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Book review: The Blade Itself


The book this time around is The Blade Itself, a traditional fantasy story that makes up the first part of “The First Law” trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.

The world shown in this book is a very traditional fantasy setting with swords and (some) sorcery, although magic has faded away over the years to where most people remember it only as a fairytale told to children.  The story revolves around a number of different people, but the primary character is a man named Logan Ninefingers, a battle-hardened mercenary from the northern lands with a brutal and bloody past.  He becomes separated from the rest of his band of fellow mercenaries and journeys alone to the south where he eventually meets a man named Bayaz, the First of the Magi and the most powerful wielder of magic alive on the planet.  Travelling together they head for the grand city of Adua, which becomes the focus for the rest of the story, and the gathering point for most of the other characters.

There’s also a man named Sand Dan Glokta, a former golden boy of the military, one of the nobility’s best fencers and destined for greatness.  Until the enemy captured him during the last war and spent the next 2 years torturing him and turning him into a broken, bitter shell of a man.  Nowadays he works as one of the more effective members of the inquisition, squeezing information out of criminals and wrongdoers, making them confess their crimes (depending on the wishes of the head of said inquisition).  He’s become a very bitter man over the years, lost both his friends and family, and the only solace left to him is the idea of revenge on those that have wronged him over the years.

There are more characters than these which the story follows, but these two end up standing out the most in this book.  The story is fairly standard, a large expansive kingdom satiated on wealth and other expensive indulgences, a neighbouring country beginning the stirrings of a long war, an old empire defeated long ago, looking for the chance to strike back and a mysterious and terrifying group of magic users with unknown motivations.  Like I said, fairly standard stuff, but it’s just written so damn well that you never notice.  And although Magic is rarely seen in this world, when but it is used the scenes are so well-written that you’re left in awe.

I can’t help but draw comparisons with the Liveship Traders series, the other traditional fantasy series I started to read earlier this year.  While the Liveship Traders series had an incredibly imaginative and original world setting with somewhat flat characters this was pretty much the opposite.  The world itself was interesting enough, but it fell firmly into the “generic fantasy” setting.  The characters on the other hand practically jumped out of the pages.  Considering that there were so many of them I’m amazed at how well this was done.  One character (and his 5 companions) only appeared in 3 chapters, yet even then you can tell that a lot of work’s been put into them.  Certainly, the world as a whole may feel fairly generic, but then how many other great fantasy books differ from this formula? Another reason which strikes me when comparing this to the Liveship Traders is that the first Book, The Ship of Magic, took over 400 pages to set up the story before finally starting up.  The Blade Itself though, hits the ground running, before gradually slowing to a gentle jog as the scene is set for the rest of the trilogy. It’s arguable which of this is better, but this time around I preferred this far more. Looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy once the year is out.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Book review: Cryptonomicon


I finished reading this back in July, but if the other posts here are any indication I’m not in the habit of writing things up as soon as I should. The book this time around is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, a book that tells a story spread across 2 different time periods.

Cryptomicon hardback cover

The first story begins with the Allied forces as world war 2 begins and follows the efforts to break the cryptographic codes used by the Axis.  The other story begins in the modern-day and follows a tech start-up company in the Philippines as they work to make a secure data storage facility designed for privately and securely storing data for companies the world over.  They may seem like pretty different stories to begin with, but the underlying theme of cryptography is tied together very well and by the end of it you’ll have a fair knowledge of the historical concepts of cryptography as well as how it’s used in the modern world.  As you can tell it’s a fairly techy novel, but as with a lot of techno-thrillers you can just turn your brain off and take things as given.  Unlike some techno-thrillers though, everything here is based in reality.  The only things they change about the technology is a couple of ciphers here and there and the names given to some technology, everything else is completely plausible.

Being a bit of a fan of cryptography I was initially more interested in the WW2 storyline, learning about the techniques used to generate data as randomly as possible to help create uncrackable codes.  Even more interesting was the manoeuvring that was done to prevent the enemy from discovering that someone had cracked their codes and thwarting them by simply creating a new set.  The modern-day storyline starts off pretty slow, only getting a glimpse of story every 3 or 4 chapters. It slowly ramped up throughout the book, transforming into the main story while world war 2 sits at the back and helps set the scene.  It begins as a story about a technology start-up in the Philippines but later evolves into a hunt for a large amount of gold that came into the area during WW2.  It may sound like a strange transition, but it does make sense in the context of the story.

