Monday, October 31, 2011

Stardust - Neil Gaiman

1999; 333 pages.  Genre : Fantasy Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Laurels: Winner of the 2000 Ameircan Library Association's "Alex Award";  Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Victoria Forester is the most beautiful girl in the land.  To win her heart, Tristan Thorn vows to bring her a falling/fallen star they saw together.  In return, she agrees to give him his heart's desire.

What could be easier, and what could possibly go wrong?

What's To Like...
Stardust is a fairy tale.  As such, it has romance and adventure; unicorns and princesses.  But it's also a Neil Gaiman tale.  As such, it has intrigue and murder; ghosts and witches; and a wee bit o' sex and cussing.

The storyline moves at a splendid pace, and it is a delight to follow along.  Tristan hasn't a clue as to how to find a fallen star, let alone snag it and take it back with him.  All he knows is that to do so, he will have to leave the "real" world, and venture into the land of Faeries.  That's fodder for Gaiman's fertile mind.

    Stardust is an easy-to-read book.  The writing is skilled; the plotline is well thought-out; the story twists are plentiful; and the ending is great.  And there's an illustrated version of it that I am told is also masterfully done.

Kewlest New Word...
Lammas-Tide : August 1st; aka "Harvest Day".   Three months after Beltain; and three months before Samhain.

    There was a cracking sound, sharp as a shot, and the light that filled the grove was gone.
    Or almost gone.  There was a dim glow pulsing from the middle of the hazel thicket, as if a tiny cloud of stars were glimmering there.
    And there was a voice, a high clear, female voice which said, "Ow," and then, very quietly, it said "Fuck," and then it said "Ow" once more.
    And then it said nothing at all, and there was silence in the glade.  (pg. 93)

    "If you touch me," said the star, "lay but a finger on me, you will regret it forever-more."
    "If ever you get to be my age," said the old woman, "you will know all there is to know about regrets, and you will know that one more, here or there, will make no difference in the long run."  She snuffled the air.  (pgs. 321-322)

There was once a young man who wished to gain his heart's desire.  (pg. 1)
    Neil Gaiman is probably my favorite contemporary author.  He can pen "heavy" novels such as American Gods and Anansi Boys; and  he can pen "lighter" stuff like Stardust.  They are all equally brilliant.  Do you think I have stardust in my eyes?  Check out the awards he's won here.

    The negative reviews at Amazon fall mostly into two groups.  First, there are those who are shocked that there is sex and cussing in the book.  Hey folks, it's an adult fairy-tale.  Second, there are those who say the movie is better.  I can't say, not having seen it.  Perhaps the lesson here is read the book before renting the video.

    As for me, I found it to be a wonderful and entertaining read.  But then, I expect that from Neil Gaiman.  9½* Stars.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

2000; 585 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Sci-Fi.  Laurels : nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (2000); and the BSFA (2001).  Rating : 7½*/10.

    On a faraway planet, archaeologist Dan Sylveste is excavating ancient (900,000 years old) ruins that he thinks indicate that a civilization on the brink of achieving space travel was wiped out in a cataclysmic event.

    Spaceship pilot Ilia Volyova has other plans.  She intends to kidnap Sylveste and force him to work on healing her starship captain.  Ana Khouri has a straightforward aim.  She wants to assassinate Sylveste.  To save the universe.

What's To Like...
   Set in the 2500's, Revelation Space is a good example of "hard" (technologically plausible) sci-fi.  Among other things, Reynolds' universe abides by the "you can't go faster than the speed of light" principle.  This is the first book of a series of either 3 or 5 books, depending how you view it, but it is also a stand-alone novel.

    The three main characters are well-developed, and we have lots of time to get to know them as they start off light-years apart from each other.  Ana and Ilia hook up pretty quickly, but we're halfway through the book before they reach Sylveste's planet.  None of the three is completely likeable, and I like that.  But we warm to all of them as the events unfold.

