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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Children of Hurin



The Children of Húrin

by J.R.R. Tolkien (Author), Christopher Tolkien (Editor), Alan Lee (Illustrator)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (April 17, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0618894640

It has been said that all good things must come to an end. In this case, the end of Children of Hurin also marks the end of my quest to read a book by each of my five favorite authors. It seems like a fitting way to end this journey, in that Tolkien is the oldest of my favorites, and if there was ever a modern author suited to end-of-quest tales, it was Tolkien. He was also the author on my list that gave me the greatest concern—not only has he passed away, but his body of published work is relatively small. I didn’t want to re-read the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, not because I don’t love them, but because I wanted to be able to read something new, just as I had with the other authors. Having read the Silmarillion several months earlier, I was hard pressed to think of what else to read. Sure, I could have gone for Letters From Father Christmas, or Farmer Giles of Ham, but neither of those somehow felt right. Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth were what cemented him as one of my favorite writers, and I wanted to go back to Middle-Earth as part of this project.

Fortunately, the publishing gods smiled upon me, and gave me Children of Hurin. This is another in a line of books composed by Tolkien’s estate, taken from various notes, fragments, and other unfinished writings and molded into a coherent whole. In that respect, for the record, it’s very well done. The text flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter, and I never once had the sense that I was reading something out of place or inauthentic. This feels like Tolkien’s writing, and if it isn’t exactly what he intended, I have to believe it’s pretty damn close.

But what of the story itself?

The story of Hurin and his offspring is told as part of the Silmarillion, but not in the detail that Tolkien intended. Tolkien believed that this story was one that could be told apart from the Silmarillion as a whole—that it was strong enough and vibrant enough to stand on it’s own. And he is absolutely correct.

Children of Hurin is an epic. It’s also a tragedy. If you come into this book expecting glorious battles and happy endings, you will be sorely disappointed (though if you come to Tolkien expecting nothing but happiness and light, I submit you haven’t read Tolkien very often or carefully). This is not a tale of good triumphing over evil, but a tale of a family brought down by an epic curse. More Macbeth than Star Wars, in other words.

The writing itself is epic—Children of Hurin reads a lot like Beowulf or the Iliad. Tolkien apparently originally tried to write the tale as an actual epic poem, but was never quite able to make it work. Still, his prose captures that same spirit, rhythm, and cadence. As a huge fan of epic and epic poem, I love it.

Despite the epic prose and tragic scope, the characters of Children of Hurin are very well crafted, and ultimately, very human. Their actions, while not always rational, are often understandable, and while the tragedy has its origins in the supernatural (it is Morgoth who curses the line of Hurin), there is not a strong sense that the plot is forced simply by supernatural means. Instead, we get the sense that these are perhaps well meaning, but ultimately deeply flawed people, who suffer for their choices, and the choices of others. The final scene of the book, when Hurin is finally reunited with his dying wife, is absolutely heartbreaking.

There’s also a wonderful scene, much earlier, which really stuck with me, and I need to mention it here just because it’s so wonderfully crafted. It occurs shortly after Hurin’s capture by Morgoth, when Morwen, his wife, is trying to figure out what to do with herself and her children. Turin, the son, says something to the effect of “I know my father is dead. He must be, because I know that his love for us is so strong that if he were alive, no chains could hold him, and no amount of enemies could keep him from returning to us.”

And Morwen’s answer is “I do not think either of those things is true, my son.”

It’s a wonderful, if completely heartbreaking moment, where a child-like view of heroism clashes completely with the harsh realities of the world. It strikes me as a very Tolkien-esque moment; in many ways much of Tolkien’s work deals with the interplay between heroics, and the personal cost or realities of those heroics. At least, that’s my initial thought. In any case, it’s an immensely powerful scene.

The text of the book is aided by the wonderful illustrations done by Alan Lee, who has done a lot of Tolkien-related art in the past. His illustrations are interspersed in no particular order throughout the book, but each one of them is gorgeous, and really adds to the flavor of the text. It would have been neat to see some more of them.

This is yet another Tolkien book I’ll be re-reading in the future. It’s a fine addition to the Middle Earth canon.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dragon and Herdsman

Dragon and Herdsman (Dragonback)
by Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Starscape (May 30, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0765314177


For those who don’t feel like playing catch up: the Dragonback series is a Young Adult Science fiction series by Timothy Zahn, which follows the adventures of a young con artist/thief named Jack Morgan, and the alien warrior Draycos who has become bonded to him. Their bond is a literal, physical one; Draycos’s people, the K’da, are symbiotic creatures, incapable of surviving for long without a host to attach themselves to. When Draycos bonds with Jack in a moment of desperation, he drags Jack into a world of adventure and intrigue.

After their first adventure together, Jack and Draycos begin a long, galaxy wide quest to figure out who attacked the scouting party Draycos was part of, and why, before the rest of Draycos and his people are annihilated.