As it’s a book by Neal Stephenson there were plenty of times when a completely unrelated story popped up every now and again, written in great detail and feeling like the author put a huge amount of research into it. No matter what the topic you couldn’t help but be pulled in and enthralled by these topics, whether it was a treatise on the origins of the Sumerian language in Snow Crash, a lecture on Great Circles and flight paths in Reamde, or in Cryptonomicon’s case, an essay on the fetishism of shaving as a privilege exclusive to white men (you can find your own link for that one).  Despite often having nothing to do with the story, they always end up being an absolutely fascinating read and usually written so well into the main story that they never felt too out-of-place (the exception being Snow Crash, which while still interesting felt like poorly placed plot dumps).

Thinking back on it, my only complaint with the book is with the finale of the modern-day story, which suddenly changes tact and ends in an action scene.  In the WW2 story it may have made sense, but going from businessmen and programmers to guns and shootouts didn’t mesh quite as well.

Overall I absolutely loved this book during both storylines, and I’m just glad I didn’t give up on Stephenson after being so disappointed by Snow Crash.  I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it, but I already have book 1 of The Mongoliad sitting on my Kindle, and I’m definitely going to be checking out Anathem and The Baroque Cycle trilogy at some point in the future too.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Review: Speaker for the Dead


I was told before going in that the rest of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is massively different compared to the original Ender’s Game novel.  I was also told that it shouldn’t affect my enjoyment of the series one bit.  They were right on both counts.  Ender’s Game was a story about a young teenager being sent away to military school to train him to fight against an alien race known as “buggers” who seemed set on annihilating the human race.  Speaker for the Dead (and the following book, Xenocide) is about attempting to understand and live in harmony with other alien races.  It helps to know that Ender’s Game was rewritten from a short story for the sole purpose of leading in to Speaker for the Dead, but the transition is handled remarkably well.

The main focus is around a newly discovered alien race known as Pequeninos (or “Piggies” for short) due to their somewhat swine-like appearance.  People only ever see the males of the species, yet they all talk about their wives and mothers in (usually) respectful tones.  You never see a father or a child, yet they’re also often talked about in very fond tones.  They live on a planet with remarkably few species due to a deadly mutating virus that they are somehow unaffected by.  Oh, and those they have love the most, they kill in an incredibly brutal fashion.

The one thing that amazed me the most is just completely alien the Piggies feel.  Sure, different alien species are dime a dozen in the Sci-Fi genre, but it’s rare you get a story that delves so deeply into developing such a rich species that it tries to help you understand.  The best part is, it all fits together by the end of it too. The following book, Xenocide (which is the last book of the series that I’ve read so far), continues this theme and starts expanding out into detailing the races that have appeared in the earlier books.  This is where things start to get a bit iffy…

Ender’s Game tells a story of survival by wiping out an entire alien species, something which Ender feels incredible remorse for.  Speaker for the Dead tells a story of understanding those who seem so incredibly different to you, acknowledging and accepting these differences as part of what they are.  Xenocide also tells the tale of survival and goes into some very heady directions in terms of the sci-fi, but I was somewhat distracted by how they were also converting the Piggies to Catholicism.  Stranger still, in Speaker for the Dead, Ender reacts angrily when others talk about how they could change something about how the Piggies live, arguing that it’s part of what makes them “them” and how dare they try to change them for what they think is “better”.  Then in Xenocide they are talk about marrying the Piggies before they can breed and baptising the young, which all makes no sense once you understand the complex lives of the Piggies.  Even the Piggies attitudes seemed to have changed dramatically, going from treating the bible as only good for wrapping food to the one of the most highly honoured text among the entire species.  I’m not sure where this drastic change came from, but the jarring change was a little uncomfortable.  It’s like the books are asking for tolerance, understanding and accepting the differences of others with one hand, then trying to make them more “normal” with the other.  This is made far worse when you learn about the strong homophobic views held by the author, which while it didn’t affect my opinions of the first two books certainly reared its head for the third.  I’m not sure if his views became more pronounced around the same time as Xenocide was published, but it certainly at this point that I started to dwell on it more.

