Book Review – Forging Divinity by Andrew Rowe

Forging Divinity by Andrew Rowe

Forging Divinity by Andrew Rowe

The blurb deifies:

Some say that in the city of Orlyn, godhood is on sale to the highest bidder. Thousands flock to the city each year, hoping for a chance at immortality.

Lydia Hastings is a knowledge sorcerer, capable of extracting information from anything she touches. When she travels to Orlyn to validate the claims of the local faith, she discovers a conspiracy that could lead to a war between the world’s three greatest powers. At the focal point is a prisoner who bears a striking resemblance to the long-missing leader of the pantheon she worships.

Rescuing the prisoner would require risking her carefully cultivated cover – but his execution could mean the end of everything Lydia holds dear.

I feel kind of bad for the author of this book – he’s obviously put a lot of work into it, but it’s just not grade-A material.  Judging from the editing errors I think the book was probably self-published which would explain it.

The author has clearly put a lot of thought into the magic system, but as it’s never fully explained to the reader, you just have to kind of take the author’s word that whatever the characters just did is possible, follows the rules and makes sense.  People turning out to be illusions is overused, and it gets to be annoying.

Like the magic system the religions obviously have structure and thought behind them, but since they aren’t explained to the reader it’s a bit unclear what the characters’ beliefs and the pantheons are.

The action is mostly written well, with some very dramatic scenes.

I get the impression that all of the male characters fancy all of the female ones and (to a lesser extent) vice versa, which seems unrealistic.  I suspect the author is single and fancies every woman he meets, and this worldview has seeped into his writing.

The point of view jumps around, and it feels a bit arbitrary rather than tied to the plot.  Exactly once in the book the narration jumps backward in time, which was disorienting.

The main character suffers a bit from paragon syndrome – unrealistic, unimpeachable, perfect morality.  It’s annoying but isn’t as obtrusive as in some other books.

The book had a few dramatic reveals but no big twist – from the beginning both the characters and the reader have a suspicion of what’s going on and they’re correct.

Like a lot of fantasy books, many of the made-up names are unpronounceable and confusing.

The main plot of the book is resolved by the end, but there are a lot of loose ends which I assume will be addressed in later books.

Book Review – Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

The blurb educates:

Quicksilver is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe, in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty, and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight.

It is a chronicle of the breathtaking exploits of “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe — London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer and legendary King of the Vagabonds — risking life and limb for fortune and love while slowly maddening from the pox.

And it is the tale of Eliza, rescued by Jack from a Turkish harem to become spy, confidante, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent Europe through the newborn power of finance.

In my experience, Neal Stephenson’s books are very long but very well written.  They often have long stretches where it seems like the author is trying to educate the reader so that they understand concepts later in the book.  This book is very much like that on all counts.

Unfortunately the difference between a book where this worked well (e.g. Anathem) and this one is that in this book there is no payoff.  There’s a bunch of “teaching the reader” but there’s no real reason for the reader to need to learn those things.  It’s not really clear what the book is about – a lot of things happen, but it’s in the form of the history of the countries and personal history of the characters involved – there doesn’t seem to be a moral or climax.

It’s not even clear who the main character is, or if there even is one.  The story switches between characters and times, new characters are added and old characters fall out of the story.

Part of this may be because this is the first book in a trilogy, so it could be given the benefit of the doubt.  I guess I’ll find out when I read the next two books in the series.

One of the best parts of the book is how it follows the events of history, allowing you to see things as they happened.  I don’t know a lot about this period of history, so it’s hard for me to tell what’s historically accurate and what’s fiction, but it was really interesting.

Book Review – Deadly Heat by Richard Castle

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle

The blurb heats up:

Picking up where Frozen Heat left off, top NYPD Homicide Detective Nikki Heat pursues the elusive former CIA station chief who ordered the execution of her mother over a decade ago.

For the hunt, Nikki teams once again with her romantic partner, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Jameson Rook, and their quest for the old spy and the motive behind the past murder unearths an alarming terror plot-which is anything but ancient history. It is lethal. It is now. And it has already entered its countdown phase.

