Review: Jhereg, by Steven Brust

So, I finally got around to starting the Vlad Taltos series:

Some caveats: I actually know the author, as we met through mutual friends. Also, this book probably qualifies as high fantasy, which is a genre I avoid because I rarely enjoy it. Fortunately, this passing level of acquaintance got me to go to one of his readings, and after that, I was hooked.

Vlad Taltos is an assassin plying his trade amongst the long-lived denizens of a magical, foreign land. What makes the assassination game a little different than in our world is the relative ease of resurrection as well as the option of killing someone’s soul. So, you end up with three forms of assassination: reversible death, permanent death, and soul death. Each comes with its own prices and challenges.

It’s also a world of long-standing Houses, something between families and syndicates. Vlad has been working his way up through House Jherig for a number of years when he’s offered a contract that’s too good to pass up. At least, it’s too good until he finds out what’s involved, but by then it’s too late.

The two things I enjoyed most about this book were the narrative voice (it’s told in first person) and the complexity of the problem Vlad is faced with. I’d put it on the order of planning a locked room mystery, but bumped up a notch to where the room has no doors.

All in all, a lot of fun, and I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did. My only excuse for that was trying to get a good answer on what order I should read them, since they were not written in chronological order. (I finally settled on publication order.)

Though I confess, part of me wishes I’d waited a little longer so that I could read it on my Kindle. Alas, this series isn’t out in e-book yet, but Steven says it’s in the works. Instead of my handy Kindle, I ended up reading it as part of a 3-book compendium, which unfortunately gave it the heft of a hardcover but not the stiffness. The combination made it almost impossible to read while lying down, so it did not make for good bedtime reading, purely because of the physical manifestation. The book is available as a single, but you have to buy it used.

So, while I’m eager to progress on to the next one, I may just wait to see when the e-book versions are coming out. I’m still not a fan of high fantasy, but the narrative voice of Vlad Taltos kept this one from wafting upwards into the rarified air that triggers my distaste of high fantasy.

Review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I’d heard this one mentioned in a lot of circles, so I figured it was time to finally pick up my copy and read it.

This book gets talked about a lot. Partly it’s that it had an unusual road to print, starting off as a free posting on the web. Part of it is also that the author, John Scalzi, is a well-known and prolific blogger. He’s also the current president of SFWA. But there were also plenty of folks raving about just how amazing the book is.

In short, it’s been put up on the pedestal alongside the sliced bread of SF. It had a lot to live up to. So I find myself in an odd position. I really did enjoy it. It was a fun story, and I would recommend it to friends. But it simply wasn’t the amazing genre-changer some folks had made it out to be.

So, the hype wasn’t really fair to it. It was good, just not that good.

Now, with that opening compliment twisted into an insult, let me repeat that it was a good book. I really enjoyed it. It was one of those books that I found myself saying to my wife, “I’m really enjoying this book.” I suppose that’s the very literal definition of a remarkably good book.

Now, if you haven’t heard anything about it, it’s the story of an old man who goes off to war. Normally, you’d think that 75-year-old’s are a bad fit for infantry, especially when going up against some of the most vicious monsters you can imagine. But in this particular case, these geezers are a perfect fit. How can that be? Well, the answer to that question is just one of the things that made this such a good book.

So check it out.

Just don’t buy into the hype.

Review: Hell Week, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is the sequel to an earlier reviewed book Prom Dates from Hell:

I’ll put out the same caveats I did on the first one:

  • I’ve got a bit of a fan-boy crush on the author (because she’s just such a cool panelist at conventions), and…
  • I’m not really the target audience for this book.

Having said that, I had a blast with this book, even more fun than I did with the first one. Maggie is back and starting to take her psychic powers a bit more seriously, and these sorority girls aren’t the vapid bowheads I remember from my college years. Some of the supporting characters make their return, including a reformed villain from the first book.

I can’t say a whole lot more without getting into spoiler territory, but it was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the third book, Highway to Hell, but my wife recommended I take a look at her Texas Gothic first.

Review: Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose

I tore through this one last weekend:

This is the book that HBO based their “Band of Brothers” mini-series on, and it was excellent. I had already seen the mini-series, which was also excellent, so I was in a position similar to times when you see the movie and then go read the book.

If you never saw it or have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the story of the men of Easy company, a group of 150 soldiers from the 101st Airborne division in World War II. It follows them from their training in the US through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and their defense of Bastogne, on into Germany, and their victory lap at Hitler’s very own Eagle’s Nest. For the most part, they were not career military men. They were merely citizens who went off to war.

As an aside, books get turned into movies all the time, and if you read the book first, you then decry how much they cut to squeeze it all into the 2-hour movie. If you see the movie first, the book is then filled with all this extra stuff like backstory, extra plot-lines, and character depth. But a book and a mini-series are a good fit.

HBO gave it ten hour-long episodes and managed to cover most of the book, so while I wasn’t coming across tons and tons of new material, there were still plenty of newfound gems. More than anything, it was like reading the director’s commentary of the DVD, except of course, it wasn’t the director. In many cases, it was direct quotes from many of the soldiers who had fought through the war. It also had a bit of surreal sense in that I felt like I already knew these people and had clear pictures of them in my mind. All in all, seeing the series before-hand made reading the book that much more enjoyable.

One section that was in the book that the mini-series only glossed over was what these remarkable soldiers did with their lives after the war. A large number of them went into teaching, and another big bunch of them went into construction. That was a nice turn, seeing them go from a world of destruction and violence to a life of building the future.

I’m going to quote one little bit from those later years that really made an impression on me. Private Ralph Stafford wrote, “In 1950, I went bird hunting with some guys from the fire department. I shot a bird and was remorseful as I looked down at it. The bird had done me no harm and couldn’t have. I went to the truck and stayed until the others returned, never to hunt again.” He had had enough of killing.

It looks like a number of these soldiers went on to write and publish their own memoirs of the war, but this is the place to start.

My only negative comment about the book was that the Kindle edition (which is what I read) was a terrible e-book conversion. There were some glitches that looked like lost words, bad text conversions like 2nd to 2d, and the index was a worthless list of topics not linked back to any location in the book. Bad Publisher – No Donut! So if you want to read this, get it in a dead-tree edition.

Review: The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

I recently finished this one, the second book “His Dark Materials” trilogy:

It was okay, but I must say it was a bit of a grind, and I lay much of the blame on the writing style. It may simply be since this is ostensibly a children’s book, it’s supposed to written this way, but it left a foul taste in my mouth. Far too much is spelled out rather than merely implied. In writer-speak, it has way too much tell and not enough show.

The other aspect of the writing that bugged me was the point-of-view. It seemed to be a meld of third-person omniscient and third-person limited, meaning that sometimes we knew everything about everyone, while sometimes we only knew about things from one person’s point of view. The way he switched back and forth between those two forms (as well as blithely switching which character’s POV we were in) bugged the shit out of me. However, I’ll confess that some of this might be because I was also doing a copy-edit pass on some of my own work, and I was on the lookout for point-of-view errors, and if Pullman had chosen the point-of-view limitation I work with, then this book would been a virtual abattoir of red-pen corrections.

So, getting past my issues with the writing itself, how was the book? Well, the plot advanced, we met new people as well as saw old foes, and we learned more about the mysterious “Dust”. On that stuff, the payoff was decent, but it also suffers the problem of the middle book in a trilogy. The first book hooked us, and now we’re filling in the extra details we need as we build towards the climactic third book, and unfortunately, much of that filling-in is a little boring.

I’ll probably finish out the trilogy later this year, but I’m in no rush. Supposedly, the final resolution of all the mysteries is some controversial statement about the Judeo-Christian concept of Original Sin, and I’m curious about what he has to say. And yet, after grinding through this one, I’m tempted to reach for the Cliff Notes on book 3.

But NO SPOILERS in the comments, okay?

Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I caved to mob pressure and finally took a look at this one now, rather than wait for the movie to ruin it:

I confess I went in with low expectations. I’d seen lots of people raving about it but with very little detail. About all I knew was “teenage gladiatorial combat”, and that didn’t really thrill me. I thought perhaps this was some odd dystopian tale of the perfect society that every now and then tossed some of its children into the meat grinder for fun, perhaps a bit like The Lottery but more cruel.

Well, yes and no. I’ll put in a mini-spoiler here that is revealed quite early in the book, and that’s the fact that this is far from a perfect society, and the tossing of kids into the ring is an intentional act of cruelty by an oppressing victor over its vanquished foes. Once that became clear, these games took on an entirely different feel to me.

And then… Wow!

The protagonist is imperfect but very likeable, responsible but frail, and angry while still compassionate. Yeah, lots of contradictions wrapped up in one amazing character. I found her very compelling.

And the story kept me guessing. One of the drawbacks to writing stories is that you get a good understanding of how stories work, how they flow, the build and release of tension and all that literary crap. It also means that I don’t get surprised all that often anymore. And while our protagonist’s dilemma is presented fairly early, my guess of the resolution kept changing the further I got in. Oh, betrayal! No, it’s going to be sacrificial! No, wait, it’s something else! Where is Spartacus??

So, I say definitely check it out. It’s got action, tragedy, ingenuity, more tragedy, and some bittersweet victory. The real villains, of course, are those who run the games, and with two books to go in the Hunger Games trilogy, I have some hope that those villains will get fitted for a nice spit.

Review: Thin Air, by Rachel Caine

I recently finished this one, the sixth installment in Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series.

I have to say I got a little bored with this one, but I’m willing to cut it a little slack. The previous book, Firestorm, took us right to the brink of the Apocalypse, and there really wasn’t much of anywhere to go from there. She spent the first five books telling us about the old order as she was thoroughly destroying that order, and at the end of book five, that order pretty much hits rock bottom.

So, where do you go from there?

I’d guess you start building the new order, and this book gives us a taste for that. Unfortunately, it spent too much time bringing us up to speed on what happened before through various flashbacks and the likes. I’ll grant you that the mechanism for the flashbacks was interesting, but it still felt a bit like one of those lame clip shows that seem to hit sit-coms around the fifth season.

There are three more books in there series, and I’ll probably read them, just to find out what happens to folks, but after this one, I’m almost wishing I could just get the Cliff Notes version. It’s not that it wasn’t well written. The writing was fine. The voice, the action, all of that good stuff… it’s all there. Rachel Caine knows what she’s doing. It’s just that I felt shortchanged by plot in this one.

My wife highly recommends her Morganville Vampires series, so it’s possible I’ll give those a visit before I return to the Weather Wardens, but I figure I’ll be back eventually.

Review: Echo, by Jack McDevitt

I’m starting off this new spot in my blogging schedule with one of my favorite authors, Jack McDevitt. Specifically, one his more recent Alex Benedict novels, Echo.

Echo, by Jack McDevitt

Before I get into it, I want to say a few words about the reviews I’m going to be doing. First of all, I’m going to do my best to try to remain spoiler-free. After all, who wants a book suggestion that ruins as it recommends? Second, I’m not striving for great literary criticism. These are simply the books I’m reading, and I’m talking about whether I liked them. And lastly, I’m not the fastest reader in the world. My awesome wife, for example, reads upwards of 150 books each year. My count is somewhat less than that. Ok, a LOT less than that. We’ll see if that picks up as I try more books on the Kindle, but let’s just say I’m not making any promises that this one will be a weekly feature.

So, Echo is the fifth novel in McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series. Alex is an antiquities dealer in the 110th century, but in addition to buying and selling them, he also does a certain amount of investigative archaeology. In that respect, he’s a bit like Indiana Jones, except that he’s not all that concerned with saving these pieces for the museum. Starting from the second book, though, the novels have been told from the point of view of his partner and pilot, Chase Kolpath. I won’t say too much about the earlier books except to tell you to GO READ THEM IMMEDIATELY!

All of these tales (including Echo) are a kind of historical mystery. They’re not tracking down artifacts from our history, but rather from our distant future. They frequently start with some object or event that stands out as an enigma. Often it’s a relic of some kind, but there’s something odd about it. Maybe it’s a tea cup or a jacket, but there’s something about it that just can’t be explained. Before long, Alex and Chase are digging deep into events from 20 to 9000 years before, struggling to find the root of this little mystery, and like most mysteries, there’s usually someone who doesn’t want you to solve it.

In Echo, it starts with an old stone tablet at the house of a man who had spent his life unsuccessfully searching for aliens. He retired decades ago and died shortly thereafter. But what does the tablet’s inscription mean? Does anyone even recognize the letters or language? And what was this old kook doing with it?

I liked Echo, and I tore through it faster than usual. I confess there was a slow patch in the middle, but that was more because bad things were happening, and I just didn’t want to see the bad things happening. I think that was more indicative of how much the story was getting to me rather than any hint of poor writing. While the previous book had played out on a vast scale, this one was much more personally visceral. I saw it in the way it affected the characters’ lives as well as in how it affected my emotions. While I have always cared about how the story played out, I think this time more than anything I cared about what was happening to characters I had grown attached to.  (See my earlier column about all the fictional people in my monkeysphere.)

So, I highly recommend it, but do read all the previous ones first. It’s not that the books aren’t stand-alone tales. It’s just that you’ll appreciate the characters and the world that much more, seeing the background.  For the record, those books are: A Talent for War, Polaris, Seeker, The Devil’s Eye, and Echo.  Book six (Firebird) was just released.