Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

SlowBulletsIn the final days of a devastating war, the conscript soldier Scur is captured and tortured for sport by a war criminal. She is left for dead but manages to survive. She is on her way home, in hibernation on a starship, but on awakening discovers that the ship is malfunctioning and in orbit around an unknown planet. It turns out that thousands of years have passed and human civilization has fallen. On the ship, factions of “dregs”, criminals and misfits from the war, must now make peace.

A dark, melancholy tone pervades this novelette. It is soon clear that Scur is writing down for posterity her memoirs of the difficult time that defined her life. While hope remains, indeed must prevail, she knows that she will not see the dreams of her band come to fruition in her lifetime. More interesting is the fact that those who remain are the outcasts and misfits; those that the rest of civilization wanted out of sight. As so often with Mr. Reynolds, the vastness and frightening nature of the Universe makes the reader feel small and frightened. By gradually unfolding the story through the memory of Scur, the scary truth is only slowly revealed, but the fact that it is a scary truth is always hinted at.

Full disclosure: My copy was kindly provided by Tachyon Publications.

4Rosbochs

Strands of Sorrow (Black Tide Rising IV) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising4StrandsofSorrowThe fourth and last book in Black Tide Rising sees the beginning of major zombie clearance on the US mainland, with the retaking of some large coastal bases, and planning for the re-establishment of proper civilization beyond survival. Given the clearance of the bases, more and more surviving higher officers start to appear, some of whom are unable to adapt to the “new military”.

Throughout the series, Ringo has approached the zombie problem from a logical perspective. Once the survivors have gotten through the initial collapse of society and achieved a modicum of organization, ridding the world of all those zombies becomes a logistical issue. While the discussions on said logistics are interesting per se, they do not an action novel make. Furthermore, given that what action is now relatively safe for our heroes, there is not a huge amount of tension. Mr. Ringo is as always a very funny author so the novel is still a page turner, but sadly the subject matter and the way it is treated makes this one less engaging than most of his works. The novel also verges further into “preachy” about the military and the right wing than even the author’s usual, and that part got old fast.

3Rosbochs

 

Insurgent (Divergent II) – Veronica Roth

Divergent2InsurgentImmediately following the events in Divergent, Tris and Four escape the city to the Amity compound. However they must soon return in order to deal with the Erudite threat. The faction system is broken beyond repair, but what will come after?

After the promising start with Divergent, this book was a serious disappointment. The conceptual simplicity that worked in the first book turns against itself as the story becomes more complex. The many twists and turns seem put in there to create events for their own sake, without a clear direction to the story. While the parts where Tris has to confront her own fate are still gripping, they are lost in the white noise of a confused plot. It felt as if I was reading a badly written action TV series episode. Just as in Divergent, there are interesting themes of social structure and change in this book, but they too are lost in the noise.

On a side note, I was continually irritated at the slapdash way in which guns and tactics are portrayed. I’m not expecting Ms. Roth to be an expert on weaponry, but a little research would have gone a long way. Even a beta reader with a modicum of knowledge could have polished those bits and explained what words like bullet, clip and chamber actually mean. I also felt that a faction like Dauntless could perhaps be expected to have better tactics than a bunch of eight-year-olds attacking a tree fort.

2½Rosbochs

Divergent (Divergent I) – Veronica Roth

Divergent1DivergentIn a post-apocalyptic Chicago, humans are divided into five factions. Amity grows crops and pursues simple happiness and friendship. Candor resolves disputes and pursues honesty. Abnegation helps people, rules without seeking power, and pursues selflessness. Erudite pursues knowledge. Dauntless defends the city, keeps order and pursues bravery. Many have no faction, and are second class citizens. When a faction member turns sixteen he or she must choose a faction, with an aptitude test for guidance. Most stay with their own faction, but some transfer. Beatrice is a young Abnegation. After her test results show her to be Divergent, that is not showing aptitude for any faction and rather too independent-minded for her own good, she chooses Dauntless. Most of the book is about her initiation into Dauntless, on the surface a half-mad group of daredevils who believe in bravery before anything. But trouble is brewing among the factions. While the faction system has kept the peace for generations, tensions have inevitably grown, and are about to release.