Complicating Heat’s mission to bring the rogue spy to justice and thwart the looming terror event, a serial killer begins menacing the Twentieth Precinct and her homicide squad is under pressure to stop him, and soon. The frightening murderer, known for his chilling stealth, not only has singled out Nikki as the exclusive recipient of his taunting messages, he then boldly names his next victim: Detective Heat.

Although you could probably read this book without having read the previous one (the author is very responsible in explaining references), the two books are definitely more connected than the rest of the series has been. I mentioned in my review of the previous book that it felt like it was setting up the next book, and it turns out that I was right.  Some problems created in the previous book are solved in this one, some clues pan out etc.

I thought some of the events in the book strained credibility, but I guess the author was painted into a corner somewhat by the facts as laid out by the TV show.

Speaking of the TV show there were more references to it in this book, for example Castle’s “WRITER” bullet proof vest makes an appearance as Rook’s “JOURNALIST” vest.  I was surprised at that particular reference since it was in season 1 of the TV show but not until the fifth book.  In general the references got a little smile out of me, but as this has been going on for five books now it’s lost some novelty.

As the TV show has gradually beefed Castle up, in this book Rook takes a more physical role, fighting bad guys.  I think it’s actually more realistic for a hard-bitten journalist who hangs out with warlords to get his hands dirty than a fiction writer, but in both cases I worry that they’re changing the formula of stereotypical gender role reversal too much.

I could live without the romantic jealousy plotline, but I guess there are only so many directions to go once you get the main characters together.

There were a couple of pretty good twists in this book, although they weren’t as surprising as the ones in the previous book.

Book Review – Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

Marrow's Pit by Keith Deininger

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

The blurb machinates:

Built to encompass the entire range of lifeless mountains, it had always, relentlessly, clanked on and on. Within, vast halls and endless corridors were filled with the sounds of metal on metal, with hissing steam, with squealing gears. In the eyes of its citizens, it was sacred, deified, omniscient. Enshrined in their mythology for innumerable generations, it had gone by countless designations, but its truest name was perhaps its plainest: the Machine.

I should have learned my lesson with Automatic Woman, but the blurb for this book was so tantalizing that I chose to read it even though it’s short.  It’s really short (126 pages).  Unfortunately that means that it’s more of a fragment than a complete story, which is just frustrating when you’re not expecting it (although I guess I should have been).

The author does a good job of describing the setting of the book and the effect it has on the characters, and he does a very good job in describing the main character’s relationship with his wife and the ensuing consequences.

The problem is that there’s no moral, no really clear idea of what’s going on or why.  Nothing’s explained and then the book just stops.

Book Review – The Long War by Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

The Long War by Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

The Long War by Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

The blurb parallels:

A generation after the events of The Long Earth, humankind has spread across the new worlds opened up by “stepping.” A new “America”—Valhalla—is emerging more than a million steps from Datum—our Earth. Thanks to a bountiful environment, the Valhallan society mirrors the core values and behaviors of colonial America. And Valhalla is growing restless under the controlling long arm of the Datum government.

Soon Joshua, now a married man, is summoned by Lobsang to deal with a building crisis that threatens to plunge the Long Earth into a war unlike any humankind has waged before.

I found the first half of this book to be really slow going – the protagonists are obsessed with the virtues of primitive living (which I have no interest in) and the bad guys are the kind of small minded politicians that really annoy me in real life.

I won’t spoil it, but considering the book has “war” in the title, the war was a big letdown.

Several characters took book-long journeys with no payoff whatsoever, and some major plot point happened off-screen.

The ending was disappointing because the plot arc was weird, so the book didn’t feel like it had a proper climax.

I think the problem with the plot arc was that there were a lot of main characters, with more added in this book whose arcs started and didn’t come anywhere near resolving by the end.  Presumably this is setting things up for later books in the series, but it’s still not good for this book.

Book Review – Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

The blurb dreads:

After thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X–a seemingly malevolent landscape surrounded by an invisible border and mysteriously wiped clean of all signs of civilization–has been a series of expeditions overseen by a government agency so secret it has almost been forgotten: the Southern Reach. Following the tumultuous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the agency is in complete disarray.

John Rodrigues (aka “Control”) is the Southern Reach’s newly appointed head. Working with a distrustful but desperate team, a series of frustrating interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, Control begins to penetrate the secrets of Area X. But with each discovery he must confront disturbing truths about himself and the agency he’s pledged to serve.

