Year: 2007

World Without End by Ken Follett | Book Review

Ken Follett wrote mostly thrillers until the publication of The Pillars of the Earth in 1989. This huge book focused on the construction of a cathedral in medieval England and was something of a risk for his published. A risk that paid off, it became one of his best selling novels. Recently it got a lot of attention when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. In 2007 the equally large tome World Without End was published. I read the Dutch translation, Brug naar de Hemel, which is just over 1100 pages (hardcover format). It is set in the same town in medieval England but roughly two centuries later. It covers the live of some of the descendants of the characters of Pillars of the Earth but can be read independently.

World Without End is set in the town of Kingsbridge. There is a Kingsbridge in Devon but the town Follett describes appears to be fictional. The novel covers events in the town in the years 1327-1361, a turbulent period in English history. In January 1327 King Edward II is disposed after a long running conflict with his nobles and a conspiracy lead by his wife Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer. Later that year he dies under suspicious circumstances in captivity. Various theories about his death have surfaced since but the truth is we don’t know for sure. Hints about the death of Edward II can be found throughout the book. Edward II is succeeded by his son Edward III who would reign England for the next 50 years. During his reign the Black Death struck England. Edward III also claimed that, after the death of Charles IV of France, he was the legitimate heir to the French throne. A claim that would result in the conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War. Both the Hundred Years’ War and the black death have a major impact on the lives of our main characters.

Although there are more points of view in the book there are four main characters brought together by an incident in 1327. All of them are between 8 and 10 years old by then and they witness a fight between two King’s men and a man named Thomas of Langley who would later enter into the Kingsbridge monastery. Gwenda is the daughter of a landless peasant, her family lives in poverty and has to resort to stealing to make a living. Caris is the daughter of a rich wool merchant. Methin and Ralph are the sons of a knight who has lost his lands to the monetary after he failed to pay a debt he owed them.

Gwenda fights for the man she loves and to escape the poverty of a landless peasant. Caris wants to become a doctor, one that does research instead of blindly following traditions and the works of Galenus. Methin sees his hopes of becoming a knight vanish as his younger and physically more imposing brother Ralph is sent to the count of Shiring to train for war. As Ralph starts his quest to regain his family’s nobility, Methin is sent to a local carpenter to learn his trade. During the course of their lives and careers they frequently clash with each other and the prior of the monastery, father Godwyn. Their lives illustrate a number of conflicts in medieval society as well as changes taking place in society, trade and government in their time.

Personally I think Follett does a great job on the historical aspects of his novel. He pays a lot of attention to the changes of the position of the lower classes in society after the plague decimates the population of England. I also liked to description of the Battle of Crécy, one of the early victories of the English in the Hundred Year’s War. I’m sure there are all manner of historical inaccuracies if you care to look for them but he certainly did his homework on the setting of his work. That being said, I think most of the characters are very liberal thinking people, more so than would be accepted in medieval society. While there obviously was a great deal of pragmatism involved in making things work, the characters don’t seem quite so aware of their social position as one would expect. But maybe that is just my imperfect understanding of history.

What I likes less about this book is that unlike The Pillars of the Earth it misses something really ties the characters together. Sure, the arrival of Thomas in Kingsbridge is something they all witness, and his secret is used to close the novel but in the years between the characters seem to float free. No overarching storyline seems to connect their individual projects. In the 14th century people still lived in relatively small but densely populated communities, so the characters run into each other frequently but they are driven by their own ambitions, much less by conflicts or joint projects. Where the cathedral provided a solid centre for the novel in The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End lacks such a core. The various episodes we get to see in the main characters’ lives sometimes strike me as random. Which given the length of the book is not a good thing.

Despite it length the novel is a light read, judging from the translation Follett doesn’t just use very complicated language. He also keeps a good pace even if not all scenes seem to fit into the overarching story. Despite it’s flaws I enjoyed reading it. The Pillars of the Earth is definitely the better of the two but people who enjoyed the first book will want to read this one.

Through Wolf’s Eyes by Jane Lindskold | Book Review

Through Wolf’s Eyes is the first part in Lindskold’s six book Firekeeper series. With the sixth novel published earlier this year, Lindskold has indicated the series is complete (for those of you who don’t want to commit to another unfinished fantasy series). The series as a whole is not ground breaking but it is well written and well researched. I found the books very entertaining.

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Elephantmen: Wounded Animals |Review

Sometimes, it pays to read the forewords to certain books. It can give the reader an idea of the tone of the book and possibly offer insight to the creative process of the author. Other times, it lowers the expectations for the piece, but that might not necessarily be a terrible thing, as in the case of “Elephantment: Wounded Animals.” Richard Starkings’ forward lists an array of influences which are campy cult classics that are vastly entertaining, but often not entirely substantial. He claims that his intent in the creation of the Elephantmen series was to make a sort of homage to the pulp sci-fi and mystery books and magazines of his youth. In a sense, he’s achieved exactly that, but in another, he’s failed horribly.

