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Friday, December 30, 2005

Princess of Mars :John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Book 1 (John Carter, Warlord of Mars)


Princess of Mars :John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Book 1 (John Carter, Warlord of Mars)
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publisher: I Books (March 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0743498534

I forget how or when I first heard of John Carter, but I became more curious about him after he featured in extreme passing in the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemenseries. When I stumbled across this book in the old Wbooks store, I figured I’dgrab it because it’s something of a classic, and, well, it was cheap. Five bucks cheap. With an employee discount, it’s pretty hard to beat.

The basic plot is pretty straightforward – John Carter, Virginia gentleman and Civil War veteran, falls asleep in a cave, and wakes up on Mars. Fortunately for John, Burroughs’s (who also wrote the somewhat more well-know Tarzan novels) Mars is oxygenated and populated, so rather than simply suffocating and dying, John goes off to have adventures. He meets, among others, the mighty Tharks;a race of green-skinned, six-limbed giants who are impressed by Carter’s strength and fighting prowess (thanks to Mars’s lower gravity, Carter is strong enough to punch out a fifteen-foot tall giant, and, yes, leap tall buildings in a single bound); a variety of strange monsters, including the loyal Woola, some sort of Martian (excuse me, Barsoomian) watchdog; and of course, Dejah Thoris,the beautiful, red-skinned titular princess. Wackiness ensues.

This is total pulp sci-fi at it’s finest. Science takes a backseat to plot and action, the hero is…well, HEROIC, and the bad guys are BAD.(And of course, lust after the women, because they’re BAD). It’s good, cheesy fun. It’s not deep. If you want a LeGuin-like story about the inner workings of a society, or an Asimovian-exploration of esoteric scientific principles, you will not like this book. If you want Flash Gordon­-like action, complete with ray-guns, hover-bikes, arena duels, and so on, then you’ll probably enjoy this.

Also, if you are offended by a very 1916-view of the world,this book may not be for you. If you want female characters with equal screen-time and presence…you won’t get much of it. Sola, one of the female Tharks, manages to do some interesting thing, but Dejah Thoris is pretty much a McGuffin in skimpy clothing.

One total oddity: Carter (who narrates most of the book),mentions in the first chapter that he’s immortal. Well, ageless, anyway. This is never mentioned again, nor does it seem to have any particular bearing on the story. He’s just some guy who is so old, he can’t remember how old he is.It’s a pretty neat concept (I like the idea of a guy so old he can’t remember how old he is), but Burroughs ignores it after the first page of Chapter One.Which makes it both confusing, and feel totally unnecessary.

In the end, this is kind of a fun, pulpy book. Nothing deep or taxing…a dedicated reader could probably burn through it in an afternoon. But it’s a classic, and clearly had a big influence on the sci-fi genre as a whole(Star Wars certainly cribs some stuff from it). I’ll probably pick up the rest of the series at some point (or at least more of it).

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Green and the Gray


Green and the Gray
Author: TimothyZahn
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
ISBN: 0765346451

Disclaimer: I’m a huge Timothy Zahn fan. I first became acquainted with his work when heput out Heir to the Empire, the firstin a trilogy of Star Wars novels that launched the Expanded Universe. I loved it, and the rest of his Star Wars books as well. So much so that I began seeking out the rest of his stuff. It took me a very long time to pickup the Green and the Gray. I’m not sure why. I just had so much stacked up, that I missed it in hardcover, and finally grabbed in paperback, despite wanting it in hardcover anyway. Yes, I am one of those people who likes to have the hardcover version. Sue me.

Green and the Gray is the story of…well, a lot of people. But it begins with Roger and Caroline, aNew York Citycouple who is accosted one night by a mysterious stranger, and told to take custody of an equally mysterious child. The two of them, along with a police detective and his partner, quickly become caught up in a secret war between two alien races (the titular Greens and Grays)that is about to erupt in the middle of NYC. True to Zahn’s style, the book is very fast-paced, filled with plot twists, turns, and loopholes from beginning to end. Most of the twists are pretty interesting too, though one of the big ones I figured out pretty early on. That didn’t hurt my enjoyment too much though. It was still fun.

The characters are a mixed bag. Roger and Caroline are really interesting, and I enjoyed seeing a piece of science fiction where the married couple, despite having problems, makes it through the whole work intact. Fierenzo, the NYPD guy, is a little less interesting…a bit of a stereotype cop who doesn’t distinguish himself in any particular way. The Ellis Island clerk who processed the alien immigrants, Velovsky,is fairly interesting, but doesn’t get quite as much development as I’d like.The aliens themselves are a mixed bag. Between the leaders and power players in various factions, as well as a few rogue elements, there’s a lot of aliens to keep track of. Some of them are pretty well-developed. Others, not quite as much.

I enjoyed Green and the Gray quite a bit. It’s not quite as “out there” as Zahn’s last adult novel, Manta’s Gift, but the understated tone works well. Zahn does a great job of managing to convincingly create the “aliens among us” syndrome, without having to resort to Men-in-Black like gimmicks where people’s memories are erased constantly. Still, while it’s good, I don’t think it’s Zahn’s strongest work.The Conqueror’s trilogy, and some of his short stories, are much better places to start. If you’re a Zahn fan though, or just enjoy good, fast-paced, sci-fi, Green and the Gray is definitely worth picking up.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Bloody Crown of Conan


Title: The Bloody Crown of Conan
Author: Robert E.Howard
Publisher: Del Rey (November 23, 2004)
ISBN: 0345461525


The Bloody Crown of Conan is the third in a series of five collections of REH’s work being published by Del Rey. Three of those volumes feature Howard’s original,unedited Conan stories. The other two cover different fantasy heroes of Howard’s,namely Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. Apparently, I never reviewed the first Conan collection, the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, but I liked it. And guess what. I liked this too.