In Authority, the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Area X’s most disturbing questions are answered . . . but the answers are far from reassuring.

The book is unsurprisingly similar to the first book in the series in that it starts off slightly uncomfortable and gradually ratchets up to seriously creepy.  The interesting twist is that this book takes place in the bureaucracy that is sending people into Area X rather than inside Area X itself.

Initially I was excited to learn more about the situation described in the first book on the assumption that the people in charge knew more than the people on the ground.  I guess I should have known better, since the hallmark of the first book was adding disturbing mysteries without really answering many questions.

It’s a bit hard to tell if the Southern Reach is despicable because of its close association with Area X or if it’s just an awful organization or if Area X has actually infiltrated it.  The book reminded me a bit of Gormenghast in that all of the characters were despicable or grotesque in some way.

Things aren’t wrapped up by the end of the book, but I didn’t really expect them to be – both because it’s the middle book of a trilogy and because this series doesn’t seem to be one that gives the reader closure.

Book Review – Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

The blurb steams:

The London of 1888, the London of steam engines, Victorian intrigue, and horseless carriages is not a safe place nor simple place…but it’s his place. Jolly is a thief catcher, a door-crashing thug for the prestigious Bow Street Firm, assigned to track down a life sized automatic ballerina. But when theft turns to murder and murder turns to conspiracy, can Jolly keep his head above water? Can a thief catcher catch a killer?

I think I like the idea of steampunk more than I like actually reading it, because although I keep reading these books I can’t actually remember one that I really enjoyed.

I think one of the secrets of reading steampunk must be above average suspension of disbelief, because I think what I have problems with is the combination of history and things that did not and could not happen.  It’s like historical fiction taken past its breaking point.

For example, the premise of the automatic ballerina seems to be “AI with cogs”.  Considering that we can’t do AI now, even with so many orders of magnitude more computing power… my disbelief cannot suspend.

As well as the fantasy aspect being hard to swallow, the historical aspects were also problematic.  Although things like the difference engine and punch cards had technically been invented by 1888, the book treats them as modern computers and data and I just don’t think that would be right in the context.

Another thing that steampunk books including this one like to do is improbable brushes with famous people.  I don’t think these are really necessary and I found them distractingly unlikely rather than thrilling.

My biggest problem with the book is its abrupt and anticlimactic ending – the main character was just a spectator for most of the end of the book.  It felt like one of the psych-out almost-endings that longer books have, so maybe if the book had been longer that’s what this ending would have been.

Something that I didn’t notice until a while after I finished the book was that the premise is never explained.  Other questions that are raised later in the book are explained, but the original mystery is not.

Having complained about the book for a whole blog post I feel bad – I did enjoy about the first half of the book.  I liked that the main character was flawed and that he didn’t have the typical advantages of protagonists.

Book Review – The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The blurb mystiques:

The year is 1919.

The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden-a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer.

But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union.

Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.

I’m a fan noir and SF and I especially like the combination of the two.  The blurb doesn’t mention SF but some reviews I’d read did so I was expecting it.

I don’t think this is really a classical noir book – it doesn’t hold too tightly to the formula, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Books that follow formulas are predictable, and I think that leads to stagnation of the genre.

Instead of just being a mix of noir and SF, the book was more of a journey – it started off noir but ended SF (via alternate history).  The blurb only really mentions the noir part, so only describes the first part of the book.

The love triangle was interesting because (again) it didn’t straightforwardly follow a formula.

Some of the mysteries were a bit obvious and some of them had too many clues dropped, but several major ones were good reveals.

The ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been.  Given the author’s eschewing of formulas I didn’t really expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice bow at the end of the book, but it wasn’t a really satisfying open ending either.

