Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A War of Gifts

Anyone who knows anything about me (or at least about my taste in books) will tell you that Ender's Game is, without a doubt, my favorite book (with Speaker for the Dead not far behind).  Given this, you might have expected me to rave about a "new" Ender story.  Not only that, but a Christmas-themed Ender story!  Sadly, this is not the case.  A War of Gifts (2007) is just not a compelling story.  Nor is it written particularly well.

A War of Gifts is a short novel set during the time when Ender is at the Battle School.  The story follows Zeck, a boy with an evangelical Christian upbringing in rural North Carolina.  Upon reaching Battle School, he chafes under the military rule prohibiting the practice of religion and refuses to participate in mock battles.  Along about the middle of the story (I say this because the different threads of the story are only loosely connected most of the time), a fellow student decides to buck the system by participating in a Dutch Christmas tradition.  Soon, the entire Battle School is in a gift-giving frenzy much to the chagrin of the administration.  Zeck confronts the Battle School commander about the unfairness of the situation and is told that belief in Santa Clause does not constitute a religion.  Seeing his teammate struggle with the meaning of his religion, Ender, the consummate empath, steps in to help Zeck reconcile his beliefs.  In the process, Zeck learns some hard truths about his own upbringing.

One of the hangups I had with the novel is that Card has evolved his characters far past the confines of the original Ender novels (i.e. the Shadow novels).  [Don't get me wrong--this is not a bad thing.  Card has the right to do whatever he wants with his creation].  As a consequence of this, the style in which he presently writes the Battle School children seems quite different than that in Ender's Game (and Ender's Shadow for that matter).  These differences were distracting enough for me to detract from A War of Gifts.

I can't help but think that A War of Gifts has great potential to be a better novel.  Card strains to impart some sort of message about religion in general, but I'm at a loss to say what it is.  This, combined with the lackluster writing, makes A War of Gifts a book only for those die-hard fans who thirst to read anything Ender-related.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Road

My latest read, The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy, came highly recommended by a friend.  Boy, am I glad he suggested I read it.  It is a deeply affecting story--one with the rare power to shift one's perception of the world and one's place within it.
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."
So begins The Road.  And let me tell you, the story doesn't get a whole lot cheerier for the rest of the 250-page novel.  The narrative follows an unnamed man and his son as they wander a vast, dark landscape in the aftermath of some apocalyptic event.  Details are left ambiguous, but the great majority of life on Earth has perished.  The ash-covered land is barren and hostile, and the man and boy are fighting a daily struggle to subsist.  As they head south across the wasteland to escape the oncoming winter, they must scavenge for food and water and fend off other travelers along the road.

But the novel really isn't about the narrative.  This is not to say that there aren't a few seriously intense moments--there are.  But the true centerpiece of The Road is the relationship between the man and his son.  The simple love the father shows toward the child is remarkable in the midst of the almost unbearable agony of survival.  He is endlessly patient with the boy, constantly teaches him, gives him his own space when necessary, and, above all, acts as a wellspring of comfort.  The man is the archetypal parent--the kind we all hope to be. Being a fairly new parent myself, this theme resonated strongly with me.

Toward the beginning of the The Road, I confess I was trying to (over)analyze parts of the novel.  It seemed there was an inconsistency between the boy's life experience and his behavior.  At another point, when being given a glimpse of the family's past, I was incredulous at the callousness of the boy's mother.  About halfway through the novel, I realized that I was missing the point.  McCarthy chose to draw the characters the way he does for a reason.  After all, they have been completely shaped by the apocalypse, something which I (thankfully) have not yet encountered.  I needed to sit back and let myself be shaped by the novel.

The overall style of the novel can only be described as sparse.  There is little dialog, and even less in the the way of overt action.  Yet, The Road is infused with a richness that defies the spare prose.  In its pages, the characters (and by extension, the reader) wrestle with huge questions: What is the purpose of one's life?  What is death?  Who or what is God?  What is the essential difference between good and evil?  While there are no concrete revelations to be had, I feel closer to understanding some of these things than before picking up the novel.

To me, The Road is a true tour de force.  McCarthy uses a fairly simple concept, sparse language, and a couple of characters to fashion something altogether breathtaking.  And, furthermore, he makes it seem completely effortless.  The Road might well be the best book I've read this year!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Leper of St. Giles

A short review this time as I'm in danger of falling hopelessly behind in my reviews!

The Leper of Saint Giles (1981) is the fifth installment in the Brother Cadfael series of medieval mystery novels (see my previous entry for general information on the circumstances of the series).  I'm in the middle of casually (re)reading the novels.

The novel opens as a wedding party makes its way to Shrewsbury Abbey.  A callous, middle-aged noble, Huon de Domville, is marrying Iveta de Massard, a young maiden whose grandfather Cadfael knew from the First Crusade.  It is immediately obvious to all present that this is a marriage arranged by the maiden's guardians for the sole purpose of advancing their own fortunes rather than for the happiness of Iveta.

Shortly after their arrival in the village, Cadfael stumbles upon Iveta and Joscelin Lucy, a young squire in the employ of de Domville, in his workshop.  The two, secretly in love, have met to console each other over the impending nuptials.  In a fit of youthful indiscretion, the young man declares to Cadfael that he would go so far as to commit murder to prevent Iveta from marrying.

Not so surprisingly, the next morning de Domville is found murdered in the forest.  The hunt is soon on for the squire, who takes refuge a place that lies wholly separate from normal medieval society--a leper colony run by the monks on the outskirts of town.  The novel has a fascinating description of how and why lepers set themselves apart from society during the Middle Ages.  Brother Cadfael, being a softy at heart when it comes to young lovers, is determined to get the bottom of the de Domville's murder to absolve Joscelin of the crime.

I would rate The Leper of Saint Giles the best of the series that I have (re)read so far (mind you, I've only read three so far).  The pace is swift, and Peters' characters are, as always, well drawn out.  The descriptions of medieval society, and, specifically, the place of lepers within it, really made this novel stand out from the others.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gardens of the Moon

I caught wind of Gardens of the Moon (1999) in a thread of recommended books over on BGG.  I had not heard of it before and was surprised to see that it has garnered an almost fanatical following among some internet circles (the kind that argue over whether GRRM's ASOIAF or Tolkein's LOR is the best series EVAR!).  The internet fanboys promised world building on a grand scale, an intricate plot, lots of epic battle scenes, complex magic system, etc.  Basically all the things that make D&D-raised fantasy readers drool over.  Well, it is certainly epic enough--as it turns out, GotM is the first installment in a 10-volume series known as 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen' (which has thankfully been completed as of this writing...always something to worry about when embarking on reading an epic fantasy series).  While the novel does deliver on most of these promises, it does so in an almost infuriatingly convoluted way.

GotM takes place in a world dominated by the Malazan Empire, a human government attempting to conquer anything and everything it can get its hands on.  I certainly wouldn't want to spend much time in this world--everything is dark and gritty with evidence of war and despair everywhere.  Perhaps the most striking feature of the Malazan universe and, indeed, what sets it apart from other fantasy series, is the complexity and importance of magic which is controlled through an enigmatic construct known as a 'warren.'  In addition to different human factions, there are a number of non-human (but also non-elf/dwarf/[insert conventional fantasy race here]) races running around in the background controlling different and altogether more ancient kinds of sorcery.  Did I also mention that there are gods battling with one another to control the action?  Perhaps you are getting the picture here.  Erikson, an archaeologist and anthropologist by training, has created a complex universe that, while well-realized, is somewhat difficult to approach (much less internalize fully) at the outset.