Bloody Crown of Conancontains only three stories: “People of the Black Circle,” “The Hour of the Dragon,”and “A Witch is Born.” While it may not sound like much, “The Hour of the Dragon” is the only full length Conan novel that Howard ever wrote. It’s a very neat story, set during the time when Conan is king of Aquilonia. In short, Conan is disposed by an evil necromancer and the mortals he conspires with, and must go on a quest to retrieve something that can kill the necromancer and allow him to reclaim the throne. Lots of high adventure, sword-fighting, strange, otherworldly horrors, and no small amount of intrigue. The other two stories are shorter(obviously), but still packed with good stuff.

I really enjoy Howard’s writing style. It’s very straightforward, but evocative at the same time. He does get into some purple prose on occasion, but it’s the sort of purple prose that’s fun to read. My only real complaint would be that he sometimes over-uses certain descriptors,particularly those involving wolves and panthers. Still, he treads a line between cliché and epic epithet enough that it only rarely bothers me. Oh, and occasionally he starts to drift into the Lovecraft “it was so horrible, I cannot describe it, except in horribly vague terms” trap, which is kind of annoying,especially because Howard’s descriptions of everything else are wonderful. Conan’s crucifixion in “A Witch is Born” had me shuddering on the T. Powerful stuff.

Yes, Conan does get crucified. One of the interesting things about reading these stories is seeing where the Schwarzenegger movie cribbed certain scenes or ideas to create the story it did. In the end, the Schwarzenegger Conan is substantively different from the actual Conan, but I still love the movie, and think it’s very well done. Of course, I’m an unrepentant Schwarzenegger fan for a variety of reasons, so take that for what you will.

Bloody Crown of Conan,and indeed, all the Conan stories, really are required reading for fantasy fans. There’s a good reason why the character has survived this long…he’s awesome.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mystic River


Mystic River
Dennis Lehane
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks; First edition. edition (July 22, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0060584750

This book was recommended to me by Joe Hurka, who I took a memoir-writing course with last spring. He seemed to feel that I would not only find it an example of good writing, but also enjoyable. My friends Tim and Carole both had good things to say about it as well. That, and I've been curious about the mystery genre for a while now. Because, honestly, I love mysteries. Loved 'em as a kid, still love 'em. I take great joy in puzzling them out, and many of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors are those who include an element of mystery in their writing (Timothy Zahn, in particular, is good at this). So, I decided to take a look.

It's pretty awesome.The short, not spoiled version—three kids are playing in the street when a strange car pulls up. One kid gets in, two kids don't. Bad things happen to the kid who gets in. The tenuous friendship between the three kids falls apart.

Years later, the kids are all grown up, all living in the same town, and still not friends. A murder in a local park brings them back into contact with each other. Without giving away too much, one kid becomes a cop, one kid becomes the father of the murder victim, and one kid becomes a suspect. The plot goes from there. It is, as one would suspect, filled with a lot of twists and turns, several of which I did not see coming at all.

Lehane does an excellent job of keeping the reader guessing, without having to resort to weird deus ex machina tricks to make himself seem clever. The book definitely hooked me. I actually put off reading my weekly fix because I was absorbed in trying to finish it. A lot of the characters are pretty interesting, and Lehane does a good job of making even his side characters entertaining (I love the Savage brothers, at least as an image). Overall, good stuff. I've got another one of Lehane's books, Shutter Island, on my shelf, and I'll probably break down and read it soon.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Feast for Crows


A Feast for Crows

George RR Martin

Publisher: Spectra

ISBN: 0553801503

For those who don’t know, A Feast for Crows is the fourth book in George RR Martin’s (GRRM) Song of Fire and Ice series. It is,without question, one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. It’s engaging,well-written, and original. It is also fantastically brutal. Do not read this series if you can’t handle characters dying, because they do. Sometimes with great frequency (though the death toll in this one is not quite as high).

A Feast for Crowshas been a long time coming. Apparently (I just learned this today, and it may not be entirely accurate), Martin had originally intended to set the fourth book five years after the third, to allow some of the characters time to age. This idea proved infeasible, and eventually, he scrapped it and went back to writing the narrative. And write he must have, because this book is really only half the book. The other half, A Dance for Dragons should be out some time next year, or so Martin “devoutly hopes”. I devoutly hope so too, because metasomething and the 3rd member of the Hawaiian Syndicate have both threatened me with physical violence forgetting them started on this series when it isn’t finished. I fear metasomething’s threats much more, especially since he’s better armed. Hawaiian#3 would probably just poison me…but it’d be tasty poison.

I digress.

A Feast for Crows focuses on events taking place on the northern continent, mostly around King’s Landing. Martin continues with his alternating point-of-view chapters, where each is dedicated to a different character. Focal characters in this book include Arya Stark/Cat/No One, Cersei and Jamie Lannister, Brienne, Sansa Stark/Alayne,Samwell Tarly, and a few others. Cersei is the big new one, and the focus for a lot of the events taking place near the throne. I enjoyed her chapters a lot,in part because it gives some interesting insight into a character who has previous been portrayed as a psychotic bitch. Now…she may still be a psychotic bitch, but these chapters make her much easier to understand, and harder to hate. The only character I’ve found completely despicable at this point is Joffery, her son…who exhibited not a single redeeming impulse whatsoever.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and a number of very interesting things happen in it. I do feel like I need to re-read the first three, and then read this again. I’m sure that there are clues I’m missing and events I’m not getting because I’ve forgotten some major plot points. Maybe I’ll do a re-read over winter break, or something.

The book is good, but it isn’t perfect. The major problem,for me, is that it does feel like half a book. We get next to nothing about Jon Snow, and absolutely nothing about Daenerys, so the book feels much smaller than previous ones. There’s a sense of something missing, and I finished the book wanting more, not just about the characters, but about everything that’s going on.

I also found that it’s getting harder for Martin to surprise me. Maybe it’s because he’s such a brutal writer, but I found that some moments that seemed like they might be suspenseful…weren’t. Knowing that eh was likely to maim or kill a character served not to make me worried (as it has previously), but to make me accepting, almost resigned to their fates. Maybe I’m just not caring as much about this particular set of characters (though I like the Starks, and I’m starting to warm to Jamie).

Also, Littlefinger seems to me to be the Palpatine of this series. The guy no one takes seriously until it’s way to late. I hope that’s true. I love Palpatine, and like Littlefinger too.

