Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Going Away for a Bit

I've been a little preoccupied recently, mostly with my new job but also with an upcoming trip to Bergen in Norway. I'm flying there tomorrow and I'll be back on Sunday. I very much doubt I'll manage a review any time before late next week. I haven't exactly spoiled you in recent weeks, I'll try to do better next month.

So what's in store for next month? As you can see in the side bar I am currently rereading Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey. Not making much progress but I will be spending a lot of time on trains, planes and buses in the coming few days so I may actually finish it before I get back. I'll also be writing a review for the Grand Master Reading Challenge over at WWEnd. This month I'll have a look at Forerunner by Andre Norton, which was recently reissued by Tor.

From the publisher:
“Kuxortal has always been,” Forerunner begins. This ancient port was established in the time of antiquity and has built and rebuilt itself on the ruins of former civilizations. Kuxortal is inhabited by a lowly race of Burrowers, who tunnel and excavate beneath the city’s towers and sometimes discover artifacts from the past. Simsa is a Burrower who has spent her entire life in the service of an older, crippled mentor, Ferwar, who had reputedly rescued Simsa from a trash heap when she was an infant. Simsa, with her blue-black skin and platinum hair, clearly comes from different stock than the other Burrowers, but Ferwar never revealed her origin.
When scavengers attempt to loot the treasures that Ferwar had left behind, it becomes clear that Simsa must flee. Especially when they discover that the scavengers consider Simsa one of the treasures that they have come to steal....
I've also accepted a few review copies. First up is The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod, which will be published in the US by Pyr. This copy was provided by the publisher.

From the publisher:
A bishop is dead. As Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson picks through the rubble of the tiny church, he discovers that it was deliberately bombed. That it’s a terrorist act is soon beyond doubt. It’s been a long time since anyone saw anything like this. Terrorism is history.

After the Middle East wars and the rising sea levels, after Armageddon and the Flood, came the Great Rejection. The first Enlightenment separated church from state. The Second Enlightenment has separated religion from politics. In this enlightened age there’s no persecution, but the millions who still believe and worship are a marginal and mistrusted minority. Now someone is killing them.

At first, suspicion falls on atheists more militant than the secular authorities. But when the target list expands to include the godless, it becomes evident that something very old has risen from the ashes. Old and very, very dangerous. . . 
 From author Emily Devenport I accepted a review copy of the young adult fantasy novel Spirits Of Glory.

Short description:
One morning, the people of the North woke up and the people of the South were gone. That’s the first thing every child learns on the colony world of Jigsaw. But for one girl, knowing about The Disappearance is not enough. Hawkeye wants to know why. Her curiosity won't let her refuse a journey to the Forbidden Cities, even though she's going into more danger than she can imagine.

A second novel received directly from the author is E.W. Scott's Dragon Touched.

From the publisher:
The Eight Boulders Realm has found itself on the brink of civil war after the disappearance of the crown prince and the murder of his father, the king. Will the new king, Damon, be able to control the strong personalities that threaten the peace of the Realm for their own gain? Or will he be forced to go against his beliefs in order to protect his throne...and his life? Nolan and Mirabel Burnham, Duke and Duchess of Curiochta, are accustomed to keeping secrets from one another. However, when their eldest daughter, Wren, finds herself in the grip of powerful magic that she can neither understand or control they are forced to come to terms with the fact that some secrets are impossible to keep. Their family begins to tear apart, even as civil war threatens to destroy the entirety of the Eight Boulders Realm.
Last but not least is Edward M. Erdelac's weird west novel  Merkabah Rider: Have Glyphs Will Travel. This one has been on the to read stack for much too long.