Couple this fantasy setting with a plot that matches it in complexity.  My attempt at a complete summary would frankly be laughable given my level of confusion throughout most of the novel.  Basically, the Malazan empire has come up against some stiff resistance from a mysterious group of warrior mages that ally themselves with the remaining free cities.  In addition, the Malazans face internal dangers from an army that is growing increasingly loyal to its commander.  The action centers around the struggle within Darujhistan, one of the last holdouts against the empire, and how the many different factions (soldiers, mages, residents of the city, gods) try to manipulate events, and are, in turn, manipulated by each other.

I've not been so seriously challenged reading what I thought was a light, "for-fun" read in a long time.  The causes for this are manifold, but most prominent is the unusual plot structure employed by Erikson to tell his story.  We are literally thrown head first into the middle of a complex plot with no context to the characters, their actions, their relation to one another, etc.  This is not to say that there isn't a lot of background information given.  Quite the opposite is true--there are dozens of characters, locations, and past events thrown at you.  Right up until the end of the novel, I never seemed to grasp enough information to satisfy me that I actually understand what was happening at any given time.  The best comparison I can make is to the TV show Lost...understanding the island's mysteries never seemed that far away if only you could get that one critical piece of information that would make everything clear.  Reading the novel was certainly not a chore, but it did require some focused attention.

Despite my bafflement, GotM has whetted my appetite for more of the Malazan universe.  I really (really, really) want to see how the major plot lines play out.  So, perhaps GotM has done what its author intended!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

St. Peter's Fair

[Note:  I listened to this as an audiobook.]

After reading a novel here and there for many years, I've recently set out to (re)read Ellis Peters' 'Brother Cadfael' series of historical mysteries in its entirety.  St. Peter's Fair (1981) is the fourth installment in the series and takes place in Shrewsbury in the summer of 1139 during the period known as The Anarchy.

Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk, serves as an herbalist at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury.  Far from being an ordinary monk, Cadfael has extensive experience in the outside world and even participated in the First Crusade to liberate the Holy Land.  After an adventurous life, he has settled down into quiet contemplation as a man of the cloth.  His keen powers of observation and the ability to read people make him well suited to the solving of various crimes--something which he does on a fairly regular basis!

In St. Peter's Fair, we find Shrewsbury still recovering from a siege by the forces of King Stephen the previous summer.  It is the eve of the fair of St. Peter (surprise!), an annual event organized by the abbey where merchants from the surrounding regions gather to trade with one another.  The fair is lucrative business, both for the merchants and the abbey, which receives a proportion of the profits through various tolls, taxes, and offerings.

The townspeople see their chance to recoup some of the damage done during last summer's seige and approach the abbey to demand that a portion of the tolls and taxes go to repair the town's defenses.  The prior refuses, citing the royal charter that grants it the rights to all income from the fair.  It is into this tense atmosphere that a throng of traders arrives at the start of the three day fair.  There soon erupts a confrontation between a gang of rambunctious Shrewsbury youths and a merchant of some renown.  When he is found dead the following day, the abbey (and, of course, Brother Cadfael) is drawn into a plot that could threaten the stability of England as a whole.

Ellis Peters has written another excellent little mystery which is both entertaining and engaging.  She does a convincing job of turning a fairly commonplace murder of a merchant into a plot having wide implications for the security of the realm.  There isn't much to be said in the way of critique for St. Peter's Fair!

Monday, October 18, 2010


I finished reading Imperium (2006) by Robert Harris quite a while ago but have only now gotten around to writing up a review.  I feel like I'm cheating the novel a bit--it was so good it deserves an in-depth review, but in the interest of playing catchup on the blog, I'm going to make it fairly short!

Imperium follows the early life and burgeoning political career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered by most to be the greatest orator ever produced by Rome.  From humble beginnings outside Rome, Cicero lacks the ancestral mystique and familial connections used by many of Rome's young politicians to jump start their careers.  Instead, Cicero is forced to rely on his intelligence and political acumen to climb his way up the cursus honorum toward the consulship.

The story is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's slave and lifelong secretary.  Tiro is accredited with having devised a shorthand system in order to transcribe the high volume of Latin dictations required by Cicero's verbosity.  In fact, his writing system was so useful, it was widely used throughout ancient Rome and even as late as the Middle Ages by monks!  Tiro makes for an interesting narrator as he is critical to Cicero's success but as a slave will ultimately always remain bereft of true power.  There are a few poignant scenes in the novel where Tiro longs for nothing more than to be freed and settle down to a pastoral life but realizes it would only doom him to a life of obscurity away from Cicero's side.  Simply put, it is clear that Cicero and Tiro need each other to function to the best of their abilities.

Imperium is a truly excellent novel.  Outside of McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series, it is probably the best Roman historical fiction I've read.  I was a bit let down when I reached the end of Imperium which ends just as Cicero attains the consulship in 63 BC.  For goodness sakes, Cicero plays such a pivotal role in the years to come that it would be cheating him out of his due to end there!  What about the Cataline conspiracy?  His opposition to Mark Antony?  Give me more!  Well, happily, I discovered that Imperium is the first of a trilogy of novels about Cicero by Harris, so there is much more to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Un Lun Dun

I was excited to finally get a chance to read Un Lun Dun (2007) by China Mieville when the book finally came up on my PBS wishlist (I think I'd been in line for almost two years waiting for it...).  Mieville is arguably one of the best talents to appear on the science/fantasy/weird fiction scene in the last decade. His Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) were absolutely stunning novels, and I see that The City & The City (2010) finally netted him the big one, a Hugo Award, to add to his growing collection of honors.

In a major departure from these previous works, which were most definitely adult-themed, Un Lun Dun is geared toward a younger audience.  I'd say a middle schooler could read the book and understand the plot fine, but some thematic devices  and language complexity add a level of sophistication to the writing.  I didn't think the book simplistic in the least (this was my major criticism of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman), so readers of "serious" fiction should not hesitate to pick up Un Lun Dun.  I hate to drag out the well-worn 'If you like Neil Gaiman's [insert novel title here], you'll like [insert novel here]' line but, in this case, it rings true.

The story opens with a couple of friends, Zanna and Deeba, who begin to experience some fairly strange things in their everyday life.  One such event, when a broken umbrella is very obviously spying on them from outside a window, leads them to the strange land of UnLondon (hence the name of the novel) which turns out to be a nonsensical mirror of the real London.  UnLondon is inhabited by a vast array of characters that may or may not be human, and most of the objects in the city are a strange collection of things that have been cast off in London as junk.

Amid this strange setting, Zanna and Deeba learn that UnLondon is being threatened by a powerful enemy known as The Smog.  The Smog, as it turns out, is a cloud of smog (think the smoke monster from Lost) that burns anything it can get its tendrils on to grow larger and more powerful.  An ancient prophecy forcasts a Chosen One (the 'Shwazzy') who will save the city from The Smog.  Zanna is immediately recognized as The Shwazzy, but in her first battle with Mr. Smog, she is incapacitated and returns home to London in a debilitated state.