All in all, it’s definitely a series worth reading.


Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Olympos


Title: Olympos

Author: Dan Simmons

Publisher: Eos (June 28, 2005)

ISBN: 0380978946

Olympos is the sequel to Ilium, Dan Simmons's tale of a far-future Earth, where powerful gods live on Mars and re-create the Iliad, and a few hundred thousand "old-style" humans are left living in a pseudo-paradise on Earth.

As a book, Olympos is MUCH more active than Ilium. Ilium is a setup piece. It establishes the various characters, from Dr. Thomas Hockenberry, PhD, a resurrected twenty-first century scholar, to Orpho of Io and Mahamut of Europa, a pair of cybernetic organisms called Moravecs who live on the outer planets of the solar system, and are interested in various aspects of old Earth human culture (Orpho likes Proust, Mahamut likes Shakespeare). Some old-style humans, a couple of Homeric heroes, a number of gods, and a couple of sentient computer programs round out the cast. Oh, and an evil entity that feeds on human suffering and terror.

One of the things I enjoy most about Simmons is that he thinks BIG. I have no idea how scientifically feasible his concepts are, but it's hard not to be awed by ideas like the Breach, an enormous, force-field created tunnel that runs through the middle of the Atlantic ocean, or nano-technology that warps quantum probability to ensure that a man can only be killed in a single way. It's like Star Trek tech (which is, in itself, pretty crazy) jacked up to 11. It's great.

His characters vary somewhat in quality. I really liked Orpho and Mahamut, and Simmons versions of Achilles and Odysseus seem pretty spot on to me. Achilles, in particular, is a lot of fun. He's a whole lot of attitude, but he can back it up, and the attitude is done well. Simmons gets the various Greek gods pretty dead on too.

The humans, I'm less impressed with. Hockenberry is interesting, and in some ways, is the most accessible character (being a twentieth century scholar thrust into a crazy world), but for some reason, I have a hard time empathizing with him. He seems almost TOO aware of how out of place he is in the events that are taking place around him, and it's a bit wearing after a while. The various old-style humans, I found less engaging than the rest of the cast. They have some interesting struggles, and one of them finds out some incredibly crucial information, but I just didn't emotionally connect with them. Likewise, Prospero and Ariel didn't do much for me, but they're really side characters in the end. Important side characters, but side characters nonetheless.

It's very hard to talk about the plot, since it hinges on events that happened in a previous book, and discussing it too much would spoil the mystery. Suffice it to say, it's appropriately huge and epic, and overall, pretty enjoyable. There are enormous quantities of literary references, but Simmons manages to explain most of them in the text. There's some religious references that don't get explained as well, unfortunately, and I know there's some things I'm not quite getting, mostly because I know very little about Christianity. Still, there's enough explained that I never felt totally lost (except when I was supposed to), and the book wraps up enough questions that I'm fairly well satisfied.

Overall, it's a good book. Better than Ilium, which contained a number of authorial rants about how people interpret Shakespeare that not only wrecked the flow of the story, but felt totally out of place. The pace is quicker, stuff happens, and there's some genuine tension about the ending. I won't speak of the ending itself, except to say that it was somewhat disappointing. For all of the interesting stuff that's created in this story, there's a few too many loose ends. Worse, the ending is...well...let's just say it didn't have the emotional tone or weight I hoped it would. It's not quite a JMS ending (the worst kind), but it's not wonderful either. Though it does contain the opening lines of the Iliad, and that's never bad. If you enjoy ultra-tech style sci-fi, epic struggles, and occasional ponderings about literature, it's worth the read.

Friday, July 22, 2005

I am Legend

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson
 
I am Legend is the story of Robert Neville, the last man left alive on earth. But he’s not alone. The rest of the world has been transformed into vampires, and as far as only Neville knows, he is the last of his kind—a normal man, trying to survive against endless hordes of the undead. It’s a very well-written, creepy, and disturbing look into the psychology of survival, and one man’s struggle to understand a world that’s gone mad around him. I enjoyed it a great deal, overall. There’s a bit in towards the end, when a new character gets introduced, that I found a little less interesting, but overall, great stuff. Matheson has a very nice, tense, writing style that manages to pack a lot into a relatively short piece. The story has been adapted into a couple of movies, but I haven’t seen them.


The Orb edition of I am Legend has a number of Matheson’s other stories attached. I didn’t read all of them (one about a depressed, failed, writer was too much for me to take), but the one’s I did read were all good. Reminded me of Philip Dick, in the way he plays with reality, and people’s expectations. And again, I’m really impressed with Matheson’s ability to keep things short. The creepiest story of the one’s I read is only about three pages, but the punch line is so powerful, it makes whole story incredibly frightening. In a world of 800-page fantasy novels, it’s refreshing to read something short, sweet, and to the point.

Coming of the Horseclans

Coming of the Horseclans (Robert Adams)


Set in 27th century post-apocalyptic America, the Coming of the Horseclans tells the story of Milo of Morai, an immortal mutant from the 20thcentury, who has returned to the Horseclans to fulfill a prophecy and return them to their ancestral home. He leads them across a ruined America in battles with decadent city-dwellers, encounters more Undying (immortals like himself), and generally, has interesting adventures. The book is the first in along series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.

This is great, fun, fiction. Deep? Not according to Adam’s own introduction:

The following tale is a fantasy, pure and simple. It is a flight of sheer imagination. It contains no hidden meanings, and none should be read into it; none of the sociological, economic, political, religious, or racial “messages” with which far too many modern novels abound are herein contained. The Coming of the Horseclans is, rather, intended for the enjoyment of any man or woman who has ever felt a twinge of that atavistic urge to draw a yard of sharp, flashing steel and with a wild war cry recklessly spur a vicious stallion against impossible odds.
And you know what? He’s right. Oh sure, I suppose I could try and analyze the crap out of this thing, and find socio-political meaning in it somewhere…but that would ruin the novel. If you’re going to read this (and I heartily recommend you do, especially if you’re a fan of pulp fiction), read it to enjoy it, not beat it to death with analysis. Enjoy the crazy, gory battles, the psychic cats and horses (Why are they psychic? Who cares?), who aid the Horseclans and the strange and intricate politics of the world. But don’t analyze it. You’ll miss the point.

