Amazon Store

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.