This leaves Deeba (The UnChosen) to save her friend by herself in a series of interesting adventures that are so outlandish that my description couldn't do them justice.  Besides, part of the fun of the book is seeing what crazy thing is around the next corner and what clever pun it will be built upon.  Along the way she picks up a motley group of friends who turn out to be indispensable to her quest.  Mieville throws in a good number of ink illustrations in the pages to help us imagine some of the stranger encounters.

Un Lun Dun deliberately turns a number of time-honored fantasy conventions on their head.  It so happens that the hero chosen by fate turns out to be fairly useless, the all-important quest objects required to reach the ultimate goal go unclaimed by our heroes, and the book of UnLondon prophecy turns out to be almost wholly inaccurate.

I admit that I somewhat struggled to become engaged by Un Lun Dun.  The chaotic, disorderly nature of UnLondon combined with Mieville unveiling it in short bursts (the 300 page book has nearly 100 chapters) prevented me from establishing a strong connection with the setting as a whole.  This being said, there can be no argument that the novel is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and, in the end, I quite enjoyed it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Where Men Win Glory

My latest read came highly recommended by my dad, who I would describe as a huge Jon Krakauer fan.  I must confess that I read about half of Krakauer's book Into the Wild based on several recommendations, and while it was very readable, could not establish much of a connection with the story.  So, I wasn't sure what I would make of Where Men Win Glory (2009) since it is definitely not a book that I would have chosen to read on my own.  Well, I'm certainly glad I gave it a chance--it was a deeply affecting and, dare I say, perspective-altering experience.

At its heart, Where Men Win Glory is a biographical sketch of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who left behind a successful career (and, I hasten to add, his wife of only a year) to enlist in the United States Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He was subsequently killed in Afghanistan in 2004 as a result of friendly fire.  I must admit before reading this book that I hadn't really given Tillman much credit in the hero department--I only vaguely remembered the story that had been put out in the mainstream media (much of which, as it turns out, was a complete fabrication).

Krakauer spends the first half of the book examining the personality and motives of Tillman, with much of the material culled from Tillman's personal journals. These pages are well spent.  As it turns out, Tillman was the complete opposite of what I expected him to be.  Instead of fitting the classic jock stereotype, he is revealed to be a deeply thoughtful individual who felt an almost instinctual need to serve his country in the wake of 9/11.  This is in spite of the fact that he had considerable qualms over the morality or justice of the war effort of which he was to be part.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and time spent in Afghanistan on the ground, Krakauer proceeds to paint a vivid picture of the incident that ultimately resulted in Tillman's death.  The description is so intense that during the firefight scene I found myself shrinking down a bit in my chair to avoid an imagined hail of gunfire.  It was fairly agonizing reading this section, all the time knowing what was coming--I found myself irrationally hoping that Tillman might escape unscathed.  Sadly, that was not the case.

The final portion of the book describes the aftermath of the death of Pat Tillman and, more specifically, the lengths to which the United States government went to obscure the truth of the incident.  The conclusion that the Bush White House and the US Army ill-used the legacy of Pat Tillman is inescapable.  Perhaps the most egregious decision by the powers-that-be was to withhold the real circumstances surrounding Tillman's death from his wife, brother, and parents.  It was not until the media finally got wind of the real story that the Army was essentially forced to confess the truth.

Where Men Win Glory is an imminently readable book and a fitting tribute to Tillman and his family.  I leave you with a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche (found in the book) which I found a poignant description of the life and legacy of Pat Tillman:

I love him who does not hold back one drop of spirit for himself, but wants to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides over the bridge as spirit.  I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe:  for his virtue's sake he wants to live on and to live no longer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SPQR I: The King's Gambit

It seems like the majority of books I read are part of some series or another.  I can't quite figure out why.  Well, this time it is no different--The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts (1990) is the first book in his SPQR (standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the official name of the Republic) series of mystery novels set in the late Roman Republic.

The events in The King's Gambit take place in 70 BC during a fairly contentious time in Rome (was there ever not a contentious time in Rome after the exploits of the Gracchi brothers?).  The Republic (such as it was at this point) was just coming out of the nightmare that was the reign of Marius and Sulla.  Pompey, a mere Italian provincial, had been vaulted into the Roman elite after a series of unprecedented military commands.  Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and also an able military commander, was jealous of Pompey and would stop at nothing to outdo him.  Both coveted the command of Lucius Lucullus, who was off in the East prosecuting a war against the wily King Mithridates of Pontus.

It is in this climate that we find Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, a young Roman senator in charge of keeping the peace in the Subura, a rather seedy precinct of Rome.  He is called upon to investigate what at first seems like a typical murder of a freed slave.  After other bodies begin to pile up, and an arson burns a warehouse owned by a wealthy foreign merchant, Decius Metellus begins to realize that a conspiracy is afoot.  He soon uncovers a plot to subvert the command of Lucullus the East.  Needless to say, this enterprise goes right to the top of the Roman power hierarchy, bringing Decius Metellus into direct conflict with many a famous personage.

In the end, Decius Metellus does, of course, discover what is going on.  Readers that are sticklers for justice might be somewhat disappointed with the ending of The King's Gambit since the culprit essentially gets away with their crimes.  I would argue that this is a fitting ending, given that justice was in fairly short supply during fall of the Roman Republic!

The King's Gambit is a light read with several things going for it.  First, and perhaps most importantly to me, the novel is set against a historically accurate backdrop.  The majority of characters in the novel did exist (the major exception being Decius Metellus himself) and the major events portrayed unfolded essentially as described by Roberts.  Second, the character of Decius Metellus is an interesting narrator who always has some insight into Roman politics or cutting remark about an individual to share.  For example, when a crowd is gathered in the Forum to listen to one of the consuls speak about latest foreign threat to Rome, Decius Metellus wryly thinks to himself that Romans had more to fear from their own leaders than anything a foreign power could throw at them.  These kinds of lines make for entertaining reading, and I've heard that Decius Metellus's narration in the following books of the series gets even better.  I will definitely be checking out the second installment of SPQR sometime soon.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152

Mouse Guard is a delightful comic book series that I recently stumbled across.  This volume, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, collects the first story arc (six issues of the comic series) into a single paperback graphic novel.  It is fabulous!

In the world of Mouse Guard, intelligent mice live in isolated settlements scattered throughout the land.  The mice, being small and delicious, are constantly on the alert for predators lurking within their domain.  The Mouse Guard was formed to do just what the name suggests--protect mice and their interests in the wider world.   Comparisons to the Redwall books by Brian Jacques are inevitable, but Petersen's creation can easily stand on its own.

The story picks up as the Guard is recovering after a hard fought war with the weasels and getting back to its peacetime functions--escorting merchant mice, blazing new trails, and generally keeping watch over the mouse population.  Three members of the Guard (pictured on the cover) are sent to investigate the disappearance of a merchant on a routine journey through the mouse lands.  During the routine mission, they uncover evidence that there is a traitor inside the Guard and the rush is on to save Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard's fortress home.  It is a cute, short story with fairly predictable character types, but what do you expect from a short comic pilot series?

While the story might be slightly lacking in complexity, what really makes Mouse Guard stand out is its absolutely beautiful art!  I'm not sure any description if mine (vibrant color, rich texturing, great small details) could really do it justice, so take a peek at a couple of panels:

While there is a fair amount of violence, it is not overdone. In fact, there were times that I was having some trouble figuring out who was injured in a given fight sequence.  This being said, I probably wouldn't recommend mouse guard for your really little ones due to its fairly realistic portrayals of battle.

