Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best reads of 2012

In fact only one actually published this year, the following are the best speculative fiction books I read or re-read in 2012.

Nightwings - Robert Silverberg
Tying together history, spirituality, and the future of humanity, Silverberg’s three novellas collected in Nightwings are gloriously transcendent.

If there is a list of ‘best of’ writers in the world today, Chabon is on it.  Able to take such disparate ideas as Alaska, Jewish culture, detective noir, and mix them in a poignant tale, his audience--and my--praise is deserving.  

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell
Notes taken from the five months Orwell spent living, reporting, and fighting in Spain's civil war, the writer's non-fiction is every bit as sharp and perceptive as his imagined stories.  This book is the primer for the world's political schemes--anarchy, socialism, capitalism and all grades between--in practice.

The Affirmation - Christopher Priest
Using the tropes of sci-fi to full, human effect, Priest examines how mankind perceives the world and the subjectivity inherent.  All too real.

Review of "Thief of Time" by Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time is, according to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett’s 26th official entry into the Discworld series.  Published roughly six months after The Truth and six months before The Last Hero, Thief of Time finds Pratchett in good form, extemporizing on the scientific quest to put time in a bottle versus more transcendental ideologies revolving around passive regard to the great clock of life (pun intended for those who’ve read the book!).

Thief of Time opens at a monastery where the History Monks keep the spindles of time greased and spinning eternally.  Lobsang Lud, a common monk, averts a major disaster one day and earns himself an apprenticeship with the master, Lu-tze.  Meanwhile in Ankh-Morpork, a down-on-his-luck clockmaker, Jeremy Clockson, is commissioned by an Auditor-in-disguise to build the world’s first glass clock, and is not told that the giant mechanism will in fact stop time rather than measure it.  Seeking the stoppage of time to have the time to account for all the matter and molecules in the world, the Auditors send one of their own, Myria Lejean, to ensure Jeremy performs his commission, little knowing the effects and influence of mortal life will have on her.  When Lobsang and Lu-tze learn of the secret plot, they rush to Ankh-Morpork to stop the end of time.  All hell breaking loose—literally and figuratively—when they arrive in town, it seems everyone on the Disc is a stakeholder in the moment.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review of "The Amber Spyglass" by Phillip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the exciting and subversive conclusion to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy.  Lyra and Will having been turned loose in the multiverse described in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass - US) and The Subtle Knife, the time has come to draw their plight to a close—and does the author ever do it in dramatic, fantastical fashion.  But given the wealth of symbolism and subtle digs at contemporary dogma embedded in the underlying narrative of the trilogy, the conclusion is delivered in anything but standard fantasy style.

Of the three books in the series, The Amber Spyglass is the most jam-packed with story.  The action detailed and steady from the first page onward, the wheels of event and character never cease revolving.  The book opens with Will deciding whether to start a rescue action of Lyra, who was kidnapped by Mrs. Coulture and the golden monkey at the end of The Subtle Knife.  But angels visit and try to convince Will to bring the subtle knife to Lord Asriel instead, joining him in his fight with the Authority.  Only at a temporary loss for direction, Will soon enough makes a choice and is on his way, marching toward an inevitable climax.  Where he goes and who he goes with, not to mention Lyra’s fate, are for the reader to find out.  Suffice to say, it’s not always of this world, sees a major revolution unfolding in ways nobody planned, and has moments of happiness and heartbreak to soften the hardest heart.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review of "The Subtle Knife" by Phillip Pullman

The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy.  Picking up events loosely where Northern Lights/The Golden Compass left off, the novel expands upon the first to include a variety of other worlds.  It also focuses on a new pillar in the series: the boy Will.  While style and theme remain consistent with the first book, readers will find whole new worlds and characters to enjoy.

The Subtle Knife opens with Lyra, having followed Lord Asriel into the gateway he created by killing Roger, entering a place called Citigazze.  Citigazze a strange and eerie city in ruins, Lyra soon stumbles upon a young boy her age named Will Parry. Will, a stranger to the world as well, is seeking a way back to his own world, in addition to his long-lost father.  Husks of human bodies laying about the desolate city, Will and Lyra come upon strange creatures called spectres and are immediately chased, fleeing for their lives.  Coming into the possession of a strange, ultra-sharp knife in the process, the duo soon learn that many more places exist than just Aurora, Citigazze, and Will’s Earth, a father lost among them.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review of "Northern Lights/The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman

Begun in 1995 and finished five years later, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… is a trilogy of uniquely imaginative fantasy books written for both teenagers and adults.  A product of post-modern times if ever the phenomenon existed, Pullman’s objective in the trilogy is to invert/subvert a variety of literary conceptions, particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost and C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia.  Naturally drawing the ire of a variety of religious organizations and institutions in the process, the trilogy also attracted critical acclaim, two of the books winning major awards.  The dearth of imagination, daring storytelling, and overall sense of wonder are undoubtedly the reason.  Perhaps most interesting, however, is its originality.

