Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of "A Time of Changes" by Robert Silverberg

One of the best aspects of speculative fiction is, when in the right hands, an author creates a wholly plausible society not unlike our own, yet bends and twists the tradition, custom, and social habit to suit thematic needs.  The narrative which results can subsequently offer brilliant commentary on our real world.  Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes is a book that works at this level - like Orwell on LSD.

At heart, the novel is a character exploration of Kinnel Darival, a prince living in the kingdom of Borthan.  Ruled by a Covenant, Borthans follow a strict code that renders personal pronouns taboo.  While simultaneously setting a stylistic challenge for himself, Silverberg describes a society wherein overt references to the self are forbidden.  (The belief is that the repression of such expression makes a person stronger inside, and therefore more suited to the rigors of life.)  Due to a family tragedy, Darival soon finds himself on the run from a brother who seeks to eliminate competition for heirs to the throne.  In his travels, Darival is slowly introduced to the “other side,” a world wherein a person can comfortably refer to one’s self as ‘I’ and ‘me.’  Helping this transition along is his experimentation with a wonder drug that telepathically links people, bolstering empathy.  Not wanting to describe the whole plot, suffice to say the manner in which Silverberg chooses to uses the drug as a literary device is paramount to the novel’s conclusion.  John Lennon would have been proud.

By contrasting a society with strong limitations on expressions of the self with one featuring seemingly no socially unacceptable forms of expression, Silverberg creates a juxtaposition not unlike 1984.  The lies one must tell themselves and the isolated manner in which people move through society echo in A Time of Changes.  While the telepathic miracles performed by Silverberg’s drug are perhaps an idea that only someone from the flower-power generation could sculpt into speculative fiction, the fundamental idea that the freedom to express emotion is something lacking in our present day society still rings true.  Though not quite on par with Orwell or Huxley, A Time of Changes is still worth a read, prose and structure nearly perfect.  And if not for these reasons, why not for the controversial nature of the story?

Review of "The Power & the Glory" by Graham Greene


What if you knew before going into a book that it would try but fail to change your opinion?  Would you still be interested in reading, knowing it would add nothing to a topic you’ve mulled to the point of boredom?  Such is the mindset I went about reading Graham Greene’s The Power & the Glory and its dialectic on Catholicism.  Surprisingly, while my beliefs remain agnostic, I finished the book having an increased respect for not only Greene’s qualities as a writer, but for being able to realistically express the human side of a religion that is ordinarily so wrapped up in symbolism and ritual.  In our current age's mirage of post-deconstructive relativity theory-ism, having readers gain respect for a perspective they oppose is more difficult than exposing them to a new viewpoint on life. 

Set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930’s during a purge of clerics, The Power & the Glory tells the story of a “whiskey priest,” - a Father on the run from authorities.  As morally conflicted as any character in literature could be, the whiskey priest fights to stay one step ahead of the law, bestowing hope and faith on the population, all the while attempting to deal with a deep-rooted addiction to alcohol and the internal discord of failing the church for personal interest.   Throughout his attempts to escape Tabasco into more tolerant lands, the whiskey priest encounters a variety of souls who serve to cast his own plight into a brighter light.  There is the fallen priest who chose to give up his vocation rather than face the death penalty; the homeless man who the whiskey-priest thinks is Judas; and the stoic lieutenant who tracks our hero the length of the novel.  All these viewpoints provide a more than adequate sounding board for Greene’s Catholic agenda.  As such, the guilt and suffering of a pious man have perhaps never been portrayed so well. 

Despite strong characterization and the willingness to openly challenge not only the secular world but also the world of Catholicism, the point at which Green shows his true strengths as a writer is in the novel’s structure.  The opening chapters devoted to describing the everyday lives of a handful of seemingly random characters, one loses track of them as the narrative is taken over by the story of the whiskey priest and his flight from the authorities.  However, at the end of the novel these characters return, acting as a literary foil to the situation the priest ultimately finds himself in.  The contrast evoked takes the novel’s denouement to the heights of literary achievement.  Catholic or not, the reader cannot help but be reminded about the wider context of life so easily forgotten in a day-to-day routine.  For accomplishing the difficult task of including yet transcending religion, Greene deserves full praise. 

Though not many writers could pull this off, the novel is nonetheless not without its flaws.  Despite that Greene uses the real world political situation of Tabasco as a backdrop, there is a notable lack of Mexician culture; the story could have occurred in any Western country.  To be fair, Greene obviously intended dialogue and characterization to take center stage, but what little interaction does occur with the local people and environment lacks detail in convincing enough fashion to make the reader believe the story is being told in Mexico.  Likewise, the actions of the priest are not ideologically consistent.  There is a minor scene where the priest could have invoked doctrine and prevented a person from getting hurt.  This, however, contradicts the priest’s choice at the end of the novel when facing a similar situation.  But I suppose such paradoxes are the hallmark of any organized religion.

In the end, Greene’s account of Catholicism in the modern world is something that anyone who enjoys a well written book could read.  Me - the agnostic - was moved by novel, thus it must be the characterization and individual nature of the whiskey-priest’s plight which the believer and non-believer alike can relate to.  No matter whether you are religious or not, The Power & the Glory challenges the individual and society, making for good reading.

Review of "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com

So chock full of the social consequences of nano-science and memory editing is Stross’s Glasshouse, I’m still trying to pick myself up from the floor.  In a whirl, I can’t decide whether the ideas were expressed in cohesive enough fashion to produce a book I can praise or if I’ve simply been blinded by an imaginative eruption that is worthy enough in itself of admonition.  Beyond dumbfaced sense of wonder, I’m also wondering if anyone else could have a more defined view after riding Stross’s tilt-a-whirl of futuristic possibilities? 

Set at an unknown time in the far future, humanity - or what resembles humanity considering anyone can edit memories or nano-dapt into any living form – is recovering from war.  Infected via the A-gates and T-gates which humanity used for said alterations, society had been attacked by rebels wielding viruses that affected the psyche before the body.  But with the rebels now defeated, the main character, Robin, has his memories as a soldier in the war wiped and is attempting to start a new life - woman, man, two or four arms, it all changes depending on “his” mood, the gates safe once again.  Choice regarding appearance not an issue, paranoia, however, is.  Fearing that the rebels are still after him, Robin checks into a research program and agrees to participate in an experiment.  While isolating himself from society, he helps recreate the dark ages, aka the late 20th century, the history for this time missing due to Censorship Wars. 

Funny and insightful, Robin’s experiences in the biodome-style experiment, while providing the bulk of the novel, also serve to offer up Stross’s post-humanist agenda.  With the sky the limit in terms of physical appearance and emotional display, how do you know what anything is?  Who to trust?  If your worst enemy could be smiling beside you and you wouldn’t know it, how would this effect the psyche?  How do we measure identity?  But this is only the beginning.  There is a plethora of other questions and ideas packed into Glasshouse and simply not enough room in this review to discuss them.  