Given that this is the pilot series, I can forgive the light plot--the artwork more than makes up for it.  Did I mention how good the art is?  I am now an affirmed Mouse Guard fan and can't wait to read the second volume which covers the events of winter 1152.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Gunslinger

I was so excited by the news this past week that a trilogy of movies (not to mention two TV series!) based on The Dark Tower novels is being produced that I ran to the bookshelf to set about rereading one of my favorite (science fiction-western-horror-fantasy) series of all time.  Not a task to be undertaken lightly since all told the series runs several thousand trade paperback pages!

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Great first line, eh?  So begins The Gunslinger (1982), the first installment in Stephen King's epic seven book Dark Tower series.  In it we meet Roland Deschain as he travels across a desolate wasteland in pursuit of a mysterious sorceror.  This episode is only the latest trial in a life-long quest to reach his ultimate destination:  the enigmatic Dark Tower.

Roland, thin and tough as a piece of old leather, is the last surviving gunslinger. In the baronies of Roland's homeland, the gunslingers were an honorable lot and acted as a sort of peace keeper and diplomat combined into one. Under increasing pressure from malevolent forces, the gunslingers (and, indeed, civilized society itself) eventually collapsed in the wake of a monumental struggle with said forces.  Roland now stands (or more accurately, wanders) alone and has sworn a vow to seek the ultimate source of creation, the Dark Tower. This quest puts him directly at odds with the aforementioned malevolent forces who seek to destroy the tower for their own nefarious purposes.

The world which Roland inhabits is strangely reminiscent of our own and, indeed, contains many familiar elements. There are remnants of technology strewn about the desolate landscape, though Roland professes to not understand many of these devices.  Moreover, some cultural references (for instance, the song 'Hey Jude') are shared with our own world.  These elements suggest that the setting of The Gunslinger is a strange sort of parallel universe or perhaps lies somewhere in the distant  future of our own reality.  Roland claims that his world has "moved on" and hints that this might be caused by straying away from the ancient ways of magic. The odd incongruities between Roland's world and our own set up a kind of disoriented feeling in the reader and nicely enhance the overall mood of the novel.

The Gunslinger recounts Roland's pursuit of Walter, the mysterious man in black (though you may know him as Randall Flagg from The Stand), across the nameless desert.  Along the way he encounters a number of situations that reveal themselves to be traps placed in his way by Walter to test his resolve.  In one encounter, the town of Tull is whipped into a religious frenzy and attempts to lynch Roland.  The townspeople ultimately learn what it is like to be on Roland's bad side (i.e. at the end of his gun--he doesn't have the title gunslinger for nothing).  Roland survives the tests, though not without some serious psychological pain.  Not surprisingly, the climax of the novel comes when Roland does, in fact, catch up to Walter.  Instead of a titanic showdown, some serious philosophizing ensues, predictions about the future are made, and Roland is left alone next to a great sea to ponder how to proceed with his quest.  [PLEASE NOTE:  I'm intentionally glossing over the plot here...I don't want to reveal too much.]

It was interesting to reread this novel after gaining some perspective by reading the rest of the series.  The novel was genuinely more enjoyable.  In particular, there is a fairly stark contrast between the Roland of The Gunslinger and the Roland presented in the later novels.  In this novel, he seems to be fairly flat and nearly void of emotion (at least on the surface), and his actions in The Gunslinger certainly reinforce this view.  It takes some time for the reader to become sympathetic to Roland's cause.  After my initial reading of the book, I was fairly unenthusiastic about continuing to follow what, at the time, seemed a flawed, unlikable character.  It is not until such time that his ka-tet has been formed that the true character of Roland is revealed (and after the events chronicled in Wizard and Glass, I don't think anyone in their right mind could not help but sympathize with Roland).

Remember that The Gunslinger servers as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythos and really only begins to scratch its surface.  The novel is carefully constructed to lay the groundwork for the epic story that follows in the later novels.  Taken on its own, I would call it only a passable effort for a novel--there are intriguing parts but not a fabulously enjoyable read (hence the mediocre hamster number).  When viewed in the context of  the rest of the Dark Tower story, however, it is a fitting start to a truly grand (science fiction-western-horror-fantasy) adventure!

[I finally got around to creating a graphic to indicate half steps in the hamster rating scale.  Please do not be alarmed--I want to state categorically that I do not condone violence toward hamsters!]

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom

Chung Kuo:  The Middle Kingdom (1989) is the first volume of David Wingrove's massive Chung Kuo science fiction series.  I read most of the series a long time ago and recently decided to revisit the novel(s).  After reading it the first time, I was fairly amazed that the series as a whole has gotten so little attention from scifi readers.  After this read, I find it to be nearly as good as I remember--not a literary novel by any means, just solid, shoot-from-the-hip adventure and intrigue.  I would rate it 3.5 hamsters if my silly system allowed me to do so!

The novel is set in a future Earth where China (or at least Chinese culture) dominates the world.  The events leading to this massive shift in world culture have not been made clear (though a prequel novel to be released soon might shed some light on how it originates).  At any rate, the continents of Earth are ruled by a council of seven T'angs, who are akin to Chinese emperors and have absolute control over the life and death of the populace.  The family of Li Shai Tung, the T'ang of Europe, is at the heart of the plot in Chung Kuo: TMK.

The entire population of Earth lives in a 300-story structure made of a super plastic material known only as Ice.  Success in Chung Kuo (which is, incidentally, the ancient name for China itself, meaning 'The Middle Kingdom') is measured by where you reside in the structure:  residents of the highest levels are those with the most power, while lowborn citizens are confined in the dirty, chaotic lower levels.  Underneath Chung Kuo lies 'The Clay', where packs of humans live feral lives at best.  The world-building in the novel is absolutely fantastic; Wingrove's Chung Kuo provides a wonderful setting in which the plot unfolds.

When we pick up the story, the T'angs are coming under increased pressure from a faction of wealthy industrialists and their political allies (known as the Dispersionists) for reforms.  As seems to be the case with just about any entrenched ruler, the T'angs seek to avoid loosening their grip on power at any cost.  They are particularly loathe to allow any sort of Western influence to work its way into society.  This conflict in ideoology eventually leads to a bitter clash known as the 'War of Two Directions' for control of Chung Kuo and, with it, the population of Earth.

The novel tells the story from the viewpoints of a number of characters as they are swept into the unfolding  struggle for power. As a result, we get a view of Chung Kuo society from the absolute top (the leaders of both factions) down to the lowest of the low (a Clay-born boy).  There are a TON of characters in the novel and a lot of them have Chinese names.  It is somewhat overwhelming at first, but the book has a handy cast of characters section to help readers keep them straight.

To be clear:  Chung Kuo: TMK  is not without its faults.  Wingrove most definitely falls prey to a good dose of Orientalism every now and then (a definition from wikipedia: preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies).  Hmm...sounds a lot like the whole plot of the book, doesn't it?  While the menace was always looming close, I feel like Wingrove only grossly fell prey to it on a few occasions.  The reader will have to decide if this taints the whole novel--I don't think it does.

