Monday, September 30, 2013

Book review: "The Air War" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished another book in "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.Again I must say, this series keeps getting better and better...

Following its usual cycle, which I mentioned in my review of "Heirs of the Blade", "The Air War" is a larger-scope book, as expected from even-numbered books. And this one really has a big scope: an all-out invasion of Lowlands and environs by the Wasp Empire! We see that all the preparations in previous books has come to fore and it is again time for war. Two armies are set for the Collegium, from two different directions. But this time it is also another kind of war: the air war, the war of technology and machines... But at the same time, the world that has been focused on advance and science for the last centuries, the Apt, is on the brink of reversal. The Wasp Empress Seda targets another throne: the Queen of old magic, and to reach her goal she won't hesitate to wake an old darkness...

"The Air War"  doesn't just feel like a large and long book (like its predecessor), it really is. To fully enjoy the book, you should be fairly familiar with the setting. So if you haven't had a reread, now would be fine time to have one. The book has a very military setting - Tchaikovsky really make a good tension of preparation for war, with logistics, numerous characters and jumping around the world to show how Wasp Empire affects everything and everyone. The book was superb from the beginning and I just couldn't stop reading. There really is no point to getting deeper into details of plot - it is what you could expect from Tchaikovsky's previous works: war, espionage, command chain, old vs. new, etc.

There are quite a few new characters introduced here, and they don't feel at all forced. They successfully freshen up the cast. The book doesn't focus on Stenwold, even though it is in essence his book, but more on little characters. Presenting both sides of the conflict, Tchaikovsky made a great ambiguity - who to cheer for? Seda, Stenwold, Laslo, Totho, those Fly-bombers,...??? But it is more complicated than just two sides; when you add Rekef, other secret intelligence, and other involved parties, you get a pretty mess of morality. There was a scene that with a big moral question in the book (the murder of that Fly) - will Collegium become like Wasps if they defend themselves successfully or will they manage to retain their ethics?

When the series started, it always had just enough magic in it to be properly called fantasy. But it usually focused more on technology, thus belonging more to steam-punk. So I was surprised when this series became so explicit with magic. And as Tchaikovsky was inventive with his technology, like torsion engines, compressed-air guns and so on, so original he is with his magic. And I think he has even bigger surprises for us in later books. On the other hand, the technology gets a large upgrade. He was obviously inspired by World War I air-battles.

There is a great and intense big battle in the end of the book. It is simultaneously displayed from many different POVs with fast changes, which makes it very exciting and intense. The book ends in a cliff-hanger - not a big one, but certainly nothing is resolved yet.

With "The Air War", Tchaikovsky had reached a level of quality that I haven't expected from this series when I first started with it. He mixes an original setting with a set of quality characters, all set in an interesting and intense plot. Again, a recommendation to all fans of his previous books!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Anime review: "Sakamichi no Apollon"

"Sakamichi no Apollon" (or "Kids on the Slope") won several awards last year and it is a josei, so it was given that I would watch it sooner or later. It turned out it was later.

"Sakamichi no Apollon" tells the coming-of-age story of three friends: Kaour (Bon), a rich boy with no friends, due to his often transfers and movings; Sentarou (Sen), a troublemaker who often misses school; and Ritsuko (Richan), Sen's childhood friend whose father owns a music store. For some unknown reason, Sen takes liking on Bon and the two of them start hanging out at Richan's place, playing jazz sessions. Because actually, Sen is a passionate drummer, while Bon learned piano since childhood. The three of them live through first loves, occasional fights and jazz music.

This is a pretty short anime, with only 13 episodes, so there is no long story like in "Nana" or "Hachimitsu to Clover". But on the other side, plot sometimes skip months and in such way covers really much time. In the end, it covers their whole high-school. It made me surprised several times, like with that early confession - I didn't really expect it so soon. The beginning was also good and got me hooked immediately: light, with no real subject, but hinting at drama and future topic.