No space opera lasers flashing or spaceships warping, Glasshouse is sci-fi to the extreme but with a social agenda.  The plot devices too numerous to express Stross’s premise cogently, perhaps style was all part of the theme: to flood the mind with possibilities until it’s uncertain what is real.  No matter pertinent or not, the ideas are interesting enough to warrant a read.  Readers of Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson take note.  All the stops pulled, this is science fiction for the 21st century.

Review of "Resurrection Man" by Sean Stewart

Not knowing who Sean Stewart was prior to reading Resurrection Man, it was more than a pleasant surprise to find such a well written book with poignant themes.  Hiding on the margins of literature, Stewart’s novel tells the story of a Hungarian family living in the US and their attempts to come to terms with skeletons in the closet after WII, both personal and familial.  But it is not the 1950’s America you know from history; magic in the form of charms and strange, unexplainable occurrences are a natural part of everyday life.


The opening lines of the novel find the protagonist Dante staring down at his own dead body, and thinking it an ill omen, sets about solving the riddle.  But Dante is not alone in unraveling the mystery.  His mysterious adopted brother Jet hangs on the periphery, offering the most spiritual of advice, while his sister, Sarah, fights personal problems of her own, the relationships she has with men and her mother less than straight-forward.

In Resurrection Man, alliteration and fantasy are interwoven seamlessly.  More magic realism than pure fantasy, Stewart’s gifted prose delivers the story on a cutting edge.  Description clear, dialogue focused, and similes spot on and never overused, the line between fantasy and reality becomes an afterthought.  My only complaint about the novel is that despite the realistic portrayal, characterization seemed to take a back seat to the delicious plot devices and magic overtones.   But Dante, his father, Jet, Sarah and the others are presented so realistically that the overall value of the book does not suffer. Resurrection Man is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys psychological explorations, particularly with a touch of the supernatural. This is a gem of literary fantasy.

(The folks at www.fantasyliterature.com were kind enough to put this post on their website.)  

Review of "Downward to the Earth" by Robert Silverberg

Take the seed of Heart of Darkness, the soil of the Hainish Cycle, and water with the ideals of the 60’s peace movement.  Tend for three days and you will have read Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth.  Beyond left wing, in the very least you will not be disappointed by the novel’s transcendence of secular interests. It is the love child of Joseph Conrad and Ursula Le Guin.

Downward to the Earth tells the story of Edward Gundersen, a former planet administrator who returns after eight years, seeking retribution for the crimes he committed against the native population.  The elephant-like nildor and ape-like sulidor – both sentient - peacefully coexisted until the arrival of humans, who subjugated them, put them to work for commercial interests, and separated them from cultural traditions practiced for time on end.  Seeking to relieve the guilt he bears for preventing a group of seven nildor from participating in their rebirth ritual, Gundersen leaves the human tourists he traveled to the planet with and sets off into the jungle.  Along with flashbacks, much of the story is told through the encounters he has with former friends who remained on the planet.  But is in his dealings with the native population that Gundersen begins to come to terms with the consequences of his actions, agreeing to go on a pilgrimage with one of the nildor and participate in the rebirth ritual.  While the ending will certainly divide readers (Silverberg takes the psychedelic drugs and free love attributes of the hippy generation on a literary journey), the fundamental link connecting the ideas of the novel remains meaningful, no matter the plot devices.   There’s something to be said for good intention.

Fully realized, character and setting mesh together to form a planet that comes vividly to the imagination like the creations of Le Guin.  And while the sentience of the elephant-esque nildor is an acquired taste, it’s at the point the reader accepts them that Silverberg makes one of his main points; the value of an animal or person is not to be based on situation, appearance, or environment.  (Think Heart of Darkness’s examination of Europe and “the Other.”)   And so while some of the activities the characters participate in may not win over the more prudent, those willing to see the novel as a quest for  retribution will appreciate the transcendent ending with which Silverberg reconciles the interests of the involved.  The sub-theme of colonialism, though now called “globalization,” remains relevant.

Review of "At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror" by H.P. Lovecraft


Fans of Stephen King take note, this work and other tales of H.P. Lovecraft were one of the author’s main inspirations.  Lovecraft bases most of his stories out of his Providence, just as King uses small town Maine so often as a setting.  Likewise, each utilize quirks of rural life and old wives’ tales to spin tales of the macabre that never quite fully explain themselves.  Ghosts, miasmas, fiery pentagrams, voodoo magic, mysterious deaths, and the other typical plot devices used by horror are never intended to fully connect with reality.  Lovecraft himself can be quoted as saying that the major theme underpinning  his stories is the inapproachable nature of fear to reality.  But enough about subject matter and on to the literary merits of this collection.

Unfortunately, they are few and far between.  Lovecraft writes with the sterility of a doctor performing an autopsy.  Guilty of telling rather than showing, dialogue and inner monologue is almost non-existent, the direct description of events and places taking center stage.  And while this overly formal, technical style may be enjoyable to some, I found it tedious and difficult to fully engage with.  Regarding the works in the collection, the eponymous novella is the best.  The story of a team’s scientific mission to the Antarctic to perform research, Lovecraft uses the unknowns of the most southern continent as a setting for an unbelievable experience that may or may not involve aliens and ghosts.  While at first the mission goes smoothly, strange things begin happening, until only two of the scientists remain.   These two go on an exploratory mission of their own to discover the answer to the many questions that have arisen with their discoveries, only to be presented with more mysteries.  The three remaining stories in the collection would now be considered generic.  But taken in context of when they were written (the first half of the 20th century), certainly midnight hauntings, miasmas in the basement, ghosts in the attic, trips to the graveyard, and other such tales would have been original.

Despite having his own voice, it's difficult to get into Lovecraft’s groove.  Unique, readers will either flow easily with it, or run away in annoyance.  I will admit Lovecraft's brand of horror is not as overt as modern slasher films, it's always a hard time reading a book where there is nothing deeper than the inapproachable nature of fear, especially since this theme takes a backseat to the now cliche plot devices mentioned.  I could never get into King, and likewise I’ll probably never read anything else by Lovecraft.  But obviously each have their cult following, so perhaps best to supplement my review with others.  In the end, because Lovecraft was never able to form his ideas into anything longer than a novella (like King, no?), it’s difficult to see his work as more than entertainment.  If horror is your game, then Lovecraft is one of the original voices in the field.  Otherwise, it's a very specific niche that will not be to the majority's liking.

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com)  

Review of "The Teutonic Knights" by Henryk Sienkiewicz


Anyone who is familiar with Polish reading habits will be aware that their appetite for speculative fiction is insatiable.  Heading into the local bookstore, the number of fantasy and science fiction books lining the shelves far outweigh the other genres, even popular fiction.  While spec. fic. is certainly enjoying popularity at the moment in the US, it does not compare to what one finds in Poland, seemingly everyone taking a shot at a Pratchett or a Martin.  This begs the question, in what part of Polish culture did this love come from?  After reading The Teutonic Knights, I think I may have found a potential source.

Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for his novel Quo Vidas, a meticulously researched novel about Roman life at the time of Christianity’s onset.  Awarded for the historical spirit in which he wrote the novel, the same devotion can be found in all other of Sienkiewicz’s books, including The Teutonic Knights (also known as The Knights of the Cross).  Forgivably biased to his fatherland, The Teutonic Knights tells the the story of Poland’s fight to retain its independence under threat of  its Templar neighbors in the 13th century.   The Teutons to be kept at bay, Sienkiewicz portrays the crusaders as the blackest of villains, despite that they were knights templar and played a marginal role in the Catholic church.  The Teutons wanton disregard for Polish honor an affront that could not go unanswered, the tale is told from the point of view of two Polish knights, the older Maczko and the younger Zbiszko, each symbolically representing facets of Polish history, the honor of the past and the hope for the future.  There are several memorable secondary characters who complete the story, but it is the individual duels and wars for honor and virtue these two wage against the Teutons which take center stage.  Sienkiewicz could not have chosen a better climactic moment to resolve tension than the Battle of Grunwald, which finishes the novel and sets Poland back on its feet toward regaining independence. 
 
Good and evil the only forces at play - character motivation beyond obvious - the style of The Teutonic Knights seems a bit simplistic by today’s standards.  But one must remember to place the book in the context of Sienkiewicz’s time, particularly the beginning of the 20th century when Poland was lacking independence.  This and other novelizations of proud moments in Polish history served to bolster patriotism and national pride, fostering the hope one day they could regain their nation from the occupiers.  In fact, it’s possible the current day independence of Poland owes some small debt of gratitude to Sienkiewicz and other Polish writers of the time for writing of national pride with such spirit.  And so while characterization and morals are expressed in all too clear terms - baddies vs. goodies - it must be remembered that the lifelike representation of individuals was not Sienkiewicz’s goal.  Rather, he intended to show the larger social and political forces at work and the direction they were headed.  As such, Sienkiewicz’s masterful interweaving of historical background with plot elements involving the struggle for power remains the strong point of The Teutonic Knights.  Sound anything like modern epic fantasy?

(Side note: with heroic knights, damsels in distress, and risks of honor aplenty, this is a book Don Quixote would have loved!! Strange that Don Quixote was written 300 years prior…)

Review of "Hardcase" by Dan Simmons

Readers of Dan Simmons have been spoiled by his numerous great works: the Hyperion Cantos, Song of Kali, and The Terror, for example, selling well around the world and in many languages.  Hardcase, unfortunately, finds the author returning to earth from the heights of this success.  The book is run of the mill action –  well told, but still average.

Before buying the book, I noted that many reviewers enjoyed Simmons’ delving into detective noir to tell the story of hardened private eye Joe Kurtz, solving a mystery while just trying to stay alive, killers on his trail.  Having now read the book, I’m at a loss to see where the spirit of Raymond Chandler can be seen glowing in the text.  Certainly some of the elements speak to the noir genre – Kurtz’s office below a porno shop, his moral position outside the law but fighting for justice, the colorful thugs and assassins giving chase to name a few.  But sadly, the overall feel was more like Lethal Weapon than Chinatown.  Hood gangsters, drugs and guns, and mafia princesses were in fact the plot devices which moved the storyline.

As Simmons is such a great stylist, it was a bit of a disappointment not to read of dark alleys and cigarette smoke, red lipstick and .44 magnums emerging from trenchcoats, the echoes crashing through the pouring rain.  I expected something more artistic than the blase action story I was presented with.  Simmons’ usual storytelling bravado and vivid descriptions are present, but it just wasn’t enough to deepen the story.  If P.I. stories with smooth prose are your gig, by all means have a a go.  Otherwise, nothing special here.

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review of The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

Take the philosophical concept of the original Dune trilogy, sprinkle in some basic plot devices from The Lord of the Rings, and mix with a coherent system of magic, a handful of strong lead characters shaded in gray, wholly original races, cultures, and setting, and voila, you will have R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series.  A lucid concoction, the trilogy holds no punches, leaving the reader wide-eyed for its brutal adherence to the realities of pre-industrial life.  No fuzzy hobbits picking flowers and discussing what variety of pipe tobacco they prefer, instead, Machiavellian scheming, ever-inflating egos, and pushes, risks, and clashes to obtain power are unveiled as ugly truths.  Underrated, the Prince of Nothing is one of the best epic fantasy series available today. 

Due to the immense scope of Bakker’s world, the series starts slow.  The turns of plot are measured in their reveal, and the scenes set with a view to the whole rather than being simple info dumps.  With patience, as storylines and character arcs build - from the groundwork of The Darkness that Comes Before, the bridge of The Warrior Prophet, to the final showdown of The Thousandfold Thought - readers gain a full understanding of the people, interests, and conditions of Bakker’s Earwa.  Schools and temples of magic war with another below the surface while kings and warriors duke it out for all to see, and all are unsure about the warrior-monk Kellhus's potential.

For those tired of fantasy authors stringing readers along with excellent plot build up only to close the series in a dissatisfying 25 pages, fear not; Bakker delivers.  The ending of the trilogy is conclusive and, most importantly, more grandiose than what one hopes it will be.  Heightening the climax is the involvement and transitory feelings one experiences in their regard for the main characters.  From loved to hated, loathed to pitied, the strong characterization likewise deserves notice for its integration with story.  Much rumination invested in making sure the puzzle pieces fit snugly together (Bakker has taken years to write the series), this is not just another fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants fantasy series out to cash in on the current market.

Regarding character depiction, many reviewers have been critical of Bakker’s treatment of women.  And, I would have to agree, it's not progressive, rather digressive.  The excuse can always be made that the author was trying to remain true to the times, but, well, it's not the strongest argument.  I will let it be for the moment and simply say that if the poor treatment of women offends you, do not read the series.  There are much worse authors out there, but Bakker does occasionally get graphic, and, whether you agree with his view or not, at least has an agenda behind the presentation, that is, rather than it being (unforgivably) unintentional.

The dialogue attentive, action paced constructively, and setting and the main characters having depth, these factors move The Prince of Nothing to vie with the other major works of epic fantasy on the market today.  Pushing it near the top is the focus with which Bakker writes.  From the first page onward, planning and structure are obvious, events falling naturally into place as character motivation dictates, and in turn, allowing the themes of power, paranoia, and virtue to rise to the surface.  Unlike Erikson, who perhaps conceals too much from the reader, or Jordan, who divulges too much, Bakker balances on the tightrope wonderfully, revealing his world in just enough chunks to pull the reader along, while at the same time expressing his literary objectives in a non-proselytizing fashion.  Though reviews of the series are divisive, for scope and content The Prince of Nothing truly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Erikson and Martin as the masters of modern fantasy.  