If you go to any book website and read reviews of Chung Kuo: TMK, you will see that much has been made about its violence.  In fact, the most strident objections are raised over one sexually explicit scene in the book that lasts for maybe five pages.  As with most anything you read on the internet, take these rather strangely impassioned reviews with a grain of salt.  Yes, the scene is explicit.  Yes, it is uncomfortable reading.  BUT:  the scene is not gratuitous and does serve a purpose.  Namely, to cement in readers' minds the evilness of the leader of the Dispersionist faction, who, up until that point, may have turned out only to be an ideological hardliner.  Who knows how many people have been scared away from reading what is a fairly good novel because of these reactionary reviews?

Despite some flaws, Chung Kuo: TMK is a great start to what can only be described as an epic science fiction series.  As I said in the introduction--if you are looking for a deep book, put down Chung Kuo immediately and pick up the likes of Hyperion instead.  Instead, if you go in expecting a well-written series with plenty of interesting characters and adventures, you won't be let down!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The (second) Uplift Trilogy: Review

Alright, so you may have surmised from my last post that I really enjoyed reading Brin's second Uplift trilogy.  Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998) contain so many thought-provoking ideas wrapped up in an exciting plot, how could I not rate it highly?  [This is yet another example of how I need half steps in my rating system--I would give it 4.5 hamsters if I had a suitable graphic!]

First off--do you need to have read the previous Uplift novels to make sense of the story in this series?  The answer is definitely not as the essential details (particularly the events of Startide Rising [1983]) are revealed as remembrances of the characters.  But, on the other hand,  it certainly couldn't hurt.  I read the first Uplift books many years ago and had only a vague remembrance of the plot, and I did just fine.  The better question is why haven't you read them yet anyway?

The story opens on Jijo, a backwoods planet that has been declared fallow by the galactic Institute of Migration so that its ecosystem might have time to recover after use by its former inhabitants.  Here we find a society forged by members of six species (of which humans are one) who have independently colonized the planet for different reasons but with the same intent--to drop out of galactic society.  Unauthorized use of the planet is, of course, highly illegal in the eyes of galactic law.  As a result, the colonists have forsaken galactic technology and strive to leave no mark upon Jijo that might give them away from space. These circumstances have led to the development of a uniquely Jijoan religion based around the hope of regressing to a pre-sentient state by fostering a more primitive lifestyle.  If this state can be achieved, perhaps the Jijoans will be discovered by a new patron species and uplifted to a more perfect state.  This concept permeates every aspect of Jijoan culture.

Despite a somewhat fractious pass, the sooner species have forged peaceful bonds, united in their striving for redemption in the form of devolution.  This fairly idyllic life is shattered when a starship descends to the planet surface in the middle of an annual gathering of the six species.  It is soon discovered that these newcomers are not agents of the galactic government, but are, instead, criminals looking to raid fallow planets for species that may be ready for the uplift process.  This revelation sparks a fierce debate among different Jijoan factions, and the first half of the trilogy deals with the upheaval caused by the conflict.

Unbeknownst to just about everyone on the planet, two other spaceships have also arrived on Jijo.  The Streaker, from Earth and crewed by uplifted dolphins, has been on the run from most of the galaxy for several years following a spectacular discovery with implications for the identity of the revered Progenitors (detailed in Startide Rising).  The second ship, from the feared Jophur clan, has arrived in pursuit of the Streaker.  Streaker's predicament slowly transitions to the fore of the plot and drives the action for the remainder of series when a group of Jijoans are caught up in the trouble and forced to leave the planet.  It turns out that the Streaker has a pivotal role to play in deciding the fate of not only humankind but that of galactic civilization at large!

The characterization of the dolphins aboard Streaker is definitely one of the high points of the novels.  They are imbued with just the right blend of playfulness and intelligence.  This often comes across in the haiku verse (named trinary) that the neofins use to communicate with one another aboard the Streaker.  Also enjoyable was our first experience with hydrogen breathers, the second major order of life in the galaxy.  The idea of a wholly separate division of life above the species level really grabbed me when I read the first Uplift books, and I was hoping it would get explored further in this trilogy!

I'm not sure that I've done the novels justice above, but I hope it comes across that I thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy for both its bold ideas and wonderful writing.  This will teach me to combine three reviews into one next time I read a turns out to be harder than I thought!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The (second) Uplift Trilogy: Introduction

No, I haven't abandoned posting to the blog!  After nearly a month, I'm back to review not one but three novels: David Brin's "new" or "second" or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Uplift trilogy. Unlike the previous three  novels set in the Uplift universe, Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998) share a continuous plot from book to book.  For this reason, after finishing the first novel, I decided to review the series as a whole.  To make this a less monumental task, I'm going to break the review into two parts:  an introduction to the Uplift universe and a review of the three novels themselves.

Are you looking for a literary universe with mind bogglingly cool ideas?  Well, David Brin has more of them than you can shake a stick at in his Uplift novels!  I really don't even know where to begin.  The essential feature of his universe revolves around the idea that more advanced starfaring civilizations "uplift" presapient species by directing the final stages of their evolution into an intelligent species.  This is, of course, done through genetic and social manipulation over the course of many years.  Once uplifted, the species is considered a member of galactic civilization in its own right but is indebted to and remains part of the "clan" of their patrons.

It is commonly believed that a mysterious race known as The Progenitors instituted the Uplift process up to a billion years ago before disappearing without a trace.  This has led to the development of a number of different belief systems based around the fate of the Progenitors, and, indeed, the ultimate fate of all galactic species.  In galactic society, the purpose and fate of individuals is rarely considered important (or even considered at all).

Humans are relative newcomers onto the galactic scene, having made contact a few hundred years prior to most of the events in the Uplift novels.  They are one of the rare species (known as wolflings) who have managed to bootstrap themselves into the stars without the help of a patron species.  The lack of patrons to guide and protect humans as they establish themselves puts them in a very rough spot among the rigid caste system that dominates every aspect of galactic life.   Luckily, humans had already began the process of uplifting chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins before making contact with galactic civilization.  This gives them a little more cred than the few other wolfling species have had in the past.

In the Uplift universe, life in the linked galaxies is divided into several orders of life.  Not only are there oxygen breathing species, but also those that utilize hydrogen to sustain life (I won't comment on the biological feasibility of this concept).  Suffice it to say that the two groups don't get along well.  The Institute of Migration, an arm of galactic bureaucracy, coordinates oxy interactions with hydros, even going so far as ceding them whole swathes of galaxies to avoid conflict.  While hydros were tangentially mentioned in the first three Uplift novels, they play a far larger role in the second series of novels.  In addition to the two organic forms of life, there are a number of other orders that oxygen species have so far had limited interactions with:  machine, quantum, memetic, etc.

The age of galactic civilization is staggering, with at least a billion years of history going back to the Progenitors.  Starfaring civilizations have, therefore, been gathering and refining their knowledge for many hundreds of millions of years, collecting it in a repository known as the Galactic Library.  This knowledge is communicated using a set of standardized languages that have been refined over the eons to transmit information as efficiently as possible between species with vastly different auditory, visual, and vocal organs.  The languages vary from a series of pops and clicks that most any species produce (with tools if necessary) to higher level languages more akin to what we humans would call "talking."  Because of these highly ordered information conventions, most species take the opinion that "everything that is done has been done before," thereby reinforcing the conservative nature of society as a whole.  Needless to say, this conflicts with indomitable human nature and becomes one of the central themes of the Uplift novels.

Are you getting the drift here?  Brin has created a rich and vibrant universe!  I could list ten other provocative ideas he describes without even trying.  The Uplift novels have a bit of everything--hard biology and physics with a large dose of sociology, anthropology (or species-pology?) and psychology thrown in.  I highly recommend all six Uplift novels--they are both well written and thought-provoking and rank among the best that science fiction has to offer!