Overall, I can highly recommend both Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead to everyone, in fact I’d go as far to say they’re must reads for anyone who’s even vaguely interested in the sort of conflicts that arise between dissimilar people, even if you’re not a science-fiction fan as a rule.  Xenocide though… You’ll probably be fine to skip that one, unless you were already hooked into the series like I was.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Review: Ship of Magic (Book 1 of the Liveship Traders trilogy)


I haven’t had as much time to read recently, so I’m falling a bit behind with my reading challenge and writing up book reviews (I’m hoping to get reviews for both Cryptonomicon and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? written up soon).  But just a few weeks ago I started a new job, which means a longer commute on the train and a lot more time to catch up.  In the past month I’ve already ploughed through several of the works of Philip K Dick, and read through Ship of Magic, the first book in the Liveship Traders series from the renowned author Robin Hobb.

This trilogy takes place in the same world as most of Robin Hobbs’ other works, and while I haven’t read of those works I really like the idea of a long series of books slowing building up a view of the world piece by piece without you having to have read them in a specific order.  The setting of this particular series is along the coast of the main continent in the south of this world, an area filled with islands and small port towns.  As you might imagine, the book has a very nautical theme, with a heavy emphasis on life on-board ships and the trials they overcome while sailing, ranging from simple pirates to deadly sea serpents.  Personally, I can’t recall any other fantasy series that focuses on this sort of setting, the closest I can think of is The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, but despite the name relatively little of the story is spent on-board the ship.  Perhaps Voyage of the Dawn Treader too, but again that’s not focused too heavily on ship life.  Another interesting idea is the Liveships themselves, ships carved out rare wizardwood, sturdier and more swift than any ship built out of more mundane materials.  These ships are tied to the old trader families, with members of  their bloodline able to form close bonds with it.  After 3 generations of captains living and dying aboard them, the ship itself “quickens”, coming to life and carrying the knowledge and experiences of the previous captains within.  At this point the ships far surpass the capabilities of any other sailing vessel, able to handle the most dangerous waters with ease and helping to soon pay off the many years of a debt that a family must accept to own such a thing.

There are several different plots running through this book, with all but 1 very closely tied together.  The main focus is on the Vestrit family, the owners of the Liveship Vivacia which is ready to quicken as the life of her 3rd captain draws to an end.  This plot features the conflicts between the daughter of the dying captain, a young woman by the Althea, and the new captain, a man named Kyle Haven who captains the ship after marrying into the family.  Being a foreigner who remains blissfully ignorant (and very dismissive) of the ways of the old trader families, he tends to be at odds with Althea every time they meet.  Meanwhile an infamous pirate known as Captain Kemmit is trying to realise his dream of uniting the pirate isles into a kingdom under the watchful eye of a single man, Kemmit himself.  While he seems to have a lot of skills necessary to pull this off his main skill is his astounding luck.  I’ve never before read a story where a character is as incredibly jammy as Captain Kemmit.  If his good luck wasn’t explicitly mentioned (and hopefully explained more later) I would have called shenanigans  on just how damn lucky he is throughout this book.  There’s also young Wintrow, the son of the new captain who was training to become a priest until he’s called home when the former captain is on his deathbed.  He’s easily the most tortured character of the book and you can’t help but feel sorry for him for all the crap that gets thrown his way.  After a certain point you almost start to think that the author may be a little vindictive.

The story itself is pretty interesting and very well written, but it takes far, far too long to get going.  Nearly half the book is spent setting up the story, and with an 800+ page book that’s not a light amount to get through.  Once you get past the halfway point though, the rest of the book shines with wonderfully vivid descriptions of the characters running the ship and their stopovers in port.  Some of the twists I really didn’t see coming, and you really feel for how much suffering some of the characters go through.  If there’s one thing it’s how one-dimensional the personalities of the main characters are.  The arrogant captain is always arrogant, the impulsive, hot-headed former captain’s daughter is always impulsive and hot-headed, the bratty, annoying little girl who wants to grow up too quickly is always bratty and annoying, etc.  Granted it usually takes more than the first book in a trilogy for characters to grow and evolve, but it would be nice if they started off with more than one facet to their personality in the beginning.

