Friday, June 29, 2012

Book review: "Aristoi" by Walter Jon Williams

As I mentioned few times already, I used to read both fantasy and SF, especially throughout high-school and first years of college. But as I was closing to receiving my college degree, I also started working. Sick of rereading same books all the time (I've read first three books of aSoIaF more than 5 times, LotR more than 10, whole Vorkosian series couple maybe 5 times... You get the picture) and finally with some stable income, I decided to order books from Amazon, but I also realized that I have neither time nor money to indulge in books too much. So I restricted myself on buying one book monthly (mass market paperback, at first), with rereads the rest of time and anime in between. And I also oriented myself purely on fantasy, since I really like, and there was a shortage of fantasy books in Croatia. But since I bought Kindle, the price of books halved for me. Also, there was a shortage of anime that attract me for the last few seasons, so I don't have any big plans on that side. And additionally, currently there is only two unfinished series with published books out there, "Deepgate Codex" and "Shadows of the Apt", while all others are on waiting for next installment (WoT, aSoIaF, "The Kingkiller Chronicle", "The Stormlight Archive"...)...

After this lengthy introduction, let me get to the point, which is that I plan to occasionally indulge myself with some SF hits once in a while. First of such books was "Aristoi" by Walter Jon Williams. I found the first mention of it in a post by Jo Waltonon blog. I usually (but not always) respect her opinion on books quite much, so I put it on my wis-hlist. And last week, while I was looking for what book to buy, I decided for it: less than 400 pages (I was looking for some quick read), a single work (didn't want to start a new series), and only 5$. Now, after finish it, I can only say that I fortified my decision to read SF occasionally.

"Aristoi" takes place in far future. After losing Earth in nano-technology induced accident, humanity has spread between the starts. They have AI, relatively safe nano-technology, Faster-Than-Light travel, perfect virtual reality and direct connection between mind and computer. They also conquered majority of diseases, live in largely free societies and don't lack much. And also very important, they reached a major advance in psychology by understanding and waking up hidden parts of their unconscious mind. All this progress is led by Aristoi. After successfully passing long and extensive exams, Aristos or Arista are given a solar system, and complete freedom in it (adhering to some common rules), with goal of benevolently ruling and advancing humanity in it (important to understand: common people can freely move to wherever they chose). So, in this blissful utopia we are introduced to Gabriel, moderately young Ariostos, talented, sensitive, especially oriented on architecture, art and design. One day, after having an unexpected and worrying conversation with not-particularly friendly Arista, he suddenly realizes that not everything is as certain as he believes - after this Arista dies in accident. Is this really and accident, or masterfully devised plot?

Let's first mention setting. I was looking for something leaning toward hard science fiction, but this was even better. Maybe some would say that "Aristoi" fundamentally is not hard-SF because it doesn't stress enough on how things work, but it has enough high-tech terms which sound plausible and believable to mask as one. For example, nano-technology: it is used, there are some brief mentions on technical details, and much on (realistic) dangers of it, but there are no extensive technical description of it. Or Hyperlogos (virtual reality/super-Internet): there is mention how it needs large (moon-large) data banks, some mentions of programming and algorithms but that's it. But every mentioned technology (including psychology) was consistent and believable - and impressive and though-provoking.

So, instead on exhaustive descriptions of setting (which is nonetheless), this book instead concentrates on plot and characters. It is thriller SF, I would say (hidden plot, investigation, trial...), but I changes to quasi-fantasy adventure in one part. This was the only turn-down of this book for me - not that it was boring or weak, but I expected something grander (epic) from it. It does have some clever and funny tricks. Plot is a bit predictable, although not much - it stays intriguing and interesting, but it lets you feel smart when you guess some detail in advance. There is a lot of humor, some sex, some art... a pleasant mix, all considered.  I must confess that I didn't like first few pages, until all clicked in its place and things got going.

Gabriel is clearly main character and we follow everything from his point of view, except some encyclopedic passages. He is a very complex and realized characters - and our view of him changes throughout the book. At first, he is very impressing person, fully in control of himself and his surroundings. But as the plot progress, we realize that all this self-confidence is only in his head and he looks quite naive. An in the end.... well, let's just say that he is not so tough any more, but he gets even more impressive despite of it. Other characters are not so deep, and some even few more like symbols than real characters. But this is OK, our focus is on Gabriel, after all. 

