Book review: The Other Lands, by David Anthony Durham

THE OTHER LANDS

By David Anthony Durham

 

The Other Lands is the second book in the epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham that began with Acacia. And I’m glad to say it’s a far more engaging read than its predecessor, which was intelligent and original but also rather dry. The first book followed the children of the royal Akaran family, rulers of the kingdom of Acacia and hegemons of the known world, as they struggled through invasion, subjugation and finally liberation. By the time of The Other Lands, peace has descended again, but how long will it last?

 

Plotwise, The Other Lands is very obviously the Middle Book. Plenty of things happen, from palace plots to great hunts to lethal ambushes, but the net effect of these plot threads is to set the stage for Book 3. However, it is still fascinating to watch those threads unfold, and they leave off at precisely the right moment to make good cliffhangers. This all takes place in an elf-less, dwarf-less world that owes little or nothing to Tolkien or D&D. And while it’s not based on any particular period (unlike, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical analogues) and eschews the ubiquitous quasi-medieval Western European setting for something more original (how many other fantasy novels feature a literal ‘opiate of the masses’?), it does have a historical flavour from its kings and queens, priests and exiled tribes.

 

Characterwise, The Other Lands gives us the usual fantasy cast of valiant warriors, depicted likeably enough, and a couple of rather more pathetic/despicable hangers-on – but also, rather more interestingly, a morally ambiguous monarch takes centre stage as one of the main characters. If you ever wondered what a less unsympathetic, more intelligent version of Cersei Lannister would be like, this is the book for you.

 

Theme deserves a special mention. At its heart, the first book was about principles versus realpolitik, and how hard it is for leaders to stick to the lofty road. It’s less prominent in the second novel, but it’s still there in the background, and the road paved with good intentions remains a key part of one character’s arc.

 

Overall, The Other Lands is a good novel, both readable and imaginative. Don’t start the Acacia series with this, but if you enjoyed the first book, then The Other Lands is well worth checking out.

 

You can buy The Other Lands from Amazon here.

 

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Book review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

UNDER HEAVEN

 

by Guy Gavriel Kay

 

“You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of these glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.”

 

Well, Shen Tai – hermit, son of a famous general, and the hero of Under Heaven, the novel by Guy Gavriel Kay set in a fictionalised version of Tang Dynasty China – has just been given two hundred and fifty.

 

I have mixed feelings about Under Heaven. This is a Kay novel, so at a “micro”, nuts-and-bolts level, the writing is very good. The characters are vividly drawn, from beggar to scheming minister to random foot soldier to Shen Tai himself. Even the least pleasant amongst them becomes sympathetic when we view the world through his or her eyes. The settings of the novel are distinct, from a haunted lake to the steppes to the splendours of the imperial capital. And Kay has a wonderful eye for the way the world works – the cruelty of random chance, the unfairness of history and folk memory, and on a happier note, the human capacity for kindness and loyalty and devotion.

 

My problem, rather, is with the big picture – the plot in which all those elements are wrapped. Under Heaven is not a George R R Martin or J R R Tolkien or Joe Abercrombie-style novel about Stuff Happening. It is not even a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, such as his earlier Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan, about Stuff Happening. Rather, though Stuff Happens in the background*, Under Heaven’s plot structure is fundamentally not that of the conventional, three-act, build-to-a-climax-and-denouement novel. The story, for want of a better word, meanders through this beautifully described setting and past these beautiful people. For a lot of readers, this won’t be a problem. But it left me dissatisfied.

 

Was Under Heaven worth the money I paid, the time I sank in? Yes. I appreciated Kay’s sense for human nature and for life. I appreciated the worldbuilding, and a couple of the characters and scenes will stick in my mind. But it’s neither one of my favourite reads nor even my favourite Kay. All in all, worth a look – judging by the reception this book received, you may like it more than I – but I am glad that I waited for the paperback to take that look.

 

* If you know anything at all about Tang Dynasty history, you will be able to guess what that stuff concerns: I saw a major plot development almost right away, and all I know about the era is the name of one historical figure, his fate and that of a few of his contemporaries, and what its pottery looked like. The fact that this didn’t spoil Under Heaven for me, I think, reinforces my point about what the book isn’t about.

 

You can buy Under Heaven from Amazon here.

 

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Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is something of an odd beast. It lacks the sparkling wit and manic energy which I typically associate with the series. In exchange, it offers excellent worldbuilding as Miles ventures to the cryogenics-saturated world of Kibou-daini on an Auditorial investigation.

 

Plot-wise, this is probably one of the weakest novels in the series. Normally, in a Miles book, it is crystal clear what is at stake and what Miles must do. Not so here. The two principal plot hooks more or less resolve themselves, and the main plotline felt muddled and only tangentially connected to the other hooks.

 

And while Bujold’s prose is as easy to read as ever, unfortunately this is also one of the least funny novels in the series. There are a couple of amusing moments in Cryoburn, but nothing compares to the dinner party, the bathtub full of ice cubes, or “Miles’ mad soliloquies”.

 

Character-wise, the book is in line with the rest of the series. As is usual for Bujold, everyone is vividly drawn, from series regulars down to the supporting cast. Jin the street urchin, Suze the tough old lady, and Raven the doctor all feel distinct, though nobody particularly resonated with me.

 

However, where Cryoburn really shines is its worldbuilding. In this book, Bujold gives us one of the most interesting settings in the series: cryogenics technology made its debut quite a few novels ago, but this is where it pays off. We see some of the implications of widespread use of cryogenics: a cranky old “revive” who can’t sell his story to the press, because there is such a glut of people like him; other revives who huddle together in themed communities set up to resemble the eras of their youths; and just what happens when cryo-storage equipment and know-how become cheap enough for anyone to get their hands on. And we see its economic effects, too, in the “cryocorps”, the industry that grew up around cryogenic storage. We see glimpses of the cryocorps’ business model, the extent of their profitability, their strategies and bright ideas. In both cases, the overall impact is perfectly tuned: not enough to drown the reader in irrelevant detail, but enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and make it clear that the author gave serious thought to these issues and did her research (in the case of the cryocorps). And Cryoburn does so good a job with the concepts introduced earlier on, I can’t wait to see the next entry in the series explore one particular innovation from this book.

 

In conclusion, Cryoburn is not the pageturner that its predecessors are, and I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point for the series: not only would a new reader not be familiar with its characters, but so much of the book’s appeal to me was that it was the payoff for concepts introduced earlier. However, that same payoff – amongst other reasons, which I’ll not describe so as to avoid spoilers! – makes Cryoburn a worthwhile read for Vorkosigan fans.

 

You can buy Cryoburn from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep


Vernor Vinge
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.

 

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Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds


Barry Hughart

 

This is a fabulous novel, a plot-coupon quest fantasy done right. It takes place in ancient pseudo-China, where the protagonist must go for help after the children of his village mysteriously fall ill. Help arrives in the form of the sage Li Kao, brilliant but “with a slight flaw in his character” (read: he’s a born con man who once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine to win a bet). Together, the two make their way across the land in search of a cure, lying, cheating, and stealing (all in a good cause), escaping from the clutches of evil warlords, and eventually, uncovering a thousand-year-old evil.

 

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A book review from my archives: Declare

DECLARE
Tim Powers

The year is 1961, and the Cold War is at its peak. Andrew Hale ekes out a modest living as an academic in England, but a call from an old acquaintance triggers his abandonment of middle-aged obscurity, and his reentry into a world he abandoned when he was a young man, fresh from WW2 and the start of the Cold War: a world of dimly remembered spycraft, old lovers, and above all, a mission left incomplete…

Continue reading “A book review from my archives: Declare”