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Read much. Talk little.

Currently reading

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven
Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan
Progress: 208/507 pages
Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals
Dominic Lieven
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 208 out of 507 pages.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

Slow, as usual, because I have work and I'm too tired to read for long at night. But here's what I've read this week in this book (I do read a great deal of comic books and graphic novels too, by the way, but I find it too cumbersome to review them...):


You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong. 4 stars. This is an engrossing dark-fantasy western about a kid discovering a lot of disturbing and thrilling things about his parentage and personal powers. Great job exploiting the mythic potential of the ideas swirling around this story.


A Salvaging of Ghosts, by Aliette de Bodard. 4 stars. This is one of her Ship stories, about as good as they usually are. Also, as usual, it's got a neat sci-fi concept around which the story revolves (so, it meets that classic definition of science fiction), which is simultaneously fascinating and revolting. I really need to read her Aztec altnerate history / fantasy trilogy, because I'm sure it's going to be just as thrilling and disturbing as these Ship stories.


Even the Crumbs Were Delicious, by Daryl Gregory. 3 stars. I still can't really enjoy stories about drug addicts, even when I can see good things in them. I had that problem with a couple of great Philip K. Dick novels and can't seem to get over it. The concept is interesting, namely that, in the near future, you can use "chemjet" printers to "print" edible drugs (a couple of characters get ridiculously high by eating the wallpaper of a druggie's house!). But, as happens in druggie stories, the happenings are too absurd for my liking.


Number Nine Moon, by Alex Irvine. 5 stars. 10 stars, even. My god, this story was good. The whole thing, in plot and character, is solidly traditional, and it's even a problem-solver sci-fi story! So Golden Age. But that's not what makes it so good (there's plenty of trash in the "Golden Age", believe it or not). Irvine uses highly traditional devices to carefully, nay, meticulously, lay out his themes and expand a close (even claustrophobic) story into something that applies universally -- all without preaching or even for a moment taking his narrative eyes off the little picture. Astounding.


Things With Beards, by Sam J. Miller. 5 stars. Not quite so traditional, but the callback to the '30s is strong. In particular, see Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Miller tells a story about gay men in the '80s when AIDS was just coming into the public consciousness and was entirely misunderstood. A couple of these men had worked for scientists in Antarctica and come back with a mysterious monster inside of them. When they come back to America, they find that the monsters inside them aren't the only internal monsters... Miller's story will make you feel your own monster slithering about.


Reading progress update: I've read 116 out of 507 pages.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

I'm loving this anthology so far (which is what I expected, given that I find Jonathan Strahan's taste similar to my own). The first few stories exhibit the kind of variety and quality that one ought to expect from a Year's Best anthology. Here's what I think of these individual pieces: 


The Future Is Blue, by Catherynne M. Valente -- 3 stars (out of 5). Well, this one I did not like as much. That's a surprise, because I have never encountered a CMV story I didn't like. This wasn't bad, it was just kind of a chore to finish. The ending packs quite a punch, no less strong than the usual from this wonderful author. If anything, the water-world bizarreness of life in this thoroughly imagined story makes you realize that, even if climate change doesn't completely drown the Earth, life may well become a challenge to recognize.


Mika Model, by Paolo Bacigalupi -- 5 stars! A police detective finds himself in a situation where he must find a defense lawyer for a sexbot... but what legal rights does a sexbot have? Is the sexbot truly sentient? To what degree? Tough questions with no good answers in the near future. This one is fascinating, not just for the moral questions, but also for its ingenious structure and its finely tuned writing. The really neat thing about this story is that all these Big Questions are wrapped up in a fiction-package made poignant by the author's mastery of perspective. That kind of combination makes you think more deeply.


Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik -- 5 stars again! This compelling tale is a riff on Rumpelstiltskin. The daughter of a failed moneylender (failed because he is too kind), who is himself the son of a successful moneylender, makes herself into an even more successful moneylender. But such success comes with a price... 


Two's Company, by Joe Abercrombie -- 4 stars. I think this one is set in the "Blade Itself" universe (though I haven't read anything from that milieu...). It's a clever tale pitting two boastful warriors against each other in comic fashion, complete with witty repartee and amusing reversals. It didn't come across as half so witty as the author thought it might (or so it seems to me), but it's still pretty amusing, and the writing is impressively smooth, with something approaching the perfect economy of description.


You Make Pattaya, by Rich Larson. 5 stars! There's really nothing revelatory about this sexy con caper, but it's constructed so perfectly that it was a pure joy to read. Taken together with "Mika Model" (and even "Two's Company", to a small extent), it's a refreshing challenge to the status quo of sexual mores as well as a reminder that such mores are ever in flux.