A quick thought: I just realized that this book reminds me much to Zelazny's "Lord of Light". It has a combination of high technology with religion, war between advanced humans that to non-advanced people look like fight between gods, air of mystery, influence by East...

In the end, I was very satisfied after reading "Aristoi" - it was a great read, interesting, fun and full of new ideas. I did expect more epic story, but it was great nevertheless. I would recommend this book to everybody who doesn't have aversion to science-fiction.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book review: "The Scarab Path" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished "The Scarab Path", a fifth book in "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This book signifies the start of a new sequence in the series, and I must say I was positively surprised by raise in quality. Usually as a series progress, author starts struggling to keep the readers, but Tchaikovsky keeps getting better with each book. First four books make a closed mini-series, one that introduces us to setting and characters, so theoretically one could start reading here, but it is not something I would recommend. 

I expected that this new sequence of books will be put further in time and introduce a new and fresh, but events in "The Scarab Path" start a year after those in "Salute the Dark", and featuring same old characters. After resolution in last book, the Wasp Empire retreated from Lowlands to concentrate on its internal affairs, and to find out can it be ruled by Empress Seda. In the meantime, Stenwold Maker continues to consolidate his allies in Lowlands, preparing for imminent continuation of war. In one such effort, his niece Che will be sent to a diplomatic mission to the faraway Dominion of Khanaphes (influenced by Old Egypt). But this is not a simple diplomatic or scholarly excursion, since everybody has their own agenda. Situation will be additionally heated when they discover another embassy there, a Wasp one, led by her old friend and enemy Tharlic, now a Regent of Empire. But neither are prepared for what they will find there...

This book is manly about Che and Tharlic and most of it is represented from their point of view. There are the other important ones (Totho and character Hrathen), and a lot of minor ones, but this two are the center of the book. As I said, I expected that this book will contain a different and new cast, so I wasn't exactly thrilled when I initially realized that this is a book centered on Che (who wasn't exactly my favorite character so far). But in this book Tchaikovsky made of her a brilliant main character. She is still a bit clumsy and insecure, but now she is also full of self-observance and knows how to take control of every situation. And her new condition is very interesting to follow - it gives her somewhat darker cast. Thalric took an opposite direction from her - from all-mighty and capable Major Tharlic of Rekef, he is now a Regent and ambassador, not sure what exactly is his place and what his enemies are planning - and he definitely has enemies. Hrathen was very interesting character to read about, and even Totho (although I still can get used to that name!).

All characters were better written than before - more intense, more complex, more real. And this gets me to the main point of this review - this book is in every perspective two notches above all its prequels, not that they were bad. But I am surprised how Tchaikovsky was able to raise the overall quality - it is more interesting, more intense, more surprising. There is even some humor in it - I found the whole Vekken plot-line hilarious. All in all, congratulations!

I must say that ending surprised me much - especially Che's final choice. I think that it would be interesting to read a series in which she made a different decision.

This book is different from the rest of series in other ways, too. First, it was and felt much longer. With almost 700 pages, it definitely is longer that last two. Also, with it, Tchaikovsky dropped the pattern that started with first four books - first book was extremely focused one-mission book, while its sequel brought out the big picture. This book if focused on small set of characters, and restricted geographically, but it still felt bigger the books so far. On the other hand, its plot is so encompassed that it could be read as standalone book.

I also realized another important this with this book: this series has no overall plot. I expected that it will finally introduce us to some arch-enemy, and give some direction to series, but there is no one. The only theme or motif that can be singled out it the conflict between the Old and the New. In these books it is represented by the difference between Apt and Inapt, and in some way, in conflict between Lowlands (who still cling to some "honorable" old ways) and Wasps (who put success before everything).

For conclusion, I can only repeat that with "The Scarab Path" Tchaikovsky outstripped himself and presented us with his best book so far. It is definitely a treat for those who followed "Shadows of Apt" series so far, and I can only hope that next books will be as good as this one. I am looking forward to reading "The Sea Watch", next book in installment.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Anime review: "Daily Lives of High School Boys"

I am a little bit late with this post, for it was almost two weeks now since I have watched it. But I had a three-day trip to Germany, few days were spent on field, and so the time passed. It started to fade a bit, but good thing I have made notes.

