Saturday, January 10, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 2

Part next!


Divergent (Veronica Roth)

Beatrice lives in a Chicago that is a long way away from the one we know.  Much of it is abandoned.  Lake Michigan is a marsh.  The inhabited areas are surrounded by a fence.  And the people living there are divided into five Factions – Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor.  Those who do not fit in – the factionless and the Divergent – are outcasts and threats, respectively.  Beatrice is a member of Abnegation but her tests reveal her to be Divergent, something she must hide if she wants to survive.  On selection day, she chooses to be Dauntless, leaving her family for the chance to be initiated into a new faction and taking “Tris” as her new name.  There she will find friendship, love and cruelty.  She will find the courage of the Dauntless, and receive and dispense the violence that the faction practices as its trade, upon itself and others.  And when things go horribly wrong, she will be called to make her stand.  I started reading this because it is a favorite of both my daughters – the new hot YA series now that The Hunger Games has moved on to the later stages of its lifecycle – and it is a brisk and fairly entertaining read.  It’s rather straightforward, in a simplistic sort of way, and it leaves a great many gaping questions unanswered.  But the action moves along crisply, the characters are thin but still feel real, and I can understand why it’s so popular.  On to the next volume of the trilogy.

Insurgent (Veronica Roth)

The second installment of this series begins about an hour after the first one left off, and as with all middle volumes of trilogies it has the unenviable task of picking up a story and then dropping it off without either starting or ending anything too critical.  In this Roth largely succeeds – the clashes get bigger, the stakes get higher, and in the end she has set herself up for the third book nicely.  That said, the book is surprisingly thin and shrill at times.  There is an awful lot of over-emotional relationship crisis in here, as you would expect from a book aimed mostly at teenagers.  For all the bows made toward the notion of greys the basic moral framework of the book is simplistic and loaded with Big Words.  And – one thing that niggled at me throughout – the characters suffer all sorts of injuries over the course of the action-packed narrative yet seem to heal with miraculous speed.  Not completely, of course – the pains are always there to be exploited for dramatic tension – but these characters are physically capable of doing things almost immediately that nobody with those injuries could actually do in that time frame.  You notice this sort of thing when you get to be my age.  Overall this is clearly the work of a young writer (a quick Google search confirms that she was 24 when this was published) with big ideas and small experience.  That she can pull off this series as well as she has speaks to a good bit of talent, though, and I look forward to reading her work as she and her stories mature.

Allegiant (Veronica Roth)

The final volume of the series also picks up an hour after its predecessor, which makes this more of a single story carried over three publication dates rather than a trilogy, but trying to get a 1600pp YA novel published would probably have been more trouble than it was worth.  So, volume 3.  It is astonishing just how American this entire series is in its general attitude – nobody has sex, but everyone has a gun.  In this book Roth will attempt two things, one successfully and one not.  On the plus side she widens out the focus of the story from the claustrophobic confines of what is left of Chicago to the vistas of the wider world in which it is set.  Here we learn what the society of the factions is really about, and we get to debate whether it should continue to exist or not – a debate complicated by the goings on within the city itself even if those goings on are rather distant from the narrative.  On the down side, Roth splits the POV of the story.  The previous two books were told from Tris’ point of view, and if the characters all ended up speaking with more or less the same voice then you could attribute it to that.  With every other chapter told from Tobias’ point of view, however, it is clear that Roth has yet to learn how to tell a story in multiple voices – the chapters sound exactly the same, and often the only clue to the identity of the narrator is the subheading at the beginning.  The story moves along briskly for that – Roth is nothing if not generous with bloodletting, both physical and emotional – and the quiet, reflective ending is thus somewhat redemptive.  There’s a reason why the POV splits, it turns out.  It’s not a bad series, though if you’re going to compare it to The Hunger Games – which everyone seems to do almost reflexively – it will come up a bit short simply on the merits of its writing.

The Books of the South (Glen Cook)

Shadow Games

When The White Rose ended, the Black Company was down to its last seven men – eight if you include Lady (no longer THE Lady).  With nothing left to accomplish, the senior surviving officer – the physician and annalist Croaker – decides to seek out Khatovar, where the Black Company originated, somewhere deep in the south of the world.  This is the story of their journey.  At first the story alternates between the difficulties of their trip (notably the competing responsibilities burdening Lady and the borderline-pathological clumsiness of the mating dance between her and Croaker) and another story centering on three grifters (Swan, Cordy, and Blade) in a town called Taglios.  Taglios is on the Black Company’s way, and it is threatened by the Shadowmasters – faceless, vague evils commanding very real forces.  As with all Black Company books there is adventure and combat aplenty, challenges faced and won, and challenges faced and lost.  The Black Company will grow to thousands, and shrink again.  Old evils will reawaken and new ones join them.  Through it all the most compelling character remains Lady – struggling to find herself in the wake of past events and discovering a complexity that largely eludes the other characters.  Cook is a fun writer with a sharp eye for a story, though not necessarily a profound writer.