Review of "The Terror" by Dan Simmons

The Terror is based on the British vessels HMS Erebrus and HMS Terror and their voyage to discover a northwest passage in the 19th century.  Using their unknown fate as a literary springboard, Simmons freely fills the gap in history as his imagination allows, and in the process has created a work of historical fiction that transcends genre.  Classified horror due to one of its plot devices, the novel is in fact much deeper in scope.  On the surface it is the story of the two ships and their crews’ attempts to survive, frozen in the ice for more than two years, but at another level, it is an examination of the hubris of humanity and its attempts to defy nature.  

Reining himself in from the vivid descriptions and vibrant storytelling of the Hyperion Cantos or Joe Kurtz novels, Simmons’ imagery of a frozen wasteland in The Terror require a tone more subtle and melancholy; the setting of two ships trapped in the frozen Arctic for two years is simply not conducive to action-packed narrative.  Proving as adaptable in style as genre, the effort is successful.  Simmons more than convincingly describes the day-to-day life of trying to survive in -60 degree temperatures and stinging blizzards, not to mention claustrophobia, cabin-fever, and paranoia that set in amongst the crew the longer they spend trapped on the ice. Surprisingly weighing in at over 900 pages, the novel's sublime description of slow dwindling supplies and morale pulls the reader down to the crew’s level for a first hand experience, pace not suffering in the least.  The despair and hope of escaping a situation so far removed from their lives in Britain comes to life under the author's pen and keeps the reader engaged.

Simmons adheres to historical data for as much is available in the bulk of the story.  Certainly, however, he does take some artistic license, not only deciding the fate of the crew members, but also including an ice monster that harasses, terrorizes and generally makes already miserable lives all the worse.  Though its sudden emergence is at times scary, the beast makes enough appearances to warrant deeper investigation into its thematic relevance.  More than a cheesy plot device, who the monster kills is of vital importance to understanding Simmons’ commentary on the mindset of the era, the superman attitude with which colonial powers set about building empires to dominate the world showing its flaws.  The incongruous ending of the novel, rather than confusing the narrative, in fact highlights the degree to which mankind has continued to separate itself from nature.  That many reviewers misunderstand this only emphasizes the point.

At one time historical, horror, and literary fiction, Simmons’ ambitions in The Terror nonetheless remain tightly focused.  By telling the tale from the minds and mouths of the crew, officer to common sailor, the book maintains its social and environmental integrity.   The reader’s vicarious experience of seeing the world through the eyes of Captain Crozier, for example, gaining the knowledge he does after being trapped on the ice for two years is suitable for any era.  As such, this book comes highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of the HMS Erebrus and HMS Terror, life in the Arctic, or simply one man’s imaginative telling of a fate for which history has no record.

(The folks at www.fantasyliterature.com have also posted this review at their site.)
 

Review of "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin

I’m aware this book has a bit of a following and is popular amongst most who have read it - and it’s certainly not my intention to cast Chatwin’s effort into the mud - but I have to say I was a disappointed upon finishing The Songlines.  I don’t expect scientific objectivity in my travel writing (read Lewis and Clark’s journals if you want boring), but I do expect the writer to refrain from overhanded intrusion, redirecting their experience toward a personal agenda.  After all, aren’t we reading such travelogues to get a sense of what a place is like, not what the writer wants it to be?  As such, the book should be approached as a personal reflection while in Australia, rather than travel writing, if it's to be fully apprciated.  But before getting to the positives of The Songlines, I should first loose my feelings regarding the downside.

The artistic license with which Chatwin goes about dictating The Songlines (in my opinion; others may disagree) detracts from the effort rather than improving it.  Reading like a novel, dialogue is often relayed in verbatim form, as if conversation were recorded and later fit (miraculously) within the larger text.  This dramatization, while certainly bringing the experience closer to the average reader, only cheapens the overall product.  Like a friend exaggerating to make the bully they knocked out a little bigger and meaner, Chatwin manipulates the reader’s experience by adding direct speech that only resembles reality rather than representing it.   Such practice begs the question: if a writer tailors travel dialogue, what else are the willing to alter to make a book suit their needs?  But I digress.

Aboriginal awareness – one of Chatwin’s goals in writing The Songlines - is certainly commendable.  The book a record of his time in the Australian Outback, his descriptions of Aboriginals and their lives in the desert makes for solid reading.  Stealing the show, though, are the wild west blokes toughing it alone in the inhospitable Outback, their characters the bright points of the book.  Chatwin is widely read, and along with the topics he discusses related to Aboriginals, he weaves in evolutionary theory, nomadism, and “the Other,” using the Aboriginee mythological idea of “songlines” as a metaphor for the interconnections of humanity and nature.  This being said, I unfortunately must mention the negative side of this content.  

Australia is home to hundreds of different tribal groups, and despite crossing the territories of dozens in his trip from the Adelaide into Australia’s center, Chatwin ignores this myriad culture, universalizing their individual beliefs and traditions with blanket statements that subsume the whole.   The result is that individual cultures of the First People are mixed together into one bowl to satisfy Chatwin’s philosophical objectives, which leaves one wondering whether the exposition of his own theories didn’t take on more importance than the cultures and people he was reporting on.  

When taken at face value, The Songlines is a likeable read.  Readers of Bryson or Theroux would enjoy the charm of travel Chatwin invokes.  In fact, the colorful characters and scenes would be interesting to many, the well traveled to the stay-at-home dreamer.  I just personally find it difficult to move beyond the artistic license and self-aggrandizement.  Others, well, if you're not put off by such tactics, you may be one of the many who enjoy the book.

Review of "Selected Works: Poetry & Prose of Alexander Pushkin"

After reading “The Poor Knight,” Pushkin’s homage to Don Quixote in verse, it was difficult not to pick up the two volume Selected Works: Poetry & Prose of Alexander Pushkin I found in a bargain bin.  The poet’s delicate expression of the familiar coming to full life in this collection, I now count myself a fan and will gladly read anything else I come across. 

That the two volumes are written in a second language, something is undoubtedly lost in translation.  The subtle flavor of vernacular Russian is, unfortunately, a secret held in a box beyond my current skill to unlock.  What remains in English is worthwhile nonetheless, romantic, nationalist, and cultural ideals the major themes.  Despite feeling dated when juxtaposed against today’s poetry featuring minority agendas and random emotional dumps, something remains to be said for the classic style.  In fact, in the face of post-modernism’s poetry-art which is as obscure as Russian Cyrillic to the non-native, the clarity with which Pushkin writes is a breath of fresh air.  The verse metered and rhyming, it's easy to relax reading his observations on nature or laments on declining cultural standards. 