Anyway, "Daily Lives of High School Boys" was a pleasant surprise. I didn't have any particular wish for watching this anime, but since there was not much out there to choose from and it had a fairly nice rating, I gave it a chance. It turns out that "Daily Lives of High School Boys" is a gag anime with no particular plot. Instead, it consists of several unconnected short "stories" in each episode, between four and eight. There is some timeline to it, but it is not relevant in any case. These short stories revolve around students of one class of all-boys high-school, plus several other boys and girls from other schools (so it is not solely about boys, contrary to the title). The cast is so pretty big, but the names are not really important, since it has different cast for most of the stories.

So, there is no plot, characters are unimportant, why would anybody watch this anime? Because if you are or ever were young, and especially if you are male, you will be able to relate with this anime and find yourself somewhere in it. This anime perfectly depict the mental state of high-schoolers: empty and sarcastic talk, worries about being cool, stupid ideas and wrong facts... But presented in such funny and lovable way. And jokes are just perfect: I watched this anime alone in my room, but kept giggling most of the time, and sometimes even laughing out loud. In spirit, this anime reminded me on "School Rumble", but without the romance part - there is absolutely no drama or angst in this anime. Another anime it reminded me of was "Lucky Star", just that this concentrate on boys and there is no moe.

Unfortunately, there are only 12 episodes. There is a mention of second season in anime, but no information about it on AniDB. Visuals are pretty good, voice acting great, and there is even some catchy music in it.

"Daily Lives of High School Boys" is probably the best gag anime I watched so far, and it is especially good for quick watch - stories last for few minutes each and you can stop whenever you want. If you have any fond memories of high school and like to watch comedies, just try watching the first episode. And remember, later ones are even better!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book review: "The King's Blood" by Daniel Abraham

Last week I finished reading "The King's Blood" by Daniel Abraham. I found "The Dragon's Path", first book in "The Dagger and the Coin" series, great and interesting, so I had big expectations from its sequel. Even more so after reading few praising reviews. I expected a broadening of setting, start of over-all series' plot, maybe new characters... But in the end, I was left disappointed.

"The King's Blood" follows pretty much immediately after TDP, maybe few months between them but nothing important happening. Cithrin was left in charge of her branch of Medean bank, but only at the front - she is now just a figure-head, while everything is decided by her "notary" sent here by central branch. She of course, doesn't like it, but there is not much she can do... Marcus, on the other hand, is pretty satisfied with his life: he has a purpose, steady work, friends around. But as his second, Yardem, tells him, his soul's shape is circle: when he is at the bottom, he can only go up. But when he is at the top, he will inevitably go down.

In Antea, the crisis has been thwarted and conspiracy originating in Asterilhold voided, but those responsible were left unpunished. And now, when King Simeon's is starting to fade and he finally dies, who will be chosen as Regent is not Geder, the Hero of Antea. And although Dawson is starting to become suspicious of Geder's real motivations, what can he do to a man who rely on him so much that he even him the control of the army...

Well, this is the plot in general, and this is the main reason I didn't like the book. Plot is weak, straightforward and completely predictable. Oh sure, there are much that will prove as a surprise, but that are just details, while the big stuff goes where it is expected. I believe that a pretty detailed and accurate synopsis of this book could be fit in several sentences. OK, somewhere around the middle, plot gets intense and interesting, but the end fails to deliver. One good thing to say: small chapters make the pace look much faster.

The setting expansion proved even a bigger disappointment. We didn't see almost anything new of the world except one new city, and that briefly. I also didn't like the fact that this is actually very small world, or part of the world (maybe this means we will be surprised later?): the biggest Empire around can field an Imperial Army numbering six thousand soldiers!!! Maybe it's just me, but I like my armies more numerous and my cities more populated... At least there is one thing to look forward: "sleeping dragons", "dragons turning to stone to sleep", "hidden dragon lairs" are mentioned so many times that there has to be a dragon sometime in the future (look for Chekhov's gun).

