Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: Books (Page 2 of 3)

Iain M. Banks’ “Consider Phlebas”

One of the names I keep bumping into when I read recommendations about what author to check into next is that of Iain M. Banks. Since I was at one of the awesome Powells Books locations in town a couple of weeks ago, and what seems to be the first of the “Culture” books was available for a reasonable price, I decided to check it out. Or, rather, purchase it since I wasn’t in a library.

Ha, ha. That’s what passes for humor today, folks.

Let’s start with the good stuff, which is considerable: There are many good and interesting and clever ideas in this book. As science fiction goes, it certainly qualifies as good speculative material, and less twee than a number of writers’ efforts I’ve seen in the past decade. (Note that “Phlebas” first saw print in the late 1980s.) Charles Stross, by comparison, is a clever fellow with a number of interesting ideas, but sometimes his writing comes off as being a bit taken with its own cleverness. Banks doesn’t give me that impression; in fact, he may have gone too far in the other direction. Some of the meaty speculative stuff sits apart from the main narrative, pulling you out of the story to bury you in concepts and navel-gazing. Interesting navel-gazing, sure, but still.

I’m impressed that our erstwhile protagonist is clearly opposed to the Culture society that Banks makes no bones about casting as the smarter, more valuable faction in the interstellar war portrayed in the book. At no point does he back down from his stance that the Culture is a path down which humanity should not further tread, and he’s not a raving lunatic or delusional or anything so trite: He holds well-reasoned beliefs that place him on the opposing side. It’s an interesting and effective way to frame the conflict.

But. And you knew there had to be one.

One of the big problems I have with the idea of writing a novel is that I’m lousy when it comes time to provide descriptive detail. Well, this book set my mind at ease… somewhat. It turns out that you could probably tell a better story if you leave out, say, two-thirds to three-quarters of the descriptive detail that Banks puts into “Phlebas.” Much of the fight choreography is… exceedingly precise, more often than not, for instance. I found myself skimming entire large paragraphs throughout most of the back half of the book, and I couldn’t honestly tell you precisely how the various combatants on Schar’s World end up getting from where they start to where they lay at the end. A lot was going on, and I was expected to track every aspect of it all. Never mind figuring out what happened at the Megaship, earlier in the story.

Maybe I’m just not smart enough, but you know, I’d rather expend my brainpower on absorbing the high-concept stuff. Call me crazy.

A story can win or lose me on the ending, however, and “Consider Phlebas” bears quite an ending. Lots of endings, in fact.

(Look, this book’s older than my kids. So here’s all the spoiler warning you get. Thpppt.)

I don’t mean “lots of endings” in the “Return of the King movie version” sort of way. No, I mean that pretty much everybody dies. Actually, everybody does die. Maybe not in the story proper, but what we’re given after the story is a bunch of, “And here’s what happens to the survivors, years later. So and so? Went into cold sleep, revived, then killed themselves. This other person? Dead. Everyone else who got through this? Dead. Oh, the Machine Mind survived, that’s good, right?”

Why tell me this?

The story could’ve ended at the last chapter. I’d have been saddened but moderately satisfied, as the mission was complete and the couple of sadder-but-wiser protagonists who made it out could… I don’t know, go on with their lives, and so on. But no. We get appendices and epilogues, including an entire chunk of detail about how the galaxy-spanning war which provides the backdrop and impetus for the story ends, decades later, for reasons which have nothing to do with the events I’ve just spent hours reading about.

What?!?

What was the point? Our erstwhile hero manages to nearly complete his dangerous mission, and not only does he die at the point of completion but his efforts amounted to a hill of beans. Righto, then.

Is it a good book? Arguably. Is it a good read? Only if you don’t care about a good ending, and if you don’t mind sometimes-obsessive levels of detail. Am I going to seek out more of Banks’ books…?

Probably not.

Stranger In A Strange Land

Once again, the “classics” are leaving me cold.

I’m not done with what is arguably Heinlein’s best-known work, and I’m not sure I’ll finish. Oh, the first two parts are interesting enough. V. M. Smith and his interactions with the people of Earth hold one’s attention well enough, covering a lot of the ground that the C.J. Cherryh “Foreigner” series would later examine in excruciating detail: “Aliens and humans don’t think alike!” Yep. We established that, alright. And let’s be honest, there’s vast and fertile storytelling ground in that concept.

Too bad we’ve spent half the book so far centered on one word: Grok.

