whereabouts of his missing father Corwin. 

This is really just a light overview of the plot of this book.  It is actually a very complicated story.  The Pattern and the Logrus, the mazes of Amber and Chaos respectively, have become sentient and are sending ghosts to manipulate Merlin to align with them.  It appears that the Logrus has actually planned for Merlin to become king of Chaos since his conception.  It also wants him to marry Coral who has had the Jewel of Judgement implanted in her eye.  This would bring the Jewel back to the Courts of Chaos instead of in Amber.  Dara and Mandor each want Merlin on the throne and plan to manipulate him once there.  And these are just some of the major things happening in this book.

The writing is still terrific.  The dialogue is realistic.  I was a lot less confused in this book compared to “Knight” despite everything going on.  On the downside, there’s a deus ex machina in the form of a ring that gives Merlin a lot of power.  Between that, the Ghostwheel’s power, and Jurt’s new found ability to jump just about anywhere, Merlin seems unstoppable.  Everything seems to go his way.  It’s the sum of these things that makes the ending feel lukewarm.

As a whole, I enjoyed the Merlin cycle, though not as much as the Corwin cycle, i.e. the first five books.  On the plus side for the Merlin cycle, there are many exciting parts and the complexity of the plots was fun.  And the writing felt more mature than in the Corwin cycle.  I liked Merlin himself, even when he was being too trusting and making bad decisions.  On the negative side, the books had some heavily psychedelic moments that were difficult to traverse, though once having trudged through, made the later parts easier to understand.  And of course, the flat ending.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It would have been four stars, save for the less than satisfying ending.  I give the whole Merlin cycle four stars.  I think it’s a darned good read.  Reflecting back on the whole Amber series, I think it illustrates Zelazny’s imagination and writing skills.  I was impressed by the elegant prose that did not require a thousand pages per book.  He was able to maintain complex scenes  and relationships with a literary economy that would make Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin look like windbags.  Having now read Amber, I want to go through and read just about everything by Zelazny I can get my hands on.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Knight of Shadows

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/21/2021, Reviewed 2/21/2021
3 stars

For some odd reason, I’m finding the second Amber Chronicles books alternately very good and confusing.  This book is a confusing one.  It starts out fairly normally, but quickly gets esoteric, almost psychedelic and metaphysical.  It made for some slow reading trying to figure out just what was going on.  The prose in it is very good, enhancing the world building by adding a new layer onto it, but it was hard to see how it fit into everything else.

This book finds Merlin back in Amber with Mandor and Jasra after almost defeating Jurt and Mask.  They escaped however, and the three continue to try to figure out how to defeat them.  Then Merlin ends up in a strange monochromatic place which turns out to be a battleground for the powers of the Pattern and Chaos within him.  His journey through this place was interesting but confusing for me.  It felt like it was hanging out there almost as a side story to the main plot line.  In it, he is tempted by ghostly apparitions to decide whether to choose to align himself with the Pattern or with Chaos.  He doesn’t want to choose, but wants the two forces to live within him equally. 

What I liked about this strange journey of Merlin’s is that it adds a whole new dimension to the Logrus, the ever-changing maze of Chaos, and the Pattern, the design that defines the existence of Amber.  The two powers exhibit sentience in the battle for Merlin’s allegiance and soul.  But being the son of the Corwin of Amber and Dara of Chaos, he wants them to live in harmony within him.  During this journey, his magical wristband Frakir which warns him of danger and helps him out of tough scrapes also gains sentience, communicating with him and advising him on how to proceed through this strange process.   However, as I mentioned above, it felt like out of place in the plot, suspending the quest to defeat Jurt and Mask for most of the book, and not really providing me with any real sense of how it related to the rest of the book.  It’s almost like Zelazny had a great tangential idea and forced it in somewhere, ending up in the ninth book. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  I found it to be one of the weaker books in the series.  While the prose is still good, and the character development of the Frakir and the Ghostwheel is really good, it was just too esoteric for me.  It left all the plot lines in a jumble, even adding a strange twist in the end with Luke, his cousin, and Coral, his aunt.  Still I’m very interested to see how it all ties together in the tenth and final book. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Sign of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/17/2021, Reviewed 2/17/2021
4 stars

The eighth book of the Chronicles of Amber returns to form, picking the pace up again and making for a good fast read.  It starts off strangely but then becomes coherent as the scene unfolds.  So don’t let the opening sequence deter you.  This book is chock full of twists and turns that have for me become synonymous with Amber.  And the cliffhanger is killer. 

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Blood of Amber.

The book picks up where we were dropped, in Wonderland amidst many of Lewis Carroll’s characters.  Merlin soon realizes that Luke was slipped a mickey and he is in his acid trip.  While there, he is pursued by a Fire Angel.  With the help of the Jabberwock, he defeats it and leaves Luke to sober up.  He returns to Amber and devises a plan to defeat his half-brother Jurt and the unknown sorcerer he has named Mask.  He engages his other half-brother Mandor and Luke’s mother Jasra to help him.  

The characters are pretty well defined by this book, although we get introduced to Mandor and Jasra.  Mandor is an ally and has been since childhood.  He’s a pretty good guy and adds a nice sense of humor to the story.  In the short time we spend with Jasra, we find out she’s deliciously devious, but is not above negotiations, agreeing to help Merlin and Mandor defeat Jurt and the Mask.  She has a vested interest as this effort would get her back her kingdom.  We also again meet the shape shifter, finally finding out its true nature. 

