The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

TheGraveyardBookA toddler slips out of his house just as his parents and older sister are murdered by a mysterious man called Jack. He walks up to the local graveyard and is taken care of by the dead, who name him Nobody. His upbringing is unusual, to say the least.

The premise behind this book is clever in the extreme. It completely subverts the trope of a graveyard being a frightening place with shadowy monsters lurking. For “Bod”, the graveyard is home and refuge. It is where he plays, where he is educated, where he feels kinship with his people. Death is not something to be feared, but an event which changes people.

The novel is semi-episodic to start, with every chapter almost a self-contained shorts story, but later the thread of the initial murder is picked up, leading towards a resolution. Gaiman’s whimsical style certainly goes well with the setting, and I found myself smiling as Nod interacts with the dead from many different epochs, greeting and speaking to each with the mannerisms appropriate to the age.

3½Rosbochs

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

 

TheAnubisGatesLiterature scholar Brendon Doyle is hired to investigate a magical time portal back to 1880. He misses the return trip and must now use his knowledge of the time to survive.

 

This fantasy novel has many science fictional elements, for example the internally consistent time travel. The “stranded in time” theme is very strong, as Doyle struggles to first survive and then to foil his magician adversaries.

4Rosbochs

 

Queen of Wands (Special Circumstances II) – John Ringo

The sequel to Princess of Wands sees “Soccermom-osaurus” Mrs. Barbara Everette as an experienced FLUF agent, defending America from evil supernatural and mystic creatures. As in the first book, this one also takes the form of three interlinked stories, the middle one of which is set (sort of) at Dragon*con.

Ringo always delivers thrills and page-turnability. But this time he fell short of the mark. The story is bland. The stakes are nominally high, certainly. but I never felt like I cared that much. The way the author has had to shoehorn belief into some sort of consistent reality makes for too many weird conversations. So a bit of a dud but still eminently readable.

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire III) – George R. R. Martin

The third book in A Song of Ice and Fire flows seamlessly from A Clash of Kings. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are in chaos due to the “War of Five Kings”. While a lot of the “issues” are resolved, new and bigger issues crop up. And an even greater threat is looming. This has been foreshadowed since the very start of the series, but is very concrete now.

While still a great read, this one was a bit more of a slog in the first half. The seconds half is where everything really goes to hell in a handcart, and is much faster paced.

The characters are more and more scattered, and the stories often do not intertwine. For example, where the heck are Arya and Bran going to end up? They certainly have no interaction with any of the other point of view characters. Even though things are quieter than after book two, many questions remain unanswered.

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.

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher set about compiling all the notes and stories he had left behind about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion is the most well know result of this work, and chronicles the story of the elves in times long before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It takes the form more of a historical chronicle than a novel, and so feels rather removed from the action. Only for the dedicated Tolkien fan.

The Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

The series consists of seven books but I have only read the first five:

  • Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (US edition is titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As the series progresses, it becomes darker and darker. The dark lord Voldemort, and his ties to Harry Potter’s past, take on ever greater importance. While Harry’s schooling is always at the center of the story, it is clear that great events are afoot in the magic world. The paralells to today’s distrustful world are readily apparent.

This is delightful fantasy. Although aimed at a younger audience, it works very well for adults. What starts as the story of children going to a school for magic ends up as a life and death struggle between good and evil. The themes developed in the books go much deeper than the plot, especially the conflict between “Muggles” (normal people) and those who practice magic. The growth of Harry Potter into adulthood is very well described.

Rowling is a masterful author, with beautiful style and characterization.

Princess of Wands (Special Circumstances I) – John Ringo

An ordinary Southern homemaker, Barbara “Barb” Everette has three kids and a full life. She is the epitome of the churchgoing soccer mom, with the only slight quirk her prowess at martial arts. But on a weekend off, she ends up foiling the attempt of a demon to take over a village in the Louisiana bayou. And then things get even weirder as she is recruited into a super secret organization that battles supernatural beings as they manifest on Earth.

Once again Ringo has managed to write a page turner. The prose and action are excellent as usual, and peppered with the author’s dry humor. Just like Ghost, the novel is episodic, although the characters could hardly be more different. Barb is a very unusual Fantasy heroine, being a deeply religious woman who deems men masters of the household, even her useless one. It is interesting to see how Ringo makes this trait her very strength in her battles against the forces of darkness. There is a also quite a bit of fanservice, as Ringo drops Barb into a typical SciFi convention replete with the requisite authors, geeks and role players. Making the villain a thinly disguised David Drake who hates and envies a thinly disguised Robert Jordan is a nice touch. Unfortunately the convention is also the novel’s weaker section. Too many characters are introduced at the event, and the plot does not flow very well at this point.

While it is not the best Ringo plot wise, the quality of the writing is high as usual. Very entertaining.

The Burning City – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

This book has no discernible story. There are some good ideas but they are squandered. I wish these two geniuses would have hired some young fireplug to do the actual writing off their outline. That way their cool concepts would have made for a legible novel. Niven & Pournelle are just not the team they used to be.

Inferno – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Author Allen Carpentier is at a science fiction convention when he falls out of the window of his hotel room. He finds himself in Hell. Determined to grasp control of the situation and achieve redemption, he starts on a journey through a slightly modified version of Dante‘s hell, guided by a man called Benito.

The idea behind this novel is classic. A modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno! Great fun despite the subject matter.

The Flight of the Horse – Larry Niven

In this, hilarious short story collection, time traveller from the future Svetz has to go back in time and collect fauna from our time in order to populate the ruler’s zoo. Unfortunately, the time machine has the unexpected side effect of making him chase after mythical creatures. The horse is actually a unicorn and so on. The past is a fantasy version of the real past. Poor Svetz has to contend with quite a few mishaps with dragons and the like. A lot of fun, much of it with Svetz as the punchline.

The Magic Goes Away – Larry Niven

In ancient times, there was magic in the world. But the supply of mana, on which magic is based, is dwindling. Creatures with magical metabolisms, such as dragons, are in serious trouble, and in general the world is becoming a less mystical place. A group of adventurers sets out to find the last remaining source of mana.

The idea underlying the novel is very clever. Unfortunately it is not very good. It is based on the short story Not Long Before the End but the idea doesn’t scale very well to a full length novel.

 

The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The story starts small, with an enigmatic wanderer, namely our hero Cazaril, making his way to a former employer’s household. It turns out that Cazaril is actually a nobleman, who through betrayal from his own side became a galley slave. His former employer, grandmother of the heir and heiress to the throne, tasks him with the education of said heiress, Iselle. Soon, the heirs and Cazaril must make their way to the royal capital, there to attend on the king, ostensibly for him to officially name his successor. But intrigue, dark magics and old enemies abound in the cut-throat enviroment of courtiers and politicians. A curse hangs over the kingdom of Chalion.

I love McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. This book  has a very different subject matter and setting, but Ms. McMaster Bujold’s supreme skills at characterization and dialogue remain. The plot is intriguing but the pacing is somewhat weak. Most of the book is set at the royal palace, The Zangre. While the story moves on, often with fascinating twists and turns, it feels a bit as if the first three quarters of the book merely set up the last quarter, in which the action truly picks up. Reading a slow paced story written by McMaster Bujold is still a pleasure, but I did spend a large part of the book waiting for something to actually happen.

Diamonds are Forever – Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

This novelette from the anthology “Mountain Magic” deals with a young man from Kentucky taking his fiancee, a New Yorker, home to meet the parents. Little does she know that the Slade family hides a secret centuries old, about strange beings who live underground.

While not stellar, this story is entertaining enough to while away a few hours. Flint and Spoor have an easy style and a lovely wit.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire I) – George R.R. Martin

This fantasy novel is the first book of a projected seven in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and a long one in its own right. It follows the byzantine machinations of the lords of the “Seven Kingdoms” and related realms. The main action is in three parts. At The Wall (capital T, capital W), the largest structure ever built and the line of defense manned by the Nights’s Watch against the wild lands to the far north. In the capital of King’s Landing and in threads branching out from that location. Finally, on the plains of the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, where the scion of an overthrown king finds her path among the Dothraki horselords.

The setting is fantasy with swords, castles and fair maidens. But this is not fantasy with elves and dwarves and halflings and all those other tropes. The world is firmly human. While supernatural events do occur, they are not the main thrust of the story. The world is gritty and uncaring, without the majesty often found in this genre. There is incest, murder, torture, sex, prostitution and adultery, even more so than in the real world. Noble lords are not so noble and double standards are the norm. Personally I found the whole thing very refreshing as I’m not a huge fan of typical fantasy fare. An interesting and important wrinkle is the fact that seasons are not regular. Summers and winters can last for years. The novel is set late in a long summer as “winter is coming”. This adds a sense of impending doom to the proceedings.

The plot is very complex, especially if you include the rich history that serves as a backdrop. Many of the main characters participated in the rebellion that overthrew the old king, with effects of those events still lingering.

To clarify things, Martin very cleverly uses multiple point of view characters to tell the story, with each chapter taking up the thread seen from that character’s eyes. All the chapters are in the third person but the only what the viewpoint character experiences is related. While a great lord like Eddard Stark sees the world through an honorable warrior’s eyes, his daughter Sansa sees it as an ingenue. Aided by this device and the excellent characterizations, I was never confused about the main characters or what their relationships were.

Needless to say, while there is some conclusion at the end of the novel, the story is left very much unfinished.

Note: A Song of Ice and Fire has been made into a TV series entitled “Game of Thrones“.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Fabulous gothic fantasy novel set in a set of parallel world under modern day London. Our hero is an ordinary securities guy working in the City of London. He has a job, a fiancé, an apartment, a meaningless life. One day, he is kind to what he thinks is a homeless person. This act propels him onto an adventure beyond his wildest imagination.

The clever and twisted use of London iconography and places is of course of most value if you actually know something of the city itself. However, anyone can enjoy this novel of courage and tolerance, of destiny and choice. Enchanting.

The Serpentwar Saga – Raymond E. Feist

Another epic tale from Feist, but this one falls far short of the mark. The characters are not as interesting as in previous novels, and the story does not feel nearly as epic as the Riftwar Saga. The antagonist is too simple and stylized. Feists style seems to have suffered. Having said that, if you loved Riftwar, you will probably enjoy this series as well. The series consists of:

  • Shadow of a Dark Queen
  • Rise of a Merchant Prince
  • Rage of a Demon King
  • Shards of a Broken Crown

 

 

 

 

 

The Riftwar Saga – Raymond E. Feist

Consisting of:

  • Magician: Apprentice
  • Magician: Master
  • Silverthorn
  • A Darkness at Sethanon

This straightforward fantasy saga is very well plotted and written by Dungeons and Dragons aficionado Feist. I am not much into fantasy, but if you want a truly epic tale with kingdoms, magic and so forth, you won’t go wrong with this.

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs is better known for his Tarzan books, but he actually shot to fame with the John Carter books (starting with this one) about the adventures of a Civil War veteran from Virginia on Mars.

These books have a big role in SciFi folklore. While the adventure is engaging, I found the character of John Carter himself (the novel is narrated in the first person) a bit off-putting. He is rather full of himself as only an expert in self deprecation can be. Perhaps it is just a bit too dated for me. So while the old fashioned writing style was manageable, I was a bit disappointed with the whole thing due to the annoyingly condescending attitudes displayed. It is high adventure in any case, complete with absurd situations and plenty of flirts with deus ex machina.