All of these clever humans Michael ends up surrounded by, and they can’t find the words in English (or presumably any other language) to approximate this Martian term… that Heinlein conveyed moderately well several times in that same stretch of the book. In, you know, English. Ahem. Well, we wouldn’t want the characters to be as clever as the author, would we? Hey, let’s hit the readers over the head with “grok” a few more times! Some of the conversations late in the second section are interesting, but most are absurd from overuse of grok this, grok that, grok you.

But that’s not where the book has lost me. I can roll my eyes and get past all of that, especially for the sake of the solid sociopolitical theater in the Jubal arc, but I’m perplexed at the Digby And Foster Show. I’m barely into the book’s third section and… all of a sudden, after all of Jubal’s ranting and railing about religion, now we’re peeking into the Heavenly Bureaucracy? For laughs? And the crazy love grokbirds have taken on a tattooed evangelist, and that’s going to be played seriously? Um.

It was the second appearance of Digby And Foster: Angels In Heaven that pulled me out of the book completely. I looked at the time (a bit later than I should’ve been awake, but not too late), firmly closed the book and turned out the light.

I don’t know if I’m going to finish this thing. So, dear readers, I ask you: Is it worth it?

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

I was handed a stack of Ian Fleming novels a couple of weeks ago, and I finally got around to reading through one of them.

“From Russia With Love” is the story of a well-planned, well-executed trap, one into which Secret Agent James Bond walks blindly, right up until the jaws are snapping shut. It’s a gentleman’s travelogue with occasional violence and one instance of sex. The book’s more interested in the meals and cigarettes than with setting and story, let alone characterization. The most meaningful relationship in the book isn’t between James Bond and Tatiana Romanova, but between James and his Turkish friend, Darko Kerim.

In short, it’s not at all what I expected. Bond’s hardly the supercool hero who has everything figured out from the start. For one thing, he’s a bit squeamish about cold-blooded killing. Perhaps this is because it’s ungentlemanly… as is smelling of rat tunnels. He makes an entire series of strategic blunders throughout, and in fact only survives through a combination of dumb luck, some preparation from Q Branch, and a suddenly stupid and self-absorbed opponent. Even then, at the very end of the book, he botches things again and is left for… well, not quite dead, but he’s in bad shape.

I mean, what?

It’s a very odd book, and certainly not timeless. A bit of research after-the-fact tells me that this is one of the best-regarded selections from the series. I think that’s my cue not to pursue Ian Fleming’s books further, don’t you?

Wrath of a Mad God, by Raymond E. Feist

I’m not going to bore you with a lengthy review. If you’re a Feist fan, you’re going to read this book. If you’re not familiar with his work or not a fan, there’s very little chance that you’ll make it far enough through his written output to end up at this book.

I just want to say two quick things about “Wrath of a Mad God.”

One: This is the first time that I’ve spotted glaring, huge continuity problems in one of Ray’s books. Erik von Darkmoor never married? Are you kidding me? A major part of the last two Serpentwar books just gets thrown away like that, eh? That’s not the only continuity error, but it’s the one which sticks out most in my mind. There are several others that even I was able to spot. And I’m not good at that sort of thing!

Two: I’m glad it’s over. (No, I don’t care if he’s intending to write more books in this setting. Really, it’s over.) Enough of the questions are answered. Kind of. I mean, let’s count how many times have we seen Feist use a variant of this line: “Okay, the truth this time. I mean it.” Right. Sure. Whatever. But that’s not really my point. It’s just gotten to the point where the levels of threat and destruction and mayhem and sacrifice have gotten out of hand. There’s always going to be one more bigger badder threat which requires a total rewrite of the series’ mythology (how many versions of “the nature of the gods” have we been subjected to?) and a higher body count and… let it go already. There are only so many times you can crank up the threat levels before your story becomes… well… Dragonball Z. You don’t want your story to be compared to DBZ, do you?

I consider this book to be closure on the Pug-And-Thomas storyline. I’m not even that curious about the Quor (who, of course, it is now revealed in the very book in which they’re introduced that they were native to Midkemia from before the Chaos Wars or some-such and the Valheru respected them (what??) and blah blah blah) since it’s actually kind of obvious what they’re meant to be (if the Dreadcritters are from a lower plane, where do you suppose the shiny Quor come from, duh) and… I’m tired of mythology rewrites.

I still count the Riftwar through the end of the Serpentwar as my favorite storyline ever. This is much the same way that I still love (most of) Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books up to All The Weyrs, and the same way I (against all logic or decency) love the Eddings’ Belgariad and Elenium. It’s just that after a certain point all of these writers seem to have lost their sense of perspective and common sense. Sad, really, but apparently also inevitable. So be it.