William Langland's Piers Plowman

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

Of all the selections in this anthology, Piers Plowman has been the most difficult for me because I struggled to keep my attention on it. It's an account of a dream had by the author about a whole lot of things, from the point of view of a man called Piers, who is a plowman. The whole thing is allegorical, and there were many allegories I didn't quite get, despite the scholarly notes included with this edition. Generally, I'm not a fan of allegories, anyway, so I guess I was predisposed against this text from the start. The most interesting thing was the scholarly introductions, especially on the social and literary context of medieval estates satire, as well as the evolution of some major new interpretations of the Christian faith that were taking shape in the 14th century. For example, while Christ was predominantly a conquering hero in a lot of earlier literature, he is now, in the 14th Century, very often a figure of love and mercy. There is a little bit of both Christs in "Piers Plowman", which makes it at least an interesting reflection of a changing intellectual atmosphere.


Next up: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven (28 stories selected by Jonathan Strahan -- it's bound to be good!)

Justice from the Bardo

The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is distinctly Robinsonian, mostly in good (nay, excellent) ways. Much like his Mars trilogy, this novel traces the development of a civilization over the course of centuries. So, there is an epic sweep to it, but the focus is not the traditional kings & wars narrative of epic fantasies. As in the Mars trilogy, the focus is an inter-generational development of social systems, especially with regards to figuring out and socially constructing man's relationship with fellow man and man's relationship with nature.


This time, the milieu is that of an Earth in which the Black Death killed off even more people, so much so that Western civilization utterly collapsed. In the wake of this catastrophe, the world evolves into one dominated by three major civilizations: Dar al-Islam (the various polities derived from the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages), India, and China. The historian in me thrilled not only at the possibilities that such an event could have, but also at Robinson's handling of the consequences all the way from the 14th century up to the 21st century. The scope is breathtaking, and the sum of all the minutiae spinning out of this super-Black Death makes one appreciate the sheer fundamentality of Western systems of thought in the modern world. Almost every time I went to bed after having read a few chapters of this novel, my head was swimming.


Now, you might be wondering whether such a novel can have any traditional kinds of character development, given its centuries-long scope. Well, no -- not traditional, anyway. Both Buddhism and Sufism (a sect of Islam) have well-defined ideas about reincarnation. The Years of Rice and Salt follows the path of a soul trying to find enlightenment across the centuries. He starts out as a Mongol "warrior" encountering an empty Europe in the late 14th century, and he (sometimes she) inhabits different bodies in different places and times. There is much about reincarnation that I am not familiar with (having come from a decidedly Protestant Christian tradition myself), but the theology of it underpins the narrative of the novel and heavily influences the historical traditions that it situates itself in. There are even scenes in the bardo (a kind of limbo where souls are judged and assigned their next incarnation), and I feel that these are crucial for an understanding of the novel, although I don't feel competent to explain them. They are spaces in which the soul reflects on its progress toward enlightenment (and sometimes its failure to progress).


These bardo scenes also serve as spiritual responses to the material "progress" of human civilization. Just as in our world, this novel's human civilization advances in technology and engages in all the wonders and horrors that human beings are capable of, just not in exactly the same order or at exactly the same time. As is Robinson's wont, our point-of-view characters are thoughtful, and many of them philosophize at length on historical processes and intellectual trends in history. There was a lot of this in the Mars trilogy, and it's here too in just about the same proportion (which is to say, there are historical/religious/philosophical expositions/speculations that go on for pages at a time, interspersed at about one per 50 pages or so, on average). This will not be to everyone's taste, and moreover, Robinson is unashamedly political -- he always comes down on the side of social justice, egalitarian government, and environmental accommodation. So, I suspect that right-wing readers (with the possible exception of libertarians) will want to avoid KSR's work as a whole if they don't want to read outside their ideology; and even right-of-center readers may have bones to pick. That said, I think that any reader interested in history, anthropology, and/or science will find this novel fascinating just for the alt-historical possibilities. And if you're even a bit left-of-center, you're going to find a few things to cheer for.


Next up: selections from Piers Plowman, from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Star Trek. Titan. Synthesis - James Swallow

This is the second James Swallow Trek novel I've read, as well as the second Titan novel I've read. Like the other Swallow novel, the pacing is measured almost to perfection, the characters are easily distinguished and easily likeable, and there's a crazy big dumb object out there that's going to ruin everything unless our heroes put a stop to it. Like the other Titan novel, this one feels much like classic Star Trek in the sense that the whole plot more or less revolves around a big moral question. 


So, Synthesis has a lot going for it, and I think it will satisfy most Trek readers. There were a couple of things about it that I thought were particularly outstanding. First: I felt like the Titan crewmembers that this story focused on were easy to get to know and care about. That's not so easy when the majority of these characters are ones that were not ones known from the TV shows and movies. These were new characters, and establishing equity between them and the ones already established on TV (like Tuvok, Troi, and Riker) must be one of the special challenges of writing media tie-in fiction. Swallow strikes a comfortable balance and maintains it throughout. The other thing I really *really* liked was the "Minuet" character. She's featured on the cover of the novel, and she appears in the holodeck in chapter 1, so that part is not much of a spoiler... I can't say much more, though, without making it spoiler. Suffice it to say that she becomes much, much more than the Minuet we encountered in season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And she becomes incredibly interesting. Not only that, but Swallow deftly weaves her story in with that of Riker/Troi and Choblik (the half-cybernetic engineer from an uplifted species). It's too bad what happened to her at the end -- I can only say I'm disappointed, given the great potential that her existence gives to the future of the Titan series. This last point, I feel, is grave enough that I can subtract a star from the rating, because "Minuet" could have offered so many interesting directions for Titan to take in the future... but the conclusion of this story prevents that. 


