Book review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

THE MISTBORN TRILOGY

Brandon Sanderson

 

After really enjoying a short story by Brandon Sanderson, “Firstborn”, I had high hopes for another set of his works, the Mistborn trilogy (comprising Book 1, Mistborn; Book 2, The Well of Ascension; and Book 3, The Hero of Ages). Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

 

At its core, the Mistborn trilogy is a Traditional Fantasy Series. While there are no elves, dwarves, or orcs, there are superpowered teenage heroes and sinister dark lords. What distinguishes it is the bunch of clever twists that Sanderson adds to the formula. As such, he is strongest as an “ideas guy”. This is visible in the way the first book overlays bits of the heist genre onto the fantasy template; the alternatives to the stock fantasy races; the magic system that’s almost RPG-like in its depth; the little and not-so-little plot twists; and more.

 

Unfortunately, Sanderson is not very good at the nuts and bolts of writing*. He is not very good at scene construction (with the exception of action scenes), he is not very good with prose, and in particular, he is not very good with dialogue, which often sounds stilted and didactic. Almost any of the speculative fiction authors I’ve read in the last few years – to name a few, Bujold, Kay, Lynch, Morgan, Abercrombie, Vinge, Powers, Martin, maybe even Erikson – could beat Sanderson at the micro level. This also hurts his characterisation – for example, I found it hard to remember which member of the heist crew was which, and I ended up skimming one important character’s chapters in book 2 because I found his conversations so inane.

 

Going book by book, the first novel is the best. The magic system is fresh, the plot is tight, and the fights are well-spaced and thrilling. The second book is the weakest by far. While it starts with an interesting premise (what happens after the superpowered teenage heroes succeed?), it suffers from an acute case of the Idiot Plot as said heroes spend the book blundering, moping about their love lives, and generally making a hash of things. The third book falls in between – while a lot better than the second, the sprawling subplots and the increasingly draggy fight scenes are a far cry from the first book.

 

Ultimately, while the first book in particular is worth a look if you do like Traditional Fantasy Series, the novels can’t do justice to the nifty ideas they contain. While there are plenty of worse speculative fiction authors, there are also plenty of better ones, both at the pulpy and at the Great Novel ends of the spectrum. And while Sanderson’s weak prose is not the sole culprit, it’s certainly a major one**.

 

You can buy Book 1, Mistborn, from Amazon here.

 

* Or at least he wasn’t at the time he wrote this series. I have heard his prose subsequently improved, but not having read any of his other novels, I cannot attest to whether this is true.

 

** As such, this trilogy would have worked much better in a visual medium. This also explains why I prefer Sanderson’s short fiction – short stories are briefer and idea-driven, which plays to his strengths.

 

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.

 

Guiltless pleasures: John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series

Formulaic movies. Shallow novels. Glitchy video games. Not the most promising material. Yet even these will have their fans. Some will have differences of opinion. Some, in between gales of laughter, will mumble: “So bad it’s good!” And some will grin shamefacedly and mutter about guilty pleasures. I have my fair share of works that fall into categories #1 and #2, but I am always short of examples to offer when the subject turns to guilty pleasures. And that is because, for me, they’re something of a contradiction in terms. A work of entertainment will succeed for me if it hits the right notes across several categories – in the case of books, these would be “story”, “characterisation”, “worldbuilding”, “themes” and “prose quality”. If I’m enjoying it, then that implies it must have at least some redeeming features. And if I can point to some place where it “objectively” does well, then there is no guilt.

 

My best example here is John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series (aka World War 2.0), a time travel/alternate history trilogy about a multinational fleet from the dystopic 2020s that gets hurled back to World War II, in the process inadvertently gutting the US fleet en route to the Battle of Midway. At first glance, the books are just trashy airport novels. The action is gory, the characters are paper-thin – to the point where a major character can die in between books – and the plotline is lubricated with a constant stream of Axis and Soviet atrocities, making it all the more satisfying when the Nazis do find themselves on the wrong end of cruise missiles. The author himself has been quoted as saying that the books “improve with altitude”. Yet for all this, I loved books 2 and 3, back during my student days – much more than I enjoyed many a more highbrow book. Surely this is the very definition of a guilty pleasure?