From the publisher:

The Rider and Kabede must rally a US Cavalry troop against an army of the undead lead by three of Adon’s renegade riders if they are to survive The Long Sabbath. The Rider infiltrates an Apache stronghold to convince the combined forces of Vittorio and Geronimo not to lend their might to the mysterious forces of The War Prophet. The Rider sets out to rescue the succubus Nehema from the wrath of The Mules of The Mazzikim, then confronts his greatest enemy, The Man Called Other. Seeking to learn the remaining secrets of The Hour of Incursion, the Rider and his companions arrive in Tombstone only to face the horror of The Fire King Triumphant.
In other words, I have some reading to do. What's on your to read list for next month?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ride the Moon - M.L.D. Curelas

Ride the Moon is the first publication of Canadian publisher Tyche Books. It appeared on the last day of February but due to my extremely low productivity, I have only finished reading it last night. In their own words they "crave innovative stories that push the boundaries of our imaginations."  Ride the Moon certainly shows that ambition. It is a collection of stories with the moon as the theme of the stories and ranges from the horrific to the fantastic, from historical to post apocalyptic and from the mythological to the surreal. It certainly tries to live up to the publisher's mission statement but the editor is taking a risk with such a wide spread too. Even for a reader with an appreciation for several genres, not all these stories will be winners. It is an anthology that will stretch the limits of your literary comfort zone.

The anthology contains nineteen stories by authors from all over the English speaking world, although most of them are Canadian. I've read work by exactly none of the authors included, so I went into this anthology not knowing what to expect. Nineteen stories is a bit too much for me to discuss them individually, so I've picked a few I liked in particular.

The first story I want to discuss is The Dowser by Kevin Cockle. In a way it contains a lot of elements in one story that other stories zoom in on. The story doesn't mention a date specifically but I got the impression it is set in a future some decades from now, when a scarcity of oil is making itself felt. The main character, a man with an almost supernatural talent for finding oil deposits where technology delivers inconclusive measurements, is being lead to an ancient mystery. Oil deposits as a a trail of breadcrumbs leading to an Aztec deity. I thought this story fused the modern oil scarcity and environmenental concerns with the Aztec mythology very well.

Moon Dream by Rebecca M. Senese is quite a different story. This one too, is set in the future but one where economic collapse has lead to an end of all hopes of conquering space, people have more immediate concerns than sinking resources into developing spaceflight. Not everybody is ready to give up on the dream of walking on the moon however. Julia Threswald is determined to travel there one day, and if no space agency can help her, she will get there herself. There is a kind of Clarkean optimism to this story. The main character has a firm grasp of physics and although the author does not put as much emphasis on the technical side as Clarke would have done, there is the firm belief that there is a technical solution to this problem. A fine piece of science fiction.

On the Labrador Shore, She Waits by Krista D. Ball is a piece of historical fiction based on archaeological finds near L’Anse Amour in Labrador, Canada. The burial site contained the body of an adolescent, obviously buried with great care 7,500 years ago. One theory is that it was a sacrifice made to ensure the survival of the people in times of hardship. Ball spins a tale of pride, sacrifice and love around the archaeological evidence. It brings the hardships of living in such a challenging environment very close. It is always hard to make the reader feel why a character would see human sacrifice as the only way out in such a situation but in this story Ball pulls it off. It combines an emotionally powerful story with enough historical detail to make me do a search on the actual burial site.

Small Seven's Secret by Billie Millholland could be considered a historical piece as well but this time with a distinct Steampunk flavor to it. A Chinese scientist tries to harness the power of the moon to create a link between the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi and the ruler of the British Empire Queen Victoria. To do it, he needs the cooperation of the untrained Zhang sisters, three of whom perish in the attempt. The seventh sister is not about to allow more of her siblings to be lost to the ambitions of the scientists. It's an intoxicating blend of magic and technology. Like a lot of good short fiction, the story leaves the reader with the idea that it could very well have been the core of a longer work.

One of the stories that leans more towards horror is Husks by Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson. One of the things the moon is often associated with is creatures of the night and this story contains a disturbing pair of those. A brother and sister grow up in an orphanage. They are a peculiar pair but nobody pays much attention to them, except for April, one of the women taking care of them. The plot itself is fairly predictable but it is such a beautifully written story that I had to include a few comments on it in this review. The omniscient narrator manages to convey both the strangeness of the pair, as well as the urges that lead to the inevitable conclusion of the story. It's written in the present tense with beautifully flowing prose. Stylistically, this story clearly stands out in the anthology.