Despite what I thought about the conclusion of the "Minuet" storyline, Synthesis is a great read for any Trek fan, especially one who's read a Titan book before (or even just the Destiny trilogy). The character work, all around, is outstanding.

Being Lazy

I've been a bit lazy about book reviews this month, mostly because I've been on vacation. But then that vacation ended a week ago, and I'm just now posting updates on BookLikes. Clearly, a vacation extends laziness to some degree.


Since I waited too long, I've forgotten some of what I thought about what I read, especially due to the fact that I've moved on to other books and sundry entertainments. I actually finished Mary Beard's S.P.Q.R. shortly before going on vacation. It's a history of ancient Rome from its foundation to 212 AD (the date when the emperor Caracalla made all inhabitants of the empire Roman citizens). So, perhaps the biggest theme of the book is what it means to be Roman, citizenship included. It's an interesting history book, organized in a mix between chronological and thematic, and written in a snappy style that happens to be engaging. I myself have a degree in Classical Studies, so most of the information was not new to me, but I enjoyed reading Professor Beard's writing, and the perspectives she brings are refreshing. 


During my vacation I read and finished Solaris Rising, a sci-fi anthology edited by Ian Whates. I would rank it as "middling" when compared to other fiction anthologies I've read (and, since I went through an intense short-story phase for many years, I have read a number of short-fiction anthologies and magazines!). There is an interesting running theme of "story", whether it's the stories we write about fictional characters or the stories we write about ourselves. There are a couple of stories about science-fiction authors (yes, they are "meta"), and there is a rather striking story by Alastair Reynolds ("For the Ages") about writing the story of the universe (no exaggeration). Another stand-out story, by Lavie Tidhar, pieces together newspaper and magazine items (whether fictional or not, I never did find out) alongside some traditional prose fiction, to write a secret history (never-before-told story!) about Che Guevara. Other stories that stick in my memory for being good: "The Incredible Exploding Man" by Dave Hutchinson; "A Smart, Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead" by Ian McDonald; and "Sweet Spots" by Paul DiFilippo. The others were mostly unremarkable, although some were good reads. 


Next up: Well, I'm in the middle of a Star Trek: Titan book, Synthesis, by James Swallow. It's really good so far, just like Swallow's other Trek book that I've read (The Latter Fire). On the non-fiction history side of things, I'm reading Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, by Dominic Lieven -- a well-considered enquiry into the various historical ideas about Empire.

Reading progress update: I've read 331 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

The next item in this anthology is an excerpt from John Gower's Confessio Amantis ("The Lover's Confession"), a late 14th century moral satire in which Amans ("Lover") receives life lessons from one he calls "Father". Many of these lessons involve stories from ancient mythology (mostly culled from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a fine source for ancient myths!). The one chosen here by the editors is the tale of Philomene and Tereus (we would know Philomene as Philomela... small distinction). In brief, this is the myth where Philomene is raped by her sister's husband Tereus (the sister is called Progne in this story, Procne in Ovid's version). Tereus cuts her tongue out and then locks her up, but Progne helps Philomene escape, and together the sisters plot vengeance. Progne is so overcome with rage that she decides to kill the infant son she's had with Tereus, then chop him up and serve him in a stew to Tereus. He eats it right up, then is informed by his wife (Progne) that he's just eaten his son! A fight between Progne & Philomene on the one side and Tereus on the other is about to erupt when suddenly Venus turns them all into birds. The type of bird each becomes depends on the person's character: Philomene becomes a nightingale to broadcast her suffering, Progne a swallow to advertise Tereus's evil nature, and Tereus a lapwing, "the falsest bird of them all" (it has a crest to make it seem noble like a knight, as Tereus is ironically described, but is really just a fool).


I've read this story before in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but the direct and visceral quality of it is still shocking, to say the least. Gower does not try to gloss over the horror of rape or murder, and in fact he seems sensitive to the human desire to be treated fairly and with respect. The action in the story is certainly what we would consider "over the top", but it serves to illustrate the moral in a way that's more emotional than veristic (indeed, I think the modern cultural preference for "realism" in entertainment is a bit tiresome, but that is a rant for another day). Despite the mildly sickening violence, I came away with a feeling for Gower's humane spirit, which I did not necessarily expect from a medieval writer in a story that contains no references at all to Christianity. That's refreshing in any age. 



(almost forgot this part!)