The characters remain the brightest part of this book, and still a notch over lots of other books. But even this was weaker that in the first book. In my post about TDP, I was full of praise for such multifaceted characters, being at the same time likable but disgusting, combining so many traits. This stays the same in TKB also, but unfortunately, there are no more surprises and characters don't grow much. The best point is emergence of the new character Clara. I found somewhat funny Dawson's doing all the right way, but for the wrong reasons.

So, in the end I wasn't very satisfied with "The King's Blood". It is not a bad book, but it doesn't jump the bar set by "The Dragon's Path", not even close so. Even so, I will give this series another chance, hoping that the second book was only a preparation for things to come and that the third will be a book more appropriate for Daniel Abraham.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book review: "The White-Luck Warrior" by R. Scott Bakker

Just finished "The White-Luck Warrior" by R. Scott Bakker. This is the only paper-book I bought since I acquired Amazon Kindle, because there is no e-book version available. Since I am from Croatia, I had to order Kindle from USA Amazon, and there are no e-book versions of books from The Second Apocalypse series available for USA market, although there is for UK market.. There is a trick for bypassing this: you just have to change your address to UK. But there is a change of Amazon finding out and blocking your account, so I didn't want to risk it.

I liked the first three books in the series ("The Darkness that Comes Before", "The Warrior-Prophet" and "The Thousandfold Thought"), although the second one was not as good as the first, and third one even less so. But "The Judging Eye", which started the second in-series trilogy, happening some 20 years after the first, was simply great: the best book in series so far. "The White-Luck Warrior" is also a good book, but not as high-strung as TJE. In fact, TWLW is a typical middle book in trilogy, so much that these two could be read as a single book. It continues the plots started before and it doesn't introduce any new moments. But it concludes some of the lines and prepares are for the finale of this trilogy: "The Unholy Consult"

There are three main plots, made obvious by separation in chapters. One is the journey of the Great Ordeal (combined armies of almost all humanity, gathered by the Aspect-Emperor, Kellhus Anasûrimbor) to the Golgoreath, the seat of the Consult, servants of the No-God and their enemy. This part is seen mostly from the eye of Sorweel, a young King of Skarpati, recently conquered by Kellhus. He finally starts to understand what his purpose is, even though he feels constantly under pressure and lure of Kellhus' supremacy. His POV is sometimes interrupted by short scenes from point of view of Nersei Proyas, which gives us the only insight of what Kellhus plans and does. But more often, it is interrupted by almost encyclopedic descriptions of the battles against Sranc and difficulties the Great Ordeal suffers. These parts are done very good, nicely depicting the overwhelming power of the Sranc Horde.

The second is is told exclusively from the perspective of Drusas Achamian and Mimara Anasûrimbor (well, except one or two very short exceptions). There is not much to say about this part - they are still traveling with the Skin Eaters. This plot-line was the most interesting part in TJE; here it changes to more metaphorical journey that a real one, something like the journey of Nimander and the Tiste Andii in "Toll the Hounds". I don't think that general audience will enjoy this part so much, because it is full of philosophy (a brutal one, though). This again changes toward end, when we will finally learn more about Cleric. Also, as in TJE, it will provide us with one really spectacular and epic ending.

And the third one is description of events in the Kellhus' Empire, now abandoned by him and ruled by Esmenet. This part contains most of events happening in this book and has the most POVs: Esmenet, Kelmomas, The White-Luck Warrior, and few new ones. Again, this part reminded me much about later Dune books.

We don't learn much about the setting in this book; except at the ending when we learn more about dragons, and vie them, about Inchoroi. It is curious how a lot of names sound like Tolkien's from "Lord of the Rings". And considering the underground travel in TJE, it feels almost like homage to it; even thought, one written in much grittier and brutal tone. The writing sometimes gets tough to read through, in Erikson-like way. Oh, there is very good and succinct reminder of events from previous books at the beginning.

Even though "The White-Luck Warrior" is not as exciting and novel book as "The Judging Eye", it is a necessary part of trilogy, with some interesting stuff going at the end, and generally good. And it prepares a good way for "The Unholy Consult", a book I expect to be spectacular.

Also, I am very interested what will happen in the next and final trilogy? Another 20-year jump? Does this not bode well for the Great Ordeal?