Monday, August 26, 2013

Book review: "The Dying Earth" omnibus by Jack Vance

I have been aware of Jack Vance, his opus and his fame for a long time, but I don't remember reading anything his before. When I saw the omnibus containing all his "Dying Earth" stories, I decided it was an opportunity to fill up my knowledge of older classics, and of course, to read something good.

"The Dying Earth" is not a novel. Even its parts are not novels, but a collection of short stories. First part, "Mazirian the Magician", is just a collection of short stories, with stories connected only barely with setting and some characters. The second two parts, "Cugel the Clever" and "The Skybreak Spatterlight", are novels (actually, fix-ups) telling stories of travels of Cugel, who travels the world trying to get home and exact revenge against a magician who sent him away. And the last part, called "Rhialto the Marvellous", is composed of three longer stories with common characters. Just to clear it up, these are mostly comic stories.

First, "The Dying Earth" is different from anything I have read so far. Maybe "Discworld" stories by Terry Pratchett are the closest thing to it. The world is full of magic, maybe even too full. It reminded me on old Conan stories. There is literally magic on every step: spells, creatures, objects... Vance doesn't even care to try to be realistic The "plots" takes place on Earth, but long in future, when the Sun is closing to its death and magic is again present on the world.

The style of the stories if definitely vintage, not something you would mistake for a modern fantasy. A bit pompous, you could say. Many concepts here looked familiar to me - and I realized that many modern fantasy writers copied Vance's ideas. I was there Chine MiĆ©ville got his idea for "The City & The City", and some other ideas used by new authors. If Vance patented his stories, every fantasy writer would have to pay him royals for using his book.

Since these are stories, you don't get to know the characters too much. This changes a bit in Cugel's stories, where we spend much time with him. But when Vance decides to focus on a character, he can do wonders (e.g. Drofo the worminger-sage). I found it unusual at first how everybody just keeps running all around the world; nobody stops to make any strategy. Women are mostly either victims or evil, or sometimes innocents in need of male guidance.

As of my impression. First part consists of six stories loosely connected. I can't say I really liked them, but they were OK and sometimes funny. Two Cugel novels were much, much better. They had a structure, a regular main character, an ultimate goal. And they were very funny! They are a bit long, but I didn't mind it at all. On the other hand, Rhialto's stories are not quite as good. Vance is obviously trying too much where he was effortless before, and I wasn't able to enjoy them. And even though you can't say that this book was planned to be consistent, these last three stories were even more inconsistent with previous...

But all in all, I had more good times than bad with this omnibus. "The Dying Earth" is definitely something that any real fantasy-fan needs to read, at least just to know where many of ideas came from. Maybe not a book to buy, but definitely a book to read.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "The Warrior's Apprentice" by Lois McMaster Bujold

When I was in high-school and library was my only source of books, and very limited one, "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold was one of the series that I would read every year or so, including also ASoIaF, "The Lord of the Rings", "Hyperion Cantos" and few others. Since I refocused myself on buying new books I haven't reread these books, which means some 10 years. But Bujold has published two new books in series recently and before reading them, I decided to reread all previous books. This is not going to be a classical reread when I read all books in one go, but instead an occasional reread, one book every few months. Also, I mean to include only the main books in sequence

In "The Warrior's Apprentice" we start the story of Miles Vorkosigan, the main protagonist of the series. A victim of unsuccessful assassination attempt on his parents, Miles was left physically deformed and undeveloped, which is considered a great shame and disadvantage on his planet Barrayar. Barrayar is very strict society, based I would say partly on Soviet Russia and partly on Medieval Europe, and quite militaristic. They have a feudal system and until few dozen years they lived as in medieval times (consequence of prolonged isolation from other human cultures), but recently they again acquired means to interact with other planets. This, of course, caused many changes on their culture which is now a mix a feudal society and high technology democracy (swords and spaceships). It is understandable that as a freak and invalid Miles is feeling awkward in his surrounding, especially as heir of famous noble family, distinguished by its past victories. Additionally, Miles' father is former Regent of Barrayar Empire and current Prime-Minister. After failing to join the Imperial military academy (both his and his father's and grandfather's dream), Miles is feeling like having no reasons for life anymore. To past the time and to help his childhood friend to see some of the world (universe), they travel to Beta Colony, his mother's home-planet, where they will more or less blindly wander into an adventure including space mercenaries and civil war on another planet...