[Next time:  an actual review of the second Uplift trilogy.]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Morbid Taste for Bones

A Morbid Taste For Bones (1977) is the first in the Brother Cadfael series of mystery novels set in 12th century England by Ellis Peters (of which there are 21 books).  I have my mom to thank for introducing me to Brother Cadfael's adventures many years ago.  I'd like to reread m .  Note:  I listened to this as an audiobook.

The main character, the Welshman Brother Cadfael, is an unusual example of a Benedictine monk who lives in the Shropshire village of Shrewsbury.  I say unusual because he has come to his monks' habit late in life after having spent many years in the Holy Land as a Crusader in his younger years.  His rich life experiences give him an eye for seeing people and events in a different light than most of his cloistered brothers.

As the novel opens, Colambanus, one of Cadfael's brothers is overcome at Mass by a fit of religious fervor and falls into a coma.  A brother standing vigil in the night over the stricken brother is visited by a mysterious personage who instructs him to bring Columbanus to the Well of St. Winefride in Northern Wales.  By no coincidence, St. Winefride has been shortlisted as a saint whose relics the Abbey (or more specifically, the overbearing Prior Robert) has an interest in acquiring.  Getting a hold of a saint's relics was a big deal in medieval times, when housing such a religious relic would guarantee a constant stream of pilgrims (and revenue) for a church .

Columbanus is miraculously cured at the well and insists St. Winefride herself appeared to him and expressed a desire to be moved to a place more hospitable to pilgrims.  The majority of the book revolves around a journey undertaken by the monks to translate her remains from the village of Gwytherin to the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury.

Needless to say, the residents of Gwytherin are none to happy with the sudden interest taken in their Welsh patroness by English monks.  Despite having the permission and authority of both the church and local lord, the village is reluctant to allow the brothers to remove St. Winefride's body.  At a village-wide meeting, an influential landowner, Rhisiart, clashes with Prior Robert and cements the village's intention to deny the monks their prize.  The following day, Rhisiart is found foully murdered by an arrow through the chest.  Being Welsh himself, Cadfael feels especially close to the involved parties, and he undertakes a full investigation of Rhisiart's murder.  Using his uncanny ability to read people, Brother Cadfael unravels the mystery after several twists and turns.

Ah - but does St. Winefride ever make it to Shrewsbury?  You'll have to read to find out!

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.  Brother Cadfael's character is delightfully written.  He is both irreverent and witty at times -two traits one does not usually associate with a medieval monk.  He's the kind of guy you'd love to sit down and have a drink with.  I look forward reading about his further adventures!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Separate Peace

I ran across A Separate Peace (1960) on our shelf when moving some of our book collection around.  It turns out to be a fairly popular selection for high school English classes, but somehow I missed the bus on that one.  At any rate, the description sounded fairly interesting as I'm always one to enjoy a good boys' school drama a la Dead Poets Society.

The novel, a fairly quick read, is the story of two friends at a boarding school in New England during World War 2.  The two main characters, Gene and Phineas, are a study in opposites: Gene is the more introverted, studious type, while Phineas is a gregarious athlete.  The two have been drawn to one another, and as the novel opens are enjoying the carefree days of the summer session at the Devon School.

Toward the end of summer an event occurs that will change both of their lives forever.  Finny conceives of a club whose members must prove themselves by jumping from a tree into the river, a fairly dangerous affair as the tree is set back from the banks of the river.  As the co-leaders, Gene and Finny contrive to impress everyone by jumping from the tree in tandem.  While making their way out on a limb to do this, Gene inexplicably bounces the branch, causing Finny to fall onto the ground below and badly break his leg.  The remainder of the novel is really a character study of Gene and the ugly truths he discovers about himself in the wake of the tree incident.

It becomes clear that Gene is extremely jealous of Finny's very natural good-natured approach to life.  Gene convinces himself that Finny has plotted to bring about his academic downfall by goading him into spending time away from his studies on various pursuits.  This jealousy eventually manifests itself physically in his treacherous act on the tree over the river.  Gene's character is starkly contrasted by Phineas, who is an innately good individual, even going so far as to deny Gene's act when Gene visits him to confess.  Another traumatic event forces Gene to come to terms with his character, and we are left with the hope that he will try to grow from his experiences with Phineas.

I enjoyed the overall message of the novel, but it was a fairly dull read.  Since I have chosen to base my hamster scale mostly on my enjoyment of the reading experience, I give it only three hamsters.  This is not to say I don't recommend it, but a thrilling read it is not!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The October Horse

The October Horse (2002) is the sixth book in the 'Master of Rome' series that chronicles the people and events surrounding the downfall of the Roman Republic.  True to its predecessors, this is a massive tome (1120 pages) that, while remaining fiction, is firmly rooted in primary historical sources.

The book is rather aptly named after a custom held after a particular chariot race held each year in Rome on the Ides of October.  The strongest horse from the winning chariot team was sacrificed to the gods.  Afterwards, its head was flung into a crowd consisting of two teams of plebeians who fought for its control.  You don't have to be a classical scholar to realize that the October Horse is a thinly veiled allusion to Julius Caesar.

The book opens in 48 BC just after Pompey the Great has been treacherously murdered in Alexandria at the hands of the ruling Ptolemy.  Julius Caesar lands in Alexandria and, upon discovering the circumstances of Pompey's death, immediately sides with Cleopatra who is embroiled in a civil war against her brother Ptolemy.  After a short campaign, not only does Cleopatra solidify her rule of Egypt, but she also falls desperately in love with Caesar and will eventually bear him a son, Caesarion.

Of course the crowning moment of the entire series is the fateful event that took place in Rome on the Ides of March in 44 BC.  McCullough does a fantastic job of building the conspiracy against Caesar that arises first from the grumbles of his discontented former legates.  The pacing of events in this section of the novel is truly fantastic, and McCullough keeps the suspense taut until the final act of Caesar's life is played out.  I can only imagine it must have been a difficult scene for her to write, as she has practically idolized Caesar from his earliest appearance in the series.

At this point, I should mention that I strongly feel that The October Horse should have been split into two separate novels.  The death of Julius Caesar, without doubt the central character of the entire 'Masters of Rome' series, would have been a natural place to stop action.  After the assassination, I wanted to take a break and come to grips with Caesar's death, and indeed that of the Republic, but felt I never really got the chance.

Instead, the remainder of the novel (we're talking hundreds of pages here) are left to deal with wrangling between Mark Antony and Octavian (Caesar's adopted son) for the control of Rome.  We find Octavian to have many of the same outstanding qualities of Julius Caesar but also lacking his intense sense of fairness and scruples.  Overall, Octavian comes off as a quite unlikable character in my estimation, although I suppose you don't get to be the emperor of Rome being nice!

Despite a few small quibbles, I was wholly satisfied with the novel, which was originally intended to end the 'Masters of Rome' series at the Battle of Phillipi, the point at which McCullough considers the Roman Republic to have died for all time.  Luckily for us, she relented and wrote a seventh book to carry the characters through to Actium, where Mark Antony is defeated decisively and Octavian ascends to the throne as Augustus Caesar.  Rest assured I'll be reviewing this last novel sometime in the near future!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lisey's Story

The author of Lisey's Story (2006) needs no introduction, so I'm going to dispense with that.  Unlike many hardcore King fans, I prefer his recent more fantastical work over his earlier novels that tended toward classic horror tales.  I really loved Duma Key (reviewed here on the blog), the novel that followed Lisey's Story and had read that the two novels together deal heavily with King's thoughts on marriage and divorce.  Note:  I listened to this as an audiobook.

