Category: Reviews

Review – The Goblin Emperor

Posted December 1, 2014 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonThe Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

When I finished The Goblin Emperor, I was sad there wasn’t more of it. Is there higher praise?

The things other people have critiqued do make sense: the fact that is very much character-driven rather than plot driven; the plethora of names and titles to get used to; the language stuff which may superficially appear just gimmicky and faux-archaic; the fact that Maia is often reacting rather than being proactive. Me, though, I loved it, for all of those things and more. For example, the thee/thou stuff was annoying me until someone pointed out to look closer: normally people who use thee/thou don’t get that it’s an informal form of address (presumably at least partly because of the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer, which uses that address for God) and so for someone who is familiar with Old and Middle English and French like me, it becomes very annoying to have people addressing their king as if he were their equal or inferior. Here, however, the pronouns are all intentional. If a character uses the first person plural, most often they are actually being formal; if they then drop into using ‘I’, then they are speaking as a private person, among friends. It’s worth watching what Addison does with pronouns, because when they change, you know something’s up. In a way, the conflict between I/we is a central part of Maia’s character and his relationships.

When it comes to the invented language, it’s a little more difficult. You end up with various forms of address depending on marital status and rank, and there are suffixes which alter names according to number and gender. This is something we’re just not used to dealing with in English these days, and it can make it very difficult to keep track of a character as they switch spheres and are referred to in different ways. There is actually a helpful section in the back, which is probably easier to refer to if you’re reading it in dead tree, which explains all of these things if it’s something you’re interested in. For me, I liked puzzling it out, and context often helped.

(From this point in the review, there are some minor spoilers!)

But all that could be there and interesting and it wouldn’t have made me care about the book like the central character did. People are right to talk about the massive contrast with “grimdark” fantasy; Maia is pretty unambiguously good, and though he may sometimes feel angry, or vengeful, he tries to be fair and not to use his newfound rank to punish those who have done him wrong. He has plenty of opportunity, he has the right, but he holds himself back. He cares about his social inferiors and servants, and though he was never trained to be emperor, never expected to be emperor, he gives himself to the role without reserve. I loved him and the characters around him, loved the moments when he pushed the boundary by apologising to them or showing concern, and the moments in return where they took a more personal interest in him. I wanted to see more of his closest guards, especially Cala, but the public/private formal/informal boundaries prevent that; we just get glimpses. I loved the moment where Cala buttons up Maia’s sleeve for him to hide the marks of abuse, the way Beshelar reacts.

I enjoyed that Addison evaded some things that would’ve spoilt my enjoyment. For example, Maia gets a crush on an opera singer, and yet there’s no seduction, no abuse of his power over her or vice versa. When she offers to have a ‘closer relationship’ with him, in a personal sense you want Maia to say yes, because it may make him happy — but because of the situation, you want Maia to remain the person he is, reluctant to abuse his role, and it’s a relief when he does. Addison shows Maia struggling with the role, but never betraying it or himself. I love that, I love that we’re not expected to forgive him a betrayal of his self because shiny happy love or something.

In terms of female characters, it’s interesting, because it’s set in a proto-medieval type world (though the religion implied at is somewhat Buddhist, with meditation taking a key role for Maia) and women are marginalised, but they’re not happy with it, and nor are all the men around them. There are educated women, women who pursue their skills and interests, women who are not afraid to defend their rights, their children, and in Maia’s fiancée’s case, her husband! Even one of Maia’s guards is, in the end, a woman. While I think the proto-medieval-Europe thing can be overdone, and there are shades of it here, Addison goes further than others in showing that world changing. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is ostensibly set in the world where women are given freedoms, educated, political, etc, and yet not one of them chooses to take an unambiguously unfeminine role — we don’t see female warriors, there remains a definite line between the roles of the sexes. Addison blurs that, shows it in the process of blurring, which I enjoyed very much.

