Book Review – The Gates of Noon by Michael Scott Rohan

The Gates of Noon by Michael Scott Rohan

The Gates of Noon by Michael Scott Rohan

The blurb promises:

‘East of the sun and west of the moon…’

…you may find a freighter carrying ivory to Huy Braseal, mammoth tusks to Tartessos and Ashkelon, spices from Cathay to Lyonesse. Another world, of infinite strangeness and high adventure, yet never far from our own; round a corner, through a door into a harbourside inn and you may find yourself there.

Steve Fisher had been there once, had sailed the cloud archipelagos on a desperate quest to Hispaniola. Or had he? The memories have faded…was it only a dream? Then, in Bangkok, as he struggles to arrange a shipment of vital supplies to the endangered paradise of Bali, Steve finds himself catapulted back into that world, through the eerie gates of the Spiral – and into terrible dangers. For our there is something that wants him stopped, at any costs.

Shadows from the past, from the present – and from somewhere that is neither, where myths and legends and terrifying archetypes stalk the world. Entangles by old loves and ancient hatreds, with witches and warlocks to help him and the original Bogeyman on his trail, Steve must fight to reconcile past and present in an epic battle of wits which leads him from the sleazy sex bars of Bangkok to the mist-shrouded islands of the South Seas…

When I was a kid my family moved around a lot, and wherever we went I would clean out the library – reading everything I could get my hands on.  After years of doing this there were only a handful of books that stuck in my head, and this was one of them.  The problem with reading and moving like that is that if you don’t remember the name or author of a book it can be impossible to find again no matter how many other details you remember.

A couple years ago I found a website where a bunch of knowledgeable people would help you find books based on whatever information you had, and to my surprise they were able to find the book I was looking for (Rats and Gargoyles).  At the time it wasn’t available on the Kindle, so I just added it to my eReaderIQ list and left it.  Some time later I got a notification that the book had become available on the Kindle, and when I went to add it to my wishlist I immediately noticed the bright yellow cover.  Orion SF Gateway seemed to be publishing a bunch of books that had previously not been available on Kindle, minus the original cover art (presumably to save money).  In idly looking at some of the other books the title of The Gates of Noon just came back to me and I looked it up.  Another one I found was Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, from even longer in the past.

As you can see, the original cover was a lot more interesting, and it was one of the things about the book that stuck in my head:

The Gates of Noon by Michael Scott Rohan (original cover)

The Gates of Noon by Michael Scott Rohan (original cover)

The other things that stuck in my head were the way the main character can call his sword and the unreliable way of getting onto the Spiral by getting lost in back alleys.  It really resonated with me because when you’re lost somewhere unfamiliar it really feels like anything could be around the corner.  It reminds me a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia, where the children always had a hard time getting there intentionally but it kept happening by accident.

This is the middle book in the series, so I wouldn’t normally start with it but when I originally read them I started with this one so it was a familiar experience.  There are a lot of references to events and characters from the first book, but rather than being annoying it mostly gives the book depth.

Something that I noticed more this time was how very English it is.  Particularly at the start of the book there is a lot of English slang and ways of talking.  I wonder how that would be received by someone to whom those are unfamiliar.

Another thing I liked about the plot was how the main character solves a shipping problem in the real world by taking a shortcut through the fantasy world – it’s very pragmatic.

A lot of the descriptions of the Eastern cities are very detailed and immersive – it really feels like the author’s spent time there.

As for things I didn’t like, although the author has obviously gone out of his way to add strong female characters, on average the book is pretty anachronistic about gender roles.

Along similar lines I didn’t like the ending, where it’s up to the white man to save the ignorant natives.  This is interesting in the context of the book being very English and perhaps seeing the world through Empire tinted glasses..

This isn’t a complaint, but on reading the book now it’s clear that the things I remember most about the book aren’t what it’s actually about – it’s about balancing tradition and progress.  I guess I don’t find that as interesting as mentally summoning a sword or finding a magical world by getting lost.

Book Review – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

The blurb creeps:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.

The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers–they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding–but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

This book reminds me of Finch by the same author – the author seems to have a fixation with fungus, human transformation and mysterious history.

Where the books differ is that Finch is a detective story whereas this one is more of a horror story.  I don’t mean horror in the sense of messy gore, but more of a sense of impending doom – Lovecraftian dread that stretches on for the whole book.  It really is tense and forbidding – it’s well done but not really the kind of experience I go looking for in a book.