 

But that’s not the whole story. First, the latter two books in the series are good trashy airport novels. If the raison d’etre of an airport novel is to have a gripping plot, then those two deliver in spades – twists, turns, rising tension, thrilling finales. And second, the pulpy action is underpinned by some pretty intelligent thought experiments. When the modern coalition soldiers encounter their 1940s Allied counterparts, the racism, sexism and homophobia of the era come as a tremendous culture shock. Conversely, the “contemporaries” are at times, appalled by the ruthlessness their descendants have picked up in the course of fighting their shadowy war. The alternate history itself always struck me as well-thought out*, from the micro level (even given the blueprints, the Allies can’t build F-22s with a 1940s technological/industrial base, so what do they build instead? ) to the grand strategic decisions made by Roosevelt, Stalin, et al. So pulpy this series may be, but I feel no guilt about how much fun I had reading it. And I would even recommend it to readers who’d like a pulpy, action-packed pageturner with which to kill time. Say, while waiting for that flight?

 

 

* With the disclaimer that I am not an expert on WW2.

 

 

Next up: why Conan the Barbarian (the original movie) isn’t a guilty pleasure.

At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD

My copy of ADWD
At long last... my copy of ADWD

 

After six long years, I’ve finally read A Dance with Dragons. Here are my thoughts.

 

SPOILER WARNING – stay out if you haven’t finished the book.

Continue reading “At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD”

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.

 

My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.

 

Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.

 

You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)

 

I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.

 

Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.

 

* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

One headline I’d like to see in a David Weber novel

The Honor Harrington series of space operas, by David Weber, features Space Commie bad guys who set out to conquer the galaxy when they realised their own treasury could no longer pay for bread and circuses to keep the mob happy. I can’t help but wonder, though, if events in the stories could have gone very differently…

 

***

 

BAILOUT IMMINENT FOR PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF HAVEN

 

This week, officials from the Interstellar Credit Fund arrived in the New Haven system to negotiate a bailout package for the People’s Republic of Haven. “We will never default on our debts,” said Chairman Pierre of Haven after meeting the ICF officials.

 

(PHOTO: The ICF delegation is greeted by anti-austerity protesters.)

 

Still, one policymaker close to the talks was sceptical. “Sure, the Havenites can trim their bloated defence budget,” said the policymaker. “Who do they think will invade them, anyway? But I question whether they have the political will necessary to reform their economy.” The source didn’t wish to be named, citing a lack of authorisation to speak publicly.

 

In other news…

What I’m anticipating – May 2011 edition

Currently I’m in something of an entertainment downtime. I finished Tactics Ogre a week ago, and I’m replaying it at a leisurely pace to see one of the other storylines, but I’m not particularly engrossed in any works of fiction at the moment. Starting next week, this should change, as I have some new toys in the pipeline…

 

Already bought, waiting to arrive:

 

Section 8: Prejudice (multiplayer first-person shooter, PC) (Metacritic) I’m not much of an FPS player, and this goes doubly so for multiplayer. But I’m making an exception for Section 8 – it comes highly recommended; it’s cheap (I paid US$13.50); and most importantly, it’s supposed to have very good bots, so I should be able to have fun playing single-player or cooperatively (as I’ve discussed with some of you guys!). Downloading this via Steam as we speak.

 

Jeanne d’Arc (fantasy tactical RPG, PSP) (Amazon; Metacritic) – As you probably guessed from all my Tactics Ogre coverage, tactical RPGs’ blend of RPG storytelling and squad-level strategy gameplay makes them one of my favourite game genres. Jeanne d’Arc, a fantasy game very loosely inspired by the historical heroine, is supposed to be a very good example of its genre; it’s also pretty rare, so when I saw it on sale for a pretty good price, it was a no-brainer to snap it up. My copy should arrive next week.

 

Persona 3 Portable (urban fantasy RPG, PSP) (Amazon – the US release, not the European collector’s edition I ordered; Metacritic) The PSP port of a widely acclaimed PS2 RPG, in which the protagonist must juggle daily high-school life with periodic monster-fighting expeditions. While the juxtaposition of high school and life-and-death conflicts always annoys me in anime, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this plays out in a game. This should also arrive next week.