The latest book, Dragon and Herdsman, sends Jack and Draycos on an unexpected wilderness expedition, after an attempt to hack into the database of the Malison Ring mercenary company. Rescued by his former mercenary companion Alison Kayna, Jack gives her a ride to a nearby planet, only to be ambushed and forced into hiding by the arrival of a group of Malison Ring soldiers.

Ambushes and mercenaries aren’t the only thing that Jack finds on Rho Scorvi—he also discovers the Phooka, a race of creatures that bear a striking resemblance to the K’da, but lacking any apparent intelligence. On the run from the Malison ring mercenaries, Jack must also become a herdsman to a race of creatures that may be some sort of remnant of Draycos’s people.

Like many of Zahn’s books, and the Dragonback series in particular, this is fast-paced space opera at it’s height. Jack and Draycos are propelled through the wilds of Rho Scorvi with very little opportunity to catch their breath—but enough time to do some interesting introspections about the nature of Draycos, the K’da, and the Phookas. There’s a bit more development of Alison, who promises to be an interesting character in her own right, and a great deal of development of Jack, a character who gets (appropriately) more interesting with each novel in this series.

For an adult reader, this isn’t really a challenging read, nor is it necessarily deep and thoughtful. But it is fun, exciting, and filled with some great plot twists (the book ends on a great twist/pseudo-cliffhanger). If you enjoy Zahn’s work, or are just looking for a fun, light read, there are a lot worse places to start than this.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Jake's Five All-Time Favorite Authors

I started forming this list in my head when I was thinking about Voices, mostly because I realized that LeGuin was one of the few authors I can think of who I will buy almost unreservedly. I don’t own everything she’s ever written, but I certainly would like too (I confess to not having an enormous interest in her poetry, but I tend not to read poetry in general. Though I should. I actually enjoy it.). So then I started mentally composing a list of other authors whose works I will buy more or less unreservedly, and came up with this.

Now, I will confess right away that I’m cheating. Two of my five favorites are dead, and thus, unlikely to release anything new. However, they both still have works I haven’t read, so I think I’m not cheating too badly.

In the interests of making this interesting, I’ll try to explain myself where possible.

I also appear to be doing this in a vaguely chronological order (in terms of my exposure to them), though that is by no means intentional.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien

My father first read the Hobbit to me when I was somewhere between five and eight years old, and the Lord of the Rings shortly thereafter. I’ve been a fan ever since. I know there are people out there who find Tolkien’s writing dry and ponderous (particularly in the Lord of the Rings), but I really enjoy his style. I wasn’t able to identify precisely why until I listened to the series on CD, at which point it occurred to me that Tolkien writes with the cadence and rhythm of an epic poet. As someone who loves that style of writing, it resonates with me perfectly.

I also appreciate the craft and detail that Tolkien put into his works; he created a very real, vibrant world out of nothing but words and his own imagination. That’s not an easy task.

I should note that my enjoyment of Tolkien goes beyond those two books; I loved the Silmarillion and Children of Hurin is just amazing.

2. Ursula LeGuin

Another childhood favorite, I just love LeGuin for a variety of reasons. The first is her writing, which I think is simply gorgeous. I emphasize simply there, because part of what makes her writing so wonderful is that it fulfills Strunk & White’s prime directive (Omit Needless Words). Everything LeGuin writes has a purpose.

The second is her ability to create not only believable characters, but also believable cultures and worlds. LeGuin’s parents were anthropologists, and she clearly inherited or learned something about how people form cultures and ideas from them. There is not a single culture in her books that I’ve found unbelievable or unrealistic.

Finally, LeGuin is the sort of author who I believe fulfills the purpose and potential of the science fiction and fantasy genres. She creates stories that ask questions relevant to the real world, and uses her own fictionalized worlds to explore those questions and ideas. Her stories force introspection and contemplation, and I believe that’s precisely what the best science fiction should do.

3. Timothy Zahn

Of all the authors on this list, Zahn is perhaps the least “literary”. While he writes a great variety of science fiction, I first became aware of him through his Heir to the Empire trilogy, a set of Star Wars novels that relaunched the Star Wars Expanded Universe by creating a brand new story, set five years after the end of the original trilogy. It was, frankly, amazing—it may have been one of the first trilogies that had me desperately waiting for the next release, dying to know what was happening, and vastly saddened (though satisfied) when it came to an end. I decided I liked it enough to try exploring his other works, and discovered that he had a lot of exciting stories out there, including some real gems of short stories, and another amazing trilogy set in a world all his own.

Zahn’s writing style is exciting. He MOVES. Not a word is wasted, and rarely does a chapter go by that doesn’t leave you wanting more. He has a great ear for dialogue, and a knack for creating interesting, suspenseful stories that keep you guess right up until the end. Of all the authors I read regularly, I think Zahn is the one who consistently manages to keep me guessing, right up until the end.