Books in this series always have interesting plots, even though they are driven primarily by Miles' characters. Such is this one: after using his cunning and intelligence to pull himself and his followers from one trouble, Miles usually manages to entangle to another, more dangerous one. Add to this his basically chivalrous nature (especially toward women and weak) and the fact that his family is one of the crucial members of his culture, you can surmise that these plots are pretty vivid. Nevertheless, Bujold's writing makes all this feel natural and consistent. 

Point of view is third-person, but it reveals much of Miles inner working, which is probably one of the biggest appeals of the series. It relies very much on his hyperactive behavior and his byzantine plots. Other character will get more (much more) place in further books, but in this one we focus mostly on Miles and more-or-less only superficially get to know other characters. Miles presents a very interesting plot, with his physical deformities but great mind. His motivations are also very intriguing - even though his society hates or dismisses him, all his life he tried to become a part of it. This will prove even more the focal point of series in later books.

As I mentioned, setting is SF, with advanced military technology, worm-holes for space traveling and other wonders. On the other hand, we have Barrayar, which is such an antique society (it is considered almost barbaric by others). Later we will get to know other, even more quaint places. Bujold made a very successful mix, drawing both fans of SF for the setting, and fans of fantasy for the plots and characters. Because, in essence, replace technology with magic and you get a classical fantasy book. Technology never gets much background explanation and this makes it still feel fresh (even though some of the books were written 20 years ago).

I remember these books as very easy and fun read. So I was left a bit surprised how dark this first book actually is - and further books are even darker. Sure, we get a happy end (or a kind) in every book, but main characters do die or suffer irreparable damage. And they deal with it. Innocent and weak also suffer and our protagonist is not always able to save everybody. So, a pretty realistic books - not gritty but not sunny also.

So, as a start of the series, "The Warrior's Apprentice" is a very good book. Interesting, with flamboyant main character but also with a dose of realism, with solid setting, it is a book I would recommend to anybody, not just fans of specific genre. One of my favorites...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book review: "Emperor of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

I don't usually read sequelling books immediately one after another, but like to spread them over some time, maybe insert a reread now or then. But after reading "Prince of Thorns", I just couldn't resist reading "King of Thorns", as I also couldn't resist reading "Emperor of Thorns" immediately it was published last week. With this, I finished "The Broken Empire" trilogy by Mark Lawrence.

"Emperor of Thorns", similarly to KoT, has three plots-lines. The main one, the present, is happening two years after Jorg Ancrath's defeat of Prince of Arrow and becoming a King of seven nations, instead of just one. As the book starts, Jorg is just preparing for a journey to the Congression, a meeting of rulers that happens every four years and on which the Emperor can be chosen. Jorg is going there pretty sure he will be selected Emperor, because if he is not, he will pretty upset... Second plot continues immediately his adventures at Horse Coast, expanding them eventually to continent of Afrique. And while in KoT we had Katherine's story, here we have Chella's story, a POV by character opposite to Jorg from the first book.

If you have read first two books in "The Broken Empire" trilogy, you know what to expect: blood and violence. In my review of "King of Thorns", I said one or twice that Jorg felt softer than in "Prince of Thorns", not killing or maiming people randomly. This is also true here; as Jorg says, he has overgrown killing people on whim, but it doesn't mean that he will balk of anything necessary to protect those he cares about. And people, Jorg actually openly cares for somebody in this book. This makes him at the same time softer and harder than before. Softer, as I said, because he is not a loose cannon anymore; but harder, because he will not stop at anything defending what is his.

I really have to congratulate Mark Lawrence for making Jorg develop so much, but making it feel so natural. And also for successfully making such brutal and unique character, more evil than villains in some books, a protagonist and a person to root for. Because, it is quite impossible not to root for Jorg. And if you have any liking for anti-heroes, gray-morality or for gritty literature, you will just adore this book.