 

Already pre-ordered, waiting for release:

 

A Game of Thrones (fantasy TV series) – HBO’s adaptation of my favourite fantasy novels. Filed under “pre-ordered” because I subscribe to the cable channel that will eventually (in July) broadcast it in Australia.

 

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (space opera RTS, PC) – I wrote this up in more detail back when it was announced. In addition to the usual expansion pack offering of more, and bigger, spaceships, this also comes with “new victory conditions”, which I hope could deliver a better late/endgame to Sins.

 

Will definitely buy when released:

 

A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin (fantasy novel) (Amazon – free shipping for Americans!) The long-awaited next instalment in the aforementioned favourite fantasy series.  I’ve waited almost six years for this book, and there’s no way I’m passing on it.

 

May or may not read/buy:

 

The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): I remember seeing this book described as the “Rashomon effect” applied to a single fantasy battlefield. Abercrombie is a skilful author and I greatly enjoyed his previous books, but their extreme bleakness is starting to wear on me. I’m not sure if this book will have anything to say about the human condition that Abercrombie didn’t give us in his previous two books. We’ll see…

 

The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): Second book in a trilogy that I’ve seen described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups”, about the adventures of Kvothe the omnitalented wizard. The books have generated a fair bit of internet buzz, and I enjoyed the first book at the time, but subsequently I can barely remember a thing about book 1. Another “maybe”.

What are your favourite genres?

I have three questions for you guys reading this:

 

1.     What are your favourite genres in any medium (games, books, TV, movies, etc)?

 

2.     How have these changed over time?

 

3.     And why have these changed over time?

 

In my case, when it comes to games, I spend most of my time playing strategy and RPGs, but I’ll dabble in almost anything except sports – and many of my favourite games, such as Star Control 2, Okami, and God Hand, are neither strategy nor RPGs. My tastes were even broader when I was younger – I grew up playing Civilization and SimCity 2000, but also everything from Street Fighter 2 to Zelda: Link to the Past and Herzog Zwei. The subject matter of a game, more so than its genre, is what usually interests me, and it just happens to be the case that the narratives/historical periods/imaginary worlds that I find most appealing tend to be in strategy and RPGs.

 

When it comes to every other form of media, if you asked me one or two years ago I would have called myself a pure science fiction/fantasy buff, but since then I have identified less and less with that genre. Most of my recent book purchases have been history books, always a love of mine, and what fiction I have read has increasingly been historical fiction. I read these to satisfy my growing interest in trade, prosperity, the course of empire and the slow birth of the modern world, and these are issues for which I find speculative fiction increasingly irrelevant.

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.

 

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.

A Dance With Dragons: The good news and the bad news

So, George R R Martin has good news and bad news regarding A Dance With Dragons.

 

The bad news is, the book isn’t done yet.

 

The good news is, he’s so close to the finish line that we now have a specific release date – 12 July 2011.

 

I should be excited, but by this point, I’m too firmly lodged in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp to get my hopes up.

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.

 

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.

Two very different characters inspired by the same person: Civ 4, The Curse of Chalion, and Isabella I of Spain

The name of Queen Isabella I of Spain should be familiar to any player of Civilization IV. And it will most likely not be a friendly familiarity. For in Civ, Isabella is a thoroughly unpleasant neighbour, a zealot with a penchant for declaring war on players who have adopted heathen faiths (i.e. anything other than what Isabella herself espouses) as their state religions. I get the feeling that while surprise might not be among the weapons in her arsenal, fear certainly is. In short, Isabella’s depiction in Civ is not a flattering one.

 

Contrast The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fantasy novel set in a land loosely inspired by late medieval Spain. One of the novel’s heroines is a young woman named Iselle, half-sister to the reigning monarch. Iselle is brave. Iselle is intelligent. Iselle believes in justice. Iselle, in short, is what royalty should be. And who seems to have inspired the character? None other than Isabella I of Spain.

 

Now, I don’t know enough about the real Isabella to comment on how closely Civ 4’s Isabella and Chalion’s Iselle resemble her. I doubt Civ 4 purports in any way to contain an accurate depiction of the real queen, and similarly, while Iselle and Isabella have similar backstories, I doubt Iselle was intended to be a fictionalised version of her namesake. (Although it is a funny thought to imagine Iselle growing up into the holy warrior of Civ 4…)

 

But the very fact Civ and Chalion aren’t trying to recreate the real Isabella is what fascinates me. This isn’t a case of two authors taking differing views of the same subject, this is a case of two works taking the same historical figure as a starting point and then going on to create two very different characters. And since it illustrates how the take on an idea is just as important as the idea itself, it’s food for thought for any prospective author.