The first book of His Dark Materials... is called Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), which tells the story of Lyra Belacqua and her quest to discover what Dust is.  Lyra existing in a world not our own, a strong steampunk feel permeates the setting of Jordan College where she lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel.  Privy to a conversation she was never supposed to overhear, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon, soon find themselves on the adventure of a lifetime.  Following in the footsteps of her uncle, all manner of witches, armored polar bears, gypsies, hot air balloons, and mystical northern lights aid and chase her into the arctic north.  With the magical and mysterious alethiometer in hand, Lyra needs every bit of her rebellious wit and cleverness if she is to remain one step ahead of Mrs. Coulture and her golden monkey, and draw one step closer to the answers of what exactly her uncle is doing with Dust.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review of "Forever Free" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War and 1997 Forever Peace were huge successes for the author, winning many of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, not to mention garnering him a solid fan base in the process.  Though they share similar sounding titles and a military motif, little else between the two novels resembles the other.  When it was announced in 1999 that Haldeman would be publishing a true sequel to The Forever War entitled Forever Free, the sci-fi community was abuzz: William Mandella was returning.  Opinion in the aftermath could not be more divided.

Forever Free does indeed pick up the life of William Mandella, his wife Marygay, and the two children they've conceived since.  Living on a cold, dreary planet called Middle Finger (a none-too-subtle touch of symbolism by Haldeman), the Mandellas, amidst a larger group of veterans and Taurans, serve as untainted gene pools, kept in isolation for “protective purposes”.  Governed by a genetically perfect version of humanity called the Man, a posthuman group-mind, the Mandellas and others spend their days in bland, domestic rote on Middle Finger, life far from idyllic.  The monotony of the situation drives the Mandellas to plot a daring escape involving a space ship, 10 years subjective time/40,000 years time dilation, and a grand tour of the universe.  Their plans kicking off without a hitch, very soon, however, things start to go awry in ways that seem to defy reality, and getting at the heart of the issue may change the definition of “universe” for all.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Fictionally Interesting” Science Fiction: A Response to Alastair Reynolds

Popular science fiction author Alastair Reynolds recently posted on his blog about a perceived condescension toward recent publications of big concept/abstract sc-fi—you know, space ships, aliens, laser guns, and the like.  Feeling that the large-scale entertainment side of the genre is being overlooked in favor of near-future dystopias, he makes some interesting statements in response. I quote one here:

“SF should not concern itself with writing about the most probable future, it should concern itself with what is the most fictionally interesting - be that probable, possible or downright unlikely.”

Fictionally interesting, hmm, a wide open door if I’ve ever seen one…

Reading Reynolds’ sci-fi, one is not surprised he would state such an opinion.  His novels predominantly retro in style, they utilize many of the genre’s well-worn tropes and are written in a style even he calls transparent.  Upgraded entertainment for a new generation, there is little new or challenging in the books.  In other words, they easily fit into the category of “fictionally interesting” science fiction, but unfortunately few others.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review of "Forever Peace" by Joe Haldeman

Despite the similarities in name, Joe Haldeman’s 1997 Forever Peace shares nothing in common with his huge success, The Forever War, save the military science fiction motif.  Winning its own accolades (the Nebula, Hugo, and John W. Campbell Awards), Forever Peace is a novel less focused on the portent of war and more on the idea of universal understanding.  Not without its share of action, however, readers will find Haldeman back in The Forever War form, the novel containing both depth and entertainment.  

Forever Peace is the story of Julian Class, both scientist and operator of a mechanized robot called a “soldierboy” for the US military.  By jacking in to a device that collectively links operators to their soldierboys, teams are able to carry out covert missions in support of US economic, and by default, political interest.  The only fallback to the device is, when operatives link together for a certain period of time, they transcend to greater heights of human understanding and become passive, no longer interested in violence or war.  The US government’s usage of the soldierboys not always for altruistic purposes, it becomes up to Julian, and his girlfriend Amelia, to spread the word about the system’s abilities to pacify violent inclination and avoid major conflict in the process.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Review of "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1976 The Forever War is one of those rare novels, like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Pohl’s Gateway, that runs away with nearly every major American science fiction award the year it was published.  Winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus, it is undoubtedly a combination of the book’s thematic elements and commentary on contemporary concerns (the Vietnam War) that won the book such high acclaim.  And it is all worth it.  Not the most stylistic or prosaic of novels, The Forever War nevertheless remains one of the best examples of how science fiction is capable of commenting on the human condition in relevant fashion.