When I say that I’m sad there isn’t more of this, it’s not because the story is incomplete. Of course, Maia’s life goes on afterwards, but I don’t want more because I need to know what happens next, or because there’s anything unsatisfying about it. I want more because I love the world, love engaging with Addison’s characters and figuring out her world, and I think there’s plenty more there for her to play with if she chooses. This is a book I’m sure I’m going to reread — I could almost just start it again right now, which is very rare for me. There are few fiction books I engage with on this level of looking for language, history, figuring out customs and conventions. It’s not on the same level as Tolkien, who spent a lifetime refining his world, but there is a complexity here which I really love.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Goldilocks Enigma

Posted December 1, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul DaviesThe Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies

I’m not sure that this book is entirely successful in answering, or even trying to address, the question posed on the cover — why is the universe just right for life? It talks a lot about how the universe may have formed, and what the laws of the universe are, and it seems like it does a lot of describing rather than explaining. Now, of course, that’s because we don’t really have an answer, but it does seem a little misleading.

Davies looks at a lot of different theories here, some of them more scientific than others — he includes the philosophical side of things too, including the religious point of view. He’s fairly even handed about this, so it’s hard to tell exactly where he’d put his money most of the time (except that he’s generally sceptical of the religion explanation, because it’s a non-explanation: it just shunts the question up a level). Most of the explanations are clear, though string theory remains utterly baffling to me (or at least, the rationale behind it does).

Oddly enough, I’m left feeling that The Goldilocks Enigma is much more positive about the idea that other intelligent life is out there than The Eerie Silence. I haven’t looked at publication order or anything, but it was a little strange, reading them one after the other.

Regardless, this was written before the Large Hadron Collider swung into action, so no doubt it’s out of date in some ways. Still a good background in the various theories, particularly the more philosophical ones like the anthropic principles that aren’t likely to change. (To his credit, I now understand the anthropic principle a lot better than I did after GCSE/A Level Religious Studies. Sorry, Mr B.)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Eerie Silence

Posted November 30, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Eerie Silence by Paul DaviesThe Eerie Silence, Paul Davies

Paul Davies does a really good job here of illustrating the issues of SETI’s lack of success, and Fermi’s Paradox. He goes into the science and philosophy of it in depth, explaining all the terms and generally making it crystal clear. What amazes me is that he’s still somewhat optimistic about finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, given all the things he says in this book — I’m now almost completely sure that even if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere (and that’s still a big if) that we’ll have trouble finding it because of the issue of the sheer amount of time and space involved.

Not that I don’t think the search is worth doing. Even if we’ll never manage to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we might find signs of it, and understand more about how life begins. There’s so much we can learn along the way, and maybe the idea that we may not be unique will keep us a little bit more humble.

Or not.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Wicked + The Divine

Posted November 29, 2014 by in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Wicked + The Divine by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron GillenThe Wicked + The Divine, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

The Wicked + The Divine is really gorgeously illustrated and coloured. I want to give it a million stars just because it looks so consistently good. Everything is clear, clean, sharp: it’s very characteristically McKelvie’s work (as the script is pretty characteristic of Kieron Gillen, I think) and that’s definitely a good thing. I think I got sucked into this via the art, first and foremost.

In terms of plotting and characters, there’s interesting stuff going on, but there are tons of unanswered questions. Unlike some other reviewers, I don’t expect to get all the answers in the first five issue TPB; we wouldn’t get that in a novel, so why here? There is a lot I want to know, about the whys and wherefores of the gods’ reincarnations, what their aims are, why they love attention… I’m half-expecting something American Gods-y, in that sense, where the worship and adulation they get as pop idols fuels them in some way. I don’t know, though; I’m looking forward to finding out.