The writing is still pretty solid.  There are no long ruminations on what’s happened up to this point, so the story doesn’t get bogged down like it did in Blood.  But there are more revelations that add more twists throughout the book.   I only saw one of them coming.  I have to say that the combat scenes are particularly well written.  In many books, I get lost in them and end up glazing over them.  But I can follow Zelazny’s pretty well. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I thought it was up to par with the majority of the Amber novels.  As I predicted, I don’t have much to say about this book, as much of it has been said in the previous two reviews.  Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it and hope the next one can keep up the pace.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Blood of Amber

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/16/2021, Reviewed 2/16/2021
3 stars

This book, the seventh in the Amber Chronicles, was less action, more mystery development than Trumps of Doom.  It featured one long, difficult chapter that was Merlin trying to figure out who is behind all the mayhem in Amber based on all his experiences so far.  It also featured a game of questions and answers between himself and another character where he was trying to get information that she had and vice versa.  These made the book drag somewhat, breaking up the pace that was set in Trumps.  The scenes were useful in bringing all the knowledge together, but they were a tough read.  I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Trumps but still have high hopes for the remaining books. 

Warning: The rest of this review has spoilers for Trumps.

Merlin escapes from the blue crystal cave where Luke has imprisoned him.  He meets a hermit near a battle site who confirms his information about Luke and Jasra.  After being chased by a tornado powered by his mysterious enemy, he jumps to San Francisco where his aunt Flora is living.  They discuss what’s happened to him so far, ruminating on who is behind all the mayhem.  He jumps back to Amber and is assaulted by several assassins.  He’s helped by Vinta, the widow of the uncle who was murdered in the last book.  He finds out he has been followed by a shape-shifter who is supposedly trying to help him.  While at her family’s country manor, a wounded Luke appears asking for help.  Merlin leaves and tries to save Jasra, who has been captured by an unknown enemy.  This leads him to a direct confrontation with his own enemy, the force that has been trying to kill him and destroy all of Amber.

I think the biggest downfall of this book was the rehashing of events as Merlin meets different characters, namely Vinta and his aunt Flora, as well as his own chapter-long rumination on all the evidence.  While in one respect, it was good to get the data analyzed, in another, it dragged the book to a snail’s pace.  It did however get us some character development of Flora, who hadn’t had much page time through this series.  She added some levity to the situation.  The encounter with Vinta was good for helping tie together some loose ends of other minor characters.

I give this book three stars out of four.  It just didn’t have the wow of the previous book.  I like the characters and the prose is still terrific.  The book is very readable.  I became very aware of how well constructed the topography of Amber and its Shadows is.  The cliffhanger of this book is quite bizarre and has me a little wary of the next book.  I don’t have much else to say about this book, as it has the same basic structural qualities of the first book.  But I’m in for the long haul on this series and I do want to find out what is actually going on.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Trumps of Doom

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/15/2021, Reviewed 2/15/2021
4 stars

I love being surprised by books, as is probably evident by how many of my reviews start out with “I was surprised by this book”.  This is the first book of the second set of five in the Amber Chronicles, in other words, the sixth in the series.  These latter five, which follow Merlin of Amber, are downplayed by fans as being not as good as the first five, which follow his father Corwin.  I really liked it, however.  It plops you right into action and over the course of the book, catches you up on who Merlin is, what may or may not have happened to his father, reintroduces his aunts and uncles, and works you into Amber and its Shadows.  There’s some info dumping, but I rather liked it, giving me a chance to remember what the Amber universe is about, having read the first five about six months ago.  With all the books I read, I don’t remember the details of most of them, so this is a good thing.  This book won the Locus Fantasy Award in 1986.

Merlin is known as Merle Corey and is living on Earth which is one of the Shadows of Amber.  It’s April 30th and he’s waiting to be assassinated, as he does every year on this day.  He doesn’t know why; he’s just come to expect it.  His ex-girlfriend Julia is killed by a strange and terrible beast.  Luke, one of his best friends, is almost killed by an unknown assailant.  After all this tragedy, he goes to upstate New York to see his father’s lawyer and confidant, Bill.  He unloads all the strange tragedy that’s hit him.  But danger rears his ugly head there and he and Bill jump to Amber through one of Merlin’s trump cards.  There he discovers one of his uncles has been killed and another nearly so.  And so he begins a journey through Shadow to discover the mysterious force that’s trying to kill him and his familiy and protect the Ghostwheel, a device of power he created which just might destroy Amber.

Like most of the Amber books, this one is pretty short, just over a hundred and eighty pages.  But as you can tell by the plot, a lot is packed into it.  I felt like Zelazny’s writing had improved over the first five.  It’s a little prosier, a little more mature.  The prose doesn’t get in the way of the action or the plot, though.  I thought it enhanced the world building and made the action very readable.  Being almost half a year since reading the first five, I thought I’d have trouble getting back into the Amber mode, but I had no problem being plopped into it and zipping right along with Merlin. 

I thought the character of Merlin was quite good.  The book is told in first person, so it’s easy to get into him.  He’s much like his father, but doesn’t drink, smoke, and carouse as much.  He’s less of an every-man than his father, being a brilliant computer programmer, but he’s still relatable.  He’s a loner and cynic, despite being a wizard himself.  He has a polite relationship with his aunts and uncles, as a nephew would of the older generation.  Since the first five books, those aunts and uncles have all lived in relative peace with one another, even Fiona, who was initially pretty evil.  She even watches out for Merlin as he tries to figure out who is after him.  There isn’t much other character development as few of the other characters really come to the forefront.  Those that do are enigmas that Merlin is trying to figure out.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a fast, easy read that’s wildly entertaining.  All the books in this second half of the series are short, and I expect, like the first five, that my reviews will get shorter as I progress through them.  Once again, I’ll be reading these books one after another to keep myself in the Amber universe.