Dreams of Steel

Following immediately upon the catastrophe that ended Shadow Games, this book is essentially three different stories.  The first belongs to Lady, who takes up Croaker’s old role as Annalist in order, she says, to set things straight in her own mind and document her determination to avenge Croaker’s death at the hands of the Shadowmasters.  Along the way she finds herself ever more entwined with the cult of Kina, whose devotees have all sorts of horror in store for her.  The second belongs, oddly enough, to Croaker, who isn’t actually dead.  Captured by Soulcatcher and turned into a pawn, he spends much of the book gathering himself and – eventually – the remnants of the Company for the resumption of his original mission.  And the third, interwoven with both, is the story of Swan, Blade and Cordy, grifters turned stalwarts, as they navigate between the various forces who would do them in.  The Shadowmasters threaten both offstage and, in the person of Longshadow, onstage.  Old nemeses reappear, new allies continue to make their presence known, and it all ends on an ominous cliffhanger, though one that I figured out chapters beforehand.  It was still fun watching the characters catch up, though.

The Silver Spike

This isn’t so much a Black Company book as it is a chance for Cook to tie up a number of loose ends from previous books.  Part of the reason he has to do this is that between the sorcery and the deceptions it is damnably hard for some of his characters to stay dead, and several of the main characters in this one have been reported so previously only to have those reports turn out to be exaggerated.  At the end of The White Rose the essence of the Dominator was imprisoned in a silver spike embedded in a sapling of the tree god of the plains, and human nature dictates that where anything valuable is, there too shall be petty criminals looking for an easy score.  That part of the story belongs to Smed, Tully, Timmy, and Old Man Fish – the last named being clearly more than he says he is, but the others just your basic neighborhood mooks.  A second part involves Darling, Silent, and – eventually – Bomanz,.  Another part involves Raven and Case, first as they journey to find Croaker in the South and then as they head back north with Darling’s crew to the town of Oar, where the spike has been taken.  And finally there is the Limper, or what is left of him, a seething force of hatred and destruction who also wants the spike.  They all collide in Oar, with catastrophic results for most of them, and then Cook spends a page or two explaining what happened to the characters left over.  It’s an odd book for the series, but a good one.

The Return of the Black Company (Glen Cook)

Bleak Seasons

Listen – Murgen the Annalist has come unstuck in time.  He spends the bulk of the first part of this novel flitting about between the besieged town of Dejagore, where so much of Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel took place, and through a Taglios that may or may not be anywhere near there in time.  And when he finally does settle down in one chronological location, he learns how to ride the spirit of the comatose wizard Smoke across time and distance so he can travel again.  This is a tricky book to follow in many ways, and clearly an experiment in form for Cook.  The book also covers – from Murgen’s perspective – some of the same events as Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel, and delves into the history and culture of the Nyueng Bao, a people trapped with the Black Company and the natives in Dejagore but utterly apart from both.  Eventually Murgen will find – and lose – a wife.  He will get caught up in the larger machinations of the ongoing war between the Black Company, Longshadow, and the Deceivers – a war with so many different angles and subplots that keeping it all straight can be hard even for the main players.  And through it all Cook will continue to tell his story of hard men hard used but carrying through anyway.

She is the Darkness

Picking up immediately after the events of Bleak Seasons, the Black Company continues its war against Longshadow and its quest to find its origins at Khatovar.  The book divides its time between the Company and its auxiliary forces of Taglians and Ngueyan Bao, who are camped outside of Overlook, besieging Longshadow inside his fortress, and Murgen, who spends much of the book outside of his body, either surfing with the spirit of the old wizard Smoke or dreamwalking on his own.  Murgen is the perfect spy, and he discovers quite a number of things that are useful, surprising, or both.  Eventually the Company will make its long-awaited assaults – first on Overlook, and then on the Shadowlands themselves, where things will go horribly wrong (as they tend to do at the end of Black Company books, though not often in the ways you expect) and everything will get set up for the next volume in the Glittering Stones subseries.  One of the more intriguing questions in this book is just who the “she” is of the title.  It could be Lady, whose role in this series grows ever more complex and intriguing.  It could be her sister, Soulcatcher, a force for chaotic evil that even Lady can’t predict effectively.  It could be the dark goddess Kina, a menacing presence mostly offstage.  Or it could be Croaker and Lady’s daughter, who seems to combine most of the features of all of the previous characters in one small but powerful child.

