Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "The Vor Game" by Lois McMaster Bujold

I am going forward with my reread of the "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold, so last week I finished "The Vor Game", the second book featuring adventures of Miles Vorkosigan.

"The Vor Game" takes place few years after "The Warrior's Apprentice". Miles has spent last three years in the Imperial Academy, training to become a normal (as he can be) Barrayaran officer. After finishing it successfully, he gets another test before being let to proceed with his career - a 6-month post on Kyril Island, one of most extreme and stressful bases on Barrarayar. After almost managing to avoid any troubles, he is forced to choose between his career and his conscience, which again lands him in political troubles. All this is just a prelude into his new adventures that will once again join him with his Dendarian Fleet. Miles will be forced to manipulate both his friends and his enemies. But this time, much more depends on Miles - life of his Emperor, and fate of several planets.

Even though "The Vor Game" was written after several other books in the same setting, it is not such a smooth read as was "The Warrior's Apprentice", at least in the beginning. Bujold introduces a lot of expansions on the setting and throws in a lot of unfamiliar terms (fast-penta, galactic history and relationships, and so on...). Nevertheless, this doesn't damage the enjoyment of reading this book. Again, Bujold was able to make a SF setting far in the future without disclosing the technology behind it - instead focusing on characters and the plot. Again, the book is darker than I remembered it.

There are lot of similarities between plots of "The Vor Game" and its prequel, but as I said before, this one is for bigger stakes. First part of the book (one third, maybe) is focused more on Barrayar, and it brings it much closer that the first part had. But as the book goes forward, so the plots becomes much faster and risks bigger. My favorite part of it is the head-to-head negotiation between Miles and Commander Cavilo near the end - some really good fast-talk. It is funny and thrilling at the same time.

Characters are Bujold's forte, starting with Miles. You can see he has grown, but he became more solid and thicker in the frames that were set in "The Warrior's Apprentice". Other characters are also great. In this book we are first time really introduced to Simon Illyan who will have a large role in series, as one of most important reference points for Miles. If I have to point one thing that I didn't like, that was the easy shortcut that Bujold took with Admiral Oser.

"The Vor Game" continues and expands the formula Bujold wrote with "The Warrior's Apprentice" - a thrilling and rushing military SF. Except if you are a really hard-core hard SF fan, this is a book and series I would recommend to anybody

Anime review: "Mardock Scramble"

I don't remember when I first noticed "Mardock Scramble", but I had it in my AniDB wishlist a long time. The last movie of three came out more than a year ago now, but I had to wait till few weeks ago for subs to appear. And now, I have finally satisfied my curiosity.

"Mardock Scramble" has a very appealing premise: a cyberpunk action thriller. Although I don't really like cyberpunk in literature, I always have a soft spot such anime. And this one looked pretty ambitious, so I thought this one was worth of wait.

The main character of "Mardock Scramble" is Rune Balot, a teen girl forced to a life of prostitution. But her current customer, Shell, turns out to be really insane, burning her in his car. But Rune is saved in last second and "revived" in artificial and upgraded body by Doctor Easter and his partner upgraded Oeufcoque, members of special law-unit "Scramble 09". She has to choose whether to die or to live and testify against Shell. But to stop her from testifying against him, Shell hires Boiled, Oeufcoque's former partner, another experiment with artificial body and unique abilities...

At first, I was thrilled with this anime. It started very intense, with interesting futuristic setting that is mostly implied and not explained, gritty and dark. The animation looked old and new at the same time, CGI heavy. First part ended in a cliff-hanger so I eagerly proceeded with second and third one... To be left pretty disappointing in the end. Not by the ending itself, but by the whole anime, which doesn't live up to the hype.

As I said, "Mardock Scramble" has an interesting, cyberpunk setting. Flying and automatic cars, human enchantments, artificial sentient beings - on one side. On the other hand: drugs, prostitution, government unable or unwilling to stop the crime... But anime fails to develop and use it properly. All we get are vague implications of unclear technology and society. There are anime (or books) that manage to pass only hinting at the setting, but this is not one of them. Well, to be fair, setting is not really that bad objectively, but I expected much more from it.

As for the plot, this was my biggest disappointment. In the essence, I understood there is a story about Rune trying to testify against Shell, and he trying to stop her using Boiled. But everything except that I am not very clear with. This is again connected to undefined setting: why was Shell allowed to attack the only witness against himself, why was there an antagonism between Rune's protectors and Shell's protectors... I was not able to follow half of their talks, and I don't believe it was because of bad translations. And that part in the casino (which is not short) - it's pointless and confusing (even if you know how to play poker, roulette and black-jack).

