Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Book Review: Dark Force Rising

book cover for Dark Force RisingThe dying Empire's most cunning and ruthless warlord, Grand Admiral Thrawn, has taken command of the remnants of the Imperial Fleet and launched a massive campaign aimed at the New Republic's destruction. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Lando Calrissian race against time to find proof of treason inside the highest Republic Council—only to discover instead a ghostly fleet of warships that could bring doom to their friends and victory to their enemies.

Yet most dangerous of all is a new Dark Jedi, risen from the ashes of a shrouded past, consumed by bitterness, and scheming to corrupt Luke Skywalker to the dark side.

It's funny. When I started this series, I thought that the titular heir to the Empire was supposed to be Grand Admiral Thrawn when, in fact, it's the windbag-pretending-to-be-a-Jedi Joruus C'baoth. In my defense, C'baoth's storyline tends to take a backseat to all the other storylines that run through the first two books of this series. So it didn't click in my head until this book drew to its conclusion.

Zahn's characters continue to be better developed than the familiar characters from the Star Wars original/middle trilogy of films. They still seem off to me. I think that they're stuck in Return of the Jedi mode. Luke tries to treat C'baoth like Vader. Leia thinks that she can broker diplomacy with the Noghri like she did with the Ewoks. Han and Lando aren't the rogues that they used to be, but they think they still are. Chewie is still Chewie though. And they all get away with it because, well, they do. I guess I'm expecting too much. It's been 40 years for me, but these books are only a couple years removed from the battle of Endor.

As I said, Zahn's original characters are better. Mara Jade struggles with her hate/he's ok relationship with Luke. Captain Pellaeon dutifully serves Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is always a step ahead of everyone else. It comes close to straining credulity at times, but I let it slide. Talon Karrde remains the likeable smuggler. Fey'lya demonstrates that Bothans are really frenemies, and former Senator Bel Iblis reveals some history about the early days of the Rebellion that would make for a great addition to Andor.

As for the storylines, after the surviving special ops Noghri, Khabarakh, informs Leia that he knows she's Vader's daughter, she agrees to accompany him to the Noghri homeworld in hopes of clearing things up and putting these attempted kidnappings to bed. I admit that while this started off like a fool's errand, Zahn built up Noghri society rather well.

Han and Lando try to uncover proof that Admiral Ackbar was set up and find a lost fleet of ships that could turn the tide of the war. I wasn't sure that they were doing anything more than stumbling around from one planet to another, but they eventually got there.

Luke seeks out the rumors of a Jedi Master in hopes of continuing his education, but as this storyline involved C'baoth it was pretty much a nothing burger. Luke eventually leaves to rescue someone and things pick up from there.

So despite my complaining, I am enjoying this series. It's good popcorn fare or a beach read.

3.5 stars


Friday, November 18, 2022

Book Review: The Doors of Eden

book cover for The Doors of EdenLee's best friend went missing on Bodmin Moor, four years ago. She and Mal were chasing rumours of monsters when they found something all too real. Now Mal is back, but where has she been, and who is she working for?

When government physicist Kay Amal Khan is attacked, the security services investigate. This leads MI5's Julian Sabreur deep into terrifying new territory, where he clashes with mysterious agents of an unknown power—who may or may not be human. And Julian's only clue is some grainy footage—showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.

Khan's extradimensional research was purely theoretical, until she found cracks between our world and countless others. Parallel Earths where monsters live. These cracks are getting wider every day, so who knows what might creep through? Or what will happen when those walls finally come crashing down...

This is my third Tchaikovsky novel, and the first one that fell short for me. It could be that the first two that I read, Children of Time and Spiderlight, were so good that the bar was set too high.

The main story had an interesting premise, but the execution didn't work for me. I felt that it dragged at times, too many scenes with people wondering what's going on or not believing what their eyes are telling them. What I really enjoyed were the interstitials: excerpts from other timelines where different species rose to prominence on alternative Earths. The world-building in these mini-documentaries really demonstrated Tchaikovsky's love for zoology. I wanted to read stories based in these worlds or their interaction with ours.

Which brings me to the characters. I really didn't care for them, well the humans anyway. The non-human characters were the interesting ones. Khan, the foul-mouthed, chain smoking physicist was the best of the humans. Lee and Mal were ok. Any scene with Julian was disappointing. The blurb makes it seem like he carries the story, but he was more of a passenger. He really couldn't handle anything outside a narrow British box of expectations. I couldn't wait for his scenes to be over with. His co-worker, Alison, was ok by the end but took a while to get there. Even the villain was dull, there to be the foil to the underlying message of inclusion.