Book Review – The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The blurb theologises:

In the ancient and mystical land of Muirwood, Lia has known only a life of servitude. Labeled a “wretched,” an outcast unwanted and unworthy of respect, Lia is forbidden to realize her dream to read or write. All but doomed, her days are spent toiling away as a kitchen slave under the charge of the Aldermaston, the Abbey’s watchful overseer. But when an injured squire named Colvin is abandoned at the kitchen’s doorstep, an opportunity arises. The nefarious Sheriff Almaguer soon starts a manhunt for Colvin, and Lia conspires to hide Colvin and change her fate. In the midst of a land torn by a treacherous war between a ruthless king and a rebel army, Lia finds herself on an ominous journey that will push her to wonder if her own hidden magic is enough to set things right. At once captivating, mysterious, and magic-infused, The Wretched of Muirwood takes the classic fantasy adventure and paints it with a story instantly epic, and yet, all its own.

Through most of the book my problem was that it didn’t make me care.  The main character was disadvantaged (literally “wretched”) but somehow the book failed to make me feel anything about that.  Part of it may have been that the reason for her wretchedness was the fact that she doesn’t know who her parents are (the book takes pains to distinguish between this and being an orphan).  Why this is important in the book’s world is explained, but I still couldn’t bring myself to care, and it’s the author’s job to make me care.  The main character’s greatest wish is to learn how to read, but the author never explains why.  Not understanding her made it hard to relate to her.

Increasingly though my problem with the book came from the magic system.  It’s basically a combination of blind faith and wishful thinking, which doesn’t leave the characters much to do other than try to “think right”.  Throughout the book I felt like I was being preached at somehow – maybe it was the “having faith” aspect of the magic system – and this was confirmed when the author’s biography at the end of the book mentioned him being a devout member of his church.  The reviews of the book on Amazon are shockingly good (4.5 star average over 1,575 reviews) which made me suspicious because it was so different from my impression, and sure enough all of the negative reviews complain that the book is LDS/Mormon religious fiction.  I suspect the large number of positive reviews are the author’s community supporting him.

There’s one really good, dramatic action scene in the book, which is pretty much responsible for the second star it got.

I’m always glad to see writers branch out from straight white male protagonists, and the main character does rescue herself on occasion, but she spends most of the book being pushed around by men or dealing with the consequences of their actions.

Book Review – Matter by Iain Banks

Matter by Iain Banks

Matter by Iain Banks

The blurb expounds:

In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one – maybe two – people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever.

Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy.

Concealing her new identity – and her particular set of abilities – might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else’s war is never a simple matter.

This is the eighth book in the Culture series.  I read the previous books quite a few years ago so I don’t remember them that well (and my copies predate the Kindle so they’re a pain to re-read), although I do remember that I liked them.  Apparently it’s not just my fault that I stopped reading after the seventh book – there was an eight year gap between when the seventh and eighth book were written.

The Culture series is similar to Asimov’s Foundation series in that the books in the series don’t share characters or settings with each other, but what they have in common is that they exist in the same universe and share the same premise.  I think this is the secret to writing a long series without it getting tedious.

The Culture series is set in the far future, when humanity has spread through the galaxy, developed lots of new technologies and come in contact with other species of differing sophistication.  However all of the books (as far as I can remember) concern themselves more with how lesser developed species interact with the Culture (as we’re now known).  This has an interesting effect of allowing the author to write different kinds of novels set in differing pseudo-historical periods with the added spice of super-advanced humans undercover among them to observe and sometimes intervene.

Something I liked about this book was that it’s sci-fi the way nobody seems to write anymore, but I guess it makes sense since the first book in the series was written in 1987 and the basic premise hasn’t changed since then.

Sadly the author passed away in 2013, so we’re never going to get more than ten books in the series.  This gives me a bitter-sweet perspective on the remaining books that I haven’t read yet.  Fortunately this book did not disappoint – I enjoyed it at least as much as I remember enjoying the previous ones.

The theme of this book seemed to be “there’s always a bigger fish” – no matter how advanced you are, there’s always someone more advanced than you.  This was combined with the concept of the more advanced people spying on and toying with the less advanced, which should make any Culture citizen stop and think for a second.

Novels usually have fairly predictable story arcs in that they follow the traditional conflict-climax-resolution model.  I guess this is kind of a chicken-and-egg situation because novels being written that way make readers expect it, which means novels have to be written that way.  I thought this book was interesting in that it starts off with a traditional story arc and then gets entirely derailed by a different plotline.  I really liked it, but since it’s unconventional some people may not.