Is he high literature? Not usually—most of Zahn’s writing is the modern equivalent of pulp fiction: action, adventure, and intrigue, but not necessarily DEEP or LITERARY (not that I particularly care, but it is what it is). There are exceptions, I think. Some of his short stories are very thoughtful (“Final Solution” sticks out at me), and the Conqueror’s Trilogy contains what may be one of the best-written explorations of an alien culture I’ve ever read.

Zahn was actually the author who inspired the criteria for this list; at this point, I will buy just about anything he puts out, when it comes out, regardless of format. The only time I end up with something of his in paperback is when I miss the hardcover release.

4. Neil Gaiman

It took me longer than it should have to discover Gaiman. Honestly, I’m not even sure when I did discover him. I know that the first I heard of him was as a college freshman, when a certain greasy, smelly, clove-smoking goth boy recommended Sandman to me. Given my generally low opinion of the individual in question, I chose to completely ignore his recommendation, and not read Sandman. Boy, was that a mistake.

Since then, of course, I have read it, along with Stardust, Neverwhere, American G-ds, Anansi Boys, and several other Gaiman related writings. I currently have his latest collection of short stories waiting for me at home.

I some ways, my love for Gaiman is similar to my love for Tolkien: he’s a storyteller and mythmaker, tapping into a type of story that I’ve loved since childhood (I practically memorized D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths as a kid. And now just discovered there are two more books by them. Damn.). Where Tolkien borrowed from those myths, Gaiman taps into them directly, building modern stories out of ancient tales. His merging of the two is always fantastic, as are his own separate mythologies (like Stardust).

Where Tolkien’s writing is deep and epic, however, Gaiman’s is breezy and frankly, fun. Not that I don’t enjoy Tolkien’s writing, but there is a sense of playful joy that comes across in all of Gaiman’s writing. He clearly LOVES his work, and you can feel it in everything he writes. Some of it is very serious, sad stuff, but even there, I have a sense of how much the author has invested in his writing.

5. Robert E. Howard

Ironically, the last author on my list is actually the oldest author of the bunch. Robert E Howard, perhaps best known for creating Conan the Barbarian, was also dead at his own hands by 1936. During his short lifetime, he wrote a prolific amount, mostly short stories for pulp magazines.

I was interested in Howard (or rather, in Conan) for years, having been a huge fan of the original Conan the Barbarian movie (the less said about the sequel, the better), but his works were largely out of print and unavailable. It was only when Del Ray began re-releasing the original works in their unaltered form that I was finally able to get my hands on the real tales of Conan.

I was blown away.

A friend of mine described Howard’s writing as “far better than any pulp writing has a right to be.” That’s a pretty accurate description. The more I read Howard, the more I have fallen in love with his tight, gloomy, prose. Perhaps it’s an effect of writing mostly short stories, but Howard manages to create amazingly detailed and vivid pictures with just a few words. He creates pictures in the mind, in a way that very few other authors can.

The interesting thing about Howard’s writing is that it also forces slow reading: if you blaze through Howard, you’ll likely find him either dull, or just not very inspiring. Reading a Howard story requires taking the time and effort to really appreciate each and every word, every paragraph. If you can do that, you will find a really beautiful piece of prose. If you rush it, you’ll find a fairly entertaining pulp story.

I’ve been picking up collections of Howard’s works faster than I can read them, and plan to keep it up.

Honorable mentions: George R.R. Martin, who I love, but don’t seem to have the same overwhelming urge to pick up his entire canon as I do with the five listed above; H.G. Wells, who again, rocks, but hasn’t been quite as influential (though the Time Machine would probably make a list of top five novels for me); Lois McMaster Bujold, who is amazing, but I just haven’t read enough of her stuff to be quite there yet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore)

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore)
by Ursula K. LeGuin
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books (September 1, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0152056785

Like so many things in my life, my love of Ursula LeGuin’s writing can ultimate be traced back to my father. I don’t know how old I was when he first introduced me to a Wizard of Earthsea, but as soon as he did, I was hooked. I devoured the original Earthsea trilogy several times, despite the fact that the third book scared the hell out of me every time I read it. It still does. I read the Left Hand of Darkness for a high school project; I named a dog after the main character in the Earthsea trilogy, and am generally willing to buy just about anything she puts out.

I stumbled across Gifts, the first part of the Annals of the Western Shore purely by accident when I was working at Waldenbooks. It was a hardcover, it was by LeGuin, and that was all I need to know. I bought it, read it, and loved it. Strangely, I don’t seem to have reviewed it here, but suffice to say that it is a very well written tale of power, responsibility, and how we deal with those things as we grow up. At the time, it appeared to just be a stand-alone novel, though there was clearly the possibility of a sequel. Voices is the fulfillment of that possibility.