Notable among the poems is “The Prophet,” a short poem on the power of the writer and their word in society.  Likewise, a prose play called  “The Gypsies” captures perfectly the blood and salt lifestyle Westerners stereotypically perceive these wanderer/beggars to live.  Several other prose plays speak to the concerns of Mother Russia in Pushkin’s day - its faults and its glories.  All in all, the collection was a highly suggestive wink that what lays hidden beneath the confounding blanket of Russian is worth further reading.  Accordingly, I have placed Pushkin’s most famous work, Eugene Onegin, on the radar for future purchase – even if in English.

Review of The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance

Those familiar with Vance’s work know that his style is unrivalled.  So unique, anyone who attempted to imitate his voicing or phrasing would immediately be called out by the fantasy community, unable to show their face again.  The Lyonesse trilogy is one of these works which, along with Tales of the Dying Earth, Planet of Adventure, and The Demon Princes series, lay the foundation for fantasy literature’s most unique voice.  That Vance backs up his style with a most enjoyable, adventuresome tale sets the eyes glassy with joy. 

Fantasy in perhaps its purest form, the Lyonesse trilogy is Arthurian legend through the prism of Merlin's crystal ball. With princes and princesses, trolls and fairies abound, the reader quickly grabs hold of Vance's archetypes and is taken for a ride by his innate ability to spin a yarn.  The first book, called "Suldrun’s Garden” by most fans, sets the scene of the medieval Elder Isles and the various rivalries for power occurring among the kingdoms.  The second book, The Green Pearl, advances the storyline of the protagonist, Alias, as a wise ruler seeking to unite the Isle to once and for all in the name of peace, while simultaneously coloring the inimitable Murgen, Vance’s Merlin figure.  The final book, Maduoc, along with winning the World Fantasy Award, ties together the multitude of threads Vance has woven in the previous two books in a most satisfactory fashion, the ending truly Arthurian for Alias’s estranged daughter and those living in the Elder Isles.  

Never quite taking himself seriously, Vance goes about writing the trilogy in his usual jocular, overly-formal, and utterly humorous style that certainly takes some getting used to by the uninitiated.  When one comes to the realization that all they need do is relax and let the story flow, the delight that is Vance comes springing into the imagination, wizards and spells, potions and magic mirrors never being so much fun.  Though the tongue-in-cheek style does detract from the seriousness of several character outcomes, the sheer joy of truly never knowing where Vance’s imagination will take the reader next is worth the read, and for that the series comes recommended.  In fact, any true lover of zany adventure and imagination need check this out, or any other of Vance’s works.

Review of "Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny

The scholar Brain Atterbery in his book Strategies of Fantasy writes that works of science fantasy can be divided only one of two ways: the beautiful and the damned.  No middle ground to be had, technology and the supernatural remain relative to the era, and combining them disastrous to the point of comedy or successful to the point of being a mind-opening experience.  Falling into the latter category, Lord of Light, unlike much of Zelazny’s other works of science fantasy, is a flawless blend of the archetypes of science fiction and the mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism.  The result is simply the peak of imaginative literature.
 
Working with Indian history, particularly the time of Buddhism’s rise to rival the teachings of Hinduism, Zelazny plays off this opposition to tell the story of Sam, the man who was a god but wasn’t.  One of the original members of a spaceship crew stranded on an unknown planet, Sam rejects the totalitarianist ways of the crew who have made themselves out to be gods, ruling the populace with superior technology while satiating their own desire for worship and power.  Forming alliances with demons and gods, Zelazny brings the Hindu pantheon to life in his fight against it, the Buddhist doctrine of right to life to the masses emphasized in his attempts to crash the gods’ party.  Sam does not always survive the epic battles, but then again reincarnation is just a matter of technology.  The novel divided into several sections that do not follow upon another logically, this cyclical story of Sam’s triumph must be pieced together like mythology itself, the story unable to be told another way.

In short, everything about Lord of Light works.  The vivid imagery, narrative structure, the dialogue, the use of Buddhist and Hindu folklore, character motivation, the colors, the crackle, the connection to culture – everything propels Lord of Light into the highest ranks of science fantasy.  Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece that anyone calling themselves a fan of speculative fiction must read. 

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com

Best reads of 2010

Not based on when they were released, the following are the best spec-fic books I read in 2010.

The Stranger – Albert Camus
Camus fictionalizes the philosophical concept of ‘the absurd’ perfectly in The Stranger.

Europe: A History - Norman Davies
Too much knowledge to be digested in one read, Davies breaks down the evolution of European history, century by century, to the end of the 20th. Bronze Age, renaissances, industrialization, world wars… my head is still spinning.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A fantastical version of Colombian history, Marquez’s language is simply breathtaking at times – reminiscent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  The original in Spanish must be euphoric. 

Actually published in five separate books, imagination and allusion have yet to be combined as effectively.  This is fully mature speculative fiction that defies genre.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre - ed. by Walter Kaufman
A brilliant collection of the greats who wrote (intentionally and unintentionally) on the subject, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, etc. are all there. No better place to start than this. 

There is no one on earth (that I’ve read or heard) who has imaginary largesse like Jack Vance.  I was floored by his constant ability to top himself with one unbelievable setting or scene after another.  I wish I had discovered Vance at an earlier age.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin
Science fiction is only a mode in which Le Guin writes, while her  content and theme are as human as human is.  Physics and politics have never had such purpose to mankind.

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory - Peter Barry
Penguin and Oxford’s accounts of literary theory solid but lacking practical material, Terry Eagleton’s missing whole topics, I have yet to find a book on literary theory as comprehensive as Barry’s. Containing practical work in addition to theory, Barry even throws in some case studies for good measure. Literary –isms have never been described with such clarity. Bravo.
This little book is as unique as literature gets.  Creating its own sub-genre (geometric fantasy--and the only entry to date), it's impossible not to make a person re-evaluate their day – or life!

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
Wonderful commentary on the Vietnam war through the lens of science-fiction--a fact driven home by the author's own experiences with the war.  Solid stuff.

47 Ronin - trans. John Allyn
Though romanticized, this historical account of the tremendous sacrifice a group of dispossessed samurai went through to uphold their duty to their fallen leader speaks is bursting with culture and insight.

Best reads of 2009

Not based on when they were released, the following are the best spec-fic books (save one) I read in 2009, regardless of publishing date.


The Earthsea Cycle - Ursula Le Guin
More than wizards and spells, Le Guin’s wisdom comes shining through in these six stories, making the series fantasy for the young and old.  So much depth and value, I wrote my Master's thesis on these books. (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind)

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem
Literary speculative fiction so deliciously mysterious as to cause one hours of pondering.  Science fantasy simply does not get better.

A World Apart Gustav Herling
A Polish man’s account of his time in a WWII-era Russian work camp, this is the real life version of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The Road - Cormac McCarthy
Moving story of a father and son attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world at odds.  Simple, powerful, profound.