    There are some quibbles.  Revelation Space is a slow and difficult read, mostly because of Reynolds' technological asides.  Being a scientist, I didn't mind.  But non-techies might.  The non-linear chapter dates can be confusing at first, and there are a number of loose ends left untied at the end of the book.  I presume these are addressed in the sequels.  Finally, if you're a secondary character, your odds for survival are slim, and your demise will probably be arbitrary.

Kewlest New Word...
Svinoi : a pig-breeder; or just a pig itself.  (Russian, pejorative)

    "State your identity," the woman said.
    Volyova introduced herself.
    "You last visited this system in ... let me see." The face looked down for a minute.  "Eighty-five years ago; '461.  Am I correct?"
    Against her best instincts, Volyova leaned nearer the screen.  "Of course you're correct.  You're a gamma-level simulation.  Now dispense with the theatrics and just get on with it.  I've wares to trade and every second you detain me is a second more we have to pay to park our ship around your useless dogturd of a planet."
    "Truculence noted," the woman said, seeming to jot a remark in a notebook just out of sight.  (pgs. 84-85)

    "A splendidly inept thing," Sylveste said, nodding despite himself.
    "The human capacity for grief.  It just isn't capable of providing an adequate emotional response once the dead exceed a few dozen in number.  And it doesn't just level off - it just gives up, resets itself to zero.  Admit it.  None of us feel a damn about these people."  (pg. 323)

The trouble with the dead ... was that they had no real idea when to shut up.  (pg. 17)
    Revelation Space reminds me both of Arthur Clarke's "2001 - A Space Odyssey" and Peter F. Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" trilogy.  It is a bit less "sweepingly epic" than the latter, but then again, there are four more books (and a number of short stories) to go.

    I personally liked the "hard science" parts - discussions of the history of the universe, and of Fermi's paradox (if interstellar flight is theoretically plausible, why haven't we been visited yet?).  But the storyline at times seems disjointed and could have been more compelling.  And there a couple jaw-dropping cases of deus ex machina.

    Still, this is really quite good for a "first effort" (there are nine Alastair Reynolds novels now, with a tenth due out in 2012), and makes for a fascinating introduction to a new and complex universe.  7½ Stars.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

1962; 336 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Mythological Fiction.  Rating : 7*/10.

    Theseus returns to Greece a hero.  He has triumphed over the   Minotaur in Crete.  Troubadours will sing of his praises; painters will put his likeness on walls; and trinket-makers will sell little gold Theseuses on bracelets.

    Now is the time to unite Greece and govern a kingdom.  To marry for political expediency, dispense justice, and engage in the subtle arts of diplomacy and tact.  Which is all well and good for an ambitious politician.  But not for someone with adventure in his veins.

What's To Like...
    The Bull from the Sea is the sequel to The King Must Die, where Theseus famously braved the Labyrinth and fought the Minotaur.  TBFTS basically recounts the rest of Theseus' life.  It is nevertheless a stand-alone book, provided you like (and are well-versed in) Greek mythology.

    The story is presented as historical fiction, which is a clever treatment.  We know Greek mythology has all sorts of fabulous creatures such as centaurs, fauns, and satyrs.  We know they never existed.  So how and why did they work their way into in Greek lore as if they were real?  Mary Renault gives a plausible explanation here.  She takes the Theseus legend and "de-godifies" it into a series a natural events.  Yet you can see how it could easily be stretched into a larger-than-life tale.

    Theseus is a flawed hero, and that's a plus.  The women are all strong characters.  Greece dominates the eastern Mediterranean world.  And then there are the uber-kewl Amazons.  You don't want to mess with them.

Kewlest New Word...
Skewbald : having spots or patches of white on a coat of color other than black.