Although not all stories worked equally well for me, there is plenty to enjoy in this anthology. Variety is the word here, I think there is something for is everybody. The e-book version I've read is professionally edited and apart from a few mistakes in the page numbers it was remarkably clean as e-books go. It is always nice to see a publisher take care with the e-book edition of their books. If this is the standard Tyche Books means to keep itself to, I think we'll see some very interesting publications from them in years to come. With Ride the Moon they have certainly added a few names to my list of authors to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: Ride the Moon
Author: M.D.L. Curelas
Publisher: Tyche Books
Pages: 268
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-books
ISBN: 978-0-9878248-1-3
First published: 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sheer Curiosity

I've always been a bit obsessed with statistics so Google Analytics is a treasure trove for me. Not that there is too much to see there. When I started this blog 20 visitors a day was a good day. It's been climbing steadily but days when I hit 100 are still pretty rare. With such numbers it is still possible to find your regulars and sometimes figure out who they are, combining such informations as entry paths, sources, comments and landing pages. There is no privacy on the internet, just the illusion of it :P

I have one very loyal reader from, let's not compromise their privacy too much, Colorado. A visit every day for pretty much as long as the blog has been active. Technically I suppose there could be multiple readers in that area but it seems unlikely. After all this time I have yet to figure out who this person is. So satisfy my curiosity (and feel free to use mail in stead of comments, valashain [at] gmail [dot] com), who are you?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Orb Sceptre Throne - Ian C. Esslemont

The main series, as many people think of it, in the Malazan Empire setting may have been completed by Steven Erikson last year, there is still plenty of activity in this most epic of fantasy universes. Erikson himself is ready to launch a new trilogy, the first novel of which, titled Forge of Darkness, is expected this summer. There is also a fifth Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella in the works (I have yet to read the fourth!). On top of all of that, in January Ian C. Esslemont's fourth novel Orb Sceptre Throne came out. In other words, plenty of new reading material for Malazan fans this year. After Stonewielder, which I considered to be his best effort yet, I was looking forward to this book. Unfortunately, it left me feeling slightly let down.

A synopsis for Malazan books is usually pretty impossible so let's keep this one short. Orb Sceptre Throne is a return to the city of Darujhistan, where this series began in Gardens of the Moon. The story is set after the events described by Erikson in Toll of the Hounds and mostly focuses on the rise to power of a new Tyrant, one that rekindles memories of ancient nightmares on the continent. Soon the remaining Malazan contingent, the Moranth, the Rhivi and the mysterious Seguleh are embroiled in the conflict that could impact the world far beyond Genebackis.

Picking up from where Erikson left us in Toll of the Hounds is no easy task. Erikson's eigthth Malazan novel is a glorious mess of a book. A sprawling tale that connects with so much in every book that has come before that a few continuity errors have slipped in. By this point in the story, the time line is messy and Orb Sceptre Throne only adds to that. So my first advice to anyone reading this novel is to forget about the time line. It doesn't make sense, some developments occur in impossibly short spaces of time, character ages are inconsistent in some cases etcetera. That doesn't mean the story doesn't make sense. The plan is still clear, Erikson left the seeds of this story in the earlier books set in Darujhistan.

 As usual, the book features a very large cast, a lot of whom we've met before in previous books. This is another point where I felt Esslemont has had to wrestle with what Erikson has done before him. Some of the characters are still clearly recognizable, but a few seem to drastically chance their tone of voice. The one that felt most alien is the verbose eel of Darujhistan Kruppe. This character served as the narrator for the story in Toll of the Hounds, something of a stylistic experiment from Erikson, it is the only book so far to be written in that style. In this novel, Kruppe seems very subdued really. Not a whole lot is left of the slippery, rambling, falsely modest and often severely underestimated character that has the potential to both entertain and infuriate readers. Esslemont somehow managed to make him boring.

A part that almost completely failed to capture my attention, despite the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach cameo, are Antsy's antics picking at the corpse of the crashed flying fortress of Moon's Spawn. I'm sure Esslemont is taking this somewhere but given the minor importance of plot of this novel I think the author spends a lot of time on it. Orb Sceptre Throne is not extremely large as Malazan books go, but six hundred pages is plenty if some parts of the story fail to keep your attention at all. Maybe that part of the story just felt longer because I didn't like it all that much.