I'm going to read an anthology called Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates. I love reading literary anthologies, especially ones put together by editors who like to suggest running themes by the artful arrangement of their stories. We'll see if Whates can give me what I want.

My first Titan novel!

Over a Torrent Sea - Christopher L. Bennett

I had to think long and hard, in both waking and dreaming hours, about whether to rate this book three stars or three and a half. On the one hand, while I like some good hard sci-fi, the science talk in this book sometimes got overwhelming; and that just sucks the ballast out of what could have been more engaging discussions. The book doesn't sink too low under the weight of science, though, because scientific curiosity is one of the main themes of the book. In fact, it appears to be the main focus of the whole Titan series. What keeps the "info dumps" bearable is that you know they'll be relevant at some point... or at least most of them will be relevant (one hopes).


The U.S.S. Titan is Will Riker's ship after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. I skipped the first few in the series because I jumped back into ST novels with the Destiny trilogy (which chronicles the Borg invasion to end all Borg invasions). So, I don't know the characters well, except for the captain (Riker!), the counselor (Troi, now his wife!), and the head of security (Tuvok!!), also Melora Pazlar (the low-gravity lady from that episode of Deep Space Nine, one of my all-time favorite guest characters). I think the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this volume was that I didn't know the characters as well as a seasoned Titan reader would. Still, Bennett kept them relatable enough. I say "job well done" especially to his rendition of Commander Christine Vale, acting captain when both Riker and Troi are off on various missions. She's a rookie at command, and Bennett strikes the perfect balance between self-doubt and determination.


Titan gets a repair and an upgrade and goes out exploring strange new worlds again. The world it finds in Under a Torrent Sea is quite strange, and there is a lot of science-talk among the officers about just how strange it is -- an ocean world, with hot ice surrounding the core, no land whatsoever, a bunch of asteroids nearby with heavy minerals, and none of it quite adding up according to the laws of physics. It's evident that the author (Christopher L. Bennett) has done his research, seeing that he cites a bunch of science journal articles on the Acknowledgement pages (yes, the acknowledgements take up two full pages). That's pretty cool, and I like more-or-less rigorous science backing up hard sci-fi novels; that also usually jives well with Star Trek (where one sees less of hokey religions and ancient weapons...). This ocean planet also has a very interesting aquatic civilization, way cooler and more out-there than, say, the Gungans (who have cool special effects but aren't really that alien). 


So, the setting is good. The plot, however, advances only in fits and starts. As I said above, the science-talk adds a good deal of unnecessary bulk. Some of the inner dialogue and psycho-analysis contributes to the problem as well. This seems to be an endemic problem for Star Trek novels. Does anyone know if this is specifically a Trek problem, or is it a problem with media tie-in novels in general? I'd like to know... Anyway, the science-problem isn't as bad as it could have been because most of it is relevant to the plot. The inner-dialogue problem also could have been worse because, again, it's mostly relevant to the plot. Running alongside the theme of scientific exploration as one of the highest pursuits of civilization (a central theme to Star Trek as a whole), there is also the theme of recovering from loss. Destiny dealt a huge blow to the Federation, with the loss of several worlds and almost all of the main characters having lost a loved one during the Borg invasion. The novel begins on a sad note with all these characters dwelling on their losses (especially Tuvok). But by the end of the story, our heroes have come to an understanding with their grief because of the connections they have forged with each other. More impressively, they discover as a result of their exploration that, with so much wonder and mystery in the universe, there is no reason to dwell on one's losses.


Ultimately, the novel does come together, with the integration of the themes and the plot. It should have been about 50 pages shorter and could have been a sharper read with some trimming, but it's still not a bad entry in the Star Trek literary canon.



I'll dip into my medieval English literature anthology book for a bit. Next up is a medieval re-telling of the ancient mythological story of Philomena and Tereus... should be pretty gruesome!

WOOL -- interesting concept, mixed execution

Wool - Hugh Howey

I can see why Hugh Howey’s Wool is ripe for bestseller status: the hook is gripping, the characters are relatable, the sci-fi concept is intriguing, and Howey’s prose conveys the action with urgency and clarity. It doesn’t end up quite so satisfying to me, though. There is that one missing thing: depth of ideas. In my mind, this last thing is important (nay, essential) for any good fiction.


With science fiction in particular, the story needs the scientific idea as its core, with the scaffolding of plot and character imbuing that idea with life. What Wool has is an interesting idea, that there is a whole community of human being living in a great underground “silo”, the origin and purpose of which are unknown at the beginning of the story (and, as it happens, only dimly foreshadowed in this volume… apparently, one must read the next volume to get the origin story). The concept is interesting and has a lot of potential, and with the name “silo”, one must imagine a great apocalyptic event (nuclear or not) having necessitated its existence. As the plot unfolds, we learn a bit more about why things happen as they do in this silo society. These developments are indeed quite interesting, and I think that the story of Wool would have been more cohesive if the author had integrated the silo’s origin and purpose into this story.