    "The House of Minos stood for a thousand years, because Crete had one law."
    "Yet it has fallen."
    "For want of law enough.  It stopped with the serfs and the slaves.  Men are dangerous who have nothing left to lose."  (pg. 40-41)

    Tall trees grew on her grave-mound.  The pups of our hounds' last mating had grown gray-nosed and died.  Her young Guard had sons who were learning arms.  As for me, she would hardly have known the face that mirrors showed me now, gray-bearded, darkened with salt and sun.  She had seemed to die again in all these passings.  But just now, in the chariot, I had seen the hair pale as electrum, the springing stance, the joy in swift horses, and for a moment she had lived again.  (pg. 235-236)

"Death does not master us, while the bard sings and the child remembers."   (pg. 18)
    Mary Renault does a marvelous job of bringing Ancient Greece and its legends alive and making it believable.  Yet I think The Bull from the Sea is probably for mythology-lovers only.  If you didn't like to read Edith Hamilton tales as a kid, you may find this book to be a bit of a slow-go. 

    There is some romance and some intrigue, but not a lot.  The action parts are also a bit sparse, which is more critical since this is an adventure story.  And the author misses a couple opportunities (most notably the reconquest of Crete) to spill a little blood and swash a little buckle.  OTOH, if family tragi-drama is to your taste, you may enjoy the book from start to finish.

    The ending has a nice twist; and like a Shakespearean tragedy, we end up empathizing with Theseus despite his shortcomings and ill-luck.  Mary Renault has less to work with here than in her Alexander the Great novels; but she still creates a well-written tale.  7 Stars.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Making Money - Terry Pratchett

2007; 394 pages.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Book #36 in the Discworld series.  Laurels : Locus Award (winner) and Nebula Award (nominee) in 2008.  Rating : 8½*/10.

    "Tell me, Mr. Lipwig, would you like to make some real money?"  Moist von Lipwig has already done wonders for Ankh-Morpork's postal system (see the review here).  Now Lord Vetinari would like him to do the same to the city's Banking/Minting institution.  And when Vetinari makes you an offer such as this, you are well-advised to accept.

What's To Like...
    After some dithering, Moist accepts the challenge (you knew he would) and you (and Moist) are introduced to a whole slew of new characters with secrets, eccentricities, and nefarious intents.  The old crew (DEATH, Sam Vimes, the Night Watch, etc.) are here as well, although for the most part, they are relegated to cameo roles.

    Moist rapidly gets entangled in monetary matters.  Meanwhile, his GF, Adora Belle Dearheart, is leagues away investigating golem artefacts.  As usual, Terry Pratchett moves both storylines (and their various complexities) deftly along; tying them neatly  together at the end.

   Making Money starts a tad slow - the tour of the bank drags on as we wait for something to happen.  But that's just a device to get you acquainted with all the new faces, and once that's done, things pick up nicely.

Kewlest New Word...
Plangent : beating with a loud, deep, and often mournful sound.

    "A bankerMe?"
    "Yes, Mr. Lipwig."
    "But I don't know anything about running a bank!"
    "Good.  No preconceived ideas."
    "I've robbed banks!"
    "Capital!  Just reverse your thinking," said Lord Vetinari, beaming.  "The money should be on the inside."  (pg. 23)

    Whenever possible, Lavishes married distant cousins, but it wasn't uncommon for a few, every generation, to marry outside, in order to avoid the whole "three thumbs" situation.  The women found handsome husbands who did what they were told, while the men found wives who, amazingly, were remarkably good at picking up the petulance and shaved-monkey touchiness that was the mark of a true Lavish.  (pgs. 126-127)

Quia ego sic dico.  ("because I say so")  (pg. 378)
    Making Money is typical of Terry Pratchett's recent Discworld offerings.  There's not as much slapstick humor and mangled metaphors as in the early books, but the writing is more skillful, and you are still treated to an ample amount of chortles.

    Stylistically, it is very similar to the first Moist von Lipwig book - Going Postal.  So if you liked that one, you'll enjoy this one equally well.  8½ Stars.