One of the things I did like about the novel was the closer look we got at the Seguleh. Erikson had already shown us a few Seguleh characters as well as hinted at some of their history. Esslemont takes a much closer look at Seguleh society and culture in this novel, exploring it though the eyes of Seguleh characters. I've always wondered if there was a touch of Japanese Samurai in the Seguleh. Their culture does is quite rigid and despite their prowess in battle, which is a bit over the top, they do take a lot of punches. Change would seem inevitable after the events in this book. I don't think Esslemont means to return to that story in the two remaining novels though.

Despite some of these interesting parts of the story, I never got the sense of working to a large climax. There is a conflict resolved at the end of the novel but all the individual story lines, and there are lots and lots of those, don't really coalesce into a convergence Malazan style. Like some of the characters, the climax of the novel feels a bit muted. Even with the end approaching, it failed to really hold my attention or care very much about the resolution of the oncoming clash between all those parties. Despite the great number of characters, Esslemont moves the pieces skilfully in position to wrap things up but somehow doesn't include the tension and drama that he did deliver in his previous book.

I think that for the die hard Malazan fan there is still a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don't think the novel ever overcomes the problems Esslemont has building on the foundation of Erikson's work. Part of the reason why Stonewielder works so much better than Orb Sceptre Throne might be that Esslemont strikes out on his own in that novel. A continent not seen before with a cast that is largely unfamiliar to the reader. Orb Sceptre Throne has links to just about everything published before in this setting though. Some people may find all the links and references fascinating. I think Esslemont could have concentrated on the story he was telling a bit more and a bit less on whatever else is going on in the vast world he and Erikson have created.

Book Details
Title: Orb Sceptre Throne
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 605
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06450-4
First published: 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg must be one of the most prolific authors in Science Fiction. I'm not sure if there is such a thing as a complete bibliography on the web but the ones I've seen rival those of Isaac Asimov. Since the 1950s Silverberg has written science, fiction, fantasy, soft-pornography, non-fiction, countless short stories and edited shelves of anthologies. A quick search turns up at least two dozen pseudonyms. Not all of his output is highly regarded. Especially the early works, a period during which Silverberg was basically writing as fast as he could and selling his material to pulp magazines, is considered of lesser quality. Dying Inside (1972) was written during a later period in his career, lasting from the late 1960s till his first retirement in 1975. During those years Silverberg produced some his most celebrated science fiction novels. Works in which he takes a more literary approach than earlier in his career.

David Selig is a middle aged man living in New York. When we first meet him, he is making a living selling term papers so Columbia University students, a place where he once studied himself. David is not a happy man, for the last few years he's been feeling his talent to read people's minds fading. It is a talent that brought him an unhappy childhood as well as  immense grief and countless problems in his personal life over the years, but also one that defines him as a person. Now that it is slipping away from him, he feels he is dying inside.

For a Science Fiction novel, the story contains very few speculative elements. Selig is a powerful telepath but that is just about the only thing science fictional to it. The novel is a character study of Selig, quite introspective and entirely focused on his struggles with his talent and accepting his loss of it. The author plays with memories and flashbacks in the novel, eventually covering most of Selig's life. Maybe this lack of action and the less plot driven character of the novel are the reason why it didn't win any of the rewards it was nominated for. It was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards, all three of which ended up being won by Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves. I haven't read that book, but from the description I'd say it is a bit more in line with what readers would have expected from a science fiction novel in the 1970s.

Selig is obsessed with literature, poetry, plays, classical music and philosophy and Silverberg stuffs in a lot of references to famous works of art in the story. I've always found it interesting that a science fiction novel is much more likely to contain such references to the classics of literature than the other way around. Silverberg included one of Selig's papers on the works of Franz Kafka for instance. Which is not only a reference to one of his literary influences but also an example of the different styles of writing we find in the novel. The author also includes letters and has the Selig talk to himself in the second person in an attempt to distance himself from some of his more shameful acts. The shifts between different phases of Selig's life in combination with the different styles of narrative help keep things interesting.