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Rick Riordan)

Percy Jackson’s story continues to get darker and more intense as he, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson are sent out on yet another quest, this one into the Labyrinth of Daedalus to thwart an imminent invasion by the forces of Kronos.  Along the way there will be betrayals and battles, new allies and old enemies.  Nico di Angelo’s continuing struggle to come to grips with the death of his sister – a strange struggle, given his parentage – plays a part in this, as does the unusually perceptive mortal Rachel Elizabeth Dare, whose interest in Percy is probably more than friendly and definitely causing issues with Annabeth that Percy at 14 or 15 is too dense to figure out.  The stakes and the costs get higher, the action gets more focused, and Riordan sets himself up well for the final volume of this entertaining series.

The Many Deaths of the Black Company  (Glen Cook)

Water Sleeps

It’s been a few years since the Captured were entombed beyond the Shadowgate, and the remnants of the Black Company toil in secrecy in a Taglios firmly under the control of the Protector – their old nemesis Soulcatcher.  Led by Sahra (as always, it is incredibly hard to actually kill characters in these books, and they often come back to play significant roles) and Sleepy (the narrator of this book), guided by the free-flying soul of Murgen and the now aged and diminished One-Eye and Goblin, and containing the up and coming wizard Tobo, the shadows of the Black Company do their best to stymie the Protector while at the same time furthering their eventual goal of returning to the plain and releasing the Captured.  Meanwhile the old Deceiver, Narayan Singh, and the Daughter of Night (nicknamed “Booboo”) are also out there, trying to get their plans for the Year of the Skulls rolling.  These books can start to sound a little stilted when you try to summarize them, but Cook keeps them lively and remarkably down to earth, with none of the insufferable posturing that the genre can fall into at its worst.  Mostly he’s telling a story of hard men and women, hard used and hard working, trying to do what they think is best in a world that doesn’t really care.  Eventually they will make an ally of a demon, journey across the plain to a place that might be Khatovar, and wait for the final volume of the saga to complete their story.

Soldiers Live

The concluding volume of the story of the Black Company – and one of the longest books in the series – opens with the Company coming off of a period of relative peace and prosperity in a different world from the one they started in, so many stories ago.  They are across the Glittering Plains and through the Shadowgate, and for four years nobody has died.  This, of course, cannot last, and the Company must journey back across the Plain to settle old scores in their home world.  Along the way they will acquire new enemies and allies – notably several young wizards from a family known as the Voroshk, from a different world yet again – and they will battle both Soulcatcher and the Daughter of Night for both the survival of the world and the prize of Taglios.  This series got progressively more mystical as it went along and I think I liked it better when they were just a mercenary company trying to survive in a brutal and violent world rather than as avatars of gods, but the writing remained entertaining and the stories were more complicated than they might seem on first glance.  There are few outright villains – most of the characters outside of the Company (and some inside) can be found on any number of sides as the story progresses – and Cook mostly keeps the focus on the characters and how they would react to things rather than letting the story being driven by the needs of plot alone.  Eventually it ends up as any story of war and soldiers must, with few left standing to tell the stories of those who have fallen, and an overtone of regret and pain throughout.

The Serpent of Venice (Christopher Moore)

Moore’s novel Fool tells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the perspective of the titular fool – an orphan named Pocket – and in this book we get a new chapter of Pocket’s life.  He has been sent to Venice as an emissary of the Queen of England to stop a Crusade being plotted there against the Muslim world, one that would enrich Venice but impoverish almost everyone else.  When he is drugged and nearly killed in the first chapter, his story becomes one of revenge and low comedy in equal proportions.  Combining Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello into one bizarre mash-up, and bringing in Marco Polo and a Chinese dragon as major characters, this is one of Moore’s more far-ranging books.  It takes a while for it to get going, but by halfway through it is rolling along with Moore’s signature blend of deft plotting and cheerfully vulgar humor.  This is not a book for the delicate of sensibility, but for the rest of us it’s a lot of fun.

The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)

The final book of the first Percy Jackson series finds our heroes in dire straights.  The Titan Kronos is moving steadily toward his goal of overthrowing the Olympian gods, and with the gods preoccupied with fighting Typhon as he works his way across the US the demigods at Camp Half-Blood are all that stand in his way.  The book opens with a disastrous raid on Kronos’ ship in the Atlantic, and then spends most of its time on the final battle for New York City (where modern Olympus rests).  It’s a darker and more serious book than most of the others in the series, and more tightly focused.  But Riordan makes it work, and for the moment all seems right with Percy Jackson’s world.  And then there’s the next series, which Lauren and I may get to soon. 