The Forever War is the story of William Mandella, a student drafted into an extra-planetary war with the alien Taurans.  Before being sent to the front, Mandella undergoes training of severe duress, a la Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  Though a number of his contemporaries do not survive the training, nothing can prepare them for the experiences of actual combat.  Returning to Earth years subjective time later, but decades, even centuries objective time later due to the dilatory effects of space travel, Mandella finds that what he left behind is not as it was.  And this is only the beginning of his troubles.  Civil hostility and locating gameful employment difficult, Mandella is soon back in the place he left, the military, and more war on the way.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

As a teacher I’m aware there are a variety of criteria for properly implanting knowledge in students’ minds.  It goes without saying that the more of these criteria included in the lesson, the greater the chances the knowledge has of taking root and developing into something greater in the head of the receiver.  Presentation only part of the game, examples need to be consistent with the lesson’s aim.  Writers who attempt moral pieces, face the same situation.  Profound subjects cannot be staged in helium tones if the seriousness of the message is to be fully absorbed and applied.  David Mitchell’s 2004 Cloud Atlas, a stunningly written and magnificently presented work—merits by which it can be appreciated alone—nevertheless falls victim to a juxtaposition of content and intent.

Cloud Atlas is not one, but six independent stories stowed one inside the other, or, as Mitchell himself words it: “In the 1 st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”  Decades between the stories, several threads—names, places, subjects, a birthmark, etc.—wend their way through each of the narratives to create a pictoral whole.  Otherwise, each tile in the mosaic features different characters from differing time periods.  From a notary in the Pacific of the 19th century to a clone in the late 22nd fast food business, each story has an individual theme and tone.

Review of "Life of Pi" by Yann Martell

Not trapped in a zoo, not trapped in a building, not trapped in a cage, but trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger at sea.  How long would you survive?  Would you be able to overcome your fear and try to assuage the situation?  Would the absurdity begin to make you think it all a dream?  Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is such a story.  Playing with itself intra-textually, Martel’s story raises more questions than it answers, in the process telling a tale of survival at sea like has never been told. 

Piscine Molitor Patel, more happily called Pi, is a young boy growing up in Pondicherry, India.  His parents own a zoo, a facet of life that gives pleasure to an existence that is otherwise filled with taunts about his name.  Deciding to move to Canada to better their prospects, one day Pi’s parents pack the animals in a freighter and head out to sea.  They never arrive on Western shores, however. The ship capsizing, Pi is left afloat with only himself, a lifeboat, and a few animals—a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and Bengal tiger included. His adventure has only begun.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review of "Children of Dune" by Frank Herbert

Based on the polar nature of the first two books in the Dune series, Paul’s ascension in Dune and his descent in Dune Messiah, not much would seem left to be told in the House Atreides saga.  Publishing Children of Dune in 1976, ten years after Dune, Frank Herbert proved there was still more to tell, telling a solid, not spectacular tale that has some big shoes to fill if it is to live up to the success of Dune.  

With Paul having been cast blind into the desert at the conclusion of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune opens roughly a decade later with Alia on the throne and caring for Paul and Chani’s twins, Leto II and Ghanima.  Fearing she is an abomination due to the ghost of Baron Harkonnen living inside of her, Alia’s psychological stability takes blow after blow, a fact not helped by the re-emergence of Paul’s mother, the Benne-Gesserit Lady Jessica, at court.  Arrakis terraforming continuing apace, the desert is being reclaimed, the planet greener by the day.  Leto, realizing the threat this represents to the sandworms, goes into the desert in an attempt to save the spice producing beasts, leaving his family behind in the process. Topping all of this, House Corinno once again plots to retake the throne, nobody knowing how the chaos in the works will turn out in the end.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review of "Dune Messiah" by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune was an overwhelming success.  Winning awards and selling millions of copies, little did readers know, however, it was only the beginning of the Family Atreides saga.  Picking up events roughly a decade after Paul’s ascension to Emperor, Dune Messiah is the story of his descent from power.  Knocking the hero he created off his pedestal, readers should be prepared for a large number of changes in the story—and not all are for the better.