The Sprawl Series - William Gibson
Profoundly affecting the genre since, rarely do books come along that have such an impact.  Everything dark, dystopian, and techy about the near future, Gibson's Sprawl is to be savored, including Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the short story collection Burning Chrome.

Wolf Totem: A Novel - Jiang Rong
While not beautifully written, this novel based on the author’s experience living with Mongolian horse herders opens the reader’s eyes to not only the culture of the semi-nomadic people, but wider environmental concerns of globalization.  Should be required reading for Mongolian studies.

The Quiet American – Graham Greene
In his life, Greene found his way around the world, visiting a wide variety of countries and cultures.  In this book, he takes a look at political interests in Vietnam prior to the war that was to occur there.  Short, sweet, and somewhat prophetic.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula Le Guin
The issue of gender is tackled in this sci-fi novel like no other author ever has or ever will without copying Le Guin’s brilliant idea.  Nothing cheesy about it, one can be proud to read of the aliens in The Left Hand of Darkness and ponder our own gender conceptions.

Describing the history of Warsaw during WWII and the failed rebellion the native Poles staged against the occupying Germans, this is Davies in his element.  Well informed yet easy to read.

His Dark Materials... - Phillip Pullman
The sort-of anti-Chronicles of Narnia, Pullman aimed to put the fantasy genre on its head and succeeded.  Original imagination, relative social commentary, and nice storytelling, the series is worth it. (Northern Lights (UK)/The Golden Compass (US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
A delicious mix of subtle magic, faery, and allusive culture, Susanna Clarke's debut novel took the world by storm upon it release for good reason.  Few fantasy releases in recent times have such literary quality.

The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo - Lin Yutang
Lin Yutang was not to know the word he chose to describe the brilliant Chinese poet would be twisted in the latter half of the 20th century to have a meaning he did not intend.  It detracts in no way from this biography, however, Lin combining beautifully the poetry and life of Su Shi, considered by most the greatest poet of the Song Dynasty.
 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review of "Distress" by Greg Egan

The unique talent that is Greg Egan has written another novel that barely strains the limits of modern technology in a near-future socio-political world that is more than believable.  Cameras  are biologically inserted into humans, rendering reporters as close to the definition of the word “witness” as philologists will permit; pharmaceuticals exist which allow a person to be one button away from a desired mood; and fundamentalists and activists emerge from all corners as science replaces religion in the global mindset.  Distress containing enough ideas for three novels, imagination does not seem to be a problem for Greg Egan.

The main idea tackled in Distress is: what if a Theory of Everything were not only possible but just around the corner?  What effect would this have on society?  In order to examine this scenario, Egan sets his protagonist, the journalist Andrew Worth, to report on things at an international physics symposium that is happening on an anarchic, man made island called Stateless.  Radical anti-science supporters, primitivists, techno-libertarians, and a variety of other realistically portrayed social activist groups have gathered to support or oppose the soon to be announced Theory of Everything.  Worth, after interviewing the world’s leading physicist, Violet Mosala, and learning how close she is to producing something along the lines of Einstein’s Theory, soon becomes involved in a plot by one of the groups to kill the woman, thus keeping the knowledge a secret from humanity. 

Political agendas and abuse of media have never played so strong a role in science fiction, and the end result of Worth’s tale is something that can exist only in the imagination.  That into this Egan also mixes elements of post-humanism (there are five types of humans), neuropsychology, bio-pharmaceuticals, as well as the major ethical issues surrounding these technologies, the novel only takes on new levels of poignancy regarding the current state and application of science.  The discussion erupting from the first ten pages alone would be enough to keep a panel of academics talking for hours.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that Egan’s dearth of ideas does not match his literary qualities.  Written in simplistic prose, relaying plot and dialogue in straight-forward fashion, Shakespearians shake their heads at such inelegant usage of English.   But they are missing out on Egan’s commentary regarding a truly globalized world with science as a religion.

Not in the same realm as space opera, Distress is science fiction for the modern world.  It asks big questions, tackles ethical issues, and tries to answer some of its own quandaries.  Failing only in style and having an ending which transcends optimism for euphoria,  Distress is readable for the wealth of imagination alone.  The world Egan imagines today very well could be our world of tomorrow.  (Those who have read and enjoyed Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net may also enjoy Egan's novel, and vice-versa.)

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com)  

Review of "Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City" by Norman Davies & Roger Moorehouse


Another work featuring the second place he calls home, Norman Davies returns to Poland with Microcosm:Portrait of a Central European City, this time bringing the expertise of Roger Moorehouse along with.  Not always known by the name we currently use, Davies and Moorhouse explore the evolution of Wroclaw through the ages, from small river village in European no-man’s land to modern day Polish metropolitan city. 

What makes the history of Wroclaw’s development interesting is its location.  Set nearly at the geographic heart of Europe, the city has had many claimants over the centuries, the modern day Polish occupation of the city mere decades in age.  Prussians, Germans, Piasts, Bohemians and Russians, Habsburgs and Napoleons, and a host of other dynasties and noble families have at one time or another called Wroclaw their own, signs in Germany often still using the name ‘Breslau’ from when the city was their own.  Readers of Davies other tomes, like Europe or The Isles, will find this work not only lighter in weight, but in tone.  Information is still delivered both prosaically and technically, but at the same time in more manageable pieces, closer to general overview than detailed exposition.  The duo’s (and their respective team’s) research is extensive and (as far as I, a non-scholar) can determine, comprehensive. 

Though focusing on German, Polish, and Jewish interests, the stories of the afore-mentioned groups and their roles in shaping the city are well defined, rendering Wroclaw's history a multi-cultural skein.  And despite being sponsored by the city, Davies and Moorhouse include enough negative reports of Polish occupation to lend the work credence.  Certainly not as fascinating as the histories of Paris or Rome, that Wroclaw has constantly been a footnote in the major events of European history has not done anything to prevent it from being an integral part of events as a whole, and by writing Microcosm, Davies and Moorhouse have proved just that.  Recommended for anyone interested in the Central Europe has played in the larger European arena, or someone who has interest in knowing how one city could have been called so many names over the years, Vratislavia, Presslau, Wroclaw, Breslau, Vretslav…

Review of "Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers

Anubis Gates is, plain and simple, time travel as it should be told.  Never a gimmick or anachronistic moment, the story holds up well to inspection for annoying plot loopholes and deus ex machini that plague many time travel stories.  Powered by voodoo, the book is a shining example of the positive nature fantasy can add to history for storytelling purposes.

