Category Archives: war

Books about war.

Review 199: The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I have two words for you: Ninja. Priests.

There you go, that should really be enough for you to go out and buy this book. I suppose if you need more, though, there is a whole “plot” and “world” and “characters” and stuff. But even Jemisin says that the initial idea that got her started writing was ninja priests, and everything else just kind of built up from there.

Welcome, then, to the great land of Gujaareh, a land not entirely unlike our own ancient Egypt. It rests alongside a great river that floods periodically and brings great wealth and prosperity to the land. The whole world lives in the shadow of their great, striated Dreaming Moon, the perpetual manifestation of their goddess, Hananja. In this city, people live healthy, productive lives, and it is all thanks to Hananja’s devoted priesthood and their arts of narcomancy.

Not this kind of ninja priest, though…

The Gatherers of Hananja are able to take dreamstuff from sleeping people, either willingly or otherwise, and their most honored task is to take from those whom their governing council have decided need to die. The terminally ill, perhaps, or the corrupt – these are the ones whom the Gatherers visit, giving them a final dream before sending their soul into the dreaming world embodied by their goddess.

Ehiru is the best of these Gatherers, a man with a deft touch and absolute devotion to his cause. He is told to gather and he gathers, bringing back the various dreamstuffs to the temple, where the Sharers can use it to heal the afflicted of Gujaareh. Indeed, until now, Ehiru has never questioned his place in the world. But he soon finds himself wrapped in a terrible conspiracy that threatens to upend everything he’s ever believed in, and may turn him into that which he has always despised.

It’s a really neat idea, with some very powerful characters and a well-built world. Clearly, Jemesin holds this world clearly in her mind when she writes, because the detail she gives, down to the smells and the surfaces, paint a wonderful picture. That said, though, this book didn’t really come together for me until about two hundred pages in.

Or a Magic Eye picture. I hate those things. Stupid sailboat…

I’m not sure why that was. Maybe I’m so deeply mired in the Alternate Europe mode of fantasy fiction that my brain had trouble adjusting to the deliberately different world that Jemesin built. Maybe she knows the world so well that she made certain assumptions about it that the reader – or at least this reader – couldn’t readily put together. All I know is that I spent a good portion of the book trying to keep everything in order in my head. It was like doing one of those sliding-piece puzzles: immensely frustrating until you finally get a good idea of how it all works.

Before you despair, however, note that number again: 200 pages. You would think that if a book baffled me for a while, I would probably put it down, but the fact that I was willing to keep going that far through my bafflement really does say a lot about the work that Jemesin did. The characters are interesting, and their relationships are intense – none more so than that between Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri. While Jemesin states clearly that the people of her world aren’t really concerned with labeling and compartmentalizing sexuality, Nijiri is definitely gay, and he is madly in love with his mentor, to the point where he is willing to give up his life to save him.

The Prince is another good example of an interesting and complicated character. The Sunset Prince, avatar of Hananja, gives off Bad Guy Vibes from the moment we meet him. There’s something about him as soon as he appears on the page that says he’s going to be trouble by the end of the book. Despite that, you can kind of see where he’s coming from, and you see the logic he’s working from. It’s deranged, yes, but in a very specific sort of way it makes sense.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it presents contrasting and incompatible cultural values with a sense of honesty and truth. The formalized execution/euthanasia that the Gatherers of Gujaareh perform is considered by their own people to be the best way to handle things. After all, why suffer in agony when Ehiru can come along and drop you into a pleasant dream for all eternity?

Not unlike the Cola Wars, but with less moral ambiguity… (photo by caycowa on DeviantArt)

On the other hand, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe is of the Kisuati, and they view the Gatherer’s narcomancy as a horrible power and their “gifts” as nothing short of institutionalized murder. The characters argue over this repeatedly in the book, and the best that comes of it is a certain mutual understanding. Not an agreement, mind you – neither viewpoint is either affirmed or torn down, but they eventually get to a point where they can start to see through the other’s eyes.

So as I said, it took about 200 pages for things to really click for me, but it was worth it when they did. Also, there’s a very funny author interview at the end where Jemesin is given the rare opportunity to interview herself. Definitely not to be missed. This is a really interesting world built on unique and fantastic concepts. There are more, too, which I’ll be looking forward to reading at some point in the future.