At several points in the novel I wondered how much of the story is autobiographical. There are some similarities between Selig and Silverberg. Both from Brooklyn, both studied at Columbia, both with an intense interest in literature. I haven't come across any biographies that mention Silverberg being Jewish but, given his name, it is certainly possible. A writer peering into the head of his characters (or his own head if you support the idea that all characters are some aspect of the author) is not that different from reading the mind of the people around you. Selig seem to make the link between the loss of his talent and his diminishing sexual prowess. More than one critic has pointed out the parallel between the loss of Selig's talent and Silverberg's loss of joy in the creative process. Something that apparently appears in different forms in other novels from this period and may have contributed to his first retirement. It sounds plausible to me but given my unfamiliarity with Silverberg's work I have no idea how accurate it is.

Selig is a very depressing character during most of the book. His life is an unhappy one. He thinks of his talent as a curse most of the time although loosing it upsets him greatly as well. Reading the minds of others is often painful to him. Their true opinion and motives are completely clear to him and it often includes things he'd rather not hear about himself. He finds it almost impossible start a relationship with a women when he can read her mind and the few times that he does try, it inevitably ends in disaster. One of he most telling examples of Selig's problems with his talent is when he takes a peak in the mind of the woman he is making love to and finds she can spare not a single thought about him when she is about to climax. Not entirely unexpected perhaps, but it is a devastating experience nonetheless. It is the leitmotiv of his life I guess, people don't really want to know the truth of what other people think of them and Selig shows us why. They shade the truth, hedge or outright lie in order to function socially. I do wonder if the emphasis Selig puts on the ugly things he finds in the minds of those around him isn't a bit overdone. Do doubts, fears, distaste and anger really outweigh the positive things that must be present in a person as well? His reaction to knowing what people think may say more about Selig himself than the people he reads.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that Selig's talent can be used for personal gain. Selig does so himself in various, usually petty ways but not until he meets Tom Nyquist does he realize the full extend of what is possible. Nyquist is the only other character we meet that has David's talent and he is quite unapologetic about it. He makes lots of easy money on Wallstreet with inside trading and is not adverse to using his talent to manipulate people. Selig is amazed and repulsed by his style of living, Nyquist life is one of luxury but Selig feels it is empty and ends up disgusted with him. Embracing his talent in that way makes Nyquist a lot more comfortable with himself than Selig is however, and to Selig, Nyquist can't lie about that.

Another striking thing about Selig's view on the world is how much it revolves around sex. It motivates our actions to a much greater extend than many people would be comfortable admitting but since Selig tends to see right through others, it is very much exposed to him. Finding partners is rarely a problem for him since he knows for certain who is available and interested. Which of course takes something of thrill of the chase away. Where sexual attraction or desires are mostly kept hidden for others, something not discussed openly or at best considered very private, it is completely exposed to Selig from a young age. It gives him a unique perspective on these matters and Silverberg is not afraid to expose his readers to it. He succeeds in showing the reader why this is as uncomfortably to Selig as it is to his surrounding.

I can see why this is a notable book among it's contemporaries. Silverberg approaches the novel in a way you don't see a lot in science fiction novels. It is a pretty dark and introspective book. I'm not sure everybody will appreciate the ending but I thought it was fitting. Dying Inside is a book that can make the reader uncomfortable by laying bare the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters. It usually isn't pretty, but like it or not, most of us will recognize a lot in what Selig is exposed to. I can see why this novel is one of the more highly regarded novels of the period. Some Science Fiction novels age badly. In some ways this is a novel of its time but certainly highly readable today. I'm going to have to read some more Silverberg.

Book Details
Title: Dying Inside
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 199
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07585-2
First published: 1972

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Ice Dragon - George R.R. Martin

The Ice Dragon is one of Martin's fantastical short stories. As much as I love the Ice and Fire novels that are currently inescapable as the premier of the second season of HBO's Game of Thrones draws nearer, I think some of Martin's stronger work is in his short fiction. There are lots of collections of his short fiction but the real fan will want to read the career spanning behemoth Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, which collects the highlight of more than three decades of Martin's writing and weighs in at some 1200 pages.  It also contains the original version of The Ice Dragon, which was first published in 1980 in Dragons of the Light, an anthology edited by Orson Scott Card.