The relationship between Laura and Luci is central to the story, and it mostly works for me. I think the intensity of the bond doesn’t entirely feel natural there… but there are explanations: Laura’s hunger to be close to the gods, rebellion against her parents, hero worship and I-want-to-be-you.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this is going, anyway; it looks like it’s going to be a fun ride.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Hero and the Crown

Posted November 28, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinleyThe Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Wow, I don’t know why I didn’t really like The Hero and the Crown very much on the first go round. It’s full of all the kinds of things I love: love stories that aren’t just simple love-at-first-sight or we-grew-up-together-and-now-we’re-in-love, but something more complicated that that; a world with a history and a future, outside of what we’ve got; a heroine who works through flaws and barriers to become a hero. And the last sentences — ach! Lovely.

It’s not some straightforward children’s story in which a heroine goes forth and slays a dragon. That happens, but it happens as part of a longer journey: the dragon isn’t the end, but only really the beginning of Aerin’s journey. It doesn’t solve all her issues and let her go home unscathed, unchanged, to a court that’s suddenly ready to accept her. Aerin’s story is harder than that.

Looking at my old review/notes on this, I was disappointed by the worldbuilding — which I think is funny, because though it’s subtle, there’s plenty here. The surka, the crown, old heroes, Luthe’s background, why the animals follow Aerin: there’s so much that doesn’t get elucidated, but remains there for you to turn over and wonder at. McKinley doesn’t give you all the answers about her world in one go, and I doubt that The Blue Sword will answer all of it either. Maybe you have to do a little more work to really appreciate the history of the world, because McKinley does nothing so clumsy as sit you in a history lesson with Aerin to learn about it.

Overall, given the subtlety of parts of this and the wistfulness of the love stories, I’m not entirely sure how I’d have taken this as a child. It may be a prime example of a story that works on two levels: Aerin waving her sword around for younger readers, winning the day with her prowess, while the older readers might taste more of the bittersweetness of her immortality and her twin-nature.

Rating; 4/5

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Review – You Are Here

Posted November 27, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of You Are Here by Chris HadfieldYou Are Here, Chris Hadfield

You Are Here is a gorgeous book, a collection of photographs taken by Chris Hadfield during his time on the ISS. He shows us Earth in all its variety: the densely inhabited cities lighting up the night, the marks we’ve left on the landscape, and then also the stretches of empty desert, the glorious geologic features of mountains and volcanoes, the places where meteorites have impacted. It’s much better than looking at the photos on a computer, as he says in the introduction: it seems so much sharper and clearer, the colours truer.

There’s not much by way of editorial content here — some explanations of what you’re looking at, short inset paragraphs with Hadfield’s comments, but mostly the photographs speak for themselves.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Atrocity Archive

Posted November 26, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Atrocity Archives by Charles StrossThe Atrocity Archive, Charles Stross

I keep trying Stross’ work, because I’ve read other novels of his and I know that there are some elements which interest me, some things which I do keep turning the pages for. I was actually more interested in The Atrocity Archive and “The Concrete Jungle” than I have been in most of his other books, which is a start, but I’m afraid a lot of it went over my head (not geeky enough) and some of it went under (fart jokes).

All in all, the alternate history conjured up here is interesting, though I can’t really talk about the mathematics, geometry, etc, because I can’t write down my own phone number without transposing a digit or two. That somewhat hobbles the story, because I think there’s humour and worldbuilding there that I just. don’t. get. Which is unfortunately how Stross has made me feel before.

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series, though I quest on in my attempt to find a Stross book I genuinely enjoy. It seems like he has cool ideas, and it’s not like it’s his writing style that throws me off — I just don’t feel like enough of a nerd!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Osama

Posted November 25, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Osama by Lavie TidharOsama, Lavie Tidhar

I’ve been avoiding reading Osama for a while, as I didn’t really feel tempted by the summary, but I ended up picking it up in the library — because that can never hurt! — and really enjoying it, as it happens. Rather more than the books that Lavie Tidhar wrote for Angry Robot, actually, even though superficially they might seem more up my street.