—————–
“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange – you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.
– Sunandi, The Killing Moon

N.K. Jemesin on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Amazon.com
N.K. Jemesin’s homepage

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Filed under fantasy, murder, N.K. Jemesin, religion, war

Review 198: The Path of Daggers (Wheel of Time 08)

Wheel of Time 08: The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Again, spoilers. Just putting that out there.

I knew I shouldn’t have left off reviewing this for a few days. I have almost forgotten what happened in this book.

Oh, I know the events that transpired – Borderland kings and queens assembling to deal with Rand in some mysterious way; the using of the Bowl of the Winds to finally change the weather – and the terrible bargain that it fulfills between the Sea Folk and the Aes Sedai; the second invasion of the Seanchan from across the sea, this time into Ebou Dar; Perrin building his army to bring the violent Dragonsworn who follow The Prophet back to Rand….

And that’s all just in the first ten chapters.

It’s not a matter of, as is so often complained about, “nothing happening” – plenty happens in this book. In fact, a lot of what happens in this book directly sets up the rest of the series, and marks some major changes not only in the plot but in the world of the story itself. The problem is that the format of the first half of the series – a reasonably self-contained book that has a clear story climax and some sense of closure by the end – has completely fallen by the wayside. At this point, Jordan is writing for the series as a whole, and has only divided it up into separate volumes because TOR can’t sell it any other way.

Yes, more on political machinations and formalwear. Please.

This does have its advantages, but the disadvantages are greater. So of all the books thus far, I’d have to say that The Path of Daggers is my least favorite. Again – and I want to keep stressing this – not because there’s nothing going on. There’s plenty going on. It’s just not all that easy to keep track of, nor is it necessarily interesting to read.

The worst example of this, I think, is the Seanchan invasion. To catch you up, the Seanchan are an empire that lives in the land across the sea. Descended from the greatest king in history, Artur Hawkwing, they have returned to reclaim their ancestral lands. To do it, they have brought an army that has been trained by a thousand years of battle, creatures that seem like monsters to do their bidding, and leashed women who can wield the One Power as a weapon. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a problem. For Rand, circumstances are far from normal. The Seanchan mark a serious complication in his quest to bring all the nations under his rule in time for the Last Battle, so he has to show them who’s boss.

Surprisingly, with a massive army and a corps of Asha’man – men who can wield the One Power to destructive ends – dealing with the Seanchan becomes a tedious chore to read. Perhaps in an attempt to capture “the fog of war,” Jordan has us jumping from place to place and time to time, from a variety of points of view. What could have been an awesome clash of armies, men and women really going all-out with the One Power in battle for the first time becomes a trial to read. Not least because Rand al’Thor has become a thoroughly unlikable character.

In the middle of the book, Sorilea, the most senior and powerful of the Aiel Wise Ones meets with Cadsuane, an Aes Sedai so formidable that she has become a legend in her own lifetime, and they agree that Rand has become too hard. “Strong endures,” Sorilea says. “Hard shatters.” They vow to teach Rand and the Asha’man to remember laughter and tears, and if you ask me they’re not doing it a minute too soon.

I’m ignoring you for your own good, baby.

Rand is doing his best to harden his heart by this point, and not without reason. He’s got armies at his fingertips, and his decisions will kill a lot of men. He’s got these Asha’man to deal with – men who will inevitably go mad from using the One Power – and he can only bring himself to think of them as weapons. There’s his issue with allowing women to come to harm. Instead of being an endearing (if somewhat chauvinistic) character trait, it just becomes tedious and repetitive. Thankfully, the Maidens of the Spear will later beat the hell out of him for trying to treat them so delicately. In this book, it is almost impossible for me to actually like Rand, and makes me wish that Mat hadn’t been given one book off to recover from having a building dropped on him.

Other than the complete mess that is Rand’s storyline, the rest of the book is actually quite interesting. Elayne has finally come home to Caemlyn and is preparing to take her mother’s place as Queen of Andor. We have the rebel Aes Sedai preparing for all-out war with the White Tower, and Egwene consolidating her hold on the rebels. In the White Tower itself, a hunt for the Black Ajah has begun as Elaida does what little she can to free herself of the influence of her Keeper, Alviarin.