Much in the vein of Dan Simmons’ historical fantasy, Anubis Gates is the story of the modern day scholar on British romantic poets, Prof. Doyle, and what happens after he is taken to hear - in person - a lecture from one of his most admired historical personages, Samuel Coleridge.  The magic that takes him there is Egyptian, but he runs into the likes of Byron, Pope, and Warton along the way.  The poets, however, do not turn out to be anywhere near as interesting as the host of other people Doyle encounters after being stranded in 19th century London.  Dr. Romanelli, a powerful magician and his spring shoes, Horrabin, the evil beggar clown who walks on stilts, and Dog Face Joe, a man who becomes a werewolf if he doesn’t change skins quick enough, all these and many more characters romp about, chasing one another, trying to solve murders, pursuing immortality, and learning who is actually who in historical terms.  Yes, the plot twists and turns, but never at such a rate to befuddle the reader.  Powers’ tight and focused prose wonderfully balances description with narrative to constantly have the story on the move while at the same time riding that fine line between mystery and clarity, revealing just enough to lead the reader on.  

Much more fiction than history, Powers nonetheless successfully utilizes voodoo magic, the romantic poets and period London to tell a brilliant time travel story that does not leave the reader ashamed.  Characterization is rich and colorful, the setting detailed perfectly for the story, and the plot constructed wonderfully.  There may be deeper elements, allusion, symbolism, etc., but as I am unfamiliar with British romantic era poetry, Anubis Gates remains a true storyteller’s book and comes recommended as a relaxing holiday read.  If only more time travel stories had such integrity.

Review of "Gateway" by Frederick Pohl

At heart a psychological drama which explores one man’s attempts at dealing with the negative aspects of existentialism (what Sarte called “nausea”), Gateway nonetheless utilizes the tools of science fiction for effect.  Less than 300 pages, the tropes of each are blended perfectly in succinct fashion so as to satisfy the readers of both genres.  An outline of the books is as follows.


After finding an abandoned alien base deep in an asteroid, humanity has learned the basics of piloting the remaining spaceships.  Emphasis on the word “basics,” not all the important details of light speed have been mastered, with the result people are sent shooting into space as “prospectors,” not knowing where the coordinates they’ve set will lead or if they’ll even make it back to the base.  For those who do come back, reward is not a guarantee, either.  Alien artifacts can help a person become rich, but as so few come back with any, is it worth the risk of dying alone in space?  Into this roulette wheel lifestyle comes the protagonist , Robinette, a man who feels he has nothing to live for on earth, so why not take a chance in the stars.  Told in alternating chapters, the reader takes turns absorbing the third person details of Robin’s time on the base and in space and his sessions with a computer psychologist that take place an unknown time after.  Not as corny as it sounds, Pohl plays the computer psychologist/A.I. off well, nothing predictable or preachy about technology in the machine’s nature.  So unimportant to the story, the question could be asked whether it was not human after all.  The third person narrative and flashback style sessions moving closer as the book progresses, the climax offers a satisfying conclusion to the story.

Feeling lost and purposeless, Pohl’s tale of a man lost is as human as stories come.  The fear and paranoia Robin experiences not knowing whether this will be the end each time he launches in one of the alien vessels serves to drive him deeper into uncertainty regarding life.  His love life, sense of direction, and even grip on reality all become drastically skewed the more time he spends in space.  A parody on the state of affairs in the US when the book was written (1977), Pohl’s post-modern story of a man equivocating in an increasingly subjective world transcends the sci-fi setting to comment directly on a state of affairs, that, if anything, has only become more relative in the decades since.  

As such, Pohl took aim, fired and hit a bulls-eye from a thematic point of view.  Robin, the blue-collar anti-hero caught in a web of his own design – alcohol, sex, drugs – and his attempts to free himself from the world of choice strike a chord with modern society.  Despite the spaceships flying around and alien artifacts, this is what makes the story true literature.  Secondary themes include the value of pain and suffering and exploitative nature of capitalism.  Short and sweet, Gateway comes recommended for those enjoying science fiction with depth and purpose.

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com)

Review of "Ringword" by Larry Niven

I really wanted to give this book high praise; its ideas are at times truly fantastic.  But in the end Ringworld is hurt by a lack of style - literary qualities as it were.  As if written by an engineer, the technology, hard science, and scope of the novel exist huger in the mind but black and white on the page.  Informed by the latest knowledge in astrophysics, geology, and meteorology, the magnificent ideas aren’t communicated in a motivating enough style to make the book anything more than an interesting look at the possibilities of space.  Flashes here and there, the plot generally lacks color and impetus; Niven is not a natural storyteller.

That the ideas are at times fascinating, is a shame.  At roughly 350 pages, Ringworld could have been much longer given the plethora of ideas Niven tries to relate with depth.  The plot, what little there is, is loosely structured around two humans, an aggro Chewbacca style creature, and a strange little puppet alien, all sent to explore a strange “strip of ribbon” orbiting a sun.  Ringworld is a mystery to all, and as the group traverses the landscape trying to answer the who’s, what’s, and why’s, questions piling on top of themselves.  One after another, interesting cultural and technological possibilities come to light.  But Niven barely takes the time to explore one before the characters are zooming off to another, little interaction of interest occurring in the meantime.  Appealing for its mysteriousness, the setting remains the sole strength of the “novel”, all else worldbuilding for worldbuilding's sake with little story to flesh it out.
 
Thus more an exploration than a story, at its conclusion Ringworld leaves the reader wanting to see more of the strange man made landscape orbiting the planet, while at the same time disappointed that such an interesting mix of creatures and landscapes couldn’t have been better combined to produce a story that grabs you.  For his ability to paint a most fascinating picture of a world beyond the scope of human understanding, Niven deserves praise.   Should I come across more of Niven, I will read it in the hope setting and plot have been better intertwined. (Perhaps this is why he involved Jerry Pournelle in later novels?)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review of The Godless World trilogy by Brian Ruckley

Tragedy in the theater sense of the word, Ruckley’s Godless World trilogy is a supple blending of epic fantasy and Hamlet.  Set in an imaginary land highly reminiscent of the author's native Scotland, the trilogy offers oily smooth prose, well developed characters with human interests, and a solemn sense of drama.  There are no quests for jade bracelets or scepters that will buy a kingdom.  There are no wizards with lightning shooting from their fingertips.  There are no demons leaping from the bushes in ambush.  This is a human story of war, the fantasy blunted to let character interaction and emotion shine through, and for that, Ruckley should be lauded.

Winter is settling in as the story begins and the stark aura it casts over the lords, their ancient feuds, and the fight for survival that ensues remains throughout the series, the snow thickening.  Obviously conscious of the sword and sorcery genre and its variety of pitfalls, Ruckley focuses the narrative on the characters and their personal struggles in a world at war – and all are human, not an undefeatable hero among them.   Elements of fantasy do exist and are irreplaceable to the plot, but as a whole the books read like historical fiction; individuals develop and adjust to the inevitable tragedy of war where the quest for power and revenge leads. 

