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

Black Powder War (Temeraire #3) – by Naomi Novik

Temeraire3BlackPowderWarAfter their adventures in China in Throne of Jade, Temeraire, Laurence and the rest of the crew receive orders to travel to Istambul in the Ottoman Empire. Here, they must retrieve three Turkish dragon eggs for further transport to England. Pressed for time, Laurence opts for the overland route through Asia, a long and arduous journey. Needless to say, once in Istambul circumstances have changed. And that is just the beginning of the troubles for our heroes.

While still not quite reaching the level of the first book, Black Powder War is still eminently readable and fun. At this point it seems the macropolitical developments in Europe starts to diverge more markedly from our history, with Temeraire and Laurence acting as agents for a change in social status of dragons in the West.

4Rosbochs

Throne of Jade (Temeraire II) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire2ThroneofJadeThe second book picks up immediately after the events of His Majesty’s Dragon. As it turns out, Temeraire’s egg, which Laurence and his crew captured on a French warship, was meant as a gift from China to Napoleon. Temeraire is a very rare Chinese breed, and now the Chinese want him back. Thus starts a long and arduous journey to Peking on a diplomatic mission to resolve the situation.

While not quite as good as the first book, the second installment keeps up the spirit of high adventure. Temeraire is fleshed out some more as a character, with some interesting influence from a Chinese society where Dragons are treated very differently compared to their situation in Europe.

4Rosbochs

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 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.

Saturn’s Race – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

As in so many of Niven’s later works, there is a great backstory, but the novel falls short of the mark. A large offshore colony is dabbling in genetic engineering. There is a great feeling of hope that mankind will have a bright future. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Not very good, but it has some cool ideas and settings.

Achilles’ Choice – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

In this novel, Olympic athletes are allowed to “enhance” their bodies, to the point that they will not survive more than a few years after the competition. Unless they win, that is, in which case they join the ruling council and are  “linked” to a neural interface that fixes the issue. Mildly entertaining.

The Dream Park Series – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

Consisting of:

  • Dream Park
  • The Barsoom Project
  • California Vodoo Game (sometimes published as “The California Vodoo Game”)

The novels are set in a theme park named “Dream Park”. Dream Park uses holograms and other methods to create completely lifelike environments for adventures. For example, one can become a group of medieval knights on a quest, and be totally immersed in the experience. The novels are very enjoyable, with some nice twists to the tale. It is also interesting to see how role playing as a sport evolves from the first to the last book.

 

 

Scatterbrain – Larry Niven

Well, he certainly is a scatterbrain, as he readily admits in the introduction. Although I feel that Niven’s writing has been in a steady decline for the past couple of decades, his short fiction and especially his articles are always great fun. Like N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind this is a mix of new and old short fiction, book excerpts and articles. Enjoyable reading for the Niven fan.

 

N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind – Larry Niven

If you’ve never read Larry Niven, these two collections are a great place to start. They are both a mix of essays, short fiction, and excerpts from novels. If you’ve already read practically all of Niven’s work, there is not a lot of new material, but the convention essays still make the books worth the read.

Destiny’s Road – Larry Niven

On a distant colony planet, a boy grows up wondering why the original colony ship departed many generations ago, at the same time scorching a road into the distance with its fusion drive. No knows where the road leads. The planet has a shortage of potassium and an upper class distributes what turns out to be potassium in exchange for their ruling status.

The ideas underlying the story are very clever. Unfortunately the story itself is confusing and hopelessly. I could barely finish the book. Given the neat premise, I wish Niven would have written an outline and contracted some other author to write the actual book.

Note: This is set in the same universe as The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children, but there is no connection between the stories beyond that.

Juggler of Worlds – Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

In this standalone sequel to Fleet of Worlds, ARM agent and professional paranoiac Sigmund Ausfaller is obsessed with the enigmatic Puppeteer race. The book follows his career from recruitment to ultimate savior. It is a long and complex tale that touches on many points and characters covered in Niven‘s Known Space stories from decades past.

Fleet of Worlds is a pretty decent book. More importantly, it really took me back to the Niven’s classic Known Space novels and short stories. Juggler of Worlds unfortunately does not live up to its prequel. The plot is razor thin. The objective seems mostly to fill in the gaps between various Beowulf Schaeffer stories. Cute for the Niven fan, but it falls wells short of what I expected.

Love the cover though.

Fleet of Worlds – Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

A new novel in the Known Space universe, “Fleet of Worlds” fills in some gaps in the story of the Puppeteers and the migration of their worlds (the “Fleet of Worlds”). It tells the previously unknown story of a society of humans living with the Puppeteers without knowledge of their heritage. The Puppeteers have some deep, dark secrets revealed. There are some excellent descriptions of Puppeteer society. We are also introduced to a younger Nessus, the Puppeteer featured in Ringworld.

It is a good story, and long awaited for any fan of Known Space. Unlike the third and fourth Ringworld novels, it really manages to capture the tone of the main Known Space novels. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the environment. Note, though, that you you will have a hard time following without at least having read Crashlander or Neutron Star (Crashlander reprints all the stories from Neutron Star).

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.

The Patchwork Girl – Larry Niven

This novel, illustrated in the original editions, features Gil “The Arm” Hamilton, the detective protagonist of the stories in Flatlander (most of which were published earlier in “The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton). A woman is accused of murder and Gil must clear her name before she is executed and ends up in the organ banks.

The novel is rather short but a solid story from Niven at the height of his powers. If you can get hold of one of the original editions, the illustrations are have a nice retro feel.

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.

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.

Ringworld’s Children – Larry Niven

In the fourth Ringworld novel, Louis Wu is, as usual, conscripted to do a powerful being’s bidding. In this case it is the Protector Tunesmith.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are some of the best hard SF books ever written. On the other hand, The Ringworld Throne was an enormous disappointment, and given that I expected to dislike this offering. I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are well defined as usual with Niven, and the story, while not too complex, runs along nicely.

The days of truly epic tales from Niven seem to be over. Nowadays, he writes little idea pieces like this one, or collaborates with other authors. If you enjoyed the first two Ringworld novels, you will like this one. However, I think it would be impossible to read without having first read the other ones, and probably some of the other Known Space stories.