Voices is primarily the tale of Memer, a seventeen year-old “siege brat” living in the city of Ansul; until seventeen years ago, Ansul was a center of peace and trade, until the violent and fanatically religious Alds swept in and took over. Now, the people of Ansul are forced to live as second class citizens, with many of their cultural traditions considered profane and unholy. Of all of their traditions, however, the most forbidden by the Alds is that of reading. Books are considered unholy, and those who read are believed to consort with demons. But there are still hidden places where books survive. Specifically, the household where Memer lives with the Waylord, which has a hidden cavern filled with books, where Memer learns the secrets of reading, and begins the long exploration of the power that is her birthright.

Events in the story are further propelled along by the arrival of Orrec and Gry, the characters from Gifts, who now roam from land to land collecting stories, and trying to understand the nature of their own “gifts” better. As one might expect from such a story, there’s a fair amount of political drama, as tensions between the natives of Ansul and their Ald overlords begin to come to a head. LeGuin paints this growing tension, and Memer’s place in it, wonderfully well.

Voices explores a number of similar themes to Gifts, including questions of power, responsibility, and how we deal with those things as we grow up. There’s also a great deal of Memer wrestling with her need for revenge, something that Gifts spends less time on. Memer herself is a very interesting character, and it’s neat to see how Orrec and Gry have evolved since the original novel.

The Ansul and the Alds are both interesting cultures, which is unsurprising for LeGuin, though I think the Alds get the shorter end of the stick. They seem to be very strong analogues for medieval Arabian culture (religiously fanatical desert dwellers with a love of horses and oppressive views about women), which is kind of unusual for LeGuin. She usually develops her own cultures in such unique ways that I have to assume that this similarities are entirely intentional, but I’m not entirely sure why she chose to insert such a clear seeming real-world analogue into the book. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it did surprise me a little bit.

The other thing that surprised me was the graphic nature of the novel; while it is theoretically a “young adult” novel, LeGuin has no problem discussing rather graphic violence and sexual assault. Memer is the child of a rape, and that fact is made explicit in almost those exact terms. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but were I a parent, I would want to think carefully about when I would want my child reading this. I repeat…this is not a bad thing, but there probably is an age at which children should not be reading this. Maybe I’m just getting old though.

In any case, Voices just confirms what I’ve always believed. LeGuin is a fantastic writer—her prose is crisp and elegant, her characters are engaging, and her stories are fascinating. Read her.

.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King


Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Paperback)
by Robert E. Howard
Publisher: Del Rey (May 31, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0345461541


While the rest of the world was obsessively reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, I was taking the time to finish off my latest venture into my growing REH collection. Nothing against Harry, mind you, but I had already started on Bran Mak Morn, and wanted to finish it off before I moved on to other things. Besides, the idea of over-caffeinating myself just to obsessively force myself through the end of the book sounds dreadfully unpleasant to my ears, and reading is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, last I checked.

Anyway. Bran Mak Morn.

This particular collection of REH stories contains a number of stories about Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts; in REH’s mythos (for lack of a better term), the Picts are an ancient, ancient race, which was once powerful and prominent in Europe, but has slowly degenerated into a race of savages. Bran Mak Morn is a descendent of their royal line, making one last attempt to unite them and raise them out of darkness. Standing against him are the vast forces of civilization, most notably the Romans, who are slowly conquering Gaul and Britain.

Only a few of the stories in this volume feature Bran directly: the first, "Men of the Shadows", is a first-person account of a solider that meets Bran, and eventually joins him in his battle. In “Kings of the Night” and “Worms of the Earth”, Bran takes the center stage. Both stories are excellent, though very different in flavor/tone. “Kings of the Night” is a story of battle and magic, where Bran’s wizard summons King Kull out of the past to help Bran in a great battle against the Roman legions. “Worms of the Earth”, by contrast, is a moody, incredibly creepy piece, where Bran seeks out the aid of a foul race straight out of Lovecraftian horror (not surprising, since Howard and Lovecraft were frequent correspondents, and Howard loved Lovercraft’s work). It is easily one of the creepier stories that I’ve read from Howard, and brings an interesting element of horror into the king’s story.

The final stories in the volume don’t feature Bran at all, at least not directly. Instead, they are stories of Celtic warriors discovering Bran, or his descendents, and interacting with them in strange ways. Both are good pieces, but I was disappointed to not get more Bran himself. He’s a very interesting and conflicted character, desperately trying to salvage his people, and willing (as “Worms of the Earth” shows) to go to any length to succeed. I wish Howard had written more about him.

The miscellanea in this book contains a whole lot of interesting things, including some fragmentary stories (some of which are really excellent), a few poems, some correspondence between Howard and various others (including a few of his letters to Lovecraft), and some of Howard’s notes on his views of history. The history is…well, it’s very thirties, and by modern standards, horrifically inaccurate, but it’s interesting, and it’s cool to see the thought processes that lead Howard to create Bran and similar characters.