Interestingly although there are a lot of mysteries, having some of them answered by the end of the book made me realize that the mysteries weren’t what the book was about – it’s about the journey of the main character in the context of her personal history.

The book is kind of a pure experience – it’s really pared down, with only a few characters and settings.

Unlike most series, I really don’t know what direction the next book in the series will take.  It could continue with the main character but I kind of wonder if instead it’ll follow a subsequent expedition into Area X, with the main character from the first book appearing as a minor character.

Book Review – Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

The blurb exsanguinates:

Suddenly, things aren’t so great in the romance department for Sookie. Bill has become absorbed in something he’s keeping secret from her, he has possibly become involved with someone else, and he’s missing. Now Sookie must venture into the dangerous world exclusive to vampires, weres, shifters, and others she didn’t know existed to try to find him. And if she succeeds, will there be anything left worth saving?

Like the first two books in the series, I found this one surprisingly similar to the TV series – a major character from the book is missing from the TV version and a character killed off in the books is a major character on TV, but overall it’s extremely faithful.  A down side of this for me is that I can’t really read the book with a fresh perspective – I’m always going to be comparing the two versions.

While I was a bit disappointed with the second book compared to its TV version, this book wasn’t bad (although it’s been a long time since I saw season 3 on TV).

Something that seemed a bit underdeveloped was Bill’s part of this book.  Because of the basic plot (per the blurb) he was always going to have a limited part, but his motivations and actions aren’t really explained by the end of the book.

Something that was more noticeable in this book than the first two was a disturbing Twilight-esque conflation of vampires and domestic violence/rape.  The vampire gets a blood lust on and hurts the woman, and she immediately forgives him because “he couldn’t help it”.  I find this very creepy.

Sookie also seems to get turned on at times when I’m pretty sure a real person wouldn’t, but some of my reaction is probably just an aversion to romance novels (which this book veers toward occasionally).

Book Review – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The blurb games:

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

Because this book has a good reputation I was really looking forward to reading it.  Unfortunately while it’s subjectively good, I don’t think it’s objectively good.  Allow me to explain:

A lot of the people reading this book (and presumably the author) are in their 30’s and 40’s, which puts them at the right age to be nostalgic about the 80’s.  For these people a book that idolizes the time they grew up in is pure candy, but I think the book’s excuse for having people in the future obsessed with a time before they were born isn’t very good.  I can’t imagine being obsessed with the 40’s, regardless of the reason – there’s just no connection.

Also the basic premise that in a future where everyone’s unemployed and there’s an energy crisis, that everyone would use high tech VR for escapism seems unlikely.  I guess it’s possible to extrapolate everyone having a TV and Internet access to everyone having a VR headset, but I still think that given the choice between buying a headset or buying food people would buy food.

I also thought that the trailer towers from the cover are unlikely – it only makes sense to build up when land’s very expensive, but no matter what happens America is still a big country.

The computer science of OASIS is a also bit hand-wavey – the book casually mentions that it scales infinitely etc. but there are limitations (like the speed of light) that there is just no getting around.

The only real moral of the book seemed to be something about accepting people for who they are, by dramatically revealing the shocking fact that people lie about their appearance on the Internet.  This came down to the main character accepting his girlfriend even though she was concealing something in real life, which wasn’t dramatic or profound.

The book had some diversity, but it was still the straight white main character that saved the world.

Having pointed out all the things that bugged me about this book, I should say that I still quite liked it – just not as much as the hype.  It’s probably a good book for gamers, since the plot mostly concerns people playing a video game and because it’s full of a lot of old gaming references.

Book Review – Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

The blurb anthopologises:

John Lowery was declared dead in 1968—the victim of a Huey crash in Vietnam, his body buried long ago in North Carolina. Four decades later, Temperance Brennan is called to the scene of a drowning in Hemmingford, Quebec. The victim appears to have died while in the midst of a bizarre sexual practice. The corpse is later identified as John Lowery. But how could Lowery have died twice, and how did an American soldier end up in Canada?

Tempe sets off for the answer, exhuming Lowery’s grave in North Carolina and taking the remains to Hawaii for reanalysis—to the headquarters of JPAC, the U.S. military’s Joint POW/ MIA Accounting Command, which strives to recover Americans who have died in past conflicts. In Hawaii, Tempe is joined by her colleague and ex-lover Detective Andrew Ryan (how “ex” is he?) and by her daughter, who is recovering from her own tragic loss. Soon another set of remains is located, with Lowery’s dog tags tangled among them. Three bodies—all identified as Lowery.