Note: I think more fantasy writers, and writers in general, should read Adam’s introduction.There's something to be said for just telling a story, without worrying about the meaning of it all.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Shadows Linger, A Novel of the Black Company


Title: Shadows Linger, A Novel of the Black Company
Author: Glen Cook
Publisher: TOR Books
ISBN: 0812508424


The Chronicles of the Black Company (of which Shadows Linger is the second novel) is a series of fantasy novels that follows the activities of a mercenary group called…the Black Company. I guess that was obvious, huh? What’s not so obvious is how the story line goes.

Imagine reading the Lord of the Rings from the perspective of one of Sauron’s orcs, or a guardsman of Gondor, and you’ll start to get an idea of what the Black Company novels are like. The world of the novels is a high-fantasy world, with powerful sorcerers and epic battles, and the Black Company…are a bunch of really good mercenaries who get hired by those people. This isn’t to say that they’re completely weak or incompetent…on the contrary, they manage to occasionally take down one of the big bads of the setting…with a lot of hard work, and some SERIOUS planning. But they aren’t the sort of people who you’d normally think of as being the main characters of a fantasy series. Which is,of course, what makes it so interesting.

Shadows Lingeractually follows two story lines. The first is told by Croaker, the chronicler of the Black Company, and primary narrator of the novels. The second story is told in third person. The two, not surprisingly, come together by the end.

One of the things I like about this series is that, much like REH, Cook doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on Tolkein-esqueworld-building. Shadows Linger takes place mostly in the city of Juniper,which is apparently, very far to the north of the Empire that the Company works for. How far north? VERY. How far is VERY? Far enough to make it a plot point. That’s all you’re told, and really, it’s all you need to know.

Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE Tolkien. He is, without question,my all-time favorite fantasy author. If I was going to take a trip and could only take one book with me, I’d get one of those big one-volume editions of LoTR, and amuse myself for years.

But…too many fantasy authors try to emulate Tolkein’s obsessive level of world-building, and it’s not only unnecessary, but most of the time, it’s not that good. Cook does a wonderful job of giving the reader just enough information to know what’s going on, without getting bogged down in random detail. Many writers could learn from this…I know I’m trying to.

Cook writes his characters well. They’re fun, engaging, and very capable of surprising you at times. It’s particularly interesting watching the various members of the Company struggle with their own peculiar brand of honor (which generally extends to people inside the Company, but not outside of it). There’s enough characters that sometimes one or two get lost in the background, but most of the stand out well, and are quite memorable.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Author: J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Listening Library (Audio)
ISBN: 0807220280



Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, and for my money, the best. The characters start to get the most development, the world that Rowling has created finally starts to come into full view, and interesting things actually happen. The status quo gets disrupted. This, I like.

I also like the martial arts treatise contained in this book.

For all of you who think I’m on crack, follow me for a moment.

One of the big conflicts that occurs in this book occurs between Dolores Umbrage (the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher), and the rest of the class, lead principally by Harry and Hermione. The conflict centers around, among other things, Umbrage’s belief that Defense Against the Dark Arts can be learned simply by studying theory, without actually practicing the spells involved. In other words, that theoretical knowledge about combat is sufficient to prepare an individual for real combat.

Similarly, the martial arts today are filled with people who believe that by meditating and theorizing about what they “would” or “could” doing a fight is sufficient to prepare themselves for a real confrontation. They avoid any sort of drill or activity that would require them to demonstrate their abilities against a resistant opponent, choosing instead to spout off random theories and made up statistics that support their beliefs.

Harry (who has actually seen combat), and several other students, reject this notion on the grounds that theorizing about violence has never helped them survive anything.Which makes sense, in the real world, and in their own. Preparing for combat requires training where you actually get hit, actually hit something, and generally, well, experience conflict. If you've never,ever, tried to do something to a person who didn't want you to do it to them, you're in for a rude shock the first time it happens. In the end,Harry's method of actually training to fight seems to be born out as the better one, at least to me. Of course, I happen to agree with Harry's point of view, but I think it's significant that Umbrage seems largely incapable of defending herself when not backed up by a horde of flunkies and paperwork.

Other random thoughts:

The ending disappointed me a little bit. I liked things better with Dumbledore on the lam, and Harry stuck in a school turned against him. That, and the constant removal/offing of Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers is getting old. Personally, I’m starting to suspect that the series will end with Harry taking on that position, if he doesn’t actually kick it first. Either seems possible.

I get why people think some of the characters don’t have a lot of personality, though I think their being fleshed out better as the series goes on. What I don’t get is why people argue that Malfoy DOES have a fleshed out personality. He’s an evil jerk. He’s an evil jerk in book one, and he’s STILL an evil jerk in book five. Sure, he doesn’t like Harry & Co., but I don’t really see how that’s a more nuanced personality than Harry’s or Hermione’s.A cardboard villain isn’t somehow more “real” than a cardboard hero.



Saturday, May 14, 2005

Addendum to a review: Hope and Honor

A few months ago I reviewed a Maj. Gen. Sid Shachnow’s biography, Hope and Honor. It is, as I said then, an excellent book about a remarkable individual.

Last Monday night, my Uncle David received an award for his work with CAMERA (www.camera.org),and I had the opportunity to listen to a number of interesting people speak,including Shachnow, and James Woolsey, the former head of the CIA.Woolsey’s speech was pretty interesting—whether you agree with his politics or not, the man is incredibly well educated and articulate. It was cool too listen to him,and if nothing else, it makes it clear how totally useless the"sound-bite" news that most of us get actually is. There's too much information in this world to be understood in 30-minute news briefs.

Shachnow turns out to be a real joker, something that does not come across well in the book at all. He’s very deadpan, but very funny. His wife Arlene was there too, another very nice person. It was very neat to get to talk to both of them, even if just for a few minutes.