The strongest point of the trilogy is how smoothly events unfold.  Winterbirth effortlessly sets the stage for the play and its actors, the scenes of Bloodheir build the climax, and the shortest of the three, Fall of Thanes, unravels the story to its inevitable and tragic ending, just like Hamlet.  The heart wrench invoked by the denouement is a testament to the sense of theater drama which prevails.  Ruckley's skills at portraying real human emotion are not often found in fantasy and come as a point of recommendation for the series. 

By accurately depicting human virtue and vice, Ruckley will probably not win any readers among the fans of derivative fantasy, Jordan, Goodkind, Brooks, etc.   However, for those who seek fantasy writers with higher literary aims beyond spells and elves, The Godless World trilogy and its sorrows may be for you.  It is Shakespeare in fantasy.

Review of The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie


Conan the Barbarian meets The Lord of the Rings is the premise of Joe Abercrombie’s debut fantasy series.  One anti-, the other pro-civilization, the impasse of this combination is only exasperated by the author’s subversion of the clichés of sword & sorcery using sword & sorcery.  The resulting paradox renders the series no more than manipulative storytelling that falls short of the modern standards of epic fantasy despite the quality of dialogue and brief moments of unique imagination.

The First Law trilogy is set in an unnamed medieval land and focuses on three characters.  Logen Ninefingers is a world-weary, Conan-esque warrior who starts the series wandering the wilderness, seeking his sworn enemy Bethod.  The second is Glokta, the intemperate torturer of the Union, who fights through the pain of old injuries to give pain to others, extracting information in the process.  The third main character is the arrogant young noble, Jezel, who at the start of the series is training for a sword competition.  Secondary stereotypes—I mean, characters—include the requisite female warrior (you know, the character with breasts who behaves like a man), the all-powerful wizard, and the group of rough and tumble warriors to back Logen’s adventures.  These and other characters move in and out of each others lives as Abercrombie weaves the story of the Union’s fate in the face of foreign attackers.

Before the complaints, I should first give credit where credit is due: Abercrombie writes quality dialogue.  The conversations of the characters, based on the situations they're in, their attitudes toward life, and the language they use while in action, feel spot-on. The group of Viking-esque warriors assembled, for example, can easily be visualized warring and fighting, later drinking and discussing the matter around a fire. Sarcastic, nihilistic, humorous, poignant, and all manner between, the books can be recommended based on this aspect of the writing.

Unfortunately, the series falls flat in many other important categories, including plotting, story structure, and story purpose—an unenviable list.  Given the specifics of each of these issues, it is obvious that Abercrombie pays much attention to forums and contemporary commentary on fantasy, particularly derivative sword & sorcery and the cardboard characters so many fans rail about.  In writing his own tale for the ranks to discuss, Abercrombie overreacts in his attempts to subvert these clichés.  The following are some examples:

#1 - In one part of The Blade Itself, a character seeks a wizard.  Coming to a castle, they find an old man with a white beard, pointy hat, and long staff sitting quietly on a step, intentionally leading everyone to believe that, yes, the wizard has been found.  But suddenly from behind appears a fat, bald man who introduces himself as the sought-after wizard.  Ha-ha, good one Abercrombie, you really tricked us!  Such subtle use of literary tools to subvert a fantasy motif!!  A minor example, I know, it nevertheless hints at what’s to come.  

#2 – In another part of the series, a group is sent on a quest—a stereotypical fantasy quest, complete with a motley crew and a numinous object as its goal.  Covering a book’s worth of action, the group arrives at the end only to find what they’ve been seeking doesn’t exist.  Ha! the author says, I just made you read several hundred pages for no reason!  How’s that for subverting the quest motif of fantasy?!?!  But, the devil’s advocate says, that’s called character development.  Then, I ask, why is the group’s return to the Union covered in four sentences with no hint of action, transition, or “character development”???  Needless to say, the mood and series fall flat after this grand revelation.  (See E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros or Steven Erikson's Malazan books for a more literary way of subverting the quest.)

#3 – My last example is when one character kills another character—a fan favorite—in a fit of uncontrolled rage.  Surprising yes, but does the death do anything to advance plot or character?  No. Like a cat with a mouse, Abercrombie is only playing with the reader, saying: “You like that character?  Ha-ha, I killed them!  That’s how you subvert Tolkien-esque fantasy!”  By comparison, George R.R. Martin’s style of killing characters, including fan favorites, is to do it naturally, in the flow of events.  Readers may love or hate him for it, but all understand how the death fit into the story’s context.   Abercrombie simply assaults the reader with a “Gotcha!!” moment that doesn’t affect plot in the least, leaving one to understand it was for manipulative purposes only.

Suffice to say, these methods of subverting the traditional tropes of epic fantasy are a bit immature.  Those who read only epic fantasy will consider them “entertaining”, “interesting”, and maybe “a completely new take on fantasy!!”.  Others will roll their eyes.  

But beyond manipulating readers, the most troublesome aspect of the series is the lack of consistent plot development.  Battles and bloodshed occur and occur often, but rarely take the story to a higher level or another phase.  The brilliant moments of dialogue are sped along by disjointed action scenes.  Logen, for example, kills hundreds; but the majority is nothing but digressive and gratuitous scenes of violence.  In major battles it can be forgivable, but in random moments, e.g. walking down a road, it’s cheap sensationalism.  As a result, tension may be well-built in the moment, but is quite poor across the series as whole.  

A problem resulting from this is that some of the characters developed with intent go unmentioned the remainder of the series, useless to the overall narrative.  Bremer, for example, is essentially absent after The Blade Itself.  All of the time and care Abercrombie took to develop him is wasted despite the plethora of opportunities that would seem to present themselves for his later use.

Symbolizing the series' problems are the volume titles: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings.  Looking great on paper, sounding properly epic to the ear, and seeming to define a grand story arc in the offing, nothing could be further from reality.  Not one of the titles can be tied to any idea in the books. There are no blades of significance—literal or figurative—in The Blade Itself ; there is no moment of suspense leading to the next book as the title Before They Are Hanged would imply; and Last Argument of Kings is a phrase Abercrombie borrowed from Napoleon’s cannons, nothing whatsoever to do with the series’ closing events.  In short, the books open with empty titles and close with empty story.  

If Abercrombie learns to give purpose to his scenes and fit them into naturally progressing time frames, not to mention adjust his methods for undermining cliché to a more intelligent style, there is hope that he may have something meaningful to add to the genre.  Otherwise, just by being anti-cliché, he admits cliché its value.  More than just reactionary, Brian Ruckley, R. Scott Bakker, Paul Kearney, Steven Erikson, and Martin’s series are developed with stronger purpose.  Give them a try first if you want a taste of modern fantasy that embraces cliché while at the same time evolves the genre in new directions.

Note: Dissatisfied with the original, this review was entirely revised on September 3, 2012.  What you have read now is a more detailed and convincing version of what I felt the faults of the series to be.