Tell me Joan Crawford wouldn’t be a perfect Elaida.

A word about Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, as an aside. No one likes her, and I can understand why. I don’t like her either, as a person. She’s arrogant to the bone, impatient, self-absorbed, power-hungry, and completely disregards anything that doesn’t conform to what she already believes is true. This mode of thinking leads the White Tower towards utter disaster, from the botched abduction of Rand to the loss of fifty sisters to the Black Tower. Elaida risks being stilled and deposed should the Hall of the Tower find out about her bungling, and she would deserve it, if not more. The only thing keeping her from that fate is the machinations of her Keeper of the Chronicles, who is more than happy to put Elaida under her thumb.

Having said that, it was this book that made her into one of my favorite characters. I still wouldn’t want to sit next to her on a long airplane ride, but what happens to her in this book made me utterly devoted to finding out her ultimate fate in this series.

That pretty much sums it up, actually – taken as a whole, this book is pretty tough to get through and probably the low point in the series, despite having some of the most interesting and pivotal events take place within its pages. How Jordan managed to do this, I’ll never know. All we can do is take the long view – all of this will benefit the series as a whole, if not necessarily the book that contains it.

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“On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers.”
– Old Seanchan saying
——————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Path of Daggers at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Path of Daggers at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 196: And Another Thing

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

If you pay close attention, Colfer tells you exactly what you can expect from this book right at the beginning, using a well-chosen quote from Douglas Adams: “The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.” (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)

As Adams well knew, the phrase “And another thing…” is superfluous. It is said by the person who just can’t let things go. It’s a sullen, resentful phrase that doesn’t add anything to the discussion that came before. In other words, Colfer is telling us, this book didn’t need to happen and you probably don’t need to read it. Which is very kind of him, I think, warning us in advance that way. But still, after a long time where I refused to give in, I finally, well, gave in and read the book.

Vogon Sociology is considered a fallback major in most schools.

It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, certainly, but it lives up to its title. If you haven’t read it, you don’t really need to. It doesn’t add very much to the overall mythos of the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, or to its characters, and while it has some entertaining moments in it, a few places where I genuinely laughed out loud, and some interesting explorations of Vogon sociology, if you give it a miss then you’re probably not missing a whole lot.

If you’ll recall, at the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the trilogy, the Earth – all of the Earths – were destroyed by the Vogons once and for all. The galactic conspiracy of psychiatrists had won, with the omnipresent Guide Mark Two as their weapon of choice, and the whole business about the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was finally at an end. With the exception of Zaphod Beeblebrox, all of the main characters were vaporized, much to Arthur Dent’s own relief. If ever there was a conclusive ending to a series, that would be it, although allegedly Adams had a couple of ways in his back pocket to bring everyone back, should he need to do so.

Alas, Adams left us far too soon. In 2008, however, it was announced that there would indeed be a sixth book, penned by Eoin Colfer, of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl books. Fans across the world were both excited and apprehensive to see what would be done with the characters we had grown to love over so many years.

To his credit, Colfer wrote a very funny book. I was laughing by the first page, and he really did a fine job of capturing the tone and cadence of the Guide entries and the way that Adams would narrate the story. His depictions of some characters – especially Zaphod and Random – were spot-on, and you could see a lot of elements in the book that were nods to some of Adams’ favorite themes.

If this is how your book begins, you really need to live up to it…

In essence, what happens is this: Our Heroes are introduced to us in a stasis hallucination, held between ticks of the clock by the Guide Mark Two as the planet-destroying beams of the Grebulons descend towards Earth. They are rescued by the Heart of Gold and Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has detached his left head and is using it as the ship’s computer. Unfortunately, Ford causes Left Brain to freeze up, so they need to be rescued again – this time by one of the most popular bit players in the series, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an immortal being who has decided to spend eternity insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Wowbagger reluctantly takes them aboard, and in doing so insults Zaphod to the point where Zaphod promises to find a way to kill him, a proposition that Wowbagger has no problem with. Zaphod’s weapon of choice? A down-on-his-luck thunder god who’s been slumming it around Asgard.