There were a lot of other neat and interesting people there. I got to speak with a retired coast guard admiral,a former FBI...something. I can't remember how high up in the chain of command he went. Amost Yadlin, one of the Israeli fighter pilots who took out Iran's nuclear weapons program in '81 was there,but I didn't have a chance to talk with him at all. Unfortunately, this was one of those events where there are far more people to talk to than there is time to talk to them. I was wiped out from working and catching an early morning train, and had trouble keeping up with who the people I DID meet were.

Still, a neat experience overall. Shachnow is a very interesting person, and his book is definitely worth reading.


Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


Title:Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Author: J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 0439139600

Many years ago, I read the first Harry Potter book. And lo, I was under whelmed. It wasn’t that it was BAD, per se. It was a half-way decent kids book. But I didn’t understand the big fuss that everyone was making over it. I saw the movie, and still didn’t understand the fuss.

Flash forward a few years, and I figured “hey, I’m really interested in fantasy.Rowling is having a huge effect on that genre. I might as well read the rest of these f-ing things.” So I read book two, and lo, it was a little better. And then I read book three, and lo, I started to actually like this series. Now I’ve finished book four, and am listening to book five, and have to admit…I’ve become pretty hooked. It’s a good read. Book five actually has a lot of interesting stuff I want to talk about, particularly in relation to the martial arts (ya didn’t see that coming, did you? DID YOU? Ok, it’s me, maybe you did.), but I’ll confine myself to book four, since I’ve actually finished that one.

So,Goblet of Fire, like the other HP books, sends Harry back to school for another year of antics and mysteries. The main plot revolves around the Triwizard Tournament, a competition between representatives from three schools of wizarding, which ends up with four contestants, because our boy Harry somehow gets shoved into the tourney. Hilarity/danger ensues. So does some teenage awkwardness, for those who like that sort of thing. And you start to get a sense of a larger world, much in the way that most teenagers do.

Gah.It’s hard for me to say much about this book, at this point. It’s very good, and engaging, but in a way, I feel like it’s just a bridging point. It sets up a lot of the bad crap that’s happening in book five, and that’s what’s occupying my brain when I think of Harry Potter now. While I was reading book four, however, I was quite hooked. Rowling is actually a pretty good mystery writer, which is really what a lot of these books are. She does a great job of dropping clues in a manner that makes it obvious only after the fact…she kind of reminds me of Timothy Zahn in that way. Which is weird, because the two are otherwise quite different.

Not much more to say about this one. More once I’m done with book five.


Savage Tales of Solomon Kane


Title: Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Author: Robert E. Howard
Publisher: DelRey
ISBN: 0345461509

“He was…a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan…A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things…Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

“Such was Solomon Kane,” indeed.

This book rocks. As much as I’d like to try and sound clinical about this—screw it. I’m not a literary critic, I’m just a guy who loves to read, and loves fantasy in particular. I already knew I liked REH after I finished the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, but this collection really cinched it for me.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of short stories and poems that focus on Howard’s other, not-quite as well-known hero, Solomon Kane. Kane is everything that the quote above suggests, and then some. I actually find him to be a pretty interesting character, in that he is so full of contradictions, and also in that he’s remarkably self-unaware. In one of the earliest stories of the collection, Kane is traveling through England, where he comes across a dying girl, the sole survivor (for about five minutes) of a bandit attack on her village. She dies in Kane’s arms.

Kane proceeds to wage a long guerrilla war against the bandits, until it at last comes down to him and their leader. The two duel, and the leader escapes, and flees to AFRICA. So Kane does what any vengeance-obsessed lunatic would do…and pursues him. There’s a wonderful moment where the bandit turns to him and asks him why he’s doing this…and Kane really doesn’t know. He just feels like it should be done.

Most of the stories in this collection follow a chronology of a sort. Kane spends a great deal of time wandering in Africa, following some undefined and undefinable urge to explore. Along the way, he encounters all sorts of strange demons and beasts, some of which are almost Lovecraftian in their nature (Not too surprising. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded, and indeed, were friends.). There’s some neat poetry in the collection too, as well as a few story fragments that I believe have not been published before. Seeing the fragments is neat, all though some of them are so long, you wish Howard had finished the damn thing before he died.

Good stuff. If you like adventure, fantasy, or pulpy-goodness, go read this.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The Hidden Queen


Title: The Hidden Queen
Author: Alma Alexander
Publisher: EOS (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 0060765704


A king dies during a major battle. His forces need leadership. One of the general’s digs up the king’s bastard son from the ranks of the army, and the army rallies around him. Said bastard son promptly turns around with said army, and takes over kingdom, forcing the true heir, a nine-year-old girl, to flee into hiding, until the day when she can return to claim the throne. This is plot of a thousand fantasy novels, The Hidden Queen being one of the most recent, though not really the most inspiring.

This isn’t a bad novel per se, it’s just not great. The plot holds virtually no surprises – the young queen has untapped magic powers that she can only learn to use by going to a foreign country, (because, of course,the people in her native land just don’t have the knowledge that those mysterious foreigners do). And of course, said queen is able to violate all sorts of rules and traditions while learning to use her powers, yet becomes a master quicker and more easily than anyone in memory. And in the end, she sets out for home, because, well, it’s time to go home.

If you feel as though I’ve spoiled the book for you, I haven’t.As I said, none of this is surprising…it doesn’t even FEEL surprising as a reader. Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to even identify with characters surprise at Anghara’s (the child queen in question) abilities. Actually, I had a hard time identifying with most of the characters…they all felt too much like archetypes, rather than people. Sadly,the most interesting character, at least in the beginning, is Sif, Anghara’shalf-brother and usurper of the throne. Initially, Sif seems less than thrilled with the idea that the only way he can retain power is to kill Anghara – he knows it needs to be done, but he doesn’t really seem to want to. Which creates an interesting dilemma, which is then left totally unexplored. Of course,halfway through the book, Sif becomes so frustrated that he transforms into a villain from the X-Men “I hate those muta…er…people with Sight (magic). I’m going to wipe out every muta…er…Sighted person, and my kingdom will be ruled by normal humans!” All he needs is some powered armor, and misguided biblical references,and this guy could take on Cyclops, Wolverine, and co. just fine.