Digital Distribution Prices: E-Books vs Games

Supreme Commander 2, VGReleases informs me, came out in the US on 2 March 2010. The PC version originally sold for US$50, and the Xbox 360 version sold for US$60. At the time, it received solid if unspectacular reviews (a Metacritic score of 77%).  On 5 November 2010 – just eight months after SupCom2 launched – I bought the game, plus an expansion (“Infinite War Battle Pack”), from Steam for the grand total of…. US$8.50, representing a discount of 83% from the initial price (and I threw in the battle pack as well!). Admittedly it was on sale at the time, but even so, the base price for the game on Steam is just US$15, which is still 70% cheaper than it was at launch. Not a bad reward for being patient enough to wait for a little under a year.

 

Compare this to a book. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie, came out in June 2009 (according to Wikipedia). Amazon provides a hardcover “List Price” of US$25. which has been crossed out to show the difference to Amazon’s own price of US$16.50 for the hardcover. Amazon now sells the Kindle and paperback editions of the book for US$8, which represents a discount of 51.5%. If I just compare the Kindle price to the non-sale Steam price, so that I compare digital apples to apples, the Steam price is only $7 more expensive, and represents a larger percentage discount. But more importantly, I see games going on sale on digital distribution services such as Steam and Impulse far more often, and at much larger discounts, than I see books going on sale. It seems the only time books can really compete is when they get remaindered.

 

Now, I would be the first person to warn against placing too much weight on my observation. Firstly, I have not followed the e-book market particularly closely, so I am open to correction if, indeed, e-books regularly go on sale at swingeing discounts. Secondly, I do not know the market well enough to explain why this is the case, although my initial impression is that, because the e-book market is still relatively immature, pricing power has not yet shifted very much to the Amazons of the world. While I would think that the “long tail” argument would apply equally to both industries, it may be that, say, their relative cost structures make this more viable for games than books. And thirdly, the existence of libraries means that we can borrow books for free, which evens out much of this discrepancy.

 

But as far as I can tell, that discrepancy does exist. It helps explain why I tend to impulse-buy games more often than novels (non-fiction is a different story; that’s where I’ve tended to grit my teeth and buy books at full price).  And I hope that it does fade, both so I can treat myself to more books, and also – hopefully – so that authors will be able to find wider audiences.

US Versus UK Cover Art: Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I usually prefer UK (and, by extension, Australian) book covers to their US covers (see Discworld for an example of good British cover art), and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is no exception. Look at this UK cover: yes, it has an attention-grabbing axe and bloodstain, but the axe itself is almost photorealistically drawn and once you look past that, the detailed map says, “Fantasy novel!” without being garish about it. Now look at this US cover, and tell me it doesn’t make the book resemble a trashy slasher novel.

 

Which cover makes the book distinctive, in a good way? And which cover would you rather be seen with, in public?

Freebie highlight: The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve talked about the Vorkosigan Saga, the multi-award-winning science fiction series, by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fair bit on this blog, and especially in the last week. The novels are some of my favourites (and certainly my favourite science fiction), because while they raise some fascinating questions about where biotechnology and reproductive technology may take society in the future, ultimately they are about people: their journeys, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their loves, their lives.

 

And now, you can legally, and for free, download a CD containing most of the Vorkosigan novels (minus the most pivotal novel, and my personal favourite, Memory). You can find the CD here – click on either “View the Cryoburn CD” or the appropriate download link. Then, start with either Cordelia’s Honour (somewhat darker, more serious omnibus featuring the mother of the titular hero) or Young Miles (an omnibus containing two fast-paced, and very funny, adventure novels plus a more sober, moving piece of short fiction which offers a good quick way to preview the series).

 

This CD offers great, lively, intelligent, well-plotted, character-driven and thematically rich fiction at an unbeatable – zero – price. Well worth checking out.

A sneak peek at Lois McMaster Bujold’s upcoming “Ivan book”

EDIT: My review is up!