Dune Messiah continues the saga of the Atreides family in epic, soap-operatic fashion.  Paul, having expanded his power to over much of the known universe since becoming Emperor in Dune, is nevertheless helpless to prevent the religious fanaticism and destruction caused by his Fremen followers, drawing the hatred and ire of the opposition in the process.  Chani, now his concubine, is unable to conceive due to contraceptives the consort Irulan is secretly slipping her.  Paul is aware of the fact, but his visions have shown him that Chani dies in childbirth, and thus does nothing to stop Irulan.  New cabals have arisen, also.  The Benne-Gesserits, Spacing Guild, and a newly introduced species of shapeshifters called the Tleilaxu plot together to dethrone Paul.  Everyone’s fate once again uncertain, major changes on Arrakis are in the works.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov

The books of the Foundation series are among Isaac Asimov’s most famous works.  The first, called simply Foundation, is actually a fix-up of five short stories/novellas and introduces the highly original concept of ‘psychohistory’, defined on Wikipedia as “a field of science and psychology that equates all possibilities in large societies to mathematics, allowing for the prediction of future events”.  Asimov’s prose pedestrian and his characters cardboard cut-outs of each other, the book is nevertheless a quality example of Golden Age science fiction which scratches at something deeper in the evolution and behavior of humanity.

Set innumerable years in the future with mankind inhabiting the stars, the premise of Foundation is that intergalactic government has grown internally weak without its knowledge and faces a Dark Age of 30,000 years, that is, if the ramblings of the professor Harry Seldon are to be believed.  A psychohistorian, Seldon seeks to create an Encyclopaedia Galactica to preserve knowledge and thus significantly reduce the number of “dark” years to come.  After unsuccessfully defending himself at trial, Seldon goes into exile on the distant planet Terminus where he and other Encyclopedists are left free to put his ideas into action.  How civilization in the galaxy evolves from there is anybody’s guess—or is it?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review of "Pump Six and Other Stories" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Pump Six and Other Stories is a selection of short stories written between 1999 and 2008 from the up and coming Paolo Bacigalupi.  Published before the overwhelming success of his first novel, 2009’s The Windup Girl, the collection features a variety of mostly original bio- and cyberpunk stories, a handful nominated for awards.  Lacking the polished technique of many of these sub-genre’s great stylists and too often depending on shock value, the following is a brief rundown of the ten stories in the collection.

“Pocketful of Dharma” (1999) – This is the story of beggar boy Wang Jun in near-future Chengdu, China.  After a run in with a gang of thugs, Wang comes into the possession of an object that could make him rich or kill him in the offing.  Highly reminiscent of a Gibson novel (without the style), this story is a solid, but unspectacular opener to the collection.

“The Fluted Girl” (2003) – A girl named Lydia attempts to remain hidden in the castle of her patron, Baleri, who has biologically modified her and her twin sister.  A creepy story of the potential for bioengineering with a macabre, Gothic twist (reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground), it gets a bit sensationalist toward the end, but is overall a well-developed story.  Tim Burton would love it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review of "The Houses of Iszm" by Jack Vance

According to his autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance!, the author constructed his own home.  The wood home is also an idea that plays out in much of Vance’s fiction, Son of the Tree, The Cadwal Chronicles, and “Dream Castle”, included.  It’s also the main behind the novella The Houses of Iszm, the subject of this review.

The Houses of Iszm is the story Farr Sainh, a botanist from the University of Los Angeles, who arrives at Iszm on a sabbatical intending to study the planet’s unique tree life in which its people make and sell homes.  Security on Iszm strict due to the value of the trees, Sainh undergoes a variety of procedures having his identity verified, and even after being allowed entrance, is monitored continuously by the paranoid Iszic.  Quickly becoming involved in another species attempts to steal some of the famous Iszic trees, Sainh’s adventures roll from there.

Review of "Son of the Tree" by Jack Vance

Son of the Tree is a novella from very early in Vance’s career.  Written in 1950, the story presents some of the basics of style that would later become Vance’s signature, but by in large is simplistic story-telling with few bright spots.  

Almost as if having a laugh at writing itself, the protagonist of Son of the Tree is Joe Smith.  Essentially a galactic vagrant, Smith finds himself on the planet Kyril searching for the man who stole his love.  Quickly getting caught up in events surrounding Kyril’s gigantic tree of life and the rival Druids and Mangs fighting for its control, Smith soon finds saving his own skin is of more importance than getting revenge.  

Son of the Tree’s pacing is brisk even for Vance.  Events continually on the move, readers barely have a chance to settle in one location before being whisked away to another.  It would have been nice, for example, to see the peoples of Kyril given a little more detail and color.  Like two other of Vance’s short works, Telek and “Chateau D’If”, Son of the Tree feels as though it would have been better expanded into a novel, interplanetary revenge and culture coups too much for only 100 pages.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review of "The State of the Art" by Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art is a collection of short fiction by Iain Banks written between’84 and ’87.  Surprisingly, it is the only such collection the author has published.  Given Banks’ fourteen mainstream novels and twelve sci-fi novels, one would expect a much larger output of short stories and novellas.  Continuing to defy expectation, all the stories in the collection (save one) are science fiction—the genre for which he is less known.  The following is a brief summary of the eight stories (three of which are Culture related).