In fairness to the novel – the writing itself is good. Alexander has some wonderfully descriptive passages, and the plot moves along at a reasonable pace. The world that she builds, for all of it’s stereotypical plotting, has some fairly interesting ideas...but they’re largely left unexplored. Which is sad, because I think Alexander probably has those ideas in her head, but for some reason, just didn’t put them on paper.

If you’re looking for a light, schlock-fantasy sort of read(hey, everyone is sometimes), this is probably worth the read. If you want something truly interesting and innovative…look somewhere else.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Hope and Honor


Title: Hope and Honor
Author: Sidney Shachnow & Jann Robbins
Publisher:Forge Books (October 1, 2004)
ISBN:0765307928

Hope and Honor is the autobiography of Maj. General (Ret.) Sidney Shachnow, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America, joined the military, and ultimately ended up as head of all Special Forces before he retired. The book begins with his childhood in Lithuania,and follows Sascha (later Sidney) through his experiences with the German occupation, his families flight from Lithuaniaafter the war to Germany,and ultimately, to the United States. Shachnow eventually makes his way into the military, where he stays until he retires, where the book ends(Shachnow is alive and well today).

I really, really liked this book. Shachnow’s writing is simple and direct, but it conveys a lot. Most of the chapters are short –between six to ten pages – and the book flows very quickly. Shachnow doesn’t spend a whole lot of time introspecting, but it’s easy to get a sense of him both as an adult looking back on his life and as the man living it.

This being a man’s life (and a remarkable life, at that),there’s obviously a lot that occurs here, and some things will stand out to readers more than others. Amateur psychologist that I am, I found watching Shachnow’s growth really interesting. Even as a child, he exhibits certain tendencies (a will to survive, a willingness to go outside the rules, and a sense that there are times when violence is, in fact, the solution) that make his eventual role in the U.S. Special Forces seem perfectly natural. Which is not to say that Shachnow is a violent man. As much as anyone else in the world,Shachnow knows the consequences of, and problems with, violence. But he is, at heart, a warrior, and warriors fight. They also think, which is where Shachnow’s real talents lie.

I could probably ramble on about this book for a while, but I really want to get this up, so I’ll stop here. This is a powerful and interesting biography about a really extraordinary man. I can’t recommend it enough.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Dragon and Soldier


Title: Dragon and Soldier
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Starscape (Tom Doherty Associates, LLC)
ISBN: 0765350173


Dragon and Soldier is the second book in Zahn’s Dragonback series. Like most of Zahn’s books, it’s sci-fi. Unlike most of Zahn’s books,the Dragonback series is aimed at a younger audience – the books are written for kids in the 9-12 range, but honestly,I enjoyed them all the same. There’s something about Zahn’s writing style that I find very engaging. Once you start reading, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked in.

The Dragonback series revolves around the adventures of Jack Morgan, a fourteen-year old kid, and his companion Draycos. Draycos is a poet-warrior of the K’da, a race of golden-scaled draconian aliens from beyond the area of the galaxy that Jack lives in. The K’da are an interesting concept; they’re symbiotic organisms who need a host in order to survive. Most of the time, they exist in a two-dimensional form attached to the host’s skin, making them looking very much like a large tattoo. The K’da can detach themselves from the host for limited periods of time, and if Draycos is any indication, are very dangerous warriors when unleashed. K’da don’t normally bond with humans, but Draycos and Jack are essentially forced together for survival at the beginning of the series.

The first book, Dragon and Thief, revolves around Jack’s attempts to clear his own name of a crime he didn’t commit. Dragon and Solider takes off in a slightly different direction – Draycos is the lone survivor of an advance scout team for his people, and wants to know who attacked and destroyed his team, and is trying to wipe out his people. So Jack (and Draycos, by default), join up with a mercenary company, hoping to learn something about the fighters that attacked Draycos’s original team. Not surprisingly, things do not go easily, or as planned.

Overall, it’s a very fun read. Zahn doesn’t spend as much time world-building as he does in some of his other novels, but there’s enough detail for the reader to get a good sense of what this setting is like. The action moves well, and it’s engaging. Unfortunately, it ends too soon, but there’s four more books in the series on the way.

If you want something deep, profound, and meaningful…this is not really the book for you. But as a fun sci-fi adventure story, it works just great. I’m definitely looking forward to the third one.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

I Am Ivan Drago


Title: I am CharlotteSimmons
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
ISBN: 1593975201

For those wondering about the title of this review: Ivan Drago(played by Dolph Lundgren) is the main villain of Rocky Four who’s best remembered line is (said with cheesy faux Russian accent), “I must break you.”

Anyone want to guess where this is going?

I Am Charlotte Simmons is the latest work by Tom Wolfe (Bonfireof the Vanities). Having seen/heard a few favorable reviews (though I don’t remember where), and needing something to listen too during my commute to work,I decided to give this a shot. After all, it was 50 percent off, and over thirty-one hours long! Entertainment for weeks!

Or not.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is the story of a collection of stereotypes. Whoops, excuse me. I mean, it’s the story of Charlotte Simmons, an impossibly naïve genius from Sparta, North Carolinawho, by virtue of her amazing intellect, receives a full scholarship to Dupont University(supposedly an analog for Duke or UVa). The other main characters include JoJoJohansen, Dupont’s sole white starting basketball player, Beverly,a Groton produced snob, Adam…Geller, a smart kid, and Hoyt Thorpe, a frat boy. Five complete and total stereotypes without a hint of original thought or action.

It gets worse.

First of all, the title character is so ignorant of the world that it’s actually offensive. I may have siphoned off some of my friend Jessica's sensitivity on this subject, but North Carolina is hardly stuck in the Dark Ages. Yes, there are backwoods places that aren’t up on the latest culture and fashion, but Charlotte Simmons is so ignorant it is quite literally unbelievable. She’s completely shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that there is drinking going on in her dorm. Drinking!It’s unbelievable. How could students be drinking?This is a dry dorm! The RA said there would be no drinking! And yes, the book does go on, and on, and on, in this fashion. Wolfe seems to feel the need to repeat each and every point over and over again. And one more time, in case you missed it.

