Book Review – A Better World by Marcus Sakey

A Better World by Marcus Sakey

A Better World by Marcus Sakey

The blurb says:

The brilliants changed everything.

Since 1980, 1% of the world has been born with gifts we’d only dreamed of. The ability to sense a person’s most intimate secrets, or predict the stock market, or move virtually unseen. For thirty years the world has struggled with a growing divide between the exceptional…and the rest of us.

Now a terrorist network led by brilliants has crippled three cities. Supermarket shelves stand empty. 911 calls go unanswered. Fanatics are burning people alive.

Nick Cooper has always fought to make the world better for his children. As both a brilliant and an advisor to the president of the United States, he’s against everything the terrorists represent. But as America slides toward a devastating civil war, Cooper is forced to play a game he dares not lose—because his opponents have their own vision of a better world.

And to reach it, they’re willing to burn this one down.

The first book in the series was pretty obviously a metaphor for prejudice and the War on Terror, and while the second book continues this theme it is mostly an extrapolation of the consequences of the choices made in the first book.

Through most of the book I only thought it was OK, but the events at the end of the book are so dramatic that it raised my estimation of the whole thing.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I have a problem with books that only act as part of a larger story and can’t stand on their own.  While this – as the middle book in a trilogy – is certainly one of those, I think it did a good job of reminding (or informing) the reader of the situation and the dramatic ending allowed me to forgive the cliffhanger.

The book expanded on the events of the first one in an interesting way as the plans and motivations of characters are revealed to be more than we knew.

I didn’t enjoy a swath of the book that takes place in a pseudo-post-apocalyptic setting, but I think that was just because I’m sick of post-apocalyptic settings.  Yes, if the world ended it would suck, we get it.

Book Review – Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Quoth the blurb:

Six years ago, the Assassin in White, a hireling of the inscrutable Parshendi, assassinated the Alethi king on the very night a treaty between men and Parshendi was being celebrated. So began the Vengeance Pact among the highprinces of Alethkar and the War of Reckoning against the Parshendi.

Now the Assassin is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.

Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status “darkeyes.” Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.

Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.

It’s been a few years since I read the first book in the series, but I remember it being long and very detailed.  The author seems to have used the strategy of giving the reader more information than they can possibly hold (just like real life) in order to make the book’s world feel very detailed.  Specifically the books are broken up into sections and in between the sections are intermissions – several chapters starring unrelated characters somewhere else in the world (sometimes their only appearance).  This means you’re not limited to a few points of view or only the parts of the world the main characters visit.

The second book takes the same pattern, and I don’t know why but I found it less intimidating than the first time – perhaps because I understood the structure better.  The biggest difference I saw between the first and second books was that the first book felt like mostly the story of Kaladin with other points of view (including Shallan’s) sprinkled around it, whereas the second book was 60/40 Shallan/Kaladin.

Speaking of Shallan, I noticed that this book had good female characters.  They were still outnumbered quite a bit by the men, but they were fully developed and realized.

I think one of the ways the author keeps these books interesting is by not telling the reader stuff.  It starts off with everything being a mystery, and as you read at least one new mystery is added for every one that’s revealed.  This makes it feel like you’re making progress (the author isn’t just dangling the carrot in front of you for 3000 pages) but there are still unresolved questions that draw you forward.

Speaking of the number of pages, these books are LONG.  Some books are long and it’s excruciating because there’s so much filler – characters spend hundreds of pages just walking from A to B.  Fortunately this series just seems to be long because there’s so much content – it never feels like the author is wasting your time.

The Mistborn trilogy is a gold standard for Brandon Sanderson books, but so far this series is better.  I think the construction of the story has been more thought out and more work has been put into fleshing out the world.  In Mistborn we only ever saw the world from the point of view of main characters who were extraordinary and involved in unusual behavior, so I don’t think it had the sense of presence that The Stormlight Archive has.

Maybe I’ve read too much George R. R. Martin, but I expected more characters to die.  A lot of the things they do and the people they fight are extremely dangerous, so I kept being surprised when they survived.

My constant gripe with trilogies is unfinished arcs, but I guess this series has been so good that both books leaving things in the air for the third book didn’t bother me.  There are per-book arcs, but some of them seemed to just lead to putting the characters where they need to be for the next book.

Book Review – Incandescence by Greg Egan

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Incandescence by Greg Egan

The blurb expounds:

The Amalgam spans nearly the entire galaxy, and is composed of innumerable beings from a wild variety of races, some human or near it, some entirely other. The one place that they cannot go is the bulge, the bright, hot center of the galaxy. There dwell the Aloof, who for millions of years have deflected any and all attempts to communicate with or visit them. So when Rakesh is offered an opportunity to travel within their sphere, in search of a lost race, he cannot turn it down.

Roi is a member of that lost race, which is not only lost to the Amalgam, but lost to itself. In their world, there is but toil, and history and science are luxuries that they can ill afford.

Rakesh’s journey will take him across millennia and light years. Roi’s will take her across vistas of learning and discovery just as vast.

This book reminded me a lot of The Clockwork Rocket (which I only just realized is by the same author, so I guess he’s consistent).  I thought I’d written a review of The Clockwork Rocket, but apparently not, so let me summarize: I didn’t like it.

Both books involve aliens living in a strange environment and trying to figure it out from first principles, coincidentally just in time to avert some sort of calamity.  The problem is that the “figuring it out” part involves a lot of teaching the reader physics.  A certain amount of this is to be expected in hard SF, but in these cases it seems excessive.  In addition, since the physics involved are largely fictional, I think it would still be an infodump even for someone who knew a lot of conventional physics.  You just have to let it wash over you and assume that the author knows what he’s talking about.  It’s undoubtedly evidence of a lot of work on the author’s part and I’m sure it’s quite an achievement, but it’s just not fun to read.

The other problem is that neither books ends properly – a calamity may be averted but things aren’t resolved, and you have no choice but to read the next book if you want to find out more.  I wasn’t willing enough to put up with the physics infodumps to find out.