philmophlegm: (Traveller: The New Era)
OK, before I get to the review, I need to get a disclaimer out of the way. This is a novel based on the Traveller RPG, written by the game's creator, Marc Miller. It was funded by a Kickstarter, which I backed. And Mr Miller is an online friend of mine. In fact, for a time, The Shop on the Borderlands was the only place outside of the US where you could buy a paperback or hardback copy.

So I would have bought this book whatever. I like Travelleresque science fiction (I may have mentioned that once or twice in the past), and obviously this is Travelleresque. However, the first thing that surprised me is that Miller didn't just write a novel about a free trader crew odd-jobbing around the Spinward Marches (in other words, the classic Traveller campaign format) or a mercenary company fighting bush wars on frontier planets against Zhodani-backed separatists (the other classic Traveller campaign format). Instead, this is something rather more ambitious. Here's the blurb:

"Jonathan Bland is a Decider, empowered by the Emperor himself to deal with the inevitable crises of empire. In the service of the Empire, he has killed more people than anyone in the history of Humanity, to save a hundred times as many. He died centuries ago, but they re-activate his recorded personality whenever a new threat appears. When the crisis is over, they expect he will meekly return to oblivion.

He has other ideas.

The chronicle of Bland reveals secrets of the history of the star-spanning Third Imperium and spans 400 years from early Imperium (about year 300) through the mid-post Civil War period (about year 700) touching known and unknown events you may have encountered in your own reading of the Imperium: everyday events, political intrigue, deadly dangers, Arbellatra, Capital, Encyclopediopolis, the Karand's Palace, and a Tigress-class Dreadnought.

If you know the Traveller science-fiction role-playing game, then some of this is already familiar; if not, no matter; this story introduces the vast human-dominated interstellar empire of the far future in ways only the designer and chronicler of this particular universe can."


With its episodic nature, the work it most reminded me of was Asimov's Foundation series, or at least the first two or three books. Neither author dwells too much on characterisation, preferring to get on with setting, plot and action. Each of Bland's activations is pretty much a self-contained short story, at least at first. As you get further into the book, longer term plot arcs make themselves felt in quite a subtle way. It's really a cleverly structured work of science fiction.

And that brings me to the second thing that surprised me about this book - it's a very accomplished piece of writing for a debut novelist. Really good in fact. Not coming from a major publisher probably counted against it in terms of awards, but it was shortlsted for the Dragon and got some Hugo buzz (although ultimately didn't make the shortlist). I read it not long after reading the much-hyped and much-awarded Ancillary Justice which I thought was pretty mediocre to be honest. This is in the same space opera sub-genre and was far, far better. In fact, it's the best novel I've read so far this year. Highly recommended. Consider it essential if you play or have played Traveller, and highly recommended if you don't or haven't but you like ambitious, high concept space opera.

And now a plug: you can still buy it from The Shop on the Borderlands! (and not from many other bookshops, at least outside of eBook formats)
philmophlegm: (Dying Earth)
1. What fiction book are you reading now?
Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson. Third in the Malazan Book of the Fallen epic fantasy series.

2. What non-fiction book are you reading now?
I'm not.

3. What were your favourite books as a child?
The Railway Series (aka Thomas the Tank Engine) and the Target Doctor Who novelisations.

4. What’s the earliest book you remember reading?
Something about a lion in the garden. I can picture it, but I've forgotten the title. If anyone can enlighten me, feel free to.

5. Were you given annuals at Christmas as a child?
Yes, although for the most part, they were a bit crap. The Terry Nation Dalek Annuals were the exception.

Read more... )
philmophlegm: (Eternal Champion)
Shortish fantasy novels featuring an ordinary 20th century bloke transported to two different fantasy worlds as the heroes Erekose and Urlik Skarsol. Perhaps more high-fantasy in feel than Moorcock's more famous fantasy heroes.

Difficult to review these. As standalone stories, they're not particularly memorable or exceptional. Both books are more important as part of Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle. In fact they're probably the best place to start for those new to Moorcock.
philmophlegm: (Far Trader)
Here's a longer review by someone who liked it more than me: http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/331044.html

Far future revenge space opera*, where the lead character used to be a starship and now isn't. Has won lots of awards, but as much internet reviewery has pointed out, that doesn't mean as much as it once did. Space opera doesn't often win awards nowadays, even science fiction ones**, which makes it all the more remarkable that this won lots of them.

As Louise mentioned, there are a couple of literary tricks / gimmicks in this book. The first actually worked well for me. It's a revenge tale and some of the chapters are present, telling the tale of the revenge, while other chapters are past, showing what happened to cause the lead character to seek revenge in the first place, and against whom. It could have been annoying, but it allowed the author to drip feed you with events from the past in a very coherent way.

But I had a big problem with the other gimmick, and it pretty much ruined the book for me. The main character comes from a culture where there are no distinctions between the sexes, and while he/she/it appreciates that there are two sexes (and often struggles to identify which one a particular character belongs to), he/she/it defaults to referring to everyone as "she". And he/she/it continues to do this even after it is established that a particular character is male. It's massively confusing, and it's made far worse because the book is written in the first person. Where we discover a character's sex, they turn out to be male more often than not, so I can't help thinking that of the three possible pronouns, "she" was less sensible as a default than either "it" or "he". Better still would be to make up a word to represent in English what a genderless pronoun would be.

I'm a very visual reader - I want to picture what characters look like. If you introduce a character as "she" and then several chapters later mention some detail that makes it clear that the character is actually male, then you're just going to annoy me. And in fact that's what happened. I gave up careful reading and visualising and ended up skimming. So I read the book pretty quickly without really enjoying it.

Actually something else of note. Although I liked the fact that the book was relatively short*** compared to others in its genre, one of the reasons it's short is that there really isn't much description. So even without the pronoun stuff, it's not a fantastic book for visual readers anyway.

It's a shame really, because there is much to like. The villain(s) of the piece is(are) interesting, the setting is quite good (lacking in detail or hinting at greater complexity are perhaps two sides of the same coin), and the writing (except for the bloody pronouns thing) is very readable. So probably a two stars out of five book for me. But it would have been four without the pronouns thing. And even then, there are far better modern space operas out there. I can't quite see why the SF elite who give out awards rank this as so much better than more popular works by the authors listed below.


* Although not the sort of space opera involving people daringly flying space fighters a la Star Wars, which the cover illustration rather implies it is. I know some people get annoyed by cover art which gives a misleading impression of a book, and I would have to put Ancillary Justice in that category.

** Total number of Hugo awards for Best Novel won by Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Nil.
They don't even get nominated:
Total number of Hugo nominations for Best Novel for Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Two.

*** It's probably only about one-fifth or even one-sixth the length of your typical Peter F. Hamilton brick.
philmophlegm: (Dragon (1))
I can't quite make up my mind about this. It's the first in a trilogy. Quite long. Hugely popular. Clearly lots of people love it. I seem to remember getting into it quite well when I was reading it, and then going out and buying lots of books by the same author, but I haven't rushed to read the next book. Why not? I think the biggest fault is the slow pace. It really does take ages (in terms of words) for anything to happen. And it's hardly a startlingly original premise - young boy with mysterious background has magical powers, ends up being mistreated, but comes good. Oh, and for such a long book, I didn't feel that I learned much about the world in which the story is set. I could tolerate the second and third faults were it not for the first. It simply should have been much shorter.* Three stars. Probably.




* This is a fault common to many recent fantasy and science fiction novels and series.
philmophlegm: (Forgotten Realms)
Two reviews for the price of one - the first two volumes of Robert Jordan's enormous fantasy epic 'The Wheel of Time'. It's odd that these were the books randomly chosen by amychaffinch because a) I only finished The Great Hunt at 1 0'clock this morning and b) it was amychaffinch who recommended the series to me in the first place (she's a big fan). The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills...

The Eye of the World didn't really grab me at first. The first part of the book is very obviously written as a tribute to The Lord of the Rings. In fact, some events are almost copies of events in The Fellowship of the Ring. Once I got past that, I realised two things. The first is that actually, I really like The Lord of the Rings, so a tribute by a talented author is not a bad thing at all. Secondly, as you carry on into the first book, you start to get glimpses that actually this isn't quite the straightforward LotR copy that it starts out resembling. The world-building, while not up to Tolkien's standard, stands comparison with most fantasy epics. And Jordan's writing style is very readable.

When you get into the second book, rather more aspects of the world are revealed, with many more hints that there are all sorts of complex undercurrents. I'm trying very hard not to be spoilered for the rest of the series because I'm looking forward to seeing what is revealed and how all the factions fit together. That's two really quite long books read and I feel that I'm only scratching the surface.

So if you're thinking that I'm liking this series more the more I read of it, you'd be right. A lot of Tolkien fans don't seem to read many similar works at all, but if you like LotR and you're looking for something vaguely along the same lines, you may well like this. But try to avoid reaching a firm conclusion until you've read the first two books.

(amychaffinch tells me that "it keeps improving" from this point on and that "there are lots of things that you read now that will make lots of sense later". I hope so, on both counts.)
philmophlegm: (The Chick's in the Mail)
Most of the books on my list-of-books-to-be-reviewed-without-the-use-of-pseudish-cockwaffle are not history books. However, the review randomiser (i.e. asking [livejournal.com profile] bunn to think of a number) has come out with another history book.

You might think, given the title, that this is not a serious history book at all, but some kind of children's book in which a plucky girl called Emma outwits and outfoxes nasty rough vikings. It is a serious history book, but actually, that description isn't far off. You probably haven't heard of Emma, unless you're already well read in early 11th century English history. You'll come away from this book thinking that she should be a really famous and important person in English history. She was after all, Queen to two different Kings of England (one of whom was also King of Denmark and of Norway), mother to two more Kings of England and stepmother to two more Kings of England (and great aunt to William the Conqueror). She was the richest woman in England and wielded considerable diplomatic influence across England, Normandy, Denmark and Norway. She seems to have been particularly influential in the transition from Viking rule of England to English rule.

The book itself is nicely written and despite its title it does a good job of explaining the various factions and the political and diplomatic situation. I was particularly intrigued by it because this isn't a period of history that seems to be covered much, either in popular culture, or by popular historians. For example, Simon Schama's 'History of Britain' makes no mention of Sweyn and Cnut's conquest of England. I knew a bit about Cnut, but I bet to most people he's the guy who couldn't stop the tide coming in. There seems to be a big gap between Alfred the Great and 1066 that nobody writes novels about and nobody makes films about and nobody writes history books about. That's surprising because a hell of a lot happens - and most of it is described in this book.

Very readable and I found it a very interesting period that I previously knew relatively little about. Highly recommended.
philmophlegm: (adamsmith)
This is something that people have asked me in the past. Of course my view is that basic introductory economics should be taught as a core subject in school. I had mandatory music, drama, needlework, metalwork, woodwork and religious education, all of which strike me as less important parts of education than understanding how people behave and interact. But that's a subjective opinion, and this is an objective educational post.

So, where to begin?

Read more... )
philmophlegm: (Hagia Sophia)
OK, so it isn't New Year and I don't really do New Year's Resolutions, but here's one anyway. In the past, I occasionally wrote short punchy book reviews and posted them on LJ. I'm going to try to do that again. I've written out a list of all the books that I've read since I last did this and the book will be selected at random. I should also point out that I feel strongly that the point of a book review is to say if you liked the damn book, along with enough detail about it that anyone reading the review will get a good idea of whether or not they will like it. So that's what you're going to get in these short reviews, not pseudish cockwaffle.

Here's the first:

Read more... )
philmophlegm: (911)
How does a print-on-demand publisher have a clearance sale...?

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