As much as I enjoyed it, this is probably the weakest REH collection Del Ray has put out that I’ve read so far. There just isn’t enough material on Bran himself to really fill a book, and while the miscellanea is interesting, a lot of it feels like padding thrown in to justify a full-length book. Anyone who enjoys REH should pick it up, but the casual reader would be better of starting with the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian or the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. Both books are a bit more complete, and offer greater exploration of the characters.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Boxing Stories

Boxing Stories (The Works of Robert E. Howard) (Paperback)
by Robert E. Howard (Author), Chris Gruber (Editor, Introduction)
Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0803273525
 

This is a collection of short stories and poems by Robert E. Howard, the author most noted for creating Conan the Barbarian. While Howard’s legacy as a fantasy author is more than well-secured, eh had an extensive body of non-fantasy work, mostly in the form of “adventure stories”, many of them having to do with boxing. Howard himself was an amateur boxer and avid boxing fan, and he brings that insider’s perspective into these stories. It’s very clear from his writing that this is a man who has been in the ring, not just watched from the outside.

I fell completely in love with this book, and these characters. The vast majority of the stories focus on Steve Costigan, a crewman aboard the Sea Girl, merchantman. Steve, along with his bulldog Mike, travels the world aboard his ship, and frequently ends up all sorts of situations that can only be resolved through the use of fisticuffs. Costigan’s voice allows Howard to play with some more humor than he uses in his Conan stories (though it’s still there), and in general, he’s just an incredibly endearing character. While the various and sundry adventures of Steve Costigan will probably never be classified as “high literature”, I had a blast reading about them, and will likely read them again.

The stories and poems in the rest of the volume deal with other characters, with little if any overlap between them (Steve Costigan’s name is sometimes brought up). By and large, they are all terrific, especially the story/novella Iron Men, which Howard apparently called “the best fight story I ever wrote—in many ways the best story of any kind I ever wrote.” It is a FANTASTIC boxing story, and in many ways, speaks to truths about boxing that are still true today.

It doesn’t surprise me that Howard wrote so well about those “Iron Men”—the sort of boxer who fights with a gritty, brawling style where they take as much punishment as they give out—he’s clearly fascinated and impressed by them, more so than the technical boxer who flits in and out. He would have liked Frazier over Ali. I can’t entirely say I blame him; while I enjoy watching a good, technical boxer, I can’t stand a showboat. It’s one of the things that puts me off watching modern fighters like Roy Jones Jr., who will happily dance around for twelve rounds showing off when they could have knocked the guy out in three. But I digress.

Obviously, these stories will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in boxing, but the truth is, they’re just good stories. Howard’s writing is tight, fast-paced, engaging, and surprisingly humorous at points. The stories of Steve Costigan are great for anyone just looking for a fun adventure yarn, while Iron Men and a few others take a more somber tone. I’m really glad I picked this one up, and will probably get into another Howard collection very soon. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Green Lantern: Rebirth

Green Lantern: Rebirth (Paperback)
by Geoff Johns
Publisher:
DC Comics; Trade Paper edition (April 1, 2006)
ISBN-10:
1401204651

When I first heard this series was coming out (this was a couple of years ago), I was somewhere between skeptical and totally uninterested. Unlike many DC Comics readers of my generation, I didn’t grow up with Hal Jordan as GL. By the time I came into the DCU, Hal had gone crazy nuts, become Parallax, tried to restart time, and sacrificed himself nobly to defeat the Sun Eater. He was gone; he shortly resurfaced as the new Spectre in the Day of Vengeance storyline (not be confused with the Day of Vengeance title that was part of Countdown to Infinite Crisis), but to me, he was never Green Lantern.

For me, who came into DC Comics through Morrison’s amazing JLA run, Green Lantern was Kyle Rayner, a young artist who had been saddled with the task of not only being GL, but being the LAST GL in the universe. I really enjoyed Kyle as a Green Lantern, even if I thought he was better developed in Morrison’s run than he was in some parts of his own title. He was young, he was inexperienced, but he tried really damn hard. I thought he rocked.

But there were still legions of unsatisfied Hal Jordan fans out there, who firmly believed that Jordan was the one, true, Green Lantern, and would not rest nor cease complaining until their golden boy was restored to his rightful position. And that didn’t mean become the Spectre either; no, they wanted him with the ring back, fighting crime and Sinestro across the galaxy. And finally, Green Lantern: Rebirth came out, and it looked like they would get their wish.

For my part, I avoided this series because a) I was afraid that it would mean the ousting/end of Kyle Rayner and b) I just didn’t care about Hal Jordan. But recently, I’ve realized how much I like Green Lantern in general, and this is a pretty big part of the GL mythology. Between that, the upcoming Sinestro Corps series, and the fact that Diego Montoya had good things to say about the recently Hal Jordan series I figured I’d check this out.

I’m glad I did.

Bringing back Hal Jordan in itself is a challenge; bringing him back in a way that is interesting, that doesn’t shit on Kyle Rayner and his own legacy is harder. Doing it all in a way that adds something to the GL universe is virtually impossible. But Geoff Johns manages it.