To make things worse, Wolfe occasionally displays his own total ignorance of the culture he’s writing about. During one of Hoyt Thorpe’s many drunken contemplations (frat boys in the Wolfe-verse never sober up), he starts thinking of various frat type movies like Animal House, Old School, and The Usual Suspects.


The Usual Suspects?It’s a murder mystery, Tom. If you’re going to clumsily assail modern academia(and believe me Tom, there’s plenty to assail), could you at least get your facts right? Or make some sense.

The audio version is read by Dylan Baker (Spider Man 2), who does a decent voice acting job, though all of his college-age men sound precisely the same. He has a tendency to sound whiny a lot, but I think that’s an effect of how whiny this book is, not his acting skills.

As much as part of me wants to, I just couldn’t finish this thing. The book lacks a believable character, plot, or event to draw the reader in. Worse, Wolfe seems intent on showing off his voluminous vocabulary and dragging out each and every moment for as long as possible. I finished about six CD’s, and then gave up.

Sorry Mr. Wolfe – you broke me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Black Hawk Down


Title:Black Hawk Down

Author:Mark Bowden

Publisher:Signet

ISBN:0451205146


If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years,or otherwise haven’t heard of this book (even after it was made into a major motion picture), here’s the short version.

In 1993, a group of Rangers and Delta Force soldiers went on a mission to try and capture several members of the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s organization from a meeting in the heart of the city of Mogadishu. It was supposed to be a one hour mission – in and out, no fuss, no muss, no bother.

To say that the mission went horribly wrong is a gross understatement. Two of Task Force Ranger’s Black Hawk helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu,and the soldiers became trapped in a protracted battle in the midst of the city. It was long, bloody, and ultimately cost eighteen American soldiers their lives (and who knows how many Somalis). While the mission was technically a success, it was not viewed as such by the majority of the political and military leadership, and American forces withdrew from Somalia shortly thereafter.

Black Hawk Down is the story of that battle. While Bowden provides some very interesting analysis of the larger policy issues at play towards the end of the book, the vast majority of it is simply a narrative of the battle, from beginning to end. It is, as one might expect, intense, graphic, and alternately inspiring or disturbing. Bowden makes no effort to hide the realities of war, and no effort to make people look particularly good or bad. He tells the story, warts and all.There are certainly moments of heroism on the part of those soldiers, but there are also moments of fear, machismo, arrogance, and all sorts of other emotions that you would expect of normal people. Indeed, one of the greatest things about this book is that it shows the military as not a bunch of a faceless goons, but as a collection of living, breathing, people, who have their own lives, hopes, fears, etc.

There are a lot of characters involved, and keeping track of all of them is sometimes difficult. With so many privates, sergeants,operators, majors, and so on, it’s not always easy to keep track of who’s who.That difficult might be my only real complaint about the book, and I’m not sure there’s anything anyone could do about it. A great number of people were involved in this battle…keeping track of them is hard. I suppose the book could have had a “cast of characters” section at the beginning, but that seems inappropriate for the work.

Bowden’s post-battle analysis is interesting, and well thought out. He clearly has put a lot of thought into the events that lead up and followed the battle, and probably has one of the clearest pictures of anyone of those particular set of events. Still, his analysis isn’t the point of the book, or even the highlight. The story stands well enough on it’s own.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883


Title: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

Author: Simon Winchester

Publisher:HarperAudio

ISBN:0060530677


Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 is a combination of history, geology,political science and memoir, all wrapped up into one package. The book focuses around the eruption (explosion, really) of the islandof Krakatoa, a volcanic island that used to exist in Southeast Asia. I say used to exist because, on the titular date, the island literally blew up in the largest explosion in recorded human history. (There have been four larger volcanic explosions,but no one was around to write anything about it). The explosion scattered ash throughout the atmosphere, caused massive pressure waves, tsunami, and other natural disaster type effects. All in all, it was a pretty catastrophic event.

The book itself is a bit rambling in it’s course. After a brief introduction, where we learn how and when Winchester became interested in Krakatoa, the book launches into a brief history of the nearby Indonesian islands, principally focusing on the Dutch colonization and establishment of the spice trade in that part of the world. It’s a very cursory overview, but Winchester is attempting to set the stage not write a definitive historical text. The overview also establishes a few key figures and objects that either observed Krakatoa, or somehow become important once the explosion itself occurs.

From there, Winchester launches into what may be the most off-tangent segment of the book, which is essentially a brief history of geology. Over the course of this segment, it comes out that Winchesteris, in fact, a trained geologist, and was part of an expedition that recovered from fairly important samples that lead to major discoveries in the field. The tangent is interesting in it’s own right, but I think it could have been cut a bit shorter. While there are parts directly related to the Krakatoa story, a lot of it is only connected by way of saying “this is stuff that helps explain what happened, but no one understood it until one hundred years after the explosion.” Still, Winchester has a good reading voice (he reads the text himself in the audio version), and the discussion isn’t awful either.And to be fair, I hit this part at about 11pm, when almost anything morecomplex than Dr. Seuss might start to hard to follow.

After the brief history of geology, we go back to Krakatoa,this time to discuss the actual events and their effects. As I said, tsunamis, ash,smoke, fire (cats & dogs, living together, mass hysteria!)…lots of bad things happen when a small island explodes, and Winchester gives good and interesting detail about the events, and how the inhabitants of nearby islands dealt with them. From there, he moves out to start discussing the ramifications of the explosion,which are actually fairly impressive. Aside from the obvious physical effects,Krakatoa does, at least in part, contribute to the beginnings of modern concepts about globalization and global weather systems. (The pressure wave from the explosion was so powerful that it reverberated around the world something like 7 or 14 times). It’s also connected with some of the earliest examples of anti-western Islamic violence in the Indonesian archipelago (some Muslims took the explosion as a sign of the end times), and has a variety of other useful scientific effects as well.