 

No heroic tale would be complete without supporting characters: Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Franz d’Epinay, Lieutenant William Bush, Issun… Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin and sometime sidekick, is more than just comic relief. He is a point-by-point foil for Miles: tall and handsome where Miles is stunted and deformed, determined to be an invisible everyman where Miles wants to be a hero, lazy where Miles is hyperactive. Yet when the chips are down, he is a brave and loyal ally – and now, following on the heels of Cryoburn (which I reviewed yesterday), Lois McMaster Bujold is working on the long-awaited novel starring Ivan. (In fact, I understand she got partway through the Ivan book, then took a hiatus to promote Cryoburn).

 

Best of all, we don’t have to wait for the book to be done in order to get a sneak peek. (Spoiler warning, obviously.) There are Youtube clips of Bujold reading Scenes #1 and #2 of the Ivan book – and although I wasn’t able to make out what she was saying due to sound quality, a couple of people have transcribed those scenes! You can read Scene #1 here and Scene #2 here.

 

Those readings certainly served their purpose for me. I waited patiently for years for an Ivan novel, and even after I learned that one was on its way, I took the news in my stride… but then I read the transcripts. After laughing aloud five or six times during those two scenes alone, I have no doubt that the series is back in its usual witty form, and that the book will be a blast. Ivan, get out of the word processor and onto the page!

 

Update: The Ivan book now has a title and a release date! Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is due out on 6 November 2012.

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.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep”

Don’t judge these books by their covers: Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga; Glen Cook’s Black Company

As promised, I bought Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn today. And one thing struck me immediately: the cover is, for a change, not horrendous.  J M W Turner it’s not, but I have seen a lot worse.

 

I know, I know, ragging on science fiction and fantasy novels for their covers is like shooting fish in a barrel (link courtesy of Rocketpunk Manifesto). So I will focus on just two series that I absolutely love, but whose covers (in the editions I have) make me want to whip out the brown paper for fear of being seen with them in public.

 

One is Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga itself. This cover says it all. (Thankfully, I don’t actually have that edition; I have this marginally less bad omnibus.) Split Infinities has plenty more examples, and makes the point that the covers repel readers who might otherwise pick up the intelligent, character-driven stories within.

 

The other is the Black Company series, by Glen Cook. Again, I’ll let one cover do the speaking for me. To add insult to injury, the Black Company novels were recently re-released in omnibus form – with much better covers.

 

So what would I consider “good” cover art? I’ve previously held up Discworld as one good example. Others include the clean, elegant look that Bloomsbury took with the “grown-up” Harry Potter covers, and the simple design on the more recent UK edition of A Game of Thrones. I just wish there were more of it around…

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn is out!

Glancing at my “What I’m Looking Forward To” post from September, I realised that I clean forgot to mention one of the novels that I was keenly anticipating — Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

 

Well, the anticipation is almost over, for Cryoburn has been released. But the key word is almost; not only do I need to buy the book (I know what I’ll be doing at lunchtime tomorrow!), but I’m going to save it for the upcoming plane trip. Well, if I waited all these years for Miles Vorkosigan’s latest adventure, what are a few more days

What I’ve just read: Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Tonight, I finished Robert Harris’ Lustrum (released in the US as Conspirata), the second novel in his Cicero trilogy (the first was Imperium). It was an enjoyable, fast-paced read, although I doubt I’ll reread it any time soon. There were two particular things that I liked about the book.

 

One, Caesar is a villain for a change. And as a villain, he makes a fine nemesis for Cicero: menacing, mercilessly hungry for power, capable of bouncing back Hydra-like from every defeat. Making Caesar the villain, I think, also adds a note of dramatic irony to the novels: the reader is perfectly aware that it will be Caesar who has the last laugh by becoming history’s best-known Roman, and that Caesar will be the one who eventually pulls down the Republic.

 

And two, while I still do not know that much Roman history, I am finally reaching the point where I was able to get the most out of the book. You know how sometimes, when you’re a fan of a given work, you might watch an adaptation and be thrilled when you spot a shout-out to the original, or when you know what’ll happen next because you read the book? That was pretty much how I felt. So I was happy to see Lucullus, the successful general turned to decadence in his retirement, showing off his fish ponds. I rubbed my hands together when I read that the rites of the Good Goddess would take place at Caesar’s house, because I had a feeling about what was coming up. I muttered, “Uh oh,” to myself when Fulvia made a cameo. In other words, the book came along at the right time for me, after I had learned a bit about Rome.

