Thursday, 23 March 2017

Hyperion / Dan Simmons

4 out of 5 stars
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

Canterbury Tales in space. With the plotting of Agatha Christie.

Earth is just a memory, destroyed long ago, but it looms large in the galactic consciousness. Hyperion is a world on the edge of things—not really part of the Hegemony of Man, not really part of the opposition either. Ruled or haunted by a being known as The Shrike.

As a birder, I am familiar with shrikes. They are songbirds that think they are raptors. When you find one of their larders, you feel like you’ve discovered a serial killer’s lair—they use thorn bushes or barbed wire to impale their prey until needed to feed chicks or themselves. Simmons borrows this behaviour for his creation and it feels ominous.

As for the Canterbury Tales aspect, seven pilgrims are traveling to Hyperion on the eve of galactic war. As they make their way to the Time Tombs on Hyperion, they agree to tell their tales of what has prompted their participation in the expedition. As their stories unfold, we acquire the background that we need to learn more about Simmons’ universe and enough to tantalize us about what may be happening.

As to the Christie angle, I realized as I enjoyed each character’s story that Simmons had skillfully crafted all of the tales to fit together in interesting and intricate ways. Events in each person’s life, reaching back many years in every case, have drawn them to be where they currently are. Have they been manipulated by the Shrike? Or is this a case of massive synchronicity?

I loved the ending of this book and if it was a stand-alone, I could live with that. However, I am pleased that there are three more books to explore this intriguing universe.

Book 251 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

Ashes of Honor / Seanan McGuire

4.5 out of 5 stars
It’s been almost a year since October “Toby” Daye averted a war, gave up a county, and suffered personal losses that have left her wishing for a good day’s sleep. She’s tried to focus on her responsibilities—training Quentin, upholding her position as Sylvester’s knight, and paying the bills—but she can’t help feeling like her world is crumbling around her, and her increasingly reckless behavior is beginning to worry even her staunchest supporters.

To make matters worse, Toby’s just been asked to find another missing child…only this time it’s the changeling daughter of her fellow knight, Etienne, who didn’t even know he was a father until the girl went missing. Her name is Chelsea. She’s a teleporter, like her father. She’s also the kind of changeling the old stories warn about, the ones with all the strength and none of the control. She’s opening doors that were never meant to be opened, releasing dangers that were sealed away centuries before—and there’s a good chance she could destroy Faerie if she isn’t stopped.

Now Toby must find Chelsea before time runs out, racing against an unknown deadline and through unknown worlds as she and her allies try to avert disaster. But danger is also stirring in the Court of Cats, and Tybalt may need Toby’s help with the biggest challenge he’s ever faced.

Toby thought the last year was bad. She has no idea.


Yay! This is book, folks, where Toby Daye finally wakes up and smells the coffee, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, she is as obsessed with coffee drinking as I am and all the people in her life have learned to make it to her specifications. Plus, she has learned about those people in her life—she cares about them, they care about her, and she should probably get used to that.

It was great to see her accept and even solicit help from her regular crew of friends and to see them all win the day as a team. No more isolation! She & Tybalt are officially great at co-operating to get things done, save each other’s lives, and defend the innocent. Not to mention their excellent chemistry! I also appreciate that this romance element to the story doesn’t over-power the novel. It’s an excellent side dish to a satisfying meal.

I think the major reason that I love October is because she is a flawed main character. She has obstacles to overcome, probably as many of them in her own mind as in the real world. And, like all of us, she has to work through her issues until she reaches a place where she can claim a little more happiness.

This is the series that started my serious love-affair with all things Fae. It’s a good time to love Fae fantasies, they are everywhere now, but this will always be my first love in that category. Thanks, Seanan McGuire, for hours of happy entertainment.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, V. 3

3 out of 5 stars
The depth and breadth of what science fiction and fantasy fiction is changes with every passing year. The two dozen stories chosen for this book by award-winning anthologist Jonathan Strahan carefully maps this evolution, giving readers a captivating and always-entertaining look at the very best the genre has to offer.
 
Short story anthologies like these are a wonderful way to find new authors that interest you. I should probably limit my intake, since my “to read” list is already over 1600 titles, but being the book lover that I am, I can’t resist having a peek sometimes.

As with all collections, some stories were fun, some were confusing, some were boring for me. But I can think of three in this book that made me think I wanted more from those authors.

The Dust Assassin, by Ian McDonald. Mostly because it is set in Asia and I think entirely too much science fiction & fantasy is set in North America. Plus this was a gripping story and I’d like to read more in this world.

Pride and Prometheus, by John Kessel. I love a good mash-up. This story used both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to create a little side-adventure that really tickled me. I will definitely be looking for more of Kessel’s work.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss, by Kij Johnson. Okay, so I have a huge soft spot for animals, plus I love it when an author gets the biology right! Acknowledgement that chimpanzees and gibbons aren’t monkeys, but they’re still in the circus act. The story left me with questions, something that I also love.

If you’re having difficulty choosing your next book, may I suggest an anthology in whatever genre you enjoy? Sure, there may be some duds, but at least one story in the collection will probably send you off on a whole new reading tangent!
 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Stone of Farewell / Tad Williams

4 out of 5 stars
It is a time of darkness, dread, and ultimate testing for the realm of Osten Ard, for the wild magic and terrifying minions of the undead Sithi ruler, Ineluki the Storm King, are spreading their seemingly undefeatable evil across the kingdom.

With the very land blighted by the power of Ineluki’s wrath, the tattered remnants of a once-proud human army flee in search of a last sanctuary and rallying point—the Stone of Farewell, a place shrouded in mystery and ancient sorrow.

An even as Prince Josua seeks to rally his scattered forces, Simon and the surviving members of the League of the Scroll are desperately struggling to discover the truth behind an almost-forgotten legend, which will take them from the fallen citadels of humans to the secret heartland of the Sithi—where near-immortals must at last decide whether to ally with the race of men in a final war against those of their own blood.


As I look back on the reading experience for Stone of Farewell, I wonder exactly why I enjoyed it so much? I mean, not an awful lot happens. Simon returns to being a pouty, immature boy more often than not. There’s an awful lot of walking, while keeping a look-out for the bad guys. In fact, you could probably sum up the whole book in one sentence: Most of the good guys get to the Stone of Farewell.

I guess what made it worthwhile for me was learning quite a bit more about the Sithi (Williams’ version of Elves). Plus getting some back-story for Ineluki, the Storm King, to find out what turned him into the vengeful creature that is threatening all of Osten Ard. There’s also a peek into Troll culture and a love interest for poor, patient old Binibik.

The character who really gets left in the lurch in this volume is Miriamele, King Elias’ daughter. I would be reading book three regardless, but it is her fate that really is pulling me along at this point. I must know what happens!

This is pretty standard fantasy fare and if you enjoy high fantasy, you are likely to enjoy the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. Those who don’t like elves, trolls, and magic swords should definitely pass this series by!

Book 250 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Survivors / Richard Fortey

4 out of 5 stars
Evolution does not simply obliterate its tracks as more advanced organisms evolve. Scattered across the globe, organisms and ecosystems that survive from far earlier times can speak to us of seminal events in the history of life. It is these animals and plants that Richard Fortey visits in the field, taking the reader on a voyage to the exotic, and sometimes everyday, places in which they live. Landscapes are evoked, boulders are turned over, seas are paddled as he explains the importance of understanding plants and animals as pivotal points in evolutionary history itself. Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has left Behind is a journey across the globe and across time that weaves a rich and brilliantly delineated tapestry of how life and our planet have evolved together.

 I love Richard Fortey’s science writing. Two of his books are among my absolute favourites (Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth and Dry Storeroom No. 1). Perhaps because there’s an awful lot of stuff happening in my life right now, I didn’t get into this book in quite the same way as those two.

Still, it’s an extremely enjoyable book if you are a fan of paleontology and natural history. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a “living fossil” and Fortey explores it thoroughly in this book (while explaining that the whole idea of a living fossil is a bit off-base—they may look the same, but many things will still have changed over the millennia). I am more than a little envious of Mr. Fortey, as I would dearly love to travel to see some of the creatures that he visited for this book. I mean, Horseshoe Crabs? Sign me up to go see them at spawning time! Wouldn’t you like to hold a Lungfish in Northern Australia? Or is it just me?

What I truly appreciate about Fortey’s writing is the enormous depth and breadth of knowledge of paleontology. Now, he does shine brightest when talking about invertebrates, as you would expect of a trilobite specialist, but he’s a dab hand at fish too and obviously an enthusiastic naturalist when it comes to plants and birds. I am amazed how much natural history knowledge resides in one person’s skull.

Add to that the charm of quoting poetry and literature in meaningful ways, making allusions to dance and art, and one has to admit that this is a well-rounded scholar.

Recommended for those who are fascinated with paleontology in all its glory.

Whose Body? / Dorothy L. Sayers

3 out of 5 stars
The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder -- especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What's more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

  I hope that Dorothy Sayers would be pleased that people are still reading her Lord Peter Wimsey series in the 21st century, 50 years after her death. That said, this was very much a “first book” in the series. Lord Peter is very well named, it seems to have started a bit whimsically. Ms. Sayers was obviously finding out who this gentleman was and what he was capable of.

There are regular references to Sherlock Holmes, so Sayers was obviously conversant with Conan Doyle’s creation. Especially in the matter of the criminal’s need to confess and explain what he did and why he did it, something that I am unsure actually happens in real life.

I also found echoes of two of her contemporaries, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. Lord Peter is an amateur sleuth, like Miss Marple, but he has connections in the police department rather like Hercule Poirot. His relationship with his butler, Bunter, is reminiscent of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves.

I was very fond of Peter’s mother, the Duchess. She is a wonderfully intelligent & lively woman and I hope that she continues to feature in future installments.

It was an entertaining little book—unfortunately my copy had some major typographical problems. Every time the character “æ” should have appeared in a word, “¾” replaced it, making for some very odd looking words. Things went even further awry close to the end of the book, when Lord Peter speaks with a woman in French. All the accents, circumflexes and cedillas were replaced by symbols and numbers and made the conversation extremely difficult to parse out.

Though not the most scintillating mystery that I’ve ever read, it is better than many. When time permits, I will undoubtedly read further adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Oath of Gold / Elizabeth Moon

4 out of 5 stars
 Paks was somebody special. Never could she have followed her father's orders and married the pig farmer from down the road. Better a soldier's life than a pigfarmer's wife, so, knowing she can never return home, she runs away to be a soldier, beginning an adventure which will transform her.

I spent the first two chapters of this book crying.  Why, you ask?  Because the second book left Paks in such a hopeless, lonely place and in the first couple of chapters Master Oakhollow takes her in and is SO KIND.  He demonstrates a kindness that’s often missing in our world today.

I had difficulty setting the book down—I really wanted to know what happened.  But I just couldn’t give it 5 stars, despite these two factors.  Once she was healed, Paks went right back to being a Mary Sue character, who could do no wrong and could see her way through all kinds (and I mean ALL kinds) of troubles without getting bent out of shape.  This despite assurances to her on several occasions that she is a better Girdsman now, because she knows how helpless people feel.  Plus she’s gone all religious and holy in the cult of Gird.  For a girl who used to fight & cuss in Duke Phelan’s troops, it was odd to see her go so far to the other end of the spectrum.

Having said that, Moon creates a fascinating world—I would have loved to spend more time with the elves and gnomes and know a bit more about their societies.  The ending, although okay, just kind of petered out.  Rather like a fairy tale, when they just say that everyone lived happily ever after.  A bit more detail in the resolution would have made me feel better about it.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable trilogy and would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys high fantasy.

Book number 249 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.