There's a big reveal towards the last quarter of the book that explains how all of this came about. It got my hopes up for a strong finish, but then we got more navel gazing. The execution of the last part, well, I've seen Star Trek do it better. And the end left me like, "Oh, that's it?" If it wasn't for the world-building, I'd rate it lower.

3 stars


Monday, October 31, 2022

Book Review: Frankenstein

book cover for FrankensteinAt once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Even if one hasn't read the book or seen any of the numerous film adaptations, it would be difficult to believe that anyone in Western Civilization had not at least heard about Frankenstein in some fashion. It is a classic tale already two centuries old that will live on for centuries to come.

If you haven't read the book, it bears little resemblance to the majority of films that were inspired by it. Most films devote significant screen time to portraying how the monster was created and how Frankenstein is thrilled with his creation. Frankenstein tries to educate it, make it more human, but the process is frustratingly difficult. Said creation then runs amok, much to Frankenstein's chagrin. The films are typically a warning about the dangers of science run amok.

But the book spends scant time on the monster's creation. We're given Frankenstein's motivations for reanimating the dead (grief over his mother's death) and his research into the matter—primarily reading ancient, discredited tomes—but no mention of where he got body parts or what process provided that spark to reanimate the flesh. It's just handwaved onward, not important. And then when the monster is created, Frankenstein rejects it outright. It is so hideous an abomination that he can't stand to be in the same room with it and drives it away.

Shelley attacks the canard that beauty is good and ugliness is evil. The monster is attacked by all who gaze upon it for no reason other than it is so hideous it must be evil. The monster secretly provides firewood and game for a poor family of seemingly kind people, but they attack it on sight. Later, after the monster learns how to speak (No, not "Fire bad!"), it engages with Frankenstein in debate, slinging purple prose in his face, lamenting how lonely it is because of its wretched existence. But Frankenstein can't get past the ugly and rejects the monster again and again.

Naturally, all of this rejection is too much for the monster. It resorts to committing evil deeds which only incense Frankenstein's animosity towards the monster. Ultimately, the monster feels that negative attention is better than no attention and torments its creator further.

Sure, Frankenstein blames himself for creating the monster. He hides this fact from people for years, all the while crying out to the stars about his woe and misery and longing to be with his love and his wonderful family. But ultimately, he never accepts the blame for his true crime: rejecting his creation upon its birth. Think of it this way: If a parent rejects his/her child all of that child's life, never shows that child love, what sort of person will that child grow up to be? The rest of us would think that parent was a lousy human being. Frankenstein is no different. But instead, Captain Walton, who meets Frankenstein while he's out in pursuit of the monster, showers such slavish admiration upon the man that I swear he was smitten by him, regardless of what Frankenstein told him that he'd done.

Frankenstein is the true monster here, not his hideous creation. I'll take the Hollywood version of Dr. Frankenstein. At least his twisted heart was in the right place.

3 stars

By the way, Young Frankenstein was the best of them all.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

Book Review: Pharoni

book cover for PharoniWhen the body of Harry Injurides - playwright, provocateur and bodybuilder - washes up on a beach, his friends are shocked, but not altogether surprised. But when they meet to mourn Harry, he shows up and says he's been resurrected.

Pharoni is the story of those friends. Tommy Pharoni tries to overcome his shock by writing about his friend's resurrection, and accidentally starts a religion. Roy Sudden starts a tech empire based on digital empathy and digital pain, drawing in billionaire investors, femme-fatale programmers, and tsunamis of capital. And, Roy's on-again, off-again girlfriend Maud works in secret to bring radical justice to the most neglected and abused corners of society.

As Tommy's religion grows, Roy and his backers try to take control of it. The battle, about more than doctrine, engulfs Tommy's marriage and threatens his life, leading to a conflict with strangely humane results that no one could predict.

Told in the first person, Pharoni has the feel of a memoir or a really long confession. Tommy Pharoni is a struggling screenplay writer who pays his bills and alimony by working a soulless marketing job. His closest friends were aspiring artists of different sorts in college. Now in their mid-thirties, they've set aside those aspirations to "adult" properly. All except for Harry, whose death opens the story. Harry struggled to fit into contemporary society, instead preferring to help the homeless while penning "words of wisdom" in his many notebooks. After his death and subsequent re-birth, those notebooks wound up in Tommy's possession. Ultimately, Tommy would collect them into a coherent manuscript and seek out a way to get them published.

As Tommy is a screenwriter, the format of the story periodically shifts into screenplay mode. This works particularly well for conversations as it affords opportunity to get to know the other characters through their dialogue rather than relying on Tommy's narrative. I wouldn't say Tommy is an unreliable narrator, but he does limit what we can learn about what's going on elsewhere with other characters. References to things that have been written elsewhere and NDAs force the reader to fill in the gaps.

After Harry's resurrection, the lives of Tommy and his friends change as described in the blurb, but there's so much more. The group of friends find themselves splattered by the seven deadly sins, fitting for a story where a religion is founded upon the philosophical musings of a character that has died and miraculously resurrected days later. At least Christianity didn't get partnered with a health and wellness brand. The corrupting influence of millions and billions of dollars seeps its way into their lives and rots them from within. What is friendship worth? Can you put a dollar amount on it?

If there's one overarching theme that I can take away from this tale, it's that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Keeping this spoiler free, I'll say that Tommy started out as a character that I could connect with to someone I didn't want anything to do with. But I stuck with him because act two opens with:
This is where I get unrelatable, maybe even unlikable. As the writer of failed screenplays, I know what a mortal sin unlikability can be.
That gave me hope for him in act three. But Tommy is far from the only person to be corrupted by power. It's everyone up to the very end of the story. And the only characters whose souls are left intact are those who never possess it.

Colin Dodds has crafted an excellent morality play with vivid characters. Pharoni offers modern day parallels to the founding of Christianity, right down to the Christmas star, but in an age of unbridled capitalism. If you're old enough, with all of the life experience that implies, it forces you to take a look at this fellowship of friends and how they sacrificed art and friendship for wealth and power and check to make sure that this isn't a mirror of your own life.

4 stars


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Book Review: Freeze Frame Revolution

book cover for Freeze Frame RevolutionHow do you stage a mutiny when you're only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each job shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears, and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what's best for you? Trapped aboard the starship Eriophora, Sunday Ahzmundin is about to discover the components of any successful revolution: conspiracy, code—and unavoidable casualties.

Earth is dying, yet civilization has access to some amazing technology—almost de rigueur for Watts. In this case, the Eriophora, an asteroid turned generation starship of sorts, has been tasked with building jumpgates throughout the galaxy in hopes that humans, or their successors, will be able to make use of them and spread through the galaxy. While a noble cause, the UN doesn't expect everyday people to stick with the mission (Successive generations could rebel, arguing that they weren't given a choice and are forced to be slaves to someone else's dream). Instead, the crew of 30,000 are genetically engineered with the traits that make them perfectly suited for the never-ending job. Even so, the UN doesn't wholly trust them either. A limited AI (a full-powered AI would probably wind up just as unreliable as humans after a while) with less than half the synapses of a human brain (referred to by the crew as "Chimp") runs most of the operations, waking small groups of humans from cryosleep to lend a helping hand when Chimp stumbles across a problem that requires good old fashioned human ingenuity.

Tens of millions of years have passed. A hostile encounter shortly after the completion of a build triggers doubts about the mission. Chimp's abilities seem lacking, possibly degrading, and a grim discovery made by some of the crew sparks talk of rebellion. But as the book blurb points out, planning a mutiny against an all-seeing AI, even a limited one, over the span of millennia—while hopping in an out of the freezer—is a staggeringly difficult task. But plan they do.

The story is told from the POV of Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday's backstory, along with that of the mission, is told in the short story, "Hotshot," which I strongly recommend that interested parties read first. Honestly, it should've been included with this book for those reasons. Watts makes the effort to properly develop her character there instead of here. Watts is amazing at grabbing cutting edge scientific ideas and mashing them together for some incredible world-building, but his protagonists (this is my third Watts' novel) are very similar. They've all had something done to them to set them apart, render them outsiders. Lenie (Starfish) is a sexual abuse survivor who undergoes an operation to enable her to run away and work on the ocean floor. Siri (Blindsight) suffered from epileptic seizures so he had an hemispherectomy that rendered him emotionally detached from humanity. Makes for a solid candidate to go on a first contact mission in the farthest reaches of the solar system. Sunday was genetically engineered to want to leave Earth behind with an insatiable galactic wanderlust.

Eventually the rebels make their move and stuff happens. I won't spoil the ending, but it felt unresolved. There are a couple more short stories, and Watts admitted on his blog that he was working on a sequel, so there's that. Despite the ending, I enjoyed this more than either Starfish or Blindsight, so I'm holding out hope that Watts gets around to writing a proper sequel.

4.5 stars


Sunday, August 7, 2022

Book Review: Heir to the Empire

book cover for Heir to the EmpireFive years ago, the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star, defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, and drove the remnants of the old Imperial Starfleet to a distant corner of the galaxy. Princess Leia and Han Solo are married and expecting twins. And Luke Skywalker has become the first in a long-awaited line of Jedi Knights.

But thousands of light-years away, the last of the Emperor's warlords, Grand Admiral Thrawn, has taken command of the shattered Imperial fleet, readied it for war, and pointed it at the fragile heart of the New Republic. For this dark warrior has made a vital discovery that could destroy everything the courageous men and women of the Rebel Alliance fought so hard to build.

I remember when this first came out. The glow from the original Star Wars trilogy had faded, but the franchise still had its rabid fans. As much as I loved the films, I didn't cross over into super-fan territory. I was content with story as it was and willing to let it go. So why am I reading it now? My son, a big Star Wars fan himself (at least before Disney got a hold of the franchise), bought me the (original) Thrawn trilogy for Christmas. How could I say no?

Zahn has had a long and prolific career penning stories set in the Star Wars universe. This was his first. I feel like he was somewhat handcuffed in how he handled the known characters from the films. They came across as flat, dull. Their quips seemed borrowed from the films. I didn't get the feeling that their characters grew.

Where Zahn excelled was with the new characters. Joruus C'baoth was an egotistical bore. Mara Jade's hatred for Luke was insufferable. Fortunately, we find out why she hates him so much near the end of the novel. Talon Karrde was a shrewd smuggler caught between the fledgling Republic and the remnants of the Empire. I grew to like him. Captain Pellaeon had my sympathies despite playing for the bad guys. He had the unenviable task of reporting to the sharpest tactician in the Empire. He knew that he was mentally outmatched by his boss, and constantly had to prove his competence to the man lest he find himself staring down the wrong end of a blaster. And Grand Admiral Thrawn was the sharpest tack in the galaxy. Someone on Goodreads compared him to Sherlock Holmes, and I cannot disagree. One of the finest villains that's ever been written for Star Wars.

I didn't get a proper sense of the internal strife among the Republic's ruling council, so I was caught off guard at the end. The peril that our intrepid heroes faced didn't seem too perilous, and yet they struggled. There was a climactic battle at the end of the novel that was entertaining, but it was far too early in the trilogy to be epic. Still, I was entertained, and I will be continuing with the series.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Book Review: House of Leaves

book cover for House of LeavesJohnny Truant gets a call in the middle of the night from his friend Lude. Apparently, this weird old guy (Zampanò) died in his apartment building, and the landlord left the door unlocked for Goodwill to come and clean the place out the next morning. Johnny heads over and the two of them find this manuscript in a trunk. The manuscript is an analysis of a documentary, The Navidson Record. Skimming through it, Johnny notices that it is annotated with footnotes referencing other people who have either analyzed the film or interviewed the people who took part in it. The film concerns a house that is larger on the inside than the outside. Curious, Johnny takes it home with him.

What the reader holds in her hands is that manuscript with all of Zampanò's narration and analysis of the important aspects of the The Navidson Record; analysis of said film by others, including quotes and footnotes (Yes, footnotes); and Johnny's commentary on said notes plus tales of his experiences with the book and its negative impact on his life.

It's clear from the introduction that Johnny is going to be an unreliable narrator. It then becomes the task of the reader to decide what's real and what's the result of what appears to be schizophrenia. Considering Johnny and Lude seem to be characters out of a Bukowski novel (appropriately enough, even living in L.A.), the lines are easily blurred.

For me, it was all about the house. Any time the narrative strayed from that, my interest dropped. Johnny's story wasn't compelling. Zampanò's analysis with all of its quotes and references wasn't compelling. Dozens of pages of two sentences, two words, or even one word. Upside down text. Mirrored text. Footnotes of whole lists of every named architect, architectural style, and inventory of everything you can find in a HomeDepot smacks of OCD. None of that was compelling. I'll give Danielewski points for his ambitious experiment, but its obsession with documentation as a means of drawing attention to a descent into madness was tiresome for me.

Why Danielewski chose to go this convoluted route rather than telling a straightforward story about the house that the Navidsons lived in is beyond me. Was he successful in generating buzz about his work and compelling people to buy it? Absolutely. It could've been a solid selling haunted house story with elements of myth and cosmicism, but he went further down the proverbial rabbit hole and added extra layers of meta-analyis and tangential 90s fictionalized memoir. And he was successful, so good for him. But I suspect that this over the top experiment may have generated blowback in terms of building a long term audience of readers. On Goodreads right now, this book has 150,000 ratings for an average score of 4.07. That's excellent. But his next most populous book has 5,600 ratings, a 96% drop.

It may just be coincidence, but I'm wondering if Danielewski heard Soundgarden's "Room a Thousand Years Wide" and decided to include it among his fictional footnotes. Why? Well, there's a footnote attributed to a "Chris Thayil". Kim Thayil wrote the lyrics for the song, which appears on the Badmotorfinger album in 1991, during the time Danielewski wrote the book. "Chris Thayil" could be an amalgam of Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil. If that sounds crazy, then House of Leaves isn't for you because that is the sort of thing that permeates this book.

3 stars