The plot moves along, for the most part, at an engaging clip, although the original format of the story (a series of novellas) hasn’t quite been successfully massaged into what used to be called a “fix-up” novel. At the beginning the sheriff of this silo has gotten his hands on some forbidden knowledge, and he’s got to go… outside. This means being exiled to the toxic environment beyond the airlock, which, despite the protection of an environmental suit, means that death comes within ten or fifteen minutes at most. What has the sheriff discovered? Why is it so dangerous to social order? These are intriguing questions. Answering these questions leads to the great unraveling of the mystery of the silo… unfortunately, this unraveling remains incomplete within the page of Wool, and the plot turns increasingly towards the misdeeds of a rather one-dimensional villain and the heroic escapes of an incredibly competent engineer figure (a familiar type from Golden-Age sci-fi, the only real difference here being that the hero is female). These central characters could have used a great deal more depth, their status as hero and villain never being in question, the result being that they never achieve plausible Personalities but remain mere Characters for the duration of the story.


These deficits are all the more lamentable because the concept really is interesting and Howey’s prose displays some capacity for thoughtfulness despite its apparent transparency. That said, I did enjoy what unraveling there was; I even found the action scenes (which got in the way of what I really wanted) almost unbearably intense. I don’t mean the third-act battles (which are somewhat by-the-numbers) but rather the impossible threats to survival that the heroine must navigate. While I considered them distractions, they were amazingly effective distractions. It’s no wonder that Wool has been optioned by none other than Ridley Scott.


Final word: read it for action, read it on the beach, but don’t expect the promising world of Wool to reach its full potential. I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I’ve got; I won’t be moving ahead to the sequels.

Reading progress update: I've read 318 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

The next section in this anthology consists of selections from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, plus a few bits of his other poetry. I remember reading some of the Tales way back in my freshman year of college, but not much of it stuck. It was a delight to read these again. The famous Knight's Tale is not in this anthology, but the Miller's Tale is, and what a delight! Even though the Middle English takes a lot of getting used to and some of the conventions of medieval poetry are not exactly fitted to modern tastes, the Miller's Tale is indisputably one of the most entertaining pieces of fiction ever to grace our language. Also included are the Pardoner's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Tale, alongside the Nun's Priest's Tale. The Wife of Bath is a most intriguing character, a strong personality who's gone through husbands with varying degrees of callousness. She grates but she is also entirely relatable, a character that is good to think about. Her tale takes quite a while to get going, but once it does, it's hard to take a break. The Pardoner is a disgustingly corrupt clergyman but fun to read about, and his sermon is an impressive sophistry. 


The other poetry doesn't really stand out to me, but the poem written to Henry IV soon after usurping the throne from Chaucer's previous paymaster, is interesting in the way it flatters the new king but also reminds His Majesty that payment is due!


Next up, I'll read a modern sci-fi novel...

Entertaining follow-up

The Face of the Unknown (Star Trek: The Original Series) - Christopher L. Bennett

The Face of the Unknown is a follow-up to the classic Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver", indisputably one of the greatest episodes in the franchise's 50-year history. Its successful combination of mystery, deceit, and delight make that episode particularly rewarding. 


In this novel, set not long after the close of The Original Series' final episode (but just before the beginning of The Animated Series), in the latter half of the Enterprise's five-year mission, Kirk and crew receive a distress call that eventually leads them back to the infamous orb-ship of Balok from "The Corbomite Maneuver". Balok, however, is missing, and the First Federation (his home) is under threat from an ancient menace. What follows is a highly entertaining combination of mystery and deceit, making this book a delightful read.


The author, Christopher L. Bennett, is clearly a master of Star Trek lore, as the references to canon are knowledgeable, well-timed, and apropos. He is also deft at employing language to convey the familiar voices of our interstellar heroes, and that same linguistic adroitness lets him immerse the reader both in the expansive, awe-inspiring vistas of strange new worlds and in the vicissitudes of thrilling escapades.


If you're a fan of Trek, this is a very fine stand-alone novel -- highly recommended!

A Marvelous Quartet

The Price of Spring - Daniel Abraham

The Price of Spring concludes what is now one of my all-time favorite fantasy epics, The Long Price Quartet. Daniel Abraham not only continues his masterful sentence-by-sentence writing, with its vivid descriptions and telling dialogue, but he also maintains the vision that made book 1 (A Shadow in Summer) so compelling. The sweeping ramifications of intimate decisions come to the fore once more in this final volume, reflecting the close-in focus of the first volume. All the things done and suffered by our core characters (Otah, Maati, Eiah, and Idaan chief among them) tie into one theme or another and have significance for the development of the plot. Generally speaking, this is close-knit writing, and its tapestry is a work of wonder.


Being a great lover of theme even above character and plot, I was most impressed with how Abraham bound up every thread of this novel with the main themes of the series. One can surmise from the book titles that the passing of the seasons is the major theme ruling all other themes in this series. The Price of Spring unites the concepts of andat (a living idea) with the passing of the seasons to reflect on the timeless truths of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. No profound revelation is made, but this old truth is resonant and Abraham employs all the best tools of a sensitive writer in all the best ways, so that the final product is a work of beauty and poetry.