“Road of Skulls” – Not a story in any conventional sense, the collection opens with the bickering of Mc9 and a companion whose name “he’d never bothered to find out” while they sit on the back of a cart being pulled over a road paved with enemy skulls.  A short, macabre tribute to storytelling.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review of "The Price of Spring" by Daniel Abraham

The Price of Spring, the fourth and final book in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, wraps up the series in sublime, mature style.  Along with seeing the arcs of favorite characters come to satisfying, if not bittersweet, ends, the state to which the land is brought—a position wholly different than when the series began—is stabilized.  But not as one might predict.  The details of how they arrive at this stability are what make the novel thematically the strongest of the series and a poignant conclusion to the tale.  

Following the pattern set by the previous three books, The Price of Spring picks up events roughly fifteen years after An Autumn War.  The men of Galt and the women of the Khaimete remain sterile, but the political situation has not devolved into further war.  Balasar Gice is still an advisor to Otah, now emperor, and together they attempt to find a way to bring the social situation between the two lands into a more defined and peaceful state.  But a lot of hostility obstructing their efforts, remains.  Cultural prejudices fuel a hatred that prevents Galt women from bearing children with Khai men and vice versa.  By appealing directly to the women of Galt—something never before done in their male dominated world, Otah hopes to build a social bridge.  Maati, however, takes a different route in seeking to right the wrongs he committed, and now trains women as poets, hoping that a women’s perspective on binding can heal the hurt of the land.  Enmity against all of these actions existing from top to bottom, the situation of the land remains as much in doubt as ever, war threatening to break out again.

Review of "An Autumn War" by Daniel Abraham

An Autumn War is the third book in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, and when compared to the other three books, contains the most action and plot movement. The Galts, having made semi-successful inroads into the Khaimete in the previous books, now make a harder push with new tools on hand to get the job done. As such, several new characters are added, new areas of the map are explored, and a handful of major surprises are sprung on readers, keeping suspense high. But is the novel an improvement on the series? Some will argue yes, others, no.

An Autumn War picks up matters roughly fifteen years after the events of A Betrayal in Winter. The story opens with a weary Galt general, Balasar Gice, returning to his homeland after having successfully stolen several Khai books of andat lore and philosophy. Capturing a rogue poet several years later, they hope to create an andat of their own that will aid their takeover of the Khaimete. Otah is still Khai Machi, and he and Kiyan now have two children, the headstrong girl, Eiah, and sickly son, Kanat. Maati has remained in Machi as an assistant to Cehmai and is still performing his own research how to capture an andat. But his work is interrupted one day with the arrival of he and Otah’s former lover, Liat, and their son, Nayit. Major surprises appearing every fifty pages or so, the Galt’s advance on the Khaimete is full of suspense and concludes in major scene that will satisfy all who’ve thought the series was soft thus far.

Review of "A Betrayal in Winter" by Daniel Abraham

A Betrayal in Winter picks up events in the Khaimete 15 years after A Shadow in Summer.  Otah is a courier and once again living under the name Itani.  Maati, having failed to uphold his duties in the first novel, has spent the years living in shame under the roof of the Dai-kvo, studying bits of lore and avoiding the public eye.  Events quickly escalate, however.  The Khai Machi, the father who exiled Otah, is dying and his recognized sons have begun the rounds of fratricide that decide who will ascend the throne.  One son dying in mysterious circumstances beyond simple family feud, Maati is sent by the Dai-kvo to investigate the murder under the guise of a scholar.  The turmoil that erupts from this event, however, may have larger consequences for the Machi and Khaimete than either Maati or Otah are prepared to handle.