Fair warning. This is young adult fiction and you have to squint quite a bit to see past the logic holes of the faction system (who keeps those trains running?) but Ms. Roth does not invite us to peer too deeply into the inner workings. In any case that would be missing the point, which is to delve into how humans cannot be so deeply constrained by a society. Who can say at sixteen what he will choose as a lifestyle and vocation for the rest of his life? The background of the factions, and especially of a new faction from the protagonist’s point of view, illustrate how difficult growing up can be if you don’t fit it.

Tris as a young protagonist is rather classic. A girl who finds her inner bravery. However the way she is written in the first person present is excellent, especially the moments of deep terror and fear. Ms. Roth has infused Beatrice with tangible and realistic personal growth.

While it rather light reading, I quite enjoyed this novel.

4Rosbochs

On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children II) – Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildren2OntheSteelBreezeAfter the events in Blue Remembered Earth, the stars are open to humanity. The mysterious alien artifact Mandala, on the planet Crucible twenty-eight light years away, becomes the destination for a swarm of huge spaceships constructed from hollowed-out asteroids. Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the protagonists of the first book. She has undergone an unusual procedure, creating two clones of herself and implanting neural machines that synchronize memories. Chiku is three individuals, but also one through the shared memories. One copy, known as Chiku Red, departs to recover great-grandmother’s lost spaceship, fast leaving the vicinity of the Solar System. Another, Chiku Green, joins the asteroid ship exodus on its way to Crucible. The last, Chiku Yellow, remains on Earth. The latter two are the main protagonists. As the distance between Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow increases, so does the communication lag, and the story jumps decades forward in time to keep the rhythm, skipping seamlessly between the two to emulate their shared memories.

Even more than in the first book, the main theme is about the nature of intelligence. Can machine and organic intelligences co-exist? Another major theme is the nature of aging. As life extension is more and more perfected, senescence becomes a rare thing, to the point the withholding of anti-aging procedures is used as a punishment for one of the characters. How does this affect humans?

Unfortunately, this installment suffers from the same issues as the first book. The book seems overlong and the pace is ponderous. The story itself is not very powerful, serving more as a backdrop to a philosophical discussion.

3½Rosbochs

Islands of Rage and Hope (Black Tide Rising III) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising3IslandsofRageandHopeAfter consolidating through the North Atlantic hurricane season, Wolf Squadron moves on to capture Guantanamo Bay and liberate the Marines trapped there. Our heroes then mow through a few Caribbean islands in search of vaccine production materials, a quest which eventually leads them to an unlikely place.

New Marines means Shewolf has to convince new people that her way is the correct way. Unsurprisingly, taking orders from a thirteen year old Second Lieutenant is hard for those who have not seen her in action. Unfortunately, interpersonal issues, and the organizational tangles stemming from them, take up too large a portion of the book. There are some very interesting discussions on leadership but they too often take the form of infodumps from senior officers, who always seem to have more knowledge than any average person. Having said that, this is Ringo and as usual with him the novel is a page turner, especially the last third where the action really picks up. The humor, also as usual with Ringo, is dry and hilarious.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Quantum Thief (Jean Le Flambeur I) – Hannu Rajaniemi

TheQuantumThiefNotorious thief Jean de Flambeur is broken out of prison by someone who wants to hire him. It is the future and everything is desperately cool with awesomely cool monikers.

I didn’t get very far in this one. It is hopelessly mired in cool-sounding invented words and concepts, to the point of being almost impenetrable. Mr. Rajaniemi is undoubtedly a gifted writer and there might have been a good story somewhere in this novel, but unfortunately the “cool prose” made me want to hurl my ereader into the wall.

1½Rosbochs

 

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 Six Directions of Space – Alastair Reynolds

TheSixDirectionsofSpaceIt is one thousand years since the founding of the Mongol Empire, and it now spans both the Earth and a vast galactic empire. A secret agent is sent to a remote sector to investigate problems with the interstellar transit system used by humanity; a system left behind by an ancient race.