The story recounts events over the course of several days in the life of Lisey Landon, wife of the award-winning novelist Scott Landon.  As the novel opens, Lisey is settling down to go through her late husband's papers two years after his death before donating them to a public collection.  A series of events causes Lisey to recall memories and events in Scott Landon's life that she had apparently been repressing for many years.  These are presented to the reader as a series of flashback chapters scattered throughout the novel and often coincide with key events in the Landon's marriage.

It is in these portions of the book where the real story of the novel takes place.  We learn the tragic upbringing of Scott Landon at the hands of his father who is held in the grips of a serious mental illness.  He is forced to take refuge by traveling to a fantastical land he names "Boo'ya Moon."  This location becomes central to Lisey in the present day, as she is slowly drawn by clues left by Scott into Boo'ya Moon in a desperate attempt to save her own sister from mental illness.  

I must say that I almost didn't make it through the first part of the book for a couple of reasons.  First, it took quite some time to build the groundwork so that the novel's actual plot could get underway.  For instance, there was an extensive flashback toward the beginning of the book that I was unable to put into context until much later in the novel.  The ultimately left me feeling fairly uninterested in what was going on until about halfway into the book.  To compound my confusion, Scott and Lisey share a language between themselves.  The novel is peppered with phrases such as "bool," "smucking," "SOWISA," and "strap it on."   I suppose this speaks to the closeness and intimacy of their marriage, but it adds another layer of complexity to a fairly intricate plot.  Plus, I honestly found the made-up language annoying.

Ultimately, the novel pulls itself together toward the latter quarter of the book and manages to redeem itself somewhat (I was going to give it a solid two hamster rating until near the end).  If you had to choose one King book to read, I wouldn't recommend this one.  On the other hand, if you a die hard King fan and can't get enough, Lisey's Story does a passable job of satisfy the craving.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Red Mars

Red Mars (1992) was among the first novels that I read when I was really getting into "serious" science fiction.  I remember enjoying the book, particularly the level of technical detail described by Robinson, and enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I knew.  Well, I recently had a chance to give the novel a fresh look (or a listen since it was an audiobook) and it didn't completely live up to my memory.

The novel chronicles the first permanent human settlement on the planet Mars in the year 2026 (a date looking increasingly optimistic as the years go by!).  A crew of one hundred of the brightest scientists, engineers, and other technical luminaries has been chosen to establish a base and open the planet to further colonization in the coming years.  The array of characters who will shape Mars for years to come is introduced as they begin a year-long flight to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares.

After the initial settlement has been firmly established, the gates are opened for immigration to the red planet.  The UN commission on Mars initially tightly controls the influx of people to ensure that proper infrastructure is in place on their arrival.  Within a span of years, however, the interests of individuals and the planet itself begin to be passed over in favor of the interests of transnational corporations who have come to Mars looking for profits.  A good portion of the book deals with the reactions of the original colonists to these developments and how key characters attempt to influence them.

There is an increasing, planet-wide sense of outrage as it becomes clear that Mars is headed down the same profit-driven path that has led to Earth's problems.  Acts of sabotage abound, and soon Mars is in the grip of a revolution--the corporations and UN on one side, the Mars-first groups on the other.  The war culminates with an apocalyptic series of events that might return Mars to its original, barren state.

While the technical and political aspects of the colonization are an important focus of the novel, Red Mars is also an intense study of character and personality.  Each colonist is chosen to go on the inaugural mission because they are a leader of their field and used to being in a position of authority.  This setup leads to inevitable conflicts among the mission personnel.  These conflicts come into sharp focus early in the novel when the question of terraforming Mars arises and the original one hundred are split into camps with different views.  The fallout from this fundamental difference of opinion shapes the majority of events in the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book.  The technical descriptions of the initial phases of settlement are truly phenomenal.  However, there are points in the story that get bogged down due to excessive (IMHO) levels of detail.  This seemed to occur on a semi-regular basis when characters needed to "find their way" or decide on a course of action.  The geology of Mars is interesting, but you can only take so much wandering around in a rover with detailed descriptions of escarpments, sediments, alluvial plains, etc.  Despite the few sections that take some slogging to get through, Red Mars is a good, solid hard science fiction read--I give it 3.5 hamsters.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Agent Zigzag

Agent Zigzag (2007) opens with a scene straight out of the movies.  Two lovebirds are relaxing in a restaurant enjoying a romantic dinner when, all of a sudden, two policeman appear, prompting the man to dive through a glass window and run up the beach to evade his pursuers.  This incident seems to nicely encapsulate the life and times of Edward Chapman, the man whose story Ben McIntyre has set out to tell in Agent Zigzag.

Eddie Chapman is a flamboyant, complicated character who spent much of his life on the wrong side of the law.  He is also, incredibly, one of the most successful double agents ever to operate for British intelligence.  This seeming dichotomy of character makes for a fascinating read.

When the story opens, he is involved in a gang of safe crackers implicated in a string of robberies in Britain.  He winds up incarcerated on the island of Jersey when World War 2 breaks out and the island is captured by Nazi Germany.  In a fairly ill-conceived bid to gain freedom, Chapman volunteers his services as a spy for the Germans.

He is eventually recruited and trained by the Abwehr to carry out sabotage missions within Britain.  His background as a criminal made him a particularly appealing candidate as a spy to the Germans.  Analysis suggested he was likely to feel ill-treated by the British and, as a result, less inclined to turn sides once released into Britain.  Also, his expertise with using explosives to crack safes could be harnessed for more sinister purposes.  Of course, Chapman, a consummate liar, did everything possible to reinforce these ideas.

Following a period of rigorous training, Chapman parachutes into Britain in the dead of night with orders to blow up an airplane production plant.  Instead of proceeding as planned, he heads straight to MI5 to volunteer as a double agent working for British intelligence!  While he is at first greeted with surprise and distrust, the British eventually realize what a useful tool they might have at their disposal.

Most of the account details his retraining by the British and subsequent missions working for both sides in Germany, Norway, and Britain.  Chapman, though brilliant, is prone to wild mood swings, fits of bravado, and bouts of romanticism.  This kind of behavior has his British and German handlers constantly on edge and questioning his motives--both sides are constantly confronted with the question of whether he is worth all the fuss.

Agent Zigzag is a highly compelling account of an almost larger-than-life personality.  At times, it is difficult to believe that Chapman's story is not fiction!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Caesar is the fifth novel in Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series of historical novels which describe the events leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic. The series opens in 110 B.C. and proceeds to chronicle the careers of Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and the early life of Gaius Julius Caesar. This is, of course, a drastic understatement of the scope of the series--these novels are extremely thorough and well-researched. McCullough has made a concious effort to remain as faithful as possible to primary sources when writing her own account.

This installment opens in 54 B.C. when Julius Caesar is in the midst of his years-long campaign to subdue Gaul. Nearly all of the first half of the novel describes the tactics used by Caesar to break apart the alliance of Gauls cobbled together under the leadership of Vercingetorix with aid from the Druids.