Overall I enjoyed this book.  The characters are a little on the bland side, but the setting is so well-crafted that I didn’t mind it so much.  Unlike the other series that I’ve read this year (namely Skulduggery Pleasant and The Golden Compass) I didn’t feel that urge to go straight into the next book to continue the story.  I’ll check them out some day, but for now I’m not in any rush.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Review: The Dresden Files (Storm Front)


I’m not sure how I managed to go so long before discovering the Dresden Files series.  The series has run for about 12 years so far, composed of 13 novels and 2 short story collections and even had a short-lived TV series on Sci-Fi/SyFy.  Yet somehow the first I heard of it was about 3 years ago through the blog of one my favourite authors, Patrick Rothfuss.  Since then I’ve heard about it everywhere, like a word you’ve never heard before then everyone else seems to say it all the time.  From the many times its come up on my favourite book club podcast, authors blogs and my friends who are a little more clued in than me, it seemed pretty obvious that this was one to look out for.

The Dresden Files is a fantasy/mystery series set in modern-day Chicago and follows the investigations of a wizard named Harry Dresden who spends his days working as a detective, occasionally doing some consulting for the local police force.  It seems that a major side effect of being a wizard is that technology starts to fall apart when he gets too close, whether it’s a fancy mobile phone, a car, or even a simple gun.  Between this and the inhabitants of Chicago not being too confident about hiring a “wizard” to help them out he’s forever struggling to make ends meet, giving the series the feel of a 1930s hardboiled detective novel, which I just so happen to be a casual fan of.

The series starts with the unfortunately named Storm Front (sharing a name with a white supremacist neo-Nazi group is rarely a good thing).  I started reading this one partway through The Amber Spyglass, after thinking that the way Lyra’s dream sequence just cuts out at the end of the first chapter was a result of a badly assembled eBook, rather than artistic style.  It wasn’t too long, so I expected it would take me maybe a week or so of bus journeys to/from work to finish up.  Instead it took 3 days of reading it every chance I could bring it up on my phone or Kindle, whether it was waiting for the bus, standing in the queue at the chip shop, or missing the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Harry Dresden doesn’t seem to been cast the best lot in life, as the book reveals early on. Trained in the ways of magic by a fairly unscrupulous teacher who he kills in self-defence when he refuses to become involved with the dark arts he finds himself blacklisted by the higher-ups of the wizarding community. Even worse, the warden assigned to keep an eye on him is particularly zealous, ready to execute him at the slightest sign of him breaking any of the rules governing the use of magic.

Back in the present day, the police have a new case for Harry Dresden, investigating a particularly gruesome killings performed using dark magic. Unfortunately, this case seems to have drawn a lot of attention from other less-reputable members of society, leading him on a merry chase involving vampires, crime lords and even the odd demon. Worse still, his ever-likable warden suspects that Dresden himself is responsible for the killings, and is eager to have him put on trial and executed for his crimes. On top of all this the police don’t pay in advance, and Harry’s already overdue on next month’s rent. Luckily he does have one client who’s willing to pay in advance, but trying to find the time to help her out on top of everything else proves a little tricky.

As you can gather from my quick summary, this book’s pretty damn packed. There’s not a single chapter in which didn’t have me glued to the pages and desperate to find out what happened next.  You’d worry that a wizard might have an unfair advantage over many people, but as it turns out that’s not really the case unless you’ve had enough time and resources to prepare. Trying to wave your arms around and mutter some half-remembered words of power doesn’t really have the same effect when someone’s repeatedly hitting you over the head with a baseball bat. The author, Jim Butcher, manages to take things such as magic, demons and vampires and merge them in such a way that it doesn’t really feel out-of-place in the otherwise regular, mundane world.  It’s also worth noting that the audiobooks are read by James Marsters of Buffy and Angel fame, and that’s pretty damn awesome.

The only thing stopping me from reading the rest of this series immediately is that we’re already approaching the end of May, yet this is only the 3rd of the 12 books I decided I’d read this year, and most of those are pretty hefty reads. Once I’m back on track with them, I’ll be coming right back to find out what happens next.

 
 

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Review: The Golden Compass and the “His Dark Materials” trilogy


The “His Dark Materials” trilogy has been hanging around on my radar since my younger brother read them about 10 years back.  Then again when mum read them a year later.  Then yet again last year when they came up in conversation with my fiancée.  Every single time they were amazed that I’d never read them before, insisting that it was an absolute must-read for fantasy fans.  So I figured its about time to check them out.