The Elder Gods

I’ll give The Eddings this much: “The Elder Gods” is an improvement over the disaster named “The Redemption of Althalus.” As you can imagine, though, I don’t think that’s saying very much.

What does this new book get right? Oddly enough, one of the improvements is that it doesn’t try so hard to be clever. Oh, you’ll recognize almost all of the catchphrases from earlier Eddings characters, but we’re not smothered in smirking repartee to nearly the level that “Althalus” reaches.

Another improvement is a step away from The Eddings Archetypes. That’s right, folks, there is no instantly-recognizable Polgara/Sephrenia-type character in the book! Now, I like Aunt Pol well enough, but seeing her casually reworked for each new story gets a bit tiring.

The last bit of good in this new series is the occasional hint of potential conflict between real characters some time down the road. This isn’t to say these hints will pay off, but it’s nice to think that this series may grow some actual fangs… eventually.

That brings us to the disappointing aspects of the book.

What we have here is a slightly better story told not entirely unlike that of “Althalus.” The chief differences are that there are more characters, and there’s no time travel involved. Oh, and the enemy’s even easier to hate. In fact, that’s among my biggest problems with this book. The baddies? Bug-snake-men. A giant swarming hive of ‘em. That’s right, folks, The Eddings are picking on a nice safe target instead of taking the risk that there may be actual moral qualms on the part of our intrepid heroes. This is a disturbing trend I’ve seen among a lot of recent genre works, this unwillingness to make actual people the antagonists. The only crisis is “the nasties are invading, we must stop them.”

Well, okay, there is a minor crisis of conscience late in the book… and it’s resolved within a chapter or so. Right. Remember when it took several books in the series for Garion to finally come to grips with his treatment of Asharak the Murgo? Yeah, there’s nothing like that here.

There’s another annoyance that you might not ordinarily think of as such. You see, everyone gets along. Very well. Extraordinarily well. Does this sound familiar to anyone? A diverse group of clever, intelligent, and overwhelmingly reasonable people who may find one another occasionally amusing but they all have “grudging” mutual respect? Have we been down this road a few times already? But this time it’s even better, because there’s multiples of everyone! We have two clever young lads who’d rather be doing something else but are forced by circumstances to take a larger role in things. We have two reluctant, moderately gifted, loyalty-inspiring leaders-of-men who are thrust into a campaign alongside what are normally mortal enemies but are so damned reasonable that they think almost nothing of it. We have four godlings, and four “dreamers” (of which the Aphrael-clone is one).

Okay, I take it back, what I said earlier about there not being a Polgara-type: Mother Sea (yes, the Earth and the Sea are characters, as is the Moon) comes off as very much cut from that mold. Ah, well. At least she doesn’t show up very often. That’s got to count for something, right?

We only have one exceptionally talented archer with uncommon perceptive skills and a knack for politics, military campaigns and espionage, but one of him is more than enough.

What really irks me about this book, I suppose, is one of the things that irked me about “Althalus.” (Yes, I’m sure you’re shocked and amazed.) While the characterization in “The Elder Gods” is a huge improvement, the characters don’t generally have any meaningful flaws. Everyone’s just so damned likeable, and for some reason that makes me want to not like the whole bunch of them that much more.

Again we contrast to the earlier, vastly superior Belgariad. Silk’s mouth got him in actual trouble from time to time. Garion’s youthful indecision and impulsiveness got everyone into trouble on occasion. Hettar was a classic obsessive type and had to be reined in fairly regularly. Mandorallen could be both impossibly dense and rudely overbearing at times. These characteristics were smoothed away a bit over the course of the series, but at least they didn’t start out in a state of near-perfection.

Speaking of contrasts, how about those bad guys? A maimed, unloved god? An apostate former friend and ally? Various characters of significant magical or political power whose alliances tended to shift back and forth as need dictated? All of that made for interesting conflicts. And none of that is in this book. “Kill those bug-snake-men,” that’s the whole of it. They even manage to turn a decent mid-book all-human naval confrontation into just another skirmish against the hive critters, by grafting a wholly-unsurprising new motivation onto the antagonists of the moment.

I think it boils down to the fact that The Eddings, much like Anne McCaffrey has done, have reached a point where they can’t stand hurting any of their characters, nor can they stand having lead characters that somebody out there may dislike in some way for any reason at all. But mostly it’s about the not-hurting. The problem is, if your characters aren’t getting hurt, where’s the conflict that drives the story?