 

All in all, the book was well worth the price I paid, and I look forward to the final novel in Harris’ Cicero trilogy.

One of those funny little coincidences…

I started getting into Napoleonic-era naval fiction (Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin) earlier this year.In the last few weeks, looking at Sydney’s colonial-era buildings — such as Cadman’s Cottage; or Fort Denison, the round little construction jutting out from the midst of Sydney Harbour — made me think that it would be cool to see a Napoleonic story where the heroes visit Australia.

 

Cut to today, when upon finishing The Mauritius Command, the fourth Aubrey & Maturin novel, I looked at the blurb for Desolation Island, the next book in the series:

 

Jack and Stephen are dispatched to restore order after popular unrest unseats New South Wales governor William Bligh, the ill-fated captain of the mutinous Bounty.

 

Coooool. I look forward to reading — assuming the blurb does not lie — about Aubrey & Maturin down under!

Rereading books and re-watching movies

I’ve previously mused about the extent to which game-playing habits reflect real-world habits. That said, there must also be plenty of cases where the two don’t match. Take, for example, rereading books vs replaying games. As I noted yesterday, I don’t replay games; however, I read the same old books and watch the same old movies and anime over, and over, and over again (as anyone who lives with me could attest…).

 

Not only that, but I never re-read (or re-watch) cover-to-cover after my first time. In the case of a book, I either just pick it up and start a re-read session at a random page, or else I just beeline for my favourite chapter. In the case of a movie or anime, I go straight for my favourite part. In either case, I skip any scene that I found excessively gory, depressing, or boring the first time around. You could say I’m like the two webcomic characters who described their favourite way of re-watching Episode I: “Pod race, saber fight, pod race, saber fight – our faith in George Lucas is almost restored!”

 

How about you?

Authors’ advances: science fiction & fantasy vs literary fiction

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Authors Feel Pinch In Age of E-Books”. Now, I have seen other bloggers rip the original article full of holes, but for me, the premise of the original article wasn’t really the issue. What did make me sit up was the fact that, according to the WSJ article:

Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, a small independent publisher, now plans to publish the [literary fiction] book, offering Ms. Kaschock an advance of about $3,500..

…established publishers typically paid [US$50,000 to US$100,000 advances] in the past for debut literary fiction…

Now, my frame of reference is the science fiction/fantasy genre, for which Tobias Buckell conducted a survey several years ago. Buckell found that the median advance for first-time authors was $5,000. Yep, one-tenth, or one-twentieth, of the literary fiction advances mentioned above.

Assuming the WSJ piece is correct and literary fiction does, indeed, typically pay advances of US$50K-US$100K , this is an interesting fact. It makes me wonder why the discrepancy is so great: is literary fiction truly that lucrative to publish compared to speculative fiction? And it makes me wonder about the relative pay scales of other genres of writing.

Update: Tobias Buckell points out in the comments section:

… most agents/editors I know are laughing at that ‘lit fic usually gets paid XXX’ assertion. They’re cherry picking and mis remembering. Like everything else, lit fic has a range, from no-pay academic journal publishers, $1000 paying college presses, to authors who get paid big money.

Based on this, then, the $50K – $100K cited in the article does look to be inflated. Thanks, Tobias!

Discworld: Where monsters are folks just like us

One thing I love about Discworld is that its monstrous races, well, aren’t. They are ordinary people like you or I, and their “inhumanity” comes out mostly in the form of funny quirks.

The werewolves? Prone to that slight problem around the full moon, and to following instructions to “fetch!”, but otherwise not too bad. The vampires? Well, some of them have sworn off human blood – or, as they prefer to call it, “the ‘b’ vord”. The zombies? They have rights, too, and they’ll stand up for them! It’s perhaps the trolls who are the least “human” of the bunch, but that owes more to limited intelligence than anything else. And all of the above have integrated themselves into human, urban society, up to and including keeping the peace as members of the City Watch. Compare that to most other works of fantasy fiction!

