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


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Book Review: The Theatre of Shadows

book cover for The Theatre of ShadowsSix months have passed since the events of The Silver Mask. Over the winter months, Vasini was plagued by Gareth Miller, the Winter Fayre Killer, who murdered 17 people before he was captured by Lieutenant David Locke. The city now waits for Miller to be hanged. But when Miller escapes gaol, ready to terrorise Vasini's streets once more, Locke must hunt the murderer again to stop him from claiming more lives.

As Miller flees into Vasini's streets, Joseph Bastin, ambassador to Vasini for the city-state of Laège, is assassinated in a brothel. With the threat of political repercussions for the death, it is up to Dr. Marcus Fox, newly appointed Commandant of Police, to find the ambassador's killer.

Fox's investigation soon leads to a suspect, someone who has been investigating links between the Laège embassy and the worship of the dead deities - his ally, Dr. Elizabeth Reid.

Now, Elizabeth and her friend, Catherine, must act quickly to clear her name before she is found by someone who doesn't believe her claims of innocence and she's forced to dance the hangman's jig.

This is the sequel to The Silver Mask, a terrific "flintlock and alchemy" novel. Unfortunately, The Theatre of Shadows wasn't as enjoyable for me due to the plot style and pacing. The story read more like a police procedural set in the 1700s, which isn't the sort of thing—regardless of time period—that I read. Investigating the ambassador's murder provided enough intrigue, but the serial killer plotline kept getting in the way, hogging the spotlight. Maybe the serial killer was fully developed in The Winter Fayre, a novella contained in The Divided River that preceded this novel, but here he's rather one-dimensional. He's always two steps ahead of the Inspectorate and the watchmen (police), rendering them seemingly incompetent as he murders people with impunity. It went on for far too long for me. It took roughly three-fifths of the novel before any sort of clue was given as to why the serial killer plotline even existed, and it wasn't resolved until much later.

The main characters from The Silver Mask—Fox, Locke, Elizabeth, and Catherine—are here. While fully developed before, they weren't neglected here. Fox and Locke are in pursuit of the ambassador's assassin and the serial killer. Elizabeth and Catherine spend their time searching for clues to clear Elizabeth's name of killing the ambassador. Ellingsen gives us each main character's POV—as well as those of a few key minor characters—as they investigate, thus enriching the depth of each one.

Ellingsen doesn't spend as much time world-building here as he did in The Silver Mask, but what he provides is top-notch. The city of Vasini feels authentic with Ellingsen's descriptions of the sights and scents of everyday life.

Ultimately, the protagonists' relentless pursuit of clues paid off. Ellingsen corraled the plot into a climax that resolved the current crises of random murder and calculated assassination. It was an effective ending, and so I feel better about the book as a whole. But for me, it was probably a hundred pages too long. However, I remain optimistic that the next installment in this series will have more intrigue and less procedure.

3 stars


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Pros and Cons of the Publishing Industry

a fork in the roadI stumbled across this over at the Independent Publishing Magazine. Guest blogger Andrew Deen outlined the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing. Thorough yet succinct, it's a must read for every writer about to embark on the road to publishing their work. But if you're not a writer and you've wondered what's involved in publishing, then it's worth checking out.


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Book Review: Medusa Uploaded

bbok cover for Medusa UploadedThe Executives control Oichi's senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth—the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.

The Giger-esque cover and the book blurb did their job: I got hooked. But upon reading the story, it struck me as far less dark than it was made out to be. Oh sure, we had the nefarious dystopian aristocracy which gets to control servants through their cybernetic implants, overwrite security protocols seemingly at will, spy on everyone, and flush people out the airlock with impunity, but I found them to be caricatures ripped from some 18th century aristocratic drama like Dangerous Liasions.

Still, I wanted to find out how this civilization came to be on a kilometers-long generation ship. But as information is tightly controlled by the Executive class and Oichi was a worm—the derogatory term for the lowest class of workers who maintain life aboard the ship—it was a mystery for her to solve. We learn right away that this civilization has incredible cybernetic technology. Everyone seems to have a chip in their heads that they use to access communications and limited data. Some others have artificial eyes, voice boxes, and hearing (hence the Executives' ability to control their servants so that they don't disrupt their dinner parties). And Oichi has a chip in her skull that enables her to 'bond' with Medusa, the sentient AI.

But for all of their amazing tech, they abuse the hell out their airlocks. The Executives use them to murder and assassinate people all the time. They override the safety protocols (so what good are they) and flush out the bodies, sacrificing breathable air and biomass to the void. This is so stupid. I don't care how big the ship is. If you're going to flush out 800 cubic feet of air (sometimes more), the atmosphere on board your ship is getting that much thinner. And the 100 to 200 lbs of biomass is also wasted. Everything on a generation ship gets recycled. Everything. It's one less mouth to feed now, but all that calcium, water, and organic matter? You're not getting that back. Why not suffocate the victims in the airlock (since no one literally wants blood on their hands) and take the body to the waste reclamation unit where it can be ground up and anaerobically digested? Not as dramatic, perhaps, but after the airlock scene plays out several times, it loses its ability to shock the reader.

Another problem was with the voice of the narrator, Oichi. She flitted from "adolescent waitress" to "big sister" to "impressionable debutante" to "happy-go-lucky sociopath." She interrupted her own narrative constantly by name dropping classical music pieces whenever she had a moment of reflection or introspection or just for the hell of it. At times, the interactions between Oishi and some bots created by kids—and her interaction with one kid in particular—popped images of cutesy anime into my mind. It undercut the seriousness of the plot.