Advice to readers: follow the motif of the flower. It appears at least in A Betrayal in Winter (prologue chapter), An Autumn War (one of the final chapters, as well as one of the middle chapters in which Otah launches a doomed assault), and in the epilogue chapter of The Price of Spring. It may have been present in A Shadow in Summer but I missed it since it didn't seem so important at the time. I'd like to elaborate just a bit, so the paragraph that follows will be a SPOILER. Also, apologies if my thoughts are somewhat disjointed below, since the overall tapestry is so delicately woven with an impressively multivalent depth. There is so much symbolic intricacy to ponder that it boggles the mind, and one struggles to subject it to rigorous analysis.



The prologue chapter of A Betrayal in Winter describes a white flower blooming in the courtyard of the Khai's palace in Machi. The flower is spattered with blood, the red standing out against the whiteness of the flower as well as the whiteness of the snow lingering from winter. Spring is just beginning. The end of A Betrayal in Winter sees Otah victorious against his scheming and murderous sister Idaan, who tried to become a Khai by murdering her brothers. She murdered Danat but did not succeed against Otah. Otah is now Khai but pardons his sister, sending her into exile instead of executing her. At the end of the novel, she is walking into the distance across the autumn snows, standing out red against the whiteness of the snow. At the end of An Autumn War, after the devastating war of Balasar Gice against the Khaiem and Maati's shattering mistake of unleashing the andat Seedless's new form, Maati goes into exile in a remote cave in the autumn. Seedless had caused infertility in the men of Galt and the women of the Khaiem. Maati's protégé Eiah nevertheless forgives Maati's mistake and brings him flowers colored orange and yellow -- colors representing both autumn and the city of Machi. It is a reminder of the tragic fall of Machi but also a symbol that there may be hope. Finally, at the end of The Price of Spring, Otah's son Danat (named after his brother who had been slain by Idaan), delivers a funeral eulogy for Otah, speaking of the flower as a metaphor for the passing of seasons both in nature and in human life. He stresses a distinction (using language reminiscent of the old poets when discussing the binding of an andat) between returning and replacement. As Otah himself had realized in the letters he had written to his dead wife, no one ever returns when the springtimes of life come around. Each person, as each flower, dies; but he is replaced in one way or another. With this eulogy, the new Danat marks a new age of mankind, one free from the powers of the andat (with all the possible death implied by that...), and one hopefully also free of the internecine strife of the old Khaiate ways. Note that "Danat" is an anagram of "andat". As each andat newly bound is a variation on an older version of its theme, so too is Otah's son Danat a variation on the uncle that was killed by Idaan; or, perhaps it is better to say that he represents a replacement of the previous generation rather than the old Danat in particular. He won't follow the same path, but he is a nod to the past, and he is Otah's creation, as the andat were the creations of poets. Danat is Otah's instrument for change and the betterment of humanity. Also, just as andat are representations of an idea, summoned by a poetic incantation, so too does Danat speak poetically in the eulogy about springtime. The price of spring was bloodshed, as blood sullied the white flower in Machi's courtyard. The price of spring is also the potential for bloodshed, now that the world is left free of the andat's oppressive enforcement of peace. Peace among the nations is no longer guaranteed. Spring is that time when life is renewed and the military campaign season begins. The new age of the world reflects this co-habitation of life and death.



So, the gist of my review is this: The Long Price Quartet is a masterpiece. I've mentioned in my previous reviews that sometimes there is too much introspection on the part of the characters. This remains my opinion, but it is forgivable because it is not really intrusive. And indeed, being of a more thematic bent myself, I may have overlooked some of the intricacies of character development that these introspections evoke. The way that Daniel Abraham wields symbolism as a narrative tool impressed me like few authors have before. In this respect, he approaches the mastery that Gene Wolfe so effortlessly displays. I am happy that, by the end of this series, my initial Wolfean impression remains. If Wolfe is an idea (or ideal!), then Abraham is a new Wolfean andat, transmitting the core element of symbolic mastery while establishing idiosyncrasies of his own.

Blood and thunder, Daniel-Abraham style

An Autumn War - Daniel Abraham

As the title advertises, An Autumn War is the war book of the Long Price Quartet. Book 1 of this epic was the romance, Book 2 was the court intrigue, and Book 3 is the blood and thunder. 


As with the preceding books, it molds itself around the seasons, shaping plot threads and character arcs around themes of death, renewal, and the cyclical nature of life. Abraham is quite good at this, as became quickly apparent in A Shadow in Summer (Book 1), which I called "an intimate epic". Abraham's focus on character is unwavering, and many of his protagonists are interesting enough that you really do care what happens to them in the end. Even as the geographic scope of the story widens in this war book, each plot thread is motivated almost exclusively by the desires and frustrations of the various protagonists. In other words, the author never loses that focus on character even when he needs to outline the grand movements of clashing civilizations.