Raising Steam (Terry Pratchett)

This is another of Pratchett’s “how X came to Discworld books,” a subgenre that runs the gamut from the very good (The Truth – how newspapers came to Discworld) to mostly forgettable (Unseen Academicals – how soccer came to Discworld) with a few stops in between.  It’s hard to say where this one fits on the scale of Pratchett’s writing, because for long stretches of the book I wasn’t sure if Pratchett was actually the one writing it.  I know that his health has been poor and that his daughter is the officially designated heir apparent to continue the series once he can no longer handle it, and there were long stretches of this book – especially toward the beginning – where it felt like someone was doing a reasonable but not very sophisticated impression of Pratchett’s style.  It does get better as it goes, though, so either she is picking up the skill fairly rapidly, or Pratchett himself takes over, or Pratchett was writing all along and the book simply gets better for other reasons.  Hard to say.  Now that Watch Commander Vimes has moved offstage as the main voice of the Ankh-Morpork-based stories, the central focus of books set in that city has become Moist von Lipwig – forcibly reformed con man, basically good hearted fellow, entrepreneur extraordinaire, and a man about to branch out from previous successes with the post office, Royal Bank, and “clacks” (the Discworld equivalent of telegraphs) to bring the railroad to Discworld.  Train engineer Dick Simnel has invented the locomotive and wants to build the railway.  Sir Harry King has more money than he knows what to do with and would like to branch out from his night-soil business to fund something more respectable.  And the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, would like a rapid form of transportation that could bring him to Bonk, in Uberwald, both to see his consort there and to have someone head off what eventually becomes a rebellion among the dwarfs.  It takes about half the book before it finds its stride, as noted, but after that it is a typical late-Pratchett romp – solidly entertaining though not among his best.

Rule 34 (Charles Stross)

Charles Stross’ head must be an interesting place to live, if his writing is anything to go by.  I found him through his Laundry Files books and enjoyed one of his hard-SF space thrillers a while back, but this book is part of yet another series.  It’s something of a near-future SF-noir police procedural, and it takes place in the same world as Halting State, only a few years later.  It’s a swirling kalaidascope of a story – Stross is the only author I’ve ever seen successfully (or, for that matter, unsuccessfully) pull off a book with multiple second-person narrators – centering once again on the efforts of the beleaguered Edinburgh police force in a now semi-independent Scotland where law enforcement takes place almost entirely within the digital confines of CopSpace.  There’s old-fashioned legwork aplenty, of course, but everything is logged, filed, and distributed in real time through digital glasses and high-bandwidth networks.  At the center of this story are DI Liz Kavanaugh (now treading water, career-wise, in what is unofficially known as the Rule 34 Squad, monitoring the internet for perversions that cross whatever line has been drawn most recently), Anwar Hussein (small-time con artist, parolee, closeted gay family man, and for much of this book the sole employee of the Consulate of the Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan, a breakaway region of Kyrgyzstan), and John Christie (not his real name – the sociopathic agent of an organized crime outfit called the Operation, in Edinburgh on business).  Throw in a semi-sentient monitoring program designed to cut crime, a long-running plot by the Kyrgyz government to break the Operation, and a large and increasing number of bizarre homicides across the world, and it all gets fairly complicated.  This is a demanding but rewarding novel, and well worth the effort.

The Wanting Seed (Anthony Burgess)

This is a book that does not quite know what it wants to be.  It’s billed as dystopian comedy – the London Times Literary Supplement called it “wildly and fantastically funny” when it came out in 1962 – but that only proves that humor does not age well.  There are parts of it that call to mind Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, with its grim portrayal of totalitarian society.  There are parts more akin to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, with its drastic solutions to famine and poverty woven through.  There are bits of Orwell sprinkled here and there.  And the last third or so reads like a particularly bleak version of Carry On, Sergeant.  The whole mix really does not hang very well together, and it was a book I was glad to see the end of.  It’s set in a future Britain where there is no crime, war, or disease, and as a result there is horrific overpopulation and almost no food.  Religion has been banned, and the State controls all of society.  Tristram is a history teacher, spouting off his theories of social cycles – society, he says, cycles between a Pelagian period of liberal faith in human nature, an Interlude period of violence, an Augustinian period where humanity is viewed as corrupt, and then back to Pelagius.  His wife Beatrice-Joanna (always referred to by her full name) is bored and having an affair with Tristram’s brother Derek.  The book opens with her taking her dead son to the proper office to have him recycled into fertilizer, and quickly becomes a farce when she then becomes pregnant again – an illegal and defiant act.  Eventually she flees Greater London (a city occupying most of what is now England), and when the social order implodes Tristram is jailed and eventually shoveled into the newly reconstituted Army.  Religion is restored, food seems to reappear as if by magic (although it’s painfully clear where the meat comes from), and a new Augustinian age dawns.  The last third is mostly Tristram’s army story, a bitterly bleak tale of betrayal and perhaps redemption – Burgess leaves that hanging.  This scattershot mess clearly wasn’t the novel that secured Burgess’ literary reputation.

No comments: