The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

The Colour of Magic (Discworld I) – Terry Pratchett

On the Discworld, which is a disc-shaped world sat on four gargantuan elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a titanic turtle sculling through the cosmos, the failed magician Rincewind and the tourist Twoflower meet. Shenanigans ensue, some involving sapient luggage.

Mr. Pratchett’s first Discworld novel starts somewhat slowly, but builds a decent head of steam by the end. The plot is not much more than a series of humorous events connected by the desire to make stuff happen to the hapless Rincewind and the clueless Twoflower, and in some strange way it works.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

UprootedAgnieszka lives in small village in a pastoral valley, the setting of which is strongly rooted in Polish folklore. There is a deep, dark, sinister, magical wood which extends into the valley, and out of the wood come horrors unspeakable. Every ten years, the “Dragon”, who is actually a wizard and the feudal lord, picks a girl and takes her to his tower. No one in the valley really knows why. Against all expectations, Agnieszka is taken by the wizard, and against her own expectations the wizard trains her in the magic arts. She is a poor student until she discovers that her brand of magic is closely entwined with nature and the forest.

I had a hard time with the beginning of this book. While the characters and the story are well-rounded and interesting, I had the feeling that all the sinister and mysterious stuff was going to turn into a big anti-climax. Happily, I was wrong. As Agnieszka’s journey into magic and the mysteries of The Wood continues, the political and epic sides of the story start revealing themselves. And that’s where things become really interesting. The use of a strict first person viewpoint for the book is a good choice, as it allows the reader to grow his understanding of the world along with our heroine, as she journeys from her tiny village into the much more cynical larger world. Another interesting aspect is how Ms. Novik manages to describe magic in a way that effectively communicates difficulty, effort, setbacks and dangers without making the whole thing seem hopelessly corny.

4Rosbochs

The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2) – Patrick Rothfuss

TheKingKillerChronicle2TheWiseMansFearIn the second book of The Kingkiller Chronicle, the memoir of Kvothe continues. He studies at The University; he travels to distant lands to seek patronage, he meets with legendary beings, and he is trained in the martial arts. In the present time, however, odd things are happening.

While The Name of the Wind is a great book in its own right, in The Wise Man’s Fear it feels as if Mr. Rothfuss is truly spreading his wings. Threads and references thought lost and forgotten in the first book are brought back to light, re-examined, re-evaluated and given new interesting shades of meaning. The adventures of Kvothe are fascinating and thought-provoking, keeping the reader turning the page. And yet that reader is constantly left wondering what happened between then and now. The tension in the present is palpable in the brief interludes with Chronicler.

Mr. Rothfuss skillfully weaves themes surrounding the complicated relationships between legend and reality, truth and fiction, innermost desire and actual power. At just over 1000 pages, this is a long book, but just like the first one it has a terrific page-turning quality.

5Rosbochs

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

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

 

Jack of Shadows – Roger Zelazny

Fantasy/Science Fiction hybrid set on a world where one side always faces the sun and the other is always dark. The light side features science while the dark side is the realm of magic. Our hero Jack is a sort of spy/mythic hero and these are his adventures. Zelazny weirdness is all over the writing of this rather lighthearted tale.

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.

The Flying Sorcerers – David Gerrold & Larry Niven

Shoogar is the greatest wizard his primitive village has ever known. Then a strange new wizard literally drops from the sky. Of course, they new wizard comes from a very advanced culture. Mayhem ensues.

There is a lot of humor in this book as magic meets technology. There are also many more or less good puns. I enjoyed it but it is far from a must read. The joke gets a bit old.

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.