Without getting too spoilery, here are the main points: An Autumn War follows Otah, Maati, Cehmai, Kiyan, and Liat as they now enter their 40s, seemingly the autumn of their lifespan. Most of these protagonists now have children (except Cehmai, for he is Machi's poet) and their concerns are directed toward cultivating the next generation. Meanwhile, a new character, Balasar Gice, a brilliant general from Galt, emerges as a dangerous conqueror bent on upending the world order.


This novel, by itself, carries the story through to a truly thunderous conclusion, sounding faint war-drums in the beginning and slowly bringing the horrors of war closer and closer to the people we identify with as "the good guys", until the terror and violence become overwhelming. Still, not everyone dies, and the stage is set for the final book of the quartet (The Price of Spring). So, as far as this single book goes, it is very good by itself and might almost be read successfully as a stand-alone (but why would you do that?).


As part of the quartet, this book is even better. It adds new layers of symbolism to its ongoing meditations on the seasons, and it continues building its world, further articulating the Cities of the Khaiem while introducing the Galts and the peoples of the Westlands and Eddensea. As for the andat... well, I don't think I can talk about that and avoid spoilers at the same time... let's just say that there are some major changes, and they play into the cycle of the seasons, especially autumn.


Also watch for visual symbols. There is one in the aftermath of the big battle in the middle of the book (involving Otah on the battlefield) and another one some time after the final climactic battle (involving Maati in a cave) -- these two symbols are particularly powerful, the former harking back to another symbol introduced in the prologue chapter of A Betrayal in Winter (a heavily ironic symbol), and the latter seeming to presage hope in the fourth volume while acknowledging the tragedies of the first three. Finally, and most impressively, none of the symbols in these books can be mapped onto a single season, nor do they have valence exclusively with the book that they appear in. They are significant in all the seasons, but, for that, they lose none of their individuality. It's clear to me that Abraham conceived a brilliant idea when he started putting together this series and has brought to the task a great talent for integration, consistency, and beautiful story-telling. I am most eager to read the final volume.

My Reading Habits (The Survey)

This seems like fun, so here goes:


1. Do you have a certain place in your home for reading?

I read in my Lazy Boy in the living room of my apartment. To the left is the kitchen, always ignored while reading. To the right is a window facing mostly west, necessitating an artificial light source in the morning and night but rarely in the afternoon. To the right and behind the chair is a door letting out onto the balcony. Some reading occurs here on warm days. In South Carolina, this is most of the year and on random days in winter.


I also occasionally read magazines in bed... umm, history magazines, mind you!


2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Bookmark, for sure. I have one that says "I like big books, and I cannot lie!" This one shares a home with an assortment of Star Trek bookmarks.


3. Can you  just stop reading or do you have to stop read after a chapter / certain number of pages?

I must read at least one chapter whenever I sit down for a reading. My mind cannot tolerate atomic levels of reading.


4. Do you eat or drink while reading?

Eating distracts, so no. Drinking... only after a section break.


5. Multitasking: music or TV while reading?

Absolutely not. Like eating, it distracts.


6. One book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, unless one of the books is divided into discrete units (like The Norton Anthology of English Literature).


7. Reading at home or everywhere?

Mostly at home... sometimes in the car when I know I'll be sitting somewhere long enough to read a chapter or article.


8. Reading out loud or silently in your head?



9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?

I avoid reading ahead as though it were a presentiment of my doom.


10. Barking the spine or keeping it like new?

I am no dog, to bark up the spine as though it were a tree. I don't break it either. Books are sacred objects.


11. Do you write in your books?

No. That's what notebooks, pads, receipts, and opened envelopes are for.

Back in action!

To my handful of readers: sorry I've been away -- things got busy over Christmas Break, and Booklikes was under construction last time I tried to make an update.


Anyway, things are working, and I don't really feel like writing full reviews for what I've read. However, I will say a few things:


1. I finished A Betrayal in Winter, by Daniel Abraham. It picks up after A Shadow in Summer, one of the best fantasy books I've read. This second installment is just about as good, even if it shifts in character. It moves us 10 or 15 years forward and drops us into a fascinating Shakespearean royal intrigue.


2. I read a Star Trek: Enterprise book, Kobayashi Maru. Now, the title had me pretty excited because I thought I would get to see the infamous incident that inspired Spock's Academy simulation from The Wrath of Khan. Alas, there wasn't much of that. Still, the book advances the overall mega-plot concerning the Coalition of Planets and the rumblings of war with Romulus. Not bad, but certainly not necessary.


3. I'm now reading An Autumn War, the third novel in the Long Price Quartet, following A Betrayal in Winter. This one is shaping up to be rather epic indeed, with plots to change the very system of the world, the marshalling of armies the likes of which haven't been seen since the Second Empire, and (as always) a set of moral quandaries that stretch our characters to their limits.