All in all, it’s a pretty interesting book. The amount of information varies a great deal – it seems like there’s much more on the science end than there is on the socio-political end, but I may be misinterpreting that (it’s hard to tell listening to a book, instead of reading it).

Definitely worth the listen, probably worth the read, if you’re interested in semi-obscure historical events.


Thursday, February 3, 2005

Thieves’ World™: First Blood


Title: Thieves’ World™: First Blood

Ed: Robert Lynn Asprin & Lynn Abbey

Publisher: TOR

ISBN: 031287488X


Several years ago, some friends of mine from the Young Writers Workshop (http://www.people.virginia.edu/~eds-yww/) and I came up with the idea of writing a series of short science fiction stories that were all set in the same universe. Each story would tell a small part of a larger story, based in large part on our collective experience playing a game of lazer tag at an YWW reunion. The project never got that far, which is unfortunate, because if First Bloodis any indication, we probably could have made it work.

Thieves’ World: First Blood is a collection of the first two Thieves’ World anthologies, making it a sort of super-anthology. The premise behind the collections was simple – to get a number of prominent fantasy authors to work together in creating a shared fantasy setting. Each author could use the same set pieces, characters, and even events would overlap between the various stories. This would not only give the authors great deal of flexibility, but also help them to create a living, breathing world, were different signature characters could interact, or at least pass in the street.

The result of these collaborations is Sanctuary, a backwatercity in the Rankan Empire. As Old Ben Kenobi would have it, “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than you will within these walls.”Sanctuary is a bad place, full of thieves, murderers, slavers, prostitutes,grifters, and thousands of other ne’er-do-wells. In point of fact, being a criminal seems to be a requirement for residency in the city. As the first anthology opens, control of the city has recently been given to a young Rankan prince who, with the help of his loyal guardsmen (the Hell Hounds), seeks to restore some kind of order to the city.

It’s a fairly interesting premise – the results, however,are a bit mixed. The tone of the stories varies wildly, particularly between the first and second halves of the book (which originally were two separate books). The earlier stories give the reader the impression of a very Conan-like world – magic is rare, mysterious, and not to be trifled with, gods, if they exist, are aloof and beyond mortal ken. Life is hard, grim, and one cannot rely on much besides one’s own strength for aid.

As the stories go on, this tone starts to change, and the world of Sanctuary starts to develop into more of a high fantasy tone. By the end, we have gods directly meddling in mortal affairs, powerful mages who have conversations in bars, god-blessed/cursed warriors, parallel dimensions, and other assorted fantasy weirdness.

This isn’t BAD necessarily, but it is jarring. Despite the stories nominal interconnectedness, there comes a point where it really feels like we’ve moved into another setting all together. Personally, I preferred the darker, grimmer tones, but other people may enjoy the high fantasy stuff too.(Note – I do enjoy high fantasy, but I felt that dark and grim better suited the “Thieves’ World” concept.)

As you might expect, the quality of the stories varies greatly. The blessing and curse of any anthology is that you’re likely to find some things you really like, and some you just don’t. I particularly liked “The Face of Chaos” (Lynn Abbey), “The Price of Doing Business” (Robert Asprin),“Myrtis” (Christine Dewees), Spiders of the Purple Mage” (Philip Jose Farmer) and “The Fruit of Enlibar” (LynnAbbey, again. Yes, I really like Lynn Abbey’s writing.). Andrew Offutts stories I could give a pass on, as I could just about any story featuring Tempus, a warrior blessed/cursed by the god of war, rape, and slaughter. He feels a little too much like a character created by a thirteen-year old D&D player.

Overall, it’s a good collection, and worth the read. Skip authors that you don’t like, but beware – because these stores are interconnected, skipping a story may cause you to miss you on certain pieces of information. I personally found the first half of the book more enjoyable, but both halves have some gems in them.

Now, if I just get that starbase alpha crew back together…


Sunday, January 9, 2005

Otherland Final Volume: Sea of Silver Light


Otherland Final Volume: Sea of Silver Light
Tad Williams
Publisher: DAW Books 2002
ISBN: 0756400309

Despite having been on break from school for the last couple of weeks, I haven’t managed to get a lot of reading done. Or rather, I have, but only on a single book – this one.Sea of Silver Light wraps up Tad Williams Otherland series, a four-volume science fiction story that runs about 4000 pages all told. Set in a near future world, Otherland tells the story of a group of people who, for one reason or another, are drawn to investigate a mysterious online network that appears to be involved in/responsible for a number of children falling into comas around the world. Williams’ creates a very large cast, and a very intricate plot, which I will not even attempt to summarize here. There’s just too much that happens to easily summarize…indeed, sometimes, it’s a little much to keep track of.

As an aside: One of the things I loved in this series was that each books begins with a 4-5-page synopsis of the previous book(s). Considering the rising popularity of enormous, multi-volume sci-fi/fantasy series, more authors ought to do this. It makes it MUCH easier to pick up the story without feeling like you need to re-read the previous books first.

On with show:Sea of Silver Light ends the Otherland series, and it does it well. Williams’ manages to address just about every loose plot point by the end of the novel, and even go into detail with some of his answers. Sometimes, the delivery method is a little heavy-handed, but overall, it’s pretty well done. Setting up a mystery is always easier than revealing the mystery, and I enjoyed the way most of the revelations in this story were handled.Some of the endings were a bit anti-climactic, particularly the plotline dealing with Johnny Dread. Williams’ throws in a lot of plot twists, but sometimes, it’s one twist too many. I would have rather seen Dread go out a different way. The fate of Long Joseph and company ends in a similarly uninspired fashion. There are one or two plots that could have been stripped out of this series without much detriment, and Long Joseph and co. was definitely one of them.

In the end, the only major problem I have with this book is that it’s just a bit too long. Williams’ is a good enough writer that you don’t always notice that he’s spent a few chapters dorking around without advancing the plot, but every so often, you’ll start checking page numbers. Still, the concept behind the series is interesting, and it has an African/Australian focus which is unique in a lot of modern sci-fi. Despite the occasional plot drag, it’s definitely worth reading.