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Eight Books - Qualified Perceptions
Eight Books
A Betrayal in Winter (by Daniel Abraham)
This is the sequel to A Shadow In Summer. It's a little simpler (the plot is about a bloody succession war in a noble house) than its predecessor, but no less good. It's a self-contained story, but with characters from the previous book, and Summer had more exposition about how the world works which is taken for granted here. So, don't read it before reading the previous book, but do read it. Four and a half stars - I deducted half a star for not being quite as brilliant and poetic as the first, but perhaps that's overly picky of me.

Ilium (by Dan Simmons)
A very ambitious book, which (for me) only partly works, though even that much is still a Good Book. There are three separate threads - the Jovian-satellite robots on a mission to investigate the weird goings-on on Mars, the adventures in the post-literate "Eloi" civilization, and the Iliad On Mars. Both thread 1 and thread 2 are fine stories; thread 3 started out compelling and mysterious, but I got a little frustrated because I kept expecting "*Why* is there an Iliad On Mars?" to be answered, and it really never was. (I assume it will be answered in Book 2, Olympus though if the weirdness quotient keeps going up, I'm not sure it will appeal as much.) Still, I had a hard time putting it down, nearly from beginning to end. A couple of smaller gripes:
  • I'm familiar with the Iliad. I'm familiar with Shakespeare (who is nearly as featured as Homer). I'm not so familiar with Proust, but the discussions of him are literary discussions, so I can follow them. But I have almost no familiarity with Nabokov, so all the Eloi plot references (Ada/Daeman/Ardis Hall/duplicate Earths) went completely over my head (and I didn't realize they were references) until I looked in Wikipedia.
  • The bit where Hockenberry feels compelled by circumstances into starting his Plan seemed forced; I didn't think he was as doomed as he thought he was.
  • I can accept fiction influencing reality, but I'd prefer "the groupmind of human consciousness affects reality" to "Shakespeare had an amazingly powerful consciousness, so he personally affected reality". Of course, that was just one character's theory, so maybe he was on crack.
Three point nine stars, so as to sneak it in just under the "pester people to read this" threshold.

Full Dark House (by Christopher Fowler)
Some first books in a series are explosions - a wild explosion of plots and characters - and the rest of the series is somehow mildly disappointing in comparison. Other first books are pilot episodes - a careful introduction to how things will be, what sort of plot you might expect and what the characters are like. The first sort is more fun to read, but sometimes the second sort is more promising. Full Dark House is more of the second kind for me - not brilliant or hilarious itself, but a good start. It's mostly a peculiar murder mystery set in London in World War II, but the frame story is a murder mystery in present day London. It's a little more somber than madcap, which I wasn't expecting from the ad copy, but good for a pilot. Three stars.

Acacia (by David Anthony Dunham)
Actually, I guess the (sub)title is The War with the Mein, as it's the first book of the Acacia trilogy, but Acacia is the thing in huge font and the subtitle is extraordinarily small. I was quite impressed by this - it reminded me a lot of Game of Thrones. (Semi-spoilers ahead, though nothing that the back of the book doesn't tell you.) There's a fairly long period of setup before the action actually starts; I can see why, because it builds the "peaceful happy empire" while also showing you "dark nasty underpinnings of empire" peeking around the edges. It's a little slow, but not boring. Then the empire is overthrown (a little more easily and quickly than I thought entirely reasonable), and the four heirs scatter to the four winds, some more successfully than others. Then there's individual adventures of the heirs (part 2), and striking back at the bad guys (part 3). Like Martin, Dunham is not hesitant to kill important characters (and not just the ones with "Doomed To Die" on floating arrows above their heads), and he also has a deft touch with very different characters of all varieties of good/evil and nice/harsh. Four and a half stars.

Nightlife (by Rob Thurman)
I should know not to expect too much from a book when it has a praisequote by Simon R Green on the front cover, but I keep hoping for an urban fantasy series that doesn't vaguely irritate me. Nightlife had some good bits, but it had too many vaguely irritating bits to be the answer to my quest. (Spoilers ahead). I really liked the description of the "Grendel" (monsters) - scary and unpleasant sounding, but recognizable as "elf" if you look closely, and sure enough, they're eventually identified as such. I liked the concept of doing a switch in POV from the main character to the main character possessed by the evil thing - except that the voice didn't change enough. He goes from snarky and selfish to snarky and psycho, but those are pretty close. (On the other hand, the point is that the possessed version is an amalgam, so maybe that's why). On the minus side, the first half of the book is kind of "Run around and interrogate a random aspect of Weird New York about what they know about the plot", iterated a few too many times. And then there's this quote: "They say those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. What they don't say is what happens when you forget it totally." No! They do say exactly what happens when you forget it totally! They say "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"! Or, at least, that's what the guy who first said it said. Many people since him have said all sorts of variants ("Those who cannot remember past quotes are doomed to repeat them wrong..."), and the main character is not particularly well-read, so mangling the quote is in character... but it still vaguely irritates me. Two and a half stars.