One last complaint: I couldn't get a sense of how much time passed. There were flashbacks and flash-forwards dictated to us by Oichi, but the way they were presented I wasn't always certain when "now" was. Late in the novel, she matter of factly states that several years had passed, but it seemed like only a few months.

To summarize, I loved the tech, the concept, the plot, and the mysteries, but the narrator's constantly shifting tone, 18th century aristocrats, anime cuteness, and wanton airlock abuse irritated me.

2.5 stars


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Book Review: Spiderlight

book cover for SpiderlightThe Church of Armes of the Light has battled the forces of Darkness for as long as anyone can remember. The great prophecy has foretold that a band of misfits, led by a high priestess will defeat the Dark Lord Darvezian, armed with their wits, the blessing of the Light and an artifact stolen from the merciless Spider Queen.

Their journey will be long, hard and fraught with danger. Allies will become enemies; enemies will become allies. And the Dark Lord will be waiting, always waiting…

The book blurb is misleading. It would have you believe that this is just a straight up high fantasy novel about a quest to defeat the typical evil overlord. While it certainly starts out that way, with the familiar collection of D&D characters fighting their way through a forest that is the home to the nest of a terrible spider queen, it's more than that. After that opening, we get to meet the characters and learn more about them. Rather than being the noble sort that one would get from Tolkien, we get a fractious lot prone to jealousy, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, sexism, vanity, and cruelty.

And these are the good guys!

Tchaikovsky, ever the arachnophile, serves up a spider character that is forced to join the group on its quest. I don't want to give too much away here, but the character, Enth, serves as a focal point for the group's ethical dilemmas. The way each character interacts with Enth reveals their true nature. Those with a conscience are forced to reconcile their actions and attitudes with the cause they claim to serve. Some succeed; others don't bother.

But it isn't all soul searching in the dark by candlelight. There are some lighter parts.
When Dion considered the world, her chief question was, Is this of Light or Dark? Penthos's main interest was usually, Is this flammable?
"Shut up, Penthos," Haranthes snapped at him, which would earn the man another week of impotence once they got back to civilization, not that he'd ever suspect who was behind his intermittent problem. Oh it's good to be a magus.
"Who would live at the top of a tower? Have you seen how many fucking stairs there are?"
Usually it's the thief, Lief, that delivers the satirical jabs, but he's also the one who's the most accepting of others who fail to live up to the lofty standards established by the self-righteous.
    Am I really about to rescue a monstrous servant of evil from the hands of the righteous?
    Enth whimpered. It was a human sound. Lief knew it: he himself had once or twice been beaten and broken just enough to make that sound.
    Fuck the righteous.
In the final confrontation with the Dark Lord, Tchaikovsky steers clear of the expected epic fantasy showdown. Sure there's a battle, but Darvezian's monologuing is more savage than his physical attacks, skewering the characters' belief system and self-worth and shredding them to bits.
"You go through life doing terrible, terrible things to each other, and to everything else, but you somehow still believe that you're right."
"Let me hear the sad little sound of your hearts breaking."
"My child, it doesn't matter if you do your best, if you don't get anywhere. It's just doubly pathetic that this, only this was your best."
Spiderlight sets aside the everyday tropes of the epic fantasy tale and opts instead to explore themes that are rarely discussed in the genre. The characters' ethical dilemmas easily translate to the real world: Misguided faith will make people do terrible things, and assuming that everyone of a certain demographic is inherently good/evil, despite actions to the contrary, is fallacy. I found Tchaikovsky's choice to be a refreshing take on the genre.

4.5 stars


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Book Review: A World Out of Time

book cover for A World Out of TimeJaybee Corbell awoke after more than 200 years as a corpsicle—in someone else's body, and under sentence of instant annihilation if he made a wrong move while they were training him for a one-way mission to the stars.

But Corbell picked his time and made his own move. Once he was outbound, where the Society that ruled Earth could not reach him, he headed his starship toward the galactic core, where the unimaginable energies of the Universe wrenched the fabric of time and space and promised final escape from his captors.

Then he returned to an Earth eons older than the one he'd left...a planet that had had 3,000,000 years to develop perils he had never dreamed of—perils that became nightmares that he had to escape...somehow!

I found this book last summer at the annual Newtown Library book sale. Having enjoyed Niven's Ringworld series, I thought that I'd give it a try. I didn't notice that cat-snake thing on the cover right away. I think my mind blocked out the head because you look at that thing and think, "WTF?"

The book blurb covers the events that transpire over the first third of the book. The remaining two-thirds deals with Corbell alternating between figuring out how to stay alive—he's well over a century old and not long for the world—and figuring out how the hell Earth got so screwed up while he was away.

Published in 1976, it has a lot of the literary elements common to sci-fi during this period (New Wave): sex, the end of civilization, alienation, social isolation, and class discrimination. Throw in a dose of libertarian distrust of the state and you're good to go. Niven also spends a good deal of time playing with physics puzzles to convince the reader that this is hard sci-fi and not space fantasy. I don't think it was necessary, but maybe he felt the need to placate that crowd.

It was an entertaining story despite the warts: The sex scenes were totally male fantasy, and women were reduced to the maiden/mother/crone trope. Corbell isn't the best person to be a protagonist—he could be annoying at times—but he occasionally shows promise. Ultimately, he's all we've got. We have to root for him so that we can find out why things got to be the way they are. The explanation was worth the ride, though I wouldn't blame women for disagreeing.

3 stars