My original plan was just to read the first book for now, but as with Skulduggery Pleasant I got hooked into the series and went straight into the rest of trilogy.  Unlike skulduggery pleasant though, I found these to be a much slower read, but not necessarily in a bad way.  But anyway, the review.

The first book in the trilogy is called The Golden Compass (or “The Northern Lights” depending on where you live) and is set in a world similar to our own during the late 19th century.  Since it is a fantasy story after all there’s a few pretty big differences, the main one being that everyone has their own daemon, which is an external manifestation of their soul that travels with them wherever they go.  The first book doesn’t go into too much depth into what these daemons are and what other differences exist, instead letting you figure these things out yourself based on the little things that happen throughout the story.  I personally found this annoying at first because I wanted to know more about the lore of the world , but in retrospect this was done pretty damn well (I’ll explain why shortly).  The story of this book tells the tale of a young girl named Lyra, living out her youth in the city of Oxford by playing at wars with the other local children and generally milling around having fun.  Until a mysterious group appears in town and children start disappearing, including her friend Roger, starting her off on a grand journey to the north to find and rescue him.  It all sounds a bit too kiddy at first, but the story slowly takes a much more mature turn as you make your way through the series, ultimately becoming an all-out war against the forces of what’s pretty much the entire Christian pantheon.

***Spoiler Warning***

The high point of the series for me though was in the first book.  I was reading through it fairly slowly, not thinking it really deserved all the hype and praise it got until I reached a certain scene about halfway through.  Lyra’s up north with a group of friends and travellers, trying to find the kidnappers headquarters, when she takes a detour to visit a boy who’s appeared in a nearby village.  Nothing seemed strange about this until she met the boy, and then my horror and disgust matched Lyra’s own.  The boy didn’t have a daemon.  It’s hard to get across just how big an impact that had on me, but I’ll try.  Even though they hadn’t delved into the lore too much, the book had subtly been swaying my opinion towards what was considered normal within this world. I hadn’t realised the depths this had sunk in until this young boy without a daemon appeared, and I was struck with the feeling that someone being separated from their daemon was the most unnatural affront to nature imaginable.  That was enough to convince me that Phillip Pullman was a damn good writer and kept me going through the rest of the trilogy.  The only problem was that I never encountered another moment quite like that again.  Sure there were plenty of well-written scenes and parts which made you feel tense, sad or excited, but that one scene was the pinnacle of the series for me.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Review: Skulduggery Pleasant


I completed the first book in my 2012 reading challenge a couple of weeks ago, so I think it’s time I sat down and wrote a review on what I thought of it.

Skulduggery Pleasant is the first novel in the Young Adult series of the same name.  It’s set around the city of Dublin follows the life of a young girl named Stephanie as she discovers that there’s a world of magic that exists alongside the regular mundane one.  She soon teams up Skulduggery Pleasant, a wise-cracking, ass-kicking, hard-boiled detective who also happens to be a 200 year old skeleton and drives around in a 1954 Bentley.  They’re soon off on a fairly epic journey to thwart the plans of an ancient sorcerer who plans to destroy the world, and what a journey it is.

I won’t delve too deeply into the story for fear of spoiling it for others, but it ends up being one of those YA series that can be enjoyed by people of any age.  Despite the young age of the protagonist the dialogue never feels dumbed down or simplified, instead it’s really well written and the regular banter between Stephanie and Skulduggery is easily my favourite part of the series.  Like some of the other YA series (The Hunger Games comes to mind) it’s not afraid to throw in the occasional scene of shockingly brutal violence, and the death rate can be quite high.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Game of Thrones, but don’t go into it expecting it to be a nice happy tale of someone learning magic, with death being a rare and jarring event.

I dislike the idea of ratings since they get so arbitrary, but I ended up giving this 4/5 stars on Goodreads so while I really enjoyed and plan to continue with the rest of the series, it’s not a story that will stop and make you think, or hyped up on adrenaline and desperate for more.  But it’s still a damn good book and one I’ll recommend to anyone who might be even slightly interested in a new fantasy series.

edit: Not long after writing this I finished reading book3, The Faceless Ones and I was left absolutely stunned by the final act of the book.  Not just the ending, which was pretty spectacular by itself, but the revelations that were made as the final puzzles were solved. It was truly amazing.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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