The basic premise of the Elephantmen series is that a mad doctor operating in Africa, which has now become nothing more than a wasteland of battlefields, created a race of super soldiers by splicing together the DNA of humans and animals. The resultant creatures are known as Elephantmen, despite the fact that some of them are clearly alligators, hippopautomi, rhinoceri, and warthogs. A movement formed that liberated the Elephantmen and complicated their lives immeasurably by forcing them to try to live in mainstream society. All of the Elephantmen are much taller and heavier than their human counterparts and they are treated very poorly by most of the humans in their world.

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A Sword From Red Ice by J.V. Jones | Book Review

A Sword From Red Ice brings us a long-awaited continuation of J.V. Jones’ Sword of Shadows series.

In the Northern Territories, the situation is rapidly growing ever more dire for all those living – the clans, the cityfolk and even the mysterious Sull people. Despite Raif Sevrance’s successful healing of the breach in the Blindwall in A Fortress of Grey Ice – the Blindwall has been breached again. The Unmade are being gradually unleashed on the world of the living and no one is safe. Ash March continues on her journey to the Sull homeland and struggles to gain acceptance from her adoptive people.

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God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe | Book Review

Hell is a setting but never quite a theme in Wayne Barlowe’s debut novel God’s Demon; this explains both the book’s successes and its disappointments. At its best Barlowe’s novel provides a fairly typical, quasi-medieval fantasy story — in an infernal setting that evokes the primal otherness of games like Doom and Diablo. But with the novel emerging based on Barlowe’s concept art for a forthcoming film adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Barlowe’s own interest in Dante’s Inferno, God’s Demon aspires to more. Unfortunately, Barlowe’s attempt to include classic questions of punishment and redemption, freedom and divine will evokes admiration, yes, but also the sense that these questions never really mesh with the story he is telling. The result is a work that may yield some visceral pleasure for epic fantasy fans, but feels muddled in plot, characterization and theme.

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The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb | Book Review

The second book in Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. I reread this book during my recent move and had to drag myself away repeatedly to see to such trivial details as packing. Like the first book in this trilogy The Mad Ship is a very good book.

The end of book one sees Pirate captain Kennit in possession of the Vestrit family’s liveship Vivacia. Back in Bingtown things are going little better for their family. Only the supposed revenue of the Vivacia is keeping the creditors at bay for the moment. The tensions between the Old Trader families and the newcomers keeps mounting but the Vestrits are too preoccupied to take much notice. Not until the news hits Bingtown that the Vivacia has been taken at least. Then the Vestrit family finds out how desperate things have become for their own class, and with how little support that leaves them.

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The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore | Book Review

the orc kingAs many fanboy will complain, Salvatore’s last few Drizzt books lost a step here or there. The story needed to move on though and sometimes that takes a few books. Here we have the culmination of those efforts in The Orc King with a new and exciting chapter in the life of our favorite dark elf, Drizzt.

Salvatore gives a glance at the future in the prologue and epilogue of the book. On one hand, maybe these peeks into the future give us too much information by allowing us to see who lives and who may die. On the other hand, I have been told that allowing us to see the ending allows us to focus on the story more. I personally disagree with the second statement and would have liked to seen both the prologue and epilogue removed from the book to allow me more of an element of surprise. Regardless of this, Drizzt and his friends/enemies are back, and the story they have to show us is magnificent and action packed. Salvatore is doing what he does best: action, sword fighting, and battle description. He brings you so close you can smell the blood and sweat and taste the dust. Salvatore can plop you in the middle of a raging battle you are brought in with a magnifying glass without ever losing the whole picture.

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The Follower by Jason Starr | Book Review

The yuppie dating scene in The Follower is convincingly rendered and provides an interesting backdrop for the story. The at times shallow cesspool where everyone is thinking about looks, sex, who’s hot and getting laid actually provides a good setting for this type of story because people quickly build up layers of deceit with each other.

The book is divided into three parts and I think that it’s best to take each one individually. In the first part we are given an in depth character study of the three main characters. We are given reasons to both like them and not like them as our initial perceptions about them will change as they become more fleshed out. Starr chooses, wisely, to end the first section when he does, when his adept characterizations threatens to become character saturation.

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Inside Straight – A Wild Cards Novel edited by George R.R. Martin | Book Review

Inside Straight is a Wild Cards novel. The Wild Cards universe is a shared universe that was created in 1987 by George R. R. Martin. A number of authors write individual chapters/short stories focusing on a specific character, which Martin then edits together into an overall story. Inside Straight is the 18th novel set in the universe.