While some people have criticized transforming Parallax into the Yellow Flaw, I actually think it’s a brilliant idea. Let’s face it: having Green be vulnerable to Yellow makes about as much intuitive sense as having the Flash be vulnerable to…I don’t know…egg nog. By making it part of the ring’s history and make up, Johns makes the Yellow Flaw something that seems like a reasonable vulnerability.

Kyle, to my surprise, doesn’t get the shaft at all. In fact, he gets a lot of respect, on par with Jordan himself. He’s instrumental in defeating Parallax, gets some good shots in against Sinestro, and generally proves that he has every right to wear the ring. He also happens to be the one around when Green Arrow tries to use a GL ring in a great scene that really establishes how tough it is to fight with a weapon that is powered by your will. It’s not easy.

But most impressively, for me, was the fact that Johns managed to make me like Hal Jordan. He took a character I really didn’t care about, and made me not only care about him, but genuinely interested in his fate. And the moment when he first stands up and tells Sinestro to “Get the hell away from them” (referring to a very beat up Kyle and Green Arrow) is pure gold. If this were a scene in a movie, I’d cheer.

I rather doubt there’s many GL fans out there who haven’t read this at this point, but those who haven’t, go pick it up. Great stuff.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Old Man's War


Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
ISBN-10: 0765348276

This one was a loaner from PoeGhostal, who, much like me, recently has made the transition from being an avid fantasy reader to being on a sci-fi kick. I’m not sure what caused me to make the transition; for some reason lately, I’ve just been more in a space and starships mood, rather than a sword-and-sorcery mood. Of course, I still have piles of fantasy that I want to get through, most notably a bunch of REH’s works. But I digress.

Old Man’s War is military science fiction in the tradition of Starship Troopers, and those familiar with Heinlein’s work will find a lot of basic similarities in the plot; a man from Earth decides to join up with the Space Armed Forces, and goes off to fight aliens and discover what war is really about. There’s cool technology, clever tactics, and a fair amount of musing about life by the narrator in question.

By that description, I’m making Old Man’s War seem like a cheap knock-off of Starship Troopers, and it’s really not. It is its own story, quite distinct, and with some seriously notable differences. Perhaps the most notable being the main character, John Perry, who is not the callow youth that Juan Rico is, but instead, is a seventy-five year old man who decides to sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces because he’s got nothing left to lose. He does this without having the faintest idea of WHAT is going to happen to him…the contact between the colonies and Earth is virtually non-existent. It’s an interesting set up, and one of several interesting ideas that Scalzi has throughout the book. Actually, that’s unfair. Scalzi has a lot of interesting ideas, particularly in the realm of technology, and in terms of alien cultures.

The writing itself is solid, if not mind-blowing. The book moves along at a pretty good clip, and while Scalzi does occasionally dive into obligatory technobabble to explain some piece of technology, it is the sort of technobabble that even a non-scientist like myself can follow (one of the things that keeps me away from many sci-fi books is the detailed technological explanations). Most of the characters are pretty interesting, though a few them feel a little flat/forced (the drill sergeant bugs me, for a variety of reasons I wont’ get into here). I’m really not a fan of the presence of Jane Sagan, but it’s hard to get into WHY without getting to heavily into the plot. I’ll just say that I thought her presence and arc were largely unnecessary, and feel that something more interesting could have been done with the plot there.

I think I’m making this book sound worse than I think it is, so let me back up a step. This is a good book. Really. It’s fast-paced military science fiction, somewhat reminiscent of Heinlein, and honestly, a little reminiscent of Zahn. The main character is fun, the humor is good, and the action works very well. The aliens are neat, and alien, which is a welcome change from the “humans with stuff on their foreheads” syndrome, or from the “we’ll tell you nothing at all about them” method of dealing with aliens. The good stuff, however, is in some the characters and the ideas. The plot itself is not horrible, but it’s nothing to write home about either. The strength of the writing is definitely more in Perry and his interactions with a strange and hostile cosmos that it is in the intrigue and plot twists. The work is also somewhat less introspective than Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for. Perry does do a bit of soul-searching, mind you, but the book does not seem to set out to make a point in the same way that Heinlein does.

At the end of the day, this is good, fun, solid, military science fiction. If you want to read about a bunch of people who explore the universe, meet strange new people, and blow them up, this is a pretty good place to start.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Widening the Circle

Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms
Mara Sapon-Shevin
Publisher: Beacon Press; 1 edition (March 7, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0807032808
ISBN-13: 978-0807032800

I ended up with this book pseudo-accidentally. Which is to say, I got it because I helped do some work on it while I was interning at Beacon Press over the summer, and they were kind enough to send me a copy when I was done. I never would have gone out and bought it on my own.