The anime covers an unusual epoch - the 50s in Japan. This is the first time I watched anime covering this period of time. There is an interesting sub-story of Jun'ichi and Jurika, including political activism, student riots and Japan's after War history. Music is an important part of this anime, but not the main topic - character's relationships are what this really is about.

It is really a coming-of-age anime and it has some good drama. Not the usual awkward moments you would expect: Bon always says wrong things instead what he really wants, but it is so with most people. Anime doesn't go in making extreme emotional reactions, but goes lightly about it.

The ending was very surprising. Josei anime usually have some kind of bitter-sweet ending, but this really took me by surprise.

The animation and design is good, but not something extraordinary. Voice acting was very good, though. I don't like jazz usually, but even I was able to enjoy the music here.

"Sakamichi no Apollon" is a short but very good josei anime. Not among the best of genre, but with good and likable characters, fast story and some really nice drama. A good anime for everybody who likes josei.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book review: "Feast of Souls" by C. S. Friedman

I haven't read anything by C. S. Friedman before, but I had one or two of her series in my wish-list, since I encountered her name on several top-lists and reviews. I was choosing between "The Magister Trilogy" and "The Coldfire Trilogy", and finally picked the former, for no special reason, and bought "The Feast of Souls", the first part.

"The Feast of Souls" takes place in imaginary medieval world. Among regular people, there also exist witches and Magisters. Witches (both male and female) are able to do magic (witchery), but it costs them their life-force - the bigger the spell, the larger the price. Usually witches die in the middle years, except they are miserly with their power. On the other hand, Magisters, who are all males, have unlimited power, and they guard their secret hard. Magisters usually act as advisers to kings and rulers, but in truth they are the secret power behind thrones. In such world a young witch Kamala comes to a hermit-Magister Ethanus to teach her how to become the first female Magister... Several years later, Prince Andovan, one of sons of the most powerful King Danton Aurelius, become sick with the mysterious illness called Wasting. His search for the cause will set him on a course to Kamala, and both of them toward their destiny as ancient enemy of humanity begins to appear again - the soul-eaters!

As it is, such setting as in "The Feast of Souls" is a pretty much typical for fantasy. Medieval society, magic, Princes and Queens. I admit that the witches/Magisters thing is clever, but you are able to guess most of the details pretty soon and accurate. Even after first quarter of the book I was hoping for something to come and surprise me. I did get my satisfaction in second part of the book when Northlands and the Ancient Evil come into play. I must admit that the ikati come as nice villains and looking forward to learn more details. I also liked focus on Magister's society and rules in later stages, which are pretty detailed.

The plot is also typical, but it has its strong points. There are several players that are left unknown, so we have enough reveals to expect in second and third book. Again, the ikati storyline is the most interesting part of the plot. The big part of suspension is curiosity how Kamala and Andovan will be able to sort out their differences, because it is obvious from the start that they will be forced to do so. And we are not left disappointing - their (or better say, his) resolution is very surprising and interesting - and leaves her consistent.

There are lots of characters and again, lots of to discover in further books. Kamala doesn't really become a character until the second half of the book. Friedman writes her well, giving her much and important doubts to dwell upon. Andovan is pretty much common characters, but that doesn't mean he is boring. I especially liked Colivar's characters - and hope to learn more of his history. Queen Gwynofar is a very interesting character. Although this is not the rule, female writers usually create very good female characters (or at least more complex) and so is the case with Friedman.

Again, I liked the second half of "The Feast of Souls" more that the first. I really have to admit the book had a good ending - surprising and clever. And opening space for the next book.

Of Friedman's writing I can't say much. She has interesting characters, and gives some exciting chapters, but doesn't insert many original and unique fantasy elements.

All in all, "The Feast of Souls" is a solid fantasy book - not the best I have read, but far from worst. I have enough interesting parts to justify continuing with the trilogy. I think readers who focus on characters more than on plot or setting will be more than satisfied with this book. Also the fans of Robin Hobb.