In the Wild Cards Universe, an alien virus that re-writes human DNA was released on Earth in 1946. It killed 90% of the people it infected. 9% were mutated into Jokers, who were deformed into a wide variety of non-human looking appearances. 1% gained superpowers as a result of their exposure and became known as “Aces”.

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Spaceman Blues: A Love Story by Brian Francis Slattery | Book Review

As far as I can remember the science-fiction/fantasy genre hasn’t ever really had a novel written in this style before. A jazzy, beat-like rush of words that wash over you and result in a total immersion of the environment. This bop prosody style is also very musical. It attains its own rhythmic quality with chord progressions, riffs and multiple layers that may not reveal themselves upon first listening errrrr reading. Every single page is filled with exuberant and intense prose that leaves you breathless.

Mixed up into this Cosmic Slop is a story that manages at times to bring about both the ordinary and the fantastic. Wendell, as our gay Orpheus who must descend into the depths and transform himself to save the man he loves, is indicative of this dichotomy. The transformation of his ordinary being into the superhero Captain Spaceman is total and complete. Its a palpable and very real change but at the same time it really is just a strength training regiment, a make-over & rampant rumors. But to summarize it like this may give off the impression that it is mundane and maybe even boring. That’s not the case though and Slattery manages the high-wire act of making us believe that he really is a superhero.

Another thing that’s interesting about these characters is how much we get to know about them. The narrative plays it fast and loose with time and space and we are assaulted with all of the thoughts, actions, histories and movements of every single character. It makes for an intense broad experience that revels in and proudly displays the, at times, near-forgotten immigrant heritage of America.
Oh yeah, and did I mention the alien invasion, the destruction of NYC, the secret cults and societies, the metaphysical police detectives, the sidekick, the master who teaches our hero how to fight and an Australian pop band from the 80’s (who had one hit in China called ‘Don’t Try to Box (A Kangaroo)?’) turned smugglers? All of these, and more, are here.

Spaceman Blues is a novel that begs to not only be read out loud but demands to be performed, maybe at a slam if the poets of the Nuyorican Cafe collaborated on a novelization of Parliament songs and the soundtrack was played by Fishbone. If ever a novel left you with the mussed hair, quickie-in-the-elevator-between-floors feeling then this book is it.

A quick side note. While I do love the cover of the book I can’t help but think there was a missed opportunity in not having someone like Pedro Bell do an original piece instead. It would have been an inspired choice that would have fit the tone of the book beautifully. Just an observation and didnt affect how I felt about the book.

**Yes, I realize that the excerpts are longer then the actually review. Spaceman Blues has a distinct style and I think a review of this book is best served by extended excerpts, which I have tried to be generous in providing. Moreso then what I write they will probably help you decide if this book is for you.

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing | Book Review

What makes certain writings “interstitial” is largely a matter of expectations, say Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, editors of Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. How, then, to set expectations for the anthology itself? For reader expectations may either highlight or camouflage that this is a good if somewhat homogeneous assemblage of literate, fantastic short stories.

Insofar as the stories of the anthology suggest a platform to base expectations around, we might start by specifying that interstitial fiction is not itself a genre or movement in the conventional sense: it has few inherent characteristics or identifiers. Ignore the back cover braggadocio that interstitial writing is “a new type of fiction”; it has been with us, contradict the editors, since at least Shakespeare. Ignore also the frequent refrain that interstitial writing “crosses borders,” as further comments and evidence suggest that this is neither intrinsic nor exclusive to interstitial writing. Concentrate instead on the back cover’s suggestion that interstitial writing “falls in the interstices of recognized commercial genres” — and bear in mind Heinz Insu Fenkl’s comments from his Introduction to the anthology, that “an interstice is not an intersection. […] Literally it means to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle.'” Not stand between separate genres, necessarily (a semantic issue that plagues many attempted explanations of interstitiality), but as the cover blurb hints, between the commercial aspect of a genre and its wider potential. (more…)

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay | Book Review

The fantasy classic the cover of my copy proclaims, and I suppose that is what it is. You would be hard pressed to find another single volume fantasy novel of such depth. It is the first book I read by Kay, and although in hindsight I must admit I like The Lions of Al-Rassan better, I am as impressed with this novel after a reread as the first time I read it.

Tigana is set on the peninsula of the Palm, a land loosely based on the city states of Renaissance Italy. Two decades ago two sorcerers from nations overseas invaded the hopelessly divided Palm and swept away all resistance. Now the Palm is neatly divided between Alberico of Barbadior and Brandon of Ygrath. The two Tyrants are warily watching each other afraid to make the first move against the other for different reasons. Alberico is cautious by nature and his true ambition lies in his homeland. He also knows himself to be the weaker of the two sorcerers. Brandon’s attention is occupied by revenge.

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