Widening the Circle is a book dedicated to promoting the value of inclusive classroom instruction. Essentially, what the book proposes is that rather than segregating children by skill level, or removing certain students because of their learning or social disorders, that educators should strive to create a classroom where students of all different levels can work and learn together. Sapon-Shevin believes that this sort of instruction is not only more academically fruitful, but that in the long run, it will help teach students to be more open-minded, tolerant, and socially aware.

The book is broken down into three basic sections: Sapon-Shevin begins by defining inclusive instruction, what it is, and what it isn’t. She then follows by addressing some of the commonly brought up concerns about inclusion classroom, and then finishes by discussing how inclusion actually needs to be put into practice. All of this advice falls into the largely theoretical realm, which, sadly, is where most educational discussions tend to happen.

The book is well written, fairly engaging, and easily accessible. You don’t have to be an educator or a trained psychologist to understand what Sapon-Shevin is talking about. Her explanations are clear, and she peppers the book with stories, both real and imagined, that help illustrate her beliefs.

As for the content, it’s a mixed bag. I think Sapon-Shevin makes some good points, but she sometimes takes her arguments to extremes that I found a little hard to swallow. Like most educational texts, her “evidence” is almost entirely anecdotal; a nice story here, a tragic story there, but there is very little that indicates that these stories are part of a larger trend. I would have liked it if she had mentioned how many stories she had, or if she had collected stories from beyond her personal experience. One person's experience is valuable, but on it's own doesn't, to my mind, constitute strong evidence. [Edited for clarity on my part]

In any case, it’s an interesting book, and it certainly made me think a bit. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Sapon-Shevin’s conclusions, she’s pushing for a change in the American educational system, and I can’t fault her for that. I certainly prefer her vision to the vision of standardized tests for all, and if she takes her ideals to places I don’t want to go, then I can worry about that when her ideas are actually in place.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Allegiance

Allegiance
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Del Rey (January 30, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0345477383
ISBN-13: 978-0345477385

Every time I think that Timothy Zahn is done with the Star Wars Universe, he surprises me by coming back. Zahn was conspicuously absent from the New Jedi Order series (an 18 book epic that pitted the cast of the original trilogy against a race of bio-tech wielding aliens), and his Hand of Thrawn duology seemed to wrap up most major lingering questions raised by Zahn’s original Heir to the Empire trilogy that re-launched the Star Wars novels. With the rise of the New Jedi Order, and the sudden explosion of prequel novels that followed in the wake of Episode One, it seemed like Zahn was done with the Star Wars universe for good.

But he came back; first with Survivor’s Quest, a novel that served to bridge the New Republic Era that Zahn had launched with the New Jedi Order era, and also expanded on the Outbound Flight that had been mentioned in Zahn’s previous works. The final remaining questions about that mission were answered in Outbound Flight, Zahn’s lone foray into prequel-era storytelling.

Outbound Flight also brought something interesting about Zahn’s writing to the fore; Zahn has a very well-crafted personal vision of the Star Wars universe that neither relies on, nor requires the presence of, the main characters from the movies. In Outbound Flight, the inclusion of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed incredibly forced, and ultimately took away from the far more interesting main plot of the novel. While I ultimately still enjoyed the book, it wasn’t Zahn’s strongest offering to the Star Wars universe. In addition, Zahn’s gritty, military action focused writing style seemed much better to suited to the dirt and grime of the Original Trilogy than to the CGI and spit polish of the prequels.

In Allegiance, Zahn returns to the Rebellion Era with a story that takes place shortly after the battle of Yavin. Unlike Shadows of the Empire, which ostensibly served as a bridge story between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Allegiance is a self-contained story that seems more in the spirit of the old Marvel Star Wars comics. This is a story set in the Star Wars universe, with no particularly overarching consequences, unless there are references in here to parts of the Expanded Universe that I’m not aware of. Which is possible. At this point, I won’t read a Star Wars novel if it’s not written by Zahn.

Not surprisingly, Allegiance features Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca, along with a few cameos by the Emperor, Darth Vader, and even Mon Mothma. They split the screen time with Zahn’s personal creation, Mara Jade, who is still serving as the Emperor’s Hand, and a new group of characters that form the core of his story.

The new arrivals are a team of five stormtroopers who, after one of them kills an Imperial Security Bureau officer, desert their post aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Reprisal (commanded by Captain Ozzel, later famous for being choked to death by Vader). The stormtroopers steal an ISB freighter, and set out to find their place in the galaxy. Unwilling to put aside their oath to defend the Empire’s citizens, they end up defending the poor and downtrodden in an A-Team like fashion, and quickly become embroiled in a system-wide conspiracy involving pirates, swoop gangs, a system governor, and the Rebel Alliance.

Naturally, Jade, Vader, Luke, Han, and Leia all get dragged into these events as well, and Zahn does an admirable job of balancing the various characters. Luke and Han end up seeming like their a little bit along for the ride, but Leia ends up in fairly central role as both character and plot point. I have the impression that Zahn could have written this novel without involving any of the movie characters at all, but I think he uses them much more skillfully than he used Anakin and Obi-Wan in Outbound Flight. Zahn also does a fantastic job of keeping various characters apart, thereby avoiding awkward questions like “why doesn’t Vader ever recognize C3-PO?”.