Particularly interesting is the description of Caesar's tactics at Alesia (52 B.C.), a hilltop town where Vercingetorix had holed up in an attempt to avoid giving battle. To prevent any sizable Gallic force from escaping Alesia, Caesar completely surrounded the town in about three weeks time with a series of ditches stretching for over 14 kilometers. When word came that a Gallic relief force had been dispatched, Caesar incredibly built a second line of fortifications facing outward, thus encircling his army between the two defensive lines! Both Gallic forces attacked the Romans simultaneously over the course of two days but were repelled each time. In the climactic battle, a weak point in the Roman lines was nearly breached by the relief army 60,000 men strong. Recognizing this to be the critical moment of the battle, Caesar personally led a desperately small force of cavalry around to attack the Gallic army in the rear which broke into a headlong retreat. Vercingetorix, still in Alesia on the brink of starvation, was forced to capitulate, essentially marking the end of organized Gallic resistance to Roman rule.

The latter half of Caesar chronicles the events in Rome where the boni faction, led most vocally by Cato, is attempting to strip Caesar of his army and send him into exile. Following the death of Caesar's daughter, the personal relationship between Caesar and Pompey the Great is fractured irrevocably, thus ending the First Triumvirate that had dominated Roman politics for a decade. When Caesar crosses the Rubicon, bringing his army onto Roman soil, a state of civil war is declared by the senate. The novel closes with the rather anti-climactic Battle of Pharsalus where Pompey's force is easily defeated, and he is forced to flee to Egypt. On arrival, he is assassinated by the ruling Ptolemy king in an effort to make peace with Caesar. Though the remains of the boni faction have fled to western Africa, Caesar now stands the undisputed master of Rome.

I absolutely loved the book and give it 4.5 hamsters. McCullough really shines when describing the inner working of Rome's broken political system. The characterization, whether true or not, is brilliantly pulled off. However, I do have some small reservations about the way Caesar and Pompey are portrayed. McCullough veritably deifies Julius Caesar throughout the whole series. His failures, granted few and far between, are definitely downplayed in the narrative. On the other hand, Pompey is portrayed as a rather weak man who allows himself to be easily used. I can't believe that someone who had risen to such heights in the Roman Republic based nearly completely on his prowess commanding an army could have such a spineless nature. A very small quibble about a novel that is truly a masterpiece of historical fiction!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Spy (2003), as the title suggests, is a non-fiction work about espionage, a topic that has held perennial interest for me over the years.  Specifically, it chronicles the career of Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for both the Soviet Union and Russia over a 22 year period (1979-2001).  He is arguably considered the most damaging mole in the history of American intelligence, and was responsible for betraying at least three Soviets working for America who were later executed in the USSR for treason.  In addition to betraying American operatives, Hanssen sold highly sensitive information about US nuclear strategy and electronic intelligence gathering methods.     

Rather than go into great detail about Hanssen's career, I would urge you to read the book.  Suffice it to say that it is an interesting read for someone not overly familiar with the daily workings of the intelligence world.

One question nagged at me throughout the book and was never really explained to my satisfaction.  In 1979, Robert Hanssen had been an FBI special agent for a mere three years and recently transferred to the counter-intelligence section.  How is it that he was immediately given access to such highly sensitive information as the identity of Dmitri Polyakov (codename TOPHAT), one of the most productive CIA spies in history?  I was not clear if this sort of access would be customary or, more likely, was given to Hanssen as part of his new duties.  Either way, this seems like a gross error on the part of the FBI.  Of course, as the author notes several times over the course of Spy, hindsight is 20-20.

For me, the strong point of the book is in the final chapters, where Wise analyzes Hanssen's motivation for his espionage activities.  These chapters are largely based upon interviews with a psychologist who spent several weeks debriefing Hanssen in the immediate aftermath of his arrest.  In fact, Hanssen gave permission for the psychologist to break patient-doctor privilege so that this information might be presented.  It is clear that unlike some other notable spies, financial considerations were never in the forefront of Hanssen's mind (unlike the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole who received over 2.7 million dollars for betraying upwards of ten agents working for the US and UK).  Nor was Hanssen ideologically motivated.  Instead, he seemed to harbor a serious inferiority complex that, over time, developed into a deep-seeded hatred of the FBI.

Wise's account stumbles in a few places (particularly unclear was the account of the Felix Bloch incident), though it is a fairly well written account and moves along at a good pace.  I give it four hamsters based mostly on my interest in the subject matter.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Little Country

For some reason, I always get irrationally excited when I read the quotes on the backs of books.  They get me really pumped about reading a book--I suppose that is why book publishers put them on the covers of so many books.  Nary a book goes by without somebody proclaiming it is the bee's knees, the best thing since sliced bread, or some such sentiment.  Well, the quotes on the back of The Little Country were in this vein, with high-caliber authors like Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, and Gordon R. Dickson saying that with this novel de Lint was raising the bar for fantasy writing (or something along those lines).  When, o when, am I going to realize that those quotes are just marketing ploys?

The Little Country (1991) is a mythic fantasy novel set in Mousehole, a small village in Cornwall, England in contemporary times.  The story revolves around a mysterious book that is discovered by Janey Little, a folk musician by trade, in her grandfather's (known for some inexplicable reason as 'The Gaffer') attic.  The book, a one-of-a-kind edition of an unpublished story, was written by a deceased family friend, William Dunthorn (an author of some renown), and placed in The Gaffer's care to guard.  Over the years, various parties have shown some interest in obtaining the book, though The Gaffer has always written the attention off as people trying to make a buck off his dead friend.

As Janey begins to read the book, all sorts of odd things begin to happen.  Her old boyfriend shows up unexpectedly in the village after a long departure following their breakup.  An American woman with unknown motives begins to poke  around Cornwall.  A reporter from Rolling Stone magazine shows up for an unannounced interview with Janey Little.  We eventually come to discover that an ancient magic is stirring (*gasp*!), and it is up to Janey and her companions to guard its secret from outside forces who would put it to nefarious purposes.

Intervening chapters tell the story that unfolds in the Dunthorn book as read by Janey Little.  These detail the adventures of Jodi, a local girl who is captured by an old widow rumored to be a witch.  Her escape and subsequent marshaling of Mousehole townfolk against the widow unfold alongside the "main" story of Janey Little.  While the story-within-a-story idea is an interesting narrative technique, it was not clear to me that these chapters actually told the Dunthorn book's story until near the end of the novel.  On the other hand, maybe I'm just slow...?

I found the first half of the book to be almost excruciatingly boring.  Yes, the characters of Janey and her gang are well set up, but there is little in the way of action.  The parallel story with Jodi was the only thing that kept me going.  A major plot point revolves around a simple misunderstanding between Janey and her ex-flame that would have been cleared up in minutes by any normal adult.  Instead, it just leads to all sorts of melodrama.

A positive comment:  the setting of the novel is extremely well realized.  Cornwall, with its connection to the ocean and links to the Celtic past, provides the perfect setting for a magical world to intersect with ours.  De Lint obviously has a love of this country, and he writes about the land very well.

I was going to give the book a flat two hamsters, but the last third of the book improved by quite a bit.  In the end, I'll score it a strong two and a half hamsters (I really need to find a graphic to add the half hamsters in!).  Without doubt, there is a subset of readers out there that would probably find The Little Country to be a great read, but I'm afraid I'm just not in that group! You can quote me on that.