My all-time favorite fantasy-ish series is Raymond E. Feist’s “Riftwar” books, and most of the books that come after. (And by “most” I mean “everything but those forgettable ‘Krondor the Whatever’ books. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.) One thing Mr. Feist has done that impresses me is that he’s actually become tougher on his characters as time goes by. The first book of the “Serpentwar” series startled me with how gritty and harsh the depictions of war became. People died all over the place. Those who survived were scarred in some fashion, and the meaningful scars were psychological.

One doesn’t go into an Eddings novel expecting that sort of gritty realism, but it’s hard to invest oneself in a story that’s so bland as to barely impose itself upon your psyche.

That’s not the worst of it, though. Oh, no. There’s one last thing that really annoyed me, and that’s the climax of the military campaign (such as it was). It’s spoileriffic, however, so you may just want to stop reading here. Really.

I’m about to spoil a big part of the ending. You can, if you want, stop reading this entry right here and get the gist of how I feel about the book.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

See, it was starting to get interesting there towards the end. The good guys get outsmarted, and then outmaneuvered, and then ambushed. Hey, the bad guys are getting in a good beating, this is pretty cool! Action, drama! Wait, what’s that? The good guys are cut off, surrounded, and running out of oh-so-clever ideas? Well now, let’s see what kind of heroic sacrifice or effort will be involved in getting out of this mess—

ZOT! BOOM! And one of the gods makes the whole damned problem go away.

Wait wait wait WAIT! Are you kidding me? We gave up on the “ex machina” and went for pure “deus”? No muss, no fuss, nobody gets hurt? ARGH! This is almost as bad of a cheat as the time-travel ourobourus ending to “Althalus,” and that’s saying something.

Okay, the spoilers are done. It’s safe to read below this point.

Was I entertained by this book? Oh, sure. Was I disappointed? Yes, that too. Is it an improvement over the author’s previous work? Mostly. Should you rush out and buy a copy? Used, paperback, maybe. If you liked “Althalus,” you’ll totally dig this. If you think the Eddings’ material started going downhill during or after the first Sparhawk series, you should probably steer clear of this unless you’re a sucker for their style of clever banter. (In case you hadn’t already figured it out: Unfortunately, I am.) If you’ve never read an Eddings book… go grab the Belgariad books, which are far and away the best material bearing the author’s name.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dive into the other book I picked up at Powell’s the other day…

Shadowmarch

As I prepare to embark on a novel-writing adventure, I should tell you about my recent novel-reading adventure. And by “adventure” I mean “week-long slog.”

So there’s this castle near the barrier/border between the lands of normal folks and the lands of the fairie-folk. The king’s been kidnapped, and through a series of circumstances power is thrust into the hands of twin royal siblings, Barrick and Briony. One’s a petulant, moody sort with a weak constitution. The other’s a hot-tempered, moody sort with a yen for crossdressing. There are other characters (and charicatures) running around, but the story centers on those two. Oh, and a halfling— um, Funderling named Chert. And… oh, nevermind. I’m not here to run through the list of principal characters who inhabit Southmarch. We’d be here all afternoon.

Meanwhile, a continent or so away, we meet a young lady who gets sucked up into palace intrigue as the newest of a horde of wives of a pharaonic despot sort of ruler. Periodically the book takes little side trips to check on her miserable existence. One assumes that in later volumes she’ll become, you know, important or some-such.

I’ll sum up: Lots of bad things happen. In fact, very few good things happen. People die, often in creepy and/or grisly fashion. Betrayals and intrigue abound. Dark magicks are employed. There’s not much in the way of humor, and there’s an incredible weight of plot setup that, one again assumes, will pay off in the later books. There’s no cliffhanger ending (though until the last few chapters I was convinced there would be), and in fact this book manages to end satisfactorily instead of just abruptly cutting off. Mind you, it’s one of those “now all the pieces are in motion for the next volume” endings, but it could’ve been worse.

Did I enjoy it? Well enough to keep reading it every night or so, but when I hit the end I was relieved rather than antsy for the next book. That’s not what we call “a good sign.” Oh, it’s well written, and the characters are fairly well fleshed out, and at the end I got the feeling that the plot from there on out will be rather interesting… but getting to that point took some doing. “Tedious” is one word that comes to mind.

Your mileage may vary, but my basic recommendation is to wait for it in paperback and pick it up only if you’re committed to the fantasy genre and really need a complex bit of work to sink your teeth into.

Shadowmarch website

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