The setting is interesting and the twist is well executed. An entertaining novella.

3Rosbochs

The Tuloriad – John Ringo & Tom Kratman

TheTuloriadAfter the Posleen War ends, a small band of Posleen is smuggled off Earth in secret to start their civilization anew. They start on a sort of quest to find a home. At the same time, elements of humanity led by the Catholic Church aim to bring religion to these Posleen, saving their souls and making allies of them.

If you liked the other Posleen books, you will probably enjoy read this one. It doesn’t have much value if you haven’t read them, especially Yellow Eyes. It is reasonably good fun but there are no massive stakes. In some ways it is a setup for the Hedren War. The discussions on the role of religion are reasonably interesting, and superficially contrarian for a science fiction book.

2½Rosbochs

Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children I) – by Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildrenIBlueRememberedEarthThe story is set in the second half of the 23rd Century. Mankind has colonized Mars and the Moon, and has expanded industrial concerns into Trans-Neptunian space. Earth, long ravaged by climate change and pollution, is slowly recovering. In most of human society, the “Mechanism”, a sort  of benevolent big brother, and compulsory neural implants have practically eradicated violence and crime. Robots and proxies (advanced telepresence), are everywhere. The Akinya family from Tanzania has been instrumental in the expansion into space, or more accurately the family matriarch, Eunice Akinya, a legendary deep space explorer and pioneer industrialist. As the book starts, Eunice has just died. For the last sixty of her one hundred and sixty years, she has been living in enigmatic isolation in the Winter Palace, a habitat orbiting the Moon. As the family gathers to scatter her ashes, a loose end appears. A previously unknown safe deposit rental on the Moon. Geoffrey Akinya, one of Eunice’s grandchildren, is reluctantly roped into retrieving the contents. What he finds will start him and his sister Sunday off on a treasure hunt to the remote wilderness of the Moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

The concept of making the African continent prominent is an interesting one. Today, the common western view of Africa is that of a lost continent continually ravaged by poverty, war and disease. In this book, Africa has become a center of high civilization, and Swahili is one of the lingua francas of humanity. The setting is intricately designed, with robots, proxies and neural interfaces prevalent. This brings about some interesting aspects of the “what is consciousness” discussion, as advanced autonomous machine intelligences are one of the potential futures envisaged. On the other hand, the group known as the “Pans” sees evolution of humans themselves as the way forward, in order to avoid humans becoming sessile with proxies doing the exploration and the discovery.

The story itself is not the strongest part of this book. It is adequate enough though, and the characters follow its meanderings more as a way to explore the nature of humanity and consciousness than to actually get to the payoff at the end.

This is a long book, and while I don’t mind per se, it is rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds writes with a smooth and easily read style but I still think the book could have been shorter. The protagonist Geoffrey is rather interesting; initially an unwilling actor in events who is slowly drawn in until he drives them.

3½Rosbochs

To Sail a Darkling Sea (Black Tide Rising II) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIIToSailaDarklingSeaBook two of Black Tide Rising picks up shortly after Under a Graveyard Sky. Wolf Squadron is now well on its way to being a reasonably organized naval military force. Faith “Shewolf” Smith is a legend after initial difficult zombie clearance actions, and her sister Sophia “Seawolf” Smith is not far behind as a boat captain. The story is fairly straight forward and mainly deals with the growing pains of squadron, the formalization of military command over it, and the introduction of new characters.

Unlike the first book, there is no backs-to-the-wall-with-everything-on-the-line combat, nor is the survival of most of the characters really in question. A setup book necessary for the continuation of the series. Having said that, Mr. Ringo’s trademark humor, his lively characters and his knack for snappy dialogue make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I also loved the emerging anti-zombie mechanical devices.