And then Tempe is contacted by Hadley Perry, Honolulu’s flamboyant medical examiner, who needs help identifying the remains of an adolescent boy found offshore. Was he the victim of a shark attack? Or something much more sinister?

Once again, if you’re this far into the series you should know what to expect.

This book’s unique spin on the series’ basic concept is that it’s to do with identifying remains from the Vietnam war and it mostly takes place in Hawaii.

I think the anthropology plotline is one of the stronger ones in the series – it had a couple really good twists and I wasn’t really able to figure it out before it was revealed.

Nothing really happens with the “love life” plotline.  It seems a bit strange that the author can go an entire book without progressing the plotline at all, but I guess if she knows she has a practically unlimited number of books to work with she can take it slow.

There were a surprising number of minor things left unresolved, but I choose to believe that this was intentional because in real life things are messy and don’t get neatly wrapped up at the end of a case.

Book Review – Of Shadow and Sea by Will Wight

Of Shadow and Sea by Will Wight

Of Shadow and Sea by Will Wight

The blurb says:

The Consultant’s Guild has served the Aurelian Empire for over a thousand years, working in the darkness to hunt dissension and eliminate traitors.

Now the Emperor is dead.

For Shera, an assassin in the employ of the Consultants, the Emperor’s death is the beginning of a nightmare. Powerful forces hunt the Heart of Nakothi, a cursed artifact that can raise a second Emperor…and corrupt him in the process.

But some desire power at any cost.

The Guild of Navigators, an infamous collection of swindlers and pirates, has been paid a fortune to secure the Heart. Their only lord is greed, their only loyalty to gold, and they would sell the Empire’s freedom for the promise of a quick coin.

In the shadows, a woman works to set the world free.

On the seas, a man seeks to raise a lunatic to lord over mankind.

Will you walk the shadows here with Shera? Or will you explore the seas with Calder, in the parallel novel “Of Sea and Shadow”?

This book is the co-first book in a co-trilogy.  That was confusing, let me start again.  The author is writing one story, told by two trilogies – each book of each trilogy tells a third of the story from the point of view of one character.  That’s still confusing, let’s narrow it down to the first book.  The first third of the story is told from Shera’s point of view in Of Shadow and Sea (this book) and from Calder’s point of view in Of Sea and Shadow.

I read Of Sea and Shadow first, so I can’t help but think of that as the authoritative version of the story and this one as someone else’s point of view – I think I identify with Calder more because I was introduced to him first.  I chose which book to read first pretty much randomly, so I’m pretty sure if I’d read them the other way around I’d think of this one as the authoritative story and the other as the secondary version.  I kind of wish I could have somehow read both of them without knowledge of the other so I could judge them on a level playing field.

I’d have to say that the author’s experiment with this unusual story structure is a success – the series is a lot more interesting than it would have been as a straight trilogy.

It was interesting that the main characters of each book have such a negative opinion of each other, and that it’s unjustified.  In each version of the story the main character’s actions seem logical, and it’s only from the outside, with less context that it seems like they’re evil from the other character’s point of view.  This is a pretty great reflection of real life – nobody sets out to be the bad guy, they just make a series of decisions that seem right to them at the time.

There was only one part of the story where the different versions seemed forced – in Of Sea and Shadow Shera said something to Calder that turned out to be a lie, but from her point of view she said it without really knowing why she said it, which feels like poor writing.

Book Review – Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

The blurb impacts:

Detective Hank Palace returns in Countdown City, the second volume of the Last Policeman trilogy. There are just 77 days before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace—an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

This is the second book in the series and it has basically the same strengths and weaknesses as the first book.  The idea of someone trying to keep doing his job even after the world is doomed is an interesting one, but the central question of why he would do that is never answered.

The actual central mystery of the case is interesting but feels sort of irrelevant in the context of the end of the world.

The hints in the first book about some possible conspiracy for surviving or preventing the asteroid impact are also echoed in the second book, but nothing really crystallizes.  Presumably this will all come to a head in the third book, since by the end of the second book there isn’t much time left until the asteroid’s arrival.

It was interesting how the books track the collapse of society – it makes the main character’s investigation more difficult because it’s not taking place in a stable environment.