Meanwhile, there is a planet of human refugees that is undergoing some rather entertaining class warfare, and the solution to this is, apparently, to find just the right kind of god to run the place. And even more meanwhile, a young Vogon is having second thoughts about his Vogonity and whether or not it’s okay to destroy inhabited planets just because there is a work order on hand that says they should.

I want to criticize the book for being directionless and unfocused, but let’s be fair – that describes the first book as well. Given its genesis as a radio drama, Adams never really had a grand plan for what would happen in the beginning of the series, and wrote in an episodic fashion that had (as far as I could tell) no real end point in mind. The difference, however, is that while those books had no real direction to them, they were charged with a kind of chaotic energy that made you want to keep reading just to find out what happens next. Arthur Dent, our avatar in this universe, never got a chance to rest or even change out of his dressing-gown, and so we were dragged along with him. It was exciting and confusing and weird in all the right ways, and we didn’t mind not knowing where we were going because the trip to get there really was just that much fun.

To be fair, though, Arthur NEVER wanted to be involved…

In this book, however, Arthur really doesn’t want to be involved. He’s had an imaginary lifetime of living in peace and quiet, and seems to have outgrown the antics of Ford and Zaphod. He’s the reasonable adult in this book, and not all that much fun anymore. As I read, I was disappointed that Colfer didn’t seem to have captured Arthur’s character very well, but perhaps I was wrong – Arthur didn’t belong in this story, and he wanted nothing more than to not be in it anymore. And it showed.

Another telling moment comes near the end of the book. The narrative takes a moment to remind us that, “There is no such thing as a happy ending.” And a few lines later, it quotes a certain pole-sitting philosopher who says, “There is no such thing as an ending, or a beginning, for that matter, everything is middle.” That certainly is true of life, and you can imagine it being true of the lives of fictional characters. Louis and Rick will walk off the tarmac in Casablanca and go on to do other things, perhaps help the resistance fight the Nazis. The lives of Luke and Han and Leia have been extended far beyond their original showing on film, thanks to the Extended Universe of Star Wars. Scout Finch and her brother Jem will grow up and have children of their own; the rabbits at Watership Down will live and breed and die; Guy Montag will help rebuild the intellectual society that he was originally trying to destroy…

We know that these worlds have lives beyond the last page, no matter how thoroughly they’re destroyed at the end. There’s always going to be some thread hanging loose that can be picked up and used to continue the story beyond where it left off.

But that doesn’t mean that we should.

I applaud Colfer for taking on the project, knowing that it is better for the series to be continued by someone who knew it and loved it and who was influenced by it, rather than by someone who couldn’t show it all the love it deserves. As I said, I laughed while I read this book, a lot more than I expected to. But as the title implies, this feels like an attempt to continue a story that has been finished for a long time. Rather than breathe new life into the Hitchhiker’s franchise, it simply reminds us all the more sharply of what we once had and will never have again.

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“I do not hate myself. In many ways, I am not altogether too bad.”
– Constant Mown (Vogon)

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Filed under adventure, aliens, Douglas Adams, Eoin Colfer, gods, humor, robots, science fiction, UFOs, war

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

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“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, coming of age, identity, military, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, space travel, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 181: The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time 04)

Wheel of Time 04: The Shadow Rising

This one is all about history.

One of the things that makes the world of Wheel of Time so attractive is that it is clear from the outset that Robert Jordan put a lot of work into the world of his story before he actually started the story itself. I get the feeling, reading these books, that he could tell you everything that happened here for the last four thousand years, if not more. In detail, with names and dates and places, all off the top of his head. Or at least from his copious sheafs of notes.

Your name is a killing word? Kinda hard to say your name with an arrow in your throat… (art by Jeremy Saliba)

In this book, the emphasis on history is most clear when Rand goes out to meet the Aiel. For those of you with a taste for classic sci-fi, the Aiel resemble the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. They’re desert people, and unsurpassed warriors, with a complex system of honor and obligation. There’s where the similarities end, of course – in these books there is no Spice, there are no sandworms, and no one in this would would ever think they could conquer the Aiel. Twenty years prior to the start of the series, four of the twelve Aiel clans crossed the mountainous barrier into the “wetlands” with the singular purpose of killing King Laman of Cairhien. Those four clans alone broke every army that stood against them, and only returned to their desert because they got what they wanted – Laman’s head on a pike.

No one knew why they had done this. Prior to the Aiel War, the nation of Cairhien had exclusive rights of passage through the waste, a gift that they didn’t understand, and ultimately didn’t fully appreciate. But without those rights, and without the offense that King Laman caused, and without the Aiel retaliation, this story never would have begun.

Reading this book, you start to get a better view of the historical context in which it is placed, and nowhere is that clearer than in Rand al’Thor’s trip into Rhuidean, the forbidden city of the Aiel. Any man who wants to become a clan chief, or any woman who wants to become a Wise One, may go there, but only once and twice, respectively. What they learn is their final test – the true history of their people. Those who cannot face the truth do not come back. Stronger men and women go on to become leaders, but never speak of what they saw. In order to fulfill his destiny, Rand must learn the history of the people he was born from, and by doing so, change the world.

It’s a fascinating sequence, actually – it’s the history of the Aiel from the day the hole was bored into the Dark One’s prison, through fifteen generations of the Aiel as refugees until the establishment of the city of Rhuidean itself, only told backwards. We find out why they never touch swords, why they veil their faces, and why they believe they are punished for sinning against the Aes Sedai. We get to see the incredible changes that occurred in only three or four hundred years, and then reflect that the time span we see only covers a small portion of the time that has elapsed since the Breaking of the World. We truly begin to understand how broken the world was and how hard life became, once we compare the hardened warrior Aiel to their Da’shain Aiel ancestors. It’s a fascinating and moving story, and it serves as an excellent centerpiece to the novel.

He’s not all fun and laughs.

History rests in other places as well through the book. Mat gains the memories of two thousand years, in a surprising exchange with otherworldly entities in a land beyond a twisted red doorway. We learn that the Sea Folk are looking for their Chosen One, just like everyone else, and Elayne and Nynaeve are pretty sure it’s Rand. They’re off to Tanchico to look for an artifact that could prove Rand’s undoing if the Black Ajah or the Forsaken get their hands on it first.

In fact, speaking of history, there has been a lot of speculation over the years on how the world of this book is related to our world. There are clues scattered about that suggest it is our extreme future – fairy tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor, Materese, Mother of the Wondrous Ind, and Lenn who rode to the moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (who could be Ann Landers, Mother Theresa and John Glenn, respectively). Jordan never came right out and said whether this is our world’s future or not, but a short passage in this book dropped a pretty big hint. While looking around a palace in Tanchico for the artifact that could harm Rand, Nynaeve travels the Dream World into a museum of antiquities. There, she sees many things that amaze and baffle her – fossils of extinct animals, for example often with some kind of emotional resonance. In her search, she finds this:

A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces, she could sense pride and vanity.

If that ain’t a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, I’ll eat my library.

Over in the White Tower, history is being made as Siuan Sanche becomes only the third Amyrlin Seat in history to be deposed in a move orchestrated by the hardest of the Red Ajah, Elaida a’Roihan. And all around, the shadow is indeed rising – the Forsaken are out there, building their power and waiting for Rand so that they might defeat him before he battles their master, the Dark One.

But the best part of the book, in my opinion, is none of these. The best part centers around Perrin Aybara, the young blacksmith who was one of the original three young men to travel out of the Two Rivers on that spring night long ago.

Hi. We’re the forces of evil, pleased to meet you. Nice village you have here…

Back in The Great Hunt, the vile Darkfriend Padan Fain challenged Rand to meet him – failure to do so would result in pain and suffering brought down on all those whom he loved. Through circumstances not entirely under his control, Rand never got to meet Fain, though he did manage to cause him great inconvenience nonetheless. Fain meant to keep his promise, though, and in this book that promise is realized. The Two Rivers has been under siege by creatures from the Shadow – Trollocs and Myrddraal – and less Dark, though still not very nice Children of the Light, an army of zealots who sees Darkfriends in everyplace they look. Rand can’t go home to help – his destiny lies in the Aiel Waste – and Mat’s destiny lies with Rand. Egwene has to go to the Waste as well, to learn Dreamwalking from the Wise Ones, and Nynaeve is off to Tanchico to hunt the Black Ajah.

That leaves only Perrin, who goes back to his home to find it a very different place. He and Faile, the Hunter for the Horn whom he loves, along with Loial and three Aiel, travel back to the Two Rivers and Emond’s Field to put paid to the Trollocs and see that the people there are safe. In the process, Perrin the blacksmith’s apprentice finds himself becoming far more than he ever thought he would be.

This sequence is one of my favorites in the series thus far, and I’m including all the books that come after this one. It’s written with such depth of character, and the relationship between Perrin and Faile is built with such care that every scene between them resonates with emotion and meaning. In one book, Jordan has taken a character who had been the least interesting of all the protagonists, and made him into the one you care the most about. It’s not for nothing that Jordan gave Perrin an entire book off in The Fires of Heaven.

No matter which era we’re looking at, no one will be as creepy as Padan Fain. (art by Seamus Gallagher)

The historical insight we have gained here will help us along through the rest of the series, as we take a broader look at the world as it is in the present. Every character, not just Perrin, is changed and moved forward, if not always in likable ways, and we get the real sense that a new history is being made right now. We know that stories will be told of Perrin Goldeneyes for generations to come in the Two Rivers, that Elayne and Nynaeve will become legends among Aes Sedai, though whether as heroes or object lessons we can’t be sure yet, and that the fate of the future rests not on Rand’s back alone. He makes the Aiel face their past, and those who can survive the ordeal will be the shapers of the future.

The thousand or so pages of this volume can drag, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. The history of Rhuidean is a good example – the first time I read it, I was really confused and didn’t really see the point of the whole thing – I wished it had focused less on the post-Breaking history and more on the Age of Legends, with its jo-cars and hoverflies, the Nym and the Ogier and the Da’shain Aiel working together. But once you give it thought – why it was vital that the clan chiefs and Wise Ones remember, and how the events of nearly three thousand years ago directly led to the birth of Rand al’Thor and the very story we are reading, it goes from being a slog to an adventure.

Still, I recommend taking notes.

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“Rand al’Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”
– Thom Merrilin
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Shadow Rising at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Shadow Rising at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, history, quest, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 180: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale

The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they’re missing.

HELLO NEIGHBOR! DO YOU HAVE A CUP OF YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOO – SUGAR! SUGAR WE COULD BORROW?

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We – and they – will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth – a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for – among other things, that his dead wife’s DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their “birth.” What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF – human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF’s mind transference process with him. Their worst fear – that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies – isn’t even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin’s young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

It’s… It’s a space thing.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long – a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver’s license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won’t last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony – a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It’s a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren’t for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn’t made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave’s rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what’s going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn’t mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I’m putting these two books together is because they’re really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it’s like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that’s the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

Taking narrative shortcuts makes the Baby Jesus cry, Johnny!!

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists… and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë – Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm’s way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn’t put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he “did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn’t get caught.”

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë’s Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin – a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë’s Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

This is what I imagine being a teenage girl is like. How’d I do?

It’s hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I’m told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She’s bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë’s Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me – the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone – stop for a moment and say, “Wow.”

What I can’t fairly say is whether or not Zoë’s Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn’t envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I’m doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale. You won’t regret it.

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“Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase.”
– John Scalzi, The Last Colony

“You and I are so totally going to be best friends.”
“Are we? I don’t know. What are the hours?”
“The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse.”
“Will I be treated horribly?”
“You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis.”
“Fed crusts?”
“Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs.”
“Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends.”
“Good. Another life decision taken care of.”
“Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let’s go find something to point and laugh at.”
– Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë’s Tale
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Wikipedia
Zoe’s Tale on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Amazon.com
Zoe’s Tale on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog

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Filed under aliens, colonization, coming of age, family, humor, John Scalzi, revolution, science fiction, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 178: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

None of them, to my knowledge, say “Hey! Listen!”

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

Concept art for Kaladin. Man, I wish I had someone who’d draw concept art for my characters…

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

Seriously, you have to feel bad for Szeth, as awesome as he is…

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

Definitely the climax of the book.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”
– Hoid, The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Amazon.com
Brandon Sanderson’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, family, fantasy, war

Review 133: The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

This world is one that is riddled with possibilities. Even though Lukyanenko has been pretty single-minded in his themes throughout the trilogy, there’s a lot to work with here. We have two distinct groups of Others, the Light and the Dark, with different character classes, powers, abilities, levels and ambitions. If anyone wanted to write fan fiction or even a role-playing game based on the world of the Night Watch series, they would be able to let their imaginations roam free. It’s an open-ended universe, rife with possibility.

So why isn’t it is popular worldwide as, say, Harry Potter? Probably because it’s more grown-up than the Potter series, and is therefore less attractive.

Sure, Draco turned out to be faintly ambiguous, but Crabbe and Goyle? They're just bad apples.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked Harry Potter. But for all its merits, it deals with human-level issues: friendship, family, duty, loyalty. And those are all well and good, and many a great story has been told from those elements. The Night Watch series, on the other hand, deals with harder, less everyday topics, such as the nature of freedom, and the fundamental differences between Good and Evil, if there is any difference at all. The themes in these books are headier, and it’s not as easy to look at a Light Other like Anton Gorodetsky and say, “I want to be like him.” It’s also hard to look at a Dark Other like the vampire Kostya and say, “Oooh, I hate him.”

This is because these characters are, more or less, human. The problem with humans is that their motives aren’t always clear, and Lukyanenko doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to judge them properly. With the exception of Anton, who is a first-person narrator, we don’t get into their heads, and so can’t completely understand why they do what they do.

In this volume we are introduced to some new players, some grand plots and some terrible secrets. There is an Other out there who has knowledge that everyone thought was merely a myth: how to turn an ordinary human into an Other. The ramifications of such power are immense – there are few Others in the world as it is, and they hardly get along. To create new Others at will would mean chaos, death and destruction. All the Others’ forces are sent out to find this mysterious person. The Night Watch, the Day Watch and the Inquisition are in search of the impossible.

Anton Gorodetsky, of course, is on the front lines of this, searching for leads in a Moscow apartment complex. What he finds there isn’t quite the secret he thought it was, but it is something he never expected.

How about some free-market capitalism, Scarecrow?

In the second story of the volume, he meets an ancient witch, Arina, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Soviet Union’s potential for greatness. In his search to defeat her, he learns the true nature of the Others, what gives them their power and how they truly interact with the world around them.

And in the third story, the Fuaran has been found – the mythological text with the spell to convert humans to Others – and it will be used in a truly novel manner. But the Other behind the plan that could tip the world into supernatural anarchy is the last person Anton would have ever expected….

As with the other volumes, this one blurs the line between good and evil. It tells us what we already know, but don’t really want to admit: that good people can do evil things – start a bloody revolution, for example, or try to brainwash thousands of people – and that evil people can do good – save children from wolves, or avert a chaotic and terrible future. People do things for reasons that are sometimes known only to themselves, not out of a higher allegiance to the abstract concepts of “good” and “evil,” but for reasons that are intensely personal.

There are, however, times when labels work just fine.

It is something to be remembered. We have a habit of idolizing and demonizing people in this world, elevating them to paragons of virtue or sin, and ascribing motives to them that we think they acted by. But that doesn’t work. Even to the end, Anton believes he knows why the holder of the Fuaran wants to convert people into Others – to raise an army and control the world – but he’s so very, very wrong. The true reason is much more personal and, oddly, much more human than that.

That is probably the best lesson to be taken from these books. “Good” and “Evil” are tags that we affix to people because it saves us the effort of thinking about them. Behind every act, however, is a personal reason that defies such simplistic labeling. Every saint, every monster, is only human. Just like us. I don’t know if knowing that makes the world better or worse, but it at least makes it a little more familiar.

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“We weren’t meant to fly.
All we can do is try not to fall.”
– from The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Twilight Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, detective fiction, disaster, fantasy, morality, mystery, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, war, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Amazon.com
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Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
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