4. Of course, I've read lots and lots of comic books since December. I don't usually comment on those, since I read them almost exclusively in single-issue format and would lose what little remains of my free time if I were to review them all. Suffice it to say that I'm still enjoying the DC Universe Rebirth initiative. As a fan who started with the New 52 in 2011, I don't know a whole lot about classic DC, but I'm pretty sure I would enjoy it if it is true that the Rebirth initiative is about returning DC to its roots. Great stuff from Rebirth: Green Lanterns (I am in love with Jessica Cruz!!), Action Comics (really a good story about Lex Luthor), and Detective Comics (a quirky and interesting Bat-team including Clayface, plus the beginnings of a Batwoman story that has huge potential). Moon Knight is a wacky, engrossing, heart-tugging story from Marvel. And the indie publishers have plenty of amazing comics -- the best new comic from Image (with stiff competition indeed) has to be Moonshine, while Aftershock wrapped up a terrific arc in The Revisionist and continued the high quality work in Black Eyed Kids. Marvel's Star Wars books, IDW's Star Trek books, and Dark Horse's Aliens/Predator books continue to entertain me more consistently than the superhero fare from the Big Two.


5. With the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, we now live in the Twilight Zone. The world has become science fiction, and now we have to write our way from dystopia to utopia... somehow.

An Intimate Epic

A Shadow in Summer - Daniel Abraham

I have not read a huge number of epic fantasies in my life; my experience in that genre is limited primarily to GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. But one thing I hear about a lot of fantasy epics is that there is a great number of characters in them, and the scope of the events is vast, sweeping across colorfully detailed secondary worlds.


Daniel Abraham's first published novel, A Shadow in Summer, resists that tendency. Most of the action takes place in the great trading city of Saraykeht, one of many trading cities among the Khaiem, a merchant-republic kind of society that seems equal parts Renaissance Italy and Silk-Road khanate. The world outside these cities is vast and has the potential to be treated in detail, and perhaps that will happen in future installments, but in this first novel of the Long Price Quartet, the action is geographically confined. Moreover, the city itself is fleshed out only to the extent that seems necessary to establish a sense of place and a background for the main characters.


The decision to tell the story like this, I think, pays off with large dividends. This is because one of the most important themes of A Shadow in Summer is the conflict between love and justice, and how difficult it is even to put comfortable limits on either love or justice. All the sinister intrigues that threaten to shake up the world order are predicated on motivations grounded in love and hate and executed with misplaced proclamations of justice and injustice.


There are really only five POV characters in this epic fantasy novel, but their actions and motivations are so deeply developed, even between the lines on the page, that one feels an entire emotional world opening up beneath the engrossing details of Khaiate society. As the plot moves forward, all these characters' lives become intertwined in impressively varied ways, and by the end, there is a complex love triangle clashing disturbingly with an unwanted abortion and the dark movements of political intrigue that run deep and powerful like a tide that threatens to pull our characters out to sea. By the end, too, no one's situation is the same as it was in the beginning, and the world order teeters on the precipice.


The course of these events runs forward as everyone involved makes seemingly impossible moral calculations. Far from being cynical amid the grim, dark deeds of this intricate plot, our characters agonize over every decision, aware of its implications and forced to accept ethical compromise. This is the kind of moral dilemma that I find interesting, and it certainly enriches this novel.


I mentioned in an earlier post that there is a strong hint of Gene Wolfe in the early chapters of A Shadow in Summer. But I found the book feeling less like Wolfe as I continued to read. Yes, there is an undercurrent of identity/memory issues in Otah's story, and yes, the prose does marvelously weave together plot, character, and theme (as Wolfe did in Shadow of the Torturer). But, tellingly, the dialogue does not at all resemble Wolfe's style, nor is the importance of symbolism so front and center. Abraham's opus is a thing in itself and wholly of its own author. He nods to the greats, but this new masterpiece is his alone.


I say "masterpiece" even though the narrative does occasionally frustrate readerly pleasures. But this is to the good, ultimately. Consider especially the role of the andat, Seedless, in this book. At first, his nature and purpose are fascinating, but after a while, his character seems only to degenerate into a confusing muddle of ideal form and real manifestation, while his true motivations are constantly called into question. By the end, however, a drastic change of status occurs (I won't spoil the nature of it!), and the symbolism that he bore early on comes to the fore once more, and upon reflection, it becomes obvious that his character is representative of the entire world order, and his own vicissitudes mirror that of his world. Contemplate further upon his symbolic presence, and you (as reader) come to understand more deeply the nature of the society that created him.


Far more lies beneath the surface than can be revealed from just this one novel. Abraham has created a world that he refuses to spoon-feed to the reader but has made it interesting enough that, at least in my case, I cannot wait to delve deeper into its mysteries -- even as it changes! And indeed, its seasons change from the summer of Saraykeht's dominance to the winter of... its discontent? Well, we shall see in A Betrayal in Winter.