Abraham introduces some interesting new characters in A Betrayal in Winter.  Like Saraykeht, the city of Machi has its own poet and andat, Cehmai and Stone-Made-Soft, whose skills keep the mines, foundries, and blacksmiths busy with metals and jewels.  Cehmai much younger and of sounder mind and body than Heshai, he maintains a stable degree of control over his andat.  Threatening to distract him from his duties, however, is the only daughter of House Machi: the ambitious Idaan.  Secretly coveting the throne for herself in a land where women claim no rights to power, Idaan plots and schemes in a devious manner toward realizing her goals.  Events focused almost entirely in the city of Machi, an assortment of other important secondary characters appear to fill out the story.  Emotional content once again the focus, Abraham continues giving these characters a fair shake when it comes to presenting them realistically (albeit it at times melodramatically), the facet which is the strength of the series.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review of "A Shadow in Summer" by Daniel Abraham

It’s 2012 and the fantasy market is showing every sign of saturation.  Riding on the coattails of the success of The Lord of the Rings films, George R.R.Martin’s post-Tolkien visions of medieval fantasy, Harry Potter, and the Twilight saga, the number of unheard of authors writing about wizards, urban vampires, dragons, spells, the paranormal, and all other manner of supernatural is unprecedented.  And, as is to be expected when examining such an output of work, the majority has either one or both feet squarely in the domain of derivative.  Imitation not a surefire guarantee of success, it’s nevertheless a good enough opportunity that writers and publishers alike are willing to take the chance.   This is what makes Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, with its feet on a fantasy island of its own, a welcome breath of air.

A Shadow in Summer is the first volume in the series.  The story of two young men, Otah and Maati, the former rejects the ways of the institution they are raised in and chooses to make his own way in the real world while the latter subjects himself to the ways of their order, as strict as they may be, for a chance at controlling an andat.  Like a genie in a bottle, an andat is a spirit conjured by a poet that is capable of performing one magical function.  Once enslaved, an andat must perform a poet’s bidding, which in the novel’s case, is to remove the yet-alive from any medium, e.g. seeds from cotton or unborn babies from women.  As mundane a talent as this seems, the setting of the novel, the city Saraykheht, prospers mightily from the andat’s efforts, the textile industry making the region rich beyond comparison and the poet and andat a prize to be protected.  The neighboring country Galt, jealous of the city’s wealth and position, seeks to intervene by killing the poet, and subsequently the andat.  Maati next in line to take power over the andat and Otah a laborer in the city’s bustling clothe warehouses, each find themselves caught up in Galt’s plot in ways they never imagined.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of "Matter" by Iain M. Banks

Unlike many science fiction series which tend to work linearly, continuing the story lines of favorite characters book after book, Iain Banks’ Culture series has the benefit of being open to any variety of new characters, settings, and plots.  Like pieces of a pie, with each new Culture offering, more of the Banks’ universe is set before the reader.  Fresh tech, new AI personalities, and whole, previously unexplored corners of his galaxy are exposed in detail.  After six books and an eight year hiatus from the series, Banks returns in 2008 with Matter, proving there is still plenty more pie to be eaten.  

Matter is the story of the three Hausk siblings: the oldest Anaplian, the middle Ferbin, and the youngest, Oramen.  Born and raised on the middle level of an artificial planet structured like an onion (called Sursamen), life is not always easy.  Their quality of life existing at a state circa the US Civil War, steam power, rifles, and the telegraph are beginning to take shape, but battles are still largely fought with horse and sword.  After witnessing the murder of their father the king, Ferbin runs into exile and attempts to escape to the surface of Sursamen and ask their sponsor species for help in revenge.  Believing his father to have been killed in battle, Oramen, too young to take power, willingly allows the rebel tyl Loesp regency but soon finds himself evading assassination. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review of "The Cadwal Chronicles" by Jack vance

The 1980s found Jack Vance moving into his sixth decade of life.  Imagination still sharp, he produced such works as the Lyonesse trilogy, the second half of the Cugel saga, as well as began the Cadwal Chronicles, Araminta Station published in 1989.  The novel on par with the best of Vance’s oeuvre, the second novel in the series, Ecce and Old Earth, sees only a slight decline in quality, the story furthered in fine fashion.  The third and concluding volume, however, is like a different writer took hold of the script.  The story delivered is dry and bland, and does not come close to the bar set by the first two.  Throy fortunately not bad enough to destroy the integrity of the series, the Cadwal Chronicles contain all of the tropes that make Vance, Vance, and likewise make the series well worth a read for any fan of the author.  

The Cadwal Chronicles is the story of Glawen Clattuc and his fight to protect the planet Cadwal from being overrun by greedy developers and political dissidents.  The planet set aside as a nature preserve and population limited many centuries prior by a group on Earth called the Naturalists, in the time that has passed since many things have changed for the worse on the planet.  Aside from the deterioration of the Naturalists, a listless, unintelligent group called the Yips have slowly settled in the beautiful but dangerous forests of Cadwal and caused social problems of all variety.  Making matters worse, the eight families designated to oversee the planet and ensure it’s pristine quality have begun to collapse internally, Glawen’s own family even suffering from in-fighting and civil turmoil.  Through this mire of family feuds and social ills, not to mention political plays for power and motives of overblown revenge, Glawen needs every bit of wisdom and luck at his disposal to protect the planet he’s bound by duty to oversee.

