book review: rocannon’s world

Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.

What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.

Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).

The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.

book review: the farthest shore

The Farthest Shore is the conclusion to Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (which was added to later). Sparrowhawk/Ged is now the archmage and he’s approached by a young prince who says magic is weakening. The two of them go on a quest to discover the truth of what is happening and set it right.

I love these beautiful little books. I think there’s something magnificent about these worlds that are conjured through these character studies hanging on bits of plot. I mean, the Kingkiller chronicle is great, but this series scratches a similar itch for the epic grand coming-of-age story without the length. Like the epic nature of these tiny paperbacks is folded in on itself, they feel so much bigger because they’re the length of a Robert Jordan prologue. It’s just great, and if you have any interest in fantasy literature there is no reason to not read it.

book review: ten billion days and one hundred billion nights

It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.

At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.

book review: dragon castle

Dragon Castle is a YA fantasy novel about a boy in Slovakia who is the put-upon prince picking up after his foolish parents and brother all the time. It’s also the story of his ancestor, a hidden prince who plays the fool and defeats a dragon and thence the Dark Lord occupying and defiling his people’s homeland. These two stories are told in parallel (until the contemporary prince starts reading the story about halfway through, which makes for annoying in character motivation for jumping to the legend from thence forward).

If you like fantasy novels, this one is very well crafted. I think the best part of how it works is by making the viewpoint character a worried smart sort who sees his family doing foolish things that work. As readers we can see that the fools might not be so foolish as they seem, but it’s also perfectly understandable that Rashkol would find them infuriating. By the end, when it all comes together (in a nice big fight with magical weapons and yes a dragon) you really get the sense that this story could have been told entirely differently and it would have been just as good.

It’s not quite as amazing as The Hero and the Crown, but it’s in a similar ballpark. I really liked it and it’ll be my go-to fantasy novel recommendation for a while.

book review: redwall

Brian Jacques died earlier this year and in the hubbub surrounding it I realized I’d never read any of the Redwall books. I’d recommended them tonnes, but never actually read them. I realize now that I’d thought there was an actual connection between Redwall and the Mouse Guard comic/RPG. There isn’t.

Redwall is about Matthias wanting to be a warrior while a terrible rat horde comes to attack the Abbey of Redwall, where the mice peacefully heal all the woodland creatures. Matthias has it in his head that he needs to get Martin the Warrior’s sword for some reason to defeat this horde. The rest of the animals don’t think this is a stupid idea. And in the end it’s just a sword. I mean, the point of him going off and solving all these riddles was to get a sword that yes he can cut rats in half with, but all he really needed was his confidence or whatever. Through the whole book he’s such a child of privilege it’s not even funny. Everyone just loves him and he makes friends with everyone.

The other thing I wasn’t a fan of was how easily the peaceful abbey of Redwall went to a war footing and how no one tried to talk Matthias out of following a warrior path. It was all very positive on the “violence as a way of life if it’s done with honour” shtick without any questioning of it. There’s just all this casual murdering that goes on that’s justified because of the uber-simplistic “they were evil” excuse. Bah.

Also, from this book I have no idea about the scale of anything in the world of Redwall. When they talk about a chair, that’s a mouse-sized chair, right, and a barn is a human-sized barn? But when the mice go fishing did they catch a fish that was ten times the size of a mouse, or one that could fit in a mouse’s hand? And how do the birds carry things when they walk around? It took me out of the story, worrying about these logistics, especially since they seemed very inconsistent.

Still, not a bad adventure story. Just the kind of thing that probably works a lot better for a younger audience (or one that has nostalgic memories of it).

book review: eragon

And we hit the first book for my SFF course that I really didn’t like. At all. I know Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon when he was fifteen so he can’t really be held up to real standards, but the cliched long-winded drivel that made up the novel set my teeth on edge.

The plot is about a farm-boy in a generic quasi-medieval Europe world who discovers a polished rock that turns out to be a dragon egg. He bonds with the dragon that hatches and then his family is killed and he sets out for vengeance with the old storyteller Brom, who just might be more than he appears. He learns to use magic and he has more power than anyone ever. He also becomes a master swordsman in six months of travelling. He also learns to read. There’s a lot of escaping from the evil Empire, and the book culminates in the battle for a Helm’s Deep clone that’s an undermountain city with plenty of room for his dragon to fly around in.

Characters don’t behave like people, but like fantasy novel automatons. There are some good visuals but they’re amateurish and generic. It’s impressive that a teenager wrote it, but just for the fact of sticking to a thing and finishing it, not for anything it makes you think.

I suppose it’s an okay starter fantasy book for kids. I mean, it’s probably not that much worse than the Dragonlance novels I used to read. But it wouldn’t be my first choice recommendation.

book review: ready player one

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.

The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)

Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.

So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).

As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.