4Rosbochs

Under a Graveyard Sky (Black Tide Rising I) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIUnderAGraveyardSkySteve Smith is not a survivalist in the “nutter” sense of the word. He is a former special forces soldier who takes what most would consider excessive precautions against various “end of the world” scenarios. His teenage daughters are well versed in weapons usage and know how to pack for the apocalypse. When Steve’s brother Tom sends him a coded message that the zombie apocalypse is coming (yes really!), he sets in motion a well-prepared plan to get his family out of harm’s way. Zombie apocalypse wasn’t one of the more likely scenarios, but he can deal. His thirteen year old daughter Faith is reasonably happy though. She has always dreamed of a chance to kill zombies.

This is an unusual zombie novel since Mr. Ringo has actually taken the time to make the zombie trope somewhat, and I use the word loosely, realistic. Your classic zombie might as well be a magical being. No matter how much zombie-ism is made out as a disease, zombies would still need to get energy from somewhere, and evacuate waste. “Normal” zombies don’t poop. Mr. Ringo neatly solves the evacuation issue by having the tailored zombie virus induce a very strong itching feeling when it strikes, giving the afflicted an uncontrollable urge to strip just before they go on the more traditional murdering cannibalistic rampage.

As usual with Mr. Ringo, the novel oozes dry humor. Some of the one liners felled in the middle of zombie killing action are laugh out loud funny, and the whole thing is extremely entertaining despite the subject matter. The “Last Concert in New York” scene is particularly quirky and absurd. I look forward to coming installments.

4Rosbochs

Bonk – The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

BonkThis non-fiction book describes and explores “sex science” in a way that the layman can understand. Ms. Roach has performed extensive research, traveling around the world and around the US Patent Office website among other places. In a frank but very amusing style peppered with the driest of irony, she goes through everything from sex therapy in antiquity to sex machines for therapy and research, to genital implants.

Despite sometimes cringing at the descriptions of surgeries and other things in intimate regions, I found this a fascinating read. Ms. Roach can probably make any subject fun, and when combined with the somewhat taboo aspect, her writing makes for compelling reading.

If I had one gripe, it was that while all individual chapters were interesting, by about two-thirds of the way through I was losing interest. I guess there’s only so much sex science I can take.

4Rosbochs

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

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.

We Few (Empire of Man IV) – David Weber & John Ringo

The final book in the Empire of Man series has the ever smaller band finally getting off the planet Marduk. But their problems aren’t over. The Empire is in the hands of traitors who claim that Prince Roger is the real traitor. The bad buys also hold Roger’s mother, the Empress, under psychological control. This one is a departure for the series, with space battles and high level political intrigue. While still a cracking read, it suffers from Weber’s datadump writing at times. The action will stop and one is subjected to two or three pages of long-winded explanation about some pet political or tactical point. Having said that, if you liked the first three books, you will enjoy this one just fine.

March to the Sea (Empire of Man II) – David Weber & John Ringo

The second installment of the Empire of Man series starts slow but gets much better towards the end. Weber’s obsessive verboseness unfortunately shows up here and there. Real people just don’t talk like that. There is lots of enjoyable discussion about weapons development, although a couple of drawings would have been nice for us mere mortals.

Note: This series is also known as the Prince Roger Series or the March Upcountry series.

March Upcountry (Empire of Man I) – David Weber & John Ringo

In the first book of the Empire of Man series, Crown Prince Roger is a spoiled, annoying brat. When his ship is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness on a backwater planet, he is forced to rough it towards civilization with a company of Marines from the Imperial Guard. Very enjoyable military science fiction.

Note: This series is also known as the Prince Roger Series or simply the March Upcountry series.

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.

The Prophet Muhammad – Barnaby Rogerson

A biography of Muhammad. I should qualify that: A rather short and basic biography of Muhammad. Since I knew next to nothing of the man or the birth of Islam, this served as a good primer. Rogerson has been a guide in the Middle East for over two decades, and it shows in his writing. Lots of details of places, just like a guided tour. However, it is not terribly engaging reading once you get past the places to descriptions of people and events. Rogerson treats the issue of mystical revelation rather well, without judgement. He simply describes Muhammad as having visions. He focuses more on Muhammad’s reactions to the visions that on the visions themselves.