Review of "The First Book of Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber

For a period of four decades, 1940s to the ‘80s, Fritz Leiber’s pair, Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser, were two of sword and sorcery’s most beloved creations.  Their adventures spanning more than 30 short stories, novelettes, novellas, and even a novel, Orion decided to publish the collection in two volumes for the ongoing Fantasy Masterworks series, The First and Second Book of Lankhmar.  

Fun and entertainment forever at the forefront, serious literature it is not.  Fafhrd a sentimental,Viking-esque warrior fighting far from home and the Gray Mouser a small but wily thief with more than one trick up his sleeve, the duo seem to continually find themselves in a scrape—the law, magicians, witches, and otherwise.  Rogues through and through, they would list thievery, vendettas, and mercenary work on their resumes if they ever tried to find jobs that didn’t place them in a new adventure every week.  And the city where they live, Lankhmar, doesn’t have any shortage of opportunities.  The foggy, scummy, magical, lantern lit, and decadent streets possessing a fun adventure around every corner, it doesn’t seem they’ll be switching professions anytime soon.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review of "The Ten Thousand" by Paul Kearney

Paul Kearney is a name that flies under most fantasy radars.  It is undeservingly so.  Possessing writing skills that move stories at a good pace, utilizing typical themes of myth (honor, courage, loyalty, duty, etc.), writing event-focused storylines with realistic action, and having perhaps the best ability to layout and describe battle scenes in the genre today, Kearney warrants more attention than many of the so-called greats of 21st century epic fantasy.  With his Monarchies of God series finished and The Sea Beggars hanging in publishing purgatory, Kearney set off in a fresh direction, and recently completed the Macht series.  The first book in the trilogy is called The Ten Thousand and is the subject of this review.  

The Ten Thousand is the story of a mercenary army, the Macht, and the perilous situation they find themselves in far from home when their benefactor has the rug pulled out from under their feet.  The Macht an indefatigable mountain warrior society, they have more trouble with tribal in-fighting than threats from the Kufr who live on the plains and valleys below.  Kufr a vast and wealthy kingdom, one of their nobles, named Arkamenes, seeks to supplant his brother as ruler and hires 10,000 of the best Macht from the mountains to storm the capital with his Kufr troops.  The problem is, they never get there.  Tables turned in dramatic fashion, the Macht find themselves in for a fight of their lives if ever they are to return to their beloved homeland again.  The Kufr outnumbering them significantly, death comes early and often as the Macht fight one battle after another, their lives in the hands of fate.  Told through the eyes of the young warrior Rictus and his commander Jason, the battlefield comes alive.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of "The Miracle Workers" by Jack Vance

The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are Jack Vance’s most famous novellas.  Falling short by just a hair, The Miracle Workers is also a well thought out piece of short fiction from the grandmaster of sci-fi, fantasy, and everything between.  So similar in quality in fact, the editors of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE) thought fit to group this story with Vance’s two award winning novellas in a single edition—a shout in support of its quality.

The Miracle Workers is the story of Keep Faide, its wars, its attacks to establish position, and sometimes its need to just plain survive on the strange planet they inhabit.  The other Keeps attacking in overt fashion, Keep Faide also faces inroads from the devious First Fols, a group native to the planet who seek to obstruct all of mankind’s efforts at domination.  Beyond their foam billowing, wasp spitting ways, the Fols erect forests filled with traps and snares where none exited before, and if not careful, may just be plotting to take back over the world they once called their own.  Lord Faide and the men under his control must go to wits’ end defending what they believe is their own.  Lord Faide’s problem is, his wits have a short road.

Review of "Legend" by David Gemmell

In 1976, David Gemmell was undergoing testing for cancer, and in an effort to take his mind from the process, began putting on paper some of his ideas for a fantasy story crawling around in his head.  A friend later suggested he develop the idea in to a full novel, and Legend was born.  Depicting sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelming adversity like perhaps no epic fantasy author before, the novel introduced The Legend—Druss the Deathwalker—and his mighty battleaxe, Snaga. The plot devices may be Dungeons & Dragons derivative and the characterization immature, but the novel’s cult following indicates there may be something more to the story, 10 sequels, prequels, etc. published since.