I see that I am not lonely in this sentiment, because my e-book edition had more highlights than last 10 books I read together. And consider that the book was out only few days when I have read it... This will be one of the top books of this year.

The plot is pretty interesting, especially the main one. As the book was coming to close, I kept wondering how Lawrence will be able to resolve all the started threads, but I have to admit that he did it magnificently. This book and trilogy has just a great ending - it leaves just enough questions unanswered, but gives a decent resolution of the story. Jorg keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat, but rarely it feels like something forced - Lawrence makes him pretty believable and consistent. The pace if constantly intense and there is not time for leisure. There are just so many powerful and memorable scenes in the book.

A small objection could be raised that the identity of the main villain is revealed pretty early in the book. Not openly revealed, but there are enough clues to guess it almost at the start. But this doesn't hurt the story much. Also, the plotline dealing with events in Afrique belittles the events in "King of Thorns" a bit, revealing Jorg knew about future more than enough to fix a score...

Setting was vastly expended in KoT, compared to PoT, and in "Emperor of Thorns" it gets filled decently. As I said, enough questions are with no answers to keep us waiting for more, but there are no inconsistencies. When I started reading this series, I would never be able to guess how perfect blend of SF and fantasy it would turn out to be in the end.

Again, I have to repeat my opinion that "Emperor of Thorns" will be one of the top books of this year: thrilling plot, superb main character, with unique and gritty way of presenting the story. A big recommendation for this book and the trilogy to anybody who likes dark stories!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book review: "Colours in the Steel" by K. J. Parker

This is the first book I have read by K. J. Parker, and my reaction is: why haven't I found about him before? I can't say I was familiar with him prior to this book, but I noticed this name here and there, mostly good references and comparisons.

"Colours in the Steel" is the first book in "The Fencer Trilogy" by K. J. Parker. The story introduces as to the wondrous City of Perimadeia, a commercial and technological center of the world. Except these two things, another thing differentiates this city from the others: its unique legal systems, based on fencers (advocates) who duel to death to resolve the cases. Bardas Loredan is an advocate with quite a few years in the profession (over 10, which is very long for this kind of job), but not especially successful or known for it. A routine case of commercial law and fight with a newcomer will lead to unexpected turn of events: a deadly curse from newcomer's cousin, friendship with highest leader of magicians, and responsibility for defense of so-far-undefeated City against savage (at least until now) barbarian hordes led by young new chief Temrai...

First, I knew I was going to like Parker after reading first few pages. The writing was superb, full of light humor throughout all narration, subtle instead of forceful. I like this very much in books. It is a great fun to read "Colours in the Steel", even though the theme of it is not - imagine style of Erikson's short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, expanded to a real, serious book. As I said, there is nothing evidently extraordinary, but writing is actually superb and makes you expect more and more of this book. Another thing that reminded me on Erikson is how Parker uses the same trick of introducing a totally unimportant character, focusing on in for few pages and then discarding it. The book is not grimdark, but it isn't exactly shy of grittiness.

Setting is unique. I understand that all Parker's books are set in this same setting, only different parts of it. This book focuses exclusively on City of Perimadeia, with only few mentions of neighboring countries. But you get the feel that setting is competently imagined and consistent. It is based on classical medieval setting, but a lot of focus is put on commerce, technology and society. Actually, Parker even sometimes gets too technical with descriptions of technology. It's not boring, and you can see that he understands what he is talking about, but it can be tedious to read through. Setting is also humorous - like the Holy Pirates, and so on. I will enjoy discovering other part of the setting in next books.

There is no widespread use of magic in the setting, even though already-mentioned Order and its Patriarch Alexius play a great role. Instead of magic, you have (at least for now, we'll see in next books) only the Principle, which encompasses the nature and everything, and sometimes can be used to work wonders... Like the curse over Bardas.