I think a fair amount of the trouble people have reading this is that they’re expecting the wrong thing. A classically noirish detective story, a thriller, something solidly science fictional that deals with multiverses… but it’s none of those things, or not only those things. It borrows some of the trappings of each: the protagonist is a detective in a classic noir style; there are excerpts that’re meant to be from a thriller; there are at least two parallel universes, it seems…

Going into this as I did, without too many expectations, let me enjoy it a lot. Each chapter is short, so it ended up flying by, and while others complained about the metaphors and imagery, I actually enjoyed it a lot. Borrowing from a genre that gave us “shop-worn Galahad”s and the like, I don’t think the writing style was out of place at all.

It’s much more quiet, meditative, than most noir-ish things, though. Although the character is in many ways insubstantial, that’s kind of the point. If you’re looking for a thriller, this ain’t it: though there’s plenty of violence and mystery and so on, really it’s more about an internal journey.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Tooth and Claw

Posted November 24, 2014 by in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Tooth & Claw by Jo WaltonTooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I had a vague recollection of not really liking this book as much as Jo Walton’s other work. Then I reread it in approximately five seconds flat (well, a little more than that, maybe). As people have noted, my original review called this Austen-esque, whereas Jo makes it clear in the book itself that no, the influence is much more from Trollope. Not that I’ve read anything by Trollope, and there are aspects here reminiscent of Austen.

Before I write any more about this, let me just pause to be very amused that often the same people complaining the dragons are too human-like (wearing hats) complain that the dragons aren’t (modern Western) human-like enough for their taste (socially acceptable cannibalism after someone dies).

The thing I really enjoyed about Tooth and Claw, this time round as much as last time, was the complex history and social background there is to this story, which you don’t have to know about, but which is there. The world isn’t just a paper thin homage to Trollope; there’s a lot more going on, a whole geography and history and philosophy which shapes the story and gives the dragons life. The homage to Trollope is there, sure, but Jo also looked at it and changed what needed to be changed to make the dragon society feel real — lacy hats or no.

This time, I finished the book feeling glad that it’s a self-contained story which concludes within one book, because fantasy trilogies are getting out of hand these days, but also wondering very much about the background of the world, about events before and after the only somewhat personally significant events of this story. That’s something I love to leave a book wondering, because it means that the world wasn’t just created for the story, but the story takes place within the world.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Invincible Iron Man: Demon

Posted November 23, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Invincible Iron Man: Demon  by Matt FractionThe Invincible Iron Man: Demon, Matt Fraction, Salvador Laracca

This, for me, was one of those volumes which proves you don’t always have to keep up with every bit of every storyline to still enjoy parts of the larger arc. It was also the first time I really got enthused about Matt Fraction’s storytelling: I need to reread the Hawkeye books now that I’m more invested in the character, since it was sort of inevitable that I didn’t get on too well with his work on Thor — I’m not that big a fan of Thor (sorry honey). But when he’s working on Iron Man, well, Tony Stark’s got himself attached to my heartstrings somehow, and goodness does Fraction know how to work that.

Most of the book revolves around fallout from the Fear Itself event, which I only know a little about. I don’t know exactly what happened when Tony fell off the wagon, or why Pepper’s in disgrace over Rescue and something to do with her crying. I only know a little bit about Cabe and the various villains up against Tony. What I know about the main players is mostly based on the cinematic universe.

And yet. I still care passionately about Tony and his struggle with alcoholism, about his battle of wits with the Mandarin, about what’s happening with him and Rhodey and the struggle with the government to control Iron Man. (I was surprised there weren’t more laughs milked out of it when Tony ended up naked in battle.)

One or two things drove me a little nuts, like why would Tony voluntarily install the limiter? Without dismantling it first and checking if it is everything they say? If he did, how did they take him by surprise and make it hard for him to remove? Why didn’t he see that coming? Or was everything that happened in that battle planned?

I think it’ll take the next TPB or so to find out the answers to all my questions, but in a way, this was satisfying on its own in the sense that I jumped in, got captured by the story, had my heartstrings yanked, and enjoyed the experience without needing to know all the context.

Rating: 4/5

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