Faceless hordes of enemies, albino sorcerer telepaths, a castle siege in a mountain pass, a fearless female warrior with fur boots, bow, and breastplate, a young man searching for his destiny, and enough knights, bloodshed, and battle scenes to compete with any fantasy novel, such are the clichés redolent throughout Legend.  What makes the story readable, however, is the descriptive setting and the sense of suspense Gemmell builds as each unpredictable event in the storyline unfolds. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review of "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mars has been a subject of science fiction since before the genre became a fixture:  Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Philip K. Dick’s The Martian Time-slip, Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Princess of Mars series, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, Ben Bova's Mars, and many others have in one way or another imagined what life might be like on our neighboring globe.  Representing more than a decade of research and reading on the subject, Kim Stanley Robinson's 1994 Red Mars is an elaborate work that just may set the bar Mars colonization novels.

As is to be expected, Red Mars begins with the planet as a wasteland and moves toward colonization—a very human version, at that.  The main characters are introduced on the nine-month space flight from Earth, inter-group tensions set, and then turned loose on the cold, arid desert. The book divided into eight sections, a main character is the focus of each, making the novel a surprisingly character-centered work despite the large amount of technical and scientific information included and developed.  John Boone is an experienced astronaut—the first to land on Mars, in fact—and is the expedition’s leader.  Frank Howard is the second in command and secretly harbors feelings of jealousy regarding not only John’s position of power, but also his charisma and people skills.  Nadia is a tough female engineer, doing her best with the tools at her disposal to build the infrastructure and facilities they need to live.  Hiroko is an intelligent but unique-minded biologist with ideas of her own (to say the least) regarding how society should function socially.  Not the only rebel, Arkady is an architect and planner with ideas even more radical regarding the structure and interaction of people, science, and government on the planet.  Through these and a handful of other main characters Robinson weaves his highly scientific yet intriguingly human tale.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review of "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester’s 1951 The Demolished Man is a landmark sci-fi novel in more ways than one.  Prominent enough to have been awarded the inaugural Hugo, it likewise presents motifs of science fiction that would later become the mainstays of writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and many others interested in the future and the mind.  Telepathy, psychology mixed with technology, and big metaphysical questions are the main devices at work.  Though several elements of the story are antiquated, for as much as Bester’s first novel is a product of its times, it is likewise ahead of its time, the rudiments of cyberpunk and modern sci-fi at play in its heart.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review Philosophy

I recently came across a blogger slagging a book because they didn’t understand it.  The narrative was complex and fragmented, and therefore it was a “bad book”.  Not but a few minutes later while perusing another post on a different blog, I came across the same perspective, only more directly stated.  The commenter Dina had the following to say:  “And the whole point is that in your review - meaning: in the actual text - you explain what you liked and disliked about a book.”

I couldn’t disagree more, and as a result, decided to spell out the review philosophy for Speculiction.

Review of "Stand on Zanzibar" by John Brunner

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two writers who initially established themselves not only in the world of realist fiction, but also in the hearts and minds of readers as effective observers on society.  As a result, their later novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are heralded as two of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, literary purists even willing to make allowances despite the sci-fi leanings.  Depending on perspective, it is John Brunner’s misfortune that his career was established in the world of science fiction.  When in 1968 Stand on Zanzibar was published, only those within the genre took notice of its qualities.  Poignant literature that transcends genre, it too comments with profound relevance on the human condition.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review of "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" by Terry Pratchett

Given the light-hearted yet poignant nature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, it is surprising to learn that only one of the XX books is YA oriented.  (I write “XX” because the number seemingly increases every few months, at last count at thirty-nine.)  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents that book, it should not be surprising to learn that it can readily be enjoyed by adults, as well.  

Playing with the legend of the Pied Piper, The Amazing Maurice is the story of Maurice the cat, his band of talking rats, and the teenager Keith whom with they travel city to city.  Running a scam, the preening, egotistical Maurice works as a middle man for Keith and the rats, the former earning money by playing the pipe to eliminate the rats who have made themselves a nuisance under Maurice’s guidance, the group sharing in the spoils. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review of "The Rise of Endymion" by Dan Simmons

After busting through the door with a whole new Hyperion story in Endymion, Simmons returns with The Rise of Endymion to close it.  Answering all of the questions and satisfying all the plot build up of the first half, Rise concludes the story in grand fashion, living up to the expectation created.  It does, however, leave a little wanting thematically. But to the review!

The Rise of Endymion opens where Endymion left off.  Aenea, Endymion, and the others are in the American West recovering from the attack by the church and learning architecture from a cybrid of Frank Lloyd Wright.  They are quickly separated, however, and Endymion goes on a perilous mission of which he knows not the end.  Simmons upping the ante imaginatively, the dangerous and exotic events of Endymion’s life prepare him in every way for the life he finds at the end, including how he ends up in the Schroedinger’s Box.