Pushing Ice (by Alastair Reynolds)
A nice self-contained big-canvas space opera. It's one of those stories where the plot makes sense going forward, but not in retrospect (a common failure mode for mysteries, and this is kind of a mystery, in the "what the heck is going on and why?" sense). Nevertheless, the plot is pretty compelling as it goes along, and I had a hard time putting the book down (and it had some stiff competition, that being "all of London"). There are a number of jumps forward in time, which work pretty well; there are a couple of surprises which really seriously surprised me, and most of the interaction is driven by a pathological case of Geek Social Fallacy #3 which seemed all too believable. And, I got to declare "This is too implausible to be fictional", and was right (the orbits of Janus and Epimetheus). I'm going to deduct half a star for the not-quite-right answer to the mystery, but that's still a good four stars.

The Spiral Hunt (by Margaret Ronald)
This might be the urban fantasy that didn't vaguely irritate me, though I don't know why it didn't. There are too many plot tokens attached to the main character. The spoiler about one of the love plots was a little too cliche. A couple of plot bits got reused too much. But... it didn't annoy me. The main character is interestingly likeable (and her qualms about being ultraviolent on occasion have nothing to do with being female). It's set in Boston and there's a bit of ritual magic (minor spoiler) that was powered by the Curse of the Bambino. Aww. Three and a half stars.

The Shakespeare Secret (by J. L. Carrell)
It's supposed to be The DaVinci Code but for Shakespeare (a lost play and a "who really wrote Shakespeare?" mystery as the secrets), which means that it's totally inane. But it starts in London and heads to Boston from there, so I was willing to cut it a lot of slack, especially if I got to treat it like Angels and Demons in terms of looking for noodleheadedness.

There is a bit of exposition leading to the mention of a tunnel between two of Harvard's library buildings: "In my second year, a slasher had begun leaving trails of intricately carved pages through the lesser-known aisles of [Widener] Library. For a time, he'd been the stuff of jokes. The Minotaur, he'd been christened, the monster in the maze. Officially, Harvard's only response had been to recommend that students head into the labyrinth of the stacks in groups of two or more. Unofficially, research in Widener more or less came to a standstill. As crocuses poked up through the snow, undercover police infiltrated the stacks, and one morning we woke to the news that a small, strange man with the eyes of a snake had been caught - and that the Lamont tunnel had been permanently closed. Rumours rumbled among the students that it had not been a cop who caught the slasher at all, but a priest, and that a titanic battle had doused the length of the tunnel with blood that would not wash clean. Harvard, of course, did not deign to address such superstition directly. Instead, the university relentlessly erased the tunnel from every map, censored every mention of it in print, even sowed silence among the faculty and staff. Within four years, its very existence had largely been wiped from the student body's collective memory." Hee. It's like a summary of someone's Call of Cthulhu run stuck into the middle of an up-until-this-point real-world-ish narrative. Now, first, I spent a long time puzzling over "slasher". Surely a vandal wouldn't terrify people quite so much - was it actually a people-slasher, described really badly? (Does Harvard have pages like a medieval castle? It might, I suppose...) As it turns out, there really was a Widener Slasher, but the reason people were more scared of him was that he also issued bomb threats and creepy Jack-the-Ripper-ish manifestos. There is nothing in the Crimson articles about a titanic blood-soaked battle, however. I also like the InfoWars at the end to erase all memory of the tunnel.

Sadly, that's the best of the completely crazy bits, and the rest of the inanity is more petty - the bad guys seem to be able to teleport to heroine pretty much at will, the heroine seems to randomly kiss an assortment of guys, mostly so that when they turn out to be the bad guy it can be Dramatic, being a Shakespearean scholar seems to automatically mean you're extremely rich, that sort of thing.


9 comments or Leave a comment
desireearmfeldt From: desireearmfeldt Date: February 21st, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wait, Winter is the sequel to Summer? There's no Autumn in between? That ain't right... :)

(OK, now I've looked it up to convince myself that the Autumn one is indeed third, after the Winter one. That still ain't right.)

In any case, I'd be interested in borrowing both that and Acacia sometime (although I'm not sure I should be allowing myself new novels at the moment...).
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: February 21st, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure, I can bring them to ravs tomorrow if you're going to be there. :)
desireearmfeldt From: desireearmfeldt Date: February 22nd, 2009 12:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Yup, I plan to be there. Thanks!
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: February 22nd, 2009 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
This entry is already in third place if I Google for "Widener Slasher".

And I believe the correct quote is "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to spend a lot of time looking for their keys."
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: February 22nd, 2009 04:53 am (UTC) (Link)
This entry is already in third place if I Google for "Widener Slasher".

I am often surprised at how high my random web pages are in google pagerank, and ascribe it to mit.edu as a whole getting bonuses - but that's not even the reason here! Weird. :)
twe From: twe Date: February 22nd, 2009 03:53 am (UTC) (Link)


I don't think the Iliad is happening on Mars. I think they are going back in time to watch the trojan war, though it was most of the way through the book before I realized that.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: February 22nd, 2009 04:50 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Illium

Yeah, and it's actually even more complicated than that because it's an alternate Earth, but the story starts out being sold as Iliad On Mars, so that's what I think of it as. :)
twe From: twe Date: February 22nd, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Illium

To be fair I did spend most of the book wondering why they re-running the Iliad on Mars and moreover, why the robot mission hadn't noticed it. :)

And I would have had no idea there were Nabakov references to be missed if you hadn't written about them.
ricedog From: ricedog Date: February 22nd, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Illium

I vaguely remember there were hints that the gravity changes when you go from Ilium to Mars.

Ditto about the Nabokov. And it wasn't even one of Nabokov's more well-understood works, not that that made any difference for me. :)
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