The plot is self is good Zahn plot; military conspiracy mixed with fast-paced action. There is very little wasted movement, lots of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing, and rarely a dull moment. Zahn captures the cinematic feel of the Star Wars universe perfectly, and there are a number of scenes that feel like they were taken right off of a movie screen.

The renegade stormtroopers are interesting, but I wish Zahn had spent a little more time fleshing them out. While they each have some distinguishing characteristics, they aren’t as strongly separated as they could be; I never lost track of who was who, but I would have liked a bit more granularity in the characters and their motivations.

In the end, Allegiance is a good, fun, romp back through the Star Wars universe. Fans of Zahn will likely enjoy it, as will most Star Wars fans in general. It has the added bonus of being a stand-alone novel, so a reader can pick it up without worrying about being sucked into a trilogy or an eighteen book epic. If you want a fun, exciting trip back to a galaxy far, far, away, this a great place to get it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Silmarillion

Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Del Rey; Reissue edition (January 12, 1985)
ISBN: 0345325818

Note: The publishing info above refers specifically to the version of the Silmarillion that I read. Other versions are available.

The Silmarillion is one of those books that I’ve meant to read for years, literally. It is, according to some, the book that separates casual Lord of the Rings fans from truly hard-core Tolkien lovers. My first girlfriend confessed to preferring the Silmarillion over the Lord of the Rings, which she was unable to finish.

Todd likewise holds that the Silmarillion is the preferable work, being more true to Tolkien’s desire to create an epic that the Lord of the Rings is. Or something like that. He can come in here and explain himself better, if he wishes.

I’m not sure I can go that far, but the Silmarillion is a damn fine piece of work. In essence, it is the Bible of Middle-Earth, telling the history of the creation of the world, and it’s long history up to the rise of Sauron, and the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Technically, it even covers those, though it does so in about a paragraph, so it hardly counts. Mostly, it occurs as series of shorter works that detail particular events and moments in the life of Middle-Earth as a whole. There is something of a coherent narrative to the story, but it’s a historical narrative, not one that follows any one particular character or group of characters throughout the entire work.

The Silmarillion, arguably, plays to many of Tolkien’s strengths, while covering many of his weaknesses. Tolkien is an excellent world builder and myth-maker, and the Silmarillion is nothing but world building and myth-making in narrative form. These are not small stories; they are stories of great men and women doing epic deeds. As with all good epics, the characters do not always succeed, nor are they always good people. The theme of corruption and fall from grace runs pretty heavily through the book, and there are a number of characters that come to unfortunate ends. Which is as it should be; after all, epic does not mean heroic, or even successful.

Because many of the stories are shorter, the Silmarillion also avoids two of the things that most Tolkien detractors (and even some Tolkien fans) tend to dislike about his writing. The first is Tolkien’s tendency (mostly in the Lord of the Rings) to describe the environment in great, sometimes excessive detail. Because Tolkien is mostly painting with broad strokes, there is not the same kind of loving detail given to each vale or field; instead, we get brief glimpses, followed by details of the things that are truly important to the story. Some of those descriptions are glorious (the woods where the Dark Elf lives…yes, Tolkien has a Dark Elf, but he does not wield scimitars, nor does he have a pet panther), but readers who disliked the detailed wanderings of Frodo and Co. in Lord of the Rings may find this more palatable.

Second, there are those who believe that Tolkien doesn’t do characters well, or at least, not with depth. I happen to disagree with this assessment, but for those who do, the Silmarillion…well, it doesn’t necessarily have more depth, but there’s less of a sense that the characters are meant to. They are, for the most part, epic archetypes as much as characters, filling in their roles in the story that is the world, and so a reader may feel less cheated by the lack of in-depth characterizations.

As a fan of the epic in general, I loved the Silmarillion. It’s rich, it’s fun, and it is epic. It also paints a very clear picture of Tolkien’s world, and anyone who wants a much clearer picture of the events of the Lord of the Rings would do well to read it.

The $20,000 question of course is, which one of Tolkien’s works to I like better? Honestly, that’s hard to answer. The Lord of the Rings is a childhood favorite—I remember sitting with father when I was maybe eight years old, listening as the Ringwraiths chased Frodo towards the ferry, and wondering if Frodo would make it. It’s a book (and let’s face it…it is one book) that’s shaped my consciousness throughout my entire life. It is at the top of my desert island list. I’m not sure anything can topple it.

And yet, the Silmarillion is a damn fine piece of work, and in many ways, it’s got a lot of the best of Tolkien’s writing (despite some slightly shoddy editing by his son), without a lot of Tolkien’s flaws. At the end of the day, I think I prefer the Lord of the Rings, because it contains some more human elements that the Silmarillion lacks, but I’d happily read either one.