This original version is a story for adults but told from a child's perspective. Over the years people have told Martin it would make a fine children's tale with a bit of minor editing and in 2006, Starscape published this volume. I don't have my copy of Dreamsongs on hand right now, but from memory I would say the editing is light indeed. I do recall one scene towards the end of the story where the horrors of war are described in a way not suitable for a children's book, but other than that, I think it is mostly the same story. Starscape did add lots of interior illustrations by British illustrator Yvonne Gilbert, who also created the cover for the book. Despite the relatively minor changes, the combination of the editing and the illustrations do change the story into a children's tale, even if Martin's dark narrative voice is still clearly present. Many people have questioned the wisdom of Martin to do that many side projects but personally I think some very interesting stuff comes out of it.

In one of the harshest winters in living memory, Adara is born to a family of farmers. Her mother does not survive the birth and Adara herself comes into the world blue with the intense cold. The cold seems to have marked her and it  is said Adara is winter's child. She loves it when the increasingly long winters bring cold, snow and ice but she does not really understand the meaning of her nickname until she meets the Ice Dragon.

Many people seem to believe this story is set in the same world as A Song of Ice and Fire. To my knowledge, Martin never stated it was and he wrote the original version more than a decade before he started work on A Game of Thrones. There are some superficial similarities, the pre-gunpowder civilization and the presence of dragons in particular, but other than that, there is very little that can be linked to that world. It hasn't stopped the Dutch publisher to proclaim it a story set in that world. I suppose if you insist it can be made to fit, but I prefer to see it as a work that stands on it's own.

That is not to say ice and fire are not very much part of the story. Martin explores the associations people have with these words on the emotional level. Adara appears cold and distant, it makes her a bit of a loner. A child even her own father can't get close to, or really love for that matter. The dilemma Adara's father faces is probably one of the elements the more mature reader will appreciate in this story. Appearances can be deceiving however, Adara is not without love or joy. She just expresses them in places where there is nobody around to witness them. Martin plays with these perceptions of warm an cold personality traits. It makes Adara appear a strange little girl sometimes, a girl some readers might not like a whole lot. Likeable or not, it's an interesting choice of themes though. Adara is more misunderstood than cold when you get right down to it.

We see the entire story through the eyes of Adara, who is four to seven years old in the main part of the story. Her view of the world is fairly limited, but though the conversations of her father and uncle, the reader gets some idea of what is going on in her world. Adara doesn't always understand what she hears but the more mature reader will. It creates a mix of the fairytale world Adara lives in and the bleaker world adults live in. Like many of Martin's short stories, The Ice Dragon is a tragedy. The ending of the story is bittersweet and in line with what one would expect of a fairytale but when you get right down to it, it still contains traces of the adult version.

Martin is not a writer to shy away from war or violence and they do appear in this story. Where the war is far away and something abstract to Adara early in the story, it comes very close towards the end. Although the dragon distracts from it a little, in essence it is a pretty dark story. Personally, I don't think you need to avoid death in children's books. One of the finest examples I've come across, although of a very different nature is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. It can be done, and while Martin certainly is no Lindgren, I don't think his choice of themes is unsuitable.

I think I am going to have to reread the original version to work out which of the two I like better. Martin reworked into an interesting children's tale however. A story that I think shows some of this strengths as a writer. It is a story that takes readers of any age seriously and that hides a lot of complexity under Adara's limited view of events. Given the different ways in which adults and children can enjoy this story, it strikes me as a book that is very suitable to be read together. I think I wouldn't have minded having this one read to me as a child. Martin is a very versatile writer, the way this story has been adapted reveals another aspect of his skill.

Book Details
Title: The Ice Dragon
Author: George R.R. Martin
Illustrations: Yvonne Gilbert
Publisher: Starscape Books
Pages: 112
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5539-3
First published: 2006