I also had problems with the overall style of the anime. It was a dark cyberpunk, so one can expect it to be brutal, violent, gritty, with lots of nudity and sex. And as you can see from my choice of literature and anime, I don't have any problem with it - on the contrary. But most of it here was unnecessary and unexplainable, just for fan service. I don't mind it when something is gritty, or dark, or real setting; but what's the explanation of a girl showing up for fight-to-death dressed only in duck-tape.

So, ultimately, I expected much from "Mardock Scramble", but I was left disappointed by it. Not really bad, but if you want to see a really great cyber/SF anime, go watch one of the "Gost in the Shell" anime.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book review: "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker

Yesterday when I finished with reading "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker, I was left very surprised, stunned almost... Let me tell you why.

When I've read "Colours in the Steel" two months ago on my vacation, I found the book very interesting: somewhat dark, eclectic, very well written, surprising in its lack of plot. Its sequel, "The Belly of the Bow", is similar in these points. Two years after the fall of Perimadeia, Baradas Loredan finds himself living on island of Scona, not by his choice, and earning his bread by making bows, a skill he learned as a kid on a farm. He shares island (among few thousand other people) with The Scona Bank, led by his sister Niessa and brother Gorgas, unwillingly. The Scona Bank is at war (their definition is more leaning to a commercial dispute) with neighboring island Shastel and its government, The Foundation, which is several times larger, richer and more populate - which doesn't means they have an advance in this kind of war. As conflict between these two organizations and islands grows, other familiar characters as ex-Patriarch Alexius, self-appointed Doctor Gannadius, Venart and Vetriz, etc., again come into play. And this time, it turns out that Principle (we'll not call it magic) has even more importance than before...

You will notice that in last paragraph I mentioned "the lack of plot". Even though the book itself has a plot - the war in large and small - there is no overall plot or theme to the series. Except in style and characters, and partially in setting, there is almost nothing (yeah, I know it sounds paradoxical) connecting these two books. This doesn't mean that it is a boring book. Parker paints a really detailed story, about war, society, magic... I need to say again, magic makes an important part here, and it becomes a bit more explicit (although not understandable). There is a great scene when the Clerk of Work (I think this was the right title) reveals all the knowledge he has.

Again, Parker's writing is interesting to read. Not for everybody, but I really like the abundance of technical descriptions and small details - you can see that he really got into this stuff he writes about. I admit though that sometimes he drags those descriptions too long. There is much down-to-earth common knowledge displayed as humor and contrasted to high and noble ideas - like the whole Foundation-Scona Bank situation. Also, there is lot of small daily-life scenes and common activities, and Parker usually succeeds in making them interesting or funny.

Even though "The Belly of the Bow" takes place in completely different location than "Colours in the Steel", you can't say that Parker was very generous with revealing the setting. Oh, you have a feeling he has a very defined and rich setting, but he is showing it only in minimal amounts. I've read know that all his books take place in the same setting, so I found this an interesting approach.

Contrary to last book, where it was evident who the main character is, this time situation is different. Oh, Baradas is nominally the main character, but this book is as much about Gorgas as is about him. And other characters get a lot of importance also, especially Alexius and Gannadius (although indirectly, I would say). And Parker really did a great work with Gorgas, who is at the same time a monster and an innocent. He goes into much detail with him, making him very reasonable and capable. I was impressed by his persistence and long-view approach to life, like with the sleep thing.

Unfortunately, there is a point that will sour this book for some people, and that is Baradas. His part is pretty bleak, full of self-pity, acting as a child, and being pretty much a spoil-fun. Things get pretty depressing around the middle of the book, when Scona and Foundation problem becomes larger, and when Baradas travels home (the last third gets more exciting, then). But the real shocker is at the end of the book - you will know when!!! I really didn't see that coming in the end and I am still not sure what to think about it. But this definitely candidates as a crossing of Moral Event Horizon! But in the end, I am really interested what will happen in the last book and how this trilogy will end...

So, even though "The Belly of the Bow" has similar style and quality as "Colours in the Steel", with great characters and depiction of society, it has one very dubious scene that will possibly ruin this book for some readers. Therefore, I cannot recommend it without reservations. Ultimately, my will depend on the last book in series, "The Proof House".