So the next time you mow down Smouldering-With-Generic-Rage Skeleton #9345, think of what kind of life he/she/it might have been able to live on the Disc.

Discworld: fantasy cover art that’s actually good

Terry Pratchett is, I think, pretty much unique amongst fantasy authors in that he is blessed with good cover art for his novels*.

First came the covers drawn by Josh Kirby. Even before I started reading the Discworld novels, I immediately recognised them on the bookstore shelves, courtesy of the glorious, garish pandemonium of the Josh Kirby covers. For example, you can see his cover for Guards! Guards! here. While the characters don’t look much like they do in the text, the cover is true to the book in the most important sense. It hints at the kind of reading experience you will, in fact, have: a bellyful of laughs.

Josh Kirby died in 2001, and in 2002 Paul Kidby took over the cover art with Night Watch. Kidby’s covers don’t have the same manic glee of their predecessors, but they depict the characters very well and retain the comedic touch that the subject matter needs. My favourite Kidby cover is Going Postal, which wonderfully spoofs the “barbarian hero posing atop a mound of bodies”  (and I love the gothy Adora Bella Dearhart puffing away on her cigarette). And Kidby’s depiction of Sam Vimes as a Clint Eastwood-lookalike never fails to amuse me.

Truly, I would do both Pratchett and his cover-artists a great service to say I could judge the Discworld novels by their covers.

* At least in the UK and Australia; from what I’ve seen, the US covers aren’t quite so inspired.

What I’m looking forward to – September 2010 edition

With Civilization V newly released in the US and about to launch in Australia, this seems like an opportune time to ask: which games, books, etc am I looking forward to? There are a few entries on this list, and for each, I’ll note just long I plan to wait before actually plonking down my cash:

  • Civilization V: This one I’ll be holding off on. Part of it is the highway-robbery pricing: Americans pay US$50 on Steam, I pay US$80. And part of it is the fact that a number of reviewers have complained about the game’s AI (most visible in Tom Chick’s 1up review, but even the reviewers who liked the game all seem to have noted the AI flaws), which is as obviously vital to a satisfying single-player experience as it is often lacklustre. I love the Civilization games, I grew up playing them, but I can afford to wait for the AI to be fixed up.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: This might just be a Day 1 purchase, seeing as it’s not outrageously priced on Steam and it comes on the heels of Fallout 3, one of the most impressive games I’ve played. As we draw closer to New Vegas’ release date in October, I intend to finish playing Fallout 3, and then write a series of posts about why I love that game’s storytelling so much.
  • The Last Guardian: The sequel to the sublime Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and a reason why I went for a PS3 instead of an Xbox 360. Another possible Day 1 purchase for me.
  • Shogun: Total War 2: One of my “wait a year or two for the patches, mods, and expansion pack(s)” games. I have no faith in Creative Assembly’s  ability to deliver a bug-free game with a competent AI at launch, but I’m sure that when the game is patched up, I will love the experience of playing war-leader, and the spectacle of seeing vast armies clash.

Books

  • A Dance With Dragons, by George R R Martin: Okay, I’m not expecting this any time in the next twelve months, maybe even not the next 18 or 24 months. I wasn’t even the world’s biggest fan of A Feast for Crows, which had me mentally screaming, “Bridging book! Bridging book!” throughout. But as the next instalment in my favourite fantasy series of all time, Dance will most definitely see me at my local bookstore, forking out for a hardcover; even Martin’s bridging novels are better than 90% of the other fantasy fiction out there.

EDIT: I knew I’d forgotten something… Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind and Crusader Kings 2, forthcoming game releases from Paradox. These two probably deserve a post of their own, so stay tuned for tomorrow’s update!

Cyclic history?

Cyclic history – and specifically, the notion that empires will inevitably rise to galaxy-spanning heights, then decline not to mediocrity or middling-power status but to utter oblivion – is deeply embedded in the DNA of science fiction. Asimov did it in the Foundation series, of course, but you see it everywhere in space opera: the backstory of Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, Poul Anderson’s Flandry series, any number of David Weber novels, the Traveller tabletop RPG,  the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy (http://www.rocketpunk-observatory.com/spaceguideF-L.htm)…

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing like the same prominence in fantasy. Why’s that?

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.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds”

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”