His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire1HisMajestysDragonThe year is 1804. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy and his crew capture a French warship. On board they find a dragon egg; a prize worth a princely sum to the British war effort. The egg hatches and the dragon, whom Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him as his handler. Laurence must leave the Royal Navy to join the Flying Corps, and entirely foreign environment for him.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful novel, full of whooping-out-loud-inducing adventure set in a period of gentlemen, honour and heroic deeds. There’s a Horatio Hornblower vibe over the story, which dares to be high adventure without dwelling too much over the fact that dragons do exist and are simply part of the world. A somewhat storied and mystical part, to be sure, but there is no further explanation required or necessary. Ms. Novik doesn’t bend over backwards to make the existence of these beasts plausible, but simply integrates them into history as we know it, making for some striking images. For example, dragon formations crewed with gunners and boarders striking at convoys in the English channel. The entire organization of dragons in battle as couriers, support aircraft or heavy strike beasts depending on size and ability rapidly starts to seem entirely plausible given the historical background. And so, even though it is full of dragons, the novel doesn’t feel very much like fantasy at all, keeping its thematic roots firmly in the historical novel and alternate history camps.

4½Rosbochs

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers I) – Becky Chambers

TheLongWayToASmallAngryPlanetRosemary is on the run. From what is not initially known. She joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a vessel that builds stable wormholes in space. The crew is a motley mix of characters, both humans and of other species. As the Wayfarer travels on a long mission, Rosemary and the rest of the crew face various trials.

Written like that, the story seems rather banal, and in truth the story is not the reason one should read this novel. In fact, the story is almost a series of interconnected episodes, aimed almost uniquely at highlighting and celebrating what is important in the book: The relationships between the characters, and how these make them grow and change. It is easy to see in the crew a more mellow but somehow also more colourful version of the protagonists of Firefly.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (I love the title) is a delightful novel. Surprisingly unpretentious in a genre typically dominated by big concepts, it takes the reader on a journey with characters that are relatable and easy to like. I found myself smiling more often than not while reading, and frequently wished that I could sit in the garden on the Wayfarer, just hanging out with the crew.

4½Rosbochs

Nemesis Games (The Expanse V) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse5NemesisGamesThe new worlds discovered in Abaddon’s Gate and opened in Cibola Burn are the new frontier of human expansion. By consequence, there is no longer a need to settle minor bodies like asteroids and live “on the float” like the Belters. This group was already emarginated and seen as exploited by the powerful planetary hegemonies of Earth and Mars. Now their entire raison d’etre as a culture is being threatened. Even Mars is feeling the pressure, as people leave its underground warrens for the opportunity to live in the open air on a new colony planet.

With this as a backdrop, our heroes of the Rocinante is on hiatus on Tycho Station while the ship is being repaired. On cue Amos, Alex and Naomi are called away to handle matters originating in their past. For most of the story, the crew is split up, which makes for an interesting exploration of the individual characters.

And then the big boom happens. An extremist Belter faction attacks Earth. Our heroes must survive alone, and find some way to reunite.

The wider political situation continues to develop, ensuring that the protagonists are not just living out adventures in a static world. The backstories of the characters are interesting in themselves. The exploration of Naomi’s past, delving into some rather dark territory, is especially gripping. Another very enjoyable installment.

4½Rosbochs

Deadly Shores (Destroyermen IX) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen9DeadlyShoresAfter the successful relief of the Pete Alden’s Allied Expeditionary Force in India and the start of offensive operations against the Dominion detailed in Storm Surge, the Alliance uses its current strategic momentum to mount a daring raid against the Grik capital on Madagascar. However, muddled leadership and unclear priorities quickly turn what should have been a raid in force into a potential disaster. On the eastern front, Shinya leads the first confrontation with the “home” forces of the Dominion. As the Alliance continues to grow rapidly, cracks are showing in the leadership, which makes the story all the more interesting.

Mr. Anderson commendably avoids projecting the rest of the series into a big roll-up of the Grik. New and surprising elements are introduced, and for certain our heroes continue to suffer greatly. On a side note, the author always leaves room for chaotic and unexpected events that show the randomness of the world, as well as colourful touches like the little pet lizard-bird Petey. These elements make the world seem as vast as a real one.

While this is firmly an alternate history and war series, the strong elements of adventure fiction truly make it shine.

4½Rosbochs

 

Storm Surge (Destroyermen VIII) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen8StormSurgeFollowing almost two books of plot fragmentation and scope expansion, Storm Surge brings things to a head. The Alliance industrial machine has hit its stride, supporting a gargantuan war effort across three continents. Following the near disastrous invasion of India in Iron Gray Sea, the Allies are ready to strike back in force. Abel Cook and Dennis Silva go looking for the native population of Borno. Finally, the eastern front is properly opened with the first landings on the Dominion home soil.

It took almost the entirety of the two previous books in the series to build up to the events in Storm  Surge, but the payoff was well worth it. While the epic battle to finally conquer Eastern India and rescue Pete Alden’s embattled Allied Expeditionary Force dominates the proceedings, several less significant actions also vie for the spotlight, in particular Cook and Silva’s unexpected encounter.

Mr. Anderson skillfully weaves the complex story, keeping the pace up without bogging down in minutiae. He also continues to throw large wrenches in the works, not fearing to kill off key characters or serving up tragic setbacks. Many series have run out of steam after this many installments, but Destroyermen seems set to continue being captivating.

4½Rosbochs

Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning IV) – John Varley

ThunderandLightning4DarkLightningAt the end of Rolling Thunder, the great asteroid starship Rolling Thunder leaves the solar system led by the extended Garcia-Strickland-Broussard clan. The ship is a classic hollow rotating cylinder, propelled to a high fraction of the speed of light by the mysterious squeezer-bubble technology invented by Jubal in Red Thunder. As with previous installments in the series, we again jump forward a generation. The story is told in the first person by identical twins Cassie and Polly, daughters of Jubal and Podkayne. After one of Jubal’s regular exits from stasis in a “black bubble”, he screams that the ship must be stopped. Eventually he figures out that Dark Energy (catchily referred to as “Dark Lightning” in the book) may be a danger when traveling at a very high percentage of the speed of light. However as always with Varley, the story is about the people. Jubal’s scream of “Stop the Ship!” triggers shipwide unrest, and the twins are the ones who have to sort things out.

In true Varley form, the worldbuilding is first-class, detailed and intricate. The characters are authentic and easily engage the imagination. The twins are in their late teens, and as such their commentary is peppered with talk of boys and fashion, but without being annoying. Mostly it is just plain funny. After the pessimistic tone of Red Lightning and very gloomy one of Rolling Thunder, it is also nice to read an installment in the series with a brighter outlook.

4½Rosbochs

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire V) – George R. R. Martin

ASongofIceandFire5ADanceWithDragonsThe narrative in A Dance with Dragons runs in parallel with the one in A Feast for Crows, this time mainly following Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion and Ser Barristan Selmy. Several other semi-major characters also feature as viewpoints, including Quentyn Martell and Theon/Reek. Daenerys must deal both with her dragons, and with the untenable situation in Mereen. Tyrion continues his travels eastward. Jon makes tough decisions regarding the defense of The Wall. Ser Barristan broods over his duty.

Unlike A Feast for Crows, this fifth book contains the juicier protagonists, and indeed the juicier bits of story. While the byzantine plots of King’s Landing are reasonably interesting, the real action is around Slaver’s Bay and The Wall. While the prose and characterizations is as good as in the previous book, the narrative events of A Dance with Dragon make it a treat. Things are rapidly going downhill in many ways, and a possible conclusion to the saga can be glimpsed. If you squint…

4½Rosbochs

Cibola Burn (The Expanse IV) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse4CibolaBurnFollowing the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.

In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.

4½Rosbochs

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1) – Patrick Rothfuss

TheKingkillerChronicle1TheNameoftheWindKote, whose real name is Kvothe,  is an innkeeper with a storied past that he keeps secret. His exploits are the stuff of legend. Frequently wildly inaccurate legend, but with a core of truth. One day he starts telling his story to a man known as Chronicler. The novel leaps back in time as the reader enters Kvothe’s developing memoir, back to his childhood as a traveling trouper, when he was also informally apprenticed to an Arcanist. So begins the storied life of Kvothe. Our protagonist learns magic, but it does not mean he immediately becomes powerful. His story is one of poverty and constant struggle. He is a supreme intellectual genius but this leads him into trouble more often than not.

The world of Kvothe is certainly fantasy, but very low-key in terms of magic and mythical creatures. These things exist but are rare. And while common folk attribute many happenings to demonic forces, magic is treated as science by the more enlightened people of the age. There are no Gandalf-style wizards with unexplained and inconsistent powers, but learned men who study at a University in order to harness what most see as supernatural forces. There is even a version on The Enlightenment, as it is mentioned that only a few centuries earlier, Arcanists were burned at the stake, but in the present time they are more accepted. I enjoyed this “scientific method” take on fantasy very much.

The story is very strictly from Kvothe’s perspective in the form of his memoir, apart from the brief parts in the “present day” parts told in the third person, and even those follow Kvothe without other viewpoints. This makes for a very focused story without a wider “epic happenings” perspective. Even events that potentially could be monumental to the world at large are seen through our hero’s eyes, making them very personal.

This novel is perhaps overlong. It is an excellent read, but sometimes I feel that the meanderings could have been culled somewhat. On the other hand, it ended somewhat without actually ending. There was no satisfying end of an era, just an abrupt discontinuation before the reader inevitably must move on the next book in the series.

4½Rosbochs

Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.

4½Rosbochs

Caliban’s War (The Expanse II) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse2CalibansWarCaliban’s War is set one year after the events of Leviathan Wakes. The crew of the Rocinante is on contract from the Outer Planets Alliance to hunt pirates. Meanwhile, on Ganymede, the daughter of research botanist Praxidike Meng is abducted just prior to an unexplained assault by both Mars and Earth fleets. Turns out that the deadly protomolecule is loose again. But who set it loose? The Solar System is on the verge of war. Once again, the Rocinante finds itself in the center of things.

This book was fully as good as the first; perhaps even a touch better. The action is excellent and the prose beautiful. The attention to detail regarding the effects of living in the Asteroid Belt or on a moon of Jupiter are wonderfully thought out. For example, Belters nod with one hand since a head nod is not often visible when wearing a helmet. Both the old characters and the new ones stand out in their characterizations, with well-written arcs propelling them forward in the story.

4½Rosbochs

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse I) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse1LeviathanWakesA few hundred years from now, humanity has colonized the Solar System. Mars and Earth (the “Inner Planets”) are the developed juggernauts of society, with Earth crowded by a population of thirty billion. The rest of humanity lives on various moons and asteroids (the “Outer Planets”), hollowed out or domed for habitation. Tension between the Inner Planets and the fringe has been constant for centuries, with the fringe being gouged on taxes and kept cowed by the massively powerful Mars-Earth combined navies.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two characters, freighter officer Holden, born on Earth, and Ceres police officer Miller, born and raised on Ceres itself. Holden’s ship is attacked for (initially) undetermined reasons and along with a few other survivors he is now a fugitive from powerful interests. Miller is asked to investigate the disappearance of one Juliette Andromeda Mao, scion of a rich family who left the fold to hang with the semi-terrorist Outer Planets Alliance, a group dedicated to independence from the Inner Planets. Miller’s search soon leads him to an encounter with Holden, as they both try to figure out who is inciting a shooting war between the Outer Planets and the Inner Planets. More importantly, what is the terrible plague that found Julie Mao; who is trying to use it and for what purpose?

The plot moves along quickly, with kick-ass action scenes worthy of a blockbuster movie. Miller’s slow descent into madness is contrasted with Holden’s transformation from naive boy scout to cynical player. The divergence of Inner Planet and Outer Planet society is finely described with tidbits sprinkled throughout the book; a story of frontier society trying to define itself. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out, avoiding stereotypes and developing relationships realistically. The story itself twists in unexpected directions, with a grandiose “couldn’t see that coming” ending. Great space opera!

4½Rosbochs

Proto Zoa – Lois McMaster Bujold

ProtoZoaCollecting five of McMaster Bujold’s early works, Proto Zoa is a lovely little gem, even though the stories have all been published before. “Barter”, “Garage Sale” and “The Hole Truth” are cute little vignettes in a suburban setting, one of which is not even science fiction. Bujold’s skill at finding the amusing and the ironic amidst the mundane shines in these three stories. The novelette “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” is ostensibly part of the Vorkosiverse, but only in as much as Beta Colony is referenced. Aftermaths is a nice vignette about the dead and their relationship with the living (or is it the other way around?). It later formed the epilogue for “Shards of Honor” but started life as a short story.

As a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, I loved this book despite its brevity.

4½Rosbochs

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton

GreatNorthRoadIn the early 22nd Century, a body is found in the river Tyne in the northern English city of Newcastle. The murdered man is a North, one of hundreds of clone brothers in the immensely powerful and rich North family. But which one? Detective Sid Hurst is assigned to lead what soon becomes a massive investigation. Earth and its colonies are linked through instantaneous travel gateways, with undesirables and jobless shunted out to the colonies. Massive corporate interests loom over society. Taxation is so high that everyone has “secondary” accounts, a deep grey economy of bribes and favors shadowing what is reported to the government. As Sid investigates, the mystery of the dead North deepens, leading finally to a geophysical expedition looking for clues in the far-flung jungles of the world St. Libra, where mysteriously there is no animal life at all, only plant life.

Great North Road is a singleton book, but still retains Hamilton’s customary “big brick” format at over twelve hundred pages. The characters are many and the plot complex. The backdrop is detailed, with a rich backstory spanning decades. Strange societies and interesting people abound. Unlike most of Hamilton’s works, however, this one is very firmly grounded thematically in the contemporary world. Earth in the early 22nd Century seems stuck in a rut. There are technological advancements over today, certainly, but not as many as one would think. And definitely nothing that has changed the paradigm. The economy is still very much dependent on oil, albeit an artificial variant produced by genengineered algae. Government bureaucracy is powerful, massive, overwhelming and nonsensical. The ultra-rich are disconnected from normal society. The “failed capitalism” theme is powerful, a bit like that seen in the news today. Is this really the best way forward for society, or are humans meant for something more? And yet, forces are conspiring to break out from this path. Hope, as always, is a strong theme for Hamilton. And unlike in his big series, he manages to tie it all up neatly in the end.

4½Rosbochs

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games II) – Suzanne Collins

A few months have passed since the events of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta now live as neighbors in the Victor’s Village, along with Haymitch. Things are strained because, despite Katniss’s status as a victor, she is also a symbol of defiance against the capitol. The President would probably like her eliminated, but cannot do so because of her status as a popular public figure. To top things off, she must pretend to be in love with Peeta in public, while Gale now works in the mines and she is in general unsure how she stands with him.

Since this year will be the seventy-fifth Hunger Games, the rules are special. Katniss’s troubles are just beginning.

While it cannot quite reach the level of the first book, Catching Fire is a more than worthy sequel. Yet again, the strict first person perspective forces the reader to see everything through the eyes of Katniss. More importantly, we see the world through the lens of her thoughts and doubts. It is a cruel and dangerous world, and she must make brave decisions in order to protect her loved ones. The action scenes take up less space and are, perhaps, not as gripping. I felt that Ms. Collins could have spent some more time here. In any case this was a page turner just like book one.

The ending leaves little resolved, and book three directly follows.

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire II) – George R. R. Martin

The sequel to A Game of Thrones picks up right where the previous book left off. Westeros has been plunged into civil war, with five kings clashing for the Iron Throne and for the North. Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen continues her quest to find supporters in her bid to return her dynasty to the Iron Throne.

While A Game of Thrones perforce had to spend quite some time detailing background, A Clash of Kings dives straight into the action. Without giving away the story, suffice it to say there are many clever and unexpected twists and turns.

Martin is certainly not afraid of taking characters in a bad situation and making their fate even worse. This is in fact an integral part of what makes the series so good. No one is safe and nothing is holy.

Another interesting aspect is how some characters that seem like “bad guys” in the first installment, most notably Tyrion, now seem quite reasonable. Certainly the reader can root for them. Conversely, “good guys” have very dark sides. Martin, through his clever use of point of view characters in the narrative, allows the reader to “back” opposing sides in the conflict.

Certainly nothing much is resolved in this volume, and so it is on to book three.

Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny

The crew of a colony ship has set itself up as the Hindu pantheon, lording it over the descendants of their former passengers by controlling access to superior technology and enacting laws forbidding progress. This works well for a long time, until the Buddha appears.

A deep novel which is sometimes difficult to fathom, it is nevertheless considered a science fiction classic for good reason. The way in which Zelazny uses technology as a metaphor for spirituality is masterful.

The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

The great Carl Sagan explains how science works and how it can rescue us from harmful ignorance. The way in which he debunks myths of all kinds is great. Well written and accessible, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to annoy people fascinated by the occult. Jokes aside, this is a very important book that I think everyone should read.

Kildar (Paladin of Shadows II) – John Ringo

Mike from Ghost is back. While driving through Georgia (the country not the state), our hero is snowed in while in a remote mountain valley. On a whim, he buys the local caravanserai, which also comes with a large farm and most of the valley. He thus inherits the local retainers, a group known as the Keldara. These brew the best beer he has ever tasted, and (of course) turn out to be an ancient warrior tribe. He proceeds to set up a militia to combat Chechen incursions. He is also saddled with a harem of rescued former sex slaves. Storywise, this is more of a set-up book for further novels than anything else.

While Ringo could have continued to write episodic novels about covert operations ad infinitum, he wisely decided to take the character somewhere completely different, both literally and figuratively. Having established that  Ghost is a filthy rich badass former SEAL who likes rough sex and killing bad guys, Ringo decided to make him every man’s wet dream.

It all beggars belief more than a little, but Ringo is unapologetic. There’s also a strong underlying message of the American Way being superior, especially compared to “ragheads from central Asia”. Ringo has written a modern equivalent of John Norman’s Gor Books. There is even a reference in the book. I enjoyed reading it and, like the first, it is a real page turner. It won’t win any literary awards, but that is hardly the objective. Ringo knows exactly which buttons to press with the average male. Sometimes it borders on the insultingly blatant, but that’s fine. This book is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, and I often re-read it when I have nothing else to read. It always entertains.

4½Rosbochs

A Rose for Ecclesiastes – Roger Zelazny

In this classic short story, a mercurial genius poet linguist is on Mars as part of an expedition. He delves deep into the mythos of the ancient (and still existing) Martian civilization.

Zelazny’s story is astonishing in its beauty. The use of Book of Ecclesiastes to illustrate the ennui felt by the Martians is genius. The prose is masterful and gorgeous. It is not a long story, but it lingers.

The full text can be found here.

A Hole in Space – Larry Niven

This outstanding short story collection mostly contains stories that are set in deep space, as opposed to his other collections where the setting tends to be planetbound. The first is the excellent “Rammer” (which formed the basis for A World Out of Time), in which a man revived from cryogenic sleep is forced to pay his debt to society by going on a centuries long mission to “seed” potential colony worlds. There is also an essay on space habitats, including Niven’s Ringworld concept.

All the Myriad Ways – Larry Niven

This short story and essay collection contains some of my favorite stories of all time. For example Becalmed in Hell is about a man and his machine partner exploring Venus. It has a very clever psychological twist. Inconstant Moon, which won the Hugo in 1972, is about a couple of people inferring a great disaster on the far side of the world. Epic stuff. Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex is a hilarious essay about the problems Superman would have mating with the hypothetical woman “LL”. It may be one of the funniest things ever written. You can read it here in its entirety.