Plot is good, but it is secondary to this book. It is used mostly as a mean to introduce the setting and the characters. And the characters are simply great. Bardas Loredan is perfect anti-hero: not young any more, prone to wine, lazy, not really honorable, cynic. It is really a pleasure to read about him and see the world through his eyes. Other POV characters, Alexius, Temrai, others... are all also great. Especially Temrai, who constantly wonders about his choices - which are sometimes morally questionable, so it is good that he wonders. The plot is pretty simple and predictable, but this didn't damage my joy in reading this book. If you are expecting a happy end and laugh after it, don't - this is not that kind of book. I appreciate how sometimes we skip weeks or months and characters have their own life in the meantime. Also, even though the book finishes the started plot, there is lot to discover behind it - and I wonder where this will take us to.

As I said, I am somewhat disappointed in myself for not discovering Parker before. But if sequels of "Colours in the Steel" prove as half as good as this one, it means that I have a dozen good books to read in future. I recommend this book to all fans of darker and anti-heroic fantasy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reading plans for vacation

Well, I am finally going on real vacation, for a week at least. I finished with "Heirs of the Blade" by Adrian Tchaikovsky recently, and I plan to read at least two or three books in several days or weeks.

First on schedule is "Colours in the Steel" by K. J. Parker. I don't know much about the book nor about the writer, but I heard some interesting and approving words about the author, so I will give it a go.

Next I plan to read "Emperor of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence. First two books very simply great, and advance-reviews promise an even greater ending of trilogy, so I can't wait.

After that, I don't really have fixed plans, but I will maybe give a chance to some SF. I had some ideas about rereading the "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold, before reading last two books in series for first time. This series was one of my favorites, just to mention.

Book review: "Heirs of the Blade" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I've been following Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt" series for quite some time now (counted in books, at least, not in years). Even though it cannot be said I am super-excited whenever I read another books in series, it is still an interesting series and I would recommend it to anybody who wants fantasy in a bit of different wrapping - steampunk, insect-based races, magic vs. technology... "Heirs of the Blade" is the seventh book in series that I have read and there is at least couple more to go.

"Shadows of the Apt" follows a curious cycles: odd books are focused more on smaller stories of particular characters, while even books are more epic and deal with world-scope events. "Heirs of the Blade" is typical odd book, dealing with story of Tynisa and Che. After her father's Tisamon death few books ago, Tynisa wandered off in search for some kind of resolution, depressed and feeling guilty for numerous deaths she was not able to stop. In her search, Tynisa has come to Commonweal, a home of her dead love Salme Dien. She is about to find that Commonweal is not an idealistic and romantic place she imagined based on Salma, full of valiant knights and caring nobility. On the other side of the world, in Khanaphes, after following Che, a shade of Tisamon escaped and is now on course to haunt Tynisa. Cherwell, now accompanied by Tharlic, is aware of that and is willing to do what it takes to stop it, even if it means embracing her new destiny of Inaptitude...

As I said, this is a smaller scope book and is mostly concentrated on Tynisa and Che. But we do get some glimpses of story to come, by POVs of Wasp Empress Seda, a future Queen of dark magic; by Angved the engineer, and by Preada and Ammon. I did expect more from these plot-lines, but they end pretty abruptly. I presume they will be the focus of next book in series, "The Air War".

The good thing about the plot is that is ti pleasantly confusing and pretty unpredictable. It is really hard to guess what will happen next, but it doesn't fell forced and unnatural. I don't know why, but I came to think about this book as very long, even though it is only some 350 pages.

We follow mostly the well-known characters like Che, Tynisa and Tharlic, but there are some old appearing again, like Gaved the Wasp and Seda. The new characters, especially Dal Arche and his bandits, and Varmen, are also very good. I always wondered why focus Che as a central character, but now the things are coming to place. And Seda is one pretty impressing character...

Tchaikovsky become much better with words in time. He was all right before, some sometimes he did insert some clumsy phrases - now the story is nicely flowing. I like how different people tend to concentrate of different things: some on architecture, some on military and defenses, some on architecture... He also did very well with presenting strangeness of Commonweal. And the scene with beetle-stag and mantis is an awesome one - it presents how unique the setting is very well. Another think that deserves mention if the final duel, which was written with much details and realism.

I know this is a somewhat short review, but it is not necessary to say more than that if you liked previous books in "Shadows of the Apt", you